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.

How The iPad May Help Soften The Decline Of The Download

In this previous post I outlined how the rise in mobile app spending is directly cannibalising iTunes music spending.  That decline was only a few percentage points in 2013 because of a confluence of factors, not least the fact that the US download market (Apple’s biggest) only fell by 3% in 2013 while the UK (another key Apple market) grew by 3% and growth also came in other major music markets and a bunch of emerging markets with scale. Throughout the course of 2014 downloads however will probably decline more sharply due to both app competition and also to the fact many of the highest spending download buyers are now subscription service customers.  But there is a slither of light for the download market….the iPad.

Apple’s customer base has changed a lot over the years.  Once being an Apple customer meant being at the bleeding edge of innovation in consumer technology.  Now it is a much more mainstream user base that in turn compels Apple to innovate at a pace appropriate for their more timid tastes.  The evolution of the iPad customer base followed a similar path: once the device of the true Apple aficionado the iPad quickly developed a distinctly populist appeal, especially the iPad Mini.

The iPad Is An iTunes Beachhead Among Android Users

But what is most interesting about iPad owners from a music industry perspective is that so many of them are Android phone users, 32% of them to be precise (see figure).  The iPad is acting as an iTunes beachhead among Android phone users.  It is a less surprising trend than might at first appear because Tablets and smartphones have highly distinct purchase consideration cycles and retail chain dynamics.  A smartphone is most often intimately tied to a mobile carrier relationship and the sales process will have as much to do with what device a carrier is pushing as it will with consumer preference.  A tablet though is, most often, not tied to a carrier and the purchase consideration cycle is instead much more about aspiration and desirability.  Other tablets might beat the iPad in terms of price and specs, but the iPad is the aspirational tablet.

ipad users

The iPad Mini Effect

The trend is even more pronounced among iPad Mini owners: 48% of them are Android smartphone users, highlighting the success of this SKU to reach new consumer segments.  Meanwhile a whopping 68% of iPad Intenders – i.e. consumers that plan to buy an iPad – are Android smartphone users.  Although this figure has to be discounted to account for aspiration rather than likely intent, the directional trend is clear: Android smartphone users are a major share of iPad owners and iPad Intenders.  With all the perpetual talk of who will win the smartphone wars the iPad’s ability to grow Apple’s customer footprint almost goes unnoticed.  The fact 57% of iPad Mini customers are female indicates just how good a job the device does of reaching beyond the male dominated early adopter niche.

Because an iPad customer is also inherently an iTunes user significant opportunity exists for content providers.  For all Google Play’s valiant efforts – and extensive marketing spend – no one else manages to get people to buy music downloads the way Apple does.  More Android customers becoming iTunes users via the iPad presents the opportunity to grow the installed base of music download buyers.  And there are encouraging indicators: only 26% of iPad customers do not buy music, compared to 49% of all consumers and 47% of overall Android smartphone users.

iPad Owners Want Apps Too

But before we get too carried away with how a new wave of iPad owners are going to save the music download sector we also need to consider why consumers are buying these devices and what use cases they best serve. The fact they have a tablet indicates they are at the more sophisticated end of the Android phone user base so they probably already use their Android phone for listening to music on.  An iPad is a device purpose built for web surfing, video viewing and mobile app usage.  So it is to be expected that the lion’s share of content spending from these new iTunes converts will be on apps.  Music spending will however be a part of the mix and thus we can expect the influx of new-to-Apple iPad owners driving new music download spending that while it may not be enough to counteract the bigger decline it will help slow it.

What Is Really Cannibalising Download Sales

As 2013 music sales figures come in, the picture of streaming growing while download sales slow is coming sharply into focus. It is one of a clear phase  of transition/cannibalization (delete as appropriate depending on your point of view) taking place because the majority of paying music subscribers were already download buyers.  But that is not the whole picture.  There is an even fiercer form of competition for spend that, as far as the music industry is concerned, is inarguably driving cannibalization.

