Spotify has 100 or so curators working on 3,000 playlists

Spotify has 100 or so editors for its human curated playlists

The trick is getting your song on a playlist. Apart from user-created playlists, there are three kinds, says Jeff Stempeck, a team lead on artist and label marketing at Spotify. There are playlists populated by an algorithm that seeks to match song data with listener data (“Your Daily Mix,” for example, or “Discover Weekly”), human-curated playlists tended by 100 or so editors at Spotify, and playlists that combine algorithmic and human elements. “The overall goal with our editorial strategy, it’s really all about trying to serve the right music to the right users,” Stempeck says.

As the article says, the streaming service in July 2018 introduced a new playlist submission tool on its Spotify for Artists platform,

which allows musicians to essentially pitch songs for playlist consideration through an online form that includes information like genre, mood, instrumentation, and culture. Spotify editors review the submissions weekly and, through a combination of data and gut feeling, steer some of them into playlists.

Spotify operates 3,000 playlists:

Though Spotify has long been the scourge of musicians who think the platform doesn’t pay enough in royalties, some smaller artists are finding they can reach an audience, and make a living, if they can get their songs onto one of the 3,000 playlists that Spotify operates. Playlist placement can amplify the number of streams artists receive by putting their music in front of new listeners—some of Spotify’s playlists have tens of millions of followers.

 

Streaming in US: 36 million different songs, 706 billion streams per year, half of them songs over three year old

Fascinating starts from AlphaData, for the United States music streaming market:

  • In 2019 Audio on-demand streams reached a total of 705,8 billion streams, an increase of 171,2 billion from 2018
  • In 2018, 36,3 million different songs were streamed. 
  • Average streams per song in 2018: 14.7.
  • The number of different songs streamed increased by 3.1 million in 2018 and 4.9 in 2017.
  • 2017 Average streams per song in tiers:
    • Top 50 songs: 293.9 million
    • Next 450: 89.6 million
    • Next 4,500: 21,5 million
    • Next 45,000: 2.8 million
    • Next 450,000: 170 thousand
    • Rest of 32,7 million songs: 737 streams
  • The top 25 songs of 2019 averaged 464.7 million streams, or 1.6% of total streams.
  • Consumption breakdown of audio streams by release period In 2018:
    • New (less than 8 weeks): 10.8%
    • Recent (between 8 and 78 weeks): 27.0%
    • Catalog (between 78 and 156 weeks): 13.5%
    • Deep Catalog (over 156 weeks): 45.9%
  • Just an amazing detail about songs sold: the number of titles decreased from 7.1 million in 2017 to 6.7 million in 2018)

Music Genres and Their Contexts

The context of music

It is self evident that every kind of music was created in some specific context of culture, technology, demand etc. And it is very fun and interesting to learn those details about music from the past. It is also useful to observe how the details change in the present and affect the music being created.

At the same time, the evolution of the technology has radically altered our access to historical and contemporaneous music. In other words, Spotify and co. are an amazing, universal blender of hundreds of years of human music (and in turn they become another peculiar factor to affect the production of new music…)

Some quick examples of what I am thinking about:

  • Bach wrote music with the acoustics and rituals of particular churches in mind.
  • Mozart wrote pieces for particular Viennese orchestras and audiences.
  • Jazz was the sound of nightclubs in a rapidly urbanising America.
  • The smooth crooning of Frank Sinatra was only possible with the development of electric microphones.
  • The heavy sound of Led Zeppelin required the evolution of high wattage amplifiers, multitrack recording etc.
  • Arena rock is the result of rock concerts moving to bigger and bigger venues.
  • The proliferation of cheap electronic synthesisers made it easier for kids start synth pop bands.
  • Hair metal is a byproduct of the MTV influence.
  • A lot of pop rock music in the 80s was custom made to sound good on FM radio and play on popular formats (Adult Contemporary etc.).
  • Albums became a different beast once LPs (40 minutes, two sides, hard to skip a track) were supplanted by CDs (70+ minutes, one side, easy to skip and shuffle).
  • Sampling technology changed everything for a while…
  • Techno music is a kind of music and a particular kind of place where it is played.
  • Etc.

One intriguing question is what happens “now”: CDs are no longer a factor, nor MTV, nor churches, nor FM. Instead, the main distribution channel is streaming, and we can outline some of its aspects:

  • Thousands of new songs show up every day
  • And face direct competition with several other million
  • Listening becomes very individualised
  • Playlists become a major influence.
  • No marginal spending to listen as much you want.
  • Everything is one click away.
  • The entire experience is controlled top-to-down by the company owner of each streaming service (one exception is Soundcloud, which is designed a bit more bottom-up). 

