What Future For The Album In The On-Demand Age?

Recently BBC Radio 1’s head of music George Ergatoudis stirred up something of a storm with his claim that “albums are edging closer to extinction”. Nonetheless there is a growing body of evidence that the album does indeed seem to be losing its relevance in today’s track and playlist led world. And the implications stretch much further than the confines of the recorded music business. (Hint: live music industry, you need to be watching your back too.)

The Advent Of Grazing

When Napster emerged 15 years ago it kick started an irreversible transformation in music consumption. The music business had spent the previous three decades turning the singles dominated market of the 1950’s into the albums led market of the 1990’s, but with Napster consumers suddenly did not have to take the whole album package anymore. The labels had their own fair share of blame. When the vinyl LP had been the dominant format albums typically had 8 tracks, but with the CD labels felt compelled to fill every one of its 74 minutes’ capacity, resulting in a preponderance of filler tracks over killer tracks. Couple this with album price hyperinflation and you had the perfect recipe for consumer revolt. Little wonder that music fans cherry picked tracks, skipping the filler for the killer. Grazing replaced immersion.

Ironically the issue became even more pronounced with the advent of the iTunes Music Store. Whereas with file sharing many users downloaded entire albums – and as bandwidth and storage improved, entire discographies – listening still skewed towards the stand out tracks. Indeed the hoarding mentality of these digital immigrants was one borne out of being children of the age of scarcity, with a ‘fill up quick while you still can’ mentality. With iTunes, price was a limiting factor and so people focused on acquiring single tracks rather than albums. Labels and artists had been scared iTunes would cannibalise album sales, they were right.

Digital Natives Set A New Pace

In the subsequent decade new digital behavior patterns have become more clearly defined, particularly among the digital natives. Playlists and individual tracks have become the dominant consumption paradigm. Even music piracy has moved away from the album to smaller numbers of tracks, with free music downloader mobile apps and YouTube rippers now more widespread than P2P. This is the piracy behavior of the digital natives who have no need to hoard vast music collections because they know they can always find the music they want on YouTube or Soundcloud if they want it.

playlists versus albums

The behavior shift is clearly evidenced in revenue numbers. Since 2008 alone US album sales (CD and digital) have declined by 22% (IFPI), while digital track sales outpace digital album sales by a factor of 10 to 1. The top 10 selling albums in the US shifted 56.4 million units in 2000.  In 2013 the number was 14.7 million (Nielsen SoundScan). Even more stark is the contrast between playlists and albums on streaming service. Spotify has 1.5 billion playlists but just 1.4 million albums (see figure). While the comparison is not exactly apples-to-apples (album count is a catalogue count and playlist count is a hybrid catalogue / consumption count) it is nonetheless a useful illustration of the disparity of scale. (In fact the 1.4 million album assumption is probably high due to a) duplicates b) singles and EPs c) compilations.)

Even the much heralded success of Ed Sheeran’s album ‘X’ does not exactly paint a robust argument for the album. ‘X’ set the record for first week global plays of an album on Spotify with 23.8 million streams. But that represents just 0.27% of weekly Spotify listening (based on Spotify’s reported 40 million active users, 110 minutes daily listening and an average song length of 3.5 minutes).

The Album As A Mainstream Consumption Paradigm Was A Historical Anomaly

This is the consumer behavior backdrop for the demise of the album.  Creatively the album still represents the zenith of an artist’s creativity and many albums are still most often best appreciated as a creative whole. Core fans and music aficionados will still listen to albums but the majority of consumers will not. The album as the mainstream consumption paradigm was a historical anomaly of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. In the 50’s and the 60’s the single was the way the majority interacted with music, and now in the early 21st century it is once again. There has always been space for vast diversity of artists along the niche to mainstream spectrum but as a consumption format the album is closer to the Steve Reich end than it is the Katy Perry end.

Artists And Labels Need To Catch Up With Consumer Behaviour

The majority of artists will still make albums and labels will indulge them because their organizations and business models are built around the format. But therein lies the problem: the more that consumer behavior evolves, the more distant the gap between artists’ recorded output and their fans’ demand becomes.

