Access Industries’ full stack music company has, ahem, company: Liberty Media. With a combined market market cap of $37 billion John Malone’s Liberty group of companies is by anyone’s standards is a serious player. In the world of media and telecoms it is one of the biggest. Liberty grabbed the headlines this week with its $2.7 billion acquisition of a 15% stake in Formula One, with an option to acquire the entire company, possibly by year’s end. It is a typically bold move for a company that makes a habit of acquiring companies and consolidating markets. Over the past 11 years Liberty Media and Liberty Global have spent around $50 billion on acquiring companies such as UK TV operator Virgin Media, Dutch cable company Ziggo and (indirectly via a holding company) major league baseball team Atlanta Braves. So far so good, but where’s the music angle I hear you ask. Well, just a few weeks ago Liberty made a bid for a certain Pandora Media to add to its already extensive collection of music assets.
The next five years will be one of the music industry’s most dramatic periods of change. The last ten years might have been disruptive but the change that is coming will be even more transformative. By 2019 70% of all digital revenue globally will be from on-demand services, representing 40% of total music revenues. It will be a shift from the old world and the ‘old new world’ to a brave new one. The CD and the download will decline at almost the same rates: physical revenue will be 43% smaller while downloads will be 40% smaller. In some ways the CD has less to worry about than the download. The CD has the protection of a vast installed base of players across the globe and growing niches such as deluxe box sets. The download though depends massively upon Apple’s devices, and the tide over at Cupertino is turning.
One of the concerns of the shift to streaming has been revenue cannibalization. It is no new phenomenon. The paid digital music market has still not truly broken out to the mainstream. While the likes of YouTube and Pandora clearly have mass market reach, music download stores and subscription services do not. Each at their respective times have appealed to the same higher spending and tech savvy end of the music buyer spectrum.
In the 1990’s and early 2000’s Amazon’s online CD store was the home of the globe’s most tech savvy music aficionados. Then Apple came along and poached its iTunes customers directly from Amazon because those same CD buyers were also buying iPods. Then Spotify came along and started poaching Apple’s most valuable customers via Apple’s App Store – the chink in the armour of Apple’s otherwise closed ecosystem.
Now Apple and Amazon are both setting out on their own cloud strategy journeys and each will be hoping to win back a chunk of their lost customers. Apple’s recent elevation of Beats Music to one of the family of ‘Apps Made By Apple’ gives the first hint of what the company can do to ‘encourage’ its users away from other streaming services.
The next three years or so will be a fiercely contested battle for the hearts and minds of the digital music aficionado that will illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the technology ecosystems of Apple, Amazon and Google. Yet while they all fight to win or win back customers, the attention once again remains firmly on the top end of the market. For as long as music services focus their efforts on the most valuable music customers, the mainstream will continue to be catered by low ARPU ad supported services. And for as long as that happens the evolution of digital music will continue to be one of the latest generation of services stealing the customers of the last.
With the launch of its new iPhones just round the corner Apple could be forgiven for feeling rather more positive about its smartphone outlook than it has for a while. The sheen has worn off its number one competitor Samsung, with cheap Chinese and Indian competitors seriously eating into its market share and the investor community realising that the smartphone business is actually a lot like the music business: you are only as good as your last hit. But if Samsung is a major label, measured solely on market share and sales, then Apple has managed to partially maintain the role of big indie, where the quality of its output is just as important. Apple’s Eddie Cue believes that Apple are on the cusp of product strategy renaissance. Crucially, Apple’s CE product portfolio has become wide enough now, especially with the acquisition of Beats, to allow Apple some innovation freedom. I think this could translate into an iTunes phone before the end of 2015.
