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The Dangers of Positive Thinking: Bursting the Music Industry Feedback Bubble

SmileBy Alex Jae Mitchell, Co-Founder and CEO of Audiokite

Having listened to probably more than a thousand artists as a songwriting contest judge and music startup person, I’m no stranger to giving feedback to musicians. And I have a confession to make: rarely is the feedback I give 100% honest. I’ll hear a track with major problems (out-of-tune vocals, scratchy production, uninspired lyrics, etc.) and tell the band “Maybe touch up the vocal production, but overall, it sounds great!” 

Actually, it doesn’t sound great. It sounds like a dying cat attacking an out-of-tune guitar. But I’m not going to say that, the band’s friends aren’t going to say that, and the band’s current fans aren’t going to say that. Why? Because musicians work hard. They go through hundreds of iterations of each track element and pour their heart and soul into everything they make. At the end of the day, we want to be supportive, we want the band to learn and thrive, and we don’t want to leave them disheartened.

And so continues the cycle: musicians produce new songs and solicit feedback from friends, other musicians, and people within the music industry. To protect the feelings of those musicians, everyone says it’s great with minor comments, and the musician continues to perceive success in a poisonous bubble of positive feedback. Then, years later, they’re still wondering why their career is going nowhere. 

Maybe on some level, this isn’t the worst thing in the world. After all, musicians will naturally find their sound as time goes on, right? And maybe that sound will lead to a successful career, or maybe it won’t. The danger is that the feedback bubble is endemic in the music industry, and it’s affecting everyone’s bottom line.

SoundScan’s third-quarter results show that there’s an obvious problem in the industry’s ability to generate revenue. And while that problem is multi-faceted, an important (and often overlooked) facet is the disconnect between consumer expectations and what the promotional channels of the industry are actually delivering.

I would argue that the origin of this disconnect lies in the same feedback bubble plaguing new musicians. Traditionally, when it comes to important decisions regarding new artists and promotion outlets, industry decision-makers tend to ask each other’s opinions: other musicians, other producers, and other A&R execs. And while the judgments at that stage are probably more honest than in the unsigned cohort, they’re still leaving out arguably the most important opinion in the equation: that of actual music consumers.

We’ve discovered several interesting points from the data collected at Audiokite Research to support this. For example, when labels are asked to rate the general quality of their own songs out of 10, they report an 8.4 on average – 2.2 points above the average public rating of 6.2 of those same songs. Independent artists rate themselves an average of 7.6, still 1.4 points higher than actual music listeners.

MegaphoneThis data shows that music consumers, especially when anonymized, are much more honest (even sometimes brutal) when reviewing music they’ve never heard before. They burst the feedback bubble. It makes sense – without a personal connection to the artist, what reason is there to sugar coat opinions? This works both ways, as positive feedback isn’t sugar coated either; when an audience enjoys a song, they’ll talk about why, and they’ll seek it out. So if consumers are willing to tell us what they want to hear, why aren’t we asking?

The music industry can learn a few lessons from the startup world. In startups, data collected from user feedback is one of the most important practices in releasing a new product. It tells you where to improve, if there’s a product-market fit, and how to solve your customers’ problems. And while the opinion of one user can be easily brushed off, the opinions of hundreds can’t.

The inherent subjectivity of music in general will always necessitate a level of A&R, but deeply integrating the opinions of the listening public into the process can bring, at the very least, some semblance of objectivity on which to base important decisions. If we’re going to find a solution to the problems facing the music industry, maybe it’s time for the industry to stop asking itself and ask its audience instead.