Can Big Data Discover The Next Pop Star?

Fast Company - March 23, 2016

by John Paul Titlow

Online music hub ReverbNation is finding talented artists by mixing data with human curation.

As an 11-year-old living in Ogden, Utah, Sammy Brue wasn’t expecting much when he uploaded some demos to ReverbNation, a site that helps unsigned musicians showcase their tunes on customized web pages, build an audience, and submit music to radio stations and record labels. But three years later, Brue’s career is taking off: The singer-songwriter has signed to prominent music-management company Red Light and is being courted by big labels—all directly due to ReverbNation’s new data-driven incubation program, Connect.

When it launched in 2006, the site set out to be a social network and do-it-yourself platform for musicians in the same vein as Myspace, helping artists steer their own careers. Now-famous musicians such as Alabama Shakes, Imagine Dragons, and Kacey Musgraves hosted music on the site early in their careers. Though many artists have since gravitated toward newer sites such as Bandcamp and SoundCloud to share their music, ReverbNation remains a big player, hosting pages for around 4 million artists; some 200,000 new songs are uploaded each month. That’s a lot of noise, but it’s also a big asset. Beneath ReverbNation’s interface flows a river of data on up-and-coming artists that, the company came to realize, could be highly valuable—for musicians like Brue, for ReverbNation, and for the beleaguered music business.

With the artist-development program Connect and other tools, the company is using a proprietary algorithm as part of a process that identifies promising new talent and connects those artists with managers, labels, and other insiders. “We see ourselves as a partner to the music industry, not a replacement for it,” says ReverbNation cofounder and CEO Mike Doernberg. “The economics have changed. [The industry] just can’t afford to invest the same amount it used to [in new artists] because the payoff isn’t as big. You have to make more bets and smaller bets.”

To help do that, ReverbNation has created an algorithm that uses show listings, email-open rates, and other data points to sniff out distinctive activity around an artist. If a band is booked at a buzzworthy venue, starts getting played on an influential music blog, or is able to attract fans who live far away from the group’s home base, the system notices. “We use a whole array of different little signals,” says Simon Perry, ReverbNation’s chief creative officer and head of A&R. “The patterns that those signals make tell us something.” But it isn’t as easy as just pushing a button and summoning up a new superstar. “You can’t get a load of data and say, ‘This band with this data profile is going to be the next Coldplay,’ ” says Perry. “But you can say, ‘For this band with this data profile, history teaches us that we should do [certain] things.’ ”

After an artist is flagged by the algorithm, the company’s curation team—made up of former music journalists, DJs, and other knowledgeable insiders—gives a closer listen. Using a custom-built dashboard, they tag each artist to identify promising qualities and predict potential career paths. Some might write songs that seem best suited for licensing to TV shows, movies, or commercials. Others might be a good fit for a particular event, such as Summerfest in Milwaukee, or for a certain record company. “A label will call me and say, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a rapper from the Midwest with a really great story,’ ” says Perry. “I’m like, ‘Try these three.’ ”

Connect, a talent-incubation program that ReverbNation launched in 2015, takes all this a step further. Only the most elite artists—as determined by ReverbNation’s data and curators—are asked to participate in the program, which provides one-on-one career advice from the company’s experts and even-more-granular data analysis of their strengths and weaknesses from a business perspective.

ReverbNation doesn’t charge artists a fee for Connect or its other curation tools (most of the company’s current revenue comes from services like digital music distribution and web-hosting tools, which it offers via premium accounts). Instead, it takes a cut of any money earned through deals it brokers, whether it’s publishing, licensing, or a record contract. In the case of Sammy Brue, ReverbNation is acting as comanager with Red Light and taking a percentage of overall income that the company says is typical for an up-and-coming musician.

Though it’s too early to know how well Connect’s initial batch of artists (about 360 so far) will fare, the program has already placed songs on TV shows such as Grey’s Anatomy and Shameless and scored publishing and management deals for musicians. Of course, Connect’s success depends on one thing: finding the right artists. And while ReverbNation is confident in its data, Perry believes the human component remains crucial—because ultimately that’s who’s listening. “Humans interact with music on an emotional level,” he says. “I know that sounds so flowers and trees, [but] the data is only helpful where it tells us about emotions.”