SULINNA ONG: WORLD-BUILDING, MACHINE LEARNING AND HORROR


Spotify
Global Head of Editorial Sulinna Ong has quickly emerged as one of the most influential execs in the streaming space, deftly combining intellectual rigor and an emphasis on the human connection that technology can facilitate. Most of Ong’s career—and indeed, much of her life—has been about the quest to effectively marry music and tech. We asked her to elaborate and did our best to keep up; along the way, we also delved into her fascinating backstory and her deep interest in horror, sci-fi and related genres.

In the world of Spotify, what does “editorial” signify?

Editorial at Spotify refers to the curation and programming of content—namely music, in this instance. Our focus is to provide the best and most culturally relevant music experience for users with a focus on new music and discovery. The editorial teams at Spotify are deep music and culture experts. We work very closely with product teams to infuse this human music expertise and cultural intelligence into the products and features that we build for users.

I think most people know and understand that editors curate playlists, and that’s certainly a core pillar of the discipline, but it’s actually much broader and more diverse; our skills and expertise are applied to many surfaces in the Spotify app and experience—as well as outside of it.

What sorts of indicators do you look for in determining if an artist, song or trend is going to be significant?

Every week we meet as an editorial team; editors around the world discuss what’s happening in their local markets. And then we start to test outside of the original domestic market and introduce the music in very strategic ways. So it’s a combination of gut and data. We’re looking at things like people listening to the song and engaging with it in a variety of ways. They might add it to their playlist. They might come back to it at a later time. They might explore the catalog of that particular artist—that’s a particularly encouraging action. Another high-quality signal we examine is the performance of tracks within Spotify’s owned and operated playlists. Each playlist has an audience of its own with particular behavioral nuances. We analyze how a track performs in each playlist to get a view on how it reacts with a certain audience group and how they correlate—or don’t—with one another. These are just some of the many indicators we look at. We also take into consideration what is happening outside of Spotify.

Where do human curation and machine learning intersect?

Human curation was never about manually curating a playlist for each and every individual user, as that is simply not scalable. No matter how much time I put into it, I can’t curate a playlist for 600 million users. We use technology to scale our expertise as editors and get it to as many people as possible. Around 2018, our editors and product teams made their first attempts to bridge human curation with our personalization engines. That was largely due to technological innovation with personalization and machine learning. This collaboration resulted in personalized editorial playlists, where tracks fit an overall mood or moment, which is set and curated by our editors, but personalized [by tech] for each individual listener. These personalized editorial playlists sit alongside our purely editorial playlists as well as fully algorithmic playlists. We consider them a holistic listening ecosystem and we see that users want to interact with different sets/experiences depending on their mood, lifestyle, tastes, time-of-day etc. We also work with our product teams on new features like DJ, Daylist and AI playlists too.

What do you think are the key differentiators between Spotify and other DSPs?

There are three things:

  1. It’s the global scale of Spotify, but it’s not a monolith forcing everyone to listen to a small subset of the same songs or playlists. We have huge global reach and scale, but local nuance and local relevance are really important to us. It’s why we’ve invested in having editors and editorial teams in local markets very early on, because what feels authentic in India as a listening experience is very different from what feels authentic and is desired in the United States.
  2. The next step on from that is taking local sounds and artists to the rest of the world and that’s done via our Global Curation Groups (or GCGs, as we refer to them internally), where editors meet regularly from around the world to discuss local listening trends, important/bubbling artists, tracks and genres from across the globe and how we introduce them to new markets and more audiences worldwide.
  3. The third is the fusion; the investment that we’ve made in human editorial intelligence and music and cultural expertise, and scaling that with technology. The effort is to connect with listeners on a human and emotional level, even though we’re using state-of-the-art technology. That human connection and how people listen to music can never be separated.

These are the core ways that Spotify is set apart from other DSPs.

So you might have the tech, but you need a soul.

Yeah. And the editors are the soul.

You told me that you religiously listened to about three hours of music per day on average. How do you approach that, and what are the key benefits of doing it?

When you think about a professional athlete, they have to go to the gym to maintain their body in order to perform at a certain level. It is not unlike that for me, in that I am the global head of editorial. At any point, I’m having conversations with many different people about thousands of tracks, artists, genres, and I need to speak intelligently and be informed about it. To function at that level—and lead a team of 130 or so of the world’s biggest (and most passionate) music nerds and experts—requires a certain level of understanding and a breadth of knowledge; it’s imperative to success in the role. I think everyone understands that we get an enormous amount of music every day at Spotify. It’s over 150,000 tracks daily. But the three hours allows me a structured listening to really get up to speed with new releases and listen more deeply—when I get an album from an artist, I will really listen to an album three, four, five times straight through. It’s not just superficial listening. And then there’s also what I call “digital digging in the crates” where I’m hunting for unearthed gems that artists have submitted via our Spotify for Artists pitch tool.