The iTunes Store accounts for the majority of the global music download market and has done so since its inception eleven years ago.  Back when it launched, the iTunes Music Store helped transform the iPod from a modestly performing device into a global hit.  Music was the killer app, music was what Apple used to sell the device and music is what iTunes customers spent all of their money on.  But all of that changed.  As Apple’s devices have done progressively more, Apple has introduced new content types into its store that better show off the capabilities of its devices.  When Apple launches a new iPad it doesn’t have a label exec holding up the new device playing a song with static artwork displayed…that simply would not showcase the device’s capabilities.  Instead an EA Games exec gets up on stage with a new game that fully leverages the capabilities of the iPad’s graphics accelerator, the accelerometer, the multi touch screen etc.

Music may still be the single most popular entertainment activity conducted on iDevices but it is no longer the app that fully harnesses the devices’ capabilities.  In fact because music products and services remain stuck in the rut of delivering static audio files – YouTube notably excepted – it is increasingly failing to compete at the top table in terms of connected device experiences.  Crucially, this is not just a behavioral trend, it is directly impacting spending too (see figure).

itunes spending shift

Back in 2003 music accounted for 100% of iTunes Store revenue because that was all that was available.  Over the years Apple introduced countless new content types, each of which progressively competed for the iTunes buyer’s wallet share.  The step change though occurred in 2008 with the launch of the App Store.  The impact was instant and by mid 2009 music already accounted for less than 50% of iTunes revenue.   By the end of 2003 the transformation was complete with Apps accounting for 62% of spending and music less than a quarter.  Quite a fall from grace for what was once the undisputed king of the iTunes castle.

Now it is clear that the app economy is a bubble that is likely to undergo some form of recalibration process soon (80%+ of revenues are in app, 90%+ of those are games, and the lion’s share of those revenues are concentrated in a handful of companies) but the damage has already been done to music spending.

If music industry concerns about download cannibalization should be addressed anywhere it is first and foremost at apps.  At least with streaming services consumer spending remains within music rather than seeping out to games.  Though the bulk of the app revenue is ‘found’ incremental revenue, apps are additionally competing for the share of the iTunes’ customers wallet i.e. growth is coming both from green field spend and at the expense of other content types.

So what can the music industry do?  It would be as foolish as it would be futile to try to hold back the tide. Instead, music product strategy needs to do more to embrace the app economy.  That means, among other things:

  • More fully leverage in-app payments (and that means labels will have to take some of the hit on the 30% app store tax)
  • Learn to harness the dynamics of games (that does not mean ‘gamify’ music products necessarily – though it can mean that too – but to understand what makes casual app games resonate)
  • Develop digital era, multimedia products (see this report for some pointers on where music product strategy should go)

Though we are nowhere close to talking about the death of music downloads, apps have turned the tide for music spending.  The music industry can either sit back and feel sorry for itself, or seize the app opportunity by the scruff of the neck.

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.

A Tale of Two Cities: What Sweden and the US Tell Us About the Outlook for Streaming

Streaming is the digital zeitgeist, that much is clear.  How it will shape the future of the music business, from artists through to labels is less clear and things are not helped by an increasingly confusing and diverse set of data, each suggesting a slightly different outlook.  A look at two very different digital music markets – Sweden and the US – gives some sense of what the next couple of years should hold.

Notes: for sake of readability the term ‘streaming’ is used to refer to subscriptions and ad supported streaming combined. Also all current year figures are 2013, extrapolating half year figures to create full year estimates.

