BEAT CHECK: Music Ally’s new regular opinion column, offering a more personal take on music-tech news, trends and technologies.
Tasty. Yearning. Fancy. Fresh. Permanent Wave. Circus. Birds.
No, not my Tinder bio or LinkedIn endorsements. This is who I am musically, as assessed by Spotify’s all-knowing algorithms after scraping my streaming history. Additionally I’m a Club Classics all-day-long kinda guy. Which is good to know.
Last week, Spotify launched its new ‘daylist’ feature. It’s a personalised playlist that refreshes every few hours with a new selection of tracks based on your past listening at that time of day.
The obvious thing to do: spend a week with ‘daylist’ to see what it says about me, but more importantly, what it says about Spotify’s ability to understand its listeners. Let’s get this started.
club classics old school dance tuesday morning
Club classics! A phrase I’ve always associated with middle-aged men (always men) boring on about why the dance music of their youth was so much better than this modern-day rubbish.
I’m not sure why I’m being recommended thi… Oh, wait. I’m 46 now. Shit. Is this what I have become?
In fairness, the algorithm has me bang to rights, serving up peak-90s Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx and the classic-est club classic of all (‘Groovejet’ – no I’m not taking feedback on this view, it’s much better than this modern-day rubb… Oh. Oh no.)
That said: Tuesday morning? I don’t think it’s my usual nostalgia arms-aloft dancefloor time. But it’s a refreshingly-breezy start for ‘daylist’. Now let’s see how varied it gets later in the day…
club classics old school dance tuesday afternoon
Is it too early to feel pigeonholed? More Basement Jaxx, the boshier end of Groove Armada’s output (i.e. not the trumpet one) and more 90s dancefloor-fillers.
housey 2-step Tuesday afternoon
LET’S HAVE A LITTLE DANCE SHALL WE? Sorry, what? We’re on a work Zoom call and this is inappropriate and distracting? Sorry.
fancy revival music for this moment
It is 5.04am. I’m not feeling very fancy if I’m honest. A more suitable ‘daylist’ might be ‘i wish whatever bird that’s singing loudly outside the window would fly off back to its nest wednesday morning’.
But no, ‘fancy revival music for this moment’ which the ‘daylist’ description explains is a mixture of fancy music (?), revival music (??), art pop (really? at 5am?) and disco (always welcome, but likewise).
concerto alternative wednesday morning
According to the description, the latest refresh is based on me listening to “greatest love and lyricism on Wednesday mornings”. Which puts Whitney Houston on my internal jukebox immediately.
But no: “Here’s some concerto, alternative, and after-punk.”
As far as I can tell, I’ve never streamed any of the tracks or artists on this refresh of ‘daylist’ – on Wednesday mornings or at any other time.
That’s disconcerting, although it’s at this point I start leaning in to the fact that you can tap on all the genres mentioned in the description to go to their specific ‘niche mix’ playlists.
What IS concerto, as a genre? A tap reveals the answer: Coldplay and Harry Styles sitting alongside Chopin, Beethoven and – this makes me hoot out loud in delight – ‘We Are Fucking Fucked’ by Muse.
healing windows down wednesday afternoon
A change of emphasis with Taylor Swift, boygenius and 2023’s greatest-by-a-distance power ballad (Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘vampire’) in a playlist that actually feels perfect for the moment. Maybe I am healing!
garage drum wednesday evening
And now I am exercising. By good fortune, the ‘daylist’ flip comes as I’m gingerly stepping onto an eliptical machine at the gym. It turns out Nia Archives is absolutely perfect for flailing about in a sweaty mess.
Is this just luck, though? It strikes me that ‘day/time’ is quite a blunt object when it comes to listening context.
Sometimes I’m at the gym on a Wednesday evening, but sometimes I’m flopped on the sofa reading a book. Garage drums wouldn’t be quite as useful then.
reflective cover wednesday evening
And lo, a book-reading soundtrack hoves into view. “You listened to heartbeat on Wednesday evenings. Here’s some: cover, birds, reflective, laid back, relaxing, and quiet.”
Wait. Birds? Birds! BIRDS?! What is birds, as a musical genre? I tap through to the Birds Mix (if you’re on Spotify, you have one too) to find out.
