About Mark Mulligan

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

Why Profit Doesn’t Come Into It For Apple Music

Apple has only ever been in the music business in order to sell more devices.  Apple does not need to make money from music nor has it ever needed to.  That doesn’t stop it being a crucially important music industry partner (in fact Apple is still pretty much the single most important partner on a global basis).  Nor does that mean that Apple doesn’t care about music or that it doesn’t take its role in the marketplace seriously.  But Apple is not in this game to make money.  Apple routinely ran the iTunes Store at ‘an about break-even basis’ which is financial report code for ‘at a slight loss’.  (Or in fact probably at a big loss if half of the costs of the combined iTunes / iPod ads had been factored in.)  Now Apple is spending big again on marketing its music product, but this time the ads are only for Apple Music so costs can’t be attributed to other parts of the business. Why this all matters is because it shows us just how seriously Apple is taking Apple Music and also its appetite for running it a loss leader.

Why Doesn’t Apple Just Buy Spotify?

One of the recurring questions around Apple’s streaming strategy is ‘why doesn’t it just buy Spotify?’.  Besides the fact it had already acquired Beats Music as part of the much bigger Beats purchase, Apple is not in the business of running other companies’ services.  Apple runs Apple services. This is because Apple is first and foremost a hardware business and its software and services are an extension of this – part of the device value proposition.  If Apple was a software and services business it would build Mac OS, iLife, iWork etc for other platforms.  Apple even made music production software Logic Mac only after buying it from eMagic.  iTunes is one of the stand out exceptions for this strategy but it is a legacy of when iPod was a PC / Mac centric device, where not being on Windows would have stymied iPod growth. (There is of course talk of Apple Apple Music becoming available on Android but if it does so it will only be because Apple wants to win back iTunes customers from Spotify.)

A Tunnel Vision Commitment To User Experience

The hardware-first / Apple-only strategy means that when Apple does buy other services it usually either assimilates them wholesale (remember LaLa?) or it strips them down to the bare bones and rebuilds them entirely (Beats Music).  This is all because Apple needs to own the customer relationship and customer experience in its entirety.  Apple’s tunnel vision commitment to user experience is the ideology that underpins this entire approach.  Which is why Apple didn’t buy Spotify.

Apple Could Make Most Streaming Margin By Promoting Spotify

apple music margin calcs

In fact Apple could make a LOT more money if it simply decided to spend money marketing Spotify to iOS customers.

For argument’s sake let’s assume Spotify has somewhere in the region of 6 million US subscribers, that 60% of those are on iOS and that 60% of those iOS users pay via iTunes, Apple thus generates $8.4 million a month in subscription revenue from Spotify.  To generate the same amount of US subscription margin from Apple Music, Apple would need 16.9 million US Apple Music subscribers (assuming an operating margin of 5%).  In fact, in practice Apple will be in heavy negative margins with Apple Music due to its extensive marketing efforts.

So if Apple was in the business of music for making money it wouldn’t even buy Spotify, it would simply spend money marketing it to the Apple customer base.  But that has never been the Apple way and is patently unlikely to become the Apple way. Thus Apple will continue on its mission to own every ounce of the streaming subscriber’s user journey.  Unfortunately the rest of the marketplace has to try to figure out how to compete while at the same time vainly searching for a profit.

The Real Problem With Streaming

Much of the debate around the sustainability of streaming has understandably focused on artist and songwriter income and transparency.  It is a debate that I have contributed to frequently.  But the more fundamental structural issues are whether the business models are commercially sustainable and if they are, what the implications are.  Music consumption is inarguably moving towards access based models so the question is not whether streaming should happen or not, but how to make it work as well as it possibly can for all parties.  As unfair as it might seem, the baseline issues regarding creator income could go unchanged without streaming business models falling apart.  But, as I will explain, if broader commercial sustainability issues are not fixed then many streaming businesses will collapse leaving just a couple of companies standing.  And that scenario would almost certainly be worse for creators than the current one.

The Steve Jobs Revenue Share Legacy

As I revealed in my book ‘Awakening’, when Steve Jobs struck the original iTunes Music Store deal he walked away a happy man despite having given the major labels the big revenue percentages they wanted.  Why?  Because it meant that it was really hard for anyone without ulterior business aims like Apple had, to make money from selling tracks as a standalone business.  The revenue shares negotiated back then set the reference point for all digital deals since.  The fact that streaming services pay out more than 70% of revenues to rights holders can be traced back to that deal.

