Following the disappointment of 2010, 2011 was always going to need to pack more punch. In some ways it did, and other ways it continued to underwhelm. On balance though the stage is set for an exciting 2012.
There were certainly lots of twists and turns in 2011, including: disquiet among the artist community regarding digital pay-outs, the passing of Steve Jobs, Nokia’s return to digital music, EMI’s API play, and of course Universal Music’s acquisition of EMI. Here are some of the 2011 developments that have most far reaching implications:
- The year of the ecosystems. With the launch of Facebook’s content dashboard, Android Music, the Amazon Fire (a name not designed to win over eco-warriors), Apple’s iTunes Match and Spotify’s developer platform there was a surge in the number of competing ecosystem plays in the digital music arena. Despite the risk of consumer confusion, some of these are exciting foundations for a new generation of music experiences.
- Cash for cache. The ownership versus access debate raged fully in 2011, spurred by the rise of streaming services. Although we are in an unprecedented period of transition, ownership and access will coexist for many years yet, and tactics such as charging users for cached-streams blur the lines between streams and downloads, and in turn between rental and ownership. (The analogy becomes less like renting a movie and more like renting a flat.)
- Subscriptions finally hit momentum. Though the likes of rdio and MOG haven’t yet generated big user numbers Spotify certainly has, and Rhapsody’s acquisition of Napster saw the two grandaddys of the space consolidate. Spotify hit 2.5 million paying users, Rhapsody 800,000 and Sony Music Unlimited 800,000.
- New services started coming to market. After a year or so of relative inactivity in the digital music service space, 2011 saw the arrival of a raft of new players including Blackberry’s BBM Music, Android Music, Muve Music , and Rara. The momentum looks set to continue in 2012 with further new entrants such as Beyond Oblivion and psonar.
- Total revenues still shrank. By the end of 2011 the European and North American music markets will have shrunk by 7.8% to $13.5bn, with digital growing by 8% to reach $5 billion. The mirror image growth rates illustrate the persistent problem of CD sales tanking too quickly to allow digital to pick up the slack. Things will get a little better in 2012, with the total market contracting by just 4% and digital growing by 7% to hit $5.4 billion, and 41% of total revenues.
Now let’s take a look at what 2011 was like for three of digital music’s key players (Facebook, Spotify and Pandora) and what 2012 holds for them:
2011. Arguably the biggest winner in digital music in 2011, Facebook played a strategic masterstroke with the launch of its Digital Content Dashboard at the f8 conference. Subtly brilliant, Facebook’s music strategy is underestimated at the observer’s peril. Without investing a cent in music licenses, Facebook has put itself at the heart of access-based digital music experiences. It even persuaded Spotify – the current darling of the music industry – to give it control of the login credentials of Spotify’s entire user base. Facebook’s Socially Integrated Web Strategy places Facebook at the heart of our digital lives. And it’s not just Facebook that is benefiting: Spotify attributed much of its 500,00 new paying subs gained in October and November to the Facebook partnership.
2012. Facebook is quietly collecting unprecedentedly deep user data from the world’s leading streaming music services. By mid-2012 Facebook should be in a position to take this to the record labels (along with artist profile page data) in the form of a series of product propositions. Expect whatever is agreed upon to blend artist level content with music service content to create a 360 user experience. But crucially one that does not require Facebook to pay a penny to the labels.
VERDICT: The sleeping giant of digital music finally stepped up to the plate in 2011 and will spend 2012 consolidating its new role as one of the (perhaps even *the*) most important conduit(s) in digital music history.
2011. It would be puerile not to give Spotify credit for a fantastic year. Doubts about the economics of the service and long term viability remain, but nonetheless 2011 was a great year for the Swedish streaming service. It finally got its long-fought-for US launch and also became Facebook’s VIP music service partner. Spotify started the year with 840,000 paying subscribers and hit 2.5 million in November. It should finish the year with around 200,000 more. Its total active user base is now at 10 million. But perhaps the most significant development was Spotify’s Developer platform announcement,paving the way for the creation of a music experience ecosystem. Spotify took an invaluable step towards making Music the API.
2012: Expect Spotify’s growth trajectory to remain strong in 2012. It should break the 3 million pay subscribers mark in February and should finish the year with close to 5 million. And it will need those numbers because the funnel of free users will grow even more dramatically, spurred by the Facebook integration. But again it will be the developer platform that will be of greatest and most disruptive significance. By the end of 2012 Spotify will have a catalogue of music apps that will only be rivalled by Apple’s App Store. But even Apple won’t be able to come close to the number of Apps with unlimited music at their core. More and more start ups will find themselves opting to develop within Spotify rather than getting bogged down with record label license negotiations. Some will find the platform a natural extension of their strategy (e.g. Share My Playlists) but others will feel competitive threat (e.g. Turntable FM). If Spotify can harness its current buzz and momentum to create the irresistible force of critical mass within the developer community, it will create a virtuous circle of momentum with Apps driving user uptake and vice versa. And with such a great catalogue of Apps, who would bet against Spotify opening an App Store in 2012?
VERDICT: Not yet the coming of age year, but 2011 was nonetheless a pivotal year paving the way for potentially making 2012 the year in which Spotify lays the foundations for long term sustainability.
2011. Though 2011 wasn’t quite the coming of age year for Spotify it most certainly was for Pandora. In June Pandora’s IPO saw 1st day trading trends reminiscent of the dot.com boom years. By July it had added more than 20 million registered users since the start of the year to hit 100 million in total and an active user base of 36 million, representing 3.6% of entire US radio listening hours. But Pandora also felt the downs of being a publically listed company, with flippant traders demonstrating their fear that Spotify’s US launch would hurt Pandora.
2012: And those investors do have something of a point: whatever founder Tim Westergren may say, Spotify will hurt Pandora. A portion of Pandora’s users used Pandora because it was the best available (legal) free music service. Those users will jump ship to Spotify. This will mean that Pandora’s total registered user number will not get too much bigger than 100 million in 2012 and the active number will likely decline by mid-year. After that though, expect things to pick up for Pandora and active user numbers to grow again. The long term outlook is very strong. Pandora is the future of radio. It, and services like it, will get an increasingly large share of radio listening hours with every month that passes in 2012, and with it a bigger share of radio ad revenues. Pandora will be better off without the Spotify-converts, leaving it with its core user base of true radio fans. Spotify’s new radio play will obviously be a concern for Pandora but this is Pandora’s core competency, and only a side show for Spotify. Expect Pandora to up their game.
VERDICT: Since launching in November 2005 Pandora have fought a long, dogged battle to establish themselves as part of the music establishment, and 2011 was finally the year they achieved that. There will be choppy waters in 2012 but Pandora will come out of it stronger than it went in.