How to Beat the Music Streaming Algorithm

This is an edition of the newsletter Pulling Weeds With Chris Black, in which the columnist weighs in on hot topics in culture. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.

My business partner James and I publish a daily newsletter called Public Announcement. Every Friday, I am in charge of providing links to all the relevant new music that has been released. At some point, we added a category for “Old Music,” and I began searching for live performances and obscure albums on YouTube. Until then, I never spent much time exploring the platform, which I thought was mostly for spreading conspiracy theories, watching podcasts (which is odd), and guides on how to change a showerhead. I was wrong!

Rihanna recently played a private gig in India for Anant Ambani, the son of Mukesh Ambani, known as Asia’s richest man. A video I saw recapping the performance reminded me of the song “Stay” from her 2012 album Unapologetic. After hearing a few bars of the song on Twitter, I opened my browser and hit YouTube, where I found her doing a fantastic version on Saturday Night Live and another at the 2013 Grammy Awards ceremony. The album version is great, but these live versions show more nuance and emotion. The song really comes to life.

Some of my peers in the 35-plus age group collect vinyl or, worse, tapes. YouTube, Gen Z’s most-used (and most trusted) platform, is a place where nerds can share their passions. And unlike record stores and Spotify, it’s a place for unofficial and unsanctioned recordings: concert and TV performances, of course, but also a thriving underground of rap snippets and mixtape singles that have helped launch (and maintain) the careers of underground artists and stars like NBA YoungBoy and Playboi Carti. As Nick Sylvester recently wrote in his newsletter smartdumb, “It doesn’t surprise me at all that Playboi Carti wants us to hear his new music in … rickety, semi-legal contexts first—divorced from the forced contexts of lifestyle playlists, algorithmic listening, and the downright corniness of big box tech.” Who knew Carti and I had so much in common.

In high school, hardcore was my life, and my friends from Tallahassee, Florida, had a band called I Have Dreams that played several shows but released only one five-song EP, Three Days ‘Til Christmas, on CDR. Years ago, I came across it while trolling YouTube, pressed play, and was transported to 1999, when I would drive my Honda Civic into the city, eat bad vegan food, wear chokers, and take in the body odor that permeated every hardcore show.

One of my favorite live versions I have discovered in my scrolling is the inimitable Amy Winehouse doing “Valerie” with Mark Ronson and a full orchestra at the Brit Awards 2008. Ronson, Beatles haircut in full effect, is playing an insane Gibson SG double neck. Winehouse, beehive piled high, almost trips coming onstage, but she nails the song. The main reason, though, why I watch this video instead of simply listening to the song, is to see how Ronson looks at her. He is in awe, just like the audience—and just like me, today.

If I’m being honest, most of my saved videos are from the 1990s. Wilco performing “California Stars” live at Farm Aid in 1999. Sunny Day Real Estate doing “In Circles” on an unmarked television soundstage. Primal Scream bringing “Rocks” to Top of the Pops in 1994. I save them all to a playlist, which is like a rewind through my life: hardcore and punk from my teens, alternative country from my early 20s, and classic indie rock from my early 30s. Every rabbit hole I go down gets cataloged and rewatched. I like to call this “music rediscovery”: finding an obscure or a live version that is better than the original from the studio—a song that isn’t surfaced by the algorithm, but instead my own tastes and interests. It’s definitely more fun than Spotify.

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