Spotify’s creative director on marketing the platform and changing the way we listen to music

Streaming services are changing the way we listen to music. We used to anchor identities to particular genres, and were fans of artists whose albums we devoured and whose careers we followed religiously. Now everything's changed.

For a small monthly fee (or free if we’re happy to listen to an ad every few songs), we have the (very incomplete) history of the world’s music at our fingertips.

With this availability of everything comes an anxiety of choice. Picking between three things is easy. Between 30 million things (the approximate number of songs on Spotify) isn’t. Choice can produce an anxiety of options. When we can choose anything, we often choose nothing.

A week or so ago, I talked to Spotify’s global creative director, Alex Bodman, about how Spotify has changed the way people listen to music and the innovative ways Spotify connects with its audience utilising the masses of data from its users. Bodman took over the role in October last year, and in that time has overseen some signature Spotify products like Year In Music, Time for Turkey and Taste Rewind.

What are the challenges of marketing a platform that is almost a utility to the part of the population that is used to everything being available at their fingertips, and a potentially very foreign way to consume music for another part of the population?

One thing I'm really fascinated with is the whole lot of what I call the ‘new brands’, think about platforms like Facebook, Google, Uber, Airbnb, and I would include Spotify and a few others, which are disrupted industries, which have changed the ways consumers are living their lives or how they access content, but they're platform first, and their brands have been defined by their platforms and by the way that people use them. And now, it's really interesting as these companies come of age and become truly global companies, that's the challenge.

How do you build a brand around it that keeps people loyal, that brings new people to the platform, but do so in a non-traditional way? Because [traditional marketing] is just going to fall flat. If Google or Spotify or Airbnb comes out and tries all the old branded marketing tricks, it'll just fall flat and the users - who really are the oxygen - they'll just reject it. 

That's why it's exciting to work at a brand like Spotify, you have to throw away the old marketing brand rule book and think about new, more authentic or fresh ways of communicating to new and existing users.

Spotify’s competitors like Tidal and Apple are trying to separate themselves by either offering exclusives. Do you think this is where the streaming market is heading – people will subscribe to multiple platforms or go with the one aligned with more of their favourite artists – or are exclusives are short-term competitive tool?

Spotify, as a brand and as a company, doesn't really believe in exclusives. We'd like to see a world without them, because we don't think they're great for the user at the end of the day. but I think [Spotify's positioning] has really evolved. A lot of people don't realise that Spotify is ten years old as a company, because the first few years were just creating the platform, and in the Nordic market and then building out and growing across the globe since. 

We started very much like a utility and I think at that time the draw was access - we have 30 million songs - but that could only take us so far because there's that classic thing where all the world's music is at your fingertips but you can't think of a thing to type in. That's a real issue. So then we moved to a curation model a couple of years ago, and we started to get a lot smarter about asking 'What's your mood right now? Or, what would you like your mood to be? Or, would you like to go back to the 80s? Or would you like to dive into some genres? Or here's the Top 40 right now' and supply different ways for people to jump into the catalog. And that really accelerated our growth and helped us to bring in more mainstream, 'lean-back' listeners to the platform. 

And now, after ten years, we're way ahead of the competition in terms of our use of data, our smarts and our metadata and we're able to become truly personalised. So the way we can get to know our user and create for them, but also help them discover new music. Discover Weekly is a runaway hit feature of our product. We've had 2.5 billion streams in the first six months. Other 30 million listeners and it's created a new ritual for people who've fallen in love with it.

Are the personalised and curated playlists entirely algorithmic or is there a personal touch too?

You couldn't have one without the other. With Discover, both are implicitly important. Spotify has invested and built one of the most amazing music curatorial teams and they own specific genres. We have this guy called Tuma [Basa], whose background in hip-hop is incredible, and who has programmed for major radio stations. And he's come on board and created playlists like Rap Caviar, and he curates and builds around that, and it has over two million followers. It promotes up-and-coming hip-hop music and is becoming culturally important for those people that follow and engage with it. So that human curation is really important.

On the other hand, in the last few years, we purchased companies like Echo Nest, and they are, without a doubt, the foremost experts in taking everything we know about the world's music and turning it into data that you can use to build products or experiences. And what's interesting is what we can learn from our users and listeners themselves. So, the way discover Weekly works is we use your personal data to figure out your taste profile, then we find other users with a similar taste profile, we look at their playlists and the songs they're listening to that we know you've never listened to, and then we give that to you as Discover Weekly, so it's very much tailored other users, by people, but without our data, we wouldn't be able to do that at scale and create 80 million unique playlists every week. 

There's really never been anything like it before. And it's only the beginning of where a platform like us, with tens of millions of users and incredibly smart data, can transform the way people listen to and discover music.

Do you think streaming in general, and products like Discover Weekly in particular, are changing the types of music people are listening to?

If you look at a study of college students, once upon a time – and I'm drawing upon my own university experience here – you'd go and someone would say 'I'm really into Hip-hop or I'm mostly into rock or indie' and if you talk to people that age these days, they're so incredibly open and non-judgmental, about music and taste and they'll really talk like that. It's a much broader pallet they have.

I can't say that that's necessarily because of streaming music, but now people might have a running playlist, a morning playlist. They might be getting pointed towards music they wouldn't have been back when they were going to a CD shop, it could well be that it will have an impact in terms of how things continue to change and I think we'll discover that as we go along.