AD feature with Sonos
Gone are the days when you would spend hours lovingly curating a mixtape for a friend, family member or crush you wanted to impress with your musical knowledge. Once a huge part of youth culture, as technology has advanced over the last few decades so too has the art of the mixtape transformed to keep up. Our Spotify and Apple Music playlists might do the same job of compiling tracks we want the world to hear, but there’s something less personal about them. There are no doodle-covered handwritten tracklists, and the ability to switch songs in and out makes it less important to really pore over your choices before you hit ‘add to playlist’ – the modern-day ‘record’ button.
One music platform, though, is keeping the lost art of the mixtape alive. Sonos Radio, the music streaming service provided by the high-quality audio brand, is a treasure trove of stations based around moods, occasions, genres, scenes and more that feels like you’ve pressed play on a cassette made by a mate (but with much better audio quality). Where most other streaming services build playlists through algorithms, Sonos cherishes human curation.
“As we developed the original concept of Sonos Radio, we knew [that would be] the heart of the platform,” explains Joe Dawson, the company’s Director of Content and Brand Platforms. “While we use technology to deliver a seamless experience, we always root ourselves in the radio experience. That allows us to deliver personal touches like liners for specific songs and artists, give context through up-sells and back-sells, and simply connect to the listeners in a way that a playlist on shuffle does not provide.”
That Sonos Radio is able to make each station feel so unique and easy for its listeners to feel connected to is down to a “crack group of music experts, show hosts and genre obsessives that really know their shit”, according to Saidah Blount, Executive Producer. The team are given total freedom to programme stations as they see fit, with no quotas to “pump out the hits 24/7”, leading to them being able to take you on journeys that do more than just pandering to what you expect to hear.
“We’re creating a space for the casual music listen as well as the music obsessives,” Blount says. “We like to experiment and dabble in all genres, eras, just like you would listen at home or while hanging out with friends. I think that the time understands that if we curate with a purpose – to entertain, fill your home with music AND to lead the way to new music discovery – we’re basically giving music fans the keys to a very exciting kingdom.”
And what a kingdom the Sonos Radio world is. Dawson calls it “a great service for all the moments in your day” and you can find stations to soundtrack just that – from the high energy Workout Remix to help you through your gym session to the sleep sounds of White Noise to help you drift off. Travel might be largely off the cards in our current world, but the station list can instead whisk you around the globe, with eye-opening and intriguing mixes like Hawaiian and Arabic Mixtape, while the likes of Spraakwater and Deutschpop Deluxe delve deep into the Netherlands’ hip-hop scene and an array of modern German pop respectively. Looking for something a bit different to your usual festive playlist? The platform’s holiday music selection has everything from Holiday Concerto’s classical collection, Country Christmas, Holidaze’s soul and rock and much more.
Besides that expansive catalogue to explore, one of the big draws of Sonos Radio is its artist-curated stations. Its roster is full of icons and boasts the eclectic likes of Thom Yorke, Erykah Badu, Brian Eno, The Chemical Brothers, Björk, Brittany Howard, FKA twigs and many more. “We work with artists that are natural collaborators and curators in their own right,” Dawson explains of how they choose who to approach. “We have ongoing conversations with artist teams throughout the year for various opportunities across Sonos and Sonos Radio, but the ones that have worked best for curated stations are those who draw inspiration from, collaborate with and seek out artists across genre and era.”
True to Sonos’ personal touch in its own curated stations, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to how an artist station is curated. There’s no set brief that’s sent out to musicians, with each project coming together in a different way. “That’s what we think makes each station so unique and powerful,” Dawson notes. “Some artists have come in with a very clear idea and with others, we help them explore different themes and territories for the curation and ways to convey their story through the station.” Despite that, though, he says one thing always stays the same: “The actual song curation comes directly you from the artist.”
