TuneDig is an in-depth and informed conversation between two lifelong friends about the power of music — one album at a time.

In each episode, we go down the rabbit hole to spend a while in the strange world we discover. We take an honest look at creativity in all its complexity—from writing and production to history and cultural impact.

We promise you’ll learn something new every time, no matter how much you already love the album we explore.

Episode 007

Zen Arcade

Hüsker Dü

The antagonistically long, spastically eclectic Zen Arcade is about growing out of where you’re from and into a form you don’t yet fit. For better or worse, it’s as punk as punk gets.

Join the fun as two grown-up punks reckon with the good, the bad, and the WTF of a hardcore staple they’d missed until long after their best pitting years.


Episode 007: Hüsker Dü's "Zen Arcade": Audio automatically transcribed by Sonix

Episode 007: Hüsker Dü's "Zen Arcade": this mp3 audio file was automatically transcribed by Sonix with the best speech-to-text algorithms. This transcript may contain errors.

You're listening to TuneDig, a podcast for music lovers. The premise is simple: in each episode, we dig deep into an album we love and then we give away a copy to you of that album on vinyl. Go to TuneDig.com To see what's up for grabs and learn more about us.

Today, we're talking about Husker Du's "Zen Arcade".

Is it Husker? So we're already off to a great start. Did you look that up?

Yeah, it's Hüsker. Yeah, that's going to be bad, Huesca.

So I'm excited to get into this one because it's a different tone and tenor, it's one that we know is important. And I think you can hear that when you listen to it. And certainly when you read about it for the first time, it's not one that either of us have a deep emotional connection to. What does it feel like when especially with all the records that we've listened to over the course of our lives, what does it feel like to listen to a record that, you know, is important and, you know, has changed somebody's life? Probably somebody whose tastes we really respect and admire. But you listen to it and you just don't have the same emotional connection to it. Talk about what that feeling is like for you.

It feels like guilt for skipping through the songs and looking for the things that make sense, which happens a lot. I think on this record, you have these really interesting moments, I think, of like psych and kind of breakdown of the music. But it's interspersed with basically whatever punk they were doing in the early 80s. It's hard for me to talk about this band as hardcore because that's how they were described right at that time. Sure. But the way that that word evolved so much, it's so hard to relate that back to it now. But I think one of the reasons I can enjoy is an arcade is having the benefit of hindsight, which we do with a lot of older records. Right. And being able to trace what happened after they tried to make some things happen. Yeah. And being able to enjoy and have more of a connection to the things that were influenced by the types of things they did here. Yeah. And I also feel that this record is a great example of one that little self-serving would benefit from a bit of contextual explanation, perhaps an audio form by two interviewees about it before you listen to it, because they had a really specific punk esthetic on this record and in the way that they recorded it. That I think helps me to understand and appreciate what they were trying to do and see the times and the places that they succeeded in doing it, and then feel the times where they kind of fell back on the things that they were doing already. I think one of the most interesting things about this record is its level of appreciation for creating alternative rock, which again is another word or genre that doesn't make as much sense as it would have back then. Sure. But thinking about what was considered to be just a hardcore band from the 80s influencing what would end up being things like, you know, the 90s alternative and Nirvana, huge influence on Nirvana, for sure. One fun tidbit related to Nirvana spin raided this record above nevermind on their top hundred alternative records.

Yeah, but who's your dude is really interesting in that way because I kind of had to do the I don't necessarily care a lot about this record. So who does care about this record that I might care about? And it is everyone from Kurt, especially Chris and and Dave from Nirvana, but also Sonic Youth and the Pixies and a lot of interesting artists that took ideas and sort of the posturing of punk and more hardcore punk, just like the grittiness and the speed and the rawness, and then folded it back into the music that they'd grown up with, which obviously isn't a big deal now. You know, like layers and layers of history have kind of flattened out how radical that was at the time. But like all the interviews about this record and all the retrospectives start out by saying how Bob Bolt wanted to do something bigger than rock and roll and how that was like such a thing in that context at that time.

Yeah, I think this is for fans of anybody who likes a genre that ends up being described as post anything. Right. And I think there are a lot of music fans who don't necessarily appreciate the people who try to stretch the boundaries of what they're doing and explore whether there's another genre to be included or created from an original one. So if you like the black flag and everything black flag did was perfect, this one might not make a ton of sense, despite the fact that the Black Flag vocalist makes an appearance on this record, which is also fun.

