Why It’s Time For A Streaming Pricing Reset

There is a growing realization that that streaming revenue is not growing quickly enough to offset the impact of declining download sales. It is an eerily familiar echo of the recurring narrative of the noughties that download sales were not growing quickly enough to offset the impact of declining CD sales. The situation is very different now in that the industry licenses the disruptive force. Back in the noughties the combined impact of changing consumer behavior patterns, growing piracy adoption and the loss of content scarcity were factors the industry had little control over. Yet this present shift is more fundamental and will have much bigger long term impact. This is the shift to the consumption era. Streaming happens to be the tool of the moment for harnessing that shift but with current pricing strategy the industry’s toolset is woefully unable to fully harness the massive potential that exists.

Zero to 9.99 Is Too Big A Leap

The single biggest issue is the binary nature of streaming pricing: 9.99 or free. (Sure there are desktop versions for less but the desktop is yesterday’s consumption platform and is no longer a useful differentiator for price.) The leap from zero to 9.99 is simply too big. Even a 30 day trial still leaves the consumer with the same zero to 9.99 leap at the end.

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Streaming pricing strategy is simply not aligned with consumer music spending (see figure):

  • Super fan aficionados tend to spend between $10 and $30 a month but many are now shifting down to $9.99 a month
  • Mainstream music fans spend less frequently and at best average less than $10 a month, most typically just a few $. $9.99 is just too much for them as is regular spending, so they end up streaming for free
  • Passive fans used to spend occasionally now typically spend nothing and are core users of free streaming, YouTube especially

So streaming is bringing down the spending of the super fans and missing the spending of the mainstream fans.

Most music fans (i.e. not the super fan aficionados who by definition most of the people reading this blog are) engage with music in a very event driven manner. They have their favourite artists and they engage with them when they are in cycle with a new single, album, tour etc. That used to mean buying an album or some tracks, and it still means buying concert tickets. But these days for the digitally engaged mainstream fans it most often does not include buying anything. Instead they stream for free from YouTube, Soundcloud, Pandora.

Just to make things worse, the super fan aficionados are now spending less because of streaming. 23% of them used to buy more than an album a month, now they spend 9.99 a month and that spending is spread across a far greater quantity of music, meaning a smaller pie is being divided into even smaller slices.

Three Ways To Fix Streaming Pricing

It wasn’t meant to be this way. A high tide was meant to rise all boats. Mass market music fans were meant to increase their spending to 9.99. The aspiration is reasonable enough, these same consumers have been persuaded to pay for mobile phone subscriptions over the last decade, and many have adopted Netflix and Amazon Prime too. But it will take some time to get them there and they need a helping hand in the meantime.

There are a number of tactics that will set up streaming to capitalize on the mainstream music fan opportunity:

  1. More price tier differentiation: this means cheaper tiers ($2, $3, $5) to capture spending across a broad a range of consumers as possible
  2. Reduce the main $9.99 price point to $7.99: to capture the upper band of mainstream fans, while adding a $12.99 tier for super fan aficionados who want extras like high quality audio, bios, photos, exclusives etc.
  3. Introduce PAYG / Top Ups: the mobile phone business needed PAYG to take phone subscriptions to the mainstream – they were an unfamiliar concept consumers needed to experience to understand the value of. The same applies to music. But also it gives tentative consumers the benefit of the long term relationship without the commitment

Universal’s Lucian Grainge stated at the WSJD conference this week that revenue from subscription services is simply not enough to stem the decline of downloads and CDs. As things stand he is absolutely right. But fill the chasm between free and paid with a diverse range of pricing options and that will change. Virtually every consumer market, whether it is phones, supermarkets or cars has a segmented pricing strategy, now it is time for streaming to benefit from the same approach. The alternative is leaving most of the potential spend on the table.

