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Word of Mouth Still Matters Most in Music’s Algorithm Age

A personal recommendation is still the only one that matters in a world of tastemakers, payola, curated playlists and gatekeepers.
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Anderson .Paak, 2017

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” —Philip Seymour, Almost Famous

I can still vaguely recall how my excitement for J. Cole’s The Warm Up inspired an email to a friend. It was an instinctive reaction, my enthusiasm sunk into my fingers as I typed about this unknown rapper from North Carolina who described himself as a mix of Huey and Riley from The Boondocks. Months prior, before our graduation from high school, the same friend introduced me to B.o.B, this kid from Decatur, Georgia, who had haters everywhere he went.

I trusted his taste, and he trusted mine; we were just two teenagers caught in a cycle of discovery and sharing, sharing and discovery. Music was precious to us—sacred—and we treated each particular song like unearthing a treasure from the ground and only sharing it with those who would cherish the musical gold, silver, and emeralds. He lost his mind when I played him Kendrick Lamar’s “P&P 1.5,” and he repaid the introduction with Childish Gambino’s “Freaks and Geeks.” The art of trading music was part of the fun. 

For most of my upbringing, I experienced music without MySpace and Facebook. Social media didn’t begin to play a role in my life until joining Twitter in 2009. I missed these two cultural moments, but I remember how serious kids my age were about their MySpace playlists―once upon a time, before Spotify, the most essential playlists were on MySpace. These playlists were a slice of character and taste, a curation that was a reflection of the user. Countless rappers and recording artists were discovered just because a friend had added them. Once my generation escaped the dictatorship of radio, the way we consumed music was primarily based upon discovery and sharing―word of mouth, and not just any mouth. It had to be someone you considered a friend whose taste you trusted. Before the bloggers, tastemakers, gatekeepers, and vibe curators, the only opinion that mattered came from your own people.  

When I started blogging five years ago, I made an email for music submissions. I wanted to search and discover the nameless, the unknown, the promising―trying to follow in the footsteps of blogs like 2DopeBoyz, OnSmash, and DJBooth. Pressing play was like walking through a mysterious door, not knowing what awaited on the other side. It made listening to new tunes a rush, the thrill of not knowing if this would be the next JAY-Z or Vanilla Ice. There was a lot of good, a lot of bad, and many were a mixture of both.

I posted a lot of music and promoted that music through Twitter, but my favorites—the ones that left a lasting impact—went beyond the blog and were shared amongst my closest connoisseurs of good music. I wanted my friends to know of them, artists so good that you have to stop and tell someone in your best DJ Khaled impression to “Listen!” Blogging gives you a bigger audience, but it doesn’t have the same sense of attachment as a direct recommendation. All my closest friends received Chuuwee’s “Slow Down,” Levi Watson’s “Sunset Hill Zone” and iLLMont's “Green Slurpee” in 2011 because that’s all I was playing.

For me, the thrill of music submissions died after I realized that the music wasn’t being found, but delivered to me on a silver platter. I liken the experience to walking up and down the aisles at Sam’s Club and eating samples, searching for satisfaction from random “chefs.” They all want you to bite, the pitch is always enticing, but what chef doesn’t believe they have the best food? Imagine sitting down at a dinner table and being sent plate after plate to dine upon. There’s only so much food one can eat before being sick.

The emails kept coming, but my enthusiasm to read became nonexistent. I would much rather sit down and have a friend or colleague send me a meal they enjoyed, one that I can bite into knowing who sent the dinner. For the last few months, all I’ve cared about was the search and discovery, to message my friends more than rappers, to pass the aux to colleagues more than managers, and to trust the ears of people whose taste I respect more than the tastemakers I don’t know. 

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When my friend Erikson texted me about HDBeenDope back in December, I had to listen. It took me a month to finally get around to his mixtape, but the first impression was a good one, and PHeace Be The Journey has been in constant rotation since. I’ve known Erikson for years; we met at DJBooth, so he knows me well enough to send over music perfect for my ears. I didn’t know of Allan Rayman until DJBooth managing editor Brendan brought his music to my attention. It wasn’t for a story; it wasn’t for a post, he was just such a fan he had to pass the Hotel Allan mixtape my way. I don’t always agree with Brendan’s eclectic taste, but Allan was far more impressive than I expected. “Graceland” sold me, and I still can't get enough of Roadhouse 01. I had no clue who Daniel Caesar was before a friend in Toronto shared the gripping “Violet,” a song that sounds like being baptized in an emotionally drenched falsetto. dvsn’s Sept. 5th album went mostly ignored until a friend who had a layover in Atlanta played the album front-to-back during her stay, her praise was the key reason that I decided to give them an honest ear. What has been in my ears as of late is what friends discovered and felt compelled to share. 

