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Music Curation’s Sweet Spot

July 17, 2023

The three guiding principles that help curators identify content that resonates.

At Third Bridge Creative, a significant portion of our work in the music space falls under the umbrella of curation, and the core of this service offering is our team of music experts. We have relationships with hundreds—if not thousands—of people who are extremely knowledgeable about music across genres, style, geography, and era, and they also have exceptionally good taste in their areas of expertise. These are writers, DJs, and musicians, mostly, and for TBC they bring their knowledge and taste to bear on a wide range of curation projects. In some cases, data plays a role in guiding part of the decision-making. But outside that, how do curators make decisions? What mindset do they have to adopt to select the right tracks for a project? 

We start from a creative brief, where the client has documented the guidelines for the assignment. As we begin our work, the curator's primary task is to balance three distinct imperatives. 


First, they should draw on their own knowledge of what artists and songs belong in the scope of what the brief describes. This requires that they understand the parameters of the concept, and have a deep and broad understanding of the catalog of music that it encompasses. 


Second, the curator should take into account an imagined listener or viewer, and what they might wish to hear in the context of the assignment. 

Client priorities

The brief should go a long way toward conveying this third pillar. Priorities may include music the client is highlighting, artists they might be featuring, or content they'd rather not include in the assignment.

Instincts and knowledge

While we undertake a wide variety of curation projects, from music supervision for software applications to metadata hygiene, for simplicity let’s focus on a playlist on a streaming DSP. The curator’s instincts and knowledge inform selections via their assessment of relevance, their understanding in terms of classification (genre, style, era), and their judgment regarding what’s most important

For instance, the curator may know that a given artist in a certain sphere is the most easily recognizable or widely known representative of a given sphere, but that there are plenty of opportunities to include others that either never got the same wide recognition, or their star faded more quickly for one reason or another. There are all sorts of reasons why songs get (and stay) big, and familiarity plays a part. Top 40 stations have long known that if you play a song 10 times a day, a significant percentage of the audience will come to expect it, and may even enjoy it. And if you extend this phenomenon across decades, some songs are big simply because of inertia; just because it's a frequently played and widely recognized song doesn’t mean that in its heyday, it was the only interesting thing going. 

Several years ago, Billboard assembled a list of the “Greatest of All Time Hot 100 Songs,” based on each song's performance on the Hot 100 charts starting in 1958. The No. 1 choice? The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights.” And No. 2 was Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.” Seeing those tracks adjacent to one another is confusing—in terms of artist, era, style, and content, they are very far apart. 

But it’s also instructive to think of them in terms of taste and, for lack of a better word, zeitgeist. Songs don’t get any more emblematic of an era than “The Twist,” but the number of people who currently wish to hear the song over and over again is probably relatively small. Similar judgments are made by curators in terms of which tracks fit where—are they truly of a given genre? Is their music essential to that genre?—and whether they matter in the context of their time. Another interesting example is rapper MF DOOM, who was important during his aughts prime but did not at the time sit at the center of the hip-hop conversation. He's become more influential following his death and his songs have gathered a great deal of momentum, but those tracks might sound out of place on a nostalgic playlist of his contemporaries, since he wasn’t operating in the same sphere during the era. Such distinctions are what separate hand-curated playlists from algorithm-driven ones. 


The curator also needs to put themselves in the place of the imagined listener, using their own best judgment to think through what this person might want and expect from a given playlist. The ability of the curator to remember that they are not the (only) customer and to think broadly—to have their own tastes and priorities, but to square those with their understanding of the tastes and priorities of others—is crucial to music curation projects. 

In other words, the curator's own considerations of relevance, classification, and importance are still there, but they weigh them against their understanding of the average listener’s tastes, knowledge, and expectations. Is this audience filled with music people, obsessives who will understand the connections the curator might be reflexively making? Or are these music generalists who will above all appreciate a playlist that includes some songs they affectionately recognize? 

Client priorities

While the interaction between the curator’s taste and knowledge and those of the audience is the most important nexus in curation, the choices need to be filtered through the client’s priorities, which, in some cases, sit outside the criteria outlined above. 

To take an example with obvious cultural resonance, if there is public controversy around a particular artist, their otherwise canonical music might be a poor choice for inclusion based on the client’s values. Or there might be something else happening on the platform that impacts potential track selections, such as a marketing initiative that's guiding some of the client's thinking. These needs—cultural sensitivity, internal promotions—form a third pillar of music curation for platforms.

The most skilled curators have an instinct for how to best balance these sometimes competing needs. Doing so requires an understanding of music, the audience, and the platform, which leads to putting the right song in the right place at the right time.

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