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May 22nd, 2015

Spotify Is Bringing Music In To The Age Of Context

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Spotify’s new predictive playlists that changed music based on how fast you are running could be the first steps to contextual music discovery and delivery.

Spotify is ready to bring music to the next age of context. Music delivery may never be the same.

But how did we get here? In the past 15 years we’ve gone from a static Web to a multi-faceted world of content, delivered based on a diverse set of factors and personalized to each individual user.

First, the Internet had content. Written articles were the first to arrive (along with chat rooms and message boards), but later rich media would thrive. Clever people eventually figured out how to take that content and automate it through pipes and platforms so it could be delivered, usually in a consumable list form, to individuals. As the Internet burgeoned with information, curation became essential.

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It was this notion of curation that helped bridge the gap between the read-only version of the Web to the read/write version of Web 2.0. Content was aggregated and consumed through RSS feeds, blog rolls, content portals like Yahoo and iGoogle. Later it became a two-way Web, with blurring the lines between content curators and consumers, groups which were not mutually exclusive.

The era of curation has been eclipsed by a plethora of new realities. Social networks, instantaneous communication, smartphones and apps. The age of the algorithm is truly upon us.

See also: How We Built The Next 10 Years (Series)

Spotify is taking all of the trends developed in the age of context and is poised to deliver a truly unique listening experience that—finally—brings the experience of music delivery and discovery into the next generation.

Spotify And The Running Stream

Earlier this week, Spotify greatly expanded it product portfolio. Spotify has historically been an on-demand music streaming service where users can listen for free or with a paid account to find any music they want and add to personal playlists. Later Spotify added some Pandora-like features of interest-based radio stations and playlists to its mix.

Spotify announced this week that it will soon also serve video clips from major media companies as well as podcasts. These new features are noteworthy, but not particularly interesting from a product development standpoint.

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The real interesting new feature that Spotify announced this week are adaptive running streams. Or perhaps they could be called predictive playlists. Spotify will begin to offer music streams for while people are running where the music will change based on the speed and tempo of their pace. Say you start out a run at a slow jog, Spotify will match the music to your pace automatically. As you gain in speed, the music may intensify accordingly.

Spotify Running will be able to note your running tempo through sensors in the phone, often working through a fitness app like Nike+ or Runkeeper.

Imagine that: music that changes based on how fast you’re running. Who would’ve thought that possible 10 or 15 years ago.

Music In The Age Of Context

Spotify Running streams are the first salvo of music delivery in the age of context. By no means could they be the last.

More than any other medium, music has almost always been delivered in lists. Albums have a set of songs that play in predetermined order by the artist. When music went digital, those lists were transferred more or less intact to downloaded (or later streamed) versions of songs, played on the likes of iPods or MP3 players. Users could create their own lists (from mixed tapes and CDs to customized digital playlists). But they were still lists, static or randomly generated.

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Pandora was the first company to really break from the notion of lists in music. The so-called Music Genome Project delivered music based on user signals—what music they said they did or did not like. What Spotify has started with its running lists takes it a step further.

Context is a word bandied around a lot these days. Techno-evangelist Robert Scoble even wrote a book called Age Of Context. Context, loosely defined, are circumstances that form the setting for an event. In the new era of technology, circumstances are diverse but quantifiable through an array of algorithms and sensors that can be tied to an individuals actions and preferences. The beauty of a smartphone is that it can take all of these circumstances—location, speed of movement, time of day, nearby contacts etc.—and mix them with a person’s stated preferences like the type of music they listen to or their search history, to delivery highly customized content options.


Google Now—the semantic search product from Google—is a good example of delivering content based on context. Google Now delivers restaurant recommendations based on user’s location, weather, sports scores, TV shows to watch or books to read and news articles from around the Web based on a person’s browsing history in Chrome.

Now imagine this approach taken to music. Spotify’s running lists are just a toe in the water of contextual music delivery. What if Spotify could create a semantic radio station based on what friends are hanging around of if I am on a long drive. Maybe it knows I am on my way to or from work and brings up that day’s published podcasts. Or that I like ambient music while writing long articles. Spotify could know that I am with my girlfriend making dinner at home and set just the right mood.

The possibilities are nearly endless and could fundamentally change the discovery and delivery of music forever.