Music Subscriber Market Shares Q1 2020

WWDC would have been a perfect opportunity for Apple to announce another streaming milestone for Apple Music. It didn’t but the good news is that MIDiA already have a figure for Apple Music, as part of our latest music subscriber market shares. Whether Apple’s lack of announcement was because it didn’t have a good news story to tell or because it is waiting for a bigger number to pull out of the hat at a later date, well, we’ll have to wait and see.

Music Subscriber Market Shares 2020 MIDiA Research June 20

Overall there were 400 million music subscribers in Q1 2020, up 30% from Q1 2019, with 93 million net new subscribers added. This compares to the 77 million added one year earlier. The eagle eyed of you may be struggling to rationalise why streaming revenue growth slowed in 2019 while subscriber growth accelerated. The simple answer is ARPU. The combination of family plans, promotional trials and progressively more global growth coming from lower ARPU, emerging markets means that the long-term outlook for streaming is that subscriber growth will increasingly outpace revenue growth.

Spotify remains the standout leader in terms of subscribers with 32% market share. Spotify’s market share has remained between 32% and 34% every quarter since 2015. This is some achievement given how much more competitive the market has become in that time, and the stellar growth of Amazon. Spotify’s growth is both an extension of the wider market and a driver of it.

Despite Apple Music’s strong showing in second with 18%, this market share is down from 21% in Q1 2019 and contrasts with Amazon Music which finished Q1 2020 with 14% share, up from 13% one year earlier. Apple Music is making ground in absolute terms, Amazon is making ground in both absolute and relative terms.

Tencent Music Entertainment takes fourth spot with 11%, all the more impressive given that this number almost entirely refers to China and that it is accelerating growth, adding 14 million subscribers by Q2 2020 compared to 6 million on the year earlier.

Google is fifth with a more modest 6% but this represents a turnaround, with YouTube Music finally making Google a genuine contender in the subscription space. In Q1 2018, Google’s market share was just 3%. Google is outperforming the overall market.

What is particularly interesting about the state of the global market now compared to a couple of years ago is that we are starting to see some genuine segmentation taking place, which is a real achievement given that most of the services have to operate with the same catalogue and pricing:

  • YouTube Music is resonating with Gen Z and younger Millennials
  • Amazon Music is bringing older audiences to subscriptions
  • Spotify and Apple Music are the mainstream options
  • Deezer is enjoying success in emerging markets – Brazil especially – with pre-pay mobile bundles

The global subscriber market is in rude health in Q1 2020, significantly more so than the revenue and ARPU side of the equation.

These figures are the very top level findings from MIDiA’s Subscriber Market Shares model which includes quarterly data for 25 music services across 36 markets. This year we have added splits for MENA, Russia and Ireland. As well as a whole new dataset: Ad supported market shares, with splits for Sub-Saharan Africa. This data will be available for MIDiA clients in the coming weeks. If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about this dataset, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

The COVID Bounce: How COVID-19 is Reshaping Entertainment Demand

The economic disruption and social dislocation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is not evenly distributed. Some business face catastrophe, while others thrive. Across the entertainment industries the same is true, ranging from a temporary collapse of the live business through to a surge in gaming activity. As we explain in our free-to-download COVID-19 Impact report, the extra time people have as a result of self-isolation has boosted some forms of entertainment more than others – with games, video and news the biggest winners so far.

midia research - the covid bounceTo further illustrate these trends, MIDiA compiled selected Google search term data across the main entertainment categories. The chart below maps the change in popularity of these search terms between the start of January 2020 up to March 27th. Google Trends data does not show the absolute number of searches but instead an index of popularity. These are the key findings:

  • Video streaming: All leading video subscription services saw a strong COVID-19-driven spike, especially Disney+ which managed to coincide its UK launch with the first day of national home schooling.
  • Music streaming: Little more than a modest uptick for the leading music services, following a long steady fall – reflecting a mature market sector unlike video, which has been catalysed by major new service launches.
  • Video demand: With the mid- to long-term prospect of a lot more time on their hands, consumers have been strongly increasing searches for TV shows, movies and games to watch and play. The fact that ‘shows for kids to watch’ is following a later but steeper curve reflects the growing realisation by locked-down families that they have to stop the kids going stir crazy while they try to work from home.
  • Music demand: Demand for music has been much more mixed, including a pronounced downturn in streams in Italy. Part of the reason is that music is something people can already do at any time in any place. So, the initial instinct of consumers was to fill their newfound time with entertainment they couldn’t otherwise do at work/school. As the abnormal normalises music streaming will pick up, as the recent increase in searches for music and playlist terms suggests. Podcasts, however, look like they will take longer to get a COVID bounce.
  • Games: Games activity and revenues have already benefited strongly from the new behaviour patterns, as illustrated by the fast and strong increase in search terms. However, the recent slowdown in search growth suggests that the increase in gaming demand may slow.
  • News: The increased searches correlate strongly with the growth of the pandemic, but the clear dip at the end provides the first evidence of crisis-fatigue.
  • Sports: The closure of all major sports leagues and events has left a gaping hole in TV schedules and the lives of sports fans. The sudden drop in search terms shows that sports fans have quickly filled their lives with other entertainment and have little interest in keeping up with news of sports closures.
  • Leaders: Finally, Boris Johnson has seen his search popularity grow steadily with the pandemic, while Donald Trump’s has dipped.

