When I was first introduced to Songza and its concierge feature, I thought it was little more than an admittedly clever gimmick. “It’s Thursday late morning. Play music for: Getting fired up? Saving the world?”
But then you pick one of those “moods”, and a theme like the “Rowdy Indie Rock”, “Heavy Metal Gods” and the true genius of the service is revealed. Playlists like “Skinny Bros Night Out”, or my personal favorite, “A Prince Dance Party“. All curated, according to Songza, by actual people. And you know what? They’re really good! The stations feel cohesive, and make sense, and even tell you how many songs they contain. And that’s it. That’s all this simple little service does. There is no constant wrestling with a Pandora algorithm, or getting stuck in a Spotify loop (I once seeded a Spotify station with Elliot Smith and it gave me an hour of Beck- ugh). Just like the old days of trusting the DJ at your favorite (college) radio station to make you smile, Songza just works, powered by that human touch.
This week came the news that Google had acquired Songza for the rumored price of just under $40 million (is that all?). This could mean a lot for Songza and its competitors, or it could mean nothing at all, I’ll admit that. But it feels like something bigger. Like an admission that algorithms aren’t always the best way to go. That there is a great value in the expertise of people who can carefully craft something so seemingly simple as a playlist.
And what does any of this have to do with archives, other than overuse of the word curate? I think it’s a reminder that however many technological solutions we seek and find, we’ve got to remember that the skills and expertise of the archivist will always come into play. We can have the best schema and interface in the world, but if we’re half-assed about description, we will be caught out.
It also speaks to something a number of folks have been discussing on twitter- the need to shine the light on the archivist, and the ways in which doing so can improve the public’s perception of our work and our collections. There is no algorithm that processes collections and finds cool stuff- that’s our job and how we add value.
In the end, Google may just be buying Songza for its user data and the mechanics of its concierge feature. But I’ve got to believe that it’s also because they know that experts beat algorithms every time.