Hey Mr. DJ
As folk who spend a lot of time obsessing over playlists, we keep wondering - is AI coming for that job? For years, the major music services have attempted to make personalized playlists for us. Pandora initially did such a good job at it. All you had to do was to pick an artist, or a song, and Pandora would make a radio station from it. Now, all the major services offer some version of this feature. The pitch always sounds like something like "sit back and relax, we'll curate this playlist just for you. We know what you like". The problem with that approach has been that for the real music fans, the ones who enjoy spending time with their collections, either physical or digital, we love deciding what comes next out of the speakers. And what those song choices are depend on a number of factors - mood, audience, location, etc. Those types of music listeners don't want to give up that control - to anyone. Sure, sometimes it's nice to sit back and just listen - like in the car. That's why Sirius XM has so many fans. For many of us, most of the time we're actively listening, actively choosing new music. We want the power of selection. But for some, having the option to press a button and not worry about what's playing it is very appealing. It's good enough and doesn't neeed to be perfect.
Logging into our Spotify this week, we were introduced to their latest DJ can jump to a different genre when you tap the DJ icon. "Let's switch it up" it says. It's a nod to how our brains work - sometimes we want something different. It's pretty slick.
Our DJ started us off with some folk rock - the Avett Brothers "Untitled #4" Most of the next tracks were from artists that we were already recently listening to, all in that genre. That's what Spotify has always done well, to play us tracks by artists it knows that we already like. What it doesn't do as well at, at least in our opinion, is to suggest new music that we like - music discovery. Music discovery is something that is much harder than saying "if you like this song, you might like these other ones also from that band". The process of discovering music is so personal. We tend to listen to new songs suggested by our friends, a radio station we trust, maybe a festival we attended, and other trusted sources. The decision of what we like is an incredibly complex process.
AI lately has even gotten into the business of writing songs. For the artists themselves, making the next song, EP, or album is always the game. It's the creative process that keeps them going. Bands can't play the same material night after night - eventually they get tired of it (even if the fans don't). AI can now write a song, in some cases better than a human can. For now, most of the AI music is mood or theme based. But AI will never be able to get up and play in front of a crowd - to sweat and smile, to be nervous and to interact with the crowd in the way that a human can. And it's that interaction between artist and audience that is the basis of live music. It's what gives it joy.
Give your Spotify DJ a try, and let us know what you think. It's a good step forward to add some personality to an AI playlist. There's no doubt that these products will continue to evolve and improve. And for many people, they solve the problem of not knowing what to listen to next.
But for now at least, we'll keep making our own mixes. It's just too much fun. We mostly like our own playlists for one simple fact - that they are ours.