Aishwarya Ramesh

Music apps and the playlist curation game…

Music has long been at the heart of entertainment for most users and for many, it is an integral part of our daily lives. Peppy music makes our commute interesting and podcasts turn traffic jams into learning sessions. When we spotted the ‘Made By’ campaign by JioSaavn, we realised that the way we consume music has changed completely, thanks to algorithm-driven playlists on music apps. We tried to understand the nuances of algorithmic music grouping and the way apps push a Sunidhi Chauhan track after a listener had tuned into Neha Kakkar playlist.

We spoke to representatives from three music streaming apps – JioSaavn, Spotify, and Gaana to understand. All of these three companies have been advertising and pushing their curated playlist offerings to their listeners, both online and offline, and we get into the nitty gritty of it…

Prashan Agarwal, chief executive officer, Gaana, admitted that the process of curating playlists was a labourious one. He informed us that the curation process at Gaana is two-fold - human led and machine learning led curation. “We have an in-house editorial team that curates playlists for users based on genres, artists, occasions, weather, etc.

Prashan Agarwal
Prashan Agarwal

Additionally, our AI-led ‘Made For You’ serves custom playlists that are based on a deep understanding of a user’s musical tastes. It considers multiple factors like genres, time of consumption, duration the music was streamed and more,” he told us over e-mail.

What’s interesting is when he mentioned that the Gaana recommendation engine is perpetually working in the background on our phones. “It is set up automatically when a user logs in. For example, you may like to wake up to Bollywood instrumentals, groove to EDM or Soft Rock on the way to work, and relax to Rafi or Jagjit Singh’s soulful tracks after a tiring day at work. Our recommendation engine will pick up your behaviour, and recommend you music accordingly,” he states.

Agarwal also informs us that there is another feature that the company has recently unveiled called ‘Smart Downloads.’ “Once a user opts for this feature, the app automatically downloads songs that he/she has repeatedly listened to. That way, they can enjoy their favourite songs even when the app is offline due to connectivity issues,” he explains.

The nature of music consumption itself is timeless and the concept of curated playlists has been popular since the inception of music streaming, Agarwal offers.

Aditya Kasyap, vice president of marketing at JioSaavn tells us that an increasing number of users are listening to curated content through playlists and podcasts. In his opinion, for the growing segment of users who play music in the background while they work/cook/study, playlists are the best way of serving their need.

“When someone starts their music streaming journey on any given app, the first thing the app does is ask them what their tastes are – nobody is going in search of playlist from the first day. Playlists really lower the search burden on the consumer. If a user searches for AR Rahman songs, and finds a ready playlist with 10 songs, then it eliminates their need to keep searching,” Kasyap shared over a telephonic conversation. Some of the top performing playlists on the platform are the weekly top 15 and the top trending playlists.

Aditya Kasyap
Aditya Kasyap

He also mentions that the main objective behind the playlist campaign is to help users feel more connected with their favourite artists. Kasyap marks his TG as those in the 18-35 age group, not necessarily restricted to millennials. “But affinity to listening to music is higher among millennials and they have a higher tendency to be sticky users,” he tells us.

Neha Ahuja, head of marketing, Spotify draws attention to India’s rich heritage and emphasises that music is an integral part of our social fabric owing to years of radio, broadcast and more recently, portable hardware devices. “Music streaming is relatively new, but has revolutionised the experience of music for creators and fans alike. It has grown from being a recreational experience, to an expression of individuality, to a global platform of cultural exchange, to a social form of communal engagement, and finally to a medium that enhances social experiences, moods and moments.”

Spotify offers almost 3 billion editorially, algorithmic and user curated playlists. “In fact, our first national campaign ‘There’s a playlist for that’ stemmed from our insights on how users have gravitated towards this exact trend. The campaign was both hyperlocal and geo-relevant,” Ahuja says.

Neha Ahuja
Neha Ahuja

Elaborating further on playlists, she tells us that they’re also a great source for artists to be discovered. “For example, Pav Dharia, who is being discovered through our playlists Punjabi 101 and New Music Punjabi, or Sunanda Sharma, who has found an audience through the Bollywood Blast playlist in cities like London; or artists like Anirudh Ravichander and Hiphop Tamizha, discovered on Latest Tamil and Kollywood Cream among other local playlists in cities like Kuala Lumpur,” Ahuja elaborates.

We ask her to explain the curation algorithm better and she broke it down for us. “Our discovery engine is built on a highly intuitive AI framework. There’s a complex matrix of elements that range from artist, albums or songs liked, shared, and skipped, to social feedback and language preference - effectively an amalgamation of key insights from the user’s listening history. This exponential amount of meta-data is then processed through our AI backend that ensures that users aren’t just shown templated suggestions, but are offered curated experiences that are fresh, yet familiar and built on their listening experience and preferences.”

We further spoke to experts from the digital and ad industry to better understand how the curation game has changed the way we consume digital music content. This is what they had to say -

Amit Wadhwa, president, Dentsu Impact

Being a consumer of today is all about having the freedom to choose whatever he/she wants to consume across any source of entertainment. When it comes to music, it is no different. Probably the only difference here is that the options available are more than movies or any other source of entertainment. While we want the music of our choice, we are also starved for time and the last thing that we would like to do is to keep browsing from one song to another. This not only wastes time but also comes in my way of enjoying music, which should ideally be non-stop.

Amit Wadhwa
Amit Wadhwa

A happy in-between here is the creation of playlists that are either created by the person consuming it or suggested by the source depending on the different consumption patterns of other but similar listeners. I think it’s a win-win for the listener. Playlists are getting smarter too – now they’re based on consumption patterns and not the assumption of a music label.

Shayondeep Pal, chief creative officer, Network Advertising

What the music streaming apps are doing is a reflection of the mindset of a generation that they cater to. This is what I call 'platter marketing.' Everything is available right in front of you. You don't have to dig deep to think hard. Algorithms are doing the job for you. Come to think of it, when was the last time you racked your brains to remember things like who acted with Kishore Kumar in the 1957 flick 'Aasha.' The answer is Google.

Shayondeep Pal
Shayondeep Pal

Borrowing from the food industry, bowls or boxes are becoming popular. ‘Put everything together. I shall oblige you by eating it.’ The streaming apps are doing the same thing. And, sometimes, it's not a bad idea. At times, you don't feel like thinking about what to listen to. Spotify has picked it up and that's why the app is picking up.

Joono Simon, founder and chief creative officer, Brave New World

I wouldn’t say pre-curated playlists means a loss of autonomy for listeners. The option to seek out new music ourselves is easier than ever. Curation doesn't just involve music one likes but also music one could like. With features like Spotify’s Discover Weekly, we are more likely to stumble upon completely new music that we’d otherwise not have the time or energy to find on our own. It’s always delightful when that happens.

Joono Simon
Joono Simon

I feel that curation also makes it easier to follow music beyond the top 50s. Finding one artist we like is enough to open up the door to a whole new world of music. This was previously very difficult to do when mainstream music dominated the landscape.

The point of music streaming was not just to give listeners freedom of choice, but also to dramatically improve portability, which was already happening with digital music players, and to reduce piracy.