Well, some of the songs mention birds, I guess. ‘Hummingbird’ by Anish Kumar, ‘Magpie’ by Lava La Rue and ‘Chicken Payback’ by The Bees (which is presumably birds AND bees music…) are all tracks I’ve liked that are included. But the rest of the tracks appear bird-free. Peculiar.
Tapping back to ‘daylist’ I realise that quite a few tracks in the latest refresh are either Nick Drake, or off a new Nick Drake covers album that I listened to on holiday recently while reading the latest biography of him.
It’s not unwelcome, but it feels quite a weak signal for Spotify’s algorithm to be using: less ‘you listen to this on Wednesday evenings’ and more ‘you listened to this on one Wednesday evening recently’.
light dream early morning
“You listened to acoustic in the early morning. Here’s some alternative country, light, hazy, cover, and yearning.”
It is 5.49. The only thing I am yearning for is to be back to sleep. Perhaps this refresh will help promptly falls asleep one track in
relaxing pop rock thursday morning
“You listened to belpop and lounge on Thursday mornings. Here’s some nederpop, relaxing, and alternative”
Belpop? Ah, Belgian Pop. I have been listening a lot to an album by a Belgian artist recently – Isolde Lasoen (she’s brilliant) – but that’s another single signal for the algorithm, rather than a long-term habit.
Still, the low-countries mix served up by ‘daylist’ has some good stuff I’ve never heard before. And the fact that there’s a band called Roosbeef is a bonus.
arabic oud acid jazz thursday afternoon
I may be Club Classics Man on Tuesdays, but on Thursdays I’m Arabic Oud Acid Jazz Man. Nice.
The latest refresh is based on my listening to chanson and kleinkunst, both of which I have to look up. The latter is a Dutch-language genre from the Netherlands and Flanders, so it continues the day’s theme.
Roosbeef are present and correct, as are Goose (shouldn’t they be on the Birds Mix?) and – rather randomly – ‘Overload’ by Sugababes. Another track that’s always welcome, but the Dutch influence escapes me.
progressive rock evening
I have loved the Black Crowes since I was a teenager, but this is the first time any human (or algorithm) has described them as prog rock. If Chris Robinson orders a curry next time the band are jamming on-stage, I’ll bow to the ‘daylist’ verdict though.
indie alternative friday afternoon
Having taken the morning off ‘daylist’ the afternoon refresh informs me that I have listened to “tasty and underground” music on Friday afternoons in the past, and serves up another selection of artists and tracks I’ve never heard before.
Is it tasty? Work is busy so it washes over me: my ears close when I’m writing. A free pass for the algorithm to play any old rubbish it likes without criticism.
chill rock 90s indie friday evening
Placing the Chemical Brothers next to the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ would feel knowing if done by a human (although a point better made with the Chems’ ‘Setting Sun’).
However, I’m not sure either has been described as chill rock or 90s indie before…
club classics old school dance saturday morning
OI OI (again). You can’t argue with Mason ft. Princess Superstar, Spiller ft Sophie Ellis Bextor, Confidence Man and Azealia Banks bangers in quick succession. Even if the activity they’re accompanying is unloading the supermarket shop.
club classics old school dance saturday afternoon
And you can’t argue with ‘Ride On Time’, ‘Horny’, ‘Turn Around’, ‘U Don’t Know Me’, ‘Dreamer’ and ‘Bingo Bango’ in quick succession. Even if the activity they’re accompanying is cleaning the bathroom.
fresh concerto early morning
More concerto. More Chemical Brothers. And a salute to the musician who came up with the name ‘DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ’. Then I forget to check ‘daylist’ for the rest of the day.
floaty ambient monday early morning
I’m not Club Classics Man any more: I’m Man Who Listens to Abstract and Contemporary Music on Monday Mornings now. Age (and pretentiousness) comes to us all.
‘daylist’ prescribes James Blake, Toro y Moi and a range of other tracks that are floaty, if not ambient. It’s good working music (i.e. no, I can’t remember any of it).
funky groovin monday morning
“You listened to circus on Monday mornings,” explains ‘daylist’ in its latest refresh. “Here’s some: groovin, funky, after-punk, indie dance, and circus.”
