Are We All Beliebers When it Comes to Big Data?

Published: April 14, 2016

“When it comes to making decisions, does the rise of big data indicate a shift in favour of reason in the creative industries?”

Christopher Price, Radio 1’s newly appointed head of music, recently said that the station ought to wean itself away from an over-reliance on ‘big’ data when picking songs. The data thrown up by global streaming services, such as YouTube and Spotify, is commonly used as the basis for devising playlists.

This method tends to favour the ‘music industry 1 percent’ and runs the risk of creating a globally homogenous culture with repeated plays of Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and One Direction. Instead, Price wants the station’s editors to trust their musical instincts and make decisions “driven by passion and not data”.

The aim is certainly clear: avoid leaning too heavily on data from services which will favour well established, already popular artists. Trust your instincts and you’ll introduce a more diverse range of musical talent to the mainstream. A noble ambition for a public service broadcaster.

Music ultimately lies in the domain of passions, a point Price is keen to emphasise. In an interview with The Guardian, he said, “We’re kind of drowning in data, whether it’s Shazam tags or YouTube views. The best and only response is a return to the two things that are never going to let you down: your ears and your heart.”

And so, to the old debate pitting reason against instinct. When it comes to making decisions, does the rise of big data indicate a shift in favour of reason in the creative industries? Research from the field of behavioural science suggests that it’s a moot point.

While research has shown gut instinct, or intuition, often serves us well, this form of automatic thinking can lead to bias and flawed decision making. For example, music editors at Radio 1 would do well to consider whether they’re suffering from confirmation bias when assessing the merits of new music – merely searching out information that only reinforces their original opinion, rather than looking for opposing, critical opinion.

Similarly, while it may be sensible to recognise that a huge Twitter following may not necessarily reflect the quality of the artist’s music, radio bosses may be wise to test audience reaction to different types of music by reviewing website comments from valued listeners to see if their passion is shared by others.

So what are we to make of Price’s ambitions? The best decisions are in fact often a combination of reason and instinct. Even when we think we’re engaging in a deliberative thought process – accessing and assessing the merits of big data – our instinct or intuition is still playing a major role.

In this sense, Price isn’t confronted by an either/or dilemma – and he isn’t wrong to propose a greater role for passion and instinct when creating playlists. After all, even such decisions by his editors will have been informed by their collective knowledge and experience. Big data Beliebers may be taking a stranglehold when it comes to radio song choice, but decision making in the music and many other industries will remain ‘a slave to the passions’.

Simon Maule, Director and Mohammed Sherriff, Junior Consultant

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