In the pre-internet dark ages, finding a new band or singer to obsess over required time and effort. The music didn’t simply fall into your lap; you had to search high and low and — shudder — typically pay for it. But as streaming and other technological gifts have disrupted everything in our culture, the way we discover new music and artists has become easier. At the same time, it’s somehow messier than ever: If music’s at our literal fingertips wherever we go, who’s to say what to press play on?
We talked to 14 artists at this year’s SXSW for their recommendations on the best ways to find new music, from making Spotify mixtapes with a lover to keeping track of the coolest record labels.
For artists, playlists are paramount. Tei Shi recommends checking out playlists on Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal created by musicians you like, since, chances are, your tastes will align. PWR BTTM are big fans of Spotify’s Collaborative Playlists, which allow you to curate playlists in real time with a group by sharing them with other people. That way your friend could potentially introduce you to a new song or artist on your own playlist. “It can be kind of romantic to make one with a lover,” says PWR BTTM’s Liv Bruce. Adds bandmate Ben Hopkins, “Put your favorite Barry White song on there.”
And when all else fails, falling down a YouTube or SoundCloud rabbit hole is still foolproof. “Sometimes I’ll end up on something completely different that I like on YouTube — ’cause you know YouTube categorizes everything — so I’ll let it play while I’m hanging out at the house,” A$AP Ferg says.
Streaming platforms often source playlists from artists that originally broke on social media. Artists also suggest paying attention to the artists and songs gaining followings on Twitter and Facebook, since new songs are likely to go viral on those platforms long before it ends up on a playlist like Spotify’s RapCaviar. “When anything’s really good, my Twitter timeline will let me know,” says Dawaun Parker of AOE. “I follow a good mix of people that are funny and keep their ear to the ground, so when something’s hot, it’ll usually come across my way. I got put onto a lot of the alternative R&B coming out of the U.K. through my timeline. ”
Or you could be more proactive and find the buzzworthy songs yourself, like singer-songwriter Bibi Bourelly. “A lot of it is stalking people’s profiles on Instagram and seeing what they like,” she admits. Whatever your approach, Tinashe says the key is keeping an open mind and not being a lazy listener: “You have to want to discover new music. There has to be some type of interest in finding something new and unique.” Otherwise you’ll be limited to the same ten songs playing on the radio everywhere.
Word of Mouth
Regardless of your own music-finding proclivities, odds are there’s at least one person in your circle who gets off on sharing their new music discoveries with the group. “All my real good finds are from the homies,” Kweku Collins tells us. PWR BTTM’s Hopkins agrees: “I’m in a car so much on tour that I often just ask my friends to DJ and ask them what they like. That’s the best way I discover music.” That advice applies to finding artists that aren’t new, as well. “My friend Sonny, a.k.a. Skrillex, actually recently introduced me to a band called Death Grips, but they’ve been around for awhile and I just got put onto them in the past year,” Bourelly says.
Terrence J, host of this year’s Woodies at SXSW, relies on his girlfriend Jasmine Sanders for all his music recs now that his days announcing hot new music on BET’s 106 & Park are behind him. “My girlfriend, who’s way cooler than I am, is always playing something new, so I hear new music coming out of the shower,” he says. Sleigh Bells’ Alexis Krauss’s fiancé frequently gives her music suggestions (most recently the band FRIGHTNRS) because she’s “not really good at mining for music on the internet. I’d rather be doing other things than be on a computer.”
But if you want the real gems, talk to people older than you. “Music can be new to you, but not new right now. It can be really fun to ask people of different generations what they used to go see,” PWR BTTM’s Bruce says. “There are a lot of bands that my parents used to go see that I haven’t necessarily heard of and asking them to dig up stuff like that is a really fun way to discover music.” A$AP Ferg, who’s only recently started educating himself on the greats like David Bowie, says he gets a lot of the music he’s listening to from his 50-year-old uncle: “His music range is way deeper and bigger than mine. He’s playing everything from Barry White to Frank Ocean. He has everything on his phone and just plays it in his car. But he’s also been listening to music forever and he’s a buyer of music.”
You can tell a lot about a new artist from their record, but there’s no better education than seeing the real thing live. Venues that cater to up-and-coming acts are becoming scarcer by the day, but the DIY scene, PWR BTTM reminds us, hasn’t been driven out just yet. “Go to shows when you don’t know anyone on the bill or only one person. Go to shows at weird DIY spots. Go see someone’s first or third show. Also, when you meet someone who says they’re a musician, take that shit seriously,” they say. And though it may be more inconvenient, they recommend coming early to big-name shows: “Go for the opening bands because that’s a band that the artist you’re paying to see likes. That’s why they brought them on tour.”
That’s how Sleigh Bells’ Krauss finds the majority of her new music, while also scouting for bands that one will day open for her. “Our current opener, Tunde Olaniran, is somebody that we played a show with in Detroit and didn’t know. We were just so excited and enthusiastic about his music,” she says. “For me, it’s about actual visceral experiences and seeing somebody and connecting.” At SXSW, Karen Elson discovered and fell for the band Temples just by wandering around the festival. “I’m sure they’re huge, and they were amazing. Going to shows is a real investment,” she says.
It’s a throwback to the days when record labels had a cult following (think Rawkus Records and generations before that), but keeping an eye on who’s signed where is still a handy way to find new music. For Black Lips, it’s still their most tried and true way of discovering quality acts.
“I’ve always found new music through labels I like, like Bomp! Records, which put out our first album,” says the Lips’ Cole Alexander. “They put out old punk and garage groups from the ’60s and ’70s. You’d find their back catalogues — it’s the same with Norton Records, I’d find their back catalogue and just look through. I guess we have the internet now, but that’s how I’ve always got my stuff. Once a label establishes itself as something you’re into, you can count on them. Light in the Attic is really good.”
The Old-Fashioned Way
There was once a time when you had to physically enter a record shop and browse the aisles and rows of music to find something new. Karen Elson remembers those days well: “In the mid- to late-’90s in New York City, there was this local video and music store called Kim’s Video. It was on St. Mark’s Place and it was where I found some of the best music. All the record store kids who worked there had such good taste. I would go in there and get Cocteau Twins, the Cure, Yahoo, the Pixies, Nick Cave, all the things that I’m obsessed with.” It’s less common to do that now, but Elson says if the opportunity is there, jump at it. “It was just one of the best places and it’s so sad because now I find music online. But there was just something about going to the record store and talking to kids whom you’d see at all the shows. You had so much in common,” she says. “I’m still a creature of habit. I’m very backwards when it comes to modern-day music — the ways kids find music today. I’ve liked the same stuff I’ve liked for years. But I also read about artists, check out their music, and buy their records.”