You Must Search and Browse by Label!


There is a subject that comes up in the digital music world all of the time, and I’ve had many discussions with many different people about it. I recently found myself in a position where I able to argue my case… a case that I had previously been unable to argue for real – – that is, I was on the other side of the table from the digital retailer – – now I WAS the digital retailer, and I had the opportunity to make things “right”.  The “controversy” in question was whether or not to expose “Record Label” as a data node in a music e-commerce site. The data typical feeds coming from the labels, distributors, and content aggregators certainly contains the information, and the question that comes into play is whether or not it is worthwhile to display the data as part of the meta-data for albums and tracks, and also whether to index it for search and linkable to display all albums and artists within that label.  The contents herein are from an actual internal email where we were discussing this feature for the site we were building at the time.  Special thanks to Dick Huey who got me all riled up so that I would spend too much time writing this… well, at least I get to reuse it for a blog post.  I did redact some stuff that probably isn’t appropriate for a public post, but most of it is here – feel free to use my arguments should the necessity ever arise 😉

Why Label?

Ok… so I’ve put it out there that I have a strong opinion about this, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time stating my case, but I do think it’s useful for folks to understand where I’m coming from.  This is a philosophical AND a technical/ User Experience position, but suffice it to say, my time in the industry has led me to see this issue quite clearly.

Introducing the concept of “label” is, IMO, the cheapest, simplest, and most effective filter for everything “south” of major labels.  It is also the most glaring omission from iTunes, Amazon, and others.

My philosophical bent on digital music retail goes well beyond just this label issue… I believe that online music stores, for the most part, don’t even come close to taking advantage of the data and technology available, and they could be so much more to the consumer… they could increase the average amount of music purchased by the average user, but they don’t, because they are content to feature the same over-saturated crap and rehash the same merchandising and discovery approach as every site before them.

Long Tail, Blah, Blah…

Say what you want about the “Long Tail” – frankly, I don’t think it’s a relevant discussion anymore, as there is no agreement as to what constitutes long or what constitutes a digital phenomenon or just noise – doesn’t matter and here’s why.  The reality and the numbers show that there is a lot of music being sold in the thick part of the tail that is below the biggest major label acts – – no one can dispute this, but those who haven’t been exposed to this sector of the market in an intimate way don’t understand it.  Catalog (i.e. older stuff) sells… Classical Sells… Jazz sells … World Music sells… Regional Music sells…  The interesting truth here is that a lot of the music that people want to buy in some of these less “omnipresesnt” sectors isn’t even available (or at least easily or handily available) on P2P networks – a lot of it can only be found on legitimate services!

Sell, Sell, Sell

Make no mistake – – I understand our mission, and that is to sell lots of music to lots of people. I have heard it said “let’s just have something better than iTunes + our unique twist on the business model”.  Well, having record label displayed, browsable, searchable, etc is one damned easy way to have at least one useful thing iTunes doesn’t.  We aren’t going to match their editorial staff or probably even their recommendation technology (Genius took a ton of development, I’m sure), but we can be nimble and smart – – zig where they zag.

We cannot be all things to all people, but we also can’t just rely on users coming to our site to buy the latest Beyoncé single – we need to leverage the entire marketplace and create a lifetime customer value that exceeds iTunes.

My Argument

Again, not trying to spend too much time on this, but here is a quick list of reasons why to include “label” in our data model in a meaningful way.

■        Labels are incredibly important brands in the “indie” world and even major too (Def Jam, Blue Note, Motown, etc.)

■        it is a cheap, easy, and effective recommendation engine, because all of the albums (and subsequently artists) associated with labels are categorically tied together, regardless of AMG data linkages

  • AMG data does not even come close to keeping up with the flow of releases from content partners, but new and catalog releases coming from content partners flow in with complete meta-data, including label, all day long
  • If we get a new release from an aggregator, you have only a fleeting chance that AMG already has the data, and only a small chance they’ve already put in the editorial work to assign similar artists, etc.  But, we  HAVE label as a common data node to tie the new release to all other artists and releases within that label – that means we can immediately surface a meaningful filter that associates the artist and album

■        Catalog sells – a lot.  We’ve all seen the stories in the past couple of years about the success of Classical, Jazz, and World music online – – I’ve seen it firsthand at IODA.  Our “cool, popular, hip” sales paled in comparison to the evergreen titles coming from our classical and catalog labels.  Most of the labels representing these catalogs have a history and a common thread that ties all of the music together.

■        Classical labels, for example, have reputations based on era, recording quality, genre, etc.  BIS was one of our biggest selling classical labels, and many afficionatos will only buy from “reputable” labels.

■        There are many labels who represent large evergreen catalogs, and without their guidance as a filter, it would be impossible to make recommendations

■        The Industry will be disappointed if we don’t point to label, but they will be happy if we do – simple as that.  Including label will open up not only good PR from our partners but also merchandising opportunities and the ability to coordinate merchandising with our partners better – this does lead to higher sales when done well – I’ve seen the results.

■        When we get down to merchandising and the editorial work that we will do, having label as one of our data points gives us many more options and creative ways to drive sales.

■        eMusic does this well.

■        Labels define grouping of artists and albums that are unique and cannot be achieved any other way.  Labels represent musical movements defined by geography, artistic collaboration, time period, sound, cultural ties, etc. Labels are based on people in their element, and so are musical movements.  Before grunge broke, Sub-Pop represented “that thing”. Every college DJ knows that IRS was THE alternative label of the 80’s, focused, originally, around the jangle-pop of REM.  Those of you who’ve seen 24 Hour Party People know the history of Factory records and how it almost single handedly made Manchester, England ground zero for a time.

■        the iTunes staff laments the lack of label (don’t quote me on this)

■        AMG will not always keep pace with the content flow – in fact, it rarely can… but you can tie new releases to a label and thus to other artists simply by label association without having any new editorial data from AMG

■        Many independent labels are artist run and represent the musical taste and proclivity of a single artist of note.  There are many, many example of this (Riteous Babe, Quannum, SST, Merge, etc.)

■        Labels will often have one or two bigger artists, and AMG will show other artists of similar popularity, but the other artists on that label will have very close affinity, and the label association might be the only way that users will discover those other, completely relevant artists.

■        Genres like world music – the label IS the binding factor – its one group of people going to Africa and finding these artists all from one region and musical style


■        I don’t think we need a “browse” functionality right out of the gate, but ultimately we’ll want core nav for all labels…

■        I do think we should surface labels in search results if there is a match

■        I think label should be displayed as a link associated with albums whenever possible

■        I think that we should be using label to recommend similar artists and albums – we can create a “more albums from this label”, which is easy, or we could combine with the AMG similar data  – – as I said, many times, we won’t have anything from AMG

■        Yes, there will need to be some level of editorial intervention, and our tools can leverage the label data to help us along