The Internet’s Adolescence: The Real World Catches Up Eventually

I started my career as an internet analyst back in the period of the dot-com bubble. They were heady days in which anything seemed possible. The world was changing in unprecedented ways and the possibilities were endless. The rules that governed the old world didn’t apply. Except they did. Investors soon twigged that dot-com startups were simply not able to deliver on their revenue promises and so pulled their funding. In an instant, the whole edifice came tumbling down. It turned out that those old fashioned and outdated concepts such as turning a profit actually applied to internet companies too. We have come a long way since the dot-com bubble, but it would be wrong to think of the internet as being a mature medium yet. Instead, it is entering its market adolescence and consequently still has a lot of growing up to do.

Regulation Comes Eventually

Although the internet and its associated technologies (apps, social, streaming, e-commerce, etc) are deeply embedded in our daily lives in the developed world (and increasingly so in emerging markets), it is still fundamentally just getting going. On a global level, each key sector of the internet economy is dominated by 1 company (Amazon/e-commerce, Google/search, Facebook/social, etc). A single dominant company is typically an indication of an early stage market and/or one that is about to be opened up with regulation. In the case of internet industries, it is likely to be a combination of both. Thus far, regulation has not yet properly caught up with internet companies. The global, borderless nature of their propositions and their relative lack of precedents makes regulation a highly challenging task. But it will happen.

Regulatory Repercussions

To be clear, regulation is not some shining panacea for business. But it is the price of being part of society and global commerce. The more deeply integrated into civic society that internet companies become, the stronger the likelihood for them to become regulated. And when regulation happens, the effects can be devastating for companies that have previously operated with free reign. When the European Commission, under lobbying pressure from Real Networks, compelled Microsoft to unbundle the Windows Media Player (then by far the most popular music player) from Windows in 2004, it was the trigger for a long period of decline for Microsoft, from which it is only just beginning to recover. Clearly, there were other market factors that contributed to its decline, but regulation was the tipping point. And the model of a competitor (Real Networks) shamelessly using regulation to give it a competitive edge over an established rival could reoccur. For example, any number of big Chinese companies looking to extend their reach to the west may view EU regulators as an opportunity to prize open the market for them.

The Pendulum Swing Of Disruption

When a new technology disrupts a traditional incumbent, it normally does so by being 3 things to the end user:

  1. Cheaper/free
  2. Quicker
  3. More convenient

Napster, YouTube, Amazon, Uber, Netflix, all of these companies have done exactly this. Because they most often build market share and presence using external funding, such companies turn existing economics upside down with loss leading tactics. The result is that audiences switch in their millions and incumbents are left in tatters. Any old business that relies on scarcity economics will be swept away.

Take Uber’s impact on taxi drivers across the world. In the UK, a black cab driver will spend 5 years riding around every street in London on a scooter, memorising every street before taking a $60,000 loan on a black cab. 8 or 9 years into the venture, a black cabbie might be in the money. In the days of Google Maps and Uber, those principles go out of the window. Uber has had such an impact in London, that the cab rank queues at train stations can be miles long because black cabs have so little street side business left. In New York, yellow taxi medallions (the city’s government certification for official taxis), once traded as high as $1.3 million each in secondary markets, but have dropped to $240,000 now that Uber and Lyft have ensured that you no longer need a medallion to operate as a taxi in New York.

This is the pendulum swing of disruption. But pendulums eventually swing back. That is when regulations, real world economics and new business model innovation come into play. The original market disruptors often either disappear or get bought. The recorded music industry is now finally building a new set of effective businesses around the disruption brought by Napster, which died as an entity before the millennium really got going. YouTube transformed video and was bought by Google, Skype cannibalized mobile carriers and was ultimately bought by Microsoft, Linkedin disrupted recruitment advertising and was also bought by Microsoft, PayPal disrupted credit card companies and was bought by eBay.

All Of This Has Happened Before And Will Happen Again

Today’s internet giants may have the appearance of being permanent features of the digital landscape, but they’re not. AOL, Yahoo, Netscape or MySpace looked immortal in their days, as the GAAF (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook) do now. That doesn’t mean these companies cannot become long serving global superpowers. But history has a habit of repeating itself. Or as the fictional mythical Sacred Scrolls of Battlestar Galactica said: “All of this has happened before and will happen again.”

Never mistake normality for permanence.

 

Amazon Prime Live Events, More Than Just Gigs For Olds

Blondie-General Image 2-Alexander Thompson

Amazon today announced ‘Amazon Prime Live Events’, a series of smaller capacity gigs by largely heritage acts made available exclusively to Amazon Prime members in the UK. The first wave of artists include Blondie, Alison Moyet and Texas. Putting aside for a moment the obvious ‘it’s iTunes Festival for old people’ jibe, there is some sound strategic thinking underpinning the initiative.

