Taylor Swift meets big data: Gogi Gupta works his magic on the music industry

Gogi Gupta, founder of Gupta Media, in his office on Boylston Street. Boston Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki
Gogi Gupta, founder of Gupta Media, in his office on Boylston Street. Boston Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki

Ten years ago, Gogi Gupta started a business at the Cambridge Innovation Center with little more than a computer and an abundance of ideas about how music labels could do a better job marketing their artists online. Today, his company Gupta Media has 43 employees and is a major player in the music industry, running digital marketing for every major star, including all the top nominees at Sunday’s Grammy awards.

His work for Taylor Swift, Sam Smith, Sia and other best-selling artists is featured in today’s Boston Globe. BetaBoston sat down with Gupta to talk about getting started as an entrepreneur, pitching to clients and making water disappear from a cup.

Why did you start your own company?

After I got out of Cornell University, I was fired once and laid off twice. That was devastating. But I also learned something important. I am not very good at working on someone else’s ideas. I realized I wanted to work for myself, and explore the intersection between technology and advertising. I felt we could merge people’s passion for music with advertising online, so I started working on that.

How did you find your first real customer?

I started on the publishing side, trying to help some of my favorite sites monetize their traffic. I worked for Fark.com, which is a bit like Reddit, kind of the granddaddy of all these sites. I reached out to the owner and said that I wanted to help. That site was so popular I wanted to figure out why it was so hard to generate revenue from that. I’ll admit, the “sell side” is much harder than being on the “buy side.”  You are much more restricted in what you can sell. I like control and options, I guess that’s a thing with entrepreneurs, so I like the buying side much better. One of our first music clients was Hollywood Records, part of Disney Music Group. Things took off from there.

How do you pitch your agency to clients?

I tell them: if we are not 10 times better than others then don’t pay us. We are 100 percent data-driven, so the number one thing is that we are transparent about the performance for every ad unit we push out. If you buy an ad from us, you’ll know exactly how it’s doing. We provide our clients real-time data for every ad unit.

You spent eight years at the CIC. Why?

Yes! I think I am the only one who moved to every floor that Tim Rowe built. In the beginning, I could “fake” success by showing potential hires the amazing views and conference rooms, and borrow some of the exciting culture that Tim had created. We absolutely loved being at CIC, it was home. After eight years, we had knocked down every wall Tim would let us and had simply outgrown the space. It was tough to leave, but having our own space has been great.

What is one of the problems the music industry faces that you are working on?

Too many fans, not enough customers. In 2010, for example, Eminem had 32 million fans on social media, Facebook, Twitter and others combined. His album, Recovery, was the best selling album that year. He sold 2.7 million copies of his album that year. That sounds great, until you realize he sold his music to only nine percent of his fans. My goal is to move that number to 15 percent.

How do you do that?

Our approach is as old as advertising — we want to put the right ad in front of the right people at the right time.  Our methodology is called the Four Pillars, which focuses on four types of advertising that are proven to work. 1) Search. When you search for Sam Smith on Google, we put an ad for his music above your search results. With one click, you can buy his songs. 2) Retargeting. You have engaged with an artist by watching her video or sampling one of her songs. We’ll show you ads that make it easy for you to buy her music. 3) Connected fans. You like an artist on social media and we’ll present you with ads for new songs, concert tickets, album sales. 4) Previous buyers. We try to make it as easy as possible for you to buy the music or festival tickets you like, or direct you to your preferred music platform, for example.”

Was there a moment when you realized: I’ve made it?

Yes. In December 2010, Sony hosted an internal summit for its executives in Miami. There were four outside speakers: the heads of iTunes, VEVO, Spotify, and me. I knew that it was a once-in-a-lifetime audience and that my presentation had to be different. I decided to open with a magic trick. I walked out into this massive ballroom, took the CEO’s bottle of water and poured it into a cup. I asked the audience if they had ever “poured their media budget and not gotten anything out” and flipped over the cup to show that the water had disappeared. To this day, no one really remembers what any of us guest speakers said, but everyone remembers the trick.

What’s the next big change for the music industry?

2015 will be the year of streaming. We are moving from a transactional model, where you buy a song or album, to an access model, where you buy the right to listen to millions of songs. It’s about competing for your fans’ time and mindshare. There are only so many hours of the day to listen to music, and the artists that get fans to choose to listen to them, over all the other options, will end up on top.