The Moby Problem: open letter to Matt Ogle’s successor at Spotify

Almost every week, Spotify adds a Moby track to my Discover Weekly or Release Radar playlists – probably the playlists I listen to the most. The problem is: I don’t like Moby, and he’s not going away.

I’ve figured out exactly why Spotify keeps recommending me Moby. I’ve also figured out what types of user behaviour can discourage a recommendation system from continuing to recommend certain music. On Spotify, skips are weighted heavily. That is to say, if you skip a track, Spotify interprets it as you not liking a song or¬†artist. I quite consistently skip the Moby tracks in my recommended playlists, but a week goes by and there he is again.

The Moby problem is not actually about Moby. It’s about the way recommendation algorithms work, and about the way we feed music data to them. The reason why Spotify keeps recommending me Moby is because I have a few Moby works in some of my playlists. I actually like his early rave stuff from the 90s, but I don’t care much for his chill out and trip hoppy stuff. Moby is perhaps also one of the most remixed electronic artists. Occasionally (and rarely), a really great remix sneaks into my playlists.

Hypothesis: playlists are weighted more heavily than skips

Three factors around playlists seem to be playing a role in Spotify’s assumption that I love Moby:

  • Moby’s inclusion in my playlists (passive)
  • Moby being played from my own playlist (active)
  • Moby being added to my playlists (active)

The weight in the algorithm should probably get heavier towards the bottom of this list, since it signals stronger intention and commitment. There may be many other factors at play too.

The fact that I like a couple of songs from an artist, some of which from over 20 years ago, does not mean I’d like to be kept up to date on his newest music though. Most of the Moby tracks that appear in my Release Radar are actually inter-genre remixes, so that really doesn’t make much sense either (e.g. if I like drum & bass, why would I like a techno remix of a drum & bass song?).

The remix problem

Then there’s another issue with remixes. One of my most-played playlists, called If Red Bull was Music, includes an EDM remix of a Moby track. It’s the only Moby track I listen to regularly, besides perhaps the Moby stuff in my Discover Weekly and Release Radar, when I forget to skip.

The problem is: it’s not a Moby track anymore. Sure, Moby is the original artist, but it doesn’t sound like a Moby track at all. It’s almost like categorizing a hiphop beat that samples Mozart as a piece of classical music.

It seems like Spotify is barely taking this into account when two artists can be lumped into the same category (electronic), even when that category is too broad to mean anything.

The solution

Let me banish artists! Give me a big fat ban button.

But hey, I’m a product person: I know the Moby problem is a symptom and you shouldn’t develop features to address symptoms — that’s how you kill a good product.

Spotify has a great product and Discover Weekly & Release Radar are a strong part of my music habits¬†nowadays. So what it needs to do, is get better at understanding users’ actions and intentions, and how they weight them.

Personally, I think it’s important for them to look at how users interact with the music in their recommended mix playlists, and then weigh that much heavier. No engagement with a certain artist (or actually: skips), then that artist slowly becomes invisible, like in the Facebook news feed.

So to whomever is succeeding Matt Ogle, one of the creators of Discover Weekly, who just departed Spotify for Instagram, please solve my Moby problem. Let me escape this filter bubble.

(Just in case: hey Moby, I love your music, but most of it just doesn’t fit my taste so well. Keep doing what you’re doing!)