Adele’s success will be measured in cultural impact – not sales

Adele is something of an anomaly in the modern music business, a throwback to how things used to be. These days even the biggest artists struggle to get mainstream attention for their new releases in a flooded market that is defined by more releases than ever before, and the ‘always on’ artist who is continually releasing new music and talking to their audience. Adele, though, follows the old model of landmark releases every half a decade and, up to now, she has managed to make it work by creating a cultural zeitgeist that the world opts into at scale. But the world has moved on a lot since her 2015 release, 25, and the nagging question is whether she can do it again with 30 in the much-changed music world.

Adele’s album releases act as chapter markers for the evolution of the recorded music market. Back in 2008, when 19 was released, it was still a sales (physical and downloads) and album dominated world. 90% of global revenues were from sales, while streaming was just 2%. With each half-decade release, the music world had moved on. Indeed, it could be argued that the biggest risk was with 25 in 2015, when streaming was already more than a fifth of revenues, and physical sales had fallen by 44% from 2008. Yet the album still managed to rack up 22 million sales and, in turn, became one of the biggest selling albums of the millennium. Adele bucked the prevailing industry trends.

Streaming does not favour albums

Fast forward to 2021 and the world has shifted even further, with 65% of revenues coming from streaming, and sales accounting for just a quarter. This is a dramatically different music world from the one in which 25 was released. Streaming will be the main way in which success is measured. Yet, just 15% of people listen to full albums on streaming services, so either Adele pulls an Ed Sheeran and has her entire album dominate the most streamed song charts (a possibility, but not a probability), or she has a few really big songs that rack up big streaming numbers. And to do that, she has to perform like a streaming-era artist.

Competing with streaming-era artists

Right now, Adele has two songs on Spotify with a billion streams. Compare this with Travis Scott who has three songs, two of which are more than 1.5 billion. Or Ed Sheeran, who has five songs, one of which is about to hit three billion (Shape of You). Heck, even Marshmello has three one billion stream tracks, of which one has 1.5 billion. No offence to Marshmello, but Adele will be expecting to have bigger cultural impact than him. It should be achievable (assuming that the music is strong enough), if for no other reason than the fact that there are three quarters of a billion more people streaming than in 2015.

Cultural impact will be the truest measure of success

But even if she does catch up on streaming figures, that probably is not how we should measure Adele’s success. In today’s world of fragmented fandom, fandom is defined by cultural movements rather than cultural moments. This is a dynamic that is intensified by the fact that media is also far more fragmented. Audiences are spread more thinly across a much wider range of platforms, shows and apps. It is simply much harder to create cultural moments. But that is exactly what Adele’s team will be planning to do. And given the current media buzz, she looks on track to do so once again, supported, as ever, by a simple but clever marketing campaign.

Recently, Adele has become much more visible, using Instagram and Facebook Live, pushing herself back into the public consciousness and even playing into meme culture. Beyond the music itself, it will be the continued use of social media, coupled with meeting the eager demand of traditional media that will determine whether 30 can become the sort of cultural phenomenon that 21 and 25 were. The fact that she still sings from the heart and is so relatable gives her an authenticity that is so often thin on the ground with today’s pop stars.

Creating a cultural moment

So, the success of 30 will probably be best measured in terms of whether there is a genuine cultural moment. In short, how long will Adele’s music and her team be able to maintain global interest and relevance? Success may be more about whether, two months down the line, we still have memes flooding TikTok and James Corden doing skits. This will say as much about how the world is responding to her music than how many streams she clocks up. And, of course, I have not even mentioned sales – not by accident. These metrics are just not going to be the way to gauge her success anymore (even considering the industry’s obsession with artificially boosted ‘sales’ figures with ‘sales equivalent streams’).

Adele has always been something of an anomaly, finding success through the power of her music rather than by playing whatever the latest marketing game is. Of course, expect every contemporary marketing card to be played (especially TikTok). But it will be through cultural impact, not streams, that we will truly understand how loudly her music still speaks.

Did July 1st 2019 mark the end of Spotify’s music creator dream?

On July 1st 2019, Spotify announced that it was closing its system that allowed artists to upload their music directly to Spotify. The move came in the wake of fierce opposition from record labels who had let Spotify know, in no uncertain terms, that they were not going to let it compete directly against them. They were not about to let their partner disintermediate them. When Spotify launched its artists direct tool, moves had been made on the heels of its 2017 Cloud DAW and collaboration tool, Soundtrap, and formed part of a clear strategy of becoming a music creator powerhouse. Even after the label enforced volte-face, Spotify additionally acquired music skills marketplace, SoundBetter, in September 2019. But now, with news emerging that Spotify has just sold SoundBetter back to its founders, it is beginning to look like the strategy was already dead in the water before the original deal.