Two Very Different Streaming Stories

se-use1

Sweden is streaming’s heartland, home of Spotify and the stand out good news story for music subscriptions. Streaming now represents a whopping 95% of digital revenue in Sweden and 67% of all recorded music revenue while downloads make up a paltry 4%.  Streaming growth has been equally impressive (see figure one) and has propelled the total Swedish music market into growth for two successive years.  That growth came at the direct expense of downloads (which declined by 15%) and it accompanied a dramatic 51% collapse in CD sales.  But 2013 revenues look set to come in at just a little below 2003 levels, no mean feat.   Although we need to bear in mind that a surge in growth can easily reverse (as the experience of South Korea shows us) it is clear that streaming has been a strong positive force on total Swedish music revenues.

se-us2

The picture is very different in the US however, where streaming has grown less dynamically and only represents 23% of digital and 14% of overall spending.  As I previously noted, the strength of Apple and the download sector have acted as a pronounced brake on streaming growth in the US.  Neither, however are invincible, and some of Spotify’s 2013 growth has come at the direct expense of download spending which looks set to decline by a percentage point in 2013 (see figure two).  Little wonder Apple has launched iTunes Radio, though ironically the app may well spur a resurgence in download sales.  So in the US streaming is becoming an increasingly important part of the market but shows no sign of suddenly acquiring Sweden-like ubiquity.  Which in part explains a 5% decline in total music revenues between 2010 and 2013.

CONCLUSION: streaming can quickly drive strong growth in markets where downloads never got a foothold but takes more time to impact strong download markets.

The Impact on Total Digital Revenue

Streaming’s impact on the total digital market and indeed on total music sales is of course what counts most, and it is here we see a really interesting divergence between Sweden and the US. Over the last 6 years streaming drove a comparable rate of overall digital growth in Sweden that downloads powered in the US in the mid 2000’s.

se-us3

But when we plot the growth of digital as a percentage of total music sales in the US between 2005 and 2010 against the same data for Sweden between 2008 and 2013 a stark contrast is immediately apparent (see figure three). Whereas digital share growth remained strong throughout the 6 years in Sweden it slowed markedly in the US.  Though growth returned later it didn’t ever replicate those pre-2008 levels.  The number one slowdown factor was the end of iPod sales growth (see this figure to see just how strong the effect was).  Interestingly digital share growth looks likely to slow moderately for both Sweden and the US in 2013.  In Sweden some level of slowdown is to be expected (there isn’t much physical market left to transition!) but there is still a lot of CD ground to be made up in the US.

CONCLUSION: streaming has driven market growth in Sweden and accelerated transition away from the CD and the download. While in the US the CD and the download both still hold much greater sway, culminating in something of a worst of both worlds, with streaming apparently eating into downloads but not having enough headway to transform the market.

The Artist Conundrum

But what does all this mean for artists?  It often feels that something doesn’t quite seem to add up when artist income is brought into the equation. For all the growth in streaming income, a vocal minority of artists and songwriters feel that streaming is damaging, destroying even, their ability to earn a living from music sales.  As I have argued before, a rounded understanding of streaming income for artists must both put streaming in a revenue continuum (i.e. compare it to radio not just downloads) and consider the life time value of a song (i.e. think of the income it will generate over a period of years instead of the revenue full stop a download represents).  In this context streaming is still worth less than a download, but nearer to 5.5 times less valuable rather than 280 times (see my Consumption Analysis piece for more on this).

us-se-4

There is however an added complexity, namely the amount of artists that get revenue from streaming versus downloads and streaming (see figure four).  If we take Spotify’s reported US metrics from 2012 as a benchmark and assume that the average subscriber listens to a modest 5 different artists a month then this is equal to 60 different artists per year per subscriber.  Working with an average total royalty pay out of $0.01 per stream this translates into an average royalty per artist per subscriber of $0.72 in the US.  When applied to the 3 million reported US Spotify subscribers this would equal an average annual royalty of $2.17 per artist.  (Though it is crucial to note that this refers to the total royalty payment made to rights holders and not to whatever share is eventually shared with the creators themselves). Also, there is of course no such thing as an average artist, and in practice a comparatively small number of artists would earn much more than that and most much less (there are after all 27 million tracks’ worth of artists so the tail is super long).

