To open the second day of the Future of Music Coalition’s Music Policy Summit, in Washington, D.C., Kiran Gandhi, a drummer for artists including M.I.A. and former data analyst with Interscope Records, and Liv Buli, the first data journalist for Next Big Sound and now Pandora, discussed the importance of data to the music industry and how neither artists nor labels should shy away from sharing their information. If a band knows which fans are the most dedicated listeners, it can reward their loyalty with interactions or personal experiences, for example, while labels can figure out where their bands have the biggest pockets of support and use that to book more successful tours.
Calling the conversation “near and dear to my heart,” Gandhi explained that she decided to obtain a business degree from Harvard after hearing the founder of Next Big Sound speak at a previous Future of Music Coalition conference. Her first job, at Interscope, was analyzing data from Spotify and YouTube for artists on that label.
Buli noted that the importance of having access to and understanding data has grown exponentially since her career started.
“When I started four years ago, when you would run into people and you would talk to them about this idea of using data as something you can leverage win creative industry like music, people would scoff,” she said. “The idea of it being something you could do, that you could leverage analysis for, was just incomprehensible of people in the music industry. We’ve definitely seen that change in the last four year. No longer are people saying is this data valuable, it’s more how do I get my hands on this data and how do I best use it, how do I best leverage it to build a career within the music industry. “
Next Big Sound is an analytics platform that collects and analyzes not just sales information, but social media hits, attendance at events like concerts, and data from streaming platforms, and puts it all into one easy-to-use location. “When you’re looking across 30+ sources and more than 200 metrics, and when you’re looking across all these different sources, there’s so much you can learn,” Buli said.
Similarly, Gandhi said the questions she heard when starting up the digital analytics department at Interscope were frighteningly basic, and the information received from sources like Next Big Sound didn’t have a way of being utilized. “There was no bandwidth or organizational infrastructure on label side, to receive and process that data,” she said. “That’s just not how the industry was set up. The silos were the marketing department, the brand partnerships department, video marketing. Nothing was there to actually receive analyzed data.”
Her job at the time was to take the data received from Next Big Sound and give it context. For example, she noticed that whereas spikes in sales used to correspond to album releases, things don’t work that way anymore. Now, users are “discovering music on YouTube, knowing about it and then going to Spotify.” There might be a slight lag between seeing a video and adding a song to a playlist on a streaming service, and the lack of an immediate response “can throw an entire team off,” possibly causing an artist to lose support from management or his or her label.
Of course, platforms are growing and shrinking by the week, it seems. Buli said that when Next Big Sound first started, they were tracking MySpace data. Now they’re working with clients and artists to determine which platforms make the most sense to analyze, because “it’s expensive to store data, it’s expensive to clean it, it’s expensive to collect it. We have to work closely with the customers we have to figure out which data sources are top of mind for you.”
Ultimately, it’s a rich resource to utilize, and there’s never been more information to collect and from which to benefit. “Twenty years ago, there were two sources of data for the music industry: There was radio spins and there were sales, and who even knows how accurate those were” Buli said. “We tracked more than a trillion spins in the first six months of 2015. Compare that to 2012 when I did the first state of the industry report… we tracked 100 billion plays and I thought that was a crazy amount.”
Looking at data without context, however, is almost meaningless. “If you’re looking at it in a vacuum, how do you know whether or not seven million YouTube plays is a good solid number or a bad number? It probably depends a little if you’re Adele or some random artist that has been in the business for about 10 minutes and just put something on YouTube,” she said.
A focus on data is providing new points of entry for those hoping to make a career in the music industry, Gandhi suggested.
“In my opinion, what Liv is talking about, the biggest two opportunities on the industry side right now are being able to benchmark data effectively,” she said. It’s the ability to transform the old way of thinking about the top, middle and bottom performers on a music chart and translating that for Spotify, YouTube and Twitter. “The other major opportunity is the consulting arm. No data can exist in a vacuum. That’s the biggest part of the industry that’s missing and it’s part of my personal motivation to want to even go to business school… I knew in my mind one of the biggest weaknesses in the industry now is to take all of this data and have the discipline and say what does this mean.”
