Fang Talks

Length doesn't matter when you're horizontal!
16 10 14

“Similar to”

You know how some services try to offer you products in a similar vein to the one you’re currently consuming?

We all know why they do it. For the money. That’s basically all corporations are about, getting the dosh printed. But how does this practice affect you, the consumer, on a slightly more personal level? Let me sketch up a few concrete examples first.
Most webshops feature sections at the bottom of item pages that show you similar products, or what products other people who also happened to buy this item bought. Comparably, music services (be it streaming or selling) will usually present you with a list of artists similar to the one you’re currently listening to, or that fit the general theme of your recent listening history.

This whole “check this thing out, you’ll probably like it” thing can roll two ways. I’ll illustrate using the “similar music artists” example, since that’s probably the easiest to grasp. I’ll be referring to a “spectrum” a couple of times. When I say that, just visualize a color spectrum, but replace the colors with genres. Of course, similar ones are close together, while the extremes are on opposite sides.

The first is actually slightly grim and can on some levels be compared to the “bubbling” search engines and social media do when they take your opinions into account and only display things you agree with. By only recommending artists that fall into a certain range of the musical spectrum (that is, the user’s current preference), the user is pretty much stuck with that kind of music, assuming they don’t make an effort to listen to new things themselves.

The second way is a bit brighter, as it results in users slowly but surely expanding the range of music they listen to. By recommending artists that are similar, but not exactly the same, the central position of the user’s musical spectrum changes ever so slightly, leading to the range of recommended artists shifting with it. Because the recommended artists are so similar to what the user is currently listening to, it’ll be a much easier transition than jumping from ambient right into hard rock, for example. Over a longer period of time, this leads to the user broadening their musical taste, or at least being able to say they gave a lot of things a fair shot.

On the flip side of that, what if they get to a point where a chunk of the spectrum doesn’t fall into the user’s “I could listen to this” category? What if those chunks are on both sides? It is very likely something like this happens, and when it does, users will no longer listen to the recommended artists because hey, that’s not the kind of music they like. Broadening of taste stagnates and we’re now in a similar situation to the first scenario we talked about.

So, what can be done to fix this? Recommending similar products is fine because, if done right (keeping it comparable, but not too much so) it can encourage the user to broaden the genres or types of products they’ve experienced in a natural way. However, to prevent this from eventually halting, a “here’s something you probably haven’t though about yet” recommendation may be a good idea. I’m not sure how this would work for products you buy in a webshop, but I can definitely see it being useful for finding new music. An algorithm will take a look at your current musical taste and shift that up or down the spectrum randomly, until it finds a genre different from but not opposite to what it knows you like, and then picks an artist in a genre that is popular with a lot of different people. That last bit is important, because you don’t want to introduce someone to jazz by having them listen to the most abstract free-form stuff out there. That’s be too radically different from what they’re used to, as well as generally appealing to a smaller group of people. Instead, pick what’s popular with a broad range of people, from metal-heads to folk-folks.

Music distribution networks, you can mail job offers and signed checks to my email address.
~ Fang


  • 18/10/2014 (6:52 PM)

    This post just reminds me of how quickly I got sick of Pandora. Here’s what would invariably happen to me, especially since I listen to pretty unique artists that don’t have a lot of competition in the way of similar sound:

    I’d select an artist or song I really like. Pandora would then play a selection of songs that are very similar (which is not a lot, because again, they’re very unique artists), and I’d select whether I liked them or didn’t. After the first day, it’ll then just play the same songs that I liked over and over and over again. It never gives me anything new, and everything sounds the same.

    I’ve tried it with multiple artists/songs, and the results are always the same. In fact, one of the so-called “stations” I created is just the same artist over and over and over again (the original one I picked) because no one else sounds like he does.

    If they changed their algorithm so that it was music that’s slightly similar, but not the exact same thing… well, maybe my results might be different. And maybe I might still use Pandora. Variety, Pandora – I can handle it. I’m a big boy. I promise.

