Stephan Kunze is a German music journalist and author, radio host, editor, and curator with over 20 years of experience.
He currently curates Zen Sounds - a newsletter dedicated to ambient, jazz, and experimental music. Stephan’s colourful experience - from print to radio and now digital streaming makes him a really interesting and multi-layered guest.
Previously Stephan was Global Editorial Lead at Spotify, had his own imprint (Heart Working Class), consultant for Red Bull, was editor-in-chief for the German hip hop magazine Juice, and writer for Berlin-based Spex (to name a few).
Find the episode on all podcast platforms here.
Podcast / notes
please note even though we try, these are not 1:1 transcription notes - for the full experience we recommend listening to the podcast episode
[01:50] intro, earliest music memories, and buying records in the 90s
They (in Kiel) had 2 or 3 record shops and I remember going there and seeing the other people - who is buying the metal CDs, hip hop vinyl - the different sub-cultures; just going there and talking to the people who work there and getting recommendations from them was really important when it comes to shaping my taste.
[06:10] degree in law and first writing experiences for SPEX and Juice
I studied writing while I studied law. It was basically a thing I did on the side, not really to earn money because you didn't really make money writing reviews for magazines. I think you got like you got lucky when you got like €10 for a review or something. Most of the times I got paid in like stuff that the magazines had laying around like clothing from their sponsors or advertising partners or stuff like that. So it wasn't really a money thing. It was more about me wanting to be part of that cultural discussion and having a voice that was in the very early 2000s when I studied law in Hamburg.
[09:10] music journalism in the 2000s and interviewing Pharrell Williams and working at Juice
I remember going over there with three or four other journalists for other big german newspapers and publications and they were all like very cynical about it. Like they were all like yeah, I'm gonna fly here tomorrow, and then I'm gonna fly from there to Los Angeles to meet this guy and blah blah blah and I was like I don't want to become like this ever in my life because I still, I was excited, you know, it was Pharrell Williams, like the dude from The Neptunes! I still couldn't believe that I got paid to do this.
I wouldn't say the law degree helped me but I also don't regret doing it at a time when I was done with school. I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I mean I always thought I wanted to write and I want to become a writer, but it didn't really occur to me as a real job at that time. So I I was more like, Okay, how can I actually make money and sustain a family and stuff like that? So I was thinking about doing business or law or medicine, I don't know why it was yeah, very practical for a 17 or 18-year-old, even though my parents were not pressuring me at all. I mean, they liked the fact that I was deciding to study law but was completely my own decision.
[14:50] curating a newsletter (Zen Sounds) vs running a magazine or curating editorial playlists at Spotify
There's a clear distinction between my work for the newsletter and the radio shows that I do because I have never done commercial radio, right? So, I've never worked for one of those big stations. I usually work for community / Internet radio, like byte.fm or dublab. So, for the newsletter as well as these radio shows, the curation is quite easy. I'm just doing what I love. I'm just putting in there what's interesting to me right now.
And of course, I'm trying to build a narrative, but mainly I write about the stuff that really interests me right now, whereas, working for a magazine, you think of an audience, you want to grow your audience, you wanna sell copies, basically. So, you have to think about a lot of commercial aspects - who to put on the cover, who gets the bigger stories, who get smaller stories, and who doesn't get included at all. You have to answer those questions, and I think when you have this pressure of actually having to sell something, then you approach them totally differently.
Editorial playlisting and my work at Spotify, it's similar because I don't I didn't curate the playlist for myself. Those playlists were curated for a certain audience with this audience in mind. And you were looking at data every single day, looking at data and the audience spoke to you through that data. So you basically knew what was working and what wasn't working for them. And that's basically something that I don't really think about too much when doing the newsletter on my radio show.
[19:00] switching the Zen Sounds newsletter to English
I did think about the change for some time. And there were people from the outside that were talking to me about it for a while, people asking me. It's quite pragmatic actually. I'm writing about a certain kind of music mostly right now if we're talking about the contemporary stuff that I'm writing about, it's this ambient - experimental - electronic stuff. So that scene is quite international and of course, there's a big part of that scene in Berlin but most of those people don't speak German because they're from all over the place and that's totally fine.