The Mainstreaming of Apple’s Customer Base
Apple’s customer base has changed from the vanguard of the tech savvy early adopters to a much broader group including large swathes of early followers, later adopters and even mass market laggards. The iPhone was primarily responsible for the transformation and while it has brought undoubted success has also caused Apple problems. As a company with a small product number of products in its portfolio, especially within the mobile category, Apple has never been able to play the ‘Hero Phone’ strategy of phone specialists like HTC and Samsung. So while those companies have been able to sway those all-important investors with small selling but super-specced uber phones, Apple has, until the launch of the 5C, had roll its entry and hero devices into one single new product. But even the combined strategy of the 5C and of targeting lower end consumers with older models still leaves Apple little room to be truly adventurous with its product strategy, for fear of alienating its mainstream users.
As I wrote about previously, the acquisition of Beats presents Apple with the opportunity to innovate with more freedom in the Beats product ranges and then take the innovations that work best there back into the Apple product portfolio. Even if Apple more tightly harmonizes its two divisions’ product ranges, Apple will still be left with a larger and more segmented product portfolio, giving it more ability to super-serve important niches. This is where Apple’s music device strategy renaissance can come into play.
Music Changed Apple
When Apple launched the iPod in 2001 it was the start of a musical journey for Apple. I remember attending Apple analyst briefing sessions in those early iPod days and being the only one there interested in this small little side project. Of course over the following years the iPod, with music at the core, took Apple’s product strategy in an entirely new direction. You might say that music changed Apple. But even by 2004 the winds of change were stirring: the launch of the iPod Photo with its colour screen was the first tentative step towards turning Apple’s portable device strategy from music to something much bigger. The iPhone and iPad are the current culmination of that shift, multimedia devices that do many things for many groups of people. Not one thing for one group of people in the way the iPod did.
The strategy has been inarguably successful but just as music stopped looking like it mattered so much, it started biting Apple in the behind. Spotify and other streaming subscription services started stealing Apple’s best iTunes music customers, turning them from downloaders into streamers. That in itself should have been an irritation rather than a problem. But these most valuable of customers now have much less reason to stay with Apple when the buy their next phone because their Spotify playlists will work just as well on Android as they will on iPhones.
Apple’s New Music Strategy
Apple needs a stand out music value proposition to win them back. A subscription service built around Beats Music and iTunes Radio will be the fuel in the engine but will not do enough on its own quickly enough. While Beats Music may have different features from Spotify the fundamentals are essentially the same (millions of songs, c $10 a month). So iPhone owning Spotify customers are unlikely to switch straight away just because it’s there.
Apple needs more. That ‘more’ can be delivered in two ways:
Apple has always been in the business of loss leading with music to sell hardware. Once that was a growth strategy now it assumes the urgency of defence strategy. That should persuade Apple to heavily subsidize the price of a subscription. In the near term this could be 3 month Beats Music trial plus a discounted $5 subscription offer at the end of the trial free with one of the forthcoming iPhone 6 models. Longer term it should translate into something much more ambitious.
The iTunes Phone or The Beats Phone?
Before the end of 2015 I expect Apple to launch a music specialist phone. Whether that is branded as an iTunes Phone or a Beats Phone will depend on who wins the internal branding wars at Apple, but expect it to be one of those labels. The device will be squarely targeted at the music aficionado and will crucially combine the music subscription and device into a single purchase by hard bundling a music subscription into the device cost. It will likely also be squarely focused on pushing Beats hardware sales so it may be both bundled with a Beats Bluetooth headphones and also be the first iPhone without a 3.5mm stereo jack, instead offering Bluetooth only.
The broad feature set could look something like this:
• Hard bundled Beats Music subscription
• Unlimited iCloud access
• Ad free iTunes Radio
• Top level UI music apps
• Bundled Beats Headphones
• Bluetooth only headphone support
This strategy is Apple’s best shot at reclaiming its wavering aficionado fan base but be in no doubt, it would also be a game changer for the digital music space by once again tying the importance of music experiences to device not just app.
Google yesterday confirmed the much rumoured purchase of curated music service Songza for somewhere between $15 and $39 million. While it is not a vast investment for a company with the recent $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest as a benchmark, it is nonetheless a significant one for a company that already has a couple of streaming music services of its own. It is not a Beats sized deal but then if Google had wanted one of those it would have bought Spotify. So just why did Google splash the cash on Songza?