Some reported consequences, from the top of my mind:

  • Choruses and hooks are moved to beginning of the song to grab the listener interest
  • Songs get shorter to maximize streaming revenues
  • Every song gets an acoustic version to gather more plays, enter more playlists
  • Music usually quieter to sound better on headphones

All this is to say I wonder how the current period is going to be remembered some twenty years into the future: “Spotify Music” will become just another genre mocked by teenagers whom haven’t been born yet?

Improving Playlists

Apple Music has an excellent collection of curated playlists. It’s a shame they are so hard to find. There is no single place to browse/search/sort all of them.  Of course you can use search, but then you at least have to know what you should be looking for.

For example, let’s look for music from the 90s. Using search, I found 15 playlists from Apple Music. They are all titled “90s [x] Essentials”:
1. Hits,
2. Rock,
3. Dance Party,
4. Love Songs,
5. Alternative Essentials,
6. Workout, Country,
7. Club,
8. Hard Rock,
9. Pagode, (ugh)
10. Hip Hop,
11. Movie,
12. Video Hits,
13. Metal,
14. Christian,
15. Singer-Songwriter
Now lets look for 1995 playlists from Apple. I found 8:
1. Pop Hits,
2. Rock Hits,
3. Alternative Hits,
4. Hip-Hop/R&B Hits,
5. Country Hits,
6. R&B Gems,
7. French Hits,
8. K-Pop Hits.

23 playlists in a quick search. How many of those playlists are there in total? It is even hard to find how far they go back in time. Searching, the earliest Rock Hits I found was from 1965…

And then there are the Artists based playlists, genre based, mood based and so forth. But we are only shown glimpses of the choices in the Browse and For You tabs.

Another thing that would be neat: “bookmarking”. Suppose I want to list the entire list of Hard Rock Essentials, with 100 songs. That’s 4h 33 minutes of music. It will take a few sessions to work through it in its entirety, and during this period I will probably switch between devices (iPhone, old iPhone in the car, home Mac, work mac etc.) There should be a way to return to the specific point in a playlist where I previously stopped listening. Otherwise I will *never* be able to realistically hear the 100 songs.

Then there are several excellent “creative” playlists, such as “Midnight City”, ALT CTRL”, “Beneath the Stars” and so forth. They usually have excellent choices and are regularly “refreshed” by Editors. They even have a warning! “So, if you like something, add it to your library”! OMG! Why not keep an archive of previously featured music in the playlist? I would love to browse it.

I guess there must be good reasons for some of the limitations, but overall these kind of improvements seem so basic that I wonder they haven’t been updated a long time ago.

Browsing classical music the right way

Anyone who ever searched for classical music on major streaming knows that the current situation is far from ideal. Today I decidde to try one of those services that specialise on classical music, in my case it was IDAGIO. 

I enjoyed so much the way they organised browsing the library that I decided to document the experience on the iPhone.

1. Here is the main page, organised in 4 areas:
– Discover
– Browse
– Moods
– C
ollection

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2. Let’s focus on the Browse tab. There is a search field, plus quite a few lists sorting by
– Composer
– Ensembles
– Soloists
– Conductors
– Instruments
– Genres
– Periods

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3. Let’s choose a composer. Why not the incomparable Anton Bruckner? Here is his page. Now we can browse all his compositions organised by:
– Recordings
– Works
– Albums

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4. This is getting interesting. All works by Bruckner neatly listed! And for him we can choose, beyond “all kinds”:
– Orchestral
– Sacred Vocal
– Secular Vocal
– Chamber
-Keyboard

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5. The Orchestrals work by Bruckner! 

We scroll down towards our favorite symphonies and… the ‘Romantic’ is listed by its three different versions!

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5. Now we have a listing of all available records of the ‘Romantic’ (Version 1887-1888)!

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6. We can filter them by Ensembles or Conductors:

Did you know that Idagio offers 26 recordings of the Bruckner’s ‘Romantic’ Symphony (Version 1887-1888)? Now you do.

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7. This is really cool: we can sort the recordings by:
– Date of release
– Popularity
– Date added to the service

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8. Here they are, recordings sorted by popularity. You don’t have to “agree” with this popularity rating, but I think is a great starting point.

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9. This is screen for a particular recording:

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10. Finally, for curiosity. This is the album where the recording comes from. 