Amazon Music: From Dark Horse to Thoroughbred

Neatly ahead of Spotify’s Q4 earnings, Amazon has taken the rare step of announcing subscriber metrics for Amazon Music (inclusive of Prime Music and Music Unlimited). Amazon Music closed 2019 with 55 million ‘customers’ across free and paid. Based on our Q2 2019 numbers for Amazon and the fact that Amazon’s free tier was only rolled out in late 2019 across a few markets, MIDiA estimates Amazon Music’s actual subscriber number to be 50 million. This implies a subscriber growth of 16 million on 2018. Make no mistake, this is a really strong performance. From a bit-part player in 2015 and 2016, Amazon Music is now firmly established in streaming’s leading pack and looks set to overtake Apple Music in 2020. What’s more, unlike Apple and Spotify, Amazon’s wider business is not a top-tier player in dozens of countries, so Amazon Music’s geographic footprint is uneven – making its global figure even more impressive. Indeed, underneath this headline figure Amazon is the number two player in some of the world’s biggest music markets. Amazon is now in the big league.

amazon music 55 million users 50 millionn subscribers midia research

Since Q4 2016, Spotify has averaged 34.8% global music subscriber market share, meaning that despite fierce competition it has managed to stay ahead of the pack, actually increasing share slightly from 34.2% to 35.3%. Amazon’s success is in some respects even more impressive. In Q4 2015 Amazon Music’s subscriber base was just 18% of Spotify’s. By Q4 2019 (assuming Spotify hit the 124 million that MIDiA predicted for Q4 2019) Amazon’s 55 million subscribers represented 40% of Spotify’s – more than doubling its relative scale.

However, the DSP that should be paying most attention is Apple Music. Over the same period Amazon Music went from 49% of Apple’s subscriber base to 82%. At this rate Amazon could trump Apple for second place in 2020. It has already done so in a number of major music markets, including Germany, the UK and Japan – three of the world’s top four recorded music markets.

Extending the market

Amazon is often competing around, rather than with, Spotify and Apple. The combination of Prime Music and Echo / Alexa means that Amazon is extending the addressable market for streaming by unlocking older, higher-income households that do not fit the young, mobile-first demographic mold that the streaming market generally trades upon. Ellie Goulding’s Amazon exclusive ‘River’ claiming the UK Christmas number one spot illustrates that this under-served segment is far from a niche. Of course, Amazon is now also competing for the younger, mobile-centric consumer – Music Unlimited grew by more than 50% in 2019 – but, along with its new ad-supported and HD tiers, Amazon is pursuing a segmented strategy that is pushing beyond its older Prime Music beachhead.

Amazon Music’s success trades heavily on Amazon’s overall brand reach and existing customer relationships, so its global brand reach will always be less evenly distributed than Apple and Spotify’s. However, throughout 2018 and 2019 Amazon has been assertively building its reach in non-core markets through music and video. Traditionally Amazon has been a retailer first and a content brand second. Now, in newer markets across the globe, Amazon is building a reputation as a digital content provider first and retailer second. Though Amazon is clearly going to remain a retailer first globally, streaming is proving to be a powerful tool for establishing the company in markets that would have previously taken years and hundreds of millions of dollars to set up as fully functioning e-commerce markets.

While rightsholders will have well-grounded concerns about Amazon’s corporate objectives of using content to help sell consumer products, what is now undeniable is that Amazon Music and Video are both top-tier content services. Back in 2017 we suggested that the dark horse of Amazon was emerging from the shadows; now it is clear to see it is a thoroughbred in its own right.

