How I’m getting Apple Music to work more like Spotify’s recommendations

If you don’t like paying for duplicate services and ended up on Apple One, complete with Apple Music, but can’t get Spotify to work as well for you, I hear you loud and clear. The Internet is littered with forum posts and questions from people wondering how and why Apple Music’s recommendations aren’t as good as Spotify’s, and what to do about it. I decided to see if I could change that.

Worth noting: for every post where someone says they’re getting crummy recommendations on Apple Music there’s another saying they get crummy recommendations on Spotify.

I had tried switching from Spotify to Apple Music about a year ago, but gave up because I expected my “For You” playlists to behave just the same as Spotify’s “Discover Weekly”. They didn’t, and I found this annoying. I also found it annoying that Apple Music just didn’t seem to behave the way I was used to.

That’s because my expectations were wrong. I found out while I tried major shifts and worked to try all sorts of different things inside Apple Music and reinvent how I use a music streaming service.

Apple Music needs more than your listening history than Spotify

My Spotify habits, I think, mirror a lot of people’s:

  • Listen to music, either stuff I know I like and have collected or in playlists.
  • Skip songs I don’t like.
  • Listen to the ones I do.
  • Maybe, every so often, “Like” a song.
A screenshot of my top music genres in stats.fm
A screenshot of my top music genres in stats.fm

In ten years I’ve “Liked” about two dozen songs on Spotify. And, like a lot of people, my Discover Weekly is pretty good. I routinely found every other week had some songs I liked. And my Daily Mixes were okay, often suggesting similar songs and artists identical to what I had been listening to. This, I recognize now, was probably not ideal.

In my mind, “Liking” a song with the “heart icon” seemed like a commitment. Like telling Spotify, “I want to hear this song every hour of the day and I’ll never get tired of it. If I was stranded on a desert island, this is the song I want to be left with. And at my funeral, play this song.”

Since I don’t love most music with that level of passion, I rarely did it, recognizing I’d probably stop liking a “Liked” song in a few weeks or months anyway. In my mind, “I skip this artist every freaking time they play, so shouldn’t you get the hint?”

Spotify does get that hint. Apple Music doesn’t work that way.

Apple Music will take your listening history under consideration, but only broadly. I discovered that and more after using Soor and Stats.fm several things:

  1. I had so much more listening history in Spotify it’s unfair to Apple Music to complain it doesn’t “get” my tastes when I’ve not used it as much.
  2. Spotify gets incredibly granular with its listening history, like “Upbeat pop house remixes” where Apple Music will say “Pop”.
  3. I also learned the names of genres of music I didn’t know I liked. My biggest by far is Alternative, but I didn’t realize I listened to so much Tropical House Music. I’m still not entirely sure what that even is.

How to get Apple Music to give you better recommendations

Apple Music needs you to think different about how you interact with its service. It needs you to do a little more work to get it to know what you like. Skipping a song don’t really matter much to the algorithm.

  • Use the “Love” button frequently. Divorce yourself from the idea it means you want the song played at your funeral, and instead see it as a thumbs up or thumbs down. Or, put another way: if you give a song an A grade, “Love” it. Don’t wait for the A+ with a gold star songs.
  • Use the “Love” button on playlists. This, I have discovered after using it on two or three playlists, really ratchets up the recommendations. I have no inside knowledge, but I believe “Loving” a playlist is the most recommendation-swaying thing you can do.
  • Use the “Suggest Less Like This” button (which they use a thumbs down icon for, confusingly) on songs you really want to nuke from orbit, either because of an artist or it’s just a really lousy song to you.
Action Impact on Apple Music recommendations
Skipping a song Very low
“Loving” a song Medium
Adding a song to your library Low
Adding a playlist to your library Medium
“Loving” an entire Apple Music playlist Very high
“Loving” an entire playlist of your own making Medium
“Suggest Less Like This” on a song Medium
“Suggest Less Like This” on an Apple Music playlist High
Listening to a song the whole way through Very low

Keep these in mind:

  1. Apple Music will take a few days to adjust its “Listen Now” (formerly “For You”) tab based on these inputs.
  2. Apple Music will also take about a week to update your Get Up and Chill Mix playlists, as well as your radio station. If you’re new, it may take several weeks and up to one or two months to generate those playlists. Mine initially took close to 90 days.
  3. When you “Suggest Less Like This”, expect it to alter only the algorithmic stations and what all appears in “For You” the most. It means nothing for the human-curated lists in Apple Music. Which is not unlike Spotify.
  4. Apple Music seems to prefer sometimes shuffling in a song or artist that’s a little outside-the-norm here and there.

