We talk to Spotify's Dariusz Dziuk to get the inside story on Spotify Running, and how it uses the power of music to make you a better runner...
In the market for a new phone? If you decide to grab one of our Red Value Bundles you can nab yourself a subscription to Spotify Premium at no extra cost* as your choice of 4G entertainment pack. And if you’re a music-lover, why wouldn’t you? Spotify offers a massive catalogue of over 30 million songs, as well as offline playlists and a whole host of brand new features, including Spotify Running.
Whether you’re an occasional jogger or constantly training for the next marathon, we think you’ll find Spotify’s latest feature addition rather useful. Spotify Running boasts a boatload of clever new tech to help runners benefit from the power of music. But what spurred the decision to aim at running specifically, and how do the new features work? We recently sat down with Dariusz Dziuk – the project manager for Spotify Running – to ask him just that.
Power to the runners
“Obviously, we have a lot of data about what sort of music people are listening to,” explains Dariusz, “and we realised some time ago that lots of our users are explicitly listening to and creating their own running playlists.
“Music also has a functional aspect for runners – it helps them perform.”
“Running is an especially interesting area for us. Music comes into loads of different parts of our lives, but often it’s in a passive way: we’ll have it on whilst we’re working or having dinner, that sort of thing. But when you run with music, it’s one of the rare occasions where you really listen to the music. It has the power to entertain and distract you, but music also has a functional aspect for runners – it helps them perform.
“So, we felt like this was an area where we could innovate and create something that would help runners in all those different ways. The challenge? Figuring out: ‘what is the actual innovation here?’”
And that is fair question. Plenty of people are more than happy building their own running playlists, and Spotify could easily have just created more of them to satisfy their users. But this is a company that has always pushed to innovate the ways in which we interact with music, ever since they launched a free music streaming service in a world dominated by CDs and MP3s.
“The ideas actually came through something we have at Spotify called ‘Hack Week,’” says Dariusz. “Basically, the whole company gets to work on whatever they want for a week. We realised that lots of people had been working on ideas for running features, so we collected everything together and found that the concept of synchronised running was one that people really liked.”
Synchronised running here refers to the idea of matching the tempo of the song with your running pace, or more literally, synchronising the beats per minute of the music with the steps per minute of the runner.
“When you’re running to your own playlist, often the songs and tempos are a bit random,” Dariusz continues, “but sometimes there’s moment when a song comes on shuffle and has an impact on your performance. There’s a very distinctive feeling when you’re running to the beat – it almost feels like dancing.
“There is research that proves that running with synchronised music has benefits,” Dariusz adds, “so we wanted to create something that could bring that to mainstream runners, and make it flexible enough to adapt to whatever genre of music you like.”
Whilst we all have songs we enjoy running to, it can be next to impossible to find one that synchronises with your pace. And as Dariusz explains, Spotify ran into a few early challenges of its own when figuring out how to bring you the perfect tune at the perfect time:
“The distribution of tempos among runners is very different to the distribution of tempos in popular music.”
“The first challenge we came up against was that the distribution of tempos among runners is very different to the distribution of tempos in popular music,” he says. “Runners run at a tempo between 140 and 190 steps per minute, but if you look at the tempo of modern, electronic music, the vast majority of it is set to about 120 beats per minute. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard for people to find the right tempo when they run.
“So we spent a lot of time finding the tracks in our catalogue that fitted the correct tempo. We even created a machine-learning model to help us find those tracks, but we spent a lot of time listening to everything ourselves as well to make sure that these songs were good running songs, with plenty of energy.
“Even then, we realised that most songs have long intros and outros that vary in tempo, and that can really ruin the experience. So we implemented one system to recognise the parts of tracks that don’t work in terms of tempo, and also another piece of technology called ‘beat matched crossfading’. That’s our attempt at creating that seamless feeling, and because these tracks you’re listening to are in the same tempo, we can actually fade them into each other on the beat.”
When you jump in to Spotify Running, you’ll see this extensive running music catalogue right away. As soon as you start running – within the first few steps, thanks to Spotify’s home-coded algorithms – the app will detect your pace, and bring you music from a genre of your choice at the correct tempo. But that isn’t all that’s on offer…
Spotify Running Originals
“We have two types of music for running,” explains Dariusz. “You can run to tracks from our catalogue, or you can run to something we created that adapts to your pace called Running Originals.
“We wanted to create the ultimate experience for running, and it was only when we started talking to music producers, including Tiesto, that we came up with the idea of this new music format that would sound great at all different tempos. Whereas the regular catalogue is essentially a lot of different playlists at different tempos, we thought it would be useful if we could also have a collection of specially composed tracks that would adapt on the fly to your cadence.”
The idea sounds simple enough on the surface. But as Dariusz and team soon understood, there’s a lot to think about when you’re making one track at lots of different BPMs.
“It’s very tricky to alter the tempo and maintain the same structure and core music components.”
“It’s very tricky to alter the tempo and maintain the same structure and core music components,” says Dariusz. “With modern time-stretching techniques you can normally make a track sound pretty good, but the drum pattern always needs to be recomposed to fit. And obviously, if you speed up a 30 minute song, it’s going to get shorter too.
“Every time you change the tempo, all the other components of the tracks will recompose themselves, so you just have to produce the track separately in all the different tempos.”
In this context, music production is certainly an area that makes sense for Spotify. Not only is it adding loads of unique content to the service through the excellent Spotify Sessions recordings, but Running Originals adds to that, whilst using big name talent like Tiesto to tempt us into trying it out.
“From my perspective, I’m really interested in doing more stuff like this,” says Dariusz, “but only if it’s valuable to our users. In the case of running, we think this format really fits, and we can really improve people’s experiences.
“The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive,” he continues. “A lot of people are experiencing the feeling of synchronised running for the first time, and it’s a very powerful feeling to have at your fingertips.
“The Tiesto track has been especially popular – it’s really energetic. We’ve had a lot of tweets from people saying that they tried out Spotify Running and they just broke their personal bests! That kind of thing is always great to hear.”
Dariusz is happy to confirm that this is just the beginning of Spotify’s running story, too. Alongside scheduled partnerships with Nike and Runkeeper, there’s plenty for runners to look forward further down the road.
“We have loads of ideas,” he says in closing, “but we’re not going to jump into new features until we know they’ll bring something useful to our users. Right now, it’s all about understanding how people are using Spotify Running, and then we’ll go back to the drawing board and think about where we’re going to take it next.”
Music to our ears… Running wasn’t the only new feature in Spotify’s big recent update. Click here to find out what else the streaming app added to its repertoire.