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
Online Playlist Creators Search for Catharsis, Discover a Marketplace

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.

"Even if we're wrong in our prediction by however many percentage points, there is something important going on culturally here," said Slater, who also frequently writes on the subject in his blog, "A Copyfighter's Musings." Saylors and others like her may constitute a new breed of music "tastemakers," he argues.

"Instead of primarily disc jockeys and music videos shaping how we view music, we have a greater opportunity to hear from each other," he and Gartner researcher Mike McGuire wrote in their December study. "These [playlist] tools allow people to play a greater role in shaping culture, which, in turn, shapes themselves. In this way, recommendation tools encourage music fans to engage in expressive acts, becoming creators."

Rebecca Tushnet, a professor with Georgetown University Law Center, has studied and written about playlists and mix CDs from an intellectual-property perspective. Her conclusion: The creation of a playlist or mix CD of music composed by others is a creative act in itself, a form of free speech.

"It is an important means of self-expression," she says. "The motivation is an urge to say, 'This is who I am, and you can find out who I am by knowing what I love.'"

Anatomy of a Playlist

Saylors built her collection by cherry-picking from iMix playlists with names like "Long Drive From a Funeral." (Links to playlists will only work for iTunes users.) The list's compiler notes that "Long Drive" consists of "songs I recorded to listen to while driving back from my son's funeral. A weird assortment." Sample songs: "Melissa" by the Allman Brothers, "The Lady in Red" by Chris De Burgh, and "Vissi D'arte, Vissi D'amore" featuring Leontyne Price, from the album "20 Great Soprano Arias".

Saylors also found "Grief -- Love Carries You Through" (iMixer note: "On June 6th my twin girls, Riley and Dylan, were born too early to survive. In the last month with the help of other grieving parents, I have compiled these songs that touch my heart, comfort my soul and bring tears to my eyes." Sample songs: "Believe" by Brooks and Dunn, "Angels in Waiting" by Tammy Cochran, and "I Hope You Dance" by Lee Ann Womack) and "Born to Be an Angel -- In Memory of Nathaniel Joseph 03/24/05" (iMixer note: "This mix of songs is dedicated to my Angel. ... He was diagnosed with anencephaly, and could not live outside of my womb." Sample songs: "Godspeed" by the Dixie Chicks, "Who You'd Be Today" by Kenny Chesney, and "Glory Baby" by Watermark).

"I would literally try to find the biggest tear-jerkers," Saylors said.

Around the second anniversary of her son's death, she decided to try her own hand at iMixing. "The songs on the first list are all songs that I could relate to, and also some of the songs that Lance loved by the Back Street Boys," she said. Other tracks include "Slumber My Darling" by Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma and "Only Time" by Enya .

"But," said Saylors, "the one that really stands out is Van Morrison's 'Have I told You Lately,' because I used to sing that to Lance all of his life."

The result was "Missing My Son, Lance," with an iMix note that reads: "This is a list I have created in honor of the best person I have ever known and miss so, so terribly." The 45-song expression of parental grief quickly became one of the service's top 10 user-ranked iMixes, much to Saylors's surprise. "I was literally stunned," she recalled in late December.

'I Found You on iTunes'

Among those supporters was Carla Wessel of St. Petersburg, Fla., the mother of Nathaniel Joseph, who had posted her "Born to be an Angel" iMix last spring.

A month before Nathaniel's due date in early 2005, Wessel was told her son would not survive childbirth. A diagnosis of anencephaly meant Nathaniel's brain failed to form. "The head stopped above the eyes and ears," Wessel said in a recent phone call, explaining the cap worn by Nathaniel in hospital photos taken soon after delivery.

With weeks to prepare for the inevitable, Wessel turned to iMix and downloaded songs to help her get through. "I chose songs that had words that would be appropriate to the situation," she said. "And some people mentioned songs they liked, so I downloaded them."

Though she made the playlist for herself initially, she soon decided to post it for the benefit of others. "I can't write a song, I can't write a poem, but this helps," she explained. "Whenever I find something that has helped me, I share it."

On the opposite coast, in the opposite corner of the country, Saylors came across Wessel's playlist while compiling her own collection several months later. "I downloaded a few from her mix and rated it five stars. That is how Carla and I got in touch via e-mail."

And Wessel, in turn, encouraged Saylors to continue iMixing in memory of Lance.

"Seeing the attention it was getting, and the attention for pediatric cancer, it's been a trip," said Saylors. She has gone on to post "Missing My Son Lance" parts 2, 3, 4 and 5, drawing in part from suggestions offered by the scores of visitors who have signed the guestbook of Lance's memorial site since her first playlist was first published.

"I found you on iTunes," wrote Jerry of Nashville. "Your story made me hug my son just a little tighter tonight. May God bless and keep you wrapped in his loving arms."

"I found the site on iTunes," wrote Stuart of Boca Raton, Fla. "My eyes are filled with tears."

Wrote Matt of Shreveport, La., "I never thought in a million years something so powerful as your words and dedication to your son would be discovered on a music download service."

And this, say Slater and McGuire, is what they're getting at when they write of personal playlists "democratizing culture."

