Streaming, Change, And The Right State Of Mind

Disruptive technology and the change it brings can be overwhelming, particularly when it threatens to change forever all that we have known. Streaming clearly fits this bill. But the impact of change is as much in the eye of the beholder as the disruption itself. While it would be bland and disingenuous to say that change is merely a state of mind, a positive outlook that is focused on the opportunities can make the world of difference.

To illustrate the point, here are three examples from the last century of how vested interests have viewed revolutionary new media technology.

1-ebwhiteThis first quote is from the American author and essayist EB White writing in 1933 on the impact of radio. Here new technology is eloquently portrayed with an almost magical profundity.

2-sarnoffThis quote is from David Sarnoff, the Belorussian-American radio and TV pioneer who oversaw the birth of RCA and NBC. Here he is in 1939 talking about the advent of a TV broadcast network against the backdrop of the globe teetering on the brink of world war.

And then fast forward 70 odd years to the emergence of streaming music, and we get this….3-yorkeSomething certainly appears to have happened to the eloquence of observation over the decades. While I’m perhaps being a little unfair to our esteemed Mr Yorke his quote illustrates the stark contrast in how one can view impending change.

There is an inevitability about the shift in consumer behaviour of which streaming is merely a manifestation. We are moving from the distribution era when everything was about linearly programmed channels and selling units of stuff to the consumption era when consumers value access over ownership. Resisting fundamental shifts in consumer behaviour is a futile task. It’s what happened when the labels fought Napster tooth and nail and it took the best part of a decade for the music industry to recover from that mistake.

None of this is to say that the shift to streaming is going to be easy, but it is going to happen anyway. Artists, labels, managers, publishers all need to decide whether to work with streaming now, and have some control over the process, or wait until they have no choice at all.

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 Great Music Industry Power Shift

The long drawn out demise of recorded music revenue is well documented, as is the story of artists, labels and managers all trying to make sense of a world in which music sales can no longer be counted upon.  But the contraction of recorded revenue has occurred at the exact same time that the live music sector has undergone a renaissance.  The net effect, when coupled with publishing revenue holding its own and  the growth of albeit modest, merchandise revenue, is that the global music industry has largely held its own, contracting by just 3% between 2000 and 2013 (see figure).  Compare and contrast with the 41% decline in (retail) recorded music revenue over the same period.  Indeed it is the 60% growth in live revenue that has done most to offset the impact of declining music sales.

music industry revenuePerhaps most significantly of all, the contrasting fortunes of the music industry’s two main revenue streams is that the share of total revenues accounted for by recorded income has dropped from 60% in 2000 to just 36% in 2013.  The balance of power has firmly shifted away from labels to the live value chain.  Yet it is not as clear a picture as might first appear:

  • Recorded music is still the main way people interact with music:  Whether it be on the radio, YouTube, Spotify, an iTunes or a CD, the vast majority of consumers spend the vast majority of their music consumption time with the recorded product not the live product.  In fact just 15% of people regularly go to gigs.  And even for these consumers live is, in terms of total time spent, just a small fraction of their music consumption.  So labels are faced with paradox of making less money from artists yet those same artists still needing the recording in order to drive live and merch income.  This is why we ended up with 360 deals.
  • Much of the market growth didn’t make it down to artists: The live music value chain is an incredibly complex one with multiple stakeholders taking their share (ticketing, secondary ticketing, venues, booking agents, promoters, tax, expenses etc.).  The share of live revenue that artists make from live has declined every year since 2000.  The impact on the total market is that  total artist income (i.e. from all revenue sources) has declined every year too since 2009.

The Next Music Industry

It is probably fair to say that we are approximately half way through a huge period of transition for the music industry.  The realignment of revenue is merely a precursor to the new business models, products and career paths that will emerge to capitalize on the new world order.  It is in this next phase that the real ‘fun’ will start.  Expect every traditional element of the industry to be challenged to its core, expect dots to be joined and old models to be broken.  But be in no doubt that what we will end up with will be an industry set up for success in the digital era.

NOTE: the figures quoted in this post are taken from a forthcoming MIDiA report: The Superstar Artist Economy: Artist Income and the Top 1%.  The report is a follow up to the previous MIDiA report ‘The Death of the Long Tail’

 

 

We Need To Talk About Streaming (again)

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

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

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

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

Rebooting the conversation

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

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

 

Access based services are the first post-transition technology products

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

Putting streaming income into context

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

The labels’ take on streaming

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

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


Spotify’s take on streaming

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

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

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

Making the right comparisons

Crucial to the streaming debate is making the right comparisons.

