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Summary:

Spotify is a great way to listen to 18 million tracks. Now it has plugged its biggest hole – discovering them. But its solution owes more the expert curators than to Facebook’s social graph.

The new features announced by music service Spotify on Thursday constitute its biggest and best product upgrade since launch, plugging its worst, most lingering hole with exciting aplomb after several unimpressive attempts.

But, whilst the new functionality helps solve Spotify’s music discovery problem with features familiar to “social” platform users (and executes an enhanced version of iTunes’ recently-retired Ping service more effectively), they are actually a concession to the reality that taste-makers, not our friends, better inform our music listening.

At Spotify’s New York event, co-founder Daniel Ek confessed to one of the service’s most frequent criticisms: “Spotify is great when you know what music you want to listen to – but not so much when you don’t.”

To solve that, Spotify will suggest music to listeners from recommendations based on what they have previously listened to and from artists and others who users choose to “follow”.

But, whereas Spotify has already tried connecting people to music via Facebook’s social graph and via their Spotify friends, this time it is a little different.

On Thursday, Ek acknowledged: “Social has always been a very big part of what we do at Spotify. But finding people who can introduce you to music you care about has been hard. There are only a handful of people who are expert curators of music.”

So Ek trumpeted new beacons of new music – “journalists, trendsetters and artists” themselves — “not just your friends but really anyone on the music graph”.

This is a departure. In years gone by, Ek has enthusiastically said: “Music is the most social object there is.” For me, music is not “social” but is, in fact, the most personal cultural artefact imaginable. So, when Spotify has shown me what my friends are listening to, I just realise this — I love my friends, but I hate their music.

By changing the agents who spotlight new music from “friends” to experts and industry folks, Spotify is acknowledging the traditional role of taste-makers in music. Ek showed how listeners could follow the likes of music newspaper NME, which should be overjoyed at this restoration of its diminishing status.

But it is also turning artists themselves in to taste-makers. And not in some algorithmic manner (“if you likes Artist X, then you may like Artist Y”)…

By means of example, Ek showed how Bruno Mars can add to playlists of his favourite music that, when updated, highlight that song to Mars’ followers. More impactfully, when artists followed by users release new material, a mobile notification lights up on their mobile phone. “We think this could be the start of something very powerful,” Ek said.

I agree. An environment in which listeners’ own listening keeps recommending the same old songs to friends is a discovery echo chamber. But one in which critics, DJs and artists themselves can inform users’ next listening is likely to make for much more discovery.

  1. Sometimes you make friends with people because they like the same music as you and music might be really important to you both. Then you’ll probably recommend good stuff to each other. But most people just kind of drift along – buying stuff they heard in an advert, automatically getting the latest album of a band they used to like, looking out their blandest album for a dinner party, putting together a playlist of fast music to run to.

    Someone smarter than me said that most people make poor DJs because they play the same things over and over that they like, and don’t branch out much. When you see a radio show fronted by a celeb, their playlist is usually being controlled by someone else in order to make sure it has that variety and yet continuity required week after week.

    “Taste-makers” sounds like radio to me, only not as good. A trusted expert recommending new stuff and playing old favourites. And just like radio, the quality depends on who you choose to follow and who is filtering their playlists. But I’d rather listen to a show in which the presenter explains the choices to me and tells me when they’ve got a gig coming up etc. Playlists are pretty static and dull in comparison.

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    1. To add some historical perspective to your DJ comment RomneyM, the story goes that the Duke, as in Duke Ellington would regularly go through the book with his musicians during rehearsal or when chit-chatting. When a tune was overwhelmingly lauded by the musicians, he tended to take them out of regular rotation. The lesson there if you want to call it that (as a bandleader this was pitched to me many year ago) that ‘musician’s’ tunes were not the ones that the average listener probably wanted to hear. Technology that provides a space for you and I to connect and share if an interest is there is the best way to go organically rather than for a service to pitch ideas to me.

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  2. Isin’t that Pandora’s claim to fame? Expert musician involved in the process?

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    1. Eamonn Colman Friday, December 7, 2012

      No actually Pandora’s claim to fame is its stations are built on some music genome engine something or other. This is somewhat different -

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    2. I was thinking Pandora too – but I guess this is a little different – using artists and ‘taste-makers’ recommendations a little more serendiptious than Pandora’s more clinical approach (which I love by the way).

      Radio has done this sort of thing for decades, get an artist in to spin their five favorite tracks, even ‘desert island discs’ is a variation on this theme. I guess it’s good if you haven’t had much exposure to a wide selection of stuff, but if you’ve been broadening your listening horizons, actively, for a few decades, I think there are other ways to really find something different, and that’s the crux – some of us want different, not more of the same.

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  3. All streaming music companies fit a strange pattern: the more people use it, the more they lose.

    http://statspotting.com/2012/11/strange-business-models-a-thought-exercise/

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  4. Isn’t curation what radio has been about for decades? After trying to re-invent the wheel, Spotify goes back to the wheel…

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  5. Music discovery done right: http://22tracks.com

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  6. Forgive me, but this made me laugh: “…new beacons of new music – ‘journalists, trendsetters and artists’…” Because never before in history have those folks been “beacons of new music,” because appropriate content-programming is a novel concept. Wow…same as it ever was indeed.

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  7. Fred Roosevelt Friday, December 7, 2012

    Your friends helping you discover new things is the future in social.

    There is a facebook recommendation engine app that already does what spotify is trying to do called recomendo.
    http://recomen.do/

    it recommends facebook likes for a user based on their taste and in addition.
    you can designate friends as tastemakers in specific categories and that influences what is recommended to you.

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  8. I find all my musical friends and recommendations at http://www.last.fm/user/Kirpus69
    I pick friends from their stats – stats don’t lie.

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  9. I’m a longtime Rhapsody subscriber who loves using it to discover something new (to me). A few years ago, I picked up the book “1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die,” by music critic Tom Moon. (http://amzn.to/VBWYCq) I am randomly listening to them (one from the “A” section, one from “B”, etc) and often use them as jumping-off spots for more explorations.

    He also has a website that he keeps updated: 1000recordings.com

    So yeah, I guess that’s not too social.

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  10. If only Pandora was still available in the UK …

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    1. Niels Munksgaard Wednesday, December 12, 2012

      Diane, in UK you have Nokia Music. Free music streaming, no ads, no registration, no subscription … And it is curated :-)

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