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Alexa just got better at picking music for you

Amazon Music is leaning on Alexa to remember your listening habits and nail down the right playlist. But don’t expect perfection just yet.

Alexa just got better at picking music for you
[Photo: Rahul Chakraborty/Unsplash; Daniel Robert/Unsplash]

With Amazon Music’s latest update, Amazon wants Alexa to display a new personality trait: music aficionado.

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Now, when you ask Alexa to help pick a playlist, the voice assistant will start a conversation about what you want to hear. First, it’ll ask if there’s a particular genre or tempo you’re after, then it’ll start offering samples of different playlists for you to accept or reject. In some cases, Alexa will seek more guidance–for instance, by asking if you want something laid back or upbeat–and you can also try to proactively narrow things down each time Alexa suggests another playlist.

“It’s somewhat similar to having a casual chat with a musically savvy friend,” says Kintan Brahmbhatt, Amazon Music’s director of product.

Alexa is also getting better at personalization. Previously, if you asked Amazon’s voice assistant to “play something,” it would simply spit back a playlist that aligned with your interests. As of today, you can use Alexa to start liking or disliking songs, albums, playlists, or stations. Amazon Music will then factor in those signals when you ask to play some music. It’ll also resurface songs you haven’t heard in a while and bring in new songs from artists you follow.

Brahmbhatt says generic “play something” or “play some music” requests are the most common way that people launch music through Alexa. The new personalization features are supposed to make those requests feel a little less like a crapshoot. They also take a page from other music services such as Apple Music, Spotify, and Pandora, which already let users tweak their suggestion algorithms with likes and dislikes. Apple’s Siri even uses a similar “play something I like command” to generate personalized playlists.

“It gets us to the no-friction kind of experience, the metaphoric big button,” Brahmbhatt says.

The new features are available for all Amazon Music users in the U.S., including Prime customers (who get about 2 million songs at no extra charge) and Music Unlimited subscribers (who get 50 million songs for $10 per month, or $8 per month with Prime). Amazon has said that it has “tens of millions” of active Amazon Music subscribers, spanning both of those offerings.

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Work in progress

As appealing as Alexa’s new musical skills are in theory, I found the reality to be a mixed bag. With playlist help, Alexa can be oddly rigid, often dipping into the same well of playlists when you ask for a specific genre, and never remembering how your previous conversations went. If I ask for help picking an indie rock playlist, for instance, Alexa inevitably suggests Coldplay–not even a good match–no matter how many times I’ve declined in the past. And while Amazon says you can ask for playlist help with specific moods, such as “holiday songs” or “dinner music,” I’ve had trouble finding other examples of moods that Amazon will recognize.

You also can’t use the nifty “more laid back” or “more up-tempo” commands from Alexa’s playlist picker elsewhere in Amazon Music. Once you’ve started listening to a playlist, there’s no way to make adjustments on the fly.

As for the new personalization features, I wish there was some kind of onboarding procedure where you could quickly list the artists or genres that you’re into–either in the Amazon Music app or by rattling off some names to Alexa. That way, you wouldn’t have to spend so much time pruning Amazon’s algorithms through actual usage.

Amazon is also still working on a “recommend me new music” feature, which draws on users’ listening habits to suggest songs they haven’t heard yet. When Brahmbhatt demoed it to me, he was offered new music from Steve Aoki–an artist he’d been following–and was asked by Alexa whether family and friends were around (as a way to screen out explicit lyrics). Amazon hasn’t said exactly when this feature will launch.

Turning Alexa into a music concierge isn’t an easy problem to solve. Brahmbhatt says the features Amazon is launching today have just recently become feasible as the company has made advancements in machine learning and natural language processing. Still, he says to expect more improvements to come as Amazon tries to build its music service around voice controls.

“We are just at the very early stage in the next generation of music experiences,” Brahmbhatt says. “As customers use it more frequently, and as we get to learn more about the customer, things will improve, and Alexa will continue to become smarter when it comes to music.”

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About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com

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