Spotify AND Apple Lead Podcasts – It’s All Down to How You Measure It

midia podcast tracker q4 2020The podcast platform data from MIDiA’s Q4 tracker is in. These are the high-level findings:

  • Apple still leads overall: A recent report showed that Spotify has become the leading podcast platform in the US. MIDiA’s Q4 Tracker data shows that among regular podcast users, Spotify is very nearly but not quite the leading platform in the US, just trailing Apple’s podcast app – though the difference is so small that it could be within margin of survey error. However, when Apple Music is factored into the equation, Apple remains the leading platform.
  • Spotify the leading single platform: In terms of single platforms – i.e. considering Apple Music and Apple’s podcast apps separately – Spotify has quickly established a leading position across all markets surveyed except the US. Spotify is betting big on podcasts, but this bet is as defensive as it is offensive. Spotify knows that its users over index for podcasts – 28% use them weekly, compared to 15% of overall consumers. If it did not go big with podcasts it was always at risk of losing share of ear as podcasts grew, in the same way Amazon lost CD buyers to Apple’s iTunes. It has taken Amazon years to start winning back the spend of its music consumers, but it could tolerate that inconvenience as it makes most of its money elsewhere. Spotify has no such luxury.
  • National broadcasters faring well: Radio broadcasters lost their younger music audiences to streaming. They were not going to sit back and let streaming services then go and steal their older, spoken word audiences without a fight. In many respects, radio broadcasters have a greater chance of being power players in podcasts because their decades of programming expertise will take time for streaming services to learn. With music, they were sitting on the shoulders of a decade of experience learned by Apple’s iTunes. The three national broadcaster apps we tracked (BBC Sounds, NPR One, CCBC Listen) had mixed fortunes, but all have solid adoption. None more so than BBC Sounds, which is the second-most widely used single platform in the UK – a testament to the BBC’s sometimes controversial Sounds strategy. However, one major factor is that broadcaster podcast app users are much older than streaming service podcast users, and indeed of dedicated apps like Acast and Stitcher. This shows that broadcasters are doing a good job of bringing their older audiences over to podcasts but are not yet making podcasts an entry point for younger users lost to streaming.

These findings come from MIDiA’s quarterly tracker survey and will be presented in much more detail in MIDiA’s forthcoming ‘Podcast Platforms’ report.

If you are not already a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about how to get access to MIDiA’s research, data and analysis, then email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Music Subscriber Market Shares H1 2019

Music Subscriber Market Shares 2019 MIDiA Research

The global streaming market continues to grow at pace. At the end of June 2019 there were 304.9 million music subscribers globally. That was up 34 million on the end of 2018, while the June 2018 to June 2019 growth was 69 million – exactly the same rate of additions as one year earlier.

Spotify remained the clear market leader with 108 million subscribers, giving it a global market share of 35.6%, EXACTLY the same share it had at the end of 2018 AND at the end of 2017. In what is becoming an increasingly competitive market, Spotify has continued to grow at the same rate as the overall market.

Meanwhile both Apple and Amazon have grown market share, though Apple is showing signs of slowing. At the end of 2017 Amazon (across all of its subscription tiers) had 11.4% global market share, pushing that up to 12.6% by end June 2019 with 38.3 million subscribers. Apple went from 17.3% to 18% over the same period – hitting 54.7 million subscribers, but while Amazon added share every quarter, Apple peaked at 18.2% in Q1 2019 before dropping slightly back to 18% in Q2 2019. Though at the same time, Apple increased market share in its priority market – the US, going from 31% in Q4 2018 to 31.7% in Q2 2019 with 28.9 million subscribers.

Google has been another big gainer, particularly in recent quarters following the launch of YouTube Music, going from just 3% in Q4 2017 to 5.3% in Q2 2019. Google had a well-earned reputation for being an under-performer in the music subscriptions market, a company that did not appear to actually want to succeed. Now, however, Google appears to be far more committed to subscriptions, pushing both YouTube Premium and YouTube Music hard, with a total of 16.9 music subscriptions in Q2 2019, compared to just 5.9 million at the end of 2017.

With the big four all gaining market share, the simple arithmetic is that smaller players have lost it. The share accounted for by all other services fell from 32.8% end-2017 to 28.4% mid-2019. This of course does not mean that all of these services lost subscribers; indeed, most grew, just not by as much as the bigger players. Of the other services, most are large single-market players such as Tencent (31 million – China), Pandora (7.1 million – US) MelOn (5.3 million – South Korea) with Deezer now the only other global player of scale (8.5 million).

