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Friday, June 21, 2024

Spotify Has Your Ears. It’s Coming for Your Eyes

Spotify has long been a platform that evolves more quickly than our personal music tastes might. It has updated its iconic year-end Wrapped promotion and added an AI DJ in the past few months alone. But this week, the streaming giant announced what its CEO, Daniel Ek, called the biggest change to the platform in a decade: a redesign to make the app that started as a place for music one that prominently features video.

At first glance, it looks like another attempt by a social app to cannibalize its competitors in the way that Instagram has mimicked Snapchat and then TikTok for its own gains. Spotify now has different feeds for discovering songs, podcasts, and audiobooks, sporting a look that’s half TikTok’s endless scroll and half Instagram stories. They show video paired with music or podcasts and also sample audio content. Some have live captions that catch the eye as they float along the screen, and audiobook previews may last as long as five minutes.

Although Spotify may look and sound more like TikTok now, it likely has different intentions. Instead of funneling an endless stream of content onto users’ phones, it’s built with the purpose of allowing them to preview new content they will want to save—or at least sit with for longer. According to Spotify’s announcement, it has data showing that listeners “become committed fans” after previewing content. Videos have previously accompanied songs and podcasts on the service, but this redesign puts them in front of users faster, along with snappy audio clips.

“An audio service needs to get people engaged with audio straight away,” says Simon Dyson, music and digital audio analyst at Omdia. “If they can get something to play audio instantly, then you’re instantly taken by it. If [Spotify] got its algorithm right, you will be engaged instantly.”

Spotify’s playlists have long been curated for music discovery, but this new move makes that more immediate; scroll through the music feed and you can hear samples of songs. Perhaps that means less skipping through shuffled playlists. A move like this may help Spotify stand out in the audio streaming industry, Dyson says. And it comes as streaming growth is changing. 

The market has reached a point of saturation, and Spotify has seen its market share slowly shrink, although it remains the most popular service. Still, it added 33 million monthly active users in the last months of 2022 and saw its revenue grow 18 percent year over year, with podcasts leading its ad revenue gains. 

Spotify has tried to stand out by investing hundreds of millions of dollars on podcasts, including a deal with Joe Rogan reportedly worth more than $200 million. The company expects podcasts to have a higher profit margin than music. So designing the app in a way that might direct more people to them seems an inevitable shift. But Spotify canceled several original shows in late 2022 after making ambitious investments in companies like Gimlet and Parcast. 

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It isn’t the only streamer trying to give some content its own space. On Thursday, Apple Music announced a stand-alone app for classical music that will become available at the end of March. There’s a shift happening in how these apps package different types of content. Some Spotify personalized playlists, like its Daily Drive, slammed lengthy podcasts next to songs that didn’t necessarily flow. The separate feeds may prove more agile for people hunting for specific content—if they’re willing to spend time exploring them.  

The TikTokification of Spotify feels like another chaotic decision that leaves Spotify without a solid identity, says George Howard, a professor of music business management at Berklee College of Music. They’re part social company, part music streamer, and part podcast platform. But in all of those changes, they’ve failed to establish ways to pay artists sustainably for the work that powers the platform. “At this point, they’re just flailing,” Howard says.

Getting people to watch videos means users will have to make a shift; while music and podcasts have often played in the background, they’ll now take center stage on a phone screen for longer. For those who want to stick to music, they still have 100 million songs on Spotify to choose from, with a new way for the algorithm to try to present them all.

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