It’s an all-too-familiar story; you spend months – perhaps years – making your music. You’re finally ready to launch it (and yourself) into the world. Depressingly, the response to your tireless endeavours isn’t quite the euphoric success story that you imagined. In 2019, it’s seemingly harder than ever to be heard above the ever-growing din of new music.
Though there’s less standing in the way of actually getting your songs into a position where they could become global smash hits, building your audience to a size where you can earn a living as an artist remains a distant dream for many.
One London-based company is looking to change this state of affairs. Beatchain was founded by Ben Mendoza, a former data analyser for some of the world’s largest companies, with a clear vision: to arm musicians, producers, artists and label owners with all the information they need to understand and build their audience.
Break the chain
“Beatchain, from the outside world, will look like an app that artists and creators will use,” Ben tells us. “It’s their portal to the whole of the music industry. The way that ‘music industry 1.0’ works is that artists dream of being signed by a major label and playing huge arenas and all the rest of it, but very few people actually get there.
“They need management, they need promotion, they need agencies and many other people to help them. We basically believe that our solution is to provide those artists with all the tools they need to achieve success. Actually, they’re better tools than the ones you’d get following a traditional approach.”
Ben continues: “So the idea is to basically help a creator or an artist to increase their presence across their social channels: to help them distribute their music. To help them promote themselves, go on tours and all the things that they want to do. They can do all this using the toolset that Beatchain provides.”
The idea for the platform originated when Ben encountered the band Brother Strut and met bandleader Steve Jones, who would later co-found Beatchain with Ben. “Steve had promoted himself completely through his guile and use of social media,” says Ben. “He’d been through the experience of having label deals and knew how that worked. I was really impressed with how well he’d done generating a fanbase. He’d managed to sell out Koko, which is a big London venue, without any external marketing help. Obviously, to do that he had to put a lot of his time and effort into social-media marketing. That got me thinking about something scalable that everyone can use to yield the same results. It needed to utilise automation and machine learning.”
Steve explains his predicament in more detail: “I was using so many different marketing platforms and tools to manage our audience. The opportunity we’ve all ended up seeing is to bring all of those things into one box. We can then provide all of these marketing functions for somebody that doesn’t really understand marketing. Artists still have to work hard and still have to make good music, but if they don’t have to learn about some very (what they would consider) mundane, boring data-analysis stuff, then we’re going to open it all up for anybody and everybody to be able to find their audience.”
So far so noble, but what about artists actually generating a sustainable income from their music-making? “When you look at the world of artists, you have this very thin layer at the top where you have people like Ed Sheeran and Adele. Then you’ve got the rest – and that’s an enormous strata of people, many of whom are very talented artists trying to earn a living. Many of the really good session musicians that we know aren’t earning enough money through music alone.
“So in terms of cashflow, traditionally, the management of the artist will take their piece, the booking agent will take their piece and the label will take their piece. If you don’t have to give those pieces away, it’d be more feasible to earn a living as a moderately successful musician.”
Welcome to the machine
So let’s find out more about the machine learning behind Beatchain. We ask Luke Mendoza, Beatchain’s head of the data science team and Ed Godshaw, who is software development director, for more on just what’s going on behind the scenes.
“The very first iteration of Beatchain was designed as a small label that worked as a kind of incubator for bands,” Luke explains. “The plan was they would come in and we use all the stuff we’ve learned to expand their following and then we’d sell them on to a bigger label. So, manual audience management. We signed a few ‘alpha’ artists and we very quickly realised that what we needed to do was build a solution that was automated, or we’d end up having to look after so many different things that we’d all be very quickly overworked.”
Luke continues: “When an artist signs up for Beatchain, they log in with their Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to start with. Our platform goes away and scrapes all the data from the backend of the API. It gives them an easy-to-digest overview of all of their social data. They can then track their progress from day-to-day, week-to-week or month-to-month in terms of new audience and frequency of likes.
“We tried this with a few test artists initially, including Brother Strut. We also have a beatbox trio called Duke who we took from around 20,000 Facebook followers to 66,000 and Instagram from 2,000 to 15,000. We took them from doing corporate shows to performing their first ever sold-out headline gigs. So the system definitely works. All this data that we get back and is fed into the reports the artists read is all teaching Beatchain better, more effective ways of working.”
But what is changing here? Isn’t this just collating pre-existing data into one place? “The key is connecting it all together,” Ed tells us. “We know from the insights what the average amount of posts should be per week for an artist. We can tell them that, but also get them to post from within the inbuilt scheduler in Beatchain itself. It’s linked to all their social platforms. It’s a typical kind of Hootsuite-style social-media-management interface. We’re just making it as easy as possible for them to get content out.”
So what are the vital things that Beatchain looks at when it’s scraping data? “We don’t just look at the artist in isolation,” Luke says. “We look at that artist and we plot them against their peer group. Say you’re in an indie band and you sign up, and you put all your details in. It’ll go away and compare your audience to similar bands. If there’s a band similar to you that’s growing consistently, you can then monitor how often they post, what types of content they’re putting up to generate engagement and what audience types and platforms do the best for them.”
Command and conquer
It’s all well and good comparing and contrasting with other artists who might have the spare budget to afford to produce high-end content, but how about matching their quality if you’re on a lower budget? This is something Steve is keen to address. “We want to level the playing field so people who’ve come from a council estate and haven’t got any budget whatsoever can shoot content on their phone or take pictures,” he says. “They can use our free video and image-editing tools and upload to their social accounts. Plus, they’re more likely to understand how audience building works if they use our platform.”
