What 10 Million Spotify Subscribers Actually Means

Spotify today announced that it had hit its much anticipated milestone of 10 million premium subscribers.  Make no mistake this is a highly significant achievement for Spotify itself and for the broader digital marketplace.  But it is a long way from mission accomplished. Here’s why:

  • Paid growth is flat: When a new technology enters into the marketplace it goes through a few stages of growth. Initial uptake is driven by the early adopters.  If it succeeds with them it breaks through to the early followers where growth really accelerates through to mainstream before slowing as the market saturates, creating the well know s-curve – see this graphic for how this process works.  Not all technologies follow this pattern though, some never break out of that early adopter niche.  Right now Spotify’s paid subscriber count looks firmly locked in that early adopter segment.  If growth rates sustain at this level it will be late 2016 before we see the 20 million mark hit.
  • Free however is booming: Spotify’s free user count though is showing dynamic growth.  In fact it is following the right trajectory for a technology breaking through.  What’s more the growth is uncannily similar to that of Pandora during the same stage of its growth (see figure below).  In fact by its 66th month Pandora had 39 million active users, while Spotify now has 40 million, also after 66 months.  If Spotify’s free and paid user bases continue to grow at their current rates the currently impressive 3-to-1 free-to-paid ratio will widen markedly.  Free is where the action is.  Just ask potential Twitter suitor Soundcloud with its 250 million active users or YouTube with its 1 billion active users.
  • Paid users still biased to the aficionado: Key to the paid growth problem is that 9.99 subscriptions are the domain of the super fan, the engaged, high spending music aficionado.  And this is very much a music subscription phenomenon rather than an issue with digital subscriptions more broadly. While 60% of music subscribers are male and 48% of them are aged 25-34, 54% of video subscribers (Netflix, Amazon Prime) are female and just 35% are aged 25-34.
  • Churn is likely slowing growth: Being an early stage growth company is great fun but when your business starts to mature attention switches to the much more mundane task of managing churn i.e. making sure the rate at which people stop paying for your product is slower than the rate at which they join.  It sounds deceptively easy but it is in fact a vastly complex discipline and Spotify will be focussing an ever larger share of its resources on it.
  • Twitter’s depressed stock price may slow an IPO: An IPO remains Spotify’s most likely exit and hitting the 10 million mark with an impressive free-to-paid ratio was always going to be a prerequisite for that process.  However as I wrote last year, the performance of Twitter’s stock price will play a key role.  As illogical as it may seem, many investors will look at Twitter’s stock performance as an indicator of how Spotify may fare.  Right now Twitter’s stock is bombing.  Spotify will probably want to wait for that to hit a positive trajectory before moving ahead with an IPO, should that be its planned course of action.  Though I’m sure Spotify will be keen to point to the much better long term story of Pandora’s stock as a reference point.

So, 10 million premium subscribers is a fantastic milestone for Spotify and for the digital music marketplace, but it raises as many questions about the 9.99 model as it answers.

free steraming growth

What the Consumer Adoption Curve Tells Us About Where Pandora is Heading

meltdown1The following post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book: Meltdown (which you can read more about here).  You can also read another excerpt from the book here.

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With any new technology there is a long flash-to-bang, a gap between its arrival and its transformative impact on consumer behaviour. For all that technologists may recognize the immediate paradigm-shifting potential of a new technology, consumers typically take years to understand and employ the benefits of it. This is because consumers adopt technology in phases, with distinct consumer groups adopting at different stages:

  • Early Adopters: These first consumers are the most adventurous and technology savvy. Early Adopters are typically younger though not necessarily young, often male, and always wanting to be at the forefront of technology.  These consumers will willingly tolerate bugs and glitches as part of the price to pay for being ahead of the curve.  Though incredibly important, the Early Adopters are only a small share of the total population, typically in the 5% to 10% range, and as a consequence any product that appeals solely to this group will remain confined to niche reach.
  • Early Followers: The Early Followers are in many ways the sternest test of whether a product or service is every going to break through to the mainstream.  These consumers are technology enthusiasts but less willing to endure bugs and glitches, instead they want technology that is exciting and new but that is also ready for prime time.  They typically take their lead from the influential voices of Early Adopters, waiting for their affirmation of a technology before adopting it themselves. Slightly more populous than Early Adopters, strong adoption by these consumers will push a product towards 20% to 25% adoption, up to, and perhaps even through, the Critical Mass Threshold.  This is the point at which a technology will either push through to the mass market or instead remain tied to the domain of the technology enthusiasts.  To date most digital music products have failed to break out of the Critical Mass Threshold, YouTube and Pandora are notable exceptions.
  • Mainstream: Should a technology have truly mainstream appeal, in terms of functionality, ease of use and pricing, then the Early Followers will help drive it to the Mainstream. This is the summit of the ambition of most technologies.  This is currently where YouTube and smartphones are.  The penetration rate is typically up to about 60-65% of the total population.
  • Late Adoptions: A few technologies will push even further to the Late Adopters and thus onto market saturation.  In pure percentage of population penetration terms this peaks at around 80%.  Current technologies in this bracket are mobile phones, email and Facebook.

