Music Discovery Tips and Hacks: How KGNU DJs Find New Artists

With more new music being released today than ever before, people seeking to expand their music libraries can get overwhelmed. The sheer amount of content available on the Internet is staggering — iTunes alone offers over 43 million songs! (Assuming that each of those songs averages four minutes, it would take 327 years just to listen through iTune's current selection.)  

On the one hand, this means that finding music outside of the Top 40 or mainstream has never been easier. On the other, it means that there is far more shoddy music to sift through.

DJs at the independent Denver/Boulder radio station KGNU are well aware of this challenge, being routinely tasked with introducing listeners to quality song selections outside of the mainstream. What strategies do KGNU DJs use to find the diamonds in the rough? Below, a handful of the station's tastemakers offer their best tips and hacks.

DJ Name: Brian Eyster
Show(s): Morning Sound Alternative (9:30 a.m. to noon, Eyster hosts on Thursdays) and Old Grass Gnu Grass (Saturday, 9 a.m. to noon)
Format(s): worldly indie folk and bluegrass/americana.

Brian's obscure blog tips:

My exploration process tends to be driven by geography and sound.

One fun techy tool is Music Map. I suppose it’s a lot like the discovery engines in Spotify, Apple Music, etc, but the visual display is pretty cool: a big map of similar artists, with distance correlating to how many fans of the central artist tend to listen to the other artists.

A few of my favorite U.K. folk blogs: folkradio.co.uk, brightyoungfolk.com, and forfolkssake.com. All of these are really broad in their coverage — with a nice mix of instrumental, song-driven (from rock to singer-songwriters), and more experimental/modern takes on folk music.

I’m a huge fan of Dave Sumner’s very open-minded jazz blog birdistheworm.com. He has opened me up to the crossover between jazz and folk and the rich improvisation scenes around Europe and smaller American cities. I also try to keep an eye on the U.K. jazz blog thejazzbreakfast.com  for his coverage of lesser-known Nordic and U.K. instrumental music.

Often, I’ll get really into the music of a specific scene (Edinburgh, Reykjavik, Vancouver, Nova Scotia), regardless of genre. So I’ll pore through the music reviews in their local papers and their local blogs. A few recent favorites: Iceland’s Grapevine, Vancouver’s Georgia Straight. Edinburgh and Glasgow have a rich scene of bloggers, many of whom have gone on to start small indie labels (SongByToad, GoldFlakePaint, The Skinny).

The intensely dedicated bluegrass and Americana fans have long frequented a network of excellent forums and listservs for music discovery. But in the last few years, a couple of sites have increased the quality and quantity of their content to reach a larger audience. I’d especially recommend thebluegrasssituation.com (excellent original video sessions and interviews) and the community-sourced nodepression.com (which has gotten even better with last year’s purchase by the FreshGrass folks). 

Brian's scenester tips:

My go-to local scenester is Andy Schneidkraut at Albums on the Hill [in Boulder]. No one knows more about the local (or any) scene. And no one has a more encyclopedic knowledge of the larger musical history and context.

Brian's bluegrass-venue tips:

Specifically looking for up-and-coming bluegrass bands, I keep an eye on the finalists in the various bluegrass band contests both in Colorado (Telluride Bluegrass and RockyGrass) and around the country. And I watch to see what younger bands show up in the early spots on bluegrass festival lineups around the country, as well as a few trusted venues like Club Passim (Boston), The Ark (Michigan), and The Freight and Salvage (Berkeley).

DJ: Dave Blackwood
Show: Afternoon Sound Alternative (noon to 3 p.m. weekdays. Dave hosts the second and fourth Wednesdays each month)
Format: Eclectic and alternative artists

Dave's YouTube tips:

Believe it or not, YouTube is a great resource, since almost all acts put out videos well in advance of a new record coming out. I subscribe to unique record labels' channels (Ninja Tune, Emperor Norton's, cuneiform records, K Records, etc). So if I find a song I like, I will see what the record label is and click "subscribe," and boom — I get new music every time a new record comes out. 

Dave's Facebook tips:

I also use Facebook, subscribing to artists I like. For instance, If Bob Pollard (Guided by Voices) links a song he likes, I go check it out. I subscribe to hip channels like, "The Needle Drop" to check out reviews from people I like. Why trust Rolling Stone's review when I can watch a ten-minute video from a REAL music aficionado like Anthony Fontano?

People on the street:

Lastly, I keep an open ear when I meet people. I might ask a stranger in the car next to me, "What are you listening to?" If I walk into a liquor store and the hep cat at the counter is rocking out, I'll usually ask who we're listening to (if I like it and don't recognize it). 

Farrell Lowe
Farrell Lowe

DJ: Farrell Lowe
Show(s): The Present Edge (10 p.m. to midnight Mondays), Morning Sound Alternative (9:30 a.m. to noon weekdays), Afternoon Sound Alternative (noon to 3 p.m. weekdays) and The Heavy Set (10 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays).
Format(s): Farrell's selections on The Present Edge feature post-modern classical music, on the Morning Sound Alternative include thoughtful acoustic and electric music, on Afternoon Sound Alternative include wide swaths of global music (ranging from Flying Lotus to The Guess Who), and on The Heavy Set focus on modern jazz.

Farrell's tips for the Internet:

Soundcloud and Bandcamp are both great sources for new discoveries….and LOTS of trash…especially in the newer electronic-music areas, so one has to wade through a lot of haystacks to find those silver needles! The challenge of the modern digital surfer is that there is just so much content on the Internet that the signal-to-noise ratio can be daunting

Farrell's take on Denver and Boulder bands:

I feel that nothing surpasses going to live shows off the beaten path. I’ve seen lots of great local bands come and go over the years, and am still surprised at how few people even know of them…let alone listen to them. Jazz greats like Ron Miles, Hugh Ragin, Art Lande, Brad Goode, Mark Harris, Glenn Nitta, Fred Hess, and Kent McLagan all live in our area and rarely get exposure in the media. Bands like Thinking Plague, Hamster Theatre, 3 Mice, the Chance Trio, Ligeia Mare, or Dave Devine’s various bands suffer the same lack of media awareness.

Denver/Boulder has a rich music history, but few seem to pay attention!

The Morning Sound Alternative Logo
The Morning Sound Alternative Logo
KGNU

DJ: Uncle Jeff
Show: The Morning Sound Alternative (Uncle Jeff hosts on Wednesdays, 9:30 a.m. to noon)
Format: Eclectic/Alternative 

Jeff on reaching out to fellow tastemakers:

As a DJ who has been on the air for over fifteen years, keeping up with new music can be daunting. Over the years, I have made great musical friends like Milkman Dan (Zack Shaw) & Conor Walker from the Radio 1190 days, and Doc Martin (Martin Dadisman) & Alisha Sweeny from local CO stations. We use Dropbox and troll Soundcloud, and p2p web-sharing sites to feed our endless curiosity to find new artists and songs. A traditional End of the Year "best of" list has been shared by a dozen of us for many years, and the interaction can be quite feisty at times. When you have friends with good taste, the results can be quite eye-opening.

So "word of mouth" is probably the best source these days. And finding DJs like Scott Foley, who hosts Routes and Branches on Fort Collins KRFC. There are great DJs out there who act as curators of the sounds they love. I still stop the car to find out what a song was that caught my ear. It's as simple as turning the dial!

Have any tips of your own? Share them with other Westword readers in the comments!


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