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Some Ideas for Improving the Music Streaming Experience

A quick list recapping ideas (and related posts) for features that could possibly very useful to users of music streaming services. 

1. Classical music can be offered properly. IDAGIO for example has shown how. If only one the majors (Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music etc.) could acquire/license/merge it. (Browsing classical music the right way)

2. Dealing with new music is also less than ideal in current services. Simple tools, like a checkmark to distinguish listened and not listened songs, could help a lot. A practical to way for users to consolidate and go thru all music recommendations they receive would also help a lot. (Streaming Anxiety: There Should be a Better Way to Listen to New Music)

3. Adding songs to the library should be very easy, all the time. (Ranking Streaming Services by How Easy It Is to Add Songs to Library)

4. Programming a list of upcoming songs (queue) is something that could become more robust.  (Play It Next, Sam. The Case for Better Queuing.)

5. Just an idea. Streaming apps don’t have to be so monolithic in they interfaces. Spotify has almost 300 million users and they all have access to same features. Perhaps branching out a bit would be helpful for all involved. . (Thought Experiment – “Spotify XP”) (Apps as Stars and Constellations)

6. The social part of music streaming can evolve a lot. First a simple idea: daily “pinned tracks”: A quick Twitter Thread: Pinned Tracks.  And of course, there is China.

7. Anthologies! Imagine bringing the wealth of content from a reference guide like “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die” directly in a streaming platform that hosts all this music? But to that you need proper tools to merge the music list, the texts, the images, the album information and the highlighted songs into the interface. And again, you need this set up in such a way that you can explore this content thru several sessions, and the app must remember exactly where you left off in a previous session.  (The 9,000 Song Long Playlist: There Must Be a Better Way)

8. Actually! It is funny that much of this functionality is already available, but only for podcasts in Spotify. (Podcasts vs songs)

9. More Ideas on The Future of Playlists: There is no way to navigate a list of playlists in a practical way.  There is no way to resume listening where one stopped each of those lists. Then there is the problem of playlists updates. Songs added, moved around, removed.

What about those songs I have heard dozens of times? Wouldn’t it be great if I could eventually filter out all of them when checking a some new playlist?

(The way that streaming services make previous versions of playlists unavailable is actually a striking demonstration of how streaming users have little power over the interface. “If you liked it, add it to your library before it is gone” is a warning from the invisible streaming gods to the tiny mortals/listeners).

10. Continuing on the theme of a Home for Playlists. The playlists (and albums too!) could be presented in a interface similar to the Mac Photos, where there are several, several ways to manipulate a large number of files.

11. The universe of available Apple Music playlists is wonderful! Why they are so hard to  find? (Improving Playlists)

12. When the Dropbox blog wrote about a Newsletter that recommends streaming music for people to concentrate (entering a state of flow as they say) I could not resist the irony: streaming services tools can be the weakest link in the quest of flow: Streaming in a State of Flow

13. A hypothesis: maybe we are severely underestimating the aggregate demand for more powerful features? For example, a proposed browsing option or queue feature that average users would only use once a year… For Spotify right now this would represent 30 MAUs…  Discovering vs Exploring – Tools for the Future of Music Streaming

14. Deezer’s Flow is a very intriguing idea that could be further developed. Maybe this could be the real future of radio? The stations should be several, customisable flows of music that the user can dip in and out?

15. It too easy to make a “mistake” while playing music. By accident, you skip a song, or interrupts the song currently playing to start another one. You start a playlist and lose your queue of future songs. Or you have three songs in a queue. You want to play next song right away, but by accident you press it 3 times and go directly to last song on queue. Queue songs 1 and 2 are lost now… The solution seems simple: a powerful “undo” button that restores the playing situation exactly as it was prior to last performed action.

16. The multi-device syncing could be further extended from where it is. For example, during most of the day I use a main phone, but I keep a secondary device to use in the car. Switching between devices for music listening on almost any music streaming app could be much more seamless than currently is. (Spotify Connect works fine for switching devices at this very moment, but this is not the case. When I start a listening session with the car phone I likely was not listening the main phone and there is no way to continue from the list/album/mix where I was on the other phone).

