Thom Cummings

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Yo, I'm Thom. I live in Berlin, work at SoundCloud, nerd out over data, long for my backpack, indulge in random projects and listen to indier bands than you do.



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Posts tagged music


This weeks playlist gets a letter from the Queen as we boldly reach a century of Monday Miscellanies. And so it seems fitting that the slow-building but grand statement that is Queen by Perfume Genius kicks us off and we dive headlong into the miscellanies, ended by the King of the avant-garde himself, Brian Eno and his friend Karl Hyde from their great new record.

I’ve posted a century of playlists on SoundCloud, one every Monday, for almost two years.  Not stepping yet, either….

How do you find music?

Over the last couple of weeks, quite a few people have independently asked me: How do you find music?

The answer, of course, is: everywhere.

It’s not hard these days to find new music.  What is harder is to cut through the noise - this is one of the reasons I started HotSpotMusic and that’s merely a very basic layer of aggregation and filtering, one or two degrees below the surface.  Even more importantly, perhaps, is finding and dedicating time to do so.  Gone are the days when I’d spend hours every night reading music blogs to keep on top of all the new bands doing the rounds but there are a number of sources.  

So, in case you’re after some new sources of inspiration, here’s a few ideas:

Blog Aggregators

Since I don’t have time for all the blogs, aggregators are a great way to zip through some of the things that they are posting.  There’s two levels of aggregation - the first is the blog radio style where I can follow different bloggers or people and see what they post.  The classic example of this is the Hype Machine which is just as strong as it was 5 years ago, the more emergent (but iPad-compatible) and the music jukebox in the sky that is (which also handily picks up posts from your Tumblr and all around the web).

The other is review aggregators that aren’t necessarily following hot tracks but reviews from established outlets and trying to gauge the consensus of the critical elite.  My favourites here are AnyDecentMusic (which has a UK-lean) & Metacritic (which has a US-lean).  AnyDecentMusic, in particular, seems to go to extreme lengths to find new content and help augment its charts.  The charts themselves are usually pretty representative of the current climate and ADM is therefore my go-to place when I feel like I’ve been out of it for a few weeks.

Random Discovery

Okay… this is my favourite mode of music discovery: the random walk.  Or, as it’s known in the modern age, the Wikipedia effect.  Starting with something I know, I’ll endlessly browse through related artists, inspirations, offshoots, label mates and connected genres. Somewhere along the way I always run into something fantastic that I’ve never heard before.  The best place to do this is (still) All Music with its encyclopedic detail of music history and, let’s be fair, taste.  But this works equally well on Spotify’s related artists,’s recommendations or tag browsing or even Amazon. 

The flipside to this is randomised discovery via radio-mode on Spotify, et al (Pandora being a big one that’s not available here in Germany).  I should state for the record that I hate the shuffle function.  So I don’t often use radio mode, but when I do I rarely remember the names of the artists featured.  Shuffle mode is background music, it’s lazy mode and that’s why I don’t recommend it for real music discovery (also the algorithm’s are generally quite ineffective for unearthing new stuff, see 8tracks below).

Email / Newsletters

Most of the services I’ve mentioned here will do their own newsletters (and a particular shout out for the weekly album rundown by ADM & AMG as two of the best) and band/label mailing lists help too (if a little unwieldy to manage).  Rough Trade also do a great weekly roundup (the website claims it’s ‘World Famous’) and their ability to pick new music is impeccable.  The final one I use is a hack that someone put together called soundamus which looks at your history and tells you if there are any new records by those artists.  Another handy reminder.

Podcasts / Radio

Today I listen to a lot more radio than I did a year ago thanks to digital radio through my iPhone.  That means I’m able to enjoy 6music all the time (but particularly pre- and post-sleep and particularly when Gideon Coe is on).  When I’m not listening live, I love a good podcast and some of my favourites here are:

  • NPR’s All Songs Considered
  • WBEZ’s Sound Opinions
  • The Guardian’s Music Weekly
  • Others include The Line Of Best Fit, Indie Feed, Hype Machine Radio

Daytrotter isn’t technically a radio station but they have an immense amount of great sessions (hidden behind a paywall) and there’s always something new and great there.

Social Networks

  • Tumblr has a great network of music lovers who are continually sharing music, new and old alike. I’m always finding new tunes from folk like David, Kirk, Mark & Fred.
  • SoundCloud - I follow hundreds of bands, labels, blogs and friends here who are posting and curating new music 24/7. Discovery happens entirely through this social feed and it’s now at the stage that most of the acts I search for have a profile too.
  • Twitter - Obviously there’s a ton of artists out there on Twitter but the source that remains the most fruitful for me is the little community of Spotify-related users I have been unofficially inducted into through HotSpotMusic’s earlier days.  
  • This Is My Jam - a new-ish site that I’m just getting into (thanks to their new Spotify app), allowing you to post one “jam” at a time.
  • 8tracks is a site that I care a lot for and yet one I don’t spend nearly enough time on.  Human curators making playlists is simply the best way to find music and trumps any machine making automated guesses at what you might like.


