Why Spotify is one of my favorite products
*Disclaimer — this essay was used to apply to some Product Management roles, so when reading it, keep that context in mind!
If you want a list of links to job applications for early career product management roles (many of which I applied to using this essay,) check out APM List! There are also links to good resources for prepping for your PM interviews.
Everybody knows about it. Spotify has seemingly taken the world by storm the past few years, recently reaching 60M monthly active users across 58 countries, 25% of which are paid subscribers. I’ve been an active Spotify user myself since 2012, one year after they launched in the US. Since then I’ve seen the product grow so much, and it has been amazing to see what it has become today. It is one of the few products that I truly love for three main reasons.
Spotify is the only service in existence to be everywhere
Many products try to claim that they are “cross platform,” which usually translates to mean that there are Android and iOS apps, and maybe a web app. Spotify as a service breaks conventional boundaries, allowing you to engage with your music beyond any app. Just take a look at this screenshot of of the feature Spotify Connect:
From my phone, I can instantly move my music playback to a ton of different places. Switching from one room to another? The music can come with you to a new speaker. Have to leave your desktop to go for a jog? Stay on the same playlist without skipping a beat. Want to leave music playing on your speakers and walk away? Your phone can become a remote to control other playback devices.
In fact, you don’t even need a phone to initiate playback. My bedroom and living speakers are connected via an Amazon Echo Dot and a Google Home Mini, respectively. No matter which ecosystem I’m in for smart home hardware, I can ask any of my friendly assistants “Hey ____, play Barcelona by Ed Sheeran on Spotify,” and instantly start jamming out.
There are many non-phone devices that run Spotify. Car infotainment systems have Spotify apps. My television natively ships with a Spotify app. I would not be surprised if in the next year or two, headphones ship with native Spotify integration (there was a highly anticipated version of this feature on the Pebble Core before they were bought out and discontinued.) Anywhere you are, or anywhere you move to, Spotify seamlessly moves with you.
Let me give you a fun example of how much people love this feature and integrate it into their lives.
I have these two friends that are dating and recently moved in together. In their one-bedroom apartment, they were able to cover just about the entire place in various speakers.
In this apartment, they are able to play the same song from all of the speakers at once using Spotify.
How might one do this, you may ask? Between a few audio receivers, Google Chromecast Audios, and desktop computers, all of the speakers are linked into groups. That means when Spotify pulls up a list of devices, they can choose to target playback to any given room, or the entire house as a set of groups.
Even more amusingly, this is the only playback option they felt the need to set up. In a world where some people are ready to riot that cellphones are losing audio jacks, this apartment has no wires to hold them back. The entire home interfaces through Spotify for music playback, and when guests come to visit, their Spotify app seamlessly recognizes the newfound setup nearby and allows for instant playback.
Spotify is truly everywhere. The user experience that this offers is a huge competitive advantage, and helps future-proof Spotify from losing to another product that is more convenient to access. No other music platform comes close to this level of integration. Even fighting a deep-pocket opponent like Apple Music, Spotify holds its ground by being a more accessible method of reaching your music.
Spotify’s scope isn’t just playing music; it’s about discovery, curation, and social interaction too.
From a quick look at the app’s landing screen, it’s pretty easy to see that there are lots of themed playlists available.
Although a bit more hidden, some of the best and most used browsing methods on Spotify are playlists that are customized for each user.
Perhaps the biggest crowd favorite is Discover Weekly.
Discover Weekly is a unique playlist generated for each user based on their listening habits that is updated every Monday morning. That means that every Monday I, and many other Spotify fans, get to experience music we haven’t heard yet, specifically geared to our listening preferences.
While services like iHeart Radio or Pandora thrive off of music channels that constantly pick the upcoming track based on recommendations (and Spotify allows for this as well,) Discover Weekly’s staggered weekly updates has a unique social and emotional effect. In many ways, it resembles the effects of those who are excited to binge watch their favorite Netflix show that was just released. Getting 30 new songs in bulk at the beginning of the week creates excitement and anticipation that users end up looking forward to. Limiting the supply artificially increases the demand. While Pandora hand-picks recommendations every song, I’m not excited about it, so I don’t open the app as regularly. Spotify makes music discovery an intentional act of unwrapping a new playlist, and users can’t get enough of the way it makes them feel.
This is also apparent in the human made playlists. While any user can make a playlist and share it, Spotify staff also spends a lot of time curating well-mixed collections. One of the best examples is RapCaviar, a public Spotify-made playlist with over 8M followers.
Vulture claims “the most influential playlist in music is Spotify’s RapCaviar, which turns mixtape rappers into megastars.” The Verge believes that “RapCaviar turned the playlist into a movement.” There have been many instances of artists reaching Billboard top charts for the first time because of their introduction into RapCaviar, and the attention the playlist brings.
