Home Music Music Features

At Work With Mjeema Pickett, Spotify’s Head of R&B and Soul

Spotify’s R&B/soul playlist chief talks music curation, genre lines in 2020, and the comfort of a drive home in silence

Courtesy of Spotify

This is the third installment of Rolling Stone’s series At Work, in which we explore the fast-changing music business from the perspective of a different industry leader each week. Read the first here and the second here.

Of Spotify’s thousands of employees, there are few more sought-after by the music industry than Mjeema Pickett, the music-streaming service’s global programming head for R&B and soul music. Pickett — who spent more than a decade in radio and video programming before hopping over to Spotify in 2015 as part of the company’s push for more expert curation — oversees flagship playlists like “The Newness” and “Are & Be,” the latter of which has 5 million followers and is widely known as a career-launcher for young artists. From her desk in Spotify’s Los Angeles office, Pickett, alongside the other members of her team, is a sentry between record labels and music audiences, tasked with deciding what’s hot in R&B and soul, what’s not, and what should be.

What’s the first thing you do every day?
I get the day started with prayer — and coffee. A lot of times I will have meetings as soon as I wake up, since I’m on West Coast time. On my commute into the office, I’m usually listening to one of my personal Spotify playlists, which always put me in a good mood.

Once I’m in the office, I’ll get another cup of coffee — then I’ll check our playlist submission tool, where the artist-submitted songs for the week come in. I listen to music there but also will take a look at the playlists from the previous week and see how those songs are performing. I spent several hours each day updating playlists. Sometimes I leave the office for a studio session to hear music before it’s released, which helps me wrap my head around what an artist’s vision for their album is like. And then a lot of the day is also deciding if a new song fits into one of my playlists or not.

How do you decide? You’re in charge of R&B and soul for Spotify, but musical genres are less clearly defined than ever before.
Sonically. I listen for what the sound is. Also, even though a lot of the lines are blurred, a lot of it is also audience-based — so if we can determine what audience the artist wants to target and what their vision is, that can determine where the song goes. Who do they want to hear it? And is that the best audience for it? At the end of the day, even though we have partnerships with artists, we want to serve the audience and make sure Spotify users get the experience they want.

Each playlist of mine also has its own theme and its own hypothesis. For example, “The Newness” is where new releases go. “Soul Coffee” is for Sunday morning and you’re getting up and going about your day, cleaning up around the house. There’s one for more mellow songs. There’s one for moodier ones. “Are & Be” is the global R&B flagship playlist, so the bigger hits and the ones that get the most reaction will go there.

Do you work closely with the heads of the other playlists at Spotify?
We’re all on the same global team, so we share music, share ideas. And we also work on campaigns together, like the one we just did for Black History Month, to figure out how what kinds of playlists will work for those programs.

So is there ever a case where one song can be added to two or three different genre playlists?
That can happen, yes. If it’s a great song. If we find a song that fits so many different pockets. It actually happens a lot! Since we can see all the analytics, if a song is performing great on one playlist, it could be part of the development process to put it in a bigger playlist with more listeners and grow the audience.

How much of a song do you listen to before you can form an opinion on it?
I listen all the way through, because I know that’s what an artist would want. I know they are sensitive about their art and I want to respect that.

I’m sure artists are vying for your attention all the time.
Artists will go to all lengths. My DMs look like a war zone. But I can’t respond; I have to just encourage them all to go through the submission tool, because that evens the playing field. Mondays are craziest because we’re coming off the weekend with all the new data in.

Do you work on projects outside of playlists?
I do. Last summer, we had a big jam session in New Orleans during the Essence Festival to celebrate Spotify’s “Are & Be” playlist reaching 5 million followers. It was a pretty dope event. Raphael Saadiq, PJ Morton, Wale, Mario and a bunch of other artists performed. It was an effort between our editorial, music marketing, artist and label relations, and talent relations teams. It was one of the things that was like, “This is why we do it.” Love and music.

“My side hustle in college was making slow-jam tapes for my homeboys going on dates. It’s always been my passion to curate for moments.”

In a previous interview, you mentioned that you grew up listening to music from traditional formats like radio and television. Did you ever think you’d end up at something like Spotify?
Never. When I was growing up, this did not exist. But music was my first love and I was basically growing up already making playlists as a hobby. My side hustle in college was making slow-jam tapes for my homeboys going on dates. It’s always been my passion to curate for moments, so I love working with playlists. Radio is curation — but each playlist has its own hypothesis or theme. And there is more opportunity to put stuff out there because you don’t have time limits, and we have more room to play with a song.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten in your career?
To learn as much as I could, to ask questions, and to follow the doors that are opened. You have to work at it, and you have to know it’s going to be a marathon. There have been times I’ve been discouraged, but I knew deep down that this is what I was born to do and that I’d just have to keep pushing through it. I would give everyone this advice. I don’t want to pay attention to outside forces; I just want to keep moving forward.

What do you do to unwind after work? Do you have a particular routine?
Sometimes, actually, unwinding is just me riding home in silence. The silence helps me just come down from everything — all the information from the day.