Data Power Conference

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Panel Session 6b): Data and Popular Culture (Chair: Ysabel Gerrard)


When artistry is turned into data

Maria Eriksson, Umea University

The generation and archival of metadata regarding music and artistry not only occurs on a daily basis, but is also the foodstuff of recommendation algorithms that power today’s digital music streams. This paper aims at investigating one particular company that deals with such data production: The Echo Nest, a business that premiers itself as being “the industry’s leading music intelligence company”. By allegedly scraping the Internet for everything and anything that is said about music, The Echo Nest claims to generate “musical understanding” through synthesizing billions of data points regarding artists and music in real-time. But what kinds of ‘knowing’ is actually created by such surveillance measures?

Presenting initial results from a longitudinal API study where The Echo Nest’s collection of metadata regarding artists was monitored and analyzed, I argue that the generation of Big (Meta)Data regarding music and artistry is not only a tool for managing musicians and musical artifacts, but also a form of musical paratext that serves to contextualize and make music and artistry intelligible. By conducting a close reading of the company’s artist metadata, I hope to shed light on how data management has the power to reconfigure ideas regarding musical fame and success. I also aim to reveal how metadata needs to be understood as a key element in the performance of streaming music today. The case study exposes how Big Data is not simply informative, but a critical agent that affects how music moves and is displayed.

Maria Eriksson is a Phd candidate in Media and Communication Studies at the Department of Culture and Media Studies, and an affiliated researcher at HUMlab, Umeå University. She has previously received a BA and MA degree in social anthropology from Stockholm University, specializing in digital anthropology. Her primary research interests lie at the intersection between digital technology, material culture and economics, and currently she is investing how streaming software is entangled with artist, and record-label practices. For more information about her ongoing involvement in the research project “Streaming Cultural Heritage – Following Files in Digital Music Distribution”, please visit


Forced ‘Gifts’ and Mandatory Permissions: Digital Property, Data Capture, and the New Music Industry

Leslie M. Meier, University of Leeds and Vincent R. Manzerolle, University of Windsor (Canada)

Amid declining revenues for music recordings and heightened competition for audience attention, music companies and recording artists have experimented with a range of approaches to distributing, marketing, and generating buzz for popular music. Technology giants, meanwhile, have partnered with top stars in attempts to forge potent ties with popular culture and to amass consumer data. Drawing on two case studies, this paper examines the emerging nexus of the music and technology industries, and issues posed by cultural industry business models underpinned by data capture -- the motor driving power and profits inside digital capitalism.

The first involves the partnership between Samsung and Jay-Z that launched the release of Magna Carta… Holy Grail (2013), an album initially made available for ‘free’ only to Samsung Galaxy smartphone users. The price was personal data. The invasiveness and sheer number of permissions demanded by Samsung and the “album app” provoked a backlash by users and privacy experts alike, and spurred the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) to call for a U.S. Federal Trade Commission investigation. The second centres on Apple and U2, and the free, push-based distribution of Songs of Innocence (2014) to all iTunes users. The aggressiveness (and hubris) of this ‘forced’ distribution was widely denounced, prompting an apology from the band and the development of a costly removal tool. Through analysis of terms and permissions, media coverage, and privacy advocacy reports, we demonstrate how distinct promotional logics converge with the drive to acquire and monetize ever more user data. Music functions as one means to this end. Today, cultural production and the search for data power are inseparably linked.


Musica Analytica: Music Streaming Services and Big Data

Robert Prey, Simon Fraser University

As listeners increasingly stream music from the cloud, all listening time has become data-generating time. On music streaming services (Spotify, Pandora, SoundCloud, Rdio, Deezer, etc.) every song we listen to, every song we skip, every thumb up or thumb down, is tracked and fed into an algorithm.

In this paper, I examine exactly how listener actions and affects are measured, monetized, and categorized by focusing on the music data analytics company ‘The Echo Nest’. The Echo Nest utilizes predictive modeling to analyze listening behavior in order to identify psychographic/affinity characteristics of listeners. This detailed knowledge helps music streaming services not only offer more targeted song recommendations but also to more precisely segment their listeners by ‘lifestyle category’ and perceived ‘worth’, allowing advertisers in turn to target their messages to distinct listener profiles.

Recent media attention has focused on disputes over royalty payments between streaming services and artists such as Taylor Swift. While this is a critically important issue, much less attention has been paid to the wider social implications and tensions that accompany the shift to data-driven music consumption. With music streaming services, our detailed listening practices are now collected and correlated with other sources of personal data, without our knowledge of how these processes take place. We urgently need to understand how this occurs, what is at stake, and the wider social implications.


User acquisition: The Rise of the Data Commodity

David Nieborg (University of Amsterdam and Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

The majority of the revenue associated with app-based mobile games is generated via optional virtual consumption. Only a small number of users consider these so called "in app purchases". This low conversion rate of players into payers favors economies of scale and resulted in significant investments in tools and techniques for player aggregation. This paper surveys the political economic implications of the so-called “free-to-play” business model by analyzing the marketing practices associated with game apps. Drawing on in-depth interviews with industry practitioners it becomes clear that game studios increasingly invest in a data-driven approach to game production and circulation.

The first part of this paper will follow both the money and the data to deconstruct app marketing. Game studios have built a business model that combines the commodification of virtual items, connectivity, user attention, user data, and play. Political economist Smythe’s concept of the "audience commodity" will be used to contend that players have become a data commodity. Second, it is argued that the free-to-play business model is intertwined with the business models of social media platforms (i.e. Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple). The emerging industry practice of "user acquisition" is afforded by, as well as conducted within the boundaries of these connective platforms, which offer the means (i.e. the technological infrastructure, tools and third-party services) to facilitate and optimize an opaque, capital-intensive, and data-driven mode of advertising. The paper concludes by surveying the long-term implications of the free-to-play business model and the rise of players as a data commodity.