Chartmetric’s Andreas Katsambas on the Power (and Limits) of Data
Chartmetric’s Andreas Katsambas on the Power (and Limits) of Data

Chartmetric’s Andreas Katsambas on the Power (and Limits) of Data

The President and COO of the music analytics platform talks about how we use numbers to understand the music business and what AI could mean for its future.

The ready availability of data has changed music. For most of music history, few had access to the numbers, which meant they were prone to manipulation. The rise of streaming in the past 18 years—let’s date it to 2006, when YouTube exploded—brought with it a mind-boggling amount of information about what gets consumed, and by whom. Harnessing that data and helping people make sense of it is what Chartmetric does. The platform, founded in 2016, tracks data from streaming platforms and sources that pertain to radio, concerts, videos, and much more. They also run a highly informative blog—where Third Bridge Creative contributors have a regular presence—that tells stories around music and data. We recently caught up with Chartmetric President and COO Andreas Katsambas to discuss how data has changed the music landscape, how AI might impact music’s future, and what we can glean from the site’s recent year-end report. 

Let’s start with your history in the music business. 

My first job out of school was at a marketing firm on Sunset Boulevard, right by the Sunset Strip.  After work, I would go to shows—Whiskey, Troubadour, Kick Club—which was amazing. Not being familiar with the music industry or how things worked, I was surprised to see bands loading their own equipment and working the merch booth. I started helping some of these artists out: maybe doing some flyers, trying to get them into fanzines. At one point I thought, let's just make some cassettes and CDs and see if we can sell them. After a while, I quit my day job and started a small label called The End Records. It took about two years, but I ended up signing with Red Distribution, which is now part of The Orchard. 

That's when things really started growing. But [soon after] you had the decimation of retail, especially the chains. Tower went bankrupt. Streaming was still coming up; iTunes wasn't paying as much as before. At one point, I got a call from BMG, and they made me an offer to join them and bring my label into their company. I was tired of doing this by myself, so [in 2016], I joined BMG and changed my scope. 

I was asked to develop the international division for BMG. Within a year, there were about 10 people in the department, and it was growing nicely. I started using sales figures, data points, and SoundScan to figure out which market was the strongest for each release. What's the budget we have, and how do we develop it? What's working, what's not working? Data started becoming a key area for me, and by around 2018-2019 we saw some really strong growth with releases. I realized the power and the essence of data.

When the pandemic happened, BMG slashed a lot of their budgets, especially in the developing frontline areas. I felt it was time for change. I got a call from Sung Cho, the founder of Chartmetric, in 2021, and I've been with the company for three years now. 

It is amazing to think how much the role of data has changed in music. You used to guess a band's relative position based on the rooms they played. “Oh, they play the Bowery ballroom when they come to New York, so they're at a certain level of popularity.” Now anyone can see the numbers. 

It's changed how we think about music. My approach is that data shouldn't be the answer to everything. If you like something, listen to it. If you want to sign an artist, listen to them. Bowery Ballroom is one of my favorite venues in New York. It might not be considered a huge thing, but considering how many shows happen in New York on a daily basis, being able to sell Bowery Ballroom is a huge statement. With data, you can look at that and say, how do I keep growing to the next level? How do you pinpoint the top markets? How do you target the right audience? It's helping you get better at what you do. 

I’d imagine for artists in particular, there's a huge range in terms of data literacy. 

Yes. But it's good for an artist to be aware of which platforms are working for them. “How do I know which of my songs are getting the best playlist support on Spotify? Do I have any radio support? Who’s my audience? What's the age group?” Giving you some context will hopefully help get your music to the right people. We have 10 million artists in our system, and I would say the vast majority are unsigned. They don't have a label. They don't have a manager. Hopefully they’ll get enough tools to be able to get a better idea about their career and how it's developing. 

Chartmetric recently published their 2023 Year in Music Report. What were some important takeaways? 

The PDF version of that report is 70 pages. It was so long we had to break the web version in two segments. It took us about six months to put it together. It’s the first time we did a year end report, even though we've been collecting data for so many years.

One example: We categorize artists in different segments. You have legendary artists on the top, then superstars, mainstream, mid level, developing, and undiscovered. There are millions of new artists coming out every year. Can these artists still break? In today's environment, can artists grow from one stage to the next? If you’re in the bottom tiers, undiscovered, less than 1 percent move up. But if you get some traction and you get to the middle, it's a lot easier to move to the next level. Becoming a superstar is very difficult. There are only something like 1,500 superstars out of 10 million artists. But you can grow. You can keep building your career because you have the tools; you have direct access to your audience with social media. It can be done, it's just not easy. 

Another amazing insight, to me, is where the new artists are coming from. The U.S. was number one, which was expected. But then you had Brazil at number two, India, Germany, Mexico, and then the U.K. It was fascinating to see how things are changing. Brazil is so diverse, and it [music] is a fusion of many different styles. I think Brazil is the next wave, as they develop the infrastructure and get the traction they need. 

AI and large-language models come up a lot in the music business. Since Chartmetric deals with such a mass of data, I imagine you are having conversations about how these tools could be incorporated to improve what you are doing.

Our founder comes from a technical background, as both a software engineer and in product management. That's what helped Chartmetric stand out at the beginning, how the platform was built. When AI was coming along, he was at the forefront,telling us that we should find ways to integrate it into our system. So we've been working on this diligently for a while, testing it internally. You can see some areas where AI has been implemented. We now use AI to take our [artist] bios and create quick bullet points [out of them]. Bios can be very long, and sometimes you just want to get to the essence of it.

We have expectations that eventually we are going to [use AI] to give you insights, action steps, and really help you understand the data. For us, AI is a very positive thing, and I think it's going to help our users decide on next steps.

Data is what computers were made for, right? What about just you personally? Is there anything about it that makes you uneasy when you're thinking about AI? Even outside of Chartmetric.  

Depending on what movie you watch, you get a different perspective. I grew up with those big Hollywood movies where AI can destroy the world. Then you read about it a lot, and there’s a concern that it's going to have an impact on musicians. Are they going to be credited for music created by AI? Can they take a song and use someone's voice and generate a new one? There are areas we're going to have to address. 

But I've been doing this for a while, and the only constant thing in music is change. I remember when Napster was starting. There were so many disruptions, and then physical media started going away, and chains started going bankrupt and shutting down. For a few years, the mindset was that music was going to be free and artists were just going to be making music from shows. Then we had the pandemic, and people couldn't go on tour, so they were relying on other areas to make money.

And here we are in 2024, and we're talking about AI.  We just have to adapt to it and find the best use of it, and utilize it for our own benefit and build on that. At the end of the day, I'm a bit of an optimist. I think technology is what helps music move forward as well helps musicians get better at what they do. I do think that there's going to be something good to come out of it.

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