Lately, when a certain subset of Spotify users opens up the streaming service, it is greeted by a little pink monster with star-shaped sunglasses, blue hair and a toothy grin. Or maybe it’s a green ball of fuzz with gold hoops and a high ponytail. As users scroll, it’s clear these characters are not alone — look, there’s Elsa, Elmo and even Ed Sheeran.
This isn’t the latest redesign — it’s Spotify Kids, a stand-alone app that launched in Ireland last October and has since rolled out in most countries around the world, with recent expansions into the United States, Canada and France in late March. While the app, still in beta, is free to download, listeners must be enrolled in the Spotify Premium Family plan ($14.99 a month) to access its programming — a way to incentivize parents to sign up for a paid subscription while introducing the platform to a whole new generation of listeners.
“There’s audio everywhere, and kids can’t get enough,” says Alex Norström, Spotify’s chief premium business officer. “But all of these audio experiences were built with adults in mind, which means they’re not easy for kids to navigate, they’re not very much fun to use, and they aren’t traditionally designed for impressionable young minds.”
The app is becoming widely available at a time when many parents, adjusting to life under stay-at-home orders, probably find themselves in need of both distractions and educational tools. According to an insight report by Nielsen Music/MRC Data on consumer behavior amid the coronavirus outbreak, 24% of music consumers have purchased new streaming service memberships as they spend more time at home, with 79% of those consumers intending to keep those memberships even after lockdowns are lifted. (Though Norström describes an increase in streams of kids- and family-oriented music during the week of March 19-25, Spotify declined to share numbers about Spotify Kids’ growth or performance.)
Before the stand-alone app, the streaming service offered children-focused content in the “Kids & Family” playlist tab on Spotify’s main browsing page. Now, in addition to a library of roughly 8,000 kid-appropriate tracks and spoken-word stories, Spotify Kids has a completely different look to guide users toward their content of choice, with different colors, animation styles, characters and other visual cues. The Spotify Kids experience is divided into two pathways: one for younger kids (ages 0-6) and another for older kids (ages 5-12), with each iteration catering to the age group’s respective cognitive needs.
“Kids often get frustrated when they can’t find something they’re looking for, so we leaned in heavily to visuals over text,” says Norström, who notes that the company did extensive research into the consumer behavior of parents and children around the world while designing the app. “We found that for kids, they enjoyed having something that was ‘mine’ — my space, my music, my avatar and my favorites.”
Spotify Kids is tailored to different markets internationally — about half of the content on the app is localized to account for different genre and artist preferences in various countries. The content is also selected by people, not algorithms, with programming coming from partners such as Disney Music Group and Kidz Bop and Spotify’s own in-house curation team, whose members worked at companies such as Nickelodeon prior to their current roles. For them, making playlists means considering what makes young listeners different from older ones: Their attention spans are shorter, they process information differently, and — as many adults will recognize — they tend to listen to the same song over and over again and latch on to favorites.
“When you create a playlist for children you need to be very clear of the purpose you want the playlist to have,” explains Jenny Frisk, music programming lead, kids & family. “Should it be used as background when playing, for a birthday party or to make you sleep? This purpose must permeate the playlist all the way through to make sense to the child.”
Below, Frisk and other curators break down three of the Spotify Kids playlists — and how the team put them together to please parents and kids alike.
The Playlist: Calm Kids
The Vibe: Putting younger children down for bed is an art form — and this is the soundtrack to help nail it.
Curator Insight: “It is perfect to put on before it is time to go to sleep — it is like a bridge between the Top Hits uptempo playlists and our bedtime playlists such as Sweet Dreams, consisting only of instrumental music,” says Frisk, who oversees all content curation for Spotify Kids and works closely on this playlist. “Since this is a playlist that works as background music, we have a bigger amount of tracks than other playlists that serve other purposes.”
What You Might Hear: Expect acoustic covers of recognizable tunes whose original versions might be too amped up for nighttime, like Kina Grannis’ cover of Katy Perry’s “Firework” or the Acoustic Heartstrings cover of “How Far I’ll Go,” originally from the Disney animated film Moana. “This song is highly recognizable by our target [audience] and beautifully performed acoustically on guitar for a more calming effect,” says Frisk of the latter. But some artists’ biggest hits are chill enough to work as is — like Ed Sheeran’s soulful ballad “Thinking Out Loud.” Says Frisk: “Ed Sheeran is one of the most popular artists for our kids audience, and we know this is one of his most popular songs in our target. It already has a slow, calming tempo, so we could use the original version here.”
The Playlist: Wash Your Hands
The Vibe: Talking to kids about safety amid the coronavirus pandemic can be a daunting task for parents, but this playlist starts a conversation in a friendly way.
Curator Insight: “Staying in touch with culture and what parents care about is something that we are always considering for Spotify Kids,” says Hilary Giumara, music programming manager, kids & family. “The current climate and increased focus on hygiene is an area where we thought a playlist could be a helpful tool.”
What You Might Hear: The playlist dives right in with help from the reigning champ of kids’ music: “Baby Shark.” “Wash Your Hands With Baby Shark” by Pinkfong “seemed like a no-brainer to put at the top of the playlist — the tune hooks kids and conveys the information in a ‘danceable’ way,” says Giumara. The Wiggles, veterans of the genre, also guide children through what they’re hearing and experiencing with their new song “Social Distancing.” But not all tunes are about the current moment: With “Cover Your Mouth” by the bird and the bee, from the children’s show Yo Gabba Gabba!, Giumara says, “We also wanted to include other songs in the playlist that were about good personal-health habits.”
The Playlist: Top Hits
The Vibe: Think Top 40 — minus all the bad words and R-rated references.
Curator Insight: “As kids get a little older, their tastes mature and they’re more interested in hearing what their older siblings and parents are listening to, which includes current hits,” says Michael Lopez, senior programming manager, kids & family, who during his time at Nickelodeon helped the network launch its kids-focused music channel, NickMusic, in 2016. In addition to looking at charts and data both in and outside the platform, Lopez says, “I also do ‘informal’ research — I use insights and anecdotes from my personal life about what kids’ songs are currently being played on repeat.”
What You Might Hear: In addition to the latest jams from rising pop stars, like Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” and Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey,” listeners might encounter “Señorita” by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, which Lopez picked due to its “high search rate on the main app.” But parents need not worry about the seemingly sexy vibe of the song: “All of the tracks are screened for lyrical and thematic content, which means we read all of the lyrics for every song,” says Lopez. “We also make sure that album covers associated with the tracks are visually safe for younger audiences.”