Impressions of Influence

Garrett Swenson
Jul 14, 2017 · 6 min read

Digital content spreads fast. Really fast. Technology has been reshaping the way we consume digital content for decades, and each year we are learning new implications of what this means for the music industry and music consumption as a whole.

Team Blue started by investigating how different monetization methods could combine with new technology and music consumption trends. The brief we were given is as follows:

Compensating musicians for visual works using their songs as data.

We found that by and large, music consumers are consistently searching for new music experiences that go beyond a more casual listening session. This lead us to investigate different methods to bring those experiences to consumers, while reinventing the way it is monetized.

However, throughout our research and development phases, we seemed to be circling back to topics concerning artist’s influence and their brand identity. Specifically, we were compelled by an all too familiar problem: attribution has become lost because of how fast content spreads throughout the internet. Not only does content disseminate quickly, it’s also being reinterpreted (or misinterpreted) along the way, and every time it changes hands something is removed or something is added. In either case, the link back to the original artist and their intention becomes lost.


Team Blue is working on tracking the influence of an artist in order to reclaim the lost attribution. The most important insight regarding an artist’s influence is that:

fan-communities understand the influence of music artists better than any other entity.

We dived into this aspect of influence by first understanding the way artist’s brands contribute to this influence and how they have evolved over time.

Artists and Brand Identity — Past

Our music consumption is no longer limited to music. It has become increasingly more important for listeners to be exposed to experiences in addition to music. The musical brands and identities that artist embody lend itself to this. They are complex universes of experiences. This, of course, is nothing new. When we look back at great artists like David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Queen, and Elvis Presley, we see trends of strong brand presence. For example, David Bowie completely changed the style and sound of rock’n’roll and is often credited with the creation of glam-rock. The flair of his brand and the fearlessness of it’s execution ignited a new authenticity to the music scene. Additionally, Michael Jackson revolutionized visual story telling and how that intersects with songwriting. He understood imagery and performance like no other.

Neither of these could have happened through music alone. These influential artists became cultural icons, deeply embedded into our society. This type of influence is accomplished through precise image and brand development.

What exactly is a brand? A brand refers to a name, symbol, or aesthetic that represents products or services. What does this mean as a consumer? It simply means that the way you experience a product or service will be fairly close to your expectations of it. For example, when you open a can of Coke, the taste you experience will most likely be identical to your expectation of it. Similarly, when David Bowie releases new music, we can expect a certain quality and aesthetic from it. What does this mean for music artists? It is a process to claim individuality amongst thousands of other competitors.

In the past, brands were composed of material and experiences that were monetized through physical products. Whether that is CD and vinyl purchases, live shows, or merchandise goods. Today’s monetization works a little differently.

Artist and Brand Identity — Present

In today’s industry, not much has changed when it comes to the importance of brands. We see even the smallest artists today are carefully considering their image, style, and overall aesthetic. However, the way that these brands are monetized and then disseminated is drastically different. CD and vinyl purchases have been replaced with instant access to an artist’s entire discography and the ability to stream it anywhere. Almost all of their content is now consumed digitally. Not only that, but consumption of derivative works now plays a much larger role in the story of an artist’s influence. Fan-made content is create and spread on the internet with more frequency than ever before. Derivative and fan-made content is a reflection of an artist’s image and adds new participation avenues for the fan community to interact with.

What does this mean for artists? Tracking the usage and appearance of their image or art has become much more difficult because it has become fractured; appearing in numerous locations and often appearing incomplete and detached from it’s original creators.

Fractured Content

With the help of modern technology, content related to an artist can easily reach a large number of people, and may be seen in any number of forms, but it often loses it’s connection to the creator along the way. This leads to an ambiguous understanding of influence within an artist’s community. Whereas there used to be tangible metrics to show the true impact of creative content, there is now an endless stream of tweets and bootleg mixes and media articles hosted with a great deal of inconsistency across an extremely large number of platforms, all of which are competing for the attention of music fans.

Team Blue discovered that in order to identify data surrounding the influence of an artist, we must abandon the old models of counting plays and sales.

There is only one entity capable of measuring the influence on the community and that is the community itself.

The influence of the future is measured by assembling fractured content inspired by the artist and quantifying the network of creative inspiration through the lens of the impacted audience themselves.

Artists and their followers are hungry for more reliable and accessible ways to interact and discover content with each other. But in an era of so many communities and resources built around creating and sharing content, it isn’t surprising how confused and entangled the industry has become.

This disparity exists not only in the realm of popular, mainstream content, but even more so as we begin to look at derivative works. Too many artists, fans, and their creative content are scattered, disconnected and disengaged. Influence is right in front of us, but at the same time we can’t see it.

Understanding Influence in the Future

How might we reassemble this growing network of fractured content? We want to disentangle this network of undiscovered relationships, influences and moments within the world of music, and to illuminate the preexisting connections not yet visible to the passionate communities of music artists.

One method to solve this is by crowdsourcing attribution data and the provenance of influence, by engaging with the different communities who appreciate the art of their favorite artists. It’s a crowdsourcing method that relies on the quality of the individuals contributing, rather than the volume of them. Drake fans will be able to highlight influential moments of his career better than anyone else, and Frank Ocean fans understand how his influence effects derivative content better than anyone else. Moving forward, we should consider designing around the fan’s understanding of influence.

By designing a platform that enables communities to crowdsource data on derivative content and trace it back to original artists, we can discover the spread of influence in completely new and, as of yet, untraced way. It is impossible to slow the dispersion of content and it’s inevitable fracturing. So instead we will catch up to it, and maybe, in the future, we can finally find ourselves ahead of it.

The Open Music Initiative

Berklee’s Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship co-founded the Open Music Initiative to promote open source standards and innovation for music, and to assure compensation for all music creators, performers and rights holders. We share our stories here.

Thanks to Eric Chan.

Garrett Swenson

Written by

OMI Summer Lab 2017 Fellow. Analyzing applications of Blockchain technology for digital rights contracts with IDEO and the MIT Media Lab.

The Open Music Initiative

Berklee’s Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship co-founded the Open Music Initiative to promote open source standards and innovation for music, and to assure compensation for all music creators, performers and rights holders. We share our stories here.