The MIDiA Research Podcast: Episode 1 – What Next for Tencent?

midia research podcastWe are excited to announce the first episode of the MIDiA Research podcast: What Next for Tencent?

President Trump’s executive orders concerning Bytedance and Tencent set the cat among the pigeons. In this podcast we explore what the potential ramifications are for Tencent’s bold and disruptive entertainment business strategy in the West.

MIDiA Research · MIDiA Research Podcast Episode 1: What Next for Tencent

Newsflash: UMG, WMG and Spotify may have a problem with Tencent

UPDATE: AWhite House official confirmed to the LA Times that the announcement, at this stage, will not affect Tencent shareholdings of companiesand clarified that the order only refers to transactions ‘related to’ WeChat. How tight or narrow that definition will prove to be is another matter. This is a case of watch this space but whatever path the order eventually takes when put in action 45 days from now, Tencent’s global entertainment investment strategy has at the absolute least been put on a warning. The potential repercussions remain vast.

Donald Trump just signed a presidential order prohibiting any company subject to US jurisdiction from “any transactions” with Tencent Holdings Limited or “any subsidiary of” Tencent. This will have just put Universal Music, Warner Music and Spotify into emergency planning mode, not to mention Snap Inc, Epic Games, Blizzard Entertainment, AMC cinema and countless other entertainment companies that have taken Tencent investment. What had looked like a mischievously smart global strategy, giving Tencent back-door reach and influence over the Western entertainment business has just been dealt a potentially fatal blow by the stroke of the US president’s pen.

Donald Trump’s campaign against Bytedance and TikTok has had centre-stage media coverage (which of course has benefits during an election year) but by now pulling Tencent into the bitter dispute he may have (though probably inadvertently) started a domino effect that could cause major disruption to the US entertainment world. The wording of the presidential executive order (full text here) while aimed primarily at WeChat is incredibly vague and broad in reach, far beyond the WeChat app. While a White House official has since suggested the order is narrower in scope than the order suggests, the order says Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will not identify what transactions are covered until the order comes into effect in 45 days time.

There is a possibility that the scope of the order will be more tightly defined when it comes into effect, which will be in late September, just in time for peak presidential election campaigning. If it is broad in scope then it will likely be subject to legal challenges but they are lengthy affairs and going to legal war against a president that takes things very personally, especially during an election, is going to get messy. The kind of messy that already jittery stick markets do not like.

So, the near term scenario for UMG, WMG and Spotify is that they may all have to sever ties with Tencent (including Tencent Music Entertainment as it is a Tencent subsidiary) and then maybe even have to ensure Tencent divests its shareholdings (though that of course would require “transactions” – see how messy this is going to be). After that, the big repercussions for music could kick in. Tencent has been willing to pay a premium for the investments it has made in US based music companies. In doing so it has helped push up the overall value of music assets. Tencent’s sudden (potentially permanent) withdrawal from the market at a time when the global economy is entering a recession, could have long term impact. And in principle, any US label, publisher or CMO licensing music to Chinese streaming services via Tencent could easily be considered ‘transactions’.

Trump’s campaign against TikTok, while controversial, is relatively narrow in scope for the West, but Tencent represents an entirely different scale. Years of building its Western investments mean that Tencent’s tentacles of commercial interest stretch throughout the Western entertainment world. To date, Tencent has played a relatively passive role in its invested companies, if Tencent decides to go down fighting, that may be about to change. Whether it does so or simply deflates the music investment market by vacating it, the potential ramifications of Trump’s order for US based entertainment companies are huge.

COVID-19 hit major labels much harder than it did Spotify

COVID-19 was always going to have a significant impact on the music business, and with the Q2 results for all of the major music companies now in we can start to look at just how big that impact has been so far. Year-on-year (YoY), combined major label recorded music revenues fell by 7.8% on a current currency basis while major publisher revenue fell by 1.6% over the same period (though slow reporting for income such public performance means that the full impact on publishing is yet to be seen). The figures in themselves are disappointing for an industry that has grown acclimatised to growth but the factors driving this are global economic and health policy ones. As we identified back at the start of June, income streams such as physical, public performance and ad supported are all vulnerable to lockdown impact. The only truly resilient revenue source so far is paid subscriptions. The dependency on streaming has never been higher but there are questions here too.

q2 2090 major label streaming music revenues

Major label streaming revenue fell by 0.6% in Q2 2020 compared to the previous quarter. Although it was up YoY by 6.3%, (and even allowing for seasonality), there was already a clear slowdown in growth before COVID-19 kicked it into reverse. When markets mature, the margins between growth and decline are small. So, factors such as the weakening digital ad market pushing down ad-supported revenues can be the difference between being in the red or in the black. The music business is going to have to get used to ad-supported under-performing because advertising is always an early victim of recessions.