The overlap between streaming and live has long been clear to streaming services (45% of live music fans are also streaming music users – check out MIDiA’s latest live entertainment report for more). It also presents a great opportunity to transform loss-leading streaming business into profit generators by monetizing the high value fans through ticket sales. However, no one has yet managed to realize the logical opportunity. Pandora’s full stack play with TicketFly, and Access Industry’s Deezer / Songkick play both represent potential at this stage, while other streaming services have made interesting announcements that soon disappeared from view.

Amazon might just be the one to make it work. It has quietly been building up its ticketing business for some time and because it sits on the same user dataset (and billing relationships) as Prime and Amazon’s 2 music services, it has an unrivalled ability to target and monetize.

Amazon Prime Live Events’ line up might not exactly be the cutting edge of edgy, exciting new music (Katie Melua rounds off the line up) but that is sort of the point. Amazon’s streaming music strategy is so interesting because it isn’t playing by the same rules as everyone else. Amazon is not competing for the same small group of 20/30 something music aficionados that the other streaming services are tearing chunks out of each other over. Instead it has its sights set on older, more mainstream music fans for whom the smartphone-centric music service offering has limited appeal.

This line up of gigs isn’t the end game, but instead the first step of what will likely be an increasingly joined up music strategy across Amazon’s various assets. The fact that 28% of UK live music fans are also Amazon Prime subscribers hints at where Amazon can go with this (overall UK Amazon Prime penetration is 19%). The fact that the gigs will be made available on Amazon Prime Video internationally further points to Amazon’s ability to join the dots across its increasingly diverse assets.

Throughout the first half of the 2010s Amazon was very much in the shadows of Apple and Google in terms of content strategy. Now not only is it giving them a run for the money in that arena, it is also making them pay close attention in terms of hardware and the home. What makes Amazon potentially the most interesting of the GAAF (Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook) is the way in which it combines customer data, billing relationships, content and services, infrastructure and consumer hardware. The 2000s was Apple’s decade. The 2010s are shaping up to be Amazon’s.

Quick Take: IFPI Revenue Numbers

Today the IFPI published their annual assessment of the global recorded music business. The key theme is the first serious year of growth since Napster kicked off a decade and a half of decline, with streaming doing all the revenue heavy lifting.

The findings won’t come as much of a surprise to regular readers of this blog, as at MIDiA we had already conducted our own market sizing earlier in the year. The IFPI reported just under a billion dollars of revenue growth in 2016 (we peg growth at $1.1 billion) with streaming driving all the growth (60% growth, we estimate 57%). IFPI also reported 112 million paying subscribers (our number is 106.3 million, but the IFPI numbers probably include the Tencent 10 million number as reported, while the actual number is closer to 5 million).

IFPI report physical sales declining by 8% (we have 7%) and downloads down by 21% which is 3 percentage points more decline than the majors reported; this implies the IFPI estimates the indies to have had a much more pronounced decline than the majors. MIDiA is currently working with WIN to create the 2017 update to the global indie market sizing study, so we’ll be able to confirm that trend one way or another in a couple of months’ time.

Overall, the IFPI numbers tell the same good news story we revealed back in February, namely that streaming is finally driving the format replacement cycle that the recorded music business has not had since the heyday of the CD. Without streaming, the recorded music market would have declined in 2016. Streaming is driving revenue growth by both growing the base of users and, crucially, increasing the spend of more casual music spenders, changing them from lower spending download buyers into monthly 9.99 customers.

Also, streaming is unlocking spending in emerging markets (especially Latin America). The old model was based on people being able to afford a CD player and being able to afford to buy albums. The new model monetizes consumption on smartphones (which are becoming ubiquitous in emerging markets). Expect each year from now to see a reallocation of recorded music revenue towards emerging markets. It will be a long process but an irresistible one. Indeed, as Spotify’s Will Page put it:

“Spotify’s success story has expanded beyond established markets, with Brazil and Mexico now making up two of our top four countries worldwide by reach. Back when the industry peaked in 2000, Brazil and Mexico were 7th and 8th biggest markets in the world respectively. A combination of increasing smartphone adoption [reaching far more users than CDs ever did] and Spotify’s success makes the potential for these emerging markets to ‘re-emerge’ and to exceed previous peaks.”

