Radio David Byrne: My A&R guy
When it came to music, I was an old fogie. I had a shelf full of Bob Dylan, Allman Brothers, Brian Eno, and more Bob Dylan. You know, old guy's music. I actually liked a lot of the new popular music I overheard, I was just not up on it. Didn't know what was what. Recently I've found two tools to keep me current with great contemporary music that wasn't just top 40. My iPod is now full of some pretty hip music, which I thoroughly enjoy.
Here's what works for me. At my birthday or Christmas, I request as my only present that my kids, nieces and nephews burn me a disc of their favorite music in the last year, or so. It is an easy gift for them to make, and a great learning experience for me. The few tracks I can't stand, I just delete. The stuff I love I seek out on iTunes to purchase more of. From this I get the fashionable tunes.
This trick actually works even better with kids not your own. When I am traveling overseas I ask students who befriend me to burn me a CD of their favorite local tunes, and boy does this beckon forth some great unknown stuff. I landed some lovely Polish rock this way. I've learned to not be bashful asking because everyone loves to share their favorites. The main thing is to not ask your friends; they think too much like you. Instead you want the "other-ness" from fans in other lands and other generations. In my experience this method works better than following random play lists on iTunes, or random recommendations on Amazon. The winnowing process to burn to a CD is more selective, and perhaps because it is being made for a specific person — me — it is, well, more personalized.
My second method is a more automatic version of "what's on your iPod?", yet brings me a wider range of songs. For one or two days a month I queue up David Byrne's Radio Station on the web and listen to his two-hour loop of new, wonderful, delicious tunes. Rock-star Byrne is a professional musical pioneer, admirably eclectic in his taste, yet astutely discriminating at the same time. Over years of listening to all kinds of music — experimental, indie, international, fringe, classical, pop — he's heard enough to make some great recommendations. Given his reputation he is constantly asked what he is listening to. In answer he has generously turned his play list into a streaming audio station. When you tune in, you are hearing the music he plays in his office.
Each Radio David Byrne playlist runs a few hours long before it repeats; it keeps cycling the whole month. It's kind of like listening to a 2-hour album over and over again.This gives you a chance to "master" the new music you are hearing. Past playlists have focused on "Icelandic Pop," "Movie sound tracks," "Opera highlights," or, my favorite, "Eclectic Stuff." This month (Feb 08) the theme is "African Fusion Pop" — Byrne's favorites from two decades of exploring modern African hits.
I listen to each list for a few days as I work, slowly accumulating my favorites. There is a handy Amazon link near the tunes available for download, which makes adding a new song to your own collection a no-brainer. Or you can copy the metadata and hunt for it on iTunes or E-Music, etc. Byrne earns a few cents for each download, which keeps his bandwidth going. Over several years of listening a few hours per month I've gotten a great education in contemporary music. I know Dylan has a satellite radio show, but really, more legends should do this — stream what you love.
Besides the fact that Byrne's Radio station has introduced me to fantastic artists (sometimes preempting my kids!), I also like the fact that it is demonstrating a workable, legal (at the moment) model for music exploration: Expert + Sharing + Purchase.