Access to all the music in thee world can be overwhelming, with so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all. This is the Tyranny of Choice. For all the efforts and intent of music services to ‘fix’ discovery no one has yet nailed it. Listen Services like Nokia Mix Radio, O2 Tracks and Pandora present one solution: effectively removing the burden of excessive choice by delivering a curated stream of music that requires little or no effort from the user. But this approach does not translate well to All You Can Eat (AYCE) services like Spotify and Googles’ Play Music All Access. These services are built on the foundations of giving access to everything, the exact opposite of what Listen Services are about. Which is why AYCE services are doubling down on enhancing their internal curation and recommendation capabilities. Spotify moved first with its acquisition of the EchoNest, Rdio followed by acquiring TastemakerX and now this move from Google. Beats Music took a different route entirely, building its service on the foundations of programming rather than superimposing it.
Google should be able to extract great value from Songza but as with all of these technologies it is just part of the solution. Human programming, as resource intensive as it might be, remains a pivotally important part of the equation, and though all the AYCE services have teams of curators, only Beats so far has done it at large scale.
First, Show People How To Find What They Have Already Found
And still the discovery problem is not fixed. Progress has been made in the last few years, but in many respects it is a case running before learning to walk. Recommendations, discovery and programming are just one part of the music consumption journey i.e. discovering new music. Arguably the most important aspect of the journey is the one that is most neglected: navigating the music people have already discovered. As counter intuitive as it may sound, people first of all need to be shown how to find what they have already found…their pre-existing music collections but also the music they have listened to in a service. Creating playlists and tags of songs is an often burdensome task that requires no small amount of discipline. Which means that newly discovered gems can all too quickly disappear back into bottomless pit of 30 million songs, rendering a discovery journey wasted.
Smart of use of data can provide the foundations for the solution, ensuring that people’s streaming ‘collections’ are dynamically created and programmed. But data alone is not enough. What is needed is an entire new paradigm in music navigation. For all the faults of CDs they were visual reference points. A consumer might not remember the name of an artist or an album but would know roughly where the CD was on a shelf or what colour the cover was. (I remember as a DJ often identifying a record I was about to play only by the colour of the label on the centre of the vinyl).
Digital music lacks such visual reference points. iTunes transformed our music collections into featureless spreadsheets, with playlists emerging as simply another means of sorting the data. New visually rich interfaces in music services help enhance the user experience but most often simply try to shoe horn in the old album art approach into a digital context. This new navigation paradigm must start with a blank sheet and think in terms of multimedia, interactive, dynamic experiences. It will need to leverage rich visuals, touch, dynamic context aware programming, sound, voice control and Shazam, to create an immersive whole that gives the consumer clear, immediate results in a way that engages multiple senses. Only once we have fixed this first step of the music consumption journey can we really start thinking about ‘fixing discovery’.
We are at critical juncture in the evolution of digital content. Digital consumption of content, spurred by accelerating adoption of smartphones and tablets, is crashing towards the mainstream, while traditional revenues and business models continue to buckle under the strain. Legal and business disputes between Amazon and book publishers, and Google and independent record labels are small but crucial parts of this process. This period of disruptive flux is giving way to a new era of content distribution in which a few large technology companies are assuming the role of distributor, retailer, channel and playback device as one single package. The emerging new world order is defined by concentration of power, reduction of competition and the subservience of traditional media companies. The 2000’s witnessed the ascendancy of digital innovators, now we are arriving at a new chapter: the Innovator Hegemony, the era of the all powerful, unregulated technology superpower.
