Monday, August 03, 2009

Can Record labels really see into the future?

I'm wondering do record companies hire psychic mediums? im just curious as to why adverts for albums on tv say things like "featuring the forthcoming hit single" im just curious of how they know its going to be a hit before its even released?

Answer: No, labels don't need to hire psychics to tell whats going to be happening in future sales charts, because for the most part we really can "see into the future".The reason is simply because the behaviour of music fans is highly predictable.To give an example, I can confidently predict that the debut album by a middle-aged scottish singer called Susan Boyle will be number 1 in the charts some time during 2009.

Most of the reason why the record industry can predict whats going to happen is because it has been intensively collating and tallying sales data of recordings for over half a century, then pretty uniquely as an industry,this info has been transparent and available to all. Other industries consider sales info as a trade secret but the Music Industry has been releasing a list of sales to the public, every week for free. Commonly this list is known as the TOP 40, or in USA the Billboard Hot 100.It goes way deeper than mere Top 40 sales, the information database is vast,including sales by zipcode,so if you wanted to know wether Metallica is selling more copies in Miami than in Chicago, the company resonsible for tallying the charts,Nielsen Soundscan , will sell you this info aswell.

In many ways this 50 plus years of data gathering was highly futuristic- in the modern knowledge economy, sales data is routinely mined by statisticians to give them the insight on the buying habits of consumers, many brands buy this data to give them an edge on the competitors brand.

The industry circulates tools to make the predictions easier- insiders have access to a 'midweek chart' which is the sales for the first 3 days of the week.What is remarkable is that the final chart positions do not change much after the next 4 days are added in aswell.In fact the sales generated on the first morning of a release date can be used to predict the chart position reached 6 days later.Record buyers are so predictible in their habits.

With the rise of the internet retailers,such as amazon etc, most have preorder buttons for forthcoming releases. The pre-sales info is passed on to labels, so the number of pre-orders on a title can be used to predict the final sales on its release, which might be still many weeks away, but its done with a high degree of accuracy.

Popular culture shapes record buying habits- whatever is playlisted on National radio and whatever acts are winners of the hugely popular Televised talent-contests are good bets to be top sellers. Music used in TV advertisements sells in great numbers due to the mass exposure on TV.

The Apple digital music store iTunes is so successful at shaping public tastes that when a song makes it onto its top 10 chart displayed on the front page, the song then remains on the chart for a lot longer than normal.

PS- I forgot to mention BigChampagne, a service which tracks online music sales and even P2P downloads and torrents, and collates the numbers, selling the info to labels and interested parties. If you didnt beleive that such things could be monitored or tallied, think again. See story in WIRED mag

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