One surprising point is that the IFPI reported a total of $4.5 billion for streaming ($3.9 for freemium and $0.6 billion for YouTube, etc.). However, the major labels alone reported revenues of $3.9 billion (see my previous post for more detail on label revenues). That would give the majors an implied market share of 87% in streaming. Which seems like a big share even accounting for majors including the reveue of the indie labels they distribute in their revenue numbers (eg Orchard distributed indie label revenue appearing in Sony’s numbers). Last year the IFPI appeared to have put Pandora revenues into US performance revenues rather than treat them as ad supported streaming, so that could account for an extra $400 million or so.

Nonetheless, taking the IFPI’s $3.9 billion freemium revenue and the 112 million subs number both at face value for a moment, that would equate to an average monthly label income of $2.90 per subscriber or a combined average monthly income of $1.53 for total freemium users (including free). These numbers are skewed in that they are year end numbers (mid year user numbers would be lower, so ARPU would be higher) but they are still directionally instructive ie there is a big gap between headline 9.99 pricing and what label revenue is actually generated due to factors such as $1 for 3 month trials and telco bundles.

All in all, a great year for recorded music. And despite a slow-ish Q1 2017 for streaming and the impending CD revenue collapse in Japan and Germany, it looks set to be another strong year ahead for streaming and, to a lesser extent, the broader recorded music business.

Exclusive: Deezer Is Exploring User Centric Licensing

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One of the great, though less heralded, successes of streaming in 2016 was keeping the lid on artist angst. Previous years had been defined by seemingly endless complaints from worried and angry artists and songwriters. Now that torrent has dwindled to a relative trickle. This is largely due to a) a combination of artist outreach efforts from the services, b) so many artists now seeing meaningful streaming income and c) a general increased confidence in the model. Despite this though, the issues that gave creators concern (eg transparency, accountability) remain largely in place. The temptation might be to simply leave things as they are but it is exactly at this sort of time, when stakeholders are seeing eye to eye (relatively speaking at least), that bold change should be made rather than wait for crisis to re-emerge. It is no easy task fixing a plane mid flight. So it is encouraging to hear that Deezer is looking to change one the key anomalies in the streaming model: service centric licensing.

Service Centric Licensing

Currently streaming services license by taking the total pot of revenue generated, dividing that by the total number of tracks streamed and then multiplying that per stream rate by the number of streams per track per artist. Artists effectively get paid on a share of ‘airplay’ basis. This is service centric licensing. It all sounds eminently logical, and it indeed it the logic has been sound enough to enable the streaming market to get to where it is today. But is far from flawless. Imagine a metal fan who only streams metal bands. With the airplay model if Katy Perry accounted for 10% of all streams in a month, the 10% of that metal fan’s subscription fee effectively goes towards Katy Perry and her label and publisher. Other than aggrieved metal fans, this matters because those metal bands are effectively seeing a portion of their listening time contributing to a super star pop artist. To make it clearer still, what if that metal fan only listened to Metallica, yet still 10% of that subscriber’s revenue went to Katy Perry?

User Centric Licensing

The alternative is user centric licensing, where royalties are paid out as a percentage of the subscription fee of the listener. So if a subscriber listens 100% to Metallica, Metallica gets 100% of the royalty revenue generated by that subscriber. It is an intrinsically fairer model that creates a more direct relationship between what a subscriber listens to and who gets paid. This is the model that I can exclusively reveal that Deezer is now exploring with the record labels. It is a bold move from Deezer, which though still the 3rd ranking subscription service globally has seen Spotify and Apple get ever more of the limelight. While Deezer will undoubtedly be hoping to see the PR benefit of driving some thought leadership in the market, the fact it must find new ways to challenge the top 2 means that it can start thinking with more freedom than the leading incumbents. And a good idea done for mixed reasons is still a good idea.

Honing The Model

Deezer has had encouraging if not wildly enthusiastic feedback from labels, not least because this could be an operationally difficult process to implement. The general consensus among labels I have spoken to is cautious optimism and a willingness to run the models and see how things look. When I first wrote about user centric licensing back in July 2015 I got a large volume of back channel feedback. One of the key concerns was that the model could penalize some indie labels as fans of their acts could be more likely be music aficionados and thus listen more diversely and more heavily. This could result in the effective per stream rate for those fans being relatively low. By contrast, a super star pop act might have a large number of light listeners and therefore higher effective per stream rates.

The truth is that there is not a single answer for how user centric licensing will affect artists and labels. Because there are so many variables (especially the distribution of fans and the distribution of plays among them) it is simply not possible to say that a left field noise artist will do worse while a bubble gum pop star will do better. But in some respects, that shouldn’t be the determining factor. This is an intrinsically more transparent way of paying royalties, that is based upon a much more direct relationship between the artist and their fan’s listening. There may well be some unintended consequences but ultimately if you want fairness and equality then you don’t pick and choose which fairness and equality you want.

