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[This is the script from a talk I delivered at the EMP Pop Conference today. It was written to be read aloud at an intentionally headlong pace, with somewhat-carefully timed blasts of interstitial music. I've included playable clip-links for the songs here, but the clips are usually from the middles of the songs, and I was playing the beginnings of them in the talk, so it's different. The whole playlist is here, although playing it as a standalone thing would make no sense at all.]  

 

I used to take software jobs to be able to buy records, but buying records is now a way to hear all the world's music like collecting cars is a way to see more of the solar system.  

So now I work at Spotify as a zookeeper for playlist-making robots. Recommendation robots have existed for a while now, but people have mostly used them for shopping. Go find me things I might want to buy. "You bought a snorkel, maybe you'd like to buy these other snorkels?"  

But what streaming music makes possible, which online music stores did not, is actual programmed music experiences. Instead of trying to sell you more snorkels, these robots can take you out to swim around with the funny-looking fish.  

And as robots begin to craft your actual listening experience, it is reasonable, and maybe even morally imperative, to ask if a playlist robot can have an authorial voice, and, if so, what it is?  

The answer is: No. Robots have no taste, no agenda, no soul, no self. Moreover, there is no robot. I talk about robots because it's funny and gives you something you can picture, but that's not how anything really happens.  

How everything really happens is this: people listen to songs. Different people listen to different songs, and we count which ones, and then try to use computers to do math to find patterns in these numbers. That's what my job actually involves. I go to work, I sit down at my desk (except I actually stand at my fancy Spotify standing desk, because I heard that sitting will kill you and if you die you miss a lot of new releases), and I type computer programs that count the actions of human listeners and do math and produce lists of songs.  

So when anybody talks about a fight between machines and humans in music recommendation, you should know that those people do not know what the fuck they are talking about. Music recommendations are machines "versus" humans in the same way that omelets are spatulas "versus" eggs.  

So the good news is that you can stop worrying that robots are trying to poison your listening. But the bad news is that you can start worrying about food safety and whether the people operating your spatulas have the faintest idea what food is supposed to taste like.  

Because data makes some amazing things possible, but it also makes terrible, incoherent, counter-productive things possible. And I'm going to tell you about some of them.  

Counting is the most basic kind of math, and yet even just counting things usefully, in music streaming, is harder than you probably think. For example, this is the most streamed track by the most streamed artist on Spotify:  

Various Artists "Kelly Clarkson on Annie Lennox"  

Do you recognize the band? They are called "Various Artists", and that is their song "Kelly Clarkson on Annie Lennox", from their album Women in Music - 2015 Stories.  

But OK, that's obviously not what we meant. We just need to exclude short commentary tracks, and then this is the most streamed music track by the most streamed artist on Spotify:  

Various Artists "El Preso"  

Except that's "Various Artists" again. The most streamed music track by an actual artist on Spotify is:  

Rihanna "Work"  

OK, so that's starting to make some sense. Pretty much all exercises in programmatic music discovery begin with this: can you "discover" Rihanna?  

Spotify just launched in Indonesia, and I happen to know that Indonesian music is awesome, because there are people there and they make music, so let's find out what the most popular Indonesian song is.  

Justin Bieber "Love Yourself"  

I kind of wanted to know what the most popular Indonesian song is, not just the song that is most popular in Indonesia. But if I restrict my query to artists whose country of origin is Indonesia, I get this:  

Isyana Sarasvati "Kau Adalah"  

Which seems like it might be the Indonesian Lisa Loeb. It's by Isyana Sarasvati, and I looked her up, and she is Indonesian! She's 23, and her Wikipedia page discusses the scholarship she got from the government of Singapore to study music at an academy there, and lists her solo recitals.  

It turns out that our data about where artists are from is decent where we have it, but a lot of times we just don't. 34 of the top 100 songs in Indonesia are by artists for whom we don't have locations.  

But remember math? Math is cool. In addition to counting listeners in Indonesia, we can compare the listening in Indonesia to the listening in the rest of the world, and find the songs are that most distinctively popular in Indonesia. That gets us to this:  

TheOvertunes "Cinta Adalah"  

That is The Overtunes, who turn out to be a band of three Indonesian brothers who became famous when one of them won X Factor Indonesia in 2013.  

