October 26, 2012

Discover New Artists

I recently read a interesting article on the Rap Genius website that reviewed several online tools you can use to discover new artists who could be suited to your musical tastes.  Now I was going to just point you to the Rap Genius article and recommend that you check it out, but I wasn't really feeling the examples they gave and I didn't think you would either, so I've decided to do my own review here.

The tools on both websites serve the same purpose.  You tell them an artist you like, and they'll tell you a number of similar artists that they think you should explore based on your input.  However, the mechanisms used to generate the suggestions differ greatly, and therefore the results you get from each site vary quite a lot too. 


First of all, let’s explore TuneGlue. This is the better presented of the two websites and is based upon data provided by Last.FM and Amazon. I’m guessing that Amazon’s input is much the same as the recommendations they make on their website based on purchases that other customers have made previously.

Let me show you an example so that you can keep up with my ramblings. I decided to use A Tribe Called Quest as my favourite group, not because they are, but I think it’s fair to say that they are universally recognised and most people will know all of the main members by name. 

Click on any of the images for a larger version. 

So here you can see that when I clicked on my choice (in the centre) and chose to ‘expand’ it, 6 nodes were added, each one representing an artist with similarities to ATCQ. And we can all follow the logic here, if you like the ATCQ, then you’re probably going to like one, or more, of the suggestions being made. So I can see the influence of the input data taking shape. I’m not teaching you to suck eggs here, but please bear with me because the logic that’s apparent here will become more relevant when I move on to review the other site.

Using the ‘expand’ principle demonstrated above, you can build node upon node and uncover a wealth of additional artists. In the next screen shot I’ve done this on several nodes and then used the ‘lock position’ function to enable me to move them all around and see the connections. If you don’t lock some of them down, it can all get a bit messy!

There are a couple of other useful functions too. As you can see in the first image, there is an option entitled ‘releases’ that allows you to see all of that artists releases on Amazon. And the ‘Delete’ option allows you to remove any artists you aren’t interested in and keep your music map that little bit cleaner.

But what are the limitations? Well, the links to Amazon only work if the artist actually has music listed on Amazon. The more underground the artist is that you choose, the more limited this will be.

Equally, this applies to the main search too. If you choose someone who isn’t on Amazon or Last.FM then you will only get an initial node, there won’t be any expansions to it.

However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many little known artists it is aware of, and the accuracy of many of the links. I’ve also enjoyed using the software and have spent some time just playing with it to see what it throws up. As a result of this, I now need to review some of the new artists on YouTube before parting with my cash to validate whether it can be relied upon (in my opinion, of course).


Music Map describes itself as ‘a search engine for music you don’t know about’, which sounds impressive. Like TuneGlue before, you enter a search term, in this case I’ve used ATCQ again, and Music Map will interrogate its database to provide you with a visual map of artists that may be similar to one of your favourites.
It uses a similar method of mapping out the results, but there are notable differences which separate it from TuneGlue and make it a distinctive tool.

Let’s start by looking at the first search result using ATCQ.

As you can see, ATCQ appear in the middle again, but they’re not quite so easy to spot. You’ll also notice that there are no links between the artist’s names and this is because they aren’t linked any way.
What Music Map does, is places the other artists closer or further from your choice depending on how many people have previously said they listen to them. So in this example, lots of ATCQ fans have also been Gang Starr fans, but despite liking ATCQ they clearly weren’t that keen on Q-Tip!
However, before I become too critical, if you look at 90%+ of the names in this example, they are mainly artists I would have suggested to someone who likes ATCQ (Mobb Deep and Jedi Mind Tricks are clear exceptions in this scenario!).

One of the plus sides to Music Map’s method is that if your listening ear extends beyond the realms of hip hop, then Music Map frequently suggests non hip hop artists. Although it should be noted that Amy Winehouse popped up frequently when I tested a range of artists.
Another benefit is that using the radius to show the closeness of the links allows you to prioritise your choices.

However on the downside, once you’ve submitted your search, what you see is what you get. There’s no ability to further expand some of the artists like there is on TuneGlue, you need to search again. I should say that if you click on an artists name it then searches that artist for you, but this takes time and the results often seem distorted.  Remember I said earlier on about understanding the logic, well at times I've struggled with Music Map's logic.  For example, in the image above the closest link to ATCQ is Gang Starr.  But when I clicked on Gang Starr to reverse the search, I found that ATCQ were a long way from Gang Starr!  So Tribe fans like Gang Starr, but Gang Starr fans don’t particularly like Tribe, a little strange.
Obviously the preferences that Gang Starr fans entered will be different to ATCQ fans, but you wouldn't expect there to be such disparity.  I can only assume the database is better populated for some artists than it is for others.
You also don’t get to see multiple links. If you look at the last screenshot of TuneGlue you’ll see that both ATCQ and De La Soul have links to Pete Rock & CL Smooth. So if you liked both of those artists, then you’re even more likely to enjoy Pete Rock than say Eric B & Rakim.

But the biggest disappointment for me with Music Map is the presentation. I feel like I’m using a Commodore 64 again, and after I search it seems to take an eternity for all the names to settle down and stop drifting about. As the database gets bigger, surely this will take longer.
The large box in the bottom left of the window is an intrusion into valuable space, and if you’re going to use the principle of a radius then some kind of faint bulls eye watermark behind the search results is surely essential.

Final Verdict

There are certainly benefits to using either tool, but overall I found myself drawn more to using TuneGlue and, based on my experiences so far, its provided a more insightful experience.
It’s also refreshing to see new ideas and innovations being developed and integrated with existing technology. This can only help us to expand our musical collections at a time when the market is so saturated, that seeking out new music can be an off putting experience.

I hope some of you find these tools useful.

Mike Check.

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