For downloads, extrapolating from Nielsen mid year numbers, the average downloader buys 2 albums and 27 single tracks.  If we assume each of these is for a different artist then we end up with 26 artists per downloader and an average royalty of $1.22 per artist per downloader (using a 70% royalty assumption).  This isn’t actually that much higher than streaming, but things change when it is applied to the total number of download buyers (which at 63 million far outstrips paying subscribers) and results in an average royalty per artist of $76.34 (again total royalty before distribution to creators).

In Sweden though, where there are more subscribers than downloaders the picture is very different.  Applying the same Spotify metrics to an assumed subscriber base of 2 million in Sweden (which feels about right based on survey data and IFPI numbers) we see an average royalty per artist of $1.44 compared to $1.22 for downloads.  (The average royalty per buyer is higher in Sweden because a smaller number of people are buying a smaller number of downloads resulting in the revenue being split fewer ways).

CONCLUSION: streaming can generate meaningful revenue at scale but will still be lower than downloads because of the above mentioned life time value factor and because revenue is split more ways across a wider selection of artists.

The Cost of Democratization of Artist Income

Thus artists are effectively paying the price for the democratization of music: more artists are getting listened to more regularly and as a consequence the pie gets cut into smaller slices. Which raises the interesting dilemma of whether artists speaking out against streaming are also indirectly speaking out against a more equitable distribution of income among artists?!  The core question though is whether the pie can get large enough for those slices to represent anything more than an apetizer for the average professional artist.

All of this extra data may appear to add as much fuddle as it does clarity to the debate, but it is crucial that debate is based upon reasoned understanding of the most complete grounding of data available.    The next couple of years will see streaming go from strength to strength but its impact on global music revenue will be less dramatic than it has been in Sweden, if perhaps more vibrant than it has in the US.

Lady Gaga, O2 Tracks and the Reinvention of the Pre-Release Sale Cycle

Back in the glory days of music sales, long before the web had done away with scarcity, albums and singles could hit the top of the charts on pre-sales alone.  Those days are long gone, but exclusive pre-release listening initiatives are beginning to reinvent the pre-release sale cycle.  There have been a number of diverse efforts of late including Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ being streamed exclusively on iTunes a week prior to release and Jay-Z’s Samsung ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ hard bundle.   This week sees the arrival of another high profile artist effort: Lady Gaga’s ‘Artpop’ is going to be available one week ahead of release exclusively in the UK on mobile music service O2 Tracks.  Done right, pre-release digital previews could be a crucial shot in the arm for music sales.

The debate around whether streaming cannibalizes downloads is going to run for a few years yet, and we’ll probably only have enough data to draw definitive conclusions when streaming’s ascent and downloading’s descent are irrevocably set.  Until then, the challenge is how best to leverage the capabilities of existing digital platforms to drive sales of both downloads and good old fashioned CDs and LPs.  Previewing on an all your can eat streaming service will always both drive and cannibalize sales, just in the same way that radio has always done so.  But build the preview experience into the structure of a music store and the chances of conversion are much higher.  Daft Punk’s iTunes preview was a run away success because it was in the heart of the globe’s biggest music retailer (though of course the impact of the uber effective marketing campaign cannot be discounted).

Powered by UK music start up MusicQubed, O2 Tracks is far from a download store (it delivers users a small selection of handpicked playlists for £1 a week) but it is nonetheless a proven driver of music sales.  MusicQubed reports that O2 Tracks users frequently click to purchase tracks in the app, with stores such as iTunes providing the fulfillment. Thus O2 Tracks is an opportunity to drive hype (O2 are investing heavily in marketing the preview project) and to drive sales.

Lady Gaga is truly a digital era artist, with music sales that are strong but overshadowed by super high social engagement metrics such as Facebook Likes and YouTube views (see this chart for more). So while Lady Gaga’s management will be most interested in the strong marketing support from O2 and will in part measure success in terms of social footprint, her label Polydor will of course be paying much closer attention to conversions to sales.  O2 Tracks should deliver on both counts.

