Meet the Guy Behind the World’s Biggest Playlists

Meet the Guy Behind the World’s Biggest Playlists

What was your dream job when you were seventeen years old? Take a second. Think about it. Be honest. If you’re even tangentially a music fan, I bet you—at one point—thought that curating playlists for a living would make for a damn cool gig.

Well, that job is real, and J.J. Italiano has it right now. The Head of Global Music Curation & Discovery at Spotify, Italiano creates some of the biggest playlists in the world. Yeah, that thing you thought you born to do when you listened to the mixtape you made for your high school girlfriend? Sorry, but you work in a cubicle now, and Italiano is responsible for your background music. He listens to, selects, and orders the tracks on playlists like Spotify’s New Music Friday and Today’s Top Hits along with his team.

Italiano took us along for a day in his life for our TikTok, which you can view below. If you want to know more about his astronomically desirable job, we asked him for the secret to making the perfect playlist, the pressures involved in shaping the taste of the world’s largest music audience, the role of AI and algorithms in Spotify’s music curation, and much more.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ESQUIRE: Tell me a little bit about what you do, and walk me through a day in your work life.

J.J. ITALIANO: I’m on the editorial team here at Spotify. I lead a team called Global Music Curation and Discovery, so I do a couple of different things. Our team brings an understanding of the nuance of music and how that can impact the product. I work on some of the bigger playlists, like New Music Friday and Today’s Top Hits, and try to make the best decisions about what songs go into those playlists. That’s a dialogue with a lot of folks. We have genre specialists and a lot of people listening to a lot of music. Most of my days are actually spent learning from other people about what they’re interested in, [so we can] reach the best product on a week to week basis.

What’s the process for curating those big playlists?

This is core to our philosophy: every playlist starts as a hypothesis. What is this? Who’s it for? What do people expect? For Today’s Top Hits, for example, that’s our most popular songs—but it’s decidedly not a chart. There’s a lot of data that goes into that. We look at where people are listening to this music, what it fits with, what kind of neighboring tracks are people listening to. I spend a lot of time looking at data, just to make sure that the playlist is healthy. Then, I make a good decision about what goes in and what comes out.

How do you choose the order of the songs?

It varies from playlist to playlist. Sometimes, if I’m especially nerdy that day—let’s say with New Music Friday—I can get really, really, really into the sequence of the playlist and what I think is the best way to hear some songs. Sometimes, if you have a song that’s a little bit different sonically, you want to position it in between other songs—so that it’s less likely to get skipped. We’re oriented kind of in the same way as a DJ, where we think about that stuff all the time.

Sometimes, in New Music Friday, there is the editorial component that’s a little bit like telling the news, right? What are the big releases this week? So, we maybe sequence in a less creative or musical way. In places like Today’s Top Hits, we have a lot of user behavior, too. We know what people are gravitating towards, what’s growing, and what people are starting to get burned out on. We move something down if it’s been too high for too long.



“Sometimes, if I’m especially nerdy that day,” Italiano says of curating New Music Friday, “I can get really, really, really into the sequence of the playlist and what I think is the best way to hear some songs.”

So users can influence the sequence in some way.

Users are definitely the biggest influence on–I would say on everything!–but definitely on our sequencing decisions and on what goes in and goes out. That’s oversimplifying a little bit, but we’re a service business. Our job is to try to make the best possible experience for our users, who have trusted us with curating their daily music. We pay a lot of attention to that.

If I were you and someone played a song at a party that was obscure, I would be like, Oh, I put that in your brain.

There are moments. One of the weird things you start noticing out in the world, if you’re at a restaurant or something like that, you can tell what playlist they’ve got on. Or you know what playlist they were listening to to have been able to find certain things. Maybe we’ve taken an early bet on a particular song, then you’re out and about in the world and you’re like, I know exactly where they discovered this song.

At Esquire, we have to watch a lot of TV for work. At a certain point, it kind of feels like work. Has listening to music ever felt like work to you? Does it ever get to the point where you’re like, OK, I don’t want to listen to any more music today.

It’s a tricky question because, yes, it feels like work every day. But I am living my dream job from when I was 16 years old. I’m not complaining about it. But I’ve got so much music to listen to. Certainly there are people with hard jobs—there are people that are making a more significant impact in society.

For most editors, you’re gonna listen to music that’s maybe not super core to your interests. One of the marks of a great editor is being able to recognize quality in something that you don’t immediately connect to. You may not be a fan of this genre, this style of music, or maybe this artist, but you recognize that there is this audience for that and know that you’re working for them. Ultimately, we’re just prescribing music for other people—not everyone in the world is gonna feel the way that you do.

The most important part of a playlist is this balance between having someone rediscover something they haven’t heard in a while—and perpetually delighting someone.

What is it like for the editor of a playlist when it goes viral? I’m thinking of Sad Girl…

Sad Girl Starter Pack! It is super exciting. It’s part of why we want to work in music. Everybody starts from that space where you think Wow, it would be cool to do that job. But if you really dial in—why it would be cool to do this job? [Because] music is about connecting with other people. When you hear a song that really speaks to you—lyrically, melodically, emotionally—it says something to you. You feel like, I’m less alone in this world than I was before. The natural instinct is you want to share it with everybody else and see who else loves it as much as you do. It’s like a language. So that feeling is super intense if you have a playlist and it’s really starting to take off and go viral. You’re like, Oh wow, there’s all these other people out there in the world that are like me. It’s a really, really good feeling.

How you feel about the role of Spotify’s AI-generated playlists versus the human-made ones?

Probably the best innovations in the space of curating music are yet to come. There’s something really cool and special about being a cultural destination where people can see what’s happening right now in the state of music. There’s another equally magical element of having a product, like Spotify, that understands you and can meet you in the moment with what’s good for you. In a perfect world, these things just continue to work symbiotically. I don’t think it’s this or that. Again, I’m a bit of a nerd for this stuff. So one of the most exciting parts of my job is thinking about what more we can do in the interplay between those two things to help people discover music.

a collage of people


“In places like Today’s Top Hits, we have a lot of user behavior,” Italiano says. “We know what people are gravitating towards, what’s growing, and what people are starting to get burned out on.”

Do you still make playlists just for yourself?

I do, but there’s a professional element to it. I keep track of every time someone’s excited about something—particularly when we’re programming New Music Friday, where we have everybody in a room, everybody’s listening to a ton of music, and they’re sharing the things that they’re most excited about… So, yeah, I build a lot of personal playlists. It was in my Wrapped. My Wrapped was like, you make a lot of playlists.

You’re like, Yeah, I would hope so! It’s my job! Is your Wrapped a reflection of your personal taste? Or is it half work?

My personal taste, for sure. I listened to a lot of Billy Joel last year. You’re not gonna find a lot of that in Today’s Top Hits.

What’s the secret sauce to making a perfect playlist?

The most important part of a playlist is this balance between having someone rediscover something they haven’t heard in a while—and perpetually delighting someone. Ultimately, if you asked 120 editors, you would get 120 different answers.

Speaking of a clear hypothesis… tell me the title of your current Daylist.

[Checks phone.] It is ’80s R&B Old School Wednesday Afternoon. That’s pretty solid. Goes from Hall & Oates to Prince to TLC. Yeah, I’m in this mood.

Perfect. And you’re in Miami.

Yeah, I mean Hall & Oates in Miami. A little yacht rock. If I go down this road, maybe I’ll end up with a yacht rock evening. “A Yacht Rock Evening in Miami.”

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