Tastemakers or influencers in music have always been critical to the business. These are people who introduce audiences to new artistes and music and pick those, that in their opinion, are the artistes and music styles of the future. They create fan bases for music and musicians and therefore have a certain responsibility and burden to bear, if you will.
How is taste making done? Probably the most familiar concept of taste making comes from Top 10 Hits. In its most popular form, people used to listen to radio to be introduced to new music. Programming of a station’s playlists and the Top 10 countdowns used to be like the Bible! When I was growing up, American DJ (now the term has become RJ) Casey Kasem, the founder of the American Top 40 show was among the most influential tastemakers in the world. We used to have friends or relatives record the American Top 40 and listen to the programme over and over again. Apart from the songs, one looked forward to the information Casey gave us about the artiste and the song – that is an integral part of taste making. He was such a big influencer in musical tastes that in later years he started several music shows.
Then, of course, there were the charts, mainly from the UK and the Billboard Hot 100, which reflected popularity in terms of sales. Each song on the singles charts influenced us into believing that we needed to buy the entire album from which that song came! And so you’ll find that people who grew up in the 60s, 70s and 80s especially are well versed with albums even by the so called ‘one hit wonders’. Acts like Nu Shooz, Expose, Thompson Twins, Cutting Crew and many more come readily to mind! Music is a beautiful thing. If you like an artiste, a song or an album you will naturally look for other tracks and albums by the same artiste. The sales charts may not have had any real tastemakers, but it showed us what the audiences were lapping up and consequently we lapped it up too!
In India in the 1990s, the advent of Channel V and MTV, saw them quickly became tastemakers for international and non film Indian music. They even had playlists curated by a team and these playlist helped record labels in promoting and selling albums. All the two channels did was play the music videos that were previously unheard. Personally, I remember watching the video of a song called To The Moon And Back on Channel (V) and calling Mandar Thakur excitedly at midnight to find out more about this act called Savage Garden!! Pre internet days gave a lot of people sleepless nights! Though we never call the channels tastemakers, they influenced audiences into creating the careers of acts like Baba Sehgal, Shweta Shetty, Daler Mehndi, Lucky Ali, the Colonial Cousins, Shaan and the entire bunch of Indipop stars.
Today, with the digital world having created several streaming and download platforms, there is easy access to unlimited content. However, the problem in the digital business is discovery of artistes and that is why taste making has become more important than ever.
On digital platforms, taste making is now all about compiling playlists. Earlier record labels would compile different songs in different genres like love songs, dance music, rock hits and release cassettes or CDs of these compilations. That is exactly what a playlist is. Back then, we had limitation on the number of songs on the physical product but today you can make playlists of numerous tracks.
While compiling songs is a kick, it’s also a job of great responsibility. The person compiling the list needs to have a certain amount of knowledge about the genre and the songs being compiled. My concern stems from instances of seeing ‘Funk’ playlists of songs from the 70s and 80s being described as ‘electronic music’. And a playlist of Madonna’s love songs including Oh Father and Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. Casey Kasem would have had a thing or two to say about that!”
There are numerous such instances that make me wonder about certain tracks fitting the description of the playlist. I’d love to see some metrics or research about how influential these playlists are. Ideally these lists should increase consumption of a single, the associated artiste and maybe even the album from where the song was picked.
I’m not big on artificial intelligence that is supposedly putting tracks together and creating playlists based on some algorithms. Traditionally, tastemaking has been done by people who get excited about a song or an artiste and convey their excitement to family and friends first and then, if in a position to do so, to a wider audience. In fact, word of mouth is actually the best tastemaker and, especially, if you think that someone’s taste has credibility. That will definitely work. Back to Casey Kasem!
There are now WhatsApp music groups of like minded people. If one of the group says – hey, listen to this song, the chances are most in the group will. That’s effective taste making. I’d love to see more such groups!
Then there are people who write music blogs and articles, which is another great way of influencing people. Hence, the editorial of a magazine is a great influencer. Even today, I happily check out anything recommended by people like Sanjoy Narayan, Narendra Kusnur or Parag Kamani as I’ve always felt that they know their music really well. It is vital that the industry engage with such influencers and make them even more influential so to speak, as there must be a concerted effort to overcome the challenge of new music discovery.