Understanding A Data-Driven Music Industry Culture – Lessons From Fast Forward [Cherie Hu]

(1)In this article, Cherie Hu shares five of her most important takeaways from FastForward 2017, a music conference targeted at under-35s and looking at how the music industry can best capitalize on the rapid pace of tech advancements.


Guest Post by Cherie Hu on Flipboard


Liz Stokes (News Editor, Record of the Day), Karma Bertelsen (Marketing Manager, Kilimanjaro Live), Lucy Blair (Director of International Sales and Marketing, The Orchard), Fred Bolza (Vice President of Strategy, Sony Music UK) and Emily Scoggins (Head of Marketing, The O2) speak on the “Exploring Music Marketing” panel at FastForward in Amsterdam on February 24, 2017. (Photo credit: Lara Baker)

American composer, professor and new media artist R. Luke DuBois once declared that “the history of music is the history of technology.” Indeed, from over 40,000 years ago, when humans began building the first instruments, to the present day, where streaming, piracy and emerging technologies like VR impact all steps of the value chain from artist development to licensing and consumption, technology continually transforms the way we create, value and share our music. How can the music industry make the most of what comes next?

Such was the premise of the second installment of FastForward, a music conference aimed at under-35s that took place on February 23 and 24, 2017. Nearly 200 attendees representing stakeholders from across the industry—major label executives, independent musicians, gaming and video experts, budding startup founders, music performance and business students—convened at the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam to exchange anecdotes and best practices for navigating a digital-first, globalized creative culture. If buzzwords like “data” and “convergence” won’t be fading away anytime soon, how can we maximize them without losing clarity? How is excessive attention to these buzzwords helpful or hurtful? What are effective strategies for cutting through this online hype and noise, and getting at the heart of what really matters?

The name “FastForward” suggests that the music industry’s canvas should be the future, not the past. Similar to its inaugural run last year, the conference’s programming last week revolved around many connected futures: the Future of Ticketing, the Future of Music & Tech, the Future of Media, the list goes on. I myself had the pleasure of moderating the Future of Radio panel and interviewing Mike Smith, Managing Director of Warner/Chappell UK, during his keynote on the Future of A&R. The vibe took a refreshing departure from other music-industry conferences that tend to latch on too closely to history, instead celebrating the excitement and agency of improvising and experimenting on the go.

Below are my five takeaways from FastForward this year:

1. Understand the inherent limits—and possibilities—of standard industry language.

Part of innovation in any creative industry is making sense of, and reevaluating, preconceived definitions.

For instance, during our radio panel, Ben Lawrence, Head of Brand Partnerships at Mixcloud, explained that there should be two distinct sides to how we define radio. It’s no longer just a unit in your car, or a transistor in your kitchen: “you need to divide it into radio as content and radio as distribution,” said Lawrence. “Radio as content is essentially long-form audio: it could be anything: music, news, stories. People keep saying radio is dead or dying, but actually radio as content is exploding. It’s the way we consume it that’s changing.”

Indeed, from podcasts and internet broadcasters (Pandora) to lean-back, radio-like offerings within on-demand streaming services (Spotify, Apple Music’s Beats 1)—all of which are available on mobile devices—radio as content lives on, simply wearing a different costume.

One can redefine music- and media-industry parlance not just in terms of the medium, but also in terms of the customer. During the “Lessons from Gaming” panel, Wayne Emanuel, Corporate Development Manager for Gaming at War Child, felt the urge to break down consumer stereotypes associated with the gaming industry.

“I hate the term ‘gamer’—I think it separates and compartmentalizes people,” said Emanuel. “I prefer the term ‘interactive entertainment,’ because I think it’s much more useful to look at someone’s overall interests.” A broader outlook on gaming demographics makes sense in today’s on-the-go, networked world. Mobile apps put high-profit games into the pockets of anyone with a smartphone; even Facebook and Twitter, whose combined user bases span over a quarter of the world’s population, gamify attention in the forms of likes and retweets.

Moreover, participants in gaming culture are as much spectators as they are players. According to research by Twitch, 40% of eSports viewers don’t play the video game they watch. During FastForward’s gaming panel, Samantha Kingston, Co-Founder and Client Director at VR marketing consultancy Virtual Umbrella, reaffirmed this shift in reach, which goes hand-in-hand with changing distribution. ”Most of the people I know who are ‘gamers’ just watch it on YouTube,” said Kingston. “It’s more accessible to everyone.”

2. We’re still a long way from effectively bridging the gap between streaming and live.

From Pandora acquiring Ticketfly, to the Apple Music Festival nearing its 10th anniversary, to Spotify pursuing partnerships with Songkick and Ticketmaster and adding a full “Concerts” tab to all artist pages, the music industry is finally working toward a more seamless music fan experience via collaborations between streaming and live sectors. Sarah Slater, Director of Business Development, Music at Ticketmaster, revealed during FastForward’s Future of Ticketing panel that the Ticketmaster-Spotify partnership is expected to kick off in the UK in summer 2017.

