Discovering new music: TheSixtyOne and Mixest review

60 gigabytes, 28 days, 10,000 songs. My iTunes library is daunting, and yet all too often there is nothing that I want to listen to. Where can you turn to discover new music?

Mixest

Mixest is a cleanly designed, beautifully simple, single page music player offering a selection of tracks culled from indie music blogs and curated by Connie Huang. The interface is pared back to the absolute basics: Play/Pause, Skip, Favourite, and the hipster-baiting “More Obscure” are presented as simple text links (all in the lovely and free font Museo Slab 500) and the additional in-site navigation is revealed within the same window to avoid interrupting the music. An obligatory Twitter link allows you to share tracks with your followers, and aside from a track timer and progress bar that’s your lot.

Screenshot of Mixest interface

Create an account and login to track what you’re listening to, although as far as I can tell that will only let you return to previously Favourite’d tracks; there is no suggestion of any algorithm at play here. Not that one is necessarily needed – the selection is interesting and mostly obscure (although some occasional mainstream acts do crop up; I heard Supergrass last week) and judicious use of the “More Obscure” link can ensure you never get bored.

The whole site has a friendly, playful tone of voice (one example from the Q&A: “Are there hotkeys? Yes, see if you can figure them out”) and the overall feel is of a discerning fanzine – perfect if you share the editor’s taste, but if the New American Indie isn’t to your taste you might find it all a bit too repetitive.

TheSixtyOne

“On TheSixtyOne,” the homepage blurb declares, “new artists make music and listeners decide what’s good.”

You certainly cannot argue with the second part of that statement. The developers of the site have been drinking deeply from the social network Kool-Aid, laced with a generous shot of gamification. Account activity, avatars, Friends to follow, Loved tracks, comments, shares, popular tunes and more, all rub shoulders with the latest in game theory: quests, levelling up, and daily rewards foster regular participation, aided by a limited number of ‘hearts’ that you can award each day. Completing quests or reaching higher levels unlocks more hearts, as well as encouraging use of some of the more hidden pieces of site functionality.

Screenshot of TheSixtyOne

The idiosyncractic design of TheSixtyOne has as many critics as fans, and in fact their 2010 redesign drove many of their most active users away. (You can still see the rather tired-looking interface at old.thesixtyone.com.) It’s bold and beautiful, with most of the navigation hidden away in pulldown menus or slide-out blocks. Full-bleed, high resolution photos fill the screen, overlaid with artist information that is variously factual (lyrics, tour dates, and release information) or whimsical, depending presumably on the uploader’s mood. The site’s user messaging is quirky – “speculating,” “dreaming” and “contemplating” are just some of the status messages displayed while waiting for the site to do its thing – and there are some lovely touches like an “adventure meter” on a scale from college professor to Indiana Jones in the “Open Mic” section.

How you consume the enormous catalogue available on TheSixtyOne is up to you. Apart from the default playlist that begins on the homepage, a “popular” menu reveals options including various “moods” ranging from mellow to rocky; and a “for you” selection drawn from your friends’ playlists. Alternatively, explore the “open mic” area for more avant-garde entries, search the site by song or artist, or find recently popular “revives.” Some tracks can even be downloaded directly from the site, at the discretion of the artist, and many are available for free. Of course, hearts and comments don’t pay the bills. The site allows you to purchase credits in blocks of 1,000 for $12.50, which can then be distributed among your chosen artists in the form of a “tip” or used to purchase non-free track or entire album downloads.

The only glaring omission on TheSixtyOne is a user guide. Even an FAQ would be something. The sheer number of ways to interact with the site is intimidating even to an internet veteran like me, and you have to wonder how many potential listeners will be scared away before they discover everything the site has to offer. There is also rather a strange mix of true indie and legitimate international stars like MGMT and Florence + The Machine; one wonders how involved some of the established artists can actually be in what is, after all, just another PR channel.

The John Peel Lectures

As I finished writing this piece, I caught an advert for a timely and related event. The first ever John Peel Lecture will be broadcast on BBC 6 Music this Monday at 7pm. The inaugural event features windmilling guitar-smasher and sometime paedophile-researcher, Pete Townshend, discussing the future of music discovery in the age of the internet. The BBC blurb poses the question:

“…how can the ‘unpolished’ music that John Peel championed find an audience?”

For all that the “real” music cognoscenti love to bemoan the existence of bland pop-factories like X-Factor and Pop Idol, the underground fan-driven music movement has never gone away. Websites like Mixest and TheSixtyOne have replaced bedroom-produced badly photocopied fanzies, and the internet has provided independent artists with a vastly greater potential audience than they ever had in the past. And recent history continues to prove that fans are still a force to be reckoned with; just look at Radiohead’s ground-breaking “pay what you want” release of In Rainbows, ‘selling’ 1.2 million copies by the day of release according to Gigwise; or the record-breaking donations made via the PledgeMusic site towards Wildhearts’ mainman Ginger’s next album.

It seems that in the modern era, exposure – finding an audience – is actually easier than it has ever been. The challenge of “making it,” however, still remains.

Further reading

Here are a few more music discovery sites:

And some fan-funding music projects:

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