The Art of The Playlist

editor’s note: When our first child was soon to be born, I asked a friend of a friend to make us a mix CD. We didn’t know how this thing was going to go. We didn’t know how long we’d be in the groaning of child birth and waiting and striving and resting, so we wanted some music in the background to keep us company. Ever since that moment, I’ve come to appreciate the musical composition of Charlie Curtis. So I asked him to make a playlist for TheoCult… then I asked him some questions about creating playlists. Take a listen below and read through the interview.

Q1 – Take me through your process of making a playlist. Is every track intentional or is it more random and mystical?

When I start to make a playlist, I first examine any themes I might want to implement throughout the tracking, asking myself whether or not there’s an overall mood or feel induced by the sound that I wish to convey, or if the theme is more informational (i.e. Best Of Year playlists). I never really approach playlists without some calculated level of intentionality.

Once a theme or string of thought or concept is nailed down, I have a direction and natural sense of what to pursue.

Length is arbitrary and more of a feel unless preset.

Content is usually eclectic if not genre-based. I try and pull from different eras even though I’m most familiar with the current climate of music being made.

Tracking is also a feel. Continuity and smoothness is my goal, which can be hard to achieve depending on the pool of songs chosen. More than anything, I like to end strongly. Lasting impressions may be the most vital aspect in making a playlist. It demonstrates that you know how to present music to someone with a thought for node linkage, not just half-hazardously throwing songs together without a care for how they’ll come off. It’s similar to making an album, a good album; there’s almost a narrative you wish to convey and that requires a process of sequence that takes into account the value of each individual song.

Q2 – When making a playlist for someone, how much does the context of the commissioner influence your musical selections?

That question largely depends on what’s being asked. Generally speaking though, I would say a great deal. If someone is wanting a playlist from me in an effort to further their own knowledge of music, I’ll probably keep my suggestions within the margins, which is based on what I perceive they’ll enjoy. Rarely, if ever, will I throw in Black Metal or Drone unless I know that individual has those sonic proclivities. If, however, I’m making my best of 20__ playlist, then I obviously toss in whatever I want.

Q3 – Do you see “Death of the Album” as a cultural actuality or just a catch phrase blown out of proportion to give Rolling Stone something to philosophize about? Have playlists helped promote or emancipate the album?

I find the concept of the album dying to be a remarkably absurd one, mostly nothing to do with playlists. The Oxford Dictionary defines “album” as “a collection of recordings issued as a single item on CD, record, or another medium”; obviously, the format has changed greatly since it’s beginning due to the furthering of technology, mostly in the dealings of memory-housing. My suspicion is, now that the album has become less of a physical object you can hold in your hands upon pay and receipt, its concept no longer feels as alive as it once was and, surely, one would conclude, its death must be approaching. This is a flawed idea for several reasons that I shall explain.

The fact that the album still exists after 200 years and significant advancement in technology, especially regarding the inception and rise of computers, should be proof enough that it’s going nowhere any time soon. I think anyone that believes its death is near operates under a long-spanned and weakly-supported assumption that “Surely something better will come.” It’s easy to stare into the ever-growing vastness that is technology and ponder what the future holds, but declaring something dead with no shroud of evidence of a predecessor is silly.

The music form of “album” received its annotation from the original definition, a blank book set aside for photographs. The packaging of the album was what made it different from the physical representation of recorded music before it. Presently, the album has become a collection of ideas by an artist with a wide range of presentation that continues to be stretched to this very day. So really, what we are discussing is the concept of recorded music and how it’s delivered. Your standard “album” is a 10-12 track, 40-50 minute music ensemble. Certainly, artists have the freedom to make an album with two songs at 25 minute lengths each or 20 tracks totaling 18 minutes, and many variations in between. Consequently, I find that the this aforementioned argument becomes a semantically-brewed skirmish that I don’t personally find interesting in regards to settling the debate. The point is: artists have recording flexibility, their product is usually referred to as an album for simplistic state, and it’s a trend that shows absolutely no sign of expiry whatsoever.

Finally, the album is not dead or dying or will die because there is nothing wrong with it fundamentally. It would be just like trying to improve upon the movie or the toothbrush; technology allows these things to change slowly over time, but at what point they become something completely different and thus superior to its now obsolete origin is more culturally dependent than anything else. Album sales might not be what they once were, but the existence of file-sharing, burning, and streaming services weren’t factors either. Music is alive. It always will be. Whatever mode or package of the “album” we choose to receive has no bearing on the definition of what is being contested.

In reference to playlists, or “Mixed CD”, I think they’ve actually helped the album more than anything. You’re exposing people to new music. You find something you like, you want to hear more, and then you go listen to that artist’s discography.

