See Spotify Run

Will the streaming service’s new features transform how people work out, or just transform’s Spotify’s value proposition?

Dominick Reuter / Reuters

Running alongside the Potomac River this past Wednesday afternoon, I had one of those thoughts that seems revelatory when high from either drugs or running, but obvious any other time: In the utopian future, we’ll make no decisions. Call it the cresting of the stream or the resolution of the paradox of the choice; the idea is that after the Internet has overwhelmed so many of us with so many options about so many things, the innovations to come will ease the burden of indecision. Here’s what you need to know, say newly trendy newsletters; here’s what you’re going to eat, say meal-delivery services. And now, here’s what you’re going to listen to while you sweat off brunch, says the new Spotify, the cause of this particular endorphin rush.

Though I try not to get too worked up about any app’s messianic marketing material, I couldn't help but be a little intrigued by the promotional video for Spotify’s new features for runners, unveiled at a press conference on Wednesday. Music, study after study has shown, can improve a person’s exercise routine by motivating, distracting, and pushing the body’s tempo. I’ve found this to be the case, but I’ve also found it tougher than expected to pick the correct music to achieve the desired effect. For me at least, it’s got to be fast-paced, be interesting and distinctive enough to occupy the brain, and maybe offer a few whooshing climaxes and motivational lyrics. I tend to overplay albums that fit the bill (it’s stressful to encounter a Disclosure song in the wild now, for example), never remember to make playlists ahead of time, and am constantly irritated by what radio stations choose to play. Spotify, save me from this first-world problem!

Upon activating the feature and selecting the “Recommended for You” playlist as I trotted out of the office parking garage, Spotify asked me to run a bit so as to figure out the appropriate tempo before settling upon 165 steps per minute. The music started. Drums kicked in, the beat nicely interlocking with my footfall. But then: detuned guitars, some pained singing … uh oh, I thought. Linkin Park.  The playlist purports to make choices based on your listening history, and I had, in fact, played to some Linkin Park on Spotify a while back in preparation for writing a (never finished) article about nostalgia for bad music. But I don’t actively listen to angst-at-your-parents nu metal anymore, and besides, the song Spotify served up was late-period Linkin Park—so there wasn’t even the middle-school throwback appeal. Skip.

Next up was Ariana Grande’s first hit, “The Way,” which was pleasant enough. I’d never really noticed the handclaps keeping tempo before; if you ask me to describe the song, I’d say it’s a vocal workout, not a cardiovascular one. Later, I look up the beats per minute of the track: 86, about half of 165, which with mathematical reduction being what it is, explains why it was chosen. But though the song matched my speed, it just kind of bored me, featuring none of the dynamism that my favorite running soundtracks serve up. Same went for the Big Sean, Azealia Banks, and Wiz Khalifa tunes that followed (though I liked that the app was bolstering my mainstream hip-hop cred after the rap-rocky start). Spotify knew what I’d listened to, and it knew how fast I ran. But it still didn’t know what I wanted to listen to while I ran.

So I scrolled down the menu to the “Running Originals” playlists, which had been created specifically for the Spotify running app, and selected the one that’d been promoted explicitly at Wednesday’s press conference: “Burn,” by the Dutch DJ Tiesto. Immediately, I felt less like a reluctant and occasional jogger than a Mad Max psycho soldier who’d just sprayed painted his teeth. Spotify was smart to bring Tiesto in, as dance is often called “body music” for a reason. Looping past the World War II memorial and then down the south flank of the reflecting pool, I tried sprinting. Were the increasingly excited drums in the Tiesto track accelerating along with me? No, actually. Whether I was stopped at a traffic light or weaving through tourists or bolting, Spotify never noticed when my pace changed. The screen said 165 the whole time.

That is, until I hit the arrow buttons next to that number, raising it to 190. The music’s volume lowered momentarily as a woman pleasantly said, “Adjusting tempo.” Then there was a kind of a fast-forwarding effect on the music before the song came back, with the beat sped up to manic, Aphex-Twin-freakout levels, but without the chipmunk effect on the rest of the music that you’d expect (CEO Daniel Ek said that the tracks “magically rearrange” rather than just stretch temporally). I had the sudden urge to gun it, and galloped furiously up the Lincoln Memorial steps to strange glances from school groups, looked out at the National Mall as the music reached an epic swell—eff yeah, America!—and then went back down again.

Ah ha, there it was, the way to manipulate myself into greater exertion: just request a faster beat. Which defeats the idea of never having to choose anything, of course. And it also defeats the idea of music being an expression of personal preference: The soundtrack was Spotify’s creation, literally made with scientific assistance, intended to hype up me and anyone else who listens. In addition to the Tiesto song suite, the app has a number custom-made running “experiences,” ranging from “Epic” (which sounds like a Trent Reznor movie score) to “Seasons” (straightforwardly gorgeous orchestral arrangements). They’re each quite clever and straightforwardly pleasing, with recurring melodies, an escalating sense of excitement, and arrangements that work as well at 140 BPMs and 190. But they’re unmistakably utilities, not art.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. There have been other apps that offer similar running-and-listening experiences, but Spotify is the first music-streaming one to do it, and it will soon unveil more workout features courtesy of its alliance with Nike+ Running (hopefully that means it will offer route-tracking, whose omission from the service at this point is pretty glaring). Spotify didn’t revolutionize my run, but I could see turning to its Running Originals playlists when I can’t decide which of my favorite albums to try and sweat to.

The more interesting thing here might be the business philosophy. Spotify, like seemingly every app these days from Snapchat to Facebook, wants to become a Swiss Army tool that’s integrated into every aspect of your life. At Wednesday’s press conference, the company also announced it was adding video content à la a Netflix and Hulu for shortform, and moment-specific radio stations à la Songza. The mission creep irritates some critics, but the objective is clear: to make its service cooler and more useful than rivals like Tidal and Apple’s Beats, and to grab new users. That’s a crass capitalistic goal, sure, but it’s also one that could help artists. If Spotify’s new bells and whistles attract more people to participate in the paid and ad-supported streaming economy, that means more money to musicians because royalty payouts are directly tied to the company’s total revenue. That’s a beat I can run to.