Free Is Now the Business Model of Choice
We are mid way through the shift from the distribution era of selling units of stuff, be they newspapers, CDs, packaged games, books or DVDs, to the consumption era where consumers increasingly value access over ownership. This shift manifest itself as a meltdown of the traditional media industries and associated retailing channels. Out of the ruins of these crumbling nation states Amazon, Apple and Google have started to construct sprawling digital content empires. Until relatively recently it looked like Apple was the only company that had learned how to make digital content works as a business, albeit as a loss leading one. But during the last year the market has inevitably buckled under the pressure of Amazon’s willingness to give away access to content as bait for free shipping and Google’s endless appetite for giving content away for consumer data.
Amazon and Google realized they were never going to win if they played the game by the Apple’s rules, which had been transplanted from the analogue age, namely charging for ownership of content. Instead they have opted for the digital zeitgeist: free, or at least feels like free. It is beginning to look like iTunes was a historical anomaly, an isolated outpost for distribution era practices in the digital realm. What Amazon and Google have done is pick up the baton Napster dropped in the early 2000’s and they have run with it.
The Innovator Hegemony
There is little reason media companies would want to cede so much power and pay the inexorable price of devaluing digital content to the price point of zero. They do so because they allowed their partners to get too powerful. This is the Innovator Hegemony. Apple, Google and Amazon all used content as a stepping stone towards achieving global scale, scale that once gained they used to swap the balance of power. Labels, publishers, authors and artists suddenly found themselves beholden to companies they had helped succeed and that success now used against them.
When Competition Legislation Protects Monopolistic Behaviour
But there is an issue of even greater significance at play: the inability of market regulation to appropriately counter the increasingly monopolistic behaviours of the big technology companies’ content moves. Anti-trust and competition legislation neuters media companies but leaves technology companies to operate with near impunity. Dating back to the analogue era when media companies were all powerful, anti-trust legislation was designed to prevent media companies colluding and entering into monopolistic behaviour. But now that technology companies own the platform control points that media companies depend upon in the digital realm, anti-trust and competition legislation has the unintended consequence of consolidating the power of the technology monopolies by stymying media companies.
The three big technology companies have a greater concentration of influence and market share in digital content than any single media company did in the analogue era. Amazon, Apple and Google have become a single, effective monopoly in each of their respective marketplaces. Thus anti-trust legislation currently has the unintended consequence of reinforcing market concentration.
Matters are not helped by the fact that media companies have become something of a busted flush at the legislative level, having over reached with copyright and anti-piracy lobbying efforts. The dramatic collapse of SOPA and the failure of Hadopi illustrate how media companies have lost legislators’ hearts and minds. After years of media industry ascendency the lobbying balance has swung towards the technology companies who are winning over key influencers such as the European Commissioner Neelie Kroes.
Platforms As Integrated Monopolies
Right now Amazon and Google are testing the boundaries, seeing what they can get away with before they are reined in. Amazon is unashamedly abusing its platform to hurt sales of book publishers such as Hachette and Bonnier, while Google is equally brazenly threatening to turn off monetization of music videos of labels that will not sign its overweening YouTube contract. Interestingly both Amazon and Google appear to be testing just how forceful they can be with the independent ends of the media business spectrum. These actions show us how vertically integrated platforms have a tendency to become internal de facto monopolies with effectively limitless internal power. Power that corrupts, and that ultimately turns the ideologies of these once idealistic disruptive start ups into police states where dissension is no more tolerated than it is in North Korea.
It is time for media companies and policy makers to decide whether they are brave enough to stand up to the Innovator Hegemony. Every content company still has the nuclear option of pulling content from the services but few will ever dare to do so – the German YouTube stand off a rare exception. And therein lies the problem, media companies already feel they cannot exist without the big technology partners and the tech companies know it. Without appropriate macro checks and balances the outcome will always be the timeless, asymmetrical roles of bully and bullied.
Amazon’s long anticipated Fire smartphone was launched to much fanfare last night and includes a host of features designed to make it stand out from the pack. But one detail that seems to have slipped beneath the radar is that, for now at least, it includes a year long access to Amazon Prime, which following last week’s music announcement, includes free access to an ad-free on demand streaming music service.
