Geoff Luck is Associate Professor at The Finnish Centre for Interdisciplinary Music Research, and founder of Hyperlive. He will be sharing insights on scientific approaches to determining a song’s long-term value at Music 4.5 The Value of Music on 6 July 2017. We caught up with him ahead of the seminar to talk about the science behind the emotional impact of music, the power of lyrics, and consumers’ psychological draw to streaming.
-Geoff, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. Can you please tell us a bit about you and your professional story?
Music has always played a big role in my life. I come from a musical family (my parents met while playing in an orchestra, and their parents were musicians before them) and I’ve played, written or recorded music for most of my life. At university, however, I opted for something a little different. I was interested in the human mind, and how we perceive and understand the world around us, so I read psychology. For the last 20 years, I’ve combined these two interests by studying music from a scientific perspective, first as a graduate student, then, since 2004, at what is now the Finnish Centre for Interdisciplinary Music Research in Jyväskylä, Finland. What really interests me is how we experience music on a neurobiological, psychological and behavioural level. In other words, I see music as a multi-sensory experience, not just an auditory one. I’ve published dozens of research papers on a range of interrelated topics connected with music perception, cognition and consumption, including music-driven aspects of emotion, wellbeing, behaviour and personality. I’ve also applied this knowledge to develop engagement-enhancing mobile applications and technology for the entertainment industry. I’m currently focused on identifying the characteristics that elevate great – and successful – music above the rest.
-You’ll be speaking at Music 4.5 What Is The Value Of Music, where we’ll be focusing on music as an asset in which to invest. What can you tell us about how this facet of the industry evolved? David Bowie and Paul McCarthy have of course made headlines by leveraging their own music as assets, but what can you tell us about this practice amongst individuals and organisations?
David Bowie and Paul McCartney are both interesting cases in that they were arguably at the forefront of the current move toward treating music copyrights as assets to be bought and sold (the latter spurred on by Michael Jackson’s previous acquisition of the Beatles’ catalogue). As portfolios become increasingly diverse to counter volatility in the global socioeconomic climate, investors are becoming more and more interested in long-term investments that generate a dependable return year after year. This makes music copyrights the ideal investment. By owning a copyright to a work, one can collect royalties on that work for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. And although the value tends to taper off over the years, it can also grow, making it a remarkably long-tailed and stable investment. The challenge, then, is to identify the (combinations of) tracks that will yield the biggest return on investment.
The idea of investing in intellectual property in general is nothing new, but at least in terms of music it has been somewhat shrouded in mystery in the past. Like many aspects of the entertainment industry, the marketplace was closed to outsiders. With the advent of companies like Royalty Exchange and so on, however, the process has become more transparent, more open, and available to any individual or organisation looking to diversify their portfolio. It’s still a nascent industry, especially at the individual level, but it seems likely that copyright trading – especially as a digital service – will see healthy growth driven by similar transition of the music industry to a digital service. Perhaps this more tangible ownership aspect will even serve to replace a certain aspect of the physical aspect diminished by the digitisation of music distribution.
-For individuals and organisations looking to invest in music, how can data be exploited and leveraged to determine a track’s long-term appeal?
The development of access-based streaming has had a profound effect on the potential of data in general, but especially on how we might determine a track’s long-term value. The recorded music industry has historically focused on ownership as the dominant consumption mode. A record (or other physical media) was released, and we bought a copy if we wished to listen to it. We might listen to that record once, we might listen a thousand times. But no one would ever know, so it was hard to estimate its long-term value to us. The arrival in 2004 of Pandora, followed in 2008 by Spotify, changed everything. The mechanics of streaming platforms mean they generate income to rights-holders relative to the number of times a track is played. Thus, tracks that create a compelling experience we want to consume over and over again will be likely to perform better– and thus retain, or even increase in value – over the long run compared to those that do not.
Today’s streaming platforms and associated services provide a range of data points that might be leveraged to estimate the value of a given (library of) track(s), and I’m personally working on this to quantify the value of music, both from the individual’s perspective, but also, importantly, from a financial standpoint. And I do believe it’s possible to predict the future value of music to some extent. What’s more, I see a great future in treating music copyrights as a commodity to be bought and sold. I mean, why not? To be sure, elevating music above other everyday activities and objects, treating it as an art form is absolutely fine, I have no issue with that. But it can also be so much more. So why not leverage additional aspects if it’s possible to do so?
