spotify playlists, discovery, + the failure of national coverage indie music journalism

spotify playlists, discovery, + the failure of national coverage indie music journalism

We in the music sphere talk about playlist culture a lot and I think it’s fascinating the way playlists have corporatized music. Spotify is the king. Playlist placement can make an artists’ career. They’ve successfully created a 1-2 punch of algorithmic playlists that play to listeners’ desire to see some kind of self indulgent analysis of their listening paired with curated playlists for every mood and activity.

This user experience, while I understand the appeal, is pretty foreign to me. I stopped using Spotify in 2016 because a guy I had a crush on used Apple Music and I wanted to be able to exchange playlists with him. Tale as old as time.

But it meant that I never really got the full Spotify hard playlist push. I used it the same way I’d used it since 2013 when I first got my account. I saved songs to my likes and made playlists out of them. It’s how I used iTunes, essentially. Spotify also used to be set up for that. It didn’t try to predict songs you wanted to add to a playlist. Any song you saved could be found in likes or artist and album tabs like iTunes. You could trick Spotify free into just letting you listen to whatever if you skipped fast enough. The discover weekly was there and I think always seemed like a cool idea but I was so new to using it they were always full of songs I already knew. That algorithmic playlist is still what I think of most when I think of Spotify but now it’s obvious they’ve made a much stronger push toward curation and their curation has begun to be incredibly important.

This essay is about what discovery, curation, and functionality looks like if we want the people who use Spotify as their predominant curation and discovery tool to reach away from that.

But first I want to talk about Apple Music because while I’ve been thinking about this I’ve realized just how funny the things it recommends me are.

The app makes an attempt at algorithmic playlists based on user listening habits but they’re genuinely, impressively bad. Apple Music’s algorithmic playlists made for me are entirely nonsensical.

The “new music mix” doesn’t have a single artist I even recognize on it outside of a few hyperpop artists I only know of because of articles by writers I follow online (namely these two by Leor Galil and Eli Enis).

The “Get Up! Mix” playlist is maybe even worse but for an entirely different reason. Where am I getting up! to go listening to Vacancy by The Hotelier, Cattle and the Creeping Things by The Hold Steady, songs by two different Conor Oberst projects, songs by two different canceled bands, and… Boy Problems by Carly Rae ?

I don’t know if Apple Music just isn’t as concerned with algorithmic playlists as Spotify or maybe my listening habits are actually as super special and hard to predict (though my grids tell a different story). Either way, when you look at what you’re being recommended via the “listen now” tab, the app just seems to be more concerned with recommending related albums and “Inspired By” or “Essentials” playlists related to artists you listen to or playlists you’ve made. The algorithm there is pretty good so I don’t know why the playlists they make for me are so bad. I’m not gonna listen to them anyway, but god they are bad!

There’s curated playlists like this on Apple Music, too, of course but it just doesn’t seem to be the major concern as shown by just how many steps it takes to get to them. First you have to go to a different tab. It’s called “Browse” which truly is not inspiring right out of the gate. Then you have to scroll through whatever Apple funded content they’re pushing right now. That’s usually interviews, Zane Lowe’s radio show, promo for Apple TV+ specials, or right now we’ve got Apple Music paying artists to cover carols to put at the top of 10 of their regular curated playlists separated by basic genres. A-list pop, R&B now, Today’s Country, the usual iTunes categories that have been there forever. Then you get general new music from all the biggest acts. Right now it’s Bad Bunny, Miley Cyrus, Lil Yachty, Smashing Pumpkins.. you get the idea. Nothing algorithmic there.

Then you finally get to the activity based playlists and Mood playlists. I have never looked at these before. And first you have to click the mood then scroll through loads of playlists with very similar names. It just doesn’t seem to have the ease or be a part of the implicit nature of Apple Music.

Apple Music is, at it’s core, still just iTunes. There’s special artist commentary, special interviews, top 100 charts. That stuff was always a part of iTunes. They’ve always done the little “Inspired By” and “Influences” and “Essentials” playlists for bigger artists and had artists come talk to them about those influences or about stuff they like.

That seems to be their focus which makes the way Spotify works really jarring to me as a user.

I’ve always been struck by Spotify’s obsession with emotion or activity focused versions of curated playlists instead of genre focused playlists. It makes sense from a marketing perspective and retention time, I’m sure. It makes more sense that people will stick on a playlist longer if the vibe of the tracks don’t change song to song like it might on a general indie playlist or something. In theory that’s what it would do. That plays nicely into people relying on recommendations from the app for new music discovery which gives power to Spotify to impact artists’ careers. It all makes sense from a business perspective.

