What I Learned From Working As A Music Curator

It’s not all headphones and bliss.

Trisha Malhotra
Aug 24 · 6 min read
Photo by Mike Bird

If I told my 14-year-old music-obsessed self that, one day, she would make a living off of making playlists, I’d be scoffed at. My mother pretty much roared with laughter “But you worked so hard at school!” Yeah, Mom, I remember.

While this job might not look like much on a resume, it’s harder than it sounds. Yes, I did get to wear headphones for 8 hours a day. Yes, I did bliss out from time to time. And yes, I did discover great music thanks to it. But could anybody do it? No.

The startup I worked for is an in-store music supplier that even called itself the “retail jukebox” at one point. My job -curation- meant creating playlists for the sonic identity of a brand. Spotify, Soundcloud and, occasionally, YouTube were my best friends.

Working B2B meant I was directly responsible for the ambience for any business out there- be it Gold’s Gym, McDonald’s, Forever 21, Adidas and any other of the 50 plus brands working with my company.

Based on my track selection, I could mediate footfall in a store, energy levels of people listening, and most importantly, the mood of customers availing services.

I learned a lot about music in retail.

While we typically don’t pay attention to background music, we do register inconsistencies. For this reason, the tempo of songs within each playlist has to be near identical. The tempo is also directly proportional to the energy of the song.

The rule of thumb is that the energy of the music should always coincide with the energy levels of the people listening to it. It should change as the day progresses. No matter the genre, slower tracks should be reserved for morning playlists, peppier ones for noon and the fastest ones for evenings.

Another soft rule is that a playlist should either be purely vocals or instrumentals. Songs that are too dark (anything by Billie Eilish), loud (most of rock music) or sad are to be avoided and, of course, no explicit words. Adios, hip-hop and rap.

If carefully curated, background music can help people focus and improve their mood, thereby improving their quality of experience. If inconsistent, it can also distract people from their task at hand.

This did not mean any eclectic playlists were off the table. My favourite part of this job was something a Spotify algorithm probably couldn’t manage. It was when I was given the freedom to design the musical identity for a brand- one that can be complex enough to comprise of multiple genres that flow together.

Photo by Florecia Viadana

This one time a Chinese restaurant tired of playing jazz approached us for a solution. A common suggestion would be to just play traditional Chinese music. However, not only is that stereotypically overdone but its also quite boring. I was supposed to “do my research” and come up with something out-of-the-box.

By scrolling through their Instagram while simultaneously listening to music I could visualise working for the place, I ended up going with instrumental Jazz-Hop, ambient lounge and downtempo music. Not my riskiest choices, I agree, but the client ended up falling for Jazz-Hop. (In case you’re curious, here’s an example of what I used.) I learned that as long as I stuck to the rules -tempo, vocals, cuss words- and there was flow, I could curate experimental genre-bending playlists.

Did I mess up? A few times, yes, and in different ways. As much as any music connoisseur would argue that they don’t discriminate among genres, personal preference is part of being human.

I knew I had personal taste. Yet, I contradicted this knowledge by dismissing the fact that my preferences were subconsciously slipping their way into my work. I would select music outside of what was asked while firmly believing it was appropriate… just because I liked the song. My reason was simple- ‘I’m sure anyone will appreciate great art when they hear it.’ Wrong.

Instead, we got complaints. There were times I had to carefully recheck my 200-song playlist so I could pick out tracks with gentle humming (the requirement was ‘perfect’ instrumentals). Another time I had to individually screen the lyrics for every track to remove songs with words like “love”, “hell” or “rum” because the brand was Dubai-based. Do you know how many songs have the word “love” in them, Dubai? Heaps!

Barring such cases, let’s also mention the time I had to curate a playlist of birds chirping with guitar strings -and only guitar strings- in the background. An infuriating task by an equally infuriating client- “You’ll have to redo it because there isn’t enough variation in the bird-sounds.”

Photo by Stas

At times like these, I felt like pulling my hair out. Was I just a robot to these people? Part of me knew I would have to sacrifice my taste (or any taste) for the sake of the brand, but a deeper darker side of me didn’t like it.

Somehow, though, I got better. I began to cherry-pick my music. The speed at which I worked slowed down. I was becoming a more careful listener. I started noticing the music of every store, salon, or restaurant I walked into. Towards the end, we were receiving fewer complaints due to my preferential rebellion. If there were any errors, they had to do with the flow of communication from my supervisors. I grew to genuinely enjoy every assignment I took on. But now, after three months, I am choosing to quit.

The idea of curating music for money sounds too good to be true. The reality can be pretty exhausting.

I had never felt ear fatigue until this job. Commuting with music plugged-in used to be one of the best parts of my day. On days after work, however, I craved the random noise of the subway. No headphones, no synchronicity, just life. I no longer found the time to curate playlists of my own- something I had been doing consistently for 3 years. By the end of it, there wasn’t enough music for my own self-care and way too much music for other people.

Yet, in my time there, I made over a 100 different playlists with anywhere between 50–200 songs. The sheer amount of exposure to fresh unexplored sub-genres was dizzying in the best kind of way (Buddha Bar, Cafe del Mar and Jazz-Hop are among my best discoveries). I even got free food, store coupons and discounts because I curated for certain brands.

Best of all, if my assignment was genre-based, I got to spend an entire day exploring one and picking out classics for a bomb playlist I could personally enjoy as well. At the end of the day, it’s cool to tell your kids how you made cash while bobbing your head to great tunes. It always will be.

Avila, C., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2011). The influence of distracting familiar vocal music on cognitive performance of introverts and extraverts. Psychology of Music, 40 (1), 84–93

Cockerton, T., Moore, S., & Norman, D. (1997). Cognitive test performance and background music. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 85, 1435–1438.

Raglio, A., Attardo, L., Gontero, G., Rollino, S., Groppo, E., & Granieri, E. (2015). Effects of music and music therapy on mood in neurological patients. World journal of psychiatry, 5(1), 68–78.

Thanks for reading…

Be unique

The best collection of articles on life and living, politics, travel tips, poetry, entrepreneurship and so much more! Join us and be a part of this community…

Trisha Malhotra

Written by

Freelance writer, likes journalistic storytelling, movies and manicures, occasionally posts self-help blubber on Medium. https://trishamalhotra.contently.com/

Be unique

Be unique

The best collection of articles on life and living, politics, travel tips, poetry, entrepreneurship and so much more! Join us and be a part of this community…

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade