Churn in the era of dynamic retention

Kantar, a survey vendor, has been getting some attention by passing off consumer data as an actual measure of subscribers and suggesting that the music subscriber base actually declined in Q1 2022. It said the same in Q4 2021, but 2021 was a spectacular year for music subscriber growth, with the global base of subscribers growing by 118.8 million in 2021 – the largest ever increase in a single year – to reach 586 million. Of course, it would be obtuse to suggest that all is rosy in the world of digital subscriptions. After all, the attention recession has slowed growth and the actual recession will push up churn rates. But it is wrong to assume that digital subscriptions behave like their traditional counterparts, which is exactly why music subscriptions are well placed to weather the perfect storm of both recessions.

Digital subscriptions are different

Traditional subscriptions (pay-TV, internet, phone etc.) are slow moving, predictable beasts. Consumers are locked into contracts for fixed periods and must pay penalty clauses to exit them early. Which is why, when churn happens in these subscriptions, it is a big deal. It represents a hard break, the end of a subscriber relationship. But digital subscriptions are wired differently:

  • Churn doesn’t necessarily mean churn: Few have contracts, and most are as easy to leave as they are to join. They are built (if not necessarily designed) for hop-on / hop-off behaviour. When someone drops a Netflix subscription, the likelihood is that they will be back in a few months. The same does not apply for traditional subscribers.
  • Digital subscriptions are less critical: Most traditional subscriptions are utilities (phone, broadband etc.). Even a pay-TV subscription is a utility because the TV set may literally stop receiving signal without a subscription. So, cancelling one is a much bigger deal. But digital subscriptions usually just make digital entertainment better (e.g., an extra catalogue of TV shows to watch, music without ads etc.)
  • Many are still getting started: Even though music subscriptions growth is slowing in many markets, large numbers of consumers are still trying out subscriptions for the first time. This means there is always a high turnover of subscribers. Even more so in video and games where new services have come to market.

The last point is perhaps most important. MIDiA’s Q1 consumer data indicates that more people signed up to music subscriptions in the previous year (13%) than cancelled (10%) – both figures are as a share of all consumers that either had or used to have a music subscription.

The takeaway is that music subscriptions are highly fluid at the edges. They resemble a duck in water: elegant and slow moving above the water line, but legs pumping furiously below it. We can see this in Spotify’s reported numbers too. In 2020 Spotify added 25 million subscribers to its tally to reach 180 million. But it actually added twice as many subscribers as that before it also lost 25 million due to churn.

Churn is built into the model

Churn is quite simply part of the equation for music subscriptions. But at risk of sounding too Pollyanna-ish about this, there is no denying that dark clouds are building on the horizon. The cost-of-living crisis is accelerating, inflation and interest rates are going up, and wages are steadfast. As MIDiA’s recession data shows, around a fifth of music subscribers would consider cancelling their subscriptions if their everyday costs spiralled. A subscriber slowdown may indeed come. Those that do cancel should not be considered ‘lost’ but instead as taking a break. They will be there, ready to dive back in as soon as they can. 

DSPs will need to think in terms of what MIDiA calls dynamic retention. Instead of being focused on having a subscriber for all 12 months of a year, understand that in the coming economic climate, subscribers will likely require more flexibility. So, think instead of how many subscriber months can be had from that subscriber over a 12-month period, regardless of whether they are consecutive or not. It is certainly a shift in mindset, but this kind of pragmatic and flexible thinking will be crucial for navigating the times ahead.

Why Spotify’s TAM is only part of the story

Spotify just held an investor day in which it ran through its vision for growth. Spotify has long touted the concept of its total addressable market (TAM), its path to a billion users and the role of emerging markets as the surest path to this figure. Spotify’s presentation focused on monthly active users (MAUs), but, for the purpose of this blog, subscribers will be the key focus for two reasons: 1) MAUs are an inflated reach measure, while weekly (WAU) and daily (DAU) active users measure a far more tangible quantity of actual engagement. The tech giants, like Meta, focus on WAU and DAUs in their filings. In the saturated attention economy, monthly use can be one step away from total inactivity. 2) Ad revenue was just 12% of Spotify’s 2021 revenue, and while it is getting better at ad monetisation (due in large part to podcasts), it has a much weaker track record of ad monetisation than it does subscriptions. Subscriptions are where Spotify makes its money and are also where the music business makes its money. 73% of 2021 global label streaming revenue was from subscriptions (and that is based on a number inflated by non-DSP streaming).

First off, a bluffer’s guide to TAMs. TAMs are actually just one part of a three-step way of measuring opportunity:

  • Total addressable market (TAM): the total potential audience
  • Serviceable addressable market (SAM): how much of it is relevant to your product
  • Serviceable obtainable market (SOM): how much of it you think you can convert

Another way to think about it is: how many fish are there in the pond, how many fish you think you can catch, how many fish you think you will actually catch.

Why TAMs alone are not enough

MIDiA employs a TAM / SAM / SOM methodology in its forecasts, as follows:

  • TAM: those with smartphones and data plans
  • SAM: of this, those who are interested in paying for music
  • SOM: the SAM adjusted for urbanisation rates and music streaming affordability on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis

The SOM stage is crucial for emerging markets. Broadly speaking, it is consumers in urban conglomerations who are most likely to be addressable by streaming subscriptions. A rice paddy worker in rural Bangladesh might have a phone, but they are likely to a) have very little disposable income, b) use their phone most as a utility, and c) have bigger worries than whether to pay for a music subscription. The TAM and SAM figures might be reassuringly larger figures, but, in truth, it is the wealthier, more tech-centred, urban elites in emerging markets who are most likely to convert.

Real terms affordability is crucial too. A subscription in India is around five times cheaper in dollar terms than in the US, but, on a PP basis (i.e., adjusted for local affordability), it is 12 times more expensive. Which further emphasises the role of urban elites in emerging markets for streaming subscriptions.

When we map MIDiA’s SOM alongside Spotify’s TAM, the market opportunity immediately looks bigger. And it is. But Spotify does not operate in isolation. It is one player in a competitive marketplace. In 2021, there were already 554 million paid subscribers globally, of which, 180 million were Spotify users. The global subscriber base represents 92% of Spotify’s TAM. The global subscriber figure is swelled by China’s nearly 100 million subscribers, a market in which Spotify does not operate due to its ‘poison pill’ equity swap relationship with Tencent. But even removing China from the equation, 76% of Spotify’s TAM was already addressed by itself and its competitors in 2021.

Does this mean Spotify’s growth ambitions are unrealistic? Not necessarily. There is a huge amount of growth left in the market, as MIDiA’s forthcoming music market forecasts will show (and from where the figures in the chart come). But the opportunity must be gauged in the context of where Spotify sits in the wider competitive marketplace, not in isolation.

It is no coincidence that Spotify is focusing here on free users rather than paid. Free users are the funnel for Spotify’s wider business (i.e., including podcasts and audiobooks, which it can best monetise via ads). But even the free streaming market is hyper competitive, with close to 1.5 billion free users already globally in 2021. Most importantly, though, the free user numbers are biggest in the most populous emerging markets, and it is local players that dominate. The future of music streaming in emerging market is going to (at the very least) be shaped as much by local emerging market players (e.g., Boomplay, JioSaavn, NetEase Cloud Music) as it is Western streaming services. In fact, there is an argument that Western streaming services looking at the emerging markets world as their target for colonising with streaming users is actually Western-tech imperialism.

NOTE: MIDiA’s annual music forecasts are close to complete and will contain historical and forecast data for streaming revenues and users, and much, much more, with revenues both in label terms and retail terms (i.e., inclusive of publishing and DSP shares). If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about MIDiA’s forthcoming forecast, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

The Attention Recession: How inflation and the pandemic are reshaping entertainment

Netflix and Meta were the canaries in the proverbial mine for the attention recession and it is looking increasingly likely that difficult times lie ahead. If the attention crunch was not enough on its own, it has been compounded by the perfect storm of headwinds: the cost of living crisis, rising interest rates, energy and global grain supply constraints, and the Russo-Ukrainian war. The question is not whether the entertainment sector is going to be impacted by these trends, but rather by how much and for how long? The good news is that MIDiA is going to help answer these questions in our upcoming free-to-attend webinar; The Attention Recession: How inflation and the pandemic are reshaping entertainment.

Here is an early overview of some of what we will be covering:

Back in late 2019 when it looked like the world might be entering a recession, MIDiA asked consumers about how they expected to change their entertainment behaviours and spending if they found themselves facing financial pressures. Now, more than two years later, as the world faces a cost of living crisis, we asked almost exactly the same questions once again. Even though the already-present cost of living crisis is far more tangible to most consumers than a potential financial recession, broadly speaking, consumers are less concerned now than they were in 2019. Whether that is misplaced optimism is another thing entirely…

However, what is consistent between the 2019 and 2022 responses is the tendency for consumers to prefer options to do less of something rather than stop entirely. So, going out and eating out less both get significantly higher response rates than cancelling subscriptions. This makes sense: going out less does not mean stopping going out entirely, but cancelling a music or games subscription is an all-or-nothing decision.

Video subscriptions are a bit different of course as the majority of subscribers have more than one video subscription. Cancelling one is similar to going out less: it is a do-less decision, not a do-nothing decision. Given the finite number of TV shows released each month that match an individual’s tastes, more consumers will likely become savvy switchers, dipping in and out of different video services to watch the shows they want, when they are available. While video services can try to counter this with annual subscriptions, these are a hard sell during a cost-of-living crisis. Far better to start thinking about user retention in a more fluid way, considering the share of a subscriber’s months you can retain during a calendar year rather than expecting all twelve of them. 

This concept of what MIDiA terms dynamic retention is just one illustration of how the coming period of uncertainty is not just going to be about economic disruption, but a catalyst for business and technology innovation. Something that also applied to the pandemic, that accelerated the adoption of already emerging trends, such as remote working, video conferencing, and virtual concerts.

There is no doubt that life is going to get difficult for many consumers over the coming months, which in turn means that entertainment companies (as consumer centred businesses) are also going to feel the pinch. For some companies the focus will be to survive but for others it will be to thrive. One company’s challenge can be another’s opportunity. Recessions always leave scarring, with the process acting as something of a reset, clearing out the dead wood from the pre-recession economy and setting up the next gen companies that will define the post-recession economy. 

In this coming attention recession, it will be the entertainment companies that are able to quickly and fluidly adapt their models, billing, pricing, programming, and user engagement strategies that will be best placed to retain, even win, audiences during the downturn. Truly effective monetisation may not come until later, but audience acquisition and retention start right now.

Join us on Thursday 26th of May at 4.30pm BST / 3.30pm CET / 11.30am EST / 8.30am PT to hear much more on these themes from MIDiA’s analysts. Sign up for free here.

How iPod changed everything

Apple just announced that it is finally ending production of the iPod. At 21 years of age, it outlived many of the dramatic changes it witnessed and triggered. In this age dominated by streaming (and a vinyl resurgence) the iPod did not really have a place anymore, other than with its ever diminishing base of super fans. It should probably have ceased production long ago, but the iPod holds a special place in Apple’s heart and sentimentalism likely played a role in allowing it to reach its 21st birthday before it was finally put out to pasture. And there is no doubt that the iPod earned that special place, because it was the change catalyst that transformed Apple into the mega corporation that it is today. But the iPod did even more than that, it was the trailblazer that created the environment in which today’s digital entertainment world could exist.

Back in my early days as an analyst I went to my first ever Apple analyst briefing, for the launch of the second generation. I felt like a fish out of water, with the room full of dry tech analysts asking Apple about its education strategy, its server products, its enterprise computing strategy. Then little me in the corner, asked about the iPod, and the entire room turned to me with bemused faces, just like the pub scene in American Werewolf in London.

Every successive briefing session I went to, the iPod became an ever bigger deal and the other analysts in the room started asking questions about it too. The iPod shuffled along at a steady pace until the launch of the iTunes Music Store, at which point it suddenly had a purposes it previously lacked, and sales lifted off. Apple has never looked back.

It is no coincidence that it was music that propelled the iPod to tech immortality. Steve Jobs was a massive music fan and it was his passion that helped ensure the iPod continued to receive the support it needed, even when it was not yet showing signs of fulfilling its huge potential. Apple has always been a company that is as obsessed with content as it is hardware and this is why the iPod and subsequent Apple devices have been so central to the growth of digital entertainment.

As the iPod evolved from scroll wheel to touch screen it became the launchpad for something even bigger for Apple: the iPhone (the first gen iPhone was a direct evolution of the iPod touch, at a time when smart phones were all keys). With the iPhone came apps. Just in the same way that the iPod was not the first digital music player, so Apple was not the first to make mobile apps nor of course the first to make a smartphone. But in all three cases, Apple took a promising but struggling format and made it ready for primetime. This early follower strategy underpinned Apple’s success in the 2000s and the early 2010s.

Pandora was an early beneficiary of Apple’s app strategy, being natively installed on US iPhones. The result was another lift off, with Pandora soon becoming he most widely used streaming app on the planet, even though it was only available in the US. Just as with the iTiunes / iPod combination, Apple understood the cruciality of an integrated content / device experience and its App Store became the launch pad for today’s digital entertainment economy. It did so by allowing app developers across the world to find a global audience which did not need to worry about clumsy installations and fragmented billing. Everything happened in one place, seamlessly and effortlessly. Google soon followed with its own take on the app store. Now you will struggle to find a games, music, video, news, podcast or book provider that does not use the Apple App Store, nor indeed a consumer that does not use apps to consumer content. 

Apple’s subsequent launch of the iPad and Apple TV further accelerated the adoption of digital content, giving audiences and content companies more choice about where they could benefit from the app economy. Apple Music, Apple TV, Apple Books, Podcasts, News, Arcade and more followed, helping cement Apple not just as a catalyst for the digital entertainment economy, but also as a major content player in its own right.

None of this would have happened without the iPod. So even though many readers will be too young to have even owned an iPod, spare a thought for this now departed member of the digital ecosystem, because without it, the devices you use and the entertainment you consume would look very, very different.

Farewell iPod!

Music industry earnings 2021: Riding the wave

Universal music’s Q1 2022 earnings showed continued growth but a noticeable slowdown in streaming growth, with streaming revenues up 12% year-on-year (YoY) in USD terms compared to a growth of 35% one year earlier.* As results trickle in from across the music business over the coming months, we will get a fuller sense of how much the wider business is slowing down after an exceptional 2021. Until then, it is worth looking at how leading companies across the wider music business fared across all of 2021. To that end, MIDiA has just published its inaugural ‘Music Industry Earnings’ report, tracking the revenues of 12 leading music companies across recordings, publishing, streaming and live**. MIDiA clients can download the full report and dataset here. Here are some of the findings.

The overall trajectory of travel for the music industry in the late 2010s and early 2020s was positive, but growth was not always spread evenly. Self-releasing artists direct consistently outpaced record labels, streaming revenues grew fast in some markets while others lagged, and Covid turned the live music business upside down – 2021 was different. Similarly, strong growth was present in most parts of the music industry, with most companies and geographies benefiting in broadly similar ways.

2021 was a year like no other in recent memory, with the music industry rebounding from the pandemic. In many respects, 2021 was a catch-up year for the wider economy, with additional business being done that had been put on hold during the worst of the pandemic. Although the music business is largely a consumer business, it does have a B2B component (advertising) and the uplift in wider economic activity filtered down to consumers as employees. The result was a blended 37.7% increase in revenues for leading companies across recordings, publishing, streaming and live.

This figure, though, was skewed upwards by the unusual dynamic of the live music industry recovering revenues after a pandemic-induced collapse. With live therefore excepted, organic growth was broadly similar across all other sectors, with labels (26.7%) and streaming digital services providers (DSPs) (27.0%) performing strongest. Music publishers were up 20.5%.

Live increased its share of total to 13%, up from 5% in 2020, but this was still far below its 29% 2019 share. It remains likely that live will not reclaim such a high share, even if it recovers fully, principally because music rights companies grew revenue by nearly two and half times faster in 2021 than in 2020. The net effect will be a net increase in organic market share once the live recovery process is complete.

Within labels, HYBE was the fastest growing (across its recorded music revenues), up by 70.4%, in publishing it was Warner Chappell (23.7%), while NetEase Cloud music led the way in subscriber growth, up by 81.1% (far ahead of Spotify’s 16.1% growth). However, Spotify grew its free userbase far faster than NetEase while Tencent Music Entertainment saw its free userbase decrease by 1.1%.

While Covid turned many industries upside down, live music was the only component of the music industry that did not continue to grow throughout the pandemic. For investors, the appeal is clear of an asset class that can flourish even in difficult times. The remainder of 2022, and potentially beyond – depending on what happens in the global economy and geo-political environment – will be a sterner test. Rocketing fuel bills and food costs will cut into consumer discretionary spending, but, as music subscriptions are relatively low cost products that tend to be held by consumers with meaningful disposable income, the risk exposure may be low. Though the fact that UMG grew its subscription revenues by just 10% in Q1 YoY, we may even be seeing a slow down there.

Whereas a few years ago, a subscription slowdown would have been as worrying for labels and publishers as it would have been for DSPs, the emergence of non-DSP revenue (Meta, TikTok, Peloton, Snap, Twitch, etc.) means that rightsholders now have an established plan B. A point illustrated by UMG’s 17% growth in ad supported streaming in Q1 2022 YoY. The economic headwinds during the remainder of 2022 will be challenging for sure, but the performance in 2020 and 2021 point to a robustness that will help it weather the storm in a way that other consumer-centric industries may not enjoy.

*All values in current currency terms, using the exchange rates published by Vivendi for each corresponding quarter.

**List of companies tracked in MIDiA’s 2021 Music Industry Earnings report:

  1. Believe
  2. HYBE
  3. Live Nation
  4. LiveXLive
  5. NetEase Cloud Music
  6. Pandora
  7. Reservoir Media
  8. Sony Music Group
  9. Spotify
  10. Tencent Music Entertainment
  11. Universal Music Group
  12. Warner Music Group

The attention recession has hit Spotify too

Spotify added two million subscribers in Q1 2022. Yes, this incorporates the impact of 1.5 million lost Russian subscribers and is set against Netflix having lost 0.2 million subscribers over the same quarter. But while Spotify did well to not suffer the same fate as Netflix, it was not able to buck the broader trend affecting the entertainment market: the attention recession. The attention recession is the combined impact of: 1) the end of the Covid entertainment boom (consumers have less time and money as pre-pandemic behaviours resurface); 2) economic headwinds (rising inflation and interest rates), and 3) the geo-political situation (the Russo-Ukrainian war). Spotify’s Q1 earnings provide further early evidence of the attention recession’s impact. Spotify’s earnings were shaped by all three.

Looking at the ad-supported and paid users of a number of leading digital entertainment companies that have already reported their Q1 2022 results, a clear trend emerges: paid user growth slowed in Q1 2022, while free users continued to grow strongly. With consumers having less time on their hands and less money in their pockets, free is growing faster than paid.

Entertainment monetisation trends followed an almost mirror opposite of user behaviour. The first quarter of every year is typically down from the preceding fourth quarter for ad businesses, with the Q4 advertiser spend surge receding. Yet the declines in Q1 ad revenues for Snap and YouTube were both significantly bigger in 2022 than in 2021, with a combined drop of 22% compared to 13% the year before. Snap’s Evan Spiegel even went on record to explain just how problematic a quarter Q1 2022 had been and how there are growing concerns about the outlook for ad spend. This is because, as consumers have less disposable income, they buy less, which means advertisers get lower returns on their spend. Ad revenue is most often an early victim of a recession.

Conversely, Q1 2022 subscription revenues were up slightly, though much less so than in Q1 2021, and Spotify’s premium revenues were down 1%. Nonetheless, the key takeaway is that subscription monetisation was less vulnerable in the first phase of the attention recession. While free services and tiers benefited from incoming cost-conscious users, they were not able to harness the shift commercially. 

As MIDiA said back in 2020, all companies were going to feel the impact of the attention recession, which we identified was imminent following the pandemic. It is a case of simple arithmetic: more time and more spend during the pandemic benefited all companies. Post-pandemic, both of those increases recede, which means that all entertainment companies have to fight hard to hold on to their newly-found boosts to revenue and users, let alone grow. When we made that prediction, it was before the additional elements of economic and geo-political trends raised their heads. Rising inflation is going to hit all consumers’ pockets (with food and fuel prices being particularly hit), forcing many households to make trade-offs between essentials and luxuries. 

Though Spotify’s move to wind down Russian operations was admirable, it illustrates how the impacts of the Russo-Ukrainian war on digital entertainment will be both varied and far reaching, not least because of its impact on inflation due to its disruption of global food and fuel supplies. 

We are living in ‘interesting times’ and the future is always uncharted, but especially so now. 

Forget peak Netflix, this is the attention recession

Netflix’s Q1 2022 results caused a stir, with subscriber numbers down by 0.2 million from one quarter earlier. Some are calling this ‘peak Netflix’, but this is not a Netflix-specific issue. The decline illustrates that Netflix does not operate in isolation, and is, instead, but one part of the interconnected attention economy – an attention economy that is now entering recession. This is a recession that MIDiA first called back in February 2020, and that the wider marketplace has started to wake up to.

The attention recession – after the boom

When MIDiA made the prediction of ‘the coming attention recession’ over a year ago, we identified that once the world started returning to pre-pandemic behaviours, the Covid-bounce in entertainment time would recede, creating an attention recession. The attention economy had already peaked back in late 2019, which meant that the pandemic and its lockdown attention boom delayed the inevitable negative effects of companies that are competing in a now saturated attention economy. During the lockdown boom, media time went up by 12% and all forms of home entertainment boomed, but as we warned at the time, the effects were temporary, so entertainment companies needed to plan for post-lockdown life. 

A return to a smaller and recently constrained, pre-pandemic attention economy was always going to be painful. We termed this contraction a recession because we knew there would be clear economic aftershocks. Not least because the impact has been unevenly felt. As the first signs of contraction showed, not all sectors were impacted evenly. Pandemic boom sectors, like audiobooks and podcasts, saw larger chunks of their newly-found consumption time disappear. Music clawed back some of its lost share. Video (Netflix included) fell, but social and social video buckled the trend entirely, not simply clawing back some lost share, but actually growing throughout the entire pandemic period to end it with more hours than when it entered it. The arithmetic is simple: total attention hours are falling, social is growing hours, therefore, the remainder of the attention economy collectively experiences a double whammy of decline of time and money. 

The wider economy is beginning to bite too

But, unfortunately, there is more. Since MIDiA made the case for an attention recession, the global geo-political and economic situations have changed – to put it mildly. Inflation was already spiking before Russia invaded Ukraine, and the war’s impact on grain and energy supplies will only accelerate inflation even further. Put simply, consumers will feel growing pressure, with wages racing to keep up with price rises. Discretionary entertainment spend will be one of the earliest victims. Video subscriptions inadvertently made themselves an easy target. The sheer volume of choice and competition, combined with rolling monthly subscriptions, make it all too easy to drop one subscription without seriously denting your overall video experience. But while streaming services now face a potential savvy switcher cataclysm, traditional pay-TV companies have their subscribers locked into legally binding, long-term contracts. It usually costs consumers MORE money to cancel contracts, defeating the purpose of trying to reduce spend. Consequently, we may even see the cord cutting / SVOD growth dynamic invert for a while.

Back in 2020, when we first started writing about the potential impact that an economic recession would have on entertainment, we identified that 22% of consumers would cancel one or more video subscriptions, and that 22% would downgrade from paid to free on music. Netflix’s earnings are the first signs of this consumer intent manifesting. Other subscription video on demand (SVOD) services should not consider themselves immune. Even if the economy was to stabilise tomorrow, the long-term outlook for SVOD will most likely be defined by savvy switchers continually hopping across services to watch the shows they want. SVOD subscribers had found themselves thinking the new boss looked pretty much like the old boss, having to subscribe to so many services that their SVOD spend ended up looking a lot like those old pay-TV bills. In a recession, consumers will need SVOD to deliver on the price benefit more than ever before. 

When price increase can be hindrance, not a help

A lot has been made of how great a job Netflix has done in increasing its prices while streaming music has not – heck, even I did it. Increasing prices above the rate of inflation may a) reflect Netflix’s actual market worth, and b) help drive revenue growth, but it makes Netflix exposed in a hyper-competitive SVOD market that is entering an attention recession and, potentially, an economic recession. 

Circumstances may well look very different for music. Firstly, the vast majority of music subscribers only have one subscription, so if you cancel, you lose all the benefits of a paid account, not just a slice of choice. Secondly, music subscriptions have reduced in real terms because they have not kept track with inflation. In fact, prices have hardly moved at all in 20 years. While this has long been seen as a problem, in the current circumstances, it might be an asset. Music subscriptions represent good value for money, and with inflation pushing upwards, they will represent even better value for money as every month passes. Perhaps now is not the best time for music price increases.

Reasons, not ways, to spend attention

So, with all this doom and gloom, how can entertainment companies survive – perhaps even thrive? Long term, annual billing for digital subscriptions is a logical step, but for those who do not have them, now is not the best time to try to commit to large payments, unless there is some serious discounting in place. Multi-format bundles, like Apple One and Amazon Prime, will also be well placed. Ad supported services will also do well. But it will take more than clever billing and bundling. It will require a fundamental reassessment of the relationship with the audience.

One of the key calls MIDiA made in our 2022 predictions report was the new need for reasons, not ways, to spend attention in the attention recession:

“[Entertainment companies] will not only lose time, but end up lower than pre-pandemic levels. With such fierce demands on their time, audiences will need to be given reasons, not ways, to spend their attention.”

This might also be the moment for the next generation of emerging tech majors like Byte Dance and Tencent who’s businesses have a strong focus on ad supported and monetizing fandom rather than the commodified model of monetizing consumption. As Facebook’s declining user numbers showed, even in the booming social sector, a realignment of the marketplace is happening.

In the attention recession, entertainment companies need to start appreciating that consumer attention is a scarce resource, not an abundant one – a resource that must be won, not claimed. Those who do not will be the most vulnerable to the vagaries of the attention recession.

Fake artists are what happens when fandom dies

The topic of ‘fake artists’ refuses to go away. For those who have been on Mars for the last couple of years, fake artists refer to artists who release under a streaming pen name but do not build any artist profile around the music. Most of this music comes from production music libraries (typically ‘royalty free’) and is seen by the traditional music business (record labels especially) as a means of gaming the system – especially as the assumption is that DSPs pay less for such music (even though record labels have started playing the game themselves). Although the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ might seem like a pragmatic solution, it, of course, only exacerbates the problem. Because the problem is not fake artists, but it is, instead, the way in which streaming is killing fandom.

Streaming is racing to be radio, not retail

Streaming is fast becoming more of a replacement for radio than it is retail. Retail used to be where (engaged, smaller scale) fans went, while radio was where (passive, larger scale) audiences went. As streaming got bigger, there was always going to come a point in which its focus would be the large passive audience segment rather than the smaller engaged fan segment. But what has happened is that streaming is turning everyone into the passive massive, even fans. Streaming has turned music into a utility, like water coming out of the tap. This might have helped drive global scale, but it came at the cost of fundamentally eroding the cultural impact of music, by making it about consumption rather than fandom. 

Streaming music soundtracks our everyday lives. There are playlists for everything we do (study, fitness, relaxing, cooking, working, etc.). By becoming pervasive, music has lost some of its magic. The fandom that was inherent in people buying music because they loved it is gone. The biproduct of ubiquity is utility. In the immortal words of Syndrome from the Incredibles: “When everyone is super, no one will be…”

The problem is that, from the ground up, Western streaming is geared for consumption not fandom. From playlists through to economics, streaming is all about consumption at scale. Songs fuel consumption, not artists. Which is the breeding ground for mood music, of which ‘fake artists’ are but one sub-strand. 

Streaming’s torrent of ubiquity

This is not to say that there is anything inherently bad about consumption, after all, radio has been a corner stone of the music business for, well, pretty much forever. Labels have had a love / hate relationship with radio, but they valued the way in which it drove sales and delivered exposure for songs and artists (especially as DJs talk about the music being played, interviewing artists, etc.). With streaming, though, the discovery journey is the destination. So, the post-consumption part of the equation just disappeared. And a consumption-first environment, tailored to individuals’ daily lives and shorn of the artist context delivered by DJs, is fertile ground for mood music. In fact, mood music is the natural evolution of a consumption-first system. A system in which artists get washed away by streaming’s torrent of ubiquity. 

Add poor remuneration for mid and long-tail artists into the mix, and you have a perfect storm. Why? Because artists are compelled to diversify their income mix to eke out every extra dollar they can get from their creativity, with production music libraries being eager customers of their ancillary work.

Fandom has moved up the value chain

Streaming may have killed off fandom within its own environment, but fandom itself has not died. It has gone elsewhere (Bandcamp, Twitch, TikTok, etc.). It is TikTok that has arguably done the most to reinvigorate fandom in recent years. But, crucially, it has inserted itself before consumption instead of after it. You will be hard pushed to find a mainstream music marketing campaign that does not include TikTok as the place to kick start discovery and (if all goes well) virality. TikTok has thus become the top of the funnel for consumption. Yet, rather than filtering out what is valuable, the process is more like panning for gold, i.e., filtering out what is not valuable – consumption. Fandom, identity, recreation, engagement, and connection are all left with TikTok, while consumption flows through to streaming. Little wonder, then, that TikTok is diluting streaming’s cultural capital. 

It does not have to be this way. Chinese streaming services demonstrate that streaming can be fandom machines too. Tencent Music Entertainment makes around two thirds of its revenue from non-music, fandom revenue. But perhaps the most startling example of just how much is being left on the table by Western streaming services, is found in NetEase Cloud Music’s inaugural earnings release. 212 million music users generated RMB 3.6 billion. 0.7 million social entertainment users generated RMB 3.7 billion. Yes, that means an audience that is 0.32% the size of the music audience generated more income in fandom-related revenue than the music audience did in music revenue. Right now, if anyone in the West is going to be streaming fandom machines, it is probably going to be TikTok (a Chinese company) and Epic Games (a company 40% owned by a Chinese company).

Fandom remains the under-tapped resource in the West, but its value is not simply in the revenue potential. Fandom is the essence of what makes music move us. Under-invest in it, and music will continue on its path of commodification. Which might serve the streaming platforms well, but not the wider music business. ‘Fake artists’ will become the norm, not the exception. To misquote syndrome “when everyone is fake, no one will be…”

Did independents really do three times worse than the majors in 2021?

Today, the IFPI released its estimates for the global recorded music market, with reported revenues of $25.9 billion. Last year, the IFPI estimated global revenues to be $21.6 billion (note that the IFPI retrospectively changes its historical figures every year, but you can see its actual 2020 figure here), which implies a growth rate of 20% (18.5% against the IFPI’s rebased 2020 figure of $16.9 billion). The IFPI estimate is significantly below MIDiA’s figure of $28.8 billion – but before getting into the reasons for the differences*, it is worth diving into just what the IFPI’s $25.9 billion figure implies for the size and performance of independent sector.

The major labels’ combined revenue in 2020 was $15.2 billion, and in 2021 it was $18.7bn, representing 25% annual growth. If you simply deduct those figures from the IFPI figures you end up with an implied independent figure of $6.5bn for 2020 and $7.0 billion for 2021. Here is where things start to get interesting. The implied indie growth rate is therefore just 9%, i.e., indies (according to the IFPI) grew three times more slowly than the majors, with implied market share dropping from 30% to 27%. Everything that MIDiA has been hearing from the market suggests that 2021 was actually a strong year for the non-majors. Indeed, Believe just reported a 31% growth, while the ‘label’ portions of HYBE’s revenues increased by 29% (though, not all of that growth was organic). If we remove the revenues of those two labels from the IFPI’s implied indies figure, the remainder of independents would have grown by just 4% in 2021.

To take this line of thought a step further, if we additionally remove the artists direct (i.e., self-releasing artists, which grew by 30%) revenue from the IFPI’s implied indie segment, the growth drops to minus three percent. Even accounting for bigger, older independent labels that did not fare so well in 2021, a -3% growth does not feel like a reflection of an otherwise vibrant sector.

One key reason for the growth and values looking smaller in the IFPI’s figures is that they may not include non-DSP revenue (TikTok, Meta etc), which MIDiA pegged at $1.5 billion in 2021. The IFPI reported all streaming revenues as $16.9 billion which is in line with MIDiA’s $17.0 billion for DSP-only streaming. It is worth noting that majors have around 65% market share on DSP streaming. If the IFPI’s streaming figures do include non-DSP, the implied market share for majors would be 74% (total major label streaming revenue was $12.6 billion in 2021).

Numbers are important, as they are what enable people to understand how markets are performing and what decisions to make. MIDiA’s overriding objective is always to provide the most comprehensive and authoritative data as possible, in an entirely agenda-free way. We have no intention nor objective to make the market look any bigger than we think it actually is. In fact, MIDiA has a well-earned reputation for being on the bearish side of market sizing and forecasts. Nonetheless, this year, our work has led us to the viewpoint that 2021 was a great year right across the recorded music market, with majors and indies alike finding success in a rejuvenated marketplace. And long may that continue.

*The main distinctions between MIDiA’s revenue figures and the IFPI’s are the following:

  • MIDiA includes all reported major label revenue
  • MIDiA includes the masters side of music production music libraries (including royalty free)
  • MIDiA includes a portion of D2C independent artist and label revenue that does not get tracked via traditional tracking methods
  • MIDiA includes some independent label revenue that does not get tracked via traditional tracking methods

NOTE: a previous version of this post had incorrectly stated non-majors have around 65% share on DSP streaming. It now reads ‘majors’

Recorded music market shares 2021 – Red letter year

We suggested back in 2020, that 2021 was going to be a strong year for the recorded music market. As it turns out, 2021 was the fastest growing year in living memory, with growth across most formats, contrasting strongly with 2020 when streaming was the only growth segment. 

After 2020 was constrained by the global pandemic, the global recorded music market rocketed into stellar growth in 2021, growing by 24.7% to reach $28.8 billion (the largest annual growth in modern times). 2020 growth was a much more modest (7%), but this reflected the suppressing effect of the global pandemic in the first half of the year.

2021 was a big year for the music business, with a record amount spent on music catalogue acquisitions and IPOs for Warner Music Group (WMG), Universal Music Group (UMG) and Believe Digital. These developments turned out to be the symptoms of a surge in global market growth, with recorded music revenues. 

Streaming revenues reached $18.5 billion, up by 29.3% from 2020, adding $4.2 billion – also a record increase. One of the key drivers of streaming growth was non-DSP revenue, representing deals with the likes of Meta, TikTok, Snap, Peloton and Twitch. Non-DSP streaming recorded music revenue totalled $1.5 billion in 2021, a massive uplift from 2020. DSP streaming (Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, YouTube Music, etc.) also grew strongly too, reaching $17 billion. 

UMG remained the biggest label, with $8.2 billion, giving it a market share of just under 29%. However, for the second successive year, Sony Music Group (SMG) was the fastest growing major, and it increased its market share by growing significantly faster than the total market. For the first time since 2017, the major labels did not see their collective market share decrease.

Independents also had a good year, with strong growth across both larger and smaller labels. But it was, once again, artists direct (i.e., self-releasing artists) who were the big winners, driving $1.5 billion of revenue and increasing market share to 5.3%. They also added more revenue than in the prior year, something the segment has done every year since 2015. However, because 2021 was characterised by all segments performing strongly, artists direct’s increase in market share was smaller than in previous years.

The concept of evenly distributed growth was also reflected across geographies and formats, with physical and other (i.e., performance and sync) all growing strongly. Physical growth was so strong that revenues surpassed 2018 levels.

The recorded music market looked vulnerable in 2020, relying entirely on streaming for growth, with the outlook inextricably tied to that of DSPs. 2021 was a very different story, with growth on most fronts, but, most importantly, the rise of non-DSP revenue, reflecting an increasingly diversified future in which labels can fret a little less about the prospect of slowing subscriber growth in mature markets. When coupled with longer-term growth opportunities (NFTs, the metaverse, etc), the outlook is positively rosy. Although 2021 was boosted by exceptional circumstances (e.g., the wider economy rebalancing after the Covid-depressed 2020, and much of the non-DSP income being in the form of one-off payments), annual growth of 24.7%, points to the emergence of a new era for an increasingly diversified recorded music business.

The full report and dataset (with quarterly revenue by segment and format going back to Q1 2015) is available here. If you are not a MIDiA client and would like to learn how to get access to our research, data and analysis, email stephen@midiaresearch.com