Music has developed an attention dependency

The attention economy defines and shapes today’s digital world. However, we have long since reached peak in the attention economy with all available free time now addressed. What this means is that previously, when digital entertainment propositions grew, they were often using up users’ free time. Now though, every minute gained is at someone else’s expense. The battle for attention is now both fierce and intense. What is more, it will get worse when much of the population finally returns to commuting and going out, as 2020 was defined by entertainment filling the extra 15% of free time people found in their weekly lives. But there is an ever bigger dynamic at play, one which gets to the very heart of entertainment: the attention economy is becoming a malign force for culture. Consumption is holding culture hostage. 

The increasingly fierce competition for consumers’ attention is becoming corrosive, with clickbait, autoplay and content farms degrading both content and culture. What matters is acquiring audience and their time, the type of content and tactics that captures them is secondary. It is not just bottom feeder content farms that play this game, instead the wider digital entertainment landscape has allowed itself to become infected by their strategic worldview.

The attention dependency goes way beyond media

Do not for a minute think this is a media-only problem. The corrosive impact of the attention economy can be seen right across digital entertainment, from hastily churned out scripted dramas, through to music. Artists and labels are locked in a race to increase the volume and velocity of music they put out, spurred on by Spotify’s Daniel Ek clarion call to up the ante even further. In this volume and velocity game, algorithm-friendly A&R and playlist hits win out. Clickbait music comes out on top. And because music attention spans are shortening, no sooner has the listener’s attention been grabbed, then it is lost again due to the next new track. In the attention economy’s volume and velocity game, the streaming platform is a hungry beast that is perpetually hungry. Each new song is just another bit of calorific input to sate its appetite. 

In this world, ‘streamability’ trumps musicality, but it is not just culture that suffers. Cutting through the clutter of 50,000 new songs every day also delivers diminishing returns for marketing spend. Labels have to spend more to get weaker results. 

Music subscriptions accentuate the worst parts of the attention economy 

Perhaps most importantly of all though, music subscriptions are the worst possible ecosystem in which to monetise the attention economy. In online media, more clicks means more ads, which means more ad revenue. In music subscriptions it is a fight to the death for a slice of a finite royalty pot. A royalty pot that is also impacted by slowing streaming growth and declining ARPU. The music industry has developed an attention dependency in the least healthy environment possible.

This is not one of those market dynamics that will eventually find a natural course correction. Instead, the music industry has to decide it wants to break its attention dependency and start doing things differently. Until then, consumption and content will continue to push culture to the side lines.

It is time to take hold of the wheel

Some years ago, Andrew Llyod Webber said this: “The fine wines of France are not merely content for the glass manufacturing business”. Although those words are of someone from the old world grappling with the new, the underlying premise remains. None of this is to suggest that streaming consumption is not the future. Nor is it to even suggest that all of the changes to the culture of music that streaming has brought about are negative. In fact, it may be that streaming-era music culture is simply what the future of music is going to be. But what is crucial is that artists, labels, songwriters and publishers take an active role in steering the ship to the future rather than simply getting pulled along by the streaming tide.

Virtual concerts: A new video format

The global pandemic thrust the live music sector into chaos, with global revenues falling by 75% in 2020 compared to one year previously. The music industry was rocked by first-order impacts (no concerts, no fan engagement) and second-order impacts (many artists realising that streaming did not add up without live income alongside it). Necessity, though, is the mother of invention and an unprecedented period of innovation and experimentation followed, creating a whole new virtual concert ecosystem. One that presents great opportunity, but that also reflects the flaws of a hastily constructed industry – flaws that must be fixed for the sector to realise its ambition. Rather than the future of live, virtual concerts represent an entire new video format.

MIDiA’s new report ‘Virtual concerts: A new video format’ provides a comprehensive overview of the market with revenues, forecasts, demographics, vendor mapping and industry metrics. The report is immediately available to MIDiA clients. Here are some of the key findings. 

Live streaming of concerts is not new, but the combination of a complex rights landscape and resistance from the traditional live sector stymied the sector’s growth. The fact that technology itself was not the problem is well illustrated by the dynamic growth in live streaming in other content verticals, gaming especially. Since the pandemic’s first impact, there has been a rapid rollout of new live music streaming solutions and companies, enjoying varied success both commercially and creatively. Nonetheless, artists now have a vast array of options at their disposal and the rapid shift is well illustrated by the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl joking during his band’s December 2020 high quality, ticketed live streamed concert that the sector had come a long way from artists playing piano in their living rooms earlier in the year.

One of the most important changes was the strong shift in the latter part of the year from free streams to more professionally produced, ticketed events. From June to November 2020, the share of live-streamed concert listings on Bandsintown grew from 1.9% to 40.7%, while the total ticketed revenue in December was up 292% from June. The shift to paid is crucial, especially considering the #brokenrecord debate (arguably the most important second-order impact of the cessation of live music). Traditional live is a scarce, premium product that generates many artists the bulk of their income. Yet the start of the live streaming boom was all about free, an uncanny rerun of when music first went on the internet. With the current wave of COVID-19 worse in many countries than the first, 2021 is set to be another highly disrupted year for the live sector. It is crucial that live streaming can pick up some of the slack as a meaningful revenue driver for artists.

Overall, ticketed live-streamed concerts generated $0.6 billion in 2020 with a flurry of ticketed events in the last two months of the year, including end-of-year spectaculars from heavyweights as diverse as Justin Bieber and Kiss.

Live streaming though has a long way to go, illustrated by the fact that penetration is just 9% and audiences have an early adopter, younger male skew. In many respects live streaming was not ready for primetime when COVID-19 hit. Unlike sectors such as video conferencing and home fitness tech, which had become well established before, music live streaming was a bit of an industry backwater. A whole host of new entrants swept in to tap the new opportunity, while pre-existing ones that had been limping along pre-COVID, gave themselves a new lick of paint.

The vendor landscape is complex and increasingly fragmented. But most importantly, it is characterised by companies wanting to own as much of the value chain as possible and trying to achieve as much as they can before the giants of the traditional live sector get back on their feet.

Live streaming has vast potential – not in some binary live music replacement equation, but instead as a new video format. In fact, live streaming could be to live music what pay-TV is to sports, creating in the long run a market that is even bigger than the core business. But between now and then there is a lot of hard work to be done.

2021 Predictions: The year of the immersive web

As we approach the end of 2020 it is time to look forward to what 2021 may bring. MIDiA has published the fifth edition of our Annual Predictions report which clients can read here. There are 27 predictions in the report, but I am sharing a few of them here. MIDiA has a pretty good track record with its predictions; 79% of our predictions for 2020 were correct.

These are the seven meta and cultural trends that we believe will shape 2021: 

  1. The immersive web
  2. Recessionary impact
  3. The great reaggregation
  4. The return of synchronous experiences
  5. Social consumption and micro communities
  6. Video streaming as a cultural catalyst 
  7. The end of influencers

The immersive web

Web 1.0 was an information dump; web 2.0 added multimedia and social. Now we are entering the third phase, which MIDiA terms the immersive web. As is usually the case with big epoch shifts, this will not be a clear and sudden change but instead a steady change – a change that is, in fact, already happening. The immersive web is characterised by environments in which we do not simply conduct extensions of IRL activity (e-commerce, video calls) but ones that create behaviours and relationships that only, and can only, exist within these environments. Apps and platforms like Roblox, TikTok and Discord are early iterations of the immersive web, but merely hint at what will come. The trend will be driven by Gen Z, who have grown up with social apps from the playground onwards. Gen Z relies more than any previous generation on such apps for social interaction and expression, forming muscle memory for digital-first relationships. The COVID-19 lockdown measures have accentuated this shift, further solidifying Gen Z’s receptivity to future immersive web experiences.

Music

Here is a short version of some of the trends we expect to shape music in 2021:

  • The start of an artist economy: Streaming is a song economy of which the scale benefits rights holders far more than creators. The industry needs to work towards a collection of models that work for artists. Components could be micro-communities (see below), sounds platforms, ticketed live streams, skills marketplaces, and virtual merch. 
  • The rise of micro-communities: Niche is the new mainstream. The next phase of this market dynamic is the emergence of micro-communities; small audiences of dedicated fans who almost consider it an honour-bound duty to support their artists. 
  • The creator tools revolution: Creator tools, particularly music production and collaboration, will be one of the most important market shifts in 2021. Companies like Splice, LANDR and Output will continue to build scale in 2021, changing both the culture and business of music. 
  • Live streaming professionalises: With live unlikely to be anything close to full capacity until the latter part of 2021, live streaming will be used by a growing body of artists as a genuine revenue driver, rather than the audience engagement role it played in much of 2020, driven by increased professionalisation, better distribution and more sophisticated monetisation.
  • Music continues to deliver as an asset class: Although the pandemic dented music publishing’s long-term growth story, music catalogues retain strong appeal as an asset class, not least because they are performing better in relation to many asset classes that have been hit hard by the pandemic and that look vulnerable to the coming recession. The imbalance between supply and demand remains, so expect prices paid to continue to accelerate. 
  • UGC continues to accelerate: User-generated content (UGC) music revenues reached $4 billion in 2020 and will push up to $4.9 billion in 2021. The crucial difference between UGC music now compared to five years ago, is that the focus is on genuine user creativity rather than users simply uploading others’ music.

2020 was a year like no other in modern times, with the impact on digital entertainment both pronounced and creating the foundations for accelerated innovation in 2021. Whatever may happen to the global economic and health outlook, digital entertainment will go through further dramatic change in 2021.

Global independent label survey

MIDiA Research is conducting a major study of independent label revenue in order to create a definitive review of the independent sector’s contribution to the global music market. MIDiA conducted this work for a number of years on behalf of the Worldwide Independent Network and is now independently creating a dataset for 2020. The last WINTel study can be found here. We are calling for all independent labels, of whatever size and geography, to complete our survey which can be found here.

Why this survey is so important

The most common method used to determine the global market share of independents is to take total recorded music revenues from MIDiA or the IFPI and then deduct the revenues of the major labels. This is how the independent sector has been measured for years. However, it under-represents the value of independents because many independent labels are either distributed directly via majors or via one of their wholly owned distribution arms such as the Orchard. This means that independent label revenue appears within major label revenue. Although MIDiA’s figure is higher than the IFPI’s to reflect the latter’s under-reporting of independents, the method still under-represents independents whichever total market figure is used.

The purpose of this survey is to pick up where WINTel left off, to separate out the revenue that is distributed by majors and allocate that directly to the independents, thus revealing the larger, actual independent market share based on ownership of copyright rather than by the company that distributes the revenue.

What is needed from independent labels

The survey asks a number of questions about each record label’s revenue, growth and the distributors it works with. We appreciate that this information is highly sensitive which is why we treat the data with utmost care and confidentiality, just as we did when we fielded the survey on behalf of WINTel.

As with all our previous surveys, all responses will be treated as strictly confidential. No individual responses will ever be shared. Instead, all responses will only ever be aggregated into national and international numbers. The respondent-level data will be stored securely, encrypted in an offline location and will never be shared with any third party whatsoever.

What is in it for independent labels

MIDiA will provide a full summary of the final, aggregated results to all independent labels and distributors that participate in this survey. The final data will present independent label market share data globally and at country level.

In addition, the survey asks respondents about issues such as how the global pandemic has affected their business and how confident they feel about 2021. We will also be providing this data to all respondents, enabling them to benchmark themselves against their peers.

Next steps

We are fielding this survey throughout December and the start of 2021. Once the survey fielding is complete MIDiA will build its market share model using the results of the survey and other inputs such as reported company financials and input from direct conversations with a number of larger independent labels.

As a reminder, at no stage will any label-level data be seen by anyone else other than the MIDiA analysts working on the project and they will not share any of this information with anyone else.

The survey can be found here: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/DCM3VXG

We look forward to your participation. No independent label is too big or small to take part. If you have any questions regarding this project then email info@midiaresearch.com

Creator tools: The music industry’s new top of funnel

For most of 2020, MIDiA has been working on a major piece of work around the fast-growing creator tools space. The themes we had already started working on became rocket propelled with the onset of the pandemic, with an unprecedented volume of artists starting to engage with music production tools, services and hardware. Even before COVID-19, the creator tools space was set to transform the entire music business; now that future has become the present. This landmark report ‘Creator Tools – The Music Industry’s New Top of Funnel’ is immediately available to MIDiA Research clients here (more details of the report can be found at the bottom of this post).

Music production used to be a siloed segment of the music industry that revolved around studios, hardware and packaged software – at best a cost centre for labels. Now that is all changing. A new wave of creator tools companies are meeting the needs of a new generation of artists with innovative and intuitive music production solutions. Adding to an already vibrant marketplace, this new breed of production tools and services, often subscription-based, are reinventing the creative process and will reshape the long-term view of what a music company is. 

This is set to be the most dramatic product strategy shift the music industry has experienced in decades catalysed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 68% of independent artists reported making more music and 36% doing more online collaborations during lockdowns.

There are 14.6 million digital music creators globally, of which 4.7 million are self-releasing ‘artists direct’, up 31% from 3.6 million in 2019.

The emergence of a subscription economy

In the same year, music software, sounds and services generated $884 million, with plugins and VSTs the largest single segment at 43%. Building on this ‘COVID bounce’ total revenues will reach $1.86 billion by 2027. Though music software is the most widely-adopted creator tools category among independent artists, sounds and services will be the two largest drivers of future growth. 

Subscriptions models will also be key, with new models, more self-sufficient tools and the rise of SAAS services making the market majority subscription by 2026, with subscription services reaching $870 million by 2027, up 477% from $151 million in 2019. The shift from software sales to SAAS models means these companies are collecting crucial creator data before they even get to the distribution or release stage, giving these companies the ability to identify the likely hits before they even get into streaming services. This is the music industry’s new top of funnel. Meanwhile at the other end of the funnel, Apple (Garage Band, Logic) and Spotify (SoundBetter, Soundtrap) are well placed to push up the funnel, with the foundations of what tomorrow’s record label will be. Sony Music’s move to invest in creation app Tully is the start of what will rapidly become a creator tools arms race. Expect Splice and LANDR to become sought after by both labels and streaming services. 

Creative feedback loops

The new breed of creator tools is also fostering creative feedback loops between other creators and in some cases with audiences—a dynamic MIDiA expects to become a mainstay of the future production landscape as digitally-native Gen Z and younger millennials mature in their production capabilities. The creator tools that build around such creative feedback loops will be those that resonate most with the young generation who will be the creators and fans of tomorrow’s music business. 

Snap’s acquisition of collaboration app Voisey illustrates how this is so much more than just a music tech play. We are on the cusp of a consumer revolution also. Just like TikTok made amateur video making a mainstream consumer activity as Instagram did photography, so this new generation of apps and games are aiming to do the same with music. Warner Music’s Tones and I making a soundpack available for fans to create music with inside Roblox’s Splash is an early indication of how music making is about to go mainstream.

Just as samplers and DAWs transformed music making, so this new approach to production will change the future of how music is made and in turn, how it sounds. Music production product strategy is at a pivot point, where a new breed of user experience-led propositions will rise to prominence. The smart services that have already empowered their users to go from zero to 100 more quickly than ever before, will grow their offerings in line with their user base’s growing capabilities. The business of music has always shaped the culture of music, but perhaps never more so than how the creator tools revolution will reshape the future of what it means to be a fan, an artist and a music company.

If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about how to get access to the ‘Creator Tools – The Music Industry’s New Top of Funnel’ then email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Report details

Pages: 48

Figures: 15

Words: 7,500

Vendor profiles: 12

Products tracked: c.2,000

Excel includes:

Music Software, Sounds and Services Revenue

Creator Tools Value Chain

Software Tracker Summary

Software Tracker – Plugins

Software Tracker – VSTs

Software Tracker DAWs

Software Tracker – Rent-to-own

Software Tracker – Platforms

Software Tracker – DJ Tools

Creator Tools Company Directory

Methodology Statement

Time to move beyond the song economy

The UK parliament is currently running an inquiry into the streaming music economy, having called for evidence from across the music business. Earlier this week were the first verbal submissions, from a number of UK artists including Tom Gray (Gomez), Guy Garvey (Elbow), Ed O’Brien (Radiohead) and Nadine Shah.MPs heard impassioned but balanced submissions that shone a light on the reality of what it means to be an artist in the streaming era. Mercury Prize-nominated Shah explained that she makes so little money from streaming that she is struggling to pay her rent. Clearly, the demise of live during the pandemic has created a uniquely difficult period for artists, but it has spotlighted that streaming on its own is not working for artists. The fact that policy makers are hearing this viewpoint (albeit later rather than sooner) suggests that change will be coming. But, while the focus is understandably on how to ‘fix’ streaming, it might be that efforts would be better placed building a complementary alternative.

Direct action

In Steve McQueen’s new film Mangrove, there is a intense scene in which Darcus Howe implores café owner and community leader Frank Crichlow that after Frank’s fruitless attempts to fix the problem via the system that direct action is the only way to change things: “self-movement – external forces acting on the organism”.

The equivalent of direct action in the commercial world is innovation – it comes from the ground up. In 2008 Spotify came up with an innovation that made the problem of the time –piracy – effectively redundant. What’s required now are new innovations that make the current streaming model look like an alternative, not the only choice – to enjoy music. 

Now is the time

Now is the right time to be assessing the long-term impact of streaming. It is a mature business model and is the largest revenue driver in most of the world’s leading music markets. Whatever streaming is now, is pretty much how it is going to be. The future of what streaming can be is already here, today. Assessments must be on what the model delivers now, not some future potential. 

Streaming’s current performance can be assessed as follows:

  • Record labels and publishers have experienced strong revenue growth and improving margins. Their businesses have been improved
  • Artists and songwriters have more people listening to their music than ever before and more creators are able to earn income than ever before 

However, beyond the superstars, most do not earn a sustainable income from streaming alone and cannot see a pathway to this ever changing. This is Guy Garvey’s reference to the lack of any new (financially viable) music artists in the future. 

A model for rights holders more than creators

Streaming benefits rights holders more than it does creators. It is far easier to enjoy the benefits of scale if you have scale. Here is a simple illustration: if a label has 100,000 tracks played 10 times each in a month (i.e., a million streams) it will earn around £/$5,000. But a self-released artist with just 100 tracks with 10 plays each (i.e., 1,000 streams) will only earn £/$5. Though this is the product of simple arithmetic, the first amount is the foundation of a small business, the other buys you a cup of coffee.

Record labels and publishers with large catalogues benefit from scale in a way that artists and songwriters do not, unless they have a megahit – and although streaming is great for megahits, they are few and far between. Changes to licensing (and there are many ways to do that) may make things better – but they will not change the underlying dynamic; it is simply how the model is.

We have a model that works for rights holders that is fuelled by artists and songwriters. Now we need an additional, parallel, model that works for artists.

Streaming music services are incentivised to drive consumption. What we need are additional models, incentivised to drive fandom. Streaming is a song economy, and we now need a parallel fan economy

Music used to be all about fandom. It was the way in which people identified and expressed themselves – a badge of honour and a symbol of personality. Streaming has industrialised music, turning it into a convenient utility that acts as a soundtrack to our everyday life. That may be fine, but it has simultaneously supressed those ways to express fandom. It’s not easy to express your fandom on a streaming platform, while on a social platform money must change hands. 

Music fandom hasn’t died, but it just has fewer places to live. 

The fan economy

So, what is a fan economy? A fan economy is one in which the value resides in the artist-fan relationship. Currently this model is pursued actively in Asia (e.g., Tencent Music in China, K-Pop in Korea) but far less so in the West. The fan economy will be defined by diversity but what its constituents will have in common is being built around micro-communities of fans.

Micro-communities that are built around an artist’s 1,000 true fans (or even fewer) allow the artist’s most loyal and dedicated fans to drive revenue that is small to the industry but large to the artist. For example, an artist with 1,000 subscribers paying $5 a month would generate the same $5,000 a month that a million streams would deliver a record label.

There are a number of platforms that are making a start, but now is the time for this to become a central music industry focus. Music rightsholders have a model that works well for them, so now they need to ensure that their artists and songwriters have models that work for them too. There is thus an onus on rights holders helping drive the fan economy, but to drive creator income rather than simply be another rights holder income.

A multi-pronged approach

This is the three-pronged approach we propose:

  • Governments, support new, innovative companies building fan economy models and ensure that they provide equitable remuneration for creators
  • Record labels, build teams geared at helping their artists find fan economy income streams (and take a service fee or revenue share)
  • Streaming services, allow artists more real estate to showcase where fans can find other content and experiences

None of this is to say that efforts to make streaming more equitable should not be pursued; they absolutely should. However, it should be done with a clear understanding of the ‘art of the possible’. Even if rates were doubled, the self-released artist with 1,000 streams would still only earn £/$10. For an artist with a million streams a month on a big label it would change monthly income from £/$1,250 a month to £/$2,000, i.e., £/$24,000 a year. Not a sustainable annual income. 

Our case is that streaming should indeed be made more equitable, but alongside proactive investment in a new generation of innovative fan economy apps. This is an opportunity to make UK Plc the innovation driver for the global music business. A unique opportunity that is there for the taking with the right strategy and support, from all vested interests.

The opportunity for the UK streaming inquiry

With the streaming inquiry, the UK government has an unprecedented opportunity to set a global standard for building a vibrant and viable future for music creators, but it is an opportunity that needs seizing now. In partnership with music creators and rightsholders, it can create a structure that supports the innovation and change the industry needs. Now that streaming has come of age, we can see both its strengths and weaknesses. Let’s use the weaknesses as a foundation for building something new, exciting and equitable. It is time to bring ways to allow music fans to express themselves and their support to artists more directly. That will keep music the uniquely valuable product it is, and not just the grease in the wheels. 

Mark Mulligan and Keith Jopling, MIDiA Research 

Snapchat buys Voisey to enter the music market

Snapchat parent company Snap Inc is reported to have acquired music collaboration tool Voisey. Voisey is a relatively new start-up, having raised its first major round mid-2019 and launching later the same year. Snap has acquired Voisey not for what it has achieved, but for what it can be. We are on the cusp of a revolution in music making, with a host of new tools and services set to create the fastest growth in music creativity ever seen. Snap wants to be a part of that.

There is more activity, inward investment and innovation in the music creator tools space than ever. Companies like Splice, LANDR, Output and BandLab are changing the face of music making, empowering creators to go from zero to one hundred faster than ever before. But in many respects, these companies are the second chapter in the original story. The first phase belongs to a growing body of apps that give consumers intuitive tools to be able to make high quality music via gamified experiences. It is all part of a broader trend of audiences being empowered with creative tools that let them achieve with one swipe what in the past would have taken years of experience and complex control panels to achieve. TikTok enables consumers to create high quality videos; Instagram, high quality photos. The new generation of creator tools are enabling consumers to make music quickly and easily. Snapchat sees itself being able to be at the centre of that.

Voisey joins a growing body of consumer-facing music creator tools, with Popgun’s Splash sound pack game in Roblox racking up 21 million players earlier this week. While the majority of these gamers will not go on to make music in a more structured way, many will who would not have otherwise done so. This is not actually the point, however. The point is that just like TikTok made amateur video making a mainstream consumer activity as Instagram did to photography, so this new generation of apps and games are aiming to do the same with music.

In the history of music, only a minority of people could ever actually express themselves through playing an instrument. That has now changed. These are truly exciting times for music, with the emergence of an industry that goes far beyond the confines of the way it is defined today, and the companies that function in it today. 

If Radiohead was releasing its debut album in 2020 perhaps it would have contained the single ‘Anyone can play gamified AI beats and sounds’.

MIDiA has been working on a major new report on the music creator tools space which we will be announcing next week. The report is already available to MIDiA clients. If you would like to find out more about MIDiA’s creator tools research email stephen@midiaresearch.com

YouTube at two billion: Still much more music opportunity to be had

YouTube just announced its milestone of reaching two billion music users on the platform. YouTube has long been the largest music service on the planet, and it has just extended that lead. In 2019, its official total user number was two billion. Lockdown has proven to be a growth driver of epic proportions. 

Nicely timed to (accidentally!) coincide with YouTube’s announcement is third edition of MIDiA’s biannual ‘State of the YouTube Music Economy’ report. This report, which provides a detailed analysis of YouTube’s contribution to the music business, put YouTube’s music user number at 1.2 billion for the end of 2019. Of course, all this comes at a time when European legislators are discussing how Article 17 of the European Copyright Directive will be implemented and therefore impact YouTube’s business (potentially a very convenient time to release a stat of this magnitude?). 2020 has proven to be a big year for YouTube – but equally, make no mistake: YouTube and music rightsholders are still not on the same page. 

One of the biggest issues regarding the YouTube music economy is that music, while performing and growing strongly, still underperforms commercially compared to other content genres on the platform. This is because music videos are not as well suited to YouTube’s monetisation mechanics as genres such as games. For example, the videos are too short to have mid-roll video ads and most music channels (Asian and Latin American ones excepted) are artist-centric, so simply do not have enough content to drive channel engagement. While there are constraints on what can be done with a music video, there is nonetheless a lot of scope for innovation and increasing music’s share of YouTube revenue.

Google is now the second largest global payer of music royalties, with $5.2 billion across free and paid as well as masters and publishing. Spotify is comfortably ahead, but the scale of Google’s royalty contribution is pronounced.

In 2019, YouTube generated $15.2 billion in ad revenue with $4 billion of that music related (this figure includes income for labels, publishers and YouTube etc.). While that was an impressive increase of 18% on 2019 it was much slower than the 36% growth in overall ad revenue. Consequently, music’s share fell from 31% to 26%. Music rightsholders might point to this being evidence of YouTube not paying enough for music, but it pays pretty much the same revenue share to all of its creators. So, there is clearly more that music can be doing to ensure that it can grow at a rate closer to that of other content genres. 

Currently, YouTube is becoming more important to music than music is to YouTube. The one billion views club is becoming the de facto Platinum ‘sales’ award for the streaming era, and there are now 208 music videos that have reached the milestone with 74 videos reaching it in 2019/20 alone. YouTube continues to dominate the global music streaming market, with 47% music weekly active user penetration, ahead of Spotify in second place at 29%. Being the most widely used music streaming app across all ages, with weekly active usage highest among 16-19 year olds at 70% penetration, YouTube is simultaneously a key ad-supported, premium, marketing and discovery asset for artists and labels. Against this setting, the debate around rights holder royalty rates continues to rage. 

Are rights holders missing the point with Twitch?

Twitch has apologised to its users for the growing volume of rights holder takedown notices for music used in Twitch videos. Twitch is in an awkward transitionary phase with music rights holders, not dissimilar to where YouTube was when it was acquired by Google. 14 years on from that acquisition, YouTube’s relationship with rights holders is in a better place but short of where it should be. Article 17, weaving its way between the competing lobbying efforts of rights holders and tech platforms, is just the latest mile marker on a long and winding rocky road. Twitch, like YouTube, does not fit the licensing norms of most streaming services, resulting in repeated stand offs. But just like the music industry still hasn’t grasped the full potential of YouTube, it may be making a similar mistake with Twitch.

Firstly, for sake of clarity, MIDiA firmly believes that copyrighted work should be used correctly and remunerated. We are not, in any way, suggesting that a platform should be able to use music without permission. However, the current licensing structures are:

  1. Not flexible and agile enough to truly capitalise on user-generated content (UGC) music (a market which will be worth $4 billion by year end – download our major new FREE report on UGC music here)
  2. YouTube and Twitch represent an opportunity to create new growth drivers, especially for artists, that can help fix the ‘broken record’

A lack of sync in sync

Let’s address the first point, well, first. Platform-native creators on YouTube, Twitch and TikTok create content so frequently they make the music industry’s volume and velocity problem look like child’s play. Usually, creators who want music in their videos have a choice: 1) get sync licenses, 2) get library music, 3) use music without permission and get taken down or demonetised. 

The problem with option one is that sync clearance is a lengthy process that can take weeks and cost a lot. Not a great fit for creators who create and upload videos the same day. Companies like Lickd are trying to fix this with catalogues of pre-cleared music, but the industry as a whole is moving too slowly. For the record, MIDiA’s preferred solution is for platforms securing large ‘sandboxes’ of pre-cleared tracks for creators and developers to work with. An early example of this is the NFL making all of its soundtracks available for creators on a Synchtank powered site.Unless music rights holders want to cede the growth in the music UGC space (which will be worth $5.9 billion by end 2022) to library music companies, they need to put alternative approaches at the core of their licensing strategy, not simply pursue them as interesting ‘edge’ experiments.

Going beyond the stream

However, the biggest music industry opportunity is not licensing music. It is monetising fandom. The #brokenrecord debate has shone a light on how streaming’s scale benefits do not trickle down at a sufficient rate to creators. Artists compete for tiny bits of highly valuable ‘real estate’ – playlists, artist profiles etc – but most often do not get enough to earn a living. While efforts like user-centric licensing and better songwriter rates will help, they will not change the underlying fundamentals of streaming economics. The counter argument is that scale will change everything, but:

  • Average revenue per user (ARPU) is falling. Spotify’s premium ARPU fell 34% between Q1 2016 and Q3 2020, a 34% decline
  • Streaming growth is slowing in developed markets
  • Consumption is slowing – last quarter Spotify reported an increase in consumption hours to pre-COVID levels but as there were 49 million new monthly active users (MAUs) compared to pre-COVID this implies a reduction in hours per user
  • Emerging markets are growing but a) ARPU is lower and b) domestic repertoire will drive most of the long-term consumption – so this means only a small uplift for Western creators

Before live stopped, streaming existed in a mutually beneficial ecosystem, giving artists more fans for concerts and merch. Now that live is out of the equation, streaming isn’t enough. 

This is where platforms like YouTube and Twitch can come in. They enable creators to build loyal fanbases of which they can monetise the loyal core to build sustainable careers. The idea of ‘1,000 True Fans’ was first put forward years ago by Kevin Kelly but now the dynamics of social platforms have made this a realistic possibility for any creator. Nevertheless, music artists are still way off the pace. 

Micro-communities

Twitch and YouTube enable creators to build (often small) loyal fanbases that can generate them income that far exceeds what artists get from streaming. MIDiA terms this dynamic ‘micro-communities’ and we think it will be one of the trends that will shape the music business in 2021 and beyond. As part of our creator tools research we will be exploring how platforms like Splice and Landr will be able to build their own artist-fan communities that can be as valuable to artists as Bandcamp is to many already. 

Streaming created a superstar economy where even within the non-superstars, superstars exist. For example, Tunecore states it has ‘thousands’ of artists that make more than $100,000 a year. A simple bit of arithmetic shows that this means the remainder make less than $100.

Micro-communities represent an opportunity for artists to fill the income gap that streaming leaves without live in the mix. This probably does not reflect a direct revenue opportunity for rights holders – indeed, that would be missing the point. Instead, they can ensure those platforms are supported to empower artist monetisation without speed bumps. Why? Quite simply, rights holders have a model that works for them (streaming), so now they need to support a model that works for their creators so that they can in turn continue to support the streaming model that works for rights holders. 

If the industry does not support this new virtuous circle ecosystem, then it could bring the streaming model crashing down due to creator discontent. 

Discovery Mode: Understanding how Spotify thinks

Spotify’s Discovery Mode announcement looked at the very best a poorly timed announcement, coming at a time when artists and songwriters are more concerned about their income than at any other since the music business returned to growth more than half a decade ago. If the initial responses of the creator community are anything to go by, the announcement has had the effect of taking the broken record debate, breaking it some more, and turning it into the pulverised record debate. Yet, judging the impact of the announcement on the creator community alone misses the wider strategic worldview that Spotify operates within, and understanding why Spotify would make such a move now.

Spotify has three competing interest groups:

1 – Investors

2 – Audiences

3 – Rightsholders and creators (a group which it sometimes splits, for example with its temporarily aborted Direct Artists move)

It has to keep all three happy or it does not have a business. As it gets bigger and more established, however, it feels that it can afford to make moves that may antagonise rightsholders / creators and audiences but that will keep investors happy. The logic is that Spotify is getting so big that those two audiences cannot do without it (the ‘too big to fail’ stage) but that investors have many other places to put their money. So, investors are more ‘at risk’ than the others.

The new normal 

As we discussed last week, since going public Spotify has told investors to measure it on growth and market share rather than margin or average revenue per user (ARPU). This clearly serves the investor segment better than rightsholders and creators. Now, however, as it embarks on a long-term podcast strategy that will not see full return on investment for many years, Spotify needs to show investors that it is able to turn its core music business into a profitable one. Price increases, which it kicked off last week and Daniel Ek trumpeted in his investor note, are key to this. The strategy delivers benefits for both investors and rightsholders / creators, though goes against the interests of the audience, which will always prefer to pay less, not more.

Audiences are at the back of the queue 

Though they are very different propositions, Discovery Mode, along with Marquee, have the similar effect of improving profitability but have the consequence of reducing the net amount of income that goes back to rightsholders because they are spending more of their income on marketing. They shift the ‘balance of trade’ between Spotify and rightsholders  and creators. This will also mean more deductions for creators, which in turn means less streaming income. 

Thus, these tactics are primarily focused on appeasing the investor segment. Interestingly, both are actually negative for the audience, damaging the user experience by delivering music that has paid its way into a user’s listening rather than solely because it matches the user’s tastes. Spotify has long positioned itself as an alternative to radio but is becoming ever more like the very thing it is trying to replace. It is making the assumption that it is so entrenched with its users that it can afford to make such moves without risking losing audience. Apple, Amazon, Google and Deezer will be running their hands with glee.

The next Spotify chapter

We are entering the next chapter in Spotify’s story. Podcasts will take centre stage, while the core music business is treated as a mature subscription business rather than a growth category – at least in Western markets. The underlying tactics are aimed at improving investor sentiment but will deliver long sought benefits to rightsholders / creators, not least improved ARPU and per-stream rates. Interestingly, podcasts could improve per-stream rates too: if podcasts steal music time (which they will) but the royalty pot remains set at its current share, then there will be fewer streams to share the royalty pot between. Hence, higher rates.

Increased royalty income but a bumpy road

The net impact of this new strategic direction will be beneficial for investors first and rightsholders / creators second. On balance, the impact of increased prices, fewer promotions and increased lifetime value should offset the impact of efforts like Marquee and Discover Mode. Rightsholders and creators should see a steady increase in rates in Western markets. However, they should not expect to be happy with everything Spotify does, as this is first and foremost about pleasing investors. Do not expect Discover Mode to be an isolated event.