As a technology goes through these stages the line of adoption almost always adheres to an S-Curve, with a long slow initial burn and then a sharp acceleration of growth before finally slowing down again and then finally flattening out.

Pandora and the consumer adoption curve

This framework is useful for both understanding the historical context of music technology but also to help gauge where current technologies are heading.  When we look at the long term historical trend for Pandora’s active users we see a strong correlation with the model (see figure).  To be clear we are not talking about the total penetration rates of the entire population, but instead in the context of Pandora the model illustrates its growth within the confines of its addressable audience.

A lot of talk was made of the impact of Apple’s iTunes Radio on Pandora’s active user count, and a small dip is clearly discernable.  However when it is considered within the context of the historical growth curve we can see that Pandora’s user growth had already matured.  Though it is worth noting that listening hours among those users actually grew in October 2013 even though users dipped.

As things stand, it appears that Pandora has reached a growth ceiling.  This does not mean that it cannot accelerate beyond this but the trend indicates that something significant will need to change to make that happen.  In a longer term perspective Pandora can absolutely push further into the mainstream populous, but that growth is likely to be slower, driven by more fundamental organic trends such as overall consumer usage of digital media and the broader transition of radio consumption to digital platforms.

The Complexity Coefficient: ‘Listen Services’ and the Tyranny of Choice

Despite commendable progress the digital music market is still way behind where it should be.  It is an easy mistake to view the global music market through the Anglo-American lens but if you strip out the UK and US from the statistics the result is that three quarters of global ‘rest of world’ music sales are physical.  Thus ten years since the launch of the iTunes Store digital is still only a quarter of non-US and UK revenues.  The role of Apple is, as ever, key: Apple knew how to make an elegantly simple user experience that just worked.  Thus where Apple was strongest (US and UK) digital music sales prospered.  But most consumers do not have Apple devices so the music industry needs more music services to be as elegantly simple as iTunes if it is going to push the needle on that 25%.  The problem is that most of the services on which industry hopes are being pinned are anything but.

Innovating for the Elite?

Streaming subscription services are undoubtedly at the leading edge of music technology sophistication and recent innovations from Spotify in particular are setting the bar high for immersive digital music experiences.  But paradoxically this is part of the problem.  At the end of 2012 subscription and ad supported services accounted for just one fifth of global digital music revenues.  Though that number will grow markedly in 2013 – and already over indexes in the digital sophisticate Nordic and Dutch markets – it will not overtake downloads anytime soon.  There are of course many factors, including the key issue of pricing – 9.99 is not a mass market price point, but there is a more fundamental one: streaming subscription services are just too sophisticated for mainstream users.

The reality is that mainstream music consumers are not heavily engaged with music and like programmed, curated music experiences.  For all the music industry turmoil of the last decade radio listening has remained relatively steady, even growing in many markets, and it also remains the number one music discovery source – still far ahead of YouTube.  Radio’s enduring popularity stems from its simplicity.  A common product strategy error is the assumption that more features = better quality product.  But more often than not, less = more.  The extra discovery features in subscription services are fantastic tools for the niche audience of engaged music aficionados that use these services but they also make them less accessible for mainstream users.  This is what I term the Complexity Coefficient. 

