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Spotify is my new running mate, even if it doesn't know me well

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Apparently, after all these years, Spotify still doesn't really get me. I've used the service since 2010. Technically I was a subscriber since before it hit US shores. And yet, Spotify clearly has no idea what kind of music I like. I say this because I recently traded in my carefully curated running playlist for Spotify's dynamically generated ones and, not to spoil the rest of the story, it really failed. But let's start at the beginning.

I got up nice and early Sunday morning, left my house and began the slow slog up hill past Silver Lake Park. When I started to hit my stride I pulled out my iPhone and found the new Running option in sidebar of the updated Spotify app. The first stop on my journey was the running specific Hip Hop and R&B playlist. A pleasant female voice instructed me to start running and let me know that it was using the phone's sensors to detect my pace. Then, as promised, it spat out songs perfectly matched to the tempo of my run.

The first batch of tracks got me up the steep slope, but almost none of the artists were recognizable to me. And honestly, most were not particularly good; there was a reason I had never heard most of these songs before. The final nail in the playlist's coffin was Immortal Technique's The Cause of Death. Whether you're a fan of his or not, I think we can all agree that listening to the Harlem-based MC rap about how 9/11 was an inside job doesn't make for an enjoyable run.

The trouble is that, while Spotify supposedly takes my taste into account when building these playlists, you'd never know it. Neither the Upbeat Run or Mood Booster Run playlists fared any better. And, after suffering through Bleachers and Demi Lovato's Unbroken, I gave up. It seems that the combination of Spotify's beat matching algorithm and its human curators just couldn't make me happy.

There was one other place I might find running nirvana, however. Spotify has a selection of running specific original tracks. These aren't collections of songs, they're long pieces of instrumental music designed specifically for you to listen to and zone out while you keep those legs moving. There are six pieces to choose from: The Chase, Blissed Out, Lock the Flow, Seasons, Epic and Burn. Honestly, those first five aren't great. In fact they sound like they were pulled from a library of nondescript royalty-free music. But, like the playlist options, if you're just looking for something to help you keep pace, they do the job.

Burn is different. It's created by Dutch DJ and producer Tiësto, and it's pretty much perfection. I'm not normally a huge fan of Tiësto; he's the sort of artist that plays best in a club when you're pumped full of ecstasy... or so I thought. Burn, once it locks into your rhythm, ebbs and flows with the right amount of energy to keep you running for about 45 minutes, uninterrupted. In that way, it's not unlike LCD Soundsystem's 45:33. But where that song is about simply locking into a groove, Burn is constantly building and shifting to keep you moving and engaged. It feels like it constantly wants you to go faster. When it finally reaches a crescendo, however, it backs off to let you enjoy that runner's zen for a bit before pushing you again with filtered drum buildups. It's cheap shot after cheap shot, but it works beautifully for a nice long run.

Spotify definitely has some work to do with its running feature. I never want to hear Demi Lovato again, and songs about government conspiracies aren't really motivating me to push myself. That being said, the technology part works quite well. I do wish that the running originals and playlists would sample your pace multiple times over the course of a run, rather than stick to a steady pace (I can't help but start to slow down around mile five). But the songs selected rarely failed to lock to my tempo. If the company can get more expertly crafted originals like Tiësto's Burn, it will have something truly special on its hands. For now, I'll be putting my running playlist on the shelf and sticking to Spotify, exclusively because of that track.

Update: So, it turns out the poorly constructed running playlists are not evidence that Spotify doesn't know me very well. According to a representative these playlists aren't tailored to your tastes. Instead they're pretty much random songs matched to the tempo of your run broken up into giant bucket genres like "hip hop" or "indie." Which, to be fair, would go a long way towards explaining how it let me down so terribly. But it also begs the question, why use them at all then? When I'm running I want to enjoy my music, not have to skip every third song that comes on. Earlier attempts to clarify with Spotify how the playlists worked didn't make this clear. If at some point the company updates its running playlists to reflect past listening habits I'll revisit the feature.

In this article: music, running, spotify, streaming
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