Friday, September 12, 2008

The Power of Playlists

I was drafting this blog before iTunes 8 became available, but now it just makes my point more relevant.

Remember when you'd make tapes off the radio? Sit around, wait for your favorite song, and hit record? If you really wanted the first note, you'd hit record before you even heard the song and stop and rewind when it was something else. Then you prayed the DJ wouldn't start talking over the last chorus. Maybe I'm dating myself a little. I'm only 27, but talking about tapes seems ancient. I don't even have a cassette player anymore.

That was the first time I'd make custom playlists. Then I'd make tapes for my car when I started driving. I made tapes to listen while running. Now we have iPods, so I make playlists for commuting on the subway, running, Saturday mornings, reading, Monday mornings, rainy days, doing dishes, long walks on the beach, lists of songs to practice, songs to learn, songs I haven't listened to in a long time, my favorite tenor saxophone solos, favorite jazz rhythm sections, funky bass lines...

Today, playlists take virtually unmanageable digital catalogs and organize them by usefulness. Music is now so readily available that we need help knowing what to listen to, even in our own collections.

Enter websites like, Pandora,, etc. that let either let users create custom playlists or create them for you based on recommendations (a subject I'll address later). iTunes has allowed users to post iMixes to the store since 2004 and now create them for you with this new Genius button.

When done right, playlists are very powerful tools to get your music to the masses. But doing it right is the trick, and I see a lot of indie artists making some pretty misguided playlists. Here are some considerations

- Make playlists you actually like. If you wouldn't want to listen to it, why would anyone else?

- Don't throw all your music into the playlist. Unless it's a Best Of playlist, which sort of defeats the purpose here, use about the same number of songs for every artist in the list.

- Use artists/songs that are either similar to your music or fit the mood of the playlist. Jack Johnson would not work with my trio's music, unless I was creating a playlist for a backyard barbeque and used one of my laid back tracks. But going to far out of your genre could encourage negative feedback.

- Include some obscure tracks. As more and more back catalog gets digitized, it's possible to find a lot of rare cuts online. Use these to your advantage. Especially if it's an underrated cut that you love, people with similar tastes are going to love that you found it for them.

- Own up to what you're doing and don't be shady. People aren't dumb. After they see your music in a bunch of playlists with their favorite artists, they'll put that together with the fact they've never heard of you and figure you're making the playlists. As long as you're making good playlists though, this is a good thing! I've received emails from people that truly enjoyed my playlists, discovered not only my music but some of the other lesser known artists I love. These folks have always bought my CD, told their friends, etc. Musical tastes truly connect people.

Most importantly:

- Don't think like a marketer, think like a fan. Better yet, just be a fan.

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