MIDiA Research Predictions 2018: Post-Peak Economics

With 2017 drawing to a close and 2018 on the horizon, it is time for MIDiA’s 2018 predictions.

But first, on how we did last year, our 2017 predictions had a 94% success rate. See bottom of this post for a run down.

Music

  • Post-catalogue – pressing reset on the recorded music business model: Revenues from catalogue sales have long underpinned the major record label model, representing the growth fund with which labels invested in future talent, often at a loss. Streaming consumption is changing this and we’ll see the first effects of lower catalogue in 2018. Smaller artist advances from bigger labels will follow.
  • Spotify will need new metrics: Up until now Spotify has been able to choose what metrics to report and pretty much when (annual financial reports aside). Once public, increased investor scrutiny on will see it focus on new metrics (APRU, Life Time Value etc) and concentrate more heavily on its free user numbers. 2018 will be the year that free streaming takes centre stage – watch out radio.
  • Apple will launch an Apple Music bundle for Home Pod: We’ve been burnt before predicting Apple Music hardware bundles, but Amazon has set the precedent and we think a $3.99 Home Pod Apple Music subscription (available annually) is on the cards. (Though we’re prepared to be burnt once again on this prediction!) 

Video

  • Savvy switchers – SVOD’s Achilles’ heel: Churn will become a big deal for leading video subscription services in 2018, with savvy users switching tactically to get access to the new shows they want. Of course, Netflix and co don’t report churn so the indicators will be slowing growth in many markets.
  • Subscriptions lose their stranglehold on streaming: 2018 will see the rise of new streaming offerings from traditional TV companies and new entrants that will deliver free-to-view, often ad-supported, on-demand streaming TV.

Media

  • Beyond the peak: We are nearing peak in the attention economy. 2018 will be the year casualties start to mount, as audience attention becomes a scarce commodity. Smart players will tap into ‘kinetic capital’ – the value users give to experiences that involve their context and location.
  • The rise of the new gate keepers part II: In 2018 Amazon and Facebook will pursue ever more ambitious strategies aimed at making them the leading next generation media companies, the conduits for the digital economy.

Games

  • The rise of the unaffiliated eSports: eSports leagues emulate the structure of traditional sports, but they may have missed the point. In 2018, we’ll see more eSports fans actually seeking games competition elsewhere, driving a surge in unaffiliated eSports.
  • Mobile games are the canary in the coal mine for peak attention: Mobile games will be the first big losers as we approach peak in the attention economy – there simply aren’t enough free hours left in the day. Mobile gaming activity is declining as mainstream consumers, who became mobile gamers to fill dead time, now have plenty of digital options that more closely match their needs. All media companies need to learn from mobile games’ experience.

Technology

  • The fall of tech major ROI: Growth will come less cheaply for the tech majors (Alphabet, Apple, Amazon, Facebook) in 2018. They will have to overspend to maintain revenue momentum so margins will be hit.
  • Regulation catches up with the tech majors: Each of the tech majors is a monopoly or monopsony in their respective markets, staying one step ahead of regulation but this will change. The EU’s forced unbundling of Windows Media Player in the early 2000s triggered the end of Microsoft’s digital dominance. 2018 could see the start of a Microsoft moment for at least one of the tech majors. 

2017 Predictions

For the record, here are some of our correct 2017 predictions:

  • Digital will finally account for more than 50% of revenue
  • Spotify will still be the leading subscription service
  • eSports to reach $1 billion
  • Streaming holdouts will trickle not flood
  • AR will have hype but not a killer device.
  • VR players will double down on content spend
  • Google doubles down on its hardware ecosystem plays
  • 2017 will not be the year of Peak TV
  • Original video content to arrive on messaging apps

Here are some that we got wrong or were inconclusive:

  • Tidal finally sells ($300 million stake from Softbank was a partial sale – full sale likely in 2018)
  • Apple will launch an Apple Music iPhone – didn’t happen but the Home Pod may be the bundled music device in 2018 (see below)
  • Spotify will be disrupted – it actually went from strength to strength with no meaningful new competitor, yet

Disney, Netflix and the Squeezed Middle: The Real Story Behind Net Neutrality

Unless you have been hiding under a rock this last couple of weeks you’ll have heard at least something about the build up to the decision over turning net neutrality in the US, a decision that was confirmed yesterday. See Zach Fuller’s post for a great summary of what it means. In highly simplistic terms, the implications are that telcos will be able to prioritize access to their networks, which could mean that any digital service will only be able to guarantee their US users a high quality of service if they broker a deal with each and every telco. As Zach explains, we could see similar moves in Europe and elsewhere. If you are a media company or a digital content provider your world just got turned upside down. But this ruling is in many ways an inevitable result of a fundamental shift in value across digital value chains.

net neutrality value chains

Although the ruling effectively only overturns a 2015 ruling that had previously guaranteeing net neutrality, the world has moved on a lot since then, not least with regards to the emergence of the streaming economy across video, music and games. In short, there is a lot more bandwidth being taken up by streaming services and little or no extra value reverting to the upgraded networks.

