Deb Oh wants to make you a playlist — a very expensive and pretty good one, based on a winding questionnaire and her encyclopedic knowledge of the near-limitless options for songs you haven’t yet heard.
For $125, she’ll pick out 10 songs you might like, and send them to you with notes explaining why her choices are right for your musical history, your personality, your frame of mind, and your phase of life. Her boutique service Debop launched last year, and she’s advertised solely by word of mouth, because three or four clients per month are pretty much all that she can handle.
It’s bananas, frankly. When I first read the price tag on her website, I said out loud, “It’s bananas.” To be fair, Oh will say this as well. “From a business model standpoint it doesn’t make sense,” she says. “It takes too long. It’s a passion project.”
It’s a strange and expensive idea that will absolutely never appeal to a wide audience. It’s kind of a bummer, even, to think about a customer who doesn’t have anybody in their life who would make them a playlist for free. But there’s also something interesting about treating music the way you might treat fine art or real estate — the type of investment that’s so important, you would call in an expert to do the legwork for you. Oh is a musician, and her day job is at Nylon Studios, where she works as a music supervisor, finding the perfect track for clients that are usually major brands. Her job isn’t necessarily to enforce taste; it’s to have an enormous breadth of knowledge about what’s out there, and she says Debop operates similarly. “There are a lot of influencers and tastemakers out there,” she says, “This is not that.” It isn’t about selling people “cool,” but helping them find things they’ll actually like.
The $125 price tag is definitely high, but each playlist takes several hours to research and write up. And since Oh uses Spotify to assemble them, you’re not literally paying for a deliverable, but for her time as a consultant. “There should be as personal a touch in music curation as there is in creating music,” she argues, and expertise should be as valued here as it is elsewhere.
A service like this, Oh says, is for people who once felt very “in touch” with music but have found themselves with less and less time to dig through the mess — what she calls “the symphony of algorithms” — to find things that are special.
“We’re more and more in our own algorithm-created bubbles,” she adds, “and people are craving dialogue.” She was baffled when Spotify got rid of its messaging feature, making it impossible to share or talk about music within the app. Curating playlists also gives her an opportunity to advocate for local musicians who won’t get major label help landing on Spotify’s featured playlists. And though she thinks Discover Weekly is a great product, she believes the personalized liner notes turn her playlists into “more of a dialogue than just a slew of tracks,” and encourage “an active listening experience.”
When I sat down with her to go over the sample playlist she made for me, I was almost embarrassed to make eye contact. In her questionnaire, which ranges from practical questions of age, taste, commute time, and home city, to highly personal inquires inspired by the Proust Questionnaire, I’d rattled on about persistent anxiety, a general feeling of being unmoored, and a vague memory of tailgating in a Walmart parking lot before a Kenny Chesney concert. I mentioned that I, like every other person my age, had recently downloaded a horoscope app. A week later, I found a playlist in my inbox. I read the password-protected liner notes while lying in bed, revoltingly hungover, feeling like an inside-out mouth, and in need of both a Gatorade and some kind of musical salve.
It is almost jarringly pleasant to open something crafted specifically for you, in particular when you feel distinctly like you’d rather your body did not take up any space at all. I cried listening to the first song, “Pluto,” a dreamy love story about the baby planet and one of its moons, from Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, and Nico Muhly’s 2017 concept album Planetarium. The second, “Leo,” from the Diet Cig album I’d resisted all year solely because too many people were talking about it on Twitter, made me laugh out loud, agreeing that uh, yeah, “sometimes life is underwhelming.”
Because I’d called Jack’s Mannequin’s Everything in Transit one of my indispensable adolescent albums, Oh included a song from Andrew McMahon’s most recent dad-pop manifesto, Zombies on Broadway, which I had only gotten two tracks into upon its release in February 2017. (I stopped cold at a bleary rap about air conditioning and gentrified Brooklyn.) The song she picked, “So Close,” came with a killer hook and a music video starring McMahon in a spacesuit, a callback to his days as the lonely astronaut in khakis and skater shoes. Listening to it, I had to stop mid-eye roll to smile at the memory of the doofus I used to love so much.
Oh says the idea for Debop came to her after she read a Bob Dylan interview, in which he spoke of the streaming age of music with bewilderment and fear. This wasn’t because of any business-minded fretting over royalties or distribution models, but because he worried that unlimited access would lead to paralysis of choice, or worse: a loss of meaningful connection during the discovery process.
“Back in the day,” he told AARP, “if you wanted to hear Memphis Minnie, you had to seek a compilation record, which would have a Memphis Minnie song on it... And then maybe you’d seek Memphis Minnie in some other places — a song here, a song there. You’d try to find out who she was. Is she still alive? Does she play? Can she teach me anything? Can I hang out with her? Can I do anything for her? Does she need anything? But now, if you want to hear Memphis Minnie, you can go hear a thousand songs.”
Even knowing that there are plenty of other music discovery services, she felt compelled to propose something small and different, unscalable by nature.
That’s why there are no big plans for Debop. Oh is thinking about a slightly better website: she’s hoping to streamline her own process so that she can bring the price point down, and she’s had idle thoughts about expanding modestly if there were ever more of a demand. She’d just enlist a few more curators and keep the product exactly the same — a mixtape from a pen pal, a special-event playlist to save for a rainy day, or a very gross afternoon in bed.