Why Digital Music Services Always Steal Each Other’s Customers

The next five years will be one of the music industry’s most dramatic periods of change. The last ten years might have been disruptive but the change that is coming will be even more transformative. By 2019 70% of all digital revenue globally will be from on-demand services, representing 40% of total music revenues. It will be a shift from the old world and the ‘old new world’ to a brave new one. The CD and the download will decline at almost the same rates: physical revenue will be 43% smaller while downloads will be 40% smaller. In some ways the CD has less to worry about than the download. The CD has the protection of a vast installed base of players across the globe and growing niches such as deluxe box sets. The download though depends massively upon Apple’s devices, and the tide over at Cupertino is turning.

One of the concerns of the shift to streaming has been revenue cannibalization. It is no new phenomenon. The paid digital music market has still not truly broken out to the mainstream. While the likes of YouTube and Pandora clearly have mass market reach, music download stores and subscription services do not. Each at their respective times have appealed to the same higher spending and tech savvy end of the music buyer spectrum.

customer transition

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s Amazon’s online CD store was the home of the globe’s most tech savvy music aficionados. Then Apple came along and poached its iTunes customers directly from Amazon because those same CD buyers were also buying iPods. Then Spotify came along and started poaching Apple’s most valuable customers via Apple’s App Store – the chink in the armour of Apple’s otherwise closed ecosystem.

Now Apple and Amazon are both setting out on their own cloud strategy journeys and each will be hoping to win back a chunk of their lost customers. Apple’s recent elevation of Beats Music to one of the family of ‘Apps Made By Apple’ gives the first hint of what the company can do to ‘encourage’ its users away from other streaming services.

The next three years or so will be a fiercely contested battle for the hearts and minds of the digital music aficionado that will illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the technology ecosystems of Apple, Amazon and Google. Yet while they all fight to win or win back customers, the attention once again remains firmly on the top end of the market. For as long as music services focus their efforts on the most valuable music customers, the mainstream will continue to be catered by low ARPU ad supported services. And for as long as that happens the evolution of digital music will continue to be one of the latest generation of services stealing the customers of the last.

Media, Technology and The Innovator Hegemony

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

Free Is Now the Business Model of Choice

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

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

The Innovator Hegemony

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

When Competition Legislation Protects Monopolistic Behaviour

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

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

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

Platforms As Integrated Monopolies

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

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

Did Anyone Else Notice Amazon Just Launched A Hard Bundled Music Phone?

Amazon’s long anticipated Fire smartphone was launched to much fanfare last night and includes a host of features designed to make it stand out from the pack.  But one detail that seems to have slipped beneath the radar is that, for now at least, it includes a year long access to Amazon Prime, which following last week’s music announcement, includes free access to an ad-free on demand streaming music service.

What this means is that Amazon have launched a smartphone that gives you a year’s worth of unlimited free music.  Six years ago when Nokia tried to do the same with Comes With Music the concept was ground breaking and looked set to change the future of digital music.  But Nokia’s flawed implementation of the proposition scared most of the marketplace away from the device bundle model.  Beyond Oblivion nearly made it work before folding, and its subsequent offspring Boinc and Yonder are each still trying to prove the model.  Rok Mobile are another new entrant.

I still maintain that the device bundle is the best way Apple can extract full value from its recently acquired Beats Music asset but for now all eyes will be on Amazon to see if the model is finally ready for prime time (pun sort of intended) now that it has been sneaked in through the back door.

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.

 

 

Why Amazon’s Streaming Music Service Is A Bigger Deal Than You Might Think

Amazon today entered the streaming music foray with the launch of its own bundled music service. Amazon Prime subscribers get free access to on demand streaming from a catalogue of 1 million tracks, the majority of which are older catalogue titles rather than frontline hits. Amazon’s move has received considerably less interest and hype than Apple’s acquisition of Beats but is in many respects every bit as important.

