The Reality of How Generation Z Discovers New Music

In a world of algorithms, angry old music fans and no more HMV, what exactly draws the next generation to their new, favourite artists?

by Ryan Bassil; illustrated by Esme Blegvad
Jan 7 2019, 5:53pm

Lead image by Esme Blegvad

Discovering music used to be simple, like picking up apples from the grocery store. You’d head to HMV or Tower Records or whatever big conglomerate stood tall upon your town and then grab the newest record from the chart section. Or perhaps you’d dive deeper, scouring the alternative racks or booky vinyl store in search of a suggestion from a sibling, or one of those freaks on the back of the bus. Maybe, once-in-a-while, you'd opt for something rogue because the cover art looked good.

If, like me, you were born in the early 90s or before, it’s likely you’ve found countless albums this way: from kooky Blitz kids like Rexy, through to the most infantilised of pop-punk, then back around again to the legends – Madonna, Prince, Bowie, Whitney. Or maybe you listened to the radio: from jungle and D&B on illegal pirate stations UK to Radio 1 in Britain, or – if you were based in the States – whatever localised rap or college station played within reach of your area, blasting everything from R.E.M and Pavement to Big L and Lord Finesse.

Gen Z – the age bracket that falls after millennials and involves anyone born after 1996 – are different. For you, everything is within reach: from touchable McDonalds screens, to Uber, to photographic filters that can morph any face into an alien. And most of all, you've got so much music behind the click of a button. Much has been said of this development of course. There are purists decrying the death of pure music (whatever that means), bands trying to figure out how to write a song with some kind of longevity. Plus, HMV recently went into administration for the second time running, putting mainstream CD sales solely in the hands of supermarkets.

But whatever. Like any generation that’s come before this one, the kids will figure it out themselves. For a start, those of you who the media would brand as Gen Zers already have your own heroes. People like Ariana Grande, Brockhampton, The 1975, Hayley Kiyoko – acts that embody your generation’s open and inclusiveness (Brockhampton in particular have members of every orientation and race) plus their ideals (every lyric on “Love It If We Made It”, tbh). And yet – and yet! – there’s a thought process out there that Generation Z somehow don’t care about music as much, that you find it disposable. Quite simply this isn’t true, even if you may have swapped CDs for buying streaming accounts.

To find out more, I spoke to some teens and young adults to find out what music means to them, how they discover it, and what qualities are essential when looking for a new artist in the sea of new music.

Dan Guthrie, 18

Noisey: Hi! How do you discover music?
Dan: I use Twitter and social media to find new music the most, because I’m not a huge fan of the curated stuff on Apple Music.

How come you prefer social media over the playlists? I’ve found them quite useful but I suppose you’re getting fed stuff by an algorithm…
I have quite a specific music taste, so there are some indie bands that I like, but it will suggest similar stuff that’s just not my thing. Whereas on Twitter you see what other artists like and post about and support; like if my favourite person likes something then I should at least give it a go. It feels a little more natural than, like, ‘we’ve picked this song’ for your genre and whatever else that we think might be relevant. I think there’s more of a human element to social media too.

Definitely. There’s a sense your generation are more political, especially when it comes to avoiding anything provocative. What do you look for in an artist?
Being political is really important or at least having something to say. At the end of the day music is an art form, and the best art and the best artists convey something through their music. Take To Pimp A Butterfly, which is my favourite album of all time, or Blonde, which reframes a lot of traditional pop narratives in its own way. I can’t not mention Dev Hynes either. Cupid Deluxe is one of my favourite albums and so much of him comes through that record – his experiences and stuff, and it’s incredibly personal. You get a real feeling for artists like that, and I think that’s important.

Naomi Gillies, 22

Noisey: Hey Naomi! How do you go about discovering music?
Naomi: It’s a mixture really. I listen to the radio a lot, as well as Spotify. I guess they’re my main two.

I’m surprised you’re listening to the radio, it feels almost outdated now – at least in terms of offline stuff.
I’ve listened to the radio since I was like ten or 11 years old so every morning I wake up and the first thing I do is turn it on. And I listen to it on my phone as well, so when I’m in the house it’ll always be on.

Is that Radio 1 or do you go into more alternative stuff such as NTS or even Beats 1?
I don’t tend to listen to Beats 1 so much, just because it’s such a habit for me to turn on the radio. So I just tend to stick to Radio 1 and listen to the later night shows when I’m in.

What’s the last big discovery you’ve made through radio?
I’d say Sam Fender. I’ve heard everybody raving around him. He’s a good example because I found him on streaming services, and then I heard him on the radio because he’s been record of the week and Annie Mac’s hottest record in the world, and then a bunch of my friends and people I know were raving about him.

What draws you to him?
He did a really good interview about mental health. Like, he’s a bit of a like a social activist with his music and I really like what he stands for.

Is the fact he’s speaking on those issues as or more important to you than the music?
That’s definitely something that makes him like stand out to me. It gives him more credibility as an artist. Like I wouldn’t necessarily discount someone just because they’re not speaking about, like, politically charged things. But it’s definitely something I can connect with and gives him a stronger backing so it stands out to me.

Have you ever found anyone through Snapchat or Instagram?
I’ve done that once! And it was when Dua Lipa was just on the radar and before she went massive. You could Shazam her songs, and she came up on the discover section. I really rarely use Instagram and snapchat for that sort of stuff though. I tend to almost use those apps as a way to follow the artists I've already found unless someone has posted a picture or a video and tagged them in it.

Tia Ferguson, 22

Noisey: You said you find your music through Spotify – is that through the playlist features?
Tia: I wouldn’t say it's through the ‘Discover Weekly’ playlist. You know if you click on an artist it pops up with like other similar artists, sometimes i'll just click on them and see. Then I’ll stream stuff on YouTube and follow whatever suggestions pop up on my home page.

What’ve you discovered?
That COLORS YouTube channel is great. I like Tiny Desk too.

How much does live music play into your discovery?
It’s mainly just online, really. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to a show for someone that I didn’t already know even if I only knew one song.

Sul Fell, 20

Noisey: So, Sul, how do you discover music?
Sul: It tends to be streaming services – Youtube and artist radio on Soundcloud or Spotify. Or recommendations. Like, I got into Odd Future because my friends were into them, then got into Brockhampton because someone posted an article about them in the Odd Future Facebook, and then I listened to them, and then through them I started listening to 88Rising.

It’s a trickle feed effect then, almost, as you go from one new act to the next.
Yeah. And it’s the best time to be an independent artist now because you can put your stuff online and everyone can stream you on Spotify.

When did you last physically buy music?
I don’t have a vinyl player, so – and this is quite weird because no one is buying CDs – but I got into the habit of buying them in school, and it’s stuck with me. The last CD I bought was Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy because at the time I had a beaten up laptop that could still play CDs. But since then I’ve been mostly streaming.

You can find Ryan on Twitter and Esme on Instagram.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.