The New Starmakers, and the Story of a Song

Spotify took to its blog October 2014 to let the world know that if the ants have megaphones, in Chris Anderson’s rather superior phrase, Spotify’s megaphone is bigger. A ‘curated playlist’ had driven a track up the charts in the world’s biggest music market. The track was Waves from Mr Probz, and it would be wrong to think it was a grassroots phenomenon. Before it was picked up by Spotify the song had Red Bull marketing euros behind it.

Meanwhile, in a nostalgic twitter trawl I was taking music tips from Victoria Beckham (I helped Virgin Records rule the Internet in the 90s and did several projects with the Spice Girls).

A great track from the music industry’s aristocracy, including legendary producer Max Martin, and as Posh says, Girl Power!!!, along with prime time TV and wardrobe malfunction support. At 79 footnotes Bang Bang’s po-faced Wikipedia page narrowly beasts Waves (74 footnotes) but has much much more information. The fanzine and fansite obsessive compulsive fact hoarders have migrated to Wikipedia, including the confidently named MusicLover (who pays you???) who seems exclusively chart focused and has a prodigious output. Big data enthusiasts might like to consider a footnote count as a new input to their algorithms.

So Spotify is telling us that its ‘curated’ playlists can drive a track to the top of the chart in the US; meanwhile the top table in that market is demonstrating an ability to deliver success in all the usual ways.

And despite all the footnotes the information available about each those tracks is remarkably thin. delivers production and performance credits at album level, but not at track level. So for instance we know that Nick Barr might have played violin on Bang Bang, but not categorically that he did, or why he played violin rather than his usual viola. PPL’s repertoire search delivers an ISRC, USUM71409737, but nothing more exciting than that. BMI delivers a work number, #17595803 and some of the composers’ real names.

So the narrative on neither track is particularly deep or interesting. Pop comes out of a hermetically sealed box, and then is delivered by starmakers to a grateful but passive audience; crumbs of information are collected by wiki pagemakers and compiled into semi-literate parodies of academic articles (since when have fanzines had footnotes?). In an age supposedly of data and transparency it looks like nothing has changed since Paul Weller sang ‘the public wants what the public gets’. Today there is perversely less information available about the music than there was when paper monthly magazines had 1500 word articles to fill, and record companies commissioned writers for CD booklets.

But there is a big change and that is the flow of data and information about the audience, to the new marketing companies. Way back in 2003 artist Angie Waller produced a book called ‘Data Mining the Amazon’, looking at the connections between politics and popular music as revealed by Amazon’s ‘also bought’ data. It is (update, August 2017, sadly not) still available; Waller said in an interview:

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

Now, with mobile and on demand music and information services, a click on a play button reveals not just your affinity with corporate takeovers, but also who you are, where you are, and as all the algorithms light up like a Christmas shopping street, what you might be persuaded to pay for next. Fancy going to a gig? Here’s Bandsintown to help you:

Bandsintown Amplified is a multi-screen advertising platform that connects brands with a passionate community of fans and artists through an exclusive network of 50+ publishers.

They were watching me check the accuracy of the Paul Weller lyric quoted above, and are now one of about 5,500 websites that have cookies or other locally stored data on my computer, and another set of touchpoints in their database about me.

So the story of a song is now the thousands or millions of stories of the people that the song helps the new digital marketing industry track and target, and the new starmakers are the businesses that can find focus and buyers for that data. Nobody knows how big this market can get, which is why a business such as SoundCloud can justify a $700m+ valuation on a $29m trading loss.

The music industry, as one of the key providers of the content around which that data is created, is at a fork in the road. It will not be credible to position music as an emotional bond between artist and fan if the real commercial purpose is to deliver a focused cloud of marketing data to brands. The product will with increasing sophistication be made to fit the profile. Alternatively, at least some of the music industry can get real about the artist and the product, and deliver music with craft skills on display and explained in full, and showing a strong commitment to quality and authenticity. I suspect that many artists might not be comfortable trying to do both at the same time.

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