The future of what music companies will be

Spotify’s music creator strategy was both bold and sound. It was making a bet that the music companies of the future would not simply be on the business of recording and releasing signed artists, but would instead participate in the creation of music further up the chain – just like they currently participate in distribution further up the chain. The assumption remains valid and, indeed, there is much to see in the market today to point to a future where the distinctions are blurring between what is a label, distribution platform, creator tool or streaming service. BandLab is most of those things (with 30 million people signed up to its platform), while AVID (maker of ProTools) launched distribution last year, as did Canadian creator tools company LANDR. The value chain shifts are happening. But not only that, 2020 started the unprecedented process of large institutional investment into creator tools companies, such as Native Instruments, Splice, Output and iZoptope. The creator tools space is white hot. So why is Spotify backing away?

Podcasts get the attention

The answer probably lies in focus. When the labels pushed back against Spotify’s artist ambitions, Spotify had to find a new big bet, which was – of course – podcasts. Since that point, Spotify has focused its investments, with a raft of acquisitions of both companies and talent. It even rebranded its creator strategy to encompass podcasters. The sale of SoundBetter is a clear implication that podcasters are now the centre piece of Spotify’s creator strategy.

A return could still be on the cards

Spotify can still be, and may yet be, a powerhouse for music creators. But, for now, podcasts are where the energies are focused. Besides, the sheer volume of creator tools M+A activity is such that Spotify may well feel that it would not be able to get good value for money if it was to go on an acquisition spree. Perhaps Spotify will return to the space 3-7 years from now. That will be when the current private equity owners have finished building up their acquisitions and start looking to sell them, enhanced and transformed for the new market dynamics. It will also be when Spotify may feel powerful enough to take on the labels again.

Whatever the longer-term future may hold, right now SoundBetter returns to the market as the sort of tool that encapsulates what the next wave of creation is all about, and it may feel that it can now finally deliver on its initial promise.

Live streaming’s second growth phase

Live streaming erupted in 2020 in the wake of the pandemic. As the year progressed, the market transformed rapidly from a bunch of bands playing guitar in their bedrooms to highly produced, ticketed shows with tens of thousands of viewers. New companies flashed into existence while older ones dusted of their websites and rode the new wave of demand and enthusiasm. Everything was going great – and then along came real life. COVID restrictions began to ease, vaccination rates rose and real life concerts were back. It almost did not matter that they were not yet back in full effect, because even a gradual return had caught the imagination of artists and their managers. Suddenly, the prospect of looking their fans in the eyes made sulking in front of a camera in an empty venue seem a whole lot less appealing. With the sting taken out if its tail, it would be easy to imagine the live stream sector going back into its pre-COVID shell. But it has not. Instead, the sector is laying foundations for longer term growth, as shown this week by Deezer’s investment in Driift, and Dice’s acquisition of Boiler Room.

Competition from IRL

Revenue from ticketed live stream concerts surpassed $600 million in 2020, and the market trajectory in Q4 20, combined with the pandemic outlook, suggested that the market was going to push on past $2 billion in 2021. But with IRL concerts and festivals making their comeback, the number of ticketed live stream concerts slowed in Q1 21 and only started meaningfully picking up again mid-way through Q2 21. Also, average ticket prices started to come down, likely in response to softening demand among audiences who were eagerly anticipating real concerts once more. Live streamed concert audience penetration stopped growing in Q2 21, but retains a solid base (as the data in a forthcoming MIDiA report shows). But IRL was always more likely rather than less likely to come back, so live streamed concerts were always going to have to plan for a hybrid future (by which I mean both hybrid concerts and co-existing alongside IRL concerts). If there was a surprise, it was just how quickly artists were willing to jump the live stream ship. 

The hype cycle

If 2020 was the Peak of Inflated Expectations in the hype cycle and the start of 2021 was the Trough of Disillusionment, then we are now in the period of slow, steady consolidation, where the real market is built out of the rubble of over-zealous hype. With so many investments made in 2020, there was always going to be a consolidation opportunity for those players with a sound, longer-term view. Mandolin, widely acclaimed during 2020, recently acquired indie focused platform NoonChorus. Then, this week, the next-gen ticketing platform, Dice, acquired long running dance music live platform Boiler Room.

