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As a music lover I always wear it as a badge of honour when you recommend a song or artist to someone and they enjoy it. Sometimes on long car journeys my brother and I take it in turns to queue up songs on his Spotify and I’ll admit to dashing not so subtle side glances his way to see how he reacts to my songs. The high of playing a song that is liked is only opposed by the low of having your recommendation skipped or insulted – a level of betrayal even Zayn couldn’t comprehend. Thankfully Spotify has taken much of that burden for itself, allowing the algorithm to play the risky game of slipping in new suggestions open for your judgement. In fact, most widely used entertainment platforms these days share a similar big brother style function that analyses your every move in order to present something new; Netflix; TikTok, YouTube and Amazon Prime, to name a few. The real consideration is whether this function is useful or not.
I’ll start this off by being positive and sending some kudos Spotify’s way. I’d be lying if I suggested that there weren’t a handful of songs on my playlists that hadn’t appeared to me as recommendations. In fact my car has an annoying bug of sorts in which when I select to shuffle my playlist it automatically defaults to a selection of music based off of my playlist. Whilst frustrated by this at first, I actually enjoy it now. It’s quite exciting to be skipping through all of my usual selections then have something pop up I’ve not heard before, and it's a great way to introduce you to more music. Besides, we all get tired of listening to the same things over and over again, and I’ve found plenty of new favourites from this welcomed fault. When you think about it, it seems kind of foolproof, doesn’t it? There will always be exceptions, but identifying the key elements of the things you love and using that to make suggestions is fundamentally so clever. You like chocolate – why not try Dairy Milk? You like Dairy Milk – why not try Galaxy? Spotify is handing you things on a silver platter – throwing music at you left, right and centre that you’ve never heard of, but on paper fits directly into your specific taste.
It’s great for artists too, and it is no secret that getting some sort of backing from Spotify or an inclusion on a branded playlist is a huge deal when releasing music. If Spotify didn’t make recommendations, you would be listening to the same music over and over again, sticking with the artists you like or the albums you like; only really trying something new when one of your old favourites comes up with a new release. It’s great for artists with established fan-bases but not so good if you’re just starting out. Now though, with Spotify at their backs, their music is being presented to people - the right people. Instead of some carpet bombing ‘throw it and see what sticks’ campaign, their music is recommended to people who statistically like similar music and similar artists. You’d imagine the percentage of people who take notice of a song they haven’t heard that fits specifically into their taste is much higher than if it were to be presented to listeners with no interest in that kind of music.
So, surely helping you hear new music and helping artists get their music out is a good thing, right?
Well, not always.
The first issue is that music doesn’t happen in an algorithm; it’s a subjective art with complications and opinions. As a sports fan we’ve seen it a million times, teams should win on paper, players should do well on paper, that shouldn’t ever happen on paper. These predictions, whilst serving a purpose, can so often be wrong because sport, like music, is unpredictable. The thing with songs is that every one is so unique, even those that sound similar. They all come from a different place, a different emotion and with a different delivery. As a listener too it is so difficult sometimes to define what you love about a song; barring those with iconic moments if I flicked through my playlist I’d be hard pressed to pinpoint specifically what I like about the music – is it the vocals, the hook, the lyrics, the production? If I can't tell you, how is Spotify supposed to make recommendations based on it? Therefore, to take what feels like a corporate marketing strategy and apply it to your playlist seems like it could have so many flaws. We’ve seen you like Liverpool, a Premier League football team based in Merseyside, why not try Everton? The other negative was also one of the positives. To quote myself from earlier ‘You like chocolate – why not try Dairy Milk? You like Dairy Milk – why not try Galaxy?’ Whilst before I was revelling in the simplistic brilliance of the logic of this, I will now use my artistic pompousness to change the tone. Just a tad uninspired, isn’t it? Yes, I do like chocolate, I do also like Dairy Milk and Galaxy – but occasionally I do enjoy vegetables, or chicken. Whilst Spotify may often be on target with a lot or their suggestions, the whole thing has a fundamental flaw in that it is based off of what you already like. Whilst it may introduce you to new things, how new will they be if they are just slight variations on what you already enjoy - like a Dairy Milk fan trying Galaxy. The issue with this is that your horizons would never expand. Your taste would become denser as it got packed with more content, without ever really growing. So, what about vegetables, or the chicken? People’s tastes are so broad and fluid, and that is one of the brilliant things about art, but also a huge obstacle for the recommended function. Sure, I may love Drake but that doesn’t mean I love every Drake song, or every rap song. It also doesn’t mean that I don’t like The Smiths, or the soundtrack to Moana. It also doesn’t mean that all I want to listen to right now is Drake, or that I am in the mood for Drake right now. I do like Dairy Milk, but right now I’m craving a Nandos.
So as is tradition with my articles my conclusion is that I don’t have a conclusion. I think the most telling thing is that, gun to my head, I’d vote to keep the recommended feature. I like how it directs you to new things and keeps you in the loop with new music without you actively having to go and look for it. I like how it knows generally what you like and gives you more of it – after all, who doesn’t want more of what they like? Sure, music is subjective and taste is fluid, and just because you like one thing doesn’t mean you would like the other, but Spotify recommendations aren’t there to dictate to you what you do and don’t like, but instead to gently let you know about something you may, or may not, enjoy. And whilst Spotify recommended may not do much for broadening your horizons outside of your existing taste, they do have a collection of fine playlists to match mood, genre, function and even season to do just that.
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