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Find the right tastemaker and start exploring music again

Studies show people stop exploring music in their 30s. But a trusted tastemaker, be it a playlist or a show, can help

Former US president Barack Obama’s Summer Playlist includes a Beyoncé song.
Former US president Barack Obama’s Summer Playlist includes a Beyoncé song.

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Is 33 the age at which most people stop seeking out new music, choosing to fall back on what they were hooked on in their late teens or 20s? That number, 33, may seem a little too precise but there’s a study to back it. In 2015, research done by Ajay Kalia, now a product director at the leading music streaming platform Spotify, showed that is indeed the age at which people stop listening to new music. Kalia’s research was data-driven, using mainly data from US Spotify listeners.

More recently, in The Guardian, Daniel Dylan Wray, a freelance writer, rued the experience of watching how music has been disappearing from many of his friends’ lives as they grow older and assume responsibilities such as marriage, children, careers, and so on. Wray’s article is headlined “Bring That Beat Back: Why Are People In Their 30s Giving Up On Music?”

While Kalia’s number-crunched research and Wray’s observations may relate to specific markets, the phenomenon of people losing interest in exploring new music may well be a universal one. As someone who has been obsessively seeking out new music for well over three decades, my experience has been similar. Most of my peers (caveat: They are well over 30 now!) gave up on exploring music a long time ago. While raising a family, careers, and less time for leisure could be reasons, it could also be the lack of access.

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Ironically, this is despite the fact that it has become easier than ever to seek out music owing to the ubiquity of the internet and the ease of streaming pretty much whatever you like on platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer. In our teens or 20s, much of the music we discovered was because we hung out in groups, often very close-knit, and received and gave peer recommendations. As we got older, the groups began falling apart. And as our primary sources of new music dried up, we tended to fall back on the bands and genres we were hooked on to earlier. That became our taste and our proclivity regarding music.

Is there a way to revive one’s curiosity in music? My belief is that there is. One way would be to discover tastemakers we can trust.

Let’s start with former US president Barack Obama, who turned 61 in August. Every summer, Obama releases his playlist of songs. This year, Barack Obama’s Summer Playlist is vast, clocking in at over 11 hours. It has songs that straddle several eras—you will find Beyoncé’s Break My Soul from her latest album, Renaissance, and Burna Boy’s Last Last from his new album, Love, Damini, but you will also get to hear Nina Simone, Joe Cocker, Ella Fitzgerald and The Rolling Stones. Obama’s playlist has loads of new music but because it is mixed up with old and familiar tracks, the experience of discovering the new stuff is easier and more welcome.

Often tastemakers don’t only introduce us to new music. As we age, many of us get stuck in genres that we really liked when we were young. Some playlists, such as The New York Times’ The Morning Summer 2022 Playlist, nudge old memories, prompting us to rediscover songs and musicians we are familiar with but no longer listen to. This year’s version took me back to Mike and the Mechanics, the British band formed in 1985 as a side project for Genesis, Journey, the American band formed in 1973, and Dolly Parton, to whom I had not listened in decades.

Then there are the musicians you like, who become tastemakers. In an earlier instalment of this column, I had written about the three veteran rockers whose podcasts and radio programmes are among the best when it comes to discovering new music: Elton John, Iggy Pop and Henry Rollins. All three not only have great taste in music but also a nose to sniff out the best new musicians.

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Then there are excellent radio shows and podcasts that are easily accessible. While streaming platforms such as Apple Music and Spotify have theirs, for me the real gems come from the old school radio channels: America’s KCRW and NPR and the UK’s BBC Radio 6 Music. Iggy Pop’s show is on Radio 6 but there are other nuggets to discover there. Most recently, I found a programme hosted by the English alt-rock band Elbow’s lead singer Guy Garvey. It’s called Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour and captioned “A Laid-back Tapestry Of Lyrics Music and Archive”. Interspersed with Garvey’s knowledge of rock and pop music, the playlist is as eclectic as it can get. On a recent episode, I heard a collaboration between the US experimental band Animal Collective’s Panda Bear and the British singer Peter Kimber, better known as Sonic Boom. But I also heard Fats Waller, Nick Drake and The Clash. Did I say it was eclectic?

So if you are in your 30s (or, like me, way, way past that), rest assured there are still ways to discover new music.

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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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