Shazam’s list of 2014’s new artists to watch isn’t particularly important from a detail point of view. Frankly if you’re aware of who Action Bronson and Jhené Aiko are then you obviously get your music news from sources outside of a digital marketing blog, however it is worth noting the method by which Shazam came about this traditionally speculative list.

The beginning of January in music journalism is typically a barren wasteland of occasional punditry and arbitrary list-making. The bulk of these lists are written by experts using their own opinion and instinct. 

Shazam has jettisoned this tradition in favour of data, maths and algorithms. Here’s their explanation.

The Shazam music team selected the following artists by starting with qualitative industry tastemaker selections, which are then ranked using the quantitative data of Shazams of those artists.  

This is obviously a far more scientific approach than traditional methods, which removes subjective opinion and puts the list in the hand of Shazam’s 400m users. It is Shazam’s way of using huge amounts of data in order to predict future trends.

A more sensational writer would proclaim that big data is the death of music journalism. Obviously it’s not. What’s the point of publishing a list of the top artists to watch in 2014, curated by 400m users, if 400m users technically already know who to watch out for?

Generally people will always look to an indidual expert or panel of experts for recommendations rather than crowd-sourced opinion, which is why the Academy Awards carries more critical weight than the People’s Choice Awards

The key things to take away from this are the inventive ways that Shazam is using its data, and just how quickly Shazam is becoming one of the leading players in the digital music market in a relatively short amount of time.

  • In 2011, Adele was the most Shazamed artist with 4m tags.
  • In 2012, five artists achieved more than 5m Shazams. 
  • This year, 43 artists have achieved more than 5m Shazams.

Shazam has been operating for nearly a decade, but this sudden rise in fortune is most likely in line with smartphone and tablet ownership trends, and the rise of the second screen.

Also with the switch in 2005 to digital downloads being included with physical record sales in the UK singles chart, it’s interesting to note how much more accurate the music taste of the country is reflected in year-end lists, now that digital is a recognised medium. Our taste and what we listen to on a weekly basis is certainly based more on what we’ve picked up from adverts or popular television at the time.

The Shazamed songs that have seen the highest spikes this year have been based on the back of television advertising or TV shows, and they reveal an intriguing mixture of classic rock, eighties pop and modern AOR.

  • F&F: Ben Pearce – ‘What I Might Do’.
  • Three: Fleetwood Mac – ‘Everywhere’.
  • John Lewis: Lily Allen – ‘Somewhere Only We Know’.
  • TalkTalk: Starship – ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’.
  • iPod: Willy Moon – ‘Yeah, Yeah’.

According to Shazam, up to 85% of the songs that get to number one in its tag chart go on to succeed nationally. This makes it a powerful and effective predicting tool. This also leads me to ponder the following questions…

Is speculative punditry on its way out? Will year-end opinion lists become a thing of the past, to be replaced by data driven reports?

Does it even matter? Surely data driven reports are intrinsically more accurate and therefore more significant than a random 10 artists I can name off the top of my head that might be popular next year?

Even then, data can still be read and analysed in many different ways, and the final recommendations can still be up to the instincts and opinions of the individual analysts.

This is a massive subject that obviously goes far beyond the music industry itself, so if you have anything to add, please comment below.

For more info on the history and future of Shazam, read this post: Shazam, from gimmick to major player.