Spotify May Be Buying Soundcloud, But Who Wins?

spotify-pac-manThe Financial Times has reported that Spotify is in advanced talks to buy Soundcloud. Soundcloud has been shopping itself around for some time, while Spotify needs to continue outpacing Apple as it heads towards an IPO. Which is why the deal has been rumoured for some time. But who would do best out of the deal (if indeed it goes ahead)?

  • Soundcloud has peaked: Throughout the 2010’s Soundcloud’s growth was impressive, growing from 1 million registered users in May 2010 to 150 million by December 2014. But registered user numbers only ever tell part of the story. The most telling statistic is Soundcloud’s Monthly Active User (MAU) number: 175 million. Impressive enough, and 50 million more than Spotify’s 125 million. But Soundcloud hit that number in August 2014 and it hasn’t reported a bigger number since. In fact, it could well be that Soundcloud hasn’t actually issued a new number since, but instead has simply being restating that number. If it had grown, you can be sure we’d have heard about it. If it had fallen, perhaps not. On top of this, in October 2013 CEO Alexander Ljung stated that Soundcloud had hit 250 million MAUs. A number that has not since been repeated. So best case, Soundcloud usage has peaked, worst case it is in decline. DEAL WINNER: Soundcloud
  • Soundcloud users are male super fans: According to MIDiA’s consumer data 7% of consumers are Weekly Active Users (WAU) of Soundcloud, about half the rate of Spotify (again suggesting that Soundcloud’s headline user numbers aren’t all they appear). But crucially 60% of its WAUs are male while Spotify’s are 50/50 male/female. Spotify has spent the last few years diversifying its user base away from this male super fan skew. All that work would be undone if the Soundcloud user base is absorbed. DEAL WINNER: Evens
  • Soundcloud users are a funnel: Spotify’s model relies upon giving new audiences a taste of its offering via its free tier, super trials and telco bundles, before converting to paid. To keep ahead of Apple, Spotify has to keep filling up its funnel. So Soundcloud’s user base will be a welcome boost to Spotify’s user acquisition as it seeks to maintain momentum as it heads towards IPO. DEAL WINNER: Spotify
  • Many Soundcloud users are already subscribers: 28% of Soundcloud users already have a music subscription, with the majority of those already paying for Spotify rather than Soundcloud Go. So many of the low hanging fruit users have already been converted, weakening the value of the audience. DEAL WINNER: Soundcloud
  • Soundcloud has a unique catalogue: A key reason so many Soundcloud users also use Spotify is that so much Soundcloud catalogue can only be found there. This is a rich asset for Spotify but as much of it is not licensed so it could prove to be a licensing quagmire for Spotify. DEAL WINNER: Spotify, if it can sort out the licensing
  • Soundcloud’s valuation is high: Reported valuations for Soundcloud have ranged from $700 million to $2 billion. Even if it comes in at $500 million, unless the deal is heavily skewed towards stock, Spotify will burn through a massive chunk of its latest $1 billion debt round. DEAL WINNER: Soundcloud

There is an additional wild card, that Spotify could use Soundcloud as vehicle for becoming a serious player in ad supported in its own right (which will delight Apple’s Jimmy Iovine, not). The deal of course may not even happen, but if it does, it is far from a guaranteed winner for Spotify. It will help Spotify build a bullish growth story for Wall Street but Spotify will have to IPO before the shine starts to come off if Soundcloud’s user base turns out to be smaller and less valuable pickings than at first appears.

 

Understanding ’15’: How Record Labels And Artists Can Fix Their YouTube Woes

The artist-and-labels-versus-YouTube crisis is going to run and run, even if some form of settlement is actually reached…the divisions and ill feeling run too deep to be fixed solely by a commercial deal. What’s more, a deal with better rates won’t even fix the underlying commercial problems. Music videos under perform on YouTube because they don’t fit YouTube in 2016 in the way they did YouTube in 2010. The 4 minute pop video was a product of the MTV broadcast era and still worked well enough when online video was all about short clips. But the world has moved on, as has short form video (in its new homes Snapchat, Musical.ly and Vine). Short videos are no longer the beating heart of YouTube viewing and quite simply they don’t make the money anymore. This is why music videos represent 30% of YouTube plays but just 12% of YouTube time. If record labels, publishers, performers and songwriters want to make YouTube pay, they need to learn how to play by the new rules. And to do that they need work out what to do with ‘15’.

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There Is A Lot More To YouTube Revenue Than Some Would Have You Think

The recorded music industry gets radio, and it is beginning to get streaming. Both are all about plays. Each play has, or should have, an intrinsic value. They are models with some degree of predictability. But YouTube does not work that way, which is why the whole per stream comparison thing just does not add up. In MIDiA’s latest report ‘The State Of The YouTube Music Economy’ we revealed that YouTube’s effective per stream rates (that is rights holder revenue divided by streams) halved from $0.0020 in 2014 to $0.0010 in 2015.

