Tired of seeing the same six artists on Spotify? So was I.

I’ve heard about how great Spotify’s discover feature is for years, but it’s never been enough to pull me from Apple Music. One day, I realized: why not just improve it myself?

Nasha Torres
Feb 19 · 9 min read

Spotify has over a million artists on their platform, yet the same big names routinely dominate the discovery sections of the app. Take a closer look, and you’ll find the problem is even worse than it appears: four million songs currently listed on Spotify have never been heard. There’s even a product to showcase these “forgotten” songs. For every Billie Eilish or Post Malone, there’s a fantastic artist out there that no one is listening to.

I’m no stranger to the trials and tribulations of small-time artists, I understand how difficult it is to get your music heard. I’m involved in local radio, I’m out almost every weekend at a show, and I have close friends who have self-published on Spotify. I’m lucky enough to be in a city where the scene is emerging and established. For artists who aren’t, Spotify is so close to being the perfect platform to begin their careers. They just need to add Spotify Local.

Discovering the discovery algorithm

Understanding Spotify Local requires a deep dive into how discovery currently works on the platform. There are three major avenues a user can take to find new music:

  1. Algorithmic playlists (Daily Mix, Made for You)
  2. Spotify-made playlists (Women of Indie, Undercurrents)
  3. Curated recommendations on the home screen (Similar to…, Based on your recent listening)

Open up your app to find any one of these, though, and you never know what you’re going to get. Spotify cycles the content on their homepage daily, making the discovery process confusing and sometimes even frustrating.

Notice how the content doesn’t match between the left screen and the right. These screenshots were taken on different phones and different accounts, but the same day.

There’s something else worth noting in that image: a focus on playlists and albums. Spotify heavily pushes these, and in turn falls short in promoting individual artists. By continuing to move in this direction, Spotify has become a playlist-oriented app.

Even when Spotify does promote an artist, it’s usually someone who doesn’t need the boost. Throughout the app, you’ll see the same billboard chart toppers again and again. Sure, promoting Grammy–winning artists is nice, but they shouldn’t be the only ones in the spotlight.

One of the first curated recommendations you see on the home screen (left) highlights the top hits. Again, all big names. Even under the “Indie” category (right), Spotify still recommends Tame fucking Impala. You get it…

Evaluating the competition

Spotify’s competitors are well known: Apple Music, Google Play, and Bandcamp. Breaking down their discovery is important in understanding larger design patterns and common user experiences.

Apple Music, being Spotify’s largest competitor, was an obvious place to start. They have three primary methods of music discovery:

  1. For You (Based off of your listening patterns)
  2. Browse (Introducing top artists and popular playlists)
  3. Beats 1 Radio (Human-curated)

Beats 1 Radio provides a fascinating comparison, as it’s human–curated. This can lead to some unique musical recommendations, based on the taste of whoever’s on air, but this discovery format still falls into the same trap. Apple Music has a multitude of methods for users to discover new music, but they, like Spotify, continually emphasize already well-known artists.

Google Play Music may not have the market share of Apple Music or Spotify, but its recommendation system has some interesting features that make it worth an audit. Play Music’s recommendation engine thrives on front loading information. Right off the bat, the app asks for your favorite artists and genres to create a baseline for your music taste. It sounds fantastic, until you find the catch — every artist they offer up is yet another Billboard big name. Seriously, who still listens to Eminem?

Play Music could have brought something really innovative to the table: recommendations that don’t take time to catch up to your listening. Instead, they force-feed their algorithm the same mainstream artists, causing it to churn out the same major label picks as the competition.

Bandcamp’s music discovery is filter-based, allowing the user to fine–tune their recommendations. They provide a heartening contrast to the listener count fixation of Spotify and Apple Music: Bandcamp has always been just a half step above Soundcloud in terms of artist scale, and their suggested artists are fittingly unknown.

How Spotify Local fits in

After evaluating existing products and areas of opportunity, it’s apparent that Spotify Local would be a major benefit to listeners interested in discovering new music. When developing new functionality for any existing app, though, it’s important to keep the user’s accessibility in mind. In balancing a two-day work stream with the enormity of Spotify’s information architecture, the following access points proved most effective.

There are six primary access points on the platform through which a user can discover new music. Spotify Local is designed in such a way that it can be injected into any of these areas without disrupting existing user flows. Each location, however, requires a different level of user effort.

After mapping out the flows and pain points of each method of access, the Home and main search pages provide the lowest access barriers for Spotify Local users. As many Spotify users have grown accustomed to the existing home page, the main search page proves to be the optimal location for integrating this new feature.

Smaller design decisions

With experience comes a certain efficiency in working. For me, that efficiency comes from tackling mocks and prototypes early in the design process. Rather than wasting time with mood boards and interviews, it made sense to leverage Spotify’s existing design system and build on top of it.

