Get musically smarter

A how-to for finding music you don’t yet know you like
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  February 23, 2006

The biggest hurdle local and independent bands face is getting you, the consumer, to try them just once. After that, if they’re any good, they’ve got ya. Unfortunately, however — though it applies less to loyal readers of the Phoenix — there is a prevailing sentiment in the American marketplace that independent validation is necessary for anything to be worth our time, energy, and money.

We buy products because Consumer Reports says they’re good. We watch the Olympics because we’re told they’re important. All of a sudden, I can’t get into Walk the Line at the Nickelodeon on a Friday night just because it won a couple of Golden Globes.

When it comes to music, most American consumers are largely the hostages of mainstream radio. They hear songs played upwards of 50 times a week, are hooked by the repetition, then go out and buy that latest album by Nickelback despite the fact that it sounds exactly the same as the previous album. Despite the fact that there are more bands than ever releasing music for your enjoyment, fewer of them than ever are being played on commercial radio stations.

Second in influence is the movie industry. As movie “soundtracks” (often containing a collection of songs not heard in the movie) continue to be popular, people often are introduced to new music they positively associate with the movie they like. Pre-Garden State, Iron & Wine was largely unknown. Now, thanks to a cover of a Postal Service song included on that movie’s soundtrack, the sleepy Southern acoustic songwriter is a darling of the semi-educated late-twenties/early-thirties listener.

So, what are you to do? You’d like to think you appreciate music, you know the radio largely sucks, but you don’t really buy much new music because you don’t know where to find it — and when you walk into Bull Moose you’re totally intimidated by the rows upon rows of CDs. Better to just keep spinning that Dave Matthews Band disc you got in college, right?

So wrong.

Hey, “Typical Situation” is great and all, but you’re missing out on contemporary songwriting that’s keeping you from retaining your cultural literacy. And you know what, Gen Y? There’s more to music than Dispatch.

So, as someone whose job it is to keep up with current music trends, here’s a little primer on finding new music you actually like.

It’s already been well documented that the iPod has revolutionized the way we experience music, but I wonder if people realize the full potential of iTunes, its computer interface. The online music store is a wonder, and it has little to do with simply buying and downloading music.

ITUNING IN: Album downloads from iTunes come with videos and digital booklets.Many, many independent and non-mainstream artists have their music in the store and you can sample 30 seconds of every song before making a buy. How do you find them in the first place? Browse by genre. A surface look at the alternative category gets you Scot-poppers Belle & Sebastian, Elefant (who played the Port Hole, of all places, not that long ago), Delta 5, the Subways, Cat Power (who famously cried at the Skinny), and Arctic Monkeys, all listenable, accessible alt- and pop-rock that many open-minded music fans will appreciate, but would rarely appear on any radio station. Plus, you get the 100 top songs in that genre and the 100 top albums purchased by other alternative fans. How’s that for validation? Number 89 when I checked was Mazzy Star’s “Fade into You,” which is borderline narcotic (a good thing, by my book).

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To get a sense of the importance of Portland’s music scene on a national level, the Phoenix staff called music editors at other alt-weeklies around the country, as well as staff at national media outlets relating to music. Here’s a selection of what we found:

Burlington, Vermont: “I love Cerberus Shoal” were the first words out of the mouth of Casey Rea, music editor at Seven Days, who grew up in Skowhegan. He also just sent a Sly-Chi disc to a freelancer for review. He had heard of Paranoid Social Club, but not 6gig or Andy Happel. King Memphis rang a bell.

New York City: “Portland, Maine has one of the most vibrant music scenes I think I’ve heard of," says Liz Koch of Notorious Radio. "OK, a lot of towns do, but there’s something special about Portland. Maybe it’s the weather so the musicianship is so damn tight. Maybe it’s that they’re not afraid to use instruments other than guitars & drums. Maybe it’s that there’s SO many varieties, yet the kids go apey. Hell, maybe it’s the apey kids. I know when Paranoid or As Fast As play in NYC, you’ll find tons of Portland kids in the audience. Hell, even when they played in Lincoln, Nebraska at a found Portland kids STOKED to see their bands. I’d guess it’s all of these things.”

Athens, Georgia: “I don’t know any off the top of my head," says Chris Hassiotis, music editor of Flagpole. "If there’s quality I’d love to hear it, so I’ll maybe check out some of those bands online.”

New York City: “I really know nothing,” says Chuck Eddy, senior editor for music at the Village Voice. He did know that Cookie Cutter Girl was playing a gig there in a couple weeks, and had just written a brief preview of her show.

Des Moines, Iowa: “To be honest, no,” was the answer from Michael Swanger, the music writer at Cityview, when asked if he knew anything about the Portland music scene or any bands from here.

San Francisco: "I don't know anything" about Maine music or musicians, says Kimberly Chun, senior editor for arts and entertainment at the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

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