Streaming’s First Steps into 2014

2013 was a big year for streaming, with the IFPI reporting total trade revenues of $1.1 billion and a total of 28 million subscribers globally.  2014 will be a crucial year and today Rhapsody revealed its contribution to the growing global picture.

As of April 2014 there are 1.7 million global subscribers to Napster and Rhapsody, up from a little over 1 million in April 2013.  Those numbers were boosted in part by the transition of Sonora customers in Latin America from Rhapsody’s October deal with Telefonica in which the Spanish telco reported would amount to the transition of ‘hundreds of thousands of existing customers’. 

Digital Colonialism

Latin America is undergoing something of a digital gold rush with European and US companies seeking to ‘colonize’ the digital market like modern day conquistadors.  It is a real pity that more is not being done by indigenous services. ‘Digital colonialism’ aside, Rhapsody’s Lat Am focus is part of a wider recognition of the importance of emerging markets to the longer term viability of the digital market.  How these markets adopt digital will play an increasingly influential role in shaping global strategy.  In some markets the download will have a long term transition technology role, acting as the digital stepping stone between the CD and access based models.  In others, there will be a technology leapfrog effect with consumers going straight to access based models, in a similar way that many consumers in emerging markets skipped the PC web entirely and went straight to the mobile web.

Super Cheap Flat Rate Access

What is clear though, is that the available spending power of emerging market consumers is far lower than in US, Europe and especially than in the prosperous Nordics.  So the 9.99 model simply doesn’t apply.  Labels are already heavily discounting wholesale rates for emerging markets but the likelihood is that the majority of customers will be monetized with hard bundles, with the consumer paying nothing.  This is a different model from telco bundles in western markets where telcos invest heavily as strategic marketing efforts (and typically lose money).  Instead, emerging market bundles will be long term offers, a permanent feature of mobile packages.  Telcos pay far less to labels but get much bigger scale.  The risk of heavily devaluing music is moot, as in the territories this model works in, music already has zero value to consumers as a monetary proposition.

Scale Does Not Impact Everyone in the Same Way

Back over in the western world, where the vast majority of streaming revenues currently are  (c. 90% to be precise), some of the initial sheen is beginning to fade.  Beggars Group have long been positive exponents of the streaming model and have rightly earned plaudits for paying artists 50/50 net receipt deals. However last night Beggars’ head of strategy Simon Wheeler intimated that those rates may not be sustainable.  The main reason is that streaming is such a key part of digital revenues now that the 50/50 share damages under-pressure margins.  But it is also because of the operational costs of streaming for a label (vast quantities of data to account – ‘billions of lines of data’, bandwidth costs etc.).  This highlights an issue I have been talking about for a while, namely that the great bright hope of scale (i.e. ‘when we reach scale, streaming will make commercial sense to everyone’) does not apply equally across the digital music value chain.  If you are a big label or publisher with a big catalogue of repertoire you will measure the impact of a million new subscribers in terms of millions of new dollars each month.  Scale benefits you well.  But if you are a single artist with just a few albums you will measure the impact of that same 1 million new subscribers in terms of hundreds of dollars a month.  Beggars Group sits somewhere in the middle of that scale-impact continuum.

The counter balancing of good news story / bad news story is nothing new to streaming, and it will continue to characterize the evolution of the market in 2014.  The shift from distribution models to consumption models is arguably the most dramatic transition the recorded music industry has ever been through, and consequently the change will have seismic repercussions.  Streaming revenue will come of age in 2014, but as it does so expect more speed bumps along the way.

Got Milk?

milkPoor Samsung launched their latest punt at digital music success just as Spotify was stealing all the media oxygen with its acquisition of the Echo Nest.  Samsung’s latest venture, curiously called ‘Milk Music’, is another attempt from the smartphone giant to carve out some mindshare and consumer traction in the digital music space.  Like all but one smartphone manufacturer – you know, that one from Cupertino – Samsung does not have the best of track records when it comes to digital music, having recently culled its previous Hub service.  Milk is a Pandora-like mobile radio app and while it certainly suffers from ‘me-too syndrome’ it is not actually a terrible strategic fit.