And here we are, the end of our browsing journey, where we chose Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 ‘Romantic’ (Version 1887-1888), with Sergiu Celibidache and the Münchner Philarmoniker. According to the screenshots, the entire browsing took less than three minutes.

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11. P.S.: the album page has a second screen, for additional information. For this recording there is only a release date.

Problems with Playlists

Steffen Holter’s “The Problem With Playlists” frames the issue:

Playlists have spearheaded the music streaming industry’s rise to becoming the most popular avenue of music consumption. For many, the quality of the generated playlists is the deciding factor in which service to subscribe to and which application to use. For many other listeners, it is actually the only way they listen to music.

This is rather problematic.

To clarify, I do not think playlists are inherently bad, I just believe their unparallelled popularity is giving rise to false precedents. Not only do they encourage a shallow and thoughtless approach to music, their meteoric rise is also starting to affect the way music is being produced.

In many ways, playlists are symptomatic of a modern lifestyle. People have little time and therefore resort to a quick and systematic way of catering to their music needs. Just as we use Amazon to deliver our material goods, we use Spotify to generate fully made, customized playlists. It is up to us to simply press play.

A pratical problem: 

Listeners themselves are faced with a different type of problem. Using playlists as the primary medium for music means that the listener is being exposed to tens or even hundreds of different artists and songs daily. The sheer amount of content makes it almost impossible to distinguish between the different things you are listening to. This is not helped by the fact that these tracks are probably assembled because of how similar they are. Therefore, this type of music consumption relies solely on emotion and general moods and it makes listening to music mindless. You cannot establish a meaningful connection with an artist or song because there is no continuity. It is as though you are sampling a variety of dishes but never staying to finish the whole meal.

This is further exacerbated by the rise of background music and so-called chill playlists. Looking at the Spotify front page there is a something and chill playlist for every conceivable moment. These are meant to be played whilst you study or work out and once again cater solely to emotion. This can be referred to as creating an atmosphere or environment with music but it also reduces the content itself to such a primitive level. It is just one step away from becoming background noise.

In the end Steffen has a sensible recommendation: 

Luckily, while Spotify may control the way music reaches us, ultimately the listener still has choice — for now. So, when you hear an artist that you like, give their album a listen and more often than not it will result in a much more fulfilling listening experience.

I think playlists are fine, but as a software tool they are too limited to serve such a prominent role in streaming platforms.

Even the most passive listener wants more than just “play” music “right now”. There is browsing, exploring, discovering, archiving, rating, comparing, queuing, saving for a later opportunity, planning for a party, reminiscing, sharing and so forth. Different activities that could use different “lists” or tools.

At the same time, we could present the music in a way richer than mere lists. The lists themselves could be organised in sets and collections, “clusters” perhaps?

One practical angle: Nowadays we may have 10 lists por “Pop Hits 198X” plus a list “Pop Hits 1980s”. That’s eleven lists. Perhaps another 11 lists for Rock Hits? And yet another 11 lists for Pop/Rock Hits? Suddenly you have a huge list of lists, and no way of make sense of all this great information.

Is there an easy way to listen through all the pop and rock hits from the 1980s? How can you “bookmark” the point where you stopped listening in a playlist which is part of another list?

There must be a better way to offer and use this information…

Spotify vs Apple Music

As a long time user of both services (Spotify Premium version), this is my personal comparison as of June 2020.

Speed

Traditionally Spotify used to load “pages” much faster (or at least felt like it.)
Apple Music has improved a lot, and with a good connection and a modern device it has mostly catched up.
But.. I still believe that SP tends load faster with poor connections and/or older phones.
This blog post about the end of the 10,000 song limit for libraries highlights how much they care about listeners using older devices)

Winner: Spotify

Listening Stats

SP displays i) the number of followers for every playlist, ii) the “monthly listeners” for every artist and iii) the number of plays for every song. Apple Music doesn’t.
That is a lot of information that is nice to have.
Some of the Spotify numbers can be controversial, but it’s better to have this information than not.

Winner: Spotify

Sound Quality

I prefer the sound of Apple Music.
Spotify sounds quite well for most daily activities, but when listening attentively to well recorded music on better speakers or headphones I quickly notice the limitations of Spotify’s SQ.
Apple Music music tends to sound more full bodied, with clearer treble and more detail. Actually for sound quality I prefer Tidal HiFi and even more so Qobuz, but that is outside of the scope of this comparison.