Despite all of this gloom, the likelihood is that by the end of the year, there will have been sufficient return to growth in many sectors and regions, meaning global recorded music revenues will be higher in 2020 than 2019 – not by much, but up nonetheless.

However, the streaming slowdown emphasises just how important it is for the industry to establish a series of potential plan Bs to streaming’s plan A, and fast.

spotify revenues compared to major label revenues q2 2020

Q2 2020 wasn’t bad news for everyone in streaming. In fact, Spotify actually increased its revenues both quarter-on-quarter (2.2%) and annually by 13%, i.e. double the rate the majors grew their streaming revenue. The result is that by Q2 2020, Spotify’s total revenue was only 5% smaller than the entire major labels’ streaming revenue combined. All this was despite Spotify’s ad-supported revenue falling by 11%. Spotify’s revenues are slowly but surely becoming uncoupled from that of the majors. Although factors such as timing of revenue recognition and payments to rightsholders will play a role, the key inference is that independents grew faster than majors on Spotify in Q2, continuing the 2019 trend. Although, the term ‘independent’ is becoming progressively less useful as the market internationalizes; in addition to independent labels and artists we are seeing growing impact from regional, non-western ‘majors’ e.g. T-Series, India; Avex, Japan; YG Entertainment, South Korea.

The three key takeaways from all this are:

  1. Streaming revenue growth was already slowing. COVID-19 shows us just how important it is to push new growth drivers
  2. Spotify is already working on its new growth driver (i.e. podcasts) and though the slowdown in the digital ad market will dent momentum, podcasts will further decouple Spotify revenue from that of the majors
  3. The more likely scenario remains that streaming and label revenues will pick up before year end, but if the recession deepens and swathes of millennials lose their jobs, then subscription revenue could be hit, which brings us back to takeaway #1

We Are At a Turning Point for Social Music

In recent days we have seen three major developments that, collectively, are a potential pivot point for social music:

  1. TikTok close to a US-entity buyout by Microsoft to avoid potential sanctions, following hot on the heels of an India blackout
  2. Facebook launched a (US-only) YouTube competitor for music videos
  3. Snap Inc signed a licensing deal with WMG and others, also for music videos

As cracks begin to appear in the audio streaming market, there is a growing sense in the music industry of the need for a plan B. This has been driven by growing discontent among the creator community, and a slowdown in revenue growth (UMG streaming revenues actually fell in Q2 as did Sony Music’s); the tail wagging the artist-and-revenue (A&R) dog. The search for new growth drivers is on, and social music – for so long a promise unfulfilled in the West – is one of the bets. TikTok was meant to be a major part of that bet. But with the US future of the app so at risk that a Microsoft US-entity buyout may be the only option, and the continued impact of COVID-19 on core revenue streams, the future is beginning to look a little more troublesome. Perhaps now more than ever, the music industry needs social music to start delivering.

There are three key issues at stake here:

  1. How consumers discover music
  2. How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music
  3. Competing with YouTube

How consumers discover music

Among the under-aged 35 demographic, YouTube is the primary music discovery channel, followed by music streaming, then radio, and only then by social. Streaming discovery is heavily skewed towards tracks and playlists, and away from artists and release projects, which is fine for streaming platforms but impedes building sustainable artist careers. Radio is losing share of ear and YouTube… well, YouTube is YouTube (more on that below), so the music business needs a new discovery growth driver. Social has the potential to be just that. But spammy artist pages on Facebook and more-than-perfect Instagram photos are not it. TikTok, for all its amazing momentum, actually has a really uneven impact on discovery. Some tracks blow up out of nowhere while most do little, and rarely is it because of a smart label marketing strategy but instead because certain tracks just work on the platform and the community leaps on them. For now, TikTok is too unpredictable to plan around. Facebook (Instagram especially) and Snap Inc have a fantastic opportunity to do something special here. They have the audience and the social know-how. Whether they can deliver is a different matter entirely.

