Story by Ethan Kwak
Illustration by Isole Kim
The most prominent AI music recommender is Spotify, with 205 million premium subscribers. Originally launched in 2006, the music platform set out to revolutionize music, introduce new artists, and create a “thriving ecosystem of creativity.” With personalized playlists such as Discover Weekly, premium users receive AI generated music recommendations on a daily basis.
The evolution of music has most notably included the development of records and compact discs (CDs). Of the two, records have experienced a recent upsurge in collectors. Now heralded as the latest music trend, most self-proclaimed audiophiles gush on about the increased sound quality, aesthetic, and retro vibes. Digital streaming has opened gateways that previous iterations of music listening could not.
Before the age of online music recommendations, enthusiasts read liner notes and the backs of records. We flipped through now defunct copies of Trouser Press, hoping to find the next addition to our collections. Bargain bins were a paradise for those willing to search deep enough.
Now it takes a single click to be redirected to new artists. Even so, there is a limit to what Spotify can recommend. I have had to continuously create new accounts and like different songs to discover something new. Eventually, I return to the same bands and the same tired algorithm. After thousands of songs and hundreds of albums downloaded, it pivots, faces the road, and retraces its steps. Spotify guided me through phases of prog rock, power punk, electronic, alternate folk/country, rap, and now anything indie.
With a burgeoning interest in punk subgenres, particularly in the punk and folk vein of Link Wray, I started my second account last year. I discovered raucous cowpunk acts such as Jason and the Scorchers but also the derry-pop punk band Undertones. The Undertones’ slight connection to That Petrol Emotion developed my interest in 90s electronic/dance, swapping my fixation with punk to folktronica pioneers such as Beth Orton.
I purchased my first record in 2020, a first pressing of Private Eyes, by Tommy Bolin. His avant garde and blues influenced guitar led me to Les Dudek, Jethro Tull, and Rory Gallagher, among others.
But records can be an expense. Especially the player, which is a hefty investment. With Spotify no longer pushing the boundaries of my interest, I turned to compact discs. In America, used CDs are dirt cheap, drop proof, and made of plastic with a half life of 50,000 years. And largely unappreciated.
In the SP Public Library, between hour–long math study sessions, a quick browse between the 50 cent last chance CD collection has introduced me to artists beyond the usual mix of pre-2000s music. I pick a title, download it on my Spotify account, and listen between pages of blank worksheets. So far, I have discovered the intricate guitar works of Angolan composer Waldemar Bastos, the clean pop hooks of Aimee Mann, and the whiny synth of Warren G, to name a few.
I have no filter; no means to judge, other than the literal cover. Spotify music recommendations pass through a gridwork of personalization. The music you hear is exactly what Spotify wants you to listen to based on a plethora of checkboxes. After I started liking random songs from the library on my account, I started getting less and less personalized recommendations.
Spotify music recommendations are the most comprehensive way to find new music online today. Despite my discoveries on physical formats, Spotify has shaped the way I think about music. I still believe in the merit of records and compact discs, despite being less accessible. For the explorers out there, a quick trip to the library or temporary deviation from the online rabbit hole may yield eye-opening discoveries.