The Great Role Reversal And The De Facto Label Monopoly

In the digital era the record labels undisputedly hold the whip hand, and some.  In the analogue era the roles were reversed.  Retailers were the dominant partners and they knew it.  Record labels actually paid retailers for placement to promote new releases.  Compare and contrast that with labels contractually compelling services to provide placement.  Both models are wrong and both engender corrosive behaviour.  Because the major labels account for the majority of music sales it is nigh on impossible for a non-niche music service to operate without all three on board.  This gives each label the effective power of veto.  So even though no major label is a monopoly in its own right each has an effective monopoly power in licensing.  These factors give labels them the strength and confidence to demand terms that would not take place in an openly competitive market.  This, for example, is very different to how digital deals are done in the much more fragmented TV rights landscape.

Loading The Risk Onto Music Services

Why all this matters for the sustainability of streaming services is because of how it manifests in commercial terms.  Recent contract leaks have revealed to everyone the details of what insiders long knew, that labels and publishers front-load deals.  Services both have to pay large amounts up front and agree to guaranteed payments to rights owners regardless of how well the service performs.  (Some labels proudly state they don’t charge advances but instead charge a ‘set up fee’ for every track in their catalogue. Call it what you like, making a music service pay money up front is an advance payment.)  Even without considering the entirely intentional complexity of details such as minimas, floors and ceilings, the underlying principle is simple: a record label secures a fixed level of revenue regardless, while a music service assumes a fixed level of cost regardless.

Labels call this covering their risk and argue that it ensures that the services that get licensed are committed to being a success.  Which is a sound and reasonable position in principle, except that in practice it often results in the exact opposite by transferring all of the risk to the music service.  Saddling the service with so much up front debt increases the chance it will fail by ensuring large portions (sometimes the majority) of available working capital is spent on rights, not on building great product or marketing to consumers.

Skewing The Market To Big Tech Companies

None of this matters too much if you are a successful service or a big tech company (both of which have lots of working capital).  Both Google and Apple are rumoured to have paid advances in the region of $1 billion.  While the payments are much smaller for most music services, Apple, with its $183 billion in revenues and $194 billion in cash reserves can afford $1 billion a lot more easily than a pre-revenue start up with $1 million in investment can afford $250,000.  Similarly a pre-revenue, pre-product start up is more likely to launch late and miss its targets but will still be on the hook for the minimum revenue guarantees (MRG).

It is abundantly clear that this model skews the market towards big players and to tech companies that simply want to use music as a tool for helping sell their core products.   Record labels complain that they don’t get enough value out of big companies like Google and Samsung, but unless they make the market more accessible to companies that are only in the business of selling music they can have no room for complaint.  The situation is a direct consequence of major label and major publisher licensing strategy.

Short Termism And From Evil To Exceptional

Matters are compounded by an increasingly short term outlook from label licensing divisions, with the focus on internal quarterly revenue targets, or if you are lucky, annual targets.  The fact that much of label and publisher digital revenue comprises guarantees and advance payments means that their view of the digital market is different from how the market is performing.  If our small start up that pays $250,000 in rights payments doesn’t even get its product to market, the rights holders still see that digital revenue even though the marketplace does not.  (One failed music service that didn’t even launch went into bankruptcy owing two major labels $30 million).

This revenue comfort blanket insulates labels and publishers from much of the marketplace pain.  So if/when things go wrong, they feel it later, delaying their response.  There is also a cynicism in much deal making, with rigid templates applied to deals and a willingness to compromise principles if the price is right. The latter point was illustrated by the leaked negotiations between UMG and industry bête noir Kim Dotcom in which former digital head Rob Wells referred to being able to ‘downgrade’ Dotcom from ‘evil to bad’ and then from ‘bad to good and from good to exceptional partner’.  The message is clear, if there is enough money on the table, anyone can be a business partner whatever the implications might be for the rest of the market.

Wafer Thin Margins, Deep Pockets And The Innovation Drain

Current licensing strategy biases the market towards those with deep pockets and fatally compromises profitability.  Once all costs are factored in, a music subscription can theoretically have an operating margin of between 3% and 5%. Though only if it doesn’t invest sufficiently on marketing, customer retention and product innovation. But of course the streaming market is in early growth stage so every service has to spend heavily which means that profitability becomes a hostage to fortune. No wonder Daniel Ek is clear that Spotify is a growth business rather than on a profit crusade.

The market dynamics also create an innovation talent drain.  If you were a would-be start up founder the huge up front costs, non-existent margins, and complex time consuming licensing do not exactly make building a music app a welcome experience.  Building a games app however is an entirely different proposition: you own 100% of the rights, you don’t pay a penny to 3rd party rights holders and consumers actually pay for your product.  Music is already a problematic enough sector as it is without burdening it with a punitive licensing framework.