As more pre-release digital initiatives are run we will get a better sense of what works best, and where.  As that data builds I expect a clear case to emerge of a more structured and consistent approach to pre-release marketing.  A crucial ingredient will be exclusive extra content, not just the album itself (the O2 Tracks ‘Artpop’ preview includes an eight minute interview with Lady Gaga). This is the sort of content that delivers genuine added value to core fans of any given artist and that helps build even more reason for fans to listen to pre-release album previews.  The days of albums regularly topping the charts on pre-sales alone may be a thing of the past, but the pre-release sales cycle is waking up to a whole new lease of life in the digital age.

 

iTunes Radio: Another Chapter in Apple’s Cautious Cloud Music Strategy

As expected Apple today announced the launch of the music industry’s worst kept secret iTunes Radio, a Pandora-like personalized radio service.  iTunes Radio is integrated into the new iOS7, is free with ads to all, free without ads to Tunes Match subscribers. There’s enough different and new in iTunes Radio to make it stand out from the pack and to ensure it has a typically high quality Apple touch.  But the prevailing narrative will be that Apple has taken the conservative me-too strategic option rather than bringing new transformative innovation to the marketplace.  In many respects that analysis rings true but the complete picture is far more nuanced.

Apple is not in the business of creating markets or being a first mover.  Apple is the archetypal early-follower.  That applies even more to digital music than to hardware for Apple.  The iTunes Music Store was far from the first download store, but it was, and arguably still is, the best.  Apple is in the business of selling hardware and its music strategy is dictated by its ability to help it sell hardware.  Rather than balance itself precariously on the bleeding edge of digital music innovation Apple waits for music technology to become ready for prime time.

Two Reasons Why Apple Has to Go Slow With the Cloud

All of that has rung true for a decade+ at Apple.  But now there are new factors in the mix which play determining roles in Apple’s music strategy:

  • Apple has become a mainstream company: Apple’s nineties and noughties heritage was that of the early adopter tech aficionado.  Now Apple is a mainstream consumer product company.  Since the start of 2011 Apple has sold 468 million iPods and iPads. In doing so it has brought swathes of mass market consumers into the iTunes ecosystem, resulting in 575 million credit card linked iTunes accounts.  But all this means that Apple now has to move more carefully, innovating at a pace that is appropriate for a majority of its customer base not just the highly engaged top end.  Spotify’s 6 million paying subscribers is a fantastic achievement but pales compared to Apple’s iTunes user count. The simple fact is that Apple does not think that $9.99 subscriptions are yet ready for primetime for mainstream consumers.
  • The shift to the cloud will impact device pricing strategy: currently Apple’s device pricing strategy is dictated by storage capacity.  The bigger the hard drive the higher the price. But once/if everything shifts to the cloud bigger memory capacities matter much less.  This is why Apple has to go slow with the cloud.  If it goes too quickly it could accelerate the transition at a rate it cannot manage and end up wreaking havoc in its core device business all for the sake of keeping digital music fans happy.  A personalized radio service is a neat complement to downloads.  It won’t win any awards for innovation but it will give mainstream Apple customers enough extra value without disrupting device sales, or indeed music sales.  iTunes Radio buys Apple crucial time as it plans its cloud-era device and pricing strategy.

What Apple Could (and Should) Do

The shift to the cloud is of course inevitable and for all that iTunes Radio may buy Apple some time, the challenges must be faced. The answer to Apple’s problems may lie in the problem itself.  If consumers increasingly shy away from higher memory devices – and therefore more expensive devices – content may prove to be the way in which Apple maintains premium price points across its device portfolio.