These are all ideas, but maybe the important fact is that users have an intense, extensive, intimate relationship with their music streaming apps. They are used several hours a day (and night), in an immense diversity of contexts and moods. Every little detail can be hugely important in such a close relationship. At the same, these are long-term relationships. How many users have been using Spotify for five or ten years? These long term users have growing libraries and collections of lists. They are accustomed to using streaming as they main/only source of music. The interface, apps and features should also grow in reach and capability as well. 

The streaming apps exist in an specific context where they are created, developed and maintained by their unique owners, profit-seeking private companies. In the end, every decision of how users access, search, browse and organise their music are arbitrary management decisions that can be shaped by the peculiar combination of individuals, culture and incentives present at the moment. Being so, these companies and management teams should always have in mind that they have the responsibility to care about their interfaces, and how they decisions and choices may affect their listeners. It sound a bit grandiose, but music is important and deserves the extra effort. 

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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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Play It Next, Sam. The Case for Better Queuing.

The story of Rdio is still making me think about “queues”; how much better they can be and how more useful they would be if so. A great queue implementation would be:

  • Synchronised across all the user’s devices.
  • Permanent (when you reopen the app tomorrow, it remains there)
  • Constant: a list of queued songs remains constant, no matter if you “create a station” (this kills Apple Music Queues), start playing another playlists (erases Tidal queues), starts playing a mix (erases Spotify queue) or enter flow mode (that’s for Deezer). 
  • “Undo” would be nice: Sometimes you accidentally forward a song, press shuffle, starts a song from the listening history (which is usually listed above the queue etc.) and it messes up the queue a bit or a lot. The undo button restores the queue just as it was before.
  • It could be “powerful”: play next, play at the end, add whole album, add whole playlist etc.
  • Why not the option to “save” the queue, “pause” it (the next songs will automatically be pulled from the playlist, algorithm, whatever) and “resume” it.
  • The “past” (listening history) should be presented as consistently as the “future”/queue.  (Apple Music iOS is going on this direction)
  • It would be nice to protect the “present” too: accidental mouse/keyboard clicks should not forward a song, or start playing any other song (at least as an option)
  • The queue feature should be “always” available (not the case in Apple Music stations for example)
  • The queue icon/indicator should always be easily visible and/or accessible.
  • Friends could make suggestions for your queue… (RIP iTunes DJ)
  • Maybe an “alternative queue” you can alternate to. (You can keep “focus” stuff there, or gym material etc.)
  • Even a “long queue” where you can add all suggestions from twitter, blogs and newsletters and selectively bring to “main queue”…

Seriously, how many hours do people spend listening to streaming music everyday? In how many sessions throughout the day? A strong queue functionality would be a great tool to help users in their daily routines. It would even help them to explore more different music and try other recommendations because they would have a better sense of control of their upcoming music and be less “hostages” of the particular listening context/mode they happen to be right now.

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A Rquiem For Rdio

Found on r/AppleMusic this fantastic article by Bryan Clark about Rdio, the defunct music streaming pioneer. There are several interesting details about the Rdio service but perhaps the most revealing for me was discovering that this music service took “queuing” seriously almost a decade ago:

Rdio’s playback queue was vastly superior to Spotify’s. It was a wonderful companion to Discovery, it synced across devices, and was simple to use.

One core component of a music service’s design: what do you do when you’ve just found an album, you want to check it out, but aren’t ready to add it to your Favorites? With Rdio, you’d just put it in The Queue. My workflow for finding music was something like this: go through the Discover sections, queue up a bunch of albums, and then know that over the next few days, I’d work through them all. If I liked something, it’d go in my collection. If not, I’d just skip the album and go onto something else.

You might be saying to yourself, “Spotify and Apple Music have queues, too!” No, not like this they didn’t! See, Rdio’s queue synced, which meant that I could queue up a bunch of tunes on my Mac, then hop in the car and hear them on my phone. Meanwhile, when I make a queue on Spotify, if the app crashes or I change devices, my queue is gone.

