DJ Nic Harcourt: Why Spotify and Pandora Suck at Music Curation (Guest Column)
KCRW's "Morning Becomes Electric" maestro, now on KCSN, insists he (still) knows better when it comes to tastemaking: Cool song choices show "a human brain in action. Can an algorithm make those connections? No."
This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Right now, when it comes to music, we are in a severe ADD phase. No one has the time to search out their own listening identity. People are happy to have it handed to them, whether via Spotify playlists, Pandora recommendations and the like. I dated a girl a few years ago who always had the Pandora "Radiohead" station on, and after listening to it for three or four hours, I was bored out of my mind. It was the same thing over and over again.
I like a little more diversity. But plenty of people don't mind being spoon-fed. Where does that leave guys like me?
Out there. Around. Hoping the pendulum might swing back.
Last week, I played Perry Como's "It's a Good Day" next to a track by Death Cab for Cutie, and a few days ago, I played Dusty Springfield covering Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey" next to a new track from the up-and-coming U.K. band Temples. I played them together because I thought they'd sound cool, because I could -- that's a human brain in action, making a conscious choice. Can an algorithm make those connections? No, it probably can't.
When I got into radio, people called me the L.A. version of [U.K.-based BBC DJ] John Peel. He was a god to me, but I eventually realized what we shared. After reading some interviews with him, I learned that he was a fan of music -- nothing else. That's the beauty of free-form radio … not going in with a playlist written out, but leaving yourself open to the moment to do something fantastic -- or completely mess up.
When I came to KCRW, we could play whatever the heck we liked, which was unheard of. Morning Becomes Eclectic reflected my tastes, as it has the tastes of hosts since. There are no shows like it, especially in major markets. We were able to launch so many artists from 1998 to 2008, including Coldplay, Norah Jones, My Morning Jacket, Sigur Ros and The Black Keys. The show expanded, and with it, so did the station as it began broadcasting on the web.
I used to buy [England's] New Music Express and Melody Maker every week. My own musical agenda formed as a young lad in England listening to pirate stations like Radio Caroline as well as the offshore Radio Luxembourg, both of which weren't subject to British broadcasting laws of the time, and I was able to play the emerging rock 'n' roll coming from both England and America. That's where I acquired my musical knowledge as a teenager. Back then, there were just half a dozen radio stations and four TV channels in each city.
How does this new generation of music consumers discover music? Most of them cite recommendations from friends, or they might have four or five websites they visit on a regular basis. We all know how freaking hip Pitchfork is, but does it really influence the zeitgeist? Music sites like Stereogum and Brooklyn Vegan, you can go there to see who they're in love with this week. The problem is, their support lasts a little longer than a tweet. I can't keep up with the amount of artists being pushed that, in a matter of weeks, completely vanish. Blink and you missed it. In a world where everything's available, nothing has any intrinsic value.
Since iPods came along, I discover and listen to a wider range of music than ever, but I still need my own intuition to make the connections. When I was growing up, musical tastes were very myopic. If you were into prog-rock or punk, you didn't listen to Motown or disco. A Sid Vicious fan turned up their nose at Donna Summer and vice versa. People listening to random playlists absorb a great many different styles of music. Technology has brought with it more truly eclectic tastes. And that's fantastic. But it can also lead to homogenization within the walls of the algorithmic garden.
If you're happy with randomly played songs sorted by genomes, there are plenty of places for that. If you want to go a little deeper with a trusted friend to guide you, forget Facebook and look to the DJ.
What I program now is more diverse than ever -- ironically, due to technology and the Internet. In connecting the dots, using your knowledge and perspective, you can still make the music work seamlessly. An algorithm or a computer can't do that. It takes human thought.