These are the structural challenges that could yet bring down the entire edifice of the streaming music economy.  The irony is that if Spotify has a successful IPO (sans profit of course) it will trigger a wave of copycat services and investment that will perpetuate the status quo a little further.  But it will only be a temporary delay.  Sometime or another the hard questions must be answered.

What Apple Music’s 11 Million Trialists Really Mean

Apple’s announcement that it hit 11 million trialists to Apple Music just 5 weeks after launching has divided opinion as to whether the milestone constitutes success or failure.  It is probably a bit of both:

  • The glass half full perspective: No other streaming service has converted so many consumers so quickly.  Although it is not a like-for-like comparison, 5 weeks after launching its premium tier Spotify had less than 100,000 paying subscribers.  Apple’s early follower product strategy entails waiting for a sector to be ready for primetime before entering it.  Such scale so quickly suggests Apple has timed its entry well here.
  • The glass half empty perspective: It is a very different market now than in 2008 when Spotify launched.  Streaming music listening on mobiles is widespread and awareness of subscriptions is high.  Also Apple hasn’t actually got anyone to part with cash yet.  11 million trialists represents about 10% of the Apple customers that bought music from iTunes in 2014, so the majority of those consumers have not adopted yet.  Also Apple has a well-earned reputation for getting the majority of its iOS users to adopt iOS updates quickly.  So the vast majority of iOS 8.4 users have not yet adopted.

Just How Many Subscribers Will 11 Million Trialists Turn Into?

The biggest issue with the milestone is that we are talking about trialists not subscribers.  So these numbers are an early indicator of likely performance rather than performance metrics in their own right.  What Apple understands keenly – for all its anti-freemium vitriol – is that prolonged free, and near free, access is key to driving subscription.  Just ask Spotify.  So Apple’s conversion rates should be reasonably high, especially considering subscribers are ‘auto opted in’ to payment (and it’s not exactly easy to opt out).  That billing mechanism should ensure more than half of the 11 million make at least one payment.  About half of those will cancel when they realise they are paying, which will leave in the region of 3 million long term paying subscribers from that base, perhaps a few more.

The clever bit for Apple is that the total number of reportable subscribers, the ‘ever subscriber’ number, will be around 6 million because of those extra 3 million that accidentally paid for 1 month.  And because Apple Music should be growing at pace over the next 12 months, we’ll never even see the impact of that 3 million being wiped off the subscriber count, with them quickly replace by new additions.

Where Will Apple Be By Year End?

The 100 million paying subscribers by end of 2015 number is not going to happen though.  And Apple has been smart enough to ensure this number has plausible deniability.  Here’s where Apple looks like its tracking to for the end of 2015:

  • 5.2 million new trialists a month: Following the launch surge the number of new trialists will fall to c.170,000 a day from the current 315,000 a day. Over the course of the year this number will ebb and flow based on marketing activity etc.  This will include 1.2 million monthly family trials
  • 41 million trials by year end
  • 8.7 million active paying subscribers: This assumes a (modest) 5% monthly churn rate and the 25% long term subscriber conversion rate

That will be a highly creditable number in the streaming market though far south of the 100 million.  However this is where Apple can get clever with its numbers.  If it uses the ‘ever subscribed number’ that 8.7 million transforms into 17.5 million.  And if it factors in an average of 4 million users per family account it will be able to report that 69 million people have tried the trial by year end.  Which isn’t so far off the 100 million.

Apple’s got off to a great start in terms of market performance but probably not much more than a solid start by its own high standards.  Even at these rates though Apple is on track to be the number 2 streaming subscriptions provider after little more than 6 months in the game.

User Centric Licensing: Making Streaming Work For Everyone

Artist income is one of the most pronounced growing pains of the streaming era.  While there are many contributory factors, such as transparency and non-distributable label payments, the most significant element by far is how much artists get paid.  There are many moving parts to the equation, not least of which is how much labels themselves choose to pay artists, but even if labels doubled their payments to artists (which would be a good starting point for artists on 15% deals) the underlying dynamic would remain unchanged.  Namely that consumers are switching from buying music (which generates large upfront payments) to accessing it (which generates smaller payments spread over a longer period that as things stand look like they could still add up to smaller amounts even in the longer run).  If you’re a big super star artist or a major label this doesn’t affect you much as you get such a large chunk of the headline revenue.  But a new approach is needed for the rest.  Enter stage left the case for user centric licensing.

