When I visited home last month after a gap of 3 years, I found out that my 13 year old cousin had suddenly become very interested in listening to music. She now owned an iPod and was quite enthusiastic about the whole idea of listening to music. So I asked her what she was listening to. The ensuing conversation went something like below (keep in mind she is only 13).
Me: So what are you listening to?
She: One Direction! I love that band!
Me: OK. Sounds like about the kind of music a 13 year old would listen to nowadays. Come to think of it, I was very much into Backstreet Boys and Boyzone back when I was your age.
She: Yes, One Direction is really good!
Me: So what other music do you listen to?
She: I really like One Direction! I have all their albums!
Me: That is good that you really like One Direction. What other bands do you listen to?
She: I just listen to ALL their songs on repeat! I really like them!
Me: For how long have you been listening to One Direction?
She: About 5 to 6 months now.
Me: Have you listened to any other English music in this time?
She: No. I really like One Direction!
Clearly, this conversation was going nowhere. I could have asked her how she did in her exams, and her response would have been, “I really like One Direction!”. So I gave up on the subject. Instead, we decided to play some kind of a passive card game along with her classmate – another 13 year old girl (who incidentally introduced my cousin to One Direction).
And before we started our game, I told them I was going to play some music from my phone. I told them it will be playing in the background and we can start playing the game. I put on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and on came “Give Life Back to Music”.
It must have taken about all of two minutes before both my cousin and her friend remarked, “What band is this? This is really good music!” I just smiled and told them who it was. And last I heard, they was listening to ‘Random Access Memories’ on a loop.
There are two very significant lessons to be learned just from this one seemingly trivial (and admittedly hilarious) incident. But before I go into that, an important thing to understand is this: What was seen with my 13 year old cousin is also highly representative of the mindset of a large fraction of the population when it comes to listening to and discovering new music.
The first of the two lessons is about the act of getting stuck in some kind of a comfort zone. For my 13 year old cousin, it was with the music of One Direction. For a lot of other people at different stages in their life (age-wise or exploration of music), it is something else. One of the simplest ways this phenomenon manifests itself is perhaps also the most common: A person who has spent a few years of their life listening to (and coming to like) a specific genre typically finds it very difficult to put in the effort to actively explore other genres by themselves. (As an extension, there are even some people who tend to stick to the few bands that they know of and rarely put in the effort to explore other bands – even within the same genre). A little thought into this and into our own habits can reveal the different manifestations of this particular aspect in the way we ourselves listen to music (past and present).
Essentially, it is the sense of comfort that familiarity brings with it that can make a listener continue to seek out what they already know. As a corollary, the perception of the effort that one has to put in to actively and consciously go out of this comfort zone and explore new genres of music is sufficiently big, such that few actually cross that barrier. This phenomenon is more significant than what we are willing to acknowledge.
The second of the two lessons is to do with those instances when a person actually crosses that barrier and discovers new music. By default, any person who has become really obsessed with a particular band or genre of music has had to have gone through the process of actually discovering the said (at the time) new genre. So, if we go by the previous proposition that it is very difficult to get a listener to actively explore new music, how then have most people discovered new music and genres so far?
The answer is simple. Most people discover music passively.
It is typically a moment of inspiration that drives people into exploring a new band or a new genre of music. Perhaps you heard it over the radio on your way to work and it struck a chord with you; maybe you heard it being played at your friend’s place and you wanted to borrow his CD; it came up on one of your Pandora stations and you instantly liked it; or you heard this song on a movie soundtrack and you just had to know which band it was; or a band/playlist that your favorite artist (or anyone you respect) recommended.
All the above examples of listening to music and discovering something new that you like has a common thread running through it. In none of the cases were you actively, consciously, proactively seeking out to explore new bands or genres. Instead, in all the cases above, you just happened to be listening to music when you had absolutely nothing at stake. There was no pressure on you from those sources of music to ‘like’ that band. Nor were there any expectations of what would come out from the act of listening to music under those circumstances. Ultimately, there was no real ‘investment’ or ‘effort’ required by you in order for you to experience that moment of inspiration.
This is essentially the act of listening to music ‘passively’. And it is this process that leads people to discover new music and explore new bands. The strongest connection between a fan and an artist is made when there is absolutely nothing at stake. And it is only after such a connection is made that the fan begins to invest their time and money on the artist. They buy their albums, go to concerts, buy merchandise, etc. And what’s more? They even recommend the band to their friends thus starting a positive feedback chain. All banking on a moment of inspiration that mostly happens when there is nothing at stake.
And this is exactly what happened with my 13 year old cousin and Daft Punk. She formed a connection with the band in a situation where there was no pressure of any kind whatsoever. ( I proceeded to give her a playlist of what I thought she should explore and after a couple of days she came back and said, “I really like this band. I think it is called Led Zeppelin.” Mission accomplished).
This post would be incomplete without pointing out the fact that there is a small fraction of people who do not fall under the category mentioned above. These are people who do not necessarily need a ‘nothing at stake’ situation in order to experience a moment of inspiration. These are people who actively go in search of new music and looking for new recommendations – being fully aware that there are many yet-to-be-explored bands out there that are creating music that you would love. These are also usually the highest spenders on music. And if you are one of them, chances are you have friends around you who are like that as well. But this should not imply that a majority of the population is like that.
Music may appear to be everywhere. But the true gift of music is yet to be given to most of the population, and that moment of inspiration should reach out to as many people as possible. It is a win/win situation.
As the title indicates, this post is about the fan’s perspective of discovering new music. But what about the music industry? And the artists themselves? This I intend to explore in the next post – hopefully in a week’s time.