I think this last point deserves some praise.

There’s value in Apple Music’s approach to recommending slightly unusual songs

Spotify is excellent at categorizing songs into genres and sub-genres and giving you tons more of that. The problem is it gets stale. The most common complaint I see in Reddit and forum posts about Spotify(that isn’t related to podcasts and audiobooks showing up) is how the Daily Mixes and Discover Weekly seem stuck in a rut, constantly playing the same songs over and over again.

I got into this same rut, with my Daily Mixes sending me down a rabbit hole of songs I was hearing over and over and over again. “Yes, I like that song, but how about something else?” was a common refrain.

Apple Music suffers less of that because recommendations are keen to include things that sit on the edges. And as my political science professor at IU was fond of saying: “Things are always most interesting at the extremes.” The exception was some of my early Get Up mixes, which turned out to be limited because my listening was limited. More on that in a moment.

As one example, I’d flatly tell you I have absolutely no interest in country music or rap. If there were options to completely jettison those songs from my worldview, I’d probably check those boxes. But it’s not true. I don’t like country music, but I do like some of the Rolling Stone’s renditions of songs, like Dead Flowers. Dead Flowers is arguably straight up country.

And the other day Apple Music suggested a pop/alternative song performed by Little Nas X that I’d probably never have gravitated toward, but in the moment, I thought, “I kinda like this.” That’s a good thing. Too bad it required me to redefine my expectations and open up a bit.

Apple Music prioritizes albums. Spotify prefers playlists.

One thing that remains clear amid all my testing and fiddling is Apple Music really wants to suggest albums to you. I’m old enough to remember not caring that much about albums even when I was a kid. Maybe that says something about the age of the engineers there. Or maybe it’s purposeful because I recognize most artists care deeply about their albums as a whole.

But I don’t care one wooden nickel. “Give me the best two or three songs and let’s move on” is my approach.

Spotify seems to fit this approach better and will gladly give you playlists and mixes that don’t focus much on albums. Then again, Spotify might if they didn’t take up so much space with podcasts and audiobooks.

This is hard to get around in Apple Music. There’s no way to ask it stop showing you entire albums by artists. But using Poor, you can create “smart mixes” that blend multiple playlists. This, I believe, is Apple Music’s greatest failing. I like the ALT CTRL and Wax Eclectic playlists. But there’s no way to blend them together and just have it start playing randomly between them. Soor, however, can do that with aplomb.

Know how to navigate Apple Music personalized stations, tabs, playlists, and curated lists

Most people want a 1:1 match with features between services. That’s reasonable, but Apple Music and Spotify aren’t playing that game. I think that’s smart for sake of differentiation in something that’s as much a commodity as music steaming.

Spotify Feature Apple Music Equivelant
Discover Weekly Get Up, Chill, New Music Mixes, & Your Station
Daily Mixes Favorites Mix + Your Station
Release Radar New Music Mix
Spotify Wrapped Rewind playlists

I don’t know, but I suspect internally at Apple someone thought completely copying Discover Weekly — arguably Spotify’s flagship and best feature — was a little too on-the-nose. So, they tried to capture the essence of it without cloning it. The result was a bifurcated series of playlists and features, some of which are hard to understand what they’re doing, but, I believe, are valid ways of approaching the problem of music discovery.

And in many ways, I suspect Apple Music thinks you should consider the whole “Listen Now” tab as a sort of always on-demand discovery mechanism.

Learn to use playlists and your stations

Apple Music seems proud to tout how much their playlists are “human curated”. I don’t know how much this is true, but it blurs some lines between features that are, to Apple Music’s detriment, buried within itself.

