Insights into people’s weird relationship with music from a year of sending personalized song picks

I’m pretty nuts, there’s no denying it. I’ve accepted it and so have most of the people around me. My nuttiness became increasingly apparent one year ago today when I accidentally launched my passion project, A Song A Day.

(Side note 1: It’s even more apparent now that I’ve been running it for a year.)

A year ago, A Song A Day was an idea I had on a run. It was just a simple landing page with a sign up form for a few hours — between the time I went to bed and the time I tweeted it the next morning. A few hours later, that sign up form was connected to a spreadsheet of 500+ people wanting their personalized song recommendations.

A Song A Day went from being a mailing list for friends to a true side project with a community of hundreds of people within three hours, thanks to the power of Twitter (thx again Nathan Bashaw!) and Product Hunt (thx Jesse Middleton!). More on that here if interested.

(Side note 2: We’re having a birthday party in Brooklyn tonight and you should totally come!)

I tried to send each of these people personalized song recommendations at first. Then I broke them into fairly granular groups, still going at it alone. That obviously wasn’t sustainable.

Fortunately, I have friends, colleagues and internet friends (and strangers) who were not about to let me burn out. More so, they really wanted to share their beloved music discoveries while finding new tunes for other people. Can’t blame them for wanting to join the crazy party.

Today, we’re a community of 45 curators sending songs to 3,000 people. Listeners are broken out into 36 groups based on their favorite songs, bands and any additional info they share with us. We also have a super group of more than 800 people who want a song from a different genre each day.

With more than 450 people who’ve signed up to be a curator, we‘re excited to eventually get more granular with our groups and continue to build, scale and nurture this community. Yes, you can scale and nurture something. Anyway, here’s what I’ve learned about people’s relationship to music…and human behavior in general.

A year = 4,500+ listener’s data analyzed

Here comes the really crazy part. Ready for it?

To match our listeners to our curators, I personally (sometimes with the help of friends — looking at you Maria Bhim and Danielle Fleischman) go through each listener’s preferences and match them to the most appropriate curator or group of two curators.

I kind of lost track of some of our churned listeners, but I’ve read somewhere around 4,500 rows of listener’s preferences.

Sometimes the task is easy because I’m familiar with the bands and songs that listeners share, and I know what our curators send like the back of my hand. (I listen to each week.) But this is pretty rare.

For everyone else, I google their favorite two songs listed, then the bands listed, then I read any additional info provided.

“I like some folk, some jazz, a little bit of swing, and some solid classic rock”

This is where it gets really interesting. I’ll show you instead of telling you:

Wait, it gets better…

and better…

Lots of diversity here. I might know what “Melbourne sounds” means, because I listen to a lot of bands out of Melbourne, but that doesn’t mean much. Many of these required research. The beautiful part is that now I know what chiptunes (a type of electronic music) and dnb (bass and drums, btw — is that obvious?) are.

Needless to say, I’ve come across some notes that have left me baffled, but isn’t that the fun of it? Plus, now I have a ton of Brazilian and Afropunk music in my collection. I’ve listened to music from around the world, and so have our curators.

When we first launched, I spent hours upon hours learning about these different types of music, then finding the most underground artists I could for each sub-genre, which were defined by my own crack-pot rules. Again, this project takes a crazy person — and it was so much fun. The tough part was that I had a full-time job and I really love sleep.

Now, we have curators who are either experts in these areas or are really excited to learn more about them for our listeners. However, this doesn’t solve all of our listeners needs. That’d be too easy.

What, a human really curated this? Guess I’ll cut you a break

Some listeners want really specific types of music and only that type of music. This is a pretty simple request to fulfill, we just match them with the curator who best fits their interests. Most of these listeners appreciate when our curators send a song out of left field, it’s actually their favorite part of the service. But then, of course there’s some who don’t.

I love it when this happens, because they send really angry emails accusing us of being “another shitty algorithm.” Then I or the curator being accused responds explaining the reason behind that song pick (sometimes it’s simply a human error…whoops) and we offer to move them to a different group or promise to not go so extreme for a while. Naturally, these listeners start singing a different tune (haha, see what I did there?). They’re so happy to get a human response, that they apologize and thank us for our hard work.

I still actually talk to some of these people often — they’re probably our most loyal listeners!

Eclectic isn’t always eclectic, and random doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone

I’ve learned that sometimes when people say that their tastes are “eclectic,” it really means that they like indie rock and rap, and only indie rock and rap. Or they like only blues and jazz or only lo-fi and indie, other times, it means they like ten types of electronic music…you get the point.

Usually I’d put people who claim to have eclectic tastes into “random,” since that group gets a different genre each day. Nope, that usually doesn’t solve the problem. I even get emails from people who selected the “random” option saying that the songs don’t match their preferences.

You see, they want a random genre, but within certain confines. Some people love it when I send a hip hop song, others specifically request that I don’t. It’s a strange situation to be in. Where do you draw that line? I definitely don’t blame them for wanting what they want.

