The Numbers Game… Or, how I learned to hate the algorithm!

Joe Ward casts aside his “self-inflicted” obsession with ‘monthly plays’ and discovers something exciting and new. 

I don’t do it as much as I used to, but every now and then I’ll set aside some time to trawl through the vast catalogue of Spotify, for fear of missing out on something delicious. 

It’s only recently been brought to my attention that I’ve picked up a rather silly & self-inflicted habit. I initially find myself scrolling down to view a particular detail about artists, especially if I’ve never come across them before. It’s not like I even need to know it, and just thinking about it as I write this is making me want to slap myself. The detail in question is this: how popular is this artist and how many people are listening to them on a monthly basis? It’s a statistic that only adds to the growing notion that music is a numbers game. Because high listenership automatically means they must be good right? Never has a statement been further from the truth.

My love for seeing bands play live began when I was about 16, so we’re going back to 2004 here. Labour were in the hotseat, Spotify was merely an idea in the minds of a couple of Swedes and Myspace was the social media ‘go-to’ platform. When it came to gigs, my decision-making was simple, I only had to like a couple of tracks by the band in question. I’d always be intrigued to discover whoever the support act was because I felt I could rely on the organisers to bring in a band of a similar vein to the one I was there to see. Chances are I’d probably like them too. Great! A new band for me to get into and shout about next week to my classmates. What a laid-back approach to discovery that was, and my god do I miss it. I didn’t care about numbers or popularity and as I think back to those times, I’m not sure how I would have found that information out anyway!

Fast forward to 2022 and I’ve fallen for the system. We’re living in a world that’s governed by information and it can be obtained simply by clicking a few buttons. How did I get here? Where is that large automobile? (I couldn’t resist). Like many things, it’s been a seemingly understated yet determined advancing to the place we’re in now and it’s not until we reminisce that we shock ourselves into just how quickly it all happened.

Like most things, we can’t keep up with our former 21-year-old selves and you tend to make decisions based on a process you’ve perfected over the years. I’ll cherry-pick the gigs I go to now because I have Spotify to thank for my intricate yet brilliant music taste. It’s made me extremely picky about who I want to see live, and even more worrying, I now have a rather cavalier attitude towards wanting to know about the support acts at these live shows.

So, let’s paint you a picture to start addressing the point I’m trying to make: It’s a Saturday afternoon in Patrick Fakeman’s living room with Glenn Jones for added company (whining about the ‘Saints’ as per) and we’re a few hours away from seeing a wonderfully eclectic Italo/synthpop act by the name of Knight$ (not a typo). The subject of the support act comes to the fore, and we of course jump to Spotify to delve a little deeper. 24 monthly listeners. We all gave one another a rather concerned look. This act can’t be any good right? It’s a tried and tested conclusion to make of course, low listenership can only mean one thing. The act in question go by the name of Theo Sayers, and they honestly have a track titled ‘My Nose is a Little Runny’. It’s all adding up now; low monthly listeners and a rather comedic song name to add to the mix. Confidence is flat.

Skip forward a few hours and there we all were, standing in front of Theo Sayers on stage at The Hope & Anchor in Islington. Our minds filled with trepidation at what may or may not come next. Thirty minutes later and our initial worries are a million miles away. We’re all giggling like a bunch of school kids, massive smiles on our faces and clapping to our hearts’ content. We’d just witnessed one of the quirkiest yet clever acts you can possibly imagine. The whole thing was a wild & witty concoction of catchy synth riffs, smutty lyrics and intelligent imagery. Imagine Kate Nash fused with the sounds of Depeche Mode and The Human League. Remember that runny nose song I mentioned earlier, it was only the best one of the set! To think, we could easily have decided to skip seeing them based on our earlier mixed feelings. A pint down the road and we’d have been none the wiser. I can’t tell you how grateful we were that we didn’t let those feelings decide our fate that night.

The lesson I’ve learned is one that tells us to give things a go as often as possible and this applies heavily to music. Don’t avoid seeing bands because a bunch of numbers on Spotify told you it’s probably not worth the effort. Be more open-minded to the fact that you win some and you lose some. You’re not going to fall in love with every new discovery. But every now and then, you may just have the night of your life because you stumbled across a hidden gem and it was all because you thought, ‘f*ck it’. Forget the numbers, ignore what others say and let intrigue take the lead. Theo Sayers, remember the name.



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