Jan. 28 2013 04:09 PM

Three digital sources that are changing how I discover new music

Brightside Radio’s Chase Ohlson and John Saunders

I go through a pair of headphones just about every month. It's always the the input jack that breaks, cutting off sound in one ear. It's like being on hold on a call to the hipster dentist's office. All tallied, I probably spend as much on replacement ear buds in a year as I did on the iPhone I plug them into.

I hand over about 10 times more of my money to headphones manufacturers, Apple and data-plan providers and the corporations that produce the technology that allows me to listen to music than I do the artists who make music worth listening to. I feel a twinge of remorse for that, but the truth is, if I paid the price tag to own every album that rolled across my ear drums, I'd be nodding my head to the beat in bankruptcy court. I'm lucky to work at an alt-weekly where the promotional copies pile up like Zimbabwean termite mounds on our music editor's desk. I've also spent a considerable amount of time searching for free and legal ways to satisfy my Galactus, devourer-of-planets, appetite for new music.

Legal doesn't mean fair, and I wish corporations like Verizon and AT&T, which get rich off providing the bandwidth, would spend as much supporting music on the ground level as they do sponsoring parades and rubber-chicken political dinners. I have to take responsibility, too, and 2013 is the year I plan to ramp up my spending and contribute as directly as I can to the musicians. In my fantasy utopia, people who can afford to would voluntarily pay to keep music free.

In the meantime, here are a few ways my listening habits have developed recently, with some plugs for the artists I wish I could pay more:

(Before I get into it, I need to dispense with Spotify and its clones. Whether the cloud model is sustainable, only time will tell, but, for now, I don't see how a music addict can avoid subscribing to what is essentially a repository of every album recorded in the Western world. You can reason yourself in circles over the ethics of itis throwing a few pennies at musicians that much better than "stealing" their music?but, really, if you're a cokehead, you're not really that worried about the child laborers picking the coca leaves. I am not a subscriber yet, but that's mostly because I'm irrationally stubborn about bandwagons.)

Bandcamper: Mike Keller, an app developer and metal guitarist out of Brooklyn, has released a free (and ad-free) iPhone app that streams the catalog of independent artists on the popular DIY site Bandcamp.com. Bandcamper is not perfect (at Bandcamp management's request, Keller removed a handy, but bandwidth-hogging, search-by-tag function) or 100-percent reliable, but you get what you don't pay for. It isn't available for Droid yet, but Keller says developers interested in porting it should get in touch.

During the last few months, this app has fundamentally changed how I listen to and discover music. I spent a whole weekend taking an around-the-world tour of Bandcamp, adding musicians from Ann Arbor (AbsoFacto), Budapest (Strad), Leeds (Ariya Astrobeat Arkestra), Sydney (Tin Sparrow) and Catania, Italy (Fab Samperi), to my "favorites" list, which allows me to scroll through and stream them almost like they were in my iTunes library. The app is especially useful for educating yourself on the San Diego scene; I recommend starting with Low Volts, Mrs. Magician and BRUIN (specifically the remix album "Thug Wave"). 

If you're looking for something outside the reach of Spotify, you might give a listen to Gashcat's Neutral Milk Hotel-esque Devil Kid Demos, Marvin Hood's schizophrenic interpretation of Nirvana's Nevermind and Keep Calm and Canter On, a sensitive pop EP from Replacer, a New Zealand-based "Brony" (that's a "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" junky).

Soundcloud: The social audio-hosting site Soundcloud.com has also become an invaluable resource for me. I'm fond of the app version, which functions in much the same way Twitter does: You follow people, artists and labels, and they'll post their own tracks or do the equivalent of retweeting with tracks they dig. Some of my favorite users are Barsuk Records, Thrill Jockey Records and San Diego-based Volar Records.

Mostly, I'm using Soundcloud for the podcasts and DJ mixes. Mr. Scruff, based in Manchester, England, often posts his full, funky club sets, sometimes as long as six hours. I'm also a religious subscriber to Ninja Tune's "Solid Steel Radio Show," which is celebrating its 25th year (obviously not all of that as a podcast) with guest mixes from a cast of electronic genre-defining DJs, including Luke Vibert, Fourtet and Photek.

Brightside Radio: The iTunes podcast library hasn't been as bountiful as I expected, with many podcasts that would excite me going months without an update. One of my favorite podcasts, though, happens to be based in San Diego: Brightside Radio, a high-energy, not-very-talky, hour-long mix released every week like clockwork.

John Saunders and Chase Ohlson's show began as, and still is, a program on SDSU's radio station, but has since grown an enormous international fan base. According to their data, they say they're banking as many as 150,000 listeners. They've also just launched a video podcast under the brand Brightside TV. 


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