We Need To Talk About Streaming (again)

Last night I participated in a Music Tank seminar on streaming music.  It was a vibrant and valuable debate with a healthy diversity of opinion.  Below are brief highlights of my opening keynote, including some exclusive data from record labels and from Spotify.

Streaming isn’t the paradigm shift, increased convenience of music access is

Streaming is no new thing.  Napster, Rhapsody, YouTube have been with us for many years.  What changed is that Spotify made it work with elegant simplicity, wrapped up in a consumer-friendly value proposition.  Of course Spotify had timing on its side too, coming to market once most of us already had broadband and at a time when a rapidly growing share of us were getting smartphones with data plans.  And of course timing is everything in business.

Timing aside though, we should be careful not to get hung up on the idea of streaming as an alternative format to the download.  It is not.  It is simply a different delivery mechanism for digital music, and when you factor in cached streams the distinction blurs further.  Streaming versus downloading is tech speak.  All music fans are interested in is being able to listen to the music they want, when they want, where they want.

Rebooting the conversation

Streaming music, and Spotify in particular, has been cause of much controversy and debate of late.  I’ll come on to some of the causes later but it is first worth taking stock of what we actually do and don’t know about streaming.

  • What we know. Streaming is proving popular with consumers at a time when download growth is slowing. But many artists are not fully comfortable with the model and feel that they don’t get a fair enough deal.  A dynamic which is complicated by the fact there are many different types of artist deals.  Scale is key to streaming being successful (you don’t make money off dozens or hundreds of streams).
  • What we don’t know.  We don’t know yet whether streaming cannibalizes sales.  Whatever data you see on either side of the argument we are simply too early in the evolution of streaming to draw conclusions.  There simply isn’t enough empirical data.  We need a few more years yet and even then separating cause from effect is challenging at best.
  • What we suspect.  It is looking like streaming does help reduce the amount people use file sharing.  Again, the evidence isn’t definitive and there certainly isn’t sufficient evidence to suggest that the number of people using P2P etc is declining due to streaming, but intensity of usage perhaps.  Smaller artists don’t seem to do that well out of streaming.

 

Access based services are the first post-transition technology products

Any new technology looks more like what came before than what will come next.  After all we only have the past and present as our reference points. Thus when a new set of technologies emerge they begin with transition technologies.  The first car was a steam powered horse-less carriage (see figure 2).  It was a transition to the first internal combustion engine vehicle and it wasn’t until the 1950’s that we really started to see automobile form factors that had fully thrown off the horse drawn carriage heritage.  Digital music is no different.  The download was the steam powered horse-less carriage, a really useful transition tool to help us bridge the gap between analogue and digital, but just that.  Access based services are the first steps towards the internal combustion engine, services that leverage some of the unique capabilities digital presents, rather than just using the web as a delivery mechanism.  But it is still very early days, we are not even at the Model-T yet.

Putting streaming income into context

A number of record labels provided Music Tank with data illustrating the level of income across various platforms which can see here at aggregate level (see figure 3). This chart uses the income from a download as a base of 1 and then income from other sources as a multiple thereof, shown for labels and for artists.  Note that the artist data is 3rd party licensing income only and does not reflect songwriter income etc.   The data suggests that an artist requires 80 streams to match the income from one download.  However data from artists suggests it is more than 200 streams.  And this rate varies massively depending on the nature of the deal an artist has struck with their label (e.g. whether they are paid on a share of net income basis or on points) and what share intermediaries such as distributors take.  It is also impacted by what deal the label has struck with a service.   One smaller label claims, somewhat dubiously, that the rate for them is closer to 2,000 times.  Whatever the exact rate (and there isn’t just one) you have to  stream a lot of music to get the same income as a download, but much, much less than a web radio stream or radio listens.  It take more than 5,500 national BBC radio listeners to generate the same income as one download in the UK

The labels’ take on streaming

Some record labels also provided Music Tank with some of their views on streaming and how they see it in the bigger revenue picture. Quickly summarized these are:

  • Markets with a strong streaming sector also often have stronger overall digital growth
  • Streaming is now growing more quickly than downloads
  • Streaming can be 50% of an artist’s digital revenue in some markets
  • Streaming consumers and download buyers do not strongly overlap
  • Streaming subscriber ARPU is often higher than download buyer ARPU


Spotify’s take on streaming

Spotify also put some data on the table (see figure 4) showing how a major global artist’s catalogue fared following the release of their album the same day to stores as to streaming.  Obviously this data is positioned in the context of the cannibalization and ‘windowing’ debates (which I’ve contributed to here). The data doesn’t prove anything either way in terms of cannibalization (i.e. it could be interpreted as streaming activity does well when an album does well or it could also be viewed as lost buyer activity).  However it does make a compelling case for the degree to which an artist’s back catalogue can be significantly boosted on streaming following an album release. There are some well voiced concerns that streaming favours big name artists, the head rather than the long tail, but if it does then it appears to do a good job of mining the long tail of the head!

The potential of Spotify’s Developer API strategy: an API for Music?

In the last 6 months digital music has two developments of potentially seismic proportions that through their subtle brilliance many haven’t yet appreciated their actual importance.  One was Facebook’s content dashboard strategy.  The other was Spotify’s Developer API.  Of course APIs are no new thing, but if Spotify can reach a hundred million plus total users then its API has the potential of becoming a de facto API for music.   Allowing developers to skip seeking licenses from rights owners and using Spotify’s instead.  It is a crucially well timed move, coming just as investors are turning away from investing in services that require licenses (you may have noticed by now that impecable timing is one of Spotify’s strengths).  Investors have tired of funding license advances for services that often, as in the case of Beyond Oblivion, don’t even make it to market.  The labels still get their digital income but investors are left with a debt write off.  Index’s highly influential Saul Klein went as far as stating that he won’t even invest in  start-ups that require rights owner licenses.

Making the right comparisons

Crucial to the streaming debate is making the right comparisons.

  • Streaming does not = a download
  • Streaming does not = radio
  • But Streaming does = (download + radio) ÷ ??

