When he’s choosing your music for you, Carl Chery, 37, is in Culver City, California, sitting at his desk in an office with no signage, trying to decide whether Drake and Future’s “Jumpman” (jumpman, jumpman, jumpman) has jumped the shark. Or sometimes he’s at home in his one-bedroom apartment on the border of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, walking around in his living room with new Gucci Mane blasting from a Beats Pill. Or at the gym going for a morning run on the treadmill, thinking about your gym and your treadmill, listening through headphones for changes in tempo and tone: Will this song push you through the pain? Is that one too long on the buildup?

“It’s hard to describe because it’s more of a feeling or instinct,” says Chery of his process. He’s from Queens, New York, which, despite his residence in Los Angeles for the past four years, is obvious when you hear him talk. “It kind of just happens. You sit there and you start moving and just do it.”

For a while we thought we could choose our own music. Remember that? In the wake of the last century we seized the right to take our pick from all of the songs in the world (All of the songs in the world!) and told anyone who didn’t like it exactly where they could go. And when it turned out that was too many songs after all (how many lifetimes are needed for a complete survey of Memphis soul? Or Brazilian funk?), a new category of music services appeared to ease our burden. But these services were flawed, said someone about to make a lot of money, and could only recommend music based on what we were already listening to. Did they even really know what we wanted? Do we not contain multitudes? And so now we have people like Chery.

Since he left XXL magazine to join the music-streaming service Beats Music (now Apple Music) as head of hip-hop and R&B programming in 2012, Chery and around a dozen of his colleagues, working largely behind the scenes, have embarked on a never-ending quest to organize every song in history into concise playlists that you can’t live without. (Taylor Swift used one of Chery’s when she fought her treadmill and lost.) In 2014, when Tim Cook explained Apple’s stunning $3 billion purchase of Beats by repeatedly invoking its “very rare and hard to find” team of music experts, he was talking about these guys. And their efforts since, which have pointed toward curated playlists (specifically, an industrial-scale trove of 14,000 and counting) as the format of the future, have helped turn what was once a humble labor of love for music fans into an increasingly high-stakes contest between some of the richest companies in the world.

Carl Chery at the Apple Music headquarters in Culver City, California.

Joel Bear for Buzzfeed News

Try any of the major music streaming services today and you’ll find variations on a common theme: thousands of ready-made playlists (“Rich Girl Pop,” “Inspired by Jeff Buckley,” “Songs to Sing in the Shower”) for every conceivable genre, activity, or mood. In the two years since the Beats acquisition, three of the largest services, including Apple Music, Spotify, and Google Play Music (and smaller ones like Tidal and Rhapsody, too), have increasingly relied on these playlists to accomplish two important goals at once: 1) helping users inundated by a catalog of more than 30 million songs more easily find the ones they actually want, and 2) creating difference in a market where everyone has more or less the same goods.

But building a better playlist is harder than it might seem. The algorithm that can judge the merits of new Gucci Mane, or intuit that you want to sing “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton in the shower, has yet to be written. Until that day comes, the job has fallen to an elite class of veteran music nerds — fewer than 100 working full-time at either Apple, Google, or Spotify — who are responsible for assembling, naming, and updating nearly every commute, dinner party, or TGIF playlist on your phone.

As streaming has gone mainstream, these curators, many of whom began their professional lives as bloggers and DJs, have amassed unusual influence. Their work, as a rule, is uncredited — the better for services designed to feel like magic — but their reach is increasingly unavoidable. Spotify says 50% of its more than 100 million users globally are listening to its human-curated playlists (not counting those in the popular, algorithmically personalized “Discover Weekly”), which cumulatively generate more than a billion plays per week. According to an industry estimate, 1 out of every 5 plays across all streaming services today happens inside of a playlist. And that number, fueled by prolific experts, is growing steadily.

“All the signs point to playlists being the dominant mode of discovery in the near future,” says Jay Frank, senior vice president of global streaming marketing for Universal Music Group, the largest of the major label conglomerates. “When it comes to trying to find something exciting and new, more people are going to want to go to trusted playlists.”

People like Chery make for unlikely secret weapons.

