Data Will Save Music

Editor’s note: Brad Haugen is the CMO of SB Projects and chairman of Pencils of Promise. The views expressed are those of the author and not SB Projects. 

  • The writing is on the wall.
  • The music industry is dying.
  • Nobody buys music.
  • It’s the Wild West.

The last one might be true. But the rest? Not exactly.

In the Wild West, the winner of the shootout was always the one who was armed the best and able to take the best shot. Nowadays, artists and executives need to have that same kill or be killed attitude. It’s time to upgrade the arsenal.

Leonardo da Vinci left us with a quote that we can use to bridge the gap of this analogy:

“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

Science + Art. That’s the future of the music (and entertainment) industry.

Great artistry thrives on innovation, and innovation is often built on the back of information.

There is a delicate balance in entertainment that has long skewed in the direction of art. It’s a talent-driven business, and that’s more true of music than other content businesses. And while that’s okay; I believe it’s time to recalibrate. I’m not denouncing artistry. In fact, I believe science can elevate it. I’m a creative myself, and I believe in the power of an idea, the art of creation and the power of the individual voice.

But we are in the business of music, and it’s time to turn around and look at what other industries thrive on: science (more specifically, data).

Data can change everything. It can help inform decisions such as when to release an album, where to release an album and whether to release an album at all. Perhaps it’s better to have a steady stream of songs come out? Maybe we should sell it this time? Perhaps we should only stream it? Or maybe we should just (gasp) give it away? We still release music on Tuesday because physical copies of music have always been shipped to retailers on Tuesday. Sure, it might be the best day. But maybe, for Artist X, it’s not?

Great artistry thrives on innovation, and innovation is often built on the back of information.

In the landscape today, so many of the parties at the table don’t share information often enough. You have agents, labels, managers, artists, retailers and distributors, merchandise companies, promoters, licensees and the list goes on. That doesn’t even include social platforms that only give us a small percentage of the data they have.

shutterstock_186744380-cropThere are a lot of amazing companies out there that have boatloads of data that they are willing to share. Spotify can map songs across social graphs. Shazam can give us situational data — where someone is listening to a song, when, how and even (to an extent) why. YouTube can help us track the growth of a song using search and streams. Even Instagram and Vine are becoming hotbeds for music discovery. Many, if not all, of these platforms are willing to share data with us. They want to be able to tell the story of how they helped grow Artist Y from zero to superstar.

And while everyone has access to some of this information, nobody has access to all of it. The question we should be asking is “Why not?”

It’s time that changed. Collaboration and opening the floodgates of information would change everything.

There are some movie studios who are using applied analytics to better help their movies perform. They decrease spend, thereby increasing their profit margin on their movies that hit, and reach a broader global audience simply by using numbers and predictive analytics to focus their messaging and grow their odds for success.

Music companies don’t do this as well. We should, though, and we can. It’s exciting to think about. It’s only been within the last few years that major labels have really started to make investments in research, hiring people whose job it is to identify new talent and new music based on data. I know that for those who have made this investment, it is most certainly panning out.

I once asked a prominent A&R in the business what their batting average was – out of 50 songs they found, how many did they think were No. 1 hits? The answer? Five. If you go on a 5/50 stretch in a baseball season, you’re benched. I then asked a prominent producer if they believed in data to make music.

The answer? Absolutely. I was told that to create the ideal radio hit, they know the range of beats per minute a song should fall between, the keys the song should be in and how many seconds in the verse should start. Same for the hook, and even certain keywords that were more popular as lyrics.

Collaboration and opening the floodgates of information would change everything.

Now we all agreed that the best artists still write unique and incredible melodies and lyrics, but this combination of art + science was something that truly spoke to me. We then discussed how that could affect an A&R batting average. We were shooting in the dark, of course, but the answer I was told was more like 15-20 out of 50. Or, in their minds, rather than increasing the total number of wins, they would more likely be decreasing the total pool of songs someone would have to guess on. Like fishing in a barrel.

A good example is the theory behind a popular Taylor Swift song that we all know and love. Pretty incredible. Data can help change a lot in music and entertainment as a whole. It’s time we embrace that. Let’s share our numbers and increase our odds for success.

But this doesn’t mean that artistry isn’t important. In fact, it makes it more important. In a world where technology is leveling the playing field and making it easier for anyone, anywhere to create and spread their art, true talent and real stars need to use these tools to stay ahead so that their voices are heard.

Even I can create the baseline of a pop song these days. At home. In bed. But I still can’t sing it. I can’t originate that melody. And I certainly can’t perform it for the world. Or I can (but all previous data points to you not enjoying that show).

Music is still among the most consumed and in-demand content. That isn’t changing. What we do know is that iTunes numbers are in decline, streaming services are pioneering new ways of sharing music, and in 5-10 years services we have never heard of might dominate how we consume.

Instead of hunkering down and trying to keep things the same, let’s embrace change. Numbers – data – can help make informed decisions. The music industry gets a bad rep because people think it lacks sophistication. I think it just lacks tools. Some of the smartest and most creative people in the world work in music. If we gave them the right weapons, I’d head to the frontier with them any day of the week.