Could Spotify Buy Universal? 

Vivendi is reported to be proposing to its board a plan for spinning out Universal Music. It is certainly the right time for a spin off (always sell before the peak), but a full divestment would leave Vivendi unbalanced and a shell of its former self. Canal+ is facing the same Netflix-inspired cord-cutting pains as other pay-TV operators (and is relying heavily on sub-Saharan Africa for subscriber growth), while other assets such as those in Vivendi Village have failed to deliver. With CEO Vincent Bolloré having invested heavily in Vivendi, he would be devaluing his own wealth. For a man who is not shy of saying that he’s in the game to make money, this scenario simply doesn’t add up. As one investment specialist recently suggested to me, this talk of a spin-off is probably exactly that, talk. Talk aimed at driving up Vivendi’s valuation by association and, at most, potentially resulting in a partial spin-off or partial listing. However, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a big enough offer for Universal would persuade Bolloré to sell. So, let’s for a moment assume that Universal is on the market and have a little fun with who could buy it.

The Chinese option

It is widely rumoured that Alibaba was in advanced discussions with Vivendi to buy some size of stake in Universal. Those conversations derailed when the Chinese government tightened up regulations on Chinese companies buying overseas assets, which is why we now see Tencent buying a growing number of minority stakes in companies rather than outright acquisitions. So, an outright Chinese acquisition is likely off the table. This doesn’t rule out other Asian bidders (Softbank had an $8.5 billion bid rejected in 2013), though perhaps Chinese companies are the only ones with the requisite scale and access to cash that would meet a far, far higher 2018 price point.

The tech major option

The most likely scenario (if Universal were for sale) is that one of the tech majors (Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook) swoops in. Given Google’s long-held antipathy for the traditional copyright regime, Alphabet is not the most likely, while Facebook is too early in its music journey (though check back in 18 months if all goes well). Apple and Amazon are different cases entirely. Both companies are run by teams of older executives whose formative cultural reference points were shaped by traditional media companies. These are companies that, even if they may not state it, see themselves as the natural evolution of media, moving it from the physical era of transactions to the digital era of access. Thus far, Apple and Amazon have focused principally on distribution, although both have invested in rights too. Apple less so, (e.g. Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper) but Amazon much more so (e.g. Man in the High Castle, Manchester by the Sea). Acquiring a major media company is a logical next step for Amazon. A TV studio and, or network would likely be the first move (especially as Netflix will likely buy one first, forcing Amazon’s hand), but a record label wouldn’t be inconceivable. And it would have to be a big label – such as UMG, that would guarantee enough share of ear to generate ROI. Apple though, could well buy a sports league, which would use up its budget.

The Spotify option

While the tech majors are more likely long-term buyers of Universal, Spotify arguably needs it more (and is certainly less distracted by other media formats). Right now, Spotify has a prisoner’s dilemma; it knows it needs to make disruptive changes to its business model if it is going to create the step change investors clearly want (look at what happened to Spotify’s stock price despite an impressive enough set of Q1 results). But it also knows that making such changes too quickly could result in labels pulling content, which would destroy its present in the hope of building a future. Meanwhile, labels are worried Spotify is going to disintermediate them but can’t risk damaging their business by withdrawing content now – hence the prisoner’s dilemma. Neither side dares make the first move.

That’s the problem with the ‘do a Netflix’ argument: do it too fast and the whole edifice comes tumbling down. Moreover, original content will not be the same silver bullet for Spotify as it was for Netflix. This is mainly because there is a far smaller catalogue of TV content than music, so a dollar spent on original video goes a lot further than a dollar spent on original music. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Spotify will get to a tipping point, where the labels see a shiny-toothed wolf lurking under the lamb’s wool, and with its cover blown it will be forced to go nuclear. If this happened, buying a major label would become an option. And, as with the tech majors, it would have to be a major label to deliver enough share of ear.

But that scenario is a long, long way off. First, Spotify has to prove it can be successful and generate enough revenue and market cap to put itself in a position where it could buy a major. And that is still far from a clear path. For now, Spotify’s focus is on being a partner to the labels, not a parent company.

All of this talk might sound outlandish but it was not so long ago that an internet company (AOL) co-owned Warner Music and a drinks company (Seagram) owned Universal Music, before selling it to a water utilities company (Vivendi), and, long before that, EMI was owned by a light bulb company (Thorn Electrical Industries). We have got used to this current period of corporate stability for the major record labels, but this situation is a reflection of the recorded music business being in such a poor state that there was little M&A interest. Nonetheless it is all changing, potentially heralding a return to the past. Everything has happened before and will happen again.

Facebook Might Just Have Done YouTube a Massive Favour

The word on the street is that the deals labels have struck with Facebook for its forthcoming music service have been done on a blanket license basis (i.e. a flat fee) with no reporting. This was reported by Music Business Worldwideand has been confirmed to me by various well-placed third parties:

“One controversial element of these agreements is, we hear, that these are ‘blind’ checks: effectively, advances that are not tied to any kind of usage reports from Facebook.”

