IFPI and RIAA 2013 Music Sales Figures: First Take

The IFPI and RIAA today released their annual music sales numbers.  Though there are positive signs, overall they make for troubling reading 

  • Total sales were down 3.9%.  Based on 2012 numbers the trend suggested that 2013 revenues should have registered a 2% growth, so that is a -6% swing in momentum.
  • Digital grew by 4.3% which was not enough to offset the impact of declining CD sales, which has been the story every year since 2000 except last.
  • Download sales declined by 1%. Continued competition from apps and other entertainment, coupled with subscriptions poaching the most valuable download buyers is finally taking its toll.
  • Subscriptions up by 51%: An impressively strong year for subscriptions but not enough to make the digital increase bigger than the physical decline on a global basis nor in key markets, including the US.

Global numbers of course can be misleading and there is a richly diverse mix of country level stories underneath them, ranging from streaming driven prosperity in the Nordics, through market stagnation in the US to crisis in Japan – where revenues collapsed by 16.8%.  The Nordic renaissance helped push Europe into growth but data from the RIAA, show that total US music revenues were down a fraction – 0.3%.  US download sales were down by 0.9% while subscriptions were up an impressive 57% to $628 million.

On the one hand this shows that Spotify has managed to kick the US subscription market into gear following half a decade or so of stagnation.  But on the other it shows that subscriptions take revenue from the most valuable download buyers.  This backs up the trend I previously noted, that streaming takes hold best in markets where downloads never really got started.  Thus markets like the US with robust download sectors will feel growth slowdown as high spending downloaders transition to streaming, while in markets like Sweden where there was no meaningful download sector to speak of, subscriptions can drive green field digital revenue growth.

The Download Is Not Dead Yet

Though subscriptions now account for 27% of digital revenue, the value trend obscures the consumer behavior trend.  For Spotify’s c.9.5 million paying subscribers (or 6 million last officially reported) Apple’s installed base of iTunes music buyers stands at c.200 million (see figure).  The IFPI report that there are now 28 million subscription customers globally.  In the US and UK this translates into 4 or 5% of consumers. Subscriptions do a fantastic job of monetizing the uber fans, just like deluxe vinyl boxsets and fan funding sites like Pledge do so also.  But they are inherently niche in reach.  This is why downloads remain the music industry’s most important digital tool.  Downloads are the most natural consumer entry point into digital music, and if anyone else had been able to come close to matching Apple’s peerless ability to seamlessly integrate downloads into the device experience, then the sector would be much bigger than it is now.

service bubbles

Do not confuse this with being a luddite view that streaming and subscriptions are not the future, they are, but there is a long, long journey to that destination that we are only just starting upon for most consumers.   And before that there is a far more important issue, namely how to get the remaining CD buyers to go digital.

Sleepwalking Into a Post-CD Collapse

Last year the IFPI numbers showed a modest globally recovery but despite the widespread optimism that surrounded those numbers I remained cautious and wrote that it was “a long way from mission accomplished.”  My overriding concern then was the same as it is now, namely that the music industry does not have a CD buyer migration strategy and it desperately needs one.  So much so that unless it develops one it will end up sleepwalking into a CD collapse.   In fact I predicted exactly what has happened:

“CD sales decline will likely accelerate.  Among the top 10 largest music markets in the world CD revenue decline will likely accelerate markedly in the next few years.  In France and the UK leading high street retailers are on their last legs while in Germany and Japan the vast majority (more than 70%) of sales are still physical.  So the challenge for digital is can it grow as quickly as the CD in those markets will decline?

The IFPI have stressed the fact that Japan’s dramatic 15% decline was the root cause of the global downturn.  While this is largely true – without Japan included global revenues still declined 0.1% – Japan’s problems are simply the global industry’s problems squared.  In 2012 a staggering 80% of Japanese music sales were physical but despite the digital market actually declining 4 successive years total revenues increased 4%.  As the world’s second biggest market, when Japan sneezes the global industry catches a cold.   But expect Japan to continue to drag down global revenues and also keep an eye on Germany.  Germany saw a modest 1.2% increase in revenues in 2013 but only 22.6% of sales were digital.  The most likely scenario is that Germany will follow the Japanese trend and go into a CD-driven dive in 2014 and / or 2015.

In conclusion, there is still cause for optimism from these numbers.  Subscriptions are going from strength to strength, at least in revenue terms, and the download sector remains robust in buyer number terms.  But unless the CD problem is fixed, the best both those digital revenue streams can hope to do is consolidate the market around a small rump of digital buyers.

