Spotify solves discovery by discovering music ain’t so social after all

Friends standing in a circle on grass field

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.

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