Takeaways from our inaugural music marketing data bootcamp

In October 2023, Water & Music joined forces with music data consultancy Music Tomorrow to put on our inaugural Music Marketing Data Bootcamp — the fourth installment in Water & Music’s Academy arm on music-tech education.

Over four weeks, we gave students a comprehensive introduction to music data and the pivotal role it plays across the digital marketing lifecycle — from strategic planning at a project’s creative inception, to state-of-the-art tools for maximizing discoverability and fan engagement months or even years after release.

Why did we offer this course at this point in time? The answer is simple: Today, it’s hard to find a job in music that doesn’t involve working with data.

Proficiency in data strategy and analytics is a critical lifeline for cutting through the ephemeral noise of viral moments, and developing stronger, longer-lasting connections between artists and fans. At the same time, with consumer tastes evolving on ever quicker hype cycles and new channels popping up on a weekly basis, music marketing remains one of the most difficult functions of the industry to get right, even for veterans with decades of experience.

Against this backdrop, we built our Music Marketing Data Bootcamp to give industry professionals the insider context to integrate data more intelligently into their day-to-day work, independent of whatever technological change might come their way.

Below is a behind-the-scenes look at how we designed our bootcamp curriculum and student experience, and what stood out the most to us from our class discussions.

Curriculum design

Our course leads — Cherie Hu (Founder, Water & Music), Julie Knibbe (Founder/CEO, Music Tomorrow), and Maarten Walraven (Co-CEO, Symphony.live) — planned this bootcamp over the course of four months.

That said, the underlying course content builds on several years of research on music and data. From 2020 to 2021, Knibbe wrote a foundational, five-part series for Water & Music on how music-industry professionals use data across A&R, marketing, touring, artist management, and rights management. For our bootcamp, we decided to hone in on the marketing-related chapters from this series, based on enduring challenges that both of our communities were facing in standing out in today’s noisy media landscape.

Our bootcamp curriculum was a “reverse triangle” in terms of topic breadth — opening high-level with a survey of industry data practices and strategic planning, then dialing into specific data tactics across the marketing funnel, from broadening initial awareness to strengthening long-term fan loyalty. The sessions on discoverability and automation built heavily on Music Tomorrow’s work in the field, while our closing remarks on new digital frontiers were informed by Water & Music’s research on how Web3, AI, and metaverse paradigms were rewriting traditional rules of marketing and fan engagement.

Similar to our previous bootcamp on global music rights, we structured each session in our marketing bootcamp as a pair of case-study presentations from hand-selected guest speakers, with moderation by a Water & Music or Music Tomorrow team member. For our speaker roster, we curated a mix of label veterans, independent strategists, academic researchers, and startup founders based on their frontline experience in marketing and data analytics, as well as their shared values around the importance of transparency, knowledge-sharing, and experimentation in the music industry.

The featured case studies broke down tech stacks, operational challenges, marketing outcomes, and key learnings for music campaigns across the career and genre spectrum — from Justin Bieber’s Wave concert and Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia treasure hunt, to early artist-development pushes for the likes of Jensen McRae, Yung Gravy, and Sadie Jean.

Ultimately, we attracted nearly 100 students from over 20 countries to our bootcamp, with the most popular roles represented including artist managers, label marketers, startup founders, independent consultants, and, yes, artists themselves. The students were quite advanced, with an average of five to ten years of prior music-industry experience — leading to a dynamic, peer-to-peer learning environment between students and speakers, instead of a traditional, top-down educational model.

Interactivity was also a keystone of the student experience — from opening icebreakers at the start of each session, to lively student Q&A that was woven directly into case-study presentations. A WhatsApp group for students and speakers extended the conversation beyond the virtual classroom, fostering a sense of community that even spilled over into real-life gatherings at industry events like Music Tectonics and Amsterdam Dance Event.

Key learnings & surprises

Throughout the bootcamp, we encountered several recurring themes — many of which came as a surprise to us:

Caption: A music data analytics market map that we prepared for our Music Marketing Data Bootcamp, building off our bootcamp curriculum as well as survey results from Music Tomorrow’s 2023 State of Data in the Music Industry report. The map suggests that the music data landscape remains heavily fragmented, creating operational challenges for independent artist teams.

A. There is no consensus on the marketing tech stack

From session one, we instilled in our students that there is no singular “silver bullet” for music marketing.

Yes, we can draw to an extent from common industry practices, and there are clear categories of data analytics tools that artists can rely on to gain insight into their music — e.g. first-party analytics from music distributors and streaming services, third-party market intelligence platforms like Chartmetric, and social marketing automation tools like SymphonyOS or un:hurd.

But nearly all of our guest speakers emphasized that a given artist’s marketing strategy must be as unique as their music and the reasons behind their own artistry.

In turn, in part due to a lack of shared cross-industry knowledge, there is no consensus of what should be the “ultimate data stack” for today’s music marketers. Several of our guest speakers emphasized that the efficacy of a given tool or channel all boils down to how an artist and their team define a “return on investment” (ROI) — is it the engagement of a loyal fan base? Social media reach? Or simply invaluable time reclaimed back for the artist to focus on creativity?

Without a standardized playbook, hands-on experimentation is the cornerstone of a resilient, future-proof marketing strategy, with the opportunity at every stage of a project to customize the underlying tech and data stack to fit the artist’s unique scale, needs, and ambitions.

B. Even industry veterans face a benchmarking void

Feedback and follow-up questions from our students suggested that many music professionals still feel like they are navigating in the dark, lacking benchmarks to gauge their success or guide their strategies. This uncertainty leads to an unstructured, trial-and-error, spaghetti-on-the-wall approach across the industry, affecting even the most seasoned artist teams.

There is a clear need for more structured tools and frameworks for target-setting and performance benchmarking, to enable a more diverse range of artists to align their idea of “success” with those of their industry peers. (Our original music data series dives into how marketers use third-party intelligence tools like Chartmetric and Soundcharts to benchmark performance against similar artists and previous release campaigns.)

C. Data equity and autonomy are strategic imperatives

Data access was a persistent issue through our case studies and student discussions. The landscape is especially volatile for independent artist teams that rely on a fragmented suite of third-party platforms for music data, where changes in platforms’ data or API policies can strip away access to essential insights almost overnight (e.g. Spotify removing all historical artist data older than two years before a given release). In contrast, larger, more established teams have bigger budgets to build their own custom analytics tooling in-house.

At the same time, independent teams can still gain a competitive edge in their greater flexibility to innovate and experiment with new technologies, and in their strategic focus on genuine, long-term fan retention over broad, short-term reach. In fact, many of our bootcamp speakers advocated for a shift away from dependency on mass-market platforms like Spotify and TikTok, and towards a more autonomous, platform-agnostic approach to data management wherever possible (e.g. collecting email addresses and phone numbers over mere social followers).

D. The value of emerging tech is still… emerging

The past five years have seen several tech hype cycles reverberate throughout the music industry, especially around how paradigms like Web3/blockchain, metaverse/gaming, and creative AI can unlock new forms of fan connection and artist revenue.

Even after several decades of tech development and billions of dollars in investment, we are still in the early stages of music marketing teams integrating emerging tech into their campaigns in a systematic, strategic way. It was also clear throughout our bootcamp that these emerging tech paradigms are not for everybody. For example, artists already embedded within gaming culture may lean more naturally into virtual experiences, while more traditional artists may require more education and incentives for fans to participate meaningfully and delightfully.

Our bootcamp speakers leaned into an open, experimental mindset when it comes to leveraging these emerging technologies, while still carefully emphasizing the importance of sticking to rigorous, “traditional” marketing practices upfront — i.e. segmenting audiences, benchmarking performance, and aligning strategy with what their artists really want and need.

All in all, our inaugural Music Marketing Data Bootcamp clearly struck a chord with our students, touching upon a topic that otherwise lacks comprehensive, accessible resources or guidance elsewhere in the industry. We see a clear opportunity to expand on this bootcamp in future iterations, perhaps with additional deep-dive sessions on topics like emerging tech, artist branding, data storytelling, tech stack development, and fan experience design.

We will be offering our bootcamp sessions for sale à-la-carte on the Water & Music and Music Tomorrow websites in the coming weeks. Stay tuned, and thank you so much for all of your support!