The Complexity Coefficient is a simple way of understanding a complex problem and can be calculated as follows:

Feature Benefits – Feature Sophistication = Complexity Coefficient

In short, the more sophisticated the features of a service, the less the benefits will be felt by the user.  When this is applied to less sophisticated users a multiplier needs to be applied: a heavily featured sophisticated music service will already have barriers to use for an aficionado but will be entirely inaccessible for a mainstream user.  The Complexity Coefficient manifests itself in another way also: the more complex a service, the longer the music journey is.  For music aficionados that can be a good thing, but for radio-centric mainstream users it is a barrier rather than a benefit.

The COmplexity Coeffecient

The Tyranny of Choice

When we apply this thinking to the digital music landscape something really interesting emerges (see graphic).  The on demand subscriptions that monetize access – ‘Access Services’ – sit at the top right, highly sophisticated, but therefore also complex, with the longest music journey.  These services provide access to a vast, vast catalogue of music.  A catalogue that is growing rapidly every single day.  Last week 7Digital’s Ben Drury reported that his company now has 27 million tracks in its catalogue and is growing at a rate of 100,000 a week.

Choice is fantastic but too much begets choice paralysis.  There becomes so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all.  This is the Tyranny of Choice. 27 million tracks is an unwieldy vastness of music that would take 205 years to listen to.  What matters about music catalogue is the music that truly matters not the total size.  Of those 27 million perhaps 3 to 6 million are ‘core’ catalogue.  Of those how many really matter to any given listener? Perhaps 10,000 at the most?  Even that would be 2 months of listening for someone who listens 10 hours a week and doesn’t listen to the same song more than once.

With the growth in catalogue each ‘Access Service’ must get 100,000 tracks worth of being better at its discovery job just to stay as good as it was last week.  And despite the vast progress that is being made, few would argue that there is a long way to go yet before we can come close to arguing that the discovery problem has been fixed.  So the odds are against a worsening status quo not an improving one.

The ‘Listen’ Services

But at the opposite end of the Complexity Coefficient scale a very different picture emerges. Here we have services like Pandora, MusicQubed’s O2 Tracks and Nokia’s Mix Radio delivering highly programmed, lean-back music experiences for the mainstream users, where the music journey is shortest.  Whereas Access services give the user access to all the music in the world, Listen service take the user straight to the music that matters.  One leads the user up the garden path, the other just opens the front door.

But there is an overriding monetization issue at the lower end of the Complexity Coefficient: most of these services predominately generate revenue via advertising.  The majority of Nokia Mix Radio’s and Pandora’s users are on free tiers.  O2 Tracks is the exception, with users paying for all tiers of access (other than a free trial).

In many ways the Access services are taking a TV broadcaster approach to discovery: they are trying to encourage users to discover as much new content as possible, to send the user on a rich journey of serendipitous discovery.  The Listen services however are focused squarely on delivering a smaller selection of music the user is most likely to like, and keeping firmly within those parameters. To an aficionado the Listen service approach may feel restrictive and limited, but to a mainstream music consumer it fits their exact needs.  But what is clear is that music services at the lower end of the Complexity Coefficient scale are going to be crucial for pushing digital music towards the mainstream.  Welcome to the age of the ‘Listen’ service?

It’s Windowing Jim, But Not As We Know It

Back in 2009 I wrote a report for Forrester Research entitled ‘Music Release Windows: The Product Innovation That The Music Industry Can’t Do Without’ (you can read the summary blog post here, and the ‘money’ graphic is here).  In the report I proposed that the music industry should adopt three release windows based around a ‘Preview’ window for premium customers, a ‘Mainstream Pay’ window for CDs and downloads and a ‘Free to Air’ window for ad supported streaming.  With all of the brouhaha surrounding the Atoms for Peace withdrawal from Spotify, release windows, and the role of streaming services more widely, are very much back centre stage.  But whereas I strongly believe in the case for release windows, I believe that, as per my 2009 report, that paid subscriptions should be in the first window, not the last.  It is free-to-consumer, ad supported streaming that needs to be pushed to the back of the queue and it is high time that the windowing and streaming debate in general makes a clear distinction between the two very different propositions.

Subscription Service Hold Outs Actually Hit the Best Fans Hardest

Music fans that pay 9.99 for a Rhapsody, Spotify, Deezer or Rdio subscription are among the globe’s most valuable music consumers.  These music fans need treating as such, almost regardless of the business models that may surround their consumption points of choice.  It is not their fault that the music industry and tech sector contrived to construct business models that have propagated doubt and division among many of the industry’s key stakeholders.   This is not to dismiss the absolutely crucial issues of sustainability and equitability, but instead to raise the issue of who is paying most the price of windowing?  The services or the fans?  There isn’t a clear-cut answer, and the decision dynamics are analogous to those of applying economic sanctions on a nation state.