“Top Artists” Redesigned

Though Joywave is now a “bigger” band, I used them as an example because they’re still very involved in the Rochester music scene and supporting smaller Rochester artists.

While Spotify primarily highlights albums and playlists, they do promote artists on discovery pages. They’re differentiated with a circular frame, but this isn’t enough to prevent them from being lost in a UI full of similar-looking content. By allocating more screen real estate to artist profiles, the user is more directly drawn in. This has the added benefit of establishing a clear visual hierarchy for the page.

Collections for you

Spotify’s Daily Mixes are a master class in bringing the new in alongside the old. By shuffling new recommendations into a list of old favorites, the algorithm demonstrates the links between tracks — and why a user should enjoy the songs they’re just now discovering. Implementing similar functionality in Local was a no-brainer.

Unlike the existing Daily Mixes, the Collections for You functionality selects songs and artists exclusively from the Local section. Additionally, it updates weekly rather than daily. With a smaller pool of artists to pick from, it made sense to give users more time to sift through their recommendations. Collections for You gives users a personal touch to their recommendations — not just artists near them, but artists near them that they’ll actually like.

Locals also like

The existing Fans Also Like functionality is one of Spotify’s strongest discovery mechanisms, despite being buried within individual artist pages. By bringing a version of this feature into Local, users can now discover music in their area — even if it’s from artists who aren’t necessarily from their location.

“Liked artists” bucket

Spotify has long had the ability for users to follow an artist. Yet, for many, this comes with the fear of a notification barrage. What if a user wants to save an artist, but not keep tabs on their every single, EP, album, or song release? Through the new Liked Artists category, users now have the ability to bookmark an artist that they’d like to return to — without hearing about every new t-shirt design they decide to sell.

Key Features

While the goal of the project was primarily to add local artist discovery to Spotify, an audit of the app’s UX surfaced two major opportunities to improve user flows.

Browse All

In introducing a new feature, it’s important that it feels intuitive to the user. With the proliferation of swipe-based apps in the wake of Tinder, users are now accustomed to right-for-like, left-for-dislike functionality. Integrating this simple method of tagging artists into a discovery platform was a more elegant solution than devising a proprietary system for reacting to recommendations.

In this swipe UI demonstration, the artist’s genre and profile image are prominently displayed. If a user swipes up for more information, they’re served a list of song samples to get a feel for the artist displayed.

Not seen in this prototype is a more granular view of discovery preferences: genre, play history, nearby concerts, and location-radius searching. Introducing these filters to the Spotify discovery ecosystem gives users more precise control over the music finding process, leading to better results down the line.

Changing location

If you’ve ever moved to a new city, you know the things you want to find out before you arrive: Nearby hospitals, how the schools are, where you can find the best breakfast tacos. Why not also learn about the local music scene?

Spotify Local is primarily based on a user’s geolocation, so it moves when listeners do. By simply adding a city field, this functionality is expanded massively in scale. What are the hot new tracks in Nashville? Now it’s easier than ever to find out.

I thought it’d be most efficient to prototype the “onboarding,” as the interaction is already implied. Also, massive shout out to Joywave for being awesome.

Access Points

Users that are lucky enough to be in a city where local artists end up recommended on Spotify’s home screen will find an added feature built in to Local. Artists based near a user’s geolocation will appear throughout the app with a gradient ring around their profile, signifying that they’re a local group. This serves not only to draw the user’s eye to local groups, but as a reminder that the Local functionality is always available.

Business Advantages

Sure, Spotify Local is neat, but Spotify is a business. They need to make profits, please shareholders, maximize ROI — you know the drill. Implementing new features costs time, money, and resources that could be otherwise allocated within the organization. How does Spotify Local prove its worth?

The music streaming market is fairly saturated, with competitors each carving out unique niches to own. Tidal is the streaming service for audiophiles, while Bandcamp is for listeners who have strong opinions on when Tame Impala got too mainstream. Apple Music plays nice with Apple devices, Google Play Music lets users host their own library. This leaves Spotify as the streaming service for users who want to discover new music. It’s a role they embody excellently, but one that can easily be snatched away.

Algorithmic music suggestions are a difficult core competency to leverage. As soon as a competitor figures out the right combination of factors to fuel the machine learning fire, Spotify’s competitive advantage goes up in smoke. Thus, in order to maintain their edge, they need to constantly iterate on their discovery process. Implementing Spotify Local creates a massive delta between them and the next closest competitor — keeping their crown safe, and keeping premium subscribers coming back.

Conclusion

Spotify has the opportunity to elevate local artists on the platform. Spotify Local isn’t just a new feature — it’s a new way for musicians to share their craft and for users to discover new music right around the corner from them. These mocks merely scratch the surface of what Spotify can do for local artists. A real commitment on their part opens the door for myriad opportunities to elevate these independent musicians — and for listeners to discover their next favorite band.

Nasha Torres

Written by

4th year design student at RIT. More work here: www.nashatorres.com

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