How to Curate an Amazing Spotify Playlist

Any Spotify user can drag and drop songs into a playlist and make it public for the world to hear, but if you want people to actually listen to your playlist and follow it for months or years, you need to put in serious time and careful effort. Curating an amazing playlist can be an extremely time-consuming process, but it can also help you improve your listening skills, give you plenty of great music to enjoy, and be satisfying on a deep personal level, regardless of how many followers it picks up.

I’ve already shared what I’ve learned about how to make a popular Spotify playlist without promoting it, but this article will focus more on how to actually refine and develop that playlist for an optimal listening experience.

Ultimately, the goal for any playlist is to create a distraction-free selection of music with songs that complement each other. You want your listeners to be able to put on your list and let it play for long periods without feeling the desire to skip tracks or leave the playlist altogether, and that requires the songs to not only be high quality, but also work very well together.

The most important thing to remember while making your playlist is that you must be extremely familiar with every track you include and be able to make conscious comparisons between it and every other song in the list.

Remember, there is no other way; you must hear every song in your playlist multiple times and understand how it relates to all the others.

That said, here are the best ways to curate an amazing Spotify playlist.

Choose a Focus

You’ve probably noticed that every Spotify-curated playlist has a specific focus, and almost all of the most popular independent ones do too. This isn’t a coincidence. If you grab your favorite songs from a wide array of genres and moods and dump them in together, you’re probably going to be the only person who enjoys listening to your playlist.

Spotify breaks down its own playlists into categories for genre, mood, and era, though each of these ultimately boils down to exactly the same thing: making a cohesive selection of music that sounds great. If you’re a genre doubter, then think of it terms of vibe, feel, or mood instead. Whatever you choose to call it, make sure the tracks flow together from one to the next, even on shuffle.

Listen to as Much Music as Possible

If you want to find the absolute best songs for your playlist within a specific genre, mood, or era, you need to go digging. The more music you have the time and energy to listen to, the better.

Listening to an enormous volume of music — thousands or even tens of thousands of songs within a particular style — will do multiple things for you and your playlist.

  1. It will help you find hidden gems that other playlisters have missed, which will add flavor and valuable surprises to your list, keeping your listeners engaged and excited.
  2. It will expose you to a higher number of creative approaches, giving you a deeper understanding of where your playlist fits in the world of music and enabling you to make clearer decisions about where the boundaries of your selection are.
  3. It will allow you to make a higher number of mental comparisons between the songs you hear. This is the absolute best way to improve your listening skills, which in turn will help you determine which tracks fit your list in terms of both quality and style.

For my Synthwave / Retro Electro playlist, which has just over 80,000 followers, I’ve listened to somewhere north of 25,000 synthwave songs. (The playlist currently contains around 300.)

After seven years of working on that list and sorting through tens of thousands of tracks, I feel completely decisive about which songs I want in the list and why. Compared to how I was making decisions when I first started, the difference is night and day.

If you want people to actually listen to your playlist and follow it over time, you need to put in serious time and careful effort

There are other factors that have helped me gain clarity about what I’m doing with each of my playlists, explained below, but without question, the biggest and most important one is just listening to a high volume of music within a particular style.

Music quality is extremely relative. When I had only heard 50 synthwave albums, I had my favorites of the bunch and they sounded very good to me. By the time I’d heard the equivalent of 2,500 synthwave albums, those early few I loved weren’t even in my playlist or listening rotation anymore. Relative to the best albums I heard later, I actually felt embarrassed by what I thought was great early on.

Without absorbing a high volume of music within a particular style, you’ll never be sure that what you’re hearing is as good as you think it is.

Start Big and Refine Your Playlist

If you’re prepared to comb through a high volume of music — and you should be if you want your list to be great — then start your playlist big with a high number of songs and whittle it down until you have a highly refined selection. Choosing a few favorites and dropping them in will make your list shallow and incomplete, likely with large gaps in style and quality between entries.

If you’ve ever taken a class on drawing, painting, or sculpting, you’ve likely heard the expression “move from the general to the specific,” meaning that you should work on the broad strokes to start and build the complete shape and composition first. Once you have the overall structure in place, you can start refining, clarifying, and adding details, making increasingly specific decisions as you go. The same is true with a high number of other creative efforts, and it’s absolutely true with curating an amazing playlist.

Start big (general) and work toward being more specific as you go. With playlists, this means working from a high number of songs and cutting it down to a fraction of that original number.

Comb Through Related Artists

If you’re starting a brand new playlist, you can follow the next steps on your playlist with the visibility set to public. The amount of time you spend listening and curating will actually help engage Spotify’s algorithms and trigger organic follower growth, and since you don’t yet have a significant number of followers on the list, it won’t hurt you for the selection to be big and unrefined.

On the other hand, if you’re planning to work on a public list that already has a decent number of followers, it’s better to perform these steps in a private list and then drag and drop the new songs into your public one so it won’t hurt the listening experience for you current followers. 

