About Mark Mulligan

Music Industry analyst and some time music producer. Vice President and Research Director with Forrester Research

The attention recession meets the economic recession

We are living in uncertain times. The cost-of-living crisis is hitting consumers’ pockets, driven by rising fuel and food prices. The effects of the pandemic are still present, the global economy may be entering a recession, and the geo-political landscape is being increasingly shaped by conflict. All of this will impact the entertainment industries, but unlike other market sectors, entertainment is already dealing with its own recession: the attention recession. The circumstances bear resemblance to the credit crunch in 2007 when the music industry was still dealing with its own piracy-catalysed recession. But this time, it is a market dynamic that affects all forms of entertainment. 

The coming recession may also be unlike previous ones, in that there may be close to full employment – but spiralling inflation will likely mean surging wage poverty. It is the onset of the confluence of these unique market dynamics that inspired MIDiA to launch a brand new coverage area: Critical Developments, to help our client navigate these unchartered waters. We recently published the first report in this service (The attention recession: Post-peak behaviour). Here are some highlights from that report.

The attention economy has followed five key phases:

  1. Growth (<2019): Up until 2019, the booming digital entertainment sector filled consumers’ down time. Gone were staring out of the window, being bored at a train station, doing nothing in a Starbucks’ queue, replaced by entertainment. Everything hit new heights in the race for attention.
  2. Peak (<2019): By 2019 the slowdown had started. With just 9% of addressable consumer entertainment time remaining, many entertainment companies found it harder to maintain growth at previous rates. Growth began to become binary, with a minute gained being done so at another proposition’s expense.
  3. Lockdown boom (2020-2021): Just before the effects of peak attention began to be felt, the global pandemic hit, opening up a new wave of attention growth. During the lockdown boom, media time went up by 12% and all forms of home entertainment boomed.
  4. Post-lockdown dip (2021-2022/3): As people started to return to pre-pandemic behaviours, the first signs of contraction showed, but not all sectors were impacted evenly. Pandemic boom sectors, like audiobooks and podcasts, saw larger chunks of their newly-found consumption time disappear.
  5. New peak (>2023/4): The good news for digital entertainment is that when this contraction period finally ends, and the lockdown deluge recedes, the high-water mark will be higher than pre-pandemic. This is because life patterns are changing, e.g., more working from home.

Attention inflation

Despite this new, higher water mark, entertainment companies across the board are feeling the effects of the post-lockdown slowdown, as evidenced by Netflix reporting the loss of a million subscribers in Q2.Nonetheless, activity is beginning to rise in some categories. Thus, while video weekly active users (WAUs) fell from Q1 2021 to Q1 2022, music, games and social were all up (social, in fact, was the only category to grow without pause from pre- to post-pandemic). But even where entertainment companies are not feeling the pinch, the hours of their audiences have become devalued because of the rise of multitasking: as consumers try to keep up as many of their lockdown consumption patterns as they can, with fewer hours to do so. This is what MIDiA terms attention inflation.

Economic inflation

It is economic inflation though that is most tangible for consumers, with an average of around a fifth of them stating they would cancel subscriptions across music, video, TV and games if they felt the impact of inflation. It will be the nightlife sectors that will be hit hardest though, with far larger shares of consumers stating they would eat out less and go out less. Even live consumers said they would go to fewer gigs.

The responses are similar to when we asked consumers how they would respond to a potential recession back in 2019, but with one major difference: back in 2019, consumers were generally more concerned then, than they are now. Whether that is misplaced optimism is another thing entirely.

Survive-to-thrive

All entertainment and leisure companies will feel the combined effect of the attention recession. It is a case of simple arithmetic: more time and more spend during the pandemic benefited all companies. Post-pandemic, both of those increases recede, which means that all entertainment companies have to fight hard to hold onto their newly found boosts to revenue and users, let alone grow. The shocks to the global economy and geo-politics will compound matters further. Rising inflation is going to hit all consumers’ pockets (with food and fuel prices being particularly hit), forcing many households to make trade-offs between essentials and luxuries.

In this coming attention recession, it will be the entertainment companies that are able to quickly and fluidly adapt their models, billing, pricing, programming, and user engagement strategies that will be best placed to retain, even win, audiences during the downturn.

For more information on MIDiA’s new Critical Developments coverage area, email jonathan@midiaresearch.com

MIDiA music forecasts: the new era of growth

MIDiA has just published its latest music forecasts, available to clients in full here. Here are some of the highlights.

2021 was a huge year for the recorded music business with retail values up 23% to reach $51.9 billion (retail values include masters, publishing, and retailers / DSPs). Label trade revenue was up 20% to reach $22.9 billion. Part of the reason for the wide gap between retail and label growth was the rise of non-DSP streaming that sees a much higher share go to publishing than for DSP streaming. Non-DSP streaming was worth $3.0 billion in 2021 across masters, publishing, and platforms. Production music (a segment missed out of most other market estimates) was another strong performer, generating around one billion dollars.

MIDiA forecasts global recorded music revenues to reach $89.1 billion by 2030 in retail terms. That is an increase of 72% on 2021. The $37.2 billion that will be added by 2030 will be more than was added between 2014 and 2021, meaning the music business is not even yet halfway through a long-term rebound phase. While there is a well-reasoned argument that music revenues are still not back to pre-Napster levels, the coming years should right that anomaly (rampant inflation permitting). 

Streaming will be 82% of 2030 music revenues and it is therefore streaming market dynamics that will underpin overall market growth: 

Subscriptions: Increased ARPU in Western markets and increased subscribers in emerging markets. Europe and North America will represent just 23% of subscriber growth between 2021-2030

Non-DSP: Emerging social, games, and metaverse platforms will offer new licensing opportunities. Non-DSP provides a licensing and business model framework for future emerging consumer technologies, such as Web 3.0, giving rightsholders crucial revenue diversification as subscriptions mature

Emerging markets: Asian markets in particular will become the engine room of subscriber growth. The Asia-Pacific region alone will have 0.5 billion subscribers by 2030. China accounted for 39% of global subscriber growth in 2021

The US: Even though the US will lose a share of subscriber growth by 2030 (due to China’s growth), it will drive the largest share of subscription revenue growth and will remain the world’s largest market by 2030 in revenue terms

Label trade subscriber ARPU will grow by more than 7% globally by 2030, lifted by price increases equivalent of 17%, but offset by reduction due to the growth of multi-user plans and a drop in label share.

Bull or bear?

With the influx of capital into the music business in recent years (IPOs, catalogue acquisitions, etc.) there is more attention on the space than ever. 2021 was the year in which the music business met those inflated expectations with exceptional performance, underpinned by the early fruits of a new and diversified commercial strategy that is ready to soundtrack the future of the web. 

It was a combination of these factors, forecasting non-DSP for the first time, and accounting for the exceptional performance of China in 2021, that led to MIDiA significantly increasing its forecasts by around 25%. We believe this significant increase (our biggest ever) reflects the new potential of the global music business as it enters a new chapter that will be shaped by non-DSP, Web 3.0, and emerging markets.

But – and it wouldn’t be MIDiA without a ‘but’ – this bullish outlook coincides with the global economy on the brink of entering a tailspin. So, to be prudent, MIDiA’s forecasts also include a detailed bear scenario dataset with label trade revenues slowing to just 3% for 2022, and from there, adding just another 14.3% by 2030.

We think this bear scenario is unlikely to play out, despite being within the realms of possibility. Should the global economy slow, then the likelihood is that while music will prove not be ‘recession proof’, it will neither be recession vulnerable.

If you would like to learn more about MIDiA’s music forecasts email stephen@midiaresearch.com

How (and why) Billie Eilish won Glastonbury

Glastonbury returned to great fanfare after the pandemic-enforced break, which meant it was the first one since 2019. The music world has changed a lot since then, with streaming getting bigger than ever and TikTok now established as a cornerstone of the music business. Back in 2019, the standard thing to do was to look at how much Glastonbury boosted streaming numbers of artists who were on the bill, but in today’s world, it is the impact on an artist’s fanbase that is arguably most important.

The BBC and Glastonbury partnership is a fandom engine room 

Glastonbury plays an important role because it is broadcast (TV and radio) and streamed in the UK by the BBC, which means it is a rare thing in today’s on-demand world: it is a cultural moment. Due to the splintering of culture and the fragmentation of fandom, cultural moments in music have largely gone, replaced by the asynchronous paradigm that streaming enables. In the past, summers were soundtracked by hits that everyone knew, now algorithms and personalisation mean that everyone has their own summer hit. Meanwhile, streaming has turned music into a utility, more of a soundtrack to our daily lives than a cultural touchpoint. If streaming has turned music into water, then what we now need are glasses to drink it from. In the UK, Glastonbury provides a counterpoint to that dynamic, presenting a few days in which everyone, from casual viewers through to due hard music fans, can watch great music – music that is, crucially, often outside of what they would usually listen to. The reason this matters is because streaming algorithms deliver us more of what we like and, thus, narrows our cultural scope. The handpicked and diverse line up of Glastonbury, amplified by the expert curation and programming of a national broadcaster, breaks music listeners out of the algorithm cage. There are not many algorithms that would present Wolf Alice alongside Diana Ross. The Glastonbury / BBC combination thus presents a real-world evidence point for how genuine discovery can be brought back into music. It is not instead of streaming, but, instead, amplifying it. 

Finding new audiences

So much for the consumer case, but what about the artist case? What an artist (and labels) really want is not just a temporary streaming boost, but a long-term lift to fanbases. Big streaming counts are a great calling card, but, unless they are huge, they do not add up for most artists. And a weekend bump is only of any real value if it provides the footprint for a longer term fanbase lift. So, what really matters is how a one-off event drives fandom growth. But how is that measures? Well, it just so happens that MIDiA is currently building a fandom measurement tool that we are calling Music Index. Let us take a look at some of MIDiA’s Index data to show just how much impact Glastonbury has already had on some of the artists who performed there.

One of the key things we do with Index is create artist cohorts to enable comparisons across similar artists, with the top performing artist in each category indexed as 100 and the others against that base. So, we defined a Glastonbury cohort to track fandom and engagement impact across these artists. Looking at the top five artists in our ‘engagement’ metric (a hybrid measure that includes streaming, YouTube, etc.), the clear winner was Kendrick Lamar, with AJ Tracey being a close second and Wet Leg a not-too-distant third. These three artists all saw the biggest gains during and after Glasto.

The vast majority of established artists do not rely on streaming as their primary income, so measuring engagement is only part of the picture. Which brings us onto our next metric, ‘fandom’, another hybrid metric that captures a large collection of fandom and social behaviours. What is interesting here is that the rankings are very different, with Billie Eilish, who was not even in the ‘engagement’ top five, not only coming out on top, but way ahead of the rest. Unlike with engagement, the distance to second and third spots is much larger. Notwithstanding, Kendrick Lamar grabs another podium spot and also saw a stronger uplift than Megan Thee Stallion, though the latter was already more highly ranked before Glasto and remains ahead.

One of the key inputs into MIDiA’s Music Index is Wikipedia. It is a heavily underrated artist metric that is front of mind for music marketers. Wikipedia is so useful because it reflects a consumer’s desire to go further, to learn more about the artist. It is a fandom lean-in metric. Whereas a Google search may simply be geared to going and finding a track, a Wikipedia view is a first step towards a deeper level of fandom. The Wikipedia spikes for the Glastonbury artist cohort demonstrates a very clear pattern of spikes in line with performances, thus highlighting the huge benefit of a widely broadcast and streamed live performance in penetrating new audiences for artists. Beyond the bigger acts, Sam Fender and Yungblud both saw strong spikes following their performances, further evidence of the unique power of the broadcast and streamed event helping artists connect with new fans.

Taken together, the Glastonbury impact can be defined as follows:

  • Kendrick Lamar might have gotten the biggest consumption bump, but Billie Eilish is likely the one who ended up with the largest long-term uplift to her fanbase
  • The Glastonbury / BBC partnership makes a compelling case for the power of building artist reach to wider audiences via tentpole, live performances broadcast and online 

Artists in the UK understand just how Glastonbury can create career-defining cultural moments – just ask Sam Fender. But the case here should be less about Glastonbury itself and more about how the live / broadcast / stream model presents a global use case for reinvigorating cultural moments in the era of splintered culture.

If you are interested in learning more about MIDiA’s forthcoming Music Index tool (there is a LOT more to it than what was covered here!) then drop a line to stephen@midiaresearch.com

Churn in the era of dynamic retention

Kantar, a survey vendor, has been getting some attention by passing off consumer data as an actual measure of subscribers and suggesting that the music subscriber base actually declined in Q1 2022. It said the same in Q4 2021, but 2021 was a spectacular year for music subscriber growth, with the global base of subscribers growing by 118.8 million in 2021 – the largest ever increase in a single year – to reach 586 million. Of course, it would be obtuse to suggest that all is rosy in the world of digital subscriptions. After all, the attention recession has slowed growth and the actual recession will push up churn rates. But it is wrong to assume that digital subscriptions behave like their traditional counterparts, which is exactly why music subscriptions are well placed to weather the perfect storm of both recessions.

Digital subscriptions are different

Traditional subscriptions (pay-TV, internet, phone etc.) are slow moving, predictable beasts. Consumers are locked into contracts for fixed periods and must pay penalty clauses to exit them early. Which is why, when churn happens in these subscriptions, it is a big deal. It represents a hard break, the end of a subscriber relationship. But digital subscriptions are wired differently:

  • Churn doesn’t necessarily mean churn: Few have contracts, and most are as easy to leave as they are to join. They are built (if not necessarily designed) for hop-on / hop-off behaviour. When someone drops a Netflix subscription, the likelihood is that they will be back in a few months. The same does not apply for traditional subscribers.
  • Digital subscriptions are less critical: Most traditional subscriptions are utilities (phone, broadband etc.). Even a pay-TV subscription is a utility because the TV set may literally stop receiving signal without a subscription. So, cancelling one is a much bigger deal. But digital subscriptions usually just make digital entertainment better (e.g., an extra catalogue of TV shows to watch, music without ads etc.)
  • Many are still getting started: Even though music subscriptions growth is slowing in many markets, large numbers of consumers are still trying out subscriptions for the first time. This means there is always a high turnover of subscribers. Even more so in video and games where new services have come to market.

The last point is perhaps most important. MIDiA’s Q1 consumer data indicates that more people signed up to music subscriptions in the previous year (13%) than cancelled (10%) – both figures are as a share of all consumers that either had or used to have a music subscription.

