Are music publishing A&Rs missing out on obvious, hitmaking signings because they lack the same level of digital tools that record labels have access to?
Travis Rosenblatt, founder and inventor of data-powered talent scouting app Meddling, certainly thinks so.
Since being founded in 2015, Meddling has been used by a range of major music companies (and mini-major music companies) to sift out emerging artists – including the likes of Republic Records, Kobalt, Columbia Records, and Atlantic Records.
Now, Rosenblatt has built a specific version of Meddling just for publishers, using the platform’s core discovery and tracking capabilities to root out unpublished songwriters with potential (and established) hits on their hands.
“There are more than 20 unpublished songwriters in the [US] Top 100 right now,” claims Rosenblatt in MBW’s interview below, as he suggests most publishers are still relying on the same “apply a highlighter to the charts” talent-spotting method favored by labels 10 years ago.
“Travis and Meddling are always driving innovation in the marriage of music and data,” says Mike Caren, APG CEO. “Meddling for Publishers furthers this and opens the door for publishers to get quick and easy visibility of available songwriters.”
The most exciting prospect for Rosenblatt isn’t seeing publishers using sophisticated A&R tools like Meddling, however. It’s what he expects to happen to the music business after these publishers learn to wield such a weapon.
As publishers begin to use data tools to increasingly pip record labels to signing emerging talent, suggests Rosenblatt, they will start to offer the same “checkbook plus endorsement” allure that modern record companies have come to rely on. “As a result,” he predicts, “[artist] lawyers will start steering to publishers more frequently for those crucial first checks – and will consequently feel more comfortable holding out on label deals.”
Rosenblatt wasn’t supposed to be a tech inventor. At least, that wasn’t the plan. His early career saw him hold A&R roles at the likes of Warner Bros Records, 300 Entertainment, and Mom + Pop – but he was ultimately fired from all three. (“I only worked at Mom+Pop for 48 hours,” clarifies Rosenblatt, “so I think technically I was more ‘unhired’ than ‘fired’ from that one.”)
“Travis and Meddling are always driving innovation in the marriage of music and data.”
Mike Caren, APG
A digital native who relied heavily on blogs and download charts during his A&R days, Rosenblatt didn’t allow his triple-A&R career rejection to beat him down. Instead, he embodied the Kara Swisher line, “Agreeable people don’t invent things.”
Inspired to learn to code by ex-Twitter Music/We Are Hunted’s Stephen Phillips, Rosenblatt began piecing together a data-driven tool – born from his frustrations as an A&R exec – that would become Meddling. He showed the prototype to a number of companies in 2015 (“after six years in A&R and zero hits”) in the hope they may want to hire him in their A&R teams.
Instead, two of them – Atlantic Records and Universal Music Group – offered to pay Rosenblatt to simply use the service. (UMG is now on its sixth consecutive year using Meddling, says Rosenblatt – with the understandable pride of someone who continues to run a lean business without any outside investment.)
Since that early prototype, Meddling has come on leaps and bounds in terms of the scope of data it processes, and the calibration of the secret sauce it uses to surface signing recommendations to its clients.
Here, Rosenblatt explains to MBW why he thinks data-driven A&R is about to revolutionize music publishing, and offers up his – sometimes deflated, sometimes excited – view of the artist development industry in 2021 and beyond…
Meddling for publishers is an interesting expansion. What size of opportunity is there out there for pubcos looking for unsigned writers?
There are more than 20 unpublished songwriters in the [US] Top 100 right now.
Publishers have not yet had access to the same set of tools to discover songwriters that labels have been using for years to find new artists; they are still in the ‘apply a highlighter to the charts’ mode that labels were in 10 years ago.
There is a huge opportunity here for frontline publishing A&R. Publishers and labels alike can also now view trending published writers to set up co-writes, sessions, and camps.
How might publishing deals evolve in the future with access to this kind of data?
Private Equity, thirsty for uncorrelated assets, and a few key players – you know who they are! – will continue to drive up publishing catalog multiples.
Everyone else in publishing will decide it’s cheaper to overpay for a few key deals that have the power to make their company brands “cool” to new artists/songwriters – and so they’ll start being able to act as both a checkbook and endorsement for hot new talent.
As a result, lawyers will start steering to publishers more frequently for those crucial first checks and will consequently feel more comfortable holding out on label deals.
How did your last 12 months as a business play out with the world’s label A&Rs largely stuck at home?