Now to be clear, this has not been confirmed by either the labels concerned nor by Facebook but, if true, it has potentially dramatic implications, and not where you would necessarily think.

Facebook will bring something highly differentiated to streaming

Facebook is obviously in legislative cross hairs right now because it has proven unable to keep sufficient tabs on user data. The reason reportedly given for the lack of reporting is that Facebook does not yet have the reporting technology in place to track and report on music consumption. Now, there is no doubt that music rights reporting is no small undertaking; it requires expensively constructed systems to manage complex frameworks of rights. Given that Facebook is likely to launch something that more closely resembles Musical.ly and Flipagram (e.g. sound tracking, messaging, social interaction and photo albums) than it does Spotify, the odds are that this proposition will be particularly complex from a reporting perspective. But, and it is a crucial ‘but’, this challenge of tracking, enforcing and reporting on music-integrated user-generated content (UGC) is exactly the same challenge YouTube has been grappling with for years.

Facebook will become the new big player in UGC music

As we all know, YouTube’s relationship with music rights holders (labels in particular) has been fraught with conflict, tension and disagreement. The recorded music industry remains committed to rolling back much of the ‘fair use’ rules under which YouTube operates, to ensure that it can be licensed more like the standard music services. And it appears that genuine legislative progress has been made with big announcements mooted for later this year.

However, if I was part of YouTube’s lobbying team right now I’d be thinking I’ve just been given a free pass. The crux of the industry’s argument is that YouTube does not sufficiently protect copyright, enforce policing nor pay enough. Not paying enough is not directly a legislative issue, but instead a commercial factor. But the labels argue that the unique ‘fair use’ basis on which YouTube operates enables is to pay too little.

If the assumed basic premise of this deal is indeed correct, it transforms in an instant, YouTube from wild west desperado into the closest thing global scale UGC music has to a sheriff. YouTube’s Content ID system is more than 99% accurate at tracking and reporting on consumption. There is so much music on YouTube because in large part the labels need YouTube as a marketing platform. In fact, labels spend more on YouTube marketing than any other digital channel except social.

Fair use lobby efforts may be impacted

Meanwhile Facebook’s position on reporting, according to Music Business Worldwide, is:

“the social media service has committed to building a system which will be able to provide such usage reports – and therefore royalty reports – in the future.”

The deal as a whole could result in three potential legislative outcomes:

  1. Proposed regulations are rethought
  2. Proposed regulations are put on ice
  3. Proposed regulations are implemented but applied equally to Facebook too

The latter is a possibility, but the complication is that the labels – and again this is if the suggested deal structure is correct – have chosen to enable Facebook to behave in many of the exact ways which they do not want YouTube to operate.

Of course, there are good reasons this deal has happened, not least that Facebook will make a massive contribution to the digital music space in a truly different way. But perhaps more importantly in this context, Facebook will have paid enough to make the labels do a 180 degree turn on their approach to UGC. Therein lies the heart of the YouTube problem. Rights holders want to get paid more, and lobbying for legislative change is seen as the only way to make that happen. But some of the fundamentals that underpin that change are potentially put into question by the Facebook deals. So, there is a chance that in their efforts to get more revenue from Facebook, the labels might just have compromised their ability to get even more revenue in the long term from YouTube.

Facebook Has Got An Instagram Problem

Mark Zuckerberg dropped a bit of bombshell during the Q4 2017 earnings call. He announced that Facebook daily active users (DAUs) have fallen across some key markets, including the US. COO Sheryl Sandberg elaborated:

“In the US and Canada, these changes contributed to a DAU decline of 700,000 compared to Q3. We don’t see this as an ongoing trend, but we do anticipate that DAU in this region may fluctuate given the relatively high penetration level.”

Facebook attributed the fall to the newsfeed changes it has made to improve the quality of relevance of content users see, and to mitigate against trends such as fake news. While these will certainly have played a role, there is a bigger, more fundamental factor driving the decline: Facebook has an Instagram problem. Or, to be more precise, Facebook has a messaging app problem.

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Messaging apps are the third phase of platforms on which digital audiences congregate. First came websites, then social networks and now messaging apps—which collectively accounted for 7.7 billion monthly active users (MAUs) at the end of 2017, up from 6.6 billion in 2016 and 5.5 billion in 2015. This is a massive segment that continues to grow at pace.

When the sector first started emerging, Facebook could have battened down the hatches and played a defensive hand. Instead, it did what the bravest companies do: it decided to disrupt itself before the competition did. The result: Facebook is now the global leader in the mobile messaging space, with a 2017 global market share of 49%, up from 43% in 2016 and 41% in 2015. It has done such a good job of transitioning its audience that 77% of Facebook’s total audience now use at least one messaging app. But, the problem with messaging apps is that no one has really worked out how to monetise them yet. And that’s a doubly big problem for Facebook because the more time that its users spend on lower monetised messaging apps, the lower the ad revenue yield. So, the more successful that Instagram and WhatsApp become (neither of which are included in Facebook’s active user numbers) the worse off Facebook itself becomes.

