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

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

The Advent Of Grazing

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

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

Digital Natives Set A New Pace

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

playlists versus albums

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

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

The Album As A Mainstream Consumption Paradigm Was A Historical Anomaly

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

Artists And Labels Need To Catch Up With Consumer Behaviour

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

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

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

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

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

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

IFPI and RIAA 2013 Music Sales Figures: First Take

The IFPI and RIAA today released their annual music sales numbers.  Though there are positive signs, overall they make for troubling reading 

  • Total sales were down 3.9%.  Based on 2012 numbers the trend suggested that 2013 revenues should have registered a 2% growth, so that is a -6% swing in momentum.
  • Digital grew by 4.3% which was not enough to offset the impact of declining CD sales, which has been the story every year since 2000 except last.
  • Download sales declined by 1%. Continued competition from apps and other entertainment, coupled with subscriptions poaching the most valuable download buyers is finally taking its toll.
  • Subscriptions up by 51%: An impressively strong year for subscriptions but not enough to make the digital increase bigger than the physical decline on a global basis nor in key markets, including the US.

Global numbers of course can be misleading and there is a richly diverse mix of country level stories underneath them, ranging from streaming driven prosperity in the Nordics, through market stagnation in the US to crisis in Japan – where revenues collapsed by 16.8%.  The Nordic renaissance helped push Europe into growth but data from the RIAA, show that total US music revenues were down a fraction – 0.3%.  US download sales were down by 0.9% while subscriptions were up an impressive 57% to $628 million.

On the one hand this shows that Spotify has managed to kick the US subscription market into gear following half a decade or so of stagnation.  But on the other it shows that subscriptions take revenue from the most valuable download buyers.  This backs up the trend I previously noted, that streaming takes hold best in markets where downloads never really got started.  Thus markets like the US with robust download sectors will feel growth slowdown as high spending downloaders transition to streaming, while in markets like Sweden where there was no meaningful download sector to speak of, subscriptions can drive green field digital revenue growth.

The Download Is Not Dead Yet

Though subscriptions now account for 27% of digital revenue, the value trend obscures the consumer behavior trend.  For Spotify’s c.9.5 million paying subscribers (or 6 million last officially reported) Apple’s installed base of iTunes music buyers stands at c.200 million (see figure).  The IFPI report that there are now 28 million subscription customers globally.  In the US and UK this translates into 4 or 5% of consumers. Subscriptions do a fantastic job of monetizing the uber fans, just like deluxe vinyl boxsets and fan funding sites like Pledge do so also.  But they are inherently niche in reach.  This is why downloads remain the music industry’s most important digital tool.  Downloads are the most natural consumer entry point into digital music, and if anyone else had been able to come close to matching Apple’s peerless ability to seamlessly integrate downloads into the device experience, then the sector would be much bigger than it is now.

service bubbles

Do not confuse this with being a luddite view that streaming and subscriptions are not the future, they are, but there is a long, long journey to that destination that we are only just starting upon for most consumers.   And before that there is a far more important issue, namely how to get the remaining CD buyers to go digital.

Sleepwalking Into a Post-CD Collapse

Last year the IFPI numbers showed a modest globally recovery but despite the widespread optimism that surrounded those numbers I remained cautious and wrote that it was “a long way from mission accomplished.”  My overriding concern then was the same as it is now, namely that the music industry does not have a CD buyer migration strategy and it desperately needs one.  So much so that unless it develops one it will end up sleepwalking into a CD collapse.   In fact I predicted exactly what has happened:

“CD sales decline will likely accelerate.  Among the top 10 largest music markets in the world CD revenue decline will likely accelerate markedly in the next few years.  In France and the UK leading high street retailers are on their last legs while in Germany and Japan the vast majority (more than 70%) of sales are still physical.  So the challenge for digital is can it grow as quickly as the CD in those markets will decline?