Under the current licensing model artists get paid on an ‘airplay’ basis i.e. what share of the total plays across the entire service the artist accounts for.  This model can skew the revenue balance to the superstars who will get played by a very large share of the user base of a service.  Under a user centric model an artist would get paid based on the share of an individual’s listening.  So if a user spends half their time listening to an underground techno producer, half of the royalties go to that producer.  In the existing model that producer would only get a tiny fraction of the royalties generated by that user.

user centric licensing

Let’s take a look at how this could work (see figure).  If a subscriber listens to Artist B 55% of the time but that artist only accounts for 0.5% of total listening, only 0.5% of the available royalties for that subscriber make it back to the artist.  Whereas Artist A who the user didn’t listen to at all gets 10% of the royalty income.  But in a user centric licensing model the artist would get 55%.  The revenue changes from a paltry $0.004 to a more meaningful $0.49 (assuming a 15% royalty share from the label).  And Artist A gets a fairer zero income for zero listening from that user.

Make no mistake, this model will be very difficult to license and the vested interests would likely resist it.  But until we get to scale with subscriptions, we need to explore all ways of ensuring revenues are distributed on as equitable a basis as possible.  This approach won’t fix all the artist-income ills of streaming but it will help smooth the transition.

I’m not going to pretend to take credit for this concept, it’s been quietly gaining momentum for some time now and the Trichordist has been building the case too.  But now is the time to really start giving this approach some serious consideration.  And if the incumbent streaming services are unable to implement user centric licensing because they are too close to the superpowers, then this is an opportunity for a new streaming service to seize the initiative and start to make some meaningful change.

I’m attaching the excel of this model so please go and stress test it yourself. Let me know your thoughts below.

MIDiA Research – User Centric Licensing Model

Making Free Work (Hint Cannibalize Radio Not Sales)

2015 started with freemium fighting for its life. 7 months in and it’s still alive and well but the free debate rages on. It is clear that some form of free experience drives paid subscription uptake but it is also clear that too much free reduces the conversion opportunity. A one month trial is probably too little but a year of free is too much. 3 months is emerging as the free, or close to free, sweet-spot as evidenced by Apple’s 3 month free trial and Spotify’s 3 months for $1 a month. In fact Spotify’s cheap trial strategy underscores the constrained ability of unlimited free to convert to paid. Free is crucial to ensure the acquisition funnel is filled but a new approach is needed, one that is more sophisticated than simply stating it is all free or no free.

COMPETING WITH FREE

One of the biggest concerns about free streaming is that it cannibalises sales. Just for the record, it undeniably does. At least on-demand free does. Free has always been part of the music industry, mainly in the form of radio. But the crucial difference with radio is that listeners do not choose what they are listening to. Free streaming needs to start behaving much more like radio, to follow the Pandora model. Crucially it needs to compete head on with traditional radio. Radio is a $46 billion industry globally yet less than 10% of that flows back to labels and publishers, and then on to artists and songwriters (see figure). By contrast the majority of music sales flow back to rights holders and creators. So the music industry needs to optimise streaming to cannibalise radio more than it does sales. To make the majority of free streaming only partially on demand.

The number one streaming metric that the music industry should be paying attention to is the share of total radio listening time that Pandora accounts for. The more that that increases, the more direct revenue flows into the industry.

free decision tree

But at the same on-demand time free streaming’s role in converting subscribers must be protected, albeit within very strictly defined parameters. Subscribers have two key user journey entry points: 1) a trial 2) free. Streaming services need to make better use of their analytics (which are increasingly sophisticated) to identify which free users to invest time and effort into trying to convert and which to side line. Neither Spotify or Deezer is in the business of free music, they are in the business of subscriptions and simply use free as a marketing tool. So they have no reason to cling doggedly to free users that show no sign of converting. Instead after a sufficient period of free music has been offered users should be pushed to subscriptions or onto a radio tier (see figure). There is no business benefit to the streaming services nor rights holders to have perpetual on demand free users.

The assumption that free music is some sort of internet right is symptomatic of the internet’s growing pains. In terms of market development we’re probably at the adolescence stage of the internet, the stage at which carefree childhood starts to be replaced by responsibility and consequences. We’re seeing this happen right across the internet economy, from privacy, data, free speech, jurisdiction etc. Because music has been free online for so long consumers have learned to accept it as fact. That assumption will not be changed any time soon, and try to force the issue too quickly and illegal services will prosper.

Of course YouTube is, and always has been the elephant in the room, buoyed by the schizophrenic attitude of record labels who simultaneously question its impact on the market while continuing to use it as their number 1 digital promotional channel. While the tide may finally be beginning to turn, don’t expect YouTube to go anywhere any time soon. But should the screws tighten do expect YouTube to stop playing ball. As they have made clear in various rights holder conversations, an onside YouTube, warts n’ all, is far more appealing prospect than a rogue YouTube. But implicit threat or otherwise YouTube must be compelled to play by the same rules as everyone else. As I’ve said before, YouTube needs to look more like Pandora.