Delay Releases to Free Platforms, Not Paid Ones

But if we for the moment view the issue through the lens of the music fan, then it becomes abundantly clear that if a high value music fan deserves to be treated like a VIP then something analogous to the opposite is true for those consumers that choose not to pay for music.  This is the case for why the ad supported tiers of music subscription services, along with Pandora, the radio and YouTube should all be put into the last release window.  This is already how the movie industry behaves.  Now clearly this proposal is not without controversy.  The music industry’s entire discovery mechanisms revolve around putting the best content on free-to-air platforms first under the remit of promotion. But this proposal does not have to be the death knell for that approach, as long as the potential of digital platforms are properly harnessed:

  • Think of subscription services as ecosystems not silos: There used to be a physical journey between the radio and the music store.  Now in subscription services discovery and consumption are symbiotically joined. This means that the radio promotion approach can be played out in subscription services and in doing so reach the most valuable customers based on their music preferences. Thus when the radio window hits weeks later it will be targeting a largely distinct group of consumers for whom it will still be the first time they have heard the music.  And for those that are subscribers and radio listeners, the few weeks delay may prod them into reengaging with the album they first heard on their subscription service.
  • Window albums not singles: Singles are invaluable tools for promoting albums and tours.  There is less need to apply windows to singles, or rather to the lead singles from the album.  To protect the value of the premium release window though, it is important that only one single hits the free to air channels before the album hits the first window. Else the impression is given of too much content being too widely available elsewhere.
  • Combat scarcity with new products: Of course the biggest challenge to windowing is the lack of scarcity i.e. what’s the point in turning off the tap if its available elsewhere?  There are two answers to this 1) by ensuring content is available first only on the premium platforms, the availability of content on free platforms is markedly reduced (radio and YouTube account for the VAST MAJORITY of music listening, P2P is in decline) 2) more has to be added to the premium music products to make the windowed content act as a complement to a rich, curated product experience not available elsewhere.  Two examples of how to do this are artist subscriptions and D.I.S.C. products.

Holding Back from Paid Subscription Tiers Can Be a Missed Opportunity

It is still too early in the emergence of widespread streaming adoption to draw definitive conclusions about the impact of windowing but there is a growing body of useful evidence.  Spotify’s Will Page this week released a report that brings some invaluable evidence and analysis (you can read the report here). Although Will is obviously on Spotify’s pay roll and Spotify clearly have an agenda to push, Will is a diligently objective economist with an impressive track record at the UK’s PRS for Music, and his work should not be dismissed on the grounds of assumed bias.  In the report Will pulls data from Spotify for streams, GfK for sales and Musicmetric to compare the performance of albums across all three channels for windowed and non-windowed albums.  The broad conclusions on the sample of albums tracked is that non-windowed albums did not appear to lose sales  but that windowed albums had much higher piracy rates.  Significant caution is required when interpreting this type of analysis, principally because it is impossible to definitively identify causal relationships e.g. the marketing strategy of one artist might tend towards piracy activity than another, as might the geographical location of the artist and the global distribution strategy.  But even with these caveats, the report presents some solid directional data. The market needs much more data like this and I will be adding to the data pool later this summer with a white paper that I’ve been working on for some months now.

Windowing Doesn’t Solve the Streaming Debate, But It’s Not Meant Too

Windowing does not address most of the broader issues that currently surround streaming.  It can however be an important part of the equation if, and only if, it is done on the basis of distinguishing between free-to-air streaming and paid streaming.  Though not quite as distinct as an iTunes download is from a Torrent download, the parallel is nonetheless provides useful context.  This is not to discredit the huge value of radio, YouTube and Vevo in driving music discovery, nor the equally strong value of freemium service free tiers in acquiring customers.  This is not a proposal to remove content from free-to-air channels, but instead one to simply not put everything there straight away. As the music discovery journey and consumption destination become ever more entwined, it is time to think long and hard about just how much leg needs to be shown to make a fan fall in love with an artist’s music.

Making Freemium Add Up

Today at MIDiA Consulting we have released a new report on the digital content sector entitled ‘Making Freemium Add Up’.