Sounds terrible right? And make no mistake, there is no way to spin it into a good news story. However, it didn’t fall because of some nefarious Google ploy. It fell because of many complex reasons (all of which we explore in the report) but the 2 biggest macro causes were:

  • YouTube pays out as a share of ad revenue (55%) not on a per stream basis. So when the value of its ad inventory goes down (due to factors such as more views coming from emerging markets with weaker ad markets) the revenue per stream goes down too. This is something the labels can do little about, though an increased revenue share will soften the blow as YouTube globalizes.
  • YouTube serves its in-stream video ads (the most value ad format) on a time-spent basis, not on a per-video basis. Our research found that the average number of video ads per hour of viewing comes out at about 4. That means if you have 15 minute videos (like many YouTubers do) you will get a video ad every play. But if you have 3 or 4 minute pop videos you may only get 1 video ad for every 4 or 5 plays. Which means 4 or 5 times less video ad revenue. In fact, our research revealed that just 26% of music video views have video ads. This is the underlying issue the industry needs to address, and unlike global ad market dynamics, this is something it can indeed fix.

The 15 Scale

This is where the magic number 15 comes in. Right now music video sits in the same 3-4 minute slot it has done so ever since MTV said it wanted videos that length. Yet video consumption is now polarized between the 15 second clip on lip synch apps like Musical.ly and Dubsmash and 15 minute YouTuber clips. Falling in between these two ends is revenue no-mans land. As I have written about before, labels and publishers need to figure out how to harness the 15 second clip as an entirely new creative construct and shake off any old world concepts that this is actually anything about marketing and discovery. It is consumption, plain and simple…it just happens to look unlike anything we’ve seen before.

At the opposite end of the 15 scale labels and artists need to start thinking about what 15 minute formats they can make. Think of this as a blank canvas – the possibilities are limitless. For example:

  • 3 track ‘EP’ videos interspersed with artist narrative and reportage coverage
  • Live sessions (recorded by, and uploaded by labels so they get revenue as well as publishers)
  • Mini-documentaries such as ‘the making of’s
  • On-the-road features

15 Minutes Does Not Have To Break The Bank

And before you cry out ‘but this stuff will cost so much more to make’, it doesn’t have to if more is made out of current assets and processes. For example, ensure that one of the support crew has a handheld camera to film some shoulder footage for reportage. The whole thing about YouTube is that it doesn’t have to be super high production quality, in fact the stuff that does best patently isn’t. YouTube videos that work best are those that are an antidote to the old world of inaccessible glamour. If you really want to do things on the cheap, simply splice three music videos together into a single long form video (e.g. tag 2 older tracks onto the new single). Doing so will nearly treble the video ad income.

And before you think this isn’t what audiences want, ask Apple about ‘The 1989 World Tour LIVE’ and Tidal about ‘Lemonade’.

And (yes another ‘and’) if you can’t get your head around the inescapable need for a completely new music video construct, just think about it this way: 15 minute videos will make you 5 times more video ad revenue. This really is a ‘no brainer’.

Back To The Future

As a final piece of evidence (not that it is needed), cast your mind all the way back to 1982, to Michael Jackson’s landmark video ‘Thriller’. A 13:42 video that is widely recognized as one of the all time music video greats that has also racked up 330 million views on Vevo. So you could say the case for 15 minute video was already made a quarter of a century ago (thanks to MIDiA’s Paid Content Analyst Zach Fuller for pointing that one out).

The 4 minute music video is dead, long live the 15 minute music video.

For more detail on our ‘State Of The YouTube Music Economy’ report check out our blog.

You can also buy the 25 page report with 8 page data set here.

The End Of Freemium For Spotify?

‘Leaked’ Spotify numbers emerged today indicating that the streaming service has just hit 37 million subscribers, which puts more clear water between it and and second placed Apple Music, despite the latter’s recent growth. It also means that Spotify is now nearly 10 times bigger than Tidal and probably Deezer (which hasn’t reported numbers since its France Telecom bundle partnership ended). It is beginning to look suspiciously like a 2 horse race. But there is a more important story here: Spotify’s accelerated growth in Q2 2016 was driven by widespread use of its $0.99 for 3 months promotional offer. Which itself comes on the back of similar offers having supercharged Spotify’s subscriber growth for the last 18 months or so. In short, 9.99 needs to stop being 9.99 in order to appeal to consumers. Which is another way of saying that 9.99 just isn’t a mainstream price point.

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As the IFPI’s 2015 numbers revealed, the average label revenue per music subscriber fell globally from $3.16 in 2014 to $2.80 in 2015, with price discounting a key factor. According to Music Business Worldwide, 4 million of Spotify’s newly acquired 7 million subscribers were on promotional offers and around 1.5 million of those are expected to churn out when their promotional period ends. That might sound high but it actually represents a 79% conversion ratio, which is a stellar rate by anyone’s standards. Meanwhile Spotify’s total user base is 100 million which means the free-to-paid ratio is 37%. So price promos are converting at more than double the rate of freemium. Does this mean the end of freemium?