The future of digital content is going to be defined by the content and device strategies of three companies: Apple, Amazon and Google.  Each has a very different approach resulting in an equally diverse set of products and audiences (see figure).  Amazon and Apple have mirror opposite content strategies: Apple loss leads on content to sell devices whereas Amazon loss leads on devices to sell content.  (Google loss leads on both because its end goal is your data).  All three have a strong focus on music but all three understand clearly that the future of digital content lies in having multiple genre stores that traverse music, games, apps, video, books etc.  All three also recognize the importance of hardware for delivering the crucial context for the content experience.  Similarly, all three have a Content Connector strategy aimed at opening up the mass-market digital content opportunity in the home via the TV.

content strategies

Amazon’s inclusion of music streaming in its Prime offering speaks volumes about the perceived importance of music as a product to the retailer.  Music used to be the crucial first rung on the ladder for Amazon customers.  Buyers would start off with a low consideration purchase item like a CD or DVD and the next thing they knew they were buying microwaves and computers.  Music is still plays an important role in Amazon’s customer life cycle, but it is no longer a product needs paying for with a separate payment.  Music has become the ‘feels like free’ soundtrack to a video subscription with the added benefit of free shipping for online shopping.  Out of those three core value pillars of Amazon Prime, music streaming is probably the smaller. Music has become the National Geographic channel in the cable subscription: a nice part of the overall proposition but not something that carries inherent monetary value on its own.

The harsh reality is that this is probably a sound strategy for engaging the mainstream consumer with music streaming (the extensive selection of curated playlists on top of a modest 1 million track catalogue hints at the mass market positioning).  But whether this is the best strategy for the mainstream is another thing entirely.  Labels fear that free services like Spotify free and Pandora threaten to erode consumers’ perceptions of music as a paid for commodity.  But at least in those environments they are actively adopting a music service in its own right. With Amazon Prime there is a real risk that music is being relegated to the role of muzak in the elevator.

Content Connectors: How the Coming Digital Content Revolution Will Change Everything

In my previous blog post I explained that 2014 was going to be the year of taking digital content into the home.  That affordable devices such as Google Chromecast, Apple Kindle Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku are set to drive a digital content revolution by connecting digital content with the familiar context it needs for the mass market.  These Content Connectors will transform consumers’ relationship with digital content but they will also turn the existing digital content marketplace on its head:

  • Breaking down the home entertainment silos: our digital content experiences have evolved entirely isolated from our other media experiences.  We multitask because one device is connected and one is not.  Our homes have become a collection of content experience silos.  Content Connectors break down those walls, brining our digital content experiences onto that most un-connected of devices, the TV.
  • On-boarding late adopters: In most developed markets, most consumers are digitally engaged, using Facebook, YouTube, email, tablets etc. on a daily basis. These are digitally savvy later adopters, where their behavior lags is in paying for content.  Sure, some will never pay, but others simply haven’t yet been given a solution that makes sense to them.  Content Connectors can change that by giving digital content experiences familiar context in the home.
  • Smart boxes will leave smart TV’s still born: TV manufacturers are still figuring out how to deal with the hangover of having accelerated the TV set replacement cycle too aggressively with HD.  Too many homes have perfectly good HD ready flat screen sets that they won’t need to replace anytime soon.  So manufacturers are desperately pushing 3D and Smart TVs as a reason to replace.  The problem, for TV makers not consumers, is that Content Connectors turn ‘dumb’ TVs into Smart TVs for a fraction of the cost. A TV isn’t a computing device but plug a Content Connector into it and it becomes one.
  • Breaking down media industry walls: Hardware used to create great big walls between different content genres. TVs were for broadcast video, DVDs for recorded video, CDs for audio, games consoles for games.  Multifunction devices such as smartphones and tablets started to erode those barriers by being content genre agnostic.  Apple’s iTunes Music Store became the generic ‘iTunes Store’ and now Content Connectors want to take this paradigm shift even further by freeing the biggest screen in the home form the constraints of broadcast video.
  • Leaving stand-alone stores and services stranded: The disruptive threat of the TV’s liberation is immense.  Broadcasters instantly lose their monopolistic hold on the TV and find themselves in the middle of a disruptive threat pincer movement: first non-traditional broadcasters like Netflix and YouTube can get themselves right into the traditional TV heartland; secondly non-video content suddenly finds a home on the TV, whether that be music, photos or games.  No matter, all of it competes for TV viewing time.  And no coincidence that Amazon’s Kindle Fire TV is equipped with a game controller.  What’s more, if you only offer video – which of course applies to most TV broadcasters – you look decidedly limited in the Content Connector era of multi-genre content offerings.
  • Using the TV to get consumers over the ‘ownership hump’: While industry leaders obsess over how to make subscription business models work, most mainstream consumers have not even started thinking about moving from the ownership paradigm to a consumption one.  That shift will need a generation to truly play out but Content Connectors will give the process an initial adrenaline shot.  How?  By putting digital content onto the device that consumers already associate with ephemerality.  The TV is not an ownership device nor has it ever been one.  At most it is a device on which temporary copies are viewed before being deleted.  But the majority of the time it is purely access based content consumption.  So getting mainstream consumers used to accessing but not owning digital content via the TV is the perfect environment for making an entirely alien concept feel strangely familiar.
  • Another changing of the guard: The reversing into the CE market by internet, software and PC companies was the biggest disruption the CE sector ever endured.  The likes of Sony and Yamaha used to compete in an almost chivalric manner, agreeing on standards and then competing on implementation.  Google, Apple and Amazon pursue no such niceties and compete with incompatible platforms and technology, and in doing so are wining the CE war.  The Content Connector revolution is helping the same thing happen to content distribution.  A new generation of content providers are emerging that collectively have their eyes set on world domination.

