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Image via Austin Kramer

Many of us living with diabetes find music to be cathartic, helping to offset some of the frustrations of living with this chronic condition. For Austin Kramer in South Florida, his own type 1 diabetes (T1D) intersects with his professional career curating dance music playlists and finding new tunes for the world to enjoy.

Kramer is the former global head of dance & electronic music at Spotify, who now hosts his own show at Tomorrowland One World Radio.

Diagnosed with T1D as a child and being connected to music from a young age, Kramer’s been on the music scene for more than a decade, with leadership roles starting at SiriusXM in 2007. His expertise is finding new artists and introducing people to music they might not otherwise experience.

Lately he’s been embracing the intersection of diabetes and music, with his self-released tune “Dex In Me Belly” and several others he pulled together on a new diabetes playlist — created by and for those who live with or have been touched by diabetes in some way.

DiabetesMine spoke with Kramer in late November 2021 about his career and life with T1D, and how that’s all come together to motivate him to recognize diabetes in the music curation world he’s professionally invested in, while helping to raise awareness around T1D.

When and where were you diagnosed with T1D?

My dad was in the Army when I was growing up, so I was born in Germany when he was stationed there. We moved back to South Carolina afterward and then moved to Oklahoma, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. We were just north of Nashville in Clarksville, Kentucky, and that’s where I was diagnosed in the winter of 1994 when I was 10 years old.

The power had gone out in the house because of a big ice storm, and that’s the first time I really do remember having symptoms of high blood sugar — stomach sickness from hyperglycemia. I remember that I had labeled two big Gatorade bottles “for emergencies only,” but drank them both because I was so thirsty.

My fifth-grade teacher said I was always going to pee a lot, and when we drove to Nashville about 40 minutes away, we made so many stops for me. I looked so emaciated and had a layer of white sugar on my tongue. That’s when I got the diagnosis at Fort Campbell Hospital, and they sent me in an ambulance to the hospital at Vanderbilt where I stayed for 2 weeks.

I didn’t fully appreciate what a lifelong disease was at that time, and for the first couple years, it was smooth sailing before my insulin needs increased in middle and high school. And I figured out I wasn’t like other people, and I’d be very conscious of those low and high feelings.

How did you first get into music?

Austin Kramer

I had been exposed to music early, learning piano from my grandma who was a piano teacher. That was when we were in Tennessee, about the time I was diagnosed. She also played trombone in a vocal band her whole life, so my family has been musical, and I’ve always been around it.

Really, I grew up on grunge and hip-hop from the East and West Coast. I was in a band in high school and college and played the drums. But I never thought I’d be in radio and even used to make fun of it.

What eventually pushed you towards radio?

Having a dad in the military and moving around, we drove long distances, especially in the Midwest. So having FM radio was just eclipsed by the opportunity that XM satellite radio provided. I was obsessed with the whole idea. We used to listen to Casey Kasem in the car quite a bit and I was a fan of radio, but when I hit the grunge part of my life, I was all about “screw the mainstream music.” Eventually, I became more obsessed with presenting music in a linear fashion. There’s an art form to it, and it’s one of the best ways to break new and introduce people to new music — in that moment, especially when they’re alone in their cars or while traveling. That is how I came around to the notion of radio being a crucial piece of the music world.

My dad had an ethanol plant in Nebraska, and my brother and I used to drive to Nebraska for the winters and summers to work for him. He gave the whole family XM as a gift, for the drives. The whole idea of it being available with no commercials, or signal dropouts, was a big thing for us. I became obsessed with the technology that you could be anywhere and still being able to hear whatever was coming out of the satellite.

It really was magical, and there were so many people who took me under their wing in those earlier years when satellite radio was still a relatively new concept.

What was it like working for SiriusXM?

When I was studying music in Denver, I interned for XM in Washington D.C., and they hired me the following year. At that time, XM was not yet a part of Sirius, rather it was a competitor. XM used high technology for processing the audio to digital, and the quality was so much higher at XM.

When they merged and many people were let go, I fortunately wasn’t one of them. I pretty much kept my head down and stayed in the studio, and it was really a magical experience having so many mentors and exposure to artists coming through these high-tech studios.

The culture was really groundbreaking, and the companies were full of people who were fed up with the industry and what has become the commercial radio downfall. That made expanded playlists, and added more new music and diversity and a plethora of channels for whatever subscribers might want to listen to.

