Digital Ascendency: The Future Music Forum Keynote

I recently keynoted the annual Future Music Forum in Barcelona.  These are some highlights of the keynote.  If you would like the full slide deck please email me at mark AT midia research DOT COM.

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Streaming is turning years of music business accepted wisdom on its head but did not arrive unannounced, it is just one chapter in the evolution of digital music. Each of the four phases of digital music have been shaped by technologies that solved problems. Now we are entering the fourth phase, bringing meaning to the 30 million tracks Spotify et al gave us access to. This might look like a simple honing of the model but it is every bit as important as the previous three stages. 30 million tracks is a meaningless quantity of music. It would take three lifetimes to listen to every track once. There is so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all. This is the Tyranny of Choice.

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But the for all the evolution, today’s digital music marketplace is an unbalanced one. We have more than 500 music services across the globe but too many of them are chasing after the same customers with weakly differentiated offerings. This wouldn’t matter so much is if the competition was focused on where the consumer scale is, but this is anything but the case. The majority of paid music services are targeting the engaged, high spending Music Aficionados who represent just 17% of all consumers.

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The consequences of the imbalance in digital music strategy are also easy to see in total revenues. The last decade has been one of persistent decline in recorded music revenue and by 2018 the most likely scenario is one of stabilization rather than growth. This is because of a) the CD and b) the download.

No one has taken the demise of the CD seriously enough. It still accounts for more than half of global revenue and more than three quarters of revenue in two of the world’s biggest music markets. Yet far too many CD buyers are being left to simply stop buying entirely because they see no natural entry point into the digital services market. No one appears to be putting up a serious fight for them. Meanwhile the streaming services that have been chasing those same aficionados that Apple engaged are now busy turning that download spending into streaming spending, which ends up being, at best, revenue transition rather than growth. Consequently CDs and downloads will end up declining at almost the same rate over the next five years.

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Nonetheless the imbalance remains. Part of the reason we got into this state of affairs is the music industry’s obsession with revenue metrics: chart positions, market share and ARPU. Compare and contrast with the TV industry’s focus on audiences. It is time for the music industry to start thinking in audience terms too.

When we do so we see a very different picture. Here we have the US digital music market plotted by revenue and by audience size. Subscriptions pack a big revenue punch but reach only a tiny segment of the market while YouTube has vast reach but delivers remarkably little in terms of direct revenue. Meanwhile downloads, for all their doomed future, are still by far the best combination of scale and revenue.

The issue of free services stealing the oxygen from paid ones is a perennial one and is effectively a digital rerun of the never-to-be-resolved radio driving or reducing music sales debate. But it has far more impact in digital. With services like YouTube and Pandora the discovery journey is indistinguishable from the consumption destination. When they don’t lead to sales can they really be called discovery anymore?

Free is of course the language of the web. The contagion of free is legion. And free is where the audience growth is. This is the circle the music industry must square.

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For 15+ years the music industry has been running to catch up, never quite able to get ahead of the game, an unavoidable feature of the process of digital disruption.   But although the consumer behaviour shift is inevitable the future direction of the music business is not and it will be shaped most by three key factors:

  1. The continued evolution of consumer behaviour
  2. Technology company strategy
  3. Income distribution

Consumer behaviour. The most important consumer behaviour trends are not the steady transition of the Aficionados or even the Forgotten Fans but of the next generation of music consumers, the Digital Natives. Free and mobile are the two defining elements of their music behaviour. Of course younger people always have less disposable income, but there is a very real chance that we are beginning to see demographic trends locking in as cohort trends that will stay with these consumers as they age. For a generation weaned on free, the more free you give them, the more they will crave it. Whatever course is plotted, success will depend upon deeply understanding the needs of Digital Natives and not simply trying to shoe horn them into the products we have now that are built for the older transition generation.

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Technology companies: Apple, Amazon and Google each in their own ways dominate digital music. But most importantly they all want very different things from it. For each of them music is a means to an end. All are willing to some degree to loss lead on music to achieve ulterior business objectives. All of which is great for labels and publishers as they get their royalties, advances and equity stakes. But for the pure play start up it means competing on an uneven footing with giant companies who don’t even need music to generate a revenue return for them.

