Transforming Audio Culture: Elevating the Art of Music Discovery
#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation with Saidah Blount took place on Tuesday, the 1st of November, live from Brooklyn, New York.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
In Part II Saidah Blount admits to being addicted to Shazam “it’s my job…”. Marc also finds out about Saidah’s approach to on-demand radio and the shows she has helped create at SONOS. Her advice to artists, stay true to yourselves, but you also have to know yourself. The same goes for her approach to radio. Plus, how to pitch SONOS your music.
Miss part I of the interview with Saidah Blount? Head back to read here.
Marc Brown: Do you Shazam stuff?
Saidah Blount: All the time! You know auto Shazam where you hold the button down and it’ll record everything? I’m definitely that embarrassing girl that has her arm up with her Shazam open anywhere I go! I used to be a discreet Shazam-er but now I just hold my arm up.
Marc: You are a no-shame Shazam-er.
Saidah: Exactly! It’s partly about my job – I’m supposed to know good music. I curate an entire station called SONOS Sound System that’s about music discovery so if I hear something that’s good I want it on that station!
Marc: Let’s talk about those stations! Can you explain your role in them a bit more?
Saidah: I work with 13 different show hosts that bring their perspectives to our owned and operated stations. For example, we have a show called Imaginary Sound Track that is hosted by a music supervisor who has put music into some of the best-known commercials over the last 15 years. He invites people that put music on TV shows to his show.
Marc: And he interviews them? I didn’t know about that! We had someone on How We Listen who was from one of the publishers and we talked a lot about sync. It was one of our most popular events because people are so curious about how you get on commercials and TV. What do they talk about on that show?
Saidah: They talk about how they discovered music, what they listen to etc. and they also provide a 45-minute playlist that we play for our audience.
Marc: That’s so interesting! Can you tell us about a few more shows?
Saidah: We have one that I’m very proud of called Black is Black hosted by DJ Lindsey Caldwell. She was Atlanta’s first drum and bass DJ, she was Prince’s DJ in New York and she’s known for DJ-ing pretty amazing parties. Her show is a very deep dive into the Black diaspora of music. For example, she did an episode on why Jamaicans love country music and easy listening.
Another show that we have is Women in Sound which we took as a starting point, the Women in Sound ‘zine that’s produced by 2 studio engineers. They actually talk to fellow women engineers about being a women sound engineer and what that looks like. We like to do shows where people are getting information, but I always ask our hosts to root each show in music so that listeners are always getting a playlist that they can listen to afterwards. The goal is to make music more available to people so they can discover new things.
Marc: What about pitching SONOS music? Since you sort of sit at a high level across all of these shows, how do the hosts who put on these shows find out about the music that they put in their shows? Do you have any tips for artists or artist managers? How can you make yourself available so that people learn about you?
Saidah: Absolutely. It is tough that not everyone is 100% into accepting new music, but I’d say we’re pretty good at SONOS – we accept new music and we actually go through and listen to music that is sent to us. I take that from Bob Boilen – he listens to everything that comes through! He thinks if the musicians are going to take the time to send their music to him, he owes it to them to listen to it a few times. I’ve always taken that to heart.
Bandcamp is also a great tool for discovery. We scroll through that quite a bit. I also find that Twitter and YouTube are great sources of new music. TikTok as well for the younger generation. There are a ton of ways you can be discovered, but I always say send it out to people, because you never know who will listen and who will respond!
Marc: I’m going to guess that it’s important for people to do research – like make sure you’re sending someone something that they might be into.
Saidah: Absolutely. Definitely do research on where you think your outlets are.
Marc: What’s your take on the number of followers artists have?
Saidah: For our prime-time stations we’d usually focus on bigger artists but we also have a ton of discovery stations. I personally am not hung up on followers – I just believe in good music.
Marc: Yeah, you have to find those stations and playlists that are less concerned with followers to build up your profile and then you can approach those bigger stations/curators.
Marc: My gut has always been that if the curators/programmers worry about numbers, they aren’t fully sure of their taste and people who trust what they know don’t need the numbers. That’s kind of what you’re saying, right?
Saidah: Yeah! Trusting your ear is really important. It’s also always a good idea to do your research and look up people who make playlists and write blogs in your genre and submit your music. That’s one of those little tools that advertising agencies do – they’ll test out the music with playlists to see if it works or if people liked it.
Marc: I have always disliked the idea that playlists are the key to becoming popular, but what you’re saying is that they can actually offer some context that you might not have had previously.
Saidah: Yeah! Being a test case isn’t bad all of the time. For me, it lets me test my taste and see what things I’m drawn to.
Marc: That sort of brings me over to the next part I wanted to talk about. Going back to radio talent, there used to be a very limited number of spots available on the radio, but if you did get played then you would get a lot of exposure. But now, the situation is that there are so many different places to listen to music that it’s hard to have an impact. The positive side is that if you’re a listener, it’s much easier to find your community online than it was before. Can you speak to how those diverse communities are more accessible?