While the first thing people think of with Spotify playlists, I think, is still the algorithmic ones based on your listening but that doesn’t seem to be the goal anymore.

They got rid of the full artist list in favor of only having the artists you’ve “followed.” If you close out of the app you get taken back to the home page with all the playlists they want you to look at instead of your library. If you try to add songs to a playlist of your own it incessantly pops up with recommendations to add. It’s small stuff like that I find frustrating any time I use Spotify to make a zine playlist or open a link from a friend but it’s those small things that push people to use it the way they want them to use it.

The user interface is made to be interacted with passively and even if you’re trying to curate without that help, you’ll still be pushed Spotify approved artists or the one seemingly randomly selected song spotify wants you to listen to by a band.

But it’s clear to me that Spotify’s interface isn’t made for me. I spend all day looking at people whose job it is to push new albums and songs and talk about music. I don’t need it. Spotify makes these lofty statements like they want to make music fans out of everybody and allow more musicians to make a living. The latter I’m not gonna talk about. Plenty of people have done that better than I could and the data speaks for itself. This recent Liz Pelly article, for example. Really any Liz Pelly Baffler article.

I’m more interested in the ways people use Spotify because I think people who deal in music constantly come at it from a closed minded perspective. It’s a mix of not understanding why you’d want to use canned playlists while simultaneously knowing people do use them and thinking you’re superior for not. At very least, solutions people constantly embroiled not only in music but the music industry and music journalism give preach only to those who do always buy music and merch and go to shows. I’m not saying better outreach to more passive listeners can solve the Spotify problem. That’s probably got to come down to lobbying and pressure on the government. What I am saying, however, is that discovery and curation are linked. Understanding not only why people use streaming services as curation and discovery sites but also why they don’t read music journalism is important to truly reaching new people outside the context of corporate music.

Shouting at your core audience to buy more music is screaming into the void. Saying everyone should just use Bandcamp isn’t really a valid argument, but could be more of a solution if Bandcamp functionally worked as more than a musician tip jar and middling merch site. Even if you think people should just buy all the music they listen to, they also first have to know how to find that music and if you don’t have a monetary or social reason to be in it already, it’s not necessarily easy.

Bandcamp is cool because it does make true discovery of smaller artists possible. Bandcamp Daily is a beautifully run music journalism outlet. Jes Skolnik’s focus on style rooted in describing what music actually sounds like instead of flowery words that don’t mean much is perfect for a journalism platform integrated into a music sales platform. I wish it was a valid replacement for something like Spotify and Apple Music. But it’s not. You can’t buy digital albums in the app (at least the iOS version). You can’t make playlists. You can’t search for articles on artists. It’s cumbersome to use in really important ways. Bandcamp Discover is incredible as a discovery platform and it’s easy to use through the app but if you can’t purchase or functionally listen to music in it in any format other than straight through albums on an artist’s page, it just doesn’t serve the same function. It serves nobody to pretend Bandcamp, as it exists right now, serves the same function as Spotify. As a discovery platform, it’s incredible. But functionality is everything.

It is unfathomable to me why you cannot buy digital albums through the Bandcamp app. [Edit— it’s because of the cut apple takes off in app purchases. seems wrong that a digital download would be considered an in app purchase the same way a fortnight skin would but c’est la vie. please stop commenting answering why.]

But while we pray for an app update that functions the way it would need to to be considered a listening service, we move onto other less intuitive forms of discovery.

Music writers love to say that music journalism’s target audience is other music journalists and I think that's true but it’s not because people don’t want to learn about more music. People love music. People love to learn about new music. People love a good story about musicians, too. The journalism industry has just been broken down so much that to find good journalism you have to wade through so much surface level garbage, already know specific writers you want to follow, or only read stuff on artists you already know.

There is so much bad music writing. So much. Very little of what’s genuinely very good is what’s being invested in by publications. My own personal opinion is that reviews are of little value unless they’re hate clickbait from pop star stans or from a writer people know and who is a genuine sort of tastemaker of sorts. Or at least people are familiar enough with to click and want to talk about agreement or disagreement. People like Steven Hyden or Ian Cohen. People that inspire some kind of response and parasocial experience of agreeing or arguing with a friend about whether an album is good or not.