There is more music released now than ever before and most likely more music listened to than ever before. But the amount of music listeners in the world’s top 10 music markets – which account for 91% of revenue – has not increased at anything like the same rate. People are spending less time with individual artists and albums. In the on-demand age with effectively limitless supply they flit from here to there, consuming more individual artists in a single playlist than an average music fan would have bought albums by in an entire year in the CD era. Fewer fans develop deep relationships with individual artists. Right now this translates into fewer album sales. In 10 years’ time it will manifest as a collapse in arena and stadium sized heritage live acts. In fact we are already witnessing the impact, after all what are festivals and DJ sets if not the playlist translated into a live experience?

As painful as it may be for many to accept, the tide has already turned against the album. The challenge to which artists and labels must now rise is to reinvent creativity in ways that meet the realities of the on-demand world.* If they do not, artists will eventually find the chasm between their wants and their audiences’ needs quite simply too wide to traverse.

*For those interested I wrote a couple of reports on this very topic a few years ago:

The Music Format Bill of Rights: A Manifesto For The Next Generation Of Music Products

Agile Music: Music Formats and Artist Creativity In The Age of Mass Customisation

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.

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.

How The Role of Genres Has Changed In Music Culture

The Echo Nest’s Paul Lamere has been doing some interesting work around age and gender music preferences which got me thinking about a bit more about how the relevance of genres has changed.  A school of thought that is gaining traction is that genres matter much less than they did and that they are no longer so useful for categorising music (just look at the rise of mood based discovery from the likes of Songza and Beats Music).  But as much as mood and activity are highly useful ways of programming music, genre does in fact matter just as much as it ever did, only in a different way.

Up until 20 years or so ago, music was the defining cultural reference point.  Throughout prior decades it had been possible to identify people’s music affinity by the clothes they wore and the style of their hair.  From the leather jackets and Brylcreemed hair of rockers in the 1950’s, through the mohicans and safety pins of punks in the 1970’s, to the baggy trousers and hooded tops of ravers in the 1980’s, musical identity was worn as much as it was played.  The definition of a casual music fan was more engaged than today, with a casual fan typically every week buying a seven inch single and tuning into the charts show on the radio.  Because music was the core cultural reference point the average ‘music IQ’ was high.

Now though, music competes with a fierce array of alternative cultural identifiers such as branded clothing, extreme sports, networked gaming etc.  And of course media consumption time and wallet share are also competed for more intensely than ever before.  The result is that the average mass market music fan is less engaged than in the analogue era and the overall average ‘music IQ’ has dropped.

This manifests itself in a greater number of mainstream consumers coalescing in the middle ground of popular music.  Consequently pop music has become more amorphous, with all genres of music having strong footholds in the pop end of the spectrum.  But this does not mean that genres have stopped mattering.  In fact what has changed is that they have different relevance according to the sophistication of the consumer.  What we have is in fact a genre ladder (see figure).

genre ladder

At the top of the genre ladder we have the mainstream music fan, who will think about genres in very broad terms such as rock, dance and urban, but will often have little strong preference between one or another.  These are the sorts of consumers who when asked what type of music they like will most often say ‘I like a bit of everything’.  What they actually mean is that they like the sanitized pop end of most styles of music.

Next step down the genre ladder we get to the music fans.  These are consumers that have clearly defined music tastes and will think about the genres they like in terms of broad groupings such as heavy rock or indie rock.  Even at this level things start to get tribal.  For example a house fan will often have little time for trance let alone metal.

The third and final step on the genre ladder is the micro genre, where the aficionados are most often found.  This is where music fans think in terms of labels like Psy-Trance, Dirty South and Screamo.  It is where music tastes become most tribal and in many ways behave most like they did in previous decades. Though these consumers are the smallest group they are the ones that the music industry depends upon most heavily.  These are the ones that go to most gigs, that buy most merchandise, that spend most on music and are the most likely to be subscription customers.

In many ways at this end of the spectrum there is a genre renaissance.  There has never been such granularity of styles.  The digital era has enabled bands to build and reach niches on a global scale.  So while genres have become more blurred at the first rung of the genre ladder, here they mean more than they ever did.

Lady Gaga, O2 Tracks and the Reinvention of the Pre-Release Sale Cycle

Back in the glory days of music sales, long before the web had done away with scarcity, albums and singles could hit the top of the charts on pre-sales alone.  Those days are long gone, but exclusive pre-release listening initiatives are beginning to reinvent the pre-release sale cycle.  There have been a number of diverse efforts of late including Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ being streamed exclusively on iTunes a week prior to release and Jay-Z’s Samsung ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ hard bundle.   This week sees the arrival of another high profile artist effort: Lady Gaga’s ‘Artpop’ is going to be available one week ahead of release exclusively in the UK on mobile music service O2 Tracks.  Done right, pre-release digital previews could be a crucial shot in the arm for music sales.

