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viznomics

viznomics is a blog by Byta founder Marc Brown

Who’s Listening?

Who’s Listening?

I like how Stuart Dredge over at Music Ally tells it like he sees it. He picks apart press releases the way everyone should. He even did it when he wrote about Byta’s seed round. That is why I think his recent glass half full comments about the Soundcloud listener numbers is the right position “A bleaker take might be that 13 million creators thus aren’t getting heard at all: 52% of SoundCloud’s creator community.

I wrote about the “post it and they will come” myth and Kerry Trainer’s numbers confirm it. Over half of Soundcloud’s artists don’t ever get played! It is hard to fault Soundcloud for that. It just reaffirms what any artist or anyone working in music already knows: how hard it is to get ANYONE to listen to your music.

It reminds me about the change I started to see in the pre GarageBand world of the 1990s. No one would disagree that the wider availability of 4-track and 8-track recorders produced some exceptional low fi indie rock, more than a few terrible Sebadoh rip-off bands, and great experimental hip hop. It was finally simpler to make music and to release it. D.I.Y. became accessible to all.

The slew of bad indie rock bands was just the symptom of a larger problem though; the easier and more accessible music creation is (good), the harder it is to get noticed (not good). Yes it is empowering being able to record and release your masterwork without needing the approval of someone, be it a label or a distributor, as was still the norm in the back then. That is unless you are one of those 12.5 million artists on Soundcloud who never get played. It’s the digital version of having 10x 100 count boxes of CDs in your flat, albeit cheaper.

As I said I don’t blame Soundcloud but maybe I should? In many ways these platforms, Spotify among them, have taken prominence over the actual artist’s music they provide access to. That’s good for a streaming platform’s stock price but not good for artists.

Don’t get me wrong though, I don’t lament the status quo. I celebrate it in fact. I am writing this while sitting outside during a beautiful Swedish summer listening (on my phone) to Haruomi Hosono who, along with many of my favorite new (old) artists, was surfaced by algorithms, not by trendy friends on Södermalm. It’s just a new world with new challenges.

That challenge today is one needs to know that it is actually possible to do what one wants, be who one wants to be AND be acknowledged for it. Unlike the tech industry, where the culture of sharing “how to” knowledge online is built into the culture, the music business seems to thrive on keeping everything opaque. The “open source” way of collaborating in tech encourages information sharing whereas in music what people don’t know; be it the terms of your deal or your actual streaming numbers on platform X, creates mystique, something that is ever harder to create and hold on to these days.

I’d like to think it’s not a control thing either, rather that change is slow. Music business schools, where you learn less about composing music and more about selling, marketing and promoting music, didn’t exist when I started. Most careers began in record stores or at college radio and things grew from there. It was an apprenticeship system; you learned good and bad habits from your boss and that was it. My “career” started when I dropped out of university to volunteer at an indie label. I got a chance and I took it.

#HowWeListen 

Like all good ideas I can’t really remember who thought up our HowWeListen interview series. I think it came from planning user interviews around the pain points of sharing digital music. Instead we realised it was going to be even better as an interview series about wider music discovery.

We were hoping the interviews could combat that “post it and they will come” false narrative. Again algorithms are great but they aren’t the only source of music discovery. I’ve written that the existence of a simple route from A to B for all artists and musicians just isn’t true. Anyone who works in music knows there is a special mix of hard to organise factors that lead to success, no silver bullet, no system to reverse engineer.

It became obvious from these interviews with people from across the music ecosystem; everyone has different ways of experiencing music. Learning how different people in the music ecosystem listens helps them understand how to build a network. The value for artists was clear; remember each contact they look to for support within music has their own diverse opinions, preferences and needs.

Megaphono was the first conference to suggest #HowWeListen in panel form, as a way to educate artists and their teams on getting noticed. A year later after hosting panels and doing talks from Toronto to Tallinn I feel it is clear we have only started to scratch the surface of the real questions which need answering.

The Tools AND the Knowledge

We built Byta to be the best platform for sending and receiving audio files and streams. Hundreds of hours of interviews and research took place long before a single line of code was written. Our own experiences in the music business re-confirmed there was a major problem to solve.

It’s that same research combined with experience which led us to realise #HowWeListen could directly address many misconceptions around music discovery. “People don’t listen to CDs, people don’t like digital downloads or people only listen to streams”. We’ve heard it all before. Nothing is that simple however and no single answer is correct. I have gone on about this before, all you can do is check out other opinions then come up with your own.

Unfortunately to get it right means a lot of work and we want to help. Our new #HowWeListen microsite is where we want to give you access to more opinions and perspectives, and not just our own or at least not all the time. Rather the thoughts and experiences of the wider music community, from Stockholm to Sao Paulo. Hopefully when all weaved together, reading about each other’s success and failures, you might get a slightly better perspective. They might not necessarily be popular opinions, though ones we believe are accurate.

We hope these ongoing discussions are useful and most importantly break down the binary beliefs perpetuated throughout the music ecosystem; success / failure, insiders / outsiders, even digital vs analog.

It is all about perspective and we are definitely encouraged by those who have contributed so far.

"The easier and more accessible music creation is (good), the harder it is to get noticed (not good)."