Publication voice is ridiculous. This idea of the publication being the authority is so dead. If the internet has truly taught us anything, people will be loyal to people. Anthony Fantano has influence because people put stock in him. If he incorporated someone else to be the face of the needle drop people wouldn’t care. I don’t care about the opinion of a random Pitchfork writer who writes like every other random Pitchfork writer. Reviews are a self indulgent, incoherent, adjective explosion and it doesn’t make people want to read it much less listen to whatever you’re on about. It does not mean anything if I read the review and I don’t have any clue what it’ll sound like. To make reviews that are based in vague feeling valuable you have to have faith in the person writing. There is so much hegemony in the writing style, and what content is pushed, of a lot of music journalism that individualism is pushed aside and it weakens the value of reviews.

I’ve rarely agree with Dan Ozzi’s musical opinions he writes about but I listen to a lot of stuff I wouldn’t normally because I like his writing a lot. I’ll read anything he writes no matter what. Creating that audience should be paramount.

At the end of the day, it’s kind of out of our hands the kind of writing that ends up being invested in. Publications have been cannibalized. Profiles and stories written by interesting writers struggle to get placed. Editors take advantage of young writers by instead of offering them a previously paid job that opened, they give them an unpaid internship doing the job just for no money.

But what can we do, right?

There was a lot of talk about why writer run collectives wouldn’t work for music writing the way it works for sports or news. I think that’s true generally and based in the reality of what music writing is, but I also think journalism and music both feed into the major lie of the internet that just because it is possible to reach people all over that means it is likely that will happen for you.

I think, if music writers want to create audiences and create trust in their words, there has to be a pivot to local focus. Localized coverage and localized community is the only way I see to take power away from curation and discovery powerhouses like Spotify. It also gives power to writers as trusted sources who can write deeply interesting pieces giving cultural and social contexts to the artists that make up community.

I’d rather read about Femdot’s Delecreme Scholars work helping feed people this summer from someone in Chicago who understands Chicago than a surface level skim of his work for a national publication.

People are invested in the cities they live in and communities of music and art are more than just musicians. Producers, people who work at venues, venues themselves, record labels, photographers, everything. If people are invested in the characters around art and find them tangible, they will care more about the release more, too. I think they will care about the people documenting that, too, and be willing to invest in the outlets that cater to their surroundings. Community is broken down by attempting to spread it thin across thousands of miles.

It’s daunting to look at a swath of artists from everywhere and try to make each one feel special. If we instead focus on music and art being made in our physical vicinity, even while shows aren’t happening, we can reach people who may not look at a random name on a page but would read something about a person from their area who is putting out art or project.

Writing about a thousand bands that are the same size in a similar genre is probably of less value than focusing on a localized scene which creates context for people to cling onto.

I theorize that if we invest heavily in localized arts community and coverage of that community, artists on a smaller scale would have an easier time with direct fan-artist services like Patreon, too, because people will feel more of a tangible connection with those people. Patreon doesn’t work if a band is seen as background. You have to divorce people’s notion of music as being passive for them to see value in that. Same goes for donating to causes.

Phoebe Bridgers’ major power is that she is seen as, well, a person and she sold all those downloads of her and Maggie Rogers’ Iris cover in part because people had that experience of watching her tweet about the cover then see it come about. Phoebe has a lot behind her and I won’t pretend her popularity overall is due to something special in her internet presence, but her internet presence as a person fans can create those parasocial relationships with contributed to that being possible.

Spotify can’t be solved on an individual journalist basis but making journalism easier and more accessible to people who don’t spend their entire day on twitter following record labels and writers is possible. Curation by people you can trust is something everybody is interested in. Discovery is something people are interested in.

Your friends who use Spotify playlists know they get pushed the same 10 bands on every playlist. They see the issues with the interface. My friends have told me that as their main complaint with the app. They want to know more. But you just can’t expect them to click on random shit on blogs they’ve never heard of. I don’t care if you think everybody should be like you and want to metaphorically crate dig all day for new cool stuff. A lot of people don’t even know where to start. That’s not the same as not being interested.

Miranda Reinert is a zine maker and law student based in Philadelphia. She is looking for friends. Follow me on Twitter for more on music and other things like bait tweeting the music community and live tweeting The Sopranos: @mirandareinert. I also just opened up a paid tier of this newsletter which for $5 a month (or $40 a year! what a deal!) you’ll get free zines as I make them and one upon sign up! Wow! But as always, thanks for reading!