Also, let’s talk about Spotify’s queue model, because its design is really aggravating: […]

Maybe there is a reason why no other streamer tried to “solve” queue since then*. As The Verge’s post-mortem recalls: 

Looking back, some former employees say Rdio sometimes focused on the wrong things. It invested many product cycles in refining its queue — a place to collect things you want to listen to later. Every other music streaming service offers a queue that’s a simple list of tracks. But if you dragged an album or a playlist into Rdio’s queue, Rdio would recognize it as a distinct object, so you could drag and drop an album above a track, or a full playlist below an album. “At the end of the day, that was not a major differentiating factor,” says Wilson Miner, who led design at Rdio from its launch until May 2012. “If we hadn’t had something like that, nobody would have noticed and it would have been fine. I still wish we could have solved it, but it was more of a personal quest than a brutally honest assessment of priorities.”

More from the same article:

The economics of streaming music are brutal. Record labels have nearly all the leverage, and take most of the gross revenue from streaming services. The only way to win is to achieve a massive scale — which is why Spotify has raised more than $1 billion, spending heavily to add subscribers in hopes they will lead to a sustainable business.

Rdio realized this only belatedly. “Rdio, I guess, made the mistake of trying to be sustainable too early,” Miner says. “That classic startup mistake of worrying about being profitable and having a business that makes any sense before you’ve reached this astronomical growth curve. Which is partly the trap of the business model itself — because of the content licensing deals, the margins for the business were so incredibly thin. No matter what we did, the labels made the lion’s share of the revenue. You have to make it up with extreme volume, which is why you see Spotify going after every human being in the world.”

Finally:

Ultimately, it is not a game Rdio was ever built to win. The people who made it focused to a fault on making something beautiful, something that celebrated the music they love. Sigurdsson “wanted to build a music service that was social at its core but was also beautiful,” Becherer says. “There was a real focus on that.” Mary van Ogtrop, a copywriter for Rdio, says there will be no replacing the service’s attention to detail. “Rdio taught me to slow down, let it marinate, and make my final decision the right one,” she says.

By the way, reading the original article, one can notice that other Rdio ideas have been implemented on current services (autoplay, albums friends are listening, home view apparently recalls current Spotify shortcuts etc.). Not a surprise, since Rdio’s demise happened almost five years ago. Unfortunately nobody yet has cared to recreate a robust, synchronised and constant queue.

Still, recalling the story of Rdio (which I had completely forgotten) is satisfying in a way similar to solving an evolutionary puzzle: “why there is no streaming service with a historical commitment to attention to detail?” The existing streaming services have had distinct trajectories and priorities, but clearly none emphasises this particular commitment:

  • Spotify has had its own design priorities and has been successful that way.
  • Apple Music started from the Beats streaming service (which started from the Mog service) and had a joint interface with iTunes until recently. A change in management apparently has improved things in the past two years too.
  • Tidal, Deezer are smaller concerns, with long stories and lots of up and downs.
  • Qobuz, Idagio are valiant, even smaller players.
  • Youtube Music and Amazon Prime Music are works in progress for both internet giants.
  • Microsoft Music (Zune, Xbox, Groove) is no more.
  • (Pandora, whatever its merits is a US only service)

Well, apparently Rdio was different, and it lasted for a while.

 * Deezer does synchronise queues, but they stop working in “Flow” and are erased when a mix is started, so you have to rebuild them all the time.

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A Home for Playlists

Apple Music employs a full time of music experts carefully creating, and constantly updating, many unique playlists with excellent music choices and careful sequencing. Most lists even have original, striking cover arts.

When users click on a playlist, the first option in the action menu is “Add to Library”.

And this is where the magic stops: “adding to the library” means on the Mac that the name of the playlist will be unceremoniously added to a grey list in the left bottom corner of the screen, among all the other playlists that have been created, joined or added. 

In my Mac, I counted four and half screens to scroll all playlists (and folders) in my library. As far as I know, you cannot even put Apple Music playlists in a folder. 

In iOS at least you can sort them by date added, date last played, alphabetically or “type”. It is also nice that the iOS list show the cover art for every playlist. The problem is that I can see only 4 (iPhone 8) or 5 (iPhone 7 Plus) playlists at the time.. As I have more than 120 playlists, this is going to be a long scroll if ever want to listen “Weekend Downtime” again.

