Soundcloud Edges Towards Making YouTube The Odd One Out

Soundcloud took another step away from being an ‘under licensed’ service to a ‘fully licensed’ one with its deal today with indie licensing body Merlin. This follows on the footsteps of deals with Warner and the National Music Publishers Association. Soundcloud is a long way yet from being out of the licensing woods but momentum is clearly building. Most importantly though, Soundcloud is inadvertently playing the role of ice breaker in the new wave of deals for sites that traded as promotional sites in the download era and are having to, willingly or not, accept a new role that looks and feels a lot more like a straight forward streaming service.

Merlin’s CEO Charles Caldas nailed it in this quote from an interview with Music Ally:

As the value of the streaming market grows, people are starting to realise that consumption is the new sales. Anywhere that people are listening to music is actually the end-game now. This notion that everything is promotional: that way that people used to talk about YouTube as a ‘promotional channel’. When that becomes the destination for music fans, it needs to compete in the marketplace with all the platforms that are monetised,” said Caldas.

Soundcloud always had a lot of goodwill within the indie community and indeed even within the marketing and A&R departments of majors because of its roots as a platform for helping labels, artists (and more recently) fans interact more effectively. The labels’ commercial affairs teams however have been far less enamoured, instead asking why Soundcloud should be able let people listen for free, on demand, without licenses when others can’t.

The role of standalone promotional streaming services made sense when everyone was still buying music, but with download sales and CD sales both on the slide globally the model is less obvious. The discovery journey has also become the consumption journey but the change is happening so fast that it is easy to confuse the two. This is why we have the paradoxical situation where 10 million streams on Spotify is considered to be x amount of lost sales while 10 million YouTube views is considered a marketing success. Right now a large chunk of digital marketing activity that is driving streams on YouTube and Soundcloud is tactic without purpose. It is marketing for marketing’s sake without a clear enough sense of what the end goal is.

This is why Soundcloud needs to get these deals in place. It will completely transform the commercial dynamics of Soundcloud, and there will undoubtedly be disgruntled artists and fans, but the music world has changed and it needed to also. All of which leaves YouTube the odd one out without a chair to sit on when the music stops.

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An honourable mention goes to Songkick who today announced a merger with Crowdsurge and a combined raise of $16m. Congrats to Songkick and Crowdsurge co-CEO Ian Hogarth who is one of the smartest minds in the music industry.

The Music Industry’s 6:1 Ratio

One of the many things that the digital revolution has done to the music industry is to create and accentuate a number of imbalances. Imbalances that will either change, become the foundations of the next era of the music business, or both. In fact there are three key areas where, coincidentally, the lesser party is 6 times smaller than the other: 6 to 1

  • Digital music revenue share: A common refrain from songwriters and the bodies that represent them (music publishers, collection societies etc.) is that everything starts with the song. And of course it does. However it is the recorded version of the song that most people interact with most of the time, whether that be on the radio, on a CD, a download, a stream or a music video. This has helped ensure that record labels – usually the owners of the recorded work – hold the whip hand in licensing negotiations with digital music services. Labels have consequently ended up with an average of 68% of total on-demand streaming revenue and publishers / collection societies just 12%. The labels’ share is 6 times bigger. Publishers are now actively trying to rebalance the equation, often referred to as ‘seeking out a fair share’. For semi-interactive radio services like Pandora the ratio is roughly 10:1.
  • Artist income: While music sales declined over the last 10 yeas, live boomed. And although there are signs the live boom may be slowing, a successful artist can now typically expect to earn as little as 9% of their total income from recorded music, compared to 57% from live. Again, a factor of 6:1. There are many complexities to the revenue split, such as the respective deals an artist is on, fixed costs etc. but these splits tend to recur. Ironically just as everything starts with the song for digital music, everything starts with the recorded work (and the song) for the live artist. The majority of an artist’s fan base will spend most of their time interacting with the recorded work of the artist rather than live. The recorded work has become the advert for live. In fact the average concert ticket of a successful frontline artist costs on average 8 times more than buying their entire back catalogue. Thus for fans the ratio is even more pronounced at 8:1.
  • Free music users: The freemium wars are dominating the contemporary music industry debate. Spotify and other services that have on demand free tiers are under intense scrutiny over how these tiers may be cannibalising music sales. However YouTube’s regular free music user base is about 350 million compared to approximately 60 million free freemium service users across all freemium services. Again a ratio of 6:1. Whatever the impact freemium users may be having, it is 6 times less than YouTube.