Hiking ad rates hides the impact

Right now, Facebook has got enough velocity in its core ad business to absorb the DAU drop. Q4 ad revenue grew by 26% on Q3, only one percentage point less growth than it recorded one year prior. But, until Facebook gets better at monetising its messaging apps, ad revenue will increasingly feel the pinch. This is why Facebook spent much of its earnings call talking about how it is increasing the relevance of advertising, improving targeting and improving user experience, so that it can charge advertisers more. For the midterm, it will hide the impact of the messaging app shift.

Longer-term though, Facebook needs a more robust solution. It cannot rush monetisation of its messaging apps as this will risk alienating users, especially in the more personal environments of WhatsApp and Messenger. Instagram will be the core focus of ad revenue growth, as this has already proven to be a natural home for branding. Facebook is also confident it will be able to build upon its initial base of business users of WhatsApp. All of this will take time though. So, it will need to be complemented with other efforts.

If it looks like a duck

Back in our November 2016 report ‘Facebook The Media Company: If It Looks Like A Duck’, we correctly predicted that Facebook would start to feel the impact of messaging app growth on its core platform. We also predicted that Facebook would start calling itself a media company, but that it would say it was a media company unlike any other. Sure enough, one month later that’s exactly what Zuckerberg did.

There is a serious point to this analyst gloating though; Facebook needs its media company strategy to start paying dividends. It is busy finalising music rights deals and is building up its video arsenal. For music, expect (ad supported) music-based social communication to find a home in messaging apps. For video, expect the messaging apps to start acting as virtual TV programming guides and remote controls for what will likely be a semi-scheduled ad supported and premium video offering. As we said in our 2016 report:

“Media companies beware, there’s a new player in town and it’s betting big, real big.”

This blog post is an excerpt from MIDiA’s forthcoming report ‘Facebook’s Instagram Problem: Building Media Strategy In A Fragmented Audience World’.

Facebook Is Finally Ready To Become A Media Company

Male Finger is Touching Facebook App on iPhone 6 ScreenFacebook beat estimates with its latest earnings but announced that ad revenues would likely slow in 2017 as the digital ad market feels the pinch of advertiser budgets lagging the shift in user behaviour. Facebook’s stock fell by 7% but it already has Plan B in motion: to become a media company. Facebook delayed this move as long as it possibly could, showing little enthusiasm for getting bogged down with content licenses while it was able to drive audience growth and engagement by piggy backing other people’s content. That strategy has run its course. Facebook is now about to start looking and behaving much more like a media company, but in doing so it will rewrite the rule book on what a media company is.

The Socially Integrated Web

Back in 2011 I published a report ‘The Socially Integrated Web: Facebook’s Content Strategy and the Battle of the Ecosystems’. You can still download the report for free here. In it I argued that Facebook was starting out on a path to become a media company, but not the sort of media company anyone would recognise:

Change is afoot in the Internet.  Facebook’s new Socially Integrated Web strategy is set to make Facebook one of the most important conduits on the web. It is pushing itself further out into content experiences in the outside web while simultaneously pulling more of them into Facebook itself. Facebook is establishing itself as a universal content dashboard – a 21st century cable company for the Internet, a 21st century portal – establishing its own content ecosystem to compete with the likes of Apple and Amazon. While traditional ecosystems are defined by hardware and paid services, Facebook’s is defined by data and user experience.

Now with ad revenues set to slow, Facebook is flicking the switch on phase 2 of this strategy. Think of it as the Socially Integrated Web 2.0.

Wall Street Doesn’t Like Mature Growth Stories In Tech

As Apple, Pandora and others have found to their cost, Wall Street likes its tech stocks to be dynamic growth stories. It doesn’t like mature growth stories – that’s what traditional company stocks are for. So what can a tech company with a mature customer base do? The answer is to switch on new user monetization strategy, with content and services the lynchpin. Apple’s new supplemental investor materials outlining iOS users’ services spend is a case in point. Monetizing audiences is the new black. This is the game Facebook is now starting to play.

How Facebook Will Become A Next Gen Media Company

Moving from curating to licensing is a subtle but crucial shift in Facebook’s role as a content distribution platform. Here are the pieces that Facebook will stitch together as it begins its transition towards become a next generation media company:

  • Games: In August Facebook announced its gaming platform Facebook Gameroom, a Steam for casual games. It followed that with the announcement it will bring Instant Games to Messenger – an extension of its messaging bot strategy. Games is a logical place for Facebook to start carving out its media company role as it has become the default home of casual PC gaming. It also wants to own a slice of the hugely lucrative mobile gaming market.
  • Filters: Snapchat and Line have created global marketplaces for stickers and filters. Facebook is set to follow suit and is now experimenting with Snapchat-like filters. Filters may not look like media assets in the traditional sense, but the whole point about next generation media businesses is that they contain next generation content assets. Filters are an early indication of how the definition of content will change over the next decade and Facebook now has a horse in that race.
  • Video: Despite the embarrassment of having over reported some of its video metrics, Facebook has quickly become a major player in the online video space, accounting for 29% of short form video views. The next step for Facebook is to start building a discovery and curation layer. When it does, expect video consumption to boom. This will be a major step towards its media company future. It will however have to build a lot of tech for rights holders and content creators. Right now, its aversion of getting tied up with policing rights means that many rights holders don’t even post content there. YouTube has a massive head start with its highly sophisticated Content ID stack. Facebook will need to follow YouTube’s lead.
  • Live Stream: Facebook has been doubling down on its live streaming, expanding its focus from user and celeb streams towards more traditional media content such as Steven Colbert’s Showtime Monologue, partnering with 50 media outlets for presidential election coverage, and eSports. eSports could be as lucrative as traditional sports within the next 10 years and the shift has already begun – Twitch accounted for more streaming video bandwidth than the Olympics.
  • Next generation TV operator: One of the most disruptive moves Facebook can make, at least from the perspective of traditional media, is to stitch together its video assets and combine them with video subscription apps like Netflix and TV channel apps like iPlayer and HBO Go to create an all-in-one video destination straddling, UGC, short form, live streaming and TV content. The rise of video apps has created a bewilderingly fragmented video landscape. Facebook can stitch it all together to become a next generation TV operator. It will face direct competition from Apple, Amazon and Alphabet if/when it does.
  • Editorial: Facebook took a lot of flak for its decision to censor, on grounds of nudity, a famous Vietnam photo showing the effects of a napalm attack on Vietnamese children. The photo had been posted by Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten and its editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen wrote “Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor”. Facebook eventually bowed to public pressure and reinstated the photo. While Facebook may have been wrong to censor the photo it revealed that Facebook is already a ‘master editor’ whether Facebook or traditional media like it or not. Facebook hosts such a vast amount of content that the master editor role is inescapable. Aftenposten might have editorial credibility but what about a white supremacist publication? Facebook is already an editor in chief, in short it is already a media company.
  • Music: Facebook’s recent ad for a music licensing executive got music business types all excited. But music is the content vertical Facebook probably has least to gain from switching from host to licensed service. Streaming music is a notoriously difficult business to make money in (Spotify’s gross operating margin is around 17%). Facebook needs to grow margin, not just revenue, and with all its other content options it doesn’t make sense for Facebook to loss lead with an AYCE music service when it can get a bigger return on that investment elsewhere. IF Facebook does do something in music either expect it to be a more radio-like experience for its mainstream audiences (Pandora had a gross operating margin of around 40% in 2015) or – and this is more likely – something for younger users that has music at its core but that is not a streaming service. Think something along the lines of lip synching app Musical.ly.

Facebook is a past master at business model transformation. Its co-opting of younger audience focussed messaging platforms in the face of ageing social network audiences was a best-in-class example of a company disrupting itself before someone else did. Now Facebook is set to make another major change in its strategy before it finds its core business disrupted. Media companies beware, there’s a new player in town and its betting big, real big.

What Happens When Facebook Hits 1 Billion Users?

In the four short years since Facebook passed 100 million global active users back in August 2008, social networking has gone mainstream and Facebook’s own active user base now numbers in excess of 955 million. Facebook had many predecessors (MySpace, Hyves, Friendster, Orkut to name but a few) but it achieved what none of them did: it created a service that mainstream consumers adopted in their droves.  Yet despite this success, and as Facebook nears the 1 billion user mark, there remains a niggling worry which stubbornly refuses to go away: has Facebook actually taken social networking mainstream or has it just taken Facebook mainstream?

Facebook Has Created a Two-Speed Social Network Landscape

Facebook’ dominance of social networking is clear and its 955+ million user count stands head and shoulders above the rest (see figure).  Twitter is the closest challenger with less than a fifth of Facebook’s active user count, and Google+, despite bold early moves remains approximately a tenth of Facebook’s scale with 100 million active users.  Beyond those key players the social network long tail rapidly fragments into niche sites and also-rans.  What is becoming apparent is that a two-speed social network landscape is emerging with Facebook effectively a lap ahead of the best-of-the-rest.  In short, Facebook has won the race for the mainstream consumer.

The Importance of Network-Effect Scale

There are many reasons for Facebook’s success, but being all things to all people is centre stage, and in the mass-market scale game there is currently only space for one winner, with success intimately tied to ubiquity.  Facebook has the benefit of a crucially important asset: network -effect- scale. Because the majority of people’s contacts are on Facebook it is the network they opt into, thus increasing the number of other people’s contacts, and so on in a continual virtuous circle.  And as mainstream consumers don’t want the hassle of maintaining multiple social networks, a winner-takes-all scenario emerges.

Twitter and LinkedIn owe their success to not competing with Facebook for the mass market consumer: they deliver value to their users as a complement to Facebook rather than as an alternative (at least in most cases).  Long term success for generalist social networks such as Google+ though depends explicitly on taking users and user hours away from Facebook.  The challenge for Google+ is that those entrenched mainstream Facebook users are not going to be wowed by features or functionality.  If they will ever shift from Facebook it will be because of the same reason they went there in the first place: they will go where their friends and family are.

