Situated somewhere on the North side of Nashville, down the street from a convenience store from where I had just bought a 40 oz and a pack of cigarettes with a friend, sat a white house. A scattering of people were milling about on the front yard. My friend and I arrived, walking through the yard and around to the side of the house. A girl sat in front of the door at a plastic table, collecting cash and handing out stickers. Admittedly, I didn't have any cash on me, but she smiled and let me in the door anyways.
We entered into a large room, which presumably was a living room, but was now the stage. People filled the room, nearly wall to wall. To my immediate left was a large, Sharpie-d sign hung on a bathroom door: OUT OF ORDER.
We pushed our way through the crowd to stand in the far corner. The band was already playing. A girl stood center stage, singing and playing a blue guitar. She had long, thin brown-blonde hair. My friend left me there to go mingle with others, but I stood rooted in that place. I was mesmerized by her voice. The crowd sang along to one of her songs, maybe multiple - I’m hazy in those details. I just stood still, to take it all in. I do remember the lights, which gave the entire room a cloudy purple glow.
There are some shows you go to that give you a certain energy, a kind of peaceful but electric cleansing. This was one of those shows, yet I hadn’t even caught the name of the band. After her set, the singer thanked the crowd and left the stage.
Afterwards, I found my way out to the backyard, which was probably more than twice the size of the room I was just in. All around, people sat cross-legged on the grass, smoking and drinking. Some were laying down. One couple was making out. Someone was peeing in the corner (no bathroom, remember). Outside, my friend told me the name of the artist: Soccer Mommy (or Sophie Allison).
Soccer Mommy’s name was already quickly spreading by the time I found her music, and after 2017's Collection and 2018's Clean, her name spread even faster.
I’m grateful I ended up at that show that night, because now my connection to her music feels more personal than it otherwise would have. Algorithms dictate much of music discovery now, mine included, and have become a norm in the streaming age. But although algorithms claim to personalize, they are not exactly personal.
When I first got a Spotify account, I thought the “Similar Artists” feature was cool. That’s what I thought, too, when I started getting Discover Weekly playlists, and then when I started getting multiple Daily Mix playlists. It felt helpful and streamlined. If I liked an artist or a band, I could immediately listen to something very similar very easily.
Algorithms generate these music recommendations. I’ve always found these algorithms mystifying, because sometimes they’re spot on and sometimes they’re very off (Putting girl in red in my Discover Weekly made sense, for example, but putting a Phoebe Bridgers song - that I've already listened to - in my Discover Weekly did not).
Published via Medium, writer and data artist Eric Boam does an incredible deep dive into his own listening habits, examining both the quality and quantity of music recommendations from, as he puts it, “man,” “media,” and “machine.” He analyzes the data and creates visualizations for readers, ultimately considering which music recommendations have been fruitful, and from what source they're come from. We see that Spotify gives Boam the most music to try, but recommendations from friends are often the most accurate. In the end, Boam draws this conclusion: “I saw that [algorithmic recommendations] didn’t do much to get me out of my comfort zone.” Spotify didn't draw Boam out of his comfort zone - people did. This problem of a music comfort zone is similar to an algorithmic social media feed: When you like someone’s post, you will be shown similar content in the future. Then, you will most likely favorite that content again, and thus this kind of content will eventually dominate your feed.
So it’s not a far reach to say that when music discovery methods are solely through Spotify recommendations, our song choices will easily start to look the same as our socials: monolithic and repetitive. Like Boam says, we’ll start to stay in our comfort zone.
Now, it’s certainly not a bad thing to have found a new artist through the algorithm. I’ve found many bands this way. But sometimes I find the music becomes easily forgettable, no matter how good it is, because there is a lack of association between a song and something other than the song itself. I will, however, remember Soccer Mommy and seeing her at that house show. And I’ll remember listening to Billie Eilish’s “ocean eyes” for the first time when a friend showed it to me on a drive to a ski hill. I’ll remember listening to Lissie for the first time in a local record shop. I won’t necessarily remember offhandedly liking a song Spotify and adding it to one of my playlists.
Sometimes, I just think we should remember to fight the algorithm a bit, and to celebrate other avenues of discovery. Right now, I am beginning a reoccurring column on Nixie: "How I Discovered." I want Nixie to be a place where you can share your own stories of discovery, of how you found a new favorite artist, album, or song. Whether it's short and sweet or long and thoughtful, please submit to firstname.lastname@example.org.