Here are the algorithm-driven elements in Apple Music

Best I can tell and input on Reddit, these items are entirely algorithmic:

  • Your personalized radio station. The one with the red album art, or what you get when you say “Hey Siri, play my station.”
  • Radio stations you start based on artists, playlists, or albums. This also includes when you get to the end of a playlist when it’s set to “infinite”, playing songs based off the last few songs in the playlist.

Here’s what is human curated in Apple Music

  • Apple Music branded playlists, like “ALT CTRL”
  • Any of the “mood playlists” I’m often afraid to play, like “Unwind” and “Sad” or any of the zillion others. Macstories has details on those playlists.
  • Some of the items that appear in “Listen Now”. How else can you explain why Beyoncé appears virtually everywhere, even when you don’t like or listen to Beyoncé or her music?
  • Everything on the “Browse” tab, which should be viewed the same way you expect the home page of the Mac or iOS App Stores to be curated.

Your personalized station is Apple Music’s flagship feature

The red album “Your Station”, or what appears as “FirstName LastName’s Station” is probably Apple Music’s flagship feature. Apple probably considers spatial audio and their audio quality flagship features instead. But to most people, discovering new music is crucial to enjoying the service.

However, the personal station seems incredibly slow to adjust. Whereas most mixes and recommendations will adjust in 3-4 days once you get going, the personal station takes a while. And it seems to prefer going deep into your history — for many of us as far back as our iTunes purchases — to lift up songs we liked then we might not have heard in a while.

This is a blessing and a curse because while it might reasonably play some songs you forgot about, it has a high chance of playing songs you’d rather forget about. For me, I get a lot of Aerosmith and Rolling Stones — which I do like and still enjoy — but that was twenty years ago. My tastes today are more alternative and pop focused.

The bigger struggle is that when I’m in the mood for music, I know more of what I don’t want to hear. And this station serves up more of what I’m not in the mood for. Luckily, there are other options.

Radio and genre stations are good options that work well in Apple Music and Spotify

Both services are very good at offering like-minded songs when you play stations based on artists or single songs. If you know you like Adele or Galantis and want to hear more of that, making stations off an artist, album, or song of theirs is a good way to go.

When I compared the two by running a station based on Panic! At the Disco, I was quickly given songs by The Killers, Weezer, and Kings of Leon on both services.

Apple Music also has really nice stations based on genres. Once I discovered the names of song styles I liked from Stats.fm, this made finding new music and music discovery in Apple Music much easier.

Launch a genre station by saying something like, “Hey Siri, play alternative music” or go to the Search tab and scroll around amid that list of popular items. Among them you’ll see different broad genres.

Spotify and Apple Music playlists are a wash

We may never know with empirical data since it’s nearly impossible to know how these companies operate, but I believe the playlists are a wash between services.

Spotify suggests a “2010s hits” playlist to me, and so does Apple Music. Apple Music recommends a “Morning Focus” playlist to me, and so does Spotify.

My hunch is Apple Music relies more on tastemakers and humans to cobble these together, whereas Spotify might rely more on vast algorithms that recognize people listening to one or two artists also often listen to a bunch of similar artists and suggests playlists that match these artists. Ultimately, some things are obvious. If you like the Beatles, you probably also like listening to The Rolling Stones. How the two get paired is irrelevant.

Your Get Up and Chill Mixes should not be repeats of songs you hear all the time

For years when I dipped into Apple Music my “Get Up” and “Chill” mixes were full of songs I just had in heavy rotation.

Then over the last two or three weeks as I’ve dived into playlists and “Loving” lists and songs more, I discovered to my delight that my “Get Up” mix is almost entirely full of new-to-me songs.

If you find these two longstanding playlists always seem full of the same old songs you’ve had on repeat lately, it might be a clue you’re too conservative with your listening. I believe it’s a sign the algorithm is struggling to ascertain what you might like enough to properly fill these in, so it errs to, “I dunno, here’s some stuff you’ve obviously been enjoying lately.”

I recognize for many people the idea of spending time browsing through screens of music is not what they want to spend their time on. But both services seem to require it to learn about your tastes. Spotify is just better at pushing “made for you” playlists to their Home Screen that makes it feel easier to just push something and get a mix of music. Apple Music kinda wants you to pick a style of music via a station or playlist, or, absent that, default to your station. Your personal station is always Apple Music’s grab bag answer to, “I dunno, just play something.”