The exact balance is in flux but the conversation must recognize that a direct comparison with either is off the mark.  What we don’t yet know, and won’t for a couple of years, is whether streaming is pulling its users from green field and thus growing the market in a truly additive manner, or whether it is instead catalysing the organic digital transition, converting those consumers who would have gone digital anyway.  If it is the latter then questions about the income from streaming users compared to other digital customers becomes a more pressing one.  If it is the former then it frees us up to look at the scale picture with fewer reservations.  If these customers simply weren’t ever going to adopt a different digital service then we can start to discuss how low we can bring pricing to drive even great numbers.  The elephant in the room is that £/$10 is just too much for mainstream consumers.  It needs to be close to £/$5 to really break into the mainstream.  And you can only make that business case with genuine scale.

Conclusions

  • It is too early to make conclusive judgements about streaming affecting sales or piracy in the near-to-mid term
  • Long-term, music consumption will shift from ownership to access
  • The streaming debate is clouded by conflicting artist statistics and concerns
  • More artists need to be better sold the story by labels and by the services themselves, and some deals may even need revisiting.  Greater transparency is key and record labels have a big role to play here – there’s only so much services can do themselves
  • Streaming is neither a radio replacement or a download replacement, it has some of the best of both

As for the legacy of streaming?  Streaming will help make Facebook the most important player in the digital music market by 2013.

Agile Music (the Midem Speech)

For those of you who weren’t able to make it to Midem last week here are the text and main graphics from my Midem Visionary Monday speech.

Agile Music: Artist Creativity and Music Formats In the Age of Mass Customization

Today I want to talk to you about a concept called Agile Music, a framework for understanding how artist creativity, industry business models and music products must all undergo a programme of radical, transformational change.

I’m going to start by outlining the catalysts for this change.

This time last year on this very stage I argued that the digital music market was at an impasse, that momentum was seeping out of the space at an alarming rate.  Unfortunately 2011 lived up to the pessimistic billing.  The market further consolidated around the Triple A of Apple, Amazon and Android and digital revenue growth remained stuck in single digit rates.

The simple fact is that the digital music market should be hitting hockey stick growth curves by now.  And don’t think that hockey stick growth curves only exist in the crazy minds of industry analysts, take a look at this chart: hockey stick growth rates are what the music industry itself used to be used be based on.

This chart also reveals a crucial fact: each time an analogue music format went into decline its successor was already firmly in the ascendency.  The same is patently not true of the digital products and their failure to generate a genuine format succession cycle is dragging the whole market down.

So we had a year once again defined by declining revenues.  And though streaming (especially Spotify) had a fantastic year, we saw the emergence of the debate over whether access based streaming services cannibalize ownership.  The third key trend of 2011 was the emergence of new ecosystems to challenge the dominance of Apple’s iTunes.  Ecosystems from Facebook, Spotify, Amazon, Android.

2011 also saw the first real stirrings of three key trends which will shape 2012: firstly, Social listening: a niche activity thrust into the mainstream by Facebook’s subtly brilliant content dashboard strategy. Open innovation, supercharged by age of the API and connected consumption, powered by increasingly ubiquitous connectivity.  These three trends are also the fundamentals of Agile Music.

And so, onto Agile Music itself.  The access / ownership debate is in fact just one part of a much wider transition in content consumption.  In the analogue era media consumption was characterized by ownership of linearly programmed physical formats that we leant back to consume.  In the digital age we lean forward, interact and value access.

A new generation of music formats is needed that are built for the digital age rather the current ones which essentially squeeze the analogue square into the digital circle.

But just in the same way that HD TV and 3D movies need new content, this new wave of products needs to be built upon an entirely new approach to artist creativity.

Analogue-era music formats shaped artist creativity.  In the 50’s artists recorded singles, in the 70’s 8 song albums, in the 90’s 14 song CDs.  In the 21st century, well for some reason they’re still recording 14 song albums. When of course there is no music format reason for them to do so anymore.

The other big change is that artists now have at their disposal a much wider range of creative inputs into their music, such as fan forums, social networks, fan remix apps.  Inputs that should be harnessed in a structured manner rather than the ad hoc approach which currently dominates.  And don’t mistake these inputs for just being marketing opportunities, or tactics for boosting ‘engagement metrics’.  They are genuine windows of creativity that artists and their labels simply cannot afford to ignore.

This fan input comes in three key forms, what I call the three Cs of fan-fuelled creativity:  Customize, Create and Contribute.  The degree of fan participation ranges from modest on the left, to deep on the right, because of course all fans are not the same.

These three levels of fan engagement need embedding into the creative process , which you’ve probably realized by now, means a much deeper level of participation for the average artist. I’m not suggesting that everyone has to become Imogen Heap, but the needle certainly needs shifting further along the dial from where it currently sits.

Agile Music means embracing fan fuelled creativity; it means breaking free of the straight jacket of the 14 track album and releasing music when it is ready; it also means releasing some of it before it is ready, to let fans help shape the music .  Agile Music means allowing music fans to customize their music experiences, and for those music experiences to be dynamic and ever changing, free of the stasis of physical media formats.

But a vibrant future for music products and revenues can only occur with networked collaboration right across the music industry’s various value chains.  Artist, labels, developers, technology companies, telcos all need to pull together to create a generation of music formats that will be a genuine successor to the CD.  This collaboration is needed, and it is needed now, because what I am proposing here is merely verbalizing what consumers already expect.

And this is why the future of music products must be built upon a consumer centric Music Format Bill Of Rights, which can be defined by four key principles: Dynamic: they must always change and update with new content (the format stasis of the download and the CD need consigning to the history books); Interactive: empower consumers to participate in their music experiences; Social: music has always been social, now it is massively social and music products must place this at their core; Curated: the curation of dynamically updated music content will not only be part of the key value, it will become part of the creative construct itself.

Now the irony of these principles spelling that most physical of terms DISC is intentional, but make no mistake, these are the basic building blocks that any new music product must contain if it is to have any long term viability.

