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In all the hype over Apple Computer’s online music store, one fascinating new feature included in the latest version was strangely overlooked: the celebrity playlist. The digital age version of the venerable mix tape, playlists have been a central selling point of the MP3 music revolution, since creating a brand-new mix of your favorite tunes is now as easy as dragging files into a folder on your desktop. Apple’s new Celebrity Playlist area in its store features collections of music assembled — with liner notes — by famous musicians: Sting, Ben Folds, Wynton Marsalis and many others.
What’s potentially revolutionary here is the ability to buy a compilation of music handpicked by another individual, as opposed to the official compilations released by record labels. No doubt Apple will soon offer a feature that enables ordinary music fans to create public playlists engineered around every imaginable theme (the post-breakup collection, the happy Nick Drake songs, the underappreciated recordings of Miles Davis) and then sell those compilations via the online store. Historically, the world of commercial music has been divided between musicians and listeners, but there’s long been a mostly unrewarded group in the middle: people with great taste in music — the ones who made that brilliant mix for you in college that you’re still listening to. They’re curators not creators, brilliant at assembling new combinations of songs rather than generating them from scratch.
Steven Johnson, author of the forthcoming “Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life.”