Now that the global recorded music business has slowed to single-digit growth, streaming services will have to work harder to attract new consumers and keep those they already have. As the March 28 launch of Apple’s new classical-focused streaming app revealed, one key to finding more growth is one of the least appealing facets of digital music: metadata.
Metadata is information attached to data that describes it. In the case of music, it includes the names of artists, tracks, year of release, genre, producer, and so on. Although it lacks sex appeal, metadata is as crucial to a streaming service as the unsung cast and crew members of a Hollywood blockbuster. The stars get the attention, but the movie suffers if everybody else performs poorly. Bad metadata — an album incorrectly listed under the wrong artist, for example — can carry financial implications, too. There’s a direct line between user experience, customer retention and a service’s ability to raise prices.
Consider the everyday act of looking for a song, artist or album on a streaming app. When a consumer cannot find a particular artist or recording, “very often it’s there, but not indexed correctly,” says Jean-Luc Biaulet, CEO of Music Story, a French company that works with music streaming services and other companies to provide clean, detailed metadata for their applications. Improving the accuracy of metadata can create a better user experience and, in turn, increase the lifetime value of the average listener.
Music Story’s clients include Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music and Deezer; ticketing companies Seat Geek and Vivid Seats; and Xperi, the owner of media streamer TiVo. Its team of music experts and data scientists perform specialized work to augment digital service’s in-house teams. Music Story helps some clients with data matching, which improves accuracy and ensures, for example, that the right lyrics go with the right recording. It also provides credits for recordings as well as descriptors such as mood and tempo.
Metadata challenges increase as music goes global. In Japan, for example, Music Story works with clients to provide English-language music in Japanese script — an especially necessary feature for automotive displays. “When you have some information in your car, they prefer to have Ed Sheeran in Japanese,” says Biaulet. Music Story covers 40 countries and has staff in markets like Brazil, Argentina and Malaysia where Biaulet says it helps to “know the local catalog.”
Metadata also impacts a streaming app’s engagement. Spotify has found that the addition of song lyrics created “an uptick in user retention across a meaningful portion of our user base,” the company said in its June 2022 investor day presentation. Song lyrics are a good example of how streaming services created a better user experience simply by adding data — licensed song lyrics in this case, which can be translated into the user’s primary language — from English to French, for example. In these ways, metadata creates more of a “lean in” experience and makes the app more enjoyable.
Ultimately, metadata impacts the dollars and cents of streaming. When streaming services can increase engagement, that tends to reduce churn, or the fraction of users who leave each month. If services can prevent subscribers from leaving — often they return, sometimes they don’t — that increases the average subscriber’s lifetime value (LTV). A higher LTV means more royalties will be generated for creators and rights holders — without needing to raise prices.
To be sure, metadata is more likely to make impacts on the margins, not across a broad swatch of listeners. MIDiA Research’s Q3 2022 global survey of music listeners found that about 45% of people surveyed said they listen to music they already know because finding new music is difficult. The remainder said they don’t have difficulty finding new music. To MIDiA Research’s Tatiana Cirisano, those survey results show that labels’ concerns that consumers are being lost in a glut of music aren’t borne out by the numbers. Rather, “most consumers aren’t bothered by discovery,” Cirisano wrote in an email to Billboard. “So, music discovery is the music industry’s problem, not consumers’ problem.”
Still, with streaming markets maturing, the music industry could find less low-hanging fruit. That’s where product improvements using metadata can help. MIDiA’s survey also found that consumers who discover music through resources such as blogs, podcasts and magazines score higher on time spent listening to music and money spent on live music. Consumers who discover music through more mainstream sources like radio and TikTok score lower on time spent listening and time spent on live music. In other words, the most avid music fans are the biggest data consumers. “DSPs could do a lot more,” Cirisano added, “to provide context for those more avid fans.”