Music has always been close to Saidah Blount’s heart, but moving to New York made her realize she could turn her passion into a career. From The Fader magazine to NPR and now Sonos, she has consistently worked at the forefront of the industry. Saidah talks to us about owning your smarts and building communities that matter.
What brought you to New York?
I came to New York for grad school to study public policy. I’d completed my undergraduate degree at a really small college in Maine, where there were only about 1400 people. I thought if I was going to continue to study public policy, I’d better go to a bigger city to really see people reacting to culture and life. New York is obviously it! I ended up only doing a year of my graduate degree before I was like, "I'm done. I’ve done 16 years of schooling. I can’t do anymore.”
How did you know you were done?
My head wasn't in the game anymore. I was doing well in the program, but it wasn’t challenging me. While I was studying, I got an internship at a website magazine called Platform. It covered music, culture, sports, lifestyle. I started in the news department covering music. So when I decided not to go back to school, I was offered a full-time job there. I've been working peripherally around music ever since.
Do you think you decided not to finish school because you had so many other options in New York?
Definitely. I've always been a music fan. I grew up in a very musical household, my parents were really into music. So arriving in New York, the music scene blew me away. There is something going on every day of the week; you can find free concerts or paid ones. It really expanded my vision in a way that was indescribable. The first year here I don’t even really remember, because I was out doing things all the time. I just wanted to immerse myself in New York City in a really intense way, and I did.
That was in 1998. I lived in the West Village—that was back when you could actually afford to live there. Coming from the Midwest, it blew my mind that people want to live like this, just stacked upon each other. But I understood it. You sacrifice to live here. New York is a challenging place but it's still one of the most magical places I've ever been. Every day you see something amazing, or see a person you’ve never come across.
What was it like working at the website after you left college?
I loved it. It was during that second wave of the Internet, when there was tons of VC money. Platform was really ahead of its time and some amazingly talented writers worked there. We were just being bombarded with that nascent part of culture exploding in New York City. It was a magical time in the late '90s into the early 2000s, when music and skate culture and art and design all met, and everybody mixed and mingled, and you saw everybody out on the same streets. Ludlow Street was basically the meeting place for everybody. That street was like the show Cheers, where everybody knew everyone. At Platform, we were essentially the online version of the culture at the time. It was a precursor to a lot of the publications around now, like The Fader.
How long were you at Platform?
Three to four years. After that, I ended up working for a man named Jonathan Moor, who is well known for owning the restaurant BONDST. He also owned a pretty influential club called APT. When I started working for him, he had just opened up a new restaurant that had a club on the top floor. I started as a reservationist, because he wanted somebody who would recognize the right people’s names in the industry.
At the time, I was living in a loft in Chinatown, in an amazing building where a lot of creative people in the industry lived. My neighbor was a guy named Alec who was the music director for all of Jonathan’s properties. He found out that I was a really big music fan, and he would give me all the tips about what was happening in scene, what cool stuff was coming out. APT was starting to transition from being an exclusive celebrity spot to a serious music venue.
Jonathan built a state-of-the-art sound and stage system—it was all about the music. No requests! [Laughs] The goal was to let DJs really showcase their work.
I ended up becoming their marketing director, working alongside Alec. I was there for four years and, during that time, APT really grew to be a premier spot in New York City where all the top DJs played. It was a special place.
That job allowed me to get a job at The Fader, working on their events. I ended up bringing in [clothing brand] Surface to Air to create the Fader Fort, which is now their premiere events platform, and basically rules SXSW. So, I was there at that junction when they came up with the concept, created the whole layout, the look and feel. It was a really dynamic time.
You seem to always have your finger on the pulse of what’s new in the industry. Why do you think that is?
It's been a really weird mish-mash of luck and contacts. There was such a great sense of community in the New York creative scene during those years. People would look out for you, and recommend you for jobs. I was lucky that a lot of people watched out for me. Being an African American woman working in music, and especially working across multiple genres of music, I was a rarity. I didn’t see a lot of people that looked like me. It was lonely at a lot of times, but it was also really fulfilling, because people did take note if you did something right or if you were at the right place at the right time. I also made sure to socialize a lot; I networked and made sure I was making the right connections.
I feel really privileged to have worked for these companies at pivotal times. I've gotten to see how culture changes and how to adapt to it and what drives it, especially around music. In my opinion, music is the center of everything. It really drives a lot of those cultural movements and changes, especially in larger cities like New York. You also see it in London and Berlin.
How long did you work for The Fader?
Two and a half years. After that I went freelance for almost eight years. That was fun yet challenging, because when you depend on yourself for work, you really have to get out there and look for the opportunities. Again, there were lot of people in my network that I worked for during those freelance years. I got to work for some really great brands like [Cartoon Network’s] Adult Swim and Adidas. I would do marketing, or writing, or editing, whatever was needed on that particular job, but always related to music.
