You know the old saying, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and feed him for life? Well, aside from the fact that a modern equivalent would probably have to include warnings about mercury poisoning and overfishing and such, my goal today is to explain how I find all the strange and intriguing music that I do AND to show you that it's actually not that hard. In fact, it's actually quite a bit of fun and refreshing if you've had a long day at work and like to play detective and cultural wanderer. So grab a beer and let's get going.
First off, to use another hackneyed quote, in the realm of being able to find new music today is the best of times and the worst of times. With the internet it has never been easier to find, access and listen to music. But in turn we have never been swamped with such a deluge of crap. The task in trying to find new music isn't to find music, in fact you probably get spammed by crappy bands to check out their MySpace (lulz) page. The task is to sort through the massive pool of music and actually find things you want to listen to.
So let's start with what you know - the music you already love! This is my #1 tool for finding new music. Pick three of your favorite albums right now. Aside from just plugging that in to Pandora and hoping in vain that it won't make you listen to Radiohead again, which it will, let's look that band up!
Let's start by me asking if you know what subgenre all three of those albums actually fall under? Not just "Rock" or "Pop" - the specific kind, since saying Radiohead is "rock" is like saying early Picasso is "painting" instead of "cubism." If you can pin down what it is you like, you will have a much clearer trailhead to start your search at!
The best way to do this is look up the band [in our case Radiohead] on www.allmusic.com - for instance, on the left side the Genre is "Pop/Rock" but the "Styles" (aka subgenres) have "Britpop," "Expirimental Rock" and "Indie Electronic" listed among others! Click one of those links. Let's say, "Indie Electronic," since that's really trendy at the moment. Now you go to a whole other page which has Related Styles, Album Highlights, Top Artists, and Top Albums which you can click each for more info! Oh snap, that's like 10 albums and 15 artists to check out right there and that's only one of the 6 sub genres/styles that we've briefly looked at!
To jump away for a second, one way that I keep all my new music organized is that I have a giant-ass playlist in iTunes called "New Music" which serves as an Inbox for every new album I get. I add every new album directly to that list, and then eventually delete it out of that list once I've heard it a couple times and rated it.
Returning to Allmusic, let's jump back to the Radiohead main page. Scroll down a tiny bit, and you have massive lists of "Similar Artists," "Influenced By" and "Followed" as well as "See Also" (a category for side projects or work they have done in collaboration with different bands.) Well shit, that's like another 30 or 40 bands to scout out that are directly related to the band that you like.
Now, how will you tell if you actually will like that music? Delving a bit further, let's click one of those bands. You don't have a million years to listen to every album so read the bio quickly. In my case I clicked "The Flaming Lips" - their bio was a rambling mess. I could care less at the moment, so instead click "Discography" - amazingly, I've found Allmusic's assorted paid reviewers to be fairly straight ahead in their ratings and reviews. That is, while they probably don't agree with hardcore fans, they don't have much bias, so they recommend (a check mark represents a "pick") they are very stingy with 4 and 5 star reviews, so in this case, two albums are flagged - "Transmission from Satellite Heart" and "The Soft Bulletin". Additionally they mentioned in the bio that "Toshimi Battles the Pink Robots" was the album that catapulted them to bigger fame. Rad, that's two or three specific albums to check out. You should probably read the reviews, but hey, you don't have to - you could just let your ears do the judging!
I don't know how you check out albums, but illegal download, iTunes, amazon, whatever… just grab and listen and repeat!
Speaking of Amazon, one other amazing trick is to search user lists in their "Listmania" section (http://www.amazon.com/gp/richpub/listmania/byauthor/A17WPVXRSJO6BK). Here is where users put together lists of things they like, and often if you search for a band or even genre/sub genre you can find a number of people who have already gone out and done research to find albums similar to the ones you are looking for! So I did a search for Sonic Youth, but it just turned up a bunch of fan lists of everything Sonic Youth has done. Not useful. So I did another search for a specific album: "Daydream Nation" and voila! 4 lists full of similar sounding/era/genre albums! The same happens if you search "Noise Rock". The goal is to find people/lists who already have and want to share similar artists to the ones you like!
Notice how most of these searches end up relying on your own music? Well Pandora and Last.fm are both sites that are supposed to expose you to new music. They each act different, and neither really work very well. Pandora actively tries to outsmart you, to bait you, to dare you. It's basically doing that Allmusic crawl with a few additional criteria, actually, it's using the Allmusic data! But it also has many behind-the-scenes rules, such as paid record labels and songs (ever wonder why no matter what you pick sometimes you always get the same artist?) It's also trying out new, but often tangential genres and styles. It's like, well, this one artist you like uses hip hop beats, so for the next 45 minutes I'm going to play gangsta rap to see if you like or dislike it. Because it is actively trying to push around the edges of what it knows, you have to constantly be up and down voting. (And like a bonsai, one mistake and your station goes to hell - you like one Wilco song and your station turns into the Grand Ol' Oprea for the next week. Just note, if you go in to the preferences for each station, you can remove artists and songs you liked or added.)
