Amplify: Design Research and Strategy for Sony

Imagine the future of the music industry

Sony Music asked Modern Human to help them understand the role of music in people’s lives, the true nature of fandom and the possible future directions for the music industry. We took them deep undercover, using remote ethnography to explore the peripheries of mass culture with music fans, gamers, cosplayers and social media nano-influencers in South Korea and the UK.The result was 5 distinct opportunity spaces for the future of music and the role of record labels.

We have hit peak attention economy. Consumers have no more spare time left to fill which means that they have to start prioritising their entertainment choices.

Sony Music asked Modern Human to carry out a deep exploration of the role of music and podcasting within the entertainment ecosystem. They wanted to better understand how record labels can adapt to seismic changes in technology and culture, by exploring the role of audio in consumers’ busy and demanding lives.

A global Experience

Our research needed to reflect the global experience of music - we identified South Korea and the UK as juxtaposing markets and established parallel research streams with keen media consumers in both countries. Our participants were fanatical about music, gaming, cosplaying and social media, allowing us to witness the extremes of media consumption behaviour and get a better understanding of how people with obsessive interests explore and experiment with different media platforms.

Using a mixed-method approach, our researchers were able to go deep undercover in our participants’ lives, unravelling their complex relationships with different media formats and the role they play in their day-to-day activities. A remote shadowing study provided us with rich contextual data about how and when our participants engaged with different media - where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, and how they felt before and after. Research tasks enabled us to dive even deeper into the day to day experiences of our participants, teasing out more information about how they engage with different types of media, while exit interviews allowed us to further unpick participants' behaviours and motivations.

In addition to our international participants, we also conducted a series of interviews with stakeholders from multiple business areas within Sony Music. This helped us to get a better understanding of Sony’s overall vision for the project, as well as the challenges facing different areas of the business. We conducted research with stakeholders located across Europe, the US and Asia, enabling us to perfectly tailor our research insights to the challenges faced by Sony Music. . The results of our interviews also informed our research approach going forward.

Unravelling the media ecosystem

Our research insights were rich and nuanced, revealing the real position of music and audio-first content in the complicated ecosystem of entertainment. We found that music is unrivalled in its ability to elicit physiological arousal, and was without exception the only media format perceived by participants to improve their performance in a physical task.

Our research also further highlighted the role of audio content as a format for mood management. This function of music has been well documented in academic literature, however the nature of our research gave us a deeper insight into the intersection of entertainment formats in mood management across cultures. For example in the UK, where social media is often divisive, participants were found to withdraw from social media platforms and instead use music as a means of protecting their mental health during times of increased stress or low mood. Conversely in South Korea, where social media content is predominantly entertainment focussed, participants tended to engage with it more during periods of stress or low mood, as it acted as a form of escapism.

In addition to the physiological and emotional effects of music consumption, we also uncovered f how the cultural functions of music have been impacted by the advent of alternative media formats. In the UK in particular, the function of music as a means of cultural surveillance and commentary has been diminished by the immediacy of digital content. Further to this, the digitisation of music and the popularity of digital streaming platforms has impacted music’s ability to create and strengthen social bonds by removing our ability to use music as an outward representation of identity.

Utilising the available bandwidth

Within the wider media landscape,music was found to demand the least attention and is therefore often used to accompany complex tasks that would otherwise be made significantly more difficult with the distraction of video or podcast content. Similarly when it came to the impact of contextual factors such as our environment, access to technology or social setting, music was found to be least affected.

As the least cognitively and contextually demanding media choice, music holds a certain advantage over other formats. People are more likely to choose music over podcasts, videos or interactive media when in social situations or carrying out cognitively demanding work. However this in turn works as a disadvantage when there is nothing else drawing our focus - at times when people are able to dedicate their full attention to the media they are consuming, they are less likely to choose music alone as it doesn’t occupy enough of their attention.

Understanding the value of a fan

Going undercover in our participants' lives also enabled us to get a much more comprehensive understanding of the experience of fandoms. A number of distinct phases of fandom emerged during the primary research, each with unique motivations and behaviour sets. It also became clear that people rarely belong to just one fandom. The multifaceted nature of human beings means that the majority of people have a number of interests. For each interest, a person is likely to operate in a different phase of fandom. Using these insights, we created a new model for the phases of fandom, as well as the interplay of different fandoms within an individual’s experience. Understanding the journey through the phases of fandom, as well as the relationship with parallel interests, opens up diverse opportunities for innovation.

Particularly interesting was the contrast between fandoms in the UK and South Korea, where fandoms are already highly monetised. The willingness of fans in South Korea to spend money as part of their fan experience is influenced by a number of societal factors, including the hyper consumerist culture and the Korean custom of monetary gifting. Korean culture places an emphasis on showcasing one’s status through material belongings. This motivates fans to spend money in order to showcase their own level of fan-ship. Record labels have further incentivised fan spending, by creating paid-for platforms that allow direct interaction with artists and offer increased chances of winning an in-person experience with an artist, depending on how much a fan spends.

Through our insights we identified a number of areas of opportunity for Sony Music to improve the experience of fans interacting with musical content. We created a Strategic Framework to enable the Sony team to take our findings forward. The Strategic Framework overlays the key research findings with Sony’s unique business challenges in such a way as to offer prioritised directive statements rather than definitive solutions, The Framework has guided the Sony team’s next steps. We also developed a series of creative territories, which can be used to further explore the business challenges relating to the project.

We used both the Strategic Framework and the creative territories as a starting point for a visioning workshop with Sony stakeholders, and during co-design workshops with participants. Using the directive statements laid out in the framework, we conceived and then developed a number of concepts related to the opportunity spaces. These concepts acted as creative thought-starters and gave both the Modern Human and Sony teams an opportunity to explore and validate the opportunity spaces identified in the research phase.

The findings from our research are being used by the Sony Music team, who are in the process of disseminating the information and establishing work streams related to the opportunity spaces.