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Revenue distribution: Artists and songwriters found their voices in recent years. Partly because of the rise in social media but also because so many are now paying much more attention to the business side of their careers. The fact they are watching download dollars being replaced by streaming cents only intensifies matters, as does the fact that the top 1% of creators get a disproportionately large share of revenue. It has always been thus but the signs are that the disparity is becoming even more pronounced in the streaming age, with the effects felt all the more keenly because unless you have vast scale streaming can too easily look like chicken feed to an artist compared to download income.

But artist and songwriter discontent alone is not going to change the world. Their voices are just not powerful enough, nor do most fans care enough. Also labels and publishers remain the most viable route to market for most artists. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that artists who demand an audit of their accounts to work out where their streaming revenue has gone swiftly accept their label’s hefty silence payment and the accompanying NDA. Artist discontent while not decisive in impact is beginning to apply important pressure to the supply end of the music business.

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So those are the three big challenges, now here are three sets of solutions. And I should warn you in advance that I am going to use the P word. Yes, ‘Product’.

I get why product sounds like an ugly word. It’s a term you use for baked beans, for fridges for phones. Not a cultural creation like music right? True enough, when we’re talking about the song itself, or the performance of it, product is irrelevant. But as soon as we’re talking about trying to make money out of it as a CD, download, stream or however, then we’re firmly in the territory of product. It is both naïve and archaic to think otherwise. When artists got megabucks advances and never had to worry about the sustainability of their careers and everything revolved around the simplicity of CD sales you could perhaps be forgiven for turning a blind eye. But now there is no excuse.

So with that little diatribe out of the way, on to the first solution.

Music product: The harsh reality is that music as a product has hardly evolved in the digital realm. A lot has been done around retailer and business model innovation, but the underlying product is the same static audio file that we found in the CD. Meanwhile the devices we are spending every growing shares of our media consumption have high definition touch screens, graphics accelerators, accelerometers…audio hardly scratches the surface of what tablets and smartphones do.

Music is always going to be about the song, but it is also about the artist and their story. That’s what a quarter of consumers think, and 45% of aficionados and a third of digital natives. Video, lyrics, photos, reviews, interviews, acoustic sets, art, these are all ways in which the artist can tell their story and they all need to be part of the product. Most of this stuff is already created by labels, artists and managers but it is labelled marketing. Putting this together into a curated, context aware whole is what will constitute a 21st century music product.

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Fans: Artists and fans are closer than ever but this journey is only getting going and artists need to get smarter about how to monetize their fan bases. Artists need to find their popcorn. What do I mean by this? Well when the cinema industry started out it was a loss making business. To try to fix this cinemas started by experimenting with the product, putting on double bills but that wasn’t enough. Then came innovation in the format by adding sound. Then the experience itself by co-opting the new technology of air conditioning from the meat packing industry. Still no profit. Finally cinemas found the solution: popcorn. With a 97% operating margin, popcorn along with soda and sweets quickly became how cinemas become profitable entities. Artists need to find their popcorn. To find out what other value they can deliver their fans to subsidize releasing music. It’s what newspapers are doing with wine clubs and travel clubs, and in some instances even with Spotify bundles!

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Labels: Finally we have agencies or what you might call labels, but I’m going to call them agencies, because that is what they need to become. The label model is already going under dramatic transformation with the advent of label services companies like Kobalt and Essential and of fan funding platforms like Pledge and Kick Starter. All of these are parts of the story of the 21st century label, where the relationship between label and artist is progressively transformed from contracted employee to that of an agency-client model.   Labels that follow this model will be the success stories. And these labels will also have to stop thinking within the old world constraints of what constitutes the work of a label versus a publisher versus a creative agency versus a dev company. In the multimedia digital era a 21st century labels needs to do all of this and be able to work in partnership with the creator to exploit all those rights by having them together under one roof.

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And finally, the grand unifying concept to pull all this together: experience. Experience is the product. The internet did away with content scarcity. Now the challenge that must be met is to create scarce, sought after experiences that give people reasons to spend money on the artists and music they love.