Groovin without a g! Circus! I’m not sure what links Confidence Man, Cate Le Bon, The Smile, Supergrass and Basement Jaxx. Maybe they all dress up as clowns or tame lions at the weekend.
dark concerto monday evening
Not just concerto music, but dark concerto music. Quite a bit of which comes from that Nick Drake covers album again. You wouldn’t have caught him in a clown outfit.
relaxing pop rock monday night
I greet Roosbeef like a new old friend, as ‘daylist’ slips back into its belpop and nederpop clothing.
It still feels based on a relatively weak signal – that one Isolde Lasoen album – but in this case it’s paid off. I do like a lot of the Belgian and Dutch artists featured in the latest refresh, and it’s hard to think of how I’d have discovered them otherwise.
So… what have we learned?
As Tuesday morning’s ‘laid back neo soul’ refresh plays, I take stock.
It’s interesting that a week spent with a playlist built around ‘you usually listen to’ data has exposed me to lots of artists and tracks (and, indeed, micro-genres) that I haven’t knowingly listened to before. It wasn’t the over-cosy ‘things you like and know well’ experience I was expecting.
In turn, that made me think about the nature of listening. ‘daylist’ may seem like it’s a passive, lean-back thing: a playlist to be stuck on in the background. But I found myself regularly tapping through to explore the niche mixes, saving a bunch of tracks and following a number of artists.
Maybe that’s because I was paying more attention due to writing this article, but I think there’s a wider truth here: that if you’re a lean-forward music fan, you’ll actively discover things even when using a ‘passive’ listening mode on a streaming service.
The various DSPs have improved in terms of the context they provide around their playlists. In this case Spotify – where the ‘daylist’ has flipped to ‘electroclash indie disco tuesday morning’ as I write this – now does a better job of putting the artist bios, lyrics and tour dates on its Now Playing screen (or in a sidebar on the desktop).
Concerns? I wonder if there’s a bit of recency bias in the workings of this playlist: entire refreshes that feel like they’re based on a single thing you listened to recently, rather than your habits over a longer time.
I also worry a bit about the risks of cementing its understanding. That playing its belpop-driven refresh on a Thursday morning simply reinforces that data, and ensures that from now on every Thursday is belpop morning.
This, of course, can’t be judged on a single week’s listening: hopefully the ‘daylist’ algorithm is sophisticated enough not to box listeners in like that. We’ll find out over the coming weks.
Time/day also feels like quite a blunt way of understanding what I might want to listen to, especially as ‘daylist’ refreshes every few hours.
A single refresh might cover a period where I’m working, then going to the gym, then cooking, then reading. A single playlist can’t cover all four activities.
One vision of the future might work in more signals to this kind of thing: location data to understand whether you’re at home, on your commute, in the gym etc, and even biometric data to understand whether you’re sitting down, on your feet, moving around…
But that’s a sensitive topic: if a service like Spotify requests this kind of data, people worry about the privacy implications.
That’s what happened in 2015 when it sought to widen the data it collected on listeners, sparked a backlash, and apologised. And it’s also what happened in 2021, when a Spotify patent for using speech technology to gauge listeners’ emotions came to light. In this case, the backlash led to Spotify saying it had no plans to use the technology.
So, a through-the-day personalised playlist like ‘daylist’ can only go so far in its understanding of what you’re doing right now, as opposed to what you might usually be doing around this time.
Perhaps ChatGPT-style conversational interfaces are the next development here. You’ll tell your music app what you’re doing and how you’re feeling.
‘I’ve had a shitty day at work and I’m tired, but I’ve gone to the gym anyway, and I need some properly angry rock music to rouse me please’ – and ‘daylist’ (or whatever this kind of feature becomes on the various services) refreshes immediately.
But that’s for the future. Right now, Spotify’s ‘daylist’ can – like any recommendation algorithm – strike bum notes with its suggestions. I’m also not entirely convinced that somewhere in the depths of its code, there isn’t an AI hallucinating some of the micro-genres being served up. Birds!
But it’s also an interesting iteration in music personalisation, and a better pointer than you might think towards artists, tracks and genres that you’re unfamiliar with.
Oh, and one more thing. The lack of capital letters in ‘daylist’ and its refresh titles really bugs me. But I guess that’s exactly what Gen-Z would expect Club Classics Man to say in 2023…