The music industry obsesses over the wrong kind of ‘discovery’.

Credit: Adam Beeson / Alamy
Loudon Wainwright III, perfoming in 1983

MBW Views is a series of exclusive op/eds from eminent music industry people… with something to say.  The following comes from MBW founder Tim Ingham. It first appeared as the leader in the latest issue (Q3 2023) of MBW’s premium quarterly sister publication for and about the UK market, Music Business UK, which is out now.

We hate it, lampoon it, dismiss it, but all of us speak it. Jargon. You can’t avoid it in the music industry – even in your own head. It attaches to your vocabulary like stickyweed.

Right now I have a particular chunk of jargo’ that’s irritating my every molecule – and it’s one I, like you, have been terribly guilty of venerating: Discovery.

That’s right. The religion of streaming-era A&R, and I-told-you-so-craving DSP Editors everywhere. Discovery.

Hark at the following discovery-worship, courtesy of Spotify: “Spotify is more than an audio streaming service. We are in the discovery business.

“Every day, fans from around the world trust our brand to guide them to entertainment that they would never have discovered on their own.”

This creed continues: “If discovery drives customer satisfaction, and customer satisfaction drives engagement, and engagement drives discovery, we believe Spotify wins and so do our users.” 

“Mere ‘discovery’ does not drive ‘customer satisfaction’ in music. What a drearily unambitious concept.”

I’m glad they begin that final section with ‘If’. Because mere discovery does not drive ‘customer satisfaction’ in music, at all. What a drearily unambitious concept.

In music, it’s not the moment of discovery that counts – it’s the moment when an artist sinks their claws into your soul.

My favorite artist of all time, as I’ve dulled lunches with many of you by confirming, is Loudon Wainwright III.

I vaguely recall ‘discovering’ him via a pre-streaming online recommendation engine based on kindred acts – lyrical, caustic, funny folkies (John Prine, Warren Zevon, Richard Thompson, Mr. Zimmerman etc.). This ‘discovery’ process was deeply un-satisfying.

The early-algo threw up Loudon’s one stupid, novelty nearly-hit (Dead Skunk) and a likable but lyrically shallow crowd-pleaser (The Swimming Song); I listened, shrugged, forgot, and moved on.

I give that experience, and whoever provided it, zero credit for the magic that was about to unfurl.

About a year later, I was by the coast, in a public house, for a family member’s birthday. They asked what I was listening to, and I told them: Rufus Wainwright’s Poses (2001), and my favorite song on there – One Man Guy.

“I’m pretty sure that’s Loudon’s song,” they said, casually, oblivious that this utterance would color pretty much every week of my life for the next 20 years. “He wrote it about living alone after splitting with his wife and family. That’s why he has such a difficult relationship with Rufus.”

The oxytocin began to drip at that very moment.

Revealed to me: the flawed writer of an exquisite song that somehow wore its sadness defiantly yet shame-facedly (“Sure, it’s kinda lonely/Yeah, it’s sort of sick/Being your own one and only is a selfish, dirty trick”); the participant in a bloodline so screwy, his son would take a paean to that which shattered his family, and reclaim it as his personal anthem. A defective genius. An artist worthy of love.

One Best Of later, I was down a rabbit hole I’m yet to vacate. There’s your ‘satisfied customer’. 

“Discovering what, exactly? Certainly not who an artist is – or why they’ll make your hemoglobin tingle for the rest of your days.”

Some will argue that the mechanism of discovery in this instance wasn’t my initial exposure – it was the nod by said family member. That this was the real ‘tipping point’ the industry vaunts.

But that’s not how we tend to judge discovery these days, is it? Don’t we blindly assume that the first stream, the first listen, is always, incontrovertibly, ‘the moment of discovery’?

Discovering what, exactly? Certainly not who an artist is – or why they’ll make your hemoglobin tingle for the rest of your days.

Truth is, fans don’t hugely need the music industry to help them discover anything. They need the music industry to nudge and coax and cajole them towards epiphany, when their heart goes boom – and they’re hooked for life.

Some of you, reading this, really do have the power to help people fall hopelessly, endlessly in love.

A ‘Like’ on YouTube cannot compare.Music Business Worldwide

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