Pricing Music Fans in the New Data Economy

In 2003 digital artist Angie Waller released a wonderful project she called ‘Data Mining the Amazon’. Asked about it by art community Rhizome Waller offered the following:

I was surprised that books about military battles and corporate takeovers pointed to the soothing CDs of Enya and Sarah Brightman.

9IT-1174-0-0-A5-4 Schlacht bei Punta Salvore / Fresko von Spinello Aretino Fuenfter Italienzug Kaiser Friedrichs I. Barbarossa 1174-78 / Seeschlacht bei Punta San Salvatore (Punta Salvore) im Golf von Triest (Historisch nicht belegter legendaerer Sieg der Venezianer). / - 'Die Seeschlacht von Punta San Salvatore zwischen den Venezianern und den Deutschen'. - / Ausschnitt. Fresko, 1407/1408, von Spinello Aretino, eigentlich Spinello di Luca Spinelli (um 1350 - 1410). Aus dem Zyklus mit Szenen aus dem Leben Papst Alexanders III. Siena (Toskana, Italien), Palazzo Pubblico, Sala di Balia.

Battle of Punta Salvore by Spinello Aretino

No record shop until Amazon had been able to capitalise on Enya fans’ interest in military history, and Amazon had the choice to do so explicitly – ‘people who bought this also bought’ -, or in subtler ways. Today Amazon is advertising Vanish Stain Remover to me alongside Enya’s latest album – you can draw your own conclusions about that.

Traditionally, alongside selling records and supplying streaming services, the music industry sells music licences to restaurants and radio stations, where a band or jukebox plays to the diners, and a DJ spins the discs. The music station’s licence doesn’t apply to the talk station on the adjacent preset – despite being the same radio in the same car, this is metaphorically a different place. Perhaps luxury music attracts wealthy patrons, but it would be hard for the restaurateur to argue that the benefit spills down the street into the book shop next door. We’re often accused of being old fashioned. These models might as well be based on the classical unities described in Aristotle’s Poetics!

Angie Waller’s art is amusing in its own right, but points also to a fundamental disconnect in the way we understand media, our experience of it, and the commerce that sustains it. Amazon could extend its advantage even further, by making the data it holds about the preferences and behaviour of all its customers available anywhere on the internet, and to anyone who was willing to buy it. We have moved from a model of attention which is constrained by time and space, to one which is fluid and portable.

To understand this better, think about a normal journey to work. The music you listen to fits into a data-centric view of you as a person, and as a consumer. Your device knows where you live, and where you spent the night! It knows which apps you use, how you travel, where you work. All this data can be correlated with other data to build up a compelling picture of your daily needs and desires, the groups you belong to, and how you like to live.

To the apps you use and the websites you visit on that journey you are now an identity and a cluster of data points, all derived from your stored preferences and histories, your digital fact pack, and your recent behaviour. Like a magnet being dragged through iron filings, these tiny packages of data stick to your profile, and are used to select new content to show you, to build your ideal music playlist, and to add value to your attention as your presence is sold to advertisers. The terms and conditions and privacy policies of music apps make this very clear. Here’s Pandora’s privacy policy, which sets this out in detail.

Those apps and websites extend what Amazon was doing over a decade ago, and offer the new data they generate from your activity to other apps and websites in complex and dynamic marketplaces, where content and profiles are mixed and matched with marketing messages. It is in those marketplaces – some familiar names, such as Google and Facebook, many essentially invisible to the people they are tracking and selling – that music fans are priced and sold.

Codes of conduct and some regulation has grown up around this tracking activity, including the Network Advertising Initiative, who offer a quick view on who knows who you are, which may be seen here. 67 NAI member companies are currently tracking my web browser, and ironically, by using the NAI tool, I expect I am informing them that I am interested in my privacy. Pandora refers people to TRUSTe’s preferences manager, with a tracker code which tells TRUSTe where you have come from. The EDAA monitors the activity of 111 companies, and helpfully shows a nice green tick against that ones who are successfully tracking you.

What they all have in common is that none of them are really asking music fans for an informed permission to spy on them, and none are paying musicians for the data that music generates. Perhaps they shouldn’t. After all musicians made no extra investment or effort to create the technology and services that turn our traces into a marketable commodity, and music consumers get a convenient service at a lower price. This is a debate however we should have.

So what is the price of a music fan to a seller of military books, or indeed stain remover, holidays, or health insurance, or any of the things the digital marketing industry is paid to offer us? Right now, we in the music industry simply don’t know, but it’s not hard to see that some of the bigger music platforms value their advertising supported tiers very highly. And what if the music industry had a stake in that game? If we had the tools to participate in the revenue it might turn out that ‘free’ is much more valuable than being locked up in a $9.99 subscription service. The implications of this discontinuity in time and space could be truly revolutionary.

In the new music industry we need to understand the value that music creates in the data economy. But more importantly we need to have a conversation with the music fans themselves, because it’s their data, not the platforms’ and not the musicians’. We have a unique opportunity to stand alongside the people we reach with music, and make their privacy a condition of doing business with us. If we get this right, music can once again represent a free mind in a world of exploitation.

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