The music industry has never been a meritocracy nor will it ever be one. So it would be fatuous to suggest equality is suddenly going to break out. However there will be something of a righting process in some areas, especially in the digital music revenue share equation. Most significantly though, these ratios are becoming the foundational dynamics of the new music industry. These are the reference points that artists, rights holders, and all other music industry stakeholders need in order to understand what their future will look like and how they can help shape it.

NOTE: This post was updated to reflect that the songwriter ratio is actually 10:1 for semi-interactive radio.  The 2:1 ratio applies to label revenue versus collection society revenue, which includes revenue for performers who are often but not always also the songwriter.

The Case For A Freemium Reset

Ministry Of Sound’s Lohan Presencer stirred up a hornets’ nest with his impassioned critique of the freemium model at a recent MWC panel. This is one of those rare panel discussions that is worth watching all the way through but the fireworks really start about 16 minutes in. For a good synopsis of the panel see MusicBusiness Worldwide’s write up, for the full transcript see MusicAlly. I’m going to focus on one key element: free competing with free.

Free Isn’t The Problem, On Demand Free Is

Free music is a crucial part of the music market and always has been thanks to radio. The big difference is that radio is not on demand. Even the Pandora model, which quite simply IS the future of radio, is not on demand. The on demand part is crucial. Although labels have a conflicted view about radio there is near universal agreement that the model works because it is a promotional vehicle, it helps drive core revenues. But turn free into an on-demand model and the business foundations collapse. The discovery journey becomes the consumption destination. To paraphrase an old quote from a label exec ‘if you are playing what I want you to play that is promotion, if you are playing what you want to play that is business’.

P2P Is In A Natural Decline, Regardless Of Freemium

The argument most widely used by streaming services in favour of the freemium model is that it reduces piracy. There is some truth in this but the case is over stated. P2P was the piracy technology of the download era. Its relevance is decreasing rapidly for music in the streaming era. In fact mobile music piracy apps (free music downloaders, stream rippers etc.) are now more than twice as widespread as P2P. So the decline in P2P can only partially be attributed to streaming music services as it is in a trajectory of natural decline as a music piracy platform.

Freemium Isn’t Killing Piracy, It Is Coexisting

But even more importantly free streamers are using those new, next-generation piracy apps to turn their freemium experiences into the effective equivalent of paid ones, by creating local device caches for ad free on demand play back. In fact free streamers are 65% more likely to use a stream ripper app than other consumers. They are also 64% more likely to use P2P and 57% more likely to use free music downloader apps. While it is always challenging to accurately separate cause and effect what we can say with confidence is that whatever impact freemium may have had on piracy, freemium users are still c.60% more likely to be music pirates also. (If you are a MIDiA Research subscriber and would like to see the full dataset these data points are taken from email info AT midiaresearch DOT COM)

Monetizing The Revenue No-Man’s Land Between Free and 9.99

So more needs to ensure the path from free to paid is a well travelled one. It might be that the accelerating shift to mobile consumption of streaming music may help recalibrate the equation. Mobile versions of free streaming tiers in principle may not be fully on demand but they often stretch definitions to the limit and some are simply too good to be free. Being able to create a playlist from a single album and then listening to it all in shuffle mode simply is on-demand in all but name. If we can get mobile versions of free tiers to look more like Pandora and less like Spotify premium, or YouTube for that matter, then we have a useful tool in the kitbag. And if users want more but aren’t ready to pay a full 9.99 yet, let them unlock playlists, or day passes for small in app payments. Lohan made the case for PAYG pricing to monetize the user that sits somewhere between free and 9.99 and it is an argument I have advocated for a long time now.

Freemium Is Not Broken, But It Does Need Re-Tuning

Freemium absolutely can work as a model and it has achieved a huge amount already, but it needs recalibrating to ensure it delivers the next stage of market growth in a way that minimizes the risk to the rest of the business. None of this though can happen until YouTube is compelled to play by the same rules as everyone else. Otherwise all that we end up doing is hindering all music services except YouTube and Apple (which won’t have a free tier). Google and Apple are not exactly in need of an unfair market advantage. So a joined-up market level strategy is required, and right now.

It Is Time To Think Beyond The Monthly Subscription

Apple’s entry into the subscription market later this year will fire a broadside across the freemium model.  But there are not many companies that can do what Apple can.  Every product and service needs to acquire customers and usually that entails advertising and marketing.  If what you are selling is a relatively nuanced proposition, and music subscriptions are exactly that, then you are going to need to spend a lot of time and money building the awareness and understanding of the product.  That typically either means a big ad budget or having a captive audience to talk to directly without the marketing middleman. For freemium services that is the free tier.  For Apple that is the installed base of device owners.  It is all well and good for Apple to crusade against free in its entirety because that also happens to make it increasingly difficult for anyone else to make the subscription model work.  As I argued in my previous post there is a need for a rethink of free, to ensure that it acts as an acquisition funnel for subscriptions not as a replacement for them.  But there is another part of the puzzle that needs solving too: the subscription model itself. If freemium is on borrowed time, a solution is needed that the entire market can work with, not just Apple.  Pay As You Go (PAYG) is part of the answer.

