Art v. Numbers & the “It” Factor in Music’s Big Data Era Article

Think about how you used to discover new music. Even if you’re too young to remember a time before Napster, put on your Nostalgia Goggles™ with me and pretend.  

Maybe you’re walking through a record store, and a fresh, psychedelic cover catches your eye. Maybe your boy’s CD player is your gateway to what’s hot, or maybe you hear your favorite artist’s new track at the club for the first time.  

Fifteen years ago, however you found music, it was a visceral experience. The kind that forms a personal connection. It sounds like ancient history now, but there was a time where all facets the music industry had a touch this humanity.

A&R’s sourced fresh talent from local stages, not Twitter or (RIP) Vine. College DJs mattered. Local music columns were still a thing. In this more personal, more human music landscape, finding the next big star was about intangibles. The “it” factors those A&R’s in that grungy bar were looking for were all qualitative, all “know it when you see it” pieces magic, all abstract.

Today, on the social-media algorithm driven information superhighway modern digital fast-food culture, the picture couldn’t be more different.  

Thanks to digital content and all the easy-to-gather numbers that go along with Spotify and Facebook and Bandcamp and Twitter and Audiomack and the rest, the music industry has wholeheartedly entered the big data era. The business music is now operating as a highly computed numbers game more than ever before, and it’s having big effects across the board.  

On the consumer side, the majority music we come into contact with is no longer curated by a DJ or a magazine, but an algorithm. On every music platform, and every social networking site, which songs and artists cross our eyes as we browse is determined by equations under the website’s dashboard.  

That already feels like a little too much “big brother” for something as important and personal as music is to most us, but it’s just the tip the iceberg.  

From an industry perspective, labels and A&Rs are able to play Moneyball with internet-generated data points when determining which artists to invest in. Social media followings can be analyzed, marketability can be broken down on a spreadsheet, and an artist’s appeal can be read in potential dollar signs backed up by scientific models and pritability metrics.

When we had the chance to ask Brian Ahren, a London-based agent at major talent agency WME | IMG, he fered some invaluable insights about these trends and what power players look for in upcoming acts. “We all equate buzz in different ways,” Brian says, speaking as an industry insider. “It could be as simple as old school touring.”

“Or, it could be as complicated as how many views, or whatever, online,” Ahren continues.  Later, he gets even more direct. “We are all trying to figure out better ways to analyze the data.”

“Better ways to analyze the data,” from a business perspective, means finding marketable artists who can turn a prit for a label interested in investing. This goal isn’t anything new in the highly commodified music industry, but what’s changed drastically is the tools that power brokers have at their disposal.

Today, talent scouts looking for hot artists to break aren’t digging into local networks, combing for undiscovered talent. They’re basing investment decisions on numbers; the gatekeepers and tastemakers the big-data era music game are listening while reading a spreadsheet and running a pritability predicting simulation.  

It’s easy to take an alarmist stance on all this and come to some scary conclusions about the future mainstream artistry. If executives are able to break down and quantify every element an artist’s appeal, what will we really be left with?  

Take all the most marketable ingredients Drake, Taylor Swift, Adele and Lil Yachty, mix in a dash Bieber or Migos, and the result is a Frankenstein that I’d be genuinely afraid .  Data analysis and powerful artistry aren’t things that intuitively go hand in hand. It’s easy to imagine an increasingly driven industry creating even more generic and heartless music than we see today.   

And it’s easy to imagine plenty ugly manipulation the numbers (which already happens), as artists without true talent—or the machines behind those artists—look to game the system and snag their moment shine. It’s easy to imagine major labels performing experiments with our social media timelines, collecting more and more data to use in more and more targeted, pritable ways.  

Granted, this type practice can be found in just about every other large industry. But that doesn’t mean that thinking about big data’s conquering the music world is any less unsettling.    

It also doesn’t mean that the landscape is bleak, or that we’re doomed to enter an all time low point in mainstream music, or that all these worst case scenarios will play out.  

There’s something intuitively unnerving about music, at its core an act artistic expression, becoming totally quantified. But there’s something to be said as well for optimism, and trusting in the power true art to prevail.

Even as industry power brokers and gatekeepers lean more and more heavily on numbers and analytics, artists like Chance The Rapper are able to connect with millions fans, delivering in Chance’s case something immense artistic value. Even as the business becomes more and more driven, hard-working artists like Anderson .Paak are finding mainstream success without compromising artistic integrity.

That “it” factor that A&Rs used to look for in local venues is still connecting with listeners, still eluding data scientists. All those intangibles that make an artist powerful still have the ability to shine through, overpowering the commodified result formulas and simulations.  

We know good art when we hear it. No matter what the marketing departments want us to believe or what the research suggests, artists will still need to prove themselves in our hearts. And if they can’t, we’ll find art that we do connect with; good music won’t go extinct at the hands big data analytics, even if it becomes more obscured.  

At some level, even as they are eager to collect and employ as many numbers as possible, many industry insiders understand this and realize that there is still an essence art that is hard to convey in zeros and ones.  

“Talent is worth our time,” Brian Ahren says. “So many people have gotten away and tried to look at the metrics, weighing that over the talent. But the talent and ability to create content is the most important thing.”

As long as people like Brian are in positions industry power, common sense may prevail, and the worst-case outcomes the music business’s big data infatuation may not come to fruition. Even so, it’s almost inevitable that data will play a bigger and bigger role in the music world, and more the elusive and intangible elements artistry will become quantifiable to labels playing with more numbers in more ways.  

All we can hope is that great artistry prevails and that we always have artists like Lil Chano dripping in so much “it” factor that the algorithms don’t stand a chance keeping up.  


Art Credit: Chuck Pavoni