Facebook’s Velvet Handcuffs

Thus the network-effect acts as velvet handcuffs for mainstream Facebook fans.  What Google+ is banking on is that enough of the more sophisticated users get swayed by features and functionality, in turn starting the crank wheel of the network effect.  Which is exactly why Facebook is so actively integrating content partners such as Spotify into its platform: the more content experiences Facebook can funnel through its platform, the more reason there is for sophisticated users to remain loyal.  If friends and family are the velvet handcuffs for the mainstream user, then content plays the same role for the sophisticated user. (For more on Facebook’s Socially Integrated Web Strategy see this free Music Industry Blog report).

As things stand, when Facebook does hit 1 billion users it will say more about its own success than it will about the overall health of the social network landscape.  The catalyst for Facebook’s network-effect was the foundational principle of connecting people, and the human need to connect is the behavioural glue that ties Facebook together.  Mainstream consumer inertia is the most powerful force in the social network marketplace today, not innovation. This is not to say that social networking will remain defined by a mass market monopoly in perpetuity, but it will until (or if) mainstream consumers acquire the tolerance – or need – for more than one social network.  Until then, social networking will remain a two-speed marketplace.

I will be building upon these ideas and others in a forthcoming Giga Om Pro report ‘Facebook and the Two Speed Evolution of Social Networking’ Watch this space for more details.

 

Spotify Hits 20 Million Monthly Users and Could be on Track for 8 Million Paid Users 1 Year From Now

When Facebook flicked the switch on stage two of its Socially Optimized Web Strategy at f8 it was clear that the social network had just found an effective means of embedding itself further into all of our digital lives, by making itself the universal content dashboard.  What wasn’t so clear at that time was quite how significant an impact it would have on music services, Spotify in particular.

Today Spotify hit 20 million monthly users on its Facebook app, having added 500,000 new users in less than two weeks,  from the 3rd to the 15th of May (see figure 1).

Spotify has added 1.5 million users since the end of April, representing a growth rate of 8%.  That compares to 0.5 million new users and 4% growth for the entire month of May in 2011.  Facebook integration, coupled with launching in the US has turbo charged Spotify’s growth trajectory.

And yet, as impressive as Spotify’s total user growth is, it is only par when compared with other streaming music services.  Looking at the growth in total users by month since launch date of service (see figure 2) Spotify is close to the average for streaming music services.

In fact it is only above Pandora and lags imeem  and Last.FM, both of whom were once the future too.  In favour of Spotify, services like Pandora first launched in the US – a much larger addressable audience – and have unlimited free tiers.  Against Spotify, the market is now much more mature in terms of technology and consume readiness. Measuring against current user levels, 20 million users is also a long way south of Pandora’s 100 million users.  3 million paying subscribers is also far off Apple’s 80 million iTunes customers, though the comparison isn’t necessarily apples-to-apples (pun fully intended).

All of this is not to say that Spotify’s growth rate should be questioned but instead to put it into appropriate historical context, namely that Spotify is performing at the rate that streaming music services should perform in their first 40 months.  Not more, not less.

What is different about Spotify, is the need to amass new free users to drive premium subscriptions (see figure 3).

Although Spotify officially quotes 10 million registered users (the same number it first reported in December 2010) it is more instructive to look at paid conversion as a share of the 20 million monthly users reported by Facebook.  (Bear in mind that Spotify first quoted 10 million users back in December 2010, long before the US launch or Facebook integration).

Even with the 20 million users measure, 17% stands out as a highly successful conversion ratio for Spotify, an affirmation of the Freemium model.  Not only that, the conversion rate has grown strongly month upon month.  Spotify has been getting progressively better at converting free users to paid.  The conversion from active users to paid is even more impressive: 27%.

However it is also clear that the acceleration in new user acquisition enabled by Facebook integration is beginning to dent the conversion rate (see figure 4).

This is though just a natural byproduct of rapidly expanding the funnel: these new free users need to have time to get hooked on the service and then get migrated over to paid. The rate of new users is so much higher than previously that it will take time for Spotify’s overall metrics to balance out.  But that should indeed happen.  And if it does , then it augurs well for positive premium growth down the line.

If Spotify converts between 17% and 27% of each of the new daily 45,454 users, it will add between  0.7 and  1.1 million new paid users a quarter, or between 4.8 and 4.5 million a year.  Assuming a 27% conversion rate of these new active users, Spotify could have just over 8 million paying subscribers by May 2013 and 36 million total users.  The lower case, and probably more realistic, 17% conversion rate scenario would result in 6.3 million paying subscribers.

Although the rates and ratios will fluctuate over the coming 12 months, these numbers give us a useful directional sense of the long term impact of Facebook on Spotify’s current growth metrics.  There remains a big question over the scale of the actual addressable market, i.e. is there a demand ceiling that Spotify will hit somewhere south of the 5 million paying subscribers mark?  But ceiling or no ceiling, and low or high conversion scenario, there is one inescapable conclusion, namely that Facebook integration is transforming Spotify’s business, fast.

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These charts and the above analysis feature in a brand new Music Industry Blog free report: ‘ When 2+2=Free: Making Streaming Music Add Up’.  The report is free of charge to Music Industry Blog subscribers.  To receive your copy simply subscribe to email updates of this blog using the box to the upper left of this page.