It is too bad that there is not a “home” for all added playlists, where they can better presented and organised. It could be something like the Photos app on the Mac, where there are several, several ways to manipulate a large number of files.

I think that Apple Music playlists deserve it. (Spotify “liked” playlists too!)

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Thought Experiment – “Spotify XP”

Until very recently, users could not add more than 10,000 songs on their Spotify library (by the way is not called a library anymore, it is “Liked Songs”…). This was never not a problem for most of users, but it could be a major issue for the minority of users that encountered this limitation. After years of complaints by those affected, Spotify “finally” lifted this limit in May 2020. 

I write about this because the most interesting aspect I got from this story is an article published by Spotify Engineering explaining in quite some detail why this change was much less trivial than may have appeared for observers. The undertaking seems to have been quite intense: over 100,000 lines of code were removed or modified; starting with a group of 30 employees, in the end 1,000 Spotify employees were involved in the testing process. 

Yet I still think this story highlights another opportunity to make it easier to try new improvements in the future. But first some context, with quotes from the article.

The story begins with growing importance of smartphones and their RAM limitations:

Liked Songs, one of Spotify’s most popular features, is a great example of this approach. Every time you open the Spotify app, it loads all the metadata associated with these tracks from the device’s disc storage into the active memory (RAM).

Simple, right? Not necessarily. If you collect thousands of Liked Songs, every time the app starts, all that metadata (including artist name, paths to album artwork, and so on) must be loaded from scratch. That’s fine if you’re using a laptop, or the latest smartphone because there’s enough RAM to manage this step with minimum delay. (Laptop users generally benefit from stable wireless connectivity, which also speeds up the process.)

But we now live in a technologically diverse world. Spotify listeners are increasingly mobile, which means that the smartphone Home page plays a greater role in the user experience than the Library, where Liked Songs resides.

It’s also thirteen years since the launch of the first smartphone. Today, there are thousands of different devices. This presents another challenge. How do you deliver an outstanding user experience to all Spotify listeners when there are such disparities in device processing capacity and network connectivity?

Users with older phones and slower networks are particularly affected:

Over the past two to three years, we noticed that the startup experience for those with less powerful devices and weaker connectivity wasn’t ideal, especially when they were near or at the 10,000 limit. We also discovered that even if a listener had thousands of such tracks, they generally only listened to a few hundred.

For both of these reasons, we decided to act. It’s important to remember that now the goal wasn’t just to lift the 10,000 limit. That was the tip of the iceberg. Rather than simply focusing on the limit itself, we found a much larger opportunity: modernizing our client-side architecture, thereby addressing the needs of our entire demographic, especially those with older phones and access to slower networks.

A very interesting detail: Spotify has a tradition of making small, cumulative changes (“iterative approach”), but now this was not an option:

Historically, Spotify has taken an iterative approach to improving the tech stack. But as our research showed, this wasn’t an option with Liked Songs.

That’s why we needed a year to complete the project from research to release. To modernize the client architecture we had to remove or modify about 100,000 lines of code in the shared client code base. Some of these required several additions, adding to the complexity. We also tweaked both the Android and iOS apps.

The scale of the testing process: from 30 employees to 1,000 employees to 1% of all users to 50% of the user base:

Testing and development took place in parallel, allowing us to add more people to the test groups as the stack became more stable. About seven months before launch, we were working with 30 employees, growing to 1,000 four months later. This gave us control over the testing process, and returned plenty of unfiltered Spotify feedback on changes to the user experience!

We then added about 1% of all users, gradually increasing this figure to 50% to find those ‘one-in-a-million bugs’. This enabled us to complete any remaining fixes before switching all users over to the new architecture.

An important conclusion about the importance of audience segmentation. I wonder if there are other segments of the audience that could be better served? (Hint)

This also forced us to rethink our approach to audience segmentation. Sometimes, organizations with hundreds of millions of users and huge datasets can lose sight of the individual. It’s very easy to imagine that the average Spotify listener has the latest smartphone or similar, but of course they don’t. Our approach has definitely shifted in favor of more segmented analyses that better serve the entire device-connectivity spectrum.

