The Future of Music Discovery - A Q&A with Alex White

We are witnessing a massive technological shift. A new age of connectivity. A digital revolution. AI is advancing faster than ever before, transforming our expectations of not just how we interact with technology, but how technology interacts with us.

The culmination of everything we crave in today’s technology—convenience, speed, personalization, and mobility—all point to one major content format. The oldest form of human communication: audio. As we watch this revolution unfold, the Power of Audio continues to reign supreme and stand the test of time.

So, we know technology is rapidly changing, and we know audio is a primary driver of this change. We’re very excited about what’s to come, however, we couldn’t help but wonder: What Does the Future Sound Like? We predicted six upcoming trends in this year’s Definitive Guide to Audio, and sat down to talk more with Alex White, who spoke on the AI trend. Alex is a VP of Content & Programming at SiriusXM and Pandora, overseeing the curation programming team who works closely with science, engineering, and product to come together to create the magic of Pandora’s programming and personalization. This is what he had to say about trends, the future, and the music process as we know it today.

Tell us about what music discovery is like today.

The way we listen to and discover music has changed, and playlists are central to how we discover and share music. With the advent of new music technologies, more people have instant access to music and are listening to more music than any point in history. Playlists are a huge driver in the growth of streaming music and there is a narrative in the music industry that curators “are the new radio program directors.” These playlists drive discovery, chart performance, and sales, and the tastemakers creating them aren’t just kids compiling their favorite songs.

Today’s playlists are a transitional technology from a physical world to a digital universe where the streaming service providers are sophisticated enough to anticipate the music a listener wants to hear throughout the day. The music industry has embraced the playlist model in the last few years because it is one they recognize from terrestrial radio and it is easy to pivot their teams and organizations around this model.

New music can now be released and immediately ingested into Pandora, then analyzed by humans and machines who apply metadata, including who performs a piece, who produces it, and industry priority, along with other important factors. These provide the signals for an initial targeted rollout with a goal of every song, podcast, or comedy bit finding its maximum audience. Tracks by popular artists are flagged to curation programming as well as tracks by new or undiscovered artists that start gaining more thumbs-up, listens, and other positive signals. All of these factors ultimately inform programming decisions across genre stations and algorithmic insertions across the platform.

What’s the future for streaming services?

In the not so distant future, we are going to look at the streaming services that exist today and laugh at how much work it takes to hear what we want to hear.

The streaming service of the future anticipates listener needs and hyper-personalizes all of the content and recommendations. There needs to be full search and play functionality, but as we've learned from the last 50 years, the vast majority of Americans are looking to be served a mixture of "what everyone is listening to," new music, and their favorite artists and tracks.

Add in podcasts, news, weather, sports, comedy, and other content types, and the future is an anticipatory, fully immersive audio experience, personalized to who you are, who you are with, where you are, and what you are doing. This programming is powered by signals coming from the proliferation of devices, ubiquitous connectivity, and driven by advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Where is Pandora at in the path to a post-playlist world?

Listeners can always jump in and tune things if we get things wrong, but in general, Pandora weaves together all of the contextual information we have about a listener—their historical listening patterns, what everyone else is listening to—and gives them a hyper-personalized, dynamically generated playlist or station that perfectly matches the mood or context they are in.

We just launched “Modes,” which let you fine-tune any station you are listening to based on Deep Cuts, Discovery, Crowd Faves, and more. We also now have our “For You” section on the app that takes personalization to a whole new level. With songs, stations, podcasts, and playlists selected specifically for each user at the time they open the app, For You is the place to go for listening recommendations.

So in a few words...What does the future sound like?

Effortless, personalized programming and discovery!

What are the other trends predicted for next year? Who are the other experts talking about in an audio-first world? You can find all this in the 2020 Definitive Guide to Audio, plus, we created a new digital experience this year complete with audio examples. Download your copy of the guide today and explore the tour here.