Culture and Context – the secret sauce of music curation
Eric Stensvaag of feed.fm weighs in on the art of music curation, and the value of nuance and collaboration in cultivating a successful and accessible playlist.
“curating music, much like cooking, is a fine art”
Guest post by Eric Stensvaag of Feed.fm
At Feed Media Group, our team of highly-skilled curators manages hundreds of bespoke music stations for our business partners. This curation is at the core of what we offer as a B2B music integration platform. While technology and analytics play a critical role throughout the curation process, it’s the expertise, inquisitiveness, and ability of our curators to put the world around us into perspective that make our music stations so effective.
We’ve discovered that curating music, much like cooking, is a fine art that requires finesse to impart the best flavors. Whether from education and/or experience, curators must have a rock-solid background in music and a passion for its more technical aspects versus a more casual interest. When we listen to new songs, it’s essential to have a POV on whether we think they are successful or not, and an impulse to know more about those that are. We also need the stylistic knowledge and confidence to trust our instincts.
In the same way a chef studies and takes inspiration from many different styles of cuisine and flavors, an effective curator wants to understand the nuts and bolts of how music works and has an insatiable curiosity to experience a great variety of music. And while curators all have innate biases and preferences, leading to some specialization in our work, we cannot isolate ourselves in a sonic bubble. We must instead expose ourselves to a wide range of artists, styles and genres.
One thing that helps greatly in this regard is frequent collaboration. We’re always bouncing ideas off each other, sharing notes, and playing off each other’s strengths and areas of expertise. For example, one of our newest curators Arturo Lovazzano is an encyclopedia when it comes to rock music, while keeping up on newer genres like K-pop, which is popular worldwide including his home country of Chile. But he might consult Dario Slavazza, who has been at the helm of our curation team for over three years, on the relative strength of a new pop song when building a customer station.
Staying connected to pop culture trends, and understanding the broader context of songs in society is key to putting together a great music station. It’s this connection, context, and care that most distinguishes our stations from those the best algorithms of major streaming platforms might generate. Case in point, we might include “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” in a Halloween station because of its association with the film Beetlejuice. Lacking this cultural context, a computer might determine that several other, irrelevant calypso songs should also be added to this Halloween station.
The geographical location where music will be played is also something we take into consideration. Dario, who earned his degree in Ethnomusicology, has noticed that music is starting to partially detach from specific geographic regions. There’s been a move away from the regionality that defined the 2000s, for example the clear stylistic distinctions between East Coast and West Coast and Dirty South hip hop.
Location matters less these days as people organize themselves in different ways, resulting in more unique cross-genre collaborations. Until recently, if you knew where someone was from, you had a pretty good idea what their music might sound like. With technological advances, Dario explains that the ability to record from anywhere has shattered geographical barriers, opening the door to more unconventional collaborations…look no further than DJ Khaled’s talent for bringing multiple artists together for a single song. Meanwhile, international genres like reggaeton continue to gain traction across the world, further muddling geographical musical boundaries.
As artists collaborate and genre lines blur, their work becomes harder to categorize. Billie Eilish and Bad Bunny are great examples of this because there are so many influences infused in their music, making it challenging to fit either of them neatly into a single genre. We’ve been noticing the trend towards post-genre pop for awhile, which results in some really interesting songs and combinations. Some recent “post-genre” hits include “Beautiful Mistakes” by Maroon 5 feat. Megan thee Stallion, and “Lil Bit” by Nelly & Florida Georgia Line.
Aside from determining if music is geographically relevant, curators must consider whether music is socially appropriate (or inappropriate). In recent years, the Me Too movement and cancel culture have had an important impact on listener preferences, and in turn music curation. Some of our customers choose to exclude certain artists from their stations because of these artists’ actions or words, as in the case of R. Kelly, Chris Brown, Morgan Wallen, or Michael Jackson.
In other cases, certain lyrics may be perceived as insensitive or inappropriate, either in a specific context or across the board. The classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” composed in 1944, is an example of a song whose lyrics have become controversial just during the past decade.There are often different and complex opinions regarding these cultural issues—-is N.W.A’s “F*** tha Police” irresponsibly inflammatory or a prescient critique of law enforcement?—so we as curators need to be engaged in the larger socio-political conversation to make thoughtful music selections.
Like artists and songs, instruments sometimes fall out of public favor for various reasons. Over the past 40 years of pop music, the saxophone has been through cycles of being serious to being ironic (played with tongue in cheek) to being serious once again. And of course, we must also consider the application of a music station we’re creating. Will it be used in a fitness setting where pop and hip hop are the preferred genres, or will it be in a retail setting where softer, less energetic genres are sometimes preferred?
Being curators requires us to take all of these things and much more into consideration. For me, the more I study music’s historical, cultural origins and the connections that exist across all styles, the more I appreciate this art form’s diversity and universal ability to communicate emotions while bringing people together. Serving as a music curator is a privilege, and the more layers of culture and context we bring into our jobs, the better we are at delivering the right music to the right person at the right time.