And to whet your appetite here’s a glimpse of what a DISC product should look like.  It looks a lot like an app experience and for good reason.  The future of music products will be app-like experiences.   . DISC products will leverage the potential of apps to deliver rich, curated streams of artist content incorporating everything from photos, interviews, games, outtakes, remix apps through to core music audio and video itself.  But the central value of DISC products will come from how they are out together. It won’t matter whether kids upload elements up to Rapidshare or Torrents, the value will lie in the uniquely curated context of the product, just as our favourite magazines and websites deliver a value as a whole which is much greater than the sum of their individual parts.

And not only do DISC products compete with piracy, they mitigate the access / ownership debate.   Because DISC products will be artist specific.  Music fans will buy DISC products for each of their favourite artists and then use streaming services for the rest, thus solidifying a complementary and additive role for streaming.  A fan will pay to get everything their favourite artist does for the next 18 months, delivered directly to all of their devices (and I do mean to all of their devices because we are in the per person age, not the per device age, and it is time for licensing practices to embrace this reality).

So to conclude:

- The paradigm shift in consumer behaviour is not just here to stay

- No single part of the music value chain can fix this on their own, and artists must play a more active role

- Music fans already expect D.I.S.C. experiences.  Don’t meet those expectations, exceed them

Now I know that a lot of this is easy enough for me to lay out here on stage but complex to implement.  However the stakes are high enough to justify the sizeable effort.    The next generation of music formats needs to be dictated by the objective of meeting consumer needs, not business affairs teams’ T&Cs.  It must be defined by consumer experiences not by business models.  The cart’ of commercial terms, rights complexities and stakeholder concerns must follow the ‘horse’ of user experience, not lead it.

Release Windows, the Cure for the Access vs Ownership Debate?

Back in early 2009 when I was at Forrester Research I wrote a report proposing that the Music Industry should adopt release windows.  It seemed to many something of an anachronistic concept, written just at the time with the Movie Industry – that bastion of release windows – was deeply engaged in a dialogue about compressing windows.  But now, with the growing debate over whether streaming services are cannibalizing CD and download sales, the idea is beginning to look highly relevant.  Because the simple fact is that a structured release window strategy for the music industry would do away with much of the access versus ownership debate once and for all.

Music products and services need segmenting into distinct windows

The basic structure of my release window argument was that music products and services should be segmented into tiers of priority and then each of those tiers be allocated a release window.  The tiering would work something like this:

  • Window 1, week 1: CDs, downloads and premium subscriptions
  • Window 2, week 3: Radio (excluding web-only radio)
  • Window 3, week 4: Subsidized subscriptions and web radio
  • Window 4, week 5: Ad supported streaming services

 

All of the new releases would go straight to Window 1 and be available there, and there alone, for a 2 week period, with terrestrial and digital radio coming after that.  This is a contentious point as radio is of course intended to act as a discovery and marketing tool but the time has come for the top tier of the music product pyramid to be held up as exactly that.  After all, why should passive music fans who don’t pay for music get to hear new songs as soon as those who pay 9.99 a month or buy downloads or CDs?  Users of free ad supported streaming services would have to wait a full 4 weeks before they get to hear the latest new music.

 

The problem with differentiating a free stream from a paid download is that there simply isn’t that much difference.  Release windows however, put clear blue water between the download and the free stream.

Coldplay is already pioneering the window strategy

Coldplay’s decision to keep ‘Mylo Xyloto’ off Spotify until album sales have peaked is effectively artist level windowing in practice.  The alternative strategy of just putting the odd track on there – such as Adele’s ‘Rolling In The Deep – treats streaming as a radio-like promo vehicle but if all artists did that then its promotional value would soon disappear as people would stop using streaming services.  A structured, industry level windowing strategy however would bring consistency and effective results.

 

Of course the windowing approach isn’t free of problems.  For example pushing radio to the second window will require a new approach to marketing music and a revision of assumptions of sales cycles.  However both of those things are already in effect happening, forced along by the current streaming status-quo, and of course unlicensed free music.  Windowing is an opportunity for record labels to take control of the situation and simultaneously protect music sales and define a long term, complementary role for streaming services.  The alternative is a prolonged and unproductive debate about cannibalization that will cause deep fault lines across the music industry and may ultimately kill off streaming all together.

 

 

The Music Format Bill of Rights

Today I have published the latest Music Industry Blog report:  ‘The Music Format Bill Of Rights: A Manifesto for the Next Generation of Music Products’.  The report is currently available free of charge to Music Industry Blog subscribers.  To subscribe to this blog and to receive a copy of the report simply add your email address to the ‘EMAIL SUBSCRIPTION’ box to left.

Here are a few highlights of the report:

Synopsis

The music industry is in dire need of a genuine successor to the CD, and the download is not it. The current debates over access versus ownership and of streaming services hurting download sales ring true because a stream is a decent like-for-like replacement for a download.  The premium product needs to be much more than a mere download.  It needs dramatically reinventing for the digital age, built around four fundamental and inalienable principles of being Dynamic, Interactive, Social and Curated (D.I.S.C.).  This is nothing less than an entire new music format that will enable the next generation of music products.  Products that will be radically different from their predecessors and that will crucially be artist-specific, not store or service specific.  Rights owners will have to overcome some major licensing and commercial issues, but the stakes are high enough to warrant the effort.  At risk is the entire future of premium music products.