The Hybrid Album: A Music Product Strategy Proposal

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

The Hybrid Album is a very simple and straightforward proposition:

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

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

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

Streaming Artist Subscriptions: A Product Strategy Proposal

The following post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book: Meltdown

For all of the undoubted positive impact that streaming services continue to have on the digital music market one of the key challenges they pose is the subjugation of the artist brand to that of the music service.  With download services and CD stores the customer buys artist specific products, but with a streaming service the transaction is for all of the music in the world.  The brand of any individual artist is inherently diluted.   Artist apps are thus an artist-level subscription for the most engaged music fans, an opportunity to develop artist brand experiences across digital platforms.  However as more of consumers’ music experiences occur within access based environments, more needs to be done to build artist specific experiences within them. Doing so not only makes good business sense, it makes for better user experiences too: 20+ million tracks is a meaningless consumer proposition without an effective means of getting to the miniscule fraction of that content that any one consumer is interested in.

The solution is the introduction of artist subscriptions within existing streaming services, with users paying a small monthly fee – say $/€1 – for a month’s worth of artist content.   With the cost added directly to a monthly music subscription, users get access to a curated channel of artist content including:

  • Core catalogue: The entire standard catalogue of the artist programmed with editorial such as story of the making of each album and features such as musical influences.
  • Exclusive and rare catalogue: Music that is not available elsewhere on the streaming service, such as unreleased rarities from each album, remixes, specially made tracks for the artist subscription etc. This might require some rarer content being withdrawn from the main service to be held back for the artist subscriptions.
  • Exclusive programming: Non-standard music content such as acoustic sessions, simulcasts of concerts, music video etc.
  • Non-music content: Audio visual content that helps tell the artist story, such as editorial, photo shoots, artwork and video storyboards, artist interviews, back stage footage, live chat sessions with artists etc.

It is crucial that artists streaming subscriptions are not simply a collection of playlists.  Though delivering such a diverse suite of content types will clearly require a user experience above and beyond that of the standard streaming service. It does not however require a fundamental reworking of streaming technology architecture.  Instead these app-like artist experiences – and app-like experiences is exactly what they are – can leverage the app developer platforms most streaming services already have.  Indeed, the success of artist subscriptions depends upon them being immersive, programmed and interactive experiences, telling the artist’s story to new fans and enriching it for existing fans.  The programming effort will of course be significant and the burden will need to fall as much on the labels and as it will the services. Having labels co-run artist subscriptions also makes sense from the business perspective as it gets around issues of charging for streaming apps – TuneWiki’s demise is recent evidence of the problem created by 3rd parties not being able to charge for streaming apps.

To mitigate resourcing concerns, a template-orientated approach will ensure scalability as well as a consistent user experience.  It will also be possible to rotate a majority of the content over periods of 4 to 6 months.  This is because just as music buyers buy an album and listen to it for a time before moving onto a new one, artists subscriptions will be swapped around and changed on a constant basis by users. Most fans will have a few artists they will always want to keep connected to, but will also want to have ability to deep dive into a new selection of artists every month or two.

Artist streaming subscriptions not only create a rich user experience, they also solve multiple streaming business challenges by:

  •  Monetizing the mainstream: For as long as the price of mobile enabled subscription services remain out of the reach of mass market music fans they will struggle to have mainstream appeal.   Pricing experiments will play an essential role in the mainstreaming of music subscriptions but even more flexibility will be needed if they are ever going to match the spending patterns of an audience anywhere near as large and diverse as the current base of download buyers.  Artist subscriptions give consumers the familiarity and flexibility of a la carte spending dynamics but the user experience benefits of subscriptions.  Thus consumers can build their expenditure at a pace and level that matches their appetite.
  • Creating artist specific revenue: Artist subscriptions also help mitigate the threat of streaming services turning download dollars into streaming cents.  They do so by giving consumers the ability to commit spending to the artists they like, and by enabling artists to build rich, immersive channels of content and editorial around their music.  The revenue opportunity for artists can be extended further by tight integration of ancillary revenue retailing, such as exclusive live-streamed sessions, merchandize and concert tickets.
  • Ease free users into paid subscriptions: If artist subscriptions are additionally made available to free tier streaming users they present these users with the opportunity to ease themselves into subscriptions.  Zero to €/$/£9.99 is a big leap, but zero to a few dollars or euros is a far more palatable shift.  To deliver clear value artist subscriptions will need to provide mobile and ad free listening even when paid for by free tier subscribers.  This will additionally help drive free-to-paid conversion by accentuating the usability contrast with the rest of the streaming experience for free tier users. Once they have started enjoying the benefits of ad free mobile listening for a small selection of artists, the chances of migrating them to full subscriptions are much increased.  A careful balance will however need to be struck to ensure that consumers do not swap $/€/£9.99 subscriptions for 3 or 4 artist subscriptions.
  • Giving music fans the music they want: Artist subscriptions give users an alternative, and far more intuitive, way to navigate streaming services.  At the most basic level they can be thought of like smartphone and tablet apps, supercharged bookmarks, gateways to immersive and interactive artist experiences.  At a more sophisticated level they can become the foundations of the programming architecture of streaming subscription services.  Artist channels can be grouped into collections such as genres and decades to cerate music channels, which then can be sold as bundles in the same way a pay TV provider sells bundles of programmes. Instead paying for movies, sports and documentary packages, streaming users could opt for bundles such as ‘alternative rock’, ‘EDM’ and ‘Urban’.  The bundle approach is not without its complexities, such as how much of an artist’s standalone subscription content would get into a genre bundle, and which artists would make it in.  But the clear advantage of the approach is that artist subscriptions, and bundles of them, turn the amorphous mass of streaming services into richly programmed music content networks. The pay TV model translated for music.

Streaming subscriptions still have a long way to go before most doubts will be eased, but streaming artist subscriptions represent an opportunity to accelerate the process by simultaneously addressing concerns of sustainability, user experience and artist pay outs.  Streaming artist subscriptions are not the entire answer, but they can be a big part of the puzzle.

PledgeMusic, Janet Devlin and Reinventing Scarcity in the Post-Scarcity Age

The analogue-era music business traded on scarcity.  It was the record labels and retailers’ absolute control of supply that created scarcity of music product.  If you wanted a high quality version of a song or album you had to buy it, when, where and for how much the labels and retailers decided.  In June 1999 Shawn Fanning launched Napster and in an instant scarcity was not only thrown out of the window, the window was instantaneously bricked up behind it.  The contagion of free has now reached epidemic proportions (due to both licensed and unlicensed sources).  Consequently we are now in the post-scarcity age, which has made music buying a lifestyle choice.  It has changed music buying from opt-out to opt-in.

If there is to be a mainstream future for music products, it will come from creating new scarcity that people want to pay for.  Of course it is no longer possible to ensure the music itself remains scarce, but it is possible to build scarce experiences around music and additional assets.  This is exactly what the guys at PledgeMusic have done in conjunction with former X Factor contestant Janet Devlin.

I’ve been a long term admirer of PledgeMusic’s model and approach, but I am particularly impressed with this release.  Firstly, fans get the option to select music from a typical Pledge menu of products ranging from the standard CD, through to highly personalized products like a Skype chat with the artist, a personally dedicated video performance and even appearing on the album.  Though the unit prices go high (£500 to appear on the album) these are scarce experiences that simply cannot be got on a torrent.  Of course many of these options don’t scale too well, but some of the intermediate products like exclusive concerts and signed albums most certainly do.  Also, all pledgers also get the download of the album before it is released anywhere else, a semi-scarce commodity, but nonetheless a great way to communicate value and exclusivity to fans.

What I like most about this release though, is the clever use of the pre-release cycle as an artist subscription. Anyone who pledges will get a steady stream of content from Devlin as she progresses on her work with the album.  She will release exclusive (i.e. scarce) content such as video, audio and photo blogs to these pledgers, giving them a window into the creative process, deepening their engagement with her and most importantly, building up interest and demand for the release of the album.  In many respects Devlin is taking a leaf out of the X Factor’s book, recognizing the immeasurable value of creating a community of fans and building their interest and engagement with exclusive content right up to a final release.