The Death of the Long Tail

Long Tail CoverToday MIDiA Consulting is proud to announce the publication of an important new report: The Death of the Long Tail: The Superstar Music Economy.  The report is available free of charge to Music Industry Blog subscribers.  (If you are not yet a subscriber to this blog simply enter your email address in the box on the right hand column of the home page.)

The 21st century decline in recorded music revenues continues to send shockwaves throughout the music industry and although there are encouraging signs of digital-driven growth, the impact on artists is less straightforward.  Total global artist income from recorded music in 2013 was $2.8 billion, down from $3.8 billion in 2000 but up slightly on 2012.  Meanwhile artists’ share of total income grew from 14% in 2000 to 17% in 2013.  But the story is far from uniform across the artist community.

The Superstar Artist Economy

The music industry is a Superstar economy, that is to say a very small share of the total artists and works account for a disproportionately large share of all revenues.  This is not a Pareto’s Law type 80/20 distribution but something much more dramatic: the top 1% account for 77% of all artist recorded music income (see figure).

fig4

The concept of the long tail seemed like a useful way of understanding how consumers interact with content in digital contexts, and for a while looked like the roadmap for an exciting era of digital content.  Intuitively the democratization of access to music – both on the supply and demand sides – coupled with vastness of digital music catalogues should have translated into a dilution of the Superstar economy effect.  Instead the marketplace has shown us that humans are just as much wandering sheep in need of herding online as they are offline.

In fact digital music services have actually intensified the Superstar concentration, not lessened it (see figure).  The top 1% account for 75% of CD revenues but 79% of subscription revenue.  This counter intuitive trend is driven by two key factors: a) smaller amount of ‘front end’ display for digital services – especially on mobile devices – and b) by consumers being overwhelmed by a Tyranny of Choice in which excessive choice actual hinders discovery.

fig5

Ultimately it is the relatively niche group of engaged music aficionados that have most interest in discovering as diverse a range of music as possible.  Most mainstream consumers want leading by the hand to the very top slither of music catalogue.  This is why radio has held its own for so long and why curated and programmed music services are so important for engaging the masses with digital.

Music has always been a Superstar economy and there will always be winners and losers in music sales, with the big winners winning really big.  Over time the improved discovery and programming in digital music services should push the needle for the remainder artist tier but a) it will not happen over night and b) it will still have a finite amount of impact.

The Catalogue Size Arms Race

Matters are worsened by the music services’ catalogue arms race which has become entirely detrimental to consumers’ digital music experiences.  Action needs taking urgently to make sense of 25 million songs, not just through discovery and editorial, but also by taking the brave decision to keep certain types of content, such as sound-alikes, outside of music services’ main functionality.

Until labels, distributors and artists come to together to fix the issue of digital catalogue pollution – sound alikes and karaoke especially – the Tyranny of Choice will reign supreme, hiding 99% of artists under a pervasive shroud of obscurity and giving the Superstars another free lap of the track.

What Beats Music Needs to Do to Be a Success

Next week Beats Music will finally launch, after arguably the most hyped music service launch in the history of digital music.  CEO Ian Rogers published a blog post over the weekend that dives into some of the thinking behind the service and some of its functionality.  Early signs are that it is a well designed and programmed service, but that alone will not be enough to make it a success.

Rogers cheekily labelled competitor services as ‘servers’ rather than services and there is no doubt that Beats Music has put addressing the Tyranny of Choice right at the heart of its strategic mission.  Beats Music has invested heavily in a host of cool features and top quality editorial and deserves great credit for doing so, but it still won’t be enough.  Beats Music is another 9.99 subscription service and 9.99 is still not, nor ever will be, a mass market consumer price point….at least not until years of inflation have taken effect. Just 5% of consumers currently pay for subscriptions in the US and the UK and the lion’s share of that is down to Spotify.

It is a massive – i.e. currently impossible – challenge for Beats or any of its soon-to-be competitor AYCE subscription services to get the headline pricing down – that is instead the domain of a new breed of innovative services such as MusicQubed, Bloom.fm and Psonar. But where Beats does have the ability to at least make their offering feel cheaper is with bundling.  On this front a lot has been made of Beats’ partnership with AT&T.  Though it is great to have such a high profile partner pushing subscriptions into the US it feels like a missed opportunity.

AT&T is a Missed Opportunity

Instead of being a long term bundle, the AT&T deal is in fact a promotional partnership, with three months free before reverting to a full priced $15 p/m deal.  As we recommended in our Telco Bundling White Paper last year, the best practice is to transition to a subsidized bundle with the end user paying either nothing or a discounted rate (much preferable to labels).  While a three month free trial is a fantastic way to deliver value and get users hooked, the leap from zero to $15 p/m is just too big.

