More than 15 billion songs have been identified using Shazam. That's 230 people every second having their ears caught by a tune.
In 2013, Lorde was Shazamed 5.6 million times. That's the kind of data that reshapes an industry — the kind that makes brooding pop stars like Tove Lo (of "Habits" fame) and Charli XCX safe bets. The Atlantic's Derek Thompson recently published an article called "The Shazam Effect" which revealed how all the information we get out of apps like Shazam and services like Facebook is leading to increasingly homogenized music. One pop star's success becomes a precursor for the next, and Shazam is at the helm of providing labels with the "necessary" formula for fame. All this means that nobody wants to take a bet on a new sound or a new artist unless the data supports it.
But anyone who's paying attention to the biggest success story of the last couple years knows better. Lorde's story isn't a story about trends. It's about genuine artistry and human intuition. It proves that all the data-driven assumptions about the music industry are wrong. Greatness can't be predicted with numbers, and Lorde is great.
At 12, Ella Yelich-O'Connor was not yet Lorde. She was just a kid with a good voice. But when A&R rep Scott Maclachlan saw a video of her performing with her school band, Extreme, at a local talent show in Auckland, New Zealand, he knew he'd found something worth exploring. Though Lorde's voice initially struck Maclachlan, it wasn't until they met in person that he saw her raw potential and innate maturity. He started setting up writing sessions between Lorde and a handful of professional songwriters, hoping to find the right mentor to help hone her craft and find a unique sound. He saw great value in giving her space — and time — to develop the kind of music she wanted to create, even when she had no idea yet what she wanted to be.
Still, Maclachlan was sure he had found the right musician to nurture. Two years after signing with Universal Music Group, Lorde was truly writing on her own. Her vocal talent had always been there — any of her early recordings are evidence. But her steadfast work ethic and creative drive had really started taking form under UMG's direction. A label chose Lorde not because she was already popular or because she sounded like anyone else, but because she sounded like she could be something unique. That's the kind of risk labels used to be willing to take way more often. And it's the kind of risk we need to support and recognize if we're going to keep our musical culture alive and well.
"Although the songs weren't perfect, there was real promise in what she was doing," Maclachlan said in an interview. "It's really just about giving feedback; making practical suggestions about arrangement and melody and stuff like that. She would come and play me something that she had been working on .... Then she would come back with something else three months later and it was always an improvement from the last things. That is absolutely key – if you see someone that young progressing with every piece of work they deliver, you know something good is happening."
Soon, she met and began writing with Joel Little, another Auckland-based songwriter and producer who had previously fronted the pop-punk outfit Goodnight Nurse. At first it was difficult for her to find herself on the same page as Little, both emotionally and creatively. But within two weeks of working together, the two had assembled three solid tracks, all featured on Lorde's debut The Love Club EP: "Royals," "Bravado" and "Biting Down." Not long afterwards, Little was standing alongside her on stage at the Grammys, accepting the award for "Royals" as Song of the Year.
Data can tell you what people already like. It can tell you what people can maybe tolerate a bit more of. But it can't tell you where the next zeitgeist will come from — and it can't tell you which 12-year-old needs a few years and the right mentor to write a song that will define a generation.
"The problem these days is that artists get signed and then the clock starts ticking to have to release something," Maclachlan said. "You cannot rush these things. If it's not right, it's not right."
Real art is about risk — and Lorde's story is an important testament to that. Some people are born to royal blood; others weren't but find the crown nonetheless.