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Spotify's 'Personalized,' Computer-Generated Playlists Are Here, and They're Pretty Good

Apple uses humans to make playlists; Spotify uses software. Will users care?

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

I was worried about the Minions. But it turned out to be okay.

Last week Spotify told me it was rolling out a new feature — a weekly “personalized” playlist, automatically generated by the music service based on my listening habits.

And for the last week, most of my listening habits have been about the “Minions” soundtrack, because my kids are the age where the “Minions” movie makes them very happy, and they’re also at the age when they want to hear the same thing over and over again.

So we’ve been hearing the Minions version of “Revolution,” original versions of ’60s-era oldies like “Mellow Yellow,” and even Heitor Pereira’s original “Minions” movie score, because, well … no reason. My kids just want to hear the “Minions” soundtrack. They love the Minions.

Me, I’m okay with the Minions. But they’re not what I choose to listen to on my own. And I assumed that Spotify wouldn’t understand that, just like Netflix doesn’t understand that I don’t want to see more shows like “Garfield and Friends” — it’s just what happens when my kids get the tablet to themselves.

Surprise! Spotify’s first effort for me is Minion-free. It’s also free of all of the other kid-requested music that takes up much of our Spotify time these days. Instead, Spotify’s list seems like music I might listen to if I were programming something I actually wanted to hear: It’s heavy on aging indie acts like The Dead Milkmen, Camper Van Beethoven and the Violent Femmes, and sprinkled with lesser-known nuggets from really old acts like Elvis Costello and Paul Simon.

Not bad! I wish it had some hip-hop (old hip-hop, that is). And it makes me a little sad to see evidence that I basically stopped listening to new music in 1995. But I can’t argue with it. I’ll probably listen to it again.

Spotify tells me the key to “Discover Weekly,” which should start appearing for the rest of Spotify users today, is software that looks at songs you play, then sees what follows or precedes those songs on the playlists other Spotify users create, and builds something based on that data.

Spotify says it solves the Minions Problem by identifying “taste clusters” and looking for outliers. So if you normally listen to 30-year-old indie rock but suddenly have a burst of Christmas music in your listening history, it won’t spend the next few weeks feeding you Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. The same goes for kids’ music, which is apparently why Spotify knows I didn’t really like “Happy” that much — it was just in the “Despicable Me 2” soundtrack.

The bigger takeaway here is that Spotify built “Discover Weekly” with a handful of engineers, in a few months, based on the data generated by its 75 million users. That’s supposedly the opposite of Apple’s approach with its Apple Music service, where the company makes much of the actual bona fide real human beings curating playlists for its radio and on-demand services.

But my hunch is that people who actually listen to streaming music services spend much less time thinking about the people or programs that are suggesting music for them to listen to. They either know what they want to hear and go get it — or they’re happy to hear something in the background, without worrying about where it came from.

The truth is that Apple Music and Spotify and Google Play Music and Tidal and Rhapsody and the other streaming music services all do the same thing: They offer up the same catalog of songs, more or less, and let you lean forward, or back, for $10 a month.

The only real differentiators are marketing. Spotify’s entire plan is based upon the notion that you can listen to its tunes, forever, for free, before deciding whether to pay. Apple, which only offers free for three months, says it can make its case by appealing directly to its 800 millions iTunes customers. If one of them wins, it’s going to be because it has a better business plan, not a better playlist.

This article originally appeared on

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