Streaming Report Card 2014

2014 was the year streaming broke through to mainstream consciousness, not because of the marketing prowess of Spotify but because Taylor Swift decided to withdraw her content from the Swedish streaming heavyweight and other freemium services. It was a mixed year of momentous achievement and intensifying controversy, which makes it an opportune moment for an end of term report card.

Growth – 8/10

No complaints here. Impressive growth for both paid and free streaming with a likely combined annual growth of about 50% and total subscribers getting to about 35 million. Although there are some signs of slowdown this is to be expected as much of the addressable audience for the 9.99 price point is reached. In fact the growth slowdown was less pronounced than expected in some markets. If it hadn’t been for the fact that download sales for the year will be down about 10% this would have been a 9/10.

Transparency – 2/10

Two years ago I asked the CEOs of 10 leading streaming companies what the coming years would hold. Unfortunately for 5 of them it meant looking for a new job. One thing most were in agreement on however was the need to introduce far greater transparency for artists. Two years on and the issue is every bit as problematic. For the most part the discontent has been voiced by smaller artists or those later in their careers, but not by frontline artists in their prime. Until last week that is, when Ed Sheeran told the BBC that it is ‘fact’ that labels are holding money back from artists. Some time soon, some time very soon, labels are going to have to get on top of this if they want the model to work.

Platform – 5/10

I had high hopes for Spotify’s app platform, it looked like it was heralding the dawn of the ‘music platform’ that the digital market has needed, well, forever. Unfortunately label wrangling ensured that Spotify was not able to get the deals to allow app developers to monetize their apps so the venture was effectively still born, save for the highly credible efforts of some traditional media brands, such as the BBC, Now! And Deutsche Grammophon who didn’t have to worry about making money from the apps. Luckily the streaming companies haven’t given up on the ‘streaming as a platform’ vision and a host of integrations with the likes of Bandpage and PledgeMusic have the potential to help artists transform streaming cents into digital dollars.

Pricing – 3/10

I’ve been banging the pricing drum for so long the stick has broken. Unfortunately there was pitifully little progress in 2014, with label fears of cannibalising 9.99 dominating thoughts. On the plus side there is a huge amount of negotiating activity taking place right now and that should bear fruit in 2015. Expect Apple to try to get to market with the same 7.99 that YouTube’s Music Key is currently in market with (and expect that short term promotion for YouTube to eventually become permanent). And if 7.99 is the new 9.99 then prices will have to cascade. 4.99 will be the new 3.99, 3.99 will become 2.99 and so forth. And there remains the super urgent need for PAYG pricing leveraging in app payments. I predicted pricing innovation in 2012 and 2013 and it didn’t happen. Here’s to third time lucky.

Global expansion – 6/10

Deezer had already set a great precedent for rolling out into a vast number of global territories and Spotify played an admirable game of catch up in 2013 which continued with another five new countries in 2014. Rdio’s acquisition of Indian streaming service Dhingana was another interesting move.  Meaningful revenue is yet to follow in these Rest of World markets though – the US and Europe accounted for more than four fifths of global streaming revenue in 2014.  But the foundations have been laid and that in itself is an important step worthy of credit.

Sustainability – 4/10

The ripple effects of Taylor Swift’s windowing antics will be felt throughout 2015 with countless other big artists and their managers already making it very clear to labels that they want to do the same. The sooner Spotify can agree to having the free tier treated as a distinct window the sooner the streaming space can start rebuilding.   The whole ‘changing download dollars into streaming cents’ issue continues to haunt streaming though. And with streaming services struggling to see a route to operational profitability the perennial issue of sustainability remains a festering wound. The emerging generation of artists such as Avicii and Ed Sheeran who have never known a life of platinum album sales will learn how to prosper in the streaming era. The rest will have to learn to reinvent themselves, fast, really fast.

Overall Streaming gets a 6/10 for a year that saw huge progress but also the persistence of perennial problems that must be fixed for the sector to succeed.

Why It Is Time To Make YouTube Look Less Like Spotify And More Like Pandora

2014 has been a dramatic year for the music industry and may prove to be one of its most significant. The brief history of digital music is peppered with milestones such as Napster rising its head in 1999, the launch of the iTunes Music Store in 2003, Spotify in 2008. The 2014 legacy looks set to be more nuanced but equally important: it is the year in which streaming started to truly transform the music industry. The significance though lies in how the music industry is responding. With download sales tumbling, royalty rates still being questioned, and Taylor Swift’s hugely publicised windowing, the music industry is taking a long hard look at what role streaming should play. Spotify and Soundcloud will find themselves in the cross hairs, but there is also a case for redefining YouTube’s remit too.

Don’t Throw Out Freemium With the Windowing Bathwater 

Swift’s windowing move centred around free streaming. If Spotify had been willing to treat the free tier as a separate window from its paid tier, the odds are it would have got ‘1989’. Spotify’s argument that weakening the free tier could affect their ability to convert is logical. But ultimately the purpose of the free tier is to persuade people to pay to stream, not to deliver a fantastic free experience. I first made the case for windowing back in 2009 and I remain convinced it will be crucial to long term success.

By playing an all-or-nothing negotiating game freemium services risk being left with the latter. And it would be a tragedy if freemium got thrown out with the windowing bath water. Windowing will quite simply make free tiers more palatable. Windowing can drive huge success. Look at Netflix: with 50 million subscribes gloably Netflix has the traditional broadcast industry running scared yet is far more heavily windowed than Spotify – how many new movies do you find on Netflix?

One Rule For YouTube Another For The Rest

But the core problem is that Spotify does not exist in a vacuum. While Swift windowed Spotify her videos stayed on YouTube and Vevo. Unless YouTube is treated with a similar approach to other free services then any windowing efforts will simply drive more traffic to YouTube rather than drive more sales or subscriptions. 5 years ago a YouTube stream could be seen as driving sales, now a YouTube stream drives another YouTube stream.

Among the Top 10 fastest growing YouTube channels (in terms of views), half are music. More people are streaming more music on YouTube than ever. The reason YouTube remains untouchable has much to do with the fact labels still see it as a promotional vehicle despite the fact it has become a fully fledge consumption platform. Without doubt YouTube plays the discovery role for youth that radio does for older generations. But it is also the end point for youth.

Time For A New Role For YouTube

So what is the solution? Simple. If YouTube is the radio equivalent for youth, make it look and feel more like radio, not like Spotify premium with video. Instead, make YouTube look like Pandora with video. If YouTube is all about promotion then swap out unlimited on demand mobile plays for DMCA compliant stations. Let any user search and discover a new song but once they have discovered it the next few music videos are automatically selected related videos.

I remember Beggars’ Martin Mills quoting music industry veteran Rob Dickens:

‘If you play what I want when I want I’ll accept it is promotion. If it is what you want when you want it is business.’

That is at the core of what makes a streaming service additive versus substitutive. This is why Pandora stands out as a complement to ‘sales’ revenue and why YouTube no longer can. If YouTube’s core value to the music business is still discovery then this approach is how that role can be protected without damaging the ability of subscription services to proposer.

Do Not Conflate Music Key With YouTube

Now of course, YouTube has its own subscription service too in the form of Music Key, which is great: YouTube is a hugely welcome addition to the subscription market. But this does not mean YouTube music videos should be free on demand to all. Only 3% of UK and US consumers say they would pay for Music Key (and consumer surveys typically over report on intent to purchase).   Instead, YouTube’s free on demand music videos should be only available for users that register for Music Key. This would be Music Key’s freemium base, not the entire installed base of YouTube users.

With on demand free music it is all about the conversion path: how many of those consumers that listen for free are likely to pay. With YouTube’s 1 billion users it is a tiny per cent so there is little business rationale for letting them take the Ferrari out for a test drive when they are only ever going to get the bus.

Is 9.99 too expensive for most free music users? Of course it is. Should PAYG options be added in to the mix? Yes, absolutely. But none of those will work unless the music industry takes a consistent and fair approach to freemium.

Turning YouTube into a video enabled Pandora is clearly a controversial proposal and it will have huge opposition. It may even cause some meaningful disruption in the mid term, but unless equally meaningful change is made the music industry will remain locked on course to a future in which subscription services will never be able to realise their full potential.

How Data And Mobile Apps Shape Spotify’s Quest For Profitability

Spotify’s has announced the 2013 financial results for its global parent company. The headline is a -12% operating loss, down from a -19% loss in 2012. The numbers are in stark contrast to the small operating profits recently reported in Spotify’s UK and France subsidiaries. Both were able to do so because only a portion of Spotify’s costs reside in those businesses. This raises the interesting point of Spotify making efforts to report an operating profit where ever it possibly can to help build an evidence base that its model is sustainable. Which contrasts sharply with Pandora’s prolonged efforts to do what it can to not make a profit in order to help its rate lobby efforts.

Having spent the last few weeks knee deep in a client project exploring the profitability of digital music services I had a stronger than usual sense of ‘told you so’ when Spotify’s numbers came out. The headline of rights costs being the large cash drain on the subscription business model is well known, but there are other accelerating costs that are less well known. Spotify’s research and development costs rose by 92% between 2012 and 2013.

Music services find themselves running to keep up in the mobile world. Mobile apps are how the vast majority of subscribers interact with streaming services yet mobile app development is only an ancillary competence of subscription services. Unlike a King.com, a Supercell or a Mojang, Spotify’s core operating structures are built around cloud distribution, content management and music programming. Spotify and other subscription services are now having to develop mobile as core competence too and the rapid rate of innovation and change in mobile experiences mean that this more resembles an arms race that it does a standard operating cost.

The other big change is data. Streaming services generate vast quantities of usage data and making sense of that data is an ever more important task for streaming services of all kinds, not just music. Netflix spends $150 million on recommendations alone and has 150 staff just for this single data driven task.   Call it ‘big data’ if you will, but managing large data sets effectively is crucial to the success of streaming services for everything from managing churn through to rights holder reporting.

The key takeaway? Scale will definitely help streaming subscription services move closer towards profitability (as Spotify’s narrowing loss attests) but costs are also going to continue to rise for any streaming service that takes competencies such as app development and data intelligence seriously.

Spotify, Apple, YouTube And The Streaming Pincer Movement

The Financial Times yesterday reported that Apple is planning on integrating Beats Music into an iOS update as early as the first quarter of 2015. Which means the entire base of Apple’s 500 odd million iOS devices suddenly become Apple’s acquisition funnel. As I wrote back in May, this was always the strategy Apple was most likely to pursue. Of course being available to 500 iTunes customers is not anything like converting them all. Just ask U2. But it does give Beats Music – if Apple keep the name – a reach like no other subscriptions service on the planet. Especially if Apple is willing to roll out free trials to them all.   Currently just 8% of consumers in the US and UK have experienced a subscription trial, which translates into approximately 30 million people. Even if Apple does not quickly succeed in taking subscriptions to the mainstream it is about to take subscription trials to the mainstream, which is the crucial first step.

streaming pincer

Add this to YouTube’s recently announced Music Key subscription service, which should be aspiring to get 5 million or so subscribers in its first year to be considered a success, and a picture emerges of Spotify squeezed in the middle of a streaming pincer movement (see figure). In the near term Apple will be hoping to win back a lot of its lost high spending iTunes customers from Spotify. Longer term it will be looking to grow the market.

None of this means anything like the end for Spotify. Instead it will force Spotify to up its already high quality game. Competitive markets thrive far more than ones in which one or two key players dominate. It could mean that Spotify’s potential flotation or sale value is tempered for a while, which could push out Spotify’s exit timelines until it has proven its worth in a more competitive marketplace. But Spotify has the distinct advantage of being a) the incumbent and b) a pure play. Spotify, Deezer and Rhapsody are all in this game simply for music. That means each and every one of them has a laser focus on making the best possible music service proposition they can. The same is quite simply not the case for either Apple or YouTube. They will need to leverage that asset in their conversations with rights holders to ensure they are given more flexibility in terms to drive true marketplace innovation and experimentation.

subs numbers 11 14

But Spotify et al would be foolish to underestimate the scale of the challenge they will face. Apple has the largest installed base of digital music buyers on the planet (see figure). As creditable as Spotify’s 12.5 million paying subscribers is, it pales compared to Apple’s 200 million iTunes music buyers. Also Apple has many additional assets at its disposal. Integrating into iOS is just one tactic it can employ. Spotify et al depend on Apple’s platform for much of their survival. But there is no reason Apple has to play truly fair. Amazon set a platform precedent with its treatment of Hachette that Apple will have been watching closely. Don’t expect anything too obvious, but little tricks like tilting app store optimizing in favour of Beats over Spotify can go a long way.

Things are hotting up, no doubt. But Apple’s arrival in the subscription market will take the sector to a whole new level, and a high tide should rise all boats.

What the Numbers Tell Us About Streaming in 2014

By the end of 2014 streaming revenues will account for $3.3 billion, up 37% from 2013. However headline market value numbers only ever tell part of the story. Just as important are the numbers on the ground that give us some sense of where the money is flowing and of the sustainability of the business models. During the last two weeks we have been fortunate to have four different sets of data that go a long way to filling in those gaps:

Each is interesting enough in isolation but it is the way that they interact and interdepend that gets really interesting:

  • Sustainability: A lot is rightly made of whether the subscription business model is sustainable. Spotify has showed us that, at least in a local subsidiary, an operational profit can be turned. However that profit rate was just 2.5%, does not account for previously acquired losses and also does not account for the broader company’s cost base where many of Spotify’s other costs lie. 2.5% is a wafer thin margin that leaves little margin for error and would be wiped out in an instant with the sort of the advertising Spotify has been using in the US. Meanwhile Soundcloud have demonstrated that it is also entirely possible to post a heavy loss even without rights costs. Soundcloud is going to need every ounce of its investor money and new revenue streams when it adds a 73.2% rights cost to its bottom line (though Soundcloud is doing all it can to ensure it doesn’t have to play by those rules and instead hopes to operate under YouTube’s far more preferable rates).
  • Transition: Nielsen’s US numbers should finally remove any lingering doubt about whether streaming is eating directly into download revenue. As MIDiA Research revealed last month, 23% of streamers used to buy more than an album a month but no longer do so. Streaming is converting the most valuable downloaders into subscribers and in doing so is reducing their monthly spending from $20 or $30 to $9.99. The combined effect of the perpetual decline of the CD and now of the download make it hard for streaming to turn the total market around. That won’t happen globally until 2018, though in many individual markets streaming driven growth is already here. Spotify pointed to bundles with the Times of London newspaper and mobile carrier Vodafone as key sources of growth in the UK. This sort of deal points to how subscriptions can break out of the early adopter beachhead and drive incremental ‘found’ revenue.
  • The Ubiquity of Free: YouTube, Pandora, Soundcloud and Spofity free are among the largest contributors to streaming’s scale. Some business models are more proven than others – Pandora looks better placed than ever to be a central part of the long term future of radio. YouTube’s role remains controversial though. Its proudly announced $1bn payout milestone is less impressive when one considers Content ID was launched in 2007 and that this is all rights holders, not just music. So let’s say 60% was to music rights holders, over the course of seven years that averages out at $0.07 per year for each of YouTube’s current one billion monthly users. That’s a pretty small return for the globe’s biggest music service.

We are clearly still some distance away from a definitive set of evidence that can tell us exactly what streaming’s impact will be. But in many ways it is wrong to wait for that. There will never be a truly definitive argument. Instead the world will continue to change in ways that will better fit the streaming market. It is a case of streaming and the industry meeting half way. This is exactly what happened with downloads. Early fears that downloads would accelerate the demise of the CD and instigate the decline of the album were both confirmed but the music industry learned how to build a new set of businesses around these new digital realities. The same process will take place with streaming.

We are already seeing some remarkable resilience and appetite for change from artists, from DIY success stories like Zoe Keating, through veteran rockers like Iggy Pop, right up to corporate megastars like Ed Sheeran. These are as diverse a collection of artists as you could wish for but they are united in an understanding that the music industry is changing, again, and that simply bemoaning the decline in sales revenue will not achieve anything. Of course it sucks that sales revenue is falling and of course its infinitesimally easier for me to write these words than to live them. But that sort willingness to evolve to the realities of today’s rapidly changing market will set up an artist with the best chance of surviving the cull. The old adage rings truer than ever: adapt or die.

Google’s Acquisition Of Songza And ‘Fixing Discovery’

Google yesterday confirmed the much rumoured purchase of curated music service Songza for somewhere between $15 and $39 million. While it is not a vast investment for a company with the recent $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest as a benchmark, it is nonetheless a significant one for a company that already has a couple of streaming music services of its own. It is not a Beats sized deal but then if Google had wanted one of those it would have bought Spotify. So just why did Google splash the cash on Songza?

Access to all the music in thee world can be overwhelming, with so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all. This is the Tyranny of Choice. For all the efforts and intent of music services to ‘fix’ discovery no one has yet nailed it. Listen Services like Nokia Mix Radio, O2 Tracks and Pandora present one solution: effectively removing the burden of excessive choice by delivering a curated stream of music that requires little or no effort from the user. But this approach does not translate well to All You Can Eat (AYCE) services like Spotify and Googles’ Play Music All Access. These services are built on the foundations of giving access to everything, the exact opposite of what Listen Services are about. Which is why AYCE services are doubling down on enhancing their internal curation and recommendation capabilities. Spotify moved first with its acquisition of the EchoNest, Rdio followed by acquiring TastemakerX and now this move from Google. Beats Music took a different route entirely, building its service on the foundations of programming rather than superimposing it.

Google should be able to extract great value from Songza but as with all of these technologies it is just part of the solution. Human programming, as resource intensive as it might be, remains a pivotally important part of the equation, and though all the AYCE services have teams of curators, only Beats so far has done it at large scale.

First, Show People How To Find What They Have Already Found

And still the discovery problem is not fixed. Progress has been made in the last few years, but in many respects it is a case running before learning to walk. Recommendations, discovery and programming are just one part of the music consumption journey i.e. discovering new music. Arguably the most important aspect of the journey is the one that is most neglected: navigating the music people have already discovered. As counter intuitive as it may sound, people first of all need to be shown how to find what they have already found…their pre-existing music collections but also the music they have listened to in a service. Creating playlists and tags of songs is an often burdensome task that requires no small amount of discipline. Which means that newly discovered gems can all too quickly disappear back into bottomless pit of 30 million songs, rendering a discovery journey wasted.

Smart of use of data can provide the foundations for the solution, ensuring that people’s streaming ‘collections’ are dynamically created and programmed. But data alone is not enough. What is needed is an entire new paradigm in music navigation. For all the faults of CDs they were visual reference points. A consumer might not remember the name of an artist or an album but would know roughly where the CD was on a shelf or what colour the cover was. (I remember as a DJ often identifying a record I was about to play only by the colour of the label on the centre of the vinyl).

Digital music lacks such visual reference points. iTunes transformed our music collections into featureless spreadsheets, with playlists emerging as simply another means of sorting the data. New visually rich interfaces in music services help enhance the user experience but most often simply try to shoe horn in the old album art approach into a digital context. This new navigation paradigm must start with a blank sheet and think in terms of multimedia, interactive, dynamic experiences. It will need to leverage rich visuals, touch, dynamic context aware programming, sound, voice control and Shazam, to create an immersive whole that gives the consumer clear, immediate results in a way that engages multiple senses. Only once we have fixed this first step of the music consumption journey can we really start thinking about ‘fixing discovery’.

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.

 

 

Apple, Beats and Streaming’s Mutual Fear Factor

Although the Apple-Beats deal is about far more than just streaming music, it is nonetheless an important part of the puzzle.  Apple has been going slow with streaming, introducing cloud experiences (iCloud, iTunes Match, iTunes Radio, Video rentals) slowly so as not to alienate its less tech-adventurous mainstream user base.  That strategy remains valid and will continue, but it has failed to protect the defection of its core, high value, early adopters.  This is why Apple has to get serious about streaming fast: it is scared of losing its best customers.  It is also why all other streaming companies, whatever they may admit publically, are getting ready to run scared.  This is streaming music’s mutual fear factor:

  • Velvet handcuffs: Music downloads are monetized CRM for Apple, a means of enhancing the device experience.  Purchased tracks and an iTunes managed library act as velvet handcuffs for Apple device owners.  But for those consumers that use a streaming subscription app, the playlists and music collection can exist on any device.  Suddenly the handcuffs slip off.  This is why Apple has to get streaming right in short order.  It simply cannot afford to lose swathes of its most valuable device customers at the next handset replacement cycle.
  • Chinks in the iTunes armour: Until the launch of the App Store, 3rd party music services had no way of breaking into the iTunes ecosystem and were, in the main, doomed to the role of also rans.  The App Store was the chink in the otherwise impregnable iTunes armour that allowed those 3rd parties to not just launch punitive raids but to set up camp in Apple’s heartlands. It was the price Apple had to pay to enter the next phase of its business, but now it is ready to shore up its defences once more.
  • Eating from Apple’s table: The vast majority of streaming music subscribers were already digital download buyers first, and of those the majority were either current or past iTunes Store customers when they became subscribers.  On a global scale, subscriptions have first and foremost been about transitioning existing spending rather than creating new digital customers. The picture is very different in Nordics, the Netherlands and South Korea but those markets contribute far less to global scale than the markets (US, UK, Australia etc.) where this trend dominates.  Apple has provided the core addressable market for streaming services for the last five years.  Now those companies worry over where will they be able to get new subscribers if Apple start taking subscriptions seriously.
  • Apple will not have to play fair: Although Apple knows it is under the watchful eye of various regulatory authorities following the eBook price fixing episode, there is still plenty it can do to make life hard for 3rd party streaming services.  Just take a look at what Amazon is reportedly getting away with in its book pricing dispute with Hachette: delaying shipments of the publisher’s books to customers, removing buy buttons from pre-ordered books, even pointing Amazon customers to competitive titles when searching for Hachette books.  Fair play or foul, the power of the retailer is huge.  Whether Apple simply ensures Spotify et al don’t appear in search results, or that they are never quite able to integrate seamlessly with iOS anymore for no specific reason that anyone can quite put their finger on….But even without resorting to such behavior, simply by deeply integrating an Apple (or Beats) branded subscription service natively into its devices and ecosystem, Apple will have the upper hand and 3rd parties will find it a whole lot harder to fish in Apple’s waters.

None of this is necessarily bad for the market either.  In fact it could be just what the subscriptions business needs.  To finally focus on green field opportunity beyond the confines of the Apple elite.  Nor should Apple even limit its subscription focus to streaming or to music.  The rise of the Content Connectors points to Apple, Amazon and Google pursuing digital content strategies in the round, that do not get bogged down with super serving any individual content type at the expense of the rest.  Apple’s best mid-term subscription play may yet simply prove to be a monthly allowance of iTunes credit across all content types, bundled into the cost of the device.  Put that on top of iCloud, iTunes Radio, Beats Music and suddenly you have a very compelling multi-content offering.  Something far out of the reaches of the current product roadmaps of any of the stand alone music services.

Can Apple afford to loss lead with music subscriptions to pursue such a strategy?  Well, remember Apple’s entire digital music business has been built on loss leading.  Whatever the final outcome, the mutual fear factor balance looks set to tip in Apple’s favour for a while.

What 10 Million Spotify Subscribers Actually Means

Spotify today announced that it had hit its much anticipated milestone of 10 million premium subscribers.  Make no mistake this is a highly significant achievement for Spotify itself and for the broader digital marketplace.  But it is a long way from mission accomplished. Here’s why:

