Data Helps Russell Simmons' Label Pluck Stars from Obscurity

Data From Music-Discovery Platform Helped Surface Janel Marisse and Niykee Heaton

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Janel Marisse
Janel Marisse
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For ADD, a music label dedicated to promoting emerging artists, having a hunch about a band or musician isn't good enough. Data must back up that gut intuition.

So the label (All Def Digital, fronted by Russell Simmons) is using a music-discovery platform built in conjunction with Samsung, parent label Universal Music Group and Narrative, the digital agency Mr. Simmons co-founded. The platform helps uncover emerging musicians and breakout songs and provides data the music mogul and his staff use to quantify the otherwise-organic process of picking hits.

The approach is working for some young female artists including genre-bending Janel Marisse, who blends electronic dance music and soul. Users of the platform -- dubbed ADD52 -- listened to her track "No Tomorrow" an average of 3 minutes and 40 seconds. That's compared to an average of 1 minute and 21 seconds for the top 100 tracks on the platform. That audience engagement, along with other data indicating her potential star power, helped Ms. Marisse garner the platform's Single of the Week title.

Since she won Single of the Week in week No. 7 this spring, Vibe called her Memoirs EP a "must listen," and she's opened for R&B heartthrob Trey Songz. Also in that time, Ms. Marisse's Instagram followers increased from fewer than 1,500 to more than 5,000. "The traction she gained proved the insights we derived from the data were spot on," said Tricia Clarke-Stone, CEO of Narrative, which she co-founded with Mr. Simmons. The agency aims to pair entertainment culture with brands including clients such as Under Armour and DeLeón tequila.

The ADD label is dedicated to new musical talent, and the ADD52 platform facilitates the search. The system adds a competitive element to what's offered by other hosting sites favored by lesser-known musical acts such as Bandcamp or SoundCloud. It weighs factors including plays, amount of time people listen to a track, social-media shares and other data to surface the artists and songs attracting the most interest. It awards a Single of the Week to artists with high numbers.

"Russell wanted to create a new breed in the record industry for identifying talent," said Ms. Clarke-Stone. The information helps filter song submissions, leaving a more manageable user-culled collection of tunes for Mr. Simmons and his A&R team to evaluate for possible publishing as singles in Apple iTunes and Google Play.

"They're not going through tons of data and tons of tracks," said Ms. Clarke-Stone. "We're trying to really marry technology and human curation."

Each week, starting in May, a song has been named Single of the Week -- hence the 52 in ADD52. Since then, 64,000 singles popularized through the platform have been sold for an average of 99 cents or less, and 15,000 tracks have been uploaded by 11,000 artists. ADD, Universal and the artists themselves split the revenue, according to Ms. Clarke-Stone, who said Universal takes a 50% cut. All artists earn the same amount per download, she said.

Since launching the Single of the Week, ADD and Narrative have recalibrated the original algorithm to incorporate weighted YouTube viewing data as well as Instagram and Twitter interaction data, she said. Listener interaction with each song (which it considers a measure of its musicality), is weighted heavily in the mix.

Being named Single of the Week could score future recordings and promotional backing from the label, as it did for Niykee Heaton, a sexy pop and R&B artist who won the top slot the third week. A few months later, ADD released a mini EP featuring her music on iTunes.

In addition to helping find promising new artists, the platform has revealed some regional trends among listeners, said Ms. Clarke-Stone. Users in California, Florida, Georgia , New York and Texas stream the most ADD52 music ("one of our most rampant markets is Atlanta," she said).

And in states like Georgia where more than half of all genre listens are categorized as hip hop, "We are starting to see the rise of EDM [such as] Trillectro and Calvin Harris/Rihanna becoming more mainstream," she said.