Spotify reached another milestone at the weekend, clocking up a million users in the UK. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts Spotify’s success lies in doing what it does simply and well, not by doing anything particularly revolutionary (advanced caching technology arguably aside). But it is imperative that Spotify doesn’t go the way of Spiral Frog. Remember Spiral Frog built up a million strong user base also. Granted, Spotify’s consumer proposition is superior, but whilst both user experiences are products of their respective times, their business models are less distinct. In short they both depend upon advertising income to be larger than license fee and technology costs. As Spiral Frog proved, having a million users is no guarantee of achieving that equation.
Spotify is probably in a much stronger position now than Spiral Frog ever was, but to paraphrase the Conservative leader David Cameron’s comment to then Prime Minister Tony Blair “it was the future once too”. Spiral Frog may look like a fundamentally flawed business model now, but the bottom line is that if it had struck a better cost to revenue ratio it would have fared much better. With a more vibrant balance sheet it’s reasonable to assume that the DRM-download model would have ultimately been shunned for streaming as user bandwidth augmented. When it comes down to brass tacks, Spiral Frog and Spotify aren’t as different as you might think.
Which all underscores how crucial it is that Spotify both successfully develops a premium (probably mobile) business and builds its ad business in a softening online ad market. Both are easier said than done. Consumers have proven for years that they’re just not willing to pay for content in meaningful numbers. Also the likes of imeem, Last.FM and Pandora have all set the standard for mobile streaming music apps to be free, not paid. With the softening ad market Spotify will not only need to think carefully about how aggressively it grows its user base but may also need to reassess some of its business relationships. Many content providers are finding themselves unable to afford their audiences growing because ad revenue is not growing as quickly as the increased license fee costs are every time their audiences listen to more music or watch more video. Which basically means many online content providers are finding themselves in the paradoxical situation of not being able to afford to have their audiences to grow. (I just wrote a report on this topic which Forrester clients can find here).
All this said, Spotify are in a better position than many to be able to navigate these troubled waters than many. They’re the right service in the right place at the right time. They’re a high profile success story that the labels will not want to fail. But it’s equally important that the rest of the market succeeds also. Just in the same way it’s as equally important that imeem’s streaming business model is as sustainable as MySpace Music’s. An uneven playing field will simply tilt the balance in favour of the bigger players. The one-size-fits-all shiny disc days are gone. The future should be all about choice, but that may yet require a little ‘behind the scenes give and take’.