Competing against radio needs to become the modus operandi of streaming. Only when free music on the internet evolves to more closely resemble radio will the industry be able to fix the apparent paradox of increased consumption translating into reduced revenue.

Apple Music And The Listener-to-Buyer Ratio

The next 6 to 12 months could prove to be some of the most disruptive record labels have ever experienced, and nowhere will this pain be felt more than among smaller independent record labels with strong digital sales.   At the heart of this disruption will be Apple Music and the wider continued ramping up of streaming. If Apple Music is a success over the coming year it will do one or both of the following:

  1. It will convert / cannibalize non-subscribing download buyers
  2. It will convert / cannibalize existing subscribers

The probability is that it will do a bit of both with an emphasis on #1. The market level net impact of #1 will depend on the degree to which Apple converts lower spending iTunes buyers versus higher spending ones i.e. whether it increases or lowers the average spend.   But even if it is the latter the effect for smaller labels could still be net negative over the coming year. If you are a big label with hundreds of thousands or millions of tracks then you have enough catalogue to quickly feel major revenue uplift from 5 or 10 million new subscribers. If you only have a few hundred or a few thousand tracks though then the picture is less rosy.

The Listener-to-Buyer Ratio

At the core is the listener-to-buyer ratio i.e. how many new listeners you get for each ‘lost’ buyer. Let’s say that for every download sale lost due to an iTunes customer becoming an Apple Music subscriber transforms into 10 listens by 3 people within 12 months. So 30 streams instead of one download. The listener-to-buyer ratio here is 3:1. A generous assumption perhaps but let’s work with it. Against a base of $25,000 of download revenue that would translate into $6,250 less download revenue and $2,365 more streaming revenue. So a net loss of $3,885, a 16% decline.

If we reduce the average plays to 5 per user the revenue decline becomes 20%. In order for the revenue impact to be neutral the total new streams would have to be 80, which with a listener-to-buyer ratio of 3:1 would require each person to stream the track 27 times. Or alternatively a 8:1 listener-to-buyer ratio with 10 plays per user would also deliver no change in revenue. A great track could feasibly have an average of 27 plays per user per year, a good track could have 10. But an average track is going to be below both. So realistically, more than an 8:1 ratio is going to be required.

Scale Looks Different Depending On Where You Are Sat

What quickly becomes apparent is that the most viable route to ensuring Apple Music streaming revenue offsets the impact of lost iTunes sales revenue is as big an installed base of streaming users as possible. The more Apple Music users there are, the more likely more of them will find and listen to your music. This is why the scale argument so is so important for streaming and also why small labels feel the effect less quickly. If you have a vast catalogue you don’t need to worry too much about the listener-to-buyer ratio because you have so many tracks that you are a much bigger target to hit. The laws of probability mean that most users are going to listen to some of your catalogue.

Let’s say you are a big major with 1 million tracks out of the 5 million tracks that get played to any meaningful degree in streaming services. That gives you a 20% market share. But if you are an independent with 50,000 tracks that gives you 1%, 20 times less than the major. Which means that you are 20 times less likely to have your music listened to. And that is without even considering the biases that work in favour of the majors such as dominating charts and playlists, and other key discovery points. So in effect the major record label in this example could be 30 to 40 times more likely to have its music listened to. Which is why the listener-to-buyer ratio is unlikely to keep the major label’s exec up at night but could be the difference between sinking or swimming for the independent.

In all probability Apple Music will make streaming revenue a truly meaningful income stream for all record labels but in the near to mid term big record labels are likely to see a very different picture than the smaller independents.

Why The Next Few Months Of Apple Music Will Throw Up A Few Surprises

Finally Apple is in the streaming game. Other than to say that it looks like Apple has made a big first step towards making streaming ‘ready for primetime’ and to becoming a music platform I’m not going to add to the list of reviews and first impressions, there are plenty of good one’s like Walt Mossberg’s.   Instead I’m going to run through a few of the likely milestones and unintended consequences that we could see over the coming months.