The coming shift in the digital content markets could occur at breakneck pace.  Within five years Hulu and Netflix could easily have a 100 million paying subscribers and YouTube’s ad revenue could easily be near $8 billion.  If the transition process goes the whole distance traditional content walls could disappear entirely.  Google Play could move from selling video, apps or music to simply asking consumers: “How would you like to enjoy this content? Watch? Listen? Or Play?”  Traditional broadcasters and media retailers should be scared, very scared.

Why 2014 Will Be the Year of Taking Digital Content into the Home

2014 is shaping up to be the year that the chasm that separates consumers digital content experiences and their home entertainment is bridged.  Amazon, Apple and Google have all embarked on a quest for the lower end of the market with Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Chromecast respectively.  Meanwhile a host of interesting new specialized music entrants are making waves, including Pure’s Jongo and forthcoming devices such as Fon’s Gramafon and Voxtok.  And then of course there’s the granddaddy of them all Sonos, that continues to go from strength to strength with an ever more diverse product range and list of integrated music services.

Regular readers will know that I have long held that the living room (along with the car) is one of the two final frontiers for digital music.  The great irony of digital music’s brief history to date is that it has transformed music from a highly social one-to-many experience across speakers into a highly insular and personal one delivered through ear buds on phones, MP3 players, tablets and PCs.  It is no coincidence that streaming music services desperately attempt to artificially recreate the missing social element with the blunt tool of pushing play data into people’s social streams.  To be clear this is not to take away from the personal consumption renaissance, but instead to illustrate that music is disappearing out of the living room and other home listening environments.  When the CD player disappears out of the home – and it is doing so at an accelerating rate – for many households music amplified music playback disappears too.  This is why digital music needs bringing into the living room, the den, the kitchen, right across the home.  It is a concept I first introduced in 2009 at Forrester, and revisited for Billboard early last year and again here later in 2013.

We Are Entering the Fourth Stage of Digital Content

Getting digital content into and throughout the home is the next stage of the evolution of web-based content.  The first stage was getting it there (Napster), the second was getting it onto consumers’ portable devices (iTunes), the third was providing frictionless access (YouTube, Spotify, Netflix) and now the fourth is getting it into the home.  This fourth stage is in many ways the most challenging.  All of the technology that underpinned the first three stages was computing related technology (PCs, MP3 players, smartphones, tablets).  All of those device types are a) highly personal and b) have evolved as computing enclaves within our homes.  Besides the niche of households that have smart TVs or web connected radios, the majority of the devices that the majority of households spend the majority of their prime media consumption time with (i.e. radios and TVs) remain separate and disconnected from the computing centric devices.  The fact that the computing devices are heralding a new paradigm of consumer behavior – media multitasking – only highlights the separation of the two device sets.  Indeed the vast majority of multitasking time is asynchronous (e.g. checking Facebook or email while watching TV) rather than being an extension of the primary media consumption behavior.

Efforts are Focused on the TV

Chromecast et al are all designed to bridge that divide, to turn our key non-computing home device – the TV – into a quasi computing device, so that we can bring our digital content experiences into the home entertainment fold.  This, as Amazon, Apple and Google all know, is where the battle for the digital entertainment wallet will be waged.  The downside for the music industry is that the TV device focus will naturally skew the dialogue to video content, which is why Sonos and the growing body of specialized music home devices are so important.  If the industry relies too heavily upon TV centric devices to lead the home charge, it will be left fighting for scraps rather than being centre stage.

Context is Everything

However labels, music services and hardware companies (including Amazon, Apple and Google) already need to start thinking beyond just getting digital music into the home.  They need to think about what extra relevance and context home music experiences should deliver.  The likelihood is that the rich UIs of PC, tablet and smartphone apps will have to recede, in the near term at least, to allow simple, elegant device experiences.  In effect they will need to almost get out of the way of the consumer and the music.  In some respects this echoes the ‘zero UI’ approach of app-of-the-moment Secret.  Which in turn means that curation and programming will become the key differentiation points.  Not in the sense of ‘here are three artists we think you’ll like based on your prior listening’ but real programming of the type that has helped radio remain the single most widespread music consumption platform throughout the digital onslaught.

2014 will be the year that the divide between the computing devices and the traditional entertainment devices in the home will start to be bridged.  But that is simply the enabler not the end game.  It is once the divide has been bridged that the real fun begins.

The Smartphone Innovator’s Dilemma

The recent rumours concerning Amazon’s possible flirtation with launching a smartphone, whether baseless or not, on the eve of Apple’s new product launch, shine an interesting light on a challenge that faces all smartphone manufacturers: where to innovate next?

In the mid 2000’s I oversaw the launch of JupiterResearch’s European mobile research practice and also at Jupiter led countless mobile data and research projects as well as working closely with the leading handset manufacturers.  Throughout that time I saw the early days of the emergence of the smartphone sector up close, and the rate of innovation was both often startling and manifested itself in highly tangible ways. Screen sizes got bigger, handsets got smaller, camera megapixel counts grew, and a whole host of new features arrived including video, email and calendar synching, true tones, 3.5mm headphone sockets, MP3 sideloading, PC-synching etc.

Then in June 2007 Apple came along with the iPhone and transformed the mobile phone market forever.  Apple had characteristically waited until the smartphone market was ready for primetime before launching the iPhone and then pursuing an equally characteristically disruptive strategy.  The last few years of the 2000’s saw successive innovation step changes, with meaningful new marquee features for each new generation of devices. Now though, on the eve of Apple’s next smartphone announcement we are at an unusual place.  There is not that much more that a smartphone can really deliver at its core.  Smartphones were all about disruptive innovation, now they have become sustaining innovation. Thus the new features that are used to distinguish one product from the next are either evolutionary improvements (e.g. better screen resolution, better camera, better battery life), or bleeding edge gimmicks that are not yet ready for primetime (e.g. Siri, Eye Tracking).  The smartphone has hit upon its optimum product construct and thus product changes from here-on-in will predominately be iterative, sustaining innovations rather than disruptive ones.

That in itself is not an inherently bad thing.  Indeed it is typical of a mature market, but it also makes the market right for disruption, and if there is less scope for that disruption to be product focused, it is more likely to be strategy focused.  Hence we have started to see the emergence of strategies such as Mozilla’s Firefox OS devices aimed at driving open web standards and the rumoured Amazon phone strategy aimed at driving e-commerce and digital content revenues. So the established incumbent players face an innovation dilemma for their flagship devices: do they continue to focus their efforts on packaging sustaining innovations with occasional product gimmick, do they try something dramatically different, or do they try the third way of a disruptive strategy instead?

