Record Labels Need A Change Of Culture In The ‘Dashboard Era’ Of The Music Industry

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Valued at $1.7 billion and with 7 billion monthly global content views, this is a company that has original creative content at the heart of its business — just like record labels. What is really compelling is that they do it with a statistical rigor that would impress a university professor.

Noah Robischon, interviewing BuzzFeed’s Matt Stopera for >Fast Company, recently wrote:

They rely on an internal proprietary metric, known as “viral lift,” that quantifies how much and how quickly a piece of content is shared. “If something has a 1.5 viral lift and 100,000 views and above, that was worth doing,” he tells me. “It’s a failure if you have 400,000 views and a 1.1 or 1.2 lift. That’s a flop.”
Most publishers would perceive the post with 400,000 views to be the success, but at BuzzFeed sharing is paramount. As Stopera explains, “It wasn’t shared. It was all seed. The fun in the game is getting people to share something. I click on shit all the time. ‘Oh, let’s look at what this person posted on Instagram,’ and you saw their butt cheek. It’s like, click, but I’m not going to share it.”

Of course, a record label should never judge an artist as a ‘flop’ based solely on data. But BuzzFeed’s measurement of success is food for thought because it flies in the face of what we’re accustomed to at record labels. In our chart dominated culture, more volume = more success. But in a streaming first world where revenues are drawn out over time, are we concentrating too much on ‘vanity metrics’? Yes the OCC (the Official Charts Company — home of the official U.K. Top 40 charts) hits pay the bills—and traditional offline media are still heavily influenced by the chart — but it seems less useful as a measure of success these days, certainly for the 99% of artists who do not come close to being in it.

The daily streams of a track seems to be becoming a default success metric for streaming probably because they’re as close to the notion of conventional ‘sales’ as we can get. But they aren’t sales. They are more a hybrid of a licence and a sale, and the combination of discovery and consumption which makes their inclusion in the official U.K. and U.S. charts controversial. Moreover, the increasing share of the Top 200 chart by the top 1% of artists (a result of long tail streaming consumption) is making this metric less useful for the 99%. It’s because of this that some feel editorial playlist plays shouldn’t be included in the OCC at all and that there is a danger of global streaming platforms creating a global monoculture in music.

Some labels are advancing very quickly in their ability to assess the new data that music streaming provides. If feels like the data ‘arms race’ could be lead by whoever gets closest to working out what our version of ‘viral lift’ is, a way of accurately measuring the artist/fan experience across the multitude of touchpoints that now exist — probably some complex amalgamation of shareability, conversion, retention, and sentiment? This might end up being the most valuable metric of all in our connected music economy, helping us to build long term artist careers.

Perhaps this ‘viral lift’ metric helps those in radio promotions inform decisions on timing in order to achieve the ‘perfect storm’ for hit records. But whoever is best at identifying which fan connections are the most effective at generating plays and growing the 99% will probably be the most profitable in the future.

In the BuzzFeed article quote above, the point about the views being “all seed” has parallels in the burgeoning area of editorial playlists on music streaming services. Are all your streams coming from passive listening via a few playlist additions? Or are they coming from engaged fans that are leaning in and choosing to play the track? The danger with editorial streaming playlists and therefore discovery and consumption being measured as the same thing is that our conventional measure of success: volume, could end up with us simply counting how good we are at generating discovery plays for a transient audience that don’t care that much.

It’s massively important that all record labels have access to the data that tells us where streams come from. Some would say we’re in the ‘dashboard era’ of the music industry now. In theory we should all soon be able to delve deeper, past the publicly available volume data to understanding what behaviors are behind the streams. The sooner the whole industry has access to this information the better — otherwise we’ll be unable to communicate effectively with the increasingly powerful editorial gatekeepers at streaming services who are adept dashboard operators. That’s why it’s admirable that Spotify and Sony Music have taken early steps to sharing streaming data with artists, labels and managers.

But could the data ‘arms race’ actually be between record labels and the streaming services themselves? The latter are putting a lot of investment into predicting hits and measuring trends — and they have deep pockets. What happens if they develop a proprietary ‘magic metric’ and offer it directly to artists to circumnavigate the labels? They have investment capability, a distribution platform and ownership of the customer relationship.

Spotify are already making their own original content. YouTube could become a ‘full service music company’. Amazon are creating their own album projects. Apple want to be a record label? Netflix are masters at leveraging their data and have disrupted their early studio partners by making their own original content, having used the value of the studios’ content to Build, Measure, Learn and acquire customers to obtain market dominance.

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