Discovering New Music: At the Record Store
Maybe you got to the point where your playlists feel tired. Maybe you’re trying to figure out what these damn kids are listening to. Maybe you woke up and realized you haven’t listened to a new artist since high school. Or maybe the thrill of discovery is part of why you love music in the first place.
Whatever your reason for seeking out new music, it can be a lot of work. There is so much music released every week, you can’t possibly get through it all. And those Spotify recommendation engines that are supposed to help us navigate the musical oceans often fall short. They are so deathly afraid of playing a track you won’t like that they end up serving you endless variations of stuff you already like.
So how do you discover new music without turning it into a full-time job?
You need a Sherpa
In our experience, there is no substitute for people if you’re trying to find new music. It’s not that people are better than algorithms. The point is that they are worse. They are arbitrary. Their memories are bad. They are self-centered; they care more about what they like than what you like. So they are more likely to give you a recommendation that has nothing to do with you. And that could be the key to discovering something you didn’t know you’d like.
Of course, you don’t want to rely on just anyone to be your musical Sherpa. The person, or people, need to be knowledgeable (a person who has only heard five records can only recommend five records). You need to trust their taste (steer clear of that guy who has every pressing from Drive-Thru records).
An ideal Sherpa is someone you know personally, because you’ll be able to talk to them face-to-face. And they can get to know your taste.
But your Sherpa doesn’t have to be someone you know personally. It could be a blog, or a podcast, or a record label, or a musician who tweets about stuff they listen to.
So, I should find a Sherpa. How do I do that?
It’s a good question, and in our musical Sherpa's segment, we’re going to offer some sources that we know and love (including podcasts, documentaries, newsletters, and record labels).
Get the most out of your local record store
Today we’ll focus on record stores. Theoretically, this should be the easiest place to find a Sherpa: it’s a place full of live people who (presumably) love music and want to sell you music. And, when it goes right, a record store is the best Sherpa.
Our personal example is The Government Center in Pittsburgh, PA. We stumbled in on a lark a few years ago and met owner Josh Cozby. Talking to Josh for a few minutes, we discovered that he was not just knowledgeable, but welcoming and completely unpretentious. We had some great conversations. Over the years, he has steered us to some records we really love that we would never have heard of if not for him. (Shaman! by Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids, Ambolley by Gyedu-Blay Ambolley, Eastern Flowers by Sven Wunder, to name a few).
Unfortunately, not every record store encounter will be that easy or fruitful. “A lot of people who work in record stores do not want to talk to you,” Josh admits. But it goes both ways. “A lot of the people who come into the store do not want to talk to you.”
Don’t be afraid to open up
Fear and anxiety can get in the way of conversations. “A lot of people are really hesitant to say what they like,” he explains. “Sometimes for fear of looking like a snob, but mostly it is fear of looking dumb. And people are afraid to say that they don’t know something. But I say that all the time.”
The trick to a good record store encounter is to not be afraid. Not be afraid to ask questions, not be afraid that you’ll be judged for your taste, not be afraid to feel stupid if there’s an artist you don’t know about. And if someone does try to make you feel stupid or small, just walk out and brush it off your shoulders. (We know, easier said than done.)
“Tell [the people working the record store] how and why you are listening to music,” Josh advises. “It is helpful to know what you are into and how adventurous you want to be. Are you looking for a type of indie-rock sound, for example, or are you ready to move farther afield.”
By the way, we've long benefited from Josh's guidance. So much so, that we felt the need to share his talents with a wider audience. If you want Josh to curate a bag of records for you, you can get that done here.
Check the staff-picks section
Whether or not you develop a report with the staff themselves, we highly recommend checking out the staff-pick section of your local record store (if they have one). Many record stores have a bulletin board, or a crate, or (best of all) a listening station, with a few records that the clerks are excited about. We love these sections because they are quirky and sincere. With rare exceptions, they aren’t promoting the big new releases, the staff are begging passers-by to notice overlooked things that they really love. We’ve found some of our favorite records in the staff picks (Esthero’s Breath from Another, Neon Lights Electric Lives by the Static Age, Saturn Return by the Secret Sisters, to name a few).
Do you have any tips for using your record store to discover music? Let us know.
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