Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week, she talks with three students who have an elaborate system of collaborative Spotify playlists that they’ve been updating weekly for five years. They discuss how the playlists kept them close through the transition from high school to college and how they’ve shaped one another’s musical tastes, and they share their “certified” playlist—the songs all three of them agree on—which currently clocks in at more than 1,500 songs and 92 hours of music.
Sonny de Nocker, 20, a student at Chapman University studying screenwriting
Jeremy Marsh, 21, a graduate student at George Washington University studying political management
Ryan Town, 22, a student at the University of South Carolina studying real estate and marketing
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Julie Beck: How did you meet and become close?
Ryan Town: We all went to the same middle school. Jeremy and I, we met playing basketball in sixth grade. Sonny joined the drama production in eighth grade and that’s where we all became friends.
Sonny de Nocker: Our friendship continued to expand in high school. We started playing Grand Theft Auto V together, which was, as strange as it sounds, the thing that brought us together most of all. We would get online and talk to each other the whole time. It really strengthened our friendship.
Beck: Was music a big part of your friendship from the start?
Jeremy Marsh: We talk music, movies, and TV a lot. At some point, we figured out that we all have similar taste in music, and that was the start of the idea to create this playlist.
Sonny: What made this playlist work was that we all have very old taste in music. We still like modern stuff, but we all have a wide range of music that we like.
Ryan: My music taste is a lot of classic rock, mainly, and Jeremy and Sonny are the same way, too. But when we made the playlist, I started bringing in stuff that I listened to with my mom when I was a kid, like jazz, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin. That was something that I wanted to share.
Jeremy: I grew up listening to the radio in the car with my dad, and it was always the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s channel. At a young age, I knew all the words to “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” by Billy Joel.
Beck: That’s quite a feat.
Jeremy: It doesn’t do well at parties, unfortunately. People don’t appreciate it.
As this playlist has grown, we’ve expanded beyond classic rock. There’s a lot of rap now. We’re not big on country, though I think that’s changing slowly over time. We’re becoming more open to it.
Beck: How did the playlist start? Was it always as elaborate a system as it is right now?
Ryan: I had a Spotify account [first]. Then Jeremy and Sonny both got it. That was sophomore year of high school. That same week, I made the weekly playlist, where the intention was, we would each put in 10 songs a week that we were enjoying. At the end of that first week, we decided to put the songs that we all unanimously liked into a further playlist. It was very simple at first.
Beck: Can you explain how the playlist system works now?
Sonny: Every week, each of us puts 10 songs into a playlist called “The Weekly Playlist.” We’ll listen to the songs and just get a sense of what we think of them. After that week has passed, we vote on the songs. Usually it’s over a call, but sometimes it’s over a Google doc if we don’t have the time. The person who put the song will ask, “What do you guys think of this song?” Then the other two people will vote either yes or no. If both people vote yes, that means that it has three yeses and it goes into “The Triple Entente Certified Playlist.” Then we repeat the process.
There’s also a third tier. Every once in a while, we’ll do a vote on “The Triple Entente Certified Playlist” to try to decide what the very best songs are. That’s a very long process. We’re very selective with those. So that results in a very small playlist of under 200 songs. That’s “The Best Of” playlist.
Ryan: For “The Best Of,” a song from the certified also has to have three yeses. So it basically has to receive six total votes to end up in that playlist.
Beck: The certified playlist is called “The Triple Entente.” Can you explain the origins of that?
Jeremy: At the time of its founding, we were all taking world history. The Triple Entente was the World War I alliance [among Britain, France, and Russia], which must have been what we were studying at the time. There were three components to it and there were three of us. Now that’s not only the name for the playlist, but our friends know us by that name as well.
It also spawned a whole thing where various group chats involving us and others also have taken on historical names, in our wider group of friends.
Ryan: We have the League of Nations, the United Nations, the Allied Powers—there are a bunch of names like that.
Beck: What was the very first song to be certified?
Ryan: It was my idea to do the weekly, and I threw in “25 or 6 to 4,” by Chicago, which my dad had on a CD and I’d just rediscovered it at the time. So I threw that in first.
Beck: What’s the most recent song to be certified?
Jeremy: It looks like ... oh God. The most recent song is actually by Harry Styles. “Kiwi,” it’s called. I think that was Ryan’s from the previous week. That really goes to show you how far our music taste has evolved.
The second most recent is “Wagon Wheel,” by Darius Rucker, which is also not stereotypical of the overall music in the playlist.
Sonny: The way the playlist is designed also leads us to find new stuff, because we obviously can’t put the same stuff in. Once it’s in, it’s in. So as a result, we are forced to broaden our interests. That’s the best part.
Ryan: I’ve definitely had my music horizons broadened by stuff that’s been added into the playlist. Sonny, a while back, added a song by Robert Johnson, who a lot of classic-rock guitarists consider to be one of the most influential guitarists of all time. Hearing a song by him led me down a path where I looked more into his music, then ended up learning about other artists, and then I ended up taking a class about American music in college and I learned more about music through that. So one song added into the playlist can have an effect on the classes that I take or the music that I’m listening to.
Beck: Were there ever any big fights? What’s the most controversial song in playlist history?
Jeremy: That would be “Empire State of Mind.” Sonny and I have enjoyed it for a long time. Would you guys agree, that’s probably the biggest feud?
Ryan: There have been so many songs that people have been trying to put in that somebody is very stubborn about not letting in. I think I’m probably the most stubborn. There’s this song from the score of Once Upon a Time in the West that I keep trying to put in and Jeremy is a no on. There’s a rap song called “Ray Charles” that Sonny puts in that I’m a no on. There are a bunch. It gets kind of brutal.
