Digital Audio Insider -- the economics of music and other digital content

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Digital Audio Insider is David Harrell's blog about the economics of music and other digital content. I write from the perspective of a musican who has self-released four albums with the indie rock band the Layaways.

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August 21, 2007

By the Numbers: Using Statistics to Quantify Audience Devotion
by David Harrell
One thing that music sales figures don't tell you is how much people actually like (and listen to) the music they've acquired. While artists/record companies are initially competing for your attention and dollars, after you've bought the music, they're still competing for your listening time. And it seems likely that success in this competition is the best indicator of the future willingness of an act's audience to buy its music, go to live shows, etc.

I thought it'd be fun to use statistics to try to devise a measure of "audience devotion." Using the most popular act in the database (The Beatles) as a comparison point, I looked up the total number of listeners and the total number of plays for 49 other acts. They include some of the biggest names in "indie" rock, some fairly unknown local acts, and a few various names from my iTunes library. I divided the number of plays for each artist by the total number of listeners to create a "plays-per-listener" ratio and then ranked the spreadsheet by that number.

A few caveats: Obviously, this type of analysis is skewed somewhat by the biases of the audience as it's only a slice of the total audience for each artist. That is, the people who have actually downloaded and use the program. And it only accounts for music listened to on a computer -- spins in the car, on the home stereo, and the iPod don't figure, so the total number of plays-per-listener is probably significantly deflated from the real number. Finally, the age of act probably matters a lot, as a new-ish artist has had less time for its fans to listen repeatedly to its music.

Still, the following chart, based on statistics as of 8/13/2007, shows a few trends:

plays per listener chart

For the most part, popular artists tend to have the highest plays-per-listener ratios. Acts with less than 10,000 listeners (like my own humble outfit) have the lowest ratios. But there are a few exceptions, which is where things start to get interesting.

While I'm not much of a fan, Sufjan Stevens seems assured of a long and healthy career. His 53.85 plays-per-listener was second only to the 64.48 plays-per-listener of the Beatles. And other well known acts like Death Cab for Cutie, Bright Eyes, the Mountain Goats, Modest Mouse, and the National all do extremely well by this measure. Yet the most surprising number was the 52.44 ratio for Hammock, the ambient instrumental band. Its total audience is relatively small, just 6,427, but it's clearly an extremely devoted one.

On the other hand, the numbers don't look good for the long-term prospects of the Bravery and the Walkmen. Of all the acts in this analysis with audiences of more than 100,000 listeners, these were the only two with less than 20 plays per listener. My suspicion is that bands that receive a fair amount of mp3 blog attention might have their ratios pulled down because there are a large number of listeners who have only heard a single track or two via a music blog. Yet Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, probably one of the biggest recipients of mp3 blogger love, has obviously managed to do a better job of converting those casual listeners to fans, as shown by its more-respectable 21.49 plays-per-listener.

A few years back, you'd read stories about young bands getting attention from labels because of huge numbers of MySpace friends. I haven't seen any such stories lately, probably because everyone quickly figured out how inflated those "friends" numbers could be. But given that stats are harder to fake and inflate, it seems like a growing number of total listeners within (and other music social sites) and increasing plays-per-listener ratios might be the best indicator of future success, and something of interest to labels and A&R folks...


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