So, even though I don’t have that much time to read blogs any more there are still a number that I consistently look at and rely upon.  Below are a couple of my favourites and here’s a link to all of them (and some of the ones mentioned above) in Google Reader.

So there you go, that’s how I do it.  Or at least 50% of it.  

How do you find music?

What I Want…

… is some kind of app that allows me to leaf through all the albums I have ever owned or played in a way that replicates how I used to go through my own CD collection or through racks and racks at a record store.  It would work best as an iPad app but could work anywhere.  You could order by play count, genre, chronological, alphabetical, autobiographical….  It would give me recommendations and charting and insight and would help me to stumble upon all those albums that I’ve sort of forgotten about…

I guess what I’m looking for is a browser for the touchscreen age.

339 plays

I was just looking at the Jeff Buckley back catalogue on Spotify and boy did they do a good job of milking every live show, demo, b-side, overhead conversation from the poor guy.  I still return to Jeff every so often and continue to be blown away by his amazing, intense voice.  Grace is easily one of my all-time favourite albums but this track is one of my favourite of the non-Grace stuff.  It’s just a beautiful song full of white boy soul.

I just bought my first album…. for a long time

have nearly 1,000 CDs in my record collection.  I am a collector of music paraphernalia, shiny things and things I can categorise alphabetically, chronologically and thematically.  If I could draw you a Venn diagram right now I would and it would have a nice big CD-shaped overlap.  Yet, every single one of those precious, shiny discs was purchased before last summer – I haven’t bought a record for well over a year.  And I haven’t shifted my music purchases to downloads either since I believe they are ridiculously over-priced.  Why should it cost the same to download an album as it does to buy the CD (when you cut out transportation, storage, physical materials, distributor margin and all the other costs that go into the production)?

So for the past year I have been making use of other channels – from friends and also, both of which have changed my music consumption habits immeasurably and permanently.  But last week, I broke my musical fast and bought the new record by Fanfarlo, an indie band from Sweden via London.  Why them?  Whilst the album is superb, I made the decision based on a couple of tracks from a blog – I certainly hadn’t been anticipating it like a new Radiohead album (which according to Thom Yorke may now never come).

The reason why I got my credit card out was the differentiated pricing structure they had chosen for distribution.  I was able to get the download only version for just $6 and if I’d wanted to get the CD, vinyl or the special boxset then these would’ve set me back $8, $16.50 and $35.  You can even stream the album on NPR’s website for free for a limited time only.  And I was slow to this band – had I been quicker off the draw I could’ve got the download for just $1.  Whilst it’s certainly not the first occasion pricing tiers like this have been used to market a new album, it’s nice to see it trickle down to a smaller band – one who can’t necessarily afford to open itself up to the risky In Rainbows style ‘pay what you want’ model.

Whilst marginal costs are hitting zero and services like Spotify (who, incidentally, didn’t have the album in question) are trying to prove music services can be ad-supported I still think there’s room for bands to make money from their records.  It’s just that this is a smaller piece of the pie than before.  I would happily pay a nominal amount to get the music downloaded, to try out a new artist and to reward them for their music and according to recent studies I’m not the only one.  The music industry is slowly trying to figure these issues out and it’s good to see independent bands setting the pace (check out a similar effort from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! wordsmith Alec Ounsworth).

For me, the bar was set low enough in this instance that buying the album wasn’t really a decision.  Of course, everyone will have their own price for this indecision and it’s quite likely that for a lot of Gen-Yers who’ve grown up with free & P2P, this price will be zero.  But even if small bands can shift just a few of these people into buying customers then they might be able to take 2 or 3 days off touring a year.

The Toil & Tenenbaum

With the trial of Joel Tenenbaum just started in the US, it seems the right time to lay my cards down on one side of the music piracy table of debate. First of all, let’s be clear: this is not suffering artists pleading for their just rewards. Nay, it is the aimless thrashing and flailing of a dying industry trying to cling onto dollar bills as they slip slowly between the fingers.

The music industry, not the record industry, is thriving today because of, not in spite of, technology. Artists are still out there producing records but most have learned to make money through other channels like gigging, licensing and premium boxsets. The savvy record labels have adapted and become 360-degree agents, concert promoters and management for artists. Most have not. The internet as a platform puts artists directly in touch with their fans and builds that loyal following who will then come to the shows. There is more diversity and more depth than ever before if you look for it.

The record labels themselves have failed to realise (at least publicly) that the game has changed, that the game is no longer about controlled 1-1 distribution but free, in both the liberated and monetary sense, many-to-many flow of media. New tools are making it easier for artists to cut out the middle men and the result for the consumer is a torrent (pun intended) of content, waiting to be selected. Music too will now have to function on a freemium basis as it becomes closer and closer to being a commodity.

The record industry is unhappy because they are being cut out of the equation just like newspapers and countless others. Well, tough luck. That’s just the way it is now. The game has changed. As in any industry, a disruptive technology takes out a dying, greedy, old business that fails to adapt. Trying to solve it with disproportionately large lawsuits that bear no relation to the original misdemeanour will only stem the tide for so long.  Good luck Joel.

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