Listening to an instant playlist on Spotify is like eating spaghetti off the floor, because a majority of the songs it throws at you don’t stick. What you’re left with is a sloppily compiled playlist that tastes like linoleum, but you try to consume the songs anyway.
Filtr, a popular Spotify playlist generator app, allows users to enter several artists, genres, and Facebook friends, among other things, into a search box. It then uses that information to cobble together a list of thirty songs, half of which you probably know and have favorited before, and half of which you vaguely recall from somewhere or have never heard of before. You can expand the search, which seems to make the songs more obscure, but you can’t swap out undesirable songs for better ones or discard artists you simply dislike. The familiar songs make the playlist seem less random, but the songs are still pretty random.
Another app that offers instant playlists is We Are Hunted. At first glance, a search for Taylor Swift returns promising results—hit singles by Kenny Chesney, Sugarland, and Rascal Flatts—but a deeper look proves troublesome: “Heart of a Champion” by Nelly and “Fuck You” by Cee Lo Green show up. Both of these songs are “inspired by” Swift’s music, as We Are Hunted suggests, but even a search for Alan Jackson, a much less Top 40-related act, leads to “Party in the U.S.A” by Miley Cyrus and “Back Home” by Nappy Roots. You could argue that Hunted specializes in the discovery of emerging and indie artists, so it makes sense that the app fails these tests, but inputting artists like Frightened Rabbit and Jedi Mind Tricks still makes their instant playlists look like a crapshoot.
Moodagent, a mood-based playlist creator, takes a different approach. Like Hunted, you start out with a search box, where you input the artist and song that you want the playlist to be based on, and the app obliges. Compared to the hit-and-miss nature of the apps above, Moodagent creates instant playlists with Pandora-like polish. Every artist and song fits the bill, which is a pleasant surprise. You can organize the playlist based on mood and tempo, as well as adjust the curve (upward, downward, and bell), but these controls seem superfluous. The only hang-up I had with Moodagent—during an otherwise great experience—came when I entered several songs by Pink and the app generated playlists with a few good but unwanted Spanish-language songs that I couldn’t easily swap out. This is forgivable and forgettable, but a ding that could’ve been avoided by more relevant controls.
The only current app to allow customization of instant playlists is ShareMyPlaylists. Given that the main drawback of the other apps discussed here is that what music they give you is what you get, you’d think the ability to edit the playlist would make all the difference. But ShareMyPlaylists still misses the mark. If you input an artist, the app will create a playlist, which you can adjust by adding another song from a favorite artist, swapping one song with another, or deleting a song entirely. All of these are great and frequently needed options. The problem is that the pool of music ShareMyPlaylists draws on to make artist-based playlists is too limited, and the app allows frequent repetition of artists. As a result, you end up with songs from only a handful of artists and many songs by the same artist. You can add and subtract songs, but the playlist never quite passes muster. And once you use the editing feature enough, you discover a more cumbersome problem: the app doesn’t’ handle heavy-handed tweaking very well and must reload the playlist constantly. This bogs down the experience and turns an instant playlist into one that might as well be curated by hand.
By now, you’re likely wondering why anyone would bother with instant playlists when Spotify offers perfectly good custom radio stations. This is a fair point, but there are four huge advantages to creating an instant playlist over a radio station: 1) You know exactly what songs you’re getting; 2) There are few, if any, outliers; 3) The session never wanders off; and 4) The figurative signal-to-noise ratio is high. The same cannot be said of Spotify radio. Hearing a string of great songs over “good” songs is the difference between playing drums on your desk and staring blankly out the window. There’s no comparison. Listening to an instant playlist can trump listening to virtual radio stations because you know what songs will play and the set won’t drift off toward unfamiliar music, which can upset your groove and spoil the mood.
So what makes a great playlist generator, and could a better one be built? Filtr lets you type in artist names and instantly see the playlist it creates. We Are Hunted helps you to discover music. Moodagent produces a focused set of popular and relevant songs every time. ShareMyPlaylists allows you to drop and swap undesirable songs easily. When these insights are put together, it seems like a great playlist generator would let you rapidly prototype the mix, designate whether it should be centered on popularity or discovery, and quickly prune and improve the list of songs. So far, no one has combined these three elements and made a better product. Considering that over 1.5 million playlists have been generated through ShareMyPlaylists (according to stats shared
by the company), it’s clear that users have an interest in instant playlists. The challenge now is to motivate these companies to eat their own spaghetti and see if they like how it tastes.