By the way, this way of testing softwares changes on a fraction of the user base is really curious, as they explain in the support forum:

At Spotify, we’re often testing and launching improvements and new features. 

This means you might see something on the app your friend doesn’t, or you could get a new feature to try out temporarily.

It surely can be frustrating to be the “guinea pig” of a new experiment:

Spotify updated about a week ago on my laptop, and it’s absolute trash now. I can no longer edit playlist photos or descriptions. When I click on my profile, I can’t view my account the way others do anymore. I can’t change the order of playlists anymore. I can’t filter/search for songs in a playlist either. I can’t add local files anymore, and any existing ones in playlists don’t play anymore. I can’t adjust the size of the left and right columns either. Also, the heart icon beside songs is no longer there, so how am I supposed to know which songs are saved or not? And the friend activity tab doesn’t show up anymore, even if the toggle under display settings in turned on. Is there a way to revert the version of Spotify I have? If not, will I just have to wait until an update where they fix their mess?

The answer from a moderator is not really immediately encouraging:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this in the Community!

We’re sorry to hear you’re unhappy with the recent changes we’re currently testing on the desktop app. For now, the new test version is missing several features that used to be available on the desktop app.

We understand this is not ideal, so if you’d like to be able to switch between the test version and the old design, we suggest you add your +VOTE to this idea.

So, recapitulating:

  1. Spotify historically has an iterative approach to software improvement: small, cumulative changes instead of major redesigns.
  2. The Liked Song limit was one successful experiment with a “drastic” change: it took over a year, involved 100,000 lines of code among several platforms; testing involved up to 1,000 employees and half of the installed base – more than a 100 million users.
  3. The way that the tests are deployed within the user base can be annoying: users update the apps and suddenly find dear features missing or radically changed and have no direct option to revert the situation.
  4. (There is even a poll in the support forum where users can vote on the idea to “Allow an optional switch” between versions on the desktop app. “Once it reaches the necessary amount of votes”, as the page says, “Spotify Staff will look into this idea”….)
  5. As the article states, the limit change “forced Spotify to rethink our approach to audience segmentation”. This time it was the case of older phones and slower networks, but perhaps there is much more user segmentation that could be investigated…

So, now I naively make a suggestion: why not make experiments with a distinct application, for mobile and desktop? Let’s call it “Spotify XP” or “Xpotify” (for ‘experimental’ of course).

In my draft of the idea, Spotify XP is a sister app that any user (or premium user) can install in addition to the main program (let’s call it jokingly “Spotify Classic” for now), and experiment with it. 

Maybe this could turn into a whole new playground for the R&D team to try more ideas, and implement them faster. “Freedom” as a fuel: the possibility to try new tools, features, interfaces modes for a relevant installed base without the immediate concern of disrupting the lives of the hundreds of millions of Spotify Classic users

It is certain that this kind of experimentation already happens inside Spotify research labs, but perhaps this program would get a life of its own when released as a public option. Because XP would also serve as a kind of commitment to the idea of exploring novel ideas and interfaces, and it could particularly attract and retain a slice of the most adventurous users.

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Streaming in a State of Flow

Excellent article by Joe Weix for the Dropbox blog about the Flow State newsletter:

A current obsession—call it a trend, if you must—are flow state playlists, which have become kind of a thing in the last few months. Basically, they’re heavily curated collections of music designed to assist people needing a little extra gumption. They’re like a nice afternoon caffeine boost, without having to deal with a rude barista.

One of the best work playlists out there currently is a newsletter called Flow State. Every weekday morning, it sends a batch of albums (or playlists, or mixtapes…) of perfect music to work to, usually around two hours worth, designed to get you into a productive, er, flow state.

I am a subscriber to the newsletter for sometime now, and really enjoy many of suggestions from “Marcus”. And his shorts paragraphs about the artist and the music in question are always very interesting. 

The article popped up in my twitter timeline yesterday, but now I noticed it is from March 2019. I wonder how much his subscriber base has grown since then, when it had over 4,000 subscribers.

Flow State runs a substack newsletter, with free and paid versions. A subscription (US$ 49.99/year or US$6.99/month), besides rewarding the authors for their effort, gives access to private Spotify and Apple Music playlists (over 500 hours of music) and weekly podcasts with two-hour mixes. 

