Danny Turner never dreamed of becoming a doctor, astronaut, or fireman as a kid — all he ever wanted to do was connect with people through music and the power of voice.
While in 2014 he assumed the official title of global senior vice president of programming at Mood Media, a company that designs retail playlists, you could say he’s been programming music for as long as he can remember.
“I was that kid who built a radio transmitter in his room so he could do his own version of pirate radio,” Turner says. “My sister and the crazy cat lady who lived next door were my biggest fans. This is all I’ve ever done.”
Starting out as a DJ in clubs and on the radio, he says he would work anywhere somebody would let him set up his turntables or plug in his headphones. Turner spent several years on the air programming every genre and format imaginable, running operations for a startup international satellite radio venture, and heading up programming operations for XM Satellite Radio.
Now at Mood Media Turner and his team of music designers create signature playlists for companies like Macy’s, Whole Foods, and Target to reflect each brand’s unique essence.
Day-to-day tasks include scouring blogs, websites, and daily requests from labels for new music releases and selecting the tracks you hear in restaurants, stores, and hotels all over the world.
Here Turner tells Business Insider what it’s really like to work as a music programmer. (Some answers have been edited for clarity.)
Q. What do you do exactly?
A. I like to say that I try to inspire and direct creativity. I have the pleasure of working with some of the most creative individuals I’ve ever worked with throughout my career.
Throughout the day I work with our teams in partnership with many of North America’s largest and most iconic brands to create music and media experiences — it’s all about making connections. To watch a music concept come together from initial brand discoveries to the curation and design of a signature sound is an amazing and rewarding experience.
My team creates hundreds and hundreds of music programs. From custom, bespoke music programs created in direct partnership with national or global brands, to any one of the hundreds of catalogue options we have covering more than 15 different genres, I am charged with ensuring that each and every program offering is well articulated, on point, relevant, and focused.
Program reviews with my music designers are very interesting exchanges: always positive, but quite spirited. How do you decide on specificity in a subjective world?
Q. What skills are most useful to have to work in music programming?
A. Clearly an open mind, an encyclopedic knowledge of multiple genres of music, and an insatiable appetite to learn and consume more.
I always look for something else, though — something else that helps me get a more holistic assessment. How else do you express yourself? So many of our music designers are also working musicians, producers, DJ’s, and even artists. It’s really a lifestyle thing.
From there, it’s an innate ability to understand how, why, or when certain tracks, genres, or even programs “connect.” It’s more about creating an experience than creating a playlist. A playlist is something your neighbour Arnie puts together for his backyard BBQ … everyone was happy until he dropped that 2 Chainz track into the mix. In music programming, it’s about creating an experience, not a singular selection.
Q. Any advice for breaking into the industry?
A. I came at music programming from the perspective of just pouring everything I had into it. I didn’t have a Plan B.
Internships are phenomenal opportunities. Be prepared to work for far less than you’re worth, but for just enough to keep you coming back. Some of my best hires over the years have been previous interns with me.
Break the mould, innovate, and take chances. The typical media paths laid out over the past 50 years are abandoned. The industry has become fragmented, commoditized, and at times marginalized — we don’t “own” content any longer, we really rent it. The successful programmer moving forward will be the one who constantly seeks to create experiences out of disparate sources.
Q. What education background is most helpful?
A. I think some of the most valuable course studies one could target are in marketing, specifically retail marketing and brand marketing. Some basic psychology foundations are helpful, as well. What is driving people’s behaviour and how do we connect and harness this?
Q. What’s the average pay for someone in music programming?
A. It really varies because there are roles from internships and entry level opportunities to executive leadership roles.
Q. What are your perks like?
A. Mood Media has a great competitive benefits package with all the right accoutrements, but moreover, each of our music designers has a “Concert and Festival Allowance” to use each year. We need our folks out living the life and discovering as much new music as possible. I think I’ve been to six shows already this month. From tiny little clubs or even a record store in Austin, to sold out arena shows, it’s a pretty good gig!
Q. How many hours a week do you work?
A. I don’t do well in the typical 9-to-5 kind of thing. That’s great because our client partners and my team are spread out not only throughout North America, but globally as well. That makes for many late night or early morning conference calls, meetings, and travel.
