Executive Turntable: Can Classic Label Talent Transition to Digital Formats?

Warner Music Group Grammy Celebration Hosted By InStyle
Lyor Cohen knows all about how to rub elbows with artists like Elvis Costello and Diana Krall, but how will that rub off on YouTube?

Old-school record executives seem to be joining new-school digital music companies in increased intensity.  In the past few years WMG’s Stephen Bryan (Soundcloud), Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine (Apple), UMG’s Amanda Marks (Apple), super-manager Troy Carter (Spotify) have all been wooed to some of the most prestigious companies.  Last week, the big kahuna Lyor Cohen, former CEO of WMG and founder of Def Jam, joined YouTube as head of music for the company. And  it isn’t some honorary title, where he deals with artist and industry relations. He’s running the whole thing!

What’s going on here? Obviously these companies all know they need to beef up their ranks with people who know the ins and outs of the music business. After all, a good relationship with your content supplier is extremely important. But it’s only one factor in building a successful music company. There are other essential skills that being a good label executive doesn’t necessarily provide the appropriate experience.

First let’s get something straight. All these label execs are eminently talented. You don’t get to the top of  label orgs without a herculean work ethic, serious business chops, and massive brain power. But getting to that level doesn’t  necessarily mean you can run other complex companies. After all, CBS Records’ Svengali Walter Yetnikoff might have built the company into a powerhouse, but it doesn’t mean he was qualified to do Russ Solomon’s job at Tower Records.

Record companies do many things; but at its core is scouting, locating, and developing talented artists. It’s a tough job we discount too often. You have to have a great understanding of art and a finely tuned ear to what people will respond to. But digital music companies have different needs: product development, technical acumen, and a keen understanding of what users will find compelling enough to open their pocketbooks. You also must know how to lead tech teams and understand how people use and adopt new products.

While there obviously is some overlap between these two diverse core skills, there’s a lot that doesn’t fit. We’ve seen this manifest when companies try to move into the other’s turf. Labels time and time again have failed at direct to consumer offerings. The efforts have gotten considerably more ham fisted as technology has played a larger role in the  industry. From its inability to secure files on CD and all the way up to the ridiculous Now! subscription service that rolled out just last week, nearly every label’s tech initiative  or direct-to-consumer offering has underperformed or been an outright disaster (Pressplay, anyone?). Likewise, digital music services struggle with artist relations, leading  to wary feelings between artists and digital services, or straight-up hostility.

DNA Mismatch

Both labels and digital services struggle to meld because they’re so different. At their essence, labels are about artists. Everything is built around finding and developing great artists. Talent is also the core talent of most senior execs at labels. Sure, there are probably great dealmakers, technologists, and marketing whizzes working at UMG, but ultimately, it all serves the artist. Meanwhile the digital services are all about the customer. And yes, artists are vital for services, but if push comes to shove, product development, not artist development, wins.

So when labels end up going directly to consumers, they’re on unfamiliar turf. Likewise, when Tim Westergren says something that sounds awfully stilted to the artist community, it’s because he’s not capable of fully serving both sides. Ultimately, he must side with his listener. You can bring in label talent to the music services to help co-mingle the two sides. But it won’t change the DNA of the company.

Free Advice

Look, I’m not telling you that digital music services are the model of how to build the modern company. Spotify isn’t Jack Welch’s GE or even Reed Hastings elite-level Netflix.  There’s a tendency to rely too much on technical solutions and not enough focus on customer problems, which leads to a functional–but not a very warm–product.

So if I were to give advice to say, a new executive at, say, the world’s largest free music listening service, I’d suggest following a few axioms about how to build his or her new team.

  1. Empower Product Leaders
    Too often we end up hiring product development professionals but don’t empower them to make decisions. Product is the core of what these companies do and to fully take advantage of this, you need great product talent in leadership positions. When you don’t own the content, you have to win on product, full stop. And yeah, I’m a product guy, so I’m biased. But I’ve seen what happens when you don’t prioritize the right talent in the right roles, and it’s not pretty.
  2. Practice Design Thinking
    Although tech products are much better today than even five years ago, we have a long way to go in building out thoughtfully designed products. You can tell a massive difference in Spotify versus a company where design is front and center like Airbnb. If you start with design solutions, rather than technology ones, it will resonate a lot more with your users. Cool tech is just that. Cool. Solve problems first and foremost, my friends.
  3. Different Analytics For Different Goals
    Labels have invested in analytics teams in varying levels. Most of these  efforts– including UMG’s exceptional data analytics team and Lyor’s start-up The 300– used data to identify artists that will perform best, which is just an evolution of what labels always have done. Spotify and YouTube have both invested heavily in solutions to solve ‘what to play next.’ While YouTube’s recommendation products are good, they don’t have the sheen of Spotify’s Release Radar, Daily Mix, and Discover Weekly, perhaps the best of all the technology centric recommendations. The lesson here: using data science and machine learning to create superior user experiences is the foundation of any successful digital music product.
  4. Market Like A Retailer
    If there’s been one element missing from most services, it’s figuring out how to sell them to mass audiences. At its core, the pitch seems to be “Hey, you like music. Well we’ve got lots of music. Come get some!” Okay then! The services need to get better. While it’s clear that music services are different than retail, the attention to detail and stronger relevance to the customer’s life would help the services define a) what they are and b) who they are for. Without that kind of definition, mass consumers will continue to pass.

