Spotify Is Perfecting the Art of the Playlist
Until recently, Mike Perry assembled engines at a Volvo plant in Skovde, a medieval city in Sweden. But Perry wanted to be a famous DJ. At night he labored in a recording studio, writing and producing songs in a lush, throbbing style known as tropical house. It sounds like Jimmy Cliff was tweaked by Avicii, the electronic dance musician.
Perry was 30 and hadn’t had a breakthrough, so it looked as if he’d be on the assembly line for years. Then, in April, he released a track called The Ocean, a bit of escapist pop. It wasn’t long before he noticed the Spotify link to his song all over social media. The Ocean became so popular on the streaming service that Perry quit his job and spent the summer performing in Europe. Now he has almost 15.5 million monthly Spotify listeners, a number he still finds inconceivable. “It’s just opened so many doors,” he says.
At a certain point, Spotify contacted Perry’s music manager to explain how the service had transformed his client from autoworker to house music luminary in months. It was simple: It had a lot to do with Spotify’s music-recommendation technology. The company keeps track of what you listen to. Then it uses algorithms to see which other playlists contain the same songs—and other songs that are on those lists but not on yours. Then it feeds you those new cuts in a personalized playlist, Discover Weekly, which is refreshed every Monday. Once The Ocean began showing up in Discover Weekly, Perry’s days at Volvo were numbered.
Like The Ocean, Discover Weekly, which made its debut in July 2015, is a hit. Matt Ogle, Spotify’s erudite product lead for recommendations and discovery, says 40 million users have tried it, streaming more than 5 billion songs. “It’s moving the needle, especially for small-to-medium indie artists,” Ogle says. It’s also helped Spotify increase its monthly users from 75 million to 100 million at a time when it’s being challenged by Apple Music, the rival streaming service, and when artists such as Taylor Swift and Beyoncé are withholding their work from Spotify because they say it’s stingy with royalties. It’s easy to see why Discover Weekly has taken off. Listeners have access to more music than ever—but that’s overwhelming. “Even though you can search across Spotify, people don’t like to spend too much time searching,” says Rahul Telang, co-author of Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment. Discover Weekly eliminates search altogether.
Spotify and Apple are divided on how to make finding music easier. Apple Music relies heavily on human curators to pick songs. Spotify has those, too, but it’s more focused on algorithmic recommendations. In the past, such tech-driven music-discovery functions were weak, often suggesting artists and songs that people already knew and liked. What makes Discover Weekly different is that it unearths new cuts from among other users’ playlists that you will adore. “We have a long belief that people were superior to algorithms,” says Bob Lefsetz, author of the Lefsetz Letter, an online report on the music business. “What we have found is that Spotify’s algorithms are astonishingly accurate.” If that’s the case—and it appears to be—the power in the music industry may soon shift from traditional forces such as label executives and radio programmers to streaming savants such as Ogle and his teams of engineers.
Finding music on the internet may seem relatively new, but it’s been around long enough that Ogle, 36, has spent his entire career doing it. It’s a Thursday afternoon in August, and he’s sitting in a glass-walled conference room named Blue in Green (in honor of the classic song performed by Miles Davis) in Spotify’s New York office. He looks like a grad student with his tortoiseshell glasses, blue shirt, black pants, white sneakers, and no socks.
Ogle grew up in Canada and went to the University of Alberta, where he double-majored in English and computer science. He plays piano and maintains a Twitter feed of quotes from the novels and short stories of Raymond Chandler. He also runs an e-mail newsletter that recommends a daily poem. “It conveys the biggest impact with the fewest words,” he says of poetry. “A lot of things I work on are about finding the simplest thing that can evoke emotion in people.”
After graduating from college in 2004, Ogle went to work in London for Last.fm, a British online radio provider that suggested bands, songs, and concerts. Last.fm was revolutionary—for its day. “Ten years ago, we were going, ‘People who play Beck also play Radiohead,’ ” he says. “We were at that Amazon level of, ‘People who bought this also bought toilet plungers.’ ” In 2011, Ogle left Last.fm to open a London office for the Echo Nest, a Boston-based online music company that created algorithms that customers such as Spotify used to make recommendations.
At the Echo Nest, Ogle created his own online music recommendation applications. He came up with one in 2011 called Drinkify that paired artists and cocktails. It directed Prince fans, for example, to get pumped up with a blend of cinnamon-laced Red Bull and Finlandia vodka. Drinkify attracted media interest, but Ogle decided it was too much trouble to turn it into an actual product. “There are a lot of issues monetizing anything to do with alcohol,” he says, sighing. Ogle ran into different obstacles when he co-founded a music-related social network in 2012 called This Is My Jam. The problem: It was designed for PC users when everyone was listening to music on smartphones.