-In your work, music – and what draws people to it – is a science. As a music lover, I know that music can lift or darken my mood, take me back to a time I’d forgotten, or peak my interest in ways that few other things can. What is the science behind our emotional responses to music?
That’s a great question! Much of the emotional impact of music stems from the way it plays with our expectations about how it will unfold. We’re able to predict many aspects of our environment at just a few months of age, long before we can walk, talk or feed ourselves. And this natural ability carries over to music. Some of our emotional responses to music are due to quick, innate mechanisms that have evolved to alert us to changes in the environment – danger and such like. Other responses are learnt through familiarity with a particular genre or style of music, such as the way an EDM fan might anticipate an impending drop, or a jazz aficionado might expect, say, a saxophone solo following exposition of the main theme. However, we’re not perfect anticipation machines. Sometimes we make mistakes. And this combination of having our expectations confirmed and violated lies at the heart of many of our more tangible emotional responses to music.
In addition to these basic responses, there exists a whole host of what we might call higher-order emotional responses to music. As you mentioned, music can change our mood, transport us back to a specific place or moment in time, and is effective in capturing or diverting our attention (often away from other less interesting or positive activities). Indeed, there’s a growing body of evidence that we tend to use music rather systematically to regulate our moods, using a range of strategies to do so. Music is also a great time-travel medium, allowing us to instantly transport ourselves back in time to significant moments in our lives. In a similar way, music can evoke a strong sense of nostalgia, which from a psychological perspective is actually rather healthy. This is because feeling nostalgic makes us think more positive thoughts, improves our self-esteem, makes life feel more meaningful, and promotes feelings of connection with others.
We also tend to feel the emotion expressed in the music via what’s called emotional contagion. For example, music that sounds happy is, due to acoustic similarities between expression of emotion in music and the patterns of stress and intonation in language, likely to make us smile by triggering zygomatic muscle activity and increasing our breathing rate. Sad-sounding music on the other hand tends to activate the corrugator muscle, causing us to turn down the corners of our mouth, inducing a sadder facial expression. Physiological feedback from these muscular and autonomic responses is thought to evoke the corresponding emotional feeling in us. Thus, happy– or sad– sounding music will likely actually make us feel happy or sad!
-And what role do lyrics play in a song’s appeal? Is the appeal of music versus lyrics mutually exclusive? Can you have one without the other?
The issue of music and/or lyrics is extremely interesting. If we first consider a song in its historical context, certain lyrical themes have been shown to be more popular at particular times than others. For example, when the prevailing socioeconomic climate has been tough, we’ve tended to prefer songs with more meaningful lyrics. When times have been good, on the other hand, we’ve demonstrated a preference for partying. To give that a little context, consider the following quartet of songs: Physical by Olivia Newton-John, Like A Virgin by Madonna, That’s What Friends Are For by Dionne Warwick and Friends, and (Everything I Do) I Do It For You by Bryan Adams. If you listen to the lyrics, those for the first two songs are all about getting together for the here and now. Those for the latter two are about the being together in the future.
The more sexually-driven Physical and Like A Virgin enjoyed success in years when socio-economic hardship was at average levels (1981 and 1984). That’s What Friends Are For and (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, meanwhile, triumphed in years characterised by significantly elevated levels of socio-economic hardship (1986 and 1991). In fact, socio-economic hardship reached its highest level for decades in 1991. This was the year in which the Cold War came to a head and the USSR disintegrated into fifteen sovereign republics. It was also the year in which a thirty-four nation U.S.-led coalition fought against Iraq in operation Desert Storm. And it was the year that (Everything I Do) I Do It For You spent seven weeks at number one in the U.S., nine weeks at number one in Canada, and a record-breaking 16 weeks at the top of the UK charts.
So the value we place upon lyrics will certainly change over time as a function of, among other things, the prevailing socioeconomic situation.
