Finding Quality Music: It’s Easier Than You Think

I spend eight hours a day in a patrol car, policing the streets of St. Louis. And while I’m answering “911” calls, writing tickets, enforcing the law, or teaching rookie officers how to do the same, I’m often doing something else: exploring music. It’s a great way to reset myself mentally in between calls.

My passion for music is the worst-kept secret amongst my peers. If you want to enjoy a relatively laid-back shift, and listen to some unique music, then ride with Ced, they say. Nearly everyone who rides with me winds up asking some variation of the same question: “Where do you find this stuff, man?”

It’s not hard to find quality music. You just have to know where to look. More importantly, you have to be willing to look. Waiting for traditional sources to spoon feed you something new and truly interesting is an exercise in futility. It never ceases to amaze me how little so-called music fans know about the bands they allegedly support. Like so many other things in life, you get out of music exploration precisely what you put in to it. A band’s career doesn’t start or stop based solely on radio airplay. A true fan must dig deeper.

So please indulge me for a bit while I answer your question of where and how I find the music I love, which most of you have never heard. It’s a tried and true method I’ve been using in one form or another since around 1983.

Step 1: Turn that damned commercial radio OFF. While doing research for my forthcoming book, I was taught a simple, but brutal, lesson by former disc jockey Randy Raley. He explained to me in one sentence why I wasn’t getting any musical satisfaction from FM radio. “Radio is designed for the masses, not the musicologists,” he said. The point hit me like a ton of bricks. This is not the fault of DJs, or even station managers. This is the doing of consultants, whose research and intense study of demographics has produced a world capable of generating advertising revenue, but has all but eliminated the joy and imagination that comes with exploring musical possibilities. If you must listen to the radio, find a college or other form of independent station, which relies on listener donations. There is much more musical excitement to be found there.

Step 2: Stick with your favorite bands, and follow them. This is incredibly easy to do in the internet era. You don’t need commercial radio to follow your favorite artists. Nearly every one of them has a web page loaded with song clips, videos, concert announcements, and CDs/downloads for sale. Many musicians maintain their own social media pages, and update them frequently. More than a few of them interact with their fan base. Some musicians are part of more than one band. The internet makes it easy to keep track of all their musical activity. It’s a great time to be a music fan.

Step 3: Get offline long enough to explore independent record stores. I’ve heard more than one person say there aren’t many record stores left. That’s a half-truth. There aren’t a lot of chain stores out there any more. But there are tons of great record shops, which are being run independently. The difference is simple: the guys and gals working in the independent shops are still deeply passionate about music. Many of them are musicians themselves. They can tell you about the new and exciting local/regional bands worth exploring, many of whom will never get a sniff of commercial radio airplay. Had I not taken the time to wander in to Planet Score Records, I never would have learned about great bands like Dungen or Once and Future Band. I’ll be in Chicago in a couple of days, where my daughter and I plan to visit at least a couple of quality independent shops. It is the ultimate treasure hunt.

Step 4: Hit the clubs. Once upon a time, I got it in my head that a band wasn’t worth going to see if they weren’t playing in a theater, arena, or stadium. Many others I knew thought the same way. This point of view is not only incredibly naive, it is remarkably stupid. Bands playing big rooms most likely have a stable of hits, and they are in town to play those hits, and little else. The BEST music is played in clubs, where the artists are either hungry and busting the butts to bring you their best music, or they are established artists playing music their way to the delight of a dedicated fan base familiar with the depth of their work. That’s what I call a musical win/win. So save the hockey arena gigs for someone really, really worth it (that list is down to one artist for me), and spend a few nights in the 200-seat clubs, where the good music is.

Step 5: Find out who your heroes are listening to or producing, and check those artists out. More than a few of my elder musical idols are not only performing, but producing younger, up-and-coming artists. It seems only logical that any band worthy of my hero’s attention is certainly worthy of my time. Without Vernon Reid, I never learn about an artist like James “Blood” Ulmer. Without Adrian Belew, I probably never explore the genius of Saul Zonana. Even if the elders aren’t doing any producing, many of them are listening, and are fans themselves. Read their interviews, and see where that takes you. I think you’ll be pleased.

Step 6: Read the real music magazines. In time, I will write a feature on this topic, but for now I will simply say this: the best music magazines come from Great Britain. Rolling Stone became useless long ago. Now and then, I might find something interesting in JazzTimes or DownBeat magazines. But for the most part, most of my inspiration comes from British mags like Mojo, Uncut, or Prog. They feature hundreds of new releases every month, many of whom have their music on Bandcamp (see step 8). I can’t begin to tell you how much I look forward to the end of every month, when I know the new magazines are coming.

Step 7: Explore the sidemen. Quality musicians hire quality musicians to play in their bands. Many of those artists have their own bands or solo projects, and they provide just as many musical thrills. Bill Bruford’s bands featured the likes of Allan Holdsworth and Jeff Berlin. Adrian Belew’s band features a remarkable young bassist named Julie Slick. Pick a great musician, and you automatically have at least two others to explore. The possibilities are endless!

Step 8: Explore a quality streaming site like Bandcamp. When I was rooted to a desk, I found the streaming site Pandora incredibly useful, as the entry of a known artist into the site’s search engine led to the discovery of tons of unknown musicians, many of whom made their way into my collection. But once I found out how poorly Pandora, Spotify, and Apple Music paid the musicians they featured, I shied away. (That being said, more and more musicians are using these sites, and fewer and fewer are complaining about the compensation system. So who am I to judge?) I am, however, a firm believer in Bandcamp, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Hundreds of thousands of artists, playing millions of songs from countless genres. It’s musical paradise. And the musicians get paid! I’m not exaggerating when I say I have about 600 albums in my current wish list. At this rate, I’ll never completely catch up, which is fine by me. Without Bandcamp, I never discover We Lost the Sea, one of the most important bands I’ve found In the last couple of years. Get yourself an account, and dig in!

The bottom line is this: the 21st century requires new thinking when it comes to discovering new music. This old dog has learned a few new tricks. I’m sure you can, too.

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