What the Numbers Tell Us About Streaming in 2014

By the end of 2014 streaming revenues will account for $3.3 billion, up 37% from 2013. However headline market value numbers only ever tell part of the story. Just as important are the numbers on the ground that give us some sense of where the money is flowing and of the sustainability of the business models. During the last two weeks we have been fortunate to have four different sets of data that go a long way to filling in those gaps:

Each is interesting enough in isolation but it is the way that they interact and interdepend that gets really interesting:

  • Sustainability: A lot is rightly made of whether the subscription business model is sustainable. Spotify has showed us that, at least in a local subsidiary, an operational profit can be turned. However that profit rate was just 2.5%, does not account for previously acquired losses and also does not account for the broader company’s cost base where many of Spotify’s other costs lie. 2.5% is a wafer thin margin that leaves little margin for error and would be wiped out in an instant with the sort of the advertising Spotify has been using in the US. Meanwhile Soundcloud have demonstrated that it is also entirely possible to post a heavy loss even without rights costs. Soundcloud is going to need every ounce of its investor money and new revenue streams when it adds a 73.2% rights cost to its bottom line (though Soundcloud is doing all it can to ensure it doesn’t have to play by those rules and instead hopes to operate under YouTube’s far more preferable rates).
  • Transition: Nielsen’s US numbers should finally remove any lingering doubt about whether streaming is eating directly into download revenue. As MIDiA Research revealed last month, 23% of streamers used to buy more than an album a month but no longer do so. Streaming is converting the most valuable downloaders into subscribers and in doing so is reducing their monthly spending from $20 or $30 to $9.99. The combined effect of the perpetual decline of the CD and now of the download make it hard for streaming to turn the total market around. That won’t happen globally until 2018, though in many individual markets streaming driven growth is already here. Spotify pointed to bundles with the Times of London newspaper and mobile carrier Vodafone as key sources of growth in the UK. This sort of deal points to how subscriptions can break out of the early adopter beachhead and drive incremental ‘found’ revenue.
  • The Ubiquity of Free: YouTube, Pandora, Soundcloud and Spofity free are among the largest contributors to streaming’s scale. Some business models are more proven than others – Pandora looks better placed than ever to be a central part of the long term future of radio. YouTube’s role remains controversial though. Its proudly announced $1bn payout milestone is less impressive when one considers Content ID was launched in 2007 and that this is all rights holders, not just music. So let’s say 60% was to music rights holders, over the course of seven years that averages out at $0.07 per year for each of YouTube’s current one billion monthly users. That’s a pretty small return for the globe’s biggest music service.

We are clearly still some distance away from a definitive set of evidence that can tell us exactly what streaming’s impact will be. But in many ways it is wrong to wait for that. There will never be a truly definitive argument. Instead the world will continue to change in ways that will better fit the streaming market. It is a case of streaming and the industry meeting half way. This is exactly what happened with downloads. Early fears that downloads would accelerate the demise of the CD and instigate the decline of the album were both confirmed but the music industry learned how to build a new set of businesses around these new digital realities. The same process will take place with streaming.

We are already seeing some remarkable resilience and appetite for change from artists, from DIY success stories like Zoe Keating, through veteran rockers like Iggy Pop, right up to corporate megastars like Ed Sheeran. These are as diverse a collection of artists as you could wish for but they are united in an understanding that the music industry is changing, again, and that simply bemoaning the decline in sales revenue will not achieve anything. Of course it sucks that sales revenue is falling and of course its infinitesimally easier for me to write these words than to live them. But that sort willingness to evolve to the realities of today’s rapidly changing market will set up an artist with the best chance of surviving the cull. The old adage rings truer than ever: adapt or die.

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.

Why Digital Music Services Always Steal Each Other’s Customers

The next five years will be one of the music industry’s most dramatic periods of change. The last ten years might have been disruptive but the change that is coming will be even more transformative. By 2019 70% of all digital revenue globally will be from on-demand services, representing 40% of total music revenues. It will be a shift from the old world and the ‘old new world’ to a brave new one. The CD and the download will decline at almost the same rates: physical revenue will be 43% smaller while downloads will be 40% smaller. In some ways the CD has less to worry about than the download. The CD has the protection of a vast installed base of players across the globe and growing niches such as deluxe box sets. The download though depends massively upon Apple’s devices, and the tide over at Cupertino is turning.