If Deezer is able to persuade the labels to put user centric licensing in place, it will be another sign of increasingly maturity for the streaming market. Streaming drove $1bn of revenue growth for the recorded music business in 2016, without it the market would have declined by $1bn (due to revenue decline elsewhere). Streaming is now a monumentally important market segment and there is no better time to hone the model than now. User centric licensing could, and should, be just one part of getting streaming ready for another 5 years of growth. Deezer might just have made the first move.

Quick Take: UK Recorded Music Industry Grew By 5.1% in 2016

The recorded music industry’s run of good news stories continues with the BPI’s announcement that UK revenues grew by 5.1% in 2016. As in other markets, streaming is the fuel in the engine. Revenues hit £925.8 million in 2016, up from £881.3 million with streaming accounting for 30% of the total. Streaming grew by 61% (slightly above the global average of 57%) with subscriptions accounting for 87% of the streaming total. Downloads continued their death spiral, falling by 27% however the £56 million in lost download revenue was more than offset by the £97 million that streaming grew by. Physical revenues fell by just 2% (most of the CD buyers that were going to switch have now done so).

Throughout the 2000s the narrative was one of waiting for new formats to grow faster than legacy formats declined. That eagerly sought format replacement effect never happened with downloads, but streaming resoundingly hit that point in 2016. Although streaming doesn’t appear to have started quite as strongly as it finished 2016, the odds are still on 2017 being another year of strong streaming growth.

That is not to say that the next 3 years or so are going to be uninterrupted growth across the globe (there will be some speed bumps along the way). Nor are we likely to see the global business recover to its pre-Napster levels. But these certainly look like the foundations of a new, leaner recorded music business. Think of it as a successor state. One with different rules, in which artists have more choice, where routes to market are numerous and technology-led change is the norm. Numerous challenges remain (eg accountability and transparency, commercial sustainability, growing power of the platforms) but it is easier to fix problems when everyone isn’t spending their entire time simply struggling to keep their heads above water.

Universal And Spotify’s Deal Is An Even Bigger Deal Than It Looks

 

Universal Music and Spotify have finally agreed on terms for the streaming service’s new licensing deal which reportedly includes better rates tied to growth targets and premium windowing. Check out Tim Ingham’s piece for detail on the deal. Although the big focus across the industry so far is, understandably, on what this means for Spotify, it is also part of a bigger story, namely that of the maturation of the streaming market and its associated business models.

What It Means For Spotify And UMG

Firstly, what it means for Spotify. As I have written previously, Spotify needs to create a strong narrative for Wall Street if it is going to IPO successfully. Within that narrative it needs to demonstrate that it is embarking on a journey of change even if the destination is some way off yet. Its relationship with the labels is central to that. Paying out more than 80% of revenue for ‘royalty distribution and other costs’ on a cash flow basis is not something potential investors exactly look upon with unbound enthusiasm. In pure commercial terms Spotify actually pays out round about the same amount (c70%) of revenues to rights holders as Netflix does, but because Netflix owns so much of its own rights it can amortize the costs of them to help generate a net profit while Spotify cannot.

The 2 ways of fixing that are 1) owning copyrights, 2) reducing rates to rights holders (which really means labels as publishers are pushing for higher rates). It is probably too early to flick the switch on the ‘Spotify as a label’ strategy as that would antagonize labels at exactly the wrong time. So reducing rates is the main lever left to pull.

However, the labels feel the rates are fair value, in fact many think the rates undervalue their content assets. So Spotify was never going to achieve a dramatic change in rates at this stage. Also, labels are wary of granting better terms to Spotify because Apple and co will immediately demand the same. Hence UMG has tied Spotify’s lower rates to growth targets, which you can rest assured will be ambitious. Why? Firstly the labels need continued big growth. The global music business grew by around 1 billion dollars last year, with streaming growing by 2 billion dollars. Thus without streaming’s growth the music business would have declined by 1 billion dollars instead of growing by that much. The labels cannot afford for streaming growth to be smaller than the amount by which legacy formats decline.

Secondly, Spotify needs better deals more than many of its competitors, so is more willing to agree to ambitious growth targets. Apple and Amazon (who both make their money elsewhere and aren’t prepping for an IPO) are less concerned about better rates and are less likely to be willing to be tied to strong growth targets. So UMG has a win win here. It gets Spotify tied into ambitious growth without a major risk of having to also give lower rates to Apple and Amazon.

