Every party needs a playlist, right? The right song list keeps the evening chill or gets the energy up, helps people relax or gets them dancing. If you're always the one on call to create those killer playlists for parties, holidays or other gatherings, you might just want to look into music curation.
What is music curation?
Music curation is all about matching tunes to vibes and maintaining a certain atmosphere for a given place or even for a specific brand. Being a music curator has a lot in common with being a DJ. You definitely need to have a passion for music and extensive knowledge of the genre or style of music you curate. You also need to be able to sense the tone of a gathering, space or place and the brand story behind it. That's what music curation is: planning the right musical pairing between a place, thing or brand for commercial clients.
There's an art to that, as anyone who's ever tried to make a road-trip power mix can attest to. But there's a science to it as well. You have the challenge of blending that artistry and musical instinct with research and marketing strategy. Because it's not just parties, clubs and festivals that want playlists. It's also hotels, restaurants and other businesses and their advertising campaigns. Commercials use music all the time — and they do so in a highly targeted and carefully-planned fashion. Market research about target customers, music and buying trends all has an impact on their music curation needs, as well as the decisions those curators make when creating the playlist for a place or the soundtrack of an ad campaign.
To curate means to gather and organize a selection of something for a specific purpose. A curated collection is often meant for display or exhibition. Music curation means choosing and organizing music for the purpose of creating and guiding our experiences of a space, place or thing.
What does a music curator do?
Listen to music. A lot of music.
Being a music curator means being an expert in your field. Like all careers, there are niches available inside curation. Maybe you'll end up working with commercial clients who host corporate events, or perhaps you'll only work with hotels who want better lobby and elevator music. Whatever area you work in, there will be styles and genres of music suited to it, and it's your job to stay on top of what's new, what's trending and what's becoming passe. And this means listening to music, a lot of it. You'll spend a lot of time exploring new artists and creators and also keeping a finger on the pulse of what potential customers and other consumers are enjoying at the moment.
Cultivate a music network.
Finding new music could end up talking all of your time, leaving you with zero energy to actually curate and design playlists for your clients. Cultivating a network of record labels, agents and even managers or promoters means you'll have them sending new stuff directly to you, maybe on a daily basis. Which gives you more time to listen and find the best songs for the vibes your clients need, with less time spent sourcing material on your own.
Learn to listen with a selective ear.
Different clients have different needs, needs that vary based on location, time of year, target market and any number of other factors. A retailer may want a holiday playlist that's familiar but not too familiar, something that creates a festive mood and encourages shoppers to hum along and be happy while they shop. That same client will have an entirely different set of needs come summer. Your job as a music curator is to work with and even anticipate those changing needs. Keeping an ear to the ground for new trends and artists about to burst onto the scene is a part of this as well. Imagine being the first to bring a soon-to-be-legendary band to one of your clients. Their brand could forever be associated with that popular music, all thanks to your curative abilities.
Know music trends — and marketing strategy.
Part of being able to cater to the needs of your clientele will be understanding not only their brand but also their consumers. If you're creating a playlist for a clothing retailer, it pays to know not only that the retailer caters exclusively to young, urban 20-somethings but to also understand what that means. A 24-year-old woman shopping for a blazer is going to have different musical tastes from a 40-year-old man looking for jeans. You have to be aware of the listening trends based on age and region (urban vs. rural), among quite a number of other factors.
Obviously, the biggest factor in becoming a music curator is a deep love of music. It can be for any genre or style, but you need to be an expert. Having an encyclopedia of knowledge about where the genre's been, its current trends and past and present artists' works is the baseline requirement. Most employers will also look for a bachelor's degree in a related field, as well as at least some experience with curating or delivering music. If you're just starting out, look for internships or entry-level positions with other curators or curating agencies to get your foot in the door. Music apps like Spotify also use curators, and that might be a good way to at least gain experience, if not necessarily a steady paycheck.
Educate yourself about the music industry, and know how music distribution works through streaming apps or services, radio/media or commercial usage. There are online music business courses and certifications available on everything from marketing to licensing and publishing. Know the right (legal and ethical) way to source music, and save your clients a potential headache later on. Those certifications and added educational experience will give a nice boost to your resume, too.
Like finding the genre or genres in which you want to specialize, exploring the world of music business careers is a great way to learn about the music industry and also find new topics and areas of personal interest. "Music curator" is an umbrella term, encompassing any number of niches and other opportunities to explore.
According to ZipRecruiter, the average annual salary for a music curator is about $40,000. Your potential to earn more is based on experience rather than advancement through any particular employer. You're essentially an independent contractor, and as such will rely solely on your reputation and your portfolio. The more you do, the more experienced you become, and the higher your earning potential will be.