Spotify Is Beefing Up In The ‘Discovery’ War Against Apple Music, But Is It Working?


If you have Spotify, you probably got an email recently from them about their new Discover Weekly feature: “Every Monday, you’ll find two glorious hours of discoveries and deep cuts waiting for you in Spotify. It’s a tailor-made mix based on the tunes you listen to, and similar tracks discovered by fans like you.”

In this modern era of streaming services, every company is trying to do something to make them the music service of choice. Curation seems to be the next big thing that everybody is trumpeting; in fact, it’s what Apple Music has heavily touted as its core competency and the reason they deserve your money over everyone else. And that’s where Discover Weekly comes in – it’s Spotify’s attempt at competing with Apple Music. However, is it any good? Does Spotify succeed at helping you find good music in an enjoyable playlist? We decided to find out!

For four weeks, I listened to the Discover Weekly playlist provided. Obviously, this was based on a single account’s listening history, and it came from an account that mostly plays bands like Pavement, Dinosaur, Jr., Teenage Fanclub, and their ilk. Although, it also comes from an account that has listened to multiple Hootie & The Blowfish albums and the entire late-period catalog of Weezer, so who knows what’s going to happen? Your specific list will be different, but this is about how well Discover Weekly succeeds at providing new, fresh, enjoyable music. In the abstract, you can transplant the results onto yourself.

Enough jibber jabber. Let’s get to the results.

Week 1

Length: 30 songs, 104 minutes
Songs I’d heard before: 6
Songs I liked: 21
Best recommendation:First Love/Late Spring” by Mitski
Worst recommendation:Don’t Touch My Bikini” by The Halo Benders

The first week was strong, providing plenty of new music, with two-thirds of the songs being enjoyable to me. A lot of these were musicians I was aware of, but happened to be songs that I had not heard before. There were also musicians I had not heard of before, but, unfortunately, a lot of those ended up landing on the less enjoyable end of the spectrum.

The presence of Mitski on this playlist is a sign of the value Discover Weekly can provide. “First Love/Late Spring” is actually one of the six songs I had heard before, but most people are probably not aware of her excellent Bury Me at Make Out Creek. Helping people find good, under-the-radar artists like this is exactly what Discover Weekly claims they will do. On the flip side, “Don’t Touch My Bikini” seems to be made for people who are into Ween. A Ween song also appeared on this playlist, fittingly enough. There are few indignities worse than being confused for somebody who listens to Ween.

Week 2

Length: 30* songs, 111* minutes
Songs I’d heard before: 3
Songs I liked: 22
Best recommendation:Movie Star” by Swearin’
Worst recommendation:What Would I Want? Sky” by Animal Collective

Not as good as the first week. For starters, while there were 30 songs on the list, only 29 of them played. “Handle with Care” by Jenny Lewis was on the playlist, but the song was not actually playable. It was darkened out on the list and just got skipped right over. And while there was technically one more song on this list that I liked compared to Week 1, the overall level of quality was less. There wasn’t much in the way of music I loved on the list. Just a bunch of “yeah, this is pretty good”-type songs. Also, one of the songs on the list was “Range Life” by Pavement, which is a song I’ve listened to a million times.

On the plus side, there was very little in the way of artist repeats from last week’s list. Most of these artists were ones I was familiar with, and had listened to quite a bit, like Dinosaur, Jr. On the other hand, they dropped in more idiosyncratic artists like TV on the Radio and Animal Collective, which was not a good thing in this instance. Animal Collective has some songs I like. “What Would I Want? Sky” is not one of them. On the other hand, I had never heard of Swearin’ before, but “Movie Star” was excellent, and it was nice to have them trot it out this week.

Week 3

Length: 30 songs, 118 minutes
Songs I’d heard before: 5
Songs I liked: 24
Best song:Our Love Will Always Remain” by The Aquadolls
Worst song:In Particular” by Blonde Redhead

The first couple of weeks, my list was dominated by ‘90s indie rock and bands influenced by ‘90s indie rock. This is, partially, my fault, because I listen to so much of that music, and Spotify learned from watching me. However, this week, the list got a lot more eclectic.

Yes, there were songs by Modest Mouse and Titus Andronicus, two bands who I have listened to extensively. On the other hand, they also hit me with Nick Cave and The Damned and Blood Orange. There was some older stuff than usual on this list, and I liked it, too, which is what’s more important.

Overall, this was the strongest list from the first three weeks. None of the songs really annoyed me all that much. Bands like Blonde Redhead, who I don’t really like, just faded into the background instead of being actively irritating. Meanwhile, I had never heard “Our Love Will Always Remain,” or heard of The Aquadolls, before, so that was a nice discovery.

Week 4

Length: 30 songs*, 104 minutes*
Songs I’d heard before: 4
Songs I liked: 23
Best recommendation:Water” by Jamaican Queens
Worst recommendation:Breadcrumb Trail” by Slint

For the second time in four weeks, one of the songs that Spotify gave me was unavailable for listening. It’s a flaw in the system they really need to fix. This week, Spotify seemed to decide I was mostly into fuzzy rock songs less than two minutes long (yay!) and meandering, long songs with psychedelic influences (meh). The list also had two songs from the soundtrack of The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou, which is funny, if not relevant to the proceedings.

There were some interesting songs on the list, and it was a real decision for me to try and pick my favorite song of the week. I went with Jamaican Queens, a band I had not heard of before, with a really dynamic song that got my interest. As for Slint, I know I’m supposed to like them and consider them some great, lost band that have been unjustly forgotten, but I just find them to be a boring pile of boring musically.

* * *

So, now that this four week experiment is over, where do we stand? How do I feel about Discover Weekly? Frankly, I found it to be largely successful. The cold, dispassionate nature of its algorithm did rear its ugly head a few times, as opposed to Apple Music’s discovery system, which is supposedly programmed by actual people (indeed, Apple Music’s custom playlists have been greatly celebrated since the service launched). However, Spotify still gave me more than 90 minutes of music a week with only accidental overlap in terms of artists. It knows the songs you’ve listen to, and It knows to avoid them (by and large). It never gave me more than six songs I had heard before in any given week. Most of these new songs were by artists I had heard before, so it was not necessarily a whole new world for me every week, but they still gave me new music.

They also mostly gave me, for the most part, music I enjoyed. Every week, I had at least 20 songs I liked, and usually a few songs I loved. If a system is spitting out, say, three new songs you love a week, would you deem that a success? I do, personally. It gave me new artists I wanted to check out. I haven’t found musical love through the service (yet), but I did get a fair amount of cool new stuff.

I would be interested to see the results of somebody with perhaps more eclectic listening practices than mine. While my Spotify playlists do have a smattering of hip-hop and old fashioned pop music, I primarily just listen to what is usually deemed “indie rock.” Did this make it easier for Spotify, because I was giving them so much information within a limited bandwidth? Or did it make it more difficult, because they had less of an array of music to choose from?

In short, I deem Discover Weekly a success. I’ll probably check it out in the future. Maybe not every week, but certainly every now and again.