How we helped Universal Music Group create the future of music

By Neil Stoeckle, Creative Director, YML

How do you design a product for rockstars? Pop singers? Metal heads? 

That was my, and my team at YML, challenge from none other than Universal Music Group just a few months ago.  First, you have to understand what a modern musician is. From there, what makes the artists at Universal Music Group so unique.

Universal Music Group is arguably the largest, most talent filled music label in the business, representing Grammy winning artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Taylor Swift — the list goes on. 

Artists join UMG not only for their reach and distribution, but also their innovation. Appropriately named one of Fast Company’s 50 Most Innovative Companies of 2019, UMG continues to prioritize projects that rattle industry norms and progress music forward.

They invest in an array of start-ups that constantly increase the capabilities of music hardware and software. They sponsor annual hack-athons where people in the music and tech industries combine forces to create new digital products. They own multiple music focused incubators and partner with product accelerators all over the globe, where the most promising digital ideas go on to be nurtured and polished, ultimately forming the foundations of new music-driven startups like Spreadmix — a streaming platform aimed at connecting people through live music, and Soundbops — a tool which encourages hands on music making for children early in their development. 

It’s obvious that music is changing. It has been since the first note was played and will continue even after humans are no longer the ones listening. From the way people consume it to the way artists create and deliver it. Imagine a time lapse of the evolution of recorded music: vinyl record players with big brass gramophones turn into cassette tape walkmans with cushy foam headphones, which morph into shiny iPods contrasted on dancing silhouettes. 

Now look at us.  We’re living in the streaming age where owning music is a dead idea. 

Electronic stores have become graveyards for hard copy albums, embalmed in plastic and buried beneath their headstone-like clearance bins. The nostalgic teenager in me is in mourning. 

And as UMG has recognized up close and personal, musicians are changing as well. 

The rising stars of this generations aren’t the hotel-trashing rockstar stereotypes of the past. These are young, informed entrepreneurs who understand that it takes more than just good music to be famous. They have to have a strong social media presence, they need big brand affiliations, they need to anticipate future trends and and they need to identify marketing opportunities based on location, demographics and untapped and rising markets. 

The music-loving product designer in me is nerding out hard.

Welcome to Universal Music Artists

UMG’s ongoing quest for innovation combined with the recognition of the changing musician inspired the label to partner with YML.  Together we introduced Universal Music Artists  —  a new digital platform which brings data to the music industry. It aggregates user data from Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube, so artists have a holistic view of exactly who their fans are and how they can better engage them.

What does that even mean?

The musical data footprint today is growing at an unimaginable pace. Music lovers pamper themselves with streaming services defined by an “any song, anywhere” reality. Every time a Spotify or Apple Music account is created, a small amount of demographic information — including age, gender and location — is captured. 

This isn’t a bad thing.

 In fact, as someone who still crowd-surfs at the age of 30 and according to Spotify, listened to 93,876 minutes of music last year, it’s pretty damn amazing. 

While Facebook gathers and sells people’s personal information to the highest bidder, UMG uses only the most basic demographic data to provide a better experience to fans. It’s like a satisfaction survey you actually want to fill out. At the crux of the UMA offering is the simple truth that guides most, if not all, data-informed digital experiences: with more information, I can make more informed decisions. 

Now let’s translate that to Gaga or Kendrick: If an artist knows who is listening, where they’re listening and what they’re listening to, they can tailor the sound, the shows, the merch, even who their next collaboration will be with — everything to better entertain the constant change of the audience.

Data is better when it’s designed

UMG’s data team may be reading this so I won’t give away all my secrets, but the beginning of the project often had me sitting with my ears open and my mouth shut, desperately trying to keep up with the unfamiliar analytics jargon that effortlessly rolled off their tongues.

 Imagine yourself walking down the street and you come across people playing double dutch and they ask if you want to join. So you do. But you’ve only ever played with a single jump rope before and you’re trying to time your moves so you don’t interrupt their flow. Then, just when you start to get the hang of it, there are 5 more jump ropes added, and then a few juggling pins, and now you’re also riding a unicycle. 

Might sound like chaos, but I loved it.

As a creative director whose stakeholders are usually individuals driven by business KPIs and dollar signs, being able to work closely with a data and analytics team was a wonderful change of pace. Not only because I learned something new everyday and because they loved every design we showed them — whether it was a large format print out of the proposed information architecture or a pretty UI exploration quickly dropped into a photoshop mockup — but because they were passionate about what they did everyday: data. 

The team was brilliant and the back end they spent years developing had so much potential. But passion for analytics without intentional hierarchical inclusion would come with a price… at the expense of the experience.

Every data point was deemed essential. Every metric was just as important as every other metric and therefore was expected to be a part of the final product. Enter: Firehose. 

‘Firehose’ was the term we used when trying to convey what the experience would be like if we included everything, simply because we could. A firehose can save lives, but not if you aim it directly at the person climbing out of the top story window of a burning building. Another macabre analogy. Sorry. At least it was effective.

The above is the redesigned Information Architecture for Universal Music Artists.

The Who

With so many different roles in the modern music industry — label heads, artists, producers, managers, marketers, promoters, artist-aggregators, booking agents, promoters — we needed to redefine the target audience in order to whittle down the feature set.

Who would use this product the most? Who would find it most valuable? The answer turned out to be pretty obvious. Artists and artist managers. The ones that make the music and the ones that do everything else.

This was such a pleasant revelation because it meant stripping the product of any unnecessary clutter that wouldn’t be appreciated (understood) by musicians. It’s pretty uncommon for a musician to moonlight as a data scientist and we didn’t want them to have to start because of some new tool their record label gave them.

In turn, we decided that Universal Music Artists needed to intuitively answer 3 key questions: How am I doing? Who is listening? How can I improve?

How am I doing?

In all the interviews we conducted, this was the question that was echoed most by artists and managers alike. How am I doing? Am I up or down? 
Basically, is there more green or red on the screen?

 From the home screen, artists are immediately presented with three hero metrics, as well as the direction in which they are trending for each:

  • Total Audience (the artists unique listeners on Spotify and Apple Music)
  • Streams Per Listener
  • Total Streams

Next in the hierarchy are the artist’s Spotlight Songs and Videos — their most recent releases. 

Releasing a track or dropping a music video is like conceiving a child. You spend months reading the right books, eating the right foods, staying away from alcohol in anticipation of bringing this piece of you into the world. And once it arrives, you’re constantly checking on them to make sure they’re safe and healthy. 

It’s tireless work, but it’s all worth it when your kid grows up and buys you a house. 

Same thing. This product solves the classic artist’s dilemma: it gives them a real-time, credible view of the health of their latest launch, every time a fan presses play.

Who is listening?

While skill is an objective quality, the idea of good music is based on bias, defined by personal preference and influenced by popular trends.

Ultimately, it’s the people who decide whether an artist will rise or fall.

Through data driven insights, Universal Music Artists identifies opportunities of growth across the globe. For example, an artist will be notified of any irregular spikes in listenership for a specific location or demographic. So if their primary fan base is in San Francisco, California, they will continue to prioritize resources accordingly, but if listeners in Sao Paulo, Brazil, are increasing each week by the thousands, managers will know to target the hell out of that location through marketing and touring. 
In addition to triggered insights, artists can see how their audience is responding to their music through the week by week flux of:

  • Total Streams / Views (Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube)
  • Total Watch Time (Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube)
  • Active vs. Passive Streams / Views (did someone directly search for a song or did it auto play from a playlist)
  • Top Countries
  • Top Cities
  • Streams by Age
  • Streams / Views by Gender

Can you imagine if the Beatles had this? 

How can I improve?

Whether an artist is flying high or falling off, they’re constantly looking for ways to be better.

Better than their previous release, better than their genre, better than the rest. Period.

To help them get there, this product will identify areas that are lacking so teams can counter accordingly. For example, if an artist is blowing up on Apple Music, but fairly stagnant on Spotify, managers can adjust their marketing strategy to focus on the artist’s Spotify presence.

One way to get there is through exposure. Duh.