The best way to fatten up your selection is to pick an artist on Spotify you like and drag and drop that creator’s music into your playlist. Next, take that same artist and open the ‘Fans also like’ tab on the creator’s Spotify profile. Start clicking through related artists one at a time looking for music with a similar feel. Any time you find an artist whose music sounds appealing and fits the design of your playlist, drag and drop all of that creator’s music into your playlist as well.

Note: artists often have shocking dips in quality and dramatic changes in style across their discography. As you get better at listening, you can eventually click through and find the albums, singles, etc. that are what you’re looking for in terms of style and quality within a few seconds and grab only those. But if this is one of your first playlists, grab everything except duplicates and remixes and put them in your list. You’re going to need all of those songs to help you clarify your thinking about the playlist.

Next, pick some of the quality artists you’ve just discovered and open their related artists sections to get a look at even more creators. Go through every one of those related artists for more music, skipping any you already encountered.

Another note: Spotify’s related artists sections, now listed as ‘Fans also like,’ are based on existing playlists and listeners’ habits, and it’s an imperfect system. The related artists are often circular in their connections and will ultimately lead you in a loop if you follow through on all of them. In other words, you’ll eventually exhaust all options relevant to your playlist and hit dead ends.

However, by using other discovery methods (like checking artists in YouTube videos, reading artist features on blogs, etc.) it’s almost always possible to find great artists working in a similar style to what you’re aiming for who are completely outside the “loop” of related artists you found before.

When you come across one of these similar artists who are on a different, unconnected loop, open up that creator’s related artists section and you’ll likely find several relevant new artists who never appeared where you were searching before. Exciting!

I would suggest doing this until you have no less than 200-300 songs ready to be listened to. As you get better at this process, you can go bigger without feeling overwhelmed. I’ve taken playlists that started with three or four thousand songs and whittled them down to a couple hundred, but it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed if you’re not used to the process.

 
Without absorbing a high volume of music within a particular style, you’ll never be sure that what you’re hearing is as good as you think it is.

So, get a healthy selection of music together that you’re excited to listen to and aren’t feeling overwhelmed by, grab a good pair of headphones, and prepare to dig into the real curation work.

Refine Your List Song by Song

As I mentioned at the beginning, you want your playlist to include a selection of music that works extremely well together. This requires making constant and conscious comparisons between every entry in the list.

Again, the only way to do this is to be extremely familiar with everything you include, which means going down your list one song at a time and making a deliberate decision about whether it needs to be in your list or not.

The best way I’ve found to do this in terms of efficiency and keeping things interesting for yourself — as well as remembering where you left off each time you take a break — is to sort the entire playlist by song title.

On a desktop, click once on the column header ‘Title’ to arrange the tracks by alphabetical order. (A second click will give you the songs in reverse alphabetical order, a third click will restore it to a custom order.) On a smartphone, scroll up as far as you can go on the list until the search bar appears above the playlist art. On older versions of Spotify, tap the horizontal bars that appear to the right of the search field. On newer versions, this says ‘Filters.’ Tap ‘Filters,’ then tap the ‘Title’ option, which should be second on the list.

You will now be looking at your playlist arranged with all the tracks in alphabetical order, starting with song titles that begin with numbers and then A, B, C, etc.

The reason for sorting the list by title is that it will cause your listening queue to shift across artists and albums on nearly every song, which helps you make conscious comparisons between them. True, this same thing could be accomplished on shuffle, but you’d never be sure you heard everything in the list and you’d also never know where you left off each time.

The goal is to systematically listen to every single song in the playlist and understand how it relates to every other entry, and going through in alphabetical order is the best way to do this.

There are two key things you’re listening for as you go down the list, and depending on your listening skills and the quality of your audio equipment, possibly a third.

1. Song Quality

Sure, this is somewhat subjective (though I’m actually willing to argue there’s a significant amount of objectivity involved in evaluating music), but ultimately this just comes down to how much you enjoy a song. Try to mentally put every song on a scale of 1 to 10 and delete any that are below an 8 for you, or a 7, or whatever you feel you can accurately and comfortably aim for.

2. Style, Mood, Vibe, etc.

Listening through the songs in alphabetical order will help you hear discrepancies in style and find inconsistencies in the overall cohesion of your list. If a new song comes on and it feels jarring in relation to the one before it, one of those songs has to go. As you move through the list you’ll begin to hear patterns and common creative elements between songs, and you can begin making decisions about where the creative “center” of your playlist is and how far away from that focal point you’re willing to go.

The goal here is not necessarily to homogenize your list (though it might be interesting and relevant to do so, as I’ve done on my Darksynth playlist) but you still want the songs to play nicely together in the sandbox of your playlist, even if they’re not necessarily related by style.

3. Audio Production Quality

This will likely be the last and most challenging thing you listen for, and much of your ability to hear this will depend on the quality of the speakers you’re listening through. It’s not necessary to refine a list based on the quality of the audio production, and you may still enjoy your list and gain a large following without worrying about it, but bringing this factor into your curation will help keep the selection glued together and provide a smoother listening experience all around.

Remember, there is no other way; you must hear every song in your playlist multiple times and understand how it relates to all the others.