Winner: Apple Music

Offline mode

Apple Music wins by a landslide. In Spotify, it is incredibly awkward to enter and exit offline mode. And it is hard to even find the downloaded music. Apple Music just does it right, there is “Downloaded” item in the very first Library menu and you can find every offline that is available. To download any single song, album or playlist, there is a clear “cloud” button to be clicked.
Spotify basically only allows to download entire playlists, and it is nearly impossible to visualize what is or isn’t downloaded in a comprehensive way. Ugh.

Winner: Apple Music

“Social”

Another Spotify victory. It is easier to find playlists created by other users. It is useful to check how many followers a user playlist has. More than that, Spotify is the place where I expect to find and share user playlists.
Apple Music added the option to share playlists and follow people back in 2018, but it still lagging behind Spotify on this regard. And has been slow to evolve this kind of feature.
Spotify also allows you to see what Friends are currently listening (desktop version), which is nice.

Winner: Spotify

“Curated” Playlists

Spotify offers a lot of great playlists, but Apple Music has more depth, covering many genres and updating with more care some distinctive playlists.

Winner: Apple Music

Automated/Personalized  Playlists

An area where Spotify traditionally excels. I love “Discover Weekly”: I found out a lot of great stuff in there over the years. “Release Radar” is also very well suited to my taste. The six “Daily Mixes” are a very useful when you want to listen something familiar and is not sure what. I use them a lot.
I particularly like the concept of daily mixes: i) the “algorithm” grabs the user’s favorite artists/songs from all kinds of genres, ii) then from that mass it create a range of distinct playlists based on some of these artists/songs and iii) finally it fills these playlists with additional songs that blend in. On top of that, the stuff is updated daily for extra freshness (at least in theory). In my opinion, this is useful Artificial Intelligence.
Apple is basically playing catch up, with its weekly automated lists. “Chill Mix” and “Energy Mix” are fine, but “Favorites Mix” is just too obvious and Friends Mix is too random.

Winner: Spotify

Miscellany:

I really like the way Last.FM is integrated with Spotify. You no longer must connect Spotify to Last.FM in every single device. Now it is a system level link that needs to be activated only once. Meanwhile Apple Music basically does not work with Last.FM (only for downloaded songs).
Spotify works in a broader range of devices, like most older smart TVs. And Spotify Connect is really nice, very easily turning a cellphone in a remote control for Spotify on other devices.
Spotify is continuously updating its service and user interface, while Apple Music changes in a more “glacial” place.
Apple Music has a cleaner, brighter interface.
Apple Music has inherited some nice organisation tools from iTunes (five star ratings in addition to “like”, smart playlists, iTunes Match for uploaded songs, play counts etc.)

My situation:

As this comparison might suggest, I am torn between the two services. I really admire Apple Music, but Spotify is more practical in most situations, so I end up using it much more.

Update: here a professional comparison by Digital Trends, published in March 2020, quite comprehensive and interesting. (Spoiler alert: they prefer Spotify too).

The Filtered Mail Inbox

irst thing in the morning, open the mail app, sort the inbox by sender.

My very simple approach to manage email and retain sanity:

  • First thing in the morning, open the mail app and sort the inbox by sender.
    • This is (still) not possible to do on a smartphone or tablet as far as I know, but I find it extremely convenient and facilitating.
  • Because your inbox may have dozens of messages of varying relevance and urgency, sorting by sender is the easiest and fastest way to:
    • Move every single message from Inbox to four very distinct destinations (folders), which are:
      • Trash
      • Archive (organised in subfolders by category)
      • Reading
      • Actionate (choose you your name, this is the most important folder)
    • You probably noticed this is directly based on the “Getting Things Done” method by David Allen, whose book I really recommend reading .
  • The process of sorting is very straightforward.
    • Unnecessary email goes to Trash. Emails that should be kept but do not require a response or some kind of action go to the Archive. If you are not sure it is ready to be archived, send it first to the Actionate folder. The Reading folder is for newsletters, articles and “interesting” material you can read later. The “actionate” folder gets the important stuff: messages that require a response of any kind, generate tasks, require decisions etc.
  • In a sense, the Actionate is the real inbox: it groups all and only incoming messages that are really relevant and need attention. Now it just a matter of dealing with each one as most appropriate.
    • Once each message is answered, taken care of or does not need any follow-up, it can be archived or deleted.
  • I really like this approach for its simplicity:
    • It is fast and simple to separate the messages, keeping the inbox clean.
    • All and only the important messages that need attention are in a single place.