And it's honesty, so it's like there is that stamp of approval.

Right, right. You know, you get quotes like an arcade is probably the closest hardcore we'll ever get to an opera. You have to be able to to go into that and kind of almost suspend disbelief, I think, about what that's going to end up being to see what they end up trying to include. I think one of the more fascinating things about thinking about is an arcade in. One of the reasons I like it is it feels, looking back on history, like there was such a big gap between the 70s and 80s as just a general time.

Sure came out in nineteen eighty four, came out the same month as double nickels on the dime by Minutemen. So it's like height of Reaganism or the onset of Reaganism. It's like a strange time for music and culture and everything.

But for a punk band in the eighties helping drive and develop, you know, what was being described as hardcore to step back and do a concept record, to do one kind of simmi about technology, which was a little strange anyway, to do so with the type of fuzz guitar that we would start to see a lot more in the 90s and then to introduce. So so we would see things that would appear in the 90s, but then we would also see influences that came straight out of the 70s, all the psych, all of the, you know, the the last 14 or whatever minute song that's just literally a psych concert happening. You can imagine the weird psychedelic projection behind people and it just going on forever. And people who hate that kind of music dropping out of the concert entirely and just waiting on this band to finish. But something about it to me works. And I like the way that it flows, even if occasionally it does feel like I'm going to need to skip another two minute song to get a little bit closer to what I want.

It's very antagonistic in that way. Yeah, it seems like it's deliberately got that sort of Iggy Pop thing about it where it's like, I dare you to turn this record off.

It's constantly like I mean, there is literally a song called Whatever and never talking to you again, which is just an offensive song in general, which is one of the reasons I like it. It's not well written, it's not nuance.

And they put it like third right with you down when you go down on the.

Everywhere you go, they do too hardcore fastballs and then just do this weird Zeppelin three thing where they're like, we're not that band anymore by and then by the next song.

Just kidding. We're back. Right.

I will say in full disclosure that I had never listen to this record before, we chose to do it for the podcast, so I should just out myself in that way. And I think that's another interesting thing. I think about Bob Mold through the lens of the Foo Fighters because he recently said he's had a long solo career and he sang on a recent Foo Fighters record. They always talk about hope they admire him, Husker, Dewey and Sugar, and for whatever reason, because of that, I put them in the same camp as like guided by voices and pavement and stuff that they are not at all. So I was telling you earlier, I put on this record the other day and within 10 seconds I was like, oh my, OK, this is not what I was thinking at all. And I was pleasantly surprised that it was more my speed or what I wasn't anticipating when I hit play was I didn't scroll down at all. Oh yeah. On the tracklist. And then was like, oh my God, it just keeps going.

It was a double album. Yeah. That's like one of the ways that it immediately branched out from everything else. Right.

Very that's very antagonistic in and of itself. Like twenty four or twenty five tracks. Yeah. Very prolific. You compared it to an opera gets compared to Quadrophenia a lot. It's very interesting in that way to me. Like there are clear capital artistic ambitions on this record and they're not afraid of that, even though that was contextually uncool at that time.

Maybe we can summarize it. This is one of those times where punks tried to make punk more punk. They got a little bored of the trajectory of the whole thing and talked about we're going to try to do something bigger than anything like rock and roll and the whole puny touring band idea. I don't know what it's going to be. We have to work that out, but it's going to go beyond the whole idea of punk rock or whatever when you can say, quote, punk rock or whatever. As a well-known punk band, something is changing. Puny touring band. Who knows what he meant at the time. Right. But I can I can certainly imagine the same esthetic that carried into when I was a lot more into a punk scene. It's all local turn into this success. Looks like going around and doing a few tour dates. Don't try too hard. Play the same songs, you know, give it your energy, give it your heart. But it's pretty straightforward. Right. And that was the highest aspiration of a punk band because having higher aspirations than being a puny touring punk band was not punk. So they were responding to the reaction, sir, which is super interesting. But that's why I like exploring the ways that they tried to make it not, quote, punk rock or whatever. Right, right. So some of it almost feels on the nose at this point, which kind of points to the awkward transitions between different types of songs, because instead of trying to make the entirety of their punk sound evolve, it's like they put it in a different container to see what would happen.