The report combines an unprecedented appraisal of key freemium service metrics with market analysis and recommendations to create a definitive assessment of the freemium marketplace.  In the report we analyse an intentionally diverse selection of consumer web services, looking at the distribution and scale of their user bases and the relationship of these with their business models.  Services tracked range from music services like Slacker, through utility services like Skype to social services like Google+.  It also includes long term data trend analysis of Spotify, Deezer and Pandora.

The report is available for free to all subscribers to Music Industry Blog (to subscribe just add your email address in the Email Subscription box to the right of this post.  If you are already a subscriber but have not yet received a copy of the report by email please email mark AT midiaconsulting DOT COM).

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

  • Inactive users: inactive user rates range from 13% to 77%.  Social services have the highest rates (77% for Instagram and 66% for Twitter).  Inactive users are a key characteristic of all registration based services with free-to-consumer tiers, but the registered-to-active rate is below average for all freemium services However freemium inactive users are also often highly interested customers who simply need hooking up with the right pricing and product. In short, freemium inactive user bases are priceless qualified marketing lead databases.  The challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff, to differentiate between disinterested freeloaders and potentially valuable paying customers.
  • Paid users: paid user rates range from less than 1% to 90%.  But both ends of the scale are outliers.  At the low end Soundcloud’s premium tiers are aimed at the smaller audience of creators that are just a small subset of its 180 million active users. While at the other end Valve’s gaming platform steam is more digital retail store than pure freemium destination.   The risk for all freemium services is ensuring the free tier isn’t too good, unless free users are your key revenue source (cf Hulu and Pandora). Spotify and Deezer appear to have hit a conversion sweet spot, a solid balance between compelling free tiers and better enough paid tiers.
  • Scarcity counts: a music service user risks little by churning because he can still easily get all the same music elsewhere if he cancels his Spotify subscription.  But if you stop playing Angry Birds you’ll find few other places where you can hurl bad tempered feathered missiles at egg-stealing green pigs.  Similarly churning out of a social network carries a high ‘churn risk’ for consumers as they will weaken their ability to connect with extended social circles online
  • The free-to-paid divide needs narrowing: the gap from free to paid is high, a significant leap of faith is required from the user.  Whereas the gap from zero to $0.99 for Angry Birds free to paid is a modest step, from zero to $9.99 for Spotify or Deezer portable is a much more sizeable hurdle.  Thus converting to paid for music subscription services is a more sizeable achievement than for low priced gaming apps. More needs to be done to bridge the divide.  This can be achieved in through bundles and innovative pricing. Though this must be set against the risk of cannibalizing full price tiers.

making freemium add up

iTunes @ 10

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

The Four Ages of iTunes

The history of iTunes falls into four key chapters:

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

Responding to Streaming

Strong iPhone and iPad Sales Have Reinvigorated iTunes Music Sales

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

Apple Still Underpins the Growth of the Digital Music Market

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

The Next Chapter

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

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

Making an Impact: Assessing Streaming’s Role in the Digital Music Market

The streaming audio market is beginning to take the perturbingly familiar shape of the download market, with one big player stealing all of the momentum and scale.  And the debate about what streaming brings to the broader digital music market continues to divide the industry across ever deepening fault lines.

But leaving aside for a moment the much visited discussions about artist payments and financial viability of the freemium model, what impact is streaming having on the overall digital market?  To help answer that question I’ve compiled IFPI reported data for multiple international territories, including total market size and growth, digital market size and growth, physical share, download share and streaming share and mapped the relationships between them (see figure).

The results show that the streaming impact picture is a complex one with many permutations.  There isn’t a definitive trend that affects all markets in a consistent manner, however a few interesting trends do emerge:

  • Streaming tends to get a foothold quicker in territories where the physical market is already in marked decline.  Once it gets established the physical market decline accelerates.  It is not possible yet to definitively conclude whether this is cause or effect.
  • Strong streaming markets tend to experience significantly stronger digital growth rates than strong download markets.
  • Strong physical markets are more likely to have downloads dominate their digital markets.
  • Strong download markets tend to be more static.
  • Unsurprisingly the Nordic markets (Spotify’s back yard) are the strongest streaming markets, France remains a mainly download digital market despite Deezer’s efforts, as does the UK.