The takeaway is that music subscriptions are highly fluid at the edges. They resemble a duck in water: elegant and slow moving above the water line, but legs pumping furiously below it. We can see this in Spotify’s reported numbers too. In 2020 Spotify added 25 million subscribers to its tally to reach 180 million. But it actually added twice as many subscribers as that before it also lost 25 million due to churn.

Churn is built into the model

Churn is quite simply part of the equation for music subscriptions. But at risk of sounding too Pollyanna-ish about this, there is no denying that dark clouds are building on the horizon. The cost-of-living crisis is accelerating, inflation and interest rates are going up, and wages are steadfast. As MIDiA’s recession data shows, around a fifth of music subscribers would consider cancelling their subscriptions if their everyday costs spiralled. A subscriber slowdown may indeed come. Those that do cancel should not be considered ‘lost’ but instead as taking a break. They will be there, ready to dive back in as soon as they can. 

DSPs will need to think in terms of what MIDiA calls dynamic retention. Instead of being focused on having a subscriber for all 12 months of a year, understand that in the coming economic climate, subscribers will likely require more flexibility. So, think instead of how many subscriber months can be had from that subscriber over a 12-month period, regardless of whether they are consecutive or not. It is certainly a shift in mindset, but this kind of pragmatic and flexible thinking will be crucial for navigating the times ahead.

Why Spotify’s TAM is only part of the story

Spotify just held an investor day in which it ran through its vision for growth. Spotify has long touted the concept of its total addressable market (TAM), its path to a billion users and the role of emerging markets as the surest path to this figure. Spotify’s presentation focused on monthly active users (MAUs), but, for the purpose of this blog, subscribers will be the key focus for two reasons: 1) MAUs are an inflated reach measure, while weekly (WAU) and daily (DAU) active users measure a far more tangible quantity of actual engagement. The tech giants, like Meta, focus on WAU and DAUs in their filings. In the saturated attention economy, monthly use can be one step away from total inactivity. 2) Ad revenue was just 12% of Spotify’s 2021 revenue, and while it is getting better at ad monetisation (due in large part to podcasts), it has a much weaker track record of ad monetisation than it does subscriptions. Subscriptions are where Spotify makes its money and are also where the music business makes its money. 73% of 2021 global label streaming revenue was from subscriptions (and that is based on a number inflated by non-DSP streaming).

First off, a bluffer’s guide to TAMs. TAMs are actually just one part of a three-step way of measuring opportunity:

  • Total addressable market (TAM): the total potential audience
  • Serviceable addressable market (SAM): how much of it is relevant to your product
  • Serviceable obtainable market (SOM): how much of it you think you can convert

Another way to think about it is: how many fish are there in the pond, how many fish you think you can catch, how many fish you think you will actually catch.

Why TAMs alone are not enough

MIDiA employs a TAM / SAM / SOM methodology in its forecasts, as follows:

  • TAM: those with smartphones and data plans
  • SAM: of this, those who are interested in paying for music
  • SOM: the SAM adjusted for urbanisation rates and music streaming affordability on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis

The SOM stage is crucial for emerging markets. Broadly speaking, it is consumers in urban conglomerations who are most likely to be addressable by streaming subscriptions. A rice paddy worker in rural Bangladesh might have a phone, but they are likely to a) have very little disposable income, b) use their phone most as a utility, and c) have bigger worries than whether to pay for a music subscription. The TAM and SAM figures might be reassuringly larger figures, but, in truth, it is the wealthier, more tech-centred, urban elites in emerging markets who are most likely to convert.

Real terms affordability is crucial too. A subscription in India is around five times cheaper in dollar terms than in the US, but, on a PP basis (i.e., adjusted for local affordability), it is 12 times more expensive. Which further emphasises the role of urban elites in emerging markets for streaming subscriptions.

When we map MIDiA’s SOM alongside Spotify’s TAM, the market opportunity immediately looks bigger. And it is. But Spotify does not operate in isolation. It is one player in a competitive marketplace. In 2021, there were already 554 million paid subscribers globally, of which, 180 million were Spotify users. The global subscriber base represents 92% of Spotify’s TAM. The global subscriber figure is swelled by China’s nearly 100 million subscribers, a market in which Spotify does not operate due to its ‘poison pill’ equity swap relationship with Tencent. But even removing China from the equation, 76% of Spotify’s TAM was already addressed by itself and its competitors in 2021.

Does this mean Spotify’s growth ambitions are unrealistic? Not necessarily. There is a huge amount of growth left in the market, as MIDiA’s forthcoming music market forecasts will show (and from where the figures in the chart come). But the opportunity must be gauged in the context of where Spotify sits in the wider competitive marketplace, not in isolation.