Last.fm has the exact opposite problem for the most part. Because it uses literal connections and fan suggestions, it ONLY plays bands and songs almost exactly like the artist you entered. At least for me, when I'm hunting for new music, the last thing I need to hear is 25 bands doing what are basically covers of a song I like. Last.fm has much more underground music, but also more user-submitted crap. It's great to learn the rudiments of a genre though. For instance, I was digging on jazz musician Eric Dolphey super hard, so I ran a Last.fm on his name and damn, I found like 25 classic jazz players in a couple hours I wanted to check out more.
Both Pandora and Last.fm also suffer from quick depletion - that is, they only have so many artists, so many songs. Especially if you're knowledgeable about music going in, you'll find that you'll get some good stuff for the first couple of weeks, but then very quickly you'll find less and less good new stuff being tossed your way.
Where to then? Well, you go even further underground - the blogging community! Music blogging is easily one of the most active blogging scenes online. But also the most inscrutable. You can't just go to any random music blog and expect to enjoy what you find — hell, you'll probably end up with 55 trance mix albums and a couple of bad metalcore albums. Yet, the same principles apply as our searching in Allmusic and Amazon. If you run a search for an album you like and want to find more music similar too and "blogger" or "blogspot" or or "wordpress" or "review" you'll be looking at a number of reviews of albums you like. (Note: you can search using "blog" but that is fairly general and tends to turn up less useful links). For instance, I did a search for the massively cool post-rock band And So I Watch You From Afar + "blogspot" and on the first page got a review of their new album and a discography. http://www.thesirenssound.com/2009/02/14/and-so-i-watch-you-from-afar/
Now here's the trick - you want to find a blogger not who you agree with necessarily, but who you understand their review code. One blogger's "heavy as hell" is another blogger's "cheesy power metal" — one reviewer might only like retro-disco, and another might really hate indie-pop. It will take time, but poke around and try to find active blogs that post up reviews or download links that you'll have a good chance of liking! You don't need to like everything, you just need to have some clue if it's even worth your time! It might take a while, but poke around for a bit. You only need to add 4 or 5 solid music/album blogs to your reader to start finding new music without much work. Log in once or twice a week, skim the 10 or 15 reviews, grab what sounds interesting. If you find a great blog, make sure to go through it's archives too!
Make sure you scope out the right (or left) columns that have their tags, and also a list of affiliated or recommended bloggers! (Often called "Blogroll").
Even wikipedia can be a great link-hopping exercise. I actually found out a lot of the American black metal scene there (great bands like Xasthur and Leviathan, as well as the classic album "Dead as Dreams" by Weakling were all wiki-finds). I also use The Metal Archives to find reviews on bands in the metal genre.
To get you started, here's a couple of my favorite music blogs!
Noizine - http://noiz.wordpress.com - Lots of crazy genre-crossing underground music. From ambient to pure noise to doom this blog is always posting gems that end up as fovorites, even if the music can be a bit challenging.
Utvaer - http://utvaer.blogspot.com - An art & experimental music blog. Very intellectual and abstract. I can't say I always like what they post, but it's always interesting!
Cosmic Hearse - http://cosmichearse.blogspot.com - Head trip rock, heavy metal, occasional hard bop or blues albums, this blog is always fun to follow.
Don't Count on It Reviews - http://dontcountonitreviews.blogspot.com/ - Mostly a metal blog with occasional deviations, this very active review site has some prog metal leanings, but also a really legible review system. Unlike Pitchfork, who's reviewers seem to strive to rave about music that would make their 35-year-old unemployed asses seem attractive to 20-year-old emo girls, these guys seem to like music. I don't agree with their reviews, but I find a couple good albums every time I poke around over here. Also great interviews.
Free Jazz - http://freejazz-stef.blogspot.com - This is THE free jazz and improvised music site on the internet. I get more amazing music from this site than almost any other. A 5-star review is rare and meaningful. Even 4-stars is likely to be a gem. Very knowledgable review staff who finds incredible rare contemporary albums and artists.
Free The Music - http://freethemusic-olatunji.blogspot.com/ - Weird, arty, pretentious, groovy music.
Inconsistant Sol - http://inconstantsol.blogspot.com - Lots of incredibly rare jazz, funk and improvised music. I usually find this place and the next blog have the only reviews and postings of obscure albums that can fetch hundreds of dollars on eBay or Japanese record stores on the rare times they come into public sale.
Orgy in Rhythm - http://orgyinrhythm.blogspot.com - tons of obscure and brillant avant and free jazz releases. So great solid bop and cool jazz too.
Requiem of Madness - http://requiem-of-madness.blogspot.com - solid metal blog.
Soundweave - http://soundweave.blogspot.com - a great mixed site with metal, funk, electronic and vintage music. Really worth it to go back through their archives!