Why music companies should stop using vague stats

Credit: BBC
Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer in Shooting Stars in the early 1990s

The following MBW column comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured inset), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the PigHis new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press.

Vic Reeves has said many wonderful things over the years, but I am often pulled back to a line on Shooting Stars from the 1990s that was posed in a true or false round on the show. 

“88.2% of statistics are made up on the spot,” he said, leaving the line bobbing in the air, delightfully watching the penny drop, one by one, through the audience members. 

The precision and the profundity of the joke are incredible. It also pushes towards the bigger and bolder truth that we, as humans, will sometimes unquestioningly accept numbers as self-evidently true. If there is a percentage attached, then all the better. Because numbers are real and real things cannot lie.

Except, well, they can. 

We are firmly in a post-truth world and the living grave we find ourselves in as we pace around in circles keeps sinking deeper. 

In 2017, Kellyanne Conway (then, unbelievably, holding the title of Counselor to the President) was asked about something Sean Spicer (then, equally unbelievably, holding the title of White House Press Secretary) had said about the number of attendees at President Trump’s inauguration, claiming it was a far bigger event than it actually was. 

Conway was challenged by NBC’s Chuck Todd that her colleague was, frankly, talking utter balls. She responded, “Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”

Todd, flabbergasted, replied, “Wait a minute! Alternative facts? Look, alternative facts are not facts – they’re falsehoods.”

But it was too late. The damage had been done. Everything died a little bit that day.  

It added to a disinformation arms race that had really started in earnest the year before in the UK when Michael Gove (then, astonishingly, seen as a possible PM) squeaked out the line that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, as if expertise in anything was a form of duplicity. 

When not-great thinkers like Conway and Gove are allowed free rein to kick the public discourse into ludicrous and horrifying new shapes, the truth finds itself dry mouthed and ferried at speed in a tumbril towards the guillotine.

This is all the long way around to say that such “jazz” interpretation of facts was arguably first perfected in the music business. I am not talking about “creative accounting” in terms of royalty statements for artists as that is a whole other debate. It is in relation to the numbers that the business willingly pumps out in press releases and over-rehearsed interviews which it aims to see passively regurgitated in public to the point where it becomes ossified as truth.

In the “old” days when physical formats were the totality of the business, we saw it repeatedly when an album by a big act – usually one the label hoped would sell but knew in its heart was a dud – came out and the emphasis was on shipments rather than sales. 

“Look!” they cried. “Look at how many CDs we pressed. This is already a success.” Except they never reported on how many of those shipped discs actually sold, how many ended up brutally reduced in the cut-outs bin, or how many were exported back by the record shops with a request for a refund or credit note. 

That normalisation of over-production was often tied to bonus schemes, so certain executives would happily over-press discs, collect their bonus for the year and jump ship to another label before they had to account for the waves of returns crashing down on their distribution centres. 

The line about “shipping platinum and returning gold” was a common joke that masked an act of economic butchery. 

As with everything in the digital world, this has simply all accelerated in the past few years. We are now deep into the realm of music business “vaguestats” – numbers that sound impressive on a swift first reading but, when held up to the light, tell us precisely nothing. 

“We are now deep into the realm of music business ‘vaguestats’ – numbers that sound impressive on a swift first reading but, when held up to the light, tell us precisely nothing.”

It is there in reference to upticks in streams after a TV performance, a festival appearance or (in a darker twist) the death of an artist. Streams, we hear, went up 350% in the past week. That sounds impressive, but its only triumph is its deception. A 350% increase from what? No one is saying because, by pinning an exact number on it, the whole charade collapses in around their ears. 

If it’s a 350% increase of streams from, say, an average of 300 million a week then that’s a hell of a success and anyone would happily make those exact numbers public. When there’s a 350% increase on streams that are, say, somewhat less than 300 million a week, the two-part question that should follow is: what is the base number you are working from and why are you not telling us what it is?

You can also see it in reference to online radio streams and podcasts where there is no counter like there is attached to plays on SoundCloud, YouTube and Spotify. Vaguestats are the common currency here, where companies will say “millions” have heard an online show or podcast – with each word here becoming a rolling vagueball gathering speed down a vaguehill after a vaguestorm. 

What do you mean by “heard”? One second heard by accident due to the intervention of autoplay? A minute? The whole show or episode? 

There is a commonly quoted phrase about this escalating dynamic that was popularised by Mark Twain. It was not originated by him and he attributed it to British PM Benjamin Disraeli (although Disraeli as the person behind it is disputed, adding a lashing of salty irony to the whole thing). 

“Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’”

As Vic Reeves might say, 88.2% of people who have heard that quote think Mark Twain coined it. 

And yet, on and on, a vast miasma of contextless stats from the music business get pumped out like so much smoke from a busted exhaust. 

These vaguestats say nothing about the stats themselves and instead say everything about a company’s mendacious strategy of wilful deflection, misdirection and obfuscation.

100% death to vaguestats.Music Business Worldwide

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