So the impact of streaming is a nuanced story.  Over two years streaming certainly seems to have brought dynamic digital growth rates to a number of markets, and has accompanied, or driven, an accelerated CD decline.

The fact that downloads are stronger in CD markets is testament to the similarity of these ownership based models.  But perhaps the strong similarity is one of the reasons that downloads aren’t growing the digital market as strongly as streaming is in other markets? Of course downloading has already had years to get established and so there is an argument that it has already contributed its dynamic growth phase to digital.  This is probably true, but it shouldn’t be that way.  With the exception of the US, no major music market has yet passed the 50% digital mark, and across all markets, the majority of music buyers still buy CDs.  Which means that digital is still a long way from being in a position in which it could plausibly be called ‘mature’.

So digital growth does need to be happening at the rates we see in strong streaming markets, and not in strong download markets.  And if streaming is the only tool with which those rates can be achieved then the questions around commercial sustainability (for the services and across the entire music industry value chain) become all the more pressing.

The YouTube Dilemma

Back in January 2011 in my Midem address I posited that YouTube was digital music’s  Killer App with about 25% monthly user penetration across all European adults in 2010, up a few percent from 2009.  I also explained that penetration for the under 25s was about double that.  The most important point though wasn’t the scale of adoption, but adoption relative to other digital music activities: the next most popular digital music activity was P-to-P (with about half the adoption rate of YouTube) and paid downloads were fourth with a paltry 11%.  The key takeaway was that YouTube is succeeding with digital music adoption where other services were not, that YouTube had got something right from a user experience perspective that others hadn’t, and that the industry should do a better job of understanding YouTube’s popularity.

19 months on and the latest Nielsen stats reveal it is still the same story.  In some quarters it’s being viewed as a dramatic sea change in the balance of digital power. It isn’t of course, instead it is the successful consolidation of a market leading position by YouTube.   Some of this has happened organically but much is down to sheer hard work by YouTube.

Plan V

Since my 2011 Midem speech, YouTube have upped their game strategically, adding functionality and investing heavily in content channels.  They’ve done so largely because of the V word…Vevo.  Vevo may have its challenges but strategically it was a master stroke by Universal Music: start pull the best music video out of YouTube, put it into an interface that is so deeply integrated into YouTube that it just feels like another YouTube channel to users, and all the while have YouTube deliver the audience. Unsurprisingly YouTube got nervous, particularly when Vevo started ruminating on taking the service out of YouTube entirely and into Facebook.

YouTube is No MySpace

Music matters massively to YouTube: they kick started the online video revolution with short-form video clips, but the momentum firmly shifted to mid-form video providers like Hulu and iPlayer.  If you scraped music video away YouTube was left with skateboarding dogs and ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’.  Hence YouTube’s investment in features like playlist functionality and $200 million in original content channels.  Back when MySpace was beginning to lose ground to Facebook I suggested that MySpace should stop pretending it was a social network anymore and start focusing instead on being a platform for bands and their fans.  They didn’t and they ended up losing out on both counts.  YouTube, to their credit, have recognized what their strengths are and are playing to them.

Why YouTube is Still Music’s Killer Digital App

YouTube is still digital music’s killer app because:

  • It’s free. Of course so are Spotify and Pandora et al but YouTube is free and fully on-demand everywhere.  If you want Spotify on your iPhone you have to pay £/$/€9.99 to do so, but you can listen to unlimited on demand YouTube music for free on the iPhone, it’s even integrated into iOS (for now at least).  In fact nearly two thirds of iPhone users use the iOS YouTube app.
  • It has all the catalogue in the world, and more. Because of the way YouTube entered music content licensing through the back door in the days before its acquisition by Google by selling stakes to the major labels, YouTube has ended up with effectively being given clearance for much much more content than every other licensed music service.  Granted YouTube have since implemented a largely effective takedown process, but the fact that YouTube’s catalogue is music uploaded by users means it doesn’t have the same restrictions other services do, such as territory restrictions, music not yet being officially available digitally etc.  If there’s a piece of music in the world then the odds are it is on YouTube.  Which cannot yet be said of other music services.
  • It just works.  YouTube is available wherever you are in the world (in the main), on whatever device you own, and you don’t have to register or sign up.  It also has effective discovery tools such as user votes, comments and collaborative filtering, and features like playlists.
  • You can download to keep too.  Streaming ripping might not be part of the official YouTube featureset, and recent action has been taken to block one such service, but there are dozens of stream ripping apps out there and they are actively used by a meaningful share of regular YouTube users.
  • It’s an audio visual experience. And of course, YouTube is so much more than music.  It’s an interactive, social, audio visual experience designed for the digital age.  Whilst most other licensed music services have little or no video.