D.I.S.C.: The Music Format Bill Of Rights

The opportunity for the next generation of music format is of the highest order but to fulfil that potential , lessons from the current digital music market must be learned and acted upon to ensure mistakes are not repeated.  The next generation of music format needs to be dictated by the objective of meeting consumer needs, not rights owner business affairs teams’ T&Cs.  It must be defined by consumer experiences not by business models.  This next generation of music format will in fact both increase rights owner revenue (at an unprecedented rate in the digital arena) and will fuel profitable businesses.  But to do so effectively, ‘the cart’ of commercial terms, rights complexities and stakeholder concerns must follow the ‘horse’ of user experience, not lead it. This coming wave of music format must also be grounded in a number of fundamental and inalienable principles.  And so, with no further ado, welcome to the Music Format Bill of Rights (see figure):

  • Dynamic. In the physical era music formats had to be static, it was an inherent characteristic of the model.  But in the digital age in which consumers are perpetually online across a plethora of connected devices there is no such excuse for music format stasis.  The next generation of music format must leverage connectivity to the full, to ensure that relevant new content is dynamically pushed to the consumer, to make the product a living, breathing entity rather than the music experience dead-end that the download currently represents.
  • Interactive. Similarly the uni-directional nature of physical music formats and radio was an unavoidable by-product of the broadcast and physical retail paradigms.  Consumers consumed. In the digital age they participate too.  Not only that, they make content experiences richer because of that participation, whether that be by helping drive recommendations and discovery or by creating cool mash-ups. Music products must place interactivity at their core, empowering the user to fully customize their experience.  We are in the age of Media Mass Customization, the lean-back paradigm of the analogue era has been superseded by the lean-forward mode of the digital age.  If music formats don’t embrace this basic principle they will find that no one embraces them.
  • Social. Music has always been social, from the Neolithic campfire to the mixtape.  In the digital context music becomes massively social.  Spotify and Facebook’s partnering builds on the important foundations laid by the likes of Last.FM and MySpace.  Music services are learning to integrate social functionality, music products must have it in their core DNA.
  • Curated. One of the costs of the digital age is clutter and confusion: there is so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all.  Consumers need guiding through the bewildering array of content, services and features.  High quality, convenient, curated and context aware experiences will be the secret sauce of the next generation of music formats. These quasi-ethereal elements provide the unique value that will differentiate paid from free, premium from ad supported, legal from illegal.  Digital piracy means that all content is available somewhere for free.  That fight is lost, we are inarguably in the post-content scarcity age.  But a music product that creates a uniquely programmed sequence of content, in a uniquely constructed framework of events and contexts will create a uniquely valuable experience that cannot be replicated simply by putting together the free pieces from illegal sources.  The sum will be much greater than its parts.

Table of Contents for the full 20 page report:

Setting The Scene

  • Digital’s Failure To Drive a Format Replacement Cycle

Analysis

  • Setting the Scene
  • (Apparently) The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized
  • The Music Consumption Landscape is Dangerously Out of Balance
  • Tapping the Ownership Opportunity
  • The Music Format Bill Of Rights
  • Applying the Laws of Ecosystems to Music Formats
  • Building the Future of Premium Music Products
  • D.I.S.C. Products Will Be the Top Tier of Mainstream Music Products
  • The Importance of a Multi-Channel Retail Strategy
  • Learning Lessons from the Past and Present
  • We Are In the Per-Person Age, Not the Per-Device Age

Next Steps

Conclusion

Megaupload: Another Mole Down The Hole

By utterly amazing coincidence, ahem, just as the US Congress is considering Sopa and Pipa, cloud locker service Megaupload gets closed down and its top executives arrested and refused bail.  The timing is of course important, but nature of the media industries’ latest scalp is even more intriguing.  Megaupload, along with Rapidshare, Filestube and other such services, has been more than a thorn in the side of media businesses, it has been making tens (perhaps hundreds) of millions of dollars of annual revenue by essentially sticking the middle finger up at copyright owners.

Megaupload’s closure has wreaked the wrath of the hacker community with Anonymous taking down various sites in retaliation.  But Anonymous’s anger is misjudged.  This is no blow against Internet Users’ rights, and Megaupload is no evangelist for the hacker community.  Napster’s Shawn Fanning thought he was changing the world, the Pirate Bay’s Peter Sunde thought he was leading a revolution in copyright.  But Megaupload’s Kim Schmitz (aka Kim Dotcom) had no such ideals, for him it was all about the cash.  Just take a look at the opulent excess of his mansion and fleet of luxury cars with registration plates such as ‘Mafia’ and ‘CEO’.   Schmitz earned his wealth not just through advertising but also by charging users premium fees for better download speeds, thus charging people to download illegal content.

Megaupload et al are an interesting anachronism in the digital piracy landscape.  The overriding trend has been for piracy destinations to get more sophisticated and more difficult to tackle each time the media industries take a step forward.  Think darknets, encrypted P2P applications, anonymous networks etc.  Commercial locker services though are easy targets, typically with central servers and clearly defined commercial operations.  If anything, it is surprising that it has taken so long to get Megaupload taken down.

But as with any piracy victory for the media companies, the sweet taste of triumph will be short lived.  Close down one upload site and another one will arise.  In fact there are already alternative IP addresses for Megaupload circulating around Twitter.

So Megaupload’s takedown is simultaneously a landmark victory and just another furry head smacked downwards in the never ending game of digital-piracy-whack-a-mole.

 

Sopa Highlights Media Industry Strategic Failings

The controversial US copyright and piracy acts Sopa and Pipa (see this Wired piece for a Bluffer’s Guide on what they are) have been thrust centre stage by Wikipedia’s planned protest black-out on Wednesday.  It has taken an entity the size of Wikipedia to bring the debate out of the confines of the digerati and to the mainstream.   For that Wikipedia deserves great credit.

And the debate does need to take place in the mainstream.  The effects of the bills (if passed, upheld in the face of legal challenge and then successfully implemented) will be felt keenly by mainstream consumers.

However I am not going to add to the already vibrant and detailed discussion about the ethical and constitutional implications of the bills, nor the legion flaws and ambiguities in the proposed legislation. Instead I want to put Sopa and Pipa in the context of wider media industry strategy and response to digital change.

Sopa, Pipa and the Media Meltdown

Back in my days at Forrester I helped develop the concept of the media meltdown to describe the process of media industries responding to the impact of digitization.