None of this stuff is surprising. Let’s just file it under ‘doing the basics really well.’ But the labels, and the people who built their careers with them, still seem like they are steeped in another era. Digital is different, and building an elite team that can navigate this competitive market requires a different skill set. A phenomenal product team is today’s A&R. Invest wisely.

Billboard: Lyor Cohen’s Move to YouTube: Good Or Bad For The Music Industry

Hypebot: Music Industry Uncharacteristically Silent about Lyor Cohen to YouTube

Bobby Owsinski: YouTube Misses The Point With Lyor Cohen Hire

Sonic Boom: How Spotify Acquiring The Echo Nest Remakes Digital Music’s Landscape

The Echo Nest: now part of Spotify
The Echo Nest: now part of Spotify

Whoa! Did you hear that? If you’re in the digital music business, that ear piercing sound you just heard is the cracking of the industry’s landscape. Maybe not right away, and maybe it won’t cripple many companies, but the fact that Spotify purchased The Echo Nest today puts a spotlight on the challenges all the companies that partnered with the music discovery company now face. And even beyond that, it could give Spotify a huge advantage.

The Echo Nest powers music discovery for quite a few of the music services, from Rdio to Rhapsody to iHeartRadio to Vevo. The companies use it primarily to run their radio services. But the service can take any piece of content–tracks, albums, playlists, radio, similar artists, or genres–and create recommendations. And The Echo Nest makes the recommendations personal for each of their client’s customers. The service provides the company with all the plays that a customer logged and The Echo Nest creates a ‘taste profile’ for every user. That, in turn, guides the recommendations algorithm.

Within an hour of the announcement, an exec from one of Echo Nest’s customers told me that The Echo Nest said they will fulfill their contract, which he understood to mean that after the contract is up, his firm will need to build a recommendation algorithm. “It’s tractable work. It just requires time and money,” he said.

And talent, too. Let’s not forget that part of the equation. What has made The Echo Nest so attractive to music startups is the peerless quality of their algorithm. To create a great algorithm, you need to understand music, you need to understand technology and you need to understand cultural significance. These are three different skillsets that don’t naturally go together and getting them to work as successfully as The Echo Nest has, for a massive number of customers, is extremely challenging.

So unless startups are willing to create highly skilled teams of musicologists, machine learning Ph.Ds. and engineers that know how to tap big data, a company isn’t going to get close to what The Echo Nest can do. Conservatively it’s at least a million bucks to get into the game, and probably more than that just to get to parity with them. And instead of development times taking a minimum of a year, The Echo Nest can get you up and running in about a month.

But here’s the thing: to do a deal with The Echo Nest, a company most likely chooses to not build its own algorithm, which is what all these companies are staring down the barrel of today. Everyone who is a customer considered The Echo Nest to be a neutral partner that didn’t play favorites to any of their competitors.

But not everyone thought about it this way.

When Spotify launched their radio product in 2011 it was with The Echo Nest’s algorithm, but it quickly developed its own. Why? The company knew owning its algorithm was strategically important. Beyond that, it might not have wanted to hand over customer play data to personalize the system. And that’s where this deal gets very scary.

Think about play data for a digital music company like you’d think about a country’s natural resources. It contains amazing insights of what customers like, what songs relate to each other and a great deal of intelligence about customer behavior. But just like getting natural resources out of the ground, it requires a big data infrastructure to mine it and make it actionable. Some companies have invested in heavily in this infrastructure, but most have this data—perhaps a service’s most important asset—buried deep in within their usage logs.

It just so happens that The Echo Nest has all this data—from all of its customers—to power its algorithms. Services are very protective of this data and are therefore extremely concerned about exposing their streams to competitors, and of the ability for The Echo Nest to potentially centralize the data and create products that show a total view of online listening.

But here’s my question: did Spotify just get access to all the listening data for all of The Echo Nest customers? Even if it does not commercialize it, just seeing that data could lead to enormous advantage for the company.

Look, all these services have different customer bases. An iHeart customer is very different from an Rdio one. Rhapsody customers listen differently than an Xbox one. Insights on how these music fans are different (and are alike) would give Spotify a total view of the listening universe, which could help in everything from tuning their algorithm to targeting customers for acquisition.

And if Spotify wants to continue to sell The Echo Nest’s algorithm, wouldn’t that give the company an enormous, NSA level of music playback? The company confirmed today that they’re pulling out of the algorithm business for other platforms once all the terms are up. But if you want to build an app on the Spotify ecosystem, you can have access to The Echo Nest’s goodness.

Daniel Ek has built Spotify into a company with the best technology in the industry. He’s now bought the shiniest tech toy on the market and he’s taking it home to play with it. Alone.

Algorithmic-Free Linkage

TechCrunchTogether, Spotify And Echo Nest Want To Build The Facebook Connect Of Music

GeekwireSpotify acquires music discovery service The Echo Nest to the dismay of Rhapsody, Xbox Music

HypebotSpotify and Beats Music Acquisitions Illustrate Differing Strategies

Gigaom: Spotify Acquires The Echo Nest and Its Musical Smarts

The VergeSpotify Could Be Making Trouble for Rdio