Media, Technology and The Innovator Hegemony

We are at critical juncture in the evolution of digital content. Digital consumption of content, spurred by accelerating adoption of smartphones and tablets, is crashing towards the mainstream, while traditional revenues and business models continue to buckle under the strain. Legal and business disputes between Amazon and book publishers, and Google and independent record labels are small but crucial parts of this process. This period of disruptive flux is giving way to a new era of content distribution in which a few large technology companies are assuming the role of distributor, retailer, channel and playback device as one single package. The emerging new world order is defined by concentration of power, reduction of competition and the subservience of traditional media companies. The 2000’s witnessed the ascendancy of digital innovators, now we are arriving at a new chapter: the Innovator Hegemony, the era of the all powerful, unregulated technology superpower.

Free Is Now the Business Model of Choice

We are mid way through the shift from the distribution era of selling units of stuff, be they newspapers, CDs, packaged games, books or DVDs, to the consumption era where consumers increasingly value access over ownership. This shift manifest itself as a meltdown of the traditional media industries and associated retailing channels. Out of the ruins of these crumbling nation states Amazon, Apple and Google have started to construct sprawling digital content empires. Until relatively recently it looked like Apple was the only company that had learned how to make digital content works as a business, albeit as a loss leading one. But during the last year the market has inevitably buckled under the pressure of Amazon’s willingness to give away access to content as bait for free shipping and Google’s endless appetite for giving content away for consumer data.

Amazon and Google realized they were never going to win if they played the game by the Apple’s rules, which had been transplanted from the analogue age, namely charging for ownership of content. Instead they have opted for the digital zeitgeist: free, or at least feels like free. It is beginning to look like iTunes was a historical anomaly, an isolated outpost for distribution era practices in the digital realm. What Amazon and Google have done is pick up the baton Napster dropped in the early 2000’s and they have run with it.

The Innovator Hegemony

There is little reason media companies would want to cede so much power and pay the inexorable price of devaluing digital content to the price point of zero. They do so because they allowed their partners to get too powerful. This is the Innovator Hegemony. Apple, Google and Amazon all used content as a stepping stone towards achieving global scale, scale that once gained they used to swap the balance of power. Labels, publishers, authors and artists suddenly found themselves beholden to companies they had helped succeed and that success now used against them.

When Competition Legislation Protects Monopolistic Behaviour

But there is an issue of even greater significance at play: the inability of market regulation to appropriately counter the increasingly monopolistic behaviours of the big technology companies’ content moves. Anti-trust and competition legislation neuters media companies but leaves technology companies to operate with near impunity. Dating back to the analogue era when media companies were all powerful, anti-trust legislation was designed to prevent media companies colluding and entering into monopolistic behaviour. But now that technology companies own the platform control points that media companies depend upon in the digital realm, anti-trust and competition legislation has the unintended consequence of consolidating the power of the technology monopolies by stymying media companies.

The three big technology companies have a greater concentration of influence and market share in digital content than any single media company did in the analogue era. Amazon, Apple and Google have become a single, effective monopoly in each of their respective marketplaces. Thus anti-trust legislation currently has the unintended consequence of reinforcing market concentration.

Matters are not helped by the fact that media companies have become something of a busted flush at the legislative level, having over reached with copyright and anti-piracy lobbying efforts. The dramatic collapse of SOPA and the failure of Hadopi illustrate how media companies have lost legislators’ hearts and minds. After years of media industry ascendency the lobbying balance has swung towards the technology companies who are winning over key influencers such as the European Commissioner Neelie Kroes.

Platforms As Integrated Monopolies

Right now Amazon and Google are testing the boundaries, seeing what they can get away with before they are reined in. Amazon is unashamedly abusing its platform to hurt sales of book publishers such as Hachette and Bonnier, while Google is equally brazenly threatening to turn off monetization of music videos of labels that will not sign its overweening YouTube contract.  Interestingly both Amazon and Google appear to be testing just how forceful they can be with the independent ends of the media business spectrum.  These actions show us how vertically integrated platforms have a tendency to become internal de facto monopolies with effectively limitless internal power. Power that corrupts, and that ultimately turns the ideologies of these once idealistic disruptive start ups into police states where dissension is no more tolerated than it is in North Korea.

It is time for media companies and policy makers to decide whether they are brave enough to stand up to the Innovator Hegemony. Every content company still has the nuclear option of pulling content from the services but few will ever dare to do so – the German YouTube stand off a rare exception. And therein lies the problem, media companies already feel they cannot exist without the big technology partners and the tech companies know it. Without appropriate macro checks and balances the outcome will always be the timeless, asymmetrical roles of bully and bullied.

YouTube, Record Labels And The Retailer Hegemony

YouTube (i.e. Google) has put itself in the midst of a music industry conflict that may yet turn into a much needed process of soul searching for the labels as they weigh up whether YouTube’s contribution to their business is net positive or net negative.  The controversy surrounds the imminent-ish launch of YouTube’s premium subscription service and the refusal of some independent labels to sign the terms Google is offering them.  Whereas normally this would just result in a service launching without a full complement of catalogue, in this instance YouTube is also the world’s second largest discovery platform after radio.  YouTube execs have been quoted as stating that labels that do not sign their terms will have their videos blocked or removed.  Exactly from where (i.e. the main YouTube service, or the premium offering) remains a matter of conjecture with both sides of the debate more than happy to allow the ambiguity cloud the debate.    But the fundamental issue is clear either way: YouTube has become phenomenally powerful but delivers comparatively little back in terms of direct revenue and is now happy to flex its muscle to find out who is really boss.

The Retailer Hegemony 

Google’s stance here fits into a broader phase in the evolution of digital content, with the big tech companies (Amazon, Apple, Google) testing how far they can push their content partners in order to consolidate and augment their already robust positions.  It fits into the same trend as Amazon making life difficult for book publishers Hachette and movie studio Warner Bros.  The big tech companies are becoming the three key powerhouses of digital content and each is fighting to own the customer.  Media companies are becoming collateral damage as the new generation of retailer behemoths carve out new territory

The record labels, indies included, have to take much of the blame here.  They let YouTube get too big, and on its terms.  The big labels had been determined not to let anyone ‘do an MTV again’ and yet they let YouTube do exactly the same thing, getting rich and powerful off the back of their promotional videos.  But this time YouTube’s resultant power is far more pervasive.

youtube subs impact

Stealing The Oxygen From The Streaming Market

Labels are beholden to YouTube as a promotional channel.  They have turned a blind eye to whether its ‘unique’ licensing status might be stealing the oxygen out of the streaming market for all those services which have to pay far more for their licenses.  The underlying question the labels must ask themselves is whether YouTube’s inarguably valuable promotional value outweighs the value it simultaneously extracts from music sales revenue.  Indeed 25% of consumers state that they have no need to pay for a music subscription service because they get all the music they need for free from YouTube (see figure).  This rises to 33% among 18 to 24 year olds and to 34% among all Brazilians.

Reversing Into Subscriptions Is No Easy Task

Of course the aspiration here is that YouTube is finally going to start driving premium spending, but reversing into a subscription business from being a free only service is far from straightforward.  It is far easier to make things cheaper than it is to raise prices, let alone start charging for something that was previously free.  Add to the mix that free music is not exactly a scarce commodity and you see just how challenging YouTube will find entering this market.  Indeed, just 7% of consumers are interested in paying a monthly fee to access YouTube music videos with extras and without ads.  The rate falls to just 2% in the UK.

The counter argument is that only a miniscule share of YouTube’s one billion regular users are needed to have a huge impact.  But if the price the music industry pays to get there is to kill off the competition then it will have helped create an entity with such pervasive reach that it will truly be beholden unto it.  If the music industry has hopes of retaining some semblance of power in this relationship, it must act now.

 

 

The Great Music Industry Power Shift

The long drawn out demise of recorded music revenue is well documented, as is the story of artists, labels and managers all trying to make sense of a world in which music sales can no longer be counted upon.  But the contraction of recorded revenue has occurred at the exact same time that the live music sector has undergone a renaissance.  The net effect, when coupled with publishing revenue holding its own and  the growth of albeit modest, merchandise revenue, is that the global music industry has largely held its own, contracting by just 3% between 2000 and 2013 (see figure).  Compare and contrast with the 41% decline in (retail) recorded music revenue over the same period.  Indeed it is the 60% growth in live revenue that has done most to offset the impact of declining music sales.

music industry revenuePerhaps most significantly of all, the contrasting fortunes of the music industry’s two main revenue streams is that the share of total revenues accounted for by recorded income has dropped from 60% in 2000 to just 36% in 2013.  The balance of power has firmly shifted away from labels to the live value chain.  Yet it is not as clear a picture as might first appear:

  • Recorded music is still the main way people interact with music:  Whether it be on the radio, YouTube, Spotify, an iTunes or a CD, the vast majority of consumers spend the vast majority of their music consumption time with the recorded product not the live product.  In fact just 15% of people regularly go to gigs.  And even for these consumers live is, in terms of total time spent, just a small fraction of their music consumption.  So labels are faced with paradox of making less money from artists yet those same artists still needing the recording in order to drive live and merch income.  This is why we ended up with 360 deals.
  • Much of the market growth didn’t make it down to artists: The live music value chain is an incredibly complex one with multiple stakeholders taking their share (ticketing, secondary ticketing, venues, booking agents, promoters, tax, expenses etc.).  The share of live revenue that artists make from live has declined every year since 2000.  The impact on the total market is that  total artist income (i.e. from all revenue sources) has declined every year too since 2009.

The Next Music Industry

It is probably fair to say that we are approximately half way through a huge period of transition for the music industry.  The realignment of revenue is merely a precursor to the new business models, products and career paths that will emerge to capitalize on the new world order.  It is in this next phase that the real ‘fun’ will start.  Expect every traditional element of the industry to be challenged to its core, expect dots to be joined and old models to be broken.  But be in no doubt that what we will end up with will be an industry set up for success in the digital era.

NOTE: the figures quoted in this post are taken from a forthcoming MIDiA report: The Superstar Artist Economy: Artist Income and the Top 1%.  The report is a follow up to the previous MIDiA report ‘The Death of the Long Tail’

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.