  • Paid growth is flat: When a new technology enters into the marketplace it goes through a few stages of growth. Initial uptake is driven by the early adopters.  If it succeeds with them it breaks through to the early followers where growth really accelerates through to mainstream before slowing as the market saturates, creating the well know s-curve – see this graphic for how this process works.  Not all technologies follow this pattern though, some never break out of that early adopter niche.  Right now Spotify’s paid subscriber count looks firmly locked in that early adopter segment.  If growth rates sustain at this level it will be late 2016 before we see the 20 million mark hit.
  • Free however is booming: Spotify’s free user count though is showing dynamic growth.  In fact it is following the right trajectory for a technology breaking through.  What’s more the growth is uncannily similar to that of Pandora during the same stage of its growth (see figure below).  In fact by its 66th month Pandora had 39 million active users, while Spotify now has 40 million, also after 66 months.  If Spotify’s free and paid user bases continue to grow at their current rates the currently impressive 3-to-1 free-to-paid ratio will widen markedly.  Free is where the action is.  Just ask potential Twitter suitor Soundcloud with its 250 million active users or YouTube with its 1 billion active users.
  • Paid users still biased to the aficionado: Key to the paid growth problem is that 9.99 subscriptions are the domain of the super fan, the engaged, high spending music aficionado.  And this is very much a music subscription phenomenon rather than an issue with digital subscriptions more broadly. While 60% of music subscribers are male and 48% of them are aged 25-34, 54% of video subscribers (Netflix, Amazon Prime) are female and just 35% are aged 25-34.
  • Churn is likely slowing growth: Being an early stage growth company is great fun but when your business starts to mature attention switches to the much more mundane task of managing churn i.e. making sure the rate at which people stop paying for your product is slower than the rate at which they join.  It sounds deceptively easy but it is in fact a vastly complex discipline and Spotify will be focussing an ever larger share of its resources on it.
  • Twitter’s depressed stock price may slow an IPO: An IPO remains Spotify’s most likely exit and hitting the 10 million mark with an impressive free-to-paid ratio was always going to be a prerequisite for that process.  However as I wrote last year, the performance of Twitter’s stock price will play a key role.  As illogical as it may seem, many investors will look at Twitter’s stock performance as an indicator of how Spotify may fare.  Right now Twitter’s stock is bombing.  Spotify will probably want to wait for that to hit a positive trajectory before moving ahead with an IPO, should that be its planned course of action.  Though I’m sure Spotify will be keen to point to the much better long term story of Pandora’s stock as a reference point.

So, 10 million premium subscribers is a fantastic milestone for Spotify and for the digital music marketplace, but it raises as many questions about the 9.99 model as it answers.

free steraming growth

What Acquiring Beats Could Do For Apple (And Everyone Else)

Stories emerged last night that Apple is in talks to buy Beats, citing well-placed sources. If true – and if it actually goes through – the acquisition has countless potential impacts of seismic proportions, particularly if the deal includes nascent subscription service Beats Music. Apple has always been in the business of selling music for the business of selling hardware, and the potential acquisition must be considered in those terms. With download sales declining and subscriptions gaining traction, Apple has been locked in a process of soul searching, trying to work out what it can do to remain relevant in the digital music business in order to remain relevant in the device business. Beats is a ‘if you can’t beat them, buy them’ solution.

download slow down

There are a number of key considerations and potential impacts:

  • Digital music Plan A has run its course: Despite dynamic growth in Northern European markets, digital music growth nearly shuddered to a halt in 2013, slowing from 11% year-on-year growth in 2012 to just 2% last year, and that is unlikely to be much higher than 4% in 2014. The reason is quite simple: streaming subscriptions are, outside of Northern Europe, predominately converting the most valuable download buyers – who are most often iTunes buyers – into subscribers. Aficionados who bought a few digital albums a month are instead spending 9.99 a month. So instead of bringing up the average spend of music buyers it is bringing down the spending of many – I’ll be publishing some data on this in the coming weeks. Digital music needs a Plan B to reinvigorate growth
  • Apple is paradoxically holding back digital growth: Apple almost singlehandedly created the global digital music in the 2000’s but it is now actually holding back growth in the 2000’s. Streaming has taken off most quickly where Apple never got a foothold (see figure). Where Apple is firmly established streaming is a transition story, of download revenue shifting to streaming. Where it is not, streaming is green field growth. An interesting side effect of this is that because English speaking Apple has prospered most in English speaking markets, it is in these countries – US, UK, Canada, Australia, all of which are top ten music markets – where digital growth is now slowest. Apple has inadvertently passed the digital baton to the non-English language world.
  • Apple’s go-slow streaming strategy is too slow: All this translates into weakening digital relevance for Apple, which infers weakening hardware relevance. Apple has been here before, back in the heyday of Last.FM when Apple was still predominately a computer business, it tried to steal the social music revolution’s clothes with the launch of the now-defunct Ping and the just-about-still-around Genius. Yet Apple came out of that era stronger than ever. Now though, portable devices are the beating heart of Apple’s business, and with the relentless onslaught of Android it cannot afford its next music move to be another Ping. However Apple has had to go slow with streaming. Its user base is more mainstream than ever – as the growing popularity of Now compilations in its store attests – so it has to introduce new features in a way that does not overwhelm its less tech-adventurous customers. iCloud and iTunes Radio are great transition technologies to help introduce streaming to Apple users at a steady pace and to demonstrate clear relevance in the iTunes context. Unfortunately this long-term strategy for its mainstream users has done little to halt the defection of its more sophisticated and, crucially, most valuable, customers. Beats Music could be the defensive strategic option for them.
  • Subscriptions don’t have to be AYCE 9.99: 9.99 AYCE services have done a great job of monetizing the super fans, but with less than 5% penetration in major music markets, there is a clear need for something else for the more mainstream fan in top 10 music markets. Cheap priced subscriptions and telco hard bundles are both solutions to this problem. Apple should not feel compelled to jump on the 9.99 bandwagon. Digital content stores are breaking down the genre walls – as Google’s Play demonstrates so well. Apple gets much more revenue from other content genres – see this figure – so a multi-content genre subscription would be a much cleaner fit for Apple. As would a subscription that gave users a certain amount of credit to use on any iTunes products, sort of a virtual iTunes Gift Card subscription. Pricing would be blissfully simple – e.g. $10, $20, $30 etc. – and would help protect Apple from revenue cannibalization until it makes the full switch to access from ownership. $10 could include ad-free iTunes Radio, $20 and upwards could include unlimited music streaming.
  • Apple could make hard bundling work, and some: If Apple does get Beats Music, it would have an unprecedented opportunity to make bundled subscriptions work. Hardware has always been key to making digital content work, whether that be the Kindle, Xbox, Playstation, iPhone or the new generation of Content Connectors like Chromecast. Subscriptions are working now because Apple opened up a chink in its vertically integrated ecosystem armour by allowing streaming services to exist on its devices. In fact mobile access is responsible for the majority of the 9.99 model’s growth. Retailing an iPhone / Beats headphones subscription bundle would communicate clear value to users, and with the cost largely hidden in the premium price point associated with the bundle, could help consumers get over the hump of committing to monthly spending.
  • Beats would redefine Apple as a CE company: The implications on Apple’s device portfolio are intriguing tool. The simplicity of Apple’s limited product range has always been key to its success. Being able to retail a single phone when competing with the excessively vast portfolios of incumbent smartphone companies was a major differentiation point. Since those first iPhone days though Apple has multiplied its number of product SKUs. Incorporating a range of headphones would take that to another level. Whether Apple has the ability to seamlessly transform from a computer company with a small range of portable computing devices, to a fully-fledged CE company remains an intriguing open question.

There is no doubt that if Apple does buy Beats and Beats Music, that the impact on the competition will be dramatic. Spotify will be rightly worrying about the impact on its impending IPO – though expect words to the effect that this is simply a resounding validation of the model. But the competition should be welcomed. To date most digital music services have been strategically lazy, focusing their efforts on trying to sell new products to already existing digital customers, the majority of whom, in the big markets at least, are Apple customers. Now digital music companies will have to start thinking much more creatively about how they can compete around, rather than with Apple. About how they can create revenue in new consumer segments, not simply trying to extract more revenue from the preexisting ones. Some companies are doing this already but they are in the distinct minority – this should be a good time for them. If Apple does buy Beats, it will bring some much needed momentum to market that was beginning to suffer from hubris.