His friends at the Echo Nest didn’t hold Ogle’s failures against him. In 2014, Spotify acquired it and put him in charge of new-music discovery offerings. Ogle’s first assignment was to fix Spotify’s moribund Discover page, which fewer than 3 percent of users bothered with. “The experience wasn’t very good,” he says. “First you have to find the screen, and then you have to look at the grid of albums and go, ‘Well, that cover looks interesting.’ Then you click on it and have 12 tracks. Which one do you play? There was no way to explore it quickly.” But engineers messing with the page had come up with something promising at a company “hack” week: a method of generating personalized mix tapes by tapping into user-generated playlists.
Ed Newett, the engineer who came up with the prototype, gave Ogle a demonstration. Ogle was delighted when the first track to surface was a tune he’d never encountered by Jan Hammer, the Czech-born jazz-fusion synth pioneer from the ’70s. “It hit all my sweet spots,” he says. “I was like, ‘This feels like a deep cut. This feels like a person picked it for me.’ ” The challenge for Spotify was translating the tech into something more welcoming than the Discover page. That’s where Ogle came in. “Without Matt, we wouldn’t have made it an actual product,” Newett says. Some engineers wanted to send users a personalized playlist every day. After Ogle got involved, the group decided that once a week would be better and chose Monday, to give people something to look forward to when they returned to work.
One of the early mockups of Discover Weekly spewed out as many as 100 songs at a time. Ogle balked. “If someone showed up on your doorstep with a five-cassette set, you might think, Ugh,” he says. “We kept making it shorter until we landed on two hours of music, about 30 songs.” The team also decided to include a few familiar covers or tracks so listeners would be more willing to sample unfamiliar ones. “A discovery service needs to be anchored in something so you’ll have confidence in it,” says Dave Rodger, Spotify’s vice president for product engagement and Ogle’s boss.
On the eve of Discover Weekly’s unveiling, Spotify arranged for 30 journalists to test the service—and it promptly wiped out all the writers’ other playlists. Luckily, Spotify’s engineers were able to re-create the deleted ones in three hours, averting what might have been a PR snafu. There was more drama on the way. Every Sunday, Ogle and his team would create a playlist for each of Spotify’s 75 million users and store it on a database maintained in Sweden. Early on, the playlist surge overwhelmed the system. It wasn’t unusual for Ogle to get calls at 4 a.m. on Monday mornings from angry Swedish colleagues who were trying to keep the database from crashing. It got so bad that one Monday in September 2015, the system failed, and Spotify wasn’t able to update any Discover Weekly playlists. But by Tuesday the problem was fixed, and everybody got new music. Afterward, Ogle and his teams calculated how many songs Discover Weekly devotees had streamed in three months. It was more than a billion. “We popped open a bottle of champagne,” Newett says. Since then, they’ve expanded into new kinds of personalized playlists. In August, Spotify unveiled Release Radar, which surfaces the latest songs by people’s preferred artists.
Ogle says users are streaming fewer of their old favorites and listening to newer acts instead. That should hearten unknowns who fantasize about being the next Mike Perry. But it should unsettle big record companies and their star acts. The more Spotify steers people to independent artists, the more negotiating power it has with the labels and music-publishing companies to which it currently pays 70 percent of its revenue in royalties. Spotify declined to say how much money Discover Weekly generates.
The company is in contract negotiations with the three biggest labels, Universal Music, Sony, and Warner Music Group. They take issue with Spotify’s free, ad-supported tier, which doesn’t compensate them as richly as its paid-subscription one that has 40 million users. But Spotify needs all the users it can get, because it hopes to go public soon. The more it can mint its own stars, the less it needs the labels’ glittering rosters. “This is very strategic,” says Mike Doernberg, chief executive of ReverbNation, an online music company that works with emerging artists. “The best thing Spotify can do is popularize more artists so it becomes the gatekeeper of consumption.”
Ogle is giving Spotify more weapons to fight off not just Apple but Pandora and Amazon.com, which are expected to start rival services in the coming months. Ogle doesn’t sound worried. He’s noticed that Discover Weekly users often address the service on Twitter as if it’s a friend who knows them intimately. They’re even forgiving when Spotify’s algorithm misfires. Ogle could be talking about Amber Reyes, who recently tweeted: “Nice @spotify you made up for the horrible discover weekly playlist last week. I love every single song on this weeks. #epic #nice save.”