If you’ve ever doubted the power of the playlist, think again. From manipulating consumer behaviour (you can blame the background music at Society Cafe for the hit your student loan took last term) to paving the path to my own doomed love affair, as well as revolutionising the way in which artists and songs get their big break, playlists form the bedrock of the music industry and our own musical expression.
So then, how best to harness this power? In the words of Rob Gordon (from the movie adaptation of Nick Hornby’s cult novel High Fidelity), “The making of a great compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many dos and don’ts. First of all, you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you’re feeling. This is a delicate thing.” Because crafting the perfect playlist, “like breaking up, is hard to do, and takes way longer than it might seem”. (If you haven’t already read High Fidelity, there is no better time to enjoy the existential crisis of a broke record store owner and self-certified arsehole as he navigates love. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzQwbRdh5Ts)
Whilst seemingly superficial, the terrifying truth is playlists go right to the heart of who you are and are unavoidably personal and subjective. Nevertheless, below are what I believe to be some essential considerations to this subtle art.
Theme. The theme (or concept, if you’re feeling meta) is perhaps the most crucial aspect of the process. It is the foundation, the string that binds your tracks together, conveys a message and ultimately gives the playlist existential meaning. In short, it is the reason for its creation. Broken hearted? The theme might be “songs my ex hates”, “I found love again” (if your ex still follows you on Spotify), “ballads of a broken heart”, “best songs to cry to”, the possibilities are endless. Nevertheless, it is important that every track relates to the theme in some way for the playlist to maintain a sense of coherence.
Content. If the theme of the playlist is the foundation, the content is all the fixtures and fittings, your brother, sister, parents and dog. It is everything to the making of a perfect playlist. Now is your time to shine, be it with a devout passion for Fleetwood Mac (guilty), a morbid addiction to Requiems, traditional Andean flute music, or One Direction’s greatest hits, guilty pleasures all welcome, whatever floats your or your listener’s boat deserves to be there! Again, don’t hesitate to include a mixture of genres, after all who doesn’t like to brag about their multifaceted taste too impressive to be categorised.
Length. Spotify claims a good playlist should be 40+ songs, adding enthusiastically “there’s no maximum though!”. That might do for your marathon training playlist, but if your goal is to inspire musical appreciation in your listener rather than just exercise-induced pain relief, a shorter playlist (c. 15 tracks) is more conducive to the type of considered listening required. This is especially relevant to the ‘recommendation playlist’ where it is crucial not to overwhelm the listener but to keep it short and sweet, engaging and leaving them wanting more.
Running Order. Whilst society mourns the demise of the meticulous artistry of the album now replaced by hit singles and streaming services, one characteristic feature of the album lives on, retaining considerable influence on the making of the perfect playlist; the running order. Easily overlooked and unappreciated, in allowing you to carve out a journey for the listener (much like its role in the album) the order is often imperative to the communication of the concept, and so, must be skilfully executed. To refer back to High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon “You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention, and then you’ve got to up it a notch… there are loads of rules.” Kicking off with a corker is of obvious importance, but in fact the success of your playlist hinges on the second track. Like any successful TV series, which requires more than just a gripping pilot, in order to secure commitment the second track must be an affirmation of the playlist’s excellent quality throughout. Once this has been established the remaining tracks can be arranged by listening to the end and the beginning of neighbouring tracks and focusing on the type of transition you wish to achieve. Instructions for shuffle mode: NEVER. Pairing similar moods, instrumentation, genres, tempos, dynamics, or, if you want everyone to know you’re doing a music degree, modes, will form more seamless transitions than following, say, Miley Cyrus’ ‘The Climb’ (good song btw) with Metallica’s ‘Holier Than Thou’, although there is something to be said for shock factor.
Presentation. On the assumption that we’re all dipping into our trust fund for Spotify premium or Apple Music, we have the gratifying option of personalising our playlists with a photo and title. If you’ve made it this far you might as well give it an elusive or witty title that shows the rich variety of your cultural references. Bonus points/deduct points if it’s in another language. That said, ideally without making it the name of a track, the title should have some relevance to the playlist if you don’t wish to create unfulfilled expectations in your listener. The same rules apply for the photo; steer clear of gratuitous selfies. If the photo and title hasn’t completed your masterpiece, Spotify has a description box where you’re welcome to compose Latin elegiacs for your lover, or simply leave it blank and let the music speak for itself.
With the basics covered, you now have the ‘privilege’ of hearing one I made earlier, a labour of love which took me longer to craft than to write this article.