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Spotify Kills Discovery With Discovery Tab

The streaming service is superb at many things. But its new feature delivers the opposite effect of what it promises.

Lots of times here on the digital side of Fast Company, we have to make really … fast … decisions about how to cover something if we want to be an early part of the conversation. So we ask, “What’s the big idea?” “Where’s the innovation?” “What’s the problem, and how are these people solving it in a brand new way?” We do this to maintain the expectations of our audience in every piece we write, no matter how long or short, and no matter the medium.

But what happens when someone launches something that claims to do the opposite of what it really does?

That’s been the backchannel discussion here this week as music streaming service Spotify launched new features—Music Graph, Influencers, Collection, Audio Preview, and the Discovery tab. Read Christina Chaey’s report on the specifics here. One takeaway from what this all means is that famous people, like Justin Bieber, will pick music they like and recommend it to their followers via push notification. So you don’t have to go looking once you’ve elected taste-making proxies. You don’t have to even listen to the whole song to decide if you like it once Biebs push-notifies you. Just Audio Preview it. Why would you want to waste time, after all? (In reality, if you’re the type who wants Bieber to pick your music, you’re going to instantly love his choices so hard.)

We reported on these new features in a pretty straight-up way on Fast Company. Christina Chaey went to the launch announcement, where she got to see Frank Ocean perform “Pyramids” (LUCKY) and even tried to share a recorded snippet of the performance via Soundcloud (my recommendation)—until music streaming/sharing company Spotify insisted we take it down because it violated their agreement with Frank. “That was just for people in the room,” a Spotify rep said when I questioned why a portion of something that transpired at a press event would be deemed off the record after the fact.

Bottom line is that we’re interested in this Spotify launch because discovery is something Spotify has struggled with, and watching them try to answer the challenge has been fascinating. All of the company’s new features work toward the goal of making music discovery easy. But should it be? And if something lands in your lap is it really discovered? People say things like, “My one-month old just discovered his thumbs.” But they mean it ironically. Spotify uses the term the same way without a stitch of irony.

Pandora is really to blame for the modern misuse of the word “discovery.” Its Music Genome Project borrowed the term to describe how it learned what you like so you don’t have to look so hard for it. Spotify ran fast and hard with the concept this week, though, for the benefit of the social, stream-happy generation. What they launched is nothing like like discovery, though, despite the name. You’re filtering. You’re sifting. You’re deciding. You’re accepting. But Spotify (along with plenty of others) is investing tens of millions of dollars in its technology and user interface to make sure you barely even have to lift a finger to hear new music. To return to the infant metaphor, it lifts the baby’s hand, pokes out his thumb and shoves it into his mouth for him then calls that “discovery.”

And that’s what good technology does: It eliminates friction to give you what you want instantly. But what if the friction is what makes the goal feel worthwhile? If you have no struggle, you are much more likely to quickly get bored of the music that comes recommended by a robot. Attachment, engagement, emotional connection is replaced by convenience. If you’re ever trying to argue that music these days sucks, then a) you’re old, but b) you might cite as proof the fact that tastemakers are no longer the people who work the hardest to find good music. Those people have been mowed over by publicists, marketers, and partners such as Spotify, whose creators believe really huge stars know best what you should be listening to.

-Hey man have you heard this “Call Me Maybe” song?
No? What’s that? “Oh, Justin Bieber told me to check it out. It’s great.”

Go on a stroll with an old music cooter for second will ya? (Just stay off the lawn!) There was a day, longer than some of my young colleagues at Fast Company can remember, when you’d walk, skate, or take your gas buggy down to a thing called a record store. You’d spend an hour or so there. You might go for one particular album, but you’d spend the rest of the time flipping through others. The big innovation for record stores back then was having a physical station where you could listen to the record or CD before you bought it (like Spotify’s Audio Preview but much longer!). Odds are, you walked out of there with more than you came for. And then you went home, sat down, and probably listened to the whole thing all the way through. And lots of us listened to the record we didn’t expect to buy first. That’s because more was at stake. As a whole, the process of going somewhere to find something you weren’t sure you’d like and then spending a certain amount of money on it made us much more likely to sit with that purchase, to really learn about it and dig out all the nuance. Only then would we share it with friends. I was a college radio DJ. So I’d make trips to the record store or a friend’s apartment where he had a startup record distribution/sales outfit. I’d go shopping so I could listen then share the best of what I’d found with the tens of people who listened to “The Hardcore Show” on Rollins College station WPRK (Winter Park, Florida, holla!).

Spotify totally captures the last part of that concept and amplifies it through social networks. It lets you easily assemble playlists that capture your personality (or a version of your personality) and then share that personality with all of your friends.

The only real discovery going on in Spotify, though, isn’t under the Discovery tab. It’s happening through the Radio function, which takes a song, artist, or album and uses its attributes to suggest others you’ll like. You listen, and if you like a tune, you can add it to a playlist. I love this feature. I used it this morning to find artists and songs similar to those on “El Rey” by The Wedding Present. (For further selections, feel free to watch my Spotify activity on Facebook.)

So if Spotify’s Discovery tab isn’t really about discovery, what is going on there? Music consumption. At the end of all of this discussion that took place in the office following Spotify’s big announcement, we landed on the idea that this is all part of Spotify’s goal to have you spent more time consuming more songs on Spotify—a smart business move even if it isn’t cool. The potential value in all of that data being exchanged has yet to be realized, certainly not by Spotify. But if you get bored of music faster because you’re not really attached to it by more than a push notification, and you go looking for more of it constantly, the data trade grows. Spotify has surely learned a lot from Facebook’s goal of just keeping people on Facebook, constantly sharing more wherever they go. Because when people share, social networks win. Spotify isn’t in the business of music discovery. It’s in the business of high-volume music consumption.

There’s this seminal discovery/recommendation/tastemaking moment involving Nirvana and Kurt Cobain that Sub Pop Records founder Bruce Pavitt recently reminded me of. He was in Europe in 1989 with Nirvana, Mudhoney, and Tad (read about the pivotal tour in Bruce’s iBook, Experiencing Nirvana). It was a Get Him To The Greek kind of experience—Nirvana actually broke up for a few hours and Kurt had a nervous breakdown, because he wasn’t sure he liked the people who liked him. He soldiered on (until ultimately, the same doubts contributed to his demise). But the culmination of the ‘89 tour in Europe was a show in London with all three bands. It might not have been the biggest show in terms of audience size, but the U.K. press was watching Nirvana like hawks—before blogs, those publications across the pond were the world’s tastemakers. And that night in London, they smelled Teen Spirit. So Kurt got on stage in front of all of those influencers and anyone else who cared enough to gamble on the ticket price. And he immediately endorsed a different band: the Vaselines. At the time they’d only sold a few thousand records, tops. But Kurt called them “the best band in the world,” according to Pavitt. Then he and Nirvana played a cover of the Vaselines’ “Molly’s Lips.” As Pavitt said about Kurt’s mentality:

“For him he's like, ‘Okay I got paid a couple hundred bucks tonight, but the real thrill is being able to get on stage and tell the world that this is the greatest band. And I make that call. And I have the vision to see the talent, and I'm sharing that with you, and that's what I'm giving you.’ And that's incredibly satisfying to certain personality types.”

But it’s not the kind of heartfelt, surprising, memorable recommendation you’re going to get on Spotify from Bieber.