The media meltdown occurs in three key stages:

  • Stage 1: Audiences take control of their content consumption via new digital technology (think CD ripping, P2P, on demand video streaming, iPads etc).
  • Stage 2: Traditional media industry business models crumble while media companies grapple with denial.  Instead of comprehending that a paradigm shift in consumer behaviour has occurred they think they can turn back the proverbial clock by fighting online piracy and restricting the disruptive threat of legal services.
  • Stage 3: There are two potential conclusions, either the media industries comprehend that user behaviour has changed for ever and that they need to embrace that change with new business models, or they fail.  (For more on the media meltdown check Forrester’s CPS blog and the ever insightful James McQuivey)

Of course as with any analytical framework, this is a generalized world view but it provides a very useful lens through which to view media industry anti-piracy legal activity, lobbying and resultant legislation.  It is immediately apparent that Sopa and Pipa fall within stage 2 of the media meltdown but it would be disingenuous to suggest that the media companies that have lobbied for them – and for other acts such as the French Hadopi act and the British Digital Economy Bill – are in complete denial.  Rather what we have is a distortion of priorities.  These media companies and their industry bodies in particular rightly identify online piracy as a major disruptive threat to their businesses.  However,  instead of recognizing that behaviour shifts have occurred around which new businesses should be built, they reason that turning off the tap on piracy will starve piracy of oxygen, until it withers away.

Digital Piracy Perennially Outwits the Pursuer

As well intended as this thinking is, it is flawed.  Digital piracy (in its many, many guises) is all about innovation and change.  Every time media companies manage to finally catch up with digital piracy – either through enforcement, legislation or technical measures – the pirates have already moved on. Fighting piracy is akin to a game of whack-a-mole, but in this version of the game the moles learn.  Every time one is smacked down another one comes up that is smarter, harder to see and more difficult to reach.

Mainstream Consumers Become  the Effective Targets of Anti-Piracy

The simple and unavoidable fact is that piracy will always move more quickly and more effectively than its pursuers.  Technology improvements can be measured in days, even hours.  Legislation takes years.  This dynamic is one of the key reasons why acts like Sopa and Pipa have such far reaching implications for mainstream consumers: the hard core tech savvy pirates will always find ways of evading the counter measures, the mainstream will not.  Remember how DRM inconvenienced legitimate customers and did nothing to impact pirates?  The parallels here are clear.  Of course there are obvious and important differences between digital content buyers and passive pirates, but there are also similarities.  One of the most important of which is that they are often the same people.  Many paid content buyers also access free illegal content: they blend their content acquisition practices, often using free illegal sources for either discovery or the content they are just not willing to pay for, and then paying for the rest.

Legislation is Fully Necessary But Strategic Priorities Need Rebalancing

To be clear, this is not an apology for piracy, nor is it an argument against legislation – indeed it is crucial that laws evolve quickly enough to keep up with digital change so they can establish the frameworks in which legitimate content business models can prosper and illegal ones cannot.  Instead I am making the case for a rebalancing of strategic priorities and for taking the long view.  Consumer behaviour has changed for ever.  More people are consuming more content across more platforms than ever before, but fewer of them are paying for it.  Making free illegal content harder to get will only weaken consumption and demand unless game-changing legal alternatives simultaneously fill the vacuum.

For example, turning off access to the Pirate Bay and then pointing users  to iTunes will fall far, far short.  Media companies need to get brave, like never before, and quickly so.  They need to start looking at what makes the illegal services so threatening to them and then give legitimate companies licenses to do just the same, legally.  Some media industries get this more than others. For example the TV studios quickly realized the best way of fighting free was with free itself, launching Hulu, ABC.com and iPlayer as genuinely compelling (in fact even more convenient) alternatives to BitTorrent.

Legislators: Compel Media Companies to License to Identikit Legal Alternatives

If the US Congress wants to ensure that Sopa and Pipa are balanced in a way that will help drive digital innovation rather than stifling it in favour of analogue-era protectionism, they should look to baking-in binding innovation commitments from media companies.  To ensure that for every type of illegal service that is wiped out of the US-facing Internet, the opportunity is created for new companies to offer the same type of service legally, with guaranteed licenses from media companies (i.e. without being watered down to irrelevancy with usage restrictions).  Then Sopa and Pipa could become the foundation stones of a period of unprecedented media industry innovation that would finally recast the mould of media business models in the post-meltdown world.  The alternative is media industry failure.  Though they might not realize it, the media industry lobbyists are currently on track for hastening their industries’ demise, not safeguarding their futures.

Is the Music Industry Going the Way of the Newspaper Industry?

The newspaper industry has had to grapple with a seismic shift in user behaviour over the last 15 years: people just aren’t buying newspapers in the numbers they used to and crucially newspaper buyers are getting older, to the extent that the long term prognosis is for the bulk of newspaper buyers to die off….literally.  The irony (in a cosmic irony Alanis Morissette-type usage of the word rather than literal irony) is that more people are consuming more news than ever before, and young people too.  But most of that consumption is online and free. What newspapers haven’t yet figured out is how to turn this into a business, and all the while (to mix my clichéd metaphors) watching their cash cow whither on the vine.  The reason for this potted history of the 21st century newspaper industry is that it is looking increasingly the case that the music industry is arriving at a worryingly similar place.

Another year of digital stasis.  With 2011 sales figures beginning to come in, the scale of digital music’s recent underperformance is becoming increasingly clear.  In the UK overall music sales continued to decline with digital some way off yet from being able to pick up the slack.  The UK’s record label trade body the BPI reported that digital growth wasn’t enough to prevent a 5.4% decline in total album sales.  The picture was more positive in the US with Nielsen reporting that album sales actually grew for the first time since 2004, up 1.3% on last year.

But the US and UK numbers aren’t quite all they seem.  Both the BPI’s and Nielsen’s numbers are for unit sales.  One of the consumer benefits of the music industry meltdown has been aggressive discounting, with labels and retailers having to slash prices to persuade us to buy in numbers.  While this is great for music fans it means weaker profits for labels and that revenue sales trends are weaker than volume trends.  And that means that the UK revenue decline will likely be worse than 5.4% and that US revenues may well be down on 2011 despite the positive performance in units terms.  With a decade of digital sales already behind us this is the stage where digital sales growth should be rocketing and lifting the whole market with it.

The continued dominance of the CD. Albums are by far the most valuable component of music sales and despite positive digital growth the album remains largely unaffected by digital.  76% of album sales in UK are CDs and in the US the rate rises to a whopping 82%.  When the CD hurts the music industry hurts.   Nearly half of the growth in US albums sales came from increased CD sales.  Perhaps even more concerning is that three quarters of all US albums sales are offline.   Thus the music industry is depending on non-net-savvy consumers who don’t even buy online for the lion’s share of their income.  And CD buyers aren’t spring chickens either: nearly 40% of them are over 45.  On either count that is not exactly future-proofed revenue.  The echoes of the aging newspaper audience are depressingly obvious.