We’ve come to expect that virtually all of our problems can be solved with code, so much so that we summon it unthinkingly before doing almost anything: from choosing what movie to watch, to finding a doctor, to deciding where to wake up the next morning and who with. But what if music is somehow different? What if there's something immeasurable but essential in the space between what is now called “discovery” and, you know, that old stupidly human ritual of finding and falling in love with a song? Algorithms excel at the former, but the latter is stubborn heritage: It's your father's old record collection, your sister's stash of mixtapes, a close friend’s desert island soundtrack of choice.

The new arms race to re-redefine our relationship with music, in an almost impulsive course correction, is about who can be the best at closing the gap between the past and the present. People like Chery make for unlikely secret weapons — they can’t code, didn’t go to business school, and even the most thorough music fan would fail to spot them in a lineup. But within the silicon temples of Apple, Google, and Spotify, they are, in a literal sense, defenders of humanity, laboring to breathe intangible values into frictionless machines.

Inside Spotify’s U.S. headquarters in New York on a balmy spring afternoon, Rocío Guerrero Colomo, global head of Latin content programming and editorial, sips from a perspiring can of sugar-free Red Bull, one of a handful of totems — including an array of promotional CDs (still in their shrink-wrap), a pair of over-the-ear Bose headphones, and a caped luchador action figure — that typically colonize her desk. A sea of iMacs and white pillars punctuate the company’s trendy open-floor-plan office, with framed prints of flagship playlist covers hanging on the walls in one area and album covers of classics by Madonna, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sublime, and others hanging in another.

Rocío Guerrero Colomo in the Spotify headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden.

Oskar Omne for Buzzfeed News

Colomo, 29 and Spanish, is short with chest-length black hair, dark eyes, and a silver nose ring. She talks as fast as she thinks, with a Castilian accent that drops an octave when she's sharing something that she thinks is embarrassing, though she never actually seems embarrassed. Two years ago, she became one of the first members of Spotify’s now-50-person human curation team — including seven genre leads and dozens of junior curators — which has created over 4,500 playlists, more than 30 of which have over 1 million followers. Colomo is a classically trained violinist who speaks five languages and has lived in as many countries. She lobbied to join the curation operation while already working at Spotify as a community manager in Stockholm, where she landed after shelving a notional career in journalism.

“We were growing fast internationally, and I told Doug [Ford, global head of curation at Spotify] that we were going to need someone to create playlists for our Latin users,” she says. “I said, ‘I should be the one to do it because I’m one of those users,’ and he said, ‘You're hired.’”

On her iMac, Colomo clicks open the Spotify app and a familiar black-and-green-accented window fills her screen. Like all Spotify curators, she's built each of her owned and operated playlists (in Colomo's case, more than 200 to date in total) on the same version of the app that anyone can download for free online — a convention that centers how users will see and experience the final product. In the left-hand panel, she scrolls to a folder called “In Construction,” where she keeps all of her unpublished works in progress. There are playlists labeled “Punk Party,” and “Pride Month,” and “Korean Pop,” reflecting themes Colomo thinks will resonate with users based on a hard-to-code combination of gut instinct and years of experience — both on Spotify and in the real world — watching how people use music in their daily lives.

Each of these playlist drafts is mostly skeletal, consisting of what curators call a “hypothesis,” or basic premise and intended target audience (the more specific, the better), and a few representative songs. In developing them, Colomo will flesh out the playlists with more songs (Spotify’s magic number is 50 — generally between 3 and 3.5 hours' worth — which feels substantial but not overwhelming), a cover image that reflects the hypothesis at a glance, and a short written description, usually no more than one or two sentences. (“I don’t think people come to Spotify to read,” Colomo says.)

Hypotheses, of course, are meant to be tested, and Spotify curators regularly make adjustments to playlists based on data that shows how people are actually interacting with them. Curators may not be elected, but they’re expected to be representative. If a playlist is underperforming with users, its maker will tweak one or more of its components — from the hypothesis to the cover image — in an attempt to improve its prognosis. Or if an individual song fails to break out within a playlist, or begins to “burn” or drop off in popularity, they might reposition it in the playlist’s sequence, or relocate it to another playlist where it can get a second chance at life.

Spotify headquarters in Stockholm.