Let’s talk about your backstory. Spotify was the first place you worked in the U.S., correct?

Yes, that’s right.

What informed the decision to make that move?

An important requirement for success in this new role was a relocation to the U.S., which I thought long and hard about—uprooting to a new country is no small undertaking. But the opportunity to work in the biggest music market in the world was one I felt I couldn’t turn down… and here we are.

Say a bit about your early life, which is unlike anyone else’s story I’ve ever heard.

I am the child of immigrants. My father is Chinese and my mother is Persian. They met in London as students, and when I was a baby, they moved back to Tehran, which is where my mother is from, because they thought that was where they wanted to settle and raise their family. But fate had other plans; the Iranian Revolution happened, and we fled Iran. My mother’s family made arrangements for us to leave as soon as possible, given that my mother was married to a foreigner and had a mixed-race child. That was the last time my mother saw her parents alive, and we lost family members.

Jesus.

And then what followed was a very nomadic childhood in many different countries. I went to 11 schools during my high school and primary years. We were never in one place for very long, largely because my father worked in the hotel business. What that taught me was adaptability and self-sufficiency.

So what were you interested in?

The two things that really gave me joy and self-confidence were music and technology—and they continue to. The technology side manifested early on as a love of video games, which I still have to this day. I’m still a heavy gamer.

What was the first game that really captured your imagination?

I think they were Wonder Boy and Frogger. My brother and I had an Atari, which, to our amazement, our parents let us have in my brother’s bedroom. We would sit in his bedroom and play for hours. It blossomed from there, and we went on to discover and play more sophisticated games.

What was the first music that really resonated with you? Was there music in your household growing up?

My brother and I are both in creative fields—he’s in the visual arts—but my parents weren’t creatives at all. So it’s interesting that their two children really gravitated towards the arts. My parents liked music, but they weren’t full-on music people.

So when I was 10 years old, I had what was really, truly an epiphany in the purest sense. I had just bought Sonic Youth’s album Goo on cassette. I saved up my money from doing chores around the house and also would go around and knock on neighbor’s doors to see if they wanted anything done, to earn a little extra money. I bought Goo, and the song “Kool Thing” started playing. Lying on my bed, in a haze of preteen existential angst, I can still remember Chuck D’s line: “Tell him about it, hit him where it hurts.” And then Kim Gordon purring, “Are you gonna liberate us girls from male white corporate oppression?”

And in that precise moment, I knew that music was everything; I had to make sure music was my life. 10-year-old me didn’t know how or even where to start, but I knew with absolute conviction that music was a real force that articulated all of these complex feelings that I had inside, things that I didn’t even know the name of yet but was already experiencing—sexism and racism.

At this stage, I was also playing music. The classical-recital life was not for me. So in my 10-year-old wisdom, I thought the way to work in music and to live it day in and day out was to become an artist. So I begged my father for an electric guitar. I was desperate to fulfill my Kim Gordon-esque Riot Grrrl, distortion-soaked wet dreams.

Those dreams die hard.

I eventually wore him down and he bought me a secondhand Ibanez guitar and a Peavey amp. And hearing Nirvana covers at volume 11 was never part of my father’s plan for me. But in my bedroom, I was the half-Chinese, half-Persian version of Kim Gordon!

So now you had to form a band.

Absolutely. By 16, we were arguing over where I was going to study at university. The parent-approved paths of lawyer, doctor and engineer were not for me. I just wanted to play music, play video games and tear down the patriarchy. He just couldn’t comprehend that. And he would say to me, “How are you gonna make money?” And I said, “I’m going to start a band and get signed.” And my father encouraged me the only way Asian parents can: with brutal, unflinching honesty. He said, “Darling, I’ve heard you play, and you’re not that talented.”

That was a loving gesture.

It was, and he was right. We found ourselves glaring at each other again. Then he said, “You may not be a talented musician, but you’re smart. You like music, you like video games. How about music technology?” So I ended up studying music at university and getting really interested in the early stages of music technology. He gave me a good steer.

He recognized your passion.

You have to understand that my parents had lost everything and made a lot of sacrifices in hopes of giving their children stability and a better opportunity. I absolutely understand their concern when their daughter is, like, “I’m gonna start a band.”