How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music

What TikTok lacks in consistent marketing contribution it makes up in consumption. Following on from Musical.ly’s start, TikTok has reimagined how music can be part of social experiences for young audiences. It has made music a highly relevant and integral part of self-expression, something that CD collections and music dress codes used to do in the pre-digital world but that soulless, ephemeral playlists wiped out. While labels pin hopes on TikTok successes to drive wider consumption, the discovery journey is also the destination for most TikTok users – they hear the track in a video and swipe onto the next one. That is no bad thing. This is a new form of consumption, and if TikTok were to disappear or fade then someone else needs to pick up the baton. Whether Facebook and Snap Inc can do so is, again, an open question.

Competing with YouTube

Now we get to the heart of the Facebook and Snap Inc deals. As important as the previous two points are, they were not the overriding priorities of the commercial teams driving these deals. Instead they were focused on expanding the revenue mix and part of that is creating more competition for the notoriously low-paying YouTube. Well, maybe not that low paying after all.

spotify youtube arpu

The internet is full of statements from trade associations, rightsholders and creators about how much less YouTube pays than Spotify. YouTube does pay less, because it manages to escape paying minimum per-stream rates for ad-supported videos – but it is a more nuanced picture than lobbyists would have you believe. Firstly, in terms of its Premium business, Google is entirely on par with Spotify. But then, that is the part that is licensed in the same way as the rest of the market.

Ad-supported is a mixed story. In North America, where there is a mature digital ad market, YouTube’s ad-supported average revenue per user (ARPU) is entirely on par with Spotify’s. However, on a global basis, ad-supported ARPU is dragged down by its large user base in emerging markets where digital ad markets are nascent. Spotify’s ARPU is 66% higher, in part because it has to pay minimum per-stream rates, i.e. it pays a fixed rate per stream regardless of whether it has sold any ad inventory against the track. This boosts ad-supported ARPU but it risks making the model unstainable, to the extent that Spotify reported -7% gross margin for ad-supported in Q1 2020 (and note, that’s gross margin, not net margin).

Rightsholders will be hoping for Facebook and Snap Inc to bring a similar level of competition to music video as exists in streaming audio, which in turn may give them a path to higher global ad-supported ARPU rates and a healthier marketplace. However, what will determine that objective is not business strategy but product strategy. The key question is what can they both do with music videos that YouTube cannot? YouTube has years of experience and user data around music videos, Snap Inc and Facebook do not. They will be playing catch-up with a weaker portfolio of content assets: Snap Inc is only partially licensed and both it and Facebook have only licensed official music videos. Unofficial videos (mash ups, covers, lyrics, TV show appearances etc.) account for 25% of the views of the top 30 biggest YouTube music videos. Those videos are crucial in that they provide the lean-forward element for viewers; they are crucial to making YouTube music social rather than just a viewing platform.

YouTube has dominated the music video globally for more than a decade. This might just be the time that this position starts to be challenged. But if Facebook and Snap Inc are going to do that, they will have to bring their product strategy A-game to the field. If they can, then the we may indeed witness a social music turnaround in the West.

Why Spotify needs Russia

Spotify’s delayed Russia launch finally happened this week. While it did not drive a stock price growth like the Josh Rogan deal did (the stock closed just 1 cent higher than the previous day’s close) it will actually prove much more important in the medium term.

Podcasts are Spotify’s long-term bet, the moon shot that keeps investors excited and that points to a future where Spotify is better able to plot its own destiny without being constrained by record labels. But that future destination does not mean anything if Spotify is unable to maintain strong growth in its core business in the interim. Which is where Russia comes in.

Spotify has an Apple-like problem but chose a very non-Apple solution

Global streaming revenue growth was 22% in 2019 and growth will slow significantly in the COVID-19 impacted 2020. Growth rates however were already slowing due to the maturation of developed western markets, while subscriber numbers were growing faster than revenues, pushing down ARPU. Spotify has the same challenge as Apple.

Apple is the market leader in smartphones but does not own the majority of the market and the overall smartphone market is slowing, which means that iPhone sales have slowed. Apple could have decided to go ‘down market’ and created cheaper devices for less affluent consumers and emerging markets. It decided not to, and instead to start pushing its top-end devices even higher up the market with higher price points. Spotify has taken the opposite approach. Rather than increase prices in high-value markets, it is prioritising lower ARPU emerging markets. Spotify has done so because a) it does not have a diversified product like Apple so is less able to risk slowing sales, and b) its product is not sufficiently differentiated from other streaming services to prevent churn if prices went up.