Meddling ended 2020 with a little under four times the number of customers it started the year with.
“Over the past year, due to the sudden and complete lack of alternatives, digital artist discovery has now become the norm.”
When I launched this company in 2015 just about every A&R explained to me that they had ears made of gold and that they could hear hits in their sleep, so they simply had no use for data. I still think most of this derision came from a misunderstanding of “A&R Research” as a talentless, pure numbers bet rather than just another helpful discovery route to artists.
Over the past year, due to the sudden and complete lack of alternatives, digital artist discovery has now become the norm. Now that the A&Rs have dug into it I think they’ve found there’s been an explosion in the number of undiscovered artists out there – and that computers can be used to make their lives easier in making sure they’re on top of all of them.
How has the explosion of TikTok affected Meddling – and how the industry at large, from your perspective, finds and signs talent?
On the plus side, absolutely everyone is aware that a record they’ve never heard of can break at any given moment, and that they need to figure out how to pay attention to what’s going on in the virtual streets.
Unfortunately, I think everyone has jumped into that fact with both feet and we’re now overdue for a correction in terms of what the industry is supposed to do with – and how much money it should throw at – a TikTok “viral hit.”
“We’re now overdue for a correction in terms of what the industry is supposed to do with – and how much money it should throw at – a TikTok viral hit’.”
Data fluency is trickling upward; label Presidents have learned to stop asking what records are “researching” and have a more nuanced understanding of how to read trends. Crucially, they also have a more nuanced understanding of knowing what to ignore.
Everyone slows down on the highway to check out the car crash. The Internet, being an attention economy, interpreted this to mean we constantly want to be fed car crashes. It doesn’t. And it definitely doesn’t mean you should sign the car crash.
What do you expect to be some of the key evolutions/changes in the world of A&R in the months and years ahead?
Now that everyone – and not just the one wonky kid labels used to keep in the corner – is involved in “A&R Research”, this area of the business will start to look more like “digital A&R coverage”… much in the same way that, traditionally, every senior A&R had certain lawyers they had to take out to dinner once a month to be sure their department was across everything.
“I think we’ll see a company finally figure out how to bridge the widening gap between DIY distribution and full traditional label deal at scale soon.”
I think we’ll see a company finally figure out how to bridge the widening gap between DIY distribution and full traditional label deal at scale soon. Sony‘s Orchard/AWAL combo and Downtown‘s DashGo-led new services focus are both well on the way. I hope this creates enough cracks in the ecosystem to re-oxygenate the indie labels as well.
Speaking of how A&R might evolve, what developments do you expect to / would you like to see in the streaming platforms being used as a source of artist discovery in future?
I’d love it if the platforms saw themselves as sources of artist discovery, rather than just song discovery. Spotify pays lip service to the concept of artist/songwriter discovery every few years (Rise, Radar, Secret Genius, Noteable) but its core platform – and everyone else’s, save for Bandcamp – is based on song consumption rather than album consumption or artist engagement.
“Spotify pays lip service to the concept of artist/songwriter discovery every few years, but its core platform – and everyone else’s, save for Bandcamp – is based on song consumption rather than artist engagement.”
I suspect misaligned incentives will stop us from getting to the point that deeper artist engagement becomes a priority for the major streaming platforms, because they ultimately only care about the amount of time you spend in-app.
But that doesn’t mean a vertical label community couldn’t step in to fill the void with their own solution – ahem, Vevo!
Or just let me have Oink’s Pink Palace back. Either way.
How do you respond to those who suggest tools like Meddling are fuelling an A&R culture of tracks being the focus of the industry, more than artist development?
I can guarantee you everyone is frustrated by the lack of artist development going on out there, including the labels. I think Daniel Ek telling artists to change how they release music to better fit Spotify’s recommendation algorithms means we’ve completely lost the script.
“As one major label A&R put it to me recently, ’12 year olds are breaking records overnight. Why the f**k can’t we?'”
The traditional industry is no longer in control of the consumer experience and is playing catch up just as much as the artists are. As one major label A&R put it to me recently, “12 year olds are breaking records overnight. Why the f**k can’t we?”
Do you think there’s anything we can glean from the explosion in NFT interest in the music business of late?
I think it clearly shows us that people are desperate to have better ways to engage with the artists they love.
As for NFT being a useful infrastructure tool, there are much more basic copyright issues we need to solve as an industry first before Where The Information Gets Kept can become a helpful innovation.Music Business Worldwide