One of the concerns of the shift to streaming has been revenue cannibalization. It is no new phenomenon. The paid digital music market has still not truly broken out to the mainstream. While the likes of YouTube and Pandora clearly have mass market reach, music download stores and subscription services do not. Each at their respective times have appealed to the same higher spending and tech savvy end of the music buyer spectrum.

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In the 1990’s and early 2000’s Amazon’s online CD store was the home of the globe’s most tech savvy music aficionados. Then Apple came along and poached its iTunes customers directly from Amazon because those same CD buyers were also buying iPods. Then Spotify came along and started poaching Apple’s most valuable customers via Apple’s App Store – the chink in the armour of Apple’s otherwise closed ecosystem.

Now Apple and Amazon are both setting out on their own cloud strategy journeys and each will be hoping to win back a chunk of their lost customers. Apple’s recent elevation of Beats Music to one of the family of ‘Apps Made By Apple’ gives the first hint of what the company can do to ‘encourage’ its users away from other streaming services.

The next three years or so will be a fiercely contested battle for the hearts and minds of the digital music aficionado that will illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the technology ecosystems of Apple, Amazon and Google. Yet while they all fight to win or win back customers, the attention once again remains firmly on the top end of the market. For as long as music services focus their efforts on the most valuable music customers, the mainstream will continue to be catered by low ARPU ad supported services. And for as long as that happens the evolution of digital music will continue to be one of the latest generation of services stealing the customers of the last.

YouTube, Record Labels And The Retailer Hegemony

YouTube (i.e. Google) has put itself in the midst of a music industry conflict that may yet turn into a much needed process of soul searching for the labels as they weigh up whether YouTube’s contribution to their business is net positive or net negative.  The controversy surrounds the imminent-ish launch of YouTube’s premium subscription service and the refusal of some independent labels to sign the terms Google is offering them.  Whereas normally this would just result in a service launching without a full complement of catalogue, in this instance YouTube is also the world’s second largest discovery platform after radio.  YouTube execs have been quoted as stating that labels that do not sign their terms will have their videos blocked or removed.  Exactly from where (i.e. the main YouTube service, or the premium offering) remains a matter of conjecture with both sides of the debate more than happy to allow the ambiguity cloud the debate.    But the fundamental issue is clear either way: YouTube has become phenomenally powerful but delivers comparatively little back in terms of direct revenue and is now happy to flex its muscle to find out who is really boss.

The Retailer Hegemony 

Google’s stance here fits into a broader phase in the evolution of digital content, with the big tech companies (Amazon, Apple, Google) testing how far they can push their content partners in order to consolidate and augment their already robust positions.  It fits into the same trend as Amazon making life difficult for book publishers Hachette and movie studio Warner Bros.  The big tech companies are becoming the three key powerhouses of digital content and each is fighting to own the customer.  Media companies are becoming collateral damage as the new generation of retailer behemoths carve out new territory

The record labels, indies included, have to take much of the blame here.  They let YouTube get too big, and on its terms.  The big labels had been determined not to let anyone ‘do an MTV again’ and yet they let YouTube do exactly the same thing, getting rich and powerful off the back of their promotional videos.  But this time YouTube’s resultant power is far more pervasive.

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Stealing The Oxygen From The Streaming Market

Labels are beholden to YouTube as a promotional channel.  They have turned a blind eye to whether its ‘unique’ licensing status might be stealing the oxygen out of the streaming market for all those services which have to pay far more for their licenses.  The underlying question the labels must ask themselves is whether YouTube’s inarguably valuable promotional value outweighs the value it simultaneously extracts from music sales revenue.  Indeed 25% of consumers state that they have no need to pay for a music subscription service because they get all the music they need for free from YouTube (see figure).  This rises to 33% among 18 to 24 year olds and to 34% among all Brazilians.