One of the reasons I like this release so much is of course because it ticks so many of the boxes of my Music Format Bill of Rights report (which you can download for free here).  But make no mistake, creating scarce experiences and seeding fan communities with scarce content is going to be at the centre of future music products.  Not everything here is entirely new or unique of course, but the unifying vision is most certainly that of the future. Janet Devlin and PledgeMusic are assuming the role of pioneers here and their peers will do well to pay heed.

Spotify Artist Apps and the Road to Relevance

Spotify yesterday announced the launch of Artist apps for four artists, namely Quincy Jones, Tiësto, Rancid and Disturbed.  This is another important step in Spotify’s music strategy, and one that is more important than may first appear.

Spotify’s App and API strategy (of which I have gone on record as being something of a fan of) may not have had anywhere near as much momentum as hoped, but it is making solid progress and the artist apps will give it a much needed boost.  The artist apps though are part of a bigger bid for relevance and mass market appeal.

When there is So Much Choice that there is No Choice At All

One major problem with streaming music services lies in the fact they provide unlimited access to all the music in the world: there is so much choice that there is no choice at all.  Though Spotify has started work on improving its discovery story – much of it through 3rd party apps – discovery remains problematic.  Another problem in streaming services the artist’s brand is inherently subjugated to the service’s brand: consumers pay for access to all the music, not for an artist or two.  In the analogue era the artist brand dominated with singles and artist albums.  In the age of the playlist, a la carte cherry picking and unlimited on-demand access, the artist brand often struggles for voice in a sea of discovery noise and clutter. Artist apps though kill the two proverbial birds with the same stone: simultaneously enhancing the artist brand and music discovery.

The Need for the Tangible

A key dynamic of the ownership-to-access transition has been the difficulty of communicating a sense of permanence and tangibility in music service experiences. Playlists may be one of the early defining characteristics of the consumption-era and may deliver great user benefits, but the very fact that they are so easy to create and to delete contributes both to a sense of transience and of having little monetary value.  Thus playlists do not effectively communicate enough tangible value over the CD, which is an illustration of why the majority of digital consumers still buy CDs.  For streaming services – and indeed digital as a whole – to come of age and to appeal to the mass market, they need to develop features that go beyond the excel spreadsheet-music-service approach.  This doesn’t mean a need to deliver ownership but instead to meet some of the fundamental consumer needs and tangibility that physical music experiences deliver.

Spotify Artist Apps Are A Great First Step On a

Artist Apps are a Solid First Step

Spotify artist apps are a step in this direction, delivering an audio visual and curated artist experience.  It is fair to say that the current iteration of artist apps are far from the finished article, the first step on the journey, but at least that journey has been started.  The digital music marketplace more broadly needs to rise to the challenge of ensuring that artist specific experiences like these become a standard feature of digital music experiences.  Spotify artist apps , when set alongside the theoretical music product prototype I sketched out in my ‘Music Format Bill of Rights’ report (see figure) and viewed in the context of the longer term music product and format evolution, are a glimpse into the future.  Spotify needs to kick on from here with full integration of multimedia assets such as video and games, and of course it needs many many more artists, long before which it will also need to have hit upon an elegant means of filing and navigating the apps.  But for now, Spotify artist apps are welcome early step on the road to mass market relevance and digital music product tangibility.

Finally Someone Builds a Digital Music Service the Way It’s Meant to be Built!

Regular readers will know that I’ve been a long-term and vocal advocate of radical music product innovation.  There have been modest encouraging steps from a diverse mix of places, such as iTunes Pass, Topspin, Open EMI, Björk’s ‘Biophilia’ app, Swedish House Mafia’s ‘One’ app, Pledge Music etc.  All have edged forward disparate aspects of music product strategy but they have also all lacked a unifying framework to pull them together.  Today comes the first stab at a music service that pulls together many of those parts.  But it doesn’t come from one of digital music’s big players, nor from a major record label, but instead New York dance label Fools’ Gold Records with their Fools Gold: The Goldmine subscription service.

