The “Me” Generation: Why Music Curation Isn’t the Answer

mike spinelli

This guest column was contributed by Mike Spinelli, a third-year law student at Quinnipiac University School of law, where he is studying music transactions and music licensing. He previously worked at SoundExchange.

In a recent interview, Apple CEO Tim Cook dubbed Beats co-founders Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre “creative geniuses.” The justification Cook gave for acquiring Beats for $3 billion was the recognition that “human curation was important in the subscription service – that the sequencing of songs that you listen to affect how you feel.” Given the questionable activity level of Beats users, seen in a leaked royalty statement this past summer, human-curated playlist are not where streaming services are headed.

Today’s music “consumers,” and I use that term loosely, live in the age of individuality. We all expect to hear what we want, exactly when we want to hear it. Do you want to go back to (or start in some cases) listening to cassettes? We all have become accustomed to being able to call up any sort of content on-demand. It’s not surprising that terrestrial radio is running into trouble with today’s listeners. “The savior of radio” Norm Pattiz is even calling for the shift of radio stations to adopt an on-demand format.

A playlist created by a superstar (or anyone for that matter) is not what a listener wants to put on when they log into a streaming service. Yes, Iovine and Dre were onto something when they built a service around feelings. Yes, we enjoy listening to songs that fit our mood. However, take a step back and determine what makes a song “happy”? It’s neat that Beats gives the user the ability to hear songs according to a Mad Libs-type sentence that you fill out. However, this is just a novelty at best.

hand and mouseWhen listeners log into a streaming service they want to (1) listen to their own favorites, and (2) listen to new music that they will immediately enjoy. The former is a basic concept which yields little innovation. However, it is the latter which Beats and every other service on earth is trying to tackle. In a world of content overload, services need to connect the right song to the right market. Human curation is an arbitrary culmination of songs based on of someone else’s preferences.

Data is the answer. We are dealing with a “me” generation. This is why Pandora is doing so well. This is why Spotify acquired The Echo Nest. The future is in being able to determine what I want to hear without me knowing it yet. A curated playlist may have a few songs I like, but a service built around this concept to enhance music discovery is inefficient. The future is in the data listeners provide, and refining that data to reach the right listener. That is where we’re headed.

Michael Spinelli


  1. While this article makes its points, it is also contradictory in a sense. If the future for music listeners is software to enhance and predict our music pleasure, aren’t you indeed saying that we are hardware waiting to be programmed? You aim for the lowest common denominator and expect it will work one day. But the fact is that the l.c.d. way of thinking lends itself to disposable tastes and disposable music only. People that use music for dancing or exercising and make no real connection with the art. Those types will be programmed by your future software. Music appreciation starts in the soul, at the connecting point. We learned to appreciate music through curation when the DJ helped us discover music on the airwaves. Before the era of wiseguy announcers was a whole era of music lovers who were the gurus that made the human element work. THIS is what curation is about. Because today we don’t have the time to discover things at all, it will be curation that will once again guide ears that care enough about what they’re listening to, to trust another music lovers opinion.

  2. Data is great for music that’s already being listened to by a statistically significant audience. Data is great for predicting things for which there is not enough data yet. Data won’t break or introduce new songs by new/unknown artists. Data wouldn’t likely have predicted the Beatles or Elvis Presley.

    That being said, for established and well-known music, curation is usually not needed and data does the job. Since data scales more easily than curation, I think that curation will be a backup for times when there is inadequate data. Curation will be that which primes the pump.

  3. >Data won’t break or introduce new songs by new/unknown artists.<
    Curation is something that can't be programmed. The terrestrial radio is actually failing because of their semi-automatic content curation based on marketing data. Boring, predictable playlists, streamlined to death.
    And what is the "data listeners provide" ? A script that relies entirely on feedback will eventually end up as a loop. Even it creates new compositions from existing data on its own.
    No Sir, at some point humans still have to add a certain new track, introduce a new style and so on.
    Dj's will be around for a while.

  4. Music discovery is perhaps among the greatest things about being alive. Whether musical associations are built by humans or data and algorithms, the services which do this the best will survive and thrive. And people will pay for it. Everydays folks will pay for music services just like any other services in their lives that they value. Music is like food and water, and we lose sight of that sometimes when we’re caught up trying to make a business out of it. How to best service this basic human need is what is at stake in the battle for streaming hearts and minds.

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