So they write they write a concept record, which we should talk briefly at least about what the concept of the record was. But they're writing a concept record with a story they're rehearsing in an old church in St. Paul, Minnesota. They're starting to intersperse all of the songs that they have, all these kind of straightforward punk songs with the folk and weird acoustic guitar stuff. Right. They've got these we talked about the psych influences and some of the different ways that they've got instrumentals. But even the way that they did instrumentals went a little bit further than just let's just jam for a little while, which that last song was, which apparently they would play a lot and would go on for a lot longer than was there. But that song calls back to you. I mean, it's called Reoccurring Dreams, right? So there's an earlier instrumental called Dreams Reoccurring. Right. So they're trying to reuse a portion of what's in there. So that's why I think it's interesting to see if feels on the nose now. But I'm not sure how it would have felt in the 80s to see a punk band try to just bring in these influences like classical and jazz motif approach. And they almost yeah. And they almost hedge their bets to like. Sure. Change the guitar tone a little bit and bring some influences in if you want to. But we're also going to have like at least half of this record is going to be pretty close to things that we did before that. So you could skip those parts if you want to.

It's sort of like one of those paintings or art installations where it's one thing when you look at it from one side and one thing when you look at it from the other, it's an interesting way of looking at the record.

Well, the concept, the story behind this thing, which is also kind of fascinating, which gets told in a bunch of different ways, but we'll just take molds way of talking about it, which is pretty similar across a lot of different attempts to explain it, because in our case, it is about a young computer hack. OK, so let's just make sure we remember this is nineteen eighty four. So first of all, the phrase a computer hack referring to a person existed, which we would never call.

That was the movie Tron 08. Not like, not like a hacker. OK, but yeah that's weird.

So like a hack in the derogatory way. Right. It's an arcade is about a young computer hack from a broken home who dreams about killing himself after his girlfriend dies of a drug overdose. Casual.

Put on jeans and hug each other and talk about this inspired that Apple dystopia commercial, or maybe it's inspired by this is the broken world we live in. That would be a great soundtrack. Thank you, Overlord Reagan.

So his girlfriend dies of a drug overdose and he lands in a mental hospital where he meets the head of a computer company who hires him to design video games.

This is the plot of the room set in the 80s. If Tommy Wiseau had been 15 years older. That's what this would be, a high mark. You want to hardcore. But then he wakes up from what is apparently a dream. Sure. And goes to school. We wrote twenty three songs and don't know how we're going to end this shit.

So but again, similar I feel like to everything else we're going to go kind of 90 percent, 80 percent in the direction of getting weird but never quite leave home base. Right. This isn't a prog record, right. It doesn't have. They're not speaking Elvish.

So on the flipside of that, though, I do feel like musically, when they go in, this is not what we've done before direction they do go 80 to 90 percent, maybe not even that far. They never really commit to the idea. Like the Hari Krishna thing is a great example. The folk stuff is a great example where it's just different enough to explicitly be like this is different and you should take it seriously. You know, it's a very young man's attempt at trying to signify the maturity of this record rather than just like taking the real risk. So I kind of have a beef with it in that way because it lives on the fence a little bit. I would like this record a lot if they would have just gone the like Stooges funhouse route and just freaked all the way out. Just let us saxophonist's just absolutely lose his mind the whole time or something like that, or even if they hadn't oscillated. You know, I think the oscillation is what kind of makes it hard because they don't let it breathe too far in any one direction. And you're like, this is cool, this is cool. Or like you said, you like all the other stuff and then you're like, oh, my God, I just got to skip all of this hardcore. This is playing in a pizza place in the beatnik neighborhood type of stuff, you know, which and on top of all the other weird things we talked about, there's two piano interludes.

Also, not a thing that normally existed on these records.

Totally forgot about those.

So you've got you've got folk songs, you've got piano interludes, you've got sike influences, and the only thing I would argue that they went one hundred percent full tilt in a non punk direction is at the very end of an extremely long record, lasts for 14 minutes. But you've got to get there. What's the total running time of this record? One hour and 10 minutes like.

That's a lot. That's a lot. That's a lot. Especially in mostly sub two and a half minute bursts.

Exactly. The other thing I think is interesting, though, is in the eighties and in the nineties, a lot of the ways that we saw punk go in a different direction also included getting more cleanly recorded and produced, more sharply done, more clear melody, that sort of thing, trying to trying to get people into the punk movement maybe or being I hate to call it more accessible because I don't think that's what a lot of people were doing. I don't think better production necessarily equals being more accessible. Right. But a lot of punk direction was better recording.

And I do really like I'm not sure if you agree. I really like the way this record sounds. That is actually the first thing that drew me in. Like, I like the drum tone. And there are moments where there is clarity through the, like, kind of bussau guitar. Like it's almost not fuzz. It's it really. Yeah, it does have that sharpness. But there are moments where they hit harmonies, heart and mold play off of each other and they don't do it a ton, especially not at the outset of the record. So when it happens, it has just a pleasantness enough that you're like, oh, this is cool. This is different because it's not two two to five people kind of all shouting at the same time, which is kind of counter to something like the sneering ness, the grittiness of a black flag or a bad brains or whatever. Right.

I think one of the most interesting things about the way it sounds and again, I think another contextual reason why it's really interesting to hear this, especially now that we've talked about all the different avenues they go down and come right back in. They recorded all twenty five tracks in 40 hours. And all but two of the tracks are the very first take, including that last 14 minute instrumental.

It's such a stunner. It's one of my favorite things to find out about bands is they know the stuff inside now and the studio takes are them just going in and ripping it. That was my favorite thing to learn about the band Kiss was like every song they had. They could make it five minutes or they could make it forty five minutes. And it was just because they were so honed and it was all about that musical chemistry in the room at that moment.

And I think that really does translate like the energy and the urgency does come down to the chemistry between those three dudes.

Forty hours, though, I mean, the record feels 40 hours long sometimes when you listen to it. And just that they they essentially ripped through that thing in sub two days is is kind of insane, 40 hours worth of recording, followed immediately by 40 hours worth of mixing.

And then they were done. The entire album took eighty five hours to record and mix and it cost thirty two hundred dollars.

That's crazy. Was it recorded in that church do you know.

No, it was recorded in Redondo Beach, California.

Oh weird. Totally out of their element. Right. So they just probably probably aided and then being like, dude, we got to get out of here. Right.

Which I think in a way is a form of brilliance for what they were trying to do. If you're going to try to influence or show what punk can do in another direction without leaving the base entirely, without abandoning the punk esthetic. I think one of the ways you could do it is to remind people, yeah, I played some acoustic songs. Yeah, we had some piano interludes. We also did it all at one time in one giant block for thirty two hundred dollars. And then we left because we still record music that way. So we didn't go in that direction of being more produced and more polished. We had exactly the same approach that almost any punk band would have even in their best days and best attempts to try to record all this music at one time to be able to crank all of that out that quickly and that cheaply and be that attuned to what you were trying to do with a group of other people and push back against punk rock or whatever and be able to do it. That quickly manages to maintain that level of street cred that you would want to have. And that's one of the reasons I think that it's interesting. It's not always a great record to put back on. I don't think I think the the shifts in music type are so jarring that it almost makes it difficult to put on passably. But it's a difficult record to listen to actively because of how much the other parts occur over and over and over again, which is fun. But if we exclusively looked at the punk tracks, there are better punk records coming out of the mid 80s for sure. So but I think that that's why it's interesting to come back to this and experience it and listen to it and maybe, if nothing else, pick out a few favorites or even kind of slice and dice now that we have playlists, being able to take certain portions of records and rearrange them however you want or only listen to certain portions of it.

I think this is a great example of the way that modern technology can affect the way that we go back and listen to an old record, kind of like taking is it OK, Computer and In Rainbows, where you can sequence them kind of like one one, one one. Yeah, that kind of stuff is really interesting. I wonder what this record would sound like as punk record on LP one and weird record on LP two. That's something we should probably try and do at some point. And I wonder if we would really like either of them because there are songs, the I think some of the staple punk songs are really cool, but there's nothing there's no like sailing on by bad brains for me on this record, you know, there's no slip dead by black flag. For me. There's nothing where it's like this changed my life, you know?

