With Discover Weekly, the playlist built just for you, Spotify just became more personal than ever. We've been chatting to Spotify's Matt Ogle to find out how it works...
Take a look in your Spotify app’s Playlist section and chances are you’ll see a new one there with your face as the cover photo. That’s Discover Weekly, a brand new mix of tracks that Spotify thinks you’ll love. And, it wants to show you two solid hours of new music every week.
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But where has the idea for Discover Weekly come from? And, more importantly, how does it work? We’ve been speaking to Spotify’s Matt Ogle to find out, and to hear about how the right mix of human and machine-based curation can mean music to your ears…
Getting to know you…
“The initial vision behind Discover Weekly was that we wanted to make something that felt like your best friend just made you a mixtape,” says Matt, “and labelled on the mixtape was ‘here’s some new music to check out.’”
It’s an admirable goal, but one that – while it may seem simple – has taken Spotify a great deal of thought, and over a year of planning, to get right. The result is a fresh set of recommended songs every Monday, personally tailored to you, and with absolutely no effort required:
“Every Monday morning we fill it up with two hours of music that’s selected just for you.”
“The way we ended up trying to achieve that mixtape idea is by making the feature something that almost every Spotify user already knows how to use,” he explains, “which is playlists. Playlists are the main currency on Spotify, so it makes sense that Discover Weekly should appear at the top of your playlists automatically.
Every Monday morning we fill it up with two hours of music that’s selected just for you. No two Discover Weekly playlists are exactly alike, and if you’re connected to Facebook we’ll even put your face on the cover to illustrate that. If you like songs you can save them, and then next week you get a whole new batch.”
What’s great about this is how personal it feels. Dive into your Discover Weekly and you’ll find artists you may not know now about and deep cuts that you’ve never heard of, but they’ll probably all be right on your wavelength.
Spotify Pro tip – Did you know with Spotify Premium you can save the songs, albums, or entire playlists you like best to your phone. Simply toggle the ‘Available Offline’ button on your Discover Weekly playlist and you’ll have your brand new mix of recommended tracks with you wherever you go!
It’s clear that there’s some clever science going on behind the scenes to make that the case, but it’s a lot more human than you might realise…
“We do a few things,” says Matt as we peer behind the wizard’s curtain. “The simplest way of explaining it is that we look at what you’ve been playing elsewhere on Spotify, giving a bit more emphasis to what you’ve played recently as opposed to six months ago or a year ago. And then what we do with that information is we look at other people’s tastes.
“We’ve got more than 2 billion user-made playlists now, and we use those to look at the connections between songs that your fellow music lovers have made. We learn from that. In particular, we look at what songs other people are playlisting to around the songs that you like, but that we know from your history that you haven’t yet played.”
In effect then, the ‘friend’ making you a mixtape is in fact everyone else on Spotify, particularly those who like what you like, but who know of certain artists which have somehow escaped your attention.
“We haven’t made it so that if you dramatically alter your listening this week it will change immediately. It will take more time than that to reflect on your playlist and because you get your playlist once a week, we really want it to evolve along with your tastes. If you grow up on Spotify and your tastes change, that will be reflected in Discover Weekly. It will definitely pay attention when you listen to new things. Also, if we recommend you a bunch of songs that you’re not into in a given week, and you never listen to them, we’ll pick up on that, too.
“We want it to get better and better the more you listen. For a lot of our long time users, where it’s really informed by years of their listening, it’ll really hit the mark.
‘That being said, for anyone who wants to begin exploring new music, even if you’ve only been on Spotify for a month or two, we think you’ll find something great in there every week too. Brand new users don’t actually get Discover Weekly, simply because we wait two or three weeks so that we can learn a bit about your tastes first.”
Man or machine?
A few months back we spoke to Spotify’s Gary Liu about how the company’s computerised music sorting is getting smarter all the time. But with Discover Weekly putting the focus squarely on other humans, where does Matt see the future of Spotify’s music curation? The answer is with a hearty mix of both…
“We think Discover Weekly represents our best ever personalisation and recommendations. It seems like it’s just a playlist, but of course it’s much more complicated than that – we’ve spent a year evolving the technology and cultural learning for this, and it’s really not until now that we’ve had all these things in place to be able to deliver this kind of experience.
“We couldn’t do Discover Weekly without human curation,” he adds. “Music is funny. Unlike a lot of other things that you can analyse and make algorithms around, music is very cultural and context specific. And often the best pairing of songs in a mix will have nothing to do with one-another on paper, but then something magical happens when you put them together.
“Only humans are good at doing that, so what we’re really trying to do is to build things that look for those moments, and learn from all the music lovers out there. Alongside our users we also look at the playlists that our incredible team of in-house music experts make to bring you your personalised recommendations.”
But that’s not to say that there isn’t a huge amount of clever tech at work behind the scenes:
“For us, in the last year or so, we’ve come to think that the distinction between human and machine learning doesn’t really make sense as a way of describing the way we work. There’s no way to make a completely personalised mixtape for 75 million people every Monday by hand. So obviously the machines need to be in the mix somewhere. But when you are building a system for doing that based 100% on the actions of music lovers, it’s hard for us to call that just an algorithm. So from our side, calling something just human, or just machine, is starting to be inaccurate.”
With that merging of the two disciplines being so, what does the future hold in store for personalised suggestions on Spotify? It’s only going to get deeper, better and more in tune with your tastes…
Watch this space
“We feel like we’ve really levelled up recently,” Matt explains, “and Discover Weekly is really the first in a series of new personalisation efforts that we’re going to be rolling out over the coming months – offering you things no one else can.”
In the meantime, though, Discover Weekly is going to continue to learn more about you:
“We’re going to see how it goes from here,” says Matt, “learn from feedback and listen to comment requests like making it easier to save all the songs every week, etc. We’d love to add more ways for you to tell us clearly which songs are hitting the right mark.
“For now, with version one, it’s all about paying attention to the stuff you pick up on and the stuff you don’t. And, like everything we do at Spotify, we’ll keep watching and improving things.”
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