In yet another sign that clunky MP3 collections are going the way of the dodo, rumors are swirling that Apple — the company that almost singlehandedly made MP3-hoarding a thing — might be making plans to shutter the iTunes Music Store in favor of its streaming service, Apple Music. The company denies it, but in any case one thing is clear: most people's access to music, and the musical taste they develop, is now more and more dependent on tech companies. Spotify’s Discover Weekly has drawn a loyal following, and Apple and TIDAL have seen favorable results from asking popular artists to become create playlists for mass audiences. Now, a nascent New York startup is trying to bring an old-fashioned touch to this modern problem with a noble remedy: actual human interaction.
The Yams, started in 2015 by Shannon Connolly, a former Senior VP at Viacom, and Connor Hanwick, a member of the band The Drums, is a free concierge texting service that feeds you personalized music suggestions in a new way. The company is currently in closed beta mode, but is almost ready to open up to new users.
You sign up with your phone number and one of the company’s curators hits you back with a personal request to get started. You tell the person on the other line an artist that you like, and they sends you back a ten-song playlist to get you started. You critique their efforts, then you can ask for more music and start building a relationship. Hanwick points out that it was partly inspired by record store clerks and Connolly sums it up succinctly: it’s “the oldest and coolest recommendation service of all time — which is talking to people you trust.”
After a few matches, The Yams attempts to deepen the connection and sends users content from a special group of their curators, like writer Jeff Weiss and Travis Keller of Buddyhead. This content is still recommendation based, but it’s a bit of a richer experience — think Weiss’s imagined Madlib beat tape, paired with a corresponding essay. It’s sent to Yams users who the company thinks would be into it.
When I tried out the service, I tried lobbing the very friendly texter a challenge in sending me a playlist of music that sounded like the modern disco collective Escort. In ten minutes, Miguel sent back a playlist filled with stuff that was maybe a little more electro than I would have liked, but definitely still the essence of what I was looking for. I loved that they sent “Take A Chance” by Moullinex, and I put it on my existing summer playlist usually reserved for my favorite songs of the moment. My next playlist, after I asked for music similar to Kaytranada’s 99%, was actually better than the first, packed with songs from Hiatus Kaiyote and Sango that I had never heard before. Maybe there was a placebo effect at play, but it felt a little more curated than Spotify giving me an Ariana Grande song as a recommendation for Mariah Carey. Both playlists took under 15 minutes to come back to me, they were both made on my platform of choice, and I wasn’t inundated with push notifications or emails asking me to come back and play with them later —they just left me alone. The service wasn’t too voicey or robotic, it felt like I was talking to a friend who put equal weight into the conversation as I did, which both founders say is a major part of what they do.
“You can gather a lot from the conversational aspect,” Connolly says. “If somebody comes in and says they want The Strokes, you can pick up the subtext there. You can make sense of maybe what kind of instrumentation or genre. You can pick up on their depth of knowledge. You can get an understanding of what they haven't heard before. There's a host of more abstract things that come into play when you have a human being putting consideration into the request.”
Even though the company exists with the belief that for right now humans just understand one another better than robots can, that’s not to say that The Yams is an anti-technology company. As Connolly explains, in the future they will depend on algorithms, bots, and auto-replies to be able to scale their business. “What we're not willing to do is to say that data alone is good enough, because it's not,” she says. “Data just gets you to the point of making a great recommendation and we've proven for six months that the human element works.”
After six months of their beta mode, they’ve seen crazy high approval numbers from their users. A full 87 percent of the service’s users said in an internal survey that The Yams’ recommendations were better than anything they could get elsewhere. Although they’re still in very early stages, they’re already eyeing their next step: what TV and movies you should be streaming.
This summer, the founders say, The Yams will expand with a new set of experts to help you decide what you should be watching on Netflix, Hulu, and beyond. The Yams video service aims to be a “meta-curator” that will send you suggestions based on what’s actually good, not what the platforms paid to produce, or what you’ve watched before. It’s part of The Yams’ plan to be a place for experts and passionate fans to share their cultural knowledge. In a world with so much noise, The Yams just wants you to have a little conversation.