What It Means For The Wider Market

With $5.8 billion in revenue in 2016, streaming has more than come of age, it is the beating heart of the recorded music business. But just as young companies have to transition from scrappy start ups to mature companies, this is the stage at which the streaming market as a whole needs to move from a cool emerging technology to a more nuanced and complex marketplace. It needs to develop the sort of sophistication that $5.8 billion market merits. Adding the ability to window new release albums is part of this process. And to be clear, the windowing does not mean that UMG’s new music is suddenly going to disappear off Spotify’s free tier. Instead UMG has the ability to choose to put selected albums behind the pay wall for 2 weeks as Daniel Ek’s press release quote makes clear:

“[This is a] new flexible release policy. Starting today, Universal artists can choose to release new albums on premium only for two weeks, offering subscribers an earlier chance to explore the complete creative work.”

While there is a risk that windowing may give piracy a little boost, those consumers that choose to Torrent rather than upgrade or simply wait 2 weeks were never realistic targets for the 9.99 tier anyway. What we may well see is a spike in uptake of free trials and the ‘$1 for 3 months’ super trials.

Getting The Right Kind Of Growth

The UMG – Spotify deal is more than just an agreement between 2 parties. It is the start of the next chapter in relationships between streaming services and labels. A deepening and strengthening of links. It is of course a unique product of its time (ie Spotify needing to get its house in order ahead of the IPO) but market defining precedents are often born out of such circumstances. Such as the time when AOL Time Warner wanted to ‘get smart with music’ following its recent merger and promptly sent off Warner Music’s CEO Roger Ames with Paul Vidich to carve out the iTunes deal with Steve Jobs.

Back then Apple was focused on trying to jump start iPod sales. Now though the labels need Spotify to start building a sustainable business. It is not enough for Spotify to simply clear the IPO hurdle, it needs to land on its feet and maintain speed. So while it’s great to see that UMG and Spotify have hit upon a framework for delivering better rates in return for better growth, Spotify must be careful to ensure that it grows sustainably and not pursue growth at any cost.

2016 was inarguably a great year for both streaming and the labels. This deal has the potential to lay the foundations for an even better 2017 and beyond.

Why Drake’s More Life Is The New Normal In Streaming

This is a guest post from MIDiA’s Zach Fuller

Released over the weekend after much delay, Drake’s More Life project is setting records across the board on streaming platforms. The Canadian artist described More Life as ‘a body of work bridging the gap between major releases’ and positioned the release as neither a mixtape nor an album, but rather ‘a playlist’. This, however, did not stop the release claiming Ed Sheeran broke the record for the best one day streams for any artist: 76,355,041, compared with Sheeran’s total of 68,695,172 following the release of Divide.

It would be interesting to know just what Drake defines as a ‘gap’. He has released no less than four singles a year as well as four albums and three mixtapes since his breakthrough in 2009. Two of these mixtapes were in 2015 alone, followed in 2016 by his latest album, Views. The traditional album release cycle does not  seem to exist in Drake’s universe. In the era of the always-on fan who can access an artist at any time – his endless releases consistently keep him in the public consciousness.

Drake is many things in More Life. He is simultaneously the artist, the producer and the curator. He does not appear on all the release’s tracks, and More Life’s contents are a 20-song sprawl of genres encompassing Hip-Hop, Trap, R&B, Grime, Gospel, Dancehall, Tropical House and Afrobeat. The work can, therefore, exist under the Drake name –arguably the most powerful globally on streaming services – whilst promoting the work of other artists.

More Life is another part of the process in which streaming is rewriting the rules:

  • The rise of the playlist: One theory why Drake has positioned the More Life as a playlist, is that the release acts as an acknowledgement of where mainstream music consumption patterns are heading. MIDiA Research surveys indicate that 54% of music consumers agreed with the statement that ‘playlists are replacing albums for me’. Additionally, 40% have said they are using curated playlists through Spotify and Apple Music more than they did six months ago. By working around these patterns, Drake is not fighting the tide but simply considering what it means to release music in this context. In the modern streaming context, the album not only exists as a playlist in itself but also emerges within the playlists of aficionados of these disparate genres.
  • Recorded music products have emerged because of their surroundings: The 3-minute pop-song was created because it best fit with the emerging radio formats, and long songs would therefore often gain less exposure through this promotional channel. The album originally was conceived as a way of bundling singles into a more expensive product for music fans, before artists in the 60s began to use the format as a canvas for wider artistic expression. How artists best make use of streaming is an open question and releases such as More Life continue to challenge these notions of what a music product can be.
  • Compilation: More Life could fit under a crew album, given the features of friends (Skepta, Giggs) and his label’s (OVO Sound) artists. This has a long history in Hip-Hop. Kanye West (Cruel Summer), Jay-Z (The Dynasty: Roc la Familia) and Eminem (Eminem presents: The Re-Up) have all released similar albums. However, More Life’s genre-hopping premise feels like a different beast to this lineage.
  • Playlist as a A/B Testing: Drake’s decision not to window the project in the same way he did with Views for Apple Music (alongside Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper) is interesting. No doubt, services would have been keen on having the project as an exclusive. That streams can be viewed as higher paying radio plays opposed to cheaper sales could means More Life is profitable. In a sales era, More Life could potentially have been maligned as a rush-release, yet in the streaming context – such a project makes far more sense.