Saidah: I always say that the Internet definitely changed the true notion of fanbases. I notice a huge difference in how I listen to music now. When I was younger, I felt like I did the work to find new music – I read the articles, I bought the music magazines and I went to record stores. I feel like there was a certain amount of effort that had to go into being a serious music fan. Now, for better or for worse, it’s much easier because the Internet is a jukebox – you can listen to whatever you want. It’s odd to me that anyone could consider themselves an expert in any genre now because it’s so easy to listen super broadly.
Marc: Do you see that as a benefit ultimately?
Saidah: Yes I do. Music is so important to the culture and how we all live and see the world. I think any sort of music fan is absolutely important – it’s needed. I think it’s hard for people to understand the way that we older music listeners used to listen – we got so attached to the artists! One of the biggest things I miss is album design art and reading the credits and actually having a tactile experience with your music – that was one of my favourite things. Now, people don’t know who produced an album for example, or the session musicians. But, I am grateful and thankful for people who listen to any sort of music. It just makes people better so I always want to make sure that music is present in our society.
Marc: You’re involved in some of the DEI initiatives at SONOS right?
Saidah: Yeah. We thought it was really interesting to let people tell their own stories through music, especially on the radio! We reached out to each of our cultural groups at SONOS and allowed them to curate their own record stations. We tell them that we need a minimum of 500 songs to make a station sound full and robust, and we let them take it from there. We’ve done it with our Asian-American and Pacific Islander group, same with African American, Latin American, Women – you name it, we have tons of stations!
Marc: Someone in the chat just wrote that music is an international language which I think is so true. What I think is interesting is that the music nerd in us gets so disappointed when people don’t know everything about one artist, but if you rewind 25 years people knew a lot about only a few artists. This makes sense because you were only able to access music that was pre-approved by labels for example, but now people have access to a multitude of genres and diversity. For me, that’s the best thing that has changed. Even take K-Pop for example. In the ‘80s, I never would’ve thought that people would become so enamoured with music from another country – we just didn’t have access.
Saidah: Yeah, we’ve definitely moved the needle. Global music stars are now taking over the traditional charts and singing in their own language about what they want to sing about. I think it’s beautiful and amazing. Music definitely is an international language.
Marc: The last thing I want to end on is the notion of storytelling and your job. With all of these changes, I think artists need to be most aware of their stories and who they are. Tell me a bit about this new job and why it’s important to SONOS.
Saidah: Storytelling is essential to who someone is and what they want to portray to the world. On a personal level, music is the way that I connect with my friends and peers. For a brand like SONOS, we sell speakers and premium products so we believe that if you know you’re getting premium products, you also deserve premium curation. That’s one of the reasons we do human curation and work with some of the most interesting people in music.
For example, the lead singer of Radiohead – loves SONOS and has speakers in his house. So we gave him free rein to make a radio station and put on whatever he wants. Normally it’s just a one-and-done, but he’s really grateful so he’s come back to us 7 or 8 times wanting to revamp his playlist. He totally understood and grasped that he has this unique opportunity to present himself and his musical style. That’s why we go with people who understand that they have this opportunity to present themselves in a unique way and tell their stories. It’s the same with our radio hosts!
That’s the one thing that we’re really excited about at SONOS. We grew from being one of many apps to being one of the two top apps that people come to. People obviously get it – you can listen how you want and make your own mishmash. The idea of storytelling is very important not only to yourself as a person but working for a brand too. It’s a great opportunity to be unique and do very specific curation.
Marc: Is storytelling for new artists equally as important?
Saidah Brown: Absolutely. You have to define yourself and create your own brand. I normally don’t like that ethos that you have to create a brand, but you can definitely do it in a way that stays true to yourself. If you take Tems as an example – she’s very true to herself and she stays true to her culture. She hasn’t changed at all now that she’s in the top 40 charts. I can relate to that because, after 25 years in this industry, I’ve said no to a lot of opportunities that didn’t feel true to me. And that’s my biggest advice for an artist and person who appreciates music – be true to yourself and you’ll always have success.
Marc: Wow, that’s a very insightful way of looking at things. You have to put yourself out to the world, but in order to do that you have to know who you are. You get opportunities but not all opportunities are the right ones so you have to know as an artist what is right for you, and it’s those decisions that inform who you become as an artist or as someone who works in the music ecosystem.
Saidah: That’s the only thing you can do for yourself. I feel like I’ve created my own path in the music industry. It’s been tough but at least I know that I’ve shared my love of music with people in a way that’s authentic.
Marc: That’s a brilliant insight, and a great way to end today’s chat. Saidah, thank you so much for joining us today.
Saidah: Thanks for having me!