It is no coincidence that Spotify is focusing here on free users rather than paid. Free users are the funnel for Spotify’s wider business (i.e., including podcasts and audiobooks, which it can best monetise via ads). But even the free streaming market is hyper competitive, with close to 1.5 billion free users already globally in 2021. Most importantly, though, the free user numbers are biggest in the most populous emerging markets, and it is local players that dominate. The future of music streaming in emerging market is going to (at the very least) be shaped as much by local emerging market players (e.g., Boomplay, JioSaavn, NetEase Cloud Music) as it is Western streaming services. In fact, there is an argument that Western streaming services looking at the emerging markets world as their target for colonising with streaming users is actually Western-tech imperialism.

NOTE: MIDiA’s annual music forecasts are close to complete and will contain historical and forecast data for streaming revenues and users, and much, much more, with revenues both in label terms and retail terms (i.e., inclusive of publishing and DSP shares). If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about MIDiA’s forthcoming forecast, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

The Attention Recession: How inflation and the pandemic are reshaping entertainment

Netflix and Meta were the canaries in the proverbial mine for the attention recession and it is looking increasingly likely that difficult times lie ahead. If the attention crunch was not enough on its own, it has been compounded by the perfect storm of headwinds: the cost of living crisis, rising interest rates, energy and global grain supply constraints, and the Russo-Ukrainian war. The question is not whether the entertainment sector is going to be impacted by these trends, but rather by how much and for how long? The good news is that MIDiA is going to help answer these questions in our upcoming free-to-attend webinar; The Attention Recession: How inflation and the pandemic are reshaping entertainment.

Here is an early overview of some of what we will be covering:

Back in late 2019 when it looked like the world might be entering a recession, MIDiA asked consumers about how they expected to change their entertainment behaviours and spending if they found themselves facing financial pressures. Now, more than two years later, as the world faces a cost of living crisis, we asked almost exactly the same questions once again. Even though the already-present cost of living crisis is far more tangible to most consumers than a potential financial recession, broadly speaking, consumers are less concerned now than they were in 2019. Whether that is misplaced optimism is another thing entirely…

However, what is consistent between the 2019 and 2022 responses is the tendency for consumers to prefer options to do less of something rather than stop entirely. So, going out and eating out less both get significantly higher response rates than cancelling subscriptions. This makes sense: going out less does not mean stopping going out entirely, but cancelling a music or games subscription is an all-or-nothing decision.

Video subscriptions are a bit different of course as the majority of subscribers have more than one video subscription. Cancelling one is similar to going out less: it is a do-less decision, not a do-nothing decision. Given the finite number of TV shows released each month that match an individual’s tastes, more consumers will likely become savvy switchers, dipping in and out of different video services to watch the shows they want, when they are available. While video services can try to counter this with annual subscriptions, these are a hard sell during a cost-of-living crisis. Far better to start thinking about user retention in a more fluid way, considering the share of a subscriber’s months you can retain during a calendar year rather than expecting all twelve of them. 

This concept of what MIDiA terms dynamic retention is just one illustration of how the coming period of uncertainty is not just going to be about economic disruption, but a catalyst for business and technology innovation. Something that also applied to the pandemic, that accelerated the adoption of already emerging trends, such as remote working, video conferencing, and virtual concerts.

There is no doubt that life is going to get difficult for many consumers over the coming months, which in turn means that entertainment companies (as consumer centred businesses) are also going to feel the pinch. For some companies the focus will be to survive but for others it will be to thrive. One company’s challenge can be another’s opportunity. Recessions always leave scarring, with the process acting as something of a reset, clearing out the dead wood from the pre-recession economy and setting up the next gen companies that will define the post-recession economy. 

In this coming attention recession, it will be the entertainment companies that are able to quickly and fluidly adapt their models, billing, pricing, programming, and user engagement strategies that will be best placed to retain, even win, audiences during the downturn. Truly effective monetisation may not come until later, but audience acquisition and retention start right now.

Join us on Thursday 26th of May at 4.30pm BST / 3.30pm CET / 11.30am EST / 8.30am PT to hear much more on these themes from MIDiA’s analysts. Sign up for free here.

How iPod changed everything

Apple just announced that it is finally ending production of the iPod. At 21 years of age, it outlived many of the dramatic changes it witnessed and triggered. In this age dominated by streaming (and a vinyl resurgence) the iPod did not really have a place anymore, other than with its ever diminishing base of super fans. It should probably have ceased production long ago, but the iPod holds a special place in Apple’s heart and sentimentalism likely played a role in allowing it to reach its 21st birthday before it was finally put out to pasture. And there is no doubt that the iPod earned that special place, because it was the change catalyst that transformed Apple into the mega corporation that it is today. But the iPod did even more than that, it was the trailblazer that created the environment in which today’s digital entertainment world could exist.

Back in my early days as an analyst I went to my first ever Apple analyst briefing, for the launch of the second generation. I felt like a fish out of water, with the room full of dry tech analysts asking Apple about its education strategy, its server products, its enterprise computing strategy. Then little me in the corner, asked about the iPod, and the entire room turned to me with bemused faces, just like the pub scene in American Werewolf in London.

