Finding new stuff — then and now

I’m sure Malcolm Gladwell or Forrester Research has some nifty term for that type of person who discovers stuff first. You know who I am talking about; the girl in college who bought the first Talking Heads album while the rest of us were still stuck in a rut of disco or bad rock. The guy who saw The King’s Speech three months before you did. The type of person who moves on from Bikram yoga just as you’re discovering the Down Dog position. Everybody wants to be first, but why are some of us better at living on the leading edge than others?

How do trendspotters find the avant garde before it becomes mainstream? Is it intuitive or is it part of their psyche? Someone more willing to buck the norm and have the courage go out on a limb and tell their skeptical roommates, “Trust me, some day these guys are going to be huge”?

I used to have impeccable music spotting abilities, but was always the weird guy in the dorm, defending stuff like Lou Reed, The Ramones while the rest of the world was stuck on the Stones, Beatles, Allman Bros. etc.. I wasn’t super-gluing my hair into a purple mohawk or acting particularly hip — I just could, and still can, listen to very obscure music and intuitively know what’s going to be cool or not. How did I find it in the first place? By paying attention to college radio, especially late night, by reading the Village Voice, and by flipping through the milk crates of some of my more out-there acquaintances. Someone has to start playing it. My only knack was hearing it once and deciding it was worth hearing again.

Case in point. Late 90s I started listening to lots of electronica/techno because the beat rate syncopated nicely with rowing ergometer workouts. I start buying the Chemical Brothers and my teen children pick up the habit and instantly become cool in their own way. Fiction: I still press a copy of Barry Hannah’s “Geronimo Rex” into anybody’s hands who will listen. I found him in the early 70s out of complete luck and chance. Misses? The horrible Little River Band is one album I was ashamed to own.

One rainy day recently my youngest son wanted to go to a movie. Instead of relying on some direct recommendation from a pal, he just pulls out Rotten Tomatoes and looks at the score. Anything under an 80% he won’t waste his money on. Same goes for video games — he has his bible, Game Informer, and follows their recommendations slavishly. I suppose the only difference between him and me using Rolling Stone in the 1970s is media and nothing else.

My oldest son, the auteur, is a total creature of New York’s East Village, NYU film school, and now West Hollywood. His radar is set at max detection for two things: way way out there art film from the likes of Bela Tarr and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (aka “Joe”) ((stuff that will NEVER go mainstream since no one on earth wants to watch a seven hour epic about the decline of a Hungarian farm collective after the fall of the iron curtain)) and electronica which comes in a dizzying number of subcategories from dubstep to intelligent dance music (IDM) to breakcore. His discovery models are interesting – in particular allows him to tag music and discover related stuff tagged by other listeners, and I just need to follow his play list history to discover the same.

He was also a fan of a site called Metacritic — which compiled professional reviews and ranked music, games, TV and movies on a 1-to-1o0 score. Then he gave up after one Scandinavian techno band, The Field, inexplicably dominated the rankings.  The point of Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes is they aggregate professional critics — not amateurs like you and me — and give a modicum of authority to the rankings and recommendations.

The power of recommendation engines is very significant in the Web 2.0/Social media set of features. While a lot of pundits opine that user reviews are the most powerful factor in a purchase decision (I trust her taste, therefore I will buy the same kind of car she drives), I think the “like-this” functionality that was  pioneered by Patti Maes at the MIT Media Lab and led to the ecommerce recommendations on Amazon (“People who bought this also bought this …” is very very influential in helping us discover new opportunities in media. The risk, as some critics have said, is that recommendation engines can put us into a self-referential echo chamber where the old phenomenon of a “Top Story Today” function on a news website continues to drive traffic to the same top headline, which keeps it on top ad infinitum.  How often does a recommendation engine push us to the extreme? Exposing liberals to conservative points of view and vice versa?

The notion of using tags and a “genome” approach to music and art to push the “like-this” function we’ve seen in the last decade to a more random, surprising discovery model is what is making the discovery of new art easier and more rewarding.

Anyway, as I sit here listening to the IDM tagged station on I find myself “loving” specific songs by hitting the heart icon. Every time I do so, the algorithm looks for tagged matches and further refines my taste for me, all the while taking me deeper and deeper into the avant garde by the hand.

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