More Life will therefore deliver data to Drake’s team on:

  • What tracks are most popular
  • Where these tracks are popular
  • Which tracks are most often adopted into fan’s playlists
  • How and when these tracks are listened to

Given the eclectic mix of genres, More Life could therefore act as a testing ground for future artistic directions Drake might take on his next more conventional release.

More Life is, therefore, many things. On one hand, it is a streaming era marketing tool, filling the release schedule gap for the always-on fan. A parallel could be therefore drawn to the latest Star Wars series, with More Life acting as the Rogue One to View’s Force Awakens. On the other hand, whilst much of the content itself is not a radical departure from Drake’s previous work and will no doubt keep Drake fans happy, the format is an experimental statement from one of music’s biggest players. It elaborates on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo in its amorphous concept as a unique music product. Given Drake’s influence on music and judging from the project’s immediate success on streaming services, we could be witnessing the first of the new ‘normal’ in music releases.

Welcome To The Post-DIY Era

I recently took part in the True Music Forum in Madrid, an event organized by Boiler Room. I was on a panel that explored whether DIY is now coming of age with a host of high profile artists, most of them urban artists, bypassing or twisting the traditional label model and still achieving stand-out success. On the surface, these look like golden years for DIY, and in many ways they are, but much of what is happening at the top end of the scale has little to do with DIY. Streaming is transforming how artists view recorded music income and is making it possible for artists to pick and choose what label capabilities they want. But more often than not, it is a variation of the label model that succeeds rather than a replacement of it. This is the start of the post-DIY movement.

Madrid True Music Forum, March 8th-28

The First Wave Of DIY

Firstly, to be clear, DIY is alive and well, better than it has ever been in fact. With labels increasingly only signing artists once they have seen them build up following and ‘a story’, it is becoming increasingly common for artists to spend the formative stages of their careers ‘DIY’, releasing their own music, managing their social campaigns, making their own videos, booking their own tours etc. Added to that, the combination of streaming, direct-to-fan platforms and social apps have combined to make it possible to build niche audiences on a global scale. So it is now possible for a new tier of artists to exist, a tier of artists that may never dent the charts (for whatever they may be worth these days) but that can build solid, sustainable careers by engaging their fans directly. Stalwarts like Bandcamp and CD Baby have never had it so good, while a whole crop of new entrants, such as the much hyped BandLab is emerging to drive the market forward. And of course, Soundcloud, for all its financial challenges, provides artists with a platform to engage massive audiences globally without need for any middleman whatsoever.

DIY Versus Empowered Superstars

That is the DIY movement that will go down in history as one of the most culturally significant legacies of the Napster market shock. An organic, grass roots musicians’ revolution. Now though, we are seeing the emergence of a more commercially minded take on DIY, one that draws on the practices of its predecessor but that combines them with the big label model to take full advantage of the best of both worlds. This new breed of superstar DIY artist enjoys the benefit of fiercely held independence with world class distribution and marketing. They are taking the tools of DIY but not all of the ethos. The superstar DIY artist typically builds a strong brand and buzz (and often, but not always, a big live following) and then uses that as a platform to strike a deal with a major label (or a major label subsidiary company) to get the benefits of major label scale without giving up control (nor masters). This can take various forms, such as:

In each scenario the artist retains large amounts of control (or at least more than in a traditional label deal) but gets the support of world class, global infrastructure and marketing. The artists picks the services s/he wants, like an advertiser does with a full- service ad agency. The label services and standalone distributor models have been around for some time, but now they are being used by business savvy, super ambitious superstars in-the-making. And the artist gets to retain an aura of authenticity and independence.