Every successive briefing session I went to, the iPod became an ever bigger deal and the other analysts in the room started asking questions about it too. The iPod shuffled along at a steady pace until the launch of the iTunes Music Store, at which point it suddenly had a purposes it previously lacked, and sales lifted off. Apple has never looked back.

It is no coincidence that it was music that propelled the iPod to tech immortality. Steve Jobs was a massive music fan and it was his passion that helped ensure the iPod continued to receive the support it needed, even when it was not yet showing signs of fulfilling its huge potential. Apple has always been a company that is as obsessed with content as it is hardware and this is why the iPod and subsequent Apple devices have been so central to the growth of digital entertainment.

As the iPod evolved from scroll wheel to touch screen it became the launchpad for something even bigger for Apple: the iPhone (the first gen iPhone was a direct evolution of the iPod touch, at a time when smart phones were all keys). With the iPhone came apps. Just in the same way that the iPod was not the first digital music player, so Apple was not the first to make mobile apps nor of course the first to make a smartphone. But in all three cases, Apple took a promising but struggling format and made it ready for primetime. This early follower strategy underpinned Apple’s success in the 2000s and the early 2010s.

Pandora was an early beneficiary of Apple’s app strategy, being natively installed on US iPhones. The result was another lift off, with Pandora soon becoming he most widely used streaming app on the planet, even though it was only available in the US. Just as with the iTiunes / iPod combination, Apple understood the cruciality of an integrated content / device experience and its App Store became the launch pad for today’s digital entertainment economy. It did so by allowing app developers across the world to find a global audience which did not need to worry about clumsy installations and fragmented billing. Everything happened in one place, seamlessly and effortlessly. Google soon followed with its own take on the app store. Now you will struggle to find a games, music, video, news, podcast or book provider that does not use the Apple App Store, nor indeed a consumer that does not use apps to consumer content. 

Apple’s subsequent launch of the iPad and Apple TV further accelerated the adoption of digital content, giving audiences and content companies more choice about where they could benefit from the app economy. Apple Music, Apple TV, Apple Books, Podcasts, News, Arcade and more followed, helping cement Apple not just as a catalyst for the digital entertainment economy, but also as a major content player in its own right.

None of this would have happened without the iPod. So even though many readers will be too young to have even owned an iPod, spare a thought for this now departed member of the digital ecosystem, because without it, the devices you use and the entertainment you consume would look very, very different.

Farewell iPod!

Music industry earnings 2021: Riding the wave

Universal music’s Q1 2022 earnings showed continued growth but a noticeable slowdown in streaming growth, with streaming revenues up 12% year-on-year (YoY) in USD terms compared to a growth of 35% one year earlier.* As results trickle in from across the music business over the coming months, we will get a fuller sense of how much the wider business is slowing down after an exceptional 2021. Until then, it is worth looking at how leading companies across the wider music business fared across all of 2021. To that end, MIDiA has just published its inaugural ‘Music Industry Earnings’ report, tracking the revenues of 12 leading music companies across recordings, publishing, streaming and live**. MIDiA clients can download the full report and dataset here. Here are some of the findings.

The overall trajectory of travel for the music industry in the late 2010s and early 2020s was positive, but growth was not always spread evenly. Self-releasing artists direct consistently outpaced record labels, streaming revenues grew fast in some markets while others lagged, and Covid turned the live music business upside down – 2021 was different. Similarly, strong growth was present in most parts of the music industry, with most companies and geographies benefiting in broadly similar ways.

2021 was a year like no other in recent memory, with the music industry rebounding from the pandemic. In many respects, 2021 was a catch-up year for the wider economy, with additional business being done that had been put on hold during the worst of the pandemic. Although the music business is largely a consumer business, it does have a B2B component (advertising) and the uplift in wider economic activity filtered down to consumers as employees. The result was a blended 37.7% increase in revenues for leading companies across recordings, publishing, streaming and live.

This figure, though, was skewed upwards by the unusual dynamic of the live music industry recovering revenues after a pandemic-induced collapse. With live therefore excepted, organic growth was broadly similar across all other sectors, with labels (26.7%) and streaming digital services providers (DSPs) (27.0%) performing strongest. Music publishers were up 20.5%.

Live increased its share of total to 13%, up from 5% in 2020, but this was still far below its 29% 2019 share. It remains likely that live will not reclaim such a high share, even if it recovers fully, principally because music rights companies grew revenue by nearly two and half times faster in 2021 than in 2020. The net effect will be a net increase in organic market share once the live recovery process is complete.

Within labels, HYBE was the fastest growing (across its recorded music revenues), up by 70.4%, in publishing it was Warner Chappell (23.7%), while NetEase Cloud music led the way in subscriber growth, up by 81.1% (far ahead of Spotify’s 16.1% growth). However, Spotify grew its free userbase far faster than NetEase while Tencent Music Entertainment saw its free userbase decrease by 1.1%.