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Freemium proved highly valuable to Spotify in its earlier years and continues to be an important entry strategy for new markets. But last year record label execs started to observe that free just wasn’t converting at the same rate it once did in mature markets like the US. This was because most of the likely subscribers had already been converted and so the majority remaining were freeloaders who were never going to pay, and warm prospects who just couldn’t bring themselves to pay 9.99. This is where price promos come into play. They deliver the impact of mid priced subscriptions, which is enough to to hook those wavering free users. Once they get used to paying the majority tend to stick around when the price goes back up.

Mid Priced Subscriptions Will Drive The Market, Even If By Stealth

I have long argued that mid priced subscriptions are crucial to driving the streaming market, and the burgeoning success of Spotify’s mid-priced-subscriptions-by-stealth strategy provides a bulging corpus of supporting evidence. In fact, the average spend of Spotify’s 7 million net new subscribers in Q2 2016 was $3.09 a month.  The tantalizing question is whether that 1.5 million promo users that are expected to churn out would take a $3.99 product if it was available?

As the streaming market becomes increasingly sophisticated, the leading players will have to rely ever more heavily on differentiation strategies. For Tidal and Apple that means urban focused exclusives, for Spotify (for now at least) that means algorithmic, personalized curation and aggressive price discounting. And in Q2 2016 it is Spotify’s strategy that is winning out, resulting in 2.3 million net new subscribers each month compared to 1.4 million for Apple Music and 0.3 million for Tidal.

Freemim is dead, long live price promos?

 

 

Is YouTube Building A New Music Industry?

Complexity and opacity continue to act as brakes on the digital music market. For all the progress of companies like PledgeMusic and Kobalt, this emerging ‘alternative’ music industry is still very much at a formative stage. Some years from now this generation of companies could underpin the emergence of a counter-industry, an interconnected mesh of disruptive rights and tech companies that give artists and songwriters different routes to market and greater transparency and accountability. Heck, it might even have Blockchain underpinning it. But before this counter-industry movement gets to scale, it could have the wind stolen out of its sails by none other than YouTube.

The YouTube Paradox

Although YouTube has never had the closest of relationships with the music industry, it has clearly found the last few months particularly challenging, portrayed as pretty much everything that is wrong with the digital music market. While there is no doubt that YouTube’s revenue-to-audience ratio is below that of audio streaming peers, it is also clear that YouTube is the music app of choice for more consumers than any other service (and it’s growing faster too). YouTube is both a crucially important part of the digital music market and a disruptive partner.

Parent company Google has long had an at-best ambivalent attitude to copyright (in stark contrast to its staunch support for patents) and the record labels’ current crusade to have safe harbour legislation revised belies an industry perception that YouTube is sailing as close to the wind as it can get. That may well be the case, and there is no doubt that Safe Harbour was not designed to underpin the business model of a global tech titan. Yet it is also clear that a whole generation of non-music YouTubers have worked out how to build vibrant careers on the platform. So YouTube’s potential is only partially tapped for music.

YouTube’s New Music Industry?

Regular readers will know that I have explored at length what makes YouTube’s native creators succeed in ways that music artists do not. But I think we may now be on the verge of YouTube flicking the switch on an entirely new platform for artists, to help them get as much out of YouTube as the likes of PewDiePie and SMOSH. This could be nothing short of an entirely new music industry, one that sits outside of the constraints and structures of today’s business.

Here’s how and why…

Back in 2011 Google bought royalty reporting company RightsFlow to help it identify rights holders on YouTube. RightsFlow’s team and technology were widely recognized as best-in-class and Google paid handsomely, swiftly integrating the team into the YouTube organization. My theory is that this was one of the first steps in a much bigger journey. Since then, Google has invested in next gen publisher Kobalt and next gen label 300 Entertainment. It was even reported to have looked at buying the Jackson Estate’s 50% share of Sony/ATV. Most recently YouTube announced its implementation of the DDEX Digital Sales Report Flat File Standard (DSRF), an open source digital supply chain standard aimed at faster, more accurate royalty reporting and distribution. Each component in isolation paints one picture, but put them together and you have the makings of the foundations for a full service music company. What I think could happen is for YouTube to turn its platform into a self contained music business, taking care of everything from rights through creation to monetization. Here’s how the components could stack up:

  • Rights reporting: My take is that RightsFlow will form the basis for a highly effective, real time, totally transparent rights reporting platform. One that will make traditional music industry reporting look positively prehistoric. And of course, YouTube would take full advantage of being able to compare and contrast against the traditional sector. Couple that with Google’s DDEX work and you have the potential of a truly robust and scalable toolset
  • Simplified rights: Music rights are complex, with any given song having a veriitable smorgasbord of associated rights. YouTube will most likely be pushing for something far simpler. Perhaps for a singer songwriter it would be as simple as a single music right, with flexibility in terms of assignment of usage rights
  • Direct monetization: YouTubers have learned how to make YouTube pay, now many YouTube artists are beginning to too. For example, Conor Maynard’s covers of new pop hits typically clock up 10 million views each, translating into around $10,000 of ad revenue for him
  • Promotion: Curated playlists are becoming a pivotal force in audio streaming services, but have a less central role in YouTube. A) that will likely change, but B) YouTube has many more assets and algorithms it can use to promote artists. Expect YouTube-only artists to over index in search results and recommendations in this new model. A couple of years ago Netflix announced it was going to ensure its originals over index, that is the model YouTube will likely follow
  • Margins: The added benefit of over indexing on originals is better margins, which could give YouTube some wiggle room in its current conversations with labels, allowing it to feel more comfortable about taking the short term pain of higher per stream rates.

