Fail to measure consumer feedback before releasing music, and you’re placing yourself at a disadvantage in the market.

A previous article in this series, ‘How market testing can improve music track success,’ explored different ways that testing analytics can benefit record companies and help improve their chances of market success.

This piece goes further and looks specifically at music analytics and testing when applied to pre-release strategy. Several benefits are highlighted, each pertaining to multi-national major labels, as well as much smaller, indie outfits.

Guiding Consumer Interests

Historically, record companies have always been the power-force within the music industry, possessing the capability to break artists through to the mainstream and, to some degree, dictate the music listening habits of the public. For a long time, major record label output dominated the leading radio stations and occupied the majority of advertising opportunities. However, in the age of information, consumers are increasingly faced with a plethora of options and choice-decisions. Indeed, following the rise of Podcasts and Streaming services, it is now much more difficult for labels to guide consumer listening habits.

When confronted with the prospect of music testing as a screening and pre-release measure, professionals are split in their opinions. One side argues that technology has developed to where a conscious decision to ignore its value would be short-sighted and regressive. As such, they are open to testing market reception via more novel means.

The other sides maintain the stance that licensing and A&R managers are executive tastemakers, who are capable of finding music that consumers don’t yet know they like. Following from this, they believe there is limited value in pre-release testing as an analytic tool.

This article seeks to identify the key facets of music testing in the pre-release phase and demonstrate how, if utilized by industry professionals, it can aid multiple revenue streams. In doing so, the benefits of controlled, representative samples are noted, A/B testing and the use of brand partnerships are considered, as too are the changes to accessibility and consumption.

Controlled & Representative Samples

For many professionals, concerns exist regarding both the scope and validity of market testing. In light of this, many remain loyal to their existing systems - releasing music to the public market in the hope that this will dictate preference. It is even argued that consumers are unable to recognize their own preferences - the commercial failures of contestants from the world’s biggest consumer-voted talent contests could be seen as evidence of this [1].

While at times, this traditional method of public market testing does work, it is no longer a necessity. The potential data now available is too vast and too controlled to ignore.

By pushing music directly to market, there is little influence over who it reaches and thus no way of controlling the testing pool. While this data can be generated following the release, at this stage it is already retroactive and of little use. Conversely, through the use of an analytics service, pre-release testing can find and test music within a clear pool of consumers. As these testing pools are comprised of users known to the analytics service (via recorded social data), it is able to generate more specific data sets regarding market popularity.

Indeed, many new-age analytics services draw upon testing pools that span multiple countries. As such, they are able to offer feedback that holds validity across multiple markets. Considering the high value of Japan’s digital music market has been partly attributed to a heightened understanding of local preferences [2], this is a significant benefit to targeted testing. Further, as friendship groups mold music preferences, particularly for adolescents - insights into specific submarkets can be of great value to the marketing of an eventual public release of music [3].

Further, as user testing can be based upon location, age, and music preferences, even a small sample size has much higher predictive power than an equivalent size within the non-targeted public market. This is due to the data being collected directly from a desired sub-population.

Ultimately, music analytics has now evolved to a stage where it can generate detailed data, capable of assessing the likes and dislikes of consumers, based on factors including age, location, and genre preferences.

For record companies looking to explore new markets, testing and analysis can provide demographic insight, in a way previously infeasible. The result is a polished product that is decided by the professionals, tested by the consumers, refined and only then released to the public.

A/B Testing

The process of music testing extends beyond song-by-song comparison and also allows specific variants of the same song to be tested, before reaching the market. Indeed, for A&Rs and staff in positions of creative control, with executive responsibility - A/B testing can be a valuable tool.

In fact, the utility of A/B testing is already seen to enormous impact in other areas of the industry, such as music promotion [4]. If such testing is routinely used as a marketing tool, it follows that it could also be useful for assessing the content itself.

Hook alterations, ab-lib changes and a whole host of other variables can ultimately affect consumer impressions of the final product. Without market testing, it is simply impossible to get a broad (and controlled) consensus. With A/B testing in a private environment, executives can isolate specific elements of a song that are proving most successful within test groups. Here, labels remain firmly in control of what is pushed to market, but in a way that allows them to refine the nuances of songs, to best suit their target demographic.

Without this prior testing, the only way to make alterations (bar remixes and re-releases), would be to pull the song from a platform and re-upload at a later date. While in specific instances this may serve to create hype within a fan base, this can also lead to discontent, especially for lesser-known artists without a sizeable public catalog.

Brand Partnerships

Brand partnerships represent a new way to help increase artist engagement and go beyond the more traditional methods of ‘played out social media’ [5]. There are multiple ways that both parties benefit from these relationships, and more money is being allocated to the development of music and brand, partner deals [7].

Indeed, Strive sponsorship [5] report that:

‘labels need to start seeing research as an investment rather than a cost, to help them target the right partners, understand value and be able to illustrate ROI to partners in a relevant and compelling way.’

Target group testing can be particularly useful in this regard. As brand partnerships hinge on the shared following between brand and artist, the decision to test music within specific brand-tailored groups can give leverage in deal negotiations.

Indeed, segmented market testing can provide record companies with the knowledge of which brands are likely to be most receptive to any given song. If a song is market tested pre-release, and scores highly within a subpopulation that aligns with a brand, it provides real potential for exclusive co-brand releases and novel debuts of singles via brand partnerships.

With this information to hand, record companies have higher bargaining power, in the knowledge that their artist’s music is well received in the brand’s target demographic.

Accessibility, Consumption & Marketing

In general, the digital era has made music more easily accessible for consumers. Indeed, streaming figures continue to grow - 2016 saw a 60% growth in overall streaming, and it now accounts for over 59% of all digital revenue [6].

Yet, the sophisticated algorithms of promotional platforms are subject to change, which can lead to decreased organic engagement for musicians and make it difficult to be seen by the average consumer. In fact, a new change currently being trialed in six countries would see facebook ‘page’ accounts moved to an entirely different newsfeed. Reports suggest this turn has led to a 60-80% decrease in engagement [8].

Users are also now keen to skip disliked songs and listen to playlists in favor of albums. In fact, Spotify now offers a ‘sponsored songs’ feature, which effectively allows record labels to pay for plays and enter a song into select, and highly accessible, playlists [9]. Moreover, digital advertising costs are rising 5x more than the rate of inflation in the US, and at 71% the proportion of television adverts [10].

Ultimately, music must be highly impactful to users on first listen. As such, decisions regarding which singles to push to market should be made directly with this in mind. While public market testing may have worked in an older industry, the fast-paced throwaway nature of consumer habits, overall volume, and increased marketing costs, means this is no longer viable.

Potential consumers are unlikely to engage with music they are not immediately drawn to, and so initial reception is limited as a feedback tool. It is evident then, that it is no longer a feasible strategy to test music reception within the public sphere. Instead, pre-release private testing is a more rewarding process. This way, when a song hits the market, it’s on the basis of a calculated decision that puts consumer impact first.

Closing Remarks

While the debate is likely to continue, this article has argued for the use of pre-release market testing, as a tool for record companies to enjoy increased success in a competitive market. Ultimately, the value of pre-release market testing can be seen not only through the overall song’s follow-on success, but also in the predictive power it generates, which can help other aspects of the music business, including brand deals.