In summary, 2019 was a year of growth and consolidation, with the global picture dominated by the big four players and Spotify retaining market share despite all three of its main competitors making up ground. 2020 is likely to be a similar year, though with a few key differences:

  • Key western markets like the US and UK will likely slow from Q4 2019 through to 2020. Meanwhile, emerging markets will pick up pace
  • This could shift market share to some regional players. For example, in Q3 Tencent’s subscriber growth accelerated at an unprecedented rate to hit 35.4 million subscribers. Tencent could be entering the hockey stick growth phase, and at just 2.6% paid penetration there is a LOT of potential growth ahead of it
  • Bytedance could create a new emerging market dynamic with its forthcoming streaming service. Currently constrained to India and Indonesia, Western rights holders may remain cautious about licensing it into Western markets. The unintended consequence is that the staid western streaming market could by end 2020 be looking enviously upon a more diverse and innovative Asian streaming market

These figures and findings are taken from MIDiA’s forthcoming Music Subscriber Market Shares, which includes quarterly data from Q4 2015 to Q2 2019 for 23 streaming services across 30 different markets. The data will be available on MIDiA’s Fuse platform later this week and the report will follow shortly thereafter.

If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to know how to get access to this report and dataset, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Why Music Streaming Could Really Do with a Disney+

The music and video streaming markets have long been best understood by their differences rather than similarities, but the flurry of video subscription announcements in recent months have upped the ante even further. New services from the likes of Disney, Warner Bros, Apple and AMC Cinemas point to an explosion in consumer choice. These are bold moves considering how mature the video subscription business is, as well as Netflix’s leadership role in the space. Nevertheless, Netflix is going to have to seriously up its game to avoid being squeezed. The contrast with the music streaming market is depressingly stark.

Diverging paths

The diverging paths of the music and video subscription markets tell us much about the impact of rights fragmentation on innovation. In music, three major rights holder groups control the majority of rights and thus can control the rate at which innovation happens. As a consequence, we have a streaming market in which each leading service has the same catalogue, the same pricing and the same device support. If this was the automotive market, it would be equivalent of saying everyone has to buy a Lexus, but you get to choose the colour paint. Compare this to video, where global rights are fragmented across dozens of networks. This means that TV rights holders have not been able to dictate (i.e. slow) the rate of innovation, resulting in dozens of different niche services, a plethora of price points and an unprecedented apogee in TV content.

Now, Apple and major rights holders Disney and Warner Bros have deemed the streaming video market to be ready for prime time and are diving in with their own big streaming plays. Video audiences are going to have a volume of high budget, exclusive content delivered at a scale and trajectory not seen before. There has never been a better time to be a TV fan nor indeed a TV show maker.

The music streaming market could really do with a similar rocket up its proverbial behind right now. The ‘innovation’ that is taking place is narrow in scope and limited in ambition. Adding podcast content to playlists, integrating with smart speakers and introducing HD audio all are important – but they are tweaking the model, not reimagining it. Streaming music needs an external change agent to shake it from its lethargy.

Do first, ask forgiveness later

The nearest we have to that change agent right now is TikTok. TikTok has achieved what it has by not playing by the rules. It has followed that long-standing tech company approach of doing first and asking forgiveness later. Sure, it is now locked in some difficult conversations with rightsholders – but it is negotiating from a position of strength, with many millions of active users. TikTok brought a set of features to market that rightsholders simply would not have licensed in the same way if it had gone the traditional route of bringing a business plan, pleading for some rights, signing away minimum guarantees (MGs) and then taking the neutered proposition to market.

I recall advising a music messaging app client who was just getting going to do the right thing. I hooked him up with some of the best music lawyers, made connections at labels, and basically helped him play by the rules. Two years later he still hadn’t managed to get a deal in place with any rightsholders – though he had racked up serious legal fees in the process. Meanwhile, Flipagram had pushed on ahead without licensing deals, secured millions of users and tens of millions of dollars of investment and only then started negotiating deals – and the labels welcomed it with open arms. To this day, this is my single biggest professional regret: advising this person who was betting his life savings to play by the rules. He lost. The ‘cheats’ won.

We need insurgents with disruptive innovation

The moral of this story is that in the consumer music services space, innovation happens best and fastest when rights holders do not dictate terms. This is not necessarily a criticism. Rights holders need to protect their assets and their commercial value in the marketplace. They inherently skew towards sustaining innovations, i.e. incremental changes that sustain existing products. New tech companies looking to build market share, however, favour disruptive innovations that create new markets. Asking an incumbent to aggressively back disruptive innovation is a bit like asking someone to set fire to their own house. But most often it is the disruptive change that really drives markets forward.

