Interview with the World’s First Music Data Journalist – Liv Buli

Working at Gnip has opened me to just how much social data will change the world. I’ve wanted to start a blog series interviewing the data scientists and data journalists bringing the meaning of social data to life. So when Alex White, CEO of Next Big Sound, told me that they had hired Liv Buli, as an in-house music data journalist, I immediately asked if I could interview her for the blog.


Music Data Journalist

Selecting the World’s First Music Data Journalist

As Liv said, “Next Big Sound pulled me through the wringer.”

Next Big Sound created a multi-step approach to ensure that they hired the right person for a job that was entirely unique – the world’s first music data journalist. After submitting a resume, selected participants were asked to submit a story pitch. Liv decided to submit a story idea about Coachella, which was right around the corner. Coachella has several distinct segments of bands that play – major headliners, newcomers that haven’t played and reunion acts, and Liv’s idea was to use Next Big Sound data to see who was getting the most out of playing at Coachella by looking for increases in fan engagement. I liked how Liv thought about what you could deem the ROI of exposure from a premier music festival.

After making it to the next round, Liv was given access to Next Big Sound’s Premier product and given two days to come up with and submit a story. Liv noted that Next Big Sound compensated applicants financially as a sign of respect for time spent on pulling together their stories. This created a strong signal from the management about how they would treat a future employee. After making it to the next level, Liv was brought in for a three-hour interview before finally being chosen as the winning applicant.

If you thought it would get easier for Liv now that she had the job, Alex told her that all engineers at Next Big Sound have to publish code on their first day, and she would have to publish her first story on her first day to get over that first hump of hesitation. After initially thinking they were crazy, she wrote her story. Making it all worthwhile? The reaction to the post started picking up momentum, the band was sharing it and even Warner Music shared it too.

The Road to Being a Music Data Journalist 

Liv has the perfect background for being a music data journalist – a violinist since six years old, a banking background and a master’s in journalism from NYU. After working at a bank in Norway for several years and becoming very proficient with numbers, Excel and databases, she realized her heart was in journalism. She ended up at NYU’s journalism program, a “very hands-on program.” After graduation, she became an assignment editor for a book project on big data called The Human Face of Big Data. An intense project, she was pitching 10-20 stories a week for 4 to 5 months. It was then she realized how big “big data” really is and that she wanted a career in data journalism, especially since she feels it is the most honest type of journalism there is. You can’t deny what the numbers tell you.

For aspiring data journalists, she says there doesn’t have to be a clear path to obtaining a data journalist job. At the Chicago Tribune, data journalists often started as coders and then fell into journalism, but she thinks all journalists should learn to get comfortable with the numbers.

Numbers Tell the Stories

As we talked about what Liv found most surprising at about diving through Next Big Sound’s trove of data she talked about two interesting use cases of how numbers tell the stories. For example, Liv knew that dabbling in electronica was becoming more popular as she was crunching the numbers. Taking a look at the popular festival Bonnaroo, Liv found that the artists receiving the biggest increase in fans, views and new plays were all sampling in electronica.

Next Big Sound allows you to get alerts on musicians, and one musician Liv was following was seeing an incredible spike in popularity on YouTube. What was so interesting about this to Liv is that this artist was recording and producing songs by himself. She saw it as an empowering movement that musicians could take back control of their careers and that you didn’t need a professional studio and a production team to achieve success. 

Crafting a Story

When I asked Liv about how she crafts stories around Next Big Sound data, she told me that what she actually focuses in on are the stories the music industry should be writing and then uses Next Big Sound data to verify the trends. I loved this analogy because it showed me the advantage of selecting someone who leans on her journalism background rather than looking to tell a marketing story.

An example of this at play is a story Liv wrote. Noticing that more and more bands were using Kickstarter to fund CDs and tours, she profiled artist Alexz Johnson who funded her tour from fans and how Alexz has added 50,000 fans since her Kickstarter campaign. As a fun aside, even I’ve helped fund a Kickstarter campaign for the band Bop Skizzum but didn’t realize music was the largest of the funded categories.

Fellow Data Journalists Doing Cool Work

As I was asking Liv what other data journalism she admired, she mentioned the Guardian data blog noting their amazing job at making data available and accessible in a format that excites people. One specific story she noted was a series from the New York Times,Death and Disarray at America’s Racetracks” which used data from 150,000 horse races to paint stories on where incidents are happening most often and why. As she noted, people knew there were iffy activities happening around the race tracks and this story spells it out by relying on the data.

Liv notes that as there is more data and more access, there will be more data journalism.

Thanks to Liv for her time and for helping us start our blog series. We’ll continue to interview data scientists, data journalists and people doing cool things around social data. Let us know in the comments whom you think we should interview next. 

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