What this means is that Amazon have launched a smartphone that gives you a year’s worth of unlimited free music. Six years ago when Nokia tried to do the same with Comes With Music the concept was ground breaking and looked set to change the future of digital music. But Nokia’s flawed implementation of the proposition scared most of the marketplace away from the device bundle model. Beyond Oblivion nearly made it work before folding, and its subsequent offspring Boinc and Yonder are each still trying to prove the model. Rok Mobile are another new entrant.
I still maintain that the device bundle is the best way Apple can extract full value from its recently acquired Beats Music asset but for now all eyes will be on Amazon to see if the model is finally ready for prime time (pun sort of intended) now that it has been sneaked in through the back door.
Amazon today entered the streaming music foray with the launch of its own bundled music service. Amazon Prime subscribers get free access to on demand streaming from a catalogue of 1 million tracks, the majority of which are older catalogue titles rather than frontline hits. Amazon’s move has received considerably less interest and hype than Apple’s acquisition of Beats but is in many respects every bit as important.
The future of digital content is going to be defined by the content and device strategies of three companies: Apple, Amazon and Google. Each has a very different approach resulting in an equally diverse set of products and audiences (see figure). Amazon and Apple have mirror opposite content strategies: Apple loss leads on content to sell devices whereas Amazon loss leads on devices to sell content. (Google loss leads on both because its end goal is your data). All three have a strong focus on music but all three understand clearly that the future of digital content lies in having multiple genre stores that traverse music, games, apps, video, books etc. All three also recognize the importance of hardware for delivering the crucial context for the content experience. Similarly, all three have a Content Connector strategy aimed at opening up the mass-market digital content opportunity in the home via the TV.
Amazon’s inclusion of music streaming in its Prime offering speaks volumes about the perceived importance of music as a product to the retailer. Music used to be the crucial first rung on the ladder for Amazon customers. Buyers would start off with a low consideration purchase item like a CD or DVD and the next thing they knew they were buying microwaves and computers. Music is still plays an important role in Amazon’s customer life cycle, but it is no longer a product needs paying for with a separate payment. Music has become the ‘feels like free’ soundtrack to a video subscription with the added benefit of free shipping for online shopping. Out of those three core value pillars of Amazon Prime, music streaming is probably the smaller. Music has become the National Geographic channel in the cable subscription: a nice part of the overall proposition but not something that carries inherent monetary value on its own.
The harsh reality is that this is probably a sound strategy for engaging the mainstream consumer with music streaming (the extensive selection of curated playlists on top of a modest 1 million track catalogue hints at the mass market positioning). But whether this is the best strategy for the mainstream is another thing entirely. Labels fear that free services like Spotify free and Pandora threaten to erode consumers’ perceptions of music as a paid for commodity. But at least in those environments they are actively adopting a music service in its own right. With Amazon Prime there is a real risk that music is being relegated to the role of muzak in the elevator.
Although the Apple-Beats deal is about far more than just streaming music, it is nonetheless an important part of the puzzle. Apple has been going slow with streaming, introducing cloud experiences (iCloud, iTunes Match, iTunes Radio, Video rentals) slowly so as not to alienate its less tech-adventurous mainstream user base. That strategy remains valid and will continue, but it has failed to protect the defection of its core, high value, early adopters. This is why Apple has to get serious about streaming fast: it is scared of losing its best customers. It is also why all other streaming companies, whatever they may admit publically, are getting ready to run scared. This is streaming music’s mutual fear factor:
- Velvet handcuffs: Music downloads are monetized CRM for Apple, a means of enhancing the device experience. Purchased tracks and an iTunes managed library act as velvet handcuffs for Apple device owners. But for those consumers that use a streaming subscription app, the playlists and music collection can exist on any device. Suddenly the handcuffs slip off. This is why Apple has to get streaming right in short order. It simply cannot afford to lose swathes of its most valuable device customers at the next handset replacement cycle.