It’s good both services are so different

In many ways, Spotify is way easier to set up and run with. It’ll take your play counts, listening history, skips, and day-to-day interaction to heart more than Apple Music. Apple Music, however, would be a lot less interesting if it behaved the same way.

The differences mean Apple Music recommends songs just outside my comfort zone enough to make me think, “You know what, I kinda like this.” Like a good friend suggesting you constantly try some new cuisine. Whereas, Spotify is like a good friend who recommends you try this other burger place because you seem to like burgers.

The differences make for a more compelling options for users, which is important since there are so few to choose from. YouTube seems popular with some people, but I’m not big into feeding the YouTube rabbit hole. And Amazon Music is my “junk drawer” service. When I need to play a song or two from time to time I don’t want clouding up my recommendations, I tap for Amazon’s free Prime Music.

What about sleep and focus music? How do I keep those out of my recommendations?

A lot of people like to listen to special sleep or work-focused playlists, or they have kids and need to play some kid-friendly music. But once you do, your recommendations on both services will suffer. Listening to 8+ hours a day of one or the other is going to heavily tilt your recommendations regardless of how much you smash the “Suggest Less Like This” button. It’s just too much listening volume.

I keep those needs separate. I used brain.fm for a long while until I got out of the need for it.

While Apple Music offers an option to “Don’t use listening history” and Spotify has “private listening” sessions to theoretically keep temporary usage from mucking up your recommendations, I never trust myself to remember these are on or off.

My only recommendation here is to keep those needs separate. Find a YouTube playlist for sleep or work, or use some other separate service. Both Apple Music and Spotify have tons of playlists and stations for sleep and studying and reading or working, but I treat them as radioactive. It’s much more important to me that they remain strong options for playing the kind of music I want to listen to while cleaning, working out, or just riding around town.

Problems abound with both, but they each have opinions

A lot of people dislike Spotify’s app UI, its business methods, the lower payouts to artists than Apple Music per song play, and how it pushes audiobooks and podcasts on people who have no interest in either.

Likewise, a lot of people dislike Apple Music’s app UI, that it’s a gigantic mega corporation, and a host of issues with app quality — particularly on the Mac and Home Pods.

But it’s become clear to me lately how and why they differ where they do. And that often my expectations of Spotify were too low and my expectations of Apple Music were too high.

I was expecting Spotify to always suggest things I just freaking loved and when it failed, I assumed it was because it was a bum week or there was no good music. I was expecting Apple Music to figure out what I liked with a fraction of the usage time as Spotify and still do the same. I was also expecting Apple Music to behave like Spotify and really, I had too low expectations about myself because I lacked the understanding of what I really liked and closed myself off to many options.

Here’s how I transfer from Spotify to Apple Music with these steps:

  1. Use a playlist transfer app like SongShift to move playlists between Spotify and Apple Music.
  2. Commit to the new service for a while — at least 90 days.
  3. Use stats.fm (formerly Spotistat) to identify what Spotify thinks you like, then make note of that in Apple Music to search for playlists.
  4. Try lots of playlists in Apple Music and add them to your library when you find one you like at least 50% of the songs in. Use the Love button on the whole playlist when you listen to most 85%+ of the songs on the list. If you skip most or don’t like most, just move on to another playlist.
  5. “Love” songs more frequently in Apple Music and don’t rely just on listening history and skips like you might in Spotify.
  6. If you’re stuck with a bunch of old iTunes songs in your library you don’t want in there anymore, use the “Suggest Less Like This” option prodigiously in your station and Listen Now tab. I believe past “star ratings” are irrelevant in Apple Music’s recommendations.
  7. Recognize and embrace that Apple Music is intentionally going to nudge you into songs and genres that are likely in the periphery of your tastes.
  8. Most important: everyone’s tastes, listening style, and experience is different. Your mileage may vary. My usage is about 2-4 hours of music listening a day with strong interests in alternative, rock, pop, and dance music.

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About JUSTIN HARTER

Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.