Content is the core reason people use iPads and iPods and one of the core reasons people use iPhones.  A smart move would be to take that importance and bake it into the value proposition.  Instead of charging a premium based on memory size alone, Apple could additional sell content-device bundles (and longer term phase out memory size pricing entirely).  For example pricing tiers for iPads could look something like this:

  • Price point 1: 16GB, no content
  • Price point 2: 32GB $/€/£10 a month of iTunes content
  • Price point 3: 32GB $/€/£10 a month of iTunes content and on demand music streaming

The reputation of content-device bundles got somewhat tarnished by the Comes With Music experience, but the model remains fundamentally sound.  Apple could just be the company to make it work. If it does, iTunes Radio will have proved to be a crucial first step on that journey.

In the meantime iTunes Radio is another important, incremental step in Apple’s cautious cloud music strategy.  Cautious because Apple is intent on innovating at a pace that matches the appetite of its mainstream customers.  Cautious because a hasty move could turn iTunes Music sales upside down with direct cannibalisation. And most importantly of all, cautious because Apple knows that if it gets it wrong it could disrupt device pricing strategy, with major repercussions right across Apple’s business.

In short there are many reasons for Apple to go slow with its cloud music strategy.  That might not make for the most exciting of music product roadmaps, but it does mean that Apple is building for long term sustainability and viability.  That in itself is of crucial importance for the music industry and should help ensure Apple remains a music industry partner of true scale for years to come.

iTunes @ 10

On Sunday 28th April Apple’s iTunes Store will celebrate its 10th birthday.  It is arguably the single most important milestone in the digital music market to date.  In these days of cloud and streaming dominated industry discourse it easy to forget just how important Apple has been in the history of digital music and how equally important it remains today.  In 2012, iTunes generated approximately $3 billion in trade revenues for the recorded music industry, equivalent to around  55% of all digital trade income and close to a fifth of all global recorded music trade revenue.  By comparison Spotify was closer to 10% of digital trade revenues and 4% of all global trade revenue.  Spotify is clearly at a much earlier stage of growth and represents the future, but iTunes is far, far from being a historical footnote.

The Four Ages of iTunes

The history of iTunes falls into four key chapters:

  • Baby Steps: On January 9th 2001 Apple launched its iTunes music management software, and later that year in November came the first ever iPod.  Back then there was no iTunes Store and Apple made it very clear how they expected their customers to acquire digital music with their ad campaign slogan: ‘Rip Mix Burn’.  Revolutionary as it was though, the iPod got off to a modest start: despite multiple product updates, by the end of 2002 Apple had still only shifted 600,000 iPods. iTunes wasn’t changing the world, not yet.
  • Changing the Tune: In April 2003 Apple launched the iTunes Music Store in the US, and then in 2004 in the UK, Germany, France and Canada, as well as an EU Store.  There were plenty of download stores already of course – Apple is always an early follower not a first mover – but they were crippled by restrictive DRM, cumbersome technology and lack of interoperability.  Most stores didn’t even allow buyers to transfer to MP3 players or burn to CD. And if you were lucky enough to be allowed to transfer to an MP3 player, your device probably didn’t even support the store’s DRM it probably also relied on incompatible 3rd party music management software.  Apple changed all of that in an instant, delivering an end-to-end integrated experience.  Steve Jobs, through a combination of sheer force of personality and a commitment to spend big on marketing (really big) managed to persuade the big labels to support unlimited iPods, CD burning and multiple PCs.  Digital music hadn’t so much been stuck in the starting blocks as having its feet nailed to them.  Jobs set digital music free.  By July 2004 the iTunes Music Store had hit 100 million downloads, but more significantly by the end of 2005 Apple had sold 42.2 million iPods. iTunes was now selling iPods, and fast.
  • Beyond Music: When Apple was in the business of selling monochrome screen iPods, music was the killer app and iTunes was the marketing tool. But that changed on June 29 2007 with the launch of the iPhone.  Apple soon needed more than music to market its multimedia, touch screen, accelerometer enabled devices. Movies were proving difficult to license and TV shows faced free competition from Hulu, iPlayer, ABC.com et al. The solution of course was the App Store.  The App Store took just 3 months to hit 100 million downloads – it had taken the iTunes Music Store 15 months to hit the same milestone.  Apple remained, and remains, firmly committed to music but its attention is inherently diluted by all of the other content types that iPhones and iPads cater for.  When Apple launches a new device it is EA Games you see demonstrating a new game to showcase the device’s capabilities, not a new music track.  (And of course the word ‘music’ got dropped from the iTunes Store name long ago.)
  • The Platform Challenge: The App Store turned the iTunes Store into a platform, albeit it a highly controlled one.  This created an unprecedented window of opportunity for competing digital music services, suddenly they could break into the previously impenetrable iTunes ecosystem.  Pandora was an early mover and within a year of launching its iPhone app had acquired 6 million iPhone users, 60% of its then 10 million active users.  Shazam was another beneficiary, with the iPhone app finally giving Shazam relevancy and context it had long lacked.  And now of course we have Spotify, Deezer, Rhapsody, Rdio et al all hugely dependent on the iPhone, using it as the central reason subscribers pay 9.99.