"Once they find others that have similar or at least interesting tastes, consumers might interact with each other," the two wrote in their December study. "Some of these interactions may be simple and fleeting, but others may help form stronger bonds.

"To the extent the tools can create bonds between people, the creation of these communities may have beneficial spill-over effects into the rest of our lives."

Benefits of Self-Expression

The current percentage of sales driven by playlists is hard to pin down, according to McGuire. But with some 10 million credit cards reported on account with iTunes last quarter and the number of individual playlists approaching 400,000, McGuire said, "it is still a relatively small amount." ITunes does not have information about iMixes' effect on sales, according to spokeswoman Amy Gardner.

What is clear though, McGuire said, is that personal playlists are having an impact. "I don't think they'd keep it up if they weren't," said McGuire, citing as further evidence Yahoo's purchase in recent weeks of the music playlist service Webjay and the hiring of its creator, Lucas Gonze.

Enabling users to essentially recommend music purchases to others underscores that music is something worth paying for online, according to McGuire. "Over the long haul, these kinds of tools continue to place value on the music for consumers."

Besides encouraging purchases rather than piracy, playlists also serve to surface obscure or forgotten songs. "We now have access to music far beyond what the typical Wal-Mart would carry," said Slater. "How do you navigate that range of music? By exploring playlists created by people who share your tastes."

"The [music] industry needs to take a look at playlists and really rethink its approach to distribution. Turning individuals into tastemakers can be a good thing," said Slater, who sees a day when playlist creators become licensed distributors. "I'm not saying it's easy, but I do think it's necessary and beneficial for the industry to pursue."

In addition to the economic upside, the researchers see cultural plusses, as well. "There is the benefit of allowing me or any individual a way to place a stamp on the culture," said McGuire.

"For example, I can create a playlist that expresses my distaste and disdain for the war in Iraq," he said. And that playlist may include tracks recognized as protest songs as well as songs that might not be recognized as such, but in the context of the list they take on new meaning -- "the way I order it, the works I put in there."

Tushnet uses song lyrics for further illustration. Her "favorite footnote" in her December 2004 Yale Law Journal paper "Steal This Essay" quotes from "Avenue Q" and the band Semisonic to make her point that playlists provide a unique emotional outlet: "Sometimes when someone/Has a crush on you/They'll make you a mix tape/To give you a clue" and "Got your tape and it changed my mind/Heard your voice between the lines."

"These folks just enjoy and are passionate about music and like to be the Lewis and Clark, if you will, about music among their friends," McGuire said. "It's a statement of self."

Slater concurs: "This is not just something people are throwing together haphazardly. Music is important to our identity, our shared experience of culture, whether mass culture or niche culture, but also to the way we see ourselves -- what are my tastes? What am I about? It's a process of identity forming at its core."

McGuire is following up the December study with more research into what motivates playlist publishers and consumers. "Of those who look for opportunities to publish their tastes in music, more than two-thirds said they did so simply because they 'wanted to share the music they like with their friends.' So they're not looking for fame [or] fortune," he said of creators like Saylors and Wessel.

As for those who look to playlists for recommendations, McGuire has found that 20 percent said they preferred consumer recommendations over a professional DJ's, and 35 percent said they preferred the recommendations of like-minded individuals. And while those numbers don't constitute a majority, said McGuire, "it is a healthy chunk of people."

McGuire describes his work as identifying the "early indicators" of change, and views these baseline numbers as strong ones. "By supplementing and augmenting traditional tastemakers," he says, playlist creators "are adding a digital spin to word of mouth." These "new mediators and tastemakers," he continued, can exert a very strong influence, and their influence can be much larger than their immediate circle of friends."

"This," according to Slater, "is potentially a watershed moment."

Playlist Therapy

For individuals such as Saylors and Wessel, though, the creation of a playlist marks a much more personal watershed moment. Among the things the two women have in common is that they listen to their own playlists often. It's a form of therapy, they say -- a step toward healing.

"There are times I can listen to them without tears, other times I listen to them when I'm in the grief pit and it allows me to cry," Saylors said. "Doing these iMixes got me through the holiday season."

Wessel listens to "Born to Be an Angel" periodically to check her state of mind.

"I make myself listen to it to put myself in that space," she said. "It's kind of a gauge for me to see where I am, to see what kind of shape I'm in. I can sit back and think about the blessing that I had. If I listen to it 10 times and haven't cried for 10 times, then I know I'm on a pretty good stretch."

And by sharing her gauge online, Wessel is doing her part to help others cope with personal tragedy. "A loss is a loss no matter what," she said, "and I think music can help all losses."

As for Saylors, playlists have helped her do more than get through the holidays. They have given her renewed purpose.

"Ive been obsessed with it, I guess," she said, shortly after publishing "Pediatric Cancer Survivor," a playlist commemorating one neuroblastoma patient's third year of remission. "I felt so bad since Lance died because I hadn't really done anything for the fight. I've been so grief-stricken."

But, she said, " I think since iTunes is so huge, people are seeing these Web sites about kids who are dying of cancer. So that's my goal, to get the word out. This is really one of the first things that's gotten me on a roll."

Parnell is editor of washingtonpost.com.

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