Expect Impressive Numbers Real Soon

As we revealed on our MIDiA Research report on Apple Music back in March 28% of iOS users stated they were likely to pay for the service. Among downloaders the rate is 39% and for existing subscribers that rate rises to 62%. Consumer surveys of course always over-report so we shouldn’t expect those rates of paid adoption but the relative values are interesting nonetheless. Given that 50% of existing subscribers are iOS users the implications are that a big chunk of Spotify et al’s subscribers will at the very least try out Apple’s 3 month trial, which is plenty enough time to get build a comprehensive library of playlists and to get hooked. But there is also going to be a big wave of downloaders that do not currently subscribe that will try it out. Given how the iOS 8.4 update virtually pushes iTunes Music users into starting the trial on updating, expect pretty widespread uptake of the trial.   Apple reached 11 million users for iTunes radio within 5 days of launch, 21 million within 3 months. Apple Music has had a far bigger build up and is much more deeply integrated into iOS so a fairly safe bet is that those numbers will at the very least be matched.

A Mixed Bag Of Royalty Implications

Apple Music will also have a series of aftershocks:

  • Apple royalties will be a mixed bag: As the ever insightful David Touve pointed out with iTunes Radio, Apple has proven adept at striking licensing deals that appear to pay above market rates at a headline level but that in practice can work out lower. A key reason for this is the fact iOS users’ existing music collections are integrated into the service and plays from these will generate much lower per stream rates, more in line with licensed locker services. Add into this the fact that semi-interactive radio and broadcast radio are part of the proposition (both of which also have lower per stream rates than on demand) so the blended per stream rate may disappoint. Expect a stream (pun intended) of irate artist CD Baby statements showing their Apple per stream rates.
  • Download sales will suffer: If a streaming service does its job properly users should have no reason to buy downloads any more. Initially there may be a mini surge, a dead cat bounce as first time streamers discover new music and buy downloads out of habit. If this happens expect Apple to make a song and dance about it. But that will be a temporary phase. iTunes downloads will decline thereafter. Artists may have complained about theoretical lost sales from Spotify, they will be actual lost sales from Apple. What everyone will be hoping for is that enough lower and infrequent spending download customers get transformed into 9.99 a month customers. But that will take more time. So expect three, possibly four key stages to Apple (lower case ‘m’) music revenue: 1 – mini revival; 2 – sharpish decline; 3 – steady recovery; 4 – growth?
  • Spotify per stream rates could go up: If enough existing subscribers take up the Apple Music trial but don’t cancel their subscriptions, the royalty pot for Spotify et al will remain the same but play volumes will decrease. This means that the per stream rates for Spotify and co could actually increase for a while because the revenue will be split across a smaller number of plays. So expect artists to see a very pronounced, albeit temporary, difference between what Spotify pays from (paid) streams versus Apple.

So Apple will be for once upsetting everyone else’s streaming apple cart with its long anticipated entrance but there will be a superficially confusing set of mixed messages and metrics. Which means the time to properly measure Apple Music’s progress will be 6 months or so from now. Until then expect to be simultaneously impressed, concerned and confused.

‘Awakening’ Now Available In Paperback

UnknownRegular readers will know that I recently published the Kindle version of my book “Awakening: The Music Industry In The Digital Age”.  Many of you have already bought it (thank you!) but some of you also wanted to know when the paperback edition was going to be available. Well you need wait no longer, you can buy the paperback version of ‘Awakening’ right now by clicking here.

If you are interested in the music industry then this is the book for you. Whether you are a label executive, music publisher, artist, songwriter, entrepreneur or simply interested in what you can learn from the music industry’s experience and want to know what the future holds then this is the book for you.

I wrote this book with three key objectives in mind:

1.    To provide the definitive account of the music industry in the digital era, as an antidote the distorted picture that is painted by the biased and often poorly informed extremes that dominate the industry narrative

2.    To help anyone in the music business better understand how the other parts of the industry work, what they think and what their priorities are

3.    To act as a primer for anyone wanting to build career or business in the music industry, so they know exactly what they’re getting in to, how the business works, the relationships, the conflicts and what’s been tried before.  I want to help people not waste energy making the same mistakes others have, and to also benefit from the insight and experiences of the super smart people I interviewed in the book

The book is full of data, analysis and interviews with more 50 interviews with the CEOs, senior decision makers, artists, managers, start up founders and other decision makers that have shaped the music industry over the last 15 years.  It includes chapters on every key part of the industry (labels, artists, songwriters, start ups, tech companies etc.) and is split into three sections:

  1. How We Got Here
  2. The Digital Era
  3. A Vision For The Future

This really is the only book you need to read on the music industry’s digital transition.  But don’t just take my word for it, check out these 5 Star Reviews:

“I really enjoyed this book. It gives a wide view to music industry, consumption tendencies and much other useful information. Is a must for all of the music industry professionals.”

