Has serendipity disappeared?

Terry Teachout writes:

I take a look at the financial woes of Tower
Records and the wider implications of music downloading.  One frequently
overlooked effect of downloading on the culture of music is the extent
to which it discourages in-store browsing, and the serendipitous
discoveries that can only be made by wandering at will up and down the
aisles of a deep-catalog record store.

I am (surprise) less pessimistic.  I see one kind of serendipity as replacing another.  The new serendipity relies on Internet browsing.  Which CDs can be described in an intriguing way on a blog or an Amazon listing?  The old serendipity depended more on the quality of the album or CD cover.  I see the new serendipity as favoring the tastes of the highly literate, and as favoring artists with interesting biographies.  Older methods favored groups with good album art, which tends to be correlated with a sense of the unusual or outrageous.  I do not see why the new serendipity should be worse than the old, although admittedly it discriminates against those with Internet connections.

Addendum: Terry Teachout asks that I link to his longer discussion.


For me, the new serendipity is better than the old. You're able to hear more music, which is the product you are buying. I don't think I ever bought something from a record/CD store that I hadn't heard somewhere else before. I would never buy something simply because of the cover art. King Diamond - you lost out.

Try Pandora internet radio, too. If you make a station with just a few artists, it will expose you to other things you might like too. Its pretty cool.

Whoever Terry Teachout is, he couldn't be more wrong.

Just subscribe to one of the unlimited music services and get access to
thousands and thousands of albums for a nominal fee.

Three cheers for new serendipity! All the bootlegs and B sides and remixes out there on your p2p network of choice. Commercial download sites thriving. Blogs, music mags, and online biographies galore! And lets not forget the old serendipity is surving right along side the old serenditipities. You can still go to the local record shop (for now!) and seek treasure in the bargin bin or speak to that staff guy who knows jazz from the knee of Miles Davis.

Browsing on the internet is SO much more efficient than wandering an aisle and hoping to stumble on to greatness. You can use a site like Purevolume.com and see what bands that band listens to (or shares a label with), pay attention to your friends MySpace's and see what they're listening to or use a service like Pandora to recommend music it knows you're going to like.

Since I've started using the internet to find bands I've double the number of times I go see shows (putting money into the band's pockets when I both go and buy merch). If a band you've never heard of is playing tonight you would never buy their album to see if you like it. You will just check their site and listen.

and nothing's more interesting than downloading 10 diff. versions of the same song from a p2p network, which often leads me to discover new artists and then buy their CD - or better: go to their concert. How do you do this in a store?

Teachout is a fuddy-duddy. Serendipity has clearly gone up as sampling is much easier today, you can download single tracks, look at what others are buying, even listten to CDs in a record store!

Oddly, I agree with you about music and I buy most of my books from online recommendations, but I still prefer to go to the video store, and I still love browsing through bookstores. I think there _IS_ a serendipity you get in person different from and complementary to what you get online.

Or maybe it's just the better people watching.

I have to agree with Espen: physical browsing isn't dead (although I wouldn't quite say that it is thriving), and the improved accessibility of music in general has resulted in increased music purchases for both myself and most of my friends.

If anything, I think the issue that record companies have with this "New Serendipity" is that it spreads the increased demand among a much wider selection of music - a selection that brick and mortar cannot realistically represent. In such a stratified envrionment, the creation of "hits" becomes vastly more difficult as well.

I personally believe this to be a good thing, but there is no question that we're losing some cultural togetherness as a result of it.

I find new songs and bands on iTunes by going through the most popular songs in the genres I like, and listening to the free sample snippets to see if I like it.

I've never bought a CD from a store that I didn't go in there specifically to buy.

That was a really easy target. I completely agree with the main post, but that's a rather obvious point.

There is definitely *something* being lost if there are no record stores. The browsing bandwidth in a store is much higher. You can look at dozens of titles at a glance, and if nothing of interest is there, you can move on to the next dozen in a single glance, as opposed to clicking and reading and clicking, etc.

I find using internet catalogs to be much less helpful than print catalogs when I don't know exactly what I want.

The advantage of the internet in music browsing is that you can hear the songs, although I'm finding more and more record stores where that is an option as well.

On balance, more often than not, I'd rather shop on the net, but until we get enough bandwidth and power for deep-VR shopping on the internet (which would be a huge improvement in all directions on B&M shops), stores are generally better for long browsing sessions -- assuming both the store and the site are done well.

The net wins because it is so greatly superior for finding exactly what you want, or for short browse sessions (since there is no travel time). I think that's a net win, and if it weren't, you wouldn't see enough people doing business online to shut down B&M retailers. But we do lose something for a while. Deep VR, whenever it gets here, will bring it back with a vengeance, along with experiences we can only dream about now.