- Chinks in the iTunes armour: Until the launch of the App Store, 3rd party music services had no way of breaking into the iTunes ecosystem and were, in the main, doomed to the role of also rans. The App Store was the chink in the otherwise impregnable iTunes armour that allowed those 3rd parties to not just launch punitive raids but to set up camp in Apple’s heartlands. It was the price Apple had to pay to enter the next phase of its business, but now it is ready to shore up its defences once more.
- Eating from Apple’s table: The vast majority of streaming music subscribers were already digital download buyers first, and of those the majority were either current or past iTunes Store customers when they became subscribers. On a global scale, subscriptions have first and foremost been about transitioning existing spending rather than creating new digital customers. The picture is very different in Nordics, the Netherlands and South Korea but those markets contribute far less to global scale than the markets (US, UK, Australia etc.) where this trend dominates. Apple has provided the core addressable market for streaming services for the last five years. Now those companies worry over where will they be able to get new subscribers if Apple start taking subscriptions seriously.
- Apple will not have to play fair: Although Apple knows it is under the watchful eye of various regulatory authorities following the eBook price fixing episode, there is still plenty it can do to make life hard for 3rd party streaming services. Just take a look at what Amazon is reportedly getting away with in its book pricing dispute with Hachette: delaying shipments of the publisher’s books to customers, removing buy buttons from pre-ordered books, even pointing Amazon customers to competitive titles when searching for Hachette books. Fair play or foul, the power of the retailer is huge. Whether Apple simply ensures Spotify et al don’t appear in search results, or that they are never quite able to integrate seamlessly with iOS anymore for no specific reason that anyone can quite put their finger on….But even without resorting to such behavior, simply by deeply integrating an Apple (or Beats) branded subscription service natively into its devices and ecosystem, Apple will have the upper hand and 3rd parties will find it a whole lot harder to fish in Apple’s waters.
None of this is necessarily bad for the market either. In fact it could be just what the subscriptions business needs. To finally focus on green field opportunity beyond the confines of the Apple elite. Nor should Apple even limit its subscription focus to streaming or to music. The rise of the Content Connectors points to Apple, Amazon and Google pursuing digital content strategies in the round, that do not get bogged down with super serving any individual content type at the expense of the rest. Apple’s best mid-term subscription play may yet simply prove to be a monthly allowance of iTunes credit across all content types, bundled into the cost of the device. Put that on top of iCloud, iTunes Radio, Beats Music and suddenly you have a very compelling multi-content offering. Something far out of the reaches of the current product roadmaps of any of the stand alone music services.
Can Apple afford to loss lead with music subscriptions to pursue such a strategy? Well, remember Apple’s entire digital music business has been built on loss leading. Whatever the final outcome, the mutual fear factor balance looks set to tip in Apple’s favour for a while.
As a music industry analyst, my post last Friday on the rumoured Apple / Beats deal focused squarely on the Beats Music part of the equation – if you are a hammer everything looks like a nail right? There are of course much bigger pieces in play than an unproven music service, so to illuminate some of the bigger picture, here are some of the broader product strategy implications of what the deal could mean if it does close:
- Wearable tech: Apple is a consumer tech company whose reputation for innovation was dented in recent years while it grappled with the challenge of retaining relevance for the mass market with a limited device portfolio while at the same time trying to nudge the innovation needle forward. Wearable technology is an area in which Apple can innovate bravely while leaving its more mainstream phone and tablet product lines to evolve at more conservative paces. The nascent nature of the wearable tech space means that there is much that Apple can do to both push the boundaries and gain innovation kudos. Beats is a wearable products company, Apple is a portable technology company. It is a wearable tech partnership waiting to happen. Beats could even conceivably be the Apple brand / division for wearable tech, keeping it cleanly differentiated from the core device business.Whether the outcomes would be smart headphones, fitness devices, smart watches etc. almost doesn’t matter. The important implication would be that Apple would have a fantastic platform and brand for opening up new markets. For more on the wearable tech angle, watch this fantastic video blog from my former Forrester colleague James McQuivey
- Segmenting music consumers: When Apple’s portable device business portfolio consisted of iPods alone it was immediately obvious who the music fans were within its customer base. Now it is far more difficult for Apple to identify the media preferences of potential customers until they have actually started using an Apple device. That is one of the retailing implications of producing multi-purpose devices. But start selling device-headphone bundles, or even device-headphone-music service bundles and Apple will find itself with a highly effective tool for targeting the music aficionados. These super fans can be sold premium music products without the risk of alienating other customers with premium price points in the main product portfolio.