And Then There Was the Facebook Play Button…

Last week we saw the launch of the Facebook Timeline for Artists and the Spotify Play Button, neither of which were without controversy (click on the links for more).  Now we have the two trends pulled together with the Facebook Listen Button.  The Facebook Listen Button gives artists a Listen button integrated into the front-end of their profile page which when clicked starts their music playing in the music app of the user.

The Good News: Elegant User Experience

  • This is an elegantly simple integration, that is uncluttered and allows a user to achieve their goal quickly and simply
  • It brings further consistency to Facebook artist pages, putting into practice the lessons learned from the anarchic chaos that was MySpace artist pages
  • It will help drive usage of streaming music services

The Bad News: Problematic Integration

  • The same player-integration issues apply to the Facebook Listen Button as do to the Spotify Play Button: a visitor has to a) be a user of one of the supported streaming music services and then b) has to have the app open.  Both of which are speed bumps in the user experience, especially if the visitor isn’t a user of a supported music service, perhaps because they live in a country where the services aren’t yet available
  • Following being shunted off the artist profile front page by the Timeline, artist apps like BandPage, Reverb Nation and FanRX have effectively had their usability further downgraded by their play buttons being a couple of clicks away from the front page compared to the front page click of the Facebook Listen Button

Conclusion

Overall the Facebook user wins here.  The Listen Button is not intended as the consumption mode of choice for aficionado fans, it is a quick discovery tool for people new to the artist who want to learn more.  And with this key use case in mind, the design and implementation is clean, elegant and (reasonably) convenient.  But the flip side is that those artist apps find themselves further let down by the implementation.  Strategically this matters not so much for those apps (though of course to the companies themselves it will feel like a kick in the ribs while on the floor) but instead for what it says about Facebook’s ecosystem and platform aspirations.  Though these apps are a miniscule detail in Facebook’s Socially Integrated Web Strategy, developers will be looking at their experience and trying to learn whether this is a precedent for how Facebook treats its developer partners or just a blip.  Facebook needs to ensure that it is the latter and that this is known clearly and widely.

For now, Facebook has momentum to spare and developers will willingly swallow the risk for a stab at reaching the largest single digital audience on the global web.  But Facebook’s Socially Integrated Web Strategy depends upon those developers helping ensure that momentum is maintained.  Long term Facebook needs the developers as much as they need it.  Facebook may be the future for now  but that confidence could be beginning to beget hubris.  Remember, MySpace used to be the future too.

Spotify Play Button: Digital Music’ Largest Marketing Funnel Just Got Bigger

A quick one….

Spotify today announced its new ‘Spotify Play Button’ feature.  As Giga Om Pro’s David Card Tweeted, it is ‘Spotify’s 1st baby step towards 2-way platform syndication’.  In a nutshell the feature enables publishers to post embedded song stream links on their sites, thus adding music context to their stories.  Publishers at launch include Vogue, GQ, The Guardian and NME.  Crucially the Play Button is not an audio embed but instead a link that will play music from Spotify’s servers, via a user’s Spotify app via the site.  Which means that if you don’t have Spotify you don’t get to listen to the music.

10 Million Users Translates to a Small Share of a Publisher’s Readership

As much as a success story as Spotify is, its 10 million users (or 17.5 million depending on which source you choose) are significant in digital music terms but tiny in Internet user terms. Which matters a lot to mainstream publishers such as Vogue and GQ who appeal to broad demographics.  Only a small share of their readers will actually have Spotify accounts, so the majority of their readers will, as I told the BBC, encounter user experience ‘speed bumps’.  Readers will either not be able to listen to music or instead will have to register for Spotify…assuming of course that they are Facebook users, otherwise they will have to register for Facebook first, and then Spotify.

So non-music specialist publishers (i.e. those whose readers will not in the main have Spotify) will likely get as much reader push back as they will positive feedback.  For Spotify though it is all win-win.  This is a smart customer acquisition tool.  Combined with the Facebook integration Spotify now arguably has the largest marketing funnel of any digital music service (YouTube, and by extension Vevo, excepted).  And this is what it is all about, as the following quote from the Spotify press release attests:

Anyone new to Spotify will be set up with the Spotify desktop app, which powers the button in the background, as soon as they start playing the music.

Another Step in Spotify’s ‘Music API’ Strategy

As I’ve argued before, Spotify want to become the API for Music.  This is part of that strategy.  Soundcloud should probably be concerned – though they are more than smart enough to find out a way to make their universal accessibility a highly visible differentiation point.  YouTube and Vevo though won’t be losing sleep.  The majority of user generated music links will continue to be YouTube embeds, as will the majority of publisher music links.  The web is becoming an ever more video-rich experience and music is no exception.

So, a small but smart move from Spotify that will do wonders for their user acquisition and ‘Music API’ strategies.  The case for publishers though is less clear cut.