For those artists that want to push the needle even further, streaming services are emerging as an additional weapon in the armoury. Chance the Rapper revealed that Apple paid him $500,000 to become the exclusive streaming partner for ‘Coloring Book’, following hot on the heels of Frank Ocean’s Apple Music exclusive for ‘Blonde’. Apple is setting itself up as a modern day equivalent of the Medici – the medieval Italian family that was a driving force in the Renaissance through its patronage of artists such as Rafael, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Some time or another, Spotify will follow Apple’s lead. The superstar artist fits this streaming-service-as-label model best because an artist with big potential is going to deliver much better ROI for streaming services that are eager to drive market share and differentiation via original content.

Hip Hop Is Setting The Innovation Bar

Urban music, and hip hop in particular, has become a hotbed of artist-led business innovation. Although hip hop has always had stronger commercial sensibilities than other genres, streaming has brought the business innovation to the fore, ranging from the original hip hop superstar businessman Jay Z and his Tidal service, through Frank Ocean’s Apple Music released ‘Blonde’ to Stormzy’s streaming record breaking streaming success.  And the innovation is happening at the grass roots of hip hop too. As the brilliant Kieran Yates noted on the Boiler Room DIY panel, many UK Grime artists are now signing publishing deals before label deals as a) this can often mean bigger advances in today’s indie music market, and b) there is a perception that this means giving up less control, which in turn empowers the artist to strike a better deal with a label, or label-owned company. This also opens up a world of opportunity for independent music marketing agencies etc who can become part of new, agile teams.

Streaming has been continually rewriting the rule book for many years now, but we are entering a period of even faster change, with many of the more fundamental effects being the indirect consequences, such as the rise of post-DIY. It would be wrong, however, to think of this as a ‘death of the label’ narrative. Because the labels (majors and indies) are being smart enough to be as flexible and agile as artists need them to be. Artists are changing and labels are changing just as fast to meet their new needs and terms of reference. Perhaps, the best way to capture the approach of the new era of post-DIY artist is to go back to Jay Z’s classic ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’ lyric: I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man!

 

How Ed Sheeran Broke The Charts

Unknown.jpegUnless you have been hiding under a stone on Mars this last few weeks you will have struggled not to hear or see some clip of Ed Sheeran one way or another. Atlantic Record’s carpet bombing market campaign has tipped Sheeran into global ubiquity. At the centre of this approach is a ‘be everywhere’ streaming strategy which saw Sheeran clock up over 68 million Spotify streams in 1 day (a record for any single artist). Though, the 1 billion views he clocked up for ‘Divide’ on YouTube shows where the real streaming audience of scale resides. But what makes Sheeran’s ‘Divide’ campaign stand out is what it has done to the charts. Or rather, the weaknesses in the charts that ‘Divide’ shines a light on.

What Role Should Streaming Era Charts Play?

As of March 13th, Ed Sheeran’s ‘Divide’ album accounts for 9 of the UK top 10 singles, while all of the 16 tracks on the album are in the top 20. If there was ever a sign that streaming is breaking the charts then this is it.

The writing has been on the wall for charts ever since the recorded music business decided to incorporate streams into them. Doing so was a perfectly understandable move but it is one that has incapacitated the charts. As we predicted back in 2014, incorporating streams into charts would fall over because the charts were being forced into trying to simultaneously measure sales trends and airplay. As I wrote 3 years ago: “try simultaneously [measuring airplay] with measuring sales and you end up with a diluted mish mash that does not do either job properly.”

Underpinning all of this is an existential industry debate over whether streaming is replacing retail or radio. In truth, of course it is replacing both, but which is it doing more? The answer to that determines the role charts should be trying to play. However, the answer looks very different depending on where you sit. If you are a record label you see streaming growing by 57% in 2016 to reach $5.4 billion. Streaming is indeed becoming the future of retail. But it is also how you break artists and releases now, therefore it is a bit of both. Go over to the artist side of the equation and streaming becomes a crucial tool for driving exposure and helping sell concert tickets. As Ed Sheeran himself said during his last album promo cycle, for him it is all about live. Indeed, for most successful artists, recorded music revenue is just a small part of the revenue mix. So at its most extreme, streaming is a marketing campaign that pays you instead of you paying for it.

Reach Or Engagement?

In the old charts model an Ed Sheeran super fan buying ‘Divide’ and playing it a hundred times in the first week would only show as one sale, and an album sale at that. There would be no impact on the singles chart. But in the current UK streaming charts, not only does that fan’s album listening now get counted in the singles charts (instead of just the album charts), the resulting 1,600 streams (16 tracks*100) become 160 chart placings (100 streams = 1 sale for singles charts). Consequently, the charts are conflating audience reach with audience engagement. It is the equivalent of Facebook merging Monthly Active Users and Daily Video Views into a single metric. It wouldn’t work for Facebook and it just doesn’t work for music.

