Top 5 music discovery tips for the unhip, unmotivated

Senior Editor Donald Bell offers five tips for easily finding new and exciting music online.

Donald Bell Senior Editor / How To
Donald Bell has spent more than five years as a CNET senior editor, reviewing everything from MP3 players to the first three generations of the Apple iPad. He currently devotes his time to producing How To content for CNET, as well as weekly episodes of CNET's Top 5 video series.
Donald Bell
6 min read
Photo of music anthology books.
We swear, there's no reading required to expand your musical horizons these days. Well...aside from this article, at least. Donald Bell/CNET Networks

When you're young, new music is everywhere: radio, Facebook profiles, borrowed iPods, or even burned CDs. It's not hard to find tunes you love. The music appetites of 13- to 21-year-olds are voracious and the consequences of being musically unhip can be punishing.

Then something happens: you get older; work a full-time job; get married; have a mortgage; have children; adopt a particularly demanding parrot; and so on. You wake up one day and realize your taste in music hasn't budged since your early '20s and the prospect of discovering good, new music now seems like an overwhelming chore, fraught with disappointment. I know, I'm living proof.

We're all familiar with the long, depressing list of activities that seemed easy in youth that now take effort. Fortunately, finding good music isn't as tough as working off that middle-age gut. Since its inception, the Internet has helped us--mostly illegally--discover new music. Finally, tools for legal and efficient online music discovery are hitting their stride.

To help you help yourself, we've collected our favorite techniques to help the lazy, hurried, or unhip (or, face it, aging) connect with good, new music.

Music discovery technique No. 1: Personalized Internet radio

Recommended: Pandora, Slacker
Also see: AOL Radio, Live 365

There was a time your FM radio offered a steady stream of new music. Today, with the exception of public and college radio (which have their own challenges), annoying ads, and tight song rotations leave you little to learn. In short: radio sucks.

Screen shot of Pandora Web site.
Using Pandora's Music Genome Project to passively stumble onto new music is about as simple as it gets. Click to enlarge. Pandora

Lucky for us, Internet radio's infinite bandwidth offers thousands of well-groomed stations eager to prove their musical good taste. Sifting through the Web's deep directories of Internet radio stations requires time and patience, however, so we're going to focus on the automatic, personalized options offered by Pandora and Slacker.

The beauty of both Pandora and Slacker is their passive approach to music discovery. All you have to do is call up their Web site and select an artist or genre as a starting point for music recommendations. Just like rating rented movies in Netflix, rating songs in Pandora or Slacker improves the quality of their recommendations and tailors your playlist to suit your taste. To help you track down the new music you're hearing, most online radio stations display the currently playing artist, album, and song title, and links to acquire the music online.

Music discovery technique No. 2: Find someone with good taste

Recommended: Last.fm, iLike
Also see: iMeem, Blip.fm

Many of us have at least one or two friends who pride themselves on their good taste in music--friends who would create mix tapes or burn CDs for you back in your salad days. There's still no replacement for a good, old-fashioned mix tape, however, there are new and faster ways to co-opt your buddy's music library.

Screenshot of Last.fm.
Last.fm tells me Veronica and I have 'Low musical compatibility'--probably because she has better taste in music than I do. Click to enlarge. Last.fm

For those of us with shrunken social lives and stale music collections, the public vetting of our listening habits on Web sites such as iLike and Last.fm seems more embarrassing than rewarding. The payoff of participation in these music-focused social networks isn't bragging rights, but the capability to glimpse at the music collections of friends with good taste. By automatically pulling usage data directly from users' iTunes music libraries (or Windows Media Player), Last.fm and iLike chart your most frequently played songs and those of your friends, allowing you to compare tastes and preview tracks.

If you're music-savvy friends aren't techie enough for something like Last.fm, don't sweat it--you use these sites to find strangers with similar music tastes and listen to other songs they tend to like.

Editors' note: Last.fm is owned by CNET's parent company, CBS Interactive.