I mean, they still have killer moments. And I think if they had pushed into them harder, we'd have discovered something different. I'll Never Forget You has kind of the most intense vocal delivery of the entire album. And then that song ends and goes into the biggest lie and the biggest lie has this, all of a sudden they open up, you wonder if you're going to have this massive sound. It almost sounds like the beginning of a truly alternative early 90s song, like something really loud and heavy is about to come in. Yeah, and then they zoom right back out of it and go back to what they were doing.

There are definitely having grown up as a big Nirvana fan, I see where Nirvana got some of their obvious moves from. Right. I mean, it's some shade between this and the Pixies in the Melvins, but these guys were the first to do any of this stuff.

So you're like, oh, OK, I get it. I get it. Now, I feel like I've excavated a missing link that I've always kind of wondered about in the back of my mind with bands that I like. Where'd that thing come from? And this is definitely some of that.

And I will say, in fairness to some of the stuff we've just said, being older and having in kind of late me, especially to this party, the benefit of hindsight probably does a disservice to me trying to understand this record. Like, I probably would have had a totally different relationship with this record if I had just made the jump and checked it out 10, 12 years earlier than I did that I kind of grappled with as I was listening, like, am I being unfair to this record? Because I'm jaded, because I've heard this stuff reflected back to itself and all the other stuff.

But then it's like I've gone back and discovered other influences and they have grabbed me, like going back through Outkast and discovering and Eddie Hazel and being like, oh, my God, this is this is the greatest, you know, or like hearing maggot brain for the first time. So I don't really know where I land on all of that. I just if there's anyone ever listening to this, that's like a huge Husker Du fan. I just want to say that I tried to tell you I'm sorry.

That's a great point, though, because I I think one of the reasons we probably do this, I don't think we've ever said this out loud. But one of the reasons we want to talk about records, then they're not all new records. Most of them are older ones is because going back and listening to something, even with the benefit of hindsight, even if you can't appreciate it in the way you would have, you're able to put pieces together for the things that you like now and the things that you appreciate. And I think part of the unspoken Zygi sort of appreciating older music is not that you have some sort of credibility because you understand how your influences domino all the way back to the nineteen twenties or something like that to the beginning of recorded history. It's more about being able to then see and hear new things in the new things that you appreciate and then also being able to discover things that branch off from the old things that you discover. There's an incredible wealth of music that you'll never know how to get into unless you know how to go back and start listening to things and letting yourself be reminded of things. And you'll never be able to take advantage of all the ridiculous technology we have now. Or you can just dove through artists and keep going down channels and subgenres. You won't know how to do that. You'll just be clicking aimlessly unless you know how to go back and try to listen to things. One, the way that they might have intended them. But secondly, the way that you can understand and hear their influences now so that you can go find more music that you like, you don't have to be stuck in new music forever.

There's just as much good and bad music as it ever was. It's actually a supremely good time for music being sassy. Yeah, but now that is really interesting. Like I think to really enjoy music at the highest possible level, you do have to be an archeologist. That's a great point. And with something like Husker Du, we're never going to sit in this part of the maze. This isn't the thing that stuck to our ribs. Ultimately, there are things around it that we spent a lot more time with and have more of an emotional connection with. But whose great is going to lead you to like now? I kind of do want to check out sugar. I want to I want to see where it went immediately after this. You know what's between Husker Du and Sonic Youth? Who who did the weird, skanky, noisy stuff better? Is there a place where folk punk is cool and doesn't devolve into Gogol Bordello?

No, it's not real good at it.

I got it.

You know, where some really weird nooks in this place and that that sort of defines our whole musical connection is trying to race each other to some of those deep, dark corners and be like, hey, come check this out. Like there is a very archeological component to our our musical relationship. And that's a lot of what's help sustain it, sustain it over so many years is just keeping ourselves excited by keeping each other excited. And that's one of the things that makes life continue to be worth living.

Go to TuneDig.com to sign up for our emails and click the link in the email when you want to win. That's it.

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Let’s be clear: "Bitches Brew" is a challenging record, even to some of the best musicians in the world — but all of them say it’s worth the investment. It’s the kind of trip that, even if we *could* draw a map, it wouldn’t take you there. Let go of the need for meaning and enjoy the ride with us. We can promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised where you end up.

