“There’s a power to our emotional connection to music, and how that can bring people together. Neuroscience has proved that music lies at the heart of human relationships: before we had language, music was one way we communicated with each other,” says Lucy Blair, director at digital marketing firm Motive Unknown.
“And when groups of people sing and dance together, that group forms a collective sense of identity, and their individual sense of selves in the group starts to blur. It’s powerful.”
There are few better places to be delivering this message than at the Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE), the world’s biggest festival and conference for dance music. Blair delivered her “Streaming, Social and Damned Statistics” talk last Thursday at the conference, but spoke to Music Ally ahead of time to outline her argument.
It all comes down to those emotional connections, and their role in giving music a value to modern and ancient humans alike. So what does that mean for the world of streaming? Blair’s argument is that the joys of having unfettered access to a catalogue of 30m+ tracks come with pitfalls.
“We listen to more individual tracks because we’re discovering more music, but that may be leading to more fickle artist/fan relationships,” she says. “And in response, the music industry is mainly sitting there going ‘Shit! How do we get more plays and visibility on streaming services, and how do we crack discovery?’”
Blair’s view: if the industry really wants to crack discovery, it needs to think about how and why people discover music in the first place.
“Kids and teens discover music because they want a way to identify themselves,” she says, citing industry consultant Mark Mulligan’s recent blog post about why YouTubers and other social-born stars may be fulfilling this role for young people more than musicians in 2015.
“They create content that’s very episodic, short-form and very addictive, and they tend to focus on one key community first – YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat or whatever it is. They build up these huge audiences, and along the way, music is getting less important in youth culture,” says Blair.
“Because musicians are trying to spread themselves thin across all these platforms – streaming, social, messaging – and it’s not really working because the audiences are so much less emotionally engaged. There’s a tyranny of choice of music, and slowly but surely our emotional connection to it is being eroded.”
You can imagine a few long faces in the room at ADE when Blair delivered this message, but her wider point was that there are a number of ways musicians and the music industry can reverse this trend, and reconnect fans to music and artists on an emotional level.
That includes some suggestions for streaming services to improve the connection between artists and their fans: including building on Spotify’s early moves to identify the “superfans” of individual artists, and enabling those artists to reach out and reward them in various ways.
“We’ve seen a few campaigns, like the Foo Fighters, but wouldn’t it be great if streaming services could open that up for all artists? Could we not have better social messaging features, so artists can chat more to fans, and fans to fans as well?” says Blair.
She also sees potential for artist subscriptions within streaming services, as an add-on to the regular monthly fee, and welcomes the idea of integrating streaming and ticketing more closely, citing Pandora’s recent acquisition of TicketFly as an example.
She’d also like to see Spotify move towards professionalising the best of its independent playlist curators. “It could open up a youth culture like YouTube,” she says, citing a recent blog post by Kobalt’s David Emery suggesting exactly that.
“We should professionalise curators, then you’ll get native Spotify stars like on SnapChat, and the kids are going to pay more attention. If we get a more thriving youth culture on Spotify, that will connect them to music.”
There are barriers. Blair points out that there’s a question of data ownership – how much information on fans an artist (or their representatives) have, versus how much the third-party streaming or social platform keeps to itself.
She also criticises the music industry’s continued focus on statistics – “damned” or otherwise – as getting in the way of building stronger relationships between artists and fans.
“We need to move away as an industry by being obsessed by stupid vanity statistics: video views and chart positions. They’re so easily manipulated and rigged and bought and faked. And more often than not, they are!” she says.
“In dance music, when it comes to some digital services, everyone’s buying their chart position! And video views and click-throughs don’t mean your engagement is great. We need to stop endlessly selling stuff to people, and start focusing on the whole relationship aspect.”
“As an artist, it’s not about trying to sell to more people. The trick is to make people give a shit about you: to make them feel something. Those are the people who will keep coming back and streaming your music in the long term.”
Blair thinks more artists should remember the power of the “humble website and mailing list” as a way to fuel their relationship with their fans, rather than simply relying on cutting through the clutter on streaming and social platforms.
“It’s amazing how many people don’t have their own website and mailing list: they don’t own any data on their audience. But it’s not just about that: they need to invest time in getting to know the audience and developing a more personal connection, they you know what they want from them,” she says.
“If you’re a musician in 2015, you can’t just have a steady stream of music and a Facebook and a Twitter and assume that’s enough to make people care. It’s almost always not.”
Blair thinks more musicians need to think like YouTubers, interacting with their fans more regularly with shortform, personal content and updates.
“It’s literally just about talking to people and having a connection to them on a totally human level,” she says, while accepting that not every artist finds this easy.
Another potential criticism of this argument is that it might work for Taylor Swift, writing Tumblr blogs and popping up in the comments on fans’ Instagram photos, but can it translate to the kind of underground electronic artists who were more likely to make up her audience at ADE?
Blair picks a different example: electronic musician Max Cooper, citing his use of his website and mailing list to get fans to sign up and receive a series of exclusive “Quotient” tracks and remixes.
“He’s developing a more direct and deeper relationship with his fans. Every time he sends you a piece of content and tells you the story behind it, you feel much more involved,” she says.
“Also, it’s enabled him to experiment with music without the constraint of selling a product. There’s an emotional connection there, without having to do anything that might seem cheesy. There’s no set template to this: as an artist, you just have to work out who you are and what you want to be, then communicate that to your audience.”