Consolidation

While Mandolin’s move was straightforward consolidation, Dice’s is more disruptive. 2020 catalysed growth for Dice, with a neat positioning as an alternative to the big traditional ticketing companies that empowers venues with more control, as well as being the ticketing company of choice for many live stream concert providers. But with the acquisition of Boiler Room, Dice has just taken a leaf out of the playbook of the big, traditional ticketing companies – expanding across the value chain. However, as much as Dice will try to position the move as otherwise, it is now competing directly with many of its clients. Other next-gen ticketing companies focused on live streaming could be forgiven for seeing this as a great opportunity to differentiate and compete.

Investment

‘Value chain creep’ was already a defining feature of the live streaming vendor space in 2020, with many companies attempting to do multiple parts of the process rather than specialising. This looks great in investor presentation, but for artists and managers, it simply replaces the old boss with a new boss who looks just like the old boss. A number of companies forged a different path, focusing instead on producing high quality shows for artists. One such company was Driift, which this week received a strategic investment from Deezer, that had already previously invested in DREAMSTAGE. Deezer’s moves reflect an understanding that audio streaming and live streaming represent a strong overlap opportunity. Indeed, Deezer WAUs are more likely to watch live streamed concerts than other music service WAUs.

Long term, steady growth

2021 will go down as the year of adjustment for live streaming, following a year of exceptional circumstances in 2020. COVID catalysed secular growth but boosted figures higher than the natural level of the market at this early stage. The coming years will be characterised by steady continued growth, with hybrid and ‘pandemic proof’ solutions for venues, such as Live Nation fitting 60+ venues with Veeps capabilities. The live music sector did not experience the dramatic transformation wrought by streaming. Instead, the sector had to wait for the pandemic’s impact and the resultant COVID bounce for live streaming. Expect more investments and more consolidation as this market begins to set itself up for long-term, organic growth. 

Creator TAMs: a new way to assess the creator economy

The music creator tools space is undergoing a change that is simultaneously renaissance and transformation. The creator culture boom has driven an unprecedented degree of investment and investor interest. However, because the music creator tools space is a collection of diverse products and services, an underlying challenge has been how to identify exactly what the total addressable market (TAM) is. In this report, MIDiA presents the multiple TAMs, SAMs (Serviceable Addressable Market) and SOMs (Serviceable Obtainable Market) for music creator tools. MIDiA has created an industry first: we have created a series of creator tools TAM models that enable investors to precisely measure the market opportunity for the growth of different types of creator tools companies.

We spent a lot of months compiling data from industry sources, company financials, executive interviews and proprietary MIDiA survey data to build the model and accompanying report. The full report and dataset is available here. Here are some key themes explored in the report.

This surge in new musicians that started learning or playing during the pandemic represents the genesis of the second wave of opportunity for music creator tools, with the first wave being formed by the 7% of consumers that bought an instrument in the prior 12 months and the 5% that make music with software.

The rapid growth of new music creators comes alongside an unprecedented period of transformation in the creator tools space which complicates the task of assessing the market opportunity. Things are complicated further by the fact that this evolution represents the birth of a whole series of sub-markets which currently fall under the broad category of ‘creator tools’. This is why we define the market opportunity through three related total addressable markets (TAMs) rather than a single one (which the above graphic illustrates conceptually):

Core TAM: The core TAM is the number of people that play instruments, encompassing a wide variety of musicians, ranging from enthusiast guitar players through to members of classical ensembles. 

Meta TAM: This is the core TAM plus those consumers that intend to start learning instruments. The combination of the catalysing effect the pandemic had on musicianship and the surge of online learning tools – especially YouTube tutorials and tools like guitar tab apps – is increasing the number of people becoming musicians. 

Produce or record music: These people record or produce their own music through a combination of analogue and digital tools, though with a very strong shift towards digital. The cultural significance is that by using tools such digital audio workstations (DAWs), their creative workflows are being shaped by sound engineering rather than purely musicianship. 

As with all markets, the music creator tools space faces a combination of drivers and inhibitors. The key drivers are 1) a rapid growth in music creators, 2) streaming opening up global audiences, 3) computer production becoming more widespread across more genres. The key inhibitors are 1) complexity of learning skills, 2) artists struggling to cut through and earn income, 3) an increasingly competitive marketplace. With these tailwinds and headwinds considered, the outlook is strong for creator tools but its sub components will evolve at very different rates, largely defined by the scale of the addressable markets but also the degree to which players are willing to embrace new market shaping trends such as growing demand for ease of use, the rise of creator community platforms and the shift to subscriptions.