Users can also contribute US$99.99/years while getting the same features.

(A bit off-topic but worth mentioning: these Substack prices are a problem for international markets. Useful to compare with the Spotify situation: Spotify Premium charges US$9.99 in U.S., but its global ARPU in the 2020 Q1 was US$4.87, less than half. Consider Brazil, a very important market for Spotify: a local subscription costs the equivalent of US$3.25. To makes things even worse, a Substack subscription costs relatively more, because international transactions with a credit card have a worse exchange rate and an additional 6.38% tax. So, paying US$6.99 for a Substack in Brazil costs 2.5x the local price of Spotify premium, while for U.S. customers, the same value represents only 0.7x of Spotify Premium!)

Anyway, I want to highlight one point about the story, where Marcus tells about his plans for the future of Flow State:

He has big future plans for the newsletter. This includes adding new features for premium users, like building out a digital library, as well as creating community features, like an internet art project in which all subscribers attempt together. And if all that works, “perhaps even provide non-music things to help people focus.”

As of July 2020, those new features have not been released but no problem there. The newsletter is working very well as it is, but the idea of a Flow State-based digital library and community features seems like a great one and it is exactly what I wish that Spotify or other music services were working on and eventually releasing.

I really wonder how premium subscribers handle a 500 hour playlist. Or instead, as Marcus says, the ideal playlist should last two hours: are there 250 shorter playlists for them to navigate?

The routine for free subscribers is even less practical. As the weeks go by, I gather dozens of great music recommendations from the newsletter in my mail inbox. I can listen to the songs, I can add them to a playlist of my own, I can “like” them, I can make a note about an album or artist in my todo list or I can simply archive the emails for later. The amount of great recommendations that must have slipped through is likely huge.

What I like most about this story is that Flow State is a music recommendation purposely built to help people focus at work and be more productive. So it makes all sense that the music recommendation service should itself be focused and organised. It is no small irony that the article praising Flow State ran on a blog hosted by Dropbox, a service designed to keep keep people collaborating in an organised, synchronised way.

So yeah, as it is, one can say that the limitations of current music streaming services are an important obstacle for many listeners to enter and maintain a state of flow while they concentrate at work, study etc.

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Discovering vs Exploring – Tools for the Future of Music Streaming

Naveen Chopra, former interim CEO and CFO of Pandora as reported by MusicAlly:

“We believe that the primary listening experience is passive, for most people, meaning 90 percent of the time you just want to listen to music you like,” said Chopra. “It’s not about picking songs you like and building playlists.”

Gustav Söderström, Chief R&D Officer of Spotify, also by MusicAlly:

“Today we have over 200 petabytes of music data,” said Soderstrom. “We believe that with our larger user base and our higher user engagement, the distance to the competition is actually only increasing… Already today, we have more than five times the amount of music data that our nearest competitor does.”

He even compared music-streaming to the world of self-driving cars, where the more vehicles a company (like Google, or Uber) has out on the roads generating data, the better its chances of success in the long-term.

“We have by far the most cars on the road in terms of users, but importantly they’re also driving more hours a day than anyone else, so more miles. And we’re putting more cars on the road every day, because of our free tier… This is self-driving music!”

For all the success that streaming services have been having in making algorithmic, editorial and algotorial recommendations, I personally believe that they are neglecting the development of tools better suited to more advanced users. 

To use concrete examples, these tools could serve to allow the user to easily listen through the content of a book like “1001 Albums to Listen Before you Die”. Or to explore one or more lists of the best albums of any given year. Or  offer some slightly more robust “queue” tools to plan for an upcoming party or car trip. Or a better way to collect, group and go thru all songs that are recommended to them on social networks and newsletters.

As I detailed in the previous link about “1001 Albums”, on a most basic level one tool could be a “bookmark” to let you know where you stopped on a playlist. Or tick marks to know which songs from it you have listened. But on a larger sense this tool is about embracing new concepts, like  ‘anthologies’  and integrating them on the service in a practical way.

I sense an opportunity here. The number of “power users” who would value these kind of features maybe small, but 1% of a few hundred million people is still a few million people. They may even be more valuable than average users.