Granted the deal is an innovative ‘Family Plan’ but I am not convinced consumers will see the value.  Core to the value proposition is being able to access the service across 5 people and 10 devices, which compared to other subscription services is strongly differentiated.  But multi-device value is actually the value of the label licenses not consumer value.  Apple and Samsung customers do not pay a premium for every additional device they want to play music downloads they purchased from the iTunes and Play Stores.  iTunes accounts are already inherently family plans in many households with no price premium.   As I have been saying for years: we are in the per-person age, not the per device age.  Consumers should not pay a premium for multiple device support. Labels need to accept the realities of the modern day multi device consumer and not try to slice the proverbial baloney.

Artists and Songwriters Will Feel the Family Plan Pinch

Also the Family Plan also raises the tricky issue of whether the fact that this would translate into $3 per head per month effectively means three times less rights pay out per track.  Big labels and publishers won’t feel the pinch so much as they’ll still be getting their 10%/20%/30% shares of revenue.  In fact they’ll be 50% better off as it will be a share of $15 not $10.  But artists and songwriters only have small catalogues of music so they’ll feel the impact of track play revenue being a share of $3 not $9.99.  And given that a family is likely to have diverse tastes, especially between parents and kids, artists are unlikely to get plays across all of the family members, where of course a label with a diverse portfolio of artists will.

It’s the Headphones, Stupid

But enough of the hurdles, I did promise with this blog entry’s title a solution. Despite all of the hype I do genuinely believe Beats Music could be a game changer if it is willing to properly leverage all of the assets at its disposal.  Beats has a hugely valuable brand and route to market in its core headphone business.  And although Beats is now facing fierce competition, it remains the stand out youth headphone brand, for now.   As great a partner as AT&T may be, they’ll still most likely only reach the same high value, data plan power user, music aficionado that all the other subscription services have been super serving.  And as such Beats Music will get far less bang for its buck than it should.

Instead Beats Music should focus on hard bundling into Beats headphones with a 3 month free trial followed by a subsidized $5 12 month commitment subscription. It really is that simple. ..well the commercials aren’t but the proposition is.

Among Beats’ headphone customer base are hundreds of thousands of young, brand conscious music consumers that value high quality music experiences and are not yet subscription converts.  If Beats fully embraces its new family member and puts it at the heart of its core product range then Beats Music might just reach a whole swathe of new consumers that the incumbent subscription services have not yet managed to.  If instead it treats Beats Music as an awkward digital appendage then it will wither on the vine.  Here’s hoping Beats opts for the former.

Music Industry Predictions and Aspirations for 2014

2013 was a year of digital music milestones: 15 years since the arrival of Napster, 10 years since the launch of the iTunes Store and 5 years since the birth of Spotify.  Which begs the question, what will we looking back at in 5 years as the success stories of the ‘class of 2013’?   There have been some interesting arrivals with promise, such as WholeWorldBand, Soundwave, O2 Tracks, Bloom.fm, Google Play Music All Access (ahem)…. As is the nature of start ups many of the dozens that started in 2013 simply won’t go the distance.  Indeed many of Spotify’s ‘class of ‘08’ have fallen by the wayside: MXP4, MusiqueMax, Beyond Oblivion, Songbird etc.   If the ‘class of ‘13’ want to emulate collective success then it is the ‘class of ‘07’ they should look at: a bumper crop of success stories that included Songkick, Topspin, Deezer, Songza and Soundcloud (though Spiral Frog and Comes With Music were notable flops).

So what can the ‘class of ‘13’ and the rest of the music industry expect in 2014?  Well here are a few of my predictions and aspirations:

  • Label services will grow and grow (prediction): following the lead of the likes of Cooking Vinyl and Kobalt every label and his dog appears to be getting in on the act.  Which is no bad thing.  The choice used to be binary: DIY or label.  Now labels are borrowing some of the clothes of DIY and in turn transforming the artist relationship from one of employee to client.  Expect many established frontline artists coming to the end of their label deals in 2014 being persuaded to opt for a label services deal with their label rather than jumping ship.
  • Downloads will be flat globally (prediction): the download is still the dominant digital product globally but in the markets where streaming has got a strong foothold it is eating into downloads.  A key reason is that the majority of paid subscribers are also download buyers and their behavior is transitioning.  But in most of the big markets, and in most of the non-Northern European markets, downloads are the mainstay of digital and will grow further in 2014, cancelling out declines in the US and elsewhere.
  • Latin America and Africa will both grow in importance (prediction): these are two regions with hugely diverse national economies but both also contain a number of markets that are ripe for digital lift off, particularly in Latin America.  However the standard solutions for the western markets will only have limited success.  Expect innovative newcomers to do well here.
  • The streaming debate will NOT resolve (prediction): expect strong continued growth in streaming.  Spotify should hit 10 million paying subscribers soon – the free mobile offering may even push it to 100 million users.  Deezer should clock up another milestone soon too.  And Beats Music could get really serious scale if it does indeed bundle with headphone sales.  But the nature of the debate means the bigger streaming gets the more artists will perceive they are being short changed, because individual artists will feel the impact of scale more slowly than the market.  Expect things to really hot up if Spotify goes public, does well and the majors do not distribute meaningful portions of their earnings to artists.
  • Spotify, Deezer and Beats Music have a good year (aspiration): to be clear, this isn’t me breaking with years of tradition and suddenly jettisoning impartiality and objectivity.  Instead the reason for the inclusion is that the future of investment in digital music will be shaped by how well this streaming trio fare.  Between them they accounted for 70% of the music invested in music services between 2011 and 2013.  These big bets may not be leaving a lot of oxygen for other start ups, but if they do not succeed expect digital music service funding to get a whole lot more difficult than it is now.
  • Subscription pricing innovation accelerates (aspiration): regular readers will know that I have long advocated experimentation with pricing so that portable subscriptions can break out of the 9.99 niche.  In addition to more being done with cheaply priced subscriptions we need to see the introduction of Pay As You Go subscription pricing in 2014.  Pre-paid is what the mobile industry needed to kick start mobile subscriptions, now is the time for the music industry to follow suit.
  • More innovation around multimedia music products (aspiration): one of the most exciting things about Beyonce’s album last week was the fact it put video at its heart.  Since I wrote the Music Product Manifesto in 2009 depressingly little has happened with music product strategy.  Of course not every artist can afford to make an album’s worth of flashy videos, but hey, they don’t need to all be flashy.   Here’s hoping that a few more labels follow Sony’s lead and start really pushing the envelope for what music products should look like in the digital era.  Here’s a clue: it is not a static audio file.

P.S. If you’re wondering why I am so harsh on Google Play Music All Access it is because they can and should do so much better.  The market needs innovation from Google, not a ‘me too’ strategy.  Come on Google, up your game in 2014.

Why Full Albums Need to Go from YouTube Right Away

YouTube has long been the digital music anomaly: hugely successful, almost free of criticism but with a pitifully small pay-per-stream rate (below half that of Spotify, who does get criticism, and some).  YouTube is now on the verge of launching a subscription product and this will hopefully go some way of addressing the fact it has made the marketing journey the consumption destination.  But the music industry should keep its aspirations in check, not just about the potential impact of the service, but also – and perhaps most importantly – because of YouTube’s intent.

Google is a rights frenemy.  Rights frenemies strike a careful balance between maintaining good relations with rights holders on one side of their business but testing the limits on the other side. They pursue a do first, ask forgiveness later strategy.  Thus all the while Google is launching two music subscription services (Google Play Music All Access and the forthcoming YouTube offering) it is also lobbying for copyright reform and posting a link to chillingeffects.org for every successful copyright takedown.  In other words Google talks the talk but only reluctantly so and it does the absolute minimum of walking the walk.

Nowhere is this approach more apparent in YouTube and the presence of user uploaded ‘full albums’.   A coherent argument can be made that 383 million views of Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ Vevo video delivered clear benefits to the artist and her team (both though direct Vevo advertising and the vast exposure).  Full length albums ripped into YouTube by users have no such benefit.  In fact labels in the main do what they can to remove them using YouTube’s takedown process.  If Google was a rights ally rather than a rights frenemy it wouldn’t solely wait to be told to take stuff down, at least for the really obvious and high profile stuff, but it doesn’t.

yt1

Take a look at these top search results for Adele, U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beatles (see figure 1).  The full album results are high lighted in red, many of which have hundreds of thousands of views each, in the case of Adele’s ‘21’ it is more than 1 million, and some have been live for more than a year.  In the case of the Beatles all of the top results are full albums.  I doubt that the Beatles spent the best part of a decade not licensing to iTunes in order to suddenly throw it all straight up on YouTube.

yt3

There are also endless ripped live DVDs and recorded TV broadcasts of live concerts (see figure 2). It’s pretty hard to see why somebody would want to buy a live DVD of a U2 show when they can get the entire show in 1080p HD on YouTube.  And of course because it is a continual 2 hours and 22 minutes of video the viewing experience will be virtually ad free, save for a 30 second pre-roll and the odd pop up which can easily be clicked off.  The only winner here in business terms is YouTube.

