Measuring Consumer Tastes in Popular Music

Jerry Shulman, CBS Records
ABSTRACT - Measuring consumer taste in the dynamic popular music arena is a challenge. CBS Records has developed a comprehensive consumer monitoring system, as part of its marketing intelligence efforts. This paper outlines that system and discusses some illustrative research findings.
[ to cite ]:
Jerry Shulman (1980) ,"Measuring Consumer Tastes in Popular Music", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 25-27.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 25-27


Jerry Shulman, CBS Records


Measuring consumer taste in the dynamic popular music arena is a challenge. CBS Records has developed a comprehensive consumer monitoring system, as part of its marketing intelligence efforts. This paper outlines that system and discusses some illustrative research findings.


Marketing research is well established in CBS Records. CBS has been the industry leader in music research since the 1950's when the Marketing Research Department was officially established. Its mission is to provide CBS management with the most accurate and reliable industry information through the development and maintenance of various market intelligence systems.


Doing research in an industry as dynamic as the music business is no easy task. There are over 4,000 record companies actively releasing new records. Each year 100 new companies are established. More than 5,000 records and tapes are released annually. The number of different artists who make recordings number in the tens of thousands.

Not only is research compounded by the sheer number of artists and selections available for purchase, but also by the short life span of each recording. Typically, the full life cycle of most recordings is only 90 days. Moreover, most recordings sell fewer than 100,000 copies and locating purchasers of these selections is like trying to find the proverbial "needle in a haystack."


In addressing the issue of consumer tastes in popular music, the first task is to define the various components of music taste as presented in Exhibit 1.



1. Configuration

2. Repertoire

3. Performer

4. Selection/Song


Configuration refers to the consumers' preference for different physical forms of popular music, e.g., LP's, tapes and singles, purchased separately or in combination. Repertoire refers to the type of music consumers prefer, e.g., country, rock/pop, etc. The performer, of course, refers to the artist or the group purchased. Selection refers to the particular album or individual song that is favored desired.

Consumer preferences for music configurations are well documented in music research. Although LP's account for the largest portion of consumer sales, one-third of the industry's recent growth has come from tapes. Between 1975-1977, tape sales have increased by some 40 million units. In 1978, unit tape sales increased by an additional 20 million. Tapes now represent almost 30% of all purchases.

The tape growth has been experienced by both types of tape configurations also. Eight-track purchases increased by almost half, but cassette purchases quadrupled. You can see that the relationship between 8-track and cassette is about two to one. And if this rate of cassette growth continues - as we expect - cassette sales will soon equal 8-track sales.


Repertoire refers to the type of music consumers prefer. Consumer tastes in repertoire are also carefully monitored. In 1978, Rock/Pop, R&B and Soundtracks dominated the market, with these three Contemporary music categories representing almost 70% of all LP and tape sales. We consider 1978 to be the year of the soundtrack, with Saturday Night Fever and Grease representing well over 20 million consumer sales. Although Market Research did not track Disco music until the end of 1978, we estimate that it accounted for approximately 5% of purchases.

The Performer and the Selection/Song

Consumer tastes and preferences for specific performers, artists or groups are reflected directly in industry sales.

Although popular music listeners are no doubt familiar with many of the industry's superstars, these represent only a small portion of total records released. In fact, of the thousands of artists releasing records during 1978, fewer than 100 sold one million LP's or tapes throughout the U.S. These were the best selling releases: Saturday Night Fever and Grease led the list, followed by Billy Joel's The Stranger, Foreigner's Double Vision, Barry Manilow and so on.


CBS Records Market Research uses four major research approaches for monitoring consumer tastes in popular music. These include:

1) National Buyer Survey;

2) An on-going Consumer Panel;

3) Monitoring of leading trade publications;

4) Special topic focused consumer surveys.

The National Buyer Survey

Beginning in 1974, each year CBS conducts three custom-designed national probability studies with over 6,000 households and 7,500 individuals, including special teen and black sub-samples. The surveys provide comprehensive profiles of record and tape buyers and non-buyers, allow us to ask various special marketing questions, and provide benchmarks for our Consumer Panel.

The On-going Consumer Panel

To study music buying trends by artist, by type of music and by demographic groups, in 1973 CBS developed an exclusive Consumer Panel of over 8,000 record and tape buyers. This is a quota sample of individuals selected to match the characteristics of record and tape buyers we obtained from our National Surveys. For example, if the National Studies show 55% of all buyers are female, then 55% of those selected for the panel are female, and so on.

Panelists report each time they buy via a special postcard which includes date, type of purchase, artist, title, type of music, where bought, price paid and other information. Each year, we code, edit and process well over 65,000 cards received from panelists.

The Consumer Panel is calibrated in the following way. The National Buyer profiles are used to select the consumer panel sample from a "pool" of respondents who have been screened as having music equipment and other characteristics. The purchase cards received are then weighted up to national levels through a complex weighting scheme which takes demographics and purchasing behavior into account. Based on this data basis, national projections of market share, repertoire and top artist sales can be made.

