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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…

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