The Joy of the Hype Machine: Music Ex Machina

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In the age of the iPod, it's harder and harder to get exposed to new, interesting music. In this three-part series, we'll look at websites that showcase artists and songs you don't already know by heart—but you'd probably like. Today, Alex Eichler discusses The Hype Machine.

How do you find music that has nothing at all to do with you?

Assuming your music collection looks anything like mine, this may be a harder question than it seems. For just about every song in my library, I can tell you how it came to be there—where I heard about it or who gave it to me. "That was a Christmas present in 2005," I'd say, or "That's from my friend Kathleen," or "Noel Murray had great things to say about this at The A.V. Club," or "I heard this in a movie trailer two years after everybody else on the planet."

My guess is that most people find new pop the same way I do: you hear about things from friends, you find a few critics you trust, and you keep your ears open.

But each of these approaches puts you in a room of a certain size. Your friends might have great taste, but they can only, in the end, recommend what they like. Noel Murray, one of the sharpest critics around, can only recommend what he likes. Pandora, the Web radio service that suggests songs and artists based on your input, is a neat bit of technical wizardry, but it'll only steer you toward things that are already at least somewhat familiar.

And no matter what you do, you, the listener, are still at the center of all this: your friends, your trusted critics. How do you step outside yourself?

Tomorrow: Joe Fassler on Daytrotter
Friday: Sam Machkovech on BitTorrent sites

There's the radio, where, it should be said, I've continued to discover exciting songs well into my iPod-owning years. But most corporate stations have fairly predictable playlists that they don't stray from, and indie radio is a crapshoot—and not one that I've ever found immensely rewarding. (Maybe I'm listening to the wrong stations.) Anyway, radio DJs only represent a tiny fraction of the world's music lovers. They're the tip, but what if you want to hear from the rest of the iceberg?

One method I'd suggest is a search engine called the Hype Machine, which indexes hundreds of handpicked music blogs and takes notice every time one of them posts an mp3. You may already be familiar with the Hype Machine, which has been around since 2005. CNN and Wired have both covered it, and Nick Hornby sang its praises in The Guardian last year.

If you've never visited the Hype Machine, here's how it works: Say you want to hear something by Norah Jones. You'd search for her name, and if any of the Hype Machine's several hundred blogs has posted a song by Jones within the last few years, it'll come up and you'll be able to listen. If you just want to hear her winsome song "Sunrise," search for that instead; you'll get the song, as well as any covers, live versions, remixes, or mashups that may be out there (plus any other song that happens to have the word "sunrise" in the title).

As a search engine, the Hype Machine can't always give you what you're looking for. The biggest limitation is that you're at the mercy of the world's bloggers—if you're trying to find an artist or a song that no blogger has written about, you're out of luck. (Every few months I'll check and see if the Hype Machine can give me anything on Matthew Jay, an English songwriter with a lovely, lilting voice who fell to his death from an apartment building in 2003. Thus far, I've always come up empty.)

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Alex Eichler is a reporter at The Huffington Post and a former staff writer at The Atlantic Wire.

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