Also for me, it was the chance to find a new voice because in German I've been writing for more than 20 years and I sometimes I feel I've already set everything that I wanted to say about music and I've used all types of adjectives and sometimes it just feels like I don't have much to say anymore. Now it's in English and all of a sudden I have a completely new vocabulary.
[22:15] staying consistent and motivated when it comes to creating content
It's my passion. I love this. I would probably even do it more often if I didn't have the feeling that I would get on people's nerves. So, I really want to do this. Like I'm doing this either way, it doesn't feel like a burden or something like that.
[23:40] Living in Berlin, the Pandemic, and staying balanced
I grew up in a very small village in northern Germany. When I was 18 I moved out to study in a city and then I moved around a lot. In the last 12 years of my life. I lived in Berlin and I love Berlin for the fact that it's such a cultural hub. And there are still so many great opportunities for artists and people to just do their thing basically and live their life like kind of an alternative lifestyle that's still going on in huge parts of the city.
It is both a stressful and inspiring place. For someone like me who really thrives on being in nature, I missed that part. And now that I have a place in a very rural area of northeastern Germany, it's the complete opposite. And I really like moving between those worlds now and I would say that has helped my mental health a lot, especially during the Pandemic.
[29:10] the Deep Listening philosophy and impact on life
Deep Listening is a method developed by the late composer Pauline Oliveros and I discovered her music when I was researching female composers from the 20th century. She was one of the pioneers in electoral acoustic composition. She composed great stuff, even though she's not as well-known as some of her male peers, but that says more about the society that she lived in. She was a lesbian freethinker, a great spirit, and just a fascinating personality. Unfortunately died in 2016.
She developed deep listening, which is kind of like, you could call it a listening meditation style. It combines elements of Buddhist meditation, mindful movements like Tai Chi or Qigong practices, and performance art. So you gather in groups and you perform certain scores. There are a lot of scores that Pauline wrote herself, but you can also write your own scores basically and then you perform them together in a group um or by yourself.
So for me, this was taking me out of my comfort zone because I was always more a listener than a performer, even though the line blurs a bit when you do this practice, right? What was really important for Pauline was the difference between hearing and listening. So you hear something which is just the, like the acoustic sounds coming through your ear into your brain and being processed, right? Listening is something deeper like this is something that you are mindful about it. You're actively turning towards the sounds and you're listening with your whole body, not just your ears.
This practice is really interesting. As I said, it's rooted in Buddhist philosophy, which is something that I've been studying for more than 10 years now. Buddhism is something that I feel drawn to specifically, but also Vipassana meditation and similar practices where you go on silent retreats, for example. I've been doing that for some years and so Deep Listening was kind of combining my love for music and performance with this Buddhist philosophy strain and this is why I thought it was really something um enriching for me.
[33:10] building listening habits as a listener and Spotify playlist editor
I've been someone who skipped a lot and um I've been listening to hundreds of songs as a Spotify editor. You have to listen to somewhere between 500 and 1500 songs per week just for your daily work. And of course, you don't listen to them from front to back. You listen to the first 30 seconds and you skip somewhere and try to find the hook. For my work, I've been doing that.
In my private life as a music lover and listener. I always loved albums, bodies of work, and trying to capture them from front to back and that goes back to my childhood - sitting in my room with a new record I bought or got somewhere, reading through the credits, and listening to all the songs, even those who I didn't like at first. I looked at the lyrics maybe or try to find something in them. And I think that's a practice that's a bit lost um in this era. I miss it. And I think it's good to really take your time too. Focus your attention on us on one thing and just do one thing.
Just sit down and listen to an album. Like who does that these days? Not many people I know are actively doing it. I try to do it all the time and deep listening (the course) is just more like training. It's training for your attention span, which is fragmented with everyone.
When we spoke earlier about Spex and similar magazines, when you were the Album of the Month, even if you didn't like the record, you should have some kind of opinion about it, or you should have listened to it at least because otherwise you wouldn't be able to follow cultural discourse and interact with other people. That's what community is all about. Interacting with other people, not just being in your own tunnel where this is what you like and this is? Something is getting lost.
