Humans are social beings. Evolutionarily speaking, we have moved towards living in larger and larger communities. People with large social networks have power and influence. People who have no mates are dubbed ‘Nigel No-Mates’, and other people assume that they’ll live at home with their parents well into their forties and they’ll even go as far as to speculate that there’s ‘something going on’ between them and their sister.
In many respects this is why popular music has become so important to our lives; it is the soundtrack to our socialising. Ever since our Neanderthal ancestors first said “Hey, this party is a bit quiet, let’s put this Leo Sayer record on” a good soundtrack has been part of every major social life event; be it a ‘party’, ‘wedding’ or ‘community meeting to decide what to do about the large number of immigrants moving into the area’.
What people want though, as well as music, is variation. No one wants to listen to all of Frances the Mute, from start to finish, with all the weird pots-and-pans noises and moaning inclusive. People want a selection; the choice cuts and the exemplars.
From the need to ‘keep the party rocking’ arose ‘the playlist’.
Now, I know what you’re saying. You’re saying “But…but…I have playlists just for myself, for going to the gym or for surreptitiously watching my cousins disrobe and such”. I bet you’re saying it in a stupid voice too.
Well, okay. You do. Well done. What we’re talking about though is playlists for other people to listen to.
Like any discipline that has evolved over time, much painstaking thought and diligence has gone into playlisting. It is, in essence, a science.
One tune per artist
This is a general rule. Basically, people new to playlist development should stick to it. No one wants to listen to an entire Empire of the Sun album, no matter how well randomised it is. It defeats the entire purpose of developing a playlist in the first place. There is basically no entire album everyone wants to listen to. Cripes, even The Stone Roses has ‘Elizabeth My Dear’!
If you are a more sophisticated playlist technician, however, you may wish to experiment with following the ‘playlist duplication formula’. This formula is as follows:
General Popularity of Artist x Back Catalogue / Amount of Filler in Back-Catalogue
If an artist is popular with your audience (or, say ‘any audience’ – ‘The Nirvana Principle’) and they have a big back-catalogue then you may consider more than one tune. However, some popular artists have an immense back-catalogue but loads of it is just album filler or repetition (the ‘Pearl Jam Principle’), and this must be factored in.
This is what allows you to have four David Bowie songs on a playlist and only one Gold Panda one.
Just the hits…
Again, this is a general rule and it does depend on the audience, but you should start from the principle that people want to hear the hits, particularly from certain artists. You put an E.M.F song on a playlist for example, it probably should be ‘Unbelievable’.
Nobody knows as much about music as you do and most people want to hear music they know, so start from this principle.
…But maybe a few talking points
This is where you show your music knowledge; rather than being as obscure as possible (which, to be honest, isn’t that hard – most music is ‘deep cuts’ and ‘album tracks’) add a few interesting talking points. Obscure artists doing famous songs is a good one, or try and find, say, literally the worst Snoop Dogg collaboration. Basically, anything that will create a talking point.
Even if that talking point is “This version isn’t as good as the original Red Hot Chilli Peppers version”.
Context is important
No matter how much you like techno, a playlist made up entirely of Underground Resistance and Tresor tracks isn’t going to be appropriate for your aunt’s funeral. Probably not even appropriate at the wake or the after-wake party.
Even if you are trying to create a dark and foreboding sense of urgency.
If, however, you were asked to fill in for the DJ at Berghain because they had the squits from a bad bratwurst, you wouldn’t inflict Coldplay, or other funeral music on the crowd of up-for-it Berlin clubbers.
People want to hear different sorts of music at parties as they do in the supermarket. Even different sorts of parties have different musical ‘vibes’ to them. If you are partying with former New Zealand Prime Minister Mike Moore, you might want to listen to lots of Chicago and late-seventies jazz-infused soft-rock but if, later, you head to another party filled with youths, a playlist with lots of Diplo and Garth Brooks might be more the requisite ‘dope jam’.
Read your audience, learn them. Learn from them. Synergy.
You are being judged
In any fair society, people are judged on what they listen to. It also isn’t as simple as ‘Bad people listen to Slipknot and good people listen to Pharoahe Monch’ because, while this is certainly true, there are nuances to it. You can send messages about yourself or what you wish to say by the choices you make and then play to your public.
You may want to impress upon people that you’ve ‘been raving for years mate’ by stacking your playlist with lots of early nineties breakbeat hardcore. You may want to impress upon people that you really aren’t a racist, so you add lots of Black Milk or Public Enemy tunes. You may wish impress upon people that you are a boring dickhead and thus you add several Mumford & Sons songs.
Music is a tool of communication and not solely one that’s wielded by its creator alone; it can also be wielded by the selector. Or ‘selectah’ if its ska.
And that’s what its all really about isn’t it. Communicating with our friends. Sharing.
Give me a hug.