Algorithmic Playlists vs. Human Curation: The Pros and Cons of Each

One of the hot topics in the music industry right now is the debate regarding whether algorithms, or technology in general, can replace human curation. The question is: which type of playlist is better? And specifically for brands that spend so much time and effort on their identities, what’s the best way to ensure a consistent brand sound?

How Algorithmic Playlists Are Generated

Popular consumer streaming services, such as Spotify and Apple Music, tout both types of playlists: human curated, as well as algorithmic. In order to generate algorithmic playlists, these tools track a user’s listening history, and leverage the track’s metadata to develop a list of similar artists and tracks for future play.

The problem with solely using algorithms for commercially-licensed music programs is that they’re extremely limited. While the output is influenced by listening behavior, the outcomes are often predictable and lead back to the same place—often as repetitive and conventional as listening to commercial radio.

Eventually, a person will need to intervene to prevent disconnected content and avoid hearing the same songs every two hours. And no matter how advanced the catalogs, metadata, and algorithms get in the future, music-on-autopilot can’t easily adapt to the changing needs of brands.

Where Human Curation Wins

Brands spend a lot of time on their identities, products, store layouts, and digital presence—and one area that’s extremely underutilized is the brand sound. The use of music and entertainment media within space—physical, digital, emotional, and experiential— makes these spaces come alive.

Our Music Supervisors have deep knowledge of genres, types, trends, periods, emerging artists, and cultural impact when it comes to music. They program much of what you hear major brands playing throughout their stores, websites, and more, selecting songs that are each cataloged by 174 distinct traits.

Combined with an understanding of brand architecture and armed with the insights playback data provides, human curation by these individuals allows for the more strategic use of songs and playlists in ways that algorithms can’t, including:

  • Creating brand standards for sound that address audience personas and align with other brand elements. Music can and should be treated like any other component of a brand, such as colour and imagery.
  • Having the versatility to support specific marketing or brand initiatives, campaigns, product launches, experiential programs, or recurrent content programs. Create unique music programs that differentiate products and services while supporting key messages and positioning.
  • Tying into loyalty programs to promote registrations, engagement, app downloads, and more. Reward repeat customers or attract and encourage infrequent buyers to be more active.
  • Developing longer, more advanced playlists to reduce employee fatigue and increase the opportunity for music discovery.  The average fashion retailer in-store playlist is more than 10 times that of a Spotify playlist.

Why We Prefer the Human Touch

As music lovers who spend hours and hours looking for new music and remembering old, when it comes to curating music for brands, we believe that humans deciding with data is better than data deciding for humans. Algorithms can show you what has happened and suggest something related that might fit the bill, however as beings who sometimes do crazy things like eat breakfast for dinner, that isn’t always the case.

Emily Mitchell

About Emily Mitchell

Hello my name is Emily Mitchell and I am a music supervisor for PlayNetwork EMEA.

I studied classical performance and composition from an early age which lead to getting a music degree at The University of Manchester. I then decided to take a shot at working in the industry. I did an internship for an independent label distribution company which lead to a full time position, and have had small stints at booking agencies.

When I am not working at PlayNetwork, I work on my music blog called ‘Genre Confused’ which has helped me to expose lesser known artists to wider audiences within a multiple of genres. What I love most about working at PlayNetwork is discovering new music, which means I get to work with a lot of amazing artists and labels to get their music heard by millions of consumers every day.

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Latest Comments:

  • Great post!!!
    There’s also one more thing that makes human curation a better option: Not every user is a music expert, if algorithms are based on their listening history then it will fail to propose what they will like to listen but music curators do as they educate users, For example, when Tropical House came to the scene, an average listener could never find Artists like Kygo…

    - Ala Eddine Ben Amor
    • Great point! There is an advantage to having music experts helping to curate and source music that algorithms may not find on their own.

      - playnetworkteam