Luke adds: “A lot of what we’re doing is also trying to educate artists about when to post different types of content and to what audiences it should be shown, whether you should do any paid advertising or not. Because one of the big things we’ve found, especially as we started testing with record labels, is that they’ll make a great music video for a strong song. They’ll put it out to the world and it’ll get very little engagement. At the moment, people don’t really know who the band are or what to expect.”
To rectify this, the team flew Steve out to Atlanta. “We sent him to meet an artist and just create a few bits of lo-fi content of this guy and his band hanging out and making some music. Immediately, and for a fraction of the budget, they got much more engagement and faster audience acquisition. So to start with, you have to understand what your audience is looking for and not just dive straight in with ‘the hit’ that you think you’re going to have. You have to build your brand and your aesthetics. There’s so much education that needs to go out there, but Beatchain is more than that.”
To our ears, this all sounds like the perfect tool to help artists understand and build their audiences with minimal expenditure. But we have to ask the team at Beatchain just whether they’ll expect any kind of pushback from people who might not want their personal data to be analysed in this way, especially in the current climate following the Cambridge Analytica revelations? Luke is quick to allay those fears.
“We are not a Crimson Hexagon or Cambridge Analytica. We don’t care about who the individuals are or how they vote or anything like that. We don’t even get that data. Even when we partner with merchandisers or get involved with the ticketing side of things, we don’t care about the individuals. We just care about where they’re based roughly, and then we can look at that area and understand what the social-media data tells us about how many engaged people are there.
“Obviously, on the artist side, we are going to know who they are,” Ben adds. “In order for us to provide the service we do, then they have to do that. We need to have control over their fan pages in order for us to be able to handle advertising through our platform. I think we can make it very clear, though, what the benefits of us doing that are. Our policies and terms and conditions have gone through a great deal of checking. We have no intention of doing anything untoward with this information.”
Steve concludes this point on Beatchain’s ethical stance by saying: “There’s always a slight fear in the world of big data from people who don’t work in it, this mystery about what’s going behind the scenes. But how we work is totally based on observing the trends. It doesn’t tell us who you are and what you drink or where you live, but it can tell us bulk information about where particular things are happening. This is helpful for not just the artist, but for the fan, too – the fans will get information about the music they absolutely love and the artists’ careers are enhanced. That’s the way big data should work, in my view.”
But what of those who might say that as Beatchain grows, it might eventually silo people even more into only hearing from those artists in those genres that they’ve expressed an affinity for? “I do think that people are very silo-able,” Steve says. “People don’t like to think of themselves as being like that. But music has always been partly tribal and people have an affinity to specific genres.”
Luke explains further: “What we do in the way we build these audiences out is very, very broad. We’ll start with people who generally like the genre of music, then as time goes on, we can make associations and get more specific. As you start to build a fanbase, you can look at the other interests that your fans have in common – often, there are some big correlations. One of our bands, Duke, noticed that lots of the people who were liking and engaging with them as a brand all liked three of four things in common, including car modding, Corona beer and lots of things you wouldn’t immediately correlate. This is really useful. We’re just suggesting to potential fans that you might like this if you like that.”
Hearts and minds
A major challenge that platforms such as Beatchain face is that of the perception that the music industry still works in broadly the same way that it always has. “I think the biggest thing that artists need to learn now is that if they’re not using radio and TV, then social media is the delivery mechanism,” Steve says. “Historically, social media was always seen as an extra thing, but now it’s integral. It’s not something you do as well. It needs to be the main driver of how you grow your business. It’s no longer just a thought process of, ‘Oh, I’ll do a post today’ – this is now your media channel and it has to be constantly fed.
“We’re putting together some educational videos to guide artists through the beta programme. There are certain universal rules that generally work for music makers on social media, regardless of genre. However, you can’t always be that prescriptive. Quite often, most of the most engaged content is simply created and shot with an iPhone.”
Steve tells us that when he talks to artists about Beatchain and the way data can be used, they suddenly start to see themselves as commodities. “They don’t like to think in these terms,” he tells us. “The best way to describe it to artists, I think, is basically this: in the traditional music business, you got a deal if you were lucky enough to get that opportunity and then they try and broaden out your music for the mainstream. Often the music, or what is perceived as their own art, is compromised.
“What we want to do is very different. We’re looking for people who are engaging with your music and trying to find more people who think that way and respond to your work, without altering how you sound in the hopes of attracting mass appeal. You’re basically then waking up every day and creating the music that you want to create. It might not be going to the billions that the labels are interested in, but you might have a following of say 100,000 that absolutely love the stuff that you do and you enjoy. That way you can keep your credibility and you can keep yourself sustained financially.”
A connected world
It certainly sounds appealing, but where do Ben and the team see Beatchain heading as it rolls out of beta and becomes more widespread? “I don’t want to sound too delusional, but we do feel that if we get this right, then Beatchain will become a very important part of music industry 2.0,” Ben says. “We want to see ourselves as the heart of that universe, connecting artists to their fans in the modern world.”
“We’ve also had interest from the world of fashion and sports,” says Steve. “We could use these same approaches to building audiences in those fields, so we’re scalable to grow beyond the music industry. We’re finding things people like, essentially. But we have to conquer the music industry first.”
Luke’s vision is to build a connected world of artists. “Hopefully, in time, they’d all be sharing best-practice approaches with each other. That’s something we’d like to develop further. So you wouldn’t have to rely on us all the time!”
Learn more about Beatchain here.