April 14

Inaugural Editor’s Note: On Discovery

Strange fact:  There is no major outlet that covers the local singer-songwriter scene in New York City in any meaningful depth.  Sure, there are outlets that will write about a singer-songwriter or band who happens to be local.  But they don’t end up writing about that singer-songwriter by way of immersing themselves in the local music scene and then discovering local talent.  Having attended the open-mics in NYC very heavily for a number of years, you figure out very quickly that going to an open-mic is not the way to get “discovered.”  In fact, you’ll come to understand that getting “discovered” is not the way that a musician gets any attention at all in the music business these days.

To “discover” something is to have colorably found it, on your own, without the mediation of some external force.  The way that most music press (this includes music bloggers) end up finding out about something, outside of some existing personal connection, is by way of e-mail.  But it turns out that only about 2-3% of e-mails to music bloggers are even opened:  If you run through a list of blogs on Hypemachine and take down their publicly listed submission e-mail addresses, and then send e-mails to every single one of the blogs, only 2-3% of those e-mails will be opened.  Actually it’s lower than that.  There are a few blogs (Song, by Toad is one) that will actually open e-mails with more frequency than 2-3% of their e-mails – which means that for the vast majority of other music blogs on Hypemachine, the open-rate is actually somewhat lower than 2-3%.  Further, take into account that opening an e-mail is not the same as listening to the music – you get the result that the percentage of bloggers that even listen to a music submission (the minimum requirement for evaluating the music, mind you) is probably not even 1%.

How do bands get access to bloggers and writers?  Well, there are lots of filters that come into play.  PR reps, industry connections – all of which inevitably involve substantial sums of money.  I talked to a band at a local industry event that said they had paid several thousand dollars to a PR company, and all they got out of it was “one lousy review” that wasn’t worth their investment.  (Note:  They weren’t saying that they paid a writer for the review – they paid a PR company the money, and the PR company was only able to get them a review there).  And this story is not atypical.  I talk to many, many musicians that balk at the idea of paying that much money, and because of that, they remain suspiciously “undiscovered.”  I talk to many musicians that have coughed up the money, and for one reason or another, are not able to get “discovered.”  Of course, the amount of financial expenditure involved is a problem – not the least of which is that the indie music industry reinforces and rewards socio-economic (and racial) privilege, in a way that harms musicians who do not have the resources to pay.

In sum, there are a lot of external forces that come into play that mediate the relationship between the musician and blogger.  And this brings us back to the idea of discovery.  If access to bloggers and writers is mediated by the filter, then they are not really a means for really discovering music, so much as a way of parsing music choices by way of an algorithm that can be fairly characterized as favoring people who enjoy social, economic and racial privileges.  Not altogether that different from the way that Princeton University can be fairly characterized as favoring socio-economic privilege when it allows legacy admissions.  (We’ll call the blogger-method of discovery the “legacy admissions” method of music listening.)  But what then?  Is there another way to discover music?

Well, one obvious way to do it is to immerse yourself in a local music scene.  It turns out there are venues in NYC where musicians come to congregate and perform.  And you can perform the act of discovery, unmediated by the influence of external forces, by going to see them.  In fact, there are certain events that you can go to, where you can hear local musicians perform in rapid succession, and come upon a musician that you enjoy in a rather efficient manner – a sort of live Spotify playlist, if you will.  These events (often called “open-mics”) are customarily accompanied by the purchase and consumption of alcohol – something you’re prone to do anyway.  In fact, immersing yourself in a local music scene is better done by attending open-mics than even by attending local shows, as bookers themselves scan things like social media presence and draw (i.e., “legacy criteria”) in determining who they book.

Alternatively, maybe I gave up on that blog idea too early.  I noted that music blogs typically operate with the “legacy admissions” filter.  That isn’t a necessary feature of music blogs, so much as the vast majority of music blogs operate by way of the legacy admissions method.  Perhaps it’s possible to run a blog in NYC with a more local bent, one that is connected more heavily with the open-mic and singer-songwriter scene more generally.  That’s at least the goal, in broad brushstrokes, for this blog.  This isn’t to say that this blog won’t supply some sort of filter.  If you know anything about Immanuel Kant, you’ll know that it just isn’t possible to present anything without some sort of bent.  This also isn’t to say that there aren’t other outlets and blogs that will cover, as a matter of fact, aspects of one or another local scene in NYC.  I don’t deny that.  What I do hope is to bring some in-depth observations and insights into much of the local music scene that, as of yet, appear to be “undiscovered.”

Check back in occasionally for interviews with local musicians, premieres of work, choice local listings and write-ups, the occasional instructional, and a good bit of long-winded over-blown high-minded editorializing.  We’ll see how this goes.