Spotify's secret sauce of algorithmic playlists didn't happen by accident. But its rapid growth—and rabid fan reaction—kind of did.
It's been a little over a year since the streaming music service launched its Discovery Weekly feature, which has since become a must-listen fixture for customers around the world.
As of this May, more than 5 billion tracks had been streamed on Discover Weekly playlists. While the company hasn't officially updated that number since summer began, Spotify senior product owner Matt Ogle tells Adweek the total is now likely around 6 billion or 7 billion streams.
For the uninitiated, Discover Weekly creates a personalized 30-song playlist for each user every Monday based on their listening habits and other playlists. For users who might have strayed from Spotify in recent years or gotten out of the habit of making playlists, Discover Weekly can be a lure that brings them back as daily users.
Ogle said the feature's success has "completely changed" how the Swedish company thinks about experiences for its more than 100 million users. In fact, Discover Weekly has proven so promising that Spotify is investing more heavily into algorithm-based playlists with a goal of rolling out more over the next six months.
Many Spotify users aren't just fans of Discover Weekly. They're addicts. That's a fact that only became clear to the company when it suffered a service outage in the fall due to high demand.
"That was when I think we realized that we've created not just something people check out, but it's a ritual, it's a habit," Ogle said. "It's created this Monday morning routine that was certainly never intended to the degree with which it's taken hold of people—which is something we're really inspired by and can learn from."
Earlier this month, Spotify rolled out its second algorithm-based playlist, Release Radar, which comes out every Friday and includes two hours of newly released music from bands and artists users listen to and follow. But this time, Spotify tried out a new piece of software. Because much of the music is still too new to have extensive listener data, Spotify's engineering team had to come up with a different way of knowing which tracks to include. To pull it off, audio analysts look at the wave forms of each song on full-length albums and compared them to what users listen to the most.
The origin story of Discover Weekly
The idea for Discover Weekly grew out of the company's pre-existing team working on the platform's Discover page, which helps users identify new music they might like but haven't yet heard.
However, there was a big problem with Discover: Hardly anyone was using it.
Why? There were two theories floating around the halls of Spotify. Some thought it had to do with Spotify growing as a medium and, as it became more mainstream, perhaps people were using it more as a way to listen to their usual go-to bands rather than as a place to find something new. Others—including Ogle—thought maybe there was something about the Discover screen that was too difficult to find or use.
"It was a bit like going to the record store and having to go through all the shelves to find the good stuff," Ogle said.
They started thinking of an easier way to deliver these personalized recommendations. Around the same time, there was a prototype of using an algorithm to put recommendations in a playlist. Spotify at the time had 75 million users, so they started thinking through the logistics of how to create 75 million personalized playlists.
The listeners certainly have been loyal. Back in late May, Spotify said more than half of Discover Weekly's listeners streamed at least 10 tracks from their personalized playlist, while more than half of listeners came back again the following week.
And it's not just young folks. While the most popular age group is the millennial market, the second most popular group is made up of those 55 years or older.
In the beginning, Discover Weekly was growing so well organically that there wasn't even any need for marketing. However, to see what people were saying about it, Spotify ran Twitter searches to better understand how everyone felt.
"People were saying hilarious stuff," Ogle said. "Things like, 'Oh, I wish my significant other understood me as well as Discover Weekly did.'"
my discover weekly is so good today that i'm worried spotify is hitting on me?
— Alanna Okun (@alanna) August 22, 2016
No one knows me better than my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist.
— Alex Donadio (@thereal_alexD) August 19, 2016
At this point @Spotify's discover weekly knows me so well that if it proposed I'd say yes
— Amanda Whitbred (@amandawhitbred) August 18, 2016
god bless the Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify
— anna (@motherhynson) August 18, 2016
The vocal organic reaction prompted the team to consider running an actual campaign based largely on what users were saying about it—testimonials of sorts that express being understood so well by an emotionless computer algorithm.
The campaign also had to be genre-agnostic. Ogle remembered from his time working at a music company in London that focusing on one type of music could alienate fans of others. Because every playlist was different, Spotify wanted to ensure the punk kids and the oldies fans could all relate to the message. So they settled on something already in use—an astronaut staring out into space, exploring another world.
A boost for bands
The algorithmic playlists have also been a welcome addition to the thousands of unknown artists using the platform for their big break. In fact, Spotify says that 8,000 artists on the platform get half their weekly streams from Discover Weekly users.
In Nashville—a city known first for country music but now as a destination for new musical talent ranging from indie folk to electronic pop—bands and artists have seen big boosts from being on playlists like Discover Weekly and Release Radar.
For the burgeoning indie folk five-piece Birdtalker, Spotify has been a driving force for online success. For "Heavy," a single the group released in June, Spotify has driven more than 1.3 million plays for the song, said manager Larry Kloess, who co-manages the band with Nate Yetton, former manager of duo The Civil Wars.
As the founder of Cause a Scene—a 4-year-old company based in Nashville that curates bands for pop-up shows in houses and non-traditional venues in cities across the U.S.—Kloess has spent years learning what makes bands appealing and what helps them pop. Other up-and-coming Nashville artists, such as the electronic artist EZA and the indie-pop singer Cappa, have benefited from being chosen by the platform on any given week.
"It is this seal of approval or stamp of approval that says, 'Hey, we dig this; we think you're going to dig it, too," Kloess said. "People want to be known for having good tastes and aren't going to be willing to share something they don't believe in. So any time you see a song of yours as an artist or an artist you represent on one of these playlists that has hundreds of thousands if not millions of followers, it's like, 'Dang, this feels good that people are placing a value on that.'"
And the beat goes on
The musical "addiction" (as Vogue described Discover Weekly back in May) shows no signs of subsiding. Playlists have even begun serving another purpose as the source of inspiration for more user-curated playlists beyond the more than 2 billion already in existence.
The way Spotify user Nancy Nystrom talks about how she met Discover Weekly sounds like a love story in itself. The R/GA art director remembers getting an email about it last August or September and decided to check it out.
A Spotify user since January 2013, Nystrom has been making her own playlists for years. She said she used to spend hours going through similar artists, only to feel led down rabbit holes filled with bands she wasn't into. But Discover Weekly feels more like her own "personal musical assistant," she said.
Even songs she forgets to save before they vanish at the end of the week often tend to stick in the back of her mind, like a missed romantic connection with someone who seems interesting. Sometimes, you might end up running into that same person months or even years later, and the spark is still there.
"Even if I don't add any songs from their playlist to mine, if I hear one of the songs again later on—I will know it," she said. "Discover Weekly is basically on repeat on my commute. It is really the highlight of my Monday."