Has Data Replaced Taste?

Sep 24th, 2018 Marketing

Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing a talk given by Drew Thurlow of Sony Music Entertainment. As an avid consumer of music, I’m endlessly fascinated with how music is made. Few people rival my thirst for live music, ability to cross genres, and affinity for artist biographies and documentaries.

I love both music and marketing because it examines and expresses the human condition. I am obsessed with creative minds, and I love artistic expression. However, consumers of the music industry are rarely afforded the opportunity to see that authorship in its purest form. We’ll use Drew’s example.


Chart toppers in 1988 were:

Gloria Estefan - 1-2-3

Richard Marx - Right Here Waiting

Def Leppard - Pour Some Sugar On Me

Salt N Pepa - Push It

As he played each of these succinctly different tunes, the audience sang along with jovial familiarity. In 1988 these 4 songs were in the top 10. Variety was alive and well: Latin beats, piano ballads, a British rock band, and an all-female hip-hop group.


Chart toppers in 2016 were:

Justin Beiber - Sorry

Chainsmokers - Never Getting Older

And, all things Drake. (Feel free to YouTube those treats later.)

As he played each of these uniformed tunes, eyes glazed over with a systematic lack of diversity. These artists commanded nearly all of the top 10 hits in 2016. All of them are male-centric, mid-tempo and approximately 3.5 minutes in length.

Where did our options go?

Data science took them away. Data has influenced the creative industry, and it’s dramatically shifted our access to diversity. Suddenly, success is a formula.  Stories like U2 and Eminem, where their initial EP’s and personas were huge flops, but over time their popularity grew to epic proportion are non-existent. Today, artists grow cult-like social media followings with built-in viewership before a record label will take a leap.

It can be argued that data science has replaced taste.

In yesteryear, a talent scout could find someone organically, champion them and grow them into something marketable. Today data preemptively determines what will sell, not what might be sold. Music is produced with the end in mind. As marketers, we’re obsessed with data. We consume it ad nauseum and we’ve likely hit a tipping point, as music did at the advent of Napster.

If marketing is equal parts art and science, how are you maintaining your proportions? Has data replaced your Creative Director? Or, is data reinforcing your Creative Directors authentic-unique choices?

Data science should measure and ‘perfect’ the choices made by marketers and designers.

Data should help improve upon the ideas and thought leadership authored by people. Instead, we find that people often tackle brand objectives backward. Fitting their brands’ tone, look, feel, form and function in archetypes that already exist. Following the norms of ‘what works’ versus forging a new path of ‘what if we did X?’ THEN, iterating to versions Y and Z. Admittingly, there are pros and cons to each approach.

When data science is applied to music:

The Good

  • More artists crossover
  • Better targeting
  • Artists can bypass traditional labels, and go straight to their fan-base

The Bad

  • Lack of diversity
  • Shorter lifespan
  • Artists are expected to have broader careers
  • Revenue channels are limited (i.e. Musicians have to tour and do other things to make money.)

When data science is applied to digital marketing:

The Good

  • Better targeting
  • Better access
  • Shorter buy cycles
  • Broader communication channels

The Bad

  • Templated appeal
  • Inside the box thinking
  • Slowly reaching optimization (i.e. Content and Branding missed the mark because it played it safe and didn’t adapt to fit the audience quickly enough.)
  • Resources (i.e. Data is expensive to have, and even more expensive to use.)

Drew’s talk gave no official stance on the subject. He neither applauded or condemned the use of data science as it relates to the music industry. I appreciate his willingness to share the information and let each listener decide for themselves. As for me, maybe I’m a bit too romantic, but variety is the spice of life. I refuse to let data drive the creative process, but it can certainly be a respected passenger. What say you?

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