If you want to learn more about the report and the datasets included then please email stephen@midiaresearch.com

UMG’s buoyant stock debut is a new chapter for the music business

Universal Music Group (UMG) had an extremely positive first day of trading as a standalone entity, with shares at one stage trading 35% up from their reference point and making the market cap leap to $55 billion, while former-parent, Vivendi, saw a drop of two thirds in its value. Prior to the first day of trading, there were questions over whether Vivendi had pushed the indicative value of UMG shares too high, due to, in part, a series of UMG equity sell offs – but day one suggests that pent-up demand was sufficiently high to negate those concerns. Meanwhile, Warner Music Group’s (WMG) stock also surged, showing that investors see this as a market dynamic rather than a pure company dynamic. So, what is going on? Why is there so much investor enthusiasm in the music industry? The answers lie in the two-tier narrative that is building around today’s music business.

If the UMG listing had happened as recently as two years ago, we probably would not be talking about such a stellar trading debut. The fact that we are doing so now is because the music market has moved on a lot since then – and I mean a lot. This is what the music market looked like in September 2019:

For those deep in the music business, it is sometimes hard to appreciate just how much change has happened in such a short period of time. As CS Lewis once wrote: Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different? Crucially for UMG’s listing, these changes have contributed to a major shift in the music industry’s metanarrative for investors:

  • 2019: The Spotify vs the labels narrative was in full swing. Investors viewed the market through the lens of ‘rights vs distribution’. They were backing Spotify against UMG, vice versa or simply backing both horses in the race as a sector hedge. Record labels looked vulnerable in a market which was dominated by digital service provider (DSP) growth, which, in turn, was dominated by Spotify. Streaming’s future was bright, but there was a risk that as streaming got bigger, the labels would get weaker.
  • 2020: Streaming revenues continue to grow strongly, up 18.3% in 2020 with 467 million subscribers, and up a further 25.9% in H1 21 in the US. But, crucially, the market is diversifying beyond DSPs. New growth drivers (social, short-form video, games, fitness, and mindfulness) are now making a truly meaningful contribution to label revenues (around $1.5bn in 2020). Music is becoming the soundtrack to the new digital entertainment universe. Vitally, unlike the traditional approach of sync (an ad hoc model that struggles to be agile and to scale), the labels are applying scalable licenses, born out of the DSP model, to ensure music rights can be agile enough to grow with the fast-changing digital entertainment marketplace. On top of this, a) the catalogue M+A boom has established music as an investor asset class, b) recorded music grew during the pandemic while live declined, thus demonstrating it to be the most resilient component of the wider music industry. The outlook for music is now a multi-layered narrative, with DSPs still centre stage but no longer the only game in town.

What this all means is that music rights are a compelling investment proposition for bigger institutional investors. However, the thing about bigger institutional investors is that they typically like to invest in big established companies. So, looking at the marketplace, unless an investor wants to build a catalogue investment fund (which is a highly specialised approach), there are not many big companies to invest in. WMG is the smallest major, Sony Music is just one smallish part of the Sony Corporation, and Believe is an indie label. So, while those are still interesting options for investors, the opportunity to invest into the world’s largest music company was previously the exclusive domain of a few large investors. Now, finally, everyone can have a part of UMG. 

So, what we have is the confluence of two factors:

  • Pent-up investor demand
  • A compelling and diversified industry narrative

The timing for UMG is perfect, but, of course, it has not been a neutral player simply watching the sands shift. It has actively driven this narrative, not just through what Sir Lucian Grainge and other executives have been telling the market, but also through its succession of equity transactions which helped build demand and value recognition. Part of the reason UMG is the world’s biggest music group is because it is the world’s biggest music group. It uses its scale and influence to help shape the market and its future trajectory. This is arguably one of UMG’s most valuable assets: it exercises control over its own destiny.Whether UMG’s share price falls or whether it grows in the coming weeks, the listing represents a high water mark for the music business as an asset class and may well be reflected upon as a useful bookend for one phase of the music business as another emerges.

‘Middle class’ artists need niche, not scale

Streaming continues to grow strongly, as evidenced by the 28% growth reported by the RIAA for H1 2021 in the US. Everything looks great for the build-up to the impeding Universal Music Group (UMG) IPO. But all is not well in the creator community, as many artists and songwriters continue to be unhappy with streaming income (seen most pertinently in the UK parliamentary DCMS inquiry). However, the origin of so much of their ills, even if they do not yet realise it, is the mechanics of streaming itself rather than any party (labels, publishers or streaming services) not passing on enough money. Could these entities transfer more to their creators? Yes, of course. But there is no increase that could transform the outlook for most of these creators without potentially breaking the entire streaming economy. The crucial, emerging dynamic is that most mid-tier creators are never going to be big enough to gain adequate streaming scale to use as a reliable income source. In fact, they need the opposite of scale – they need niche.

