Soundtracking Sonos: Behind the Scenes with Our Head of Music
As Sonos’s Global Head of Music, Brian Beck meticulously unearths the ideal song or artist for our ads, events, curated playlists, and more. Find out how Brian stays plugged in to the latest music—as well as his three tips for creating great playlists.
If you grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska in the early 80s, you had to work a little harder to discover new music. And a lot harder to deliver newspapers in subzero weather at five in the morning. For Brian Beck, this extra effort fortified him for a career in music that’s spanned radio, streaming, labels, artist management, and, eventually, his current role as Global Head of Music for Sonos.
It was on those dark, frigid mornings that Brian experienced the beginnings of his lifelong obsession with music. “My mom had to drive me to deliver the paper because it was pitch black and negative forty degrees fahrenheit—way too cold to ride my bike,” Brian said. “We would have cassettes playing in the car of either the Beatles, Motown, or Zeppelin. That was our Sunday morning ritual.” Aside from those cassettes, Brian’s music exposure was limited to local pop radio and what he could find at Music Land, the lone music store in the shopping centre.
That is, until August 1981. “When MTV came, that’s when things really opened up,” he said. “In Alaska, TV plays a huge part of your life. I was totally an MTV baby.” Eventually, he would go on to work at MTV, but not before earning his stripes in radio.
Idealistic beginnings (or, how to score free CDs)
“Working in music was kind of an accident,” Brian said. As a secondary school student in Seattle, he had to choose a job to explore for career day. “My band had played a city-wide talent show earlier that year and afterwards, a radio station sponsor had given us a ton of free CDs. So when it came time to decide what to do for career day, I said I wanted to be a DJ because I figured I could get more free CDs.” His choice to spend the day at Seattle’s KNDD 107.7 The End turned into an internship and then a full-time job as a music programmer and on-air talent. “So yeah,” he recalls, “it all started because I wanted free music on career day.”
When Brian landed at MTV, he was responsible for creating multi-genre playlists for the network’s foray into music streaming. “That’s when I really learned the importance of investing time into creating playlists,” he said. Not content to just throw songs together because they loosely fit a theme, Brian applied the thoughtfulness he’d learned whilst programming for radio to creating playlists optimised for the streaming experience.
The friction between art and commerce pervades the music business. As an artist manager, Brian learned the nuances of balancing both, whilst—most importantly—staying true to the artist’s unique brand. Working with the teams of My Morning Jacket, the Head and the Heart, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band (amongst others), Brian supervised marketing, online strategies, merchandise, and more. And, unbeknownst to him at the time, he was gaining the experience he most needed for his role at Sonos.
Throughout Brian’s career, he has had a front row seat to the evolution of music consumption—from cassettes and CDs to mp3s and streaming. And with that progress, he witnessed the balance shift from quality to convenience. “I always cared about great sound, but it was inconvenient,” he said. It wasn’t until he got his first Sonos speaker, a first generation Play:5, that he finally found a convenient way to enjoy brilliant sound. “I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit, it’s just so easy,’” he said. With a renewed appreciation for brilliant sound and an extensive background in the music business, Brian joined Sonos in late 2015 as US Head of Artist Relations.
Keeping an ear to the ground(-breaking artists)
In Brian’s current role, he’s responsible for finding and securing the right artist or song for anything music-related at Sonos. To do this, he cultivates deep relationships with the teams of artists that truly align with Sonos’s values and aesthetic—artists like Solange, Beastie Boys, Frank Ocean, and Karen O, to name a few. “My job is to introduce Sonos to great artists with the hope that they have a meaningful experience with the product,” Brian said. “So when the time comes to choose music to help us tell a story, the conversation with the team is a lot easier because the artist already use Sonos and love it.”
Over the past four years, those relationships have continued to flourish, providing a consistent soundtrack to high-profile product launches, brand activations, product partnerships, and events. Whilst his work may sound like a mostly solo endeavor, the crucial element, Brian says, is being part of an incredible team. “This team is the best crew I have ever worked with and that makes this a dream job,” he said. “Everyone comes from different backgrounds and brings valuable, unique perspectives. It ensures that whatever we produce is our absolute best work.”
Choosing which artists to work with in the first place requires Brian to consistently keep himself aware of—and immersed in—the latest music. His method for doing so has changed quite a bit since his days roaming the aisles of Music Land in Alaska. “I’ve mainly consolidated it all to streaming,” he said. “I probably follow somewhere between 50 and 70 new music playlists across all music streaming services.” But that’s when the real work starts: “Each week, I’ll pull whatever sounds interesting or appears on multiple playlists into a ‘maybe’ playlist.” He rounds out that playlist with some help from social media, following several artists and labels on Instagram, and occasional visits to record stores for good measure. From there, he pares down the playlist several more times until he’s left with a finalist playlist. And that’s the playlist he turns to when asked what music should accompany a new initiative at Sonos.
Creating algorithm-free playlists
When he’s not navigating the complexities of the music business, Brian is sometimes asked to lend his expertise to create official Sonos playlists. His method for creating these playlists is exhaustive, but rewarding. (We share one of our favourites below.) Here are his top three tips for creating your own playlists:
1: Do your research
“Whilst you may feel that you are well-versed in a specific genre, vibe, or category, it’s helpful to use the internet to dig deeper. Look into online forums—there are a lot of hardcore music nerds out there who can teach you something with the information they’ve posted. Explore other playlists—if I’m making a jazz playlist, there’s a good chance that the New Yorker has an essential jazz playlist that’s worth looking at as reference. Finally, check out artist playlists on streaming services—they know other artists and real music fans are looking at those and will judge, so you might find songs that aren’t obvious or familiar. Consider all your research as an opportunity to expand your music knowledge.”
2: Prioritise the flow
“Flow is the most important. How you start your playlist sets the tone for the rest of it. So if it starts out really fast, then you’ll probably want to keep that type of high energy throughout the playlist. But if you approach it as a journey, or a DJ set, you can gradually build into it. Then, try to incorporate ups and downs, moments of familiarity and surprise. And when you add songs, always consider how they work with each other. If one song ends really hard and the next song starts really soft, you may want to start with the softer song.”
3: Edit, edit, edit
“Once your playlist is built, listen to it many times, from beginning to end. Then, don’t listen to it for a while. Let a week or so go by and then come back to it to see if it still holds up. Each time you listen, decide what to add or remove. Some songs aren’t meant for playlists. They might end on a sound that’s part of a transition to the next song. Or they might include an interlude like part of a voicemail. Those songs just don’t work well within the flow of a playlist. Pay attention to your levels, as well. Some songs have really low volume. So if you’ve got a playlist that’s meant for a party and you go from a really loud song to a quiet song, it’s not going to flow well. Either place the song earlier in the playlist or remove it. You’re trying to create a vibe with the playlist, so be willing to let songs go in the name of your larger vision.”
Inspired? Share your playlists on social media and tag Sonos—we’d love to see what you come up with.