Music Row entrepreneur looks for data-driven hits

Jay Frank parachutes in, builds audience fan by fan with digital skill
by Ryan Underwood The Tennessean 08/02/12

In the book “Moneyball” (and the film adaptation starring Brad Pitt) Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane outsmarts his far wealthier rivals by hiring a statistics guru to help spot hidden talent before anyone else recognizes it.
By doing this, he snaps up future baseball stars early in the rocket ride of their ultimately successful — and lucrative — careers or finds value in older pros who don’t have all the tools but get on base and produce runs. It’s a classic buy-low, sell-high strategy that proved highly effective for an also-ran team that could never have hoped to match the salaries of powerhouse teams like the Yankees and Red Sox.
On Nashville’s Music Row, Jay Frank is doing something similar. The former head of music programming at Yahoo Music and a one-time executive focused on programming strategy at CMT, Frank knows the power of data when it comes to identifying tomorrow’s hits (in any genre). His new company, DigSin, works on the simple principle that if a song resonates with audiences in the digital realm — measured by “likes,” online comments, YouTube plays and other real-time metrics — it can quickly explode into a hit, no matter how unknown the artist.
In some ways, it’s a high-tech version of what the film Coal Miner’s Daughter depicted Loretta and Doolittle Lynn doing when they drove from small town to small town, asking every two-bit disc jockey to listen to their self-produced single. And yet there are some distinct 21st century differences.
After 15 years spent analyzing the data-driven mechanics of how songs become hits, Frank sees small, important details few people outside of the industry could spot. For example, because more people listen to music from the beginning of a Spotify or YouTube stream, as opposed to catching a song midway through while flipping around the radio, song intros have taken on vast new significance. In 1999, the average song lead-in hovered around 14 seconds.
Today it’s less than seven, and many of the current chart toppers skip a traditional intro altogether, Frank explained. Another example: Enthusiasm for a song, expressed in the form of sharing links to and commenting on songs by particular audience segments, is a far stronger hit predictor than a simple tally of online plays.

Inside the realm
None of this may sound new or unique to those adapting to (and already profiting from) the music industry’s current digital reality. In fact, at least a few people tasked with turning out hits for major labels tell Frank they draw on some of the insights he laid out in a self-published book called “Future Hit DNA.”
But the more he talked to people in the industry about finding data patterns to predict hits, the more Frank thought he might be able to do something with his ideas beyond pontificating to others about them. So, last October, approaching the now-or-never milestone of turning 40, he told his bosses at CMT that he was staking out on his own.
To call DigSin a full-fledged label is, as Frank freely acknowledges, an overstatement. But neither is it a pure digital play. From his spartan office in Cummins Station, Frank has signed just a handful of artists to short-term contracts designed to make an unknown artist’s single pop.

Shoestring budget
He operates on a self-financed shoestring budget. Frank has chatted with a few venture capitalists to explore options, but prefers to go without outside financing. As the business model exists now, if one of DigSin’s artists suddenly bursts onto the music scene like the chart-topping Gotye did, and a big label snaps them up, so much the better for Frank.
“We simply have a different cost structure than a major label,” Frank says. “Philosophically, I’m asking how can I increase the odds of a song becoming a hit while minimizing losses.” That means, at least for the foreseeable future, he won’t add an expensive radio promotions staff or many of the other high-cost accoutrements found at major labels.
And yet, for all the sweeping philosophy, DigSin’s methods are decidedly simple. Frank offers the example of a song he’s working on with singer-songwriter Jenn Bostic called “Jealous of the Angels.” Its release began by sending a link of Bostic’s video out to friends and family. From there, Frank figures if he can reach 100 people each with 500 connections in their social networks, he’s done the equivalent of cracking into a 50,000 listener radio station.
In Bostic’s case, the song began to get enough of a buzz online (566,000 plays and counting on YouTube) that a radio station in the UK picked it up and has had stronger-than-usual audience responses to it, Frank says. While that alone may not send it to the top of the charts, Frank is convinced that as long as the data is pointing in the right direction, the environment is right for a song like Bostic’s to get picked up for use in a popular TV show, big-budget film or some other high-profile venue that gives it almost instant recognizability.
“When things start to happen, they happen fast,” Frank says. “And yet, it can take a long time for anything to happen. People forget that it takes the full promotional muscle of major label nine months to a year to get a hit.
”And, well, if nothing ever happens with the song, Frank says neither DigSin nor the artist have much to lose.

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