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Big Sounds

Alex White hopes to do for the music industry what Billy Beane did for baseball, reports Zack O’Malley Greenburg in Forbes (3/4/13). Alex is co-founder of Next Big Sound, which is using big data — “Pandora spins, Facebook likes, digital downloads” — to identify trends and predict what will sell: “For example, the company has found that musicians who gain 20,000 to 50,000 Facebook fans in one month are four times more likely to eventually reach 1 million. With data like that, Next Big Sound promises to predict album sales within 20% accuracy for 85% of artists.”

Alex was still in college — Northwestern University — when he created a fantasy music label site, much like a fantasy sports site. Users could create their own dream label. “The first user to sign, say, Justin Timberlake would get points for every virtual mogul who signed him subsequently.” Unable to build the site “into a big business,” Alex, along with partners David Hoffman and Samir Rayani, “decided to see what would happen if they started tracking streaming music. From 2 am to 8 am on June 5, 2009 they recorded the number of plays for Akon on MySpace — and awoke to find the singer had logged half a million plays overnight, an order of magnitude more than they’d expected.”

They began distributing their findings via a “weekly email report to industry insiders,” quickly building an audience and a business, essentially a dashboard for tracking consumer behavior. “The consumer now goes to Spotify and streams Justin Timberlake’s entire back catalog and then follows him on Twitter to see real-time updates and watch his behind-the-scenes YouTube videos. It’s a totally different consumer experience, but the industry still needs to track that behavior,” says Alex, who took his board of directors to see Moneyball on its opening day. “Data has transformed industries before,” he says. “Music’s the next one.”