How Spotify Music Playlists Add Depth to Fiction Podcasts

The creators of true crime-slash-Shakespeare parody Arden discuss how they use songs to help tell their story.

When the fiction podcast Arden debuted, it was clear it was something special. A true crime parody mixed with a Shakespeare modernization, Arden managed to poke fun at its influences while still weaving a solid and beautiful story.

In season one, creators Sara Ghaleb, Chris Dole, and Emily VanDerWerff told the story of a missing Hollywood starlet with plot inspiration from Romeo and Juliet. Now, in its second season, Arden takes on Hamlet, with the main character, a singer named Dana Hamill, performing at open mics instead of speaking soliloquies. To help set the mood, Arden's team announced the season with a Spotify playlist that included its trailer and songs by the likes of Patti Smith, Against Me!, and Liza Minnelli that inspired the new episodes.

Arden Season 2 - A Playlist, A Trailer

We reached out to Ghaleb and VanDerWerff to talk about the ways music informs their writing, why they chose to preview season two with this mix of songs, and how Spotify playlists like these can add to fans’ enjoyment of a podcast.

Spotify for Podcasters: How much does music play a role in the writing of Arden?

Sara Ghaleb: The writing usually comes first, but the show is very big with it's emotions and tones, so it's about writing towards a clear tone in a scene and trusting the music will match it. For example, when we go from a somber investigation scene to a wacky ad scene, we know the music will do a lot of the heavy lifting in that emotional transition. It lets us get away with more.

Emily VanDerWerff: I tend to write to music a lot, and I found that creating a Spotify playlist with a variety of songs that hit different tones we want to encompass that season is really helpful, even if the season starts to shift beyond those tones. It reminds us where we've been. The playlist we built for season two, which we'll make public after everything is released, is 167 songs strong, most of which were added by Sara or me.

Why did you decide to adapt Hamlet as a musician?

Ghaleb: The decision for our version of Hamlet to be a musician was made right away in the season pitch meeting. Hamlet's soliloquies are so essential to understanding the character because Hamlet spends most of the play deceiving those around him. In theater, characters tell their truth in soliloquies or in songs, so it felt like a natural leap to make Dana an open-mic singer.

VanDerWerff: As I recall, that was a Sara pitch at one of our very earliest meetings, and she and Chris both knew [songwriter and playwright] Laura Stratford and recruited her to join the team. "Girl with a guitar" is such a type, you know? When you say those words, you know instantly who that person is, and while Dana is so much more than just a girl with a guitar, it helps ground her in something that people have a ready reference point for. It removes her from the "this is female Hamlet" box we could have gotten trapped in. And since the songs are so good, it creates a kind of tension within the show about who Dana could have been if not for the tragedy she has lived inside of for nearly a decade.

What was the thought process behind the building the Spotify playlist with the trailer and songs?

Ghaleb: We mostly went intuitive with the playlist. We wanted to give a sense of the season without giving away any plot details, so it's not very literal. That said, I think once the season is out people will be able to re-listen to the playlist and go, "Oh, those scamps! They told us right there!" Like any good playlist, we thought too hard about it then just put on the songs we liked best.

VanDerWerff: We had a couple different drafts of it that we cycled through before we landed on the one that we have, which is unified around a single central concept I'm surprised nobody has pointed out just yet. It's not really a spoiler as much as it is a thematic statement of intent. But, maybe that's a spoiler? There are all kinds of Easter eggs buried in there, but I do think few of them will become noticeable to fans after the season is over. I hope people revisit [the music] then.

What is the value of having a Spotify playlist that incorporates podcast episodes?

Ghaleb: The playlists are great because sometimes bonus content can get lost with the non-canon show announcements. Being able to curate the show makes a clearer listening experience. Plus, we can add songs to the playlists that we'd never get the rights to [for the episodes], which is fun.

VanDerWerff: Spotify is a terrific platform for podcasts for this very reason. You can really give listeners a sense of what you're going for and present almost a director's cut version of the show by lacing together certain episodes and other things. There's a part of me that really wants to curate a list that includes "end credits" music for every episode, for instance. Maybe I'll go do that right now.