We still say that music bouncing around the ether is floating on the airwaves. That quaint term needs to be retired immediately. What we have today is a veritable tsunami of sound. The world of satellite and internet radio, along with streaming music sites, has opened the floodgates to a range of sounds unlike anything we’ve heard before. That includes terrestrial stations broadcasting from around the world that are now just a click away. A website called Radio Garden features a map of the globe with more than 10,000 dots, each representing a “local” broadcast. Listening to the top 40 in Ghana is as easy as pointing and clicking.
Even the streaming services and satellite stations, which began popping up over a decade ago, are going way beyond playing hits and tired genre mixes. Pandora has 13 channels devoted to different offshoots of the blues, and SiriusXM’s Yacht Rock Radio sails the mellow seas of soft rock with the likes of Christopher Cross and Boz Scaggs. You can dive so deeply into the catalogs of certain artists that you may never come out. Every “Dick’s Picks” complete concert in the ongoing Grateful Dead series is available through Spotify, and if that’s not completist enough, the Relisten app can stream a live recording of any concert the band ever played.
To navigate this thrilling but overwhelming universe, you need a guide. That could be as simple as an algorithm or a computer program designed to interpret your tastes. But guides also come in human form, a new breed of tastemakers who are curating the experience for us free from the pressures of ratings and advertising.
It’s a gargantuan task. According to Bruno Guez, who runs the digital rights and royalties company Revelator, roughly 120 million songs are now floating around the internet, up from a mere 20 million a decade ago. “We’ve never had this level of access before,” he says. The scenario is both exciting and maddening — and will be more so when we probably hit 200 million in another decade. “There will be a lot more crap we’ll have to cycle through,” Guez says. “That’s the downside. It becomes difficult and more challenging to figure out what to listen to.”
Help is on the way: In a studio in New York’s Chelsea district, Ebro Darden has the traditional radio DJ vibe down. His headphones tucked beneath a wool cap, he punches up hip-hop and R&B cuts and occasionally sways to the beat. But the ties to normal radio end there. Taping a show for Apple Music’s Beats 1 station, Darden taps into the mood of the moment by cranking up two timely but hardly mainstream tracks: Diana Gordon’s “Woman,” a rousing 2016 song that was rediscovered after the Women’s March on Washington; and Dominican singer Jarina de Marco’s “Release the Hounds,” inspired by the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
When Darden speaks on air, which is rarely, he mostly introduces songs and gives shout-outs to his listeners — who span the globe from New Mexico and Virginia to Australia and Trinidad. Darden sizes up the differences between his job co-hosting a morning show on New York’s Hot 97 and his Beats 1 gig this way: “There are no commercials,” he says of Beats 1, which is available to anyone around the world with an iTunes account. “I’m not doing phone pranks or taking listeners’ calls. I’m deciding how a music flow should go.”
The rise of the music-curator industry returns us to the days when DJs had personalities, and their individual, often quirky tastes helped us wade through mountains of songs. For Pandora’s weekly Questlove Supreme show, the Roots drummer and proud music geek digs into his crates for three straight hours on Wednesday nights; and Apple Music just signed Metallica’s Lars Ulrich to play “whatever he wants,” says Zane Lowe, the creative director of Beats 1 and a veteran DJ. SiriusXM now has 17 artist-branded channels created by the likes of Tom Petty (who has his own channel), Steve Earle (whose Hard Core Troubadour Radio, Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET, will make you forget about Luke Bryan real fast), and Everclear’s Art Alexakis (whose weekly show revisits the glory years of alternative and grunge).
For the hosts, the shows can be as enlightening as they are for those of us tuning in. “I always wanted to have an excuse to play all kinds of random shit,” says the Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, who plays DJ on his SiriusXM show (first Thursday of the month at 6 p.m. ET). “In Akron, Ohio, when I was growing up, you couldn’t get any good stations.” Carney, whose father was a radio newscaster in Ohio, believes the need for curators is more urgent than ever. On his show, the drummer delights in playing old favorites and rediscovering largely forgotten tracks from, say, Ike and Tina Turner and from blues legend Howlin’ Wolf ‘s long-lost psychedelic The Howlin’ Wolf Album. “He apparently hated it, but I love playing that kind of shit, records that are important to me,” Carney says. “And maybe some kid in the car with his parents will hear something that took me a long time to find.”
The cuts artists unearth can even surprise their bosses. “I was listening to Petty’s channel and heard a song by Joni Mitchell that also featured Tom and Billy Idol,” says Steve Blatter, SiriusXM’s head of music programming. “I had no idea it even existed.” And until the curator bubble bursts, services like Apple Music hope we’ll continue to count on the likes of the Beastie Boys’ Mike D, who hosts The Echo Chamber on Beats 1 every other Saturday at 3 p.m. ET. “He’ll play a cut from Clipse or do an interview with Kim Gordon,” Lowe says. “That’s my dream. Maybe it’s no one else’s, but even if they tell me to stop, I’ll say, ‘It was a fucking great dream.’ ”