It used to be mixtapes, then mix CDs, and now it’s the Spotify playlist. Spotify allows their users to access pretty much all the music they could ever want. With paid subscription, you can listen to any song any time you want, and arrange them into playlists for easy access. Over time, I’ve been refining my methods so that I can keep my song collections organized. Since my options are close to unlimited, I often try to think about how to keep my music consumption alive, interesting, and manageable.
The Timeline Method
Since 2014, I’ve organized my playlists in time blocks. Initially they were divided into a quarterly system (“2014 pt. 1”, “2014 pt.2”, etc.). Next, I titled them by season, and now I make the playlists monthly. The idea is that if I hear a song I like, I add it to the playlist for that specific time block. This way, I am not always listening to the same songs, I can continuously introduce new music into my rotation, and at any given time I can time travel and see what I was listening to in, say, Spring of 2015.
Themed playlists are really useful. Spotify manages to make excellent collections that are arranged by specific feelings, like “Dark & Stormy” or “All The Feels”. My girlfriend has a “Sad Millennial Jams” playlist, and I’ve dabbled in creating a mix of songs that make my face feel numb (titled “Slackjaw”). While I often seek out these themed playlists, I find them hard to make and curate. Having a themed playlist means adding new songs and potentially taking off old ones. For me, I find that the “Laidback” playlist I made a year ago is no longer alive, and it seems like a lot of effort to remake it, especially when it would pain me to lose the songs that were previously there.
Since Spotify updates their themed playlists, it takes a lot of the pressure off me because I don’t care too much about archiving the songs that they keep on these lists. For example, I listen to their “Metropolis” playlist often, which are songs that are geared towards subway commutes. I am delighted when new songs are added to this list, and I am not sad when old songs are phased out. If I like a particular track, I’ll add it to one of my time-stamped playlists.
Whether it’s for cooking, video-gaming, or working out, activity specific playlists are super useful. I subscribe to an Electronic Study Music (“ESM”) playlist that my brain now associates with incredibly focused work. My cooking playlist is basically the “Baby Driver” soundtrack with related content, and if I am dancing alone in my room, I usually use the Spotify-made “Channel X” R&B mix. These playlists tend to require less curation and updating, since these songs typically help us get in the right mindset for whatever activity we’re doing. Like Pavlov’s dog, whenever I hear the first song on my ESM playlist, I’m ready to study. This is a more functional take on the playlist, and I highly recommend trying this out – training yourself to associate a task with specific mixes.
It’s a tale as old as time: you meet someone you like, so you make them a collection of songs. There’s an art to making the perfect playlist. You want to include the right bops, with a little bit of tenderness, and a sprinkle of things that communicate who you are. Gift playlists are a lot of fun to make, and I appreciate the painstaking effort that goes into them. My friend Aaron is a music fiend, and though we can’t hang out very often, he makes me stellar playlists for my morning commute. The topic of gift playlists is storied and rich, and perhaps should be saved for a future blog post.
This may be one of the approaches that I am most interested in. I have made a couple mixes for movies that don’t exist. I know that certain authors (like Irvine Welsh, for example) will make playlists for their novel writing. Music definitely creates a scene, and I think that more people should be making playlists with narrative arcs. This year, I made a playlist called “Bloodstream Cinematic”, which was a jarring collection of songs meant to be played in a specific order. It followed the story of a young person who starts a life of crime for fun but it gets progressively more out of control. The story is separated into two acts, which you can check out below.
Okay, so this is a sampling of the kind of frameworks I bring to the table when making playlists on Spotify. There are probably hundreds more of approaches, and we haven’t even started to talk about their Discover Weekly feature. But I wanted to highlight this phenomenon because I believe that today, curation is as much of an art as creation. We are constantly lost in a sea of media, and our ability to collect and organize it all becomes more and more important and valuable. In 2019, I want to see more people who become better and finding, distilling, and sharing media, much like people make collages or mashups.
You can check out my Spotify profile and playlists here.