The Music Industry’s Great Challenge: The Playlist Problem

Making a playlist is hard. It’s tough enough coming up with a list of familiar songs and artists, but how are you supposed include stuff you’ve never heard of before?

Individual music fans of all ages and musical persuasions constantly clamour for lists that deliver recommendations just for them. Should they be generated by algorithms? Humans? A combination of both?And if humans are involved, who are they? This is the playlist problem faced by the music industry.

When Songza was still a thing, I was the Head of Curation for Canada, meaning that I had a stable of hardcore music fans whose jobs were to carefully assemble playlists based on themes, moods and events. Each contributor in this little assembly line had to create lists that were a minimum three-and-a-half hours long. This sounds fun–and don’t get me wrong, it was–but it was also hard. And the more you did it, the harder it got.

Songza doesn’t exist anymore–Google swallowed them up a couple of years ago and incorporated its best features into Google Play Music–but playlist factories of all sorts have sprouted around the world. BuzzFeed has this story on the anonymous people whose job it is to feed the playlist monster. They are playlist professionals.

When he’s choosing your music for you, Carl Chery, 37, is in Culver City, California, sitting at his desk in an office with no signage, trying to decide whether Drake and Future’s “Jumpman” (jumpman, jumpman, jumpman) has jumped the shark. Or sometimes he’s at home in his one-bedroom apartment on the border of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, walking around in his living room with new Gucci Mane blasting from a Beats Pill. Or at the gym going for a morning run on the treadmill, thinking about your gym and your treadmill, listening through headphones for changes in tempo and tone: Will this song push you through the pain? Is that one too long on the buildup?

“It’s hard to describe because it’s more of a feeling or instinct,” says Chery of his process. He’s from Queens, New York, which, despite his residence in Los Angeles for the past four years, is obvious when you hear him talk. “It kind of just happens. You sit there and you start moving and just do it.”

For a while we thought we could choose our own music. Remember that? In the wake of the last century we seized the right to take our pick from all of the songs in the world (All of the songs in the world!) and told anyone who didn’t like it exactly where they could go. And when it turned out that was too many songs after all (how many lifetimes are needed for a complete survey of Memphis soul? Or Brazilian funk?), a new category of music services appeared to ease our burden. But these services were flawed, said someone about to make a lot of money, and could only recommend music based on what we were already listening to. Did they even really know what we wanted? Do we not contain multitudes? And so now we have people like Chery.

Keep reading.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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