Reversing Into Subscriptions Is No Easy Task

Of course the aspiration here is that YouTube is finally going to start driving premium spending, but reversing into a subscription business from being a free only service is far from straightforward.  It is far easier to make things cheaper than it is to raise prices, let alone start charging for something that was previously free.  Add to the mix that free music is not exactly a scarce commodity and you see just how challenging YouTube will find entering this market.  Indeed, just 7% of consumers are interested in paying a monthly fee to access YouTube music videos with extras and without ads.  The rate falls to just 2% in the UK.

The counter argument is that only a miniscule share of YouTube’s one billion regular users are needed to have a huge impact.  But if the price the music industry pays to get there is to kill off the competition then it will have helped create an entity with such pervasive reach that it will truly be beholden unto it.  If the music industry has hopes of retaining some semblance of power in this relationship, it must act now.

 

 

Why Full Albums Need to Go from YouTube Right Away

YouTube has long been the digital music anomaly: hugely successful, almost free of criticism but with a pitifully small pay-per-stream rate (below half that of Spotify, who does get criticism, and some).  YouTube is now on the verge of launching a subscription product and this will hopefully go some way of addressing the fact it has made the marketing journey the consumption destination.  But the music industry should keep its aspirations in check, not just about the potential impact of the service, but also – and perhaps most importantly – because of YouTube’s intent.

Google is a rights frenemy.  Rights frenemies strike a careful balance between maintaining good relations with rights holders on one side of their business but testing the limits on the other side. They pursue a do first, ask forgiveness later strategy.  Thus all the while Google is launching two music subscription services (Google Play Music All Access and the forthcoming YouTube offering) it is also lobbying for copyright reform and posting a link to chillingeffects.org for every successful copyright takedown.  In other words Google talks the talk but only reluctantly so and it does the absolute minimum of walking the walk.

Nowhere is this approach more apparent in YouTube and the presence of user uploaded ‘full albums’.   A coherent argument can be made that 383 million views of Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ Vevo video delivered clear benefits to the artist and her team (both though direct Vevo advertising and the vast exposure).  Full length albums ripped into YouTube by users have no such benefit.  In fact labels in the main do what they can to remove them using YouTube’s takedown process.  If Google was a rights ally rather than a rights frenemy it wouldn’t solely wait to be told to take stuff down, at least for the really obvious and high profile stuff, but it doesn’t.

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Take a look at these top search results for Adele, U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beatles (see figure 1).  The full album results are high lighted in red, many of which have hundreds of thousands of views each, in the case of Adele’s ‘21’ it is more than 1 million, and some have been live for more than a year.  In the case of the Beatles all of the top results are full albums.  I doubt that the Beatles spent the best part of a decade not licensing to iTunes in order to suddenly throw it all straight up on YouTube.

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There are also endless ripped live DVDs and recorded TV broadcasts of live concerts (see figure 2). It’s pretty hard to see why somebody would want to buy a live DVD of a U2 show when they can get the entire show in 1080p HD on YouTube.  And of course because it is a continual 2 hours and 22 minutes of video the viewing experience will be virtually ad free, save for a 30 second pre-roll and the odd pop up which can easily be clicked off.  The only winner here in business terms is YouTube.

Not all the blame can be laid at Google’s feet though: these examples were found immediately, with no effort, so it is inconceivable that someone somewhere in each of the respective labels doesn’t also know about this.  Thus someone has taken the decision in some of these instances to take the benefit of the ‘exposure’ in return for cannibalizing sales of the exact same music the exposure is supposed to drive sales of.  It is this conflicted view of YouTube (i.e. ‘we couldn’t sell as much music without it even though we lose sales because of it) that needs to be fixed.  Google can hardly be blamed for having a schizophrenic approach to the music industry if the industry does exactly the same back.

