Business Matters: Lyor Cohen's Midem Sound and Fury
Lyor Cohen, Chief Executive of 300 Entertainment, in an undated photo shared during Cohen's Keynote at the 2014 Midem conference in Cannes, France.

Lyor Cohen, who built a 32-year music career on pulling rabbits out of a hat, tried to do so again last week at Midem, one of the industry’s key conferences.

In a keynote talk at the Cannes event, Cohen casually mentioned a deal he had signed the day before between his fledgling music venture, 300 Entertainment, and Twitter. The deal gives 300 Entertainment access to Twitter data about trending artists and topics. In return, Cohen said his company will use the data to develop digital tools to help labels spot new talent before they break.

"In the modern A&R business, we all are looking for talent in various places, and certainly Twitter is a terrific place to look for talent," Cohen said. "If you want to get signed, I think you have to engage with Twitter."

But the promise, which generated a flurry of headlines and positioned Cohen’s company as a model of the traditional music industry reinventing itself for a new era, may prove difficult to deliver, according to music data experts who point to the maddeningly imprecise nature of social conversations and the frustrations of divining meaning from a firehose of data.

Much of that was overlooked as Cohen positioned his agreement with Twitter as the obvious next step for the music industry.

"We’re looking to develop tools that the rest of the music community can utilize," Cohen said. "We have all this data, but no one has figured out how to understand the data. We don’t have any actionable tools to allow us to do our jobs better."

It wasn’t the first time that the scrappy, driven former chief executive of Warner Music Group had pulled off a stage coup. Early in his career as a road manager for Run DMC in the 1980s, Cohen was told that a stack of records that the group needed to perform their London concert had been left behind in Ireland. Cohen, who related the story during his Midem talk, solved the problem by appealing to the restless crowd, saying audience members who had brought with them Run DMC’s records to get autographed would be first in line to meet the band.

Today, Cohen is using the same street smarts, sharpened during his youth of Los Angeles, to face a different set of challenges – capitalizing on technology to discover new talent and connect them with fans.

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That’s easier said than done. Many companies already mine Twitter data, as well as a host of other information sources such as Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere, for music trends. Next Big Sound, The Echo Nest, Shazam and Musicmetric are among dozens of companies specializing in music data.

Shazam, for example, tracks 35 million songs, many from unsigned or independent artists, over multiple social media and streaming platforms. It also collects data from the billions of times a month its app is used to identify a song. The Echo Nest filters through massive amounts of streaming data and monitors tens of thousands of music blogs to keep a finger on the pulse of music trends. Next Big Sound also incorporates YouTube views to its trove of information.

But as fertile as the data landscape may seem, it can also be highly confusing, especially when the object is to seek the next Bruno Mars before he is signed to any labels.

"In the lower recesses of obscurity, the data are less reliable," said Glenn McDonald, a data analyst with The Echo Nest. "The prediction part is a vague pursuit at that level."

The other issue with relying only on tweets is that Twitter traffic about an artist is sometimes generated by events unrelated to their music, said Jason Titus, Chief Technology Officer for Shazam, which has used its tagging data to predict Grammy winners or the next set of charting artists.

"If somebody has a wardrobe malfunction, there will Twitter activity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people will go out and buy the album," Titus said. "When it’s an open forum, the conversation that’s being generated around an artist could be for a number of factors, so it’s harder to make predictions" based purely on general chatter on social networks.

Twitter, for its part, has a more modest goal in working with Cohen’s shop. “We need someone who wants to sign artists who can help us package our data and tell us if it’s valuable to them," said Bob Moczydlowsky, Twitter’s head of music. "If Lyor is saying he’s signing artists based on Twitter, to me, that’s meaningful."