While in a usability session with the team that manages Marshmello and Illenium (nbd), we uncovered some amazing insights on how an artist’s music gets shopped around in this golden age of streaming — playlists. 
For better or worse, modern day listeners often discover their new favorite track or band by pressing play on a popular curated playlist and passively consuming whatever comes out. If a manager can get their artist’s latest single onto one of these playlists, it’s guaranteed exposure.

Universal Music Artists is basically ammunition for this goal in the form of data, where they can compare the listenership of a playlist’s existing tracks with the recent rise of one of their own. If a song is outperforming another without any playlist help, it’s time to plug the hell out of it.

Hedonistic Usability

There is a philosophy, coined by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’, called Hedonist Sustainability —the idea that something shouldn’t be boring simply because its good for the planet. Composting isn’t fun and renewable energy isn’t terribly sexy, but Ingels challenges this tradition through his designs. 

It proved to be such an effective concept that we repurposed his thinking for product design, calling it Hedonistic Usability — just because something is utilitarian, doesn’t mean it can't be beautiful. Thanks Bjarke.

His most recent project, and the one that most obviously echoes this ideology, is the Copenhill Urban Mountain — a power plant that converts 400,000 tons of waste each year into low-carbon electricity for the people of Copenhagen.

Waste-to-energy wasn’t enough for Ingels, so he designed a ski slope to live on top of it. Breaking up the flat terrain, this artificial mountain gives people a place to test their snow skills from within the city while bringing Copenhagen one step closer to becoming the first carbon neutral capitol in the world.

Images by Alexander Vissing

The thought of “data” to anyone other than a data scientist probably sounds cold and boring — even to those who prioritize emotion and feeling in their craft. The product needed to house all of the invaluable insights that come with analytics, but it also needed to be attractive enough so music artists would be enticed to use it.

I’m pretty sure Universal Music Artists isn’t saving the planet, but I’m quite convinced it is saving music, which is why Hedonistic Usability — our recycled version of Ingels’ philosophy —was the basis for the entire interface.

The dark UI is designed to be viewed at all times of day and night — at the breakfast table, in the recording studio, in the club. It needed to be beautifully subtle, acting as a canvas for the analytics and album art alike.

The contrasting use of bright color against black puts emphasis on the most important content so that from any screen, artists will immediately know the direction in which they are trending. Green is good. Red is bad. Every platform is color coded so they know whether a piece of data is specific to Spotify, Apple Music or YouTube. We even added some subtle animation to the navigation bar because music inspires movement and…well… it’s easier to sell a design when it’s pretty.

And this is only the first launch. We have a healthy roadmap for the future of Universal Music Artists, aimed at building a stronger bond and tailoring the relationship between the fans and the music. Although this product will be used by artists and managers, it’s really for the people who are listening. 
Music is changing for the better. Sure, songs are written by teams instead of performers and roadies carry turntables instead of guitars, but now data is in the band — disrupting the music industry by bringing the audience closer to the artist.

I want to to give a huge thanks to all of the people involved in the creation of this product. All of those at YML—Jonathan Bongato, Mauricio Bucardo, Stephen Clements, Zain Jiwani, Jason Rzutkiewicz, Ramsundar Shandilya, Ryan Spencer, Shayna Stewart, Adam Talcott, Mayo Tobita, John Wilson and Bindushree. You are all incredible.

And it was topping on the cake to see the UMA work get recognized, both in the press (Rolling Stone, Billboard, Variety), as well as with a Webby recognition in the category of Apps, Mobile and Voice for the Best User Interface Award (out of the 13,000 entries from 50 states and over 70 countries.

About the Author: Neil Stoeckle

Neil is a multi-disciplined creative director who has been continuously pursuing design since he first learned how to photoshop his friends’ faces on the bodies of celebrities. Joining YML in its early days (2013), he helped structure and evolve the people-first practices that are still used today. Whether it’s a product experience for a client’s customers or an environment for his fellow employees within the walls of YML, Neil uses human-centric design to elevate the needs of people.

There is no industry Neil has not touched. He brought the artists of Universal Music Group closer to their fans through a seamless union of design and data. For State Farm, he created a simple and empathetic experience for the otherwise overwhelming maze of insurance. He’s created medical frameworks for Research Kit and fintech products for First Republic Bank.