There is no doubt that streaming subscriptions will play a major role in the future of digital music, but their impact is going to be far from immediate. There also needs to be great caution applied to interpreting the encouraging early signs of the advanced streaming markets and the potential impact on total music sales.
Norway and Sweden both experienced an upturn in music sales in the first half of 2013 thanks largely to the impact of streaming subscriptions, while most of the rest of the global music market continued in its struggle to return to growth after more than a decade of decline. The easy conclusion to draw is that when streaming subscriptions take hold across the globe, music revenue grow. While there is some truth in the argument, it is too simplistic.
An analysis of the leading streaming markets (Sweden, Norway, France, Netherlands) and the leading download markets (US, UK, Germany, Japan) – see figure one – reveals that streaming took hold in markets where downloads had not. The markets where downloads represented the lowest share of total music sales in 2010 (before streaming really kicked off) are those that in 2013 had the rates of streaming as a share of digital music revenue. In markets where downloads were making the biggest contribution to total music income (not just digital) streaming did not get much of a look in in 2013. In the US and UK streaming subscriptions were in market long before Spotify and Deezer, but most digital music consumers opted for downloads and have been unwilling to switch allegiances since. It will happen over time, but right now downloads have a firm grip and that is largely because of Apple.
When we look at the same countries plotted by streaming share against Apple device penetration we see an even more pronounced trend – see figure two. Here the relationship is clear: streaming has taken hold where Apple has not. In short, there was no established mainstream digital music service and streaming subscriptions filled the void. But of greatest significance is the impact on total music revenue. These strong streaming markets contribute just 10% to global digital revenue, even though France and the Netherlands are two of the world’s top 10 music markets. Meanwhile the UK and US alone count for 54%. If you factor in Japan and Germany too you have 71% of all digital music income, and within these four countries (the four biggest music markets) streaming accounted for just 10% of digital revenue.
On the other side of the equation, streaming has brought unparalleled growth in its core markets: across Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands digital revenue grew by an average of 213% between 2010 and 2013, compared to an average of just 40% across the big four markets (though Japan’s declining digital sector pulls that average down). And of course the Swedish and Norwegian music markets both grew in 2012 and 2013 while the rest did not.
While there is not a clear cut ‘answer’ to streaming’s likely long term impact we can however draw a few important conclusions:
- Streaming will grow more slowly in markets where Apple and the download market are strong (which helps explain why growth of Spotify et al appears to have slowed in markets like the US and UK).
- Streaming can make a digital market grow more quickly than downloads can (though it does so normally at the direct expense of downloads – download sales shrank in both Sweden and Norway in 2012 and 2013)
- ‘Home turf’ counts. Most of the big streaming markets have their own local heroes (Sweden – Spotify, Norway – WiMP, France – Deezer) – all of whom also benefited from hard bundles and marketing support from their incumbent telcos. Meanwhile Apple of course prospers on its home turf and that of the English speaking UK.
- Consumer behavior and technology are all edging towards a more access based world and it is inevitable that the download will become less important. So although these brakes on streaming adoption exist in many markets, they will slow rather than halt the transition. Streaming will near 50% of global digital revenues by 2018.
Streaming remains bedeviled by countless issues – not least artist payments – but what is clear is that it has the ability to transform the shape of the digital music market. And while that change may be slower to come than the Swedish and Norwegian experiences might suggest, come it will.