The IFPI have stressed the fact that Japan’s dramatic 15% decline was the root cause of the global downturn.  While this is largely true – without Japan included global revenues still declined 0.1% – Japan’s problems are simply the global industry’s problems squared.  In 2012 a staggering 80% of Japanese music sales were physical but despite the digital market actually declining 4 successive years total revenues increased 4%.  As the world’s second biggest market, when Japan sneezes the global industry catches a cold.   But expect Japan to continue to drag down global revenues and also keep an eye on Germany.  Germany saw a modest 1.2% increase in revenues in 2013 but only 22.6% of sales were digital.  The most likely scenario is that Germany will follow the Japanese trend and go into a CD-driven dive in 2014 and / or 2015.

In conclusion, there is still cause for optimism from these numbers.  Subscriptions are going from strength to strength, at least in revenue terms, and the download sector remains robust in buyer number terms.  But unless the CD problem is fixed, the best both those digital revenue streams can hope to do is consolidate the market around a small rump of digital buyers.

The Death of the Long Tail

Long Tail CoverToday MIDiA Consulting is proud to announce the publication of an important new report: The Death of the Long Tail: The Superstar Music Economy.  The report is available free of charge to Music Industry Blog subscribers.  (If you are not yet a subscriber to this blog simply enter your email address in the box on the right hand column of the home page.)

The 21st century decline in recorded music revenues continues to send shockwaves throughout the music industry and although there are encouraging signs of digital-driven growth, the impact on artists is less straightforward.  Total global artist income from recorded music in 2013 was $2.8 billion, down from $3.8 billion in 2000 but up slightly on 2012.  Meanwhile artists’ share of total income grew from 14% in 2000 to 17% in 2013.  But the story is far from uniform across the artist community.

The Superstar Artist Economy

The music industry is a Superstar economy, that is to say a very small share of the total artists and works account for a disproportionately large share of all revenues.  This is not a Pareto’s Law type 80/20 distribution but something much more dramatic: the top 1% account for 77% of all artist recorded music income (see figure).

fig4

The concept of the long tail seemed like a useful way of understanding how consumers interact with content in digital contexts, and for a while looked like the roadmap for an exciting era of digital content.  Intuitively the democratization of access to music – both on the supply and demand sides – coupled with vastness of digital music catalogues should have translated into a dilution of the Superstar economy effect.  Instead the marketplace has shown us that humans are just as much wandering sheep in need of herding online as they are offline.

In fact digital music services have actually intensified the Superstar concentration, not lessened it (see figure).  The top 1% account for 75% of CD revenues but 79% of subscription revenue.  This counter intuitive trend is driven by two key factors: a) smaller amount of ‘front end’ display for digital services – especially on mobile devices – and b) by consumers being overwhelmed by a Tyranny of Choice in which excessive choice actual hinders discovery.

fig5

Ultimately it is the relatively niche group of engaged music aficionados that have most interest in discovering as diverse a range of music as possible.  Most mainstream consumers want leading by the hand to the very top slither of music catalogue.  This is why radio has held its own for so long and why curated and programmed music services are so important for engaging the masses with digital.

Music has always been a Superstar economy and there will always be winners and losers in music sales, with the big winners winning really big.  Over time the improved discovery and programming in digital music services should push the needle for the remainder artist tier but a) it will not happen over night and b) it will still have a finite amount of impact.

The Catalogue Size Arms Race

Matters are worsened by the music services’ catalogue arms race which has become entirely detrimental to consumers’ digital music experiences.  Action needs taking urgently to make sense of 25 million songs, not just through discovery and editorial, but also by taking the brave decision to keep certain types of content, such as sound-alikes, outside of music services’ main functionality.

Until labels, distributors and artists come to together to fix the issue of digital catalogue pollution – sound alikes and karaoke especially – the Tyranny of Choice will reign supreme, hiding 99% of artists under a pervasive shroud of obscurity and giving the Superstars another free lap of the track.

How 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.

The Hybrid Album: A Music Product Strategy Proposal

We are in the midst of a transition from ownership to access models but it is a shift that will take a generation to complete.  The intervening years will all be about managing the transition, both in terms of educating consumers but also with regards to ensuring that the revenue shift is as smooth as possible.  The download and the stream will co-exist for many years – especially in many emerging markets – and Apple’s iTunes Radio is a key example of how the two technologies can live side by side.  But more still needs to be done.  To that end what follows is a product strategy proposal that puts streaming into the very heart of download experiences while simultaneously driving download spending.