Streaming subscription growth will slow before too long, and as a channel for building artist-fan relationships they are pretty much a dead end. There is no Plan B. Back in 1999 there was only one format; it was growing well, but there was no successor. Looks a lot like now.

State of the Streaming Nation 3.0: Multi-Paced Growth

MIDiA Research State of the Streaming Nation 3Regular followers of MIDiA will know that one of our flagship releases is our State of the Streaming Nation report. Now into its third year, this report is the definitive assessment of the streaming music market. Featuring 16 data charts, 37 pages and 5,700 words, this year’s edition of the State of the Streaming Nation covers everything from user behaviour, weekly active users of the leading streaming apps, willingness to pay, adoption drivers, revenues, forecasts, subscriber market shares, label market shares, tenure and playlist usage. The consumer data covers the US, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria and the UK, while the market data and forecasts cover 35 markets. The report includes the report PDF, a full Powerpoint deck and a six sheet Excel file with more than 23,000 data points. This really is everything you need to know about the global streaming market.

The report is immediately available to MIDiA clients and is also now available for purchase from our report store here. And – for a very limited-time offer, until midnight 31stJuly (i.e. Wednesday) the report is discounted by 50% to £2,500. This is a strictly time-limited offer, with the price returning to the standard £5,000 on Thursday.

Below are some details of the report.

The 20,000 Foot View: 2018 was yet another strong year for streaming music growth, with the leading streaming services consolidating their market shares. Consumer adoption continues to grow but as leading markets mature, future growth will depend upon mid-tier markets and later on emerging markets. Disruption continues to echo throughout the market with artists direct making up ground and Spotify spreading its strategic wings. Utilising proprietary supply- and demand-side data, this third edition of MIDiA’s State of the Streaming Nation pulls together all the must-have data on the global streaming market to give you the definitive picture of where streaming is.

Key findings: 

THE MARKET

  • Streaming revenue was up $X billion on 2017 to reach $X billion in 2018 in label trade, representing X% of total recorded music market growth
  • Universal Music consolidated its market-leading role with $X billion, representing X% of all streaming revenue
  • There were X million music subscribers globally in Q4 2018 with Spotify, Apple and Amazon accounting for X% of all subscribers, up from X% in Q4 2015
  • With X% weekly active user (WAU) penetration YouTube dominates streaming audiences, representing X% of all of the WAU music audiences surveyed

CONSUMER BEHAVIOUR

  • X% of consumers stream music for free, peaking at X% in South Korea and dropping to just X% in Japan
  • X% of consumers are music subscribers, peaking in developed streaming markets Sweden (X%) and South Korea (X%)
  • Free streaming penetration is high among those aged 16-19 (X%), 20-24 (X%) and 25-34 (X%) while among those aged 55+ penetration is just X%
  • Podcast penetration is X% with pronounced country-level variation, ranging from just X% in Austria to X% in Sweden

ADOPTION

  • 61% of music subscribers report having become subscribers either via a free trial or a $1 for three months paid trial
  • Costing less than $X is the most-cited adoption driver for music subscriptions at X%
  • Today’s Top Hits and the Global Top 50 claim the joint top spot for Spotify playlists among users, both X%
  • As of Q1 2019 there were X YouTube music videos viewed one billion-plus times, of which X were two billion-plus view videos and X were three billion-plus

OUTLOOK

  • In retail terms global streaming music revenues were $X billion in 2018 in retail terms, up X% on 2017, and will grow to $X billion in 2026
  • There were X million music subscribers in 2018, up from X million in 2017 with Xmillion individual subscriptions

Companies and brands mentioned in this report: Alexa, Amazon Music Unlimited, Amazon Prime Music, Anchor, Anghami, Apple, Apple Music, Beats One, CDBaby, Deezer, Deezer Flow, Echo, Gimlet, Google, Google Play Music, KuGou, Kuwo, Loudr, MelOn, Napster, Netflix, Pandora, Parcast, QQ Music, RapCaviar, Rock Classics, Rock This, Sony Music, Soundcloud, SoundTrap, Spotify, Tencent Music Entertainment, Tidal, Today’s Top Hits, T-Series, Tunecore, Universal Music, Warner Music, YouTube

Playlist Malfeasance Will Create a Streaming Crisis

Streaming economics are facing a potential crisis. The problem does not lie in the market itself; after all, in Q1 2019 streaming revenue became more than half of the recorded music business and Spotify hit 100 million subscribers. Nor does it even lie in the perennial challenge of elusive operating margins. No, this particular looming crisis is both subtler and more insidious. Rather than being an inherent failing of the market, this crisis, if it transpires, will be the unintended consequence of short-sighted attempts to game the system. The root of it all is playlists.