With 200 stations and a catalogue of 13 million tracks, Milk Music has some muscle but it is hard not to see it as a thinly veiled attempt to ‘do an iTunes Radio’.  However there is not necessarily that much wrong in doing exactly that.  iTunes Radio is a very neat service that is well geared towards the mainstream, less engaged music fan.  That is exactly Samsung’s addressable audience.  Samsung has been at the vanguard of the mainstreaming of smartphone adoption, so much so that many of its devices are smartphones with dumb users.  Milk Music is however limited to the Galaxy range of handsets, which will to some degree filter its audience towards Samsung’s more engaged users.

No smartphone manufacturer has been able to make music work like Apple has.  In fact no smartphone manufacturer has been able to make content and services as a whole work like Apple has.  Apple’s ecosystem is a fascist state compared to Android’s federated democracy, but at least the trains ran on time in Mussolini’s Italy.  That absolute control of the user experience enables Apple to deliver on the single most important part of digital music product strategy: the service-to-device journey.  It just happens, and seamlessly so.  So many other phone companies have failed to understand the importance of this ineffable magic.

Samsung might be able to get it right with Milk Music, but because they are part of the federated states of Android, they will also have to tolerate a bunch of pre-installed incursions from fellow Android states, not least Google’s Play Store.  Apple meanwhile ensures there is just one place for music on its devices.

Samsung desperately wants to make music work and to its credit continues to throw money at trying to fix the problem.  Free radio might just be the best first step.  Especially considering that just 1% of Android consumers state they intend to start paying for a music subscription service and that a quarter of them say they have no need to pay for music because they get so much for free.  Milk Music might be feeding that free music habit, but it could also be the foundation for something bigger and better.  In the meantime, if you can’t beat them…

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.

What Beats Music Needs to Do to Be a Success

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

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

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

AT&T is a Missed Opportunity

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

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

Artists and Songwriters Will Feel the Family Plan Pinch

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

It’s the Headphones, Stupid

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

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

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

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.

How Downloads Will Determine the Future of Streaming

There is no doubt that streaming subscriptions will play a major role in the future of digital music, but their impact is going to be far from immediate. There also needs to be great caution applied to interpreting the encouraging early signs of the advanced streaming markets and the potential impact on total music sales.

Norway and Sweden both experienced an upturn in music sales in the first half of 2013 thanks largely to the impact of streaming subscriptions, while most of the rest of the global music market continued in its struggle to return to growth after more than a decade of decline.  The easy conclusion to draw is that when streaming subscriptions take hold across the globe, music revenue grow.  While there is some truth in the argument, it is too simplistic.

streaming 1

An analysis of the leading streaming markets (Sweden, Norway, France, Netherlands) and the leading download markets (US, UK, Germany, Japan) – see figure one – reveals that streaming took hold in markets where downloads had not.  The markets where downloads represented the lowest share of total music sales in 2010 (before streaming really kicked off) are those that in 2013 had the rates of streaming as a share of digital music revenue.  In markets where downloads were making the biggest contribution to total music income (not just digital) streaming did not get much of a look in in 2013.  In the US and UK streaming subscriptions were in market long before Spotify and Deezer, but most digital music consumers opted for downloads and have been unwilling to switch allegiances since.  It will happen over time, but right now downloads have a firm grip and that is largely because of Apple.

streaming 2

When we look at the same countries plotted by streaming share against Apple device penetration we see an even more pronounced trend – see figure two.  Here the relationship is clear: streaming has taken hold where Apple has not.  In short, there was no established mainstream digital music service and streaming subscriptions filled the void.  But of greatest significance is the impact on total music revenue.  These strong streaming markets contribute just 10% to global digital revenue, even though France and the Netherlands are two of the world’s top 10 music markets.  Meanwhile the UK and US alone count for 54%.  If you factor in Japan and Germany too you have 71% of all digital music income, and within these four countries (the four biggest music markets) streaming accounted for just 10% of digital revenue.

On the other side of the equation, streaming has brought unparalleled growth in its core markets: across Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands digital revenue grew by an average of 213% between 2010 and 2013, compared to an average of just 40% across the big four markets (though Japan’s declining digital sector pulls that average down).  And of course the Swedish and Norwegian music markets both grew in 2012 and 2013 while the rest did not.