Yet, there remains a lot of work toward making this partnership as effective as possible. Despite the fact that Spotify is now sending users personalized concert recommendations via email, “we have not been included in that conversation at all,” claimed Karma Bertelsen, Marketing Manager at concert promoter Kilimanjaro Live, which runs the Warped Tour in Europe. “Streaming services need to have more conversations with promoters if they’re going to keep pushing these services out.”

Conversations between promoters and record labels also remain surprisingly stunted. “It’s hard even to coordinate album pre-sale upsells when an artist’s tour dates go live—those types of discussions can last more than a decade,” said Silvia Montello, Senior Vice President, Recordings Supply Chain and Client Services at Kobalt Music. Such anecdotes reinforce that the music industry is heavily siloed, and warrants a long-term, holistic solution that strengthens trust and mutual understanding among different sectors, in addition to improving the underlying technological infrastructure.

3. Data is powerful—insofar as you manage your expectations along the way.

In an industry notorious for its unpredictability, data is attractive precisely because of its power to predict and reveal unforeseen insights. In his 15-minute lightning talk at FastForward, Jon Davies, Director of EU Music Partnerships at Shazam, described how the app could predict a hit from six to eight weeks in advance, using Desiigner’s “Panda” as an example. Later, Matt Phipps-Taylor, Head of Innovation & Insight at PPL UK, presented data analysis showing the importance of catalog in music licensing: out of nearly 700,000 unique sound recordings processed by PPL UK in 2015, only 12% consisted of songs from 2014 and 2015, while 88% were recorded in 2013 or earlier (and over 45% in the 90s or earlier).

That being said, Shazam and PPL UK represent just two sources of data in a fast-growing, fragmented digital landscape. According to research by the Future of Music Coalition, there are a whopping 45 revenue streams to musicians and composers, many of which are uniquely enabled by the Internet. How does one manage all of these different sources without losing focus?

The key may be to start understanding data in small steps, instead of aiming for all-encompassing analysis from the start. “Rather than try to make your data solution perfect for any situation, there’s valuable skill in learning exactly what your data is good for, and using it for that exact purpose,” said Chris Carey, CEO of Media Insight Consulting and Founder of FastForward, during his lightning talk on data analysis practices. “A stat isn’t useless just because it’s incomplete.”

Carey also warned against relying too much on data to make creative decisions. “There’s a tendency in the music industry to drive while looking at the rearview mirror,” he said. “If you remain exclusively data-driven and go only with what worked previously, you run the risk of ending up with music that is familiar and enjoyed immediately, but not forward-thinking.”

4. Streaming has changed artist development—but you shouldn’t use it as your marketing crutch.

During our A&R keynote, I asked Mike Smith for his take on whether streaming has impacted the relevance of albums. In his eyes, while albums still bring in more revenue, the Internet and streaming keep hit singles at center stage.

“We still want to have albums in the market, because albums are where we can make a lot of money,” he told me. “At the same time, what drives our business is that it’s still hit-driven. So when we’re looking for people to sign, it’s really searching out the people you feel confident can create hit records.”

At the same time, the hype around streaming reinforces the importance of not relying too much on a playlist strategy when marketing and promoting an artist. “Our job is to pivot out of the song on the streaming playlist, and toward talking about the artist as a whole,” said Fred Bolza, Vice President of Strategy at Sony Music UK. Lucy Blair, Director of International Sales & Marketing at The Orchard, agreed that “an artist’s marketing plan always has to be bigger than the streaming service.”

5. Technology should help, not hurt, our work culture.

From a rare panel on mental health to individual presentations on reshaping industry culture, FastForward attendees were eager to talk about transforming the music business landscape behind the scenes, as well as in front.

Music is often though of as a 24/7 business which prioritizes promotion, content creation and chart ascension over personal wellness, and which interprets taking a break as “slacking off.” With the prevalence of “always-on” mobile connectivity, people feel even more compelled to respond instantly to emails and take on multiple projects and responsibilities on the go—which can quickly lead to burnout, depression and other mental health issues if not addressed soon enough.

“Happy people do better work, and if you’re a happy employee, you work better,” asserted Darren Hemmings, founder of music marketing consultancy Motive Unknown. “Your mind is more open. You’re more creative. Stress and creativity don’t go hand-in-hand.”

In addition, technology has raised important issues around access to knowledge within music companies. Building on his recent piece for Cuepoint, Sam Potts, Head of Radio Promotions at Columbia Records, spoke at FastForward about his ideas for changing record label culture, particularly with regards to sharing streaming data more openly. “I think it’s important that everyone in the record label has access to that information,” he said. “It’s not something that should be held just in the insights or data department.”

Technology necessitates not only holistic access to information, but also holistic interests and awareness on a more personal level. “If your interests are limited to going to the pub, going to the gym, and going to the odd gig, you’re probably not going to make a good talent scout,” said Smith. “You need to be a well-rounded individual.”

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