Streaming makes casual listeners ‘more valuable’ than aficionados

Streaming took the most valuable music buyers and turned them into radio listeners. Now, as the market matures, it is taking more casual music consumers and also turning them into radio listeners. Although curated playlist penetration is still low (just 15% of streaming consumers listen regularly to curated playlists, fewer than listen to podcasts), the impact on listening over indexes.

While a lean-forward, engaged music listener may select an album or a handful of tracks to listen to and then move on, casual listeners might put on a 60-track peaceful piano playlist in the background while studying, doing housework etc. The paradox here is that casual fans have the potential to generate more streams than engaged listeners.

With casuals being the next wave of streaming adopters, their impact will increase. But despite being ‘more valuable’ they will also reduce royalties, because more streams per user means revenue gets shared between more tracks, which means lower per-stream rates. The music industry thus has an apparently oxymoronic challenge: it is not in its interest to significantly increase the amount of media consumption time it gets per user, but instead it will be better served by getting a larger number of people listening less! 

Current market trajectory points to more streams per user, which – for subscriptions, where royalties are paid as a share of revenue – means lower per-stream rates.

Playing the game

Against this growing background consumption trend, streaming services, labels, songwriters and artists are all making matters worse by gaming the system whether that be by structuring songs to work on streaming, creating Spotify friendly soundsor simply gaming playlists.

With playlists being so important for both marketing and revenue, it was inevitable that people would seek out ways to attain any possible advantage. Consequently, playlists are becoming gamed, whether that be major labels getting more than their fair share of access to the biggest playlistsor ‘fake artists’filling them out.Most recently, Humble Angel’s Kieron Donoghue identified a cynically constructed playlist called ‘Sleep & Mindfulness Thunderstorms’(all terms optimised for user searches) that contained 330 one-minute songs of “ambient noise of rain and a few thunder storms thrown in for good measure”. The one-minute track length ensures they are long enough to qualify for a royalty share, but short enough to ensure that a typical listening session will generate a vast quantity of streams, thus generating more royalties.

The twist to this story is that this playlist was created by Sony Music and the artist behind all these tracks appears to be a Sony Music artist. Crucially Sony isn’t the only one doing this, with UMG getting in on the actand Warner Music signing an algorithm.

Playlist deforestation

This sort of activity may make absolute commercial sense but is creatively bankrupt. It certainly makes record complaints about ‘fake artists’ ring less true. Just because you can do something does not mean that you should. This model works until it doesn’t. In fact, there are parallels with deforestation. A logger in the Amazon will likely not be thinking about the destructive impact on the environment he is directly contributing to. In similar manner, it is unlikely that the people creating these playlists realise that they are contributing to a market-level crisis. This is because, the more of these types of playlists that are created, the lower per-stream rates they will generate for everyone.

Well, not ‘everyone’. If overall streaming revenue rises but stream rates decline, then the companies with large catalogues of music, especially those that are also creating arsenals of playlist-filler ammunition, will still feel revenue growth. For individual artists and songwriters, however, royalty payments could actually fall.

Fixing the problem

The casual listening problem will not fix itself. In fact, despite labels worrying about declining ARPUthe only way they can keep ahead of declining streaming rates is by increasing their share of streams. That means more of this sort of playlist gaming activity, which further accentuates the problem.

There is however a simple solution: reduce per-stream rates for lean-back playlist plays.This would ensure the songs people actively seek out get better pay-outs. The demarcations between lean back and lean forward used to be elegantly simple (e.g. Pandora versus Spotify), but now curated playlists and other forms of streaming curation are supporting radio-like behaviour on the same platforms as on-demand. It is time for royalty models to catch up with this new reality.

Apple’s Subscription Pivot

On Tuesday Apple announced its arrival on the world stage as a media company, using the lion’s share of its product keynote as the platform for a succession of super star actors, directors and other personalities to tell the story of their respective Apple original TV shows. Breaking with a longstanding tradition of using these keynotes to announce new hardware, Apple used this one to showcase content and its creators. While services revenue is still but a small minority of Apple’s business (11% in Q4 2018), there is no doubt that Apple is placing a far greater priority on content – a strategic pivot made necessary by slowing device sales in a saturated global smartphone market. Apple has already made itself a power player in music, but has the potential to turn the entire digital content marketplace upside down should it so decide.

four phases of media formats midia

Apple’s ramping up of its content strategy is best understood by looking at its place in the four stages of media formats:

  1. Phase 1 – physical media formats:In the old world, consumer electronics companies came together to agree on standards and then competed in a gentlemanly fashion on execution. This approach underpinned the eras of the CD and DVD.
  2. Phase 2 – walled garden ecosystems: In the internet era companies competed fiercely, building proprietary formats into impenetrable walls that locked consumers in. This resulted in the rise of walled gardens such as iTunes and Xbox.
  3. Phase 3 – post-ecosystem: App stores became the chink in the armour for walled garden models, allowing a generation of specialist standalone apps such as Spotify and Netflix.
  4. Phase 4 – aggregation: Walled garden players had inadvertently created global platforms for specialist competitors, so are now figuring out how to avoid going the route of telcos and becoming dumb pipes. The likes of Xbox, Amazon and Apple have started to embrace some of their standalone competitors, adding curatorial layers on top via hardware and software. This is how we have Amazon channels, Fortnite’s marketplace within Xbox and, soon, Apple channels.

Apple just prepped its content portfolio for a subscription pivot

Apple built its modern-day business firmly on the back of content. The iPod was the foundation stone for its current device business and simply would not have existed without music. While its current device portfolio meets a much wider set of user needs, content remains the use case glue that holds its device strategy together. On Tuesday Apple announced new subscriptions for news (News+), games (Arcade) and video (TV+). Interestingly, in an entire keynote focused on media, Apple Music did not even get a mention, despite Zane Lowe’s Beats One show providing the background music prior to the presentations. Perhaps Apple felt Apple Music is so well established that it did not merit a mention, but the lack of an update felt like more than an oversight, intentional or otherwise.

That aside, Apple now has prepped its content proposition for a subscription pivot. Prior to these new announcements, Apple’s content offering (Apple Music excepted) was firmly rooted in the increasingly archaic world of downloads. Shifting from downloads to streaming is no easy task, and Apple will have to tread a cautious path so as not to risk alienating less adventurous download customers. It is the exact same shift that Amazon is navigating. But now Apple has the subscriptions toolset to start that journey in earnest. It has decided that subscriptions are ready for primetime.

This primetime strategy underpins Apple’s early follower strategy across its entire product and services portfolio. As its customer base has gotten older and more mainstream, it has had to progressively stretch out launches, to such an extent that at times it looks at risk of being too late. Apple Music looked too late when it launched, but still made it to a clear number two position. TV+ was even later to market, but don’t count against it plotting a similar path to Apple Music.

What Apple needs from content

Watch and TV could both be long-term contenders for Apple’s revenue growth until it launches a product category to drive new, iPhone-scale hardware growth, but the odds are not yet in their favour. Services look like the best midterm bet. But Apple has some tough decisions to make about what role it wants content to play in its business. This is because subscriptions pose two challenges for Apple:

  • Margin could be a real problem:Apple’s high profile spat with Spotify over its App Store levy hides a bigger commercial issue. With margins in streaming as low as they are, Apple most likely makes more margin on its Spotify App Store levy than it does selling its own Apple Music subscriptions. The amount of money it has invested in its lineup of TV+ originals is also unlikely to do its services margins any favours.
  • Subscriptions have to get really big: Standalone subscriptions will not only be low (perhaps negative) net margin contributors, but will not deliver enough revenue. It would take more than one billion Apple customers paying for two $9.99 subscriptions every month of the year to generate the same amount of revenue it currently makes from hardware. The App Store is Apple’s current services cash cow, and Apple’s new slate of subscriptions are preparing for a post-App Store world. Yet it would take a hundred million $9.99 subscriptions every month of the year to get Apple’s services revenue to where it is now. That number is eminently achievable but generates revenue stagnation, not growth.

Doing an Amazon

So how does Apple square the circle? Probably through a combination of standalone subscriptions, bundles and a single Apple bundle plan. And yes, once again, this is exactly what Amazon has been doing for years now. In fact, you could say Apple is doing an Amazon. The Prime-like bundle could be the most disruptive move of the lot. Imagine if Apple, alongside the full-fat subscriptions, deployed a lite version of Music, Games and TV+ available for a single annual fee and / or as part of a device price (like Amazon Music Unlimited vs Amazon Prime Music). This option would mean that Apple would be simultaneously doing free without ads and subscription with fees. The implications for pure subscription and ad supported businesses are clear.

Whatever options Apple pursues, the permutations will be felt by all in the digital content marketplace.