The debate around whether streaming cannibalizes downloads is going to run for a few years yet, and we’ll probably only have enough data to draw definitive conclusions when streaming’s ascent and downloading’s descent are irrevocably set.  Until then, the challenge is how best to leverage the capabilities of existing digital platforms to drive sales of both downloads and good old fashioned CDs and LPs.  Previewing on an all your can eat streaming service will always both drive and cannibalize sales, just in the same way that radio has always done so.  But build the preview experience into the structure of a music store and the chances of conversion are much higher.  Daft Punk’s iTunes preview was a run away success because it was in the heart of the globe’s biggest music retailer (though of course the impact of the uber effective marketing campaign cannot be discounted).

Powered by UK music start up MusicQubed, O2 Tracks is far from a download store (it delivers users a small selection of handpicked playlists for £1 a week) but it is nonetheless a proven driver of music sales.  MusicQubed reports that O2 Tracks users frequently click to purchase tracks in the app, with stores such as iTunes providing the fulfillment. Thus O2 Tracks is an opportunity to drive hype (O2 are investing heavily in marketing the preview project) and to drive sales.

Lady Gaga is truly a digital era artist, with music sales that are strong but overshadowed by super high social engagement metrics such as Facebook Likes and YouTube views (see this chart for more). So while Lady Gaga’s management will be most interested in the strong marketing support from O2 and will in part measure success in terms of social footprint, her label Polydor will of course be paying much closer attention to conversions to sales.  O2 Tracks should deliver on both counts.

As more pre-release digital initiatives are run we will get a better sense of what works best, and where.  As that data builds I expect a clear case to emerge of a more structured and consistent approach to pre-release marketing.  A crucial ingredient will be exclusive extra content, not just the album itself (the O2 Tracks ‘Artpop’ preview includes an eight minute interview with Lady Gaga). This is the sort of content that delivers genuine added value to core fans of any given artist and that helps build even more reason for fans to listen to pre-release album previews.  The days of albums regularly topping the charts on pre-sales alone may be a thing of the past, but the pre-release sales cycle is waking up to a whole new lease of life in the digital age.

 

Why EDM is a Genre and Not Just a Marketing Term

A recent social media spat between Deadmau5 and Afrojack regarding creativity in EDM caught my eye. A quick summation of the debate was that Afrojack said you just needed your track to be ‘good’ to be a success and Deadmau5 retorted that all EDM music sounds the same.  There’s a lot more to this debate than might at first appear, and it gets to the heart of a lot of the problems with the current EDM craze.

For the record, I used to be a gigging dance music producer and DJ and had a few singles and remixes to my name.  My (incomplete) discogs entry is here, and my Soundcloud page is here (with new and old stuff).  When I was releasing music, dance was a far more underground genre that was just reaching its first decade as a movement.  It had already ossified into its main genre groupings and the excesses of superclubs, the super star DJ and brand partnerships were all beginning take effect.  But despite this it remained a sub culture that was clearly distinct from the mainstream. The recent emergence of dance music as a mainstream movement has transformed the picture entirely.  Driven by artists like David Guetta and the Swedish House Mafia dance has acquired pop sensibilities and in doing so has finally broken through in America.  Unlike in Europe where dance has two decades or so of cultural roots, it is effectively year zero for the flavour of dance music that is currently being marketed to the US.  Hence the adoption of the previously nerdy tag ‘EDM’.

While EDM was a useful rebranding exercise for dance it now risks doing more harm than good.  The type of artists and music that fit the EDM brand are at the commercial end of the spectrum, with music that owes as much to pop as it does dance. This risks polluting the broader dance scene, but there is a simple solution: recognize EDM for what it has in practice become, a genre in itself.  EDM is pop-dance, it is not a term for dance music as a whole.