An Alternative Industry, Not Simply A New Element

To be clear, all of this would be intended as an alternative to the traditional label / publisher / PRO model. For artists that sign up, every single right would be assigned to, and flow through the YouTube system so that there would be no remit for PROs, labels or publishers. Of course it would only work really well for a specific type of artists e.g. singer songwriters but YouTube would iterate the model over time to give it broader appeal.

 

The earliest iterations would probably be pragmatic compromises. For example, many YouTuber musicians rely on doing cover versions to drive traffic so Google would still need to work closely with music publishers. In fact, around 14% of plays of the most popular music videos on YouTube are cover versions or parodies. (Which helps put the Sony/ATV rumour into context.) Over time though, YouTube would make its music infrastructure as self contained as possible. And over time, as it acquires a bigger body of artists that have had no previous label or publisher deal, progressively more of its music catalogue would become YouTube only. Think of it like resetting the clock to zero.

I doubt YouTube’s aspirations are solely limited to its platform. The strategic investments in next gen music companies and its DDEX work could form tendrils stretching out into the broader industry, extending YouTube’s reach and influence. They days of YouTube simply as a place to promote your latest song are long gone. What we have now is a powerful, global platform that wants to make music work, with or without traditional rights holders. Google’s approach to business has always been about bringing, scale, effectiveness and efficiency to supply chains. Music is no different, but the embedded nature of the traditional companies has meant that YouTube has only been able to partially deliver on that basis. That could well be all about to change.

IFPI First Take: Declining Legacy Formats Continue To Hold Back Growth

 

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This post has been updated following a conversation with the IFPI

The IFPI today announced its annual assessment of the size of the global recorded music business.  For the first time in a long time the music industry has been able to announce a significant growth in revenue: 3% up on 2014 to reach $15 billion. Except that the growth isn’t quite what it first appears to be. In fact, the IFPI reported $15 billion last year for 2014, and for 2013 too. So on the surface that appears to actually be three years of no growth.

The IFPI has done this before. For example, it had previously announced a small 0.2% growth in 2013 (which was the big headline of the numbers that year). But it then downgraded that to a small decline the following year before then upgrading it to a small growth again in 2015.

The IFPI explained that they have retrospectively downgraded their 2014 number to $14.5 billion to reflect some changes in the way they report performance royalties (a minor revenue impact) and, more importantly, to create ‘constant currency’ numbers i.e. to try to remove the impact of currency exchange fluctuations. That approach works well for company reports but less well for the macro picture. The IFPI have to report this way as they are essentially summing up company reports, however when we are talking about global macro markets we run into difficulties, for example looking at music revenue as a % of GDP etc.

The approach also has the effect of generating very different growth rates. For example, if we assume that the top 10 music markets each grew at 3% in local currency terms in 2015, using the exchange rates the years took place (i.e. 2014 USD to local currency and 2015 USD to local currency) there would only have been 0.48% growth in US dollar terms. If, however, we take the constant currency approach we see 3.2% growth. When we are talking about individual companies there is a lot of value in reporting at constant currency rates as those companies are dealing with repatriating and recording revenue from across the world into their local reporting HQs. But when we are talking about global markets comprised of many local companies (e.g. the vast majority of South Korean and Japanese revenues stay in local companies so are not directly shaped by currency fluctuations) the methodology is less useful. The cracks really begin to show when you take the long view. For example if we went back 5 years with constant currency rates the value of the music business as a % of the global economy would be over stated.

So, with all that said, for the purposes of this analysis I am going to use as my baseline for comparison the IFPI’s previously reported 2014 numbers stated in its ‘Recording Industry In Numbers, 2015 Edition’.  Here are some of the key takeaways (further charts at the end of this post):

