How Sonos is transforming audio culture
by work x work
Sonos gives people better ways to listen. Their sound systems bring intuitive and immersive experiences into the home and portable speakers make it easy to enjoy high-definition audio virtually anywhere. But hardware is only the beginning of Sonos’ commitment to better listening. With their original content on Sonos Radio, Sonos is creating new outlets of expression and communication for artists, and more holistic and fruitful opportunities for music discovery for their listeners.
On the eve of Object of Sound’s season 2 reboot, we sat down with Sonos’ Senior Director of Content, Brand & Product Platforms, Joe Dawson, and Senior Manager of Brand Platforms, Saidah Blount, to talk about how they’re working with partners like us to transform audio culture.
Congrats to the Sonos Radio team on the launch of Object of Sound’s second season! How does it feel to be entering the second year of Sonos Radio?
Joe Dawson: Yeah! So it’s been fourteen months into Sonos Radio being a thing, and we’ve been looking to do a lot, from curated stations to building a service on a traditional hardware brand and product. But from our side, our biggest focus is building a way of working, a reputation, a group of collaborators both on the production side and on the talent side, and really establishing a trust and a freedom for creators.
We have looked to both partners like work x work who have a like-minded approach, not only in the content we’re trying to make and the stories we’re trying to tell, but how we actually work with people. Working at a very human and open level, building a vision, and really allowing space for the creator and the personality to come through and represent who they are. We can use that to establish the Sonos brand as a content maker, not just as a speaker brand. Our driving goal was that we wanted to be a platform for the work the artists are doing: always be a contributing partner to them, not looking at it in some brands where they’re just borrowing an IP to put a logo next to, or a line next to someone’s work. We want to play a meaningful role in supporting the work they’re doing, and support who they truly are as creators.
What are your top priorities when it comes to making content and programming decisions?
Saidah Blount: The primary lens is our commitment to music discovery. That is the number one priority.
For some of our shows, like Black is Black, and Women in Sound, and Sheroes, we were looking for folks that were experts in their area and were willing to work with us in the methods that Joe mentioned, very organically and with love and kind of from a place of collaboration. We’re coming from the POV that we’re music lovers and we want to help people enjoy music in the best way that they can, so we brought on these experts that just know their genres, know their shit and are willing to share that advice.
And for me, as a person who has always made it a mission to know the most about what I’m listening to, I see Sonos Radio as an evolution of the music magazine. The music magazines are not there anymore. Print media is, unfortunately, dying off, and that content is translating online, or it’s going to podcasting. We’re kind of stepping into that grand tradition of bringing larger bases of music knowledge through radio.
That’s part of why Hanif [Abdurraqib, host of Object of Sound] resonated so well for me as a kind of shepherd for this mission. As a music fan, he listens the way that I wish I could listen (if I had much more time.) He dives into the subject, the craftsmanship, the artistry of music in a way that is so evocative. As an ex-journalist, the way Hanif manipulates words is a dream.
JD: Music discovery is not about discovering specific songs. It’s the stories behind them. The stories behind how things change. Black is Black is a perfect example of that. These amazing ideas that Lindsey [DJ and host of Black is Black] has come up with to tell these stories of the black diaspora, and then play 90 minutes of music. Maybe it’s not the first time you’ve heard the music, but you’re thinking about it in a new way. And so the discovery isn’t just about, ‘I had never heard this song.’ It’s, ‘I’m thinking about music or a certain type of music in a new way.’
Can you speak about Sonos Radio’s interest in and commitment to diversity and representation on your programs?
SB: We’ve made a personal commitment as a content team that we want to explore all experiences across radio. We jokingly have called it from the beginning, “listening with big ears.” We want people to discover the globe of music. With music magazines and music media dying off, the ones that remain have put a very hard focus on, I would say, a very Western scope of music: very indie, very rock-based, very pop-based. But I think that now you look at pop, and you look at some of these genres, they’re being influenced by global listening and global production and different experiences.
I’ll give you a little bit behind the curtain here, but we made a commitment as a team that we wanted to always make sure that the music on Sound System is guaranteed 50 percent voices that aren’t usually illuminated. We’re really proud that we’ve always done way over that. We definitely always try to feature 50 percent of programming from women, and we’ve had over 50% of our content produced by voices of color and BIPOC voices. We made that commitment very early on. We wanted to make sure that everyone felt like they had a home with us, especially new voices.
Which is incredibly in line with the thinking behind Object of Sound!
JD: Yeah, that’s exactly where I was going. Object of Sound is leading that movement, and Call & Response, highlight these ways of listening. These shows present the idea, or moment in time, or this thing that’s happening in the world, and the host talks to someone about their experience through the lens of music. That’s a whole new way to look at music discovery. You know, being able to talk to Jazmine Sullivan about her new album, and how it came to be that she is singing at the Super Bowl and talk about her personal experience through her career. The point of the show is to be rooted in music—that’s what guides us—and then tell these great stories through that lens.
Can you tell us a little about the upcoming Object of Sound PRX special?
JD: We have been so excited about the growth of the show, and the traction it’s gotten with our community. And from our standpoint, PRX is one of the best. They’re working in a very similar mentality to us.
Specifically, for the special broadcast, we’re looking at what’s next for live music. We wanted to build something that would really resonate with that public radio audience. It’s been a weird year, and particularly when it comes to music.
Right now, there’s this sense of anticipation, nerves, excitement, anxiety—what’s it going to feel like to see live music again? We feel like this is going to be a really interesting topic to explore.
Now, with Hanif [Abdurraqib] and Object of Sound, we have the opportunity to bring these ideas to a new audience when it launches the weekend of July Fourth, and airs on various affiliate stations across the country throughout the summer.
What have you learned from listeners and consumers through Sonos Radio’s growth?
JD: The human curation element really resonates with people. It offers something, it fills a gap. Even traditional radio has its own direction and vibe. So for us to be able to put forward people-centric shows, bringing content to light that’s completely from someone’s mind—people want that, people have been missing that.
We’ve learned that people are really open to new ways to consume music. That’s continually evolved, particularly over the past 15-20 years. We now have on demand, and you can get everything you want, and algorithms drive it.
But what we’ve realized is that with on demand, there’s this kind of decision paralysis. There’s too much. And so you just lean on these algorithms based on this one thing you listen to, or a song you saved three years ago. So it puts these limitations on discovery.
Last question: are there any media or consumer trends that have caught your eyes recently?
SB: I’ve been noticing that a lot of writers are abandoning their writing jobs, either going to Netflix, or Spotify. It’s interesting. Like, what’s going on that everybody’s making this grand exodus really quickly? In one way it makes me really sad and concerned for the state of music media. But then, well, it’s inevitable that you always chase the next frontier. All these writers I know seem to be getting deals to translate music to TV streaming. I think there’s going to be a lot of music on TV in the next few years.
JD: For me, it’s the live audio movement. From Clubhouse, to Spotify’s Green Room launching recently after Locker Room. Like, what’s that going to be like? Are people going to want to do that when we’re back to more normalcy? How does the business work? It’s a great community tool, but we all know that great community tools are going to get commercialized. So how do you do that while preserving the soul of it? It’s been fascinating to watch.