Betting big on emerging markets

Instead of focusing on maximising revenue growth among existing subscribers, Spotify is rolling the dice on subscriber growth. It keeps telling investors to measure it on growth and market share, and that is exactly the game Spotify has chosen to play. Which is where Russia comes in.

Emerging markets are where the subscriber growth lies: Asia Pacific, Latin America and Rest of World combined will drive 71% of global music subscriber growth between 2019 and 2027. Spotify is already committed to this strategy and is already seeing results. In its Q1 2020 earnings, Latin America and Rest of World were the workhorses of Spotify’s growth during the quarter, accounting for 73% of all new subscribers; one year previously the share was just 30%.

But emerging markets take time to convert, users need to get familiar with the service via ad supported and extended trials before slowly converting to paid, though always at lower rates than in developed markets due to lower spending power. So, Spotify needs to keep expanding the user acquisition funnel which means launching in populous new markets such as Russia.

Russia’s contribution to the global picture is what matters for Spotify

The question many are asking is, has Spotify left it too late for Russia? There is no doubt that 2019 was a big year for streaming in Russia, with revenues growing at 79% to reach $249 million in retail terms, which makes it a sizeable, but not (yet) a large market. By way of comparison, Brazil’s streaming revenues are comfortably more than double that. As of Q1 2020 there were 7.4 million subscribers with Vkontakte and Yandex commanding a combined market share of 80%, so Spotify is entering an established market with well-established indigenous players.

This is not Spotify’s modus operandi and the last time it took this approach was India, which is yet to deliver results. So Russia is unlikely to be a runaway success for Spotify, but it is entirely reasonable for it to expect to pick up three million subscribers there over the next three years, which in turn will help sustain Spotify’s global subscriber growth. This is not about winning in Russia but instead winning globally. Or put another way, Spotify needs Russia more than Russia needs Spotify.

How the DNA of a hit has changed over 20 years

Recorded music has always evolved to fit the dominant format of the era, from three-minute songs to fit on 7-inch vinyl, through eight-song albums to fit on LPs, through to 16+ song albums to fill CDs. Format-driven change is nothing new, but streaming’s impact on the making of music itself is arguably more revolutionary than that of previous formats because it is both the consumption and discovery format rolled into one.

In the heyday of the album, the focus would be both on what makes a great album and what tracks would work on radio, and later MTV. Now all the considerations are rolled into the song itself, the central currency of the streaming era.

20 years of dna of hits

To illustrate just how significant this change is, we have taken a snapshot of the Billboard Top 10, now and 20 years ago. The caveats here are that this is just that: a snapshot in time, rather than a comprehensive data analysis – and it is a view of just the very top of the pile, the megahits of the day. Nonetheless, it provides some clear illustration of how the DNA of a hit has changed over the course of 20 years:

  • Shorter, snappier songs: The average length of the top 10 hits has fallen by 16% to 221.5 seconds (three minutes and 42 seconds, down from four minutes and 22 seconds). Meanwhile, intros have fallen from 13.1 seconds to 7.4 seconds. In the streaming economy where release schedules are weaponised with increased volume and velocity of releases, there is often just one chance to catch the attention of the listener. With ever fewer younger music fans listening to radio, there is little opportunity for the listener to hear the track again if they skip it in their streaming playlist.
  • Hip Hop’s apogee: The July 2000 top 10 was evenly split between pop, rock and RnB, with the latter two having the edge. In today’s top 10 Hip Hop reigns supreme, accounting for six of the top 10 tracks. Starting with the rise of EDM and now continued with Hip Hop, the hits business has become more focused, doubling down on one leading genre and in turn making it even more dominant.
  • The industrialisation of songwriting: As the buy side of the song equation, record labels are reshaping songwriting by pulling together teams of songwriters to create genetically modified hits. The more top-class songwriters, so the logic goes, the greater the chance of a hit. The average number of songwriters increased from 2.4 per track in 2000 to 4 in 2020. The upside for songwriters is more work, the downside is having to share already small streaming royalties with a larger number of people. Interestingly, the average age of songwriters increased from just under 27 to just over 31. It points to longer careers for songwriters but it does beg the question whether this means songwriters’ life experiences are that little bit more distant from those of young music fans.
  • The rise of the featured artist: Adding super star collaborators onto tracks has become a go-to strategy for streaming-era hits. In the July 2000 top 10, none of the tracks had a featured artist, by July 2020 that share had jumped to 60%.

