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We’ve called SK Sharma an ‘AI expert’ in the headline above, but it hardly does him justice.
We could have just as easily called him an expert on theoretical chemical physics, marketing analytics, computational biophysics, or antimicrobial therapeutics.
Granted, ‘AI expert’ was snappier.
In his twenties, Sharma – who grew up in Watts, L.A, and attended the same school as NWA’s Eazy-E – graduated with a Ph.D in Chemical Physics and Biophysical Chemistry from Caltech.
He went on to create medical pharmaceuticals, before turning his hand to analyzing markets for the likes of Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers.
Along the way, he began managing investments, using data science to help guide his clients’ money. Amongst his early bets? Tesla, owned by that shrinking violet, Elon Musk.
From there, Sharma went on an impressive run as an entrepreneur: To date, he has either been a co-founder or a Partner / equity owner in four startups, in multiple fields, that have each exited for over $100 million.
And then, in 2016, he took a sharp turn into the music business – joining Ingrooves Music Group, the global distribution and services provider for indie artists and labels.
Sharma was hired by then-Ingrooves CEO, Bob Roback, to lead Ingrooves’ development of patented technology.
The aim of this patented tech was not only to help independent artists perform better on streaming platforms, but also to give Ingrooves itself a crucial USP against its rivals in the competitive world of distribution and services for indie artists and labels.
So far, that mission is going rather well: Ingrooves first successfully patented tech underpinning its ‘Smart Audience’ platform in 2020.
The other week, it announced that it had won its second US patent for further developments on this tech.
The company claims that Smart Audience now drives a volume of streams for artists amounting to more than double the plays they would have received via traditional digital marketing methods.
It’s an interesting time at Ingrooves right now: the company, which has rapidly expanded globally since being acquired by Universal Music Group in 2019, is currently looking for a new CEO, following the announced departure of Roback earlier this year.
In this latest MBW Podcast (supported by Voly Music), SK Sharma discusses Ingrooves’ strategy, the music business’s relationship with technology – and why, in his view, the “defining characteristic of success” for any new-fangled inventions in music (see: metaverse, NFTs etc.) is “going to be separating the bullshit from the facts”.
You can listen to the Podcast interview above, or read an abridged/edited version below…
could you briefly explain what Ingrooves’ patented technology actually is?
In a nutshell, the way we think about our second patent – which encompasses a Smart Audience platform – [is] really about analyzing the way that a particular piece of content is being consumed with respect to something like source of play. So you can think about active [listening] versus passive [listening] in that regard.
“[This tech] identifies audiences who have not yet been strongly exposed to that track, but are nevertheless highly likely to engage with that promoted track, given their current consumption patterns.”
This analysis effectively informs targeting that reaches both a currently engaged audience of a track – and obviously nurtures that engagement further. But [it] also starts to identify audiences who have not yet been strongly exposed to that track, but are nevertheless highly likely to engage with that promoted track, given their current consumption patterns.
So, in a nutshell, [it’s] a lot like Netflix.
that’s not ambitious at all! why was Ingrooves so determined to develop patented pieces of technology? and why was it important for that to be developed internally as opposed to externally?
A big part of that for us early on – and this obviously predates the UMG acquisition in 2019 – [was] to really think about an opportunity where we had to be smarter than everyone else.
We had to use what was, at the time, a set of creative skills to think about how we wanted to enable our artists and our labels to ‘win’ in an [industry] that was changing very quickly [with] all sorts of retailers coming online.
There were a lot of conversations about how to get your music heard, or how to grow your audience, but there was very little actually being done, frankly, outside of say, Spotify, to demonstrate to artists and labels that there was real value in going down this path. We took it as a challenge.
“we realized: we’re a bunch of scientists and engineers and mathematicians, and we’ve [built] something that’s incredibly valuable. It makes sense to own that.”
We’re music lovers. I came from outside the music industry, my entire team came from outside the music industry, we’ve come to be extraordinarily thankful for the opportunity to work in the music industry.
But after a while, we realized: we’re a bunch of scientists and engineers and mathematicians, and we’ve [built] something that’s incredibly valuable. It makes sense to own that. And it makes sense to iterate and make that better and smarter over time, as opposed to simply relying on someone else who frankly, may or may not really love the music the same way we do.
how has universal’s acquisition of Ingrooves – and subsequent investment in Ingrooves – allowed you to play on a different level?
We’re very thankful to the leadership team at Universal Music Group: Bob [Roback] has been very clear about thanking [UMG Chairman/CEO] Sir Lucian Grainge, and [UMG CFO] Boyd Muir, in particular, for their continued support of our business.
[The UMG deal] has really catalyzed our growth in the sense that it’s expanded our access to information. And it’s expanded our action space as well.
“we have access to the richest set of music data in the entire world, courtesy of our parent company.”
Previously, our algorithms, while extraordinarily robust and scalable, were based on the data that we had adding groups. Now we have access to the richest set of music data in the entire world, courtesy of our parent company. It’s made us smarter, and more prescriptive.