- Reinvigorating the brand: Apple is not a high-end brand and never has been. Instead Apple plays in the same brand space Sony did in the 1980s and 1990s, namely that of the aspirational premium mainstream: the top end of the mass market and just scraping the lower reaches of the upper echelons. But the price Apple has paid for large-scale success is that its user base and brand have crept downwards. No product can take more blame than the iPhone: the smartphone market is the most commoditized of sectors, with fixed replacement cycles, carrier subsidies, fierce competition, aggressive marketing all reducing brand loyalty and value. Beats, for all the criticism of the technical quality of its headphones, has created an aspirational, youth focused brand built on the foundations of the aesthetics of quality. Like Apple, Beats is a brand focused on the upper end of the mainstream and would be a great strategic complement, presenting the opportunity for Apple to reinvigorate its core brand values and at the same time enhance youth resonance.
- Putting cash to work: Apple is a very cash generative business with an investor community that has consistently higher expectations than Apple is able to deliver on. Consequently Apple has had to face the paradoxical situation of delivering results of unprecedented quality only to see tepid investor response. Couple that with ever growing demands to redistribute its vast cash reserves to investors in the form of dividends and it is little wonder that Apple has been on something of a spending spree of late. Spending big on Beats kills two birds with one stone: it puts cash to work and sends a strong message to investors.
Whatever happens to the prospective deal, what it clear is that there are countless potential benefits to Apple. And if the deal does not transpire then it is equally clear that Apple either needs another such partner quick, or instead needs to put its cash to work right away on addressing each and every of these strategic permutations.
Stories emerged last night that Apple is in talks to buy Beats, citing well-placed sources. If true – and if it actually goes through – the acquisition has countless potential impacts of seismic proportions, particularly if the deal includes nascent subscription service Beats Music. Apple has always been in the business of selling music for the business of selling hardware, and the potential acquisition must be considered in those terms. With download sales declining and subscriptions gaining traction, Apple has been locked in a process of soul searching, trying to work out what it can do to remain relevant in the digital music business in order to remain relevant in the device business. Beats is a ‘if you can’t beat them, buy them’ solution.
There are a number of key considerations and potential impacts:
- Digital music Plan A has run its course: Despite dynamic growth in Northern European markets, digital music growth nearly shuddered to a halt in 2013, slowing from 11% year-on-year growth in 2012 to just 2% last year, and that is unlikely to be much higher than 4% in 2014. The reason is quite simple: streaming subscriptions are, outside of Northern Europe, predominately converting the most valuable download buyers – who are most often iTunes buyers – into subscribers. Aficionados who bought a few digital albums a month are instead spending 9.99 a month. So instead of bringing up the average spend of music buyers it is bringing down the spending of many – I’ll be publishing some data on this in the coming weeks. Digital music needs a Plan B to reinvigorate growth
- Apple is paradoxically holding back digital growth: Apple almost singlehandedly created the global digital music in the 2000’s but it is now actually holding back growth in the 2000’s. Streaming has taken off most quickly where Apple never got a foothold (see figure). Where Apple is firmly established streaming is a transition story, of download revenue shifting to streaming. Where it is not, streaming is green field growth. An interesting side effect of this is that because English speaking Apple has prospered most in English speaking markets, it is in these countries – US, UK, Canada, Australia, all of which are top ten music markets – where digital growth is now slowest. Apple has inadvertently passed the digital baton to the non-English language world.