The dominant theme underpinning these changes in the DNA of hits is reducing risk. More songwriters, more collaborations, shorter songs, shorter intros, fewer genres all point to honing a formula, following a blueprint for success. This evolution will continue to gather pace until the next format shift rewrites the rules. Until then, record labels, songwriters and artists need to ask themselves whether they are striking the right balance between business and creativity. If they are not getting it right, then the inevitability is that (at the hit end of the market) pop will eat itself. And if it does, expect an audience shift away from the increasingly homogenised head, down to the more diverse tail.

Time to stop playing the velocity game

We all know that streaming has transformed consumption and business models alike, but this is not a ‘now-completed’ process. Instead it is one that continues to evolve at pace, and the dynamic of pace is the pivotal variable. Consumer adoption continues to accelerate in terms of both time spent and take up. The streaming services – which are entirely geared to driving and responding to this behaviour – rapidly hone their systems accordingly. Labels, artists, publishers and songwriters are stuck playing catch up, running after the streaming train before it disappears over the horizon. The marketing strategies and royalty systems that worked yesterday struggle to cope today. But this ‘upstream’ side of the music business is inadvertently making it harder for themselves to ever actually catch up. By trying to play by the new rules they are in fact feeding the machine, ceding further control of their own destinies. It is time for a reset.

Streaming’s ‘upstream’ fault lines

There are three major fault lines for the upstream music business:

  1. Volume and velocity: releasing more music than ever before to meet the accelerating turnover of content
  2. The demotion of the artist: once the centrepiece of music consumption the artist is becoming a production facility for playlists
  3. Royalties: royalty payments built for the much more monolithic streaming model of the late 2000s do not reflect the complexities and nuances of streaming consumption in the 2010s 

Each of these are inherent attributes of the current model and favour the ‘downstream’ end of the equation (i.e. streaming services) far more than they do the upstream. Each problem needs fixing.

Volume and velocity

This is the most important and insidious factor, yet it is deceptively innocuous. Labels are releasing an unprecedented volume and velocity of music to try to keep up with streaming – especially the majors. But it is a Sisyphean task, no matter how many times you roll that boulder up the hill, the next one needs rolling up all over again and the hill gets steeper every time. Spotify is adding around 1.4 million tracks a month so, for example, if UMG wanted to release tracks on a market share basis it would have to release 420,000 every month.

Now that the data era has arrived in music, the risk of signing a new artists has been significantly reduced, but at the same time, an artist whose numbers are already trending does not come cheap to sign nor does she come with a guarantee of longevity. Many artists can do enough to have a successful song, but far fewer can make a habit of it. Labels have to decide how willing they are to bet on an artist one song at a time.

It feels impossibly hard not to play the game because everyone else is playing it and the system is geared that way. Feeding the velocity game habit is like feeding a crack cocaine habit. And yet, labels know better than most businesses that by breaking the rules, creative businesses can have more, not less, success.

The demotion of the artist

Western streaming services, unlike many Eastern ones, are built around tracks not artists and consequently consumption is too. Inadvertently, labels are feeding this dynamic because they are so focused on making tracks work that an artist is much less likely to be given the benefit of a long term strategy if her songs do not stream. The problem with chasing streams is that the process for one song might not apply to another. Failing at streams will often be a reason for pulling the plug on an artist, simply because ‘Plan B’ does not have a boiler plate. The more they push tracks the more they help the de-prioritisation of artists.

Fandom should come first, streaming second. A longer-term view is needed, one that puts building the artist’s fanbase first and streaming second. If an artist has a large, engaged fanbase then streams will usually follow. But if an artist gets a lot of streams on a playlist a fanbase does not necessarily follow. Marketing campaigns need to shift emphasis to a longer-term, audience-centric focus. It may be harder to measure the near-term ROI with this approach, but it will deliver better long-term returns.

Royalties

The #brokenrecord debate is not about to go away, especially as it will likely be 2022 before live music is operating at full capacity again and thus delivering artists the income they are currently missing. As I have previously discussed this is a complex problem for which there is no single solution but instead will require coordinated efforts from multiple stakeholders. A reassessment of the entire royalty streaming structure is needed from upstream to downstream.