[EDIT: The Goldmine is powered by Drip.FM]

Subscribers get new and old music, curated content, remixes, DJ sets, extras, merchandize discounts, priority access to events and more.    This is almost exactly the list of product features that I laid out for the Music Product Manifesto back in 2009 so it should come as no surprise as quite how enthusiastic I am about the offering.

The reason I listed those attributes three years ago was that this broad selection of multimedia assets truly reflect what an artist is in the 21st century, so much more so than a CD or a download does.  They are also the assets which labels (majors in particular with their 360 deals) are increasingly becoming active in.  It is little short of a travesty that more has not been done until now.  Hopefully Fools Gold’s innovation bravery will help nudge the industry wide needle forward.

Of course it is much easier for a small label like Fools Gold to pull together the disparate artist assets necessary to create the holistic offering, but as I argued in my presentation to Midem in 2011, “the scale of the potential rewards is more than big enough to justify the sizeable effort: what is at stake is the entire future of premium music products.”

The Goldmine also ticks most of the boxes of my DISC principles that I laid out in my Music Format Bill of Rights (see figure):

Dynamic:  One of the things I like most about the service is its guarantee to deliver every new release on the label automatically to the user.  This is what music products need to do in the digital age, pushing relevant content to the consumer rather than relying on them to pull.

Interactive.  The service includes accapellas and remix stems for users to step out of passive listening into active creation.  This of course works perfectly for the dance music audience where a large share of the audience are aspiring DJs and producers.  A great next step would be some in built functionality that allows even the most novice user to play around with stems, perhaps  in the context of a social gaming environment.

Social. This seems to be the only key DISC element not catered for by the Goldmine, but they certainly have the building blocks to deliver on this, most notably the membership base.

Curated.  Fools Gold curate tracks from the archive as part of the service and in addition deliver exclusive content and extra content.

The Goldmine isn’t the full package, nor does it signify a turning point in music product strategy (because that requires major record labels to jump on board), but it does represent the bravest innovation step yet taken.

Fools Gold just set the standard for the rest to follow.

The Tale of the CD, the Digital Refusnik and the Charitable Collector

Earlier this year I raised the question of whether the music industry was going the way of the newspaper industry, whether its core audience was aging, stuck on its physical format while the younger generation feasted on free content.  It is becoming increasingly clear to me that this dynamic is arguably the most sizeable challenge facing the recorded music industry.  Product innovation (my hobby horse) is of course crucial, but its remit will be drastically reduced unless the ‘CD Problem’ is fixed in tandem.  Indeed, the two are intertwined.

The CD is polarizing the music buying marketplace

The importance of the CD is at serious risk of becoming a hindrance to innovation, particularly as its core customer base becomes more entrenched:

  • The CD as fossil fuel. I have often argued that the CD is the record labels’ heroin, a habit which they simply cannot kick and which is hindering their ability to move on in life.  The analogy is probably a little unfair, as it implies the relationship is a purely destructive one.  A fairer metaphor is the world’s dependency on fossil fuels: we all know that they should run out some time in the not so distant future.  But we also know that we have been hearing about their imminent depletion for decades and yet they are still here, thus far at least.
  • Digital is creating a fault line across the music buyer landscape. With all of focus on digital strategy it is sometimes easy to forget that the CD is still the beating heart of music revenues and the most widespread music purchasing behavior, even in the US, that most digital of western music markets (see figure one).  What is of concern is that a very large proportion of those CD buyers only buy CDs and what is more, they buy them offline in high street shops, malls and supermarkets.  The industry used to view these consumers as the next wave of digital customers, the buyers who would naturally transition to digital.  Unfortunately it is becoming increasingly clear that many of these consumers are better viewed as ‘Digital Refusniks’, consumers who have either actively chosen not to go digital (e.g. vinyl junkies) or see no appeal (mass market middle America, Mr Main Street, Mondeo Man etc).  But these consumers are getting older (see figure one) and unless a transition strategy is implemented they will just carry on getting older until they are with us no longer, just as is happening with newspaper readers.
  • CDs work fine while we all still have CD players.  The problem with CDs is that you need somewhere to play them.  That might not feel like a problem now but it is going to become one.  Technology expenditure in the living room has shifted from audio to video.  Our TVs have got bigger, as has the size of the piles of boxes underneath them (which for some reason are still called ‘set-top’ boxes even though most TVs don’t actually have ‘tops’ anymore).  Meanwhile the Hi-Fi has become the second class citizen of the living room. People used to change their Hi-Fi’s simply because manufacturers changed the colour they made them in, now the average living room either has a dusty old midi system or an iPod docking station.  For the Digital Refusniks – most of whom of course don’t have docking stations – there will come a time, not so far from now, when that dusty old Hi-Fi looks just too old and will be put away in storage.  At which point the CD will have disappeared out of the living room and there will be little reason for buying CDs anymore, which will actually mean just not buying music anymore for these consumers.  The TV, radio and the CD player in the car –as long as there still is one – will sate their music appetites instead.