The CD: the Music Industry’s Heroin (and not in the female hero sense of the word).  Another similarity between the newspapers and record labels is their addiction to their respective dying formats. The direct consequence of poorly performing digital revenue strategies is that physical revenues become all the more important which in turn makes labels and newspapers less willing to pursue ambitious digital strategies that might hurt physical sales.  Which of course results in digital sales underperforming further and the whole thought process starts again.  This circular logic begets strategic paralysis.  Unless the record labels learn how to kick their CD habit they’re going to find themselves presiding over perennial long term decline.

The danger of ‘the Adele Effect’.  Both the UK and US sales numbers were dominated by Adele, with her landmark album ‘21’ topping charts in both markets and selling over 13 million copies (becoming the biggest selling album in a single year in the UK).  Uniquely well-performing albums like ‘21’ have a habit of creating reality distortion fields.  As I explained in a previous post Adele, along with Coldplay, is an increasingly rare breed: an album artist.  Adele and Coldplay both appeal to the older album buyer (which is exactly why Coldplay won’t let ‘Mylo Xyloto’ go on Spotify until sales have peaked).  The strong performance of both these artists’ albums in 2011 has helped boost albums sales, but more importantly they lend a veneer of vitality to the album market that is not accurate.  More typically 21st century artists – the likes of Pitbull, Rihannna, Katy Perry and LMFAO – will be measuring their 2011 success in terms of singles sales, live sales, merchandize revenue, YouTube views and Facebook likes.

Rumours of the CDs’s demise are much exaggerated…perhaps. Of course the album is far from dead – after all, as we have seen, the CD remains the bedrock of music sales – but it is becoming just one, weakening, part of a broader mix of artist revenues.  In some ways artists are better protected from the music industry meltdown than record labels: they – along with their managers – are rapidly acquiring new skillsets and business acumen.  Record labels however are left having to put a positive spin on the album’s apparent longevity.  However the fundamental fact remains that the CD is a dying breed.  It may have a good few years left in it yet, but the long term prognosis is terminal.

Innovate, innovate, innovate! Newspapers and record labels are both at a crucial juncture: physical format revenues will continue to pay the bills for the coming years but paradoxically they must pursue radical format and product innovation strategies that will actually hasten the demise of those same physical revenues. If they don’t, record labels and newspapers will find themselves with the lose-lose scenario of depleted physical revenues and pitiful digital income.

Next week I’ll be publishing a free report that lays out the vision for exactly what that format and product innovation needs to look like.

The Digital Music Year That Was: 2011 in Review and 2012 Predictions

Following the disappointment of 2010, 2011 was always going to need to pack more punch.  In some ways it did, and other ways it continued to underwhelm. On balance though the stage is set for an exciting 2012.

There were certainly lots of twists and turns in 2011, including: disquiet among the artist community regarding digital pay-outs, the passing of Steve Jobs, Nokia’s return to digital music,  EMI’s API play, and of course Universal Music’s acquisition of EMI.  Here are some of the 2011 developments that have most far reaching implications:

  • The year of the ecosystems. With the launch of Facebook’s content dashboard, Android Music, the Amazon Fire (a name not designed to win over eco-warriors),  Apple’s iTunes Match and Spotify’s developer platform there was a surge in the number of competing ecosystem plays in the digital music arena.  Despite the risk of consumer confusion, some of these are exciting foundations for a new generation of music experiences.
  • Cash for cache.  The ownership versus access debate raged fully in 2011, spurred by the rise of streaming services.  Although we are in an unprecedented period of transition, ownership and access will coexist for many years yet, and tactics such as charging users for cached-streams blur the lines between streams and downloads, and in turn between rental and ownership. (The analogy becomes less like renting a movie and more like renting a flat.)
  • Subscriptions finally hit momentum.  Though the likes of rdio and MOG haven’t yet generated big user numbers Spotify certainly has, and Rhapsody’s acquisition of Napster saw the two grandaddys of the space consolidate.  Spotify hit 2.5 million paying users, Rhapsody 800,000 and Sony Music Unlimited 800,000.
  • New services started coming to market.  After a year or so of relative inactivity in the digital music service space, 2011 saw the arrival of a raft of new players including Blackberry’s BBM Music, Android Music, Muve Music , and Rara.  The momentum looks set to continue in 2012 with further new entrants such as Beyond Oblivion and psonar.
  • Total revenues still shrank.  By the end of 2011 the European and North American music markets will have shrunk by 7.8% to $13.5bn, with digital growing by 8% to reach $5 billion.  The mirror image growth rates illustrate the persistent problem of CD sales tanking too quickly to allow digital to pick up the slack.  Things will get a little better in 2012, with the total market contracting by just 4% and digital growing by 7% to hit $5.4 billion, and 41% of total revenues.

Now let’s take a look at what 2011 was like for three of digital music’s key players (Facebook, Spotify and Pandora) and what 2012 holds for them:

Facebook
2011.  Arguably the biggest winner in digital music in 2011, Facebook played a strategic masterstroke with the launch of its Digital Content Dashboard at the f8 conference.  Subtly brilliant, Facebook’s music strategy is underestimated at the observer’s peril.  Without investing a cent in music licenses, Facebook has put itself at the heart of access-based digital music experiences.   It even persuaded Spotify – the current darling of the music industry – to give it control of the login credentials of Spotify’s entire user base. Facebook’s Socially Integrated Web Strategy places Facebook at the heart of our digital lives.  And it’s not just Facebook that is benefiting: Spotify attributed much of its 500,00 new paying subs gained in October and November to the Facebook partnership.

2012. Facebook is quietly collecting unprecedentedly deep user data from the world’s leading streaming music services.  By mid-2012 Facebook should be in a position to take this to the record labels (along with artist profile page data) in the form of a series of product propositions.  Expect whatever is agreed upon to blend artist level content with music service content to create a 360 user experience.  But crucially one that does not require Facebook to pay a penny to the labels.

