Love Letter to the Hype Machine
How music blog aggregator Hype Machine reconnects users to their favorite artists.·
This year marks my 10 year anniversary as a Hype Machine user. For over a decade, the service has been helping me discover new music and learn about the stories of my favorite artists. While mainstream-ing services like Spotify (pun intended) have become proficient at recommending music to their users, they also fail to bring users closer to the artists they follow.
Music discovery in the early 2010s
The Hype Machine is a website that collects music by indexing hundreds of music blogs. The platform allows users to discover new and emerging music and follow up on artists. Every track shows a blog posts it was featured in and lets users learn more about the artist. When I joined the Hype Machine in 2013, it was my favorite service to discover new music.
The same year, I signed up for a Spotify account. Back then their music discovery features were in no relation to what we are used to today. Spotify's feature set and user interface was as basic as it gets. As this neat Evolution of the Spotify Apps blog posts demonstrates, the 2012 Spotify App had a "What's New" section, a "People" section to check out what your Facebook friends were listening to and the "Radio" feature which let you play music similar to individual tracks, artists or albums of your choosing. In 2012, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek admitted that "Spotify is great when you know what you want to listen to, but not so good when you don't". A year later they released more features that supported discovery. The "Discover" section showed recommendations based on your listening history and artists you followed. It may come as no surprise that Spotify acquired Tuningo around the same time, a Swedish music recommendation service. It seemed to fit right into the company's "overall strategy around music discovery".
The Hype Machine took a different approach. Ever since its launch in 2005, they offered a "Latest" page, showing the most recent tracks from their indexed blogs and a "Popular" page, showing the most popular tracks amongst its users. Apart from that, a personalized feed offers music from blogs or artists you follow.
Music treasure hunt
I remember that browsing through my feed in the Hype Machine was like finding hidden treasure of a long lost civilization. It created a sense of true discovery, a sense of "I, myself discovered this, before anyone else did". In the bygone days of the tropical house genre that was dominated by artists like Kygo, Sam Feldt or Felix Jaehn I discovered Deep Chills, an underground artist from Italy. He remixed You Got The Love from The Source & Candi Staton with such a charming and relaxing energy that I immediately fell in love with his style. I probably would have never heard of Deep Chills, if it wasn't for the Hype Machine.
The tracks I found on the platform felt like real gems, like this mashup of Daft Punk's Random Access Memories by Vanderway. Apparently it was created with only a 15 second promotional clip of their upcoming album, and its energetic vibes never fails to put a smile on my face. This true sense of discovery was so strong because most of the music wasn't mainstream. It was unreleased, underground music by upcoming artists. Music you wouldn't be able to find anywhere else. Music that people wrote about in their blogs, because they cared about the artists.
I discovered other artists on the platform, including The Chainsmokers, an American DJ duo who made a notable impact on the music industry through their remixes. They famously remixed tracks like ASTR's Operate, Smallpool's Dreaming or Two Door Cinema's Sleep Alone, long before their mainstream success with tracks such as #Selfie or Kanye. Artists often undergo changes in their identity after achieving mainstream success, and The Chainsmokers serve as a prime example of this phenomenon. At a certain point, they shifted their focus towards catering to the masses, which is when they lost my support. However, I was once a devoted fan during their underground days in 2013.
It felt like it was me alone who discovered all of this awesome music. And the flow of great music didn't seem to stop. Hype Machine gave me this gold digger feeling unmatched by any other music service.
Spotify's kickass UX
Over the past few years, I have gotten very used to all the convenience features that Spotify offers when it comes to music discovery and on top of that, playlist creation. Sometimes I start to play a single track that represents a certain mood I'm in and add it to a new playlist. If I really like the track, I let the song radio play and add song after song. At some point, I turn on the Enhance feature that adds similar songs which could fit into my playlist. Creating a Spotify playlist in 2023 is a breeze (while discovering new music in the process).