But relationship issues notwithstanding, full albums need to disappear from YouTube right now. They need to do so if for no other reason than to level the playing field for those music services that pay back at higher rates to rights owners and that actually try to get consumers to pay for music.  Labels and Google, bang your respective heads together!

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

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

Subscription Service Hold Outs Actually Hit the Best Fans Hardest

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

Delay Releases to Free Platforms, Not Paid Ones

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

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

Holding Back from Paid Subscription Tiers Can Be a Missed Opportunity

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

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

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

Streaming’s Dirty Dozen

Atoms for Peace’s Thom Yorke and Nigel Goodrich’s much publicized decision to withdraw their music from Spotify added to a small but growing band of streaming hold-outs. Rather than add to the surplus of Atoms commentary, instead here are a dozen of the most pressing issues surrounding streaming.  They are presented in no particular order and are a mix of both positive and negative trends and implications:

  1. Technology has made access models ready for prime time. Downloads (both paid and P2P) made perfect sense in the days of dial-up, slower broadband and GPRS.  But now ubiquitous high-speed connectivity and cached streaming mean consumers don’t need to get as hung up about downloading to own anymore.  Access models are ready for primetime and Apple would be in, driving the market if it wasn’t so terrified about trashing its ability to 32 and 64 GB iPhones and iPads (when everything’s in the cloud who needs local storage capacity?).  Of course being ready for primetime doesn’t mean the world will change tomorrow.  There is always a long ‘flash-to-bang’ for new technology to manifest itself as consumer behavior.  But the inescapable fact is that downloads will eventually become a digital anachronism, an evolutionary dead end.  Though again, not tomorrow, because they remain the perfect route for new converts to digital to switch from the CD and because it remains Apple’s core mode, and Apple is the beating heart of the digital music market.  But the shift will come.  Consumer behavior is moving on and if business models don’t catch up then the illegal sector will fill the vacuum.
  2. Everything has happened before and will happen again. 10 years ago when Apple launched the iTunes Music Store artists were up in arms just as they are now, terrified that it would kill the CD and that it would result in consumers dissecting albums.  To some degree both those came to pass but you will be hard pressed to find an artist now who does not consider iTunes to be one of, often ‘the’, key source of recorded music income.  As the cliché management phrase goes ‘change is difficult’, but it is.  No one ever really knows how things will pan out and if you have a degree of stability the last thing you want is to jeopardize that.  Taking risks is fine when its someone else’s money and company, but not when it is your livelihood. So it is utterly understandable why there is so much fear among artists and songwriters, but there has to be a belief that the market will find an equilibrium.  If the streaming model is unsustainable for any part of the music industry food-chain it will ultimately have to rebalance. Services can’t exist without labels, labels can’t exist without artists, artists can’t exist without songwriters. The concern is whether some artists, services and labels could end up as collateral damage in the process.
  3. Transition not cannibalization.  Streaming will replace downloads, that much is incontrovertibly true.  It won’t happen immediately, but it will happen.  To consider the process as ‘cannibalization’ however misses the bigger picture of an inevitable transition in behavior.  You could argue that the car cannibalized the steam train, but the answer would not have been to ban the production of cars.  The consumer behavior shift is happening, business models will catch up.