It’s changing the conversations services like Next Big Sound are having with labels as well, Buli said. A short time ago, she did a presentation for a label’s A&R team on Next Big Sound’s annual state of the industry report, released in August, and explaining how the data presented therein could be of use.
“People started erupting into ‘this isn’t just useful for us, this is useful for marketing too! …Why isn’t everyone looking at this? How have we not been using this?’ I really loved watching that light bulb go around with people,” she said. “I think that’s the biggest challenge. A lot of the people in the industry that we’re working with, they only have two seconds to looking at this. They have no more time in their day to devote to looking at data. Our challenge at Next Big Sound truly becomes making it accessible enough that in those two seconds or two minutes they actually derive some value from it. It shouldn’t be hard to understand it.”
But what about independent artists, or those just starting out?
Gandhi has worked for years as a drummer for M.I.A., but she’s starting to focus on her own projects now. Others might not have the budget for costly data analytics services or the financial backing of a label to provide that information.
Luckily, anyone can start an account on Next Big Sound for free, Buli said. Labels get detailed reports on the data collected and analyzed by Next Big Sound, which can include album sales as well as online information, which the service cleans up and makes easier to understand. There are some limitations for the kinds of details independent or smaller-scale artists can obtain from Next Big Sound, but it can track and consolidate data on Spotify and Pandora plays and YouTube detection among other things, and “any little bit helps” provide a clearer picture of an artist’s reach.
Independent artists also should think about leveraging data as a negotiation tool. It’s not enough to look at the number of Spotify clicks or YouTube views and feel good about where a song is tracking, but should use that to gain support and possibly increase exposure. If an artist can point to their online reach and show where they have support, that’s something labels will respond to, a kind of built-in consumer base ready for attention.
One “super user” of Next Big Sound at a label told Buli that for every question he asked before using the service, he realized he could easily think of 10 more that could be answered by Next Big Sound. It helps with everything from figuring out where to promote an artist or a particular single to figuring out where fans live, which can help book more successful tours.
“Every single data point is an interaction between an artist and a fan,” Buli said. Pandora and Spotify plays can help pinpoint which song should be the next single released from an album based on the support it already has from fans. The same goes for routing a tour. Labels and artists can determine not only where fans are, but where they were a few months ago and which venues in a given city are most appropriate for a band to play, given the demographics of other bands that have played the same venue previously.
And if fans are already listening to an artist, that’s the best time to market to them, whether it’s a product or concert tickets, Buli and Gandhi agreed. It’s a big way in which the music industry economy has changed—it’s not just album sales that bring in money anymore, it’s merchandise, concert tickets and, in some cases, endorsement deals and the use of songs in commercials by major brands.
“You can complain about it and be upset about it, but where we’re seeing people really be successful in the industry right now is when they’re adapting to the situation they’re in,” Buli said. ”We’re seeing brands interested in working with smaller artists than they have before,” like an artist-in-residency program from American Express that had only used bigger artists until recently. Now they’re more interested in finding a potential star on the rise, which can be determined from analyzing data.
Data can be used as a way to empower both artists and fans, Gandhi suggested. She talked about “superfans,” those who really love the music an artist is releasing and listens to on a regular basis. “It’s making them feel good,” she said. For those fans, “it’s not about a charity or a Kickstarter or donating to you because you’re a musician. What you create makes them feel better.”
What excites her most is that right now, “compared to any other time in the entire music industry, we can know who that person is,” she said of superfans. “Or vice versa—if I’m listening to a Tuneyards song every single day and she knows I’m the one doing that, and said hey, thank you for listening, how good would that make me feel? It goes both ways… That kind of stuff was not possible 20 years ago.”
There’s never been a better time to be in the music industry, Gandhi said, sincerely. “What a joy! More so than ever, artists are relevant. By us innovating the solution, everybody else looks… By being an artist or a thinker or a student or even a young person in the industry, all those sort of marginalized groups that were never relevant because all the labels had the power… if you do something intelligent, if you do something clever, if you do something that has value, that inspires others… people notice. Everyone is thirsty for interesting answers and we do have a chance to inspire each other.”
We’ll have more coverage from the Future of Music Coalition’s Music Policy Summit in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!