The following post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book: Meltdown
For all of the undoubted positive impact that streaming services continue to have on the digital music market one of the key challenges they pose is the subjugation of the artist brand to that of the music service. With download services and CD stores the customer buys artist specific products, but with a streaming service the transaction is for all of the music in the world. The brand of any individual artist is inherently diluted. Artist apps are thus an artist-level subscription for the most engaged music fans, an opportunity to develop artist brand experiences across digital platforms. However as more of consumers’ music experiences occur within access based environments, more needs to be done to build artist specific experiences within them. Doing so not only makes good business sense, it makes for better user experiences too: 20+ million tracks is a meaningless consumer proposition without an effective means of getting to the miniscule fraction of that content that any one consumer is interested in.
The solution is the introduction of artist subscriptions within existing streaming services, with users paying a small monthly fee – say $/€1 – for a month’s worth of artist content. With the cost added directly to a monthly music subscription, users get access to a curated channel of artist content including:
- Core catalogue: The entire standard catalogue of the artist programmed with editorial such as story of the making of each album and features such as musical influences.
- Exclusive and rare catalogue: Music that is not available elsewhere on the streaming service, such as unreleased rarities from each album, remixes, specially made tracks for the artist subscription etc. This might require some rarer content being withdrawn from the main service to be held back for the artist subscriptions.
- Exclusive programming: Non-standard music content such as acoustic sessions, simulcasts of concerts, music video etc.
- Non-music content: Audio visual content that helps tell the artist story, such as editorial, photo shoots, artwork and video storyboards, artist interviews, back stage footage, live chat sessions with artists etc.
It is crucial that artists streaming subscriptions are not simply a collection of playlists. Though delivering such a diverse suite of content types will clearly require a user experience above and beyond that of the standard streaming service. It does not however require a fundamental reworking of streaming technology architecture. Instead these app-like artist experiences – and app-like experiences is exactly what they are – can leverage the app developer platforms most streaming services already have. Indeed, the success of artist subscriptions depends upon them being immersive, programmed and interactive experiences, telling the artist’s story to new fans and enriching it for existing fans. The programming effort will of course be significant and the burden will need to fall as much on the labels and as it will the services. Having labels co-run artist subscriptions also makes sense from the business perspective as it gets around issues of charging for streaming apps – TuneWiki’s demise is recent evidence of the problem created by 3rd parties not being able to charge for streaming apps.
To mitigate resourcing concerns, a template-orientated approach will ensure scalability as well as a consistent user experience. It will also be possible to rotate a majority of the content over periods of 4 to 6 months. This is because just as music buyers buy an album and listen to it for a time before moving onto a new one, artists subscriptions will be swapped around and changed on a constant basis by users. Most fans will have a few artists they will always want to keep connected to, but will also want to have ability to deep dive into a new selection of artists every month or two.
Artist streaming subscriptions not only create a rich user experience, they also solve multiple streaming business challenges by:
- Monetizing the mainstream: For as long as the price of mobile enabled subscription services remain out of the reach of mass market music fans they will struggle to have mainstream appeal. Pricing experiments will play an essential role in the mainstreaming of music subscriptions but even more flexibility will be needed if they are ever going to match the spending patterns of an audience anywhere near as large and diverse as the current base of download buyers. Artist subscriptions give consumers the familiarity and flexibility of a la carte spending dynamics but the user experience benefits of subscriptions. Thus consumers can build their expenditure at a pace and level that matches their appetite.
- Creating artist specific revenue: Artist subscriptions also help mitigate the threat of streaming services turning download dollars into streaming cents. They do so by giving consumers the ability to commit spending to the artists they like, and by enabling artists to build rich, immersive channels of content and editorial around their music. The revenue opportunity for artists can be extended further by tight integration of ancillary revenue retailing, such as exclusive live-streamed sessions, merchandize and concert tickets.
- Ease free users into paid subscriptions: If artist subscriptions are additionally made available to free tier streaming users they present these users with the opportunity to ease themselves into subscriptions. Zero to €/$/£9.99 is a big leap, but zero to a few dollars or euros is a far more palatable shift. To deliver clear value artist subscriptions will need to provide mobile and ad free listening even when paid for by free tier subscribers. This will additionally help drive free-to-paid conversion by accentuating the usability contrast with the rest of the streaming experience for free tier users. Once they have started enjoying the benefits of ad free mobile listening for a small selection of artists, the chances of migrating them to full subscriptions are much increased. A careful balance will however need to be struck to ensure that consumers do not swap $/€/£9.99 subscriptions for 3 or 4 artist subscriptions.
- Giving music fans the music they want: Artist subscriptions give users an alternative, and far more intuitive, way to navigate streaming services. At the most basic level they can be thought of like smartphone and tablet apps, supercharged bookmarks, gateways to immersive and interactive artist experiences. At a more sophisticated level they can become the foundations of the programming architecture of streaming subscription services. Artist channels can be grouped into collections such as genres and decades to cerate music channels, which then can be sold as bundles in the same way a pay TV provider sells bundles of programmes. Instead paying for movies, sports and documentary packages, streaming users could opt for bundles such as ‘alternative rock’, ‘EDM’ and ‘Urban’. The bundle approach is not without its complexities, such as how much of an artist’s standalone subscription content would get into a genre bundle, and which artists would make it in. But the clear advantage of the approach is that artist subscriptions, and bundles of them, turn the amorphous mass of streaming services into richly programmed music content networks. The pay TV model translated for music.
Streaming subscriptions still have a long way to go before most doubts will be eased, but streaming artist subscriptions represent an opportunity to accelerate the process by simultaneously addressing concerns of sustainability, user experience and artist pay outs. Streaming artist subscriptions are not the entire answer, but they can be a big part of the puzzle.