  4. Scale might not benefit artists as well as labels and publishers. The holy grail of streaming is ‘scale’.  When it is reached all will be well, so the argument goes.  Clearly the amount of income will be dramatically better with 100 million paying subscribers but scale may be slower to benefit artists and songwriters.  This is because a label and a publisher both have a big pool of catalogue, so a 50% increase across hundreds of thousands of works is going to be measured in millions of dollars while for an artist with a couple of albums it will be measured in hundreds of dollars.
  5. Fuzzy data: Artists have become empowered with their ability to shed light on streaming by publishing their payouts.  But there are so many variables (what sort of deal they are on, whether they are a songwriter, whether they are recouped etc) that even averaging the data out is problematic. There are other problems too.  Many of the artists who pay most attention to the economics of music are later on in their careers, sometime in the sunset of their careers so their overall popularity is on the wane.  But a factor that impacts all artists is the delay between consumption and reporting, i.e. finding out how much they get paid. With labels the delay is typically quarterly, but with collection societies it is often a year.  So much of the data artists are looking at is a year out of date, representative of where the market was 12 months ago but not now.  And with the streaming market changing so quickly, this has big implications.
  6. Windowing might work some of the time.  There is a steady flow of high profile albums that have been held back from streaming services but there is no definitive evidence on how streaming impacts album sales. Coldplay and Adele both held back and had hugely successful album sales. Yet the three artists with the biggest first week album sales in 2013 (Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z and Daft Punk) were all available on streaming services the week of release.  There is a very strong case for holding back new releases from free streaming services (why should free customers get new releases the same time as paying customers?) but the case for paid streaming is less robust.
  7. The journey is becoming the destination too.  Nowhere more so than YouTube. The difference with YouTube is that everyone now accepts it as a crucial marketing vehicle.  The problem though is that for so many people YouTube is not just the discovery journey but also the destination itself, what’s more YouTube is the globe’s most popular digital music destination.  So instead of driving sales it replaces them for many users.  This is particularly true among younger music fans.  So even if YouTube was paying out the same amount as subscription services (which it isn’t) artists have a much, much bigger cannibalization risk in YouTube than they do in Spotify et al.  This is the core of the streaming challenge – the distinction between what constitutes promotion and consumption is blurring to the point of irrelevance.  Right now many of the positioning and commercial mechanics of free streaming services and tiers is that of promotion, even though they are also consumption.
  8. Pricing and product must evolve. Streaming pricing and product sets must evolve.  9.99 is not a mass market price point, however good value it may represent.  In fact it is the entire monthly spend of the top 10% of music buyers.  Much more needs to be done around testing pricing elasticity, else subscriptions will never break out of their aficionado niche.  There are a few interesting experiments, such as MusicQubed and Bloom.fm which focus on curating small amounts of content at low price points.  But much more needs to be done on this front, the leap from free to 9.99 is too big. There must also be innovation in the product experience, and Deezer’s, Spotify’s and Soundcloud’s developer platforms all look like great environments for such innovation to occur, but they’re not enough on their own.  Product and pricing need to be used strategically to target services at discreet consumer segments. The 2000’s taught us that one size does not fit all for digital music, the same applies to subscriptions.  One key way the mainstream services can start segmenting their offerings is by providing artist channel subscriptions were a user pays $/£/€1 per month per artist.