It would be pretty hard to compete against that combination of features if it had a 9.99 price tag on it, let alone when all of that is available for free, to all consumers in virtually every territory in the globe. Which brings us to the YouTube dilemma.

The YouTube Dilemma

YouTube is simultaneously the most important licensed digital music service on the planet and one of the biggest challenges to all the other licensed music services.  It used to be that YouTube was clearly a discovery mechanism, and indeed it still is, but it is now also firmly a consumption vehicle.  YouTube has become both the journey and the destination rolled into one.

Of course there are plenty of music fans who use YouTube as a complement to buying music or subscribing and as a means of finding and sampling new artists. But plenty more use it instead of those other options, particularly those young Digital Natives who value free, convenience and ubiquity over audio quality.

So the music industry has a difficult balance to maintain, between ensuring the most valuable digital discovery asset it has its disposal remains vibrant, but at the same time ensuring it doesn’t hinder the opportunity for services which generate much higher revenue per user.

YouTube and parent Google can do a lot to help.  They can accelerate their focus on making YouTube’s content unique with further investment in live concerts, exclusive sessions etc.  More importantly they can more deeply integrate with paid music services.  (And if integrating deeply with Apple and Spotify might be a step too far then this should be the development path for Google’s music strategy.)

Meanwhile the music industry can help redress the balance too.  YouTube has defined what the mass market digital consumer expects a music service to look and feel like: namely it needs to have video, work seamlessly on all devices (not just 1 extra device at a time), and have social features.  YouTube has set the blueprint for the next generation music product, the industry now needs to pick up the baton and transform that prototype into a high quality, premium product.

Streaming Goes Global: Analysing Global Streaming Music With EMI Insight Data

This July EMI’s Insight division launched an unprecedented initiative to share data from their 850,000 interview Global Consumer Insight data.  This dataset covers 25 countries and over 7,400 artists, with twelve people being interviewed at any given moment, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The data is being shared with the data science community in a range of initiatives including  forthcoming Music Data Science Hackcamps.
As hard data continues to be something of a scarce commodity for the streaming music debate I decided to mine EMI’s dataset to create a snapshot of global streaming music adoption, and its influence on the broader music market. I have written up a report which you can download for free here.  Additionally EMI have given me permission to post the data here so that you can play around the data yourselves.  In fact I invite you to go and play around with the data and see if you can find any trends that I missed in my analysis.

Here are some of the key findings from the report (which of course, along with all of the opinions and interpretations are my own and are not, necessarily, EMI’s)

  • Streaming has a firm foothold. 32% of consumers across the globe are now using streaming services (see figure 1).  However, adoption is far from uniform.
  • Nordics lead the way. Norway and Sweden (the home of Spotify) are respectively the 1st and 3rd most active streaming markets globally.  Key to this trend is the relative sophistication of Internet users in these markets.  48% of Norwegians are now streaming music users, as are 43% of Swedes.
  • Streaming is a good fit for piracy riddled Spain.  Spain is the 2nd most active market with 44% streaming penetration.  But whereas consumer sophistication was key to Nordic adoption, in Spain piracy and the legacy of free were the most important drivers.
  • Free is a good fit for France too. The role of piracy and free have also been important in France.  French authorities have pushed through the controversial Hadopi legislation but the carrot of Spotify and local streaming success Deezer has delivered immediate results.  Translating streaming usage into purchases though is less successful: just 13%.
  • Purchase conversion rates are higher in lower penetration markets. The US, Canada, UK, Germany and Denmark have lower streaming penetration but these markets have much higher streaming-to-paid downloads conversion rates, averaging 23% of streaming users.
  • Streaming Drives Music Discovery and Consumption. Although it is still too early to draw definitive conclusions about exactly how much streaming impacts piracy and sales, the case for driving discovery and consumption is much clearer.  55% of global streaming music users state that they now discover new artists and new music as a result of streaming.
  • Usage is steady among existing users. Usage among existing streaming users is broadly steady with 19% using streaming more than 12 months previously and 20% more.