Streaming income is always going be different from sales income

One of Daniel Ek’s Spotify ambitions is to create and empower a new ‘middle class’ of artists, enabling a new wave of creators to build careers from their creativity. But the irony is that the ‘middle class’ (depending on how you define this amorphous group) is, perhaps, least well served by streaming. Here is why: in the old world, a ‘middle class’ five person band might sell 50,000 copies of an album in a year, for, say, $10 each – thus receiving $35,000 each*. In streaming, this group might generate 10 million streams in a year, which would result in $7,000 each. The old model delivers far fewer fans but far more income. In isolation, the streaming model is less beneficial, however, in a wider context, the streaming-era group is likely to generate more live performance, merch and branding income as a result of streaming’s bigger audience. This is why streaming received much more critical creator attention during the pandemic, as the halo effect across other income avenues was cut off at the knees.

The squeezed middle

This comparison is not intended to suggest the streaming model is broken, but for the middle tier of artists, the scale at which streaming delivers is not enough on its own, and instead it catalyses the wider mix of creator income streams. At the other ends of the creator spectrum, superstars get enough scale to earn a truly meaningful streaming income, and the emerging independent artists are able to reach global audiences in way they could never do pre-streaming. So, the ‘middle class’ of creators actually become the ‘squeezed middle’ of the creators’ streaming economy.

Monetise niches, not scale

Even doubling the creator royalty rates would still leave streaming income 2.5 times smaller than sales income, but it would break the streaming model in the process. Rather than break streaming, an alternative attempt at resolve would be to focus on finding an artist’s core fans – the ones who really care – and selling them products and experiences. With this approach, middle tier artists would be able to replicate the same sort of income flows as the old sales model. Clearly, that theoretical five person group would likely sell fewer than 50,000 copies of a product because much of their audience would already be getting all they need from streaming. But this is not about replacing streaming – this is about complementing it, by bridging the income gap. So, while some artists have opted to remove themselves from streaming and focus solely on platforms like Bandcamp, this approach is unnecessarily reductive and will actually hurt the artist’s earning income in the longer-term, as the funnel for acquiring new fans has been massively narrowed.

Fame and fandom

The concepts in this post are not particularly new and I have, in fact, discussed a few of them before. But they are crucially pertinent, nonetheless. ‘Middle class’ artists need to start thinking about streaming more like radio, i.e., a tool for growing fanbases which they can then monetise elsewhere. Streaming delivers the fame, while niche delivers the fandom. And it is fandom where an artist and a fan get the most value, in all possible permutations of the word ‘value’. As long as, of course, the artist does not get lazy and simply try to fleece their super fans!

*These calculations are simplified, do not include cost deductions (other than retailer margin), assume group members each have an equal share of recording and publishing rights, and assume that rights splits are the same across both.

The oncoming fandom crisis

The Chinese authorities’ crackdown on fandom represents the first major growing pain for the global fandom economy. Tencent Music Entertainment (TME) will likely be the bellwether of this shift, with two thirds of its revenues coming from non-music (i.e., fandom) related activities. But this is more than just about China – it shines a light on the dark underbelly of the global fandom machine. The companies behind K-pop and Idol acts industrialised fandom by leveraging, and even exploiting, fan psychology to massive global businesses that trade upon extracting every possible ounce of spend from fanbases. The China crackdown should act as a wakeup call for the global music market. 

The industrialisation of fandom

Regular readers will know that MIDiA has focused on fandom analysis and research for a number of years now, looking at it across all forms of entertainment. The reasons we believe it is so interesting in music is because Western streaming services monetise consumption rather than fandom, leaving both passion and spent on the table

The Chinese music apps illustrate just how much more can be achieved when experiences are built around the music, rather than simply relying on music to always be the experience. Alongside this, the rise of K-pop, which leans heavily on the Japanese Idol model, shows how much fanbases can be willing to support their favourite artists, particularly in terms of both spend and passion. But, as exciting as these models are, they have also been underpinned by the temptation to push fans’ spending and obsession further and further.

Even Western artists are getting in on the act. When Taylor Swift encouraged her fanbase to go and buy the re-recorded version of Fearless, she was looking for their support in her old master recordings ordeal. But who really needed the $50 for a vinyl copy most, Swift or her fans? 

This industrialisation of fandom has actually weaponised it, and, in doing so, puts its very essence at risk.