  9. Income comparisons are not binary.  A comparison of the amount of money earned (across all rights holders) from a paid stream (c.$0.01) versus that of a paid download (c.$0.70) is always going to look catastrophic.  But these rates are points on a much larger scale, with the download at one end and terrestrial radio at the other.  In the US terrestrial radio does not pay anything to record labels and in Europe rates are far, far smaller than streaming services.  The assumption has always been that radio is so important a discovery channel that paltry rates are tolerable.  But if music sales are diminishing then radio has the same ‘journey as destination’ problem as YouTube.  The challenge for artists and songwriters is to work out where the sweet spot on the scale is for them. Where is right balance between discovery and income generation?
  10. Rethinking the life-time value of a song.  In the past the commercial value of most songs peaked during the course of a few months, tailed off steadily for another few months and then nearly flat-lined thereafter.  For big artists and big hits the tail off would be longer and the flat-line would be replaced with a steady after life.  Streaming changes that in three ways: i) fewer song purchase transactions occur, meaning less money up-front, ii) money is generated direct from listening long after the original release iii) streaming services drive strong consumption of catalogue.  So artists will see a shift from immediate big income to long-term steady income. The question of whether one will equal the other will become clear in the next 2 to 3 years.  See my consumption analysis for a view of where it may get to.
  11. The listener net widens. While it is clear that an album being listened to a dozen times on Spotify is much less valuable to an artist than if it had been bought on iTunes, that comparison assumes it is a case of one or the other.  But what is becoming increasingly clear is that more artists are getting listened to by more people.  The absence of the price barrier means people are eagerly trying out new artists.  And in many cases the listener would never have bought the album anyway.  What’s more, after having streamed it a few times, they may even realise they just don’t like it that much.  In the analogue era that would have just been a disinterested listen to a single on the radio, with streaming it is direct revenue. The artist is thus getting money from a consumer that does not even like them enough to proactively spend money on them.  It may be small revenue, but it is ‘found revenue’ that would not have existed anywhere else.
  12. Things will get much worse unless more change happens.  Digital music revenue is not growing quickly enough, in fact growth is slowing.  Global digital revenues grew more slowly in both absolute and percentage terms in 2012 than they did in 2011. Globally digital is still only 38% of music sales and in Japan, which may become the world’s largest music market this year, 80% of sales are physical and digital has been in decline since 2009.  It is wrong to assume that the market will naturally ‘go digital’.  At the current trajectory it will not.  Experimentation with new models and products is crucial.  We are back in the ‘throw it all at the wall and see what sticks’ phase we were in during 2007-9.  This time though artists and songwriters are part of this, both because they have found their voice and because DIY/Direct-to-Fan services are part of the mix.  The next five years will be the most important phase of change the music business has ever gone through.  The last 10 years has given us a solid foundation of options but it has also created a hornet’s nest of inequities, mistrust, misgivings, threats and disruption.  Labels, publishers, songwriters, artists, music services, tech companies must all learn how to create a sustainable music ecosystem that benefits all parties.  A naïve aspiration?  Perhaps, but the current ‘what’s in it for me?’ ethos will only result in unnecessarily dismembering an industry that is perhaps finally ready to start on the path to recovery.