While Covid turned many industries upside down, live music was the only component of the music industry that did not continue to grow throughout the pandemic. For investors, the appeal is clear of an asset class that can flourish even in difficult times. The remainder of 2022, and potentially beyond – depending on what happens in the global economy and geo-political environment – will be a sterner test. Rocketing fuel bills and food costs will cut into consumer discretionary spending, but, as music subscriptions are relatively low cost products that tend to be held by consumers with meaningful disposable income, the risk exposure may be low. Though the fact that UMG grew its subscription revenues by just 10% in Q1 YoY, we may even be seeing a slow down there.

Whereas a few years ago, a subscription slowdown would have been as worrying for labels and publishers as it would have been for DSPs, the emergence of non-DSP revenue (Meta, TikTok, Peloton, Snap, Twitch, etc.) means that rightsholders now have an established plan B. A point illustrated by UMG’s 17% growth in ad supported streaming in Q1 2022 YoY. The economic headwinds during the remainder of 2022 will be challenging for sure, but the performance in 2020 and 2021 point to a robustness that will help it weather the storm in a way that other consumer-centric industries may not enjoy.

*All values in current currency terms, using the exchange rates published by Vivendi for each corresponding quarter.

**List of companies tracked in MIDiA’s 2021 Music Industry Earnings report:

  1. Believe
  2. HYBE
  3. Live Nation
  4. LiveXLive
  5. NetEase Cloud Music
  6. Pandora
  7. Reservoir Media
  8. Sony Music Group
  9. Spotify
  10. Tencent Music Entertainment
  11. Universal Music Group
  12. Warner Music Group

The attention recession has hit Spotify too

Spotify added two million subscribers in Q1 2022. Yes, this incorporates the impact of 1.5 million lost Russian subscribers and is set against Netflix having lost 0.2 million subscribers over the same quarter. But while Spotify did well to not suffer the same fate as Netflix, it was not able to buck the broader trend affecting the entertainment market: the attention recession. The attention recession is the combined impact of: 1) the end of the Covid entertainment boom (consumers have less time and money as pre-pandemic behaviours resurface); 2) economic headwinds (rising inflation and interest rates), and 3) the geo-political situation (the Russo-Ukrainian war). Spotify’s Q1 earnings provide further early evidence of the attention recession’s impact. Spotify’s earnings were shaped by all three.

Looking at the ad-supported and paid users of a number of leading digital entertainment companies that have already reported their Q1 2022 results, a clear trend emerges: paid user growth slowed in Q1 2022, while free users continued to grow strongly. With consumers having less time on their hands and less money in their pockets, free is growing faster than paid.

Entertainment monetisation trends followed an almost mirror opposite of user behaviour. The first quarter of every year is typically down from the preceding fourth quarter for ad businesses, with the Q4 advertiser spend surge receding. Yet the declines in Q1 ad revenues for Snap and YouTube were both significantly bigger in 2022 than in 2021, with a combined drop of 22% compared to 13% the year before. Snap’s Evan Spiegel even went on record to explain just how problematic a quarter Q1 2022 had been and how there are growing concerns about the outlook for ad spend. This is because, as consumers have less disposable income, they buy less, which means advertisers get lower returns on their spend. Ad revenue is most often an early victim of a recession.

Conversely, Q1 2022 subscription revenues were up slightly, though much less so than in Q1 2021, and Spotify’s premium revenues were down 1%. Nonetheless, the key takeaway is that subscription monetisation was less vulnerable in the first phase of the attention recession. While free services and tiers benefited from incoming cost-conscious users, they were not able to harness the shift commercially. 

As MIDiA said back in 2020, all companies were going to feel the impact of the attention recession, which we identified was imminent following the pandemic. It is a case of simple arithmetic: more time and more spend during the pandemic benefited all companies. Post-pandemic, both of those increases recede, which means that all entertainment companies have to fight hard to hold on to their newly-found boosts to revenue and users, let alone grow. When we made that prediction, it was before the additional elements of economic and geo-political trends raised their heads. Rising inflation is going to hit all consumers’ pockets (with food and fuel prices being particularly hit), forcing many households to make trade-offs between essentials and luxuries. 

Though Spotify’s move to wind down Russian operations was admirable, it illustrates how the impacts of the Russo-Ukrainian war on digital entertainment will be both varied and far reaching, not least because of its impact on inflation due to its disruption of global food and fuel supplies. 

We are living in ‘interesting times’ and the future is always uncharted, but especially so now. 

Forget peak Netflix, this is the attention recession

Netflix’s Q1 2022 results caused a stir, with subscriber numbers down by 0.2 million from one quarter earlier. Some are calling this ‘peak Netflix’, but this is not a Netflix-specific issue. The decline illustrates that Netflix does not operate in isolation, and is, instead, but one part of the interconnected attention economy – an attention economy that is now entering recession. This is a recession that MIDiA first called back in February 2020, and that the wider marketplace has started to wake up to.