While there is not a clear cut ‘answer’ to streaming’s likely long term impact we can however draw a few important conclusions:

  • Streaming will grow more slowly in markets where Apple and the download market are strong (which helps explain why growth of Spotify et al appears to have slowed in markets like the US and UK).
  • Streaming can make a digital market grow more quickly than downloads can (though it does so normally at the direct expense of downloads – download sales shrank in both Sweden and Norway in 2012 and 2013)
  • ‘Home turf’ counts.  Most of the big streaming markets have their own local heroes (Sweden – Spotify, Norway – WiMP, France – Deezer) – all of whom also benefited from hard bundles and marketing support from their incumbent telcos. Meanwhile Apple of course prospers on its home turf and that of the English speaking UK.
  • Consumer behavior and technology are all edging towards a more access based world and it is inevitable that the download will become less important.  So although these brakes on streaming adoption exist in many markets, they will slow rather than halt the transition. Streaming will near 50% of global digital revenues by 2018.

Streaming remains bedeviled by countless issues – not least artist payments – but what is clear is that it has the ability to transform the shape of the digital music market.  And while that change may be slower to come than the Swedish and Norwegian experiences might suggest, come it will.

 

 

New Report: Building the New Business Case for Bundled Music Services

Today MIDiA Consulting is proud to announce the release of a white paper commissioned by Universal Music entitled “Building the New Business Case for Bundled Music Services”.  The report, written by myself and MIDiA Consulting co-founder Keith Jopling, provides an unprecedented analysis of telco music services, taking a critical look at what has and had not worked to date and a series of models and recommendations for the future.  We interviewed a host of telco music executives to get a deep understanding of what telcos need out of music services to make them a success and combined this insight with data from consumer surveys and music service trials as well as case studies and best practices.  We think it is pretty much the definitive piece of work on the topic (!) and we invite you to download it here: Building the New Business Case for Bundled Music Services – FULL REPORT.  You can also download an executive summary version of the report here: Building the New Business Case for Bundled Music Services – EXECUTIVE SUMMARY.

Here are some of the key findings of the report.

The consumer shift from downloads to streaming is the most important digital music market trend since the advent of the iTunes Music Store.  Before streaming services telcos struggled to find a way in which they could compete in a market dominated by Apple, restricted to selling DRM locked downloads that of course would not play on Apple devices.  Subscription services changed all of that, with the leading streaming services all pursuing robust telco partnership strategies as well as a number of download subscription services.  There are now nearly 50 telco music service partnerships live in six regions across the globe.  With 40% of streaming consumers now paying to stream, generating $1.2 billion in trade revenue in 2012 the opportunity is clear.

Music Bundles Across the Globe

However it is clear that many of the hurdles that telcos faced in the last decade continue to pose challenges.  These include music not being a priority for many telcos, internal business casing getting in the way of building compelling services and the wrong success metrics being used.

The new success stories of telco music services are those that make music a strategic priority.  This is not some sop to the record labels, but a reflection of what it takes to make music strategy a success. If a telco just adds music to a long list of Value Added Services (VAS) it will wither on the vine.  But if a telco puts a music service front and centre and positions around it then success is far more likely.  Success stories that have followed this approach include Telia Sonera’s hard bundle with Spotify in Sweden and Cricket Wireless’ Muve Music in the US.

Streaming by the Numbers

The Role of Promotional Offers

For all the obvious synergies of telco music bundles there is a real danger that hard bundles that make music subscriptions free or feel like free to the end user run the risk of devaluing the proposition.  Yet it is also clear that consumers need to be able to ‘suck it and see’ before subscribing so promotional free trials and limited period bundles present a strong balance of value to the consumer, cost effectiveness to the telco and protecting the integral value of music for artists and labels.  The market data for free trial is compelling: half of one month trialists convert to a paid subscription at the end of the promotional offer period.