Music Subscriptions Cap ARPU

Currently the music industry is trying to migrate all of its paying customers to subscriptions.  The theory is that this should increase the Average Spend Per User (ARPU) to 9.99 but as MIDiA’s research revealed, thus far it appears to be doing a better job of reducing the ARPU of the most valuable. Thus we have a worst of both worlds scenario in which the ARPU of the most valuable customers is capped (something no other media industry does) and the lower value customers aren’t offered enough options to get on the spending ladder.

When I wrote back in October that it was time for a pricing reset I pointed to three things that need to happen:

  1. More price tier differentiation
  2. Reduce the main $9.99 price point to $7.99
  3. Introduce PAYG / Top Ups

The good news is that we’re beginning to see some movement on all three counts, including Apple poised to tick off the second item later this year when it launches its subscription offering.

The Return Of The Day Pass

Last week Pandora announced that it was introducing a $0.99 day pass to its ad free subscription offering.  The idea isn’t new, Spotify had a day pass in its earlier days, but the timing is now right for a reassessment of the tactic.   Most people are not in the habit of paying for music on a monthly basis and most do not spend anything close to 9.99 a month.  Little surprise then that only 10% of consumers are interested in a 9.99 subscription.  But PAYG pricing interest, while still relatively modest, is the clearly the pricing that has strongest appeal (see figure).  PAYG pricing allows consumers to ‘suck it and see’ to try out.  It is what the mobile phone business needed to kick start cellular subscriptions and it is what the music industry needs too.  And done right PAYG can even uncap ARPU by allowing customers to spend more than they would on a monthly plan, something that happens frequently among pre-pay mobile phone customers.

payg pricing

Currently there is only a handful of companies pioneering this approach, including the MusicQubed powered MTV Trax’s ‘Play As You Go’ model and Psonar’s ‘Pay Per Play’ offering.  It should only be a matter of time before the big streaming services start experimenting with a la carte pricing but they will have to tread carefully to ensure they do not cannibalize the spending of their 9.99 customers.  At an industry level though the case is clear and it is one that other media industries are already heeding.  In the TV industry services like Netflix are empowering cable and satellite TV subscribers to cancel or reduce their subscriptions.  Consequently TV companies are busy experimenting with unbundling their subscription offerings to meet the needs of their newly empowered customers.  The most interesting example for the music industry is Sky’s Now TV in the UK which offers its core programming with no monthly contract and enables users to simply add on extra content such as and ‘entertainment pass’ or a ‘sports pass’ as one off payments.

The future of music consumption is clearly going to be on demand but 9.99 subscriptions are just one part of the mix. PAYG pricing will be crucial to ensuring that streaming can break out of its early adopter beachhead.

A Manifesto For The Future Of Free Music

In the thankfully long gone days of DRM downloads it could be fairly said that ‘music was born free yet everywhere it is in chains’. Now it is free of DRM and, for most consumers, of price also. Of course the majority of consumers have always spent most of their time listening to music for free via TV or radio. But the internet transformed free into something that was every bit as good as the paid for product. So yes, most people have always listened to music for free most of the time, but they listened to what broadcasters decided they would listen to. In the old model free music was something that would sate the appetite of the passive fan but was not be enough for the dedicated fan. Free music thus very clearly played a ‘discovery’ role for the core music fans. On demand free though has changed the equation entirely. For many consumers the free stream is the destination not the discovery journey. So 50 million YouTube views is no longer a marketing success but instead x million lost sales or paid streams.

For younger consumers the picture is particularly stark. 56% stream for free, 65% listen to music radio and 76% watch YouTube music videos. Compare and contrast to over 25s where the rates are 35%, 47% and 76%.   In short, free is more likely to be something that drives spending among over 25s because it is predominately programmed while among under 25’s it is less likely to do so because it is on demand.

Free needs recalibrating. Here are a set of objectives to help fix free, a Manifesto for the Future of Free Music:

  • Set the objectives: One of the problems with free is there is too little clarity around what purpose it is meant to serve. And this is because it is simultaneously serving multiple purposes: to monetize the masses (ad supported), to drive sales (discovery), to drive subscriptions (freemium). All three are worthy goals but unchecked each one also competes with the other. A consistent industry vision is needed.
  • Programme more: Free has a massive role to play in digital music, but it needs to better targeted. A super engaged music fan should not be able