Beck: If somebody vetoes a song for the certified playlist, can you put it back in the weekly and make a new case for it?
Jeremy: You definitely can, and that does happen. I would say from experience, if you put it in again the next week, that’s probably not going to do you well. So you’ve got to give it a little time.
Beck: There are a lot of elaborate miscellaneous rules to the system as well. Give me an overview of those.
Sonny: We have a lot of very strange rules. First of all, you cannot put two songs by the same artist in the same week. We want to hear different things. We have a rule, I think I coined the name, called Cocker’s Law [after Joe Cocker], where, if an artist is in the certified playlist and they pass away, we put their songs from the certified into that current weekly playlist, just to honor them.
Jeremy: Due to the demographic of artists that we like, those have become increasingly common.
Ryan: A couple of playlists ago, we had three artists concurrently pass away. So we ended up adding 15 extra songs to the playlist.
Jeremy: Eddie Money, Ric Ocasek of the Cars, and Ginger Baker of Cream.
Ryan: One rule we have, that has never happened yet, is the full memorial. When one of our favorite artists passes away, we’re going to put the playlist on a hiatus for a week or two. We’re going to take a break, put all their music into the playlist, and just appreciate that person for a little bit.
[Per an email the friends sent, the full-memorial-worthy artists are: Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Billy Joel, and Elton John.]
Beck: And I believe you have a few awards or distinctions?
Jeremy: So there is a “full house,” which is when you get all 10 of your songs from that week in [the certified playlist]. I think we’ve each had at least one. It is pretty rare. These days it’s even rarer because we like to take risks and put songs in that we don’t think will necessarily make it. On the opposite side of that is a “golden sombrero”—that term coming from baseball, which is when you strike out every time you go to bat. For us, it’s when you get zero out of 10 songs in.
Ryan: That has only happened one time and it happened to Sonny.
Sonny: That broke me.
Jeremy: The final rule is called a “wreck.” This is unfortunately named after “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” by Gordon Lightfoot, which was a song that at one point we all thought was playlist-worthy, and then eventually one of us—
Ryan: I think it was me.
Jeremy: —said, “This song doesn’t do it for me anymore.” It was removed. This has also happened only half a dozen times.
Beck: Seems like Ryan’s kind of the naysayer.
Sonny: Ryan is the strictest. He is the one to get around. If you want to put a song in, you have to consider, Will Ryan say yes? I think Jeremy and I are equally lenient.
Ryan: I like what I like and I really don’t like what I don’t like. So if something’s in there and I just don’t like it, I’m not going to pretend that I do, because I respect the integrity of the playlist. It has songs that we all agree are good, and if I don’t agree, I have to put my foot down.
Jeremy: I tried to throw some Hamilton songs in there at some point and it was met with an iron fist. It did not go well.
Beck: Well, you’re all agreeing on Harry Styles now, so that’s growth.
Ryan: Honestly, too, we all have girlfriends now, and that has really changed our music taste. I think that’s where that Harry Styles song came from.
Jeremy: Good cover there, Ryan!
Ryan: Nah, I’m just kidding. But Jeremy’s gotten more into country, because I know his girlfriend is big into country. And then I was just listening to a song today, which I know Sonny’s girlfriend recommended to him. So our girlfriends have changed a bit of our music perspective.
Beck: When you left for college, what was that transition like in your friendship and how did the playlist help?
Ryan: All of us went to high school in Los Angeles. Come college, Jeremy goes to D.C., I go to South Carolina, and Sonny stays home. So we’re all over the place. And it’s rare that we’ll see each other. I think the last time was August 2017 that we were all together. So the playlist keeps us together. It’s something that makes sure we come back to each other and talk. It’s kind of like that one friend group who has played tag forever. I think that will be us in 30 years; we’ll just be doing this playlist and checking in on each other.
Beck: What will you do if Spotify doesn’t exist in 30 years?
Ryan: Well, that is our deepest fear that you have brought up! We probably should make a backup just in case. We just made a whole Excel sheet of songs, so there is a record. I think we have options, but it is one of those things that we don’t have a set plan for.
Jeremy: When we first went off to college, there was some hesitation on figuring out how we were going to do this. Eventually we settled into this routine of not strictly being on a week-by-week schedule but just checking in. Do you think you guys are ready to do it? Have you listened enough? On my end, it became something that my roommates kind of got in on it, too; they were interested in it.
Beck: You have grown up in an era where music consumption is, for the most part, pretty private and pretty personalized. You don’t have to listen to the radio to hear new music; Spotify will give you recommendations. Everyone listens on headphones, so we’re all having our own sonic environment most of the time, rather than sharing music with other people around. Your playlist strikes me as a way of bringing that community or shared experience into the new way that we listen to music.
Sonny: I didn’t really think about that until now but it is true. It’s nice to be able to explore new music with each other and discover things along the way. I personally think that it’s one of the best ways to not only maintain a friendship, but also to learn about new music.
Ryan: Technology nowadays allows people to have music that’s personalized to them, or something that’s their own world, but it also allows people to collaborate in ways that we weren’t able to before. Back in the ’60s or ’70s, you couldn’t make a collaborative vinyl record together, but now you can make a collaborative playlist with days worth of music. I just drove to East Carolina University from South Carolina, which was a four-hour drive, and put on the playlist, hearing songs and bringing up memories. It’s a great way to think about friends and make it more of a social thing than an individual thing.
If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at email@example.com and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.