Q4 – It’s seems as though instrumental tracks have been increasing in number over the past 5 years. What do you think it is about the music culture or culture at large that is playing into this proliferation?

One contribution to this trend I can think of off the top of my head is cinema and how it can use vocal-less music to create its atmosphere. Artists like Explosions In The Sky, Trent Reznor, Sigur Ros and M83 have feed off of this harvest heartily. Using music to replicate a “cinematic” experience isn’t uncommon. Mostly, it gives artists another sphere to create and think differently.

My guess is that, once American recordings and rock music exploded, it was this unmentioned rule that you always needed a vocalists to make tunes, especially if you wanted to be successful. I think the world of instrumental music is just now hitting its stride and you’re seeing interesting stuff being made.

Whether or not this has become a viable trend, I feel, can be argued, unless you get into electronic music and DJ sets, then that’s a whole new sphere of popularity. Club music is bigger and more dynamic than ever. It’s ubiquitous and spans over cultures and all forms of pop music. But that’s another discussion.

That being said, I reckon it’s a trend I don’t have much insight on because I don’t regard it as being significant. Music has expanded, so has the practitioners and their methods for creation. What’s your insight?

editor’s note: I can’t really say from a cultural perspective. From a theological wondering, I am excited to see how the church will re-think and include worship without words. Derek Webb’s instrumental worship album first brought this directly into play in  2010 with Feedback. Words are no doubt important to the Christian faith, but sometimes they can be overused… perhaps this is in result to modern rationalistic thinking that nothing of importance can be “said” without it actually being said. But there is a very real need for us to engage an inarticulate faith, a part of our relationship with God and others where nothing is said and yet everything is communicated. It’s the art of beholding something beautiful, the art of mourning well, meditating, ruminating, the grace of the Holy Spirit when “we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

Q5 – Anything else you want to say about the music scene in its current incarnation?

I truly feel, ideologically, that music is always worth pursuing if you operate under the motive that your parameters for whatever you deem “listenable” or “acceptable” are never stationary. Not only do I feel like it gives the proper respect to artists who wish to share their creation with everyone who chooses to engage, but it also ends up benefiting you in the end, personally. I think it’s more than simply being “open-minded”; it requires action, not statics, in regards to searching for something you don’t know but want to experience. The benevolence of art is always waiting, but hardly ever in pursuit of your appeasement.


Photo Credit: Neil. Moralee via Compfight cc

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One thought on “The Art of The Playlist

  1. I don’t necessarily know that the ‘Death of the Album’ is on our horizon, but if anything I think the culprit isn’t playlists, but the immediate accessibility of downloadable or streamable music (via iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, etc.). The consumeristic model of music engagement and proliferation (perpetuated by pop labels and artists) has exploded since the Age of the Internet. Instant gratification is a part of that. Why travel to a record store or wait for an album to be shipped to you when you can just click a button and instantaneously have what you want on every device you own? People who are truly passionate or knowledgeable about music do what Charlie described (hear a track by a new artist and explore their discography), but many (dare I say most?) casual music listeners are literally one-track-minded. The average listener doesn’t care about albums anymore, but they download singles like nobody’s business.

    Another aspect may be our increased distance from the physical objects (CDs, LPs, etc.) which once represented the music we listen to. Music has, in a sense, become disembodied by technology, and I wonder if the human ability to value or appreciate something intangible is less than we realize.

    On the subject of instrumental music, I have also noticed a growing Symphonic Movement by serious artists, indie and mainstream alike (Muse, Sufjan Stevens, The Dear Hunter, etc.). While symphonic music never died (and there are still many living, working composers today), the album was all but the nail in the coffin in terms of public interest in such music — hence the dominance of the “song” (the roots of which are in folk tradition) as the prevailing presentation of music. Whereas the symphony was once culturally elevated over simplistic “songs,” now all symphonic music is commonly (and improperly) lumped into the category of “Classical,” which, in today’s culture, translates “old” (which means “bad”). This renewed interest in the symphony brings to mind the fact that (as Charlie pointed out) the album is an invention of the Era of Recorded Music. While albums are often composed and structured artistically, the album wasn’t designed for its creative merit but its distributive merit. So perhaps what we’re seeing now with advent of downloadable music is a new form of the same phenomenon.

    All that to say, if the album is ever to disappear, I can only see that happening one of two ways: 1) the persisting popularity of the instantly-consumable ‘track’ driving the album into obsolescence, or 2) the emergence of a completely new form of musical presentation which usurps even the “song” in terms of popularity.

    P.S. I didn’t realize I had so many thoughts on this topic.

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