And overthrow the patriarchy. But here you are on this path of music and technology; what aspect of all this particularly captivated you at this point?

I was told constantly that I had to decide whether I was going to focus on tech or music. I never bought that. I believed these two things were going to converge. Music creation software and peer-to-peer file sharing had already happened. I ignored everyone and followed my gut instinct. And I’m glad I did because we know how it transpired.

What was your degree in?

It was a music degree. I got first-class honors at Western Sydney University, and my first job out of college was actually in AI, with Sony Electronics. From there I went to the entertainment side of Sony, specifically Sony Music, in the international music department, and that’s how I ventured down a more music-focused lane.

What were your duties?

I started off as an international marketing assistant. It was my introduction to working with artists and really thinking about how to break them internationally. And then I went into artist management. I was on the management team for a U.K. band called Kasabian for albums one and two. It was at the height of the second wave of Brit Rock. It was a cultural moment.

This was before the streaming revolution. The business as a whole was still in the doldrums of the post-P2P disaster.

People were talking about it like it was the end. I understood the fear, but to me this was not the end. It was actually the beginning. I moved into Live Nation Artists, which was set up by Michael Cohl and Bob Ezrin. It was back when the whole 360-degree model was a new concept. It was a great experience, but I was feeling like the technology-music convergence had really begun and I wanted to be involved in it.

So I took a calculated risk: I looked for a startup experience. I wanted to know how to raise money with a VC and how to work with engineers to make a product that lives on several different platforms or operating systems. So I moved to Dublin and joined a very early-stage startup, Whole World Band. It was a music-video app, not unlike TikTok. I felt like I crammed in 10 years of experience into my three years there. It was a pressure cooker, extremely stressful, but my gosh, it was such a good experience.

And that set me up to move into a smaller streaming service, Deezer. I was the VP of artist marketing. With streaming, I really felt, like, I get it now. All of my experience had panned out in terms of technology, labels, live and management. That was all preparing me for streaming. All of that experience was so applicable to how I do my job now. Deezer was a great training ground for then coming into Spotify as the biggest streaming platform in the world, and being as fully formed as I could be to handle the job, but also the scale of what we do at Spotify.

How do you recharge when you’re not at work?

Gaming is still a big part of my life. It’s one of the things that I do where I can truly get out of my own head. I might be thinking too much about work but playing a game with others—I play MMOS (Massive Multiplayer Online Games)—you have interactions with people that you would never usually come across in your day-to-day life, and I find that experience enriching.

I really love getting into nature as well. My work is so cerebral, and I’m in front of a lot of screens. Being in nature, being able to just turn everything off for a bit, go for a walk and just have that space and that time is how I recharge as well. I also love to cook when I have time, and I love martial arts—another good way to get myself out of my own head. It’s very hard to think about work when you’re trying not to get punched in the face.

Finally, I wanted to ask you about a shared affinity of ours. You’re a big fan of horror, science fiction and fantasy. How do these genres inspire you or enhance your creative impulses?

I was a big reader as a child, and I still am. I read vociferously, and I’ve always loved science fiction—which is linked to my love of technology—as well as fantasy and horror. Science fiction fascinated me because I didn’t think it was fiction. A lot of these things are coming to pass. Unfortunately, I think we’re in the early stages of the dystopian sci-fi future that we’ve read about in books. Not to get too dark.

People think that it’s macabre, but the reason our interest in the dark side prevails, and you see that consistently through various cultures, religions and eras, is because it really speaks to a primal universal fascination with the unknown and death. Humans repress a lot of emotions and particularly fear of the unknown, the supernatural and death. And exploring these themes through art is a way of processing those concepts that might, on a day-to-day basis, feel difficult to talk about, but it’s incredibly important.

I remind myself that I’m mortal, and for whatever time that I have on this earth, I’m going to make it count. Life is chaos. I don’t believe in karma or heaven and hell. Good things happen to bad people; bad things happen to good people. The world is pure chaos, but there are moments of beauty. And when those moments of beauty and joy do happen, you have to grab them and appreciate them when you can. That’s all there is to it, and I find that realization liberating.


Photos (from top) With Spotify's Jeremy Erlich, artist Noah Kahan and Spotify's Madeleine Bennett; with Billy Porter; with Laufey; with Anitta; with Arlo Parks; with Bennett; with WME's Lucy Dickins; with Spotify's Joe Hadley, artist Coi Leray and Spotify's Carl Chery; some terrifying tableaux, including "high priestess," "lapsed vegetarian" and "witch and cat."

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