When I met Apple Music marketing chief Bozoma Saint John at Apple for an interview, she had just come from a photo shoot and she looked, well, fabulous. While she was wearing high heels (which put her up at around 6-foot-2 or so) and a shimmering blue dress, I’d soon learn that the fabulous has little to do with clothing. She practically radiates warmth and energy.
Saint John was relatively unknown in tech circles until she demoed Apple Music at the company’s developer conference in June. Now, a few weeks later, she’s the one part of the show many people remember. We’re used to seeing Apple’s laid-back middle-aged male executives on the stage there, then out walks a woman who, a few minutes into the presentation, was spinning the Sugar Hill Gang classic "Rappers Delight" and pushing 3,000 (rather stiff) developer types to clap, then rap, to the beat.
Boz (hard "o"), as everyone calls her, moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, from Ghana when she was 13. Her family lived in a house right across the street from the Air Force Academy. Picture a tall, black, female teenager placed in this setting. But instead of hiding from the things that made her stick out, she decided to embrace them. She had to, she says. When you talk to her in person, you get the strong feeling that Saint John has been owning her identity ever since. What’s more, she’s managed to do that without losing the natural warmth that makes her so likable.
Why hadn’t we seen you before at an Apple event?
Well, darling, we’re only in year two.
I don’t know why it seems longer than that.
Listen, baby, we’re just getting started.
Apple Music launched in June 2015, and at WWDC in June 2016 we saw a major new version of the product. Can you wrap up in couple of simple concepts the changes that were made, and the reasons for making them?
I think to simplify it, and that's probably the right word, it's simpler and easier. It's using intuition to organize music and make the experience that much richer and better. That's really what I tried to take the audience through.
It is really about the experience. It's like you as a music lover or not, you as a casual listener, probably have some of the [same] behavior patterns as someone who's like the super expert. You want to build something that's easy enough for a lot of people to use—those who are digging in crates and those who are like, "I just want to push play and listen to something."
The first version of Apple Music got mixed reviews. There were good things said, bad things said. How did your worldview change during that experience?
I think it is a motivator, makes you want to do better, find better solutions. All of us are human, so you react to it in that way where you want to make sure that whatever you are serving up is a great experience for everyone. Any criticism, you should pay attention to, whether you accept it and change or you take it and move on is the choice, but criticism is not a bad thing.
We should be paying attention to all of the ways that people want to listen to music, I mean, truly. Each point of interest is equally important as the other. I really like R&B from 1993, but I really like R&B that I just heard last week, too. How do I get served both of those things, because I am a complex music listener? By the way, you don't have to be a music-phile in order to have that experience. Even a casual listener at the end of the day does not want to listen to the same thing again and again and again. You do want fresh; you want to be served something. I have learned that the balance of all of those things between the security of listening, to everything I want to listen to, and being served something new, the experience of U.S. consumers or me as a consumer, all those things should be rated equally.
In Apple Music there's not a lot of algorithmic stuff going on in the curation. Do you consider that as kind of the ace in the hole, because it's all human?
Yeah, it's important, it really is important. Human curation allows you to have the emotion and feel music, because it is a very emotional thing. It makes you feel happy, it helps you when you are feeling sad, gets you pumped up, calms you down. You want me to keep going? Because I could preach. I think it is a very emotional thing and you should treat it as such. We as humans have that and we can express it.
Algorithms can’t do that?
I don’t know if I’d go that far, but, yeah, people who love music and have passion for it can curate it in a way that can connect to you as a human being.
How does Apple Music fit into the whole of Apple?
I want to listen to my Apple Music on my iPhone, I also want to listen to it on my iPad, I want to play it on my Apple TV, I want to be connected everywhere I go. It fits into the puzzle of everything that is Apple, and, therefore, it should not be seen as some sort of separate entity that is trying to find its way.
There is a grand tradition of marketing in this company dating back to Steve Jobs. Can you tell me what the difference was coming over from Beats? Did you notice a radically different approach to marketing once you got here?
I would say marketing here and marketing at Beats, maybe surprisingly, are very similar in that it's about following the passion point versus following some sort of created self-control expression. It is about what is the thing that you as a consumer want to know about, and then let me concentrate on the passion in order for me to communicate that thing to you.
For instance, if you did the spot with Mary J. Blige, Taraji P. Henson, and Kerry Washington, I would say that that is a spot that probably defies the way that people would do traditional marketing, which is that you have these three black women who are mature and who are listening to music much in the same way you do with your friends, and you don't look anything like them. The passion and the emotion of that interaction is universal.
What can you tell me about what you have learned about race and gender in corporate America? Some women and minorities have described the feeling of having to be twice as good to get where they want to go.
I always find that question quite funny, because I don't have another experience. The experience I have is this. This body, this is it. I don't have anything else to compare it to. Frankly, I think it is unfair to me, if I did it to myself, to say, "I wonder how this experience has been different to mine?" It would undercut my own successes and my own passion and my own journey. I really don't do that. This experience is what I have. Do I work hard? Hell, yeah. Am I passionate about what I do? Yes. Do I hope I have a future in this? Absolutely. Do I hope nobody gets in my way? They better not.
It is a difficult question to answer, and I have tried many ways to figure out how to answer it and I have come to the same thing, which is that this is it, this is the experience I have. To compare it to somebody else's would do me a disservice.
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A version of this article appeared in the September issue of Fast Company magazine.