“Great book on today’s digital music business – how we got here, who did what and most crucially why they did it. There’s no shortage of firmly held opinions and theories about the music industry and how it has navigated its digital transformation and Mulligan’s book is an essential analysis of what’s actually been going on. Insightful, non-judgemental and very well researched and informed, if you want to understand today’s digital music business, read this book.”

And if you’re still not convinced, take a read of the sample chapters on Amazon.  ‘Awakening’ is also available on iTunes and Google Play.

I hope you find the book as interesting to read as I did writing it.

Taylor Swift, Streaming And The Changing Tide

Taylor Swift made big waves over the weekend with her open letter to Apple protesting it should pay for its 3 month free trial.  Her voice was just one more following protests from across the indie community of which Swift and her label are both members. But it turned out that her voice was the loudest and Apple’s Eddy Cue swiftly announced a u-turn on Apple’s free trial pay outs. This is just one more twist in the much bigger streaming story but it does highlight some interesting dynamics, not least of which is how Swift’s worldview differs from many of her contemporaries.

Taylor Swift’s Sales Outlook Is Surprisingly Old School

As paradoxical as it may sound for such a digitally savvy artist as Taylor Swift, she is in fact from the old school when it comes to recorded music.  Swift started her career so early – she signed her first label deal when she was just 14 years old – that she is effectively further into her recording career than most successful 30 something artists.  So she is an album era artist who, with her label Big Machine, managed to build a long-standing successful music sales career.  Streaming, with all of its substitutive impact on sales, does not fit well with the Swift / Big Machine model.   In many respects Swift’s recorded music worldview has more in common with artists of Coldplay’s generation than it does hers.  The contrast with successful contemporary mainstream pop artists is stark. The take of Ed Sheeran (who is just one year younger than Swift) on the role of recorded music is “I’m in the music industry to play live. That’s why I make records” while Calvin Harris (currently romantically linked with Swift) is famously a co-owner of streaming platform TIDAL.  Both of those artists have been supremely successful on Spotify and neither has a decade of platinum selling albums behind them.  For them, streaming is simply how it is and they are learning how to make that work.

Streaming Is Fundamentally Substitutive

None of this is to belittle the hugely disruptive impact of going from a sales model which guaranteed up front revenue to an access model where revenue is fractionalised over many years.  In the sales era a purchased album generated $10 of gross revenue whether it was listened to once or a thousand times.  In a streaming service an album that is listened to once generates $0.10 and only reaches $10 when listened to a hundred times.  If you are a superstar artist you can probably swallow the near term pain because a) your streaming volumes are in the billions so the pennies add up and b) you make the majority of your money from playing live.  If you are a smaller artist the outlook is bleaker for getting through the transition period i.e. until streaming services are big enough to ensure a high tide rises all boats.

Live Is Where The $$ Are For Superstars

Interestingly for Swift, for all her sales success, live is also where she makes her money.  She ranks as the highest earning artist on Billboard’s top earners list with $39 million but $30 million of that came from live.  She explains in her post that “[I] can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows” and that she is raising her voice for “the new artist or band that has just released their first single”.  This may well be the case but she is also very much doing this for her label Big Machine Records (which doesn’t get to benefit in any truly meaningful way from Swift’s live revenue).   Swift’s rise to prominence and continued success is intrinsically linked to that of her label Big Machine Records and it is fully understandable why she has been so perfectly aligned with Big Machine’s stance on streaming.  But it is a position nonetheless.

Apple Doesn’t Need Any Commercial Bail Outs To Launch Apple Music

None of this though detracts from the core issue at stake here, namely Apple not paying for a 3 month free trial.  Apple is in the business of selling music in order to sell hardware.  Apple’s primary concern is not what % of iTunes sales become substituted by free trials (near term) and subscriptions (long term) but instead how it helps them gain and retain device buyers. Swift, Big Machine and the rest have very good reason for being very cautious with Apple’s streaming strategy.  Apple is the leading source of digital music sales and accounted for approximately $2.8 billion of music sales revenue in 2014, or 40% of all digital music revenue.  If Spotify messes up a free trial the labels risk slowing the rate of new streaming revenue growth.  If Apple messes it up the money that keeps the lights on is at risk.

Apple doesn’t need any financial assistance in launching Apple Music (it does after all have $178 billion in cash reserves) but it does need careful attention from labels and artists alike to ensure it gets the strategy right. Whatever the outcome though the streaming transition is an inevitability and Taylor Swift is no more able to hold it back than King Canute was able to hold back the tide.