Thanks to the steady improvement of the Spotify experience, I have neglected Hype Machine as my primary source of new emerging music. Very early on, I have noticed how much I love the UX of Spotify and how delightful and easy it became to just lean back and listen to music. From curated playlists such as the "This is..." series that spotlight individual artists, to personalized playlists such as "Discover Weekly", "Release Radar" or Daily Mixes all the way to Wrapped, your personal end of year summary in music. Spotify got you covered. It feels personal, it feels seamless, it feels superior to Hype Machine. At some point in the past, I chose kickass UX over musical treasure hunt.
How Hype Machine let me down
In addition to Spotify's superior user experience, there are several reasons why Hype Machine has become less interesting to me over the years. If I had to pinpoint it to one reason though, then it would be their poorly designed iPhone app. Mobile apps are obviously a big part of any music platform experience these days. I rely on my bike as my primary means of transportation, and listening to music or podcasts while on the move has become second nature to me. As a consequence, I have high expectations when it comes to an uninterrupted mobile experience.
Navigating the app
The app's using a hamburger menu as the primary navigational pattern, which makes it rather cumbersome to use. Navigating between core functionality requires you to open the menu repeatedly, creating a constant need for interaction. Once you play a track, you end up in a fullscreen view of the player. Instead, the track could just start to play in the background and the user flow wouldn't be disrupted.
Features of the app
There is no queue and no actual way to create playlists. At some point in 2014, they introduced a basic playlist feature. However, that feature came with its limitations. Users are limited to a maximum of three playlists, with the restriction of not being able to add a single song to multiple playlists. Also, the playlist labels don't show on mobile. Playlists are only represented by individual colors, which you have to remember. So apart from being hard to use, a reliance on color isn't the most accessible way to design an app.
If these issues weren't enough, the app is affected by constant troubles with streaming of songs. Sometimes when I skip a song I'm met with silence. Being on my bike I wonder what caused the music to stop. When I pull out my phone to investigate the issue (which is very hard and dangerous while riding a bike) I notice that the song seems to be buffering. That buffering could go on for several seconds (which feels like eternity) or it could mean that the song was removed and can't be played at all.
You might understand my frustration and why I ditched Hype Machine in favor of Spotify.
Business vs. UX
Now, is it a big surprise that Spotify beats Hype Machine in terms of UX? Is it a big surprise that Spotify stands out in music discovery features? According to Billie, Spotify's friendly personal job assistant chatbot (yes, they even have that!) the company has over 6500 employees that build their product. Wanna know how many people work on Hype Machine? Three. Yes, you read that right. Three people: Dave, Zoya and Anthony.
Spotify is a business that has always done its utmost to evolve its user experience but also to maximize its profits. Very recently, Spotify received a fine of 5 million euros for not properly disclosing how they process user data. On the other end of the spectrum Hype Machine founder Anthony Volodkin says that they "prioritize user experience over agressive ads" when asked whether selling user data ever crossed their minds. This gives a pretty good impression about where Hype Machine's priorities lie. To be exact, that is actually one distinguishing feature that sets them apart from competing streaming services.
Reconnecting with artists
Even if Spotify tries really hard to improve their listener's user experience, I cannot help but to express a feeling of disconnection with the music I have been consuming there lately. The discovery engine just keeps on recommending new music that match my taste profile. Of course, everything revolves around personalization, to make my listening experience as individual as possible.
But I didn't do anything to discover these artists, the whole beauty of the treasure hunt was outsourced to an algorithm. Apart from that, I don't learn anything about the artists and their background, which is something that I have always cherished in the past. These feelings of detachment eventually made me return to Hype Machine.
Anthony Volodkin perfectly summarized what I love about the Hype Machine:
"Hype Machine focuses on surfacing music you don’t know you like yet and presents it with context so you can actively explore more. We index hundreds of sources to create an eclectic stream of new tracks, with links to posts so you can read about what you’re listening to."
He goes on:
"Many services recommend music based on your listening history or similar listening patterns, which limits what you can encounter. There is a place for lean-back discovery too, but we think both listeners and artists benefit from a variety of approaches."
Hype Machine is truly dedicated to a user experience that revolves around getting out of your filter bubble to discover something genuinely new. The service is dedicated to establishing a real connection between their users and the music they consume.
The feeling I get of "true discovery" I described earlier, still holds true, even after a decade of using Hype Machine. Fund the Hype Machine today.