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The Power of Music Playlists

Take advantage of streaming services to discover great songs and artists

spinner image lee fields, stevie nicks, and robert plant
(Left to right) Lee Fields, Stevie Nicks and Robert Plant.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images; Robin Little/Redferns/Getty Images; Sergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty Images

With millions of songs and decades of albums available on demand, music streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and Amazon Music can seem overwhelming. One easy way to join the party is to try these services’ playlists. No matter what style of music you like, you can find playlists curated by real humans who add songs they think you want to hear. Think of them as the new DJs.

We talked to Scott Plagenhoef, the global head of music programming at Apple Music, and Meg Tarquinio, Spotify's head of curation strategy, to learn more about how these playlists work.

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They evoke a mood

"They're focused on communities and audiences, rather than specific music genres,” Tarquinio says. “That's definitely something we see that's working more.” Whether it's music to work by or a peaceful yoga soundtrack, streaming services are emphasizing song collections that cater to mental states and activities. Hard to miss what Pandora collections like “Beach Bar Lounge” and “Hipster Cocktail Party” are going for.

They highlight artists

Frank Sinatra recorded with several labels over his career, making it impossible to get every hit on one album. Digitally, though, that isn't the case. “We can effectively create new ways of experiencing that musician's catalog,” Plagenhoef says.

They let artists share their tastes

Robert Plant and Quincy Jones are among the many artists who have created playlists of favorite songs for popular streaming services. Actress Halle Berry even has her own workout playlist on Apple Music. “It's such a great way for them to connect to fans,” says Tarquinio. (Artists such as Bootsy Collins and Lucinda Williams have created playlists for AARP's Spotify account.)

They boost lesser-known artists

Soul singer Lee Fields has been performing since the 1960s, but — partly because of his popularity on playlists like “Retro Pop” and “Feelin’ Good” — his Spotify audience has grown by five times over the past few years. “One thing that playlists do is recontextualize,” Tarquinio says.

They amplify a cultural moment

Streaming services also move in real time and can react to pop culture so that, for instance, if Fleetwood Mac's “Dreams” reenters the zeitgeist, the song can instantly jump to the top of several playlists.

Uncertain where to start? Tarquinio suggests typing a favorite artist or genre into a service's search window to find playlists where they appear. That “often starts a really nice rabbit hole.”

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