Pandora might have invested years into trying to use their Music Genome Project algorithm create a scalable, technological competitive advantage, but it seems that the human curated playlist by a true enthusiast of the genre reigns as king.
Because the ways that people use Spotify and the playlists they explore differ so much from person to person, many users love to share and talk about their music habits. If you use any form of social media regularly, you probably recently saw this huge campaign:
2017 Wrapped was a massive campaign where people were showed Spotify infographics about their listening habits, and then shared those statistics with the world.
While Spotify might not directly have a social component like SoundCloud, where you can comment on each song, it is highly social. People talk about what they listen to in a new way, and have conversations about what ‘secret’ playlists they use to find their hot, new music. In this playlist-centric social conversation, you even see celebrities and big brands trying to engage with their fanbase through regularly updated playlists that reflect who they are. (One of my favorites is Gary Vaynerchuk’s Monday to Monday, which is focused on hip hop and rap you can work alongside to.)
Spotify’s secret sauce isn’t about the music. It’s about their curation weaponized as a discovery tool that plays to human nature. Whether it is the hipster looking for the newest tracks on Release Radar, the genre enthusiast who expects the best content out of playlists like RapCaviar or Rock This, or the casual user anticipating Monday morning’s Discover Weekly surprise, Spotify has a compelling reason for users to keep coming back to the service day after day to unwrap the latest wave of songs.
Spotify supports small artists, and bonds with big artists.
A friend of mine just released her first album a few months ago on Spotify. Although a talented musician, she doesn’t have a huge fan base, media attention, or a huge budget to bankroll her music career. Then how is it that she got her album on Spotify?
Spotify makes sure that artists using their service have a great experience, even starting from their easy-to-follow online guide. This guide begins at square one:
“If you don’t [have a record label], we have deals in place with a number of companies who can deliver your music to us and collect royalties for you.”
If, like my friend, you are an independent artist trying to get exposure, this introduction to the system is huge. In a few minutes you can register with a suggested service (she used CDBaby) and post your music across Apple Music, Google Play, and (of course) Spotify, all at once. This is encouraged behavior: Spotify truly wants new artists generating content and putting it on the platform. Like we talked about before with RapCaviar, a large traction tool for Spotify is having “mixtape” or “indie” artists debut exciting content on curated playlists. Well, you can’t have great underground tracks if you don’t have inflow of content from small artists.
What this means in a nutshell is that Spotify’s user retention strategies necessitate providing small artists with resources to distribute content. Because of actions like this, the music scene has never been easier to break into.
The extra love isn’t limited to small artists. Spotify also goes above and beyond to interact in a personable way with big artists.
As a content consumer, one of my favorite examples of this are Spotify Sessions, the exclusive live recorded sessions that artists play in Spotify’s headquarters.
Many people say they like going to concerts because you get this intimate, live experience that most artists don’t include on their studio perfected albums. Spotify Sessions captures the essence of this, giving hardcore fans a way to hear their favorite artists in a different style. Many of the tracks also include commentary artists provide in between songs, further providing this rich experience that you can’t normally find on a top artist’s album.
The content producers who are on Spotify are also given lots of perks for being with the platform.
Spotify heavily advertises for their artists, both in app and outside in the real world. I’ve actually had the chance to sit down with some of the employees who work on making billboard ads for artists on the platform, and they confirmed that there are purposefully few ads promoting Spotify itself — most ads are instead promoting the creators who publish on Spotify, and how listeners interact with this content. Take the Ed Sheeran ad shown above:
“Be as loving as the person who put 48 Ed Sheeran songs on their ‘I Love Gingers’ playlist”
The focus is never on the company. It’s on the bond between artist and their audience. (And again, on the playlists.)
Spotify has also made big steps recently to improve their analytics available to artists. As an artist, you can see a graph of your number of listeners on a day-to-day basis, how they stream (from your artist’s page, from their playlists, etc.), their gender and age, and where they listen. There’s even a list of cities where your music is the most popular, which is critical for bigger artists deciding on where to hold concerts. Recently Spotify added the ability to break down these demographics by song, so artists can figure out how to best cater to all parts of their audience, and really dissect how certain content is received.
And campaigns like 2017 Wrapped that we talked about before? Well those are for artists as well.
If you are an artist on Spotify, big or small, there are resources in the form of both digital tools and friendly humans waiting to help you spread your content and learn how to best reach the audiences that are dying to hear music like yours.
As both an avid Spotify user and someone who is closely paying attention to the music space, there are a few hopes I have for the product and the business in the upcoming years that I believe will improve the overall Spotify experience.
