Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed song lyrics from the Broadway show "Avenue Q" to the band Semisonic. The error has been corrected in this version.

Downloading Empathy to Your iPod

Justine Saylors with her son, Lance, in 2003, the last year of his life.
Justine Saylors with her son, Lance, in 2003, the last year of his life. (Courtesy of Saylors family)

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By Howard Parnell
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 1, 2006; 12:10 PM

Justine Saylors is an accidental DJ on a mission.

Six months ago, she was a grieving mom spending hour after hour on Apple's iTunes online music service, downloading songs to match her sorrow. Josh Groban's "Remember" became a particular favorite, with its "Bolero"-like refrain "Remember/I will still be here/As long as you hold me/in your memory/Remember me." It made her think of her son, Lance Kowalski, who died in October 2003 at the age of 13.

Saylors was deep in "the grief pit" nearly two years after her son's death, she wrote in a recent e-mail exchange with a reporter.

"I sat outside with my iPod blaring it over and over," she recalled. "My world revolved around him, and when he was gone it crushed me beyond belief. There are times still when I miss him so much, I find myself holding my breath."

Last summer the 44-year old Lake Oswego, Ore., resident discovered iMixes -- music playlists compiled by iTunes users, then uploaded and shared with other customers. Soon she was typing words and phrases such as "bereavement" and "death of a child" into the iMix search tool, then sampling and in many cases buying songs at 99 cents a pop from the lists that turned up.

By the time another October arrived, Saylors had amassed a sizable collection of some of the most heartbreaking music to be found on iTunes. And nearly all of it had been recommended not by professional critics or some sort of Amazonian collaborative filtering bot, but by people who -- judging from notes posted with their iMixes or just the song selections alone -- seemed to Justine to be much like herself: hurting, missing someone special, reaching out.

The result was a personal playlist of songs that Lance would sing along to, that were used in soundtracks of home movies taken in his final months, that were played at his funeral, and that she could cry to after.

Today, Saylors is herself one of the more visible iMix creators, and in recent months iTunes users have rated hers among the best of the more than 300,000 lists available on the service. In searching for a way to cope with her loss and create awareness of neuroblastoma, the pediatric cancer that claimed her son, she became part of a phenomenon that some researchers predict will dramatically change the online music business before the decade is out.

'Something Important Going On'

IMixes -- as well as playlists on other services such as Rhapsody, Musicstrands and Soundflavor -- are the online cousins of amateur cassette-tape and CD mixes created over the years by countless music collectors as soundtracks for parties and road trips. Many of the playlists focus on a theme -- and many of those on a personal one, whether the subject is a lost love, a class reunion, a nasty breakup, duty in Iraq or a new romance.

Even late, lamented radio stations merit personal tributes. The old WHFS, an alternative-rock pioneer for decades on Baltimore-Washington area airwaves before changing to a Spanish-language format in early 2005, is the theme of more than a dozen current iTunes playlists.

But as personal and private as they can be, such playlists are expected to have a significant impact on online music distribution and sales, according to one recent study by market research firm Gartner Inc. and Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. By the year 2010, the study predicts, 25 percent of online music-store transactions will be driven by people like Saylors.

Not that Saylors and others like her go into it thinking about driving transactions for Apple, said Harvard researcher Derek Slater, co-author of the study "Consumer Taste Sharing Is Driving the Online Music Business and Democratizing Culture." And not that driving transactions is the only benefit the researchers see.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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