  • Revenue was flat: Despite all of the dynamic growth in streaming declining legacy formats (CDs and downloads) offset their impact, keeping revenues flat. Also, once performance and synchronization revenues are removed from the mix, revenue fell slightly. This highlights the industry’s transition from a pure sales business into a multi-revenue stream model. It also emphasises the fact that we are still some way from a recovery in consumer spending on music
  • Downloads and physical still both falling: Download revenue was down 16% while physical was down 4.5%. The physical decline was lower than the 8% decline registered in 2014 and played a major role in helping total revenues grow. If physical revenue had fallen at the same rate as 2014 there would have been $0.25 billion less revenue which in turn would have brought total revenues down into decline. The Adele factor can once again be credited for helping the industry out of a sticky patch. The download decline was more than double than in 2014 (6.6%) and that drop is accelerating in 2016, with Apple Music playing a major role in the cannibalization / transition trend (delete as appropriate depending on your world view). What is clear is that downloads and subscription growth do not co-exist. Though it is worth noting that the move away form purchase and ownership is a bigger trend that long preceded Spotify et al.
  • Streaming growth accelerating, just: Total streaming revenue was up 31% in 2015, growing by $0.69 billion compared to 39% / $0.62 billion in 2014. This is undeniably positive news for subscriptions and a clear achievement for the market’s key players. However, it is worth noting that over the same period the number of subscribers by 63%, up from 41.4 million to 68 million (for the record MIDiA first reported the 67.5 million subscribers tally last week based on our latest research). So what’s going on? Well a big part of the issue is the extensive discounting that Spotify has been using to drive sales ($1 for 3 months) coupled with 50% discounts for students from both Spotify and Deezer and finally the surge in telco bundles (which are also discounted).  The number of telco partnerships live globally more than doubled in 2015 to 105, up from 43 the prior year. But even more significant was…
  • Ad supported revenue fell: Ad supported streaming revenue was just $0.634 billion in 2015, down very slightly from $0.641 billion in 2014. YouTube obviously plays a role, and that was a key part of the IFPI’s positioning around these numbers. You’ll need to have been on Mars to notice the coordinated industry briefings against YouTube of late, and these numbers are used to build that narrative.  But YouTube is far form the only ad supported game in town, with Soundcloud, Deezer and Spotify accounting for well over a quarter of a billion free users between them. Also, the IFPI doesn’t count Pandora as ad supported, one of the most successful ad supported models. Then there are an additional quarter of a billion free users across services like Radionomy, iHeart and Slacker. So the music industry doesn’t just have a YouTube problem, it has an ad supported music problem.
  • Streaming ARPU is up but subscription ARPU is down: The net effect of streaming users growing faster than revenue is that subscriber Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) fell to $2.80, from $3.16 in 2014, and $3.36 in 2013. Ad supported ARPU was down from $0.10 to $0.08 while subscription ARPU was down. The fall in subscriber ARPU is down to a number of factors including 1) discounting, 2) bundles, 3) churn, 4) growth of emerging markets services such as QQ Music (monthly retail price point $1.84) and Spinlet (monthly retail price point $1.76). For a full list of emerging markets music service price points check out the MIDiA ‘State Of The Streaming Nation’ report. The irony is that the major record labels are increasingly sceptical of mid tier price points yet they have inadvertently created mid tier price points via discounted pricing efforts. Total blended monthly streaming ARPU for record labels was $0.37 in 2015. And if you’re wondering how ad supported and subscription ARPU can both be down but total ARPU up, that is because subscriptions are now a larger share of total streaming revenue (up to 78% compared to 71% in 2014).

So the end of term report card is: an ok year, with the years of successive decline behind us, but long term questions remain about sustainability and the longer term impact of incentivized growth tactics.

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Streaming Hits 67.5 Million Subscribers But Identity Crisis Looms

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For our recently published MIDiA report ‘State of the Streaming Nation’ we conducted an exhaustive programme of research to assess the global streaming music market, from each of the consumer, market and service perspectives. In pulling together subscriber numbers for each of the music services (there’s a full table in the report) we found that there were 67.5 million subscribers globally in 2015. That was 24 million more subscribers compared to 2014 (also nearly double the number of new subscribers in 2014). It is clear that global subscriptions are gathering pace. However, all is not as it may at first appear:

  • Zombies still walk the streaming streets: Back in 2013 I ruffled a few feathers highlighting the issue of zombie subscribers, music subscribers that are recorded in the headline numbers but that are actually inactive, normally because they are on telco bundles. Fast forward to 2016 and the issue is more firmly in the public domain due to Deezer’s IPO filings. Zombies coupled with overstating by music services accounted for around 12 million subscribers in 2015 so the active ‘actual’ subscriber number was nearer 55 million.
  • Emerging markets are gaining share: Emerging markets will play a key role for streaming over the next few years. They are already driving growth for Apple and Spotify and they will collectively bring the most dynamic growth with western markets nearing saturation for the 9.99 price point. Much of the growth though will come from indigenous companies, such QQ Music (China), KKBOX (Taiwan), MelOn (South Korea) and Saavn (India).
  • Free still dominates: For all the scale of of subscriptions, free still leads the way with free streaming services accounted for nearly 600 million unique users (1.3 billion cumulative users if you add together the user counts of all the services). Free thus outweighed paid by a factor of 10-to-1.

Streaming’s Identity Crisis

Streaming must overcome its identity crisis. Depending on where you sit in the music industry, streaming is either the future of retail or the future of radio. It can be both, but there is increasing pressure for it to be retail only. That would see only a fraction of the opportunity realised. Throughout its history, a small share of people have accounted for the majority of spending. Casual buyers and radio accounted for the rest.

