For the past few months, on and off – more off than on, but with at least some degree of consistency – I’ve been working on my next book. So far, it’s pretty much just a collection of notes, thoughts, a few interviews with some interesting people and a draft chapter structure I’m reasonably pleased with. Nothing to write home about, though here I am – writing home.
That said, I think it’s starting to come into focus to the extent I can really start talking about it as a real thing. Yes, it’s still a long way off, and sure, saying “I’m writing a book” is not really the same thing as writing a book – but I feel like it’s starting to take some sort of shape in my head, which is, I expect, the first of the places it needs to start doing that.
So, but the reason I mention it is that I’d like it to be a well-informed and well-researched piece of work that brings together thoughts other than just my own. I’m reading a lot around the subject and asking some experts for their ideas and experiences, but it feels like it’s time to cast the net a bit wider for input – and this is exactly the sort of thing that I suspect lots of people have deeply held opinions and thoughts floating around to contribute – and probably some advice for further reading, data or analysis.
The book’s essentially a sociology of music curation. It’s about how we make meaning from music by putting it in an order.
By that I mean that music doesn’t stand alone. We connect it to other music. We play it in an order, and we choose that order for a reason. Songs have their own meanings in and of themselves of course, but they’re also used to communicate, to create a narrative or to establish a mood by means of their position in a sequence and their placement in a context. We use collections of songs to create cultural objects – what essayist Geoffrey O’Brien called ‘the single most widely practiced American art form’ (and we can problematise the ‘American-ness’ of that as we go along).
I’m talking about Mixtapes. Playlists. Compilations.
The study of playlists
When I’ve told close friends that I’ve been searching a long time for a new book topic, and that this is what I’ve finally arrived at, their collective reactions could reasonably be summed up “Well, duh…”.
Fair call. There really couldn’t be a more obvious thing for me to be working on.
When I worked as a professor at a university in the UK, my ‘Music Programming for Radio’ undergrad class was sometimes referred to as Mixtapes 101. It was about how music connects to other music, how to select music for an audience or an environment, and how to both construct and read playlists as pieces of communication.
An important part of the homework was researching and creating mixtapes for loved ones and fellow classmates, making specialist radio playlists, soundtracks for imaginary films, compiling in-store music for fashion retail, bars and restaurants, and incidental music for renovation shows and gardening programmes on TV. Students made mixtapes that explored musical subgenres, musicological features, instrumentation and arrangement, political and social messages, complex moods and feelings, musical eras and scenes.
The other important part of the homework was listening to and analysing those compilations.
But to say that I’ve been teaching music radio classes is not my way of presenting credentials for writing this book. That’s not where this book comes from, and – more to the point – this is not that kind of book. This is not a book that will set you homework, though hopefully it will start some interesting conversations.
But like the university course, it’s largely an outcome of the immersion in music selection and curation that’s been going on throughout my life: whether it’s making compilation tapes for myself; crafting a mixtape for a friend (or, at one time or another, a prospective romantic interest); or selecting a day’s worth of automatically programmed music on Spotify that I can work to…
Whether it’s presenting a specialist music radio show, producing records for my label and agonising over the tracklisting, curating performances for a festival of music and technology, or programming an entire radio station’s 24/7 musical output…
Whether it’s DJ-ing at festivals, a wedding in Hamburg, support for the likes of Quantic, Gilles Peterson and Alice Russell, DJ-ing a 70s disco night at the local community centre here in Norrmjöle in the north of Sweden, a club night residency or the weekly jazz/soul/funk themed Sunday roast dinners at my local pub when I lived in Birmingham, or playing a set alternating tracks with 808 State’s Graham Massey at 4am in a club in Goiania, Brazil…
Whether it’s choosing the order of songs for my band’s live set (we are talking a very, very long time ago now); or simply making lists of songs because I am the sort of person who likes to make lists – it seems my whole life has been constantly spent in search of the right next song.
And so that’s what the book is called: The Right Next Song.
What could it possibly be about?
The Right Next Song explores mixtapes, DJ sets, radio playlists, the track listings on CDs and records, in-store music selections, live set lists, soundtracks, compilation albums and more.
I’m interested in how a DJ, a curator or a music fan chooses the next song – and in unpicking the thought processes that are at work. I’m interested in how those sequences communicate, and how we understand them. In most instances, we don’t consider how we pick the next track – we just “know” what would work. I’m curious about how we know – and what that knowledge consists of.
Most importantly, this is a book about culture. It’s about how we take the work of different artists expressing different things, gather them together into an ordered set, and place them in a different context so as to express something else entirely. It’s about putting together and sharing a collection of music as a piece of human communication – as well as the cultures that form around that practice.
Things I’m interested in
I’m interested in how lists of music make memories. I’m interested in how long the gaps are between the tunes on a record. I’m interested in how music programmers take listeners on a journey. I’m interested in theories about using light and shade to create variety. I’m interested in artist separation rules and dayparting in music radio programming systems.
I’m interested in how tastemakers select what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’. I’m interested in what makes a great ‘starter track’ and how we can ‘change gears’ or transition moods as the sequence progresses. I’m interested in how we communicate using lists of music – how we reveal ourselves, attract a partner or impress a colleague with a subtle mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. I’m interested in hand-written liner notes and hand-drawn covers. I’m interested in the meanings and memories that people associate with musical collections they have encountered over the years. I’m interested in the people who make a living making lists of music. I’m interested in the software that supports or challenges that professional practice.
I’m interested in road trip mixtapes, attempts (successful or otherwise) at seduction via cassette tape or CDR, as well as in breakup compilations. I’m interested in the practice of introducing a friend to a kind of music or artist they’re not familiar with – and why it matters so much. I’m interested in the radical politics of US mixtape radio. I’m interested in people who collect live set lists from their favourite bands. I’m interested in the apocryphal legend of Todd Storz and the advent of Top 40 radio. I’m interested in phenomenally influential musical tastemakers like Wolfman Jack, Mary Anne Hobbs and yes, of course, John Peel. I’m interested in algorithms and I’m interested in human curation. I’m interested in people’s ‘rules for mixtapes’ and I’m interested in music sequences that break all the rules.
I’m interested in concert programmes from classical repertoire performances. I’m interested in Freeform radio formats and I’m interested in tightly playlisted CHR. I’m interested in segues, transitions and beat-matching. I’m interested in cold starts and long fade-outs. I’m interested in the hip hop mixtape as a ‘non-album’ album. I’m interested in ‘Now That’s What I Call’ compilations and punk label samplers. And I’m interested in the sorts of stories that people have about these sorts of things.
I have loads of stories from my own life, and this is already shaping up to be a very personal book. You’ll probably learn more about me than you care to, though only ever in the service of illustrating a point. I’ll do whatever I can to veer it away from autobiography when things start to get too self-indulgent – and, thankfully, I’m constantly reminded that nearly everyone has a story to share about this stuff. Which, for me, is just perfect.
I’m interested in your stories. Your memories. Your thoughts. Your ideas about what must not be left out of a book like this. I’m interested in how sequences of music make meaning for you and how those collections of songs, when put in an order – either by you or for you – have been important to you in your life.
I want to know what, given the song you’re listening to right now, is the right next song – and why?
Feel free to leave a comment here or drop me a note.
And in the meantime, it’s my intention to use this blog as a kind of commentary on the book’s development as this year progresses. Some thoughts, some stories that will make the finished work and some that won’t. I’ll also have lots of questions you may be able to help me with – so stay tuned…
Photo: Zane Lowe on BBC Radio 1, 7th July 2008 – by Andrew Dubber