Customer Satisfaction, the New Music Service Opportunity

An entirely new aspect to music bundling that we dive into in the report is the role of music subscriptions in driving customer satisfaction across a telco’s wider business.  Even the most edgy, cleverly positioned challenger telco is ultimately a provider of important products but not usually a consumer passion point.  Music though has that brand passion secret sauce and partnering with the right music service can enhance the telco’s own brand and customer sentiment.  Smart integration of music into the customer journey and integration with customer satisfaction measurement tools, particularly Net Promoter Score (NPS) can enable telcos to create a customer satisfaction halo effect.  With music converting satisfied music subscription customers into highly vocal net promoters with satisfaction benefits felt across the full range of a telco’s services.

Bundled music services did not get off to the best of starts, but now their time has come, giving telcos the opportunity to assume centre stage in the digital music marketplace.

For more information on the research please feel free to email us at info AT midiaconsulting DOT COM.

About MIDiA Consulting

Midia ConsultingMIDiA Consulting is a boutique, media industry focused consultancy that delivers practical, results-driven outcomes.  MIDiA stands for Media Insights & Decisions in Action. Our mission is to help media and technology companies develop purposeful strategies quickly through market understanding, clarity of vision, and workable innovation.

We help media and technology companies make sense of the changes that digital market forces are bringing about. And we help them make profits from digital content.

http://www.midiaconsulting.com

info@midiaconsulting.com

Deezer, Spotify and the Streaming Gold Rush

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

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

The US is Saturated and Yet Potential Remains Untapped

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

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

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

Price Is the Biggest Barrier to Streaming Going Mainstream

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

Apple: the Elephant in the Room

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

Why Losing Free Customers is a Good Thing for Spotify’s Business Model

In my Future Music Forum keynote last week I discussed some Spotify metrics which were picked up by Paid Content and have stirred up a bit of a debate.  Here is a little more context to those numbers.

The headline statistic is that in 2011 Spotify had to acquire approximately 1.8 million users per month to retain just 400,000 a month (i.e. ‘losing’ 1.4 million a month), resulting in a total monthly churn rate of approximately 20%.  These estimates are based upon the following reported numbers:

  • Spotify’s end of year accounts for 2011 reported a total of 32.8 million registered users.
  • In December 2011 Spotify reported 10 million active users on its developer blog.
  • In March 2011 Spotify reported 1 million paying subscribers, representing 15% of active users, which put the active user count at 6.7 million.
  • In September 2010 Spotify held a press event to announce 10 million registered users.

The headline numbers give a ‘gap’ of 22.8 million between registered users and active users at the end of 2011.  Using all of the reported numbers and applying flat rate growth assumptions for intervening months we can calculate the total number of active and registered user gains throughout calendar year 2011 (see figure 1).  All of which gives approximately 1.8 million new registered users per month but only 400,000 active users per month.

Figure 1

Now of course there will be monthly and seasonal variations in those numbers so the exact count will be different for each calendar month.  Also many of those 1.4 million new monthly inactive users (i.e. the gap between new registered and new active) may well become active later in the year.  But the headline trend remains that Spotify has to gain a lot more users than it holds onto (or at least did in 2011 – though I would expect similar metrics to apply in 2012).

Losing Low-Value Free Users Actually Helps Spotify’s Business Model

None of this is necessarily a reflection of a flawed business model for Spotify.  In fact, in my view, it reflects positively.  Let me explain.  Spotify’s business is all about selling premium subscriptions.  That’s where the money is for Spotify, labels, publishers and artists alike. The free tier of its business is simply a marketing funnel.  Ultimately it doesn’t actually matter that much how many of those free users stay on board as free users, what matters is how many convert to paid.  In fact, it benefits Spotify if those users who have no intention of paying churn out early on from the free service as it means less cost to Spotify’s bottom line.  As challenging a path towards profitability as Spotify may find itself on, it would be a dramatically more difficult road if all of those 32.8 million users were active.  So Spotify’s business model and margins actually benefit from the majority of those new free users churning out of the service early, allowing Spotify to focus on migrating the remaining engaged free users to paid.

Figure 2

Free Churn Does However Raise Questions About the Wider Streaming Market

All in all Spotify has brought a huge amount of value to the digital music market and has achieved many credit-worthy milestones (see figure 2).  But as much sense as the free-user-leakage makes sense to Spotify’s business model, it does raise challenging questions about the streaming model more broadly.