The oncoming fandom crisis

A fandom crisis is coming. Fandom is far more meaningful and profound for fans than mere consumption. It is also far harder to measure – in fact, it is only the effects of fandom that can be measured (i.e., merch sales, comments, likes, etc.). Fandom is rooted in human psychology. It is about identity, belonging and self-expression. Things that often matter more to younger people than anything else, especially teens in their formative years. It is no coincidence that the industrial fandom machines are primarily built around younger consumers. The Chinese government’s decision to limit fandom, in part because of its negative social impacts, is an extreme move, but it could also act as an ice breaker for regulatory scrutiny in Western markets. 

The fandom crisis goes beyond music

The oncoming fandom crisis is neither confined just to Asia, nor just to music. In fact, huge swathes of the global social economy are built on exactly the same dynamics. TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Twitch – all of these platforms exploit the creator / fan relationship and have constructed sophisticated monetisation frameworks around them. The sophistication does not so much lie in payment methods or technology, but instead in deploying products that drive competitive fandom. Fans compete to be the biggest fan, often by spending more. This can be a kid spending their parents’ money to have his comment pinned to the top of a YouTube gamer’s comment stream, or a Twitch user paying to unlock exclusive emotes and sub badges of their favourite Twitch streamer. 

The platforms need to consider a crucial principle: just because you can do it does not always mean that you should do it.

A crucial moment for the business of fandom

Fandom is the ozone layer of the entertainment world, and it is a critical resource that is too often taken for granted and can be irrevocably damaged. 

This is a crucial juncture for fandom. We are beginning to see the emergence of cool new apps, like Fave, and Western labels looking East for inspiration, such as UMG tapping Hybe’s Weverse app for some of its artists. It is crucial that well intentioned efforts do not falter because of a wider fandom backlash. Fandom should be nurtured, not harvested.

Not only is there so much that can be done, the music industry needs more to be done. A key reason there are armies of BTS and Black Pink fans in the West is because a generation of kids were growing up with a sense that something was missing from music for them, that streaming simply did not let them express themselves and feel part of something. Streaming in the West does not do fandom. Streaming in China, perhaps, does it too well. Clearly, there must be a solution somewhere in the middle that enables fans to be fans, while also doing the right thing for them. 

Fandom and ethics should not occupy opposite sides of the debate. They should be intertwined and interdependent. Fandom is about who you are and what you are. Without ethics, what are any of us?

Kanye just obliterated the creative full stop

Kanye just obliterated the creative full stop 

Kanye West knows how to stir things up, not least in making us rethink what music is and nudging us away from considering it as linear and static. First there was his announcement that Life of Pablo was a “living, breathing, changing creative expression”, and now there is his Donda Stem Player – which we wrote about here last week. Transformational change does not normally happen in one big wave, but instead is triggered by disruptive outliers, things that, at the time, might look like inconsequential edge cases, but act as the ice breakers for the paradigm shift that follows. Digital entertainment in its wider sense is entering its lean inphase, where audiences participate with content, whether that be simply commenting on a YouTube video or creating your own TikTok video. Given simple but powerful tools, it turns out that the consumers like to be creators too. First it was pictures and video, but now it is audio’s turn, and Kanye’s Donda Stem Player could prove to be a pivotal step in that journey.

Formats do not need to be how they have always been

The future always looks much more like the past. The Model T Ford looked more like a horseless cart than it did a 1950’s car. Change takes time. Digital entertainment business models have undergone dramatic change, but the content itself much less so. We think of TV shows, movies and music as being clearly defined things that have always been thus, but, in truth, they were defined by analogue technology in the 19th century. Now that linear TV schedules, radio and CD players are entering their final phases, there is no need for the traditional formats to continue to dominate. Creatives who argue that a 45-minute drama and 3.5-minute song are simply the best formats, do so because that is all that they have ever known. Yes, they work, but that does not mean that other formats cannot also work. Just look at the album. Many artists still like the creative construct, but just 21% of music streamers regularly listen to albums on streaming services. Music fans have already decided that this format is not part of their future.

Fluid audio erases the creative full stop

The Donda Stem Player, made for Kanye by Kano, takes this concept and runs with it. This, as my colleague, Kriss Thakrar, identifies, is fluid audio, and it fits into the Agile Music that we first identified back in 2011. Analog entertainment formats were inherently creative full stops. When an album was recorded, it was done – final. It did not matter if the artist’s creative vision had moved on, as the songs remained the same. This seems entirely natural, but until the recording era, this would have appeared as a creative anathema in popular music. Before recordings, a song was never the same twice. It only existed as a live performance that was played in the moment and survived in the listener’s memory. Songs evolved and changed. Whether that be centuries of evolution in European folk music or decades in American blues and jazz. Then recording came along and songs became petrified – the stuffed animals of creativity. 

