Above the Fold

A digital 'zine by Original Fuzz about creativity and making stuff.

★  Apr 19, 2024  ★

The Year of the Playlist

Featured photo for The Year of the Playlist

A decade ago, my first iPod (and entire music collection) was stolen. I decided to start collecting music on vinyl (a format that's difficult to steal in bulk), and to treat my digital music collection like the ephemera that it was. As the iPod morphed into the iPhone, it was easy to imagine how we'd eventually store everything in the cloud and just access our music collection on-demand. That much was predictable. But I could have never anticipated how I'd begin to rely on recommended playlists, and how much I'd like it. That future is finally here, and it's better than I imagined.

The Year of the Playlist

2015 was the year of the playlist. Now that all recorded music is available anytime and anywhere, songs, not even to mention albums, have become ephemeral. But the playlist is the thing we can grab onto, the thing we can share and put our mark on. A playlist has a physicality to it. It grounds the music in something human. It gives it context. Apple, or at least Trent Reznor, realized this and focused its entire streaming service around curated playlists and a live radio station. And that's why I started paying for Apple Music in 2015. Apple Music uses algorithms not just to recommend songs, but to recommend playlists curated by expert humans. It's a subtle tweak that makes all the difference.

Streaming Comes Into Its Own

The story in music last year was how music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music reached mainstream consciousness. Dr. Dre released his new album Compton exclusively on Apple Music, Neil Young kept promoting his misguided, hi-res streaming service and music player that he calls Pono, Jay Z started his own minor league streaming service called Tidal, Taylor Swift made waves exchanging tweets with Phil Schiller about artist royalties, and the Beatles ended the year by turning their catalog over to nine streaming services worldwide.

But the kids just kept going to shows, buying more vinyl, and streaming music for free, wherever they could get it. As music fans we now have an embarrassment of riches.

Neil Young with his Pono player on a late night talk show

Spotify Takes an Early Lead

I started last year as a heavy Spotify user. The radio in my '94 Ford F-150 doesn't work, so I used Spotify instead. Perpetually attached to my earbuds, I kept Spotify running at all times–during work, while driving, doing household chores, riding my bike, whatever.

I also wanted a way to keep track of my favorite songs, so I started the year with a Spotify playlist to save songs that "struck" me. Some songs were new to me, others were ones I'd heard but never fully appreciated, and others were songs I already love and reconnected with. The common thread is that I got excited about these songs in 2015, and I saved them in chronological order according to when I got stoked on them. I encourage everyone to do this. It takes very little effort and you have a soundtrack to your life at the end of the year. I imagine this playlist will allow me to time travel for decades to come. Check it out:

Then Apple launched their streaming service and my habits changed overnight. This year, I'll be using Apple Music for my "2016" playlist and if you'd like to follow it, you can get it here.

Apple Music Launches

My "For You" tab on Apple MusicApple initially piqued my curiosity with their 24/7 live radio station, but then an interesting thing happened during my 3-month trial period: As I started to play more and more music in their new app, I began to notice that my "For You" tab started filling up with some interesting playlists. This really started to gel in the third month. Suddenly I could refresh my "For You" tab and get a wealth of music that I was in the mood to listen to or genuinely curious about.

The key here is that it was the playlist recommendations that got me hooked, not individual song recommendations. The entire history of recorded music was now in my pocket, but I no longer had to think about what I want to listen to if I didn't feel like it. It became my own private radio station I never knew I wanted. By the end of the trial period I was ready to hand over $10 per month to keep the recommendations coming.

The Job to Be Done

Say what you will about the user experience in the Apple Music app. I agree it's a mess, but I think that Apple nailed the core job of a streaming service: I want to be able to listen to whatever I want–anytime, anywhere–but most of the time I don't want to think about or spend time figuring out what to listen to. Netflix could do a similar thing and create "curated queues" that would save me a lot of time.

The Music Industry of the Future Has Arrived

2015 was the year that we reached the place where my music collection is going to stay: streaming services for mobile, on-demand music and a well-stocked shelf full of records I want to own.

I would never bet against technology changing things again in the future, but I can't imagine anything else I'd need moving forward. I know I'll always want to hear recorded music. Now I can can get anything with the flick of a finger. Beyond that, I personally like collecting records, and that's all I need. Everything else will just be iterations on this basic configuration. After surviving a revolution that started with Napster, the music industry can finally take a deep breath and settle in for the next thirty years.