For a company like Samsung with a plethora of product SKUs it is possible to experiment with bleeding edge innovation on niche devices but it is the flagship devices where marketplace impact is measured.   Go too fast on a flagship device and you will alienate your mainstream customers, go too slow and you will be positioned as an innovation laggard.  The irony of course being that it is the less-headline-grabbing sustaining innovations that generally deliver the most discernable user benefits.

A perhaps even greater irony is that it is the software that really delivers the differentiation to most consumers.  With standard smartphone hardware functionality (cameras excepted) being broadly comparable in the eyes and ears of most mainstream consumers, it is what the software enables that people truly notice.  The apps, the content, the features.  Thus iOS 7 will transform how iPhones behave yet Apple will still need a marquee feature to sell the next iPhone, even if that is a bleeding edge gimmick. Against this backdrop the third way of disruptive strategy becomes ever more appealing for smartphone companies.  Hence Apple’s rumoured intensified push towards lower price segment consumers with a scaled down version of the iPhone.

The likelihood is that whatever phone product Apple launches tomorrow it will probably leave many observers disappointed because it will not be seen to be a dramatic innovation step change.  Apple might surprise us and pull a rabbit out of the hat but it is more likely not to because the simple fact is that it is harder than ever to dramatically innovate smartphone products. Though we may not yet have seen the end of the age of disruptive innovation in smartphones, we are certainly in a lull cycle.  Which is why Samsung, and quite possibly Apple, are looking to adjacent markets such as smart watches, as opportunities to innovate aggressively in wild west technology frontiers in order to re-earn their innovation stripes.

The Challenges of Becoming a Subscription Business

Subscriptions are still only a small share of the music market but their time is coming. That time is long over due (I and my former Jupiter colleagues David Card and Aram Sinnreich first started making the case for subscriptions back in 2000) and a slew of big players are getting ready to play ball now that subscription look ready for primetime.  But they will find it far from plain sailing.

Spotify, Deezer, Rhapsody, Muve, Rdio, WiMP etc. have done much get the market moving and although there are still major challenges ahead (e.g. 9.99 not being a mass market price point) a host of new entrants are poised to make their moves.  The much mooted / touted (delete as appropriate) Daisy is one of the more eagerly anticipated ones (see my take here) but focus has recently turned to potential moves from big players like Amazon and Google, while Apple’s arrival in the subscription market is becoming Godot-esque.

All of these companies bring fantastic assets to the subscription market –scale being the most important – but they will all find the subscription transition difficult.  However good their technology assets, however big their marketing spend, however big their customer base, none of these companies have subscriptions running through the DNA of their products nor, most importantly, their customers.  Here are the key challenges each will face:

  • Apple: Apple was the music industry’s digital beachhead but now Apple has a problem.  Downloads were a transition strategy with one foot in the digital future and one foot in the analogue past.  Apple has built a paid content customer base founded on ownership, a la carte transactions and downloads.  Meanwhile it tiers its hardware pricing by hard-drive capacity.  In some ways this latter point matters most: in the streaming era consumers download less which means there is less need for higher capacity devices, which in turn means that demand for the higher priced, higher capacity devices tails off.  Apple can use subscriptions to address this issue by creating bundles e.g. iPad Gold, a $200 price premium with device-lifetime access to an iTunes music, video and Apps subscription.   This sort of tactic will be crucial for Apple because the concept of digital content subscriptions is alien to the vast majority of its 400 million iTunes customers.  If anyone can make subscriptions work, it is Apple – and I believe they will – but currently its customer base, hardware pricing and content offerings (iMatch and movie rentals excepted) are simply not the right foundations for building a subscription service on.  A lot needs to change before Apple and its customers are ready for subscriptions.
  • Amazon: Amazon’s content-device strategy is the mirror opposite of Apple’s: Amazon is selling devices to help sell content. Amazon needs to be a key player in the music and video business because these low price point items are the bottom rung on the purchase ladder that Amazon hooks new customers in with.  Subscriptions though, are high consideration items.  Amazon is hoping it can nudge customers up to monthly subscriptions in the same way it can nudge customers from a CD to a laptop.  But it isn’t the same transition.  Most Amazon customers have a lot of one-night stands with the retailer rather than a relationship: it is where they go to get stuff, not to immerse themselves in experiences.  Of course Amazon is trying to change that – particularly with video – but it requires a fundamental change in the relationship with its customers.  As with Apple, a device / subscription bundle strategy will deliver best near-term results.
  • Google: Google has the most diverse set of assets at its disposal. In YouTube it has the most successful streaming music service on the planet and in Google Play it has, well, not the most successful digital content store on the planet.  Launching a subscription service on YouTube is an obvious option and the sheer scale of YouTube means that even with highly modest conversion rate it can easily become a major player very quickly.  But the fact that YouTube is free is core to why it is so popular, so the vast majority of its users have little interest in paying fees.  Thus Google will have to ‘think different’ to make subscriptions work on YouTube.  But where Google could really make the subscription play work is, well, on Play.  Not Play by itself though but instead as a tightly integrated subscription – device ecosystem with Motorola.  A while ago I wrote that Google ‘needs to do an Apple with Motorola’. It still does, but it should do so in a manner fit for the cloud era by hard bundling a Play subscription service into Motorola handsets. (You should be spotting the theme by now).
  • Samsung / HTC / Nokia et al. By this stage any readers from a non-Apple and non-Motorola handset business might be beginning to wonder how on earth their companies are going able to squeeze themselves into the subscription equation.  It is a very good question.  Most mobile handset companies are at a crucial juncture, they now face the same problem as ISPs did in the mid-2000’s: unless something changes mobile handset companies are going to become ‘dumb devices’ just as ISPs ‘became dumb pipes’.  Nokia recognized this earlier than most but got the solution wrong – or at least the implementation – with Ovi and is slowly clawing its way back.  But all of them have a huge task ahead them if they are to avoid becoming helpless observers as other companies build robust digital businesses on the back of their hardware. If they can harness the carrier billing relationship then they have a truly unique asset for building a music subscription market, but that is much, much easier said then done (remember Comes With Music?).

All of these business have the potential to be successful subscription businesses but none of them will find it an easy transition and none of them are guaranteed success.  Not only will they have to transform their products, pricing and customer bases, but they will also have to develop entirely new business practices.  To some degree or another, all of these companies have to make the transition from being retail businesses to being subscription businesses.  Being in the subscription business is all about managing churn.  It doesn’t matter how good a job you do of acquiring customers if you can’t keep hold of them.  These are the skillsets that Rhapsody has been quietly perfecting for years and that Spotify is quickly learning.  A successful subscription business can appear like a duck, slow moving above the water line, but feet moving furiously fast below.

The Churn Killer: Device Subscription Bundles

Any business that is new to subscriptions – whatever they may say to the contrary and whatever talent they might hire in – is going to be learning the ropes.  Which is another reason why hard-bundling subscriptions with hardware makes so much sense for these new entrants. Besides the consumer benefits of turning an ethereal subscription into a tangible product, they allow the providers to plan for 12 to 24 months worth of customer life time value rather than worrying about subscribers churning out after just a month or two.

Even though downloads and CDs will still dominate global music revenues by the end of 2013, it is going to be a big year for subscriptions. Whether the new entrants can help turn that into a big decade remains to be seen.

Why Google Needs to ‘Do an Apple With Motorola’ to Make Play a Success

2012 has been a fantastic year for smartphones, with penetration pushing past the 50% mark in key markets such as the UK and US (some estimates even put US penetration as high as 70%).  Apple’s iPhone is the leading smartphone in most key markets but Google’s Android Operating System (OS) has much larger market share: c. 70% compared to c. 20% for iOS (Gartner estimated global market shares to be 64% and 19% respectively back in Q2 2012).  But these market share statistics can be misleading, particularly when it comes to understanding the digital content and services marketplaces.

