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The Evolution of Music Curation with Saidah Blount

Posted by Jeff Yasuda on Apr 26, 2022 11:00:00 AM

Behind every favorite artist, song, or lyric, is a story you've never heard. Music is highly personal, and our experiences with it shape our memories, thoughts, and desires. So much goes into every note and lyric behind the scenes, which is why we’re bringing you Voices Behind the Music to share untold music business tales. Our guests range from artists, producers, and managers to tech creators and more, each sharing their unique past experiences, current projects, and visions for the future. Voices Behind The Music is presented by Feed Media Group, the leading B2B music licensing platform.

Hosted by Jeff Yasuda, CEO, Feed Media Group.

 

 

Saidah Blount
is a NYC-based brand and marketing executive known for her focus on music culture. As Sonos' Senior Manager, Global Content Marketing, she’s helped to establish and develop new sonic and cultural platforms for the company, including Sonos Radio, positioning the company as an emerging leader in the music and content space. In her past, Saidah has worked with a number of innovative and influential media outlets and brands, including NPR Music, The Fader, Adidas, Punchdrunk, Spotify, and Topshop. In her free time, Saidah loves going to concerts, checking out new restaurants in Brooklyn and travel. She’s also planning on starting a podcast in the near future...

 

 

Podcast Transcript:

[00:00:00] Jeff: Innovators in the music industry are thinking deeply about what's next and how to be a part of it. On Voices Behind the Music, you'll hear from some of the most influential voices in music about how the industry is changing and what the future might unfold. Saidah Blount is a New York City based brand and marketing powerhouse known for a focus on music culture, but she wasn't always the digital content maven that she is today.

Saidah grew up in the Midwest and describes herself as being bookish in her early days. Her family placed academics as the top priority, which led her to be a political science major in college. She then moved to the Big Apple for grad school to study public policy and political theory. But behind it all, she always surrounded herself with music and it was her calling.

So she made the risky decision to switch careers and had to start all over. She went from writing policy papers to handing out flyers to promote a show. For meals, she was either fueled by ramen or went to music industry parties for the free food. But things today are wildly different.

She is now the Senior Manager of Global Content Marketing for Sonos, and she's helped to establish and develop new Sonic and cultural platforms for the company, including Sonos radio, positioning the company as an emerging leader in the music and content space. Prior to Sonos, Saidah was at NPR where she handled music live events and digital content for five years.

But Saidah also has deep experience working with innovative and top influential media outlets and brands such as Fader, Adidas, Punchdrunk, Spotify and Top Shop. In her free time. Saidah loves going to concerts, checking out new restaurants in Brooklyn and travel. She's also plotting on starting a new podcast in the near future.

Saidah, welcome to Voices Behind the Music.

[00:02:07] Saidah: Thank you so much. Wow. It's nice to hear your life summed up in such a glossy sort of way. So thank you. 

[00:02:14] Jeff: Awesome. So for starters, tell us what is Sonos and describe your role there?

[00:02:20] Saidah: Sonos is a music product and technology company that's based out of Santa Barbara, California. Basically we're known for making really great wireless speakers that also fit into your home theater kind of space in your home. The company was started by a group of music loving tech geeks that were like, why can't you create really amazing products that are premium, but at a very fair price and also run by and operated via wifi.

So Sonos has expanded from there. It's been around for wow, I want to say 17 years plus, and there's about nearly 1800 employees across the world. And we just now in the last two years started this division Sonos radio, where we're now focusing on bringing music content and great curation to homes. 

[00:03:13] Jeff: Awesome. Tell us about your doing at Sonos?

[00:03:18] Saidah: I've worked across marketing pretty much at the company. I started out on the America's team, working on developing live events and figuring out how do we bring that Sonos experience outside of the home.

It's wiggled its way through every facet of the company, going global and doing experiential events and activations. And now I've landed again, working on this really amazing Sonos radio project where we've decided, Hey, you've got these great speakers in your home, you've invested in this.

We found that people listen to music and their podcasts in their home pretty continuously from the moment that they walk through the door from work or errands or different things like that. The speakers are on. Why not create our own content? We've done this with a focus on music discovery. We know that we don't have the budgets of companies like Spotify or Amazon music or Apple, but we know that we do have really great talent and we have access to artists that understand music and are deep lovers and appreciators of music.

So we're flexing our ability to reach out to those folks and creating great content, just imaginative, interesting content based out of music discovery.

[00:04:39] Jeff: And so these are actual curators? These are human beings that are curating this content?

[00:04:46] Saidah: Pretty much. Yeah we've really focused on human curation. I actually curate an entire station called Sound System, that is probably the largest base of most of our unique and original content. So yeah, I'm talking to DJs and artists and music supervisors about what they think is interesting.

It's giving them the opportunity that they've never had with no barriers, no constrictions, just go for it. We also do work with a radio agency that helps us build out, we just have a sheer volume of music you have to put out there, like we call them mood and genre stations. So say you come in, you want to sleep station.

Punch a button. You've got that music running. You want to listen to country with no fuss? You punch this button. We do have an agency that we work with, but I would say that for our original content, it is 100% human curated. 

[00:05:39] Jeff: There is a great debate between algorithmic recommendations and human recommendation. I certainly have a view on that, but it sounds like you do too. By definition, you're talking about the process, picking individual songs, having conversations. But we oftentimes get the question in our line of work at Feed, well is having human curators, is that scaleable? 

Are you able to scale that process? Whereas algorithmic recommendation, the old days of Savage beast that Pandora is, which was actually done by humans and then the algorithm was on top of that. When you do compare it to traditional collaborative filtering algorithms like Netflix, which are infinitely scaleable, do you feel that it loses that important touch or do you find people are okay with algorithmic recommendation?

[00:06:36] Saidah: I can't hate on the algorithm. I have to say that, my Spotify algorithm knows me to a T. I opened up my discover weekly and I'm like, wow, this is pretty good. I'm overwhelmed sometimes at how good it is, but I do think there is a loss of warmth and a loss of kind of an emotional journey sometimes when you rely too heavily on the algorithm.

That's the way that I curate, I definitely, people will tell you I make playlists and I consider it storytelling based on emotion. I like to take the listener on a journey. There is a moment where you do need to feel that kind of emotional resonance that you can only get from a person picking out their favorite songs or something that resonated with them the first time they heard it, or, wow I love that background noise that kind of echoes through the song and it makes me feel something, and it's going to smooth so well into this Bowie song. 

There's an art form to that. And I really appreciate people that take the time and do that. I was that friend in high school that made mix tapes for friends for every situation.

When somebody does ask for me or sends me a playlist, I love that. So yeah, we really thought about that with the Sonos radio, because we are about trying to get people to come out of their comfort zone a little bit and discover some new music.

I feel that it is really important that a human touches it because we've got experts. We've got people that know the most about Black music across the diaspora. People that know about all different variants of rock, dance music, African music. Those things that sometimes a computer or an algorithm can't pick up.

It's just oh, I didn't know about this really obscure track from this tour group from the seventies, it didn't get explored. Like an algorithm is not going to pick up that emotionality and what it means to somebody to put that on a playlist. Human curation all the way. 

[00:08:36] Jeff: Human curation again, I love how you said has that warmth, right? It has that contextual element that just can't get. But it seems to me though that it's almost like one isn't necessarily better than the other. It's kind of Nirvana might be the intersection of those two.

[00:08:56] Saidah: And that's okay. But moments where I'm really engaged and sitting and listening and wanting to learn because I constantly learn. That's why I listen to music. I'm one of those people that always tells people, hit me with something. If you hear about a great album or genre or whatever, that I might not know, please hit me about it. Those moments are really important.

Music discovery is how I grew up. It saved my life. I had a job as a teenager, Barnes and Noble to pay for my addiction to British music magazine, so I could learn more music. I'd never took home a paycheck. My parents were like, where did the money go? And I'm like, well see that stack of paper in my bedroom? That's where it went. 

For me, the music discovery aspect is key. And I think fostering that human kind of curation and interest and the willing to go down wormholes is really important. 

[00:09:50] Jeff: Yeah, and let's talk about that. And I think you and I are both have a similar vintage, or we can both say that there are those days, we're not gonna use numbers. But you and I probably were of the vintage where there was some element or a strong element of joy walking into a thing called a record store where you actually physically feel cover and flip through the record stack and the smells.

Particularly when you go to a used record store, the smells and it's got each person had their special imprint this plastic thing. And all of a sudden, as you're flipping through just by happenstance, oh my gosh. I'm in the F section and you came across some random band.

You like the cover art and it caused you to go deeper and then pull up the lighter notes and read, oh my God, this person played with somebody else who I love. Do you think that technology crushed that discovery process or do you think technology has enhanced the discovery process?

[00:10:57] Saidah: I think it's a mix of both. I think that technology is crushed the emotional element of it, for sure. Like you mentioned I haven't heard anybody mention that in a very long time. Thank you for saying about the certain smells of a record store. 

[00:11:11] Jeff: I know that sounds weird. Maybe.

[00:11:13] Saidah: I think that people that know it, you're dead on that there's a smell of what those record jackets that have been aged and in somebody's house. And somebody that may have smoked while listening to their albums or something, it just comes home with you. It's amazing. I grew up in record stores. Going from vinyl getting my first piece and then begging my dad to buy me blocks of Maxell tapes. Please. And I would record off of the radio. I'm so jealous of young people that now don't have to search for anything.

I'm pulling up my cave Right now, shaking it at the kids on the lawn. But we've had to do so much to discover about new music. I think about it now and I'm just like, how did I have time with like school and all of these other things? I listened to college radio from other, like when I would go to other cities as a kid, if we went home to Michigan to visit my mom's family, I would bring tapes with me and I would record the radio there and then I would bring it back and play it for all of my friends being like, listen to what I heard. 

And Michigan had great college radio stations. Magazines, and watching, can you imagine, remember we used to have TV shows that actually covered music and showed all of those things.

Listen to Casey Qassem. I listened to America's top 40 every week. But now, kids can just go to Spotify and any other music app and it's basically a virtual jukebox. That's how I had to explain it to my aunt when I set up Spotify for her. I was like, look, imagine you have a jukebox at every figure in the world is there you just type it in and you can listen to it. What a gift. 

[00:12:46] Jeff: It is a gift and I think technology does play a critically important role. There's an old saying which is content is king. I would argue though, nowadays, because content is everywhere. It's like water, right? There's so much content you'd never be able to consume it in multiple lifetimes.

that leads me to say, it's not content that is king. is context. 

[00:13:12] Saidah: Yes. 

[00:13:13] Jeff: I miss the context, particularly college radio, which was great because they had a lot more freedom play what they wanted, oftentimes it wasn't necessarily the music, is was the spaces in between the music, right? It was the, it was when the DJ said, Hey, you should check out this crazy band called the red hot chili peppers. I know it's a naughtiest name and they do this funk rock LA kind of thing. It'll blow your mind. Oh, the first time I heard the violent femmes, it was just like, whoa, what is this?

This is nuts. But it was the context around it. The story about the bands that got me super excited. 

[00:13:57] Saidah: College radio was a goal of mine when I went away to school. I went to this small liberal arts college in the middle of Maine in the middle of nowhere. 

[00:14:05] Jeff: You went to Bates? 

[00:14:07] Saidah: Bates. 

[00:14:07] Jeff: I love that school.

[00:14:08] Saidah: It's a great school, in the smack dab in the middle of the state. 1200 students total, but WRBC was one of the best college radio stations in the country. And I don't know if you worked college radio or were familiar with the inner workings, it is stereotypical. I've literally thought about writing a screenplay about how every stereotypical person that you hear about at a college radio station work there.

And I was one of them. I was a content like manager and did all of that stuff. At WRBC, one of the greatest things was they put these stickers on the back of CDs and albums where the disc jockeys could fill in their thoughts and notes. Things could get so wild. You would hear people say some of their, I'm going to read what's on the back of this.

 Hey, I've got this Ned's atomic dustbin CD, and they're this weirdo band. And it makes me feel like I'm tripping. It's just insane. I miss those moments where just some wackadoodle kid gets on and we'll play anything. WRBC had a yearly tradition called peace frog day that for 24 hours, they would play a peace frog by the doors. 

[00:15:24] Jeff: For 24 hours straight?

It's a great song.

[00:15:29] Saidah: A great song. I know every note of I knew every, like pick of the guitar. It's insane. They did that. There were just like weirdo, psych days. That personality doesn't always translate anywhere else. But I think college radio just holds a special place in my heart and I think we tried to bring some of that at Sonos. 

We have some oddballs that make some shows for us and I've never put any barriers around people. I was like, if can we get put together music, BBC6, WKRP, and a weirdo college rock. I was like, would this be what we're putting on the air? Like where people are learning things at the same time. That to me was the ultimate joy. 

So Personality matters. You just need those moments in music. It can't always be about like, oh, I'm going to give this an 8.3, because this is why I thought it was great. Sometimes you just need a wackadoodle guy that's you know what? This is real trippy. And I listened to this when I was making out with my girlfriend under the bleachers and college. And it was great. 

[00:16:32] Jeff: Yup. Yup. you and I are talking about the golden years of music discovery when tapes, which I did too, and remember when you make a mixtape and I remember those Maxwell tapes, you pop it in there. There wasn't a speed record function, When you were going through song by song, because if you hit speed record and you stopped it too late, or didn't get it right.

You have to start all over again. So you're listening to each song as you're making this mixtape. I was the king of making mixed tapes for lovely ladies that wanted nothing to do with me. And it never worked. 

[00:17:08] Saidah: Oh. 

[00:17:10] Jeff: I never stopped trying, but part of that joy of putting the perfect song and then writing it in on that paper cover that you could never get your ballpoint pen to actually make a mark cause it was like some weird plasticky thing on it. 

[00:17:26] Saidah: Weird film on it. 

Yeah. 

[00:17:28] Jeff: The coating on it. Anyway, but then writing and going through line by line being so thoughtful.

Oh no, I can't put that Bowie tune next to that because Bowie and Billy Idol hated each other or something. There was just that joy of creation. But, obviously technology is critical in music, as you're saying, I'd love to how you describe Spotify as the giant jukebox in the sky.

But what do you think, what's the future of music particularly as it relates to curation and discovery, do you have a view on that?

[00:17:58] Saidah: I think it's going to get bigger and bigger. I think that discovery is the tool. Where else can pop music go? I think we've all kind of seen where it's landed. MTV doesn't exist anymore.

There's not a place really to discover the whole art form, the visuals. We get to see it at award shows and via social media. I think that even social media has changed what music really is. It's like this rise of Tik TOK artists for better or for worse. There's been some that are fantastic.

 Particularly versed in her music, but Olivia Rodrigo, I see where she's come out of that. But on the other hand, somebody else that I think is absolutely fascinating and I'm excited to see what she does is Pink Pantheris from the UK, that she makes these little less than two minutes songs, but she knows her references.

You could tell that she is somebody that was raised by the internet, raised by Spotify, that she has had access to everything. She's pulling from a bank of samples and noises and sounds, and references that for her age being 18, 19 years old, are years older. Like she's pulling drum and bass references that I'm just like, Wow.

I haven't heard that since I was at a rave. She's pulling R and B references that no one's heard, a lot of a lot of British music. She's making exciting stuff and she's selling out venues. 

[00:19:23] Jeff: Wow. 

[00:19:24] Saidah: She announced here in the US that went very under the radar. I was like, oh, I'm going to have time to buy tickets.

I was there like 20 minutes after the tickets went on to say it was fully sold out for a massive venue here in New York. She sold out LA. She sold out other cities. The sky's the limit, I think on music. I think that social media and these folks that are just on here creating their own kind of scale do anything.

 The traditional industry, I think not to say it's in trouble, but I think that they're going to have to realize how to jog pretty quickly on how to stay fresh and stay competitive. Because I see that even established artists are having problems and having to figure out new ways to stay fresh. Even people that sell tons of records like the Weeknd and Taylor Swift are looking at new ways of marketing and selling and making their music. 

I love the way that Taylor Swift is thinking about her music. Now, I think that she's branched out into looking at how her audience listens. Okay, I know that my audience listens to me, but they're probably also listening to pitch forkey sort of stuff. And she's been working with interesting producers. 

I think that everyone's going to have to do that, that the model of churning out the same thing, and just hoping that the industry pickups picks up on it or fans pick up on it that is done. It is a job now to actually be, and it's a job and a privilege to be a working artist right now. And to have your music do well. 

 Everyone's going to have to put in a little bit more work because this industry is not static. I'm interested to see where it goes with gaming coming in. All of this crypto and NFT stuff that I still don't even really know about. I have a friend that's tried to get me caught up, but he's thinking about how to blend art and music into that. And I'm just like, that is so way above where I'm thinking. I think the sky is the limit right now. 

[00:21:17] Jeff: Yeah. And I'll throw in fitness too. 

[00:21:19] Saidah: wow. 

[00:21:19] Jeff: Fitness is the new distribution channel. 

[00:21:23] Saidah: It really is. 

[00:21:23] Jeff: If you think about where do people listen to music? When they commute to work, that kind of stopped and COVID, there's so many remote workplaces. When they go out, that kind of stopped for a while during COVID. 

Thirdly, when you work out. People need music when they work out. And there's all this interesting neurological science around the effect of music on people's perception of time of how hard they're working, et cetera, et cetera. So we are seeing power play almost shift to that, of the fitness side, where it becomes a distribution channel, similar to how the good old days radio was a distribution channel for music.

[00:22:07] Saidah: That's interesting. That is very true. If you go onto Spotify and you click say someone like Peloton, their playlists are very good. You're just like, wow, somebody here is doing great curation. I've heard a rumor that They do quite a bit of human curation.

[00:22:23] Jeff: They do. They do. And it begs the question I was going to ask you, who is the real rock star now? Is the rock star, the curator? Or is the rockstar? And a lot of it is there's so much content that you need a rock star curator. Peloton is an interesting example that you bring up because those instructors the rock stars.

[00:22:44] Saidah: 100%. 

[00:22:45] Jeff: Those folks are the entertainers that are picking not only a style of the workout, but the style of the music. And people will oftentimes go to a particular class because, Hey, I love his or her music choices.

[00:22:58] Saidah: Same with sleep stations. Just looking at the number of music stars that have sleep channels now that they make music expressly for these sleep stations is mind boggling to me. Ironically, we have a show on Sonos radio that is about conversations with music supervisors, and I agree with you. I think that music supervisors Are rock stars. Like Ludvig Goranson, who does the music for the Mandalorian and all of those Star Trek. He is a rock star. He does the stuff for that Disney universe. He's also, like John Williams is like coming to him, being like, I'm handing you the mantle.

You're the guy doing star wars stuff. Now that's huge, like shoes to fill. 

[00:23:40] Jeff: Yup. Yup. So awesome. So let me ask you a couple quick questions, actually, one around advice for a young person getting into the music industry. Can you share some knowledge?

[00:23:55] Saidah: This is funny, cause I actually talked with, I've been doing some advisory work for the Clive Davis school of music here in New York. I talked with the young person today that he's finishing up his last semester and trying to figure out what he's doing. But he played music in his kind of like senior review that blew my head off within the first three notes.

I was like, whoa. I was like, this kid is really thinking about what he wants to do. He knows his style. He was very assured. I would say that one, if you have the opportunity and you have the privilege to look at a school like Clive Davis, it's the most comprehensive program in the country right now that it's allowing Young people to look at every facet of the music business from they have music supervision classes to gaming, music and gaming.

That's huge. Looking at internet technologies and music. And then the requirements there is that you have to take a class in every one of those. The 360 of the business. I would say, make sure that if you, even, if you don't have that opportunity, learn every facet of the business or at least research it. Don't go in cold.

Don't think, oh, I'm just a singer. I'm going to learn this. And somebody will also take care of the backend. No, you have to know everything that you're doing top to bottom. If I could rewind the clock, I would take as many mentorship and internships as I could. Learn from people that are willing to give you the time. Take informational calls for people.

If people are willing to give you 15 to 20 minutes to talk to you about what they do every day, just so you could hear immediately nah, that's not for me or that's interesting let me do a little bit more of a deep dive. That's great. It sounds so weird. Cause people don't really do this anymore. 

Gather network, like actually be foot on the ground and go to things and network. People now just do it over LinkedIn or they just send emails back and forth and the DMS. Actually get out and meet people. When I moved to New York city, the best thing I ever did for myself, when I decided I wanted to be in music was I went to tons of shows and I went to tons of industry things.

And even if I was just standing in the corner, drinking their free drinks and eating their free food, I still met people that like were like, Hey, have you ever thought about talking to this person. Face to face, trumps all. Like you just have to get in front of people and learn and kind of network. 

[00:26:19] Jeff: Love it. Love it. On that note, at any of events did you have any star struck moments?

[00:26:25] Saidah: Always. Again, I'm about to give I'm about to give away our vintage, sorry. I moved to New York in 98. And that was a really golden era that was about to pop into the two thousands. And, I moved here and that was still when a lot of music artists move freely.

Like I would go to parties and the young JayZ would be there and I was even star struck then where you're just like, whoa, this is, you could just tell he was going to be a star.

One of my funniest stories year I went to Coachella and I had an artist pass, which at Coachella that's basically, that's one step away from having a cart and driving it yourself around. You could go anywhere with an artist pass. And I got it for a couple specific reasons, but one, I wanted to see Brian Ferry.

I have the biggest Roxy music fan, and I love Brian Ferry, a man in a smoky jacket. My God. And I was like, so I told my friend that I went with, I was like, we're going to Brian Ferry. We're going to be behind stage so I could see this show. I don't want to be arm jostling people, prime spot. We found the prime spot.

We are behind the stage. We're looking through the curtain, the whole band, Brian Ferry's there dancing around. And all of a sudden I feel a tap on my shoulder and I hear this hey, you're a dragging some toilet paper on the bottom of your shoe. And I feel this like leg or this arm lift up my leg and I turned around and it's Steven Tyler.

I had picked up my foot and is literally he's Hey looks like some gum gotcha. I was like, literally my friend and I are gap jaw, just watching Steven Tyler pick gum off of the bottom of my shoe and like wrap it in some gross like paper that it's it. And he's like Hey, I got it there for you. Are you having a good time?

And we're both like, just nodding yes. It's Steven Tyler, looking amazing, looking fresh and healthy. One of the best smelling celebrities. I have a list. One of the best smelling celebrities I've 

[00:28:23] Jeff: All right. So the smell thing is like real?

[00:28:25] Saidah: It's real. I'm one of those people that pays attention, Dolly Parton, the best smelling celebrity I've met.

[00:28:30] Jeff: Oh, I love it. I love it. So that sounded like your best concert too. What about the first album that you purchased?

[00:28:40] Saidah: I want to say the first album I purchased was a Michael Jackson record. I don't, I want to say maybe it was thriller. I don't remember exactly what, but definitely Michael. 

[00:28:52] Jeff: That's a good one. That's a good one. Good one. Saidah, thank you so much for being on the show. I had an absolute blast that was so much fun and we hope to have you again.

[00:29:03] Saidah: Thank you so much. This was so great. Thank you for letting me go through some of my great times. 

[00:29:08] Jeff: Ah, fantastic.

Thanks for listening to Voices Behind the Music, a Growth Network Podcast production presented by Feed Media Group. We're on a mission to make it easy, fast, and legal for businesses to use music to power the most engaging customer experiences. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast wherever you get yours and learn more about us at feedmediagroup.com.

 

 

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Topics: Music Curation, Joy of Music, Music Industry