EarthGang and J.I.D are from Atlanta, I’ve seen their names on blogs and show flyers for years, but it wasn’t until a passionate suggestion from a close buddy that I listened. After leaving a show, and during the entire ride home, he applauded them with such fervor it was like the excitement of a kid who just discovered the Harry Potter series and had to tell someone about the boy who lived. When I finally pressed play, I found there were no lies in his proclamations. They were everything he said and more. I wouldn’t know about Anderson .Paak without former DJBooth editor Lucas, an early supporter who was around for the Breezy Lovejoy days―now he’s one of my favorite artists. Recently, I found myself tweeting about Jonathan Joseph’s A Dream Deferred album, a project that another good friend recommended. It was about 2 a.m., and I got a surprise text from a colleague who was up and pressed play after seeing my tweets. It was genuine and organic. Passed down from one friend to another, fans of rap who only cared if the music is good.

In a technologically evolving world where algorithms and hundreds of websites are telling us what we should like—in an industry driven by the corporate major label machine who tries to convince us who is indie and who is organic so that we will listen in the name of grassroots—I would rather have someone who truly only cares about music making the recommendation. The unbiased voice, the uncompromised opinion, the genuine ear―someone who says, “I enjoy this.” It’s so easy to get caught up in brands, cosigns, social media numbers, and YouTube views. I don’t look to Kylie Jenner to tell me who is good based on what she’s playing on her Snapchat, or what artist makes YesJulz’s playlist―I respect their influence, but that’s not who I look to for excellent music. I wouldn’t pass them the aux cord, and respectfully, maybe they wouldn’t pass it to me.

I expect people to read this and tell me my job as a “blogger” is to always have an ear out for artists, connected to the pulse of who might be next. But there’s too much music, too many artists, and not enough time in the world for every song and dance. If I listened to everything, I would never leave my computer to live my life, trying to separate the diamonds from the cubic zirconia. I no longer want to find the next JAY-Z; I want to hear a song so good that I have to tell someone about it, to listen to music that makes you feel like you weren’t genuinely breathing before hearing it. The best way to find that song is when someone else who felt that way shares it with you―because nothing beats an enthused music listener.

We aren’t robots even if all signs point to us slowly becoming them. Countless sources are telling us how to feel and what to think. Entertainment becomes like school lunch―someone picking out the menu for you, more mystery meat, and square pizza. I want to preserve personal taste, continue to be passionate about the search, and enthused about my discoveries. I still have my close friends, but I’ve also met strangers on the internet who I swap MP3s with like basketball cards. I don’t need to have known them my entire life to trust their ears. Not every artist makes it to our Twitter feeds; not every song reaches Snapchat, sometimes you keep gems within the inner circle and wait for the world to catch up.

I appreciate how DJBooth is a staple for new artists, a hub where you can discover someone unknown, but even I don’t have the time to play all the songs that we post. That’s why I enjoy so much when I get sent a direct link from someone who is outside of music, their praise has worth to me. People who have nothing to gain and even less to lose are the best critics―they only care about the music and sharing what they love. Deep down, that's all I ever cared about. I shared Sonder with a friend in Seattle; she loved it the minute she pressed play. When my little brother asked about rappers in Atlanta, I sent him J.I.D’s The Never Story. You'll find links to Smino and GoldLink's albums in my text messages right now. It's more than just writing an article; I want to share the music that I love with people who will appreciate it. 

I’ll always tell artists to get the people excited and not the writers because the voice of the people will be the loudest. Word of mouth still matters, even though Spotify's playlists beg to differ. That’s why I only write about music I love. I never want anyone to think my words can be purchased. A genuine and honest perspective is the only one that matters in a world of tastemakers, payola, curated playlists, and gatekeepers who follow the leader instead of chasing waterfalls. Share and discover—it is the foundation of how this generation consumes music.

Music is all we got, so let’s cherish it share it with those who need to be moved.  

By Yoh, aka The Yohsign, aka @Yoh31



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