Not all the blame can be laid at Google’s feet though: these examples were found immediately, with no effort, so it is inconceivable that someone somewhere in each of the respective labels doesn’t also know about this.  Thus someone has taken the decision in some of these instances to take the benefit of the ‘exposure’ in return for cannibalizing sales of the exact same music the exposure is supposed to drive sales of.  It is this conflicted view of YouTube (i.e. ‘we couldn’t sell as much music without it even though we lose sales because of it) that needs to be fixed.  Google can hardly be blamed for having a schizophrenic approach to the music industry if the industry does exactly the same back.

But relationship issues notwithstanding, full albums need to disappear from YouTube right now. They need to do so if for no other reason than to level the playing field for those music services that pay back at higher rates to rights owners and that actually try to get consumers to pay for music.  Labels and Google, bang your respective heads together!

Spotify Passes the Transparency Baton to Artists

Transparency of reporting to artists, or lack thereof, has contributed to a poor signal-to-noise ratio in the streaming debate.  Instead of a clear picture of what streaming brings to artists and songwriters we have been left with a dizzying array of conflicting statistics that in turn has resulted in a bewilderingly diverse set of artist opinions.  Spotify today announced the first move towards remedying this situation with artist self-serve analytics, as well as stating its exact range of payments per stream (which for the record are between $0.006 and $0.0084).  The impact of these moves may be slow to be felt but they will be of truly seismic proportions, and here’s why.

In the digital era, with such an increase in both the volume and granularity of data from digital services, the issue of transparency should have lessened but has paradoxically become more intense than ever.  This is because the greater the depth of data that artists get from other sources (web site and Facebook analytics, CD Baby reports etc) often contrasts strongly with how much detail artists get from record label accounting.  Assumptions and allegations about accounting procedures and commercial agreements that affect how much artists and songwriters get paid have always been just that, assumptions and allegations.  In addition to contractual and accounting issues that blight some artist relationship, many labels – and not just majors – can pay as little as 15% royalties to some artists for streaming.  But without clear and transparent accounting, no one quite knows exactly what goes where nor at what rate.

Now that Spotify has introduced self-serve analytics, artists will be able to start to create a robust understanding of just how many plays they have received and to then compare this with what is reported back to them by rights owners.  And if it doesn’t match up with what the labels pay them then artists will be able to use discrepancies as a basis for requesting sales audits from their labels.  Expect a building wave of account audits with the onus on the labels to use this as the catalyst for striking a new generation of improved, more transparent streaming deals for artists.  Normally the ‘anomalies’ that come out of audits are swept under the carpet with artists securing pay outs in return for signing NDAs.  That cycle needs to be broken for streaming related audits.  Hopefully labels will choose to change the systems rather than expend non-scalable audit effort on a surge of streaming-driven audit activity. Ultimately it is in the interests of labels to have artists on board with streaming.  It is much easier to persuade artists to become part of the solution if their earnings are not hidden behind obscure accounting.

Spotify was getting tired of being painted as the bad guy in the transparency debate with its hands tied by confidentiality deals with the labels.  Now Spotify are extricating themselves from the debate, giving artists the tools with which they can engage in direct conversations with labels.  If artists genuinely feel that they are part of a community, then there is as much onus on them as there is on the labels, to sacrifice individually beneficial audit settlements that commit them to omertà in favour of pouring data into an open debate.  Otherwise all that will happen is that artists will perpetuate the lack of transparency, banking a nice cheque to buy their silence once they discover the skeletons in the closet.  Over to you artists…

Staggered Advances: A Proposal for Better Streaming Income for Artists

I was at a rather good concert last night and while pondering what share of the few thousand in the room had actually bought the artist’s latest album I came up with the germ of an idea for how artists can be better compensated from streaming.  This is the proposal…

The overriding artist streaming concern is that streaming will cannibalize album sales and result in lower income.  Many labels and others counter that streaming will deliver at least as much revenue but over a longer period of time.  Because labels have big catalogues of music they benefit from ‘scale’ more quickly than artists how have much smaller catalogues. A label may measure the increased income from a million more subscribers in hundreds of thousands of dollars, but an artist may measure it in 100’s of dollars.