Kanye took his first swipe at the creative full stop with his continual updates of Life of Pablo. Not everyone got it. Many fans simply wanted it to sound the way it did when they first heard it. It takes time for people to get their heads around change – quite literal change in the case of Life of Pablo. Now, with the Donda Stem Player, Kanye has obliterated the creative full stop. Donda will never sound the same twice, and that is now literally in the hands of his fans.

In some respects, making a piece of physical kit looks to be quite a retro move in this digital era, but the subtle, yet crucial idea here is to make the Donda Stem Player an actual instrument. It is the ultimate form of creator culture, by turning songs made with instruments into an instrument itself. How very meta!

Back in 2015, I published my book ‘Awakening’, which was part history of the digital music business and part vision for the future. Some of my predictions did not age as well as I would have liked, but some of them are still looking good. One of them was the DISC concept. I proposed that future music formats needed to be:

Dynamic

Interactive

Social

Creative

I mainly aimed this at the digital realm, and we are already seeing it happen, whether that be TikTok lip sync videos, Facebook Audio Studio, Clean Bandit’s Splice sounds pack, or apps like Voisey and Trackd. But I also suggested that it could apply to physical formats in order to free music of its smartphone chains. One theoretical proposal was for pieces of art that would enable to the user to change the songs by walking between them, triggering a vocal part here, a drum beat there, etc. It is not a million miles away from the Donda Stem Player.

A lean in future

The entire music world is not suddenly going to go from static streams to interactive widgets, but change is a coming. In a year from now, we may look back on the Donda Stem Player as being a fun gimmick, but if we do, it will be because we have not yet found the Model T Ford, rather than the underlying principles being wrong. Of course, the majority of music listening will most likely remain lean back and static, but not all of it will. As audiences lean in ever further, more of them will want to create as much as they consume, just like they do with social video today. There is one thing we can be certain of – the future of music creativity and consumption is changing, and Kanye just played his part, again.

Can Spotify break out of its lane?

After years of relative stability, music consumption is shifting, with the DSP streaming model beginning to lose some ground as illustrated by the major labels growing streaming revenue by 33% in Q2 2021 while Spotify was up by just 23%. It is never wise to read long-term market trends into one quarter’s worth of results, but there was already enough preceding evidence to suggest we are entering a genuine market shift. The question is whether Spotify and the other Western DSPs are going to find themselves left behind by a fast-changing market, or can they innovate to keep up the pace?

Social music is streaming’s new growth driver, generating around $1.5 billion in 2020 and growing fast in 2021. It represents a natural evolution of social media rather than an evolution of streaming. Audio is just another tool for social expression, along with video, pictures and words. MIDiA has long argued that Western streaming focuses too heavily on monetizing consumption, at the expense of fandom. While social video does not fix the fandom problem, it does cater to some of the key elements of fandom: self-expression, identity and community. Which means that, in some respects, Spotify and the other DSPs only have themselves to blame for having kept fandom out of their propositions. In doing so, they created a vacuum that TikTok and Instagram eagerly filled.

The data in the above chart comes from MIDiA’s latest music consumer survey report which is available now to MIDiA clients and is also available for purchase here.

Rights holder licensing met market demand

Spotify and the other DSPs are the dominant, core component of recorded music and they will remain so for the foreseeable future. But whereas a couple of years ago it looked like they might be the entire story, now music consumption is moving beyond, well, consumption. Finally, we are seeing music becoming an enabler of other experiences. Historically this was restricted to non-scalable, ad hoc sync deals. Now rights holders have established licensing frameworks that are flexible, dynamic and scalable enough to enable a whole new generation of experiences with music either in a central or supporting role.

DSPs occupy one of streaming’s lanes

The implication of this is that Spotify and the other DSPs now risk looking like they are stuck in just one lane of the streaming market. What looked like a highway is now just a single lane – and Spotify, Apple and Amazon do not have the assets to build propositions that can get them out of it. Being part of this social music revolution requires both massively social communities and video. They could all build that, of course, but with little guarantee of success. YouTube is a different case, having launched Shorts in a belated bid to ward off TikTok’s audience theft – but at least it is now running that race, and Alphabet reported 15 billion daily global views for Q2.

