On music and the Internet

It’s easy to find agreement on the Internet. Just type in a band name on www.last.fm and you’ll find hundreds of fellow listeners, along with suggestions for other “similar” bands to listen to, but are they really similar? Most websites list bands together based on who listens to them, not how they sound. They base their statistics on average listening habits, which says little about the actual quality of music.

For example, post-punk bands The Sound and The Chameleons have both clearly influenced the group Interpol; the music sounds the same stylistically, and the guitar work on some Chameleons songs is eerily reminiscent of certain Interpol lines. But neither band appears on Last.fm’s “Similar to Interpol” list — instead, the website recommends The Arcade Fire and Modest Mouse, bands that sound nothing like Interpol and just represent some sort of indie band zeitgeist that has nothing to do with the music.

Music-based social networking does not reveal true musical connections, which is a problem, because most people aren’t willing to look any further. Average listeners are often uninterested in expanding their musical educations; they seek little beyond what is fed to them by the Internet or their friends. But services like Last.fm cannot replace the time and effort needed to find new exciting artists. For truly new music, listeners have to look elsewhere.

One idea is www.scaruffi.com, run by Piero Scaruffi, who claims it’s one of the first websites ever. Scaruffi updates frequently with truckloads of new content, including contemporary music reviews. He has his own strong opinions and isn’t afraid to share them. I’ve probably found more new artists that I’ve loved from Scaruffi than from any online taste aggregator so far, even though I disagree with many of his opinions. I remember being crushed when reading his thoughts on Björk, a musician I love; he wrote, “The first impression with Björk’s music is always of something terribly trivial, obnoxious and, ultimately, boring.” But Scaruffi also led me to Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, an album which not only earned me some serious cred with my dad, but also introduced me to one of the most beautiful male voices in rock, along with some really weird song structures. By exposing myself to the opinions of one other person who really loves music, I’ve discovered more than I would have by following the aggregated listening habits of a million others.

So, next time you’re looking for something new to listen to, ask just one person. Better yet, ask one cranky opinionated guy on the Internet who thinks Captain Beefheart is possibly the greatest rock musician of all time.

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