Every week, I receive tons of junk mail that promise easy home loans, cheap holidays or are hackneyed press releases. I’ve subscribed to a few newsletters because I find them to be a helpful way to navigate all the noise of the Internet. I get updates on daily news events, weekly longform suggestions and, beginning a couple of months ago, new music. I don’t mean music fresh off the oven, just tracks that I may not have come across before.
I’ve never been one to venture too much outside my standard music cubbyholes of pop, blues and jazz, and that’s a shame given how much the Internet has to offer. Algorithms on Apple Music and YouTube would suggest recommendations based on my listening patterns but it would never stray too far from my comfort zone. I’d come across one-off tracks that I’d fall in love with thanks to friends’ recommendations or YouTube links that someone might tweet out, but it didn’t happen often enough.
And then I came across a tweet from Yooti Bhansali last year. She was going to start sending out a weekly newsletter with music recommendations and shared a link to her newsletter for her Twitter followers to subscribe. Curious to see what I’d get, I signed up. Over the next few months I received newsletters that had an eclectic mix of tunes, many of which I hadn’t heard before. It was nice to have a little jukebox in my inbox ever week or so. On digging around a bit, I found that Bhansali wasn’t the only one who was sending out new music regularly.
The mixtape makers
Bhansali, a 33-year-old media professional in Mumbai, started her Song Story Short newsletter in April 2017. She had a knack for finding new music and would always be recommending new tracks or bands to friends. People would keep asking her for something new to listen to and, as she explains, “…while I loved the validation, I got a little sick of being everyone’s personal DJ.” She started a blog on Medium in 2016 that explored different genres and moods—songs that make you cry, for instance. This allowed people to refer to her playlists without nagging her each time.
There was another reason too. “I wanted to impress a boy who was into music too,” she says. That didn’t pan out but it did plant the seed of sharing her listening sessions with larger audiences. Her work as a social media manager for brands helped her realize how effective newsletters were in connecting with people since they checked their email often. So, she decided to switch platforms from Medium to a personal newsletter while sticking to the same content.
Newsletters are also what Bhavika Bhatia uses to share her love of music. The 23-year-old visual communicator and graphic designer sends out the Jukebox Mash missive, which is an extension of the playlists she’s been making for friends for the last few years. Someone would ask her to create a mixtape for a certain mood and she would oblige. “One day, I posted on Facebook asking whether anyone would subscribe to a music newsletter and about 70 people said they would,” she says.
Bhatia is on a mission to encourage people to listen to music actively. It’s something she learned from her dad. As a little girl, she’d break down songs on the radio with her dad, paying attention to the melodies, the instruments in the background, the mood the song created. It helped her appreciate the music better and that’s what she hopes to do with her newsletter.
What really pushed her to make active listening her goal as a curator was when she started attending live shows. While listening at home, Bhatia says, she made the music all about herself but at a show she was at the mercy of the artist. “You experience music differently when you consume it in person and via a laptop or phone…when you let go of your expectations, it changes everything,” she says. Her time as a volunteer with Sofar Sounds helped her understand this process better. The idea behind a Sofar Sounds concert—where venue details are released only 24 hours before the show–is for the audience to give its full attention to the music, minus any distractions.
This same thought is what inspired 56-year-old Gopal Krishnan to start his Another Listening emails in 2007. “I was in Kerala at the time and my family was in Delhi, and I started a habit of sending them my thoughts on whatever music I was listening to each morning as a way to stay connected,” he says. Initially, his mails went out to about 50 close family members and friends but that number steadily grew. Krishnan now lives in Dubai, working as the content head of Radio Mango in the UAE, but he continues to send out his emails.
The art of curating playlists
Much like the music they curate, the process that each of these three people go through when sending out their emails and newsletters vary. Krishnan has a short, daily email in which he writes a line or two about the day’s song, sometimes including a quote and links to a few Youtube videos of recordings; he mostly restricts his recommendations to Hindustani and Carnatic music.
Bhatia sends out a weekly newsletter that usually has a theme or story of some sort—past ones have included ‘Songs for a Monday after a Sunday’ and ‘Sham ki chai.’ Her songs come with a link to a YouTube and Spotify version of that week’s playlist along with a little intro, and a couple of lines on each song, highlighting the uniqueness of each pick. About “Back Pocket” by American funk group Vulfpeck, Bhatia wrote: “A smooth funk track, “Back Pocket” has strung together all that makes a Vulfpeck song–clarinets, an engaging bass line, classic and electric piano, conga drums for percussion, catchy vocals, and tonnes and tonnes of quirk.”
Bhansali’s newsletter, which was weekly but is soon going to be monthly, feels like a letter your friend wrote you about great music she’s discovered. There’s no major set-up or extra information on a recommendation, just a hyperlink to a YouTube video or a SoundCloud track. Sometimes it’s as simple as: “I’ve fallen asleep to this song many nights in a row, and have woken up to this one on many mornings of late. Both are interchangeable.”
Despite the differences, there is a similarity in their methods. All three say they just keep their ears open to new music all the time. It’s a constant process trying to find worthy tracks to recommend, because quality comes first. Bhansali says that though she tries to include about 10-12 songs in every newsletter, she doesn’t mind that number dropping if she can’t find good enough songs.
“I follow music rabbit holes wherever they lead,” Bhansali says about her process in finding music. Spotify recommendations, YouTube playlists based on a single artist, even songs heard on a television show or in a movie. Bhatia follows a similar practice, looking up bands and deep diving into new artists she comes across. “Even if someone puts up an album cover in their Instagram story saying they’re listening to that song or album, I will look it up and explore a little,” she said. The one thing she ensures she does is include an independent Indian band in each newsletter to support and recognize local talent.
Krishnan calls upon his days spent working at the central archives of All India Radio, which he said was one of the biggest storehouses of traditional Indian music. He also finds a lot while reading about music, getting recommendations from friends and generally digging around on the internet.
This dedication has paid off and is evident in the number of subscribers each has. Krishnan has over 2,000 email subscribers, in addition to about 2,500 followers on Facebook and 800-odd on Twitter. In the four months that she’s been doing this, Bhatia’s Jukebox Mash has 600 subscribers while Bhansali’s Song Story Short has close to 1,170 subscribers. Word of mouth and stories in a few local publications helped popularize their endeavours.
When asked why they choose to do this, all three had comparable responses. In addition to just wanting to share their music finds, they used the platforms to bring in a little more discipline into their own listening and to create digital memories of the music that moved and inspired them. Feedback from listeners also helps. Bhansali, Bhatia and Krishnan all said the encouragement and interaction with subscribers helps keep them going. “Sometimes I wonder why I stress out every weekend and panic about sending these newsletters,” Bhatia said, “but when I get those emails from people saying they liked what I sent or recommending new music, it’s really heartening.”
While Krishnan is content keeping his emails as is for now, Bhatia is planning to get into music curation. Bhansali hopes to create an active community that appreciates good music. She used to host listening sessions at home, where people were encouraged to bring music to perform or play for others to listen to, and is considering starting it up again.
To get daily updates from Krishnan, mail email@example.com
To get weekly updates from Bhatia, subscribe at tinyletter.com/JukeboxMash
To get monthly updates from Bhansali, subscribe at tinyletter.com/Yooti
Cover photo: Music newsletter curators (L-R) Bhavika Bhatia, Gopal Krishnan and Yooti Bhansali. Photos: Gopal Krishnan and Kamakshi Ayyar
Published on Rolling Stone India – March 2018