2014 has been a dramatic year for the music industry and may prove to be one of its most significant. The brief history of digital music is peppered with milestones such as Napster rising its head in 1999, the launch of the iTunes Music Store in 2003, Spotify in 2008. The 2014 legacy looks set to be more nuanced but equally important: it is the year in which streaming started to truly transform the music industry. The significance though lies in how the music industry is responding. With download sales tumbling, royalty rates still being questioned, and Taylor Swift’s hugely publicised windowing, the music industry is taking a long hard look at what role streaming should play. Spotify and Soundcloud will find themselves in the cross hairs, but there is also a case for redefining YouTube’s remit too.
Don’t Throw Out Freemium With the Windowing Bathwater
Swift’s windowing move centred around free streaming. If Spotify had been willing to treat the free tier as a separate window from its paid tier, the odds are it would have got ‘1989’. Spotify’s argument that weakening the free tier could affect their ability to convert is logical. But ultimately the purpose of the free tier is to persuade people to pay to stream, not to deliver a fantastic free experience. I first made the case for windowing back in 2009 and I remain convinced it will be crucial to long term success.
By playing an all-or-nothing negotiating game freemium services risk being left with the latter. And it would be a tragedy if freemium got thrown out with the windowing bath water. Windowing will quite simply make free tiers more palatable. Windowing can drive huge success. Look at Netflix: with 50 million subscribes gloably Netflix has the traditional broadcast industry running scared yet is far more heavily windowed than Spotify – how many new movies do you find on Netflix?
One Rule For YouTube Another For The Rest
But the core problem is that Spotify does not exist in a vacuum. While Swift windowed Spotify her videos stayed on YouTube and Vevo. Unless YouTube is treated with a similar approach to other free services then any windowing efforts will simply drive more traffic to YouTube rather than drive more sales or subscriptions. 5 years ago a YouTube stream could be seen as driving sales, now a YouTube stream drives another YouTube stream.
Among the Top 10 fastest growing YouTube channels (in terms of views), half are music. More people are streaming more music on YouTube than ever. The reason YouTube remains untouchable has much to do with the fact labels still see it as a promotional vehicle despite the fact it has become a fully fledge consumption platform. Without doubt YouTube plays the discovery role for youth that radio does for older generations. But it is also the end point for youth.
Time For A New Role For YouTube
So what is the solution? Simple. If YouTube is the radio equivalent for youth, make it look and feel more like radio, not like Spotify premium with video. Instead, make YouTube look like Pandora with video. If YouTube is all about promotion then swap out unlimited on demand mobile plays for DMCA compliant stations. Let any user search and discover a new song but once they have discovered it the next few music videos are automatically selected related videos.
I remember Beggars’ Martin Mills quoting music industry veteran Rob Dickens:
‘If you play what I want when I want I’ll accept it is promotion. If it is what you want when you want it is business.’
That is at the core of what makes a streaming service additive versus substitutive. This is why Pandora stands out as a complement to ‘sales’ revenue and why YouTube no longer can. If YouTube’s core value to the music business is still discovery then this approach is how that role can be protected without damaging the ability of subscription services to proposer.
Do Not Conflate Music Key With YouTube
Now of course, YouTube has its own subscription service too in the form of Music Key, which is great: YouTube is a hugely welcome addition to the subscription market. But this does not mean YouTube music videos should be free on demand to all. Only 3% of UK and US consumers say they would pay for Music Key (and consumer surveys typically over report on intent to purchase). Instead, YouTube’s free on demand music videos should be only available for users that register for Music Key. This would be Music Key’s freemium base, not the entire installed base of YouTube users.
With on demand free music it is all about the conversion path: how many of those consumers that listen for free are likely to pay. With YouTube’s 1 billion users it is a tiny per cent so there is little business rationale for letting them take the Ferrari out for a test drive when they are only ever going to get the bus.
Is 9.99 too expensive for most free music users? Of course it is. Should PAYG options be added in to the mix? Yes, absolutely. But none of those will work unless the music industry takes a consistent and fair approach to freemium.
Turning YouTube into a video enabled Pandora is clearly a controversial proposal and it will have huge opposition. It may even cause some meaningful disruption in the mid term, but unless equally meaningful change is made the music industry will remain locked on course to a future in which subscription services will never be able to realise their full potential.