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Ideas on The Future of Playlists

From “Our New “post-playlist” Reality” by Cherie Hu (November 2018):

“First, there are oft-overinflated expectations around listener engagement. For instance, I recently wrote about how some flagship Spotify playlists like EDM-focused mint were getting disproportionately lower engagement, whereas other playlists with only one-fourth of the following were generating 4x the streams for a given track over the same time period. Certain playlists like Today’s Top Hits and RapCaviar do outperform on engagement and impact, but I would argue they are the exception rather than the rule for streaming playlists. 

There also may be less listener interest in seeking out playlists overall. According to Google Trends, the search popularity of the word “playlist” on the worldwide web and on YouTube has steadily declined over the last several years, to just 50% and 25% of their peak, respectively (see screenshots on the next page). 

This decline may be simply because the concept of a playlist is now more normalized in global music culture, to the point where users don’t need to search what the word means to understand what it offers. But it’s nonetheless a sobering reminder that the idea of a playlist (which, at the end of the day, is simply a collection of songs ) is nothing new or unique to our present time, nor is proactive consumer interest in the format really growing.” 

Perhaps some relevant part of this problem with diminished/diminishing listener engagement and interest are based on usability limitations of the way playlists have been so far implemented by Spotify and the other music streaming services?

One problem: it is extremely easy to discover, enjoy and “like” a hundred playlists or more. But there is no way to navigate this list of playlists in a practical way. Just an endless chronological/alphabetical list of playlists names tucked in a corner of the screen. 

Another: suppose there are five or ten playlists of new songs that the listeners wants to listen regularly. There is no way to resume listening where she stopped each of those lists! For example, RapCaviar has some 50 songs. Yesterday she listened to the first 9 and half songs and moved to another list. Today she returns to Rapcaviar. Spotify really wants her to start listening from song 1 again? Does she have to remember that she listened up to song the middle of song 10? (And then we extrapolate the problem to the other five or ten lists she “follows”)

This also applies to lengthier, highly curated playlists of catalog. Maybe some 400 song behemoth “history of Motown”? It would be much more useful to be able to resume listening where she stopped last time (a bit more here on this topic). 

Every podcast in Spotify has this functionality, why playlists don’t?

Then there is the problem of playlists updates. Our listener returns to RapCaviar one or two weeks later: several songs are gone, replaced by newer ones. The remaining one from two weeks ago are in another “place” in the list, probably “down”. Again, is there a way for she to listen only the “new songs”? Or the songs she has not listened yet? 

By the way, suppose two weeks ago there was a wonderful song on the ‘list that she really loved. But she did not “save” it then in her library and now the song is “lost” for her. These two verbs, in this context, are just ridiculous. Access to previous versions of a playlist would be very useful.

Another thing that could drive engagement is a better (actually any) way to navigate to “sister” playlists and collections of playlists. “History of Motown” could be flanked by “History of Stax” and “History of Philadelphia Sound” etc. A page collecting all classic rock-related This Is [Artist].  Or an easy way to move from “1983 Pop Hits” to “1984 Pop Hits”, or to “1983 Country Hits”…. 

Again, podcasts episodes are ‘always’ automatically organised in a series of episodes/seasons, but playlists must float alone with no organisation…

Also a related catalog detail: Can I listen to “This is U2” but only the songs I have not listened (to death, actually) before? Or those I have not “liked” before? (And vice-versa.)

Finally, playlists feel too focused on the “give something to listen right now”, but most of the time people likely are already listening something satisfying. The way to listen music “later” could be dramatically improved. (Nowadays, almost every other user interaction in Spotify, Apple Music erases whatever songs have been placed in the queue – I wrote a bit about it here.)

I am certainly extrapolating from my own use, but these details really derail the overall listening experience. So maybe playlists have been both over-hyped AND under-developed…

It is funny to think that in the future “playlists” may sound a relic from a different era, but right now they could be meaningfully improved. And maybe they will evolve so much that the name ‘playlist’ stopping making much sense, but then someone will need to come up with a catchy alternative.

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