Downstream, we need to stop thinking that every song is equal. They are not. Listening to 30 minutes of 35-second storm sound ‘songs’ in a mindfulness playlist should not be paying the same royalties as an album listened to its entirety. Also, some form of user-centred licensing solution is needed that rewards fandom, whether that is a user opt in model (‘support favourite artists’) or an actual re-work of the royalty mechanism, or a combination of the two.

Labels also need to work out how they can pay more to artists. Lowering their A&R risk exposure could free up some income. Of course, this is something that many have tried and failed at, but what if labels were to allocate 10% of their marketing budgets to top-of-funnel activity so that they can do even more work than they currently do around identifying talent early. This needs a commercial model that protects their funnel (e.g. first refusal terms for artists) and also needs to play in the creator tools space: the tools creators user to make music is the real ‘top of funnel’ – this is where the first relationships are established.

The holy grail for improving label profits would be for the label to improve the overall success rate for the artists in the portfolio. However, in the history of music, it is safe to say that no label has quite cracked it. Instead they live with it as a reality and a cost of doing business.

Labels do though, have some margin slack to play with. WMG improved its OIBDA from 11.9% in 2018 to 14.0% in 2019 while UMG improved its EBITDA from 16.7% in 2017 to 20.0% in 2019. Clearly, improved profitability is important in its own right and for investors, but the way to see this is a near-term expense to secure long-term profitability. A label without artists is not a label.

Breaking the habit

It takes a brave – some might say foolish – label to stop playing by streaming’s rules of engagement, to risk losing share in those crucial playlists. But label business models are not structured for the economics of single tracks – dance labels excepted. Their P&Ls are built around artists. When streaming behaviour started killing off the album, labels complained but then got used to building campaigns around tracks. However, this is not the destination, it is a stopover on the long-term journey towards a post-artist world. Playing streaming’s velocity game perpetuates an increasingly dysfunctional model. It feeds shortening attention spans, degrades the role of the artist and downgrades music to fodder for playlists. It is time to jump off the merry-go-round.

Music Subscriber Market Shares Q1 2020

WWDC would have been a perfect opportunity for Apple to announce another streaming milestone for Apple Music. It didn’t but the good news is that MIDiA already have a figure for Apple Music, as part of our latest music subscriber market shares. Whether Apple’s lack of announcement was because it didn’t have a good news story to tell or because it is waiting for a bigger number to pull out of the hat at a later date, well, we’ll have to wait and see.

Music Subscriber Market Shares 2020 MIDiA Research June 20

Overall there were 400 million music subscribers in Q1 2020, up 30% from Q1 2019, with 93 million net new subscribers added. This compares to the 77 million added one year earlier. The eagle eyed of you may be struggling to rationalise why streaming revenue growth slowed in 2019 while subscriber growth accelerated. The simple answer is ARPU. The combination of family plans, promotional trials and progressively more global growth coming from lower ARPU, emerging markets means that the long-term outlook for streaming is that subscriber growth will increasingly outpace revenue growth.

Spotify remains the standout leader in terms of subscribers with 32% market share. Spotify’s market share has remained between 32% and 34% every quarter since 2015. This is some achievement given how much more competitive the market has become in that time, and the stellar growth of Amazon. Spotify’s growth is both an extension of the wider market and a driver of it.

Despite Apple Music’s strong showing in second with 18%, this market share is down from 21% in Q1 2019 and contrasts with Amazon Music which finished Q1 2020 with 14% share, up from 13% one year earlier. Apple Music is making ground in absolute terms, Amazon is making ground in both absolute and relative terms.

Tencent Music Entertainment takes fourth spot with 11%, all the more impressive given that this number almost entirely refers to China and that it is accelerating growth, adding 14 million subscribers by Q2 2020 compared to 6 million on the year earlier.

Google is fifth with a more modest 6% but this represents a turnaround, with YouTube Music finally making Google a genuine contender in the subscription space. In Q1 2018, Google’s market share was just 3%. Google is outperforming the overall market.

What is particularly interesting about the state of the global market now compared to a couple of years ago is that we are starting to see some genuine segmentation taking place, which is a real achievement given that most of the services have to operate with the same catalogue and pricing:

  • YouTube Music is resonating with Gen Z and younger Millennials
  • Amazon Music is bringing older audiences to subscriptions
  • Spotify and Apple Music are the mainstream options
  • Deezer is enjoying success in emerging markets – Brazil especially – with pre-pay mobile bundles

The global subscriber market is in rude health in Q1 2020, significantly more so than the revenue and ARPU side of the equation.

