How Sonos Radio Curated A Home For The World’s Biggest Music Artists

We speak to Joe Dawson, former Head of Sonos Radio, about building a radio service from the ground up.

From Red Bull Music Academy to Converse Rubber Tracks, brands have played their part in building cultural platforms and facilitating cultural ideas. One such idea led to the birth of Sonos Radio. We speak to one of the driving forces, Joe Dawson, who throughout his career has worked with brands such as Budweiser, Coca-Cola, The North Face and Google, always championing culture and working with artists to produce something special.

Tell us a bit about your story and your career to date. 

Joe Dawson: Growing up in and around Detroit, I was exposed to this interplay between art and business that stuck with me. Though the city’s economy ebbed and flowed for decades, the cultural core of music, design, food, and fine art endured. I was always intrigued by how these worlds interacted with each other, and how decreasing opportunity in one area could fuel inspiration in another. Throughout my career, I’ve acted as a bridge between creativity and commerce – bringing a deep understanding of the impact each side can have on the other. Working at both creative agencies and in-house at companies, I aligned brands with culture in many forms, across music, sports, design, entertainment, and especially with artists and creators. There is undeniably an element of “cool” that culture offers to brands, but I try to keep the focus on how imagination and innovation connect with the humans we call consumers.

Most recently, I’ve adopted this lens to develop new products that increase growth for a business while establishing a new creative territory for artists. This has included limited edition products, design collaborations, audio product showcases, and the creation of Sonos Radio and its original content.

How did the concept of Sonos Radio come about, what were your main goals and how did you go about making it a reality?

Originally, Sonos was solely powered by partners’ content – Mixcloud, NTS, Calm, Bandcamp, the BBC, et al. This partner-led approach is still very core to the Sonos experience, but we thought: what if we could continue the thoughtful, curated Sonos experience all the way through to listening? The concept behind creating a radio-based service was rooted in two truths. The first was that users were listening to a LOT of radio on Sonos. The second truth was that we wanted to create a service that was complimentary to how people already listened on Sonos. Radio offered a unique opportunity for us to create a fresh take and identity in the streaming world.

We were able to create a service that fits into people’s lives, with offerings aligned to the various moments throughout their day. That helped us establish our curatorial point of view, as well as how the main stations were crafted and programmed, and what types of original content and artist collaboration were possible. Identifying a space we could not only fill but thrive within, laid the foundation for us to build a product that enhanced the Sonos experience and established a business model that made it viable.

Episode artwork from Sheroes, hosted by Carmel Holt

What do you think helped Sonos Radio stand out in a sea of content? What does it bring to the table?

As we built the service, we were faced with creating a new brand and defining a space to occupy in the world of streaming music. We understood that as a new entity in the space, trust would have to be established with listeners, so we rooted everything we made in human curation. The world of curatorial algorithms had grown exponentially and we saw this as a chance to differentiate and show up as a considered way to curate. We also had the dual challenge of meeting the day-to-day listening habits of global audiences, while developing content that established our identity in the music community, the media, and with users. To provide a creative anchor, we established our purpose as a service; Sonos Radio would be ‘Your Source for Music Discovery.’

Whether we were developing new stations or building our slate of creative collaborators, we could always come back to these elements – does it establish a human connection and does it fuel discovery? From there, we were able to focus on connecting with a wide array of music communities and define thoughtful ways to dig deep into new concepts..

How did you find the right artists to work with to help you achieve your goals? Where and what did you look for?

Our approach was twofold. We aimed to work with globally established artists and offer a platform to some new voices and points of view. The unifying factors that we looked for were artists driven by discovery and creative exploration, who have historically drawn inspiration from other genres, and those with a limited history of working with other brands. Whether working with Thom Yorke, D’Angelo, and Björk or with DJ Lindsey, Carmel Holt and Hanif Abdurraqib, we would establish a common ground on the vision for our end product. From there, our team would work closely with the artist to provide guidance and unlock product opportunities but we let the partner take the lead on delivering their vision. All to say, it was an immersive, collaborative process and therefore not what all artists were looking for. So staying true to what we were trying to achieve and finding the right matches continued to work itself out and allowed us to deliver some great content.

“For both a brand and an artist, if they can create something impactful that delivers against the business results, odds are there is going to be more opportunity to build from.” – Joe Dawson

Sonos Radio included several radio series such as DJ Lindsey’s acclaimed ‘Black is Black’ series. Could you talk us through the outreach, ideation, and development of the series?

The vision for and delivery of Sonos Radio’s original radio series can be attributed to Saidah Blount, the Executive Producer and longtime creative partner of mine at Sonos. She set the tone for the types of stories we aspired to tell with radio shows and developed a strategy for identifying collaborators to create them.