[36:50] today’s consumption of music and art and the future of the attention economy in mainstream media
I think the mainstream is in a race to the bottom right now. But I see a strong anti-movement in the underground. I don't really think that those people will take over the mainstream at one point, and all those Tiktok music listeners will all of a sudden start appreciating the album as an art form again, but maybe that's not even necessary to me. I just need to know that there are a few other people outside who still care and that's hopeful.
[38:45] how to build a career and audience as an artist and be successful on Spotify and the state of lofi music
I don't have the secret sauce or the secret recipe, like how to get successful and Spotify 101. I think that's also something that the company tries to explain through their portal and workshops, so I won't really get into that right now.
The one thing I really want to say from my experience is that if you're an artist or producer - don't rely on playlist placements too much. I know it's hard and almost it seems like there's no other way to get noticed, but a career that's only built on editorial placements on a certain streaming service is not a career. It can change from one day to the next and It's like playing lotto basically at this point, right?
The number that was being thrown around was 100,000. Basically the amount of songs that are being uploaded right now every day, right? Of course, not all of them are getting pitched, but a lot of them are. And within the lofi / instrumental genre - there's tons of music coming out every week and a lot of it is fine, but also a lot of it is not recognizable. Like it's not exceptional. It's not like you hear it and you know, this is this has to be this certain artist.
So, one thing I can say to beatmakers and producers - do hope for playlist placement, but try to build your career, like not depending on that at all, just do your own thing, build your brand just as any artist. Build it offline and online through your own channels. If you use most of the time of your day to try to find Spotify editors on Instagram and chase them, I don't think that's the best use of your time as an artist.
[45:20] the story and growth of the German hip hop beat scene
I've been around for a lot of that journey um even though I only discovered German rap in the early to mid-90s and it's been around since the late 80s. So there was a generation before me but I have to mention - I think it started in Germany with like the big movies that came out in '83 and '84. So when those were shown in the German cinemas, the youth were kind of infected with that break dance thing, and then they started doing the music and then died down because it was more of a trend and then it came back by the late 80s and then it didn't go away.
And there were waves. Since then a lot of waves that I saw, it was more popular. There was a time in the late 90s when hip hop was already mainstream in Germany. People forget about that. The charts were already full of hip hop in the late 90s, it was a different kind of hip hop than the one that is out right now of course, but still, was hip hop influenced by American rap, British rap, and French rap.
And then in the early 2000s, a few beat makers who were coming out of that community started doing instrumental beats and even though instrumental beats were already a thing in the nineties, you had Mo' Wax, Ninja Tune, Kruder & Dorfmeister, all these people were doing that. And then the hip hop guys in the early 2000's, I remember talking to Suff Daddy, Brenk Sinatra, and Dexter the people that were like the first German beat makers (to me) that we're doing the instrumental thing. Most of them said "I didn't really want to work with rappers anymore" because they felt it was so hard to get them to get beat placements on rappers' records, so they basically put it out as their own projects. Others were also like "my music is already... so much is happening there already, I don't really need a rapper on there".
Out of that developed a very lively beat community in Germany and that had a heyday in the 2000s. In 2010 or 2011 there was a beat barbecue in Cologne and I remember being there, it was initiated by Melting Pot Music, and there were like 1500 people in the club listening to people standing on stage just playing beats. And it was, it was just crazy. So, that scene was something that I was following very closely and was very dear to my heart. I know all of the producers personally, a lot of them are my friends and when I was at Juice (the hip hop magazine) and I covered that scene from a journalistic perspective a lot.
Now fast-forward to 2016 I started Spotify and I see this global phenomenon starting with the jazzy lo fi type beats, which to me bore a lot of resemblance to what Dexter and those people had already done. So I just joined and connected the dots and saw that there was it was a continuation of that a little bit. And all of a sudden producers came from all corners of the world, at least that's how I perceived it. And I followed that and I curated a lot of like playlists and connected also the german scene because that was our job at Spotify - representing the German artist community in editorial curation. I saw that something was happening and I was trying to um bring my community back into this. So yeah, that's a strong history.
[52:10] the culture of lofi hip hop
Those guys were there before the whole hype started - labels like Sichtexot, NPM, Jakarta, all those labels in Germany, and the beat makers, they did that already. Of course, if like a 17-year-old producer from Finland makes a great beat then it should, of course, be represented in one of the big playlists. But how can we do this without the originators of that culture?
