Jun 18, 2020

Spotify's mystical rivers of bad recommendations

An alien pointing at Spotify

If you ordered a handbag full of wasps from my Wasp Handbag shop, and instead I sent you a bucket of hamsters, you'd rightly be annoyed.

"I demand a refund," you would shout through my shop's letterbox. "I'm not in," I would convincingly shout back while hiding in the stock cupboard. "Ouch, ow, stop stinging me," I would add because of what was in the stock cupboard.

The streaming service Spotify is fairly good at giving me what I want. Its curated playlists seem to recognise my musical moodswings from gloomy techno to big gay pop anthems. It's easy enough to avoid its more ridiculous categories such as "At Home", which is as nonsensical as defining your listening experience as "Standing On The Floor" and "Leaning On A Hedge".

However, it has recently been trying to flog me hamster buckets instead of my favourite wasp-based clothing accessories. Not literally: it's a metaphor. Keep up.

Here's an example. The Grid is a brilliant dance project by Richard Norris and Soft Cell's Dave Ball, but instead of popping classics such as Floatation and Crystal Clear into my recommendations, it's been trying to push some unrelated rock band of the same name.

I get all excited when I see a Grid track I don't recognise, and when I click on it, all I get is some unrelated guitar dirge that makes me want to drag my ears through broken glass. And because I've played it, Spotify recommends them some more, locking me into an impostor loop that can only end if I throw my computer into a fire.

This happened again the other day, this time with Orbital. According to Spotify, the latest release from Orbital is a track called Mystical River. This is not an Orbital track: it is a fake; it is Trojan horse; it is a cuckoo's egg in the nest of my musical egginess. It's Spotify getting it wrong again.

As you can see from the picture at the top of this blog post, Richard Hughes the alien is furious about the incorrect listing. Who is Richard Hughes the alien? I drew him because just posting a Spotify screenshot would have been as dull as heck. He now exists. Everyone say hello to Richard Hughes the alien.

This isn't Spotify's only failing, of course. There are other user annoyances, such as the lack of ability to browse by label, even though a browse of, say, DFA or Warp would be really useful. And Spotify earn musicians so little money, they appear to want every musician to wear rags, work up chimneys and snort gruel.

Computers are very clever, but they are also eye-wateringly dumb. I recently subscribed to Now TV, and now my internet is packed with adverts telling me to subscribe to Now TV. That's like going into a newsagent, popping a Twix on the payment counter, and the newsagent screaming at you "buy a Twix, buy a Twix". I'm buying one, for crap's sake, lay off me. Also could I get a packet of Rizla? Thanks.

This is a reminder that algorithms can only ever be algorithms. We need to rediscover personal recommendations: proper ones from humans. As shops reopen across the UK, there are insanely experienced booksellers and record shop assistants and handbag wasp experts just waiting to give you the benefit of their years of experience. Use them. Spotify has its plus sides, but it can't tell great music from a bucket of fluff.

No comments: