• DJ ARIA

How To Create The Perfect Playlist

Every moment in life has a soundtrack. These soundtracks can be emotionally driven, event based or simply a collection of songs to play in the background. In each case there is a deliberate selection of songs that can be chosen for the moment. This selection itself is an expression of creativity and as such it can be a lot of fun to make a playlist. So whether you are making a playlist for yourself or others consider it an opportunity to flex your editorial prowess of a time-honored tradition that dates back to the early 1980s - a time when music lovers could record onto compact audio cassettes; creating mixes of their favorite songs. In the early 2000s, we could burn CDs and dedicate them to our crushes.


The C90 "90 minute" Compact Cassette

Perhaps you have been entrusted with the important responsibility of handling the music for an upcoming event. The pressure is on to make the perfect playlist. Before we get into the how we must understand what playlists are in the first place. Put simply, a playlist is a compilation of songs intended for continuous playback. These compilations are now more popular than ever. According to surveys done by Pitchfork Media, the playlist surpassed the album in 2015 as the primary mode of listening to music. This should come as no surprise in the advent of digital music streaming where consumers want to make sense of massive online catalogs available at their fingertips. Moreover, record labels and distributors today negotiate deals with streaming services for new songs to be featured atop popular playlists. Undeniably, playlists are here to stay and are becoming even more relevant. With so many pre-made playlists out there, you can easily use someone else's playlist in attempt to fit your needs on a whim; however, they will never be the perfect playlist. This brings us to how we evaluate playlists. In general, the following parameters can be used to assess any playlist. There are no right or wrong configurations of these parameters despite there being trade-offs.

Note: This is my own take on research done by music scholar Ben Fields

To illustrate this with an example, let's examine the following playlist with an assessment for each playlist parameter.

  1. Through the Wire - Kanye West

  2. All Falls Down - Kanye West

  3. Jesus Walks - Kanye West

  4. Gold Digger - Kanye West

  5. Stronger - Kanye West

  6. Good Life - Kanye West

  7. Love Lockdown - Kanye West

  8. Heartless - Kanye West

  9. All Mine - Kanye West

  10. Yikes - Kanye West

"Greatest Hits" type of playlist

The songs listed are all from the same artist, they are all Billboard charting singles and they advance chronologically through his discography. As such, we characterized the playlist as very coherent, familiar and predictable in order. So while Brother Ye (Kanye) is no doubt a prolific artist, creating a playlist with some of his deep cuts will add novelty and surprise to keep even the most die-hard Yeezy fan engaged. Let's see what that would look like.

  1. Wolves - Kanye West

  2. Good Morning - Kanye West

  3. Highlights - Kanye West

  4. I Wonder - Kanye West

  5. I Love Kanye - Kanye West

  6. Touch the Sky - Kanye West feat. Lupe Fiasco

  7. Wouldn't Leave - Kanye West feat. PartyNextDoor

  8. Family Business - Kanye West

  9. Lift Off - Jay Z & Kanye West

  10. Start It Up - Lloyd Banks feat. Kanye West & Swizz Beats

"Deep Cuts" type of playlist

Finally, let's look at a playlist with some variety (we all loved the old Kanye anyways). The example we will use below is a Golden Age era-based playlist.

  1. Hip Hop Hooray - Naughty By Nature

  2. Rebirth of Slick - Diagable Planets

  3. Award Tour - A Tribe Called Quest

  4. MVP - Big L

  5. Passin' Me By - The Pharcyde

  6. Brass Monkey - Beastie Boys

  7. I Wish - Skee-Lo

  8. Sound of da Police - KRS One

  9. Tearz - Wu-Tang Clan

  10. Mass Appeal - Gang Starr

A true mix type of playlist

These songs have some variety in the artists and years released, they are familiar to anyone versed in Golden Age hip hop and have a sequence to keep you interested. These three examples demonstrate the trade offs apparent with any playlist. You now can see how these six parameters work and are ready to create your own playlist. So besides the obvious advice of picking the format and knowing your audience, below are four strategies from me to help up your playlist game to level 100.


1. Have an objective

The perfect playlist is one that contains music that meets the defined objective. In setting the target sound to achieve you establish the criteria needed to properly evaluate songs and decide whether or not they deserve to be included in your playlist. This will serve as the basis for you to quickly assess songs for a fit as you comb through music catalogs. Use the three trade-offs listed above to chart your own playlist. Also carefully consider the following contextual factors when defining the objective for your playlist.

Energy

Is the playlist you are making for a cocktail party or rager or maybe it is a mix for your next workout or road trip? The energy level you desire will significantly influence the songs in your playlist. Is this for a warmup or cooldown, maybe sustained energy throughout?

Presence

Consider the volume dynamics and how the playlist will be heard. Is the playlist going to be played softly as background music or through a front-of-house PA system? Will volume levels change throughout playback of the music; e.g. after dinner you want to turn up.

Sensitivity

Do you want this playlist to pay tribute to someone or something? Perhaps you have chosen to honor an occasion or want something to relieve stress.


2. Curate

One of the most flattering questions you can be asked:

"What song is this playing right now? I have never heard it before."

This question conveys the excitement involved whenever someone discovers new music. It feels good to help others find new music and it is an instant compliment to your selection skills that you found something they otherwise would not have been able to enjoy. So how do we get this response? Curate your music selection and don't be lazy. With the advent of digital streaming services, consumers have unprecedented access to music catalogs like never before. Take Spotify for example, the British music streaming service that has over 30 million songs in their catalog. The thought of making a playlist can be daunting when faced with so many songs to choose from in a catalog. It also makes it easy to be lazy as you can copy swathes of music from pre-made playlists in hopes that it will meet your objective. In this context you are given a fantastic opportunity to curate - taking the time to deliberately sift through, select and organize specific songs in a way that expresses a discerning ear and musical taste such that it is obvious someone put time and effort into the playlist being heard. To curate effectively, build trust by selecting some familiar songs that most people like and would expect, giving listeners a chance to remember why they like the song, then add in lesser-known songs.


3. Turn off shuffle

Put simply, you should have a plan for the songs in your playlist. Consider the genre, era, tempo and vibe of each song so that your playlist flows with purpose. If it is a house party playlist, you do not want upbeat, sing-a-long favorites to play as guests arrive - situate these songs later on in the playlist for them to be most effective. Be deliberate with the sequencing of songs so that a nice variety is present and your listener is never bored. That said, make sure the playlist does not feel disconnected at any point if the feeling and flow of the music changes too drastically. With shuffle off you can design the story arc of energy for your playlist in a manner that aligns to your objective.

Build trust first, then tension. Crowd-pleaser tracks are most effective later in the playlist.

4. Rehearse + Refine

By now you have chosen some great songs though your playlist is not yet done. Have a few listens to see if it flows well and meets your objective then rearrange or remove songs as needed. Once complete, your playlist is ready to debut. Observe the response and seek to understand how it could be improved after each listen. You want to keep things fresh so your playlist should evolve. Not to worry because time is on your side - well over 100,000 songs are added to music catalogs each month. Auditioning new music becomes easier the more playlists you have in your repertoire. You will now hear songs with purpose and have the framework to pick which moments in this soundtrack of life they belong.


Perfect. The verb not the adjective.

In conclusion, get out of your comfort zone and have some fun when you make your next playlist.


-DJ ARIA

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