Illustration By Ernesto Ortiz Leyva
I was five when my dad dropped the needle on E. Power Biggs’ rendition of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Biggs’ version is actually quite a creepy organ number, well suited for a theme park haunted house, but it intrigued me to no end. The notes from that behemoth instrument resonating in a spacious cathedral shook my bones. Subsequently, my childhood became focused around my Dad’s wood-paneled Pioneer stereo receiver and belt-drive turntable. Dionne Warwick, The Beatles, Beethoven—I’d pour over the liner notes and sleeve design, inhaling their musty plastic smell. In 1977, I biked over to the Tower Records in Mountain View and made one of my first vinyl purchases—a 7” 45 single from Parliament that I still own and play to this day.
Growing up, I took note of songs I heard in malls, pizza restaurants or at grade school parties, piecing the various genres and artists together in a melting pot that stirred Creedence’s “Bad Moon Rising” and Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” together with Vikki Sue Robinson’s “Turn The Beat Around” and Boz Scagg’s “Low Down.” College radio ultimately became the main catalyst for my transformation from curious music aficionado to full-on feind. KFJC in Los Altos Hills had a ripping cadre of DJs pushing the limits of anti-format radio. It was there that I first encountered Sun Ra’s cosmic jazz and Bauhaus’ moody goth drones, The Jam’s euphoric mod pop and Augustus Pablo’s haunting melodica dubs, not to mention the disturbing noise of Terminal Cheesecake and the arty, asymmetric punk of Inflatable Boy Clams. The list just kept on growing…
Time doesn’t allow for a full airing of the euphoria these recordings produced in my brain. Hearing them lead to frantic investigations, to scouring music publications for info, to discussions with colleagues about where to find more of the same, and to generally deep-diving into the artist’s catalogs, histories, related labels and more. I didn’t know it at the time, but i was training for my future career.
I’ve been a professional music curator for 25 years. My journey has included a range of experiences—from intellectual and occupational, to creative and emotional. After college, my DJing took me to dance clubs, afterhour events, and even a tent at Coachella. Through the years, my jobs have included record store clerk, journalist for magazines like Urb and XLR8R, working in the A&R and distribution departments for labels like Quango and Ubiquity, and more after hours gigs than I can remember. More recently, I’ve been a professional playlist programmer for some of the digital music outlets.
In short, I’ve been curating music for myself and other people for pretty much my whole life. I’ve chosen songs for every possible audience I can imagine, except one: my newborn son. Now I’m the dad with the record player, choosing my baby’s first track, and this assignment has led to me thinking about curation in a whole new light.
Can you think of a song you really like right now? There’s too many, right? It’s a Golden Age of Access, with myriad streaming services, free downloads galore, and your 400,000 songs in the cloud. So while we often know what we like, we don’t always know what we’ll like next. Crucial to expanding our sonic universe are recommendations from friends and curators. We trust our friends, but who are those shadowy “curators” we hear so much about these days? Are they gatekeepers, tastemakers, celebrities, nerds, or algorithms?
The answer is all of the above, and they’re more prominent and influential as access mediums are ever-more shaped by their creative decisions. As a DJ, writer and playlist technician with a few decades of music obsession on my rap sheet (I’m more of the tastemaker/nerd type than algorithmic genius) I’ve formed my share of opinions about the profession.
To start, I believe curation is about about selecting and presenting the most suitable creative material for a given audience. A good music curator, for example, attempts to group artists or songs into categories by themes, genres, moods, events or activities. When that’s done well, as a streaming playlist for example, it immediately satisfies a listener’s expectations; one song transitions to the next with little anxiety or desire to skip ahead. And I personally hate to skip through sets, as it totally defeats the purpose of being able to fanatically multi-task whilst being entertained. I kid…sort of.
Similarly, a competent club DJ establishes a vibe from the very first song they select. They ruminate on whether to start with a nostalgic, familiar hit, a surprising and revelatory new artist, or a slow-burner that eases listeners into the groove. But no matter if there’s three people in the room or 3000, the goal is to play a track that resonates immediately. Gimme a beat!
In order to light a bonfire with your audience, you have to gather a ton of kindling. For music curators that takes the form of countless hours previewing tracks, arranging digital files, reacting to advance promo material, organizing lists, and scouring dank basements for used vinyl gems—all worth it for even one positive listener reaction. The power of thumbs-up should not be underestimated.
But for all the satisfaction that comes from successful curation projects, there’s also plenty of pressure. There’s loads of room for failure, like the time I cleared the dancefloor at San Francisco’s Dub Mission reggae night. I guess they weren’t feeling all those hot new riddims I’d spent hours ordering and blending to perfection. Nope, they wanted to hear the hits: Bob Marley and “Murder She Wrote.” And that amazing Jah 9 song that I loved and knew was awesome and added to a digital music service client’s Top New Reggae playlist? It ended up being removed after one week based on customer feedback.
But pressure be damned—I can’t let my son down. Choosing his first music experience carries it’s own anxiety and brow-furrowing considerations, but nothing too daunting with my curator’s resume, right?
Ironically, when I sat down to think about the first song I wanted to play my son, I initially drew a blank. It was as if all the music history I had absorbed over 40 years was swirling around my head like a tornado that refused to touch down. I just needed to grasp one song from that whirlwind, a song that he and I could share for a lifetime. I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity by playing a toss off. To combat my “curator’s block,” I did some competitive analysis, weighing the advice of fellow DJs, music colleagues, and, yes, even some baby music experts.
One anecdote that’s stuck with me over the years was my LA friend DJ Jun’s assertion that playing the minimal electronic dub techno of Germany’s Burial Mix and Basic Channel labels had a soothing effect on his young children. Further, as they grew older, the kids enjoyed dancing to these sounds. My colleague Alison Aves broke it down more bluntly: “If you play young kids Barney and Disney music, they’ll gravitate to those types of sounds and want to hear more. We play our kids (age 2 and 3) some of that, but also indie and alternative rock, folk, world music, and anything we think is cool, and they’ve been incredibly receptive to it. They learn the words and everything.”
Being a serious reggae head, I was tempted to use this information as carte blanche to dig out the most revolutionary, futuristic dub track I could think of—African Head Charge, King Tubby, Alpha & Omega—and make that my son’s entry point. But I chickened out, and put my curator’s mind to work. If infant children’s developing brains (and ears) need gentle stimulation, then I could draw on any number of aesthetically wonderful and baby-friendly sounds that didn’t have to be “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or Enya.
My baby-centric genre and music calculations went something like: Ambient music is soothing, so play anything from Steve Roach to Gas. IDM is delicate, so an artist from Warp or Ghostly International’s roster might work: Lusine, Boards of Canada or The Sight Below.
Christian Fennesz is dreamy and textural—“Rivers of Sand” from Venice seems like a good possibility. Ahmad Jamal’s The Awakening is complex yet accessible jazz with classical qualities. Maybe that’s the one. Studio One label’s rocksteady is bouncy and cheerful; The Heptones “Party Time” is a perfect consideration. Eric Satie Gymnopédies No. 1 is gentle and lullaby-esque, and so on…
I’ve thought about all this (and obsessively more) in making my decision. And here it is: Johann Sebastian Bach, Air on the G String, Orchestral Suite No.3 in D major, BWV 1068. Too predictable and safe you say? Too bad. It’s a gorgeous, gentle, swayingly symphonic piece. It could soundtrack the very feelings a newborn has about the bright foreign place they’ve landed. Or it might put him to sleep. I figure it’s a win either way, and he’s got a lifetime to hear all those other artists and sounds I share. What I look forward to even more? What he plays for me.