[18 January 2013]
“Who made this playlist? This is exactly what I want to hear right now!”
I won’t name the inebriated dude in bright yellow pants who said this as LL Cool J’s “Doin’ It” played at the tail end of our holiday party, because I’m pretty sure he has a bright future as a bureaucrat. But I will name the playlist – ‘90s Club Bangers – and the creator: Songza.
I will also admit that the inspired mix of Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Missy Elliott and others was hitting my pleasure zone pretty hard too, as effectively as any playlist I might have put together and with a lot less blood, sweat and tears involved.
Songza is a free, music-streaming app that serves up a variety of themed playlists – from Pop Wake-up Call, to Indie Dinner for Two, to Music from Quentin Tarantino Films – based on parameters you select. While you can search for specific artists and styles, or browse through popular playlists, the most unique feature is the Concierge. Depending on the time of day, the app will present you with a number of options to play music for, some more aspirational than others. On a recent Saturday afternoon, my choices included entertaining cool friends, doing housework, working out, and playing video games.
So let’s say I’m hanging out with some people I want to impress. From there I can explore six pre-selected categories, such as R&B’s Outer Edges, Something Sexy and Colorful Indie Dance & Nu Disco. After making my choice, which should be obvious, I am presented with three playlists that presumably fit the bill (if my “cool friends” were part of the Dungeon Family):
Houstatlantavegas - “some of the more dramatic and sexy sounds that pervade many of the most popular urban gentleman’s clubs”
From the Runway to the Afterparty - “deep and sultry rhythms from some of today’s most fashionable artists and DJs”
Luvstep - “Dim the lights and turn up the stereo; you can apologize to the neighbors tomorrow”
OK, so no one’s giving these guys awards for copywriting, but if you’re honest about what you’re actually doing and what kind of music you’re looking for, more often than not these playlists will deliver – and with far less skipping needed than has been my experience on Pandora. They’re perfect for those times when you want to listen to good music, you just don’t have the time or inclination to decide exactly what that music is going to be.
I was introduced to the app over Thanksgiving, when my sister-in-law popped on a pre-party playlist to go along with some brunch cocktails. I was only half paying attention, but nearly every time I checked in I found something to like, a mix of new and old, upbeat and mellow. My sister-in-law has some pronounced, varied tastes – during the course of the day, she’d argue for Biggie’s intellectual qualities, claim that everything Kanye touches turns to gold, and match Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend” video step for ridiculous step – but she’ll be the first to admit she doesn’t do a ton of music research. This obviously wasn’t just her iPhone playing on shuffle.
Based on this experience, I felt confident that a music concierge could add a lot to my life. It hasn’t taken long to find some excellent playlists I can reliably return to: “90 BPM Running Mix: Hip Hop”, “Essential West African Sounds”, “Smooth Rockabilly”. The app is great for revisiting old favorites; to my wife, “Songza” might as well just mean “Essential ‘90s R&B”, just as Twitter is shorthand for “Aziz Ansari one-liners.” But like any good playlist, Songza mixes in plenty of discovery along with the familiar stuff, whether it’s from the pop charts, NPR’s All Songs Considered, Gorilla vs. Bear or some other source. While listening to “Food for Funk”, (“Rappers love to eat!”), I not only came across the first Action Bronson song I wanted to listen to all the way through (“Shiraz”, kicked off by a cameo from Mark “Butt Fumble” Sanchez) but also found a hilarious, NSFW Devin the Dude track (“Broccoli & Cheese”) that featured on a few of my holiday mixes this year.
If I’ve learned anything from my own playlist-making, it’s that you have to push the envelope slowly. You’re not going to get anywhere by bombarding your listeners with a bunch of eclectic stuff they don’t know, no matter how good you know it is. The Songza people seem to understand this – and when I say people, I mean people. All Songza playlists are developed by a cadre of “music experts”, rather than an algorithm. This is strangely comforting; I’d like to think I’m not quite to the point where I’m not just turning over my listening to a computer. The Songza people draw you in slowly to new artists and new sounds, from song to song and related playlist to related playlist. It’s kind of how I’m sloowwwly lulling my brother into becoming an LCD Soundsystem fan. I’m thinking it’ll happen just in time for the reunion tour in 2027.
OK, so I’m mostly just trying to convince myself that Songza is the thinking listener’s playlist app, somehow more for the serious music fan than its competitors. That’s probably not how most users will view it; the app is just as likely to be used as a way to reinforce rather than expand tastes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When you need a reliable selection of ‘90s club bangers with minimal effort, and we’ve all been there, Songza is a great solution. That said, the best apps have something to satisfy multiple user groups, and with its impressive library, super-specific search and the recent integration of the headphone-improving Audyssey Media Player app, Songza appears to be on its way to doing that.
Is this a Spotify killer? For me, it’s more like a Spotify enabler – and by extension, iTunes, especially after I read Pitchfork’s examination of meager Spotify payouts. My personally created playlists have further developed, thanks to my Songza listening. But I still appreciate the ability to totally control my experience, whether it’s because I want to listen to a full album or be able to skip around in way that only makes sense to my ear (like other similar apps, you can only skip so many times per hour with Songza, though switching playlists seems to offer a fresh list). That’s probably why, for our New Year’s Eve party, I took a couple of hours to build my own playlist and streamed it through Spotify Premium. While it’s not a perfect comparison, I do remember the mix getting some pretty good reviews – so if there’s any more room on that experts list, Songza folks, let me know.