DJ Lindsey, a staple in New York City nightlife for some time, is the co-founder of a pioneering DJ collective and party called Negroclash, where she and her partners DJ Duane Harriott and Prince Language showcase the innovation of Black artists in electronic and dance music. Through this work, Lindsey and Saidah connected and quickly identified that there was so much more music to showcase the wide and often overlooked legacy the Black musical diaspora has had on shaping popular culture. Lindsey had the framework of the story behind Black is Black, specific areas and narratives to touch on, and the music to support them. Saidah led our team in shaping these ideas into an episodic structure that could encapsulate the powerful message of each concept and build upon each other into multiple seasons. From there, the team gave Lindsey room to deliver the stories she wanted to tell while providing support and a creative infrastructure to rely on, forming it into the show it has become today.

DJ Lindsey, host of Black is Black

What are some essential elements that need to be in place to make an artist brand partnership work well?

Honest and open communication is the starting point of any successful partnership. As much as brands want to support creators, they do ultimately have business objectives to meet. I think when a brand can provide a clear, simple understanding of what their collaboration with an artist is trying to achieve it allows for more space to focus on the creative process. This not only allows the brands to be successful, but I have seen it empower the artist. It allows the artist to understand the world of brands more deeply, and use each experience to build their profile and ability to deliver against what brands are looking for. For both a brand and an artist, if they can create something impactful that delivers against the business results, odds are there is going to be more opportunity to build from.

From there, keeping a collaborative mindset is key although not always easy to do. Establishing a creative tension often delivers some of the best results, but that can only exist when there is a desire to understand both sides. On the brand side, we often try to step outside of our business objectives to understand the perspective of the artists. This helps the team translate what we’re trying to achieve and establish a comfort level with the artist. The last element is understanding that not every pairing for every opportunity is a fit, and that’s ok. When both sides understand their priorities and communicate about the end goal, it allows space to bend where necessary. Sometimes though, one side just can’t bend anymore and it’s better for both sides to communicate about that. I’d always prefer to not go through with an artist partnership than push it to a point where they’re not comfortable or the brand isn’t getting what they want.

What do you think brands can bring to the table in terms of creating and supporting culture?

In my view, there are very few brands that can truly be attributed with creating culture, but an endless amount of brands that can be effective in supporting it. Ultimately, the artists and creators are the ones cultivating  it, while a brand is offering resources, means, and channels to deliver it. However, a brand offering a safe, collaborative environment that tends to consistently deliver great results can be an art form itself.

As for supporting culture, there are four areas in which I believe brands can play a meaningful role. The first is offering a platform. Brands have all sorts of resources and a captive audience that many creators could only dream of. The right partnership can offer a great stepping stone to emerging and established creators alike.

Next, brands can offer artists opportunities to tackle a creative project that they wouldn’t or couldn’t do on their own. This could mean stepping out of their comfort zone, like asking a musician to do a visual design project, or it could mean letting an artist tackle a big project they might not otherwise prioritize, like Sonos Radio’s Lighthouse project with Brian Eno – releasing over 40 years of archived music.

Thirdly, one project can lead to another, whether it’s with the same brand/artist combo or a new opportunity. Lastly, is fair compensation for artists. This is a valuable part of the creator ecosystem and brands can play a meaningful role in sustaining creativity. The arts are continually taken for granted and under attack, so if an equitable value exchange can exist in partnering with brands, then keep it coming.

“I have seen [brand partnerships] empower the artist. It allows the artist to understand the world of brands more deeply, and use each experience to build their profile and ability to deliver against what brands are looking for.”

What advice would you give to artists and DJs looking to work with brands? What can help them stand out?

The biggest piece of advice I can provide is for artists to do some homework to understand the various ways artists have worked with brands historically and today. This will help them think about the types of brands and products they might want to associate with, how they would like to work with them, and what the artist wants to get out of it.  There is such a wide array of brands tapping into culture, specifically music, and patterns tend to form. Sometimes the brand’s interest is squarely aligned with the artist’s music or their art and other times it’s more driven by tapping into their community or who they are as an individual.

I’d recommend artists identify what parts of themselves they’re most comfortable sharing, what they can offer, and what they want to get out of working with a brand while remaining authentic to the art. To stand out, put yourself out there. Connect with brands and creative agencies, get into their DMs, tell them what you like about their brand or product, and share how you could get involved. It is not a black hole on the other end, there are actual people who are always looking for new creative voices to connect with brands. Something might not happen right away but putting yourself on their radar is a great first step.

Episode artwork for the America’s Dead podcast

Words by Joseph Strinati

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