In 2006, Irish singer Glen Hansard and Czech pianist Marketa Irglova released an album together called The Swell Season. A longtime fan of Hansard's band The Frames, NPR's Stephen Thompson quickly fell for the song "Falling Slowly" and ran it as an NPR Music Song of the Day. A year later, a version of the song ended up on the soundtrack for the film Once, then won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova's songs ache and swoon amid some of the year's loveliest arrangements.
The Song of the Day feature has been a staple on the NPR site for six years now, and while not every song is going to end up on the Top 40 charts or played throughout NPR Music's office as a communal favorite, each is selected because it will resonate with someone the way "Falling Slowly" did with Stephen. Any given week, the selected artists can range widely, from familiar voices to seemingly nameless artists, but these songs aren't picked at random from the hundreds of albums mailed to NPR Music each week.
So, what does it take to be picked? Song of the Day's curator and NPR Music writer-editor Stephen Thompson has one basic rule:
"Love the song."
Katie Hayes Luke for NPR/allsongs Flickr page
NPR Music's Stephen Thompson kicks off the NPR Parish day party at SXSW 2012.
Now, that doesn't necessarily mean Stephen loves the song. He works with a team of about three dozen NPR staffers and freelancers. Each contributor is held to the "love the song" standard with every song pitched. Whether NPR's Lars Gotrich selects a recent discovery in what he calls "outersound" or John Murph delves into jazz, the diversity of voices allows the series to maintain a variety of musical perspectives. It may seem straightforward, but Stephen's challenge as curator is to distinguish Song of the Day music from other outlets of discovery, at NPR.org and elsewhere.
The Song of the Day newsletter has built up a base of nearly 70,000 subscribers. At a time when audiences' eyes and ears are overburdened by countless daily messages from retail stores, events calendars and who knows what else, the circulation number is pretty remarkable. It's also reflective of the trust that has developed between NPR Music critics and their audience. According to Thompson, being a good music critic is all about the ability to write colorfully and honestly about the music.
"Music critics are paid to have an opinion," he says, "but personal bias still gets checked at the door."
When Song of the Day came onto the scene in 2006, it was one of only a few musical assets on the NPR site, along with WXPN's World Café, the All Songs Considered podcast and a few other projects.
Now, NPR Music has four music blogs, concert webcasts and live streams, online station streams and music channels, web buildouts across pretty much every music genre, and widely recognized series such as Tiny Desk Concerts and First Listen streams. In just the last three months, NPR Music has released an award-winning iPad app, hosted a global webcast of a SXSW music keynote address and presented dozens of concerts, webcast live from New York, D.C., Austin and beyond.
Provocative new features continue to populate the NPR Music space. "Field Recordings," a new video series, showcases the creation and adaptation of music to unexpected environments: amid the chaos of a famous Austin junkyard, inside the modern art museum in the heart of Washington, D.C., in an isle at a neighborhood hardware store, and among the stingrays at Baltimore's National Aquarium.
This extensive bank of music to explore isn't going to stop expanding anytime soon. For one, Song of the Day is about to undergo a drastic makeover.
"NPR Music provides a culture and environment where creative ideas can pop up," Stephen says, and his earnest, discovery-driven outlook represents a view common to NPR Music as its presence expands.
"When you act on things and ideas that are rooted in passion, good things come out of it. And that has proven successful over the years."