But if we now drill down to the individual song-level, evidence suggests that music and lyrics are not mutually exclusive, and the appeal of each depends to some extent upon the characteristics of the other. For example, lyrics have been shown to enhance perception of sadness, but detract from perception of happiness in music. And there’s neurological evidence to suggest that congruent music and lyrics — happy music paired with happy lyrics, for instance — is especially effective in mood induction. Other studies have shown that, due to our attention becoming more focused when we’re in a negative mood, we listen more carefully to lyrics when they’re paired with sad music. What’s more, specific combinations of musical and lyrical characteristics can optimise the depth of emotional experience induced. Brain scans of people listening to music have shown, for example, that emotional engagement – on a neurological level, and thus beyond conscious control – is greatest when a song consists of negatively-valenced (sad) music paired with similarly-valenced lyrics.
So what does all this mean in practical terms? Given that one of the primary reasons we listen to music is its emotional power, that the stronger the emotion a musical work induces the more we tend to like it, and the interactions between the effects of music and lyrics described above — if you want to write a great song that people will love, make it negatively-valenced (e.g., sad) with lyrics that cut like a knife. Because the more negatively-valenced the music is, the more listeners will pay attention to the lyrics, and the stronger emotion they will feel.
-You recently published research on the psychology behind the shift from listener’s preferring access to music over ownership. Us old school types will remember the rush of holding a new album or CD and fawning over the artistry and the info in the liner notes. Is this now completely obsolete? What does user preference to access mean for the future of streaming?
I also remember with great fondness the more tangible aspects of music ownership, like holding a record or CD (actually, my first ever purchase was a compact cassette), reading through the liner notes and so on. However, I think it’s important to take a step back and consider what music actually is. Music is basically sound organised in time, space and intensity, and as such has existed in some shape or form for hundreds of thousands of years. In fact, there’s good archaeological evidence to suggest that language – and by extension music – has been in development for as much as 1.5 – 2 million years. Yet it’s only in the last 150 years or so that we’ve been able to record it and play it back at will. This initially prompted composers and conductors to complain about how these new-fangled recording devices would take music to the masses and put them out of business. To them, music was a live, ethereal phenomenon that brought people together in the moment. It couldn’t be touched, but there were tangible aspects of the experience, like the concert hall and the social context. Around the middle of the 20th century, the idea that ‘music’ could be owned, held, smelt, and so on entered the mainstream with the rise of what we know as the popular music industry, and this view has prevailed ever since. Of course, we’ve never actually owned the music, only the hardware (and later software) upon which it was stored and could be played back.
But with the advent of streaming, music has become something we borrow. And it’s all about the experience it creates. While this takes away some of the more tangible aspects of ownership, the ability to access virtually any track at any time brings with it a range of benefits of its own. From freeing us from the so-called ‘burdens of ownership’ such as the costs of storage, maintenance and disposal of records and CDs to eliminating the time required to build a huge music collection, streaming actually helps us focus on the thing we’re really interested in – the music.
As with any new technology, streaming was met with initial resistance. It took Spotify seven years to reach 20 million paying subscribers, but less than two more years to reach 50 million. Streaming has now turned a corner. It’s come of age, and there’s no going back. Perhaps the biggest challenge is getting people to pay for it. The simple fact is that music is now perceived as a digital service, and, as such, something people are less willing to pay for. If Spotify is ever to turn a profit, it’s crucial they figure out how to increase their (already impressive) conversion rate from free to paid. Perhaps offering some combination of digital and physical experience is the solution.
I’d like to thank you for this opportunity to talk about the science of sound and music, especially in relation to quantifying its value since this is an issue close to my heart. Music is a ubiquitous and uniquely human phenomenon that underpins both our private and social lives. We value music because of its emotional impact, and spend one quarter of our waking hours listening to it. Any discussion of its value to individuals, organizations or investors is thus music to my ears.
Geoff Luck’s new book, The Experience Factor, reveals how the world’s most successful music stimulates our mind, captures our heart and seduces our body to keep us listening. It is underpinned by over 200 scientific studies, and bridges the gap between empirical research and applied musical activities such as songwriting, audio branding and music synchronisation. Offering a unique perspective on the music we listen to everyday, it’s a data-driven, practical guide for anyone who loves music.
Geoff will sharing his insights on the data behind determining a song’s long-term value at Music 4.5 The Value of Music on 6 July 2017 in London. Get your tickets here.