For so many users (two thirds of Spotify’s 2011 total) to effectively say “no to free” indicates that streaming audio, even when free, does not resonate strongly enough with mass market music fans.  There are multiple potential reasons that Spotify free users churn out, such as: usage caps, advertising, being PC only, not being able to burn to CD, even just being a stream rather than a download.  Many of those can be fixed with a 9.99 subscription, but the simple fact is that most consumers do not spend that kind of money on music.  9.99 is actually the average monthly spend of the top 20% of music buyers. So it is a price point for the aficionados not the mainstream, which means that most consumers will never get a proper taste of the ‘complete’ streaming audio experience.  Which is why I continue to argue strongly that subsidized subscriptions and cheaper price points are the crucial routes to the mainstream music fan that need pursuing with haste.

Spotify, Rhapsody, Deezer, rDio etc are all doing a great job of trying to take premium subscriptions to the masses, but until they can work out a way to get cost-to-consumer price points down, the addressable audience remains a subset of that top 20% of music buyers.

The Elephant in the Room

And all of their cases are challenged further by an uneven playing field.  While all those music services have to charge for mobile access and have some gaps in their catalogues, YouTube provides unlimited access, on all mobile devices, with the world’s largest music catalogue, with video, for absolutely no cost at all to the consumer.  As far as streaming goes, there is one rule for YouTube, and another for the rest.  Until that anomaly is fixed, the rest will be swimming against the tide.

The Tale of Emily White, Scarcity and the Future of Music Products

Unless you spent the first half of this week on the digital music equivalent of planet Mars, you will have noticed the Emily White furore. The long and short of which was NPR (US public radio) Intern Emily White blogging that she owned 11,000 songs of which just 15 were albums that she had purchased and pining for a universally available universal database of music.  The post was swiftly followed by reasoned critiques against, foragainst, and for, and also by vacuous foul mouthed grandstanding. What surprised me wasn’t the strength of feeling on the topic, but a view by some that this was somehow a watershed moment, a changing in collective perspective.  It wasn’t.  For anyone who has followed this space closely for more than a few years this debate will be seen as another chapter in a long-running discourse.  An important chapter, but just a chapter nonetheless.  Long time readers of my blog will remember a series of posts on ‘why music can’t just be free’ and the heated debate that surrounded them.  For those who didn’t, some of the posts are here and here.  (And for an insight into how ‘free’ impacts an artist take a look at this evergreen artists’ post.)

But the point of this post isn’t just to pour another layer of opinion into the simmering cauldron.  Instead I want to try to move the debate on from diagnosing the symptoms onto identifying a potential cure, or at the very least some palliative care.

For argument’s sake let’s assume the following:

  • A large share of consumers have fallen out of the habit of buying music and a larger share of younger consumers have simply never learned the habit
  • Fewer people place a monetary value on music than used to and yet more people listen to more music than ever before
  • High spending music consumers do exist though, and across all age groups, albeit in declining numbers

Understanding the Role of Scarcity

The key reason fewer people buy music is because they don’t have to.  In the analogue age there was a monopoly on supply of music: if you wanted to get new music you had to buy it in high street shops when record labels decided you could, paying the price they and retailers decided you should. The alternative was making a poor quality cassette copy from the radio or friends.  People who liked music had little choice but to associate a very specific monetary value to music.  Napster threw that scarcity model out the window.  With paying for music now a life style choice the monetary value of music has been subjected to hyper deflation.  The ‘price it and they will come’ logic now only applies to a small subset of music fans, a subset that is at risk of becoming an endangered species.

This doesn’t mean people don’t value music anymore, but instead that a majority no longer value it monetarily.  This dynamic is beautifully encapsulated in a response from a 12 year old file sharer that Feargal Sharky was fond of quoting

“I love music and if I could download my Nike I would pay for my music”.

Nike still has scarcity, that’s why so many kids pay for their trainers but not their music.  Like it or loathe it, as far as music products are concerned,  we are in the post-scarcity age.

What, if Anything, Can Be Monetized in the Post-Scarcity Age?

