Streaming has become a huge force in music, and as Brave New Worlds go, it’s pretty cool. Yet even with the convenience and staggering choice of Spotify, Pandora, etc., these services play a growing role in shaping our national musical diet and taste, and that’s a concern. Discovery of new artists (contemporary or historic), terrain once guided largely by DJs, record stores and press, is becoming the purview of computer algorithms. What does that mean for fans on their Americana/roots journey, and how can they get the most out of the streaming experience?
To be transparent about it, I’m a paying Spotify consumer who has been mostly impressed overall and quite excited with the music discoveries I’ve made there and on the radio feature of Pandora. So I started asking questions about how this all works. Upstream from our customized music experience, sitting on giant servers somewhere, are privately developed algorithms that learn our listening habits, compare them to vast pools of data about the rest of the listening audience and dish out new songs and artists for us to try, whether via “radio” functions or a “discover” function.
It is important to note that these systems aren’t machine-only. All the streamers hire experts to curate and work with the algorithms to bring emerging talent to the fore and keep that human touch in the system.
But interviews with sources familiar with these methods confirmed my suspicion that your pool of possible discoveries depends heavily on how you interact with the system and what you teach them about your hunger for depth and breadth in new music. It’s the age-old input/output issue. If you passively listen to a narrow range of hit songs, the services grow less inclined to show you anything outside a mass-market comfort zone.
But if you’re the person who’s constantly adding obscure artists or niche genres to your playlists and collections, the systems will treat you more like a hungry musical omnivore. You might hear more stuff you find odd, but you’re also more likely to hear that special something that changes your life.
So I asked these same experts (who asked not to be quoted to speak freely) about advice for hacking the streaming experience for a richer Americana/roots listening experience. And what I came up with was a list of a dozen lesser-known but absolutely awesome Americana artists who will jolt some new life into your algorithms. The artists are chosen to reflect a wide range of sounds, backgrounds and eras, and others might come up with very different and excellent lists, but the effect would, in theory, be the same.
You have to take the initiative and seed your service with these names manually. The advice I got was to engage with these artists in all the ways you can in your given service. Add their albums to your collection. Make playlists. Make radio stations jamming them all together. And then let those artists play. Even let them run when you’re asleep or not home just to give the service a lot of input to work with. The changes will come gradually, but my sources indicate you CAN hack the system.
If you’re already a roots super-fan who knows the difference between The Derailers and The Dead Reckoners, this won’t shake up your world. But if you are a newcomer to the field with a hunger to know more, or if you’re a middle of the road Americana fan with playlists full of Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Margo Price, this list of artists might A) suggest some new favorites in and of themselves and B) incline your streaming service to treat you with more respect.
That’s the least we can ask of computer programs that try to hack us.
LARRY SPARKS – This award-winning veteran will lend your profile a jolt of hard core, classic bluegrass.
RUTHIE FOSTER – She’s one of Austin’s most distinguished songwriters and a spellbinding performer who touches folk, soul, gospel and country music.
CHRIS KNIGHT – Americana is not short on gravel-voiced twangy singers, even ones from Kentucky, but Knight is an under-appreciated, one-of-a-kind songwriter.
SARAH SISKIND – Formerly of Nashville now in North Carolina, she’s written widely with and for others, but her artistry, including the recent Sunliner EP ought to be in your collection.
THE HOLMES BROTHERS – Only one survives, but this trio epitomized deep, wide ranging roots music from the 80s through the 2000s. No strain of American tradition is left out.
BILL KIRCHEN – A regional hero around DC who is beloved nationally by aficionados of hard country music and dazzling Telecaster guitar playing.
TERRY ALLEN – Your stations surely feed you plenty of Guy, Townes and Rodney, but they’d all tell you to listen to Terry Allen, one of the great Texas songwriters.
SUE FOLEY – This Canadian guitar slinger and songwriter is in the vein of current standouts like Susan Tedeschi or Samantha Fish, but with a singularly engaging voice and a saucy attitude.
THE LYNN MORRIS BAND – More deep traditional bluegrass, this time from one of the most acclaimed female singers in the music’s history. No longer active, but a living legend.
PETER CASE – For a wider window on roots folk with that Southern pop jangle and edge, plus wise and relevant lyrics, add Case to your playlists.
JEAN SHEPARD – Even some classic country fans don’t know or fully appreciate the genius of Jean Sheppard, one of the Grand Ole Opry’s original feminists.
HOT RIZE – Any bluegrass fan will know and likely cherish this vitally important band, but new Americana listeners need to integrate this Colorado band with Tim O’Brien for wide-ranging acoustic mastery.