This is super interesting to me and something I’m dying to experiment more with. I want to be able to send someone a blues song one day, punk the next, acid jazz the following, and so on. I want someone to be able to select “random, but no hip hop please” as an option.

Unfortunately, without tech in place and with me not working on this full-time, we just don’t have the resources. However, most people are pretty understanding. Others unsubscribe, which I still definitely take personally…apparently it takes more than a year to get over that one.

To play it safe or to not play it safe…

About that random group. I typically play it fairly safe with them, always sharing some variation of rock, indie, electronic, some gentle hip hop, maybe a world or jazz song here or there. Every now and then I really switch it up with some crazy shit.

The reactions can be very different sometimes. Of course, only a small percentage (maybe 3%) actually respond to tell me how they feel about their songs. Some unsubscribe when we send something crazy, some don’t say a word. Every now and then, I’ll get a note saying something to the effect of “just want to let you know that I’ve been quiet, but have really enjoyed the picks you guys send. I like about 50% of them, but love listening to something new even if I don’t like it.”

That right there is what this service is about. You’re not going to love every single song we send, we’re human after all with tastes and opinions that are different from yours. You will, however, consume a lot of new music and if you want, have a conversation about it.

“My favorite bands are Coldplay, U2, and The Beatles”

I love these listeners. Correct me if you’re one of them and I am wrong, but these folks don’t really know what they want.

They haven’t listened to new music since the early 2000s and they never really strayed away from the mainstream. However, they’re totally open to discovering new music — it’s why they sign up!

I usually start these listeners in indie rock, pop rock, or random, until they slowly start sharing feedback about the sent songs. They openly share what they did or did not like about a track, allowing me to get a glimpse into what they really like about music. From there, I move them to a more specific curator, collect more feedback and repeat the process if necessary until we help them nail down what they’re looking for.

I should note here that feedback is given by hitting reply to the emails and talking to me, which I then forward to curators. We would love both a quantitative rating system and a way for curators to communicate directly, we just don’t have the proper product in place (more on that later).

Music is so subjective and so many elements factor in to preferences on any given day

There’s been a few times where I really thought I made an awesome match, but they were still unhappy. This goes to show that a) music is subjective and it’s entirely possible for two people to listen to the same thing and hear something completely different; and b) several factors can play into what someone wants to listen to that day.

Go back and look at the screengrabs of the Additional Info column of our database above. Many people want music based on their mood or how it makes them feel. They want happy music, sad music, music for a sports team (a real request), music with soft voices, music for focusing…all these things can mean different things to anyone.

I don’t know if we’ll ever solve for the mood or environmental requests. Maybe we will. For now, I think it’s interesting to simply observe why people turn to music and what they really want from it.

Even people who are too busy, love sharing music finds

It makes my freaking day when a listener replies to a song and says something like this:

This happens often. Music makes people happy, and people like to make other people happy. I think a part of it is listeners showing their appreciation for the free service we offer. I think there’s also a certain level of bonding that happens among strangers when you are sharing something as personal as music, which brings me to…

Getting to know strangers through music

Many of our listeners undoubtedly feel like they know their curators. Not all, but most of our curators share a note with each song. These notes can say absolutely anything from “fast forward past the intro to 0:25” to a note about how a song reminds the curator of someone special and why.

We’re building relationships with one another. Not in a creepy, online dating way, but in a very sweet, let’s talk about music type of way. It’s a powerful thing to watch.

Music brings people together

A few listeners have shared that they get together with their coworkers and listen to and compare each other’s song picks when they get into work. Married couples have also shared that they listen to their songs over their Sunday paper and coffee. I’m getting teary-eyed just typing it. The fact that our simple service brings people together to have a conversation over the work of artists that we love…it’s just really special to me.

The most buried lead ever

Update: Our Kickstarter was not successfully funded, but 371 people did pledge $14.2k, so we moved our campaign over to Indiegogo. I appreciate your support more than words could express.

Some people are picky as shit, others just enjoy getting new music from a human and learning more about the artist behind it. Eventually, I’d like to make everyone happy, but for now, we’re doing the best we can, which brings me to my ask.

We’re currently running a Kickstarter campaign and only have one week left. We’re 34% funded, which is honestly kind of scary, but I have faith that with enough hustle, we’ll get there. But we need your help. My ask is that you either pledge whatever you can, or share the campaign with one person that you think will love A Song A Day and what it stands for. People who love discovering new and unique music.

If the campaign is funded, we’ll be able to start working on sending people more specialized songs and adding features such as playlists and a weekly option — or let people choose what time the email is delivered. The service will always be simple, that’s the beauty in it, but we can do so, so much more to build this community and share even more undiscovered music!

If it’s not funded, I’ll find a way to keep it going. It means too much to me not to. This project has taught me so many lessons about myself and others, and has brought me so much meaning and so many important friendships. I honestly don’t know if I could function without it. However, a day off would be cool. ;)

All that said, I’m wishing you a happy birthday, A Song A Day. I love you.

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