The Challenges of Becoming a Subscription Business

Subscriptions are still only a small share of the music market but their time is coming. That time is long over due (I and my former Jupiter colleagues David Card and Aram Sinnreich first started making the case for subscriptions back in 2000) and a slew of big players are getting ready to play ball now that subscription look ready for primetime.  But they will find it far from plain sailing.

Spotify, Deezer, Rhapsody, Muve, Rdio, WiMP etc. have done much get the market moving and although there are still major challenges ahead (e.g. 9.99 not being a mass market price point) a host of new entrants are poised to make their moves.  The much mooted / touted (delete as appropriate) Daisy is one of the more eagerly anticipated ones (see my take here) but focus has recently turned to potential moves from big players like Amazon and Google, while Apple’s arrival in the subscription market is becoming Godot-esque.

All of these companies bring fantastic assets to the subscription market –scale being the most important – but they will all find the subscription transition difficult.  However good their technology assets, however big their marketing spend, however big their customer base, none of these companies have subscriptions running through the DNA of their products nor, most importantly, their customers.  Here are the key challenges each will face:

  • Apple: Apple was the music industry’s digital beachhead but now Apple has a problem.  Downloads were a transition strategy with one foot in the digital future and one foot in the analogue past.  Apple has built a paid content customer base founded on ownership, a la carte transactions and downloads.  Meanwhile it tiers its hardware pricing by hard-drive capacity.  In some ways this latter point matters most: in the streaming era consumers download less which means there is less need for higher capacity devices, which in turn means that demand for the higher priced, higher capacity devices tails off.  Apple can use subscriptions to address this issue by creating bundles e.g. iPad Gold, a $200 price premium with device-lifetime access to an iTunes music, video and Apps subscription.   This sort of tactic will be crucial for Apple because the concept of digital content subscriptions is alien to the vast majority of its 400 million iTunes customers.  If anyone can make subscriptions work, it is Apple – and I believe they will – but currently its customer base, hardware pricing and content offerings (iMatch and movie rentals excepted) are simply not the right foundations for building a subscription service on.  A lot needs to change before Apple and its customers are ready for subscriptions.
  • Amazon: Amazon’s content-device strategy is the mirror opposite of Apple’s: Amazon is selling devices to help sell content. Amazon needs to be a key player in the music and video business because these low price point items are the bottom rung on the purchase ladder that Amazon hooks new customers in with.  Subscriptions though, are high consideration items.  Amazon is hoping it can nudge customers up to monthly subscriptions in the same way it can nudge customers from a CD to a laptop.  But it isn’t the same transition.  Most Amazon customers have a lot of one-night stands with the retailer rather than a relationship: it is where they go to get stuff, not to immerse themselves in experiences.  Of course Amazon is trying to change that – particularly with video – but it requires a fundamental change in the relationship with its customers.  As with Apple, a device / subscription bundle strategy will deliver best near-term results.
  • Google: Google has the most diverse set of assets at its disposal. In YouTube it has the most successful streaming music service on the planet and in Google Play it has, well, not the most successful digital content store on the planet.  Launching a subscription service on YouTube is an obvious option and the sheer scale of YouTube means that even with highly modest conversion rate it can easily become a major player very quickly.  But the fact that YouTube is free is core to why it is so popular, so the vast majority of its users have little interest in paying fees.  Thus Google will have to ‘think different’ to make subscriptions work on YouTube.  But where Google could really make the subscription play work is, well, on Play.  Not Play by itself though but instead as a tightly integrated subscription – device ecosystem with Motorola.  A while ago I wrote that Google ‘needs to do an Apple with Motorola’. It still does, but it should do so in a manner fit for the cloud era by hard bundling a Play subscription service into Motorola handsets. (You should be spotting the theme by now).
  • Samsung / HTC / Nokia et al. By this stage any readers from a non-Apple and non-Motorola handset business might be beginning to wonder how on earth their companies are going able to squeeze themselves into the subscription equation.  It is a very good question.  Most mobile handset companies are at a crucial juncture, they now face the same problem as ISPs did in the mid-2000’s: unless something changes mobile handset companies are going to become ‘dumb devices’ just as ISPs ‘became dumb pipes’.  Nokia recognized this earlier than most but got the solution wrong – or at least the implementation – with Ovi and is slowly clawing its way back.  But all of them have a huge task ahead them if they are to avoid becoming helpless observers as other companies build robust digital businesses on the back of their hardware. If they can harness the carrier billing relationship then they have a truly unique asset for building a music subscription market, but that is much, much easier said then done (remember Comes With Music?).

All of these business have the potential to be successful subscription businesses but none of them will find it an easy transition and none of them are guaranteed success.  Not only will they have to transform their products, pricing and customer bases, but they will also have to develop entirely new business practices.  To some degree or another, all of these companies have to make the transition from being retail businesses to being subscription businesses.  Being in the subscription business is all about managing churn.  It doesn’t matter how good a job you do of acquiring customers if you can’t keep hold of them.  These are the skillsets that Rhapsody has been quietly perfecting for years and that Spotify is quickly learning.  A successful subscription business can appear like a duck, slow moving above the water line, but feet moving furiously fast below.

The Churn Killer: Device Subscription Bundles

Any business that is new to subscriptions – whatever they may say to the contrary and whatever talent they might hire in – is going to be learning the ropes.  Which is another reason why hard-bundling subscriptions with hardware makes so much sense for these new entrants. Besides the consumer benefits of turning an ethereal subscription into a tangible product, they allow the providers to plan for 12 to 24 months worth of customer life time value rather than worrying about subscribers churning out after just a month or two.

Even though downloads and CDs will still dominate global music revenues by the end of 2013, it is going to be a big year for subscriptions. Whether the new entrants can help turn that into a big decade remains to be seen.