How I diversified my music in 2019 – and why you should too

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This time last year, I set a resolution for 2019: to work on diversifying my music taste.

First, some context: English is not my first language, but at this point in my life, I mostly listen to music in English. Genre-wise, the music I like varies quite a lot – in my early teens I listened to rock and punk pop, but I have since moved to indie pop and folk, with the occasional soul or jazz.

Then a friend of mine joked that my music taste was just “sad white people with guitars”. This was the first time it had ever occurred to me to consider the politics of my music taste. I realised, to my great shame and horror, that though I counted myself as an ‘ally’, the music artists I gave my support to were an extremely homogeneous group of people, namely predominantly white, heterosexual artists. Where were the ‘sad’ BAME and LGBTQ+ artists I could be listening to?

There, of course – they were always there, I just never looked for them. It never occurred to happy, ignorant me to specifically strive for a more diverse music library, so the algorithms in my streaming services could not have known I was interested, meaning that they didn’t show on my ‘Recommended on YouTube’, for example. On some level I must have thought these artists “just weren’t making the music I liked” – clearly not the case.

the music artists I gave my support to were an extremely homogeneous group

I resolved to change this in 2019. I listen to endless music when I study, and while working on my undergrad dissertation in the Bill Bryson Library last Epiphany term, I began a long process of active discovery. I didn’t know where to start, so I began with Spotify playlists like ‘Sweet Soul Sunday’ and ‘Queer Folk’. I’d go on artist profiles on Spotify and look through the ‘Fans Also Like’ page, clicking at random and seeing if I liked their songs.

I noticed that Asian artists would lead me to more Asian artists, black artists to more black artists, queer artists to more queer artists, so I must have tapped into several listening communities that Spotify wasn’t necessarily connecting. In fact, as a listening service, Spotify seems to create an infinite feedback loop where you get more and more of the exact same kind of music you already know, genre-wise but racially and politically, too. Genre-wise makes sense, of course, although people with very flexible listening habits would certainly not agree. Racial and political ways of linking artists together for listeners are sad, even if these are user-generated, particularly when these artists all operate within the same genre. I guess this might be why Spotify introduced a personal ‘Tastebreakers’ playlist in addition to ‘Discover’. This has never worked for me, and I’m pretty open.

Spotify gave me the tools to venture beyond my small bubble, but only when I actively and consciously made that decision. Armed with this resolution, I set out to undo the work of my own complacency and the problematic nature of listening services.

I discovered incredible music this year, without ever compromising my admittedly very idiosyncratic criteria of ‘good music’. I didn’t give up my acoustic stuff for rap and hip-hop in the name of political correctness, if that’s what you’re thinking. Instead, I found artists already making the music I love that Spotify and I had kept obscured, and on the way developed a taste for a bit of selective, jazzy rap and R&B that lent their groove to my study days.

I’ve compiled a Spotify playlist of my best discoveries from this past year, which you can access here:

 I’ve omitted artists that are too obvious – even I knew Janelle Monáe, King Princess, Khalid, Ben Platt, Tyler the Creator and Leon Bridges, so you probably do too. This is a playlist of folk, R&B, soul, indie pop, and jazzy in-betweens. In other words, your perfect study playlist. Enjoy.

Some highlights:

Mah Moud is a Canadian 21-year-old artist. His latest EP, dedicated to his Eritrean parents, depicts, as he tells Vice, ‘the portrayal of their journeys as refugees through music’. Mah Moud’s RnB is incredibly moving, tender, and exciting – and he only has 7,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, which you should help change: click here for his soundcloud.

Sampha is a British artist whose emotional music pierces deep. ‘(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano’ is, again, a tender and honest song – balm for the soul.

Sampha – Taken by Anton Mak during Osheaga 2017

Girl in red is a Norwegian 20-year-old whose detached, bedroom-produced indie pop/rock you need in your life: click here to see some of her music on YouTube.

Lianne La Havas’ mix of folk, soul and jazz and her amazingly smooth voice mean that you need to look her up as soon as possible: click here to see a video of her in concert.

Image: The Come Up Show via Creative Commons

One thought on “How I diversified my music in 2019 – and why you should too

  • “so the algorithms in my streaming services could not have known I was interested”

    That one sentence fragment is the crux of the whole thing.

    I’m a bit older. I’m old enough to remember actually listening to John Peel on Radio 1, and watching Top of the Pops on the TV. There was less music around you: streamed content didn’t exist and this was also in the era before the internet (or, more specifically before the web). Surprisingly, there was probably more serendipity: radio stations were much less genre driven, especially in the evenings, and because it was harder to find new stuff, you tended to be a bit more open to anything new that came your way, so you heard stuff you wouldn’t normally like, and might be surprised. People like Peel, and Andy Kershaw, were really important. It’s how I first heard the Bhundu Boys, for example, back to back with more run of the mill indie fare of the time, such as The Smiths and Half Man Half Biscuit. Or Radio 1 playing Laurie Anderson’s O Superman for the first time. Curation is important, and algorithms can’t do that very well.

    The problem with algorithms is confirmation bias; it just gives you more of what you say you like, and isn’t great at predicting the unexpected, especially because that’s less likely to be profitable for whoever’s doing the generating. To quote Paul Weller for the classic Eton Rifles, “the public wants what the public gets”. But even worse, it can’t account for the marvels of individual taste: the so-called Napoleon Dynamite Effect. The key point here is to look at the opinions of PEOPLE, some of which you may like, some of which you may not, but you’ll at least get a better spread

    Reply

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