This means no disrespect to the likes of David Guetta or the Swedish House Mafia – who incidentally all paid their dues as hard gigging DJs before breaking through – but the majority of music that they produce is not dance music, it is EDM.  Unfortunately too many dance producers have tried to jump on the EDM bandwagon, and consequently too much dance music is sounding just too similar.  With up to 15,000 dance releases every week, it is understandable why so many producers will do whatever they can to try shorten their odds of success and they know they won’t get many opportunities.  If the life cycle of the average band is akin to that of a butterfly, then for a dance producer is more like that of a Mayfly.   But the result is that far too much dance music averaging out to a safe, consistent and bland norm rather than creating an undulating tapestry of creative diversity. It is time for the wider dance music scene to reclaim its identity and instead of trying to chase the bright lights of EDM, get back to its roots and true identity.

The Curious Case of the South Korean Music Market

(NOTE: you can download and keep this blog post as a pdf report by clicking on the report image at the bottom of the page)

Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ might have catapulted the South Korean music market into the global consciousness but to industry observers like myself it has long been a market of particular interest.  Being the first major music market to pass the 50% digital mark – in 2006 – South Korea has been held up both as a digital trailblazer and as a canary in the mine for the global music industry.  Strong growth over recent years hinted at a brighter international future, but just as ‘Gangnam Style’ was propelling South Korean music to unprecedented global heights the South Korea music market went back into decline.

The South Korean music market is one of contradictions and idiosyncrasies, but crucially it also holds many lessons that the global music market would do well to pay heed to

korean music revenue trends

Bucking Global Trends

According to the IFPI’s invaluable Recording Industry in Numbers, South Korean recorded music revenues declined by 5% in 2012, breaking a run of four years of successive growth. But unlike the global market, it wasn’t the CD that was to blame for the fall but digital.  Physical revenue grew by 19%, the third successive year of growth, while digital actually declined by 25%, dragging the entire market down with it. The mirror opposite of the global music market where 7% digital growth wasn’t enough to prevent a 5% physical decline drag down total revenues by 1%.

2012 wasn’t the first year that South Korea stood out from the pack though, indeed the last 13 years have been vastly different from the global market (see figure):

  • Revenue collapse: between 2000 and 2005 South Korea lost a whopping two thirds of its value while the global market shrunk by a more modest 18%
  • Digital crossover: in 2006 South Korea became the first major music market to become more than 50% digital (the 2012 global rate was just 38%)
  • Subscription dominance: a vast 74% of digital revenues were subscription in 2012, having hit 22% back In 2008 (the global rate was just 20%)
  • Physical boom: physical revenues have risen all years but one since 2007, compared to a global market decline every year since 2000

A Tale of Booming CD Sales and Tumbling Download Revenues

There is no single explanation for the unique picture that South Korea’s last 13 years of music history paints, but there are a few key factors:

  • Piracy: piracy is of course just one contributory factor to the downturn in music revenues (albeit a crucial one) but the effect was felt particularly keenly in South Korea.  The South Korean government was an ardent supporter of the telco sector in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, resulting in some of the best high-speed broadband infrastructure on the planet.  However this support came at the cost of the government effectively turning a blind eye to rights holder concerns.  Unsurprisingly piracy boomed with file sharers and networks alike operating with near impunity.   South Korea became a perennial fixture on the US Trade Representative’s piracy watch list but finally the government started to redress the balance from 2007/8, introducing new copyright legislation, including a graduated response initiative in 2009.  And since 2007 the market has grown by an impressive 58%, nearly reaching 2000 levels by 2011.  But just how much of this can be attributed to government action is open to question as music revenues had already grown by 84% in 2006 alone.   (The rate of growth in 2006 is however skewed by the fact digital numbers were not reported in prior years).
  • Subscriptions: the central force in South Korea’s digital market is SK Telecom’s MelOn subscription service which was the first in the world to amass a million paying subscribers and now numbers 2 million paying users and 18 million registered users.  MelOn was competitively priced (less than $3.00) and included mobile downloads from the start, enabling it to have immediate impact.  South Korean subscription revenues more than doubled between 2009 and 2012.  Rights holders have not been entirely happy though, including Lee-Soo Man (founder of K-Pop power house SM Entertainment) who claimed that 1 million tracks consumed on MelOn do not cover the costs of making a music video for a single.  The pressure resulted in government intervention and in January 2013 MelOn doubled its subscription rate to 6,000 won (about $5.60).  Time will soon tell whether the increased revenue per user is cancelled out by the likely decline in number of users.
  • Download collapse: MelOn’s price hike of course came after 2012 digital decline, which instead was caused by a collapse in music download revenue, dropping by a staggering 71% in 2012.  The download collapse was the single biggest driver of the overall decline in revenue in 2012.  In fact, if download revenue had remained flat, total revenues would have grown by 6% in 2012.  Much of the decline is attributed to a tough year for another of SK Telecom’s properties, the social network Cyworld.  Once the dominant Korean network, Cyworld enables users to buy music tracks to personalize their profiles but it has struggled to compete against Facebook and spent 2012 bleeding users.
  • Physical longevity: physical revenues have bucked the global trend, with 2012 revenues 128% bigger than their 2006 low.  This compares to a 14% rise for digital (though the 2012 collapse obviously skews the rate down). It is not a unique trend though, with Japan also experiencing a physical uptick in 2012. What links these two markets is the way in which the respective local pop sectors (K-Pop and J-Pop) have created ardently loyal fan bases that eagerly buy lavishly packaged CD products, often with merchandize extras, and frequently resulting in fans buying multiple editions of the same release.  Thus for all the surge in digital, the South Korean and Japanese pop markets have found a way to deliver unique, tangible value with physical products.
  • K-Pop: though the success of K-Pop has been key to South Korean market growth there is growing criticism of this highly manufactured genre. Artists complain of being ‘contract slaves’ while others point to the huge concentration of power in the K-Pop talent agencies. A cultural critique is that this industrialized pop methodology places too heavy an emphasis on presentation over content, and too strong a focus on ‘safe bet’ lowest common denominators.  A clear echo of the American Idol and X-Factor phenomenon in the West.  Whatever its issues though, there is no denying that K-Pop is central to the resurgence in South Korean music revenues.

