The music industry is awash in big data, but is also working hard to find the most intelligent uses for it.
A panel at the Midem conference today explored some of those uses, from finding new artists, recommending new music to listeners and experimenting with new marketing campaigns through to exploring new markets.
On the panel: Scott Farrant, COO of AMRA; Daniel Hall, senior director, insight at Sony Music International; Stef Pascual, head of digital at Red Essential; and Simon Wheeler, director of digital and new business at Beggars Group. The moderator was Larry Miller, director of the music business program at NYU Steinhardt.
Miller kicked off by saying the music industry still has some way to go to really drive its business through data. “We’re just not that good at it as an industry,” he said. “Music is in the culture business. We’re talking about signing things and putting things out that make people feel something. We’re talking about art here.”
Hall spoke about his role in Sony Music’s insight department, working with local markets and with all its labels “to help bring the voice of the consumer into the conversation… and inspiring the team to get the right music to the right ears”.
Hall thinks the music industry is past the hype-cycle where it comes to big data: it has become a materially impacting aspect of the industry. “A couple of years ago it was going to solve all our challenges and all our problems. We’re through that peak, and it’s achieved a level of maturity,” he said.
“The weight of expectation is off its back, and it’s about making things incrementally better. It’s not that it’s necessarily going to solve everything… data’s gone from being a tool that we use to being almost a utility that underpins everything that we do… Big data won’t make the decision for you. As a business we’ve accepted that, and we’ve understood that it’s a utility that can help us in our decision-making.”
Pascual talked about how data is informing how artists connect with artists. She said Red Essential collects data from as many sources as possible, from streaming services to social networks and advertising platforms. Again: “insights on what to do” is the goal.
Wheeler was asked about how this works for Beggars Group. “The main way which data’s had an impact on the independent sector, not specifically at Beggars, in the past you used to get the charts that came out… you’d maybe get a statement from your distributor at the end of the month, maybe every quarter. It was pretty slow and imprecise, you couldn’t really react to it.”
But now, managers and labels have access to data on a daily or even real-time basis. “If something’s happening, you can make a decision and then do something about it, rather than looking at it further down the line and going ‘Ooh, something happened, that’s nice’ but not being able to do anything about it at that point,” he said. “Suddenly, anyone in the industry and around the industry can access data… to democratise all of this, and give everyone access to this daily, hourly, fast-moving data has been the big change.”
So it’s the speed of response that’s the real benefit, but Wheeler warned that this relies on the label or manager understanding the data that they’re looking at, in order to understand what decision to take.
“You need to prioritise, and it really depends what you need and what you can cope with,” said Pascual. “The first thing would be transactional data, and then look at where your fans are consuming your music, and what price are they paying for it? And then you can look into psychographic information and try to understand their behaviour.”
Farrant joined the conversation at this point, to talk about the Kobalt-owned collecting society and how it sees this world of big data – and particularly around the past failure to create a Global Repertoire Database (GRD) of song information.
“We need to work out how are we going to deal with that failure. What we are going to have in the future is several GRDs… what we need to ensure is that they talk to each other, and that talking needs to be automated,” he said.
He talked about the challenges of matching recordings to compositions. “We need to be sharing our match data, so that we have common match data. Once we have common match data, we need to feed that back into a DSP that creates a permanent link between the song data and the recording data.”
What are the political obstacles to this happening, wondered Miller.
“Essentially it’s politics. There’s lots of vested interests in protecting current systems, and some parties are even going to the point of leveraging their rights to protect their old systems rather than saying ‘well, we need to move on’. In my mind, that’s failing in your fiduciary duty to your clients,” said Farrant.
The conversation turned to licensing and approaching outside partners, and the way data can inform those pitches.
“It really can be like online dating! You get some parameters from your data and your artists: you get the demographics and know what audience your artist has, and you meet a brand that has an aspirational audience they want to reach, and their own audience. And is there a match?” said Pascual.
Hall said that sharing data between partners can be “like Lego bricks” when matching a brand up with the right artist, adding that it boils down to a good understanding of the audiences involved.
What about A&R. Does data belong in that conversation or not? “We’ve got some fairly firm views about data and A&R. If you let the data drive your A&R, you’re going to ave a world full of things like Justin Bieber, very mainstream and easy. That’s not a world any of us want to live in. We want to live in a rich, creative and diverse world,” said Wheeler.
“A company like Beggars has a role in trying to find those artists that are unique and special, and maybe a little bit alien to people the first time they hear them, but which have the potential to reach a much larger audience. We have the role of finding things that people don’t know they’re going to like… and data is not very good at doing that stuff. That’s why people who are great A&Rs can see down the line about what this artist is going to turn into. I’ve never seen any data that can do that.”
He made it clear that once those artists have been signed and are developing, though, the data can play a positive role in helping them to find those audiences that would fall in love with them.
Hall was asked for his opinion. “Often data can be good at unearthing hidden gems, or tracks that we might have missed as a business that we think have got real potential and should be prioritised,” he said, citing OMI’s ‘Cheerleader’ as an example.
“Someone in Sweden saw something interesting happening in the data around that track… the actual consumer behaviour and the amount of repeat listening for people who had discovered the track flagged it as something potentially interesting,” said Hall.
So it wasn’t that the track had amazing numbers of streams overall, but more the engagement of the listeners who had found it – something that the data was able to surface.