I did a lot of pop and adult rock at first when I was a production assistant, but really my heart was attracted to dance music. EDM (electronic dance music) was a mainstream XM channel at the time, and I cut my teeth on the technology for dance music specifically. I offered my show as a new music offering, with 1 to 2 hours of brand-new artists.

Why did you focus on EDM music?

I realized quite quickly in my first year of programming that there’s a lot of art that doesn’t get played. That’s really where my heart has been, in discovery for dance music. It was around that time in the mid-2000s that America was really introduced to the EDM bubble that had been such a phenomenon in Europe for decades. For me, it was really an amazing time to see some early artists who are now very much creating in this industry.

So that led you to Spotify and beyond?

It was still a new technology for America in 2015, after being founded in Sweden. They wanted to figure out genres instead of just having playlists, so that was my next job. I built all the dance and electronic music playlists that represented each subgenre and built the playlists that are still available now under the “dance music” category. Those were my babies, and I did that for 5 years.

Then my wife and I wanted to move to Florida, and I considered the task complete with all the subgenres represented the best they could be, and there were plenty of avenues for new music to be heard on Spotify. It’s flourishing today.

Did diabetes impact your work in the music industry?

Travel really set me off, in doing live broadcasts, especially late at night and early mornings. That was a lot of stress on my body with diabetes, so getting a CGM (continuous glucose monitor) made a big difference for me. I’d had multiple lows over time, and my roommates and boss had to save me. It literally changed my life when my doctor recommended a CGM for me. I’ve been using Dexcom since 2014.

What is your newest venture all about?

I wanted to be back on the creative side of music, which goes back to my playing in a band when I was younger. I wanted that again so bad, and we were sick of being in a tiny New York apartment with no car, so we went back to our roots and moved to Florida.

Today, I help new artists and labels and managers make an appearance in the industry in the current scope of dance music. I help them figure out the best practices, while also launching a radio show. That was on my bucket list for many years.

The obsession with making playlists and platforms, digital consumption of subscription-based music is great and all, and that’s the trend now. But what I thought was missing was a real introduction to artists, like what I’d done before. I missed that one-on-one with artists, about “Why did you make this song?” and “What does it mean?” It’s so much about the emotional state of how a song is written, and we’ve somehow lost that. There’s so much to choose from, but there isn’t as much appreciation for why someone created a song. It’s so sad to me, and I want to spotlight that as much as possible.

I didn’t have that at Spotify, and I missed it, so that’s what I’m up to now.

My new weekly show that started in April 2021 is “UNreleased,” on Tomorrowland radio online, and it’s a live stream on YouTube. I’m always figuring out what’s the new track, the new artist, and highlighting new songs each week.

What about your new diabetes playlist?

I’ve been building this playlist for over a decade and was finally able to launch it for Diabetes Awareness Month in November. It’s been a great discovery because I’ve kept a short list of people over the years who are connected to diabetes — themselves, brothers, sisters, kids or parents, best friends — any affiliation.

That’s what my “DiaBeats” playlist is about artists with any affiliation to diabetes. That can be artists from classic rock, soul, R&B, dance, cross-genres, not just dance music. It’s really meant to inject positivity and uplifting sentiment into the ecosystem. It’s a really special hypothesis of a playlist.

While other playlists might be focused on the sound or the acoustics, this one is not. It’s based on an uplifting vibe, yes, but it’s music made by those touched by diabetes in some way.

Whenever I’d interview artists, I was always curious what they thought when seeing this CGM sensor on me or seeing me talk about it on social media. It’d likely be very interesting to them, but they might never bring it up. Or they might even be connected to someone with diabetes, but there was no platform to discuss it. Not that they’d need to, but it’s in the same realm of going deep on who the artist is and what influences their music. We could have this connection, but people might not know it, and it’d never be discussed. That’s what it feels like, and there’s a “where have you been?” moment.

My song “Dex In Me Belly” also features my mom and dad on vocals, bee-bopping. So that’s fun, too.

I’ve finally gotten this playlist out, but it’s not finite, and it’s being adjusted on a daily basis. You hear about new situations all the time, and there’s always new music to find. Hopefully, this may be an avenue for dance artists — and all artists — to feel safe under this umbrella in a positive manner.