Q. What’s the best part about the job?
A. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to work next to, collaborate with, and get to know some of the very people that I idolized while growing up. From BB King, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and so many others, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to connect and share their art and their passion with so many people.
Now, I get to work every day in using the amazing power of music and the spoken word to forge and cement emotional connections. That ain’t a bad day.
Q. How about the worst?
A. I’ll meet people all the time while travelling, or outside of the industry, and invariably we get into the “What do you do” conversation. Frequently, after I talk about what I do, I’m met with the response of something like, “Oh man, that’s great. I bet I could do that! I put together this playlist for my sister’s dog’s Quinceanera party and everyone loved it!” I understand that we all have a passion for music, but just because I have a passion for neurological surgery doesn’t mean I want to try my hand at it.
Q. What’s your most memorable experience on the job?
A. My daughter was about 12 years old when we had brought Avril Lavigne into the studios for a performance session. Being my kid, she got to see some great shows as she grew up. She was really jazzed about the show because at that time her world revolved around Avril Lavigne. Sometimes artists don’t have good shows, and well, this was one of them. Avril didn’t connect with the audience and seemed very detached.
After the show while we were driving home, I had to explain to a very dejected daughter about the ephemeral nature of pop music. How sometimes pop music is much like popcorn. It’s great, it’s tasty, and we all love it, but nobody talks about that bucket of popcorn they had at the Googaplex 5 years ago — it’s impact is temporary at best. We’re not going to be talking about the social relevancy of Gangnam Style 10 years from now.
Fast forward a few months later and Paul McCartney was coming in for a performance. That same 12 year old girl got to meet and see a Beatle and sat feet away from him during this great intimate performance. On the way home, she looked at me and told me, “I get it now.”
Q. What’s your favourite moment on the job?
A. I was at SXSW speaking on an industry panel and trying to soak in as many live acts as I could. Oftentimes these experiences are shaped by the unexpected. We stumbled into a club where we weren’t supposed to be and one such performance was courtesy of a 75-year-old Japanese USO circuit country singer who stood not much more 4-feet tall soaking wet. She played the Grand Ole Opry in 1964 with Johnny Cash and she got the standing ovation. She was amazing, just tearing it up and stunning everyone in the room. We ended up hanging with her after the show for some great pics and maybe a few adult beverages. Only at SXSW.
Q. What surprises people most about your industry?
A. Mood programing touches more than 150 million people per day. We create millions of message impressions every month for a captive audience. There are few media outlets that can beat that.
Q. What are some common misconceptions about the industry?
A. There are no magic, evil, mind manipulation games being played to impact consumer behaviour through music. Sometimes you gotta just enjoy a Katy Perry song for what it is. No subliminal messages either. If we want to send a message — you’re going to hear it loud and clear.
Q. What’s one word you use to describe what you do?
Q. How is the job security in the industry?
A. I think as with any industry in the 21st century, especially in the media sector, job security can often be tied to personal growth and expansion. I certainly wouldn’t ever suggest that this is the kind of industry in which you’d want to become too sedentary.
Q. Has the job affected your enjoyment of music?
A. Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s impacted my enjoyment of music. It only helps fuel this unquenchable thirst. My wife, however, will tell you that it’s ruined her enjoyment!
OK, yes, I can get a little critical at times, but if you married a food critic, don’t take me for sushi at a hamburger stand. I’m told that I’m a bit critical of music — I like to think of it not as being critical, but let’s say suggestive. If only I could get her to stop listening to the 80’s channel.
I’m always looking for the next “thing.” It becomes my personal raison d’être to act as a musical Ambassador. It’s a constant game of musical show and tell.
Q. Is there any kind of music genre/artist you dread working with?
A. Regrettably, it’s Jazz. I know I’m supposed to like it, and I want to like it, I really do, but, man, it’s hard. I absolutely respect the musicianship. I’m looking for a very specific melodic structure and sometimes there’s just a bit too much variation.
I guess it’s the same thing with jam bands — what are you supposed to do during a 12-minute drum solo?
Q. What’s your favourite pop culture reference about the music industry?
A. If you haven’t read “High Fidelity” by Nick Hornby, walk, don’t run to your nearest bookstore. It offers a painfully spot-on narrative on the height of musical elitism at the record store. Brilliant stuff. The movie made was OK, but missed some key points. Plus there’s that whole Jack Black thing. And, of course, Spinal Tap.
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