For years the number that musicians and their business partners, managers and record labels, would focus on was the soundscan results. From the soundscan website:
Sales data from point-of-sale cash registers is collected weekly from
over 14,000 retail, mass merchant and non-traditional (on-line stores,
venues, etc.) outlets.
My friends in the music business would always say things like "we scanned 25,000 units last week". In a world where the sales of CDs (and before that albums) was the key goal, it made sense. Scans were revenues.
But the world has changed and more and more music is available on the Internet for free or via subscription services every day. And just because you scanned a record, doesn't mean you listened to it.
I think it is time to stop focusing on scans and start focusing on listens. But how do you do that?
I bumped into my friend Spencer Hyman yesterday at breakfast. Spencer used to run last.fm. I asked him if you could use last.fm as a panel, like Nielsen or comScore, to measure music listens. He said you could but you'd need to do some statistical weighting by geography and genre.
If you look at the last.fm charts for 2009, you'll see that Lady Gaga was most listened to artist on last.fm with 755,000 different listeners and 18.5mm "album scrobbles". If you go to the Lady Gaga page on last.fm you'll see that her song Poker Face has been listened to 235,000 times in the past six months.
If you think of the people who scrobble their listens to last.fm as a panel, then you can scale up these numbers to get to worldwide listens. Last.fm hasn't done this work but they should. They could be the new soundscan as the key metric moves from scans to listens.
As an example of why this metric will be increasingly valuable, let's go back to that Lupe Fiasco mixed tape that includes the HP advertisement as a track in the mix. That advertisment track is called HP Skit. Last.fm says HP Skit was listened to 3,850 times last week. Let's say 50x is the right multiplier for this artist and song (it's an educated guess). Then HP Skit was listened worldwide about 200,000 times last week. If that ad is worth a $20 cpm, then Lupe could have earned $4000 in ad revenue last week.
All of that is hypothetical to some degree but hopefully instructive. Music is moving from a physical good where scans is what matters to a virtual good where usage and engagement matters. So let's start measuring it correctly. That may help the artists get paid correctly.