Begin on the first song and let it play all the way through, listening closely without focusing on anything else. You need about 80 to 90 percent of your attention dedicated to active listening to be sure you’re making the best decisions for your list. Doing much of anything else is going to distract you, make you less decisive about which songs to keep in, and ultimately lower the quality of your list.

Things I personally enjoy doing while curating my playlists include going for walks, playing video games that keep my hands busy but don’t require a lot of critical thinking (Diablo III has gotten a lot of action this way), and reading political news. (The fact this last one demands so little focus might say something about the current state of US politics.)

Whatever you can do comfortably to help you stay stimulated and engaged without losing focus on the music, do it. If you’re fine with just sitting and staring at a wall while you listen, do it.

Once you’ve let the first song play through, let it play into the second song, then the third, etc., making conscious comparisons as you go. If you find a song that doesn’t fit, delete it and move to the next. If you hear one you know you love and want to keep, I would actually suggest letting it play all the way through. While your enjoyment of that song is still fresh in your mind, you’ll be able to compare it to the next several songs and decide if they’re worthy of being alongside it.

Sometimes a song feels “pretty good” until you hear it side-by-side with one you think is really amazing, and then you’ll know the “pretty good” song simply isn’t good enough.

You are the gatekeeper of your list now, there’s no way around it, and you’re making judgments about what is good enough and what isn’t. Don’t be afraid to cut something out that’s not meeting your standards.

By the time you reach the songs whose titles end in Y and Z, you will have learned an enormous amount about your playlist and you’ll likely have a much better feel for what your focus should be. If you’ve managed to resist the temptation to add more music as you went, go ahead and get back into related artists (or scour YouTube videos, take submissions, do whatever you like to do to find new music), and drop some new tracks in the list. Add as much as you’re comfortable with and can feel excited about sorting through.

Once you’re ready, start back at the top of your list, and you guessed it, go through the entire selection again.

You need about 80 to 90 percent of your attention focused solely on listening to be sure you’re making the best decisions for your list.

If you’ve been concentrating on the music and making conscious comparisons between songs, then the start of your list is going to feel very different this time through. You’ll likely hear songs that you thought were good quality or a good fit the first time through that you can decisively cut from the selection now. You’ll also be more familiar with each song that’s still in the list, which will you help you make decisions about whether you truly enjoy hearing it or not.

Sometimes songs sound great the first or second time you hear them but are tiring by the fifth, so hearing all the songs in your list multiple times is essential.

Also, raise the bar for quality the second time through. If you were aiming for songs that were at least a 7 for you last time, keep only songs that you could rate an 8 or above now. I always remind myself when I’m doing this, “when in doubt, leave it out.”

Once you’ve been through the list a second time, you can put this part of the process on the back burner for awhile and only closely curate new additions to the list, making sure you hear every song multiple times before it goes in your playlist. For now, further trips through the selection in alphabetical order will likely have diminishing returns in terms of how much curation you’ll accomplish. Instead, take some time to enjoy your list by moving onto the next step.

However, you’ll want to come back to this process every so often — six to twelve months — and comb through it song by song again.

Chances are you’ll feel differently about the songs in the selection every year or so and find your listening skills have improved through prior practice, allowing you to be more decisive and recognize differences in the music that you weren’t able to hear before.

Make Final Edits by Simply Enjoying Your Playlist

You’ve been through your list song by song and you have a good feel for how all the tracks fit together. Now, you can kick back and enjoy it while also fine-tuning it.

I like to listen to my playlists on shuffle, and if I’ve built a playlist properly, the songs flow well from one song to the next even when they’re played in a random order. Listening on shuffle also allows me to make some final tweaks and adjustments. By allowing the list to play while I’m at the gym, making dinner, etc., I’ll occasionally hear a song that pulls me out of the groove or feels odd in the mix and I know I can delete that one from the selection.

Once you’ve tightened up a list by going through it in alphabetical order, it will be much easier to identify the outliers and cut them from the mix by simply enjoying the playlist.

Is It an Amazing Playlist Yet?

What makes an amazing playlist? Ultimately, you need to make the list for yourself and listen to it for yourself.

When I started making playlists I had no expectations of anyone ever following them. I just loved the music and listened to a lot of it. Over time my lists starting getting hundreds, then thousands of followers without me promoting them. To me, that was a sign I was doing something right.

You can worry about playlist numbers if you want, and there are plenty of playlisters who have found ways to exploit Reddit’s algorithms for viral posts and viral playlist follower growth.

But big numbers have no impact on the quality of your playlists, so make a decision about what your personal goal is for the list.

If you’re like me and you love the music and want to make a playlist that you can get hours of enjoyment out of, this article should get you started in the right direction. If you’re also like me and dislike social media and the grind of self-promotion, you can check out my tips for making a popular Spotify playlist without promoting it to save you time and energy. 

Find some music you love and make a list that sounds amazing to you. The satisfaction and knowledge you’ll gain from it will be well worthwhile.


Preston Cram / Iron Skullet is an independent playlister and music journalist. He is the A&R rep for for the synthwave record label FiXT Neon.

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