These figures are the very top level findings from MIDiA’s Subscriber Market Shares model which includes quarterly data for 25 music services across 36 markets. This year we have added splits for MENA, Russia and Ireland. As well as a whole new dataset: Ad supported market shares, with splits for Sub-Saharan Africa. This data will be available for MIDiA clients in the coming weeks. If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about this dataset, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Just what is Tencent’s Endgame?

tencent logoTencent’s combined $200 million investment in WMG follows on the heels of its $3.6 billion joint investment in Universal Music. It is hardly Tencent’s first investments in music, having spent $6.2 billion on music investments since 2016. But music is just one part of a much larger, supremely bold and undoubtedly disruptive strategy that is making the Chinese company an entertainment business powerhouse in the East and West alike.

Tencent is a product of the Chinese economic system

Tencent being a Chinese company is not incidental – it is pivotal. The Chinese economy does not operate like Western economies. Rather than following free market principles, it is a controlled economy in which everything – in one way or another – ultimately comes back to the state. In China, the economy is an extension of the state. The state takes an active role in the running of successful Chinese companies, sometimes very openly, sometimes in less direct ways, such as ensuring party nominees end up in management positions.

Chinese companies are used to working closely with the state – in its most positive light – as a business partner. When a company’s objectives align with those of the state, an individual company may gain preferential treatment at the direct expense of competitors. This is exactly the opposite way in which state involvement happens in the West (or is at least supposed to) – i.e. regulation. Tencent has benefited well from this approach, not least in music.

Tencent Music is the leading music service provider in China (78% market share in Q1 2020) and is also the exclusive sub-licensor of Universal, Sony and Warner in China. This means that Tencent’s streaming competitors have to license the Western majors’ music directly from it. Tencent clearly has a market incentive to ensure terms are less favourable than it receives itself. Netease’s CEO call the set up ‘unfair’ and regulatory authorities are at the least going through the motions of investigating. But the fact this set up could ever exist illustrates just how different the Chinese regulatory worldview is.

Investing in reach and influence

Why this all matters, is that when Tencent views overseas markets it does so with a very different worldview than most Western companies. Taking investments in two of the world’s three biggest record labels might feel uncomfortable from a Western free-market perspective, but to Tencent it just makes good business sense to have influence over as much of the market as it can get. What better way to help ensure you get good deals in the marketplace? Such as, for instance, exclusive sub-licensing into China.

Music is not Tencent’s main priority. For example, its combined $6.2 billion spent on music investments is less than the $8.6 billion that Tencent spent on acquiring 84% of gaming company Supercell in 2016). Nonetheless, music – along with games, video, messaging and live streaming – is one of the central strands of Tencent’s entertainment portfolio strategy.

Just as Apple, Amazon and Alphabet are building digital entertainment portfolios designed to compete in the ‘attention economy’, so is Tencent. In fact, it is fair to say that Tencent is prepping itself as a direct competitor to those companies. But while each of the Western tech majors compete in familiar (Western) ways, Tencent is taking a more Chinese approach.

If you don’t like the rules of the game, play a different game

Tencent’s entertainment investment strategy can be synthesised as follows:

  • Take (predominately) minority stakes in companies to get the benefit of influence without having to shoulder the burden of ownership
  • Invest end-to-end across the supply chain, from rights through to distribution
  • Systematically invest in direct competitors so that they are all each other’s enemies but are all Tencent’s friend

This strategy has given Tencent access to and / or control of:

  • Audience (e.g. QQ, WeChat, Weibo, Snapchat (12%), Kakao (14%), AMC Cinemas – via its stake in Wanda Group),
  • Distribution (e.g. Tencent Music, Tencent Video, Tencent Games, Joox, Spotify (10%), Gaana, KuGou, Kuwo, QQ Music, Tencent Video, Tencent Games, Epic Games (40%)
  • Rights (e.g. UMG (<10%), WMG (1.6%), Skydance (5%–10%), Supercell (84%), Glumobile (15%), Activision Blizzard (5%), Ubisoft (5%), Tencent Pictures)

The Western tech majors have built similar ecosystems, acquiring the audience and distribution parts of the supply chain (e.g. iOS, YouTube, Instagram, Twitch, Apple Music) but only rarely getting into rights (e.g. Apple TV+ originals) and never systematically investing in competing rights holders.