Platforms mature and so the users. Perhaps after a few years of using the app, perhaps an increasing number of average users will be increasingly ready to use such tools. 

And then there are second order effects. Who knows how these tools will look like a few years down the R&D road?  What new use cases and possibilites will they allow? How much of the tools will trickle-down to new features that every grandma will depend on daily? 

Finally, I suspect that the real number of active listeners are being severely undercounted. What if a majority of the very average users are in fact power users some part of the time?

Maybe the need for such tools of music exploration and organisation would arise only once a month or a year, but that would be a huge amount of use too.

Because the truth is that many people care a lot about music, even if they don’t admit so. How common are such habits as reading album reviews and popstar profiles, attending music shows, wearing band t-shirts, even watching two hour music documentaries?  These are all ways of actively engaging with music. Heck, how many copies of “1001 Albums to Hear Before You Die” have been sold and read over the decades? 

Maybe the demand for the tools is there, widespread but latent.

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The 9,000 Song Long Playlist: There Must Be a Better Way

I was casually browsing Chartmetric – the music analytics tool that offer a limited free version – when I found something intriguing. I was looking at the stats page for a random favourite artist, Simple Minds, and there was a list of Spotify playlists where their songs appear, and these playlists could be ranked by the number of followers. The first was user-generated (“OTH Playlist”) and had 20,445 followers, the second was from Spotify (“Cocina de Clásicos”) with 11,604 followers and finally there was the third one, which caught my attention for a couple of reasons worth explaining. 

The third playlist was “1001 Albums You must Hear Before You Die (Degustamenorca.com)” by user  Manel Juanico Iveldie and had 10,815 followers.

“1001 Albums…” of course is the name of the famous book, originally published in 2005, edited by Robert Dimery and part of a larger series (1001 Movies, 1001 Places, 1001 Books etc.). 

The Iveldie playlist evidently serves to collect as many songs from the 1001 albums as possible and it is a wonderful resource for curious listeners to look for critically acclaimed music they might not know. The fact that the list has more than 10,000 followers highlights how widely Mr. Iveldie effort has been appreciated and serves its purpose.

But here I get to the “intriguing” point I alluded on my initial sentence: “1001 Albums” is a reference book, 960 pages-long in my edition, most of them full of relevant information and commentary, texts and images. What exactly happens when all this is “translated” in one playlist? What exactly is lost or missing?

Let’s open the playlist in the Spotify app:

We see a cover image, actually a cover from the book (the David Bowie/Aladdin Sane one, I am not sure which edition of the book this is. My book has Sid Vicious on it). 

The app informs me that the playlist has 10,819 followers (4 more than were listed on Chartmetric). It also informs that it has 8,999 songs and lasts 610 hours and 32 minutes.

The first songs in the list are the tracks from “In The Wee Small Hours of The Morning” by Frank Sinatra, which is exactly the first album on the book. I believe the list maintains the chronological ordem from the book: Elvis Presley homonymous debut album comes next for both.

But now come the questions. For starters, there is no easy way to know how many of 1001 Albums are actually present in the list, or which are missing. Nor if the albums are complete or if there are tracks that are missing.

Perhaps there are more than 1001 albums in the list: thru the years, there were revised editions to the book, with a few albums being removed and replaced by others, usually more recent ones. According to this Rate Your Music list, since the first edition there has been a total of 1079 different albums listed on the book.

What is the scope of Iveldie’s list? The first edition? The latest? All of them? There is no way to know in the app.

For curiosity, a few years ago I found and “liked” another “1001 Albums” playlist. It was created by ‘A Winslow Barger’ and was described as “almost complete”. It has 9,967 songs  and lasts 666 hours and 32 minutes. It has 5,316 followers.

There is some ‘date’ information we can look. Barger added the first songs to his list in May 2014 and latest in March 2019. Iveldie’s list however only dates a single album (Modern Stories by Kev Minnery, added March 2020), the rest of the list this field has no date information at all.

And… those are all the facts we can tell from the playlists and Spotify.