An increasingly segmented market

Spotify and other DSPs now find themselves not being part of streaming’s new growth story and, YouTube excepted, with no clear path to becoming part of it. To be clear, Spotify will continue to be the world’s largest subscription revenue generator and the DSP subscription model will continue to be the biggest source of revenue, at least for the foreseeable future. But revenue growth will increasingly come from elsewhere. In many respects this simply reflects the maturation of the music streaming market. Consider video streaming. Netflix added just 1.5 million subscribers in Q2 2021 while YouTube grew by 84% and TikTok went from strength to strength. Netflix occupies just one lane in a multifaceted streaming market. The same is now becoming true of the DSPs.

Time to do a Facebook?

So, what can Spotify and the other DSPs do about it? If Spotify really wants to ‘own’ audio, then it will have to do what Facebook did to ‘own’ social: create a portfolio of standalone sister apps. Facebook would have become the Yahoo of social media if it hadn’t bought / launched Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. The signs are already there for Spotify. Even ignoring the slowdown in monthly active user (MAU) growth in Q2 2021, podcast users stopped meaningfully growing as a share of overall MAUs in Q4 2020. It turns out that trying to compete with yourself in your own app is hard to do. The time may have come for a standalone podcast / audiobook app (by the way, I’m just taking it as read that Spotify is going to take audiobooks a whole lot more seriously). If Spotify does launch a podcast app, then the case suddenly becomes a lot clearer for other audio-related apps, all of which could include subscription tiers, such as social short video, karaoke, and artist channels.

The more probable outlook however is for specialisation, with segments going deep and vertical rather than wide and horizontal. While Spotify, and other DSPs, might have success in one or more side bets, it will be the specialists who lead in streaming’s other lanes. Whatever the final market mix looks like as a result of this change, the streaming market is going to be more diverse and innovative for it.

The record labels are weaning themselves off their Spotify dependency

The major labels had a spectacular streaming quarter, registering 33% growth on Q2 2020 to reach $3.1 billion. Spotify had a less impressive quarter, growing revenues by just 23%. After being the industry’s byword for streaming for so long, Spotify’s dominant role is beginning to lessen. This is less a reflection of Spotify’s performance (though that wasn’t great in Q2) but more to do with the growing diversification of the global streaming market. 

Spotify remains the dominant player in the music subscription sector, with 32% global subscriber market share, but streaming is becoming about much more than just subscriptions. WMG’s Steve Cooper recently reported that such ‘emerging platforms’ “were running at roughly $235 million on an annualized basis” (incidentally, this aligns with MIDiA’s estimate that the global figure for 2020 was $1.5 billion). 

The music subscription market’s Achille’s heel (outside of China) has long been the lack of differentiation. The record labels showed scant interest in changing this, but instead focused on licensing entirely new music experiences outside of the subscription market. As a consequence, the likes of Peloton, TikTok and Facebook have all become key streaming partners for record labels – a very pronounced shift from how the label licensing world looked a few years ago.

The impact on streaming revenues is clear. In Q4 2016, Spotify accounted for 38% of all record label streaming revenue. By Q2 2021 this had fallen to 31%.

Looking at headline revenue alone, though, underplays the accelerating impact of streaming’s new players. Because Spotify already has such a large, established revenue base, quarterly dilution is typically steady rather than dramatic. Things look very different though when looking specifically at the revenue growth, i.e., the amount of new revenue generated in a quarter compared to the prior year. On this basis, streaming’s new players are rapidly expanding share. Spotify’s share of streaming revenue growth fell from 34% in Q4 2017 to just 26% in Q2 2021. Unlike total streaming revenue, the revenue growth figure is relatively volatile, with Spotify’s share ranging from a low of 11% to a high of 60% over the period – but the underlying direction of travel is clear.

Spotify remains the record labels’ single most important partner both in terms of hard power (revenues, subscribers) and soft power (ability to break artists etc.). But the streaming world is changing, fuelled by the record labels’ focus on supporting new growth drivers. The implications for Spotify could be pronounced. With so many of Spotify’s investors backing it in a bet on distribution against rights, the less dependent labels are on it, the more leverage they will enjoy. From a financial market perspective, the last 18 months have been dominated by good news stories for music rights – from ever-accelerating music catalogue M&A transactions to record label IPOs and investments. 

Right now, the investor momentum is with rights. Should the current dilution of Spotify’s revenue share continue, Spotify will struggle to negotiate further rates reductions and will find it harder to pursue strategies that risk antagonising rights holders. Meanwhile, rights holders would be surveying an increasingly fragmented market, where no single partner has enough market share to wield undue power and influence. That is a place where rights holders have longed dreamed of getting to, but now – divide and conquer – may finally be coming to fruition.