Bringing the platform to “exercise friendly” hardware
Over the past few years, wearables and internet of things devices had a huge hype, but the main products that survived focused on fitness and health. When you look at wrists nowadays, you see smart devices like Fitbits, Garmins, Apple Watches, and Android Wear.
While Spotify is on nearly every hardware platform, they have not yet made their way to wearables. This is will be critical platform as more and more wearable devices try to act as standalone computers, such as the new LTE Apple Watch Series 3. People are purchasing such devices with the intent of going for a run or a swim without their phone, meaning they may not be able to use Spotify. This could ultimately convince less dedicated users to switch services, or moat them into a different service.
While Apple Watch and Apple Music is probably a lost battle, it is only a matter of time before Fitbit, Garmin, and others try to follow suit. Spotify needs to have a presence in this space. Ideally, like I predicted above, they also push to have dedicated Spotify Connect abilities with headphones. Bose and Sony, who both boast high-end, high-tech, wireless headphones, would be a great place to start.
Fixing recommendations for the few statistical anomallies
Without going into too much detail and making this a technical article, Spotify’s recommendations mostly come from other people’s playlists and listening trends. That means if most people listen to A, B, and C, but I only listens to A and B, then I probably get C on my Discover Weekly.
This is usually a good assumption. It certainly should cover most users.
However, when I find someone who doesn’t use Spotify, I consistently get the reason of “it doesn’t get me.” This is where algorithm’s like Pandora’s aforementioned Music Genome shine, and why they still have a market interested in their product.
From my loose user interviews, it seems like there could be a sizable market to obtain by putting some R&D into analyzing actual segments of songs for truly similar sounding songs, instead of recommendations based mostly on listening correlations.
Spotify is at the scale that they can do more than play their strengths. They already fixed how to randomly shuffle songs, which doesn’t matter much if you are on a new or updated playlist (if you’ve never heard a song before, aren’t they all random?) It is time to focus on the user decision making that drives people to competitors, and adapt accordingly.
Replace record labels
People like Taylor Swift have previously made PR statements that she won’t put her music on Spotify because it doesn’t give artists enough money.
Well, that’s not quite the truth. The record label middlemen take a big cut too.
To keep costs low for consumers, make artist payouts high, and provide the music selection many users demand, Spotify needs to figure out how to make Record Companies lose their market sway. Tons of artists have made their own labels — why not Spotify?
At the very least, start with consolidating the resources into a defined suite, like how Google did with their advertising stack to replace traditional advertising giants.
This doesn’t sound like a product move on the surface, but it is. Artist selection can define the product in the music tech industry. And when artists like Taylor Swift opt out for financial reasons, a product team needs to assess how to build a more complete library.
Netflix solved their library issue by making their own content, which is a comparable move to making a record label. Now Netflix originals are some of my favorite content (Black Mirror anyone?)
Beat or buy SoundCloud
In response to SoundCloud layoffs, Chance the Rapper sprung into action.
Chance’s soft spot isn’t unique. Him and many other big artists claim their first traction came from SoundCloud.
If the single person who curates RapCaviar picks your track, you become instantly famous. If not, you need to hustle.
On SoundCloud, hustling means fighting for likes and reposts. It means opting into licensing your track for people to use for free in their vlogs. On Spotify, there is no way to directly propel your music forward.
SoundCloud is already financially struggling (hence the layoffs.) Either buy them cheap (if possible,) or figure out an in-platform mechanism for artists to self-promote their way to success (also then hopefully keeping them away from record label middle-men from the start.)
Ultimately a product expansion in this direction will help funnel more indie music into Spotify, which is the life-blood of current user acquistition and retention sub-products like RapCaviar. I currently have about an 80/20 split of listening between Spotify and other services like SoundCloud and Bandcamp. Ideally Spotify would have enough in-flow of new music that this could all come from one app.
Spotify is so much more than a music service, and its success is very traceable to key strategic decisions. Spotify has essentially reinvented how people interact with playlists, making them widely used tools for discovery, curation, and sharing. Whether you want to listen to one of the curated, awesome playlists, your own playlists, or just from your entire library, Spotify can be accessed on essentially every piece of hardware that can connect to the internet, whether that be a voice assistant, a tv, a car, or something else. And when artists use Spotify, they have many tools at their disposal get started, manage their content, and extend their reach.
Spotify has been able to change how millions of people interact with music, making it a more intimate and accessible part of lives like my own. They have built a great product, are conscientious about bringing value to artists, and continue to execute on a great strategy. But best of all, they still have the resources and the room to grow into an even more ubiquitous and impactful music platform. Rock on, Spotify!