Thick Data – Not Big Data

big data computer

How Artists can build their audience by Utilising Data

Big Data produces information, whereas Thick Data is all about telling stories. Susanna Eastburn, from Sound and Music, shares the key points of her talk at Creativeworks London’s Creative Data Club.

These days composers are no longer merely composers. More often than not they are also producers, performers, promoters, publishers and educators.

We published a commissioning survey earlier this year which showed that the infrastructure is not available for composers to support themselves on commissions alone. So, they must look for additional ways to make a living. We’ve seen a rapid increase in grassroots activity in the new music world as a response to this and, as the national body supporting new music, it is our responsibility to support this movement in the best way possible.

Sound and Music and Counting What Counts

This year Sound and Music commissioned new research from Counting What Counts authors Professor Paul Moore and Anthony Lilley to investigate how grassroots artists and composers can build their audiences by utilising their own resources and data, with a particular focus on social media and social data. As an organisation with artists at its heart, we are interested in how we can understand the climate and its creators better, but also provide practical tools and models to help composers understand more about their relationships with audiences and their impact.

We’re just starting to see the results of the research, undertaken by Paul Moore with a selection of our composers, and they are fascinating. One of the key concepts rising out already is that of ‘thick data’ and how by applying context to data, it is possible to build a richer and more informative picture.


“Big data produces information while thick data uncovers the meaning behind it. Big Data delivers numbers while thick data delivers stories, and most significantly big data relies on machine learning, thick data relies on human learning.” – Professor Paul Moore


Although the concept of thick data isn’t new (you can read more about it here), it hasn’t been applied practically within the creative and cultural sectors, where arguably it could have the biggest impact.

Thick Data at the Creative Data Club

A couple of weeks ago I presented this concept of ‘thick data’ to a room full of data fans at our monthly event series, Creative Data Club, alongside Ed Anderton from the Nominet Trust, Professor Sandy Black from the London College of Fashion with Basil Safwat from Minified and Darren Murphy from Forma Arts and Media – you can find their presentations here. Although we’ve yet to publish the research, we’re aiming to do that towards the end of the year. But this research feel so important to us that we wanted to share and get talking about what we’re beginning to learn as soon as possible. And of course the really exciting part comes afterwards: the research uncovers and illuminates the concept of thick data and how it may start to be used by artists and composers, but only through practical application will its true power be revealed.

We’re now moving into the final steps of this piece of research, which is the creation of an ‘artist dashboard’ so that composers and artists can monitor data sources and apply their own contexts towards them. Whilst this research is key to our understanding of the environment we operate in (new music, contemporary practice), it has wider applications across the arts sector also. This project has acted as one of the pathfinder projects suggested in Counting What Counts (p 6, 43), and is the forbearer to the Arts Data Impact project placing data scientists-in-residence at the Barbican, ENO and National Theatre.

We’re on the cusp of seeing genuinely innovative thinking about data being translated into practical and personalisable tools that composers and artists can integrate into the way they operate. At Sound and Music we are going to be publishing the reports and piloting dashboards with composers from our programmes as well as talking about this constantly with anyone who will listen. As Paul and Anthony stated in Counting What Counts “it will be important to help each other along the road”, so let’s start doing that.


Written By

Susanna Eastburn

Sound and Music is the national agency for new music. Their vision is to create a world where new music and sound prospers, transforming lives, challenging expectations and celebrating the work of its creators. Contact them at

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