So if scarcity has gone – and it is gone for good – how can recorded music revenues ever be rebuilt?  Indeed should they?  Some argue that charging for music is an outdated model, but you will find that 99.999% of those people also believe that they should still be able to get that exact same music which they don’t think should be paid for i.e. they value the product, just not the price.  Their world view is shaped by the last decade of experience but lacks grounding in basic economics.  The music needs making and that costs money.  Whether that is the money the label invests when it takes a punt on an artist or the cost of an artist getting by on an often very modest income.

Arguing that artists should make their real money in ‘ancillary services’ misses the bigger picture.  Only a tiny subset of music fans pay for merchandize and only about half of music buyers go to concerts.  And the number 1 music consumption channel?  It’s still radio.  So those ancillary revenues are a much smaller addressable market.  They are also largely irrelevant if you are a songwriter rather than a performer.

Recorded music is still the core product. 95% of us listen to music most days.  The vast majority of music consumption (by all people) is recorded music.  Why shouldn’t it also be the core revenue stream?  Scarcity has been disrupted, not market demand.  None of us would reasonably expect a plumber to fix our washing machine for free and then go out into the street and make his money by selling overalls and tools.  Also let’s not forget that most artists make music because they love making music, not T-Shirts.

Why the Flat-Rate Isn’t the Answer

Don’t get me wrong: of course artists have to learn how to make money across a much wider range of income streams than ever before, but there is no inherent reason that they should have to accept that their core creative asset is no longer monetize-able.  The channel, product and pricing strategies may be broken, but the creative heartbeat of music is not.  Simply applying a ‘flat rate’ fee on all the music in the world might seem like an elegant and ‘convenient’ solution.  But it will only exacerbate the problem.  It will formalize and legitimize the concept that music has little value.  It will also accelerate the demise of those music fans who still like to support their favourite artists by buying their music. ‘Flat Rate’ is a pricing strategy for the low end of the music market, not all of it. Even if music has to end up like water, there should still be a market for bottled mineral water.

Of course unlimited access to music in the cloud will play a really important part of the future of music, it will probably be how most people consume music.  But that is a service which should have clear monetary value.  Everyone accepts that premium Cable and Satellite TV packages are paid for commodities.  In fact consumers pay more to have some of that content provided on-demand.  The reason it is different for music (and indeed news) is of course scarcity.

The New Wave of Scarcity

Scarcity still exists for music, predominately in the form of live, and consumers pay premiums accordingly.  If recorded music spending is ever going to rebound, scarcity must be reintroduced to music product strategy.   Not, however, scarcity in the sense of building walls around content (it will always leak out) but instead by creating scarcity of experience. The success stories of paid content to date (iTunes, Kindle, xBox, PlayStation etc) may be walled gardens but their success is derived from the quality of experience that is delivered within them and cannot be experienced externally.  Music products must learn how to create uniquely valuable experiences around music, fully leveraging the interactivity, connectivity and sociality of the contemporary digital world.  Current digital music products do not do so.  As I outlined in my Music Format Bill of Rights report (which you can download for free here) music products must be:

  • Dynamic
  • Interactive
  • Social
  • Connected

The future of music products will be app like experiences that deliver unique, interactive and curated music experiences where the whole will be far greater than the sum of the parts (see figure).  Pirating the individual components will lack the context rich, curated and programmed environments in which the music experiences will occur, and will consequently have massively diminished value.  Scarcity will have returned to music products.

Future Music Formats Must Be: Dynamic Interactive Social Curated

Waiting for an iPad Moment

Monetizing convenience only accelerates a race to the bottom.  Convenience should be an inherent part of the value of music products, but only one part.  Just because current music products don’t deliver enough tangible extra value to persuade the likes of Emily White to pay for music does not mean that it must always be thus.  Until 26 months ago the market between smartphones and laptops was that of netbooks.  At that stage most consumers not only did not own a netbook, they would have reported that they never intended to buy one either.  Then along came the iPad and suddenly we have a product revolution on our hands.  An apparently dead market segment transformed virtually overnight into gold-rush prosperity.

The music industry needs an iPad moment.  When it does come (and it will) even the likes of Emily White may finally start to see the value in paying for music again.