Edward Newett is the man behind one of the most influential innovations in music: the Spotify Discover Weekly algorithm. WIRED talks to the 36-year-old New Yorker about moulding the tastes of a generation.
How can an algorithm determine what tens of millions of people want to listen to every week?
Edward Newett: There are two parts to how the algorithm works: on one side, every week we’re modelling the relationship of everything we know about Spotify through our users’ playlist data.
On the other, we’re trying to model the behaviour of every single user on Spotify – their tastes, based primarily on their listening habits, what features they use on Spotify and also what artists they follow. So we take these two things and every Monday we recommend what we think you would like, but might not have heard about.
How does the algorithm determine what to serve up?
By trying to mimic the behaviour of all of our users when trying to put together their perfect mix, we can leverage Spotify’s two billion playlists, target individual tastes and come up with playlists that will be interesting.
What’s the origin of the algorithm?
When I joined in June 2013, I was on a team that was building the initial discovery product for Spotify – it was content in an almost Pinterest-style layout. At some point, a colleague and I decided that it would be a lot easier if we had it as a playlist. Then, around that time, a new product person joined our team and really loved what we were working on and helped us take it to market and make it a formal product.
Spotify announced in May 2016 that more than 40 million people had used its Discover Weekly service, streaming just under five billion tracks in under a year. How do you account for its popularity?
The biggest part is that it is deeply personalised to you. We’re finding ways, through personalised cover art and also by adding a track that we think would be familiar to you – based on artists you’ve listened to – to draw you in initially. Also, the more you listen to music, the better the recommendations for Discover Weekly become. And I think the playlist’s popularity also has something to do with this habit people got into: we were seeing tweets pretty early on that people were really looking forward to their new Discover Weekly and, by extension, Monday morning.