Google-Songza Deal Shows Streaming’s Search for Human Touch

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 07.02.14 in News

As music listening gets more and more technological, tech companies keep upgrading their music streaming services with old-fashioned flesh and blood. In 2012, Trent Reznor enthused to The New Yorker about a streaming product that would include recommendations from “people who have thought about what a good playlist is for driving through Memphis, for example.” The Nine Inch Nails leader said at the time, “As great as it is to have all this information bombarding you, there’s a real value in trusted filters.”

With Google‘s deal to buy Songza, Reznor’s words look all the more prophetic. The purchase brings human-curated playlists to the company that most epitomizes how people have outsourced our mental tasks to the cloud (and that unceremoniously ended all barroom arguments about obscure bits of trivia). That the acquisition comes so quickly after Apple bought Beats — including the streaming service Reznor was talking about — shows tech companies still clearly think being able to suggest music to people is worth something.

Are they right? At Wondering Sound, we’re definitely biased. But I hope so. And experience increasingly shows that humans, flawed as we are, can help guide listeners to new music in a way that even the online search giant’s famous algorithms still can’t.

First, let’s look at Songza. Google’s price tag for the deal topped $39 million, an unnamed person briefed on the agreement told The New York Times, and Google said in an announcement that it might incorporate Songza into its Google Play Music streaming service. Songza specializes in playlists matched to specific listening circumstances, and, as Bloomberg Businessweek reports, the company employs actual, fingerprint-bearing individuals to make those playlists. (Or, as Google puts it: “They’ve built a great service which uses contextual expert-curated playlists to give you the right music at the right time.”)

Apple has indicated that it, too believes people can beat tech when it comes to recommending music. Though most of the Apple’s $3 billion cost presumably paid for the Beats by Dre headphone business, the iPad maker’s announcement specifically cited Beats Music’s “incredible curated listening experience.” Though the day probably isn’t far away when a phone can “curate” something — that word again!— here the term suggests actual people making actual decisions based on actual, you know, taste.

And that’s the thing: Technology may have shifted the landscape of music listening, so that Facebook and Twitter often bring word of new music to our attention rather than radio stations, MTV or record stores, with their much-maligned but now desperately missed know-it-alls behind the counter. (The Internet has surely democratized taste, erasing the term “guilty pleasure” even as more of us are free to seek out obscure or difficult records.) However, even with social media, the emphasis is on “social”: These are people I’ve chosen to “friend” or “follow,” and so there’s a decent chance what the particular items they find worth sharing will interest me, too.

As streaming continues to gain on other listening formats — overall music streams were up 32 percent last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan — it only makes sense that streaming services will find more uses for human expertise.

If there’s no accounting for taste, there’s no programming for it, either.