Like even if a lot of like the young lofi people don't really see that connection anymore, I think there is a lot of education to be done and background missing. This is a culture. This is not lofi as a white culture that you can just like go into and say, hey, I like these jazzy beats and I'm going to do this, you need to do your research, you need to look up, where does this come from? Where did hip hop originate from? Who are the people who did that before you are trying to make your playlist money with it? There are a lot of people who think that they're entitled to get playlist placement but I think hip hop is a culture where you have to pay your dues as well.
[54:45] are music publications still relevant, social media and does audience size matters
The heyday of the blogosphere were maybe in the early 2010s. It's not like that anymore. That's very clear. And I don't think it will come back, but blogs are still for me, they're still important. I still look at blogs to find music sometimes. Even though people tend to look at blogs more through social media now, they probably won't revisit a blog every so often. That's why I really like the newsletter idea because people just get it in their inbox and they will be nudged a little bit. There's no algorithm that controls what you see whether you see it or not. That's what I like about this because I'm pretty much against the idea of social media as it stands and I've also deleted most of my social media accounts. Now I have an Instagram account again for Zen Sounds, but that's not like a personal account for me, it's for the entity. I mean we're living in a day and age where it's almost impossible to take part in the cultural discourse without it. Even if I just want to ask an artist for an interview. It's hard, but I lived for 3.5 years without an Instagram account and I did just fine. Also, I don't have Facebook or Twitter or anything else.
I don't think that people are not interested in context or reading about people's opinions, feelings about music and art, and culture. I think that's still relevant because I have one argument when you speak to people about the decline of music journalism basically, then there's always this argument of, yeah, why would we need music journalism anymore? People can just follow the artists on social media and they get all the information they need. And I pretty much disagree with that because um, yes, it's a very powerful tool for the artists themselves...but for me as a fan and as a listener, I don't get all the information I need and cultural discussion is not something that the artists can do among themselves. They pretty much us as mediators. We journalists, music writers, and music nerds, we are part of that culture and that discussion and we need to find the right ways of speaking to people in this specific day and age.
That's not to say everybody needs to go on Tiktok and do Tiktok reviews now. Like I'm, I still think the written word is holy! I mean, if I knew that all the people that I want to reach are on Tiktok now and this is the way that they speak to each other, then I would probably consider doing it as well. But I don't believe that that's the case. I believe that there are still people out there who don't want to be on Tiktok all day and they don't want these eight-second snippets of music and they don't, they want to engage more deeply with it and they want to read about it. Maybe that's not the mainstream, but I always identified with the leftfield underground subculture as corny as it sounds. So I don't buy into this logic where it's all about popularity, it's all about the most streams, the most readers, and the biggest audience. I'm more looking for a small, nice community of people who are like-minded and love the stuff that I do.
I mean if you want to go on a world tour and you wanna buy a Ferrari and like, expensive watches or whatever, and that's your thing. Again, I'm not judging that, then you will probably need to go down that road. But that's not my route. And that's also not the root of most of the artists that make the music that I'm talking about. I mean, I've noticed that I've not deliberately left out major label products from a newsletter, but I've like, I don't think I've ever written about a single record that was released on a major record label. That's just because it's not interesting to me.
And that's the same with newsletters basically, I have a few 100 subscribers and that's great. I love that. Of course, I love every single one who comes on board, but it's also not necessary to grow, like, crazy why, like, I'm not doing this for commercial reasons. I'm not doing any advertising, no sponsoring, no paid subscriptions. I just want to find those people basically.
[1:06:20] 2022 end-of-year lists, the Zen Sounds newsletter, and future plans
I looked at my network basically and I looked at which people from that network might have something to contribute that works within the context of the newsletter. I mean, it doesn't make sense if I ask a friend of mine who's a music journalist and will send in 10 rap records because he loves rap and I love rap as well. But that doesn't work with this newsletter. Right? It's not a rap newsletter. It's ambient and experimental. So it has this frame.
Right now I am very excited about the reactions regarding the newsletter switching to English. I don't have any specific plans. What I want to do is make it all more visually appealing next year.