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.)

But hidden down at the bottom of the Hype homepage is another feature, the randomizer, that flips the idea of targeted search on its head. Where it says "You may also like this," clicking on the word "this" will cause the site to spotlight, at random, one of the thousands and thousands of tracks it's lately registered. And for pop fans, this is one of the most exciting things I can think of.

In theory, there are no restrictions to the kind of music you might find on the Hype Machine. In practice, it draws mostly on blogs written by pop-conscious young people, and so the selection skews toward certain genres at the expense of others. You'll find a lot of rap, indie rock, and electronic music on Hype, and not a great deal of, say, chamber jazz. And the blog world favors the bleeding edge of what's current, so you have better odds of hearing something middling and extremely recent than something vintage and great.

Still, it's worth noting that there are no technical barriers to inclusion on the Hype Machine. Anything that exists as a recorded sound might, hypothetically, find its way onto the site. It's possible that someone could take a wax cylinder recorded in Edison's Menlo Park laboratory, play it into a computer with a sensitive microphone, record it as an mp3 file, and, if they like it well enough, put it on their blog to be indexed by Hype. It's not likely, but as I say, it is possible.

What is likely is that if you use the randomizer, you'll hear a lot of startlingly excellent pop that you might never have come across otherwise. I don't think I would have heard "Black Rice" if not for the Hype Machine randomizer, or "Makkuro Kurosuke," or "Lady of the Snowline," or the Lunice remix of "Hypebeast." But now these are songs I couldn't imagine not knowing.

These songs don't have a lot in common, by the way; pretty much the only trait they all share is that someone, somewhere, cared enough about them to put them on a blog. That's the factor that unites nearly every track found on the Hype Machine. It's a place for enthusiasts.

There are thousands of bloggers on Hype, and their interests and biographies and values and beliefs may have nothing at all to do with yours. But one of the things you can say with confidence about them is that they all love music.

So my vote goes to the Hype Machine randomizer, if you're a music fan trying to get out of your own way. Short of printing out the Allmusic database and throwing darts at it, I can't really think of a better way to go about exploring new fiefdoms of pop. You should still talk to friends and read your critics and do everything else you'd normally do—after all, using the Hype Machine puts you in a room too. But in this case, it's a room where the walls and ceiling are so far away that sometimes it's possible to believe you're outside.