I've been lucky that I've gotten to work in the field I love. People will tell you it's hard when you're a freelancer here in NYC, because you're never sure about a paycheck so it’s tempting to go back to a desk job. But freelancing gave me the freedom to find myself and my own creativity. It also taught me to stick to my own guns, because it's tough when things change so much and you feel like you need to change to fit in. But, for better or worse, I’ve always tried to be authentic to myself.
So how did you get where you are today?
Well, before I took my current job at Sonos, I worked for five years at NPR. While I was still freelancing, a friend who worked at NPR sent me a job posting, but I didn’t apply because I didn’t think I would ever be considered to work there. But they were actively looking for somebody to come in and give them a different perspective on music. They wanted someone to look at how music events were broadening the culture. The people that work at NPR Music are brilliant. Working in public media, you see people working day to day with very little funds or resources, but who are committed to the idea that everybody gets really great, well-researched information. When I interviewed, I was like, "This is me and this is what I'd love to do."
So, I worked at NPR heading up their music live events and brand marketing. We really tried to broaden the way people experience music. We found that the more information we gave to people, the more they wanted. Music is one of those things where people are afraid of looking uncool if they don’t know an artist, or the right song or album. I want to change that. If I don't know something, I don't pretend. I'm just like, "Tell me more about it. Let me know links I can find.” At NPR Music, we tried to just kind of immerse people in as much music as possible, because it opens your horizons.
I’ve really tried to bring that mentality to my work here at Sonos. I'm part of the brand activation team. We basically try to bring in those facets of culture that we feel surround music. So we love working with design and art, and food has become really important, and podcasting. It's a really interesting company, because it's really honest and transparent about loving music. And for me, that's the pinnacle of every job I've wanted to have.
So what do you do on a day-to-day basis?
I work on a couple of different levels. Locally, we have this really great store, 101 Greene. It's “retail plus”—we obviously sell our products here, but we want to immerse people in great programming around music and culture. So, I get to program that fun stuff. Listening sessions where people can come in and hear albums early. We have podcast tapings here. We’re doing social initiatives here, as well. Sonos is a company at the forefront of social activism. I’ve never had a boss before that was like, "You want to do something around social activism? Do it!"
The other end of my job is global events. We get involved with artists we really believe in and partner with them. We just did this amazing initiative with the band Gorillaz. We love their latest album. They’re a band that's about diversifying your worldview and listening differently—it’s totally up our creek.
We’ve got some cool stuff in the pipelines. I’ve been here for less than a year, but it’s amazing. I get to immerse myself in music every day.
I feel like I need to ask what music you’re listening to right now!
You know what's funny? I was just talking about this with a friend last night. During the summer, my music completely shifts over. I listen to '50s, '60s, and '70s reggae. I open up the windows and blast it.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
One thing I would tell young women is to forge your own path. Don't stick to the easy road. Really experiment. Don't be afraid to fail. I will fully admit, I've had a couple really big failures during my work/career. There have been projects and jobs where I've had my ass handed to me, but I've taken it all and learned. Don't be afraid to fail.
Work hard. You've got to work harder than everyone else. Put in the time, put in the effort, and know everything about what you do. Don’t be afraid to be the smartest person in the room. Revel in it. Be that person. For a lot of years, I folded in on myself. As I got older, I have realized, "No, I know I'm right about this.” I’ve stopped shutting myself down. Don't be afraid to be smart. Don't be afraid to celebrate yourself and what you know. If you know it, say it.
One more: surround yourself with good people. I've been lucky to surround myself with a really great group of women. I actually have founded a couple groups on Facebook. There's one that I made that's called the Black Socialites League, which is kind of a takeoff of the Daughters of the American Revolution, but it's African American women in media or entertainment. It started because I would be at parties and I was the only one in the room that looked like me, or there would only be a couple of other African American women. We would always make eye contact and eventually gravitate towards each other. Having that community of women is a gift. Sistership is real and I think making sure you share your experience with other women, and younger women is so important. Share your experience.
I love that advice!
It's really real. Especially in music, it's a little petrifying sometimes. Music is a very male-driven industry, especially in genres like indie and hip-hop. A lot of men drive that culture, so there can be a strong “old boys club” network. To get noticed and to be recognized as a peer on the same level is very tough. So for me, it’s been a game-changer to have the confidence to speak up. I have pretty encyclopedic knowledge of a lot of music, and I think that has been the key for me. I know what I'm talking about when I talk about music and I know sounds and I know trends. In the end, that’s how I made strides in my career and got taken seriously as a peer. I celebrate what I know, and I’m proud of it.
What does New York mean to you?
New York's a challenging place. It's so cliché, but if you look hard enough, you find the magic. I've met some of the best people I've ever known here. I have friends that have gotten me through some of the best times I've ever had, when I've laughed the most, when I've seen magic happened. And then I've had friends that have gotten me through some of the worst times. When my dad died, I saw who my friends really were. New York is kind of a battleground for figuring out the difference between friends and acquaintances. That was a very hard lesson I had to learn. When you first arrive in New York, you’re out all the time, you’re social, you feel like everybody is a friend. But as you get older, New York teaches you who really matters.