    • 18/10/2014 (8:22 PM)

      Slightly off-topic, but care to tell a few of the artists you listen to?

      • 20/10/2014 (5:54 PM)

        I’m all over the board on this one. Neon Indian, Metz, Bombay Bicycle Club, Port St. Willow, Sigur Ros, The Boxer Rebellion, and Sondre Lerche – all of them I can listen to just about any of their albums on repeat.

        • 20/10/2014 (9:43 PM)

          Dudes! The Boxer Rebellion was on Lowlands this year! We actually stopped by them in between other artists if I recall correctly. It was pretty cool! (Also, thanks for the recommendations. Did a couple of quick searches and some sound up my alley!)

          • 20/10/2014 (11:53 PM)

            Man, it was crazy. I waited years for The Boxer Rebellion to come to Denver and when they finally did there was maybe 40-50 people there tops. I thought it would be sold out. But I got a chance to see them play front and center and even to talk to them after. Told them the same thing. Nate, the lead singer, said that it’s kind of surreal, because sometimes he plays for thousands and sometimes he plays for dozens. It keeps him humble. All very cool guys. Since we’re talking music, any recommendations to throw my way?

          • 21/10/2014 (7:56 PM)

            Since you’re “all over the board”, I won’t bother sticking to a specific genre or style. I’ll just pick some artists and other things I’ve been enjoying recently.
            Something I got into a while ago is electro swing, which mixes that delicious old swing with some sweet beats and, more often than not, some good sampling. Though he’s more of a acid and nu jazz artist, Parov Stelar still falls into electro swing with a bunch of his songs. Really cool stuff.
            Carolina Chocolate Drops is an old-time string band I discovered at Lowlands this year. I’d say they’re better live than on record, but if old-time-y music’s your thing, you’ll love this. Heavily inspired by the songs of the black slaves back in the day.
            I need to recommend the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack. Don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the series (it’s one of the anime classics, set in the (less and less) distant future, check it out if you’re interested) but its soundtrack is great on its own as well. Very jazz-y, but also some cool blues in there. Most all the songs are by Seatbelts, a band formed solely for making the series’ soundtrack.
            First Aid Kit’s a great folk duo, absolutely lovely voices. Daughter’s great for folk too.
            If you aren’t listening to Gorillaz yet you’re missing out. In a somewhat similar (yet more electronic) trip-hop vein, there’s Hermitude, MMOTHS and a personal favorite, XXYYXX.
            Keeping it slightly trippy, Lemon Jelly’s great. If you want to go full third-eye-third-ear mode, Shpongle is great, but I don’t think it’s everyone’s cup of tea.
            The Asteroid Galaxy Tour is one of the few pop bands I listen to. It’s psychedelic pop though, so that’s pretty neat.
            Of course I can’t list all that and not mention some good ol’ indie rock. Check out Balthazar, they’re fucking great, their songs feel really… melancholic? Dan Croll’s good too, and Deep Sea Arcade’s just downright cool. Oh and of course Arctic Monkeys.
            Lastly, if you’re looking for some metal (I’d put it close to the hard rock border), Pentakill recently released their album! Free download over here. It’s really rad. Did you know, they’re a fictional band? Yup, all game characters.
            I’ll… just stop listing things now. Except for Blue Eyed Sun, because for some reason I really like Rocco’s Song. I’d have put more links in there (a lot of artists are on Bandcamp these days, hurray!) but that’s twenty minutes I’m not willing to put in. If you need more cool stuff in a specific genre or whatever, feel free to ask, I’m all over everywhere as far as musical taste goes, too!

          • 22/10/2014 (6:15 PM)

            Very cool list with a lot of winners. Thank you much!

            I dig the electro swing. I do have a soft spot for the oldies.

            I’m a big fan of both Daughter and First Aid Kit, and I’ve loved Gorillaz since I was in high school. I’m just glad to hear they’re back to working on a new album after so much time off.