Facebook Timeline for Artists (When Platforms Forget Their Responsibilities)

Regular readers will know I’m a big advocate of content platforms and ecosystems.  Indeed device based ecosystems such as iTunes, Kindle and xBox are the success stories of paid content. More recently these platforms have been complemented by a new wave of ecosystems by the likes of Facebook and Spotify, that depend upon software and user data for walls instead of hardware.  Both sets of ecosystems depend upon 3rd party developer and / publisher platforms for success.  A thriving platform is one which is defined as much by 3rd parties as it is the host company.  But just as a blossoming garden requires careful tending so does an ecosystem.  The host has a responsibility to ensure that developers and publishers have the support, processes and transparency necessary to instill the confidence necessary for them to invest their time and resources into the platform.  It is a responsibility that does not always come cheaply to the hosts and isn’t always respected to the full, as we have seen with the impact of Facebook’s Timeline on a number of artist app developers.

Artist Timelines are Throttling Artist Apps

Facebook’s Timeline feature is looking like a great innovation from the social networking behemoth and there are many examples of artists, music services and music publications using the feature to great effect.  (Take a look at Spotify’s Facebook Timeline for a super cool implementation).  However the way in which Timeline was implemented on artist pages has had a dramatic cooling effect on what was beginning to shape up to be a vibrant community of Facebook artist app developers.  Latest data from AppData.com and reported on Digital Music News shows that Band Page (formerly Root Music), Reverb Nation and FanRX (formerly BandRX) all saw a steady decline in usage in the lead in to the Timeline switchover date and then a ‘falling off a cliff’ drop on the date itself.  All three apps have remained stuck at their decimated levels.

The key reason for the collapse in user numbers is that as part of the Timeline feature Facebook prevented these apps being able to act as the landing page for artist profiles.  There is very well thought out reasoning for this move: Facebook remembers only too well the anarchic chaos of MySpace artist pages, indeed the pared-down minimalism of Facebook’s UI was an intentional antidote to MySpace messiness.  But none of this detracts from the fact that Facebook has failed to fulfil its duties as platform host.  It should have done more to accommodate the concerns of artist app developers and would be well advised to work with them now to improve their lot.  Although it would be stretching credulity to claim these apps were responsible for artists switching from MySpace to Facebook, they certainly played an important role in easing the transition for many.

Being a Platform Means Looking Out for the Small Guys Too

If Facebook is serious about becoming a platform for music, it needs to ensure that it doesn’t just lay out the red carpet for Swedish streaming services.  The value of Facebook as a music platform will come from the functionality, utility and experience delivered by 3rd party apps that help artists differentiate the way they engage with fans.  Apps such as Band Page, Reverb Nation, Fan RX and Bopler Games.  Ensuring that strategic priorities can be implemented without destroying the livelihoods of developers is a key responsibility of platform hosts.  Of course sometimes hosts patently ignore the responsibility and use app developers as free R&D – just think about the number of times Apple has killed off app companies by integrating their functionality directly into iOS.  But even Apple knows you can only do that so many times before you risk killing the proverbial golden goose.

I continue to maintain that Facebook’s platform strategy is subtly brilliant, and in the bigger scheme of things the artist app Timeline debacle is pretty small fry.  But if Facebook is to establish itself as a genuine music platform it must learn from the lessons Band Page et al are painfully teaching.

The Digital Music Year That Was: 2011 in Review and 2012 Predictions

Following the disappointment of 2010, 2011 was always going to need to pack more punch.  In some ways it did, and other ways it continued to underwhelm. On balance though the stage is set for an exciting 2012.

There were certainly lots of twists and turns in 2011, including: disquiet among the artist community regarding digital pay-outs, the passing of Steve Jobs, Nokia’s return to digital music,  EMI’s API play, and of course Universal Music’s acquisition of EMI.  Here are some of the 2011 developments that have most far reaching implications:

  • The year of the ecosystems. With the launch of Facebook’s content dashboard, Android Music, the Amazon Fire (a name not designed to win over eco-warriors),  Apple’s iTunes Match and Spotify’s developer platform there was a surge in the number of competing ecosystem plays in the digital music arena.  Despite the risk of consumer confusion, some of these are exciting foundations for a new generation of music experiences.
  • Cash for cache.  The ownership versus access debate raged fully in 2011, spurred by the rise of streaming services.  Although we are in an unprecedented period of transition, ownership and access will coexist for many years yet, and tactics such as charging users for cached-streams blur the lines between streams and downloads, and in turn between rental and ownership. (The analogy becomes less like renting a movie and more like renting a flat.)
  • Subscriptions finally hit momentum.  Though the likes of rdio and MOG haven’t yet generated big user numbers Spotify certainly has, and Rhapsody’s acquisition of Napster saw the two grandaddys of the space consolidate.  Spotify hit 2.5 million paying users, Rhapsody 800,000 and Sony Music Unlimited 800,000.
  • New services started coming to market.  After a year or so of relative inactivity in the digital music service space, 2011 saw the arrival of a raft of new players including Blackberry’s BBM Music, Android Music, Muve Music , and Rara.  The momentum looks set to continue in 2012 with further new entrants such as Beyond Oblivion and psonar.
  • Total revenues still shrank.  By the end of 2011 the European and North American music markets will have shrunk by 7.8% to $13.5bn, with digital growing by 8% to reach $5 billion.  The mirror image growth rates illustrate the persistent problem of CD sales tanking too quickly to allow digital to pick up the slack.  Things will get a little better in 2012, with the total market contracting by just 4% and digital growing by 7% to hit $5.4 billion, and 41% of total revenues.