Apple, The Indies And The Rise Of The Digital Monopsony

Much of the independent label community have come out in public opposition to Apple’s request for a 3 month free trial that crucially would not involve any royalty payments to labels. Besides the fact this has revealed inconsistency in major label licensing strategy (some services have to pay royalties for their free trials) it also raises questions about Apple’s growing role as a content platform. In the old model (i.e. selling CDs on the high street and mall) retailers held all the power, charging labels for prime placement, priority shelf space and carving out additional commercial benefits such as breakage (whereby they were given a discount on a set assumption of a % of shipments that would break in transit, even if they didn’t). In the old new model (i.e. where we are now) the power shifted to the labels with music stores and services having to pay advances, minimum guarantees etc. in order to sell the labels’ content. Even breakage got reinvented and turned into a commercial benefit for labels (they get paid for under usage of services). Now a new model is emerging where a few big platforms are beginning to exercise the power they have been quietly building for the last half a decade or so.

Apple, Amazon And Google – The Digital Superpowers

Apple, Amazon and Google are all digital content platforms. They each own the customer, control billing, know everything about him/her, control some or all of the hardware and have a diverse portfolio of content assets. Each has also become super important to media company partners. For music labels Apple has become the dominant source of digital retail revenue, Amazon the dominant source of physical retail revenue and Google the dominant digital discovery platform. Each holds the whip hand in their respective area of dominance. Now they all want more. They may each want slightly different things but none are shy of wielding their respective spheres of influence to get to what they want. This is where the indies’ dispute with Apple comes into play. Apple is in the business of music in order to sell hardware and has known for a number of years that streaming is going to be how it transitions that role in a post-download world. It has thus far taken a very responsible approach to its sales role and has been sensitive to the risk of decimating label revenue if it does not time its streaming transition properly. But the first step on that journey has now been taken and the point of no return is fast approaching. Which is why it is crucial that all rights holders have the right agreements in place and which is why the indies are making the noise they are.

The Power Of The Platform

In an echo of Google’s heavy-handed YouTube Music Key negotiations with indies and DIY artists, one independent artist has claimed that Apple has threatened to remove his music from the iTunes Store if he does not allow his music to be used in the free trial. Whether this is true or not (and it may well not be) is almost not the point. What it highlights is Apple’s power as a platform. Artists and labels alike simply cannot do without iTunes revenue. Whether Apple needs to overtly play the card or not, the implication of the veiled threat is clear. And Apple is not exactly alone. Last year Amazon clashed with book publisher Hachette over eBook pricing and during the dispute employed a number of pressure tactics including: refusing to take pre-orders on Hachette titles, placing a 6 week delay on delivery of them and even pointing users to competitor titles when they searched for an Hachette book. All of these were clear misuse, possibly even abuse, of Amazon’s role as distribution platform but no regulatory body even raised an eyelid. Apple will have watched the development with acute interest.

The Rise Of The Digital Monopsony

Apple, Amazon and Google are all unique cases. They have become de facto monopolies for their respective sectors, exercising control over the entire platform of user, supplier and interaction between them. There isn’t really an economic term that properly explains them but monopsony is the closest: a company that is the only effective buyer and seller of a product and can thus dictate terms at both ends of the equation. These digital monopsonies are growing pains of the digital economy. After all, we are still in the very early stages of the digital economy. If this were the industrial revolution Robert Stephenson wouldn’t have developed the steam locomotive yet. Consider this phase market adolescence. This raises challenges for regulation with regulatory bodies largely unable to deal with companies that exercise effective monopoly power but that do not meet the criteria of a pre-digital era economy monopoly. Of course the indie labels cannot afford to wait for that dynamic to change so in the meantime they must seize the initiative in this issue and others like it.

An Opportunity To Change The Narrative

Right now though the indies have an opportunity to use this case to genuinely move the needle. Apple has pushed them out of their comfort zone. Instead of just digging in their heels they can decided to push Apple out of its comfort zone and request something similarly game changing of Apple in return. In short, turn a defensive move into an offensive one and help set the agenda rather than being stuck in the familiar rut of responding to the one set by the major labels and Apple. Apple Music may have underwhelmed at launch but the company still has the most important music monetization platform on the planet. Most indie labels and majors alike would all but collapse if iTunes revenue disappeared overnight.

Right now Apple still wants to play the role of good partner, albeit one that negotiates hard. So the labels still have a chance to help shape what the next chapter in Apple’s music story can look like. That may not always be the case, especially if Artist Connect has developed into a label like service layer 3 years from now, which I suspect will be the case. Apple is no Google, it still wants first and foremost to sell music rather than give it away. That may not always hold true.   Similarly the power of the digital monopsonies will likely strengthen over the coming half decade or so. So right now the indies are probably in the strongest position they will be in for some time, even if it might not feel like it to them. They need to seize this moment.