17% of music buyers account for 61% of spending. These are the people who are either already subscribers or that will become subscribers over the next couple of years. Which leaves us with the remaining 83% of consumers. The majority of these listen to radio while a growing minority use free streaming (mainly YouTube). The question the music industry must now answer is how seriously does it want to treat the opportunity represented by these consumers? Does it want to only serve its super fans or does it also want to be global culture? Radio enabled music to be global culture in the 20th century, free streaming will enable it to be in the 21st.

The Free Streaming Debate Is As Complex As It Is Nuanced

This is why the free streaming debate is important but also so complex. Yes, too much free music will curtail the opportunity for paid subscriptions, but too little could consign music culture to the margins. With streaming there is an opportunity to monetize a bigger audience at higher rates than radio ever enabled. At the moment free streaming bears the burden of being all about driving sales (either subscriptions or music purchases) but that misses the far bigger opportunity for free in the streaming era: mass monetization.

What we have now is a dysfunctional system. Freemium services have licensing minimas (the minimum that must be paid per stream) that effectively prevent them from building profitable ad supported businesses, while YouTube has licenses unlike any other but is the industry’s bête noire. Only Pandora has a model that is both (largely) acceptable to the industry and (theoretically) profitable. I say, ‘theoretically’ because Pandora could get towards a 20% margin if it wasn’t investing so heavily in ad sales infrastructure and other companies.

Out of those three disparate models an effective middle ground can and should be found so that the streaming debate becomes one of free AND paid rather than free VERSUS paid. Then we will have the foundations for creating a market that enables subscriptions to thrive within their niche and for global audiences to be monetized like never before.

Spotify’s Billion Dollar Challenge

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Spotify just changed the rules of the game, raising an unprecedented $1 billion in convertible debt. I’ll leave the financial analysts to pore over the financial permutations (and there are plenty) but there are a few key strategic implications:

  • This is an IPO war chest: Spotify is effectively priced out of trade sales for two reasons 1) it has received so much funding that its valuation is astronomic (somewhere close to $10 billion) and 2) the competitive market has changed so much that most companies that were potential buyers 3 years ago no longer are. Samsung neither has the growth story nor the music focus any longer, Microsoft is almost out of the game, Sony is out of the game, Apple couldn’t admit defeat so soon, Amazon is focused on the mass market and Google is focused on YouTube. So an IPO is the only realistic option and for that….
  • Spotify needs a growth story: To achieve an IPO valuation as high as Spotify needs, it is not enough to just be the leading player, it needs to be seen to be growing at a healthy clip, especially with Apple constantly making up ground and still odds on to be the long term market leader. Wall Street needs growth stories. Just look at what has happened to Pandora, a company with stronger fundamentals and a more secure licensing base. Yet Pandora has lost billions of market cap because Wall Street hasn’t warmed to the long term mature company story.
  • Growth will come from three key areas: The $9.99 model only has finite opportunity. The top 10% of music buyers only spend $10 a month on music. So to grow beyond that beachhead Spotify has to grow where the market isn’t yet mature (emerging markets), make the offering feel like free (telco deals) and make the offering feel super cheap ($1 for 3 months promos). All, in different ways, cost, which is where much of this money will be spent, along with hefty marketing efforts.
  • Some of it will be spent on strategic acquisitions: Small music services around the globe will be hastily editing their investor decks, pitching for an acquisition or hoping Spotify will come calling uninvited. But there aren’t too many realistic targets. Soundcloud would probably cost most of the raise, and Spotify would have the same problem Soundcloud now has of trying to force a 9.99 model on a user base it doesn’t fit. TIDAL wouldn’t be cheap either and besides a bunch of exclusive rights for some super star artists, would only add 10% to Spotify’s user base, less after all those users who came in for ‘Life of Pablo’ churn out. A more realistic bet would be for Spotify to target a portfolio of niche services that would add little to its user base but would communicate to the street that it is set up for super serving niches to grow its user base.
  • All bets are on Spotify: For the last 2 years the recorded music industry, the majors in particular, has been holding its collective breath. If Spotify has a successful IPO it will likely spur an inflow of much needed investment to the space. If it doesn’t then it is back to the drawing board. In many respective that should happen anyway. The 9.99 subscription model is incredibly difficult (perhaps impossible) to run profitably at scale.

The next 6 months will be ones of hyper activity for streaming, and don’t expect Apple to take this lying down. Await the battle of the gargantuan marketing budgets. Even if no one else does well out of this, the ad agencies will make hay.

 

Quick Take: Soundcloud Goes Premium

 

SoundCloud_logo.svgFollowing weeks of licensing announcements, Soundcloud has finally launched its premium subscription service, a $9.99 tier ($12.99 on iOS), currently only in the US. The move is both encouraging and disappointing. Soundcloud has a truly unique market footprint and has the potential to be a platform for an entirely new approach to monetizing streaming music. But it is also a poor fit for a cookie cutter $9.99 freemium model.