The Hybrid Album is a very simple and straightforward proposition:

  • Entire album download: when ever a download store customer purchases more than one individual track from an album the entire album and album art will download to the purchaser’s device.  The two track threshold is important as this proposition is not intended to swim against the tide and clutter the path for consumers that only ever want to buy single tracks.  Buying more than one track from an album though indicates a little more than passing interest in that album and represents an opportunity to engage the buyer with the entire release.
  • Two free streams per track: the purchased tracks will behave as normal downloads, the remainder of the album though will be presented with a stream icon that informs the purchaser that all the other songs on the album can be streamed free of charge, twice each.  Once any track has been streamed twice the icon will change to a click to buy icon.  Also when any single track has been streamed twice a ‘complete this album’ call to action will appear with a ‘save x% if you buy within the next 24 hours’ or ‘get an extra exclusive track free if you buy within the next 24 hours’.

And that is it.  Very simple but with the potential to be highly effective.  It gives download customers a taste of the on-demand streaming experience but directly drives spending.  The licensing that would underpin the Hybrid Album will be more complex than the consumer proposition but it is not exactly an insurmountable challenge, with plenty of analogous precedents to leverage.

It is a proposition that is comparatively simple to implement and with low risk.  Let’s get it done!

The Curious Case of the South Korean Music Market

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

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

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

korean music revenue trends

Bucking Global Trends

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

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

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

A Tale of Booming CD Sales and Tumbling Download Revenues

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

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

Lessons for the Global Market

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

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

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

The Curious Case of the South Korean Music Market report

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

 

The Decline and Fall of the Top 10

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

top 10 album sales us

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

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

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

Why the Music Industry Needs Another iPod Moment

The importance of Apple to the digital music market cannot be overstated.  Without Apple the digital market would be vastly smaller than it is now.  With all of the talk of streaming services and the shift to the consumption era it is easy to think of Apple’s iTunes Store as yesterday’s game.  Such an assumption is as dangerous as looking upon the CD as an irrelevance in the present era.  The CD and iTunes combined account for approximately 78% of total recorded music revenue in the world’s 10 largest music markets.   And yet neither look like they are going to provide the momentum the music industry needs over the next few years.  Despite its vast importance to music revenue today, the CD is obviously on a fixed downward path.  And the download is not so dramatically different in profile in that it is the dominate revenue source yet is not delivering the dynamic growth the digital market needs.  Key to this is of course the role of Apple.

Apple CEO Tim Cook told us at the launch of the iPhone 5 that ‘Apple still loves music’ and so it does.  But music is inherently less central to Apple’s content and device strategy than it was 5 years ago.  When the iPod launched it had a monochrome screen and did little else than play audio.  Music was the killer app with which to market iPods.  Now games, apps, video and books show off the capabilities of colour touch screen iPads and iPhones much better than a static audio file (even if music remains one of the key activities on both those devices).    In the early days of the iPod Apple needed the record labels more than they did Apple.  Indeed, to begin with the iPod was far from a runaway success.  By the end of 2002, one year after launch, the iPod had only sold 625,000 units.  The iTunes Music Store changed the story, delivering not only unprecedented digital music milestones, but also record iPod sales. After the first full year of the iTunes Music Store, sales of the iPod had quintupled from 2 million to 10 million, and one year later they surpassed 40 million. The iPod and the iTunes Music Store had a clear symbiotic relationship.  Now though, Apple’s devices benefit from a much broader array of content and services from the iTunes Store, which pointedly is no longer called the iTunes MUSIC Store.

Apple’s diversification of device and content strategy heralded a brave new chapter in Apple’s history but it has also left the digital music market without the fiercely energized catalyst that kicked it into motion.  By the time Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, the installed base of iPods was already slowing.  Though sales were still increasing, the majority of those were either replacement or additional purchases.  So although iPod sales were booming still, the number of new iTunes Music Store customers was not.  Throughout 2008 I presented the data to a number of senior record label executives at the time and I argued that they needed to start planning for a post-iPod slow down.  Some of them didn’t take me too seriously, and who could blame them, after all iPod sales were growing strongly and iTunes downloads were growing at a stellar rate. But now, with a few years of market data behind us, the true scale of the post-iPod slowdown is clear (see figure).  As soon as iPod sales slowed, so did the digital music market.  Prior to 2008 the digital music market had grown by an average annual rate of 85.2%, after 2008 that rate dropped to 7.5%.  In many markets the 2009 slowdown was of falling-off-a-cliff proportions: in the US digital growth slipped from 30% in 2008 to a near flat-lining 1% in 2009.