VERDICT: The sleeping giant of digital music finally stepped up to the plate in 2011 and will spend 2012 consolidating its new role as one of the (perhaps even *the*) most important conduit(s) in digital music history.

Spotify.
2011.
 It would be puerile not to give Spotify credit for a fantastic year.  Doubts about the economics of the service and long term viability remain, but nonetheless 2011 was a great year for the Swedish streaming service.  It finally got its long-fought-for US launch and also became Facebook’s VIP music service partner. Spotify started the year with 840,000 paying subscribers and hit 2.5 million in November.  It should finish the year with around 200,000 more.  Its total active user base is now at 10 million. But perhaps the most significant development was Spotify’s Developer platform announcement,paving the way for the creation of a music experience ecosystem.  Spotify took an invaluable step towards making Music the API.

2012: Expect Spotify’s growth trajectory to remain strong in 2012.  It should break the 3 million pay subscribers mark in February and should finish the year with close to 5 million.  And it will need those numbers because the funnel of free users will grow even more dramatically, spurred by the Facebook integration.  But again it will be the developer platform that will be of greatest and most disruptive significance.  By the end of 2012 Spotify will have a catalogue of music apps that will only be rivalled by Apple’s App Store.  But even Apple won’t be able to come close to the number of Apps with unlimited music at their core.  More and more start ups will find themselves opting to develop within Spotify rather than getting bogged down with record label license negotiations.  Some will find the platform a natural extension of their strategy (e.g. Share My Playlists) but others will feel competitive threat (e.g. Turntable FM).  If Spotify can harness its current buzz and momentum to create the irresistible force of critical mass within the developer community, it will create a virtuous circle of momentum with Apps driving user uptake and vice versa.  And with such a great catalogue of Apps, who would bet against Spotify opening an App Store in 2012?

VERDICT: Not yet the coming of age year, but 2011 was nonetheless a pivotal year paving the way for potentially making 2012 the year in which Spotify lays the foundations for long term sustainability.

Pandora
2011.
 Though 2011 wasn’t quite the coming of age year for Spotify it most certainly was for Pandora.  In June Pandora’s IPO saw 1st day trading trends reminiscent of the dot.com boom years.    By July it had added more than 20 million registered users since the start of the year to hit 100 million in total and an active user base of 36 million, representing 3.6% of entire US radio listening hours.  But Pandora also felt the downs of being a publically listed company, with flippant traders demonstrating their fear that Spotify’s US launch would hurt Pandora.

2012: And those investors do have something of a point:  whatever founder Tim Westergren may say, Spotify will hurt Pandora.  A portion of Pandora’s users used Pandora because it was the best available (legal) free music service.  Those users will jump ship to Spotify.  This will mean that Pandora’s total registered user number will not get too much bigger than 100 million in 2012 and the active number will likely decline by mid-year.  After that though, expect things to pick up for Pandora and active user numbers to grow again.  The long term outlook is very strong.  Pandora is the future of radio.  It, and services like it, will get an increasingly large share of radio listening hours with every month that passes in 2012, and with it a bigger share of radio ad revenues.  Pandora will be better off without the Spotify-converts, leaving it with its core user base of true radio fans. Spotify’s new radio play will obviously be a concern for Pandora  but this is Pandora’s core competency, and only a side show for Spotify.  Expect Pandora to up their game.

VERDICT: Since launching in November 2005 Pandora have fought a long, dogged battle to establish themselves as part of the music establishment, and 2011 was finally the year they achieved that.  There will be choppy waters in 2012 but Pandora will come out of it stronger than it went in.

Rara and the Bid for the Mass Market

Today Omnifone made the move from B2B2C music service provider to consumer facing brand with the launch of their streaming music service Rara, which is being operated as an entirely separate company utilising Omnifone’s technology infrastructure.  The knee jerk reaction would be that this is bandwagon jumping in an increasingly cluttered streaming market, joining the likes of Spotify, Deezer, We7 and Juke.  But the folks at Omnifone have been in this business long enough to not simply pursue a me-too strategy.  Indeed differentiation is at the heart of the Rara strategy.

Targeting the mass market

Regular readers of this blog will know I have long argued that the paid digital music market is stagnating because it hasn’t got the tools to reach beyond the tech savvy music aficionado base it has addressed so far (mainly through iTunes).  Spotify’s recent US-and-Facebook -spurred growth has been encouraging but we are still talking about single millions of premium subscribers globally, most of whom are the same aficionado segment all other services have been chasing for the last 10+ years.  If digital music is ever going to break out of the confines of the few per cent of consumers per market that will pay for those services a new go-to-market strategy is required, as is a new series of music products.

This is where Rara come in.  They’re not bringing the new product (it will be years before anyone gets the licenses for the required next generation products from the record labels) but they are bringing a new approach to customer acquisition and a new approach to user experience.

Two key differences in approach

Rara’s target is unashamedly the mass market, the consumers the digital music bandwagon is increasingly leaving behind.  Rara uses two key tactics to reach these customers:

  • Changing the funnel.  Spotify (with whom most people will rightly or wrongly benchmark Rara) use their free ad supported tier as their customer acquisition funnel.  The losses associated with supporting free Spotify users is their customer acquisition cost.   Rara’s funnel though is a combination of traditional marketing tactics (which will be backed by substantial marketing spend) and an innovative pricing strategy.  Taking a leaf out of some magazine subscription models, Rara gives consumers an introductory 3 month price of 99p / 99c which automatically switches to the full rate at the end of the period.  If this approach works, it will enable Rara to separate the wheat from the chaff, with prospective valuable customers self-selecting by submitting their payment details to get access to the heavily discounted rate.  The conversion rate for these consumers should be much higher than for ad supported free users (many of whom sign up simply to get free music).
  • Changing the experience.  Digital music services and players are notorious for looking more like accountancy software than they do music software.  The ‘music collection as excel spreadsheet’ is a paradigm we have all grown used to.  But there in lies the rub.  Most of you reading this will be savvy users who have grown to tolerate a series of  inherently poor user experiences.  For the digital hold outs this just serves as another reason not to go digital.  Rara takes a different approach, giving users a highly visual experience, with colourful graphics and mood-based playlists at the core of the service.  Of course you can still dive into the excel spreadsheets but you can quite easily never need to.