But that's still not really what I wanted. It's like being curious about Indonesian food and buying a bag of Indonesian supermarket-brand potato chips.  

I kind of wanted to hear some, I dunno, Indonesian Indie music. I assume they have some, because they have people, and they have X Factor, and that's bound piss some people off enough to start their own bands.  

So if we switch from just counting to doing a bit more data analysis -- actually, quite a lot of data analysis -- we can discover that yes, there is an indie scene in Indonesia, and we can computationally model which bands are more or less a part of it, and without ever stepping foot in Indonesia, we can produce an algorithmic introduction to The Sound of Indonesian Indie, and it begins with this:  

Sheila on 7 "Dan..."  

That is Shelia on 7 doing "Dan...", and I looked them up, too. Rolling Stone Indonesia said that their debut album was one of the 150 Greatest Indonesian Albums of All Time, and they are the first band to sell more than 1m copies of each of their first 3 albums in Indonesia alone.  

Of course, they're also on Sony Music Indonesia, and I assume that at least some of those millions of people who bought their first 3 albums, before Spotify launched in Indonesia and destroyed the album-sales market, are still alive and still remember them. One of the hard parts about running a global music service from your headquarters in Stockholm and your music-intelligence outpost in Boston, is that you need to be able to find Indonesian music that people who already know about Indonesian music don't already know about.  

But once you've modeled the locally-unsurprising canonical core of Indonesian Indie music, you can use that to find people who spend unusually large blocks of their listening time listening to canonical Indonesian Indie music (most of whom are in Indonesia, but they don't have to be; some of them might be off at a music academy in Singapore, where Spotify has been available since 2013), and then you can calculate what music is most distinctively popular among serious Indonesian Indie fans, even if you have no data to tell you where it comes from. And that gets us things like this:  

Sisitipsi "Alkohol"  

That is "Alkohol" by Sistipsi. A Google search for that song finds only 8400 results, which appear to all be in Indonesian. Their band home page is a wordpress.com site, and they had 263 global Spotify listeners last month.  

PILOTZ "Memang Aku"  

PILOTZ, with a Z. Also from Indonesia! 117 listeners.  

Hellcrust "Janji Api"  

Hellcrust. 44 listeners last month. I looked them up, and yes, they're from Jakarta.  

199x "Goodest Riddance"  

199x. 14 monthly listeners! Also, maybe actually from Malaysia, not Indonesia, but in music recommending it's almost as impressive if you can be a little bit wrong as it is if you can be right, because usually when you're wrong you'll get Polish folk-techno or metalcore with Harry Potter fanfic lyrics.  

So that's what a lot of my days are like. Pose a question, write some code, find some songs, and then try to figure out whether those songs are even vaguely answering the question or not.  

And if the question is about Indonesia, that method kind of works.  

But we also have 100 million listeners on Spotify, and we would like to be able to produce personalized listening experiences for each of them. Actually, we'd like to be able to produce multiple listening experiences for each of them. And we can't hire all of our listeners to work for us full-time curating their own individual personal music experiences, because apparently the business model doesn't work? So it's computers or nothing.  

People, it turns out, are somewhat harder than countries.  

For starters, here is the track I have played the most on Spotify:  

Jewel "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"  

As humans, we might guess that it is not quite accurate to say that that is my favorite song, and we might have a very specific theory about why that is. As humans, we might guess that the number of times I have played the song after that has a different meaning:  

CHVRCHES "Leave a Trace"  

In the latter case, I love CHVRCHES so much. But in the former case, I love my daughter even more than I love CHVRCHES, and some nights she really needs to hear Jewel sing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" at bedtime.  

And if we are still in the early days of algorithmically programmed listening experiences, at all, then we're in what I hope we will look back on as the early- to mid- prehistory of algorithmic personalized listening experiences. I can't tell you exactly how they work, because we're still trying to make them work. But I can tell you 7 things I've learned that I think are principles to guide us towards a future in which dumbfoundingly amazing music you could never find on your own just flows out of the invisible sea of information directly into your ears. When you want it to, I don't mean you can't shut it off.  