Streaming services have started to bring some welcome momentum to digital music.  But much more is needed from them if growth is to be reinvigorated.  That growth may also be helped by new music formats like the forthcoming Lady Gaga album app.  Whatever the source of it, it is clear that the music needs another iPod momentum to kick the digital market back into life.

Bruce Willis and the ‘When Owning Doesn’t Actually Mean Owning’ Conundrum

Bruce Willis is reported to be considering legal action against Apple to enable him to bequeath his sizable iTunes music collection to his children.  Whether there is basis in the story or not it shines an unforgiving light not so much on Apple’s terms and conditions but the role of copyright in consumer music products as a whole.

Analogue Era Copyright Restrictions Rarely Left the Realms of Small Print

The issue at stake is that iTunes terms and conditions prevent the original purchaser from giving the purchased music to someone else. But this is not something unique to iTunes, it applies to virtually every single piece of music product that you have ever bought (assuming you have bought some at some time or another).  And not just to downloads, but also to CDs, vinyl, cassette, MiniDisc and just about any other physical format you care to throw into the mix.  With each and every one of those music product formats that you have purchased, all that you actually own is the physical packaging and media, and a license to play the music inside it.  You do not own the music.  And the licenses come with pretty specific restrictions, often including the number of people that are in the room when you are playing it, though the exact number of people who are allowed to listen to music in your living room is defined by national statute.  The restrictions also cover copying, lending and selling.  Of course (personal) copying, lending, listening at parties, gifting and buying used albums have all been integral parts of the music experience for decades.   People simply enjoyed the music how they wanted to regardless of the restrictions, many of which they simply were not aware of.

Take a look at the small print on the back of a CD album – if you still have any – and you’ll see a copyright notice.  The exact wording will vary according to the label and the country of origin or sale, but the same underlying principle applies across all of them: you don’t actually own the music on the album, instead you have bought a license to play that music.  In the physical era people rarely bumped into these restrictions, but in the digital age labels and other rights owners have the ability to enforce them through technology.

So should Bruce Willis really prove to be tilting at iTunes’ windmills, it will be decades of global copyright convention and practice that he will in fact be facing, and any potential judge will be made keenly aware of this.  Which raises the stakes in quantum leap proportions and builds a case for the industry to come up with common sense business solutions before the entire music copyright edifice is challenged.

It is Time for a Business Solution to the Copyright Problem

Copyright is the critical tool for monetizing content and ensuring creators and originators are fairly compensated.  But copyright is at its best when it serves those purposes without placing impractical and unreasonable restrictions on consumers.  Paying music fans are becoming an increasingly self-selective group.  In the analogue era most music fans were also recorded music buyers.  In the digital age music fans often opt out from music purchasing entirely.  Thus when analogue-era copyright legacies affect digital music buyers, it is the valuable, opted-in part of the population that is being penalized, not the freeloading opted-out portion.  A situation which of course has already happened once before online, with rights owners’ earlier insistence on all downloads being shackled with DRM.

 

The indies, and then EMI and iTunes finally broke the DRM hoodoo and one would hope that a similar outcome could be achieved here.  Changing the underlying copyright frameworks and agreements is not going to happen either soon or quickly, but just as DRM was solved with business decisions, so could the issue of transferring ownership of purchased music.  Rights owners and digital music retailers could create a framework agreement to permit certain behaviours within specific parameters or could simply agree to turn a blind eye in certain scenarios.

It would be copyright suicide to suggest that a music customer could ‘give’ their music to anyone they so choose, because a single digital copy can always be legion.  But a ‘fair use’ approach which supports a number of scenarios, such as Willis’ desire to bequeath to his children, would be an eminently workable solution.

Copyright should protect rights but not at the expense of penalizing legitimate customers over those who don’t bother to pay at all.