The Western tech majors may have often tetchy relationships with rights holders but their strategic focus (for now at least) is to be partners for rights holders. Tencent’s strategy is one of command and control: vertical supply chain integration secured through the sort of behind-closed-doors influence that billions of dollars’ worth of equity stakes get you.

Tencent may be the future of digital entertainment

Tencent is building the foundations of being one of – perhaps even the – global digital entertainment powerhouse. By taking stakes in two of the Western major labels, Tencent broke the unspoken gentleman’s agreement that streaming services and rights holders would remain independent of each other in order to ensure the market remains open and competitive. Now the Western tech majors have to choose whether to continue playing the old game or to get a seat at the table of the new game. Back in 2018 MIDiA predicted that over the coming decade Apple, Amazon or Spotify would buy a major record label. Maybe that prediction is not quite so outlandish anymore.

Music Streaming Needs a New Future

While doing some research on the Chinese streaming market I came across this fantastic UX tear down of Xiami Music. I recommend you read it in full. The day before I found this – also must-read –article on Beyoncé’s streaming strategy, which explains how she uses different platforms to segment her fanbase (Tidal – super fans, Spotify engaged fans, Netlix, passive fans). These two articles may seem entirely unrelated, but they are in fact two sides of the same coin: fandom.

Regular readers of MIDiA’s output will know that we have made fandom one of our central research themes, most recently identifying it as one of the next five growth drivers for the music business. We have also discussed at length how Chinese streaming services have built businesses around monetising fandom while Western streaming services instead simply monetise consumption.

Now I am going to take this thinking one step further by proposing a new way to consider how to segment the music consumption journey and how Western companies can become part of this new vision.

the three srtags of the music journey

Consider music consumption as three key steps:

  1. The song
  2. The (artist) story
  3. The fan

Streaming services now own the song. Social is doing an okay, but far from perfect job of owning the artist story. But no one – digitally – is owning the fandom. Music fans have to hop from one place to another to join the dots. This of course contrasts sharply with Chinese streaming services which own all three steps in the music journey. Let’s take a look at Xiami Music to illustrate the point.

XiamiI have written a lot in the past about Tencent Music’s portfolio of apps. Alibaba’s Xiami Music is one of the smaller players and its end-to-end value proposition is all the more impressive for that: this sort of functionality is table stakes for competing for audience attention in the Chinese market.

Delivering the music is almost just the starting point for Xiami Music, wrapping the music with endless additional context and features including (but by no means limited to): music videos, lyrics, commentaries, reviews, news, comment streams, virtual tipping, badges, trophies, lyrics poster, you can even grow your own Tamagotchi. As Siew writes in his UX tear down:

“Every piece of music has its own entourage — live versions, videos (the official one and the live ones), behind-the-scene footage, outtakes, remakes or covers, reviews etc.

Xiami has taken a leaf out of WeChat’s playbook. Everything you need about a song, an album, or an artiste/band, you can get it on Xiami. No need for you to google for lyrics, head to YouTube for a video, or launch Twitter/Weibo for news.”

Time to stop leaning back

Another insightful observation that Siew makes is that Xiami Music – as with other Chinese streaming apps – has a white background to make it easier to read and interact with lots of content. Whereas Western streaming apps have dark backgrounds as they behave as largely passive vehicles for delivering music: find your playlist, press play, close screen.

There is a fundamentally different UX ethos:

  • Western apps: lean back, listen with minimal friction
  • Chinese apps: lean forward, dive in, interact

Years ago (11 to be precise) I laid out a vision for lean forward music experiences, where interactive context and social features were built around the music. Now is the time for Western streaming services to push themselves out of their UX comfort zones and start to own stages two and three of the music journey.

Lead, don’t follow

It is important that they do not all follow the same path. Differentiation – or the abject lack of it – is the Achilles heel of Western streaming services. The hope here is that they each pursue their own path and use this blank canvass to develop their own unique identities. Which will make it easier for record labels and artists to follow Beyoncé’s approach of segmenting their audiences across different platforms.

Of course this will take time. It may even take another 11 years (though hopefully not). In the meantime radio companies should be seeing this as a great opportunity to carve out a role for themselves in step two (artist story telling). Most have realised by now that they cannot compete with streaming but instead should compete around it. Get it right and radio could become the home of artist storytelling, a genuine complement to streaming consumption. Meanwhile, TikTok may well be best placed to act fast to own step three (fandom) before the Western streaming services can get their respective acts in gear.

There is nothing quite like some fierce competition to focus the mind.