Value is shifting from rights to distribution

Although the exact timing with the Disney / Fox deal (see Tim Mulligan’s take here) was coincidental the broad timing was not. The last few years have seen a major shift in value from rights companies (eg Disney, Universal Music, EA Games) through to distribution companies (eg Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify) with the value shift largely bypassing the infrastructure companies (ie the telcos).

The accelerating revenue growth and valuations of the tech majors and the streaming giants have left media companies trailing in their wake. The Disney / Fox deal was two of the world’s biggest media companies realising that consolidation was the only way to even get on the same lap as the tech majors. They needed to do so because those tech majors are all either already or about to become content companies too, using their vast financial fire power to outbid traditional media companies for content.

The value shift has bypassed infrastructure companies

Meanwhile telcos have been left stranded between rock and a hard place. Telcos have long been concerned about becoming relegated to the role of dumb pipes and most had given up any real hope of being content companies themselves (other than the TV companies who also have telco divisions). They see regulatory support for better monetizing their networks by levying access fees to tech companies as their last resort.

In its most basic form, this regulatory decision will allow telcos to throttle the bandwidth available to streaming services either in favour of their favoured partners or until an access fee is paid. The common thought is that telcos are becoming the new gatekeepers. In most instances they are more likely to become toll booths. But in some instances they may well shy away from any semblance of neutrality. For example, Sprint might well decide that it wants to give its part-owned streaming service Tidal a leg up, and throttle access for Spotify and Apple Music for Sprint users. Eventually Spotify and Apple Music users will realise they either need to switch streaming service or mobile provider. Given that one is a need-to-have, contract-based utility and the other is nice-to-have and no contract and is fundamentally the same underlying proposition, a streaming music switch is the more likely option. Similarly, AT&T could opt to throttle access for Netflix in order to give its DirecTV Now service a leg up. Those telcos without strong content plays could find themselves in the market for acquisitions. For example, Verizon could make a bid for Spotify pre-listing, or even post-listing.

The FCC ruling still needs congressional approval and is subject to legal challenges from a bunch of states so it could yet be blocked. If it is not, then the above is how the world will look. Make no mistake, this is the biggest growing pain the streaming economy has yet faced, even if it just ends up with those services having to carve out an extra slice of their wafer-thin margins in order reach their customers.

How Spotify Can Become A Next Generation “Label”

Spotify on iPhoneOne of the themes my MIDiA colleague Tim Mulligan (the name’s no coincidence, he’s my brother too!) has been developing over in our online video research is that of next generation TV operators. With the traditional pay-TV model buckling under the pressure of countless streaming subscriptions services like Netflix (there are more than 50 services in the US alone) pay-TV companies have responded with countless apps of their own such as HBO Go and CBS All Access. The result for the consumer is utter confusion with a bewildering choice of apps needed to get all the good shows and sports. This creates an opportunity for the G.A.A.F. (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook) to stitch all these apps together and in doing so become next generation TV operators. Though the G.A.A.F. are a major force in music too, the situation is also very different. Nonetheless there is an opportunity for companies such as these to create a joined up music experience that delivers an end-to-end platform for artists and music fans alike. Right now, Spotify is best placed to fulfil this role and in doing so it could become a next generation “label”. I added the quote marks around the word “label” because the term is becoming progressively less useful, but it at least helps people contextualise the concept.

Creating The Right Wall Street Narrative

When news emerged that Spotify was in negotiations to buy Soundcloud I highlighted a number of potential benefits and risks. One thing I didn’t explore was how useful Soundcloud could be in helping Spotify build out its role as a music platform (more on that below). As I have noted before, as Spotify progresses towards an IPO it needs to construct a series of convincing narratives for Wall Street. The investor community generally looks upon the music business with, at best, extreme caution, and at worst, disdain. To put it simply, they don’t like the look of low-to-negative margin businesses that have little control over their own destinies and that are trying to sell a product that most people don’t want to buy. This is why Spotify needs to demonstrate to potential investors that it is working towards a future in which it has more control, and a path to profitability. The major label dominated, 17% gross operating margin (and –9% loss) 9.99 AYCE model does not tick any of those boxes. Spotify is not going to change any of those fundamentals significantly before it IPOs, but it can demonstrate it is working to change things.