Five Music Predictions for 2010 (and Five Reasons Why 2009 was a Flop)

[Please note that this post first appeared on the Forrester Consumer Product Strategy blog.  Over the coming month or so I will be migrating all of my activity there.  I will soon be posting new information here for you to amend your feeds and subscriptions. Thanks]

Lots happened in 2009 but it wasn’t a vintage year for digital music (in fact it was the year it well and truly lost the digital buzz to eReaders). All in all I’d give 2009 a 6 out of 10, with the launch of Spotify accounting for at least couple of those points and the following as the 5 key disappointments:

  1. Comes With Music under-whelmed (as did Play Now plus)
  2. ISP services didn’t get off the ground (including unlimited MP3’s nearly but not quite moment)
  3. Apple’s new killer music format was….oh iTunes albums
  4. imeem gave a master class in how not to make money out of social music
  5. The big boys (MySpace, Apple) snapped up the innovative competition (Lala, iLike, imeem)

So will be 2010 be any different?  Though I don’t think it will be the year digital music will really come of age (that’s at least a couple more years away) I do expect it on balance to be a stronger one than its predecessor.  Leaving aside the few specific developments I’m not able to talk about here are a few of my predictions:

  1. Apple launches a major refresh to the music experience.  (I’ll caveat this first prediction with the disclaimer that Apple make a habit of proving wrong those of us foolish enough to try to second guess them.)  With that said, there are many things Apple could do with music in 2010.  Whatever they do, they have to do something significant if they are to stay on top of their game. They’ve spent much of 2009 collecting user data via the Genius app and they’ve acquired some top notch streaming and programming expertise via the Lala acquisition. And of course they’re busy developing with content partners for the forthcoming touch screen note book.  Here’s hoping that this will all add up to something like an integrated on-device, connected, interactive and immersive music experience where the cost is bundled into the price of the device (perhaps with the touch screen note book as the flagship device for the offering).  Apple wouldn’t be in the game of hiding the cost of music to the consumer (a la Comes With Music) but they may use content subscription bundling as a way to maintain premium price points and differentiation for their devices.
  2. MySpace deepens its focus on music. Though MySpace will spend most of 2010 simply ingesting iLike and imeem, the acquisitions form part of a longer term strategy to breathe much needed new life into MySpace’s music role.  The new management talent is tasked with pulling MySpace from the brink of becoming a garbled also ran and dragging it by the collar into the 2nd decade of the century.  Though they’re unlikely to admit it, the mainstream social networking race against Facebook is as good as over. By contrast they remain the #1 destination for artist communities online, yet without a major reinvention they’ll start to feel the competitive pressure bite there also.
  3. Spotify scales back its US launch. Spotify appears to be paying the price for the major labels having second thoughts about ad supported on-demand content.  Those pesky US licenses have been proving tough to tie down and I’d expect to see Spotify’s US launch to be more strongly focused on the premium tier than it is in Europe.  If so, it could actually prove to be something of a blessing for the Swedish upstart, allowing it to consolidate the monetization of its core user base rather than building a US ad business from scratch whilst millions of free US subscribers add cost to the bottom line. Whatever the case, Spotify’s European revenue fundamentals should improve in Europe in 2010.
  4. ISP music services don’t pack a killer punch. I’m a firm believer that ISPs will become established as a core element of the digital music value chain and the best way of fighting piracy head on.  In 2010 we’ll see more services launched both in the US and in Europe, especially the UK.  But I don’t see anything yet to suggest they’ll be adequately provisioned to flourish. It’ll take another year or two of revenue pain decline for the labels to adjust their license requirements sufficiently. What do I think will work?  5 pounds / euros / dollars a month for household access to near unlimited (i.e. fair use) MP3.
  5. Semi-pro sites and services prosper. I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say 2010 will be their year, but it will certainly see continued growth for the likes of SellaBand, MyMajorCompany and Tune Core. These sites that create a route to audiences for artists either not good enough or not yet good enough for record deals, play to the strength of the Internet as a social channel for artists and fans. Which of course is all the more reason for MySpace to be watching its back.

To conclude, 2010 will be another year in which digital music continues to find its feet, but significant progress will be made.