Canadian Musician - May-June 2022 - Page 43

Hay ’ s first signing , Shawn Austin , and the blueprint for his career . I ’ d been thinking and reading more about the use of analytics in the music industry , so Cooke ’ s comments stuck with me for months after .
“ They have all these interesting predictors to where you can release an EP and you can look at certain ratios of streams to saves and listens and all these things , and go , ‘ You know , even two or three weeks later , this song is reacting in a certain way where it ’ s showing that it ’ s connecting with people , so this could be a potential hit song .’ Or , ‘ We love this song , but it ’ s just not reacting in the way we thought it was going to react , so let ’ s release another song in a month or two and see if that gets a reaction ,’” Cooke continued . “ So , it ’ s very fluid , and I find you have an idea in your head of how you want to roll it out . But I mean , numbers don ’ t lie .”
As we ended that chat , I mentioned to Cooke that I ’ d been thinking of writing an article on streaming analytics and how it ’ s influencing decisions in the music industry ( only took me seven months to get around to it !). The guy I needed to connect with , he said , is Patch Culbertson , the current senior vice president at Big Loud Records ( Morgan Wallen , Dallas Smith , Florida Georgia Line ), who Cooke said was one of the smartest people in the industry on this topic — and he wasn ’ t lying . Prior to joining Big Loud in 2017 as its VP of A & R , Culbertson was a talent scout and director of A & R at Republic Records , which had a reputation as the most data-driven major label and “ the gold standard for using analytics in scouting and marketing ,” as noted in a widely-read 2014 article in The Atlantic called “ The Shazam Effect ,” which featured Culbertson prominently . ( That Atlantic journalist , Derek Thompson , later wrote the book Hit Makers , which also featured Culbertson ’ s music analytics insights .)
“ Discovering actionable insights from streaming data has been crucial to my success as both an A & R and label executive ,” Culbertson later tells Canadian Musician . “ When I started my career in 2009 , the streaming landscape included platforms like MySpace , YouTube , Last . FM , and Pure Volume . Over time , platforms came and went , but the fundamentals in evaluating hit records remained the same . One ’ s ability to ‘ read records ’ through consumption data aids both in the signing process ( for research-led signings ) and single determination of a roster artist ’ s released music .”
As far as what labels are looking for in the ocean of data they collect from the DSPs ( e . g . Spotify , Apple Music , etc .), Culbertson is careful to guard his secrets , saying he “ can ’ t give away the special sauce ,” but notes two fundamental principles . The first , he says , is : “ Does exposure lead to consumption ?” And the second : “ Consumption rises with the tide of a hit .”
Expanding on those two thoughts , Culbertson continues , “ It is important to remember that in our now-ubiquitous medium of streaming , exposure of a record is often misunderstood to be defined as genuine consumption . If you consider a playlist like you would radio , we didn ’ t define ‘ record sales ’ as radio audience plus CDs plus downloads in the 2000s ,” he explains . “ But today , it ’ s a grey area when we define ‘ consumption ’ as music that may be pushed to a listener via programmed playlists and algorithmic means in addition to the genuine consumption of a song or album ( double platinum is the new platinum these days for that reason ). Are people consuming and engaging with the record and artist beyond the exposure the song is receiving ? With regards to number two , hit records most often exhibit consistent growth , sometimes exponential growth , everywhere it exists with respect to the audience of that platform .”
Using an apt baseball analogy , Culbertson says once a single is released , the streaming metrics help categorize that song as a single , double , triple , home run , or the rare grand slam . “ Each base carries with it certain marketing and promotion strategies in relation to its consumption strength ,” he explains . “ If we see those implemented strategies continue to move the needle , it ’ s time to pour gas on the fire . If there ’ s an identifiable ceiling in the record ’ s growth following those campaign strategies , we identify how we can authentically support the record recognizing its level of reactivity while shifting gears to a new focus . It ’ s simply a disservice to the artist , fans , our team , and our partners to continue pushing a non-reactive record to our format ’ s audience .”
Speaking of data being used to push a song to the audience based on format , region , genre , etc ., radio promoters and programmers are looking at the numbers , too . “ I don ’ t actually have access to that data , but it ’ s interesting that I just had that conversation this morning , talking about a certain song that a station added because they had seen stats on how often it had
been Shazamed in their market ,” says Toronto-based radio promoter Andrea Morris , the founder of AM to FM Promotions . “ And that ’ s another thing , too , sometimes with streaming numbers , you ’ ll approach radio with an artist who has had , say , 15,000 streams , but it ’ s about , where are they coming from ? Then they look at the breakdown of the data and go , ‘ Well , there ’ s none of that in my area , these are all streams in Europe and that doesn ’ t actually affect us .’”
On the A & R front , how analytics inform decisions about which artists to sign ( or not sign ) can differ widely across labels . “ Some choose to mitigate the risks in the signing process by evaluating consumption metrics of an unsigned artist or band ’ s repertoire and offering recording contracts at what they deem as actionable checkpoints of their campaign ,” says Culbertson . “ Once signed , streaming data – whether on DSPs or other non-commercial platforms – is a real-time feedback loop from consumers ( and hopefully fans ) on release strategy / configurations , focus singles , content strategies , and promotion .”
That said , some A & R executives remain firm believers that , while the data can inform marketing and other decisions to do with established acts , when it comes to spotting unsigned artists and assessing potential , the data can ’ t predict the future . This isn ’ t sports , where the purpose of analytics is not only to judge past performance , but to use trends in the data to predict future performance . Music is far too subjective for that , at least according to some .
This topic came up last year when I was