Why Music and Video are Crucial to Apple’s Future

Apple’s downgraded earnings guidance represents its first profit warning in 10 years. This is clearly a big deal, and probably not as much to do with a weakening Chinese economy if Alibaba’s 2018 Singles’ Day annual growth of 23% is anything to go by. But it does not indicate Apple is about to do a Nokia and quickly become an also-ran in the smartphone business. Nokia’s downfall was triggered by a corporate rigidity, with the company unwilling to embrace — among many other things — touchscreens. Apple’s touchscreen approach, coupled with a superior user experience and its ability to deliver a vibrant, fully integrated App Store, saw it quickly become the leader in a nascent market. Apple’s disruptive early follower strategy is well documented across all its product lines and the iPhone was a masterclass in this approach. But the smartphone market is now mature and in mature markets, market fluctuations need only be small to have dramatic impact. That is where Apple is now, and music and video will be a big part of how Apple squares the circle.

Apple started its shift towards being a services-led business back in Q1 2016, issuing a set of supplemental investor information with detail on its services business and revenue. Fast forward to Q3 2018 and Apple reported quarterly services revenues of $10 billion—16% of its total quarterly revenue of $62.9 billion. So, services are already a big part of Apple’s business but the high-margin App Store is the lion’s share of that. App Store revenues will continue to grow, even in a saturated smartphone market, as users shift more of their spending to mobile. But it will not grow fast enough to offset slowing iPhone sales. Added to that, key content services are moving away from iTunes billing to avoid the 15% iTunes transaction fee. Netflix, the App Store’s top grossing app in 2018, recently announced it is phasing out iTunes billing, which is estimated to deliver Apple around a quarter of a billion dollars a year. That may only be c.1% of Apple’s services revenue but it is a sizeable dent. So Apple has to look elsewhere for services revenue. This is where music and video come in.

Streaming will drive revenue but not margin

Streaming is booming across both music and video. Apple has benefited doubly by ‘taxing’ third-party services like Spotify and Netflix, while enjoying success with Apple Music. With third-party apps driving external billing, Apple needs its own streaming revenue to grow. A video service should finally launch this year to drive the charge. However, the problem with both music and video streaming is that neither is a high-margin business. Apple’s residual investor value lies in being a premium, high-margin business. So it has a quandary: grow streaming revenues to boost services revenue but at a lower margin. This means Apple cannot simply build its streaming business as a standalone entity, but instead must integrate it into its core devices business.

Nokia might just have drawn Apple’s next blueprint

During its race to the bottom, Nokia launched the first 100% bundled music handset proposition Comes With Music (CWM). It was way ahead of its time, and now might be the time for Apple to execute another early (well, sort of early) follower move. CWM was built in the download era but the concept of device lifetime, unlimited music included in the price of the phone works even better in a streaming context. I first suggested Apple should do this in 2014. Back then Apple didn’t need to do it. Now it does. But rather than music alone, it would make sense for Apple to execute a multi-content play with music, video, newsand perhaps even monthly App Store credits. Think of it as Apple’s answer to Amazon Prime. To be clear, the reason for this is not so much to drive streaming revenue but to drive iPhone and iPad margins and in doing so, not saddle its balance sheet with low streaming margins. Here’s how it would work.

Streaming as a margin driver for hardware

Apple weathered much of the smartphone slowdown in 2018 by selling higher priced devices such as the iPhone X. This revenue over volume approach proved its worth. The latest earnings guidance shows that even more is needed. Apple could retail super premium editions of iPhones and iPads with lifetime content bundles included. By factoring in these bundled content costs into iPhone and iPad profits and losses, Apple can transform low margin streaming revenue into margin contributors for hardware. Done right, Apple can increase both hardware and services revenue without having a major margin hit. Add in Apple potentially flicking the switch on the currently mothballed strategy of becoming mobile operator, and the strategy goes one step further.

Free streaming without the ads

If reports that Apple is buying a stake in iHeart Media are true, then it will have another plank in the strategy. Radio is an advertising business, but Tim Cook hates ads so the likelihood is that any streaming radio content would be ad free. Given that consumers are unlikely to want to pay for a linear radio offering, Apple would need to wrap the content costs into hardware margins. This could either be part of the core content bundle, or could even be a lower priced content bundle, with Apple Music being available as a bolt-on, or as part of a higher priced bundle or, more likely, both. Ad-supported streaming becoming ad free would of course scare the hell out of Spotify.

Music to the rescue, again

2019 will probably be too soon for this strategy to finds its way into market, but do expect the first elements of it coming into place. Music saved Apple’s business once already thanks to the iTunes Music Store boosting flagging iPod sales. This paved the way for the greatest ever period in Apple’s history. Now we are approaching a similar junction and music, along with video and maybe games, are poised to do the same once again.