You would be really amazed where I have been finding some of the music I've been listening to in recent years. I've found stuff like The Afro-Celt Sound System while listening to in flight radio during long distance flights on United Airlines. I discovered Dimitri From Paris while watching an old CNN music program (no longer aired) called World Beat. I have also found groups like Caia while having lunch in restaurants and simply asking the waiter who was playing on their sound system.

For someone like me who has wide ranging tastes, I long ago quit watching MTV / VH1 or listening to most mainstream radio in hopes of finding something interesting. There is a Pacifica radio station here in Houston which plays a Jazz / Groove / Soul program on Saturday nights which has a coolness rating that is off the charts. I did discover acts like Pat Methany while browsing in a record store circa 1985 and I also got into listening to Bossa Nova when I was introduced to the genre via a radio program years ago. Nonetheless, I haven't had a discovery type experience in a record store in years. My best hopes of finding something new these days (besides the above mentioned radio program) are probably by browing Amazon and seeing who buys stuff that is somewhat similar to what I've been buying.

I agree that the new serendipity is a lot better than the old. True, there were lots of impulse buys the old way, but as Terry Teachout says, a lot was dependant on album art. With the new serendipity, music lovers are exposed to new artists that fit the genre of music they like. It's like test driving an album. I have bought many CDs of new or little known artists because of a song I have heard on iTunes or similar services. I downloaded Pandora after reading Tylre's blog entry and already have a list of artists I like that I had previously never heard of. This new music market is providing power to the new comers to compete with the industry giants that are established in the business. To the people that complain that music downloads are killing profits, I say adapt and adjust your business philosophy. The internet and music downloads are here to stay so they're going to have to change their business approach to accomodate the downloads, and take advantage of the vast number of potential customers.

I think that I prefer buying music online to buying music offline. It is a lot easier to find and buy a CD online than it is at a store. If you have ever been to the music section of a store the way they are organized is usually pretty confusing. I remember going to the bookstore back home and trying to find a CD and the way they had it organized was so unintuitive it took me forever to find it. One problem with shopping for CDs in stores is that each place organizes them differently and sometimes it is just too difficult to find what you're looking for. That is why I like to buy them online, is that you just type in what you're looking for and you find it right away, you don't have to spend too much time wandering through aisles of CDs trying to find what you're looking for

I agree on the fact that one serendipity seems to be replacing another, as products typically do throughout history. Now people can replace their visual serendipity due to album art due to places such as Amazon or any website catering to music. Online one can view the album art, read user comments/reviews, preview most of the songs on the CD, and overall get a more generic feel for the album rather than just relying on word of mouth, popularity, or album art. It doesn't necessarily cater to those only with internet as most music stores allow consumers to preview albums as well and most people don't always just read the reviews or biographies from websites for artists. I fail to see how this new serendipity is worse than the old, when back in the day you could browse the CD's looking for specific artist names or worse by just relying on the album art in hopes that the CD is any good. This way allows more and more consumers the ability to pick what they want to listen to without having to worry about what is on the CD versus what the album art or song titles are.

I have to agree with mickslam, there is nostalgia to shopping in a stores but I don’t think that it is limited to the experience of being with other people. I think it is more the experience that you got up and did something and through some effort and random coincidence you happened to stumble on some music in the store that opened up a new side of your mind. And its not that you can’t do that at home but more so that you had something invested in going to that store and there you see the return; where as at home it seems almost cheap and undeserving of your emotional attachment.

I also agree with the statement that one serendipity is replacing another. To me, the new serendipity is better than the old, because there's nothing better than downloading several different versions of a favorite song, which often leads to finding new artists to download. Plus, music on the internet is often much cheaper than buying it in a store.

If no one has ever purchased a CD for its album cover, then why do (or did) bands spend time designing ones that catch the eye? I really don't know the history of album covers all that well, but remember that album covers were really used for RECORD albums, not CDs, so they were much larger in the past, and likely to attract attention. Also, if you were a new artist in the "old days" (you know, like the 60s and 70s) and you wanted to grab a new listener, what better way to signal that you were "revolutionary" than by having something unusual on the cover? Is this better than actually listening to some of their music - I would say no, but you have to think of the set of signals available to people at a particular point in time.

Plus, think about how some of the album covers might look if one were walking through the stores after consuming his or her glaucoma medicine.

I do not think that the new way of music is all that bad. Everything gets a new way to it. It is what keeps the world going. Now instead of artists trying to have the coolest cover they have to rely on their songs. I think that the artist should be more worry about their lyrics and beats than the way their cd cover looks. This day in time society is internet based. More and more things are being done on the internet and it has not hurt business. If you want to sale something than you have to go do what best suits the consumers. If they like downloading music better than going out and buying the cd than the song artists have to adpat to that. It is just how the world goes. And everyone has connection to the internet or can find some way to connect to the internet. Soon cds are just going to be a past thing like records are now.

Comments for this post are closed