Responding to Streaming

Strong iPhone and iPad Sales Have Reinvigorated iTunes Music Sales

Many commentators suggest Apple is being left behind in the streaming era.  It echoes comments that Apple was getting left behind by the social age, and its responses then (Ping! and Genius) are not the most compelling of evidence for Apple jumping on the latest digital music bandwagon.  Apple will of course have to eventually move towards a more consumption and access based model but it will wait, as it always does, until streaming and is ready for primetime.  (A radio service is a logical interim step). Spotify’s 6 million paying subscribers are impressive but pale compared to Apple’s 450 million credit card linked iTunes account.  And besides, iTunes is enjoying its most successful period ever (see figure).  For all the need of interactive multimedia products to market iPhones and iPads, music remains one of the key use cases and the iTunes Store has seen an unprecedented surge in music downloads as millions of new music fans enter the iTunes ecosystem as iPad and iPhone buyers.

Apple Still Underpins the Growth of the Digital Music Market

Interestingly Apple’s music download growth appears to be strongly outpacing the overall digital music market (see figure).  According to the IFPI total global digital trade revenue grew by 8% in 2012 but Apple’s iTunes downloads grew by about 50% during the same period, culminating in 25 billion cumulative downloads in Q4 2012.  Multiple factors are at play: iTunes has rolled out to new territories and a portion of the downloads will also be free.  Nonetheless, iTunes remains the beating heart of digital music.

The Next Chapter

Apple’s next big digital music move will have major strategic ramifications that will go far beyond the iTunes Store.  Currently Apple’s device pricing model is driven by storage capacity.  And of course in a streaming age consumers will store less and less content on their devices, so the ability to charge a premium for extra storage capacity will diminish.  This is a key reason why Apple has to go slow with the cloud.  Music however also presents an opportunity to safeguard price premiums.  Apple has shied away from subscriptions (Steve Jobs famously baited then-Rhapsody owner Rob Glaser that subscriptions were mere rentals) but device-bundled-subscriptions are now an opportunity that Apple simply has to take seriously.  Instead of charging a monthly fee for subscriptions Apple could create ‘iTunes-Unlimited’ editions’ of iPads and iPhones that would include ‘device lifetime’ access to either unlimited music streams or a monthly allowance of iTunes credits (for use on all forms of iTunes content).  The latter probably sits most comfortably with Apple as it presents the opportunity for tiers of access (e.g. $5 of monthly iTunes credit, $10 of monthly credit etc.) and so would enable Apple to support multiple product price tiers.

Whatever Apple decides to do with iTunes in the next 10 years, it will remain a key player and do not bet against it still being the preeminent force a decade from now.

Deezer Says It’s Going Global…

…and it means it: the pictures below are of Deezer branded bus stops in rural Mauritius. With Spotify also having announced a bunch of new markets this week, and Apple and Nokia already having an extensive network of global digital stores, 2013 really is the year that digital music should start to see some meaningful ‘rest of world’ traction.

deezer-mauritius copy

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.