The attention recession – after the boom

When MIDiA made the prediction of ‘the coming attention recession’ over a year ago, we identified that once the world started returning to pre-pandemic behaviours, the Covid-bounce in entertainment time would recede, creating an attention recession. The attention economy had already peaked back in late 2019, which meant that the pandemic and its lockdown attention boom delayed the inevitable negative effects of companies that are competing in a now saturated attention economy. During the lockdown boom, media time went up by 12% and all forms of home entertainment boomed, but as we warned at the time, the effects were temporary, so entertainment companies needed to plan for post-lockdown life. 

A return to a smaller and recently constrained, pre-pandemic attention economy was always going to be painful. We termed this contraction a recession because we knew there would be clear economic aftershocks. Not least because the impact has been unevenly felt. As the first signs of contraction showed, not all sectors were impacted evenly. Pandemic boom sectors, like audiobooks and podcasts, saw larger chunks of their newly-found consumption time disappear. Music clawed back some of its lost share. Video (Netflix included) fell, but social and social video buckled the trend entirely, not simply clawing back some lost share, but actually growing throughout the entire pandemic period to end it with more hours than when it entered it. The arithmetic is simple: total attention hours are falling, social is growing hours, therefore, the remainder of the attention economy collectively experiences a double whammy of decline of time and money. 

The wider economy is beginning to bite too

But, unfortunately, there is more. Since MIDiA made the case for an attention recession, the global geo-political and economic situations have changed – to put it mildly. Inflation was already spiking before Russia invaded Ukraine, and the war’s impact on grain and energy supplies will only accelerate inflation even further. Put simply, consumers will feel growing pressure, with wages racing to keep up with price rises. Discretionary entertainment spend will be one of the earliest victims. Video subscriptions inadvertently made themselves an easy target. The sheer volume of choice and competition, combined with rolling monthly subscriptions, make it all too easy to drop one subscription without seriously denting your overall video experience. But while streaming services now face a potential savvy switcher cataclysm, traditional pay-TV companies have their subscribers locked into legally binding, long-term contracts. It usually costs consumers MORE money to cancel contracts, defeating the purpose of trying to reduce spend. Consequently, we may even see the cord cutting / SVOD growth dynamic invert for a while.

Back in 2020, when we first started writing about the potential impact that an economic recession would have on entertainment, we identified that 22% of consumers would cancel one or more video subscriptions, and that 22% would downgrade from paid to free on music. Netflix’s earnings are the first signs of this consumer intent manifesting. Other subscription video on demand (SVOD) services should not consider themselves immune. Even if the economy was to stabilise tomorrow, the long-term outlook for SVOD will most likely be defined by savvy switchers continually hopping across services to watch the shows they want. SVOD subscribers had found themselves thinking the new boss looked pretty much like the old boss, having to subscribe to so many services that their SVOD spend ended up looking a lot like those old pay-TV bills. In a recession, consumers will need SVOD to deliver on the price benefit more than ever before. 

When price increase can be hindrance, not a help

A lot has been made of how great a job Netflix has done in increasing its prices while streaming music has not – heck, even I did it. Increasing prices above the rate of inflation may a) reflect Netflix’s actual market worth, and b) help drive revenue growth, but it makes Netflix exposed in a hyper-competitive SVOD market that is entering an attention recession and, potentially, an economic recession. 

Circumstances may well look very different for music. Firstly, the vast majority of music subscribers only have one subscription, so if you cancel, you lose all the benefits of a paid account, not just a slice of choice. Secondly, music subscriptions have reduced in real terms because they have not kept track with inflation. In fact, prices have hardly moved at all in 20 years. While this has long been seen as a problem, in the current circumstances, it might be an asset. Music subscriptions represent good value for money, and with inflation pushing upwards, they will represent even better value for money as every month passes. Perhaps now is not the best time for music price increases.

Reasons, not ways, to spend attention

So, with all this doom and gloom, how can entertainment companies survive – perhaps even thrive? Long term, annual billing for digital subscriptions is a logical step, but for those who do not have them, now is not the best time to try to commit to large payments, unless there is some serious discounting in place. Multi-format bundles, like Apple One and Amazon Prime, will also be well placed. Ad supported services will also do well. But it will take more than clever billing and bundling. It will require a fundamental reassessment of the relationship with the audience.

One of the key calls MIDiA made in our 2022 predictions report was the new need for reasons, not ways, to spend attention in the attention recession:

“[Entertainment companies] will not only lose time, but end up lower than pre-pandemic levels. With such fierce demands on their time, audiences will need to be given reasons, not ways, to spend their attention.”

This might also be the moment for the next generation of emerging tech majors like Byte Dance and Tencent who’s businesses have a strong focus on ad supported and monetizing fandom rather than the commodified model of monetizing consumption. As Facebook’s declining user numbers showed, even in the booming social sector, a realignment of the marketplace is happening.

In the attention recession, entertainment companies need to start appreciating that consumer attention is a scarce resource, not an abundant one – a resource that must be won, not claimed. Those who do not will be the most vulnerable to the vagaries of the attention recession.