Now let’s take a look at what 2011 was like for three of digital music’s key players (Facebook, Spotify and Pandora) and what 2012 holds for them:

Facebook
2011.  Arguably the biggest winner in digital music in 2011, Facebook played a strategic masterstroke with the launch of its Digital Content Dashboard at the f8 conference.  Subtly brilliant, Facebook’s music strategy is underestimated at the observer’s peril.  Without investing a cent in music licenses, Facebook has put itself at the heart of access-based digital music experiences.   It even persuaded Spotify – the current darling of the music industry – to give it control of the login credentials of Spotify’s entire user base. Facebook’s Socially Integrated Web Strategy places Facebook at the heart of our digital lives.  And it’s not just Facebook that is benefiting: Spotify attributed much of its 500,00 new paying subs gained in October and November to the Facebook partnership.

2012. Facebook is quietly collecting unprecedentedly deep user data from the world’s leading streaming music services.  By mid-2012 Facebook should be in a position to take this to the record labels (along with artist profile page data) in the form of a series of product propositions.  Expect whatever is agreed upon to blend artist level content with music service content to create a 360 user experience.  But crucially one that does not require Facebook to pay a penny to the labels.

VERDICT: The sleeping giant of digital music finally stepped up to the plate in 2011 and will spend 2012 consolidating its new role as one of the (perhaps even *the*) most important conduit(s) in digital music history.

Spotify.
2011.
 It would be puerile not to give Spotify credit for a fantastic year.  Doubts about the economics of the service and long term viability remain, but nonetheless 2011 was a great year for the Swedish streaming service.  It finally got its long-fought-for US launch and also became Facebook’s VIP music service partner. Spotify started the year with 840,000 paying subscribers and hit 2.5 million in November.  It should finish the year with around 200,000 more.  Its total active user base is now at 10 million. But perhaps the most significant development was Spotify’s Developer platform announcement,paving the way for the creation of a music experience ecosystem.  Spotify took an invaluable step towards making Music the API.

2012: Expect Spotify’s growth trajectory to remain strong in 2012.  It should break the 3 million pay subscribers mark in February and should finish the year with close to 5 million.  And it will need those numbers because the funnel of free users will grow even more dramatically, spurred by the Facebook integration.  But again it will be the developer platform that will be of greatest and most disruptive significance.  By the end of 2012 Spotify will have a catalogue of music apps that will only be rivalled by Apple’s App Store.  But even Apple won’t be able to come close to the number of Apps with unlimited music at their core.  More and more start ups will find themselves opting to develop within Spotify rather than getting bogged down with record label license negotiations.  Some will find the platform a natural extension of their strategy (e.g. Share My Playlists) but others will feel competitive threat (e.g. Turntable FM).  If Spotify can harness its current buzz and momentum to create the irresistible force of critical mass within the developer community, it will create a virtuous circle of momentum with Apps driving user uptake and vice versa.  And with such a great catalogue of Apps, who would bet against Spotify opening an App Store in 2012?

VERDICT: Not yet the coming of age year, but 2011 was nonetheless a pivotal year paving the way for potentially making 2012 the year in which Spotify lays the foundations for long term sustainability.

Pandora
2011.
 Though 2011 wasn’t quite the coming of age year for Spotify it most certainly was for Pandora.  In June Pandora’s IPO saw 1st day trading trends reminiscent of the dot.com boom years.    By July it had added more than 20 million registered users since the start of the year to hit 100 million in total and an active user base of 36 million, representing 3.6% of entire US radio listening hours.  But Pandora also felt the downs of being a publically listed company, with flippant traders demonstrating their fear that Spotify’s US launch would hurt Pandora.

2012: And those investors do have something of a point:  whatever founder Tim Westergren may say, Spotify will hurt Pandora.  A portion of Pandora’s users used Pandora because it was the best available (legal) free music service.  Those users will jump ship to Spotify.  This will mean that Pandora’s total registered user number will not get too much bigger than 100 million in 2012 and the active number will likely decline by mid-year.  After that though, expect things to pick up for Pandora and active user numbers to grow again.  The long term outlook is very strong.  Pandora is the future of radio.  It, and services like it, will get an increasingly large share of radio listening hours with every month that passes in 2012, and with it a bigger share of radio ad revenues.  Pandora will be better off without the Spotify-converts, leaving it with its core user base of true radio fans. Spotify’s new radio play will obviously be a concern for Pandora  but this is Pandora’s core competency, and only a side show for Spotify.  Expect Pandora to up their game.

VERDICT: Since launching in November 2005 Pandora have fought a long, dogged battle to establish themselves as part of the music establishment, and 2011 was finally the year they achieved that.  There will be choppy waters in 2012 but Pandora will come out of it stronger than it went in.