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How the economics of curation benefit emerging artists and fans alike


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Digital music services are seeing that listeners want other music fans, not machines, selecting and suggesting what they hear. This is a fascinating turnaround after years of an algorithm-led (and heralded) era that defined the early onset of the digital music era.

Algorithms redefined how music could be presented to fans. It was even a necessary disruption given the the fact that new music was at the time presented to fans in a way that benefitted corporate interests (either through traditional radio or label promotions) but not necessarily fans or artists. The idea that a neutral algorithm could surface music without bias or influence was a fascinating concept.

But today, we’re seeing that algorithms alone are not enough. This might be one reason Pandora has struggled recently, while services that blur the line between the promise of traditional radio and new-generation streaming functionality are advancing. Take Spotify, for instance, which has introduced such features as Discover Weekly, AM/PM, In Residence, and most recently Release Radar.

While algorithms can only recommend music based on what you’ve done (played, liked, disliked etc.), humans curate based on who you are. They’re not restricted by the limitations of genre or data, but rather focus on something a computer doesn’t currently understand… emotion.

Of course there’s always the concern that corporate interests could once again influence the outcome. Label promotion departments are smart people and are learning how to work the system, pitching services and curators to have their music and acts featured on these playlists (something a recent panel on music curation hosted by Mixcloud in New York delved into in detail).

But today’s services have an incentive to resist this kind of influence. Driving the curation trend is a mix of economics and competition. Because streaming services can’t compete on price, and they all have roughly the same catalogues, they have to compete on extras – and that’s where curation comes in. Sure, all the services have the old-faithful playlists one would expect (“Hits of the 80s!”, “Pop Songs for Working Out!”), but where they can really stand apart from one another is music discovery.

Fans aren’t likely to stick around if they’re just hearing the same things over and over, and for real music nerds there’s always the drive to be the first to have heard something. And that leads to the need for the human curator. DJs, critics, and music nerds of all types are finding themselves in greater demand as the digital music market evolves to a more human touch. 

And that’s how indie and emerging artists benefit. Because the whole system is incentivised to reward first movers, small artists actually have a leg up when it comes to being added to playlists or put into radio rotation.

Never before have small acts had opportunities like the ones they have today – and the trend is only likely to continue. While there are certainly many valid arguments to be had about royalties and rates, it’s hard to argue that the web hasn’t opened huge doors for many artists and created, if not a level playing field, then one that’s slightly less skewed.

Summing it up perfectly is social media queen YesJulz, who I recently had the opportunity to interview on SKEE.TV and who recently launched her own channel on Dash Radio. “It’s a really exciting time in music,” she said. “Anyone has a shot now. It’s not political anymore.”

Take Post Malone, for example. He took the momentum gained from being played first on Dash Radio and parleyed it into a spot opening for Justin Bieber. Bryson Tiller is another one and just won BET Awards for Best New Artist and Best Male R&B/Pop Artist. Halsey has been the toast of Apple Music and used it to grow her career to the point where she now sells out arenas.

A decade ago it would have been close to impossible for an indie artist from an emerging market to get distribution and airplay in middle America; now, all they have to do is get in front of one person at a radio station or streaming service and their fortunes could change overnight. It hasn’t happened yet, but in the next few years I imagine we’ll see a mainstream star break out of a new market based solely on the strength of some curator recommendations. 

That’s power. But it’s also opportunity. Giving the reins to music lovers has resulted in a tremendous amount of new music getting the attention it deserves. Music fans gain exposure to a broader range of music and artists once creative considerations take precedence over corporate concerns. Let’s hope we never go back to the days of machines and big label dollars controlling what we hear.

Scott Keeney, aka DJ Skee, is a renowned radio DJ, host of Skee TV, and founder of Dash Radio, a curator-led digital broadcast platform that merges the best of terrestrial and internet radio. Other projects include performing at the biggest events across the world, scoring movies and video games, remixing today’s biggest artists, and running a record label, production company, and marketing agency as well as owning a retail store chain.
@djskee

Eamonn Forde

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