A physical-to-digital transition strategy must start with a keener understanding of what makes CD buyers tick

The Digital Refusniks need bringing into the digital realm with hybrid physical-digital products before they simply fall out of the music buying population.  The case for a physical-to-digital transition product strategy is clear, but it needs basing upon a clear understanding of why people value CDs. Across the music industry, consumer research projects must create a detailed and nuanced picture of CD buyers’ wants and needs.

To this end, but in an entirely non-scientific, not statistically significant and largely subjective manner, I yesterday canvassed my Twitter followers with this question: Do you still buy CDs, and if so why?  The results, as long as they are considered in a purely directional and illustrative sense, present some interesting trends (see figure two):

  • 77% of my tech-savvy music aficionado skewed base of Twitter followers still buy CDs
  • A fifth of those CD buyers also buy vinyl
  • Ownership, supporting favourite artists and artwork are the top three reasons for buying CDs
  • Just over a fifth only buy CDs for ‘special’ albums and just under a fifth only buy CDs rarely
  • 14% said they had either stopped buying CDs altogether or were buying fewer because of streaming music (in most cases they were paying for 9.99 subscriptions)
  • 12% buy CDs because they are scared of their PC and / or cloud services crashing and losing all their music

Say hello to a new music buyer segment: the Charitable Collector

The broad picture is one of the CD as a hybrid of a collector’s item and an honesty box: people buying CDs to support their favourite artists and to own something tangiable and visual.  Perhaps the best label for describing this very specific group of conscientious CD Buyers is Charitable Collectors. Of course the music industry cannot afford for the CD to become relegated to a role as the picture disc of the 21st century.  Also artists should be working out ways to deliver much greater value to their dedicated fans than just a plastic disc which they often don’t even see much income from.  But challenges aside, there is a rich seam of value for music product strategy to tap and to test.

It is important to consider that my Twitter followers skew towards tech-savvy music aficionados so this is more of an insight into the minds of digital music fans who also still value CDs rather than the Digital Refusniks.  Nonetheless there are some key learnings here which translate across both groups and which, if nothing else, provide some solid foundations for exploring just what the industry should be asking about to truly understand the diverse priorities of CD buyers.

Without fixing the CD problem revenues will decline in the long run

Finally, the revenue case for a physical-to-digital transition product strategy is simple: unless it happens music revenues will decline.  Figure three shows a scenario forecast for global music sales that assumes that things stay the same as they are now i.e. that digital growth remains around the 7 to 8 percent mark and that CD revenue decline slows, as sales consolidate around the hardcore of Digital Refusniks and Charitable Collectors.  In this scenario we will most likely see some modest growth by 2012 and 2013 but after that the market will enter steady decline despite continued digital growth.  The reason for this is twofold:

  • Digital needs a new generation of music formats to drive stronger growth (see my D.I.S.C. post for more on this)
  • CD revenues will start to decline at a steady CAGR of 5% or so due to natural wastage among the remaining CD buyers due to all the various reasons highlighted above

The CD remains one of the music industry’s most valuable assets, second only to those consumers who are still its loyal buyers.  Now those consumers need a new generation of music products that meet their needs in a way that downloads and streams clearly do not.