Soundcloud has a whole set of unique challenges and characteristics that make it so different than the rest of the pack:

  • Artist-first experiences: Unlike its now-direct streaming competitors Spotify and co, Soundcloud is an artist-to-fan platform. Most streaming services are effectively a music-store-meets-HBO hybrid. A place you go to get music. Music as a service, or even a utility. Soundcloud is that as well of course, but it is first and foremost it is a place where artists connect directly with their fans. A $9.99 All You Can Eat (AYCE) is not the right model for a place where fans go to engage with artists rather than looking to turn on the water tap.
  • This is a pivot for Soundcloud: Unlike Spotify and Deezer, whose free tiers have long been geared towards driving subscriptions, for Soundcloud this is not a funnel tweak, it is a pivot. It is a complete change in strategy.
  • Competing against free: The problem with giving something away for free for years is that its really difficult to convince people to start paying for it. It is the same challenge YouTube faces with YouTube Red Which is why instead of simply whacking a pay wall around previously free content, YouTube is investing so much in creating new original content only available on Red. In short, Soundcloud needs to explore how it can deliver new, unique value to paid users rather than simply charging them for what they already get (plus a few convenience features).
  • Non-traditional content: Soundcloud’s strength lies in the music that you just don’t find elsewhere, much of which also happens to be dance music. All of the mash ups, bootlegs, un-authorized remixes, 2 hour long mixes are what make Soundcloud such a valuable component of the music landscape. The only problem is that most of them are not covered in standard major label licenses. In fact, many of them aren’t covered at all. Even Dubset, which is trying to build a business around this type of non-traditional content, hasn’t yet been able to get a full suite of licenses in place. For now, it appears that the majors are willing to turn a blind eye to that content. Which raises an interesting question: who gets paid for the revenue generated by unlicensed tracks?
  • Major labels are shaping an indie platform: Major label content is a massive part of Soundcloud but not the majority. In fact, in dance mixes majors typically account for only 30% of the tracks. Yet it is the major labels that are shaping the future of Soundcloud, forcing it down a road that works well for majors on the AYCE services but could skew Soundcloud against its indie community.

No doubt, Soundcloud had to get licenses in place. It had traded on label good will for long enough. But the current model will not maximise Soundcloud’s vast potential. Instead of Spotify-like 15-20% conversion rates instead expect King and Supercell-like 1.5-5% rates. Let’s hope this is simply a hygiene release, preparing the way for a set of products that fit Soundcloud like a glove rather than odd boots. What could a next iteration look like? Well for a start it could be artist focused and secondly it could be cheaper. Imagine a $4 a month, 5 artist subscription that gives you everything by your favourite artists, including premium-only exclusives. Every month you can swap any number of those artists for different ones for the next month. That is the sort of thinking that needs to be applied to Soundcloud’s subscription business if it is going to live up to its capabilities. The alternative is being condemned to being a freemium also-ran.

What’s Going On With Free Streaming?

Earlier this week Soundcloud’s financials revealed that the company was haemorrhaging cash (even before it had to start worrying about content license fees). Now news comes that Pandora is working with Morgan Stanley to meet with potential buyers. Back in Q4 2014 free streaming got a stay of execution when the majors decided to put their weight behind freemium after a period of many executives seriously considering canning the model. In 2015 free streaming was the growth story, with YouTube out performing everyone. Now though free streaming looks to be in seriously troubled waters. So what gives?

Pandora’s Problem Is Wall Street

Probably the biggest problem of all that Pandora has is the story it tells Wall Street. Every year Pandora accounts for a little bit more of total US radio listening, builds ad revenue and steadily strengthens its business. But that’s not the sort of story Wall Street expects from a streaming media company. Investors expect dynamic growth. But Pandora is, along with Rhapsody, the granddaddy of streaming and had 10 million users before Spotify was even launched in Sweden, let alone the US. Pandora long since passed its dynamic growth stage in the US and is now a mature business that is going about sensibly building a sustainable business.

The standard thing to do at this stage for streaming companies is to roll out internationally and find new markets where you can start a new dynamic growth story. This is exactly what Netflix is doing now that US subscriber growth has slowed. The approach has also served Spotify well. But the unique compulsory licensing structure in the US the underpins Pandora’s business model does not exist elsewhere. There is no global landscape of SoundExchanges for Pandora to plug into. With the exception of Australia and New Zealand Pandora has not been able to negotiate rates that it launch internationally with.

Actually, Slowing Growth Is A Problem Too 

All of which explains why Pandora has gone down the acquisition route, buying Next Big Sound, Ticket Fly and Rdio in a bid to become a full stack music company. The problem is that Wall Street either does not buy it, or simply does not get it. In fact, Wall Street does not really make much of a distinction between semi-interactive radio or on-demand streaming. The pervasive view among the investor community is that Pandora is being out competed by Spotify, regardless of the fact that there is only partial competitive overlap in terms of value proposition, target audience and business model. The net result is that Pandora’s market capitalization has fallen from $7bn to $1.8bn and to make matters worse it had to raise $500 million in debt, with revenue growth slowing.