So is there then not a case for labels changing their income distribution models with artists?  Namely increasing advances by a factor of X and then instead of paying that in one lump sum, distributing it to the artist say every quarter for 3 years?  Let’s call this the Staggered Advance. This would effectively give the artist a salary from the label and take the worries about income per stream out of the equation.  The down side is that many more artists may never see actual royalty income than do so now, as it will be harder for them to recoup.

The challenge is what ‘X’ should equal.  To address that question, see the workings below. This hypothetical artist income model assumes the following:

  • 100% of an artist’s fan base are now paying subscribers
  • The artist is a performer and songwriter
  • An artist earns $2.00 from a CD
  • The artist receives 50% of a $0.01 per stream pay out
  • A typical album is bought by only 60% of an artist’s fans and that the remainder, if they were on subscription services, would stream the album
  • Streamers would also listen to some back catalogue

Hypothetical Artist Income Model – Music Industry Blog artist streaming income model

The net result of this model is that an artist can expect to earn from his/her fans about half what s/he would have earned from selling an album.  Which means that a Staggered Advance needs to pay out twice the amount to the artist than is currently paid for standard advances.

Bear in mind that ‘at scale’ streaming services should expand that base of listeners further with streams from casual listeners, and new additional income from core fans when the album is re-listened to as a catalogue album in the future.  So the total income (i.e. not just from fans) will be higher.

Also a crucial assumption here is that the artist’s core fans will listen to the album an average of ten times.  But that is predicated upon the album being good enough to make fans want to listen to the album that many times.  This means that if an artist releases a duff album that fans only listen to twice on average then the income difference will be 80% less than from album sales.  So there is a clear implication here: a poor album will earn an artist a lot less on streaming compared to albums sales, but the difference will be a lot less for a good album.  This is the democratization of music spend.

There are of course multiple additional variables and extenuating factors but the point of this exercise is to create a strawman for directional comparisons (you can download the excel model to test yourself by clicking on the link below).  This proposal also comes at a time when labels are moving away from bigger up front advances, but it may be that this is the only truly viable tool the labels have at their disposal to be able to soften the impact of the transition to streaming for artists.  Labels and streaming services alike need artists onboard and artists need streaming to make commercial sense for them.

Is this a step in the right direction?  Download the model, play around it, stress test the assumptions and let me know.  Hypothetical Artist Income Model – Music Industry Blog.

Streaming Artist Subscriptions: A Product Strategy Proposal

The following post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book: Meltdown

For all of the undoubted positive impact that streaming services continue to have on the digital music market one of the key challenges they pose is the subjugation of the artist brand to that of the music service.  With download services and CD stores the customer buys artist specific products, but with a streaming service the transaction is for all of the music in the world.  The brand of any individual artist is inherently diluted.   Artist apps are thus an artist-level subscription for the most engaged music fans, an opportunity to develop artist brand experiences across digital platforms.  However as more of consumers’ music experiences occur within access based environments, more needs to be done to build artist specific experiences within them. Doing so not only makes good business sense, it makes for better user experiences too: 20+ million tracks is a meaningless consumer proposition without an effective means of getting to the miniscule fraction of that content that any one consumer is interested in.

The solution is the introduction of artist subscriptions within existing streaming services, with users paying a small monthly fee – say $/€1 – for a month’s worth of artist content.   With the cost added directly to a monthly music subscription, users get access to a curated channel of artist content including:

  • Core catalogue: The entire standard catalogue of the artist programmed with editorial such as story of the making of each album and features such as musical influences.
  • Exclusive and rare catalogue: Music that is not available elsewhere on the streaming service, such as unreleased rarities from each album, remixes, specially made tracks for the artist subscription etc. This might require some rarer content being withdrawn from the main service to be held back for the artist subscriptions.
  • Exclusive programming: Non-standard music content such as acoustic sessions, simulcasts of concerts, music video etc.
  • Non-music content: Audio visual content that helps tell the artist story, such as editorial, photo shoots, artwork and video storyboards, artist interviews, back stage footage, live chat sessions with artists etc.

It is crucial that artists streaming subscriptions are not simply a collection of playlists.  Though delivering such a diverse suite of content types will clearly require a user experience above and beyond that of the standard streaming service. It does not however require a fundamental reworking of streaming technology architecture.  Instead these app-like artist experiences – and app-like experiences is exactly what they are – can leverage the app developer platforms most streaming services already have.  Indeed, the success of artist subscriptions depends upon them being immersive, programmed and interactive experiences, telling the artist’s story to new fans and enriching it for existing fans.  The programming effort will of course be significant and the burden will need to fall as much on the labels and as it will the services. Having labels co-run artist subscriptions also makes sense from the business perspective as it gets around issues of charging for streaming apps – TuneWiki’s demise is recent evidence of the problem created by 3rd parties not being able to charge for streaming apps.