Rara’s approach is not a radical departure, rather a series of welcome innovations on the current model.  Critics will argue that it is ‘just another streaming service’.  But streaming is the delivery vehicle for the experience rather than the product itself.  Think of streaming like cable TV infrastructure, and services like Rara, Spotify and Deezer as the cable companies that package channels over them.

Rara isn’t *the* answer to the music industry’s woes.  No single service is.  But with a fair wind, it could well become an important part of the answer.  The music industry desperately needs the mass market brought into the digital fold.  It needs more fresh thinking like Rara’s to help achieve that.

 

Why It Doesn’t Really Matter Whether Adele Sells More Albums Than Lady Gaga This Year

You may have noticed the unattractive furore surrounding Adele’s contest with Lady Gaga to become the biggest selling artist of the year.  The momentum appears to be with Adele, with her hugely successful ‘21’ album yesterday becoming the first ever album to sell more than 1 million digital copies on iTunes in Europe.

But the simple fact is that albums are no longer the definitive marker of success that they once were.  The shift from the distribution era of the album to the consumption era of the stream and the download have seen a shift from buying to free, and from albums to singles.  The download store allowed music buyers to deconstruct the album into cherry-picked bite size chunk; file sharing enabled people to stop buying albums altogether; and streaming let fans assemble single tracks into their own personal albums (i.e. playlists).

The digital transition makes a case for new measures of success

Income from live, merchandize and other sources have been becoming increasingly important for artists and yet we still measure an artist’s success in terms of how many units of music they sell.  Live revenues are certainly one measure, and of course radio.  But Facebook likes and YouTube views are becoming an increasingly important indicator of success also. And yet, measuring success is not as simple as choosing between one metric or another.  The music industry is in a transition stage, as is consumer consumption of music.  Thus we have a mixture of artists ranging from those that are clearly of the digital age and those that are transition artists, who are entirely contemporary artists but are more at home on a CD than they are YouTube.  I’d put Lady Gaga in the first camp and Adele in the second:  just as measuring Adele solely on her YouTube views would miss the mark, so measuring Lady Gaga on album sales alone would miss the mark.

The chart directly below illustrates the point further.  Here artists are mapped according to their total YouTube views and total Facebook ‘Likes’, with the bubble size representing the total number of albums sold globally.  I have picked a sample of artists that are, or have been, top tier and that represent a range of different artist career models.

A number of trends become apparent:

  • A new generation of artist is emerging. Lady Gaga may be the poster girl for the YouTube generation but she also shifts a good number of album units too.    Artists like Cuban American rapper Pitbull are the sharp end of digital age artists. With 1.5 billion YouTube views to his name and tens of millions of singles sold PitBull is a mainstream success story of the highest order, and yet he has sold fewer than 10 million albums.
  • Target audience counts. Coldplay and Adele are both top tier contemporary artists, and yet their YouTube views pale compared to Pitbull.  What they have instead are big album sales (50 million for Coldplay, 15 million for Adele).  Why the difference? Because Coldplay and Adele appeal most strongly to people in the their late 20’s and upwards i.e. the people who still buy albums. While Pitbull is much more youth focused.
  • The 100 million selling album artist is a dying breed.  Just in case you were wondering why Sir Cliff is in the chart, he achieved the not insignificant feat of selling 100 million albums. He was at his peak during the album’s apogee and although his digital stats are pretty modest, it is hard to see the likes of Pitbull or, perhaps, even Lady Gaga ever matching Cliff’s album sales.  That is not a reflection on those artists but instead on the changing dynamics of the music market.
  • The exceptional success stories break the rules.  Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson break the rules.  Lady Gaga is – by contemporary measures at least – a strong album artist as well being in a different league in YouTube and Facebook.  Michael Jackson was firmly an artist of the album apogee era and yet his unique profile has ensured that his success continued into the digital age, and by the rules of the digital age.
  • Facebook is the better measure of sustained, organic success.  The problem with YouTube is that it is susceptible to the impact of flashes in the pan.  An artist can have one or two massive YouTube hits and then disappear, or simply be early on in their career.  Facebook ‘Likes’ however are a better measure of longer term, organic popularity.  Take the example of Dev who has close to 300 million YouTube views  – which is nearly as many views as Coldplay.  Yet take a look at Dev’s Facebook ‘Likes’ and you find that she has just 256,00 compared to Coldplay’s 15 million.  YouTube is the key digital popularity measure but needs to be blended with other measures to be truly effective.

Many, rightly, think of YouTube and other free streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora as promotional and discovery vehicles, a digital equivalent for radio.  And yet they are also much more than that: they are increasingly the ends as well as the means.  The chart below shows the number of albums sold per YouTube view.  Cliff Richard’s rate dwarves the rest because his peak was in the album era and his remaining fans aren’t exactly widespread among millennials. But the overall trend is nonetheless compelling: for the true ‘YouTube Generation’ artists, the ratio is dramatically weaker than for album artists.

6 years ago Paul Myers – then CEO of Mp3 download store Wippit – told me that “rock n’ roll was dead”, that the last great album was ‘Thriller’ and that we would never see an album that successful ever again. I was sceptical at the time, but those words are appearing ever more accurate as each year passes.  Looking at the first chart above it is clear that no artist is ever going to come close to selling the amount of albums Michael Jackson did.  But artists will still be successful: we will see artists break the 2 billion YouTube views and we will see artists break the 100 million Facebook ‘Likes’.  As this transition phase continues to play out, artists will evolve how their careers work and the industry will increasingly have to change how it measures their success.  Companies like Music Metric are already starting along this path and the traditional sources of measurement such as Nielsen and the Official Charts Company are also evolving their approaches.  These shifts are crucial, because measuring an artist’s success isn’t just a marketing trick, it is the litmus test with which their fans relate and by which history will remember them.