Android Fragmentation Complicates Content Strategy

The fragmented nature of the Android landscape is well documented but close analysis of key metrics reveals some startling trends with significant implications for content providers (see figure):

Of course there are many mitigating factors, but that simply does not matter from a consumer perspective nor indeed from a content owner’s perspective.  Both iOS and Android have got vast App catalogues (750k and 650k respectively) and both have vast numbers of apps downloaded (35 billion and 25 billion respectively).  Both also have huge installed bases of devices: 450 million iOS devices and 600 million Android devices.  But there is only one clear leader in paid content: Apple.

Looking just at music sales, Apple’s music annual music sales (based on the last reported 12 months) equate to approximately $4.00 per iOS device, compared to just 50 cents per Android device.  Apple wins in part because of its longer presence in market, but more importantly because it exercises complete control of the user journey in a closed ecosystem.

The Importance of Closed Ecosystems

The success stories of paid content to date are closed ecosystems: iTunes / iOS, Playstation, xBox, Kindle.  Though the controlled nature of these ecosystems may limit user freedom, they guarantee a quality of user experience.  In these post-scarcity days of content, the quality of experience becomes a scarce experience which people are willing to pay for.  Google simply cannot exercise that degree of control because of its pursuit of a less-closed (but not wholly open) ecosystem strategy.  It depends upon device manufacturers to determine the user experience and also gives other value chain members much more control, such as allowing operators (Vodafone) and retailers (Amazon) to open their own Android stores, as well as, of course handset manufacturers (Sony).

Smartphones with Dumb Users

In a pure mobile handset analysis this doesn’t matter too much.  But from a content strategy perspective it matters massively so.    The problem is compounded by the fact that that as smartphones go mainstream the user base sophistication dilutes.   With so many consumers increasingly buying smartphones because they are cheap and on a good tariff, rather than for their smartphone functionality we are ending up with a scenario of smartphones with dumb users.  (I am indebted to my former Jupiter colleague Ian Fogg for this phrase). This factor arguably affects Android devices more than it does Apple devices because a) they are more mainstream b) they are often cheaper.  This matters for content owners because the more engaged, more tech savvy smartphone owners are also the ones most likely to pay for content.

Google Needs to ‘Do An Apple’ and Not ‘A Microsoft’

With growth slowing in the digital music space, it is clear that new momentum is needed.  Google is potentially the strongest opportunity to bring mass market traction to the digital music space, but currently its music strategy, and paid content strategy in general, is falling short due to all of the reasons outlined above.

Google does however have an incredibly strong set of assets at its disposal, in terms of installed based and growing adoption.  If Google is serious about making its Play strategy a success then it needs to start putting itself first.  Back in the early 2000’s Microsoft expected to be the dominant force in digital music because Windows Media Player was the #1 music player and Windows DRM was the industry standard rights protection.  But instead of pushing ahead with a bold Microsoft music offering it relied upon its hardware and services partners to do it for them.  Just as Google now is sensitive to the concerns of its commercial partners, so Microsoft was then.  Of course Microsoft lost the battle and their softly-softly approach was powerless to fight off the rapid onslaught of iTunes.   Microsoft eventually realized that it needed to go it alone, launching Zune, but it was too little, too late.  Interestingly there wasn’t much of a backlash from commercial partners when it did so. Launching a standalone music strategy was actually compatible with being a platform partner.

Now Google has an opportunity to learn from both Microsoft’s mistakes and Apple’s success by turning its recently acquired asset Motorola into a closed Play ecosystem to rival iTunes.  This doesn’t preclude Android partners from continuing to build their own devices and app stores, but it does create a paid content beachhead for Google, from which it can build a base of highly engaged digital consumers who will quickly learn to value the benefits of a high quality, unified content and device experience.  In a Motorola ecosystem Google can truly allow Google+ and Play to become the glue that binds together its diverse set of valuable assets.  Without it though, Play will continue to struggle for relevance in a fragmented and confusing Android user journey.