A Fiendishly Difficult Problem To Fix

There is no doubt that ‘Divide’ is a fantastically successful and popular album, the problem is that because the charts are conflating sales with consumption we simply don’t know just how successful it really is. And that does a disservice to both Sheeran and his fans. Don’t get me wrong, I truly feel for the various charts organizations across the globe. This is a fiendishly difficult problem to fix, but the current solution just isn’t working. In all likelihood, a dynamic solution is going to be needed, one that has the flexibility to evolve as the streaming market and its industry role changes.

The Time May Have Come For A Separation Into 2 Charts

Ultimately the recorded music business needs to decide what it wants the charts to measure. In old parlance: sales versus airplay, in contemporary terms: reach versus engagement. One near term fix would be to only consider cached streams towards the charts (perhaps with a smaller deflator than the current 100). This would have the advantage of making the measure more reach focused rather than engagement led. It would also have the effect of reducing the impact on ‘push’ curated playlists, which depending on where you sit, can be either an entirely good thing or an entirely bad thing.

If such an approach was taken then some sort of purer engagement chart would need creating to sit alongside the main chart, one that weighted total streams alongside traditional radio. The argument for a streaming-led airplay chart is even stronger than revising the sales chart. With playlists now accounting for 58% of all streams (see MIDiA’s Streaming Music Healthcheck report for more) and curated playlists a third of those, streaming is becoming less about on-demand and more about lean back, radio-like experiences. Streaming is seemingly making radio programmers of the entire recorded music business. It is time for a chart that reflects this change.

‘Divide’ is an exceptional album in terms of commercial performance and audience reach, as is its impact on the charts. But in the latter respect, it is simply a trail blazer for the way in which big albums are going to play out on streaming. ‘Divide’ might not be the hair that breaks the camel’s back but it has certainly fractured it.

MIDiA Exclusive: 7digital Acquires Leading Competitor 24-7

7digital logo_0UK music services provider 7digital today announced they are currently considering the acquisition of longstanding competitor 24-7 from German retail giant MediaMarktSaturn (MMS).  24-7 is one of the longest standing companies in the entire digital music space, founded in 2000 (MMS took a majority holding in 2009). In a marketplace where the average life span of a digital music start up is 5.5 years, 24-7 is a veritable veteran and powers one of the very first telco music services: TDC’s Play. 7digital takes full ownership of 24-7’s business and its existing music service customers, including Play and Saturn’s Media Markt.

Market Consolidation

2016 was a year of consolidation in the white label services space, with Omnifone going into administration and Medianet getting bought by SOCAN. 7digital’s acquisition of 24-7 further concentrates the market. With the growing brand strength of streaming services like Spotify and Tidal, telcos have been increasingly looking to partner with those brands rather than build their own. Which was one of the key drivers of market consolidation. Those companies that have weathered the storm, of which 7digital is clearly one, have done so by diversifying away from telcos. For example, in 2016 7digital powered French retailer Cdiscount’s streaming service Cstream.

Sleeping Giant Retailers

That is not to say that opportunity does not still exist in the telco sector, it does, but a successful white label services provider now has to have a much more diversified client and product portfolio. Retailers will be a big part of that mix going forward. Especially so in markets where CD sales still account for a large portion of music sales. Germany, just and so happens to be the world’s 4th largest recorded music market with 59% of its sales physical in 2015. So powering the music service of the country’s largest CD retailer has clear potential. Add into the mix the fact Media Markt is also the leading consumer electronics retailer with a very large base of online user accounts and the tantalizing prospect of an Amazon Prime / Echo type proposition emerges, should they ever decide to go down that route.

Powering The Next Generation Of Spotifys

Another real area for growth for companies like 7digital is giving pure play services a head start in the streaming race. Bringing a streaming music service to market is no easy task and many a start up finds itself 2 years into its journey wishing it had realised just how complex a business multi-territory music licensing actually is. By bringing licensing, tech knowhow and infrastructure to the table, companies like 7digital should be well placed when a post-Spotify IPO / sale generation of streaming services look to come to market.

7digital is not quite last man standing in the white label services marketplace (there is already a new crop of competitors emerging such as Cylo and General Harmonics) but it is now in the clear position of being the leading player with more than a decade of track record behind it. Do not under estimate the importance of that latter attribute to rights holders and potential partners, both of whom want to have the security of working with a trusted company that is still going to be around next week.

With Spotify, Apple and Amazon all set to follow up their strong 2016 with an ever stronger 2017, there is no doubt that the streaming market is heating up. It will be down to new entrants to ensure that the market does not become too concentrated around too few players. The newly expanded 7digital will be hoping to be a key part of that puzzle.