            Great list for indie rock with a few I hadn’t heard of. You like The Kooks by chance? Personally I prefer them over Arctic Monkeys, though both are great. And having seen The Kooks twice in concert, I have to say they are freaking amazing live. Awesome sound in person, and they just have such a great stage presence.

            The Cowboy Bebop soundtrack is new to me, but I dig what I’m hearing. Anime is one of those things that seems cool, but with so many to choose from and many of them being in the hundreds of episodes, it feels like a huge time vortex that would suck the life out of my writing time.

            Also, I can see why Shpongle is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I really enjoyed the few songs I Youtube’d. Good writing music.

            Musical diversity… it’s a good thing! Thanks again!

          • 22/10/2014 (6:50 PM)

            Great to hear! Never heard of The Kooks, but I like what I’m hearing. (Edit: Hey, one of the songs from Inside In/Inside Out sounds awfully familiar. I’ve heard this before!) Consider them added to my library!

            As a general rule of thumb I like to use for anime, is to not start investing in series that are more than fifty episodes long. More often than not they’re the lengthy, filler-laden ones that have decent entertainment value but generally little depth.
            Cowboy Bebop is a must-see classic (26 episodes). I’d also recommend Death Note (horror-ish thriller, think this is your kind of thing, 37 episodes but well worth it) and Code Geass (two seasons of 25 episodes each, features mechas, rebellion, mind-play and lots of twists (as you may discover watching it, the series is a master of misdirection which helps it mask its flaws)). If you’re looking for something more casual in the slice of life genre, try Kids on the Slope (12 episodes of some kid getting into jazz music, making and losing friends, etc.). Spice and Wolf is a personal favorite of mine, though I haven’t seen it in years now and thus can’t really judge its writing quality. Set in medieval times, focusses on merchanting (two seasons, 25 episodes total).
            I’ll stop the anime recommendations now though, since that should be enough to get you started. If you’re worried about time, just do one episode a day max, two on weekends. Don’t give in to the urge to binge-watch! (When looking for things on your own, be sure to look up reviews on writing quality and all that, it tends to be rather low sadly, but there’s some real gems in there.)

            Back to music though, there’s a few I forgot to mention. Ken Ashcorp makes punk rock songs about video games and cartoons. Pretty great even if you don’t get the references! Tally Hall’s cool too, a rock band with a slightly goofy feel to ’em, fun songs. For electronic, check out Uppermost. Also, for voice-music, Spiralmouth is fantastic. Shame the only thing available of them is the soundtrack they made for Crash Twinsanity. The Boxettes do something similar though, in a beatboxing style. Saw them live at Lowlands 2013, it was wicked cool!

            I’m going on and on again though, so I’ll stop now. Enjoy!

          • 27/10/2014 (8:23 PM)

            I’ve heard of Death Note, actually, and I may check that out first. I do like the horror-ish thrillers.

            Also, some more good ones. Ken Ashcorp is pretty fun, and yes, I do get the references. I dig Uppermost. For electro, I like Overwerk. He’s got a very orchestral approach. Makes for some great songs, and I hate to sound like that “bro, wait for the drop bro” but at around 2 minutes when the full electro kicks in, it is pretty damn cool.


            Ah, music and TV overload! My brain!

          • 27/10/2014 (9:35 PM)

            Man, that was a nice piece of soundtrack-esque music, and then it just kept on intensifying, had me all “this is good, but that wasn’t a drop”. And then it went full electro on me! Great stuff, thanks!

  • 17/10/2014 (1:33 AM)

    If you’ve already given out the knowledge then don’t really expect people to pay you for it. You’re supposed to give out a little.

    Those recommendations can be can be pretty fun at times. Like how a fleshlight has World of Warcraft as a suggested item thanks to similar interests. Oh recommendations, you so funny. Depending on the artists or product recommendations can be pretty good.

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