Download the complete report here.

Deezer and Digital Music’s Squeezed Middle

It’s been a busy week for Deezer: first came the announcement of an browser-based streaming partnership with niche music publication Artrocker, then came Deezer’s launch in Canada, New Zealand and Australia – the next chapter in Deezer’s world domination plan.  Now to complete a hat-trick of announcements the French streaming service has announced a partnership with T-Mobile in Austria, with the possibility of further Central European roll outs.  Of the three announcements this is the one with the greatest strategic significance.

The Third Way for Digital Music

Regular readers will know that I’ve been advocating subsidized and bundled music services for many years now.  Bundled services square the circle of more people listening to more music than ever but fewer of them paying than ever before.  Bundled music services are the ‘Third Way’ for digital music (see figure).  Currently the digital music market is polarized between a fight for the top and a fight for the bottom.  iTunes, Rhapsody et al have built businesses around the relatively small group of tech-savvy music aficionados who pay for digital music, while We7, Pandora et al are catering for the appetite of free music fans (though still grappling with how to create profitable businesses with such large chunks revenue going on royalty payments). Lost in between are those music fans who are engaged enough to want more than ad supported, PC-tethered music but who don’t want to pay 4.99 upwards for the privilege.  For as long as the squeezed middle remains un-catered for, the total market will remain stuck in decline or stodgily slow growth.

But this macro concept is a business-critical problem for companies Deezer and Spotify who target the top tier but rely on the bottom layer for customer acquisition and brand extension.  The problem with using free music as your marketing funnel is that you attract lots of music fans who love unlimited streaming but have no interest or ability to pay a monthly subscription fee.  Freemium services need something between free and paid – without it half of their marketing efforts are wasted.

Bundled Services More Often Than Not Don’t Add Up for Telcos

The solution for Deezer and Spotify, as well as for the wider market, is to create bundled services where the consumer pays little or no direct fee for the music.  (Fighting free with free itself). Instead the cost is hidden within another subscription fee and / or subsidized by a third party looking for gains to their core products. Telcos have long been the best fit, but nearly exactly four years since TDC’s Play service was launched, telco subsidized music services are conspicuously thin on the ground.  Spotify’s partnerships with Telia Sonera and 3, along with Deezer’s France Telecom tie-in and Cricket Wireless’ Muve Music are lonely examples.

So if the concept makes so much sense to the music industry and to the music services, why haven’t more bundled services come to market?  The simple answer is economics: telcos (ISPs in particular) just can’t make the business case work.  Margins are already tight, and in highly competitive marketplaces pricing is often locked into a race to the bottom.  It is often just too difficult for a telco to build a consumer pricing package that doesn’t price it out of the mainstream market but at the same time covers the wholesale costs of rights licenses.

Of course music is viewed as a marketing tool rather than an ARPU tool by most telcos, so it is typical for a portion (sometimes all) of the costs are funded out of marketing budgets.  But experience shows us that few telcos have been willing to swallow enough of the costs, seeing much better ROI on alternatives such as Apps and Games.  A number of European ISPs have told me that they could only build a business case around a cost to the consumer of 2 euros a month, far south of what rights fees for unlimited music services require.

So how have Deezer managed to pull off the T-Mobile partnership?  Here’s how:

  • Deezer have deep experience of integrating with telcos, knowing how their businesses work and understanding their needs
  • Deezer have a track record of making bundled telco offerings work
  • T-Mobile have identified the Austrian market as one in which they can achieve differentiation and market advantage through a bundled play.  T-Mobile gets to call itself “the first operator in Austria to offer an unlimited music service in its mobile tariffs”, to gain and retain young mobile audiences.

The third factor is the key one.  Without having a telco partner willing to go out on a limb, all of experience and assets in the digital music world add up to naught. But even once you’ve got a telco on board, making the project a success is no easy task.  I’ve seen up close a number of telco music services nearly but not quite get to market because of complications with commercials and because of conflicting interests among partners.  I sincerely hope that the T-Mobile and Deezer partnership is fruitful – the marketplace desperately needs more proofs of concept of the bundled music model.  Without the ‘Third Way’ the music market will continue its unhealthy polarization between premium and free, leaving the squeezed middle high and dry.