The panel is dynamic--respondents leave each month or are dropped and must be replaced. This requires continual monitoring of panel composition and reporting. In addition, the artist and company files are continually updated, since artists change labels frequently, and companies establish new distribution arrangements periodically.

One of the more difficult aspects of the panel operation is monitoring repertoire trends. In principle, the approach is simple--each artist is assigned to a particular repertoire category. Then, cumulated sales of all artists classified Rock, Easy Listening, Country and so on are analyzed. The initial classifications are based on whether the artist has had greatest success at Rock, Soul or Country radio stations, whether he obtains listing on the Rock, Soul or Country trade charts, as well as a subjective evaluation of the type of music he performs.

For new artists, this process becomes more difficult. The classification assignment must depend on industry sources, record reviews, and a general familiarity with the artist and his music for proper classification. But, as you'd expect, hundreds of artists--especially those on competitive labels--are totally unfamiliar. In these cases, the consumers themselves assign the artist to a repertoire category via the purchase card classification system. However, this is far from perfect.

To illustrate, look at some artists who have been classified as Country performers such as Glen Campbell. Reflected in Exhibit 2, among consumers, 75% call Glen a Country artist. But, 15% call him an Easy Listening artist, and 10% call him a Pop artist. Nonetheless, the Country classification certainly seems right for Glen.

But look at some other artists for whom the Country profile is less clear. Mac Davis is considered a Country artist by one-third of the sample, while more than half call him an Easy Listening or Pop performer. The situation becomes even less clear with Kris Kristofferson, who regardless of a very strong Country music base, is considered a Soft/Folk artist by almost half of all purchasers. Finally, Jimmy Buffet - a Country artist who has had some recent Popular success on Top 40 and Rock radio. As a result, he has "crossed over" from Country to the broader Pop/Rock market where over 80% of his sales occur. Because of these successes, he will be reclassified into the Soft Rock category, and his sales will contribute to that repertoire classification. The classification of artists into repertoire categories for means of monitoring those trends requires a constant review, analysis and updating, as their appeal to various demographics and music taste categories shift.



Monitoring of Leading Trade Publications

Another important source of information involves monitoring of leading trade publications, most notably, Billboard. Billboard ranks the top selling selections in the industry each week and these are monitored very closely. We monitor Billboard's Pop charts, R&B charts, Country charts for both LP's and singles. And in 1979, we began monitoring the new Disco charts and Jazz charts. Because the charts are the fastest indicators of market acceptance of new artists and types of music, we watch these very closely.

Special Consumer Surveys

The fourth category of market research activities is special consumer surveys. All of the traditional research techniques are utilized: telephone surveys, personal interviews and mail surveys to carry out a wide range of advertising tests, media usage surveys, and artist image studies.

Because of the difficulty in locating purchasers of new artists, Market Research has developed a postcard survey called the "Record Rater." Postcards are inserted in albums to get early reading on the buyers of new and developing artists. These surveys have been invaluable in providing management with input for marketing plans and programs, as well as informing talent managers of the specific selections on an album most preferred by listeners.

Qualitative research techniques are also used extensively. Depth interviews and focus group research play an important part in market intelligence studies. Gradually, a model of consumer attitudes and opinions as they relate to lifestyle indicators and popular music involvement is developing.


CBS Records has conducted extensive psychological research focused on segmenting the consumer popular music market. Based on that research, four major segments have been identified that typify the life cycle of recorded music. The segments have been labeled:

1) "Top 40's"

2) "Sophisticates"

3) "Straights"

4) "Uninterested"

"Top 40' s"

"Top 40's" are the youngest consumers, more likely to be high school students, who say they're music freaks and who use music to win social status and peer influence. For the most part the "Top 40's" are impulse buyers and are not highly price sensitive. For them, records are a necessity and they actively pursue acquiring a large record collection.


The "Sophisticates" are older than the "Top 40's", and include a large number of college students. Because they've had a chance to sample various music styles during their younger years, they are more knowledgeable and sophisticated about music and appreciate it for its own sake. They like diverse musical styles. The "Sophisticates'' use music to express the feelings and emotions they cannot express.


The third major segment has been labeled the "Straights." Today's "Straights" were the Woodstock generation of the 1960's. They're out of school, and close to 30 years old. Although the "Straights" say music is still very important to their lives, they prefer softer music styles which they can use as background to do other things, such as dance or socializing. Because they've been collecting records for some time, their desire to purchase new recordings diminishes as interest in out-of-home activities, such as going to movies, concerts, eating out, etc. increases. Nonetheless, the "Straights" can't imagine a time when music isn't an important part of their life.


The final segment is the older still, the "Uninterested" group. The "Uninterested" segment is older and no longer pays attention to music. Rather music is used as background to other activities. As such, the "Uninterested'' group is listening to music less than even before and the radio fulfills their more limited music needs.


In summary, measuring consumer tastes in popular music has proven valuable to CBS Records. By understanding consumer market segmentation and by tracking changing consumer attitudes toward the components of music taste, CBS Records is better able to plan consistent and impactful creative efforts in the popular music market.