The Role Of Labels Is As Important As Ever

At the moment Spotify is a retail channel with bells and whistles. But it is acquiring so much user data and music programming expertise that it be so much more than that. The role of record labels is always going to be needed, even if the current model is struggling to keep up. The things that record labels do best is:

  1. Discover, invest in and nurture talent
  2. Market artists

Someone is always going to play that role, and while the distribution platforms such as Spotify could, in theory at least, play that role in a wider sense, existing labels (big and small) are going to remain at the centre of the equation for the meaningful future. Although some will most likely fall by the wayside or sell up over the next few years. (Sony’s acquisition of Ministry Of Sound is an early move rather than an exception.) But what Spotify can do that incumbent labels cannot, is understand the artist and music fan story right from discovery through to consumption. More than that, it can help shape both of those in a way labels on their own cannot. Until not so recently Spotify found itself under continual criticism from artists and songwriters. Although this has not disappeared entirely it is becoming less prevalent as a) creators see progressively bigger cheques, and b) more new artists start their career in the streaming era and learn how to make careers work within it, often seeing streaming services more as audience acquisition tools rather than revenue generators.

The Balance Of Power Is Shifting Away From Recorded Music

Concert crowd.In 2000 record music represented 60% of the entire music industry, now it is less than 30%. Live is the part that has gained most, and the streaming era artist viewpoint is best encapsulated by Ed Sheeran who cites Spotify as a key driver for his successful live career, saying “[Spotify] helps me do what I want to do.” Spotify’s opportunity is to go the next step, and empower artists with the tools and connections to build all of the parts of their career from Spotify. This is what a next generation “label” will be, a platform that combines data, discovery, promotion (and revenue) with tools to help artists with live, merchandise and other parts of their career.

How Spotify Can Buy Its Way To Platform Success

To jump start its shift towards being a next-generation “label” Spotify could use its current debt raise – and post-IPO, its stock – to buy companies that it can plug into its platform. In some respects, this is the full stack music concept that Access Industries, Liberty Global and Pandora have been pursuing. Here are a few companies that could help Spotify on this path:

  • Soundcloud: arguably the biggest artist-to-fan platform on the planet, Soundcloud could form a talent discovery function for Spotify. Spotify could use its Echo Nest intelligence to identify which acts are most likely to break through and use its curated playlists to break them on Spotify. Also artist platforms like BandPage and BandLab could play a similar role.
  • Indie labels: Many indie labels will struggle with cash flow due to streaming replacing sales, which means many will be looking to sell. My money is on Spotify buying a number of decent sized indies. This will demonstrate its ability to extend its value chain footprint, and therefore margins (which is important for Wall Street). It could also ‘do a Netflix’ and use its algorithms to ensure that its owned-repertoire over performs, which helps margins even further. But more importantly, indie labels would give Spotify a vehicle for building the careers of artists discovered on Soundcloud. Also the A&R assets would be a crucial complement to its algorithms.
  • Tidal: Spotify could buy Tidal, taking advantage of Apple’s position of waiting until Tidal is effectively a distressed asset before it swoops. Though Tidal is most likely to want too much money, its roster of exclusives and its artist-centric ethos would be a valuable part of an artist-first platform strategy for Spotify.
  • Songkick: In reality Songkick is going to form part of Access’ Deezer focused full stack play. But a data-led, live music focused company (especially if ticketing and booking can play a role) would be central to Spotify driving higher margin revenues and being able to offer a 360 degree proposition to artists.
  • Musical.ly: Arguably the most exciting music innovation of the decade, Musical.ly would give Spotify the ability to appeal to the next generation of music fans. The average age of a Musical.ly user is 20, for Spotify it is 27. Spotify has to be really careful not to age with its audience and music messaging apps are a great way to tap the next generation in the same way Facebook did (average age 35) did by buying up and growing messaging apps. (e.g. Instagram’s average age is 26).
  • Pandora: A long shot perhaps, but Pandora would be a shortcut to full stack, having already acquired Ticket Fly, Next Big Sound and Rdio. If Pandora’s stock continues to tank (the last few days of recovery notwithstanding) then who knows.

In conclusion, Spotify’s future is going to be much more than being the future of music retail. With or without any of the above acquisitions, expect Spotify to lay the foundations for a bold platform strategy that has the potential to change the face of the recorded music business as we know it.

For more information on the analysis and statistics in this post check out MIDiA Research and sign up to our free weekly research digest.

Watch Out Access, Liberty Media Is Building A Full Stack Music Company

liberty-full-stackAccess 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.

Read the full post on the MIDiA Blog here.

Why Digital Music Services Always Steal Each Other’s Customers

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.

customer transition

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.

How The iPhone 6 May Be The Start Of Apple’s ‘Back To Music’ Strategy

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.

 

itunes phone

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:

1. Price
2. Device

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’s Acquisition Of Songza And ‘Fixing Discovery’

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’.

Media, Technology and The Innovator Hegemony

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.

Did Anyone Else Notice Amazon Just Launched A Hard Bundled Music Phone?

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.

Why Amazon’s Streaming Music Service Is A Bigger Deal Than You Might Think

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.

content strategies

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.