Spotify Can Beef up Big Data by Asking “Why?”

Last week, The Washington Post ran an article called, This is the age of the average midlife crisis, according to big data, citing an analysis of big data from Spotify in a blog post written by Spotify’s Ajay Kalia.

The amount of big data that Spotify and other music streaming sites have access to is powerfully amazing — mind blowing even. They can slice and dice it to dig deep and then follow the numbers. But here’s the thing: knowing the numbers is only half the battle. You know “what,” but you don’t know “why.” Customers — real people — are the other half.

As a 43-year-old with two teenage girls at home, I was more confused by the statements made about why I do or don’t listen to mainstream music than I was chagrined from being outed as a midlife crisis victim. I have friends both younger and older than me, and I couldn’t see any of us in this description. I do listen to current music — the same 10 songs playing over and over. But I’ve been listening to them all along. I never stopped. And when I don’t feel like singing along, I listen to NPR.

The article also points out that people in their 20s have a drastic change in music listening styles, from mainstream to more indie. Is that more about the age or the access? If you asked them, would they say they just magically like different music, or would they point to their world getting bigger and being exposed and open to more music opportunities?

Even though Spotify knows so much about its customers, it still struggles to make music personalization more accurate. I argue that it can. It just needs, well, more data. But not the kind that comes from a billion people listening through a connected device. It needs the type that comes from thoughtful questions, discussions, and, yes, even in-person workshops.

If you put me in a room with other mid-lifers, for example, you’d find that we have all sorts of reasons for listening to mainstream music right now. If you put me in a room with mid-lifers and GenZ-ers, you’d discover that, when a 14-year-old learned how to ask nicely to change the radio station, his mom turned from NPR to the pop station with pleasure. Or you might find out that teens have been listening to pop much longer than you think. Or that binge watching Glee on Netflix has made them a fan of some of Mom’s coming-of-age music. Or perhaps that a family is just as likely to jam out to “Popular” from Wicked as it is to Sam Smith.

Now, grab the 42-year-olds, the GenZ teens, and a team from Spotify, and get them working in a room together – then you could really add some meat to those algorithms. You could build personas with meaning. Understand the options. Stop guessing and start getting deeper access to the information. You could take that information and find ways to launch new platforms to correspond to Netflix releases, or make music suggestions based on new covers of GenX anthems. If you understand me better, you’ll understand my music preferences better.

Today’s 42-year-old is not the same as tomorrow’s, or yesterday’s. The sooner you understand them, the sooner you can adapt to their ever-changing attitudes towards music — and beyond. And all you have to do is ask nicely.


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