Music discovery technique No. 3: Subscription music

Recommended: Rhapsody; Napster
Also see: Slacker; Zune Pass

Screen shot of Zune Marketplace.
Here's the beauty of subscription music services: instead of wasting my time deciding which (if any) Kanye West album is worthy of downloading, I can just download his entire catalog and sort out the crappy songs later. Click to enlarge. Microsoft

In his book The Paradox of Choice, author Barry Schwartz lays out his theory that consumers often become paralyzed with indecision when they face an overwhelming number of choices. I feel this way every time I browse Apple's iTunes music catalog--a problem compounded by the fact that I'm just too cheap to buy a song for $0.99 cents without scrutinizing its 30-second preview like a grocer inspecting fruit. I spend so much time cherry-picking the songs I want to buy that I don't have time left over to casually explore. As a cautious consumer, I'm actually scared that browsing iTunes aimlessly may cause me to buy something I'll regret later, both musically and financially. (To wit: "Why the hell did I think I needed to buy the collected B-sides of Warrant?")

Throwing $12 to $15 a month toward a music subscription service from Rhapsody, Napster, or Zune Pass (for Zune owners) will make you feel like a Survivor contestant dropped in the middle an all-you-can-eat buffet. Suddenly, you don't have worry about overspending or buyer's remorse--you can just download any random damn thing that catches your attention and decide later whether it's worth keeping. Download 1 song or 10,000, it doesn't matter: you pay the same flat fee per month.

Of course, you don't own these songs the same way you would a CD or DRM-free MP3 file. If you stop paying your monthly subscription fee, the music you've downloaded won't play. The trick is to not think of subscription music as a substitute for your music collection. Just think of this as a way to unblock your music Mojo.

Music discovery technique No. 4: Virtual concerts

Recommended: Concert.tv
Also see: Video podcasts

Lest we forget, music recordings were invented as a substitute for live performances. There's still nothing as musically powerful as seeing a great band perform in a room full of wild fans, and even bad performances can refine your taste in music.

Screenshot of Concert.tv Web site.
As the name implies, Concert.tv offers streaming concert videos. They're not all winners, but some of these performances will give you the shivers (in a good way). Click to enlarge. Concert.tv

If your adult responsibilities take priority over a night spent developing acute tinnitus and a hangover, don't fret. Legions of concertgoers will drink beer and sacrifice their hearing on your behalf and at some point in the show, many of them will raise their cameras and mobile phones in the air and snap a keepsake video to share online.

Most established acts (notably Prince) resent the new concert self-publishing pastime, but up-and-coming acts tend to embrace the opportunity for exposure.

To find these clips, you can turn to Concert.tv, one of the better catchall concert video Web sites, with a wide selection of content spanning many genres. Or, you can subscribe to video podcasts such as The Interface or Blogotheque's Take Away Shows and have new concerts automatically load onto your iPod every few weeks.

Music discovery technique No. 5: Blogs

Recommended: Hype Machine
Also see: Mog, Pitchfork

Screenshot of Hype Machine.
Hype Machine scrapes the Internet's music blogs for hot new content and includes streaming audio previews. Hype Machine

Despite Elvis Costello's claim that "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," online music blogs have given way to an explosion of compelling music reviews. Today's online music writers can even embed music clips (often full songs) in their reviews to help get their point across.

I've listed this music blog technique last because I know that reading music reviews sounds tedious. However, for those of you who already religiously check your newsfeeds in the morning, adding a few music blogs to your list is a painless way to keep new artists on your radar and new music in your headphones.

In particular, Hype Machine tops our list of online music blogs because it aggregates the best work of many smaller music blogs and emphasizes hearing new music as much as reading about it.

Music discovery techniques No. 6 to 100...

I've listed the best five ways I know of to discover new music these days, but I know there must be others out there. I hope you'll fill me in by sounding off in the comments section and telling me what else has worked for you and what hasn't.