Diving into the dark heart of Discover Weekly.
Before we start, I want to get one thing out of the way: I love my Discover Weekly. Thirty new songs to listen to every Monday morning, helping me combat the grinding misery of working for a living? And I don’t pay for them? It’s great. Spotify, you’re great.
I just wish my playlist would actually sound like the music I listen to.
My tastes are eclectic — in an average week I listen to hip-hop, disco, space rock, Turkish freakout jazz and power metal in equal quantities. My Discover Weekly playlist, though? It’s 90% indie rock, with a few Afrobeat songs tossed in. It’s all good music, but it’s not all “me” music. It also loves to give me the same songs over and over, most notably “Street Hassle” by Lou Reed and “CIA Man” by the Fugs.
I’m not the only person with this complaint. I’ve talked to metalheads with playlists dominated by lounge tracks and smooth jazz, and classical listeners who never get anything older than 1982. Something’s rotten in Discoverland and I want to know what it is.
How Discover Weekly selects music for you
Before we start our journey, let’s reveal a little of the inner workings of Discover Weekly.
First and foremost, the only thing that matters to Spotify is the songs you listen to. There’s no extra weight for playlists you’ve made, songs you’ve saved, whatever. It’s all about the tracks.
The songs it gives back to you, though? Those are all about the playlists.
You see, the core of the Discover Weekly process is finding other people’s playlists that include songs you played, and then grabbing other songs from those playlists. The more overlap, the better — so if a playlist has three or four songs you’ve listened to, Spotify thinks it aligns more closely with your taste.
Of course, there’s a bunch of algorithmic razzle-dazzle in there to select songs each week, but those are the basics. Listen to songs, get songs from playlists with those songs on it back.
Week 1: My first attempt at influencing the playlist
I wanted to see exactly how much my listening habits affected that process, so I decided to pick a single band and play nothing else for a week to see what happened. I knew I needed a group way outside of my normal taste—one with a fanbase wide enough to ensure its music appears on playlists.
The only rational choice was the Insane Clown Posse.
Detroit’s face-painted rap heroes have dozens of albums on Spotify that I’ve never listened to. I started my Monday morning with classic songs like “Six Pedophiles,” “I Stuck Her With My Wang” and “I Stab People.”
About 45 minutes later I turned the volume way down and kept it there for the rest of the week.
The following Monday morning, I eagerly loaded up my new Discover Weekly to find… nothing.
The playlist offered to me included 90% indie rock with a few Afrobeat songs tossed in. Not a single sign of anything Juggalo-related. No Twiztid, no Esham, no Blaze Ya Dead Homie. It was like those seven days of aural torture never even happened.
What could possibly explain this? How could 42 hours of Insane Clown Posse have absolutely no effect on my Spotify tastes?
An interview with Spotify engineer Edward Newett at Quartz gives a hint.
“The algorithm is designed to ignore sharp, temporary spikes in new listening activity because many people share their Spotify logins,” Newett told the outlet.
Week 2: Gaming the system
With that in mind, I decided to carry the experiment forward another week, but this time I would intermingle other music in with ICP to avoid triggering that spike detection. Every day I played an hour of Juggalo joints while I did yardwork and sit-ups, then listened to normal human music for the rest of the day.
Meanwhile, I set up a second computer and created a totally new Spotify account with no history. That account also listened to the Insane Clown Posse for several hours a day. If you’ve ever wondered what’s worse than listening to ICP, the answer is listening to two different ICP songs at the same time.
Monday came, and now I had two Discover Weeklies to discover. Bizarrely, the new account reared on the Faygo-flavored mother’s milk of the Clowns didn’t get a Discover Weekly. Maybe Spotify figured I’d suffered enough. I looked into it and found out that an account has to be active for two weeks to get a Discover Weekly playlist, so we’ll check in later.
Here’s my main account’s Discover Weekly at the end of week two. Still no Dark Carnival, but interestingly a little more hip-hop is present. Viktor Vaughn, Charizma and even Kool Keith — who played at the Gathering of the Juggalos in 2012! We’re slowly getting closer, but not quite there.
At the end of every month, Spotify sends you an email with some cool data about what you listened to (check your spam folder). Mine was… a little depressing.
Week 3: Diversifying my portfolio
For week three, I took another tack. Every day I listened to an ICP-associated act for an hour. So we had a solo Violent J day, a solo Shaggy 2 Dope day, a Twiztid day — you get the idea. I figured diversifying the material while staying thematically consistent might be the key to nudging the algorithm in the direction I wanted it to go.
Nope. The resulting Discover Weekly was a little more diverse in general (opening up a playlist with “He Was A Big Freak” by Betty Davis is a pro move) but no Juggalo music in sight. On to week four, which should ideally also get me a playlist from the other account.
Week 4: If it ain’t broke…
In this week, I went back to Week 2’s method, which seemed to work the best so far. One hour of Insane Clown Posse a day, and then a little bit of ICP-related acts if I had the time. Let’s see what happened.
Nope. Although it’s fair to argue that the music on this playlist is worse than normal (Primus!?!?!?!?!?) it’s not ICP-influenced. And fucking “CIA Man” is on there again!
Even more shockingly, the second account again had no Discover Weekly. I have absolutely no explanation for this phenomenon. Is Spotify intentionally biased against Insane Clown Posse fans? Is Discover Weekly incapable of penetrating deep into the heart of Faygo darkness? The world may never know, because I can’t listen to this crap after a month straight of it.
What have we learned? Spotify’s promise of real-time curation might be a little overblown. As smart as the selection algorithm is, it’s not capable of adapting to your tastes as fast as they change. In this case, that’s probably a good thing.