Sonic Boom: Sound As Audience Signal
And You Shall Know Us By The Music We Listen To
This is part 3 of an essay series about the creative potential of sound. Start with Part 1 and Part 2 before reading this one.
Sound as Audience Signal
Fun Pop Quiz: which of the below are most likely to be useful in defining or identifying the actual people you’re hoping to connect with?
i) The sneakers they wear.
ii) The high-street retailer they shop with.
iii) The music they listen to.
Both of my readers are far too intelligent to pick anything other than option iii), but marketers often segment audiences out of their own lives and define them exclusively by their relationship to low-interest categories. In doing so, we’re often over-looking a much more revealing relationships with a very high-interest category which is the soundtrack to the most meaningful moments of many people’s lives.
I recently went to The Design Museum’s Sneakers Exhibition, which was a love letter to a lost era of musical sub-cultures. It used to be that people’s favoured music and the associated scene revealed where they hung out, what clothes they wore, and what drugs they took.
Once, if you knew that someone was a Northern Soul fan, you didn’t just know that they like break-dancing to fast Motown records and spent their weekends in Wigan Casino, you also knew that they spent most of their money on baggy trousers, Fred Perry clothing, brogues and cheap speed. As audience knowledge goes, that’s a pretty strong start.
Even in an era where sub-cultures arrive and collapse in days, choices in music are likely to be pretty suggestive of a range of behaviours including brand preferences, and in some cases artists will even drive this directly, either through:
1) Calling out brands specifically in the lyrics to their songs:
“These bitches want Nikeeeeeeeeees” - Frank Ocean
2) Through direct merchandising (even if only a few of the lucky and/or damned can get hold of Lil Nas X’s Satan shoes).
3) By being lifestyle brands in and of themselves- Travis Scott has his own Cacti Spiked Seltzer drink, McDonald’s Happy Meal and associated merch, innumerable Jordan Brand Sneaker Collaborations, and a Reese’s Puffs line.
The pinnacle of this is Kanye’s quest to use the audience his music has bought him to become God-Emperor of a sprawling network of inter-linked products and services.
Everyone (I hope) knows about the dangers of generationally profiling people according to the year they were born, but adding music into this throws it into new light: do rap fans born in 1980 have far more in common with rap fans in 2020 than they do with people born in the same year as them who like country music?
Yes, things are less clear-cut than when membership of one musical tribe and the uniform that went with it meant being banished from another, but choices in music can still tell you a lot about someone.
This isn’t just a case for the brands and products they buy - it works for political parties as well. A piece of data analysis last year revealed that in America, musical genres map onto people’s voting preferences and the country’s partisan political divide.Areas that showed a strong Obama-Trump swing in the 2016 election also had over-indexed on being hotbeds of hard rock & heavy metal lovers. Blue States and cities over-index on hip-hop and RnB, and southern heartland states prefer country and folk.
To put it bluntly, people’s sonic tastes - both current, and nostalgic - are highly revealing about who they are, who they once were, and sometimes who they would like to be.
“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” - Victor Hugo
You learn far more about your mother as a human being in the moment you see her dance to a song she first fell in love to than from knowing the make of car she drives; you understand far more about your father watching him cry along to a terrace anthem from the long-lost summer of ‘96 then by knowing the laundry detergent he uses. You can probably spot a man having a mid-life crisis from their Spotify playlists, and the same goes for someone who’s just been dumped.
There is already a dating app that lets you match according to taste in music. If it’s good enough for picking your sexual and/or life partners, it’s good enough to define an audience for marketing activity.
Knowing what music someone listens to isn’t just an opportunity for high-handed judgement or pissing contests about who heard a band first. What if we started thinking about our audiences less in terms of what categories they buy, demographics or psychographics, but more in terms of the genres and sub-genres they listen to? What do they get down to, tune out to, get wound up to?
This would get us from fairly boilerplate - and apparently permissible - marketing audience definitions like the following:
“We’re talking to climate-conscious Gen Z who are ready to change the game!,
“Our audience are mums.” (that’s it. That’s the audience definition)
To more human and emotional frames, such as:
We want to stimulate the nostalgia reflex of early Millennials to remind them of the first time they took Class A drugs by playing something off “Is This It?” by The Strokes.
Let’s reach 20-25 year-olds who use Japanese ambient and horrorcore as a soundtrack to their growing sense of existential dread and hopelessness.
We wish to reconnect 40-something parents to their younger selves via the house music they used to bash pills to.
Music is also inherently inclusive: the pits of gigs, festival tents and dancefloors - assuming entry doesn’t require ridiculously over-priced tickets - are some of the few remaining public spaces left in cultural life where you will find fans swapping sweat and space with people with whom they wouldn’t be seen dead sharing the same online filter bubble.
Music is both uniquely universal - think about how bands and artists can bring people together across time and space - and as local as it’s possible to be. Scenes will often gather around a sound, a part of a city, a community, a block, or even a particular bar.
It’s both a uniquely personal way of talking to an individual and a means of cutting through to touch the hearts and minds of mass crowds that might otherwise have very little in common.
So sound and music are an under-utilised way of identifying and speaking not to a ‘consumer’, but a human being at their most emotional and essential. If sound choices offer a host of clues to taste, voting preferences, the products they might like, and lifestage, then a few a potentially useful questions to consider:
What does your audience’s sonic world look like? How might their listening habits change dependent on context, and what does it reveal about their emotional mindset?
How do your audience’s music listening habits reveal not just who they are, but who they’d like to be (or used to be and would like to reconnect with)?
How might their musical preferences hint at what products, services or causes they might be open to or not?
Where could sound-first media reach someone in a different state of mind or moment to video?
How could sound evoke a moment in time, chapter of someone’s life, or particular set of positive memories?
Could you use a moment of sound or music to bring together disparate or fragmented audiences who you would otherwise struggle to reach in the same place, moment or media?
Complex, “A Timeline of Travis Scott’s Brand Collaborations”, September 2020. Travis Scott is so prolific that this timeline is likely to be massively out of date already.
BBH Labs, “Puncturing the Paradox: Group Cohesion and the Generational Myth,” 5th August 2020, courtesy of Harry Guild
Source: The Economist, “Why Obama-Trump swing voters like heavy metal,” November 16th 2019
I’m prepared to reveal which client briefing documents I stole these definitions from to anyone who crosses my palm with Ethereum.