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.

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.

Why Spotify’s Acquisition of the Echo Nest is a Test Case for the Age of the API

Spotify’s acquisition of music data and recommendation company the Echo Nest is a clear statement from a pre-IPO Spotify to the market that it takes the challenge of the Tyranny of Choice seriously.  In doing so it has established ideological fault lines between it and rival Beats Music. While Beats has put its faith in human curation Spotify has bet big on algorithms. It’s men against machines.  But the most important implication is neither this nor even the fact that Spotify now powers the discovery tools of many of its competitors, but instead the shockwaves that Spotify could send throughout the entire tech start up ecosystem if its screws up how it deals with the Echo Nest’s API.  This is the first major text case for the Age of the API.

Over the last half decade open APIs have become a central component of the technology space with countless start ups opening up their code and data for other start ups to riff off.  It has been a win-win for start ups on both sides of the equation: the givers more quickly permeate throughout their target marketplaces while the takers get to short cut to functionality that might be otherwise unobtainable.  Consequently we now have countless companies that are built upon a patchwork of interconnected APIs and a richer seam of products and services.

This is the exact strategy the Echo Nest pursued, aggressively pushing their API out into the digital music market place with very liberal usage terms and putting themselves at the heart of the Music Hackday movement.  (Few Hackday entrants worth their salt will be found without the Echo Nets API coursing through their virtual veins.)  Only Soundcloud can lay claim to having been more successful in the music API game.

But now that the Echo Nest is deeply embedded in the digital music marketplace what happens if it turns off or dials back its API? Currently it is making all the right noises, that its API will remain both “free and open”.  But there is a big difference between the aspirations of a newly acquired company and the actual behavior of the buyer 12 months or so down the line.  Indeed, a highly plausible scenario is that Spotify will eventually wind down the Echo Nest as a distinct entity, bringing all of its functionality behind the walls.  After all, if you break down what motivated Spotify’s acquisition, other than the prime motive of sending the right message to the street, the core assets are not the data itself – Spotify has plenty enough of that – but instead the expertise and the technology.  Data is worthless if you cannot interpret it properly.  Why let competitors benefit from that?

So right now the technology sector as a whole should be paying close attention to what Spotify does with the Echo Nest’s API.  If it does indeed eventually turn off the tap then it will rightly make investors and start ups alike question the strategic integrity of building businesses on the foundations of third party APIs.  Spotify needs to get this one right because the implications are far bigger than Spotify’s IPO, or indeed even the broader digital music market.  Instead this is the future of the entire technology start up marketplace.

 

Why Radio is Stuck in the Middle of a Streaming Pincer Movement

2014 will be another year of growth and of controversy for streaming, with much of the debate set to focus on how streaming may, or may not, cannibalize download sales.  The evidence from Sweden and from the US so far suggests that streaming revenues may indeed grow at the direct expense of downloads.  But while we may be some way off from a definitive judgment on that issue, there is one cannibalization threat that is looking increasingly incontrovertible, yet has got far less attention: the cannibalization of radio.  In fact radio faces a two-pronged attack on its two heartlands, the home and the car.

The Home Front

There are many forms of streaming service and each sub-segment is eager to declare its uniqueness.  Spotify and Pandora practically fall over themselves to explain how different they are.  And indeed, in many ways they are, but what they have in common is that they are both direct competitors for radio listening time.  While they do not compete for all radio listening, nor for all radio listeners, they compete for much of the listening of some of the most valuable listeners.    Indeed streaming is looking more like radio with every passing day. The intensifying focus on curation as a means of making sense of 30 million songs is leading to on-demand services delivering a richer suite of lean-back, programmed and semi-programmed experiences.  In doing so the competitive threat to radio intensifies.  Whereas radio broadcasters can rightly claim that radio delivers a low effort, lean back listening experience, streaming services now wear those clothes too and they are not going to relinquish them.

Where things have really heated up though is the surge in streaming playback technology for the home.  Companies like Sonos and Pure have pioneered in-home streaming technology and CES saw this whole sector upping its game.  Music hi-fi is disappearing out of the home and these companies plan to bring it back with streaming at its core.  While radio is a key component of these devices, any hardware that gives a user the choice between traditional radio and interactive streaming is going to mean that radio is directly competing for listening time on that very device.  The home is one of radio’s heartlands, and broadcasters are now having to fend off the unwanted attentions of streaming music services establishing an in-home beachhead with consumer adoption of home streaming devices.

Digital Radio Fragmentation Plays Into the Hands of Streaming Services

Dedicated digital radio devices such as DAB and satellite radio players have only found traction in a handful of markets, with the US and UK notable exceptions at the forefront.  But international and domestic squabbles over competing digital radio standards mean that the global digital radio landscape is a fragmented mess of half-baked trials and aborted roll outs.  All the while internet streaming adoption accelerates on smartphones and tablets.  Radio may even buckle under the weight of this app invasion.  The more radio broadcasters rely on internet streaming for digital strategy, the more they put themselves directly in competition with streaming services, both on-demand and interactive radio.