We’re able to interrogate hypotheses in a much more expansive way, and partner very collaboratively with [our] colleagues that UMG. The whole thing just gets better, smarter, quicker, faster.
Could you just give us a flavor of your background before you came to the music business?
Absolutely. I have a PhD in Chemical Physics and Biophysical Chemistry from Caltech. I’m actually a physicist by training; I’m a drug design scientist. So I’ve got 14 or 15 peer reviewed publications, in fields that have become much more relevant to people these days – given the pandemic, obviously.
But I’ve worked on small molecule antagonist design and designing peptide therapeutics, and had a successful therapeutic drug in clinical trials.
I [then] broke away from that, I worked at Goldman Sachs and worked at Lehman Brothers. I was a quant, I was a bit of a bond trader for a while, I worked in Switzerland, and was the Chief Investment Officer for a venture capital fund. And at some point I worked as a strategy consultant.
So I’ve done a couple interesting things that really just sort of driven by my desire to solve problems, and work with people I really like working with.
So I’m extraordinarily fortunate that there’s no shortage of problems to solve in this business! And I’m incredibly thankful for people I get to work with at Ingrooves.
When you came into the music industry, what were the things that bemused you? what took you aback in the way that the music industry worked, particularly as it pertains to its relationship with technology?
I’ve been incredibly humbled by listening to folks and learning from people. But, as you say, there’s certainly things where you scratch your head and go, ‘Did that really happen? Did someone just say that?’
I think initially, that was [because of a] lack of contextualization.
Now everyone’s talking about machine learning and AI – like everyone’s an expert – but I can tell you back in 2016, it wasn’t a thing. Very few people were talking about this stuff in the music industry outside of Spotify.
People were like: ‘Where’s this gonna go? Why would we do any of this stuff? What is this really gonna mean?’
“there’s certainly been things [in music] where you scratch your head and go, ‘Did that really happen? Did someone just say that?’”
That was a bit unusual for me, because I was used to being in roles where innovation and R&D drove success and growth.
Being a scientist, you’re used to failure; it’s okay to test a theory. It’s the right thing to interrogate a hypothesis and go: ‘Hey, mea culpa, it didn’t work out. Let’s move on to something else.’
Early on in the music industry, I was sort of taken aback sometimes by people going: ‘I don’t fail; I just don’t fail. You don’t ever want to fail!’
Embracing failure as a natural part of growth, and accepting how you can learn from that and do better, is something I’ve always embraced.
I was surprised that was not necessarily an attitude that was embraced by some of the folks I met in the music industry early on.
As we move into the next phase of music – a world of AI music, the metaverse, all of these things that are emerging – what to you is perhaps standing out as something that will have a really big impact on the music industry and the artists operating within it?
You’ve highlighted a lot of the emerging aspects of technology, things that fall under the Web3 umbrella. It’s really hard to pinpoint one thing because there’s multiple things that move in lockstep.
This is probably going to sound a little trite, but I mean it with sincerity: I think the most important and the most impactful thing is actually going to be positive and accurate education [for artists and labels].
Whether it’s around royalties, whether it’s around increased opportunities for monetization – particularly the conversation around NFTs and the metaverse – I think the defining characteristic of success here is going to be separating the bullshit from the facts.
“Whether it’s around royalties, whether it’s around increased opportunities for monetization – particularly the conversation around NFTs and the metaverse – I think the defining characteristic of success here is going to be separating the bullshit from the facts.”
It’s experimenting and [finding] things that work, things that we can get behind, stake our professional reputation [on], and go: ‘This looks like it’s going to help [artists] get to where they want to go.’
A lot of things that you mentioned, I think we’re all very excited about, but we want to insure that we de-risk that as much as possible with accurate information and proper education. So that we’re actually partnering with artists and labels as strong marketers and as true marketers, not just like: ‘You got to get behind this next big thing, which may or may not make you any money, or increase the awareness of your music.’
Where do you see Ingrooves headed over the next five to ten years?
I’m so thankful to work with the kinds of people that we do – not just on my team, but across the board at the company. [So] it’s ultimately our people, right?
This is a people business, no matter what anyone says. We’re never talking about using algorithms to replace people; that bullshit, right? We don’t want to use algorithms to replace people. We want to supplement intelligence.
“We don’t want to use algorithms to replace people. We want to supplement intelligence.”
So given that it’s a people business, frankly, it’s our people that are responsible for driving the success that you talked about – the notable accomplishments over the past few years.
What I can tell you with complete honesty is that I am incredibly excited to build upon that solid foundation, that infrastructure, as we continue to move forward with our absolutely obsessive goal to be the most impactful strategic marketing partner for artists and labels.
MBW’s podcasts are supported by Voly Music. Voly’s platform enables music industry professionals from all sectors to manage a tour’s budgets, forecasts, track expenses, approve invoices and make payments 24/7, 365 days a year. For more information and to sign up to a free trial of the platform, visit VolyMusic.com.