Of course the book has more information. Browsing my Brazilian 2007 Edition I can see that for every album there is a year of release, label, producer, cover design, country of origin and duration. Not all but many have a track list and bullet points highlighting 3-5 key songs.  Also photos, essays, and quotes from the artist, of course.

But when the book was first published in 2005, the basic idea was you have to purchase/borrow/copy every single album. The idea that for a small monthly fee you would have instant access to all these albums was not yet a reality.

Now we are in 2020 and accessing 1001 albums is easy. However the experience of exploring the 1001 albums could be so much better if we had better tools.

Suppose you want to listen everything.

Starting from page 1  – “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” by Frank Sinatra (1954) –  and going thru end – in my book, “Myths of the Near Future” by The Klaxons (2007): We know this is going to take more than 600 hours, or 25 days of straight listening. Imagine a more human rate of 90 minutes per day, six days a week, and it will take one year and a quarter. 

The very least we need is a way to “bookmark” in the list the exact song we stopped listening each session so it is easy to resume from that point. Imagine how many devices and contexts the user will listen music for this typical year and a quarter: cell phone, tablet, home pc, work pc, in the car, in the airplane, working out etc. Those bookmarks should be synced across devices and easily accessed. 

Now, if we don’t start at album one, there should be a way in the playlist to check which songs have been listened or not.  A check ‘liked’ or ‘not liked’ would be fine, and it could be a like not directly related to “like” that adds songs to the user “library”.

How to navigate the list? Can I see only the albums from a certain year or decade? Country of origin? Genre, label, producer? Artist? To simply go to a certain point in the list is a problem. A 9000 item list requires a lot of “page down” clicks. On the MS Word default template, a 9000-item list takes more than 200 A4 pages.

Can I see the bullet songs the book encouraged me to listen first? Perhaps it would be nice to rank all those songs by their own number of plays by Spotify users…

Also nice: see how many times I listened each song or skipped it. Date when each was last listened. Read the essays?

Imagine how cool would it be to properly merge the amount of information and context present in a reference book like 1001 Album with extreme convenience and efficiency of Spotify.

I think this should not even be called a “playlist”, we really could use a new metaphor for this mix of content and functionality. The music streaming experience would be highly enriched for many users.

And, of course, this functionality could be used far beyond “1001 Albums”. Any kind of music anthology would benefit from it. Year-end lists for example, would also benefit from these tools.

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What Your Favorite McSweeney’s List Says About You?

The list “What Your Favorite Classic Rock Band Says About You” is one of the funniest things I remember reading. For instance:

“The Doors: You have been bitten by an animal while trying to get it stoned.”

“Pink Floyd: Your garage is full of failed versions of your stereo/barbecue hybrid.”

And so on. The article listed 55 Classic Rock bands and was written by John Peck at McSweeney’s in February 2011. Still in 2011, he published three follow-ups (part II about Classic Rock, and parts I and II about 80s Bands). More recently, there was a Classic Rock part III (October 2019).

The 80s bands are funny too:

Mike and the Mechanics: You have thrown a Rolodex at a raccoon or skunk.

Rick Astley: You have used a hairnet as a handbag.

Besides the recommendation to read them all, I want to highlight that altogether, these series mention an amazing collection of bands. Particularly if you happen to care deeply about “classic rock” and “80s music” like I do. Most bands are well known, but there are several I knew very little of.

So for a lark, I made a spreadsheet with all the bands listed in the five articles. Some observations:

  • In total, there are 340 entries and 338 bands. 177 classic rock bands and 162 80s bands.
  • Tangerine Dream is the only band mentioned in both series. As your favorite Classic Rock band, the German group means that “You have several frankincense scars.”. As an 80s band, TD means “You have a half-full can of Sanka at the back of your cupboard.”.
  • Another double entry is T-Rex, which was the 18th entry in ‘Classic Rock I’: “No matter how much you clean, there will always be trace amounts of glitter on your stove and blender.” and returned in the third slot of ‘Classic Rock III’: “You have used a hammock or sweater to escape from a second-floor window.” (2011-2019 must have been an eventful period for the T-Rex fan…)

So, for your browsing enjoyment here is the full list. There are spotify links for every artist, as well as the number of followers in early July 2020.

This is a graph of the bands ranked by number of followers:

WYFB