Lessons for the Global Market

South Korea is a truly unique music market and, just as with Japan, one has to tread carefully when attempting to project trends onto western markets.  But even with that caveat there is clearly much that can be learned from the South Korean experience:

  • It is possible for music revenues to return to 2000 levels (if only for a fleeting moment)
  • Subscriptions can reach significant scale when competitively priced (sustainability issues aside)
  • Physical revenues can be given new impetus with smart product strategy (though don’t expect Westerners to start behaving like K-Pop fans)
  • Concentration of any one segment of digital revenue in a single player can leave a market highly vulnerable

But perhaps most importantly of all, just like in the disclaimer of a financial services advert: music revenues can go up and down.  Even when a market eventually starts to grow again, don’t expect that to mean that the corner has been permanently turned.

The Curious Case of the South Korean Music Market report

To download a pdf report version of this blog post just click on the image.  You can find more free reports to download here.

 

The Decline and Fall of the Top 10

The impact of technology on the music business is well understood, but it is also having a dramatic impact on the music buying population, which in turn is changing the face of mainstream music.  Digital music has so far been a journey for the more engaged, technology savvy music fan.  Some of these have discovered free music, others a la carte, others streaming.  All of these behaviours have eaten away at sales of the music industry’s core product: the album.   Yet the CD album remains the music industry’s number 1 global music product and in key markets like Japan and Germany it accounts for approximately three quarters of sales. The problem of course is that CD buyers are steadily falling out of the market (10.5 million people have stopped buying music entirely in the UK and US since 2008).  Though re-releases and discounted catalogue sales have helped bump up volumes in some markets, the net result is that new release album sales are dwindling.  Even more interestingly though, the abandonment of the album by engaged music fans is changing the face of the top 10 (see figure).

top 10 album sales us

Looking at how the US top 10 albums chart has evolved since 2000 reveals a few key trends:

  • Sales have tumbled sharply: the top 10 albums accounted for 56.4 million unit sales in 2000, by 2012 this had dropped by 38.7 million to 17.7 million (a 69% drop). 
  • Some genres have fared better than others: the average number of sales per top 10 album for Rock, Pop, and Urban all fell by 75% between 2000 and 2012.  Country only fell by 66% and Adult by just 30%.  Adult, with artists like Michael Bublé, Adele, Susan Boyle and Josh Groban represent the new ‘safe’ market for album sales. These artists appeal to older music buyers who still predominately buy CDs and often rely upon mainstream outlets like Walmart. 
  • Genres have fluctuated: although Pop is more pervasive than ever and now represents 41% of top 10 album sales, the sales for today’s Pop artists pale in comparison with those of the 2000 peak.  One Direction’s 1.6 million and 1.3 million sales and Justin Bieber 1.3 million in 2012 compare miserably with ‘N Sync’s 9.9 million, Britney Spears’ 7.9 million and the Backstreet Boys’ 4.3 million in 2000.   Urban has also steadily declined over the period, from a high of 50% of top 10 sales in 2005 to zero in 2012, while Country has steadily grown its share from zero in 2000 and 2001 to 19% in 2012. Rock, following a few strong years from 2006 to 2008 has been relegated to a niche of no more than 8% every year since, disappearing entirely in 2010.

