Music. And Spreadsheets.

Bono famously didn’t like that iTunes looked like a spreadsheet. He told that himself to Steve Jobs in 2009:

So 5 years ago I began a conversation with Steve Jobs at my house in France and I said to Steve: “How is it that for a person who cares about the way things look and feel more than anyone else in the world that iTunes looks like a spreadsheet?” He was not happy. That was before they managed to even get a full screen photograph up.  So he made a promise to me that we would work on this together, and with the team at Apple we’ve been doing it for years, and it’s not ready yet for Songs of Innocence, it will be ready for Songs of Experience. And it’s very exciting.

(Of course the release of Songs of Innocence ended up being the opposite of exciting, and when Songs of Experience was finally finished, after several delays, it had a much discreeter launch three years later.)

Earlier in 2014 Spotify took some bold steps to make their app look less a productivity app and more like “going to a movie”:

Spotify says it spent six months working on the redesign, which is rolling out to its users from today. The new theme is heavy on black backgrounds, in an attempt to place more focus on album and artist artwork.

“It’s like when you go to the cinema, and they dim the lights, and the movie steps forward and takes over the room,” Spotify’s director of product Michelle Kadir told The Guardian. “When you log on to Spotify now, everything else is secondary except the music, which is popping.”

Yeah, spreadsheets are boring and lame but maybe by now digital music services are mature enough to recognize and embrace the opportunities available if they could embrace their “spreadsheet heritage” a little more full-heartedly. After all, sorry the pun but “playlists” are half “play” and half “lists”.

Excel and its ilk have been refining their capabilities to aggregate, analyze, manipulate data for decades now. Song libraries with more than 10,000 songs, a fast expanding universe of over half a hundred million of songs and a few billions playlists created, maintained and shared by users are all-together a rich enough “dataset” that could use more features. And maybe those features in turn could bring real utility for listeners.

Starting with the basics, Spotify could allow users to customize columns of a song list, like iTunes has allowed for two decades. The difference being that Spotify has much much more metadata than what we could add to those ID3 fields back then. The acquirers of Echo Nest could provide some really interesting columns!

The columns could serve as filters. So it would be easy to search songs with multiple criteria and within ranges of values.

A single list does not has to be “monolithic”.  It should be possible to distribute the same content in multiple “layers”. Excel supports multi-worksheets since 1993! With those, it could be much easier to organize and analyze some stuff. For example, a “megalist “ could be automatically organized in different smaller lists by genre, decade, label, “mood” etc. So you can look at stuff separately without losing the whole.

Basic Excel tools like grouping and collapsing data could be useful. 

Filter songs from a list: likened, disliked or neither. Added or not added. Listened or not listened. Already in particular a playlist or not. What users would come up with Spotify PivotTables?? 

Between “songs”, “albums”, “artists”, “playlists” and “friends” there are many dimensions of interlinked data that users could explore their way into.

How useful these features would be for power curators  to create their ultimate playlists?

“Genre” as an organizing tool in Spotify is a mess. A catch-all term for all kind of stuff and an organizing crutch. 

Browsing for genre currently you will find: Playlists for Students. Music + Talk episodes. “Songwriters”. Obama’s Higher Ground. And where are “enhanced albums”? Spotify Clips?

Isn’t about time to adopt a more robust, productivity-app inspired way to organize and make sense of content types? If “folders” are too bland, maybe call them “shelves” or “racks”??

The home page now shows rows of playlists organized thematically.  There “Queen” playlists, “Good Dreams”, “Workout”.  There is no way to search, browse, save, organize these “playlists groups”.

Spotify does have a lot of cutting-edge analytics. But direct access to it is usually outside the app.  

The company has also been adding useful new features increasingly faster. Like genre and mood filters (only in English speaking countries) and detailed, collapsable/expandable listening histories, even “taste match scores”. But the core philosophy of “sparing” the user from complex choices is maintained.

Productivity apps have long focused on bringing new features and catering to both personal and professional users, from the most clueless beginners to the advanced specialists. Their makers are comfortable with notions like “90% of users use 10% of the features and 10% of users use 90% of features”, and evolving those features so they become both more powerful and/or easier to use.  

It would really be an interesting experiment seeing a music streaming embracing the “complexity” and offering open-ended tools that users could try for themselves and find useful applications.

Maybe adopting some inspiration and references from a boring productivity app could be the boldest innovation for a truly ground breaking music service?

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