In 2019, Dmitri Siegel, VP-global brand at Sonos, was gearing up for the high-def audio company’s launch of Sonos Radio — which debuts today. It provides over 100 streaming options from 60,000 different stations — including exclusive artist-curated programming from Thom Yorke, Brittany Howard and David Byrne among others.
But as he thought about how Sonos’ global listener base (which consists of more than 10 million homes) would first experience the new service, he realized it was missing one crucial feature. Sonos, one of the best-known brands in audio, didn’t have its own sonic identity or mnemonic device the way that dozens of non-music companies from McDonald’s to State Farm to Mastercard already do. “I had this sort of panic that people are gonna hit this button that says ‘Sonos’ on it without being able to experience our brand in aural form completely,” says Siegel.
The solution? The legendary (and three-time Academy Award-nominated) composer Philip Glass, who Siegel and Sonos’ head of music Brian Beck commissioned to craft a sonic logo with as unique of a structure as the brand’s perfectly symmetrical logo and name.
“We said, ‘Look, “Sonos” sounds like it’s Swedish but it’s really just a made-up word that means sound, so we need you to make a sound that means Sonos,’” says Siegel, who otherwise held back in sharing further guidelines. “I mean, what do you tell Philip Glass? I’m not gonna be like, ‘Give me a bouncy C.’”
Glass, who happened to have a Sonos in his home studio, ended up creating several compositions for the company that were then recorded with a 21-piece orchestra. The assets include a 30-second suite, a 7-second tag and a 3-second audio logo. In a statement, Glass said they represent two opposing ends of a spectrum – the organic and the electronic.
“The organic, represented by the acoustic instrumentation, speaks to the act of listening as both communal and personal. The electronic, which can be heard in the synthesized elements, is a nod to Sonos products as breakthrough technology, both in sound reproduction and connectivity,” Glass says.
The new logo will be heard throughout the listening experience of Sonos Radio, which was conceived after the company noticed that over 50% of its overall listening activity came from terrestrial, digital and music stations. “People are really into a lean-back experience and being connected in a real-time kind of way,” Siegel says.
Sonos Radio is available exclusively through the Sonos app to existing customers, and it will feature on-demand content only. It is free with ad-supported streaming on select programs, and includes the signature station Sonos Sound System. Sonos will also feature a radio studio at its flagship retail store in New York once it reopens after the quarantine.
Angel Olsen, JPEGMAFIA, Phoebe Bridgers, Tortoise’s Jeff Parker and Vagabon are among the first artists who will host guest radio hours on Sonos Sound System every Wednesday, sharing exclusive commentary, curated playlists of influences and highlights from their current projects.
In the coming weeks, Thom Yorke, Brittany Howard, David Byrne and Jack White’s Third Man Records will curate their own ad-free custom stations that will be regularly updated with hundreds of songs that have inspired them over the years.
Yorke’s station, “In the absence thereof…” launches today, and to Siegel’s delight, it is “pretty exciting and pretty weird.” Says Yorke in a statement: “Here in a new form is that ever-rolling compilation / office chart habit of mine of putting together what I have found recently that fascinates or moves me, what obsesses me, challenges me, opens new doors, reminds me of what I might have forgotten, is insanely complex or elegantly simple, violent, funny, messy, heavy or light. Whatever has hit me over the head basically. It may be new or old or just dug up again. With all this time we have behind doors I hope this provides a welcome connection and escape…and perhaps stops the walls closing in quite so quick.”
Though Sonos Radio is entering a highly competitive audio marketplace, with Spotify staking a higher claim of audience share following its multi-billion dollar podcast play, Siegel says to not expect a major ad blitz from Sonos to promote the service. Instead, they’ll focus on marketing to its existing user base of 20 million listeners. “One of the interesting things is we looked at other providers, and they struggled because they have to spend so much money to acquire listeners. We want to keep this as a benefit to our owners and invest in the content itself.”
Of course, the other potential hurdle to Sonos Radio’s launch is the COVID-19 crisis, which has already led to a downturn in overall music streams as well as podcasts. Yet Siegel says overall Sonos usage (including TV viewing, which is way up across the board) has already seen a huge quarantine spike. “Everybody is in their home all the time. Music streaming is down, but radio is up and TV viewing is up. We weren’t expecting that shift would be happening to radio right now: Half our listening is broadcast radio.”
Plus, he hopes that the increased investment in the old-school news medium will keep listeners even more informed in the coming weeks. “We did consider postponing this, but radio is a really important service. It’s hard to get local information as local newspapers shut down, so we felt it was important to go ahead and get this out there because it’s an easier to listen to the radio.” And, he adds, “We’re gonna get the new Fiona Apple album on there as soon as possible.”
Songs For Screens is a Variety column sponsored by Anzie Blue, a wellness company and café based in Nashville. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @ahampp.