To mitigate resourcing concerns, a template-orientated approach will ensure scalability as well as a consistent user experience.  It will also be possible to rotate a majority of the content over periods of 4 to 6 months.  This is because just as music buyers buy an album and listen to it for a time before moving onto a new one, artists subscriptions will be swapped around and changed on a constant basis by users. Most fans will have a few artists they will always want to keep connected to, but will also want to have ability to deep dive into a new selection of artists every month or two.

Artist streaming subscriptions not only create a rich user experience, they also solve multiple streaming business challenges by:

  •  Monetizing the mainstream: For as long as the price of mobile enabled subscription services remain out of the reach of mass market music fans they will struggle to have mainstream appeal.   Pricing experiments will play an essential role in the mainstreaming of music subscriptions but even more flexibility will be needed if they are ever going to match the spending patterns of an audience anywhere near as large and diverse as the current base of download buyers.  Artist subscriptions give consumers the familiarity and flexibility of a la carte spending dynamics but the user experience benefits of subscriptions.  Thus consumers can build their expenditure at a pace and level that matches their appetite.
  • Creating artist specific revenue: Artist subscriptions also help mitigate the threat of streaming services turning download dollars into streaming cents.  They do so by giving consumers the ability to commit spending to the artists they like, and by enabling artists to build rich, immersive channels of content and editorial around their music.  The revenue opportunity for artists can be extended further by tight integration of ancillary revenue retailing, such as exclusive live-streamed sessions, merchandize and concert tickets.
  • Ease free users into paid subscriptions: If artist subscriptions are additionally made available to free tier streaming users they present these users with the opportunity to ease themselves into subscriptions.  Zero to €/$/£9.99 is a big leap, but zero to a few dollars or euros is a far more palatable shift.  To deliver clear value artist subscriptions will need to provide mobile and ad free listening even when paid for by free tier subscribers.  This will additionally help drive free-to-paid conversion by accentuating the usability contrast with the rest of the streaming experience for free tier users. Once they have started enjoying the benefits of ad free mobile listening for a small selection of artists, the chances of migrating them to full subscriptions are much increased.  A careful balance will however need to be struck to ensure that consumers do not swap $/€/£9.99 subscriptions for 3 or 4 artist subscriptions.
  • Giving music fans the music they want: Artist subscriptions give users an alternative, and far more intuitive, way to navigate streaming services.  At the most basic level they can be thought of like smartphone and tablet apps, supercharged bookmarks, gateways to immersive and interactive artist experiences.  At a more sophisticated level they can become the foundations of the programming architecture of streaming subscription services.  Artist channels can be grouped into collections such as genres and decades to cerate music channels, which then can be sold as bundles in the same way a pay TV provider sells bundles of programmes. Instead paying for movies, sports and documentary packages, streaming users could opt for bundles such as ‘alternative rock’, ‘EDM’ and ‘Urban’.  The bundle approach is not without its complexities, such as how much of an artist’s standalone subscription content would get into a genre bundle, and which artists would make it in.  But the clear advantage of the approach is that artist subscriptions, and bundles of them, turn the amorphous mass of streaming services into richly programmed music content networks. The pay TV model translated for music.

Streaming subscriptions still have a long way to go before most doubts will be eased, but streaming artist subscriptions represent an opportunity to accelerate the process by simultaneously addressing concerns of sustainability, user experience and artist pay outs.  Streaming artist subscriptions are not the entire answer, but they can be a big part of the puzzle.

Deezer, Spotify and the Streaming Gold Rush

The music streaming world is one full of contrasts and inconsistencies.  At one end We7 and MOG sell for peanuts;  in the middle Rhapsody, Sony, Rdio, Wimp, Rara and others continue to steadily build a market; and at the other end Deezer and Spotify are sucking in investment with the force of a black hole. Spotify’s investment is well documented, but this week Deezer confirmed their seat on the fast train with a $100m investment from Access Industries, which also just happen to own Warner Music.

Leaving aside for a moment the intriguing fact that the two streaming global super powers are European, Deezer has managed to slip beneath the radar of the often US-skewed digital music world view by pointedly deciding to ignore the US market (for now).  Like a canny general who decides to march around a heavily fortified stronghold and thus effectively leave it stranded behind enemy lines, so Deezer expects the streaming war to waged on different shores.  They are both right and wrong.

The US is Saturated and Yet Potential Remains Untapped

There is no doubt that the US paid streaming market is overly catered for at present, and that Deezer would struggle to get any foothold.  Also there is clearly a much bigger scale opportunity in the remainder of the globe.  However, and somewhat paradoxically, the US market should also have much much more space, plenty enough for Deezer, Spotify and the rest to flourish in.  The problem is that the $9.99 streaming monthly subscription is not a mass market value proposition and it is not about to suddenly become one. We have had the product in market for over a decade, if it was going to hit hockey stick growth we’d have seen it by now.

To be clear, this is not to say streaming music is not a mainstream proposition, but that the $9.99 streaming subscription is not.  And that is a problem, because it is clear that for the economics of streaming to add up (for artists, services and labels alike) scale is key.  Pandora’s Tim Westergren has made the case for lower statutory streaming rates to drive scale, it is probably time to start a parallel dialogue for on-demand streaming.

But lower wholesale rates alone won’t fix the problem.  The market still desperately needs more mobile carriers, ISPs and device companies to start hiding in their core products some or all of the cost of subscriptions to consumers.  Cricket Wireless, Telia Sonera, France Telecom and of course TDC have all made solid starts but more, much more, is needed.

Price Is the Biggest Barrier to Streaming Going Mainstream

If streaming is to go mainstream the price point (for streaming with full mobile device support) has got to get towards $5, through a combination of bundling and rate discounting. Until then Spotify’s and Deezer’s gold rush millions will achieve little more than saturate the high end aficionados that the $9.99 price point appeals to.  Currently both companies look remarkably similar in terms of user metrics (see figure) but while they pursue somewhat distinct geographic priorities they will continue to find those few per cent of aficionados in each market.  Things will get really interesting when they reach $9.99’s adoption glass ceiling.

Apple: the Elephant in the Room

And of course there is an elephant in the room: Apple.  Apple have played their hand cautiously to date, conscious of their hugely influential role in the digital market and indeed in the music industry more broadly.  If they get their streaming play wrong (and there will be an Apple streaming play eventually) the results could be catastrophic for the music industry.  Apple’s 400 million credit card linked iTunes accounts dwarves Spotify and Deezer so it is understandable that the they each want to make hay while they can.  But the streaming pricing problem still needs fixing, and soon.

Streaming Goes Global: Analysing Global Streaming Music With EMI Insight Data

This July EMI’s Insight division launched an unprecedented initiative to share data from their 850,000 interview Global Consumer Insight data.  This dataset covers 25 countries and over 7,400 artists, with twelve people being interviewed at any given moment, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The data is being shared with the data science community in a range of initiatives including  forthcoming Music Data Science Hackcamps.
As hard data continues to be something of a scarce commodity for the streaming music debate I decided to mine EMI’s dataset to create a snapshot of global streaming music adoption, and its influence on the broader music market. I have written up a report which you can download for free here.  Additionally EMI have given me permission to post the data here so that you can play around the data yourselves.  In fact I invite you to go and play around with the data and see if you can find any trends that I missed in my analysis.

Here are some of the key findings from the report (which of course, along with all of the opinions and interpretations are my own and are not, necessarily, EMI’s)

  • Streaming has a firm foothold. 32% of consumers across the globe are now using streaming services (see figure 1).  However, adoption is far from uniform.
  • Nordics lead the way. Norway and Sweden (the home of Spotify) are respectively the 1st and 3rd most active streaming markets globally.  Key to this trend is the relative sophistication of Internet users in these markets.  48% of Norwegians are now streaming music users, as are 43% of Swedes.
  • Streaming is a good fit for piracy riddled Spain.  Spain is the 2nd most active market with 44% streaming penetration.  But whereas consumer sophistication was key to Nordic adoption, in Spain piracy and the legacy of free were the most important drivers.
  • Free is a good fit for France too. The role of piracy and free have also been important in France.  French authorities have pushed through the controversial Hadopi legislation but the carrot of Spotify and local streaming success Deezer has delivered immediate results.  Translating streaming usage into purchases though is less successful: just 13%.
  • Purchase conversion rates are higher in lower penetration markets. The US, Canada, UK, Germany and Denmark have lower streaming penetration but these markets have much higher streaming-to-paid downloads conversion rates, averaging 23% of streaming users.
  • Streaming Drives Music Discovery and Consumption. Although it is still too early to draw definitive conclusions about exactly how much streaming impacts piracy and sales, the case for driving discovery and consumption is much clearer.  55% of global streaming music users state that they now discover new artists and new music as a result of streaming.
  • Usage is steady among existing users. Usage among existing streaming users is broadly steady with 19% using streaming more than 12 months previously and 20% more.

Download the complete report here.