How to Put Together a Killer Playlist for Conferences and/or Life

Today's post comes from Distilled's own karaoke starlet and chainsaw wielding expert, Lara Petersburg. Lara is responsible for keeping Distilled's Seattle crew in order and the office looking pimped; she's also beginning this month's SearchLove takeover series here on the blog. So, let's get in the mood for the London event with the help of this sweet playlist and kick out the jams ahead of the conference which is in just three weeks' time

Playing music for people is my favorite thing in the world.

Growing up, I sang in choirs, played the clarinet for 8 years, and created countless mixes for friends and family. I got the opportunity to do this for a wider audience during my senior year at the University of Iowa when I was a DJ for the college radio station - playing whatever I wanted!

I still don’t know how many people were listening, but that was one of the biggest thrills of my life thus far. I’ve also been to music festivals about a dozen times (Seeing Daft Punk at Coachella in 2006 was life-changing, and getting to dance on stage with MIA in front of 150,000 people was pretty cool too) and easily 50+ live music shows in the year and a half I’ve lived in Seattle. I also listen to Sirius XM Radio at minimum 2 hours a day.

So when Distilled gave me the chance to curate the music for our SearchLove San Diego conference last month, yeah, I was a little excited.

As Distilled’s Administrative Assistant, I play a fairly behind-the-scenes role, but I’m always interested in learning more about what we do, so I jumped at the chance to attend MozCon back in July. As I was walking to my seat on the morning of Day 2, I about stopped in my tracks in shock when I heard a fantastic song that I’d only just discovered a few days before! Awesome, cutting edge music at a work conference? What was this sorcery??

Which got me to thinking: Who put together this playlist? The Mozzers? (A: Yes.) Does that mean *I* could do the same for our upcoming SearchLove San Diego conference?? (A: Yes.)

I felt giddy with power. But as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

So to make sure I nailed it, I went through a pretty rigorous process. If you want to create a knockout mixtape, whether for a conference or just for your latest crush - here’s how it’s done:

1. Listen up.

This is the most time-intensive part of the process, so if you want a good product, this is where to put in work. Keep your ears open at all times.

Places to get inspired

  • Restaurants/bars/coffee shops. Especially if you’re in a non-corporate chain. The staff are probably playing the music and would love to tell you about it.

  • Live shows and festivals. Don’t underestimate support acts at gigs or those playing on smaller stages at festivals - all the biggest performers opened for someone when they started out.

  • Commercial radio. Pop music is popular for a reason: It’s intentionally crafted to be catchy, immediately gratifying, and widely accessible. A good topical song gets everyone going.

  • Radio station websites. In addition to having access to playlists that go back years in some cases, stations’ websites are another good way to discover artists similar to those you’ve already heard them play. They’re also great for finding live shows in your area or if you’re visiting a city, and many of them have really cool in-studio features, like Australia’s Triple J’s Like A Version series.

  • Commercials. These are particularly applicable to the conference-speaker-playlist context, but also generally for “knockout” songs. Whether they’re on TV or online, commercials have a very short amount of time to make a very big impact, so the music for them is chosen to be instantly emotive. Remember these?

  • TV shows. 2 things to listen for here: Memorable title tracks à la House and Luther, and songs you hear during the show. Notable examples include The O.C. (one of the first shows to feature indie music prominently), Grey’s Anatomy (who commoditized it), and about every show since then.


  • Spotify Radio. Spotify makes music discovery effortless. If you want to hear more songs like any of the 20 million they have, just right-click on it, start radio, and boom. Your music world just exploded.

  • Sirius XM Radio. Sirius is a paid service which runs me about $50 a month (there are cheaper and pricier subscription options), and to me, is worth every last penny. I'm confident I couldn't find the music I discover on Sirius anywhere else.

  • TuneIn Radio. TuneIn is a free app that allows you to listen to any radio station in the world, and I do mean the world - did you know they have a folk-themed radio station in Antarctica?! Well they do, and you can listen to it live.

  • Shazam. And wherever you find your new favorite song, if you can get relatively clear sound, Shazam will tell you what it is.

  • Go old school. Talk to everyone you know who’s into music. And if you hear a song that piques your interest, listen for an uncommon word or phrase in the lyrics and Google it in quotes later.

2. Make a big ol’ playlist.

Don’t even think about your final picks at this point, just amass everything that’s even a possibility. You’ll pare them down later. You want to have too many songs to pick from, trust me.

I threw everything I liked into a master SearchLove San Diego playlist, and listened to it often in the weeks leading up to the conference.

3. Make a spreadsheet.

Even with only 20 tracks to pick for SearchLove, this was highly necessary. It’s the easiest way to organize the myriad factors you need to manage (artists, titles, start and stop times, etc.)

4. Select your songs.

This is another time-intensive but fun step - and probably the most important. You must consider your audience and context.

Each situation is unique, but here’s my basic audience-context matrix:

In a professional setting, it's not a great idea to share content that could be considered offensive before you know where others’ values and boundaries lie. So in the context of a work conference, it's a no brainer: play it safe and avoid cussin.

And on the stylistic end of things, the 2 biggest things to remember are (1) it’s not about what you like, it’s about what the audience will like, and (2) keep it light.

5. Select your samples.

Also tedious, also fun: Pick your favorite parts of your favorite songs. I was asked by the good folks at Paradise Point to come up with 30-second samples so they could fade in and out as necessary.

The highly scientific method I used was sitting at my kitchen table, listening to each song over and over again, and noting in my spreadsheet (based on heart rate and head bobs) the exact times when I was most into each song.

6. Attain the mp3s - legally.

Piracy litigation? Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Purchase your mp3s on Amazon or the iTunes store.

7. Cut your samples.

My research told me that Virtual DJ is a great free program for PC and Mac users alike, so that’s what I used. Don’t let the interface intimidate you if it looks complicated - I learned it on the flight down to San Diego thanks to their user manual and the internets.

8. Sit back and let the accolades roll in.

Here’s my SearchLove San Diego final cut.

Lara Petersburg’s go-to karaoke song is “This Is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan. Check out her music blog and/or follow her on Spotify & Soundcloud.

Get blog posts via email