- Apple’s go-slow streaming strategy is too slow: All this translates into weakening digital relevance for Apple, which infers weakening hardware relevance. Apple has been here before, back in the heyday of Last.FM when Apple was still predominately a computer business, it tried to steal the social music revolution’s clothes with the launch of the now-defunct Ping and the just-about-still-around Genius. Yet Apple came out of that era stronger than ever. Now though, portable devices are the beating heart of Apple’s business, and with the relentless onslaught of Android it cannot afford its next music move to be another Ping. However Apple has had to go slow with streaming. Its user base is more mainstream than ever – as the growing popularity of Now compilations in its store attests – so it has to introduce new features in a way that does not overwhelm its less tech-adventurous customers. iCloud and iTunes Radio are great transition technologies to help introduce streaming to Apple users at a steady pace and to demonstrate clear relevance in the iTunes context. Unfortunately this long-term strategy for its mainstream users has done little to halt the defection of its more sophisticated and, crucially, most valuable, customers. Beats Music could be the defensive strategic option for them.
- Subscriptions don’t have to be AYCE 9.99: 9.99 AYCE services have done a great job of monetizing the super fans, but with less than 5% penetration in major music markets, there is a clear need for something else for the more mainstream fan in top 10 music markets. Cheap priced subscriptions and telco hard bundles are both solutions to this problem. Apple should not feel compelled to jump on the 9.99 bandwagon. Digital content stores are breaking down the genre walls – as Google’s Play demonstrates so well. Apple gets much more revenue from other content genres – see this figure – so a multi-content genre subscription would be a much cleaner fit for Apple. As would a subscription that gave users a certain amount of credit to use on any iTunes products, sort of a virtual iTunes Gift Card subscription. Pricing would be blissfully simple – e.g. $10, $20, $30 etc. – and would help protect Apple from revenue cannibalization until it makes the full switch to access from ownership. $10 could include ad-free iTunes Radio, $20 and upwards could include unlimited music streaming.
- Apple could make hard bundling work, and some: If Apple does get Beats Music, it would have an unprecedented opportunity to make bundled subscriptions work. Hardware has always been key to making digital content work, whether that be the Kindle, Xbox, Playstation, iPhone or the new generation of Content Connectors like Chromecast. Subscriptions are working now because Apple opened up a chink in its vertically integrated ecosystem armour by allowing streaming services to exist on its devices. In fact mobile access is responsible for the majority of the 9.99 model’s growth. Retailing an iPhone / Beats headphones subscription bundle would communicate clear value to users, and with the cost largely hidden in the premium price point associated with the bundle, could help consumers get over the hump of committing to monthly spending.
- Beats would redefine Apple as a CE company: The implications on Apple’s device portfolio are intriguing tool. The simplicity of Apple’s limited product range has always been key to its success. Being able to retail a single phone when competing with the excessively vast portfolios of incumbent smartphone companies was a major differentiation point. Since those first iPhone days though Apple has multiplied its number of product SKUs. Incorporating a range of headphones would take that to another level. Whether Apple has the ability to seamlessly transform from a computer company with a small range of portable computing devices, to a fully-fledged CE company remains an intriguing open question.
There is no doubt that if Apple does buy Beats and Beats Music, that the impact on the competition will be dramatic. Spotify will be rightly worrying about the impact on its impending IPO – though expect words to the effect that this is simply a resounding validation of the model. But the competition should be welcomed. To date most digital music services have been strategically lazy, focusing their efforts on trying to sell new products to already existing digital customers, the majority of whom, in the big markets at least, are Apple customers. Now digital music companies will have to start thinking much more creatively about how they can compete around, rather than with Apple. About how they can create revenue in new consumer segments, not simply trying to extract more revenue from the preexisting ones. Some companies are doing this already but they are in the distinct minority – this should be a good time for them. If Apple does buy Beats, it will bring some much needed momentum to market that was beginning to suffer from hubris.