When Puddlegum first began in 1997, the Internet was so new that Google didn’t exist. Most record labels lacked a website, and few artists had one. It was more likely that a band would have a fan page on Geocities rather than having their own.
If you wanted to follow what was happening, you had to scour the web. And so Puddlegum collected a list of hundreds of band and record label websites, which was a popular segment of our site (we were drawing 3,000 visits on some days).
Mp3s were just beginning to appear, but dialup was too slow for most people to enjoy them. You first saw them on Mp3.com (imagine an early BandCamp), a site that was years ahead of its time. Napster made the Mp3 wildly popular, starting in 1999. The digital music file upended the model of the music industry which was built entirely on selling physical media.
For the first time, if an unsigned artist wanted to connect with listeners, they could do so directly. Instead of relying on word-of-mouth or zines as a way of building a fanbase (or establishing strong street teams), you could reach people through the internet. The rules were being rewritten.
Record labels were still in great need because bands still relied on physical distribution. CDs were king, but there wasn’t an easy way to sell them online. Going through an established record label was still critical.
To get signed, you had to be noticed at a show, know someone, or somehow catch the ear of the right person. Otherwise, you relied on selling music at your shows.
Getting your song on a CD compilation was helpful. Compilations were similar to selective playlists, or a mixtape, but on a CD. (A side story… I tried to form a label with a friend, Jesse Sprinkle, in 2003. We called it Six World Records. We put together a compilation and pressed it. On the comp was a new artist by the name of Stately English. Jesse owned a studio and had recorded an album with Stately English. Our compilation never gathered attention, but Stately English went on to be known as Father John Misty.)
Digital music really began to shift things. It took some of the power out of the hands of the labels. And while they remained important, it became easier to be heard. But it didn’t fully shift until music blogs became popular, beginning in 2003.
What did the blogs do? Music blogs, or Mp3 blogs, focused on sharing Mp3s on their sites. People were looking to download new music, or discover a new artist. If you provided the right Mp3s on your site, people would swarm to your blog.
Hype Machine was a blog aggregator developed by Anthony V. By giving Hype Machine your blog’s RSS feed, Hype Machine would gather the metadata from the Mp3 and add it to their database. Within minutes after posting, Hype Machine would show the song title and artist, and provide a link to your blog post. A good blog post would attract hundreds of visitors, all looking to download the song. (Hype Machine now aggregates blog posts that have BandCamp and SoundCloud embeds.)
The downside was that bands had no idea how many people had listened to their music, except for their increased CD sales, show attendance, and Myspace followers.
Speaking of Myspace… As much as I personally disliked the Myspace design, it gave artists a way to connect with other bands, plan tours that otherwise might not have happened, and gain listeners that wouldn’t have found them. What it provided artists in one platform has surprisingly never been replicated.
Within a couple years, music blogs began to act as an AR wing for record labels. Bands were getting signed after becoming popular from music blogs, bands such as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Labels were paying attention.
The Mp3 seemed to be the future. In 2007, I recall imagining what it would be like to access music, instead of owning it. I wrote about it in this article, suggesting that people would stream music (I didn’t use that exact word), and that vinyl would become the popular form for owning music.
This played out, and music streaming would eventually reduce the demand for owning digital files. People no longer came to blogs for Mp3s, and traffic dipped.
Both, playlist creators on Spotify and the YouTube curators, such as David Dean Burkhart or LazyLazyMe have taken the critical role in helping people discover music. Many of these curators are also bloggers. They create playlists and share them on their site. Getting attention from blogs is still important in getting your music on a playlist, and getting the attention of other curators. Music bloggers pay close attention to YouTube curators for music discovery, as do people looking for new music. (And of course, the official Spotify playlists are a critical piece in gaining streams.)
Social media in general plays a huge role in music discovery. Having a strong Instagram game is likely the most important piece. There isn’t a dedicated social media platform that centers entirely on music, so being present on as many social media channels is critical.
Music journalism has returned as being the focus of most music blogs. People no longer come to a blog simply to download a song and leave. They come to a blog to read, and listen to new music while they’re visiting.
I believe things will shift again in the next five years. Streaming is here to stay until it’s replaced with something better, but I think music discovery will change. If we’ve learned anything from the past twenty years, it’s that technological changes shift our method of discovering music. What will that look like? This is a question I’m processing. I have ideas, and I’ll share when it’s solidified in my mind.
What are your thoughts? Share them below!
(Note: This is by no means a comprehensive look at the way music discovery has changed over the past twenty years. It’s rather a light reflection on how I’ve seen things change as technology shifts, mixing in personal experience.)