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

Music products and services need segmenting into distinct windows

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

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

 

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

 

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

Coldplay is already pioneering the window strategy

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

 

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

 

 

The Music Format Bill of Rights

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

Here are a few highlights of the report:

Synopsis

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

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

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

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

Table of Contents for the full 20 page report:

Setting The Scene

  • Digital’s Failure To Drive a Format Replacement Cycle

Analysis

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

Next Steps

Conclusion

Sopa Highlights Media Industry Strategic Failings

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

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

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

Sopa, Pipa and the Media Meltdown

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

The media meltdown occurs in three key stages:

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

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

Digital Piracy Perennially Outwits the Pursuer

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

Mainstream Consumers Become  the Effective Targets of Anti-Piracy

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

Legislation is Fully Necessary But Strategic Priorities Need Rebalancing

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

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

Legislators: Compel Media Companies to License to Identikit Legal Alternatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Digital Music the Next Eurozone Crisis Waiting To Happen?

Much of the contemporary debate about digital music’s financials centres around perceived inequities in artist pay outs, particularly from streaming services.  These are very valid concerns and I continue to argue for an honest and transparent debate.  However there are two equally worrying issues: the sustainability of the stores and services themselves and the class divide that has grown between the US and European digital music markets.

The Trans-Atlantic Digital Divide

It has been clear for a number of years now that the US digital market has been massively outperforming its European peers.  A number of factors contribute to this, including:

  • The stronger footprint of Apple in the US
  • That the US is a more unified and more easily addressable consumer market
  • The fragmented rights landscape in Europe
  • European online consumer behaviour lags that of the US

Those factors alone would be enough to stifle European prospects, but paradoxically Europe has developed a much larger number of digital services than the US, both in relative and absolute terms.  According to the IFPI et al’s Pro-Music website, pre-accession Western Europe has 465 services compared to just 24 for the entire US.  In relative terms that translates to 1 service for every 600 thousand European Internet Users compared to 1 for every 10 million US Internet Users.

Music’s Digital Double Whammy

So in effect we have a ‘digital double whammy’: Europe has too many services chasing too few customers.  When we look at the per-service revenue picture the picture becomes even more concerning (see figure).  In the chart we are looking at the Average Margin Per Service (AMPS).  This assumes an operating margin of approximately 20% per service following deductions for recording rights, publishing rights and payments.  20% may sound like a healthy margin but bear in mind that this pot has to pay for a wide range of costs, including Marketing, Technology, Fulfilment, Customer Care, Staff etc.  (In fact scale is crucial and even Apple can only make downloads an ‘on average break even’ business.)  Of course the exact margins vary according to the precise business model, label terms etc but the 20% assumption gives us a good working measure to gauge regional trends.

The first thing that jumps out is the massive disparity in US AMPS ($26.03m) compared to Europe ($0.61m).  In effect the over-supply of European services acts as an accelerator on the disparity between the regions. At a country level there is further diversity, with the UK and France standing out as the strongest – or rather least weak – margin markets.

Scrapping over Apple’s left-overs

But of course the digital music market is not an equally distributed one.  Apple’s iTunes store accounts for the vast majority of the download market, hence the second metric in the chart: AMPS post-Apple.  This shows the average margin per service based upon what is left of the market after Apple’s share has been removed.  (To do this a 70% share assumption was applied to the paid download segment of each digital market.  In some markets this will underrepresent, in others over-represent, but it nonetheless gives us a good comparative directional guide).  Looking at AMPS post-Apple the situation is starker, with the average margin per service in Italy dropping to less than a quarter of a million dollars.

Too many services are chasing too few customers

Back in 2006 at JupiterResearch I wrote a report that made a case for the lack of sustainability in the digital music value chain in Europe and the risk it posed for services.  5 1/2 years on and the situation is unfortunately beginning to come to fruition.  The reason we haven’t had a market implosion yet is because so many of the owners of these services – such as ISPs and mobile operators – continue to show appetite to run them at a loss because of perceived benefits to their core businesses.  But the simple fact is that there are too many services.  In the pre-digital age most markets had but a small handful of national music retailers.  So why in the digital age should that become dozens, particularly when the recorded music market is half its peak size? (The UK alone has 74 services).

When choice doesn’t = choice at all 

And it is not as if these 465 services are bringing extensive choice to European consumers.  The majority of them offer the same catalogue, at the same price with the same device support.  All that this over supply of me-too services does is muddy the water.  There is so much choice that there is no choice at all.  If digital music is ever going to get out of its current impasse, the music industry must fix the over-supply issue. Until it does so, any progress in discussions on artist pay-outs is going to be constrained by the growing concerns posed by an underperforming digital market.