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TuneDig Episode 40: Fiona Apple’s “Tidal”

On the heels of one of 2020's most acclaimed albums — Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters — we revisited Apple’s debut Tidal and wound up working to extract ourselves from the mostly male gazes that made its reception … much different. We arrive at a question much like writer Jenn Pelly had: “People would constantly prod Fiona on how an 18-year-old could write songs as mature as these ... Why did they not ask instead how she became a genius?”

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TuneDig Episode 39: Death Grips’s “The Money Store”

The modern world is accelerating beyond our control, shaping our reality in ways we can’t yet perceive or understand. Enter Death Grips, an art project capturing the chaotic energy and illustrating the absurdity of our hubris in trying to harmonize the surreal and extremely real — never more perfectly than on 2012’s prescient "The Money Store".

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TuneDig Episode 38: Augustus Pablo’s “King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown”

Reggae music is easy to take for granted, but its impact is underappreciated and massive — in the case of dub in particular, everyone from Radiohead to Johnny Rotten to Run-DMC owes it a debt. Augustus Pablo and King Tubby together created what’s regarded as “one of the finest examples of dub ever recorded.” Join us as we dive into the culture, history, and unique engineering experiments that made it possible.

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TuneDig Episode 37: Rihanna’s “ANTI”

By every measure — sales, awards, chart-toppers, global name recognition — Rihanna is objectively as big as the Beatles ever were. In fact, ANTI is so big it’s still on the charts, a record five full years later. Take a closer look with us at “the record you make when you don’t need to sell records”, and get a taste of the true freedom that comes from focusing on your inner voice when faced with insurmountable expectations.

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TuneDig Episode 36: Son House’s “Father of Folk Blues”

All American music traces back to the blues, and deep at the root sits Son House. That the recordings on "Father of Folk Blues" even exist is something of a gray area that cuts to the heart of the great American myth, but wherever you land after hearing these stories, you’ll find that what matters most is what the great Muddy Waters once said of House: “That man was the king.”

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TuneDig Episode 35: Melvins’s “Stoner Witch”

The futility of describing the Melvins has stretched critics in the direction of absurd words like “Dadaist” for nearly 40 years now. They’ve belligerently flogged any attempt to pinpoint their essence simply by being themselves, but "Stoner Witch" remains a reliable mall directory for the Melvins’ vast and wild discography. Grab yourself some pretzel bites.

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TuneDig Episode 34: Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”

We should talk about Dolly the way we talk about Prince. Her extraordinary kindness and unique kitsch both make her universally loved, but what gets left out of the conversation is the very thing that made her famous: the music. Join in as we focus attention on the sonics and songwriting of the low-key masterpiece "Jolene".

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Kyle and Cliff

BONUS TRACK: How We Got Here

We got a bunch of interesting listener feedback in our off-season, and it encouraged us to shed some light on why we do things the way we do ‘em. Also, we reflect on our first writeup, which was ... interesting.

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We're Cliff (right) and Kyle (left). We’re two dudes born and raised in ATL with day jobs in tech and sustainability, respectively.

We met in middle school, and in one way or another, music’s been the thing that’s kept us close for the two decades since — whether it’s sharing and talking about new music (like this podcast, except in our texts or over beers), going to shows, or working with our favorite record stores to help them survive and thrive.

We started TuneDig as a little art project that connects us more deeply ourselves and to the world through the infinite gift of music. We hope you’ll join us for the conversations, let us know what you think, and share discoveries of your own.

More About TuneDig

TuneDig began as a little something called MusicGrid.me, which we created after realizing there was no place online to directly exchange music recommendations with your friends. Our aim was simple: to make rating albums simple, useful, and social. We got some love from places like MashableWiredEvolver.fm, and Hypebot. We managed to foster conversation between music lovers, get thousands of reviews, and meet great people.

Along the way, we realized that record stores were an essential part of the music lovers’ community. After many a conversation about how we could helpfully connect them to the people who loved them, we began helping them leverage technology to create new revenue streams and embrace streaming services without giving up what’s unique to them: expertise and curation. (Long live the counter clerk who knows exactly which record will be the right introduction to jazz fusion!)

TuneDig is our vision to connect music lovers with the music they love, because no matter how much has changed in the way we discover and enjoy music, recommendations from people you trust and respect will always be the best way to find new music you’ll dig. With this podcast, we’re channeling the spirit of trusted curation pioneered by record stores, and bringing you something to take you deeper into music you can love.