1. No music listener is ever only one thing.  

I mean, you can't assume they are. I have a coworker named Matt who basically only listens to skate-punk music, ever, and we test all personalization things on him first, because you can tell immediately if it's wrong. Right: Warzone "Rebels Til We Die". Wrong: The Damned "Wounded Wolf - Original Mix". But other than him, almost everybody turns out to have some non-obvious combination of tastes. I listen to beepy electronica (Red Cell "Vial of Dreams") and gentle soothing Dark Funeral "Where Shadows Forever Reign" and Kangding Ray "Ardent", and sentimental Southern European arena pop (Gianluca Corrao "Amanti d'estate"), and if you just average that all together it turns out you mostly end up with mopey indie music that I don't like at all: Wyvern Lingo "Beast at the Door"  

2. All information is partial.  

We know what you play on Spotify, but we don't know what you listen to on the radio in the car, or what your spouse plays in your house while you're making dinner, or what you loved as a kid or even what you played incessantly on Rdio before it went bankrupt. For example, this is one of my favorite new albums this year: Magnum "Sacred Blood 'Divine' Lies". I adore Magnum, but I hadn't played them on Spotify at all. But my robot knew they were similar to other things it knew I liked. Sometimes music "discovery" is not about discovering things that you don't know, it's about the computer inferring aspects of your taste that you had previously hidden from it.  

3. Variety is good.  

It is in the interest of listeners and Spotify and music makers if people listen to more and more varied music. If all anybody wanted to hear was this once a day -- Adele "Hello" -- there would be no music business and no streaming and no joy or sunlight. Part of my job is to crack open the shell of the sky. Terabrite "Hello". If you are excited to hear what happens next, you will be more likely to pay us $10, and we will pay the artists more for the music you play, and they will make more of it instead of getting terrible day-jobs working for inbound marketing companies, and the world will be a better place.  

4. People like discovering new music.  

They may hate the song you want them to love. They may have a limited tolerance for doing work to discover music, or for trial-and-erroring through lots of music they don't like in order to find it, but neither of those things mean that they wouldn't be thrilled by the right new song if somebody could find it for them. One of you will come up after this to ask me what this song is: Sweden "Stocholm". One of you, probably a different person, will wonder about this: Draper/Prides "Break Over You". I have like a million of those. I mean actually like an actual million of those.  

5. Bernie Sanders is right.  

It is in the interest of the world of music creators if the streaming music business exerts a bit of democratic-socialist pressure against income inequality. The incremental human value of another person listening to "Shake It Off" again is arguably positive, but it's probably also considerably smaller than the value of that person listening to a new song by a new songwriter who doesn't already have enough money to live out the rest of their life inside a Manhattan loft whose walls are covered with thumbdrives full of bitcoins and #1-fan selfies. Anthem Lights "Shake It Off". Taylor, if you're listening, I'm going to keep playing shitty covers of your songs until you put the real ones back on Spotify. That's how it works.  

6. If you're going to try to play people what they actually like, you have to be prepared for whatever that is.  

DJ Loppetiss "Janteloven 2016"  

That's "Russelåter", which is a crazy Norwegian thing where high school kids finish their exams way before the end of the senior year, so in the spring they get together in little gangs, give themselves goofy gang names, purchase actual tour buses from the previous year's gangs, have them repainted with their gang logo, commission terrible crap-EDM gang theme songs from Norwegian producers for whom this is the most profitable local music market, and then spend weeks driving around the suburbs of Oslo in these buses, drinking and never changing their clothes and blasting their appalling theme songs. I did not make this up.  

7. Recommendation incurs responsibility.  

If people are going to give up minutes of their finite lives to listen to something they would otherwise never have been burdened with, it better have the potential, however vague or elusive, to change their life. You can't, however tantalizing the prospect might seem, just play something because you want to. (Aedliga "Futility Has Its Limits") Like I said, you definitely can't do that. If you do that, the robots win.  

Thank you.
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