Of course the top 10 album sales are not the whole music market, but that is sort of the point: the top 10 is becoming ever less of a measure of broader music buyer tastes and even further from the tastes of more engaged music fans.  Streaming and a la carte are empowering the music aficionados to deep dive, if not into the long tail, then certainly into the full torso of music, bypassing the short head of the top 10.  Leaving the top 10 as the pulse of the dwindling mainstream.

What Angry Birds Teaches Us About the Future of Media Products

Angry_Birds_promo_artAt Midem this weekend I spent some time talking with Peter Vesterbacka, CMO of Rovio, the company behind the phenomenally successful Angry Birds game.  Angry Birds continues to enjoy approximately 1 million downloads a day and as Peter pointed out, that daily download count is more than the majority of music singles ever reach. The conversation got me thinking about why a mobile game can have so much more success than the majority of artists.

Digital Era Products are Tailor Made for Digital Era Devices

To be clear, Angry Birds is not the representative sample of mobile games, to the contrary it is the runaway success story.  And the fact that Rovio hasn’t yet been able to build a new brand franchise to rival Angry Birds emphasizes the uniqueness of the brand.  Nonetheless, Angry Birds illustrates what happens when you build a content product that is tailor made for the digital devices it is intended to be consumed on.  Angry Birds is a content product that does not just utilize the functionality of the smartphones and tablets but depends upon them.  Angry Birds is a 21st Century content product build for 21st Century content devices.

Think about when Apple launch a new iPad, they don’t wheel out a senior record label exec with a hot new artist to show off the device, instead they get EA Games to show off a new game that leverages the functionality of the device: graphics accelerator, Retina Display, Accelerometer, Multi Touch etc.  Even the best iTunes LPs do not come close to doing that job, let alone a static audio file, which remains the dominant product that the music industry sells on iTunes and other stores.

Analogue Era Products in Digital Era Clothes

But there is something more fundamental at play rather than simply a technology skills gap between record labels and games publishers, and it isn’t just a record label problem either. The inescapable fact is that record labels, publishers of books, magazines and newspapers and even TV and movie studios are trying to shoehorn analogue era products into digital era technology.  These companies’ products were built for sitting on shelves and for being consumed in single purpose, non-interactive devices.  Games and apps though, are digital era products at home in digital technology while traditional media products are lodgers not yet quite able to keep up the rent payments.

This does not mean that traditional media products cannot have a vibrant future. They can, but they have to truly understand what makes digital era content products work:

  • Interactive and Dynamic: digital era content products don’t just leverage the functionality of the devices they are consumed on. They make that functionality core to the content experience itself, to the extent that the content product would not be able to exist without it.
  • Visual Experience: digital era content has a visual element at its core. This puts video products at a distinct advantage, but video is an asset that print and music products can leverage too. No coincidence that YouTube is the most successful digital music product in the globe.
  • Context and Relevance: digital era content products are increasingly embracing the context of location, social group and time.  They both understand the consumer demand-gaps that these factors combine to create, and they also enrich their experiences by meshing these factors into the products themselves.

None of these three areas are insurmountable hurdles for traditional media companies, but at the same time they are not natural paths for many of their products.  Embracing these objectives often requires an entirely different approach to product development, rethinking what makes the content valuable in the digital age.  For example the audio file in the YouTube video is much less valuable to young teens without the video than with.  The video is as important in that product as the music itself.  Yet the music product development cycle revolves around creating the audio file, not the video.

Embracing digital era product principles also requires an understanding that just because you can does not always mean that you should.  Not all features are appropriate for all types of content.  Not even digital era content products use all the device features available to them e.g. Real Racing relies more on accelerometer functionality while Angry Birds leans towards multi-touch.

Learning lessons from digital era products is a must for all traditional media products.  Most digital versions of traditional media products are digital adaptations, not genuinely new products. Trying to squeeze the round peg of analogue era products into the square hole of digital era devices clearly is not a long-term solution. Until the circle is squared though, digital era products will continue to leave digital adaptions of analogue era products in their slipstream.