Artist-curated stations aren’t just a handful of an act’s favourite songs thrown together in one mix. Each has a different angle, from Brian Eno’s The Lighthouse – which looks back through his career and shares unreleased tracks from his archives as well as selections from his influences – or The Chemical Brothers’ exploring different sub-genres and cultures in each instalment of their Radio Chemical. Even if you think you know an artist inside out, these stations often still have room to surprise you or expand your perception of whoever is behind the curation; they feel like intimate windows into someone’s world that you normally wouldn’t get the chance to experience. FKA twigs’ Main Squeeze, for example, takes an unpredictable path through classic hip-hop, obscure dream-pop, drill, Detroit electronica and beyond.
“I think the artists we work with quickly realise the power of being able to tell their own story of their influences and beloved tunes, by creating these stations,” Blount says. “It’s like an amazing behind-the-scenes peek into the playlists your favourite artists might put on while they’re working on a new album, hanging with friends or driving around town. For a music fan, that’s a unique extra layer of context and understanding around the artists and music that they love, and to have an opportunity to see beyond their stage personas is a rare gift.”
But with such an individual approach to not just each artist station but each of Sonos Radio’s own curations, what are the ingredients that make a station really work and connect strongly with listeners? For both Blount and Dawson, the key is having a point of view. “From station naming to station descriptions to overviews, we can tell people what the idea of a station is, but we strive for people to feel it or be able to identify it through listening,” Dawson says.
“What are you trying to express or evoke while creating this mix?” Blount adds. “It also stands to say that you need to know your intended audience for the station and why they might tune in.” For her, there’s also a bonus factor to consider when pulling together a compilation: “a mix of ‘surprise and delight’ – put something in there that will inspire your listener to go, ‘Hmmm, I haven’t heard that before, lemme go check out some more of this artist’.”
Sonos’ stations also complement modern society’s boundary-free consumption of music regardless of genre, scene or sound. Its app makes it easy to quickly switch from station to station as your mood dictates, while the music within each connects the dots between artists and tracks in ways you might not expect. “While the heart of Cruise Control is pretty classic yacht rock with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, you’ll still find tracks from Tame Impala, Clairo and Khruangbin, which don’t disrupt the flow and identity of the station,” Dawson cites as an example. “We’re striving to offer a connection to different types of music that you might not get elsewhere on each station we develop.”
With an innate understanding of how music fans in the 2020s want to consume their favourite tunes, Sonos Radio is pushing forward the culture of music discovery with the spirit of the mixtape firmly intact. It’s a platform that fuels your curiosity, no matter what you’re into, and always offers something new in between familiar faves.
“I’m a voracious collector of music and I have a former background in research and theory, and I think that’s my main driver as a music fan,” Blount says. “I’m always wanting to know the deeper nuggets and interesting bits about any music that pumps through my speakers. I think we’ve tried to translate that feeling of being a true music nerd into the Sonos Radio experience – you get a peek into the playlists and favourite tunes from some of the most amazing music artists in the world, as well as playlists that explore moods and genres with familiar favourite songs as well as the deepest of deep cuts.”
As she continues, she sums up the passion that unites music fans worldwide and the team at Sonos Radio: “Even if you’re a big music fan, we want you to discover something new or push your listening boundaries. Music is one of the foundations of our lives so it’s fun to always be learning and discovering along the way.”
Since its launch in 2020, Sonos Radio has given us some unmissable opportunities to do just that, but they’re not stopping there. Dawson teases another big 12 months ahead in 2022, both for star-studded stations and below. “We have some really exciting artists coming in the next year and we’ll continue to evolve the platform and how we can bring these stories to life,” he shares. “I’m lucky enough to be listening to so many of the new stations we are always creating before they are released, so stay tuned this coming year for some amazing regionally-focused stations and deeper explorations into some of the world’s biggest genres.”
Sonos Radio is available in 16 countries around the world, including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Ireland, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, and Denmark. Sonos Radio HD is also available in the United States, United Kingdom, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, while select episodes and stations can also be listened to on Mixcloud.