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Can Shazam Predict the Next Big Hit?

Industry insiders look to song identification app as new measure of success

Shazam Headquarters
Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
February 20, 2014 10:00 AM ET

Every time one of Shazam’s 88 million users asks, "What’s that song?" and IDs it on a phone, record labels receive another chunk of crucial information to determine the next big hit.

Far from just a resource to identify a song you hear in a club or store, each ID tag shows up in the British company's database, where it gets packaged into pop charts, shown to record labels, radio stations and concert promoters and used to make a small hit even bigger. Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and Lorde's "Royals" are among the many blockbusters that showed up first in Shazam.

Music-Discovery App Shazam Expanding Into TV

"It's become a very useful and insightful tool," says Peter Gray, head of promotions for Warner Bros. Records. Shazam's statistics aren't perfect  even country singer Kacey Musgraves' label reps can't explain why her "Blowin’ Smoke" was Number One in Thiruvananthapuram, India, the week after the Grammy Awards  but they're reliable enough to make solid predictions.

Executives at both Shazam and the record business have noticed a pattern over the last few years: the company's pop charts often predict Billboard's Hot 100 and Top 40 airplay a month or more in advance. Icona Pop's "I Love It" became an official smash last year after airing prominently on HBO's Girls and registering on Shazam not long afterwards. The company's charts first predicted Los Angeles rapper YG's career would take off in 2011 and remain bullish based on its internal data; his "Who Do You Love" recently hit Number Two on the company's new hip-hop chart. "He's going to be huge," says Stephen Titmus, Shazam's music manager.

"Our data has shown that we can typically predict 33 days in advance what's going to be at the top of the Billboard Hot 100," says Peter Szabo, Shazam's head of music. "It's fun to see the epidemic start to spread  the growth of these songs, starting in a city." 

For decades, even in the iTunes era, label executives had no metrics other than broad record sales or radio ratings to confirm that artists had grown from unknowns to regional stars. Shazam's regional data, though, helped Republic Records realize rapper SoMo's single "Rise" was popular in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Phoenix and other cities outside of his Texas homebase. Armed with the Shazam data, Republic pushed the song to radio programmers in major cities; "Ride" took off and recently shot into iTunes' R&B Top 10.

"In the old days, record companies would rely on SoundScan for weekly sales  and you'd wait a week," says Avery Lipman, founder of Universal Music-owned Republic. "But Shazam is literally in real-time. If you're not careful, you could find yourself drawn to it all day, checking out places like Mineola, New York, or Oshkosh, Wisconsin."

The demand for the data is so high that Shazam is planning to charge people in the record business for a "dashboard" feature, set for release later this year, with more involved statistics. Shazam officials won't say exactly what information they'll offer, but their engineers will work with record executives and artist managers in response to requests.

Some artist reps and label executives appear hungry for it. Veteran manager Terry McBride, whose label Nettwerk helped launch British singer-songwriter Passenger's career last year, says regional Shazam data helps identify radio stations and concert venues so they can make stronger sales pitches. "That's one of the most fascinating early radar touches for touring," he says. "It's a piece of intelligence that is more telling and more timely than anything."

How reliable has discovering talent via Shazam become? On Wednesday, Warner Music Group became the first label to ink a deal with the app, creating a label imprint specifically for artists found through Shazam. 

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