Radio is far from dead, but it’s losing both listeners and employees to streaming services, whose most recent poach is a big one. Spotify announced on Monday (Nov. 2) the hiring of John Marks, a radio veteran who was previously senior director of country programming at SiriusXM Radio.
Known as a well-connected and trusted tastemaker in Nashville, Marks brings both knowledge and credibility to his new role as head of global programming for country music. But Marks is not the first genre-specific programmer at Spotify; he joins counterparts Tuma Basa in hip-hop, Mjeema Pickett in R&B and Austin Kramer in electronic.
Human curation isn’t new to subscription services. Beats Music, the predecessor to Apple Music created by Beats Electronics founders Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, launched under the premise that humans are superior to algorithms in fostering discovery and offering a compelling listening experience. It hired a number of experts from the radio business, such as former Clear Channel programmer Julie Pilat, veteran Detroit radio music director Suzy Cole and Los Angeles hip-hop radio personality Fuzzy Fantabulous. Post-acquisition and relaunch, Apple Music has continued that approach.
But employing genre experts is far from Spotify’s original approach. In its early years, Spotfiy listeners had little more than their friends’ playlists for discovering new music. A partnership with Facebook in 2011 allowed Spotify users to view a real-time listing of their friends’ listening activity. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg called the discover process “real-time serendipity.” It turned out to be a fire hose of information, lacking any context.
Now Spotify adds context to its catalog of over 30 million songs. Its playlists — some with millions of followers — are created around genre, mood and activity. Others help listeners follow new and rising songs. One popular playlist has a rotating list of new releases, another highlights the most “social” songs on the platform.
“Spotify has taken a different tack, in that they want human beings who are experts in genres to look at the country music genre in a global sense, global in a large picture sense, and construct playlists from that wide, expansive music,” Marks tells Billboard. “You can be as narrow or wide as you can.”
Marks says one aspect of his job is to be “an ambassador” of country music to editors and target countries that don’t follow it closely and don’t know what’s popular. Australia is known as a country outpost, but Marks says the U.K. is a growing market, and Ireland as well has potential. Even Finland is promising for the genre. Marks discovered a coworker there likes his “New Boots” playlist, which has resulted in a collaboration between the two on ways to bring country music to Finland.
One of the main differences between radio and streaming services is the ability to have real-time feedback. Marks laughs when asked about his access to data at Spotify. He doesn’t consider himself a data expert but appreciates the in-the-minute information that wasn’t available to him when programming for radio stations. “You can almost make a correction that minute and keep working the playlist. You can see how people are reacting to the music.”