The Battle for the Car

If the onslaught on the home was not enough, the growth of interactive car dashboards means that streaming services are getting straight into the car too.  In the US SiriusXM has long been held up as a standout success story for digital content with 25.6 million paying subscribers outshining any on demand music service by a country mile. But the same app invasion that is threating radio on smartphones and tablets is now pouring into the car via interactive dashboards. Car manufacturers are striking up deals at a bewildering rate with streaming providers with Pandora and Spotify being particularly active.  SiriusXM had a decent run at things, offering a truly national radio experience in the US, but now more and more consumers will start wondering why they need to pay $15 a month when they can get Pandora and Songza for free.

streaming pincer movement

The Free Music Land Grab

Thus radio finds itself locked in a streaming music technology pincer movement that threatens it like never before.  Radio broadcasters have countless assets at their disposal – talk radio, DJs, market-leading programming expertise – but they cannot rely on these alone anymore.  They have to up their innovation ante posthaste.  They also face a further and utterly crucial disruptive threat from streaming: the free music land grab.

Spotify and Apple only offer free music as a means to sell their core products.  Advertising revenue is a nice way of covering some costs but is not their lifeblood in the way it is for commercial broadcasters.  This means that they can be more cavalier in their ad sales strategies and undercut radio broadcasters for business with rates that might not be sustainable for a commercial broadcaster.  2014 will see these two powerhouses pursue aggressive advertiser strategies and when coupled with Pandora’s burgeoning ad sales record, traditional broadcasters may find themselves becoming collateral damage in the free music land grab.

Is 2014 a Napster Year for Radio?

2014 will be an important year for streaming, but it will be even more pivotal for radio.  It is far too early in the development of streaming to say that this is a make or break year for radio, but it is fair to say that 2014 looks and smells for radio a lot like 1999 did for the music industry.  Back then the labels failed to respond to Napster with innovation and they spent the next decade paying the price.  Radio broadcasters would be well served to –learn from the labels’ mistake.

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For those of you at Midem next week I will be giving a presentation on Monday entitled ‘Making Streaming Add Up’.  See you there.

How Streaming Will Impact Music Sales

With 2013 now behind us we are beginning to see the first full year sales numbers come if for 2013 and the long anticipated ability to assess the impact of streaming on the market.  Until the IFPI annual revenue numbers come out we are mainly constrained to volume data which only paints half of the picture.  This is especially true for streaming given the massive difference in revenue per stream for free versus paid, YouTube versus Spotify etc.  But even within these constraints we have enough to start establishing a view, one that indicates the headline story may be more about transition than it is growth.

Nielsen’s numbers for the US show that digital track sales were down 5.7% and that digital albums were down 0.1% while albums as a whole were down 8.4%. In the UK the BPI reported that digital track sales were down 4.2% though digital albums were up 6.8%.  Nielsen also reported a 103% rise in audio streams.  Let’s assume that a significant portion of those increased streams will be coming from free users and that the impact on streaming revenue growth will therefore be around the 65% mark. That would translate into total US music market revenue growth of just under 1%, though if free usage is a bigger part of the picture then growth could be negative.

It is important to understand the appropriate context for the shift to streaming: it is fundamentally a transition of spending.  Just as the download was a transition from the CD so streaming subscriptions are a transition from the download.  This is because the majority of subscribers were already digital music buyers before becoming subscribers and the majority of those were iTunes customers.  50% of subscribers buy album downloads every month and 26% buy CDs every month (see figure).  On the one hand this can be interpreted as the fantastic capacity of streaming to drive discovery and music purchasing.  There is some truth in this, but it is an inherently temporary state of affairs.  If streaming services do their job well enough there should be little or no reason for a subscriber to additionally buy music.  They do so because consumers transition behaviour gradually not suddenly.  The fact that a third of download buyers still buy CDs illustrates the point.

subscriptions download overlap

In this respect streaming services are strongly competitive with music sales in a way that streaming radio services are not. However what is crucially different from the CD transition is that while downloads drove a decrease in ARPU with consumers cherry picking single tracks from albums, subscriptions drive ARPU upwards. So there is more of an opportunity for subscriptions to drive longer term revenue growth than downloads.  The two key questions that arise are:

  1. What download market will be left once/if subscriptions have reached scale?
  2. What will the net impact on digital music spending be?

1 – Impact on downloads: The answer to the first question is probably the most straight forward.  Looking at markets like Sweden and Denmark we have strong evidence that streaming subscriptions grew at the direct expense of downloads, but in doing so they transformed the total music markets.  In the US, where the download sector is much more entrenched, streaming has resulted in a worst of both worlds, with streaming eating into downloads but not having enough headway to transform the market Sweden style.  The outlook for downloads in big markets such as the US, UK, France and Germany will be one of subscriptions absorbing the spending of the most valuable download customers.  Downloads as a global sector though will remain strong because they are the natural transition technology from download and will thus have strong long term opportunity in emerging digital markets of scale such as Turkey, Brazil and Mexico.  Downloads will also remain the best tool for monetizing mid tier digital music consumers who like to buy a few singles and the occasional album but do not spend 9.99 a month on music.

2 – Net impact on music spending: This one is a tougher call to make.  If subscriptions only reach scale by converting the most engaged music consumers then there is a risk of reducing ARPU among some of them, changing their spending patterns from buying a few albums a month to spending the equivalent of just one.  This effect will be felt more strongly as the dual-consumption behavior of subscribing and buying naturally fades.  The net positive opportunity lies in converting large swathes of the ‘upper middle’ tier of music buyers with more competitive pricing and also with bundles. Though this will likely come at the expense of further erosion of downloads.

As the RIAA rightly highlighted, even in the US streaming is becoming a really important part of the music market, and there is no doubt that access based models of shapes and sizes are the future.  The next few years though will see some growing pains as we transition away from the old guard in some of the world’s biggest music markets.

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.