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.

Why Facebook Is The Real Winner With Google’s Mediocre Music Strategy

The digital music market is not in a great place right now and is in need of some major change: CD sales are still shrinking more quickly than digital revenues are growing; doubts are growing over the freemium model; overall consumer adoption remains niche.  So what do Google do? They launch another download store.  Come on Google, you are one of the Internet’s giants.  You thrive upon disrupting markets, and all you do is launch a me-too download store with an unlicensed locker feature?!

The labels and Google must both shoulder blame for the underwhelming outcome

Of course some of the blame has to be laid at the feet of the labels for restricting what services can aspire to with their current licensing structures.  But Google must equally shoulder the blame for not pushing harder and for not offering the labels more in return (and I’m not talking cash).  I’m told that Google had planned to go to market with something much more ambitious but couldn’t get the licenses (or perhaps at the prices they were willing to pay).  Google is arguably the most important digital conduit in the world.  If Google is unable to bring that influence to bear in negotiations then what hope is there for start-ups?  Google really should have pushed harder, until they got something truly amazing to work with.

But even that isn’t an excuse that Google can really hide behind either.  Take a look at what Facebook achieved without having to sign a single licensing deal.  To use the clichéd management consultant saying, Facebook thought ‘out of the box’.  Google meanwhile didn’t so much as think within in it as let the labels tape them into it.

Facebook is gatecrashing the Triple A party

A while ago I wrote a piece talking about the Triple A of digital music (Apple, Android, Amazon) and the increasing consolidation of the market around them.  Those three players are the ones who bring the scale and stability that the major record labels so keenly crave and those are the three that the licensed service space is increasingly consolidating around.  And yet Facebook’s subtly brilliant strategy of becoming the universal content dashboard looks increasingly like being the smartest play on the board.  While everyone outside the Triple A falls over themselves to become a part of Facebook’s coalition of unaligned powers, Facebook quietly becomes arguably the single most important force in digital music by:

  • collecting all of this fantastic music consumption data from a diverse range of music services
  • subverting the brands of those services to Facebook’s own brand
  • making logging in via Facebook and experiencing music within Facebook so convenient it becomes the mode of choice

So while Amazon and Google run around trying to beat Apple at the download game (which by the way, without closed device ecosystems they’ll always come second) Facebook avoids having to deal with labels, brings something new to the digital music equation and quietly builds the data foundations of something potentially transformational to launch further down the line.

Google forgot it was a 21st Century Portal

Facebook can do all this because it is has such massive reach and scale, because as one of the two doorways into our online lives, it is one of the two true 21st Century Portals, that knows and shapes our activity.  The other 21stCentury Portal?  Google.  (See chart).  Google could have done so much more, with or without licences (and I mean legitimately by the way).  Indeed the music industry needs Google to do so much more. Of course the store will be a success. They have such a massive addressable audience they’d really have to screw up not to make it some sort of success.  But Google needs to think whether it wants its digital music success to be measured in terms of download store market share, or something much bigger, something transformational.  The simple question is, do they want to be Apple or do they want to be Facebook?

Dear Lucian Grainge…

Dear Lucian Grainge and co,

Congratulations on your successful bid for EMI.  You are about to find yourself in charge of an unprecedentedly large share of the world’s music market.  Not so long ago, to have even imagined that regulators would countenance such a situation would have been fantasy.  But the world has changed, and I’m sure you’ll be glad that Prime Minister Monti will be too preoccupied with cleaning up Silvio Berlusconi’s mess to block another EMI acquisition (though time will soon tell whether Joaquín Almunia will be any more understanding, or indeed if he intends to carry on Neellie Kroes’s crusading).

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the acquisition clears all regulatory hurdles and challenges.  You now control more than a third of the recorded music market.  And although some suggest that market share doesn’t matter anymore, I just don’t buy it.  In fact I think market share matters more than ever and I think you do to.  Of course, in pure business terms market share on its own means nothing.  Revenue pays the bills, not market share.  And yet, in the digital arena, market share takes on a whole new meaning. Because you and your label peers still exercise an effective monopoly of supply of content to digital services, whoever holds the largest market share holds the greatest degree of market control and can thus shape the market.

But you already know this because Universal was already the world’s largest label before the EMI acquisition and Universal exercised that dominant position to full effect.  I have to say, I think Universal has done so in a way which, on balance, has encouraged marketplace innovation.  Being the first to license to edgy services such as Spiral Frog, Comes With Music and – in principle at least – the stillborn Virgin Media unlimited MP3 service, saw Universal shoulder the risk of disruptive models.  You may have charged a premium in these situations for being the first major willing to take that risk, but you knew that your unique position as the world’s largest record label would – in most cases – led to the other majors coming on board.  (A fact that your licensee partners were banking on and were willing to pay that premium for.)

Now, as head of an even bigger ‘world’s biggest record label’ I’d love to watch you oversee a stepping-up of this approach.  And I’m not even too bothered about you charging a premium for being the first to license.  (Between you and I, that’s because I’m waiting for market dynamics to balance things out, for your bold licensing strategy to pull the rest of the marketplace with you, and to such an extent that all of the majors will be fighting to be the first to license to the next disruptive service.  So that nobody will be able to charge a premium for being first anymore.   I guess when it comes down to it, I’m hoping your exercising of seller-control will paradoxically create a buyers’ market.  But I can keep a secret if you can).

And while we’re talking, what I’d like to see less of, is using the justification of ‘risk mitigation’ as a means of stifling the market.  Yes, all majors demand big fat advances from digital services, and yes, it does a great job of separating the wheat from the chaff, of ensuring the market is driven by serious companies with serious scale.  But, as much as the prospect of the digital market evenly split between the Triple A of Apple, Amazon and Android may be more palatable to you than one in which Apple controls 75%+, you don’t really want that any more than I do. As pesky and unpredictable as those small disruptive start-ups can be, they are the ones which ultimately drive the quantum leaps in digital music progression.  If young start-ups have to commit the majority of their investment to label advances, that means that they will have so much less to spend on technology development and marketing.  Which of course means that you end up with safely secured digital income but no great new services driving the market forward.   Have you stopped to wonder why there has been a slowdown in licensed digital music services?  VCs are getting tired of financing non-starters.

Why am I firing this broadside at you when all of your major label peers are just as guilty?  Because now as head of the world’s biggest ever ‘world’s biggest record label’ I think it is only right that you start using your power to drive change across the entire market.  Your company has done so well in the digital arena by being bold, ambitious and, most importantly of all, by being innovative.  I’ve long held Universal up as the innovation standard for traditional media companies of all shapes and kinds.  But there comes a point at which that innovation must focus on providing the necessary conditions for driving innovation in the marketplace.

In short, I am asking you to continue to be a catalyst for innovation across the digital music marketplace, but also to resist succumbing to the conservatism and caution that your unprecedented market share will undoubtedly tempt you with.

Be bold, be brave, take risks (big risks) and most importantly of all, use your new power responsibly, don’t give the sceptics ammunition.  The digital music market needs Universal Music to continue to drive innovation not stagnation.

Good luck!

Kind regards

Mark Mulligan