Oskar Omne for Buzzfeed News

Spotify curators like Colomo have access to a suite of proprietary tools, referred to internally as “Keanu” (as in, star of The Matrix trilogy, in which humans achieve harmony with machines after a costly war), that streamline this maintenance process. One frequently used application is a performance tracker called “PUMA,” or Playlist Usage Monitoring and Analysis, which breaks down each song on a playlist by things like number of plays, number of skips, and number of saves. PUMA also collects data on the overall performance of the playlist as a whole, with colorful charts and graphs illustrating listeners’ age range, gender, geographical region, time of day, subscription tier, and more.

In her “In Construction” folder, Colomo opens the draft that she’s most excited about right now: a playlist tentatively titled Hip Pop that was inspired by a trend she believes may be the next big thing in Latin music. When she's not at work, Colomo is deeply entrenched in Latin music culture — a frequent panelist at conferences and a fixture at clubs — and has a track record for being ahead of the curve. Her most successful playlist, "Baila Reggaeton" (or “Dance Reggaeton”), has become the third-most-popular playlist on all of Spotify, with over 2.5 million followers ("Today’s Top Hits," which has 8.6 million followers, is the most popular, followed by "Rap Caviar," at 3.6 million).

When she created "Baila Reggaeton" in 2014, 10 years after Daddy Yankee’s breakthrough international smash “Gasolina,” Colomo hypothesized that it would serve primarily as a nostalgic party starter. At the time, she says, reggaeton artists like Yankee had been tempered by backlash, overtaken in the global Latin music hierarchy by pop stalwarts like Shakira, Ricky Martin, and Paulina Rubio. But “Baila Reggaeton” became a surprise hit. Given the ability to choose any kind of music to listen to, Spanish-speaking Spotify users all over the world chose reggaeton.

“It was kind of like a taboo,” Colomo says. “Everyone was saying they hated it, but really everyone was listening to it.”

Now Colomo is trying to identify the next thing Latin music fans will want to listen to, which is where “Hip Pop” comes in. A while ago, she noticed that more and more reggaeton and Latin pop artists were making songs with overtly American-inspired hip-hop beats, which, given American hip-hop’s historically modest penetration in the Spanish-speaking world, felt like a turning point.

"Hip Pop," like many playlists common on streaming services, is an attempt to zero in on a trend in the broader music or cultural universe, break it down to its most basic elements and archetypes, and recontextualize them so that a seamless listening experience arises from non-obvious connections. A song like “35 Pa Las 12” by Fuego featuring J Balvin, with its taut rhythms and breezy vocal, makes a closer compliment to Drake’s “One Dance” than a fan of just one of the two artists might expect.

Colomo plays one of her favorite songs from "Hip Pop," called “La Ocasión,” by the Puerto Rican artist De La Ghetto featuring Arcangel, Ozuna, and Anuel. The song is marked by sparse, sub-aquatic 808 drums and skittering hi-hats that it’s easy to imagine the words “DJ Khaled” shouted over. It opens with a whooshing sound, and Colomo raises her hands and tilts her head forward as in worship. She holds in position until the explosive hook — “Quiero que se repita la ocasión / Quiero que tú repitas tus movimientos” — when she suddenly juts her chest forward, throws her shoulders back, and rolls her hips in her seat.

“It’s good, right?!” she calls out over the track. “It’s sooooo good.”

Ordered lists of songs by various artists are about as old as broadcast radio and have been sold or distributed as recorded products since at least the 1950s, when record labels began producing “sampler albums” to drum up attention for their new and underexposed artists. The idea that these compilations could, with some thoughtful sequencing, become more than the sum of their parts was suggested from the outset. Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records and visionary behind both the first sampler album, 1954’s A Folk Music Sampler, and the watershed psychedelic rock compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968, declared that his compilations were “not only an aggregation of tracks, but a cohesive listening whole.”

In the late ’70s and ’80s, the power to transpose songs from one context to another was democratized by the rise of the cassette format and its beloved byproduct, the mixtape. By 1999, with Napster and the peer-to-peer era, that power would form the bedrock of the new music landscape. But as the free music revolution uprooted the music industry, consumers were faced with a crisis of their own. The paradox of choice in music — the more available to you, the deeper your despair over missing out — has only intensified in the streaming era.

“People go to streaming services because they love the idea of being able to listen to all the music that they want, when they want it,” says Jay Frank. “But then when they get there, they find that that may not actually be what they want most of the time. The prospect of digging through 40 million tracks is just too much.”

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