Pandora Needs A New Wall Street Narrative

In just the same way Apple needs a new Wall Street narrative, so does Pandora. Even if just to maintain some market value while it finds a buyer. The full stack music strategy should be central to that narrative, even though the real story is that Pandora is the future of radio. Unfortunately that story will take a decade or more to play out and most investors do not have that kind of patience. (Spotify, these are the sorts of problems you’ll be having to worry about this time next year). And, to be precise, it is the Pandora model that is the future of radio, not necessarily Pandora itself.  Though the odds are still on Pandora playing that role, in the US at least.

If Pandora really does not have the stomach for seeing out the long game it should not find it too difficult to find a buyer, if the price is right. Exactly because Pandora is the future of radio, some of those big radio incumbents are likely buyer. Hello iHeart Media.

 

The Labels Still Don’t Get YouTube And It’s Costing Them

This is the fifth post in my YouTube economy series. You can read the other posts here, here,here and here

2015 was the year that streaming came of age across global markets (it had already got there in the Nordics and South Korea of course). In the UK and the US stream volumes grew by 85% and 93% respectively in 2015. These markets matter because they are the 1st and 4th largest recorded music markets and between them account for 40% of global revenue. But as strong as a validation of the music streaming model as those numbers might be, the real success story here isn’t Spotify, Deezer or Apple Music…it’s YouTube. In both the US and UK YouTube outgrew audio streaming services. With YouTube delivering so much less back per stream to rights holders than freemium audio services and the whole issue of safe harbour and un-monetized tracks (however good Content ID has gotten) it is little wonder that the record labels are having an identity crisis over YouTube. Indeed, as I wrote last year, the YouTube discovery journey has become the consumption destination. The advert has become the product. But there’s even more to it than this. Not only is YouTube outperforming the audio pure plays, music is being outperformed on YouTube by its growing body of native creators, the new generation of YouTubers.

youtube economy

YouTube started out as a place simply to watch (and upload) videos but has evolved into a sophisticated entertainment platform that supports a multitude of diverse use cases, both in terms of content and audience. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in channel subscriptions. In many respects ‘channel’ isn’t the most appropriate term as they are in effect talent feeds rather than channels in a traditional video / TV sense. Nonetheless, or perhaps because of this, they have become the lifeblood of native YouTube creators as diverse as Michelle Phan, PewDiePie, Zoella, SMOSH, stampylongnose and IISuperwomanII.

These are creators who often do everything from writing, filming, production through to front-of-camera. DIY superstars if you like. And they are fast becoming the lifeblood of YouTube. Of the 330 million subscriptions in the top 50 YouTube channels, YouTubers account for 34%. Compare and contrast with the measly 15% music artist and label channels have. And despite all the excitement around the increased subscribers Adele and Justin Bieber have racked up these last few months – they gained 8 million subscribers between them, making them the two fastest gainers across all of YouTube – music artists as a whole lost ground, accounting for just 31% of the top 50 gains during the last 90 days compared to 53% for YouTubers.

Music Is Losing Ground To Native YouTubers

Music does fare better in terms of views with 36% of the 41 billion top 50 views in the last 90 days. However it still plays second fiddle to YouTubers who account for 45%. But it is the direction of travel that reveals the most telling trend. Over the last 90 days 42% of the 50 top 50 growing channel views compared to 39% for music. In itself that may sound like a modest difference, but this is just the latest 90 day chapter in a much longer story. Music used to be the clear focal point of YouTube but that is changing. In terms of all time views music actually outpaces YouTubers with 42% compared to 41%. But at current rates that lead will be wiped out in the next 90 days. And here’s the paradox: music’s hold on YouTube is slipping even though YouTube is outperforming music services.

Part of driving force is out of the hands of the labels: video is eating the world, with more than 5 trillion short form views in 2015 alone. Music is always the first mover in digital content consumption, the trailblazer for other media. Once distribution, bandwidth and consumer sophistication all improve, video moves in.

Time To Stop Using YouTube Like School Kids Use Instragram

But record labels and artists can seize some control of their destiny, by taking a more sophisticated view of YouTube and exploring how to build strategies that work for YouTube in 2016 not for YouTube in 2010.  Right now record labels are using YouTube like school kids use Instagram, obsessing with vanity metrics such as views rather than thinking more deeply about how to build lasting relationships with YouTube audiences. A new generation of music artists is emerging that have created and nurtured audiences on YouTube, often with little or no help from labels. Artist like Dave Days, Tyler Ward, Boyce Avenue and Hannah Trigwell have built their fanbases on YouTube, often starting with covers but also crucially often non-music content such as parodies and vlogs. Raised in YouTube these artists are entirely native to the platform. They understand what audiences want because that’s where they come from.

If the big traditional artists and labels want to start making up some ground on the YouTuber revolution they could do worse than take a few hints from this new breed of YouTube artist.