Transforming Audio Culture: Elevating the Art of Music Discovery
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Saidah Blount grew up in the middle of the USA, Kansas City, where radio was always a key ingredient in her life. In part 1, Marc, also a big radio fan, talks with Saidah about her path from middle America to New York City in the early 2000s. They also discuss how music always remained her north star and her pathway to getting hired at SONOS.
Marc Brown: Hey Saidah, thanks for taking part in #HowWeListen Live: In Conversation. Let’s begin with the basics, where are you located now and what do you do?
Saidah Blount: Hello! I’m based in Brooklyn, New York and I work for a music technology product company called SONOS. Our global HQ is in Santa Barbara, California but we have offices all around the world!
Marc: I see! And what do you do there?
Saidah: I am now the executive producer of Sonos Radio which is our platform that covers music discovery. It’s basically our own streaming option within the app and right now, we’re the second most used app on the SONOS platform.
Additionally, my job has now evolved so I’m currently dipping back into global marketing for SONOS. I’m now the Primary Impact Storyteller, which basically means that I’m helping to create internal content at SONOS to help us talk about ourselves and learn more about our mythos. Right now, I’m working with all of the teams across the company to learn more about the great work they’re doing so I can tell that story both internally and, if it makes sense, with the wider public.
Marc: That job title sounds very 2022!
Saidah: It is! When they presented me with the job, I was like what is this and who am I telling stories to? But then I did some digging and I found out that in the tech world, this is a new job that is popping up. Companies want to make sure that their employees are engaged, that they have full transparency and that they know what their fellow colleagues are doing to help build the brand and company.
Marc: What is interesting about that whole concept is that it really fits in with what we’re going to talk about today because telling stories is really what you need to do as an artist. So, let’s go back in time a little bit. How did you end up doing what you do now?
Saidah: I grew up in the Midwest and both of my parents were music freaks. My mom grew up in Detroit and listened to a huge range of music genres. My dad’s influence was from growing up in Kansas City during the jazz era. Kansas City was also, historically, a really interesting town for radio. We had one of the first rock stations in the country, one of the first R&B markets, a huge gospel market – you name it. I grew up listening to everything and it spurred a love for music that never went away.
Originally I thought I was going to go into academia because I have a degree in political science. I’m still always analyzing things and digging into the truth. That’s how I listen to music – if I listen to one band, it leads me to 5 or 6 others because I look into the influences.
I came to New York thinking I was going to take over the world of politics, but it took me a year to realise that New York was the best city for music ever, and then it was kind of a wrap.
Marc: Did you not know that before?!
Saidah: Ha – I kind of did!
Marc: So when was this?
Saidah: I moved to New York in ‘98 for grad school. So, I came here in the era of the resurgence of indie-rock. Just being there at that time was magical – people were going out and taking pride in the city so that helped sway me as well.
Marc: Cool! And how did you actually make the jump from being a fan to start working in music?
Saidah: I was always obsessed with music magazines. I got a job at Barnes & Noble so I could afford to buy all the foreign music magazines. So I was flipping through those in between classes and saw an ad for this site on web 2.0 called platform.net that was looking for an intern. I ended up getting a job/internship there while I was in grad school, and that was my first taste of music. I was in the news department so I was responsible for writing 5-7 news stories per day.
Marc: That’s a lot!
Saidah: Yeah, but it was great. My boss at the time was one of the founding members of Interview Magazine so that’s what he expected. He used to edit the life out of my work, which ultimately made me a better writer. So for me, music journalism was my entryway into the scene.
Marc: That’s how people learned about music back then! It was via traditional media – radio, and magazines. It’s come a long way, but how did you move from that to radio and today at SONOS?
Saidah: It’s been a pretty convoluted path. I’ve been in New York for 25 years and bounced around to a few jobs, back then it was seen as a bad thing not to specialize in one thing. I was one of those people who would move around every 2-3 years because I wanted to get as much knowledge as I could out of the music industry. One day, I got a message from a friend saying that they heard of an opportunity in NPR that they thought would be good for me. At that point, I hadn’t done anything related to journalism in a while so I didn’t think I was going to get it.
Marc: For those who don’t know – NPR stands for National Public Radio, right? (Like CBC in Canada or BBC in the UK)
Saidah: Yes, exactly! That is our biggest affiliate of public media in the States. Eleven interviews later I got hired to run the live events and platforms at NPR Music. I was there for almost 5 years and it was one of the greatest working experiences I’ve ever had. Then after 5 years in, I got a call from a recruiter who told me they had a client looking for someone to come in and work on global music. What I was doing was really U.S focused, so when I heard the word global, that was it! The job was with SONOS. I initially began working on how they were translating their vision with their products. I looked at how we could do something larger, whether it be events, marketing etc. I’ve been here for 6 years now
Marc: That’s so interesting. To bring it back to radio, I remember when I worked in radio in the U.K, it was so special because everyone would be tuning it at the same time. They would hear the record together. The idea of those shared experiences is different now. So the radio you work with now, is it on-demand or similar to when we were younger?
Saidah: It’s on-demand, and you can listen on our app or online at radio.SONOS.com. There are tons to listen to and a lot of it is for free.
Marc: Very cool!
Saidah: But yeah, it is a bit different than old days radio. Kansas was such a special market because we had the first radio station for so many genres. I listened to it a lot, and I’ve always said that the radio in Kansas is better than the radio in New York. With Sonos Radio, we’re trying to get with that same ethos of listening broadly. Even if you don’t love the first song, we want to inspire people to listen deeply. As you mentioned, we all used to listen together to big hits like Elton John or Fleetwood Mac, but now “radio” is a great tool for people to discover other artists.
Marc: Is on-demand radio popular? In Sweden (where Marc lives), we don’t have these things, but I’ve definitely heard a lot about it.
Saidah: Yeah, Sirius is popular and so is Pandora! It’s growing, and one of the things that I’ve noticed is that people want to know and listen to music that their favourite artists are listening to. There’s a huge demand for that. I remember NPR having a ton of stats about the people who listen and when, and there’s a thing called Driveway Moms – people who literally won’t get out of their car until they hear the end of a segment.
Saidah: Yes and I’m one of those people! Radio is still very important to the American drive-time market. Developing on-demand radio is essential! Radio will never die.
Marc: Being a radio plugger in the U.K, you would go to a show and hear the band play the track that had been played on the radio. The crowd reaction was incredible, totally different from if they were just reading about the artist in a magazine. But now the real discussion here is about music discovery – what role does radio play now? What’s the value?
Saidah: I think there’s 100% an enduring love of connecting with a host wherever you are – the nurturing notion that somebody is with you curating what you listen to. I also think it has to do with what you said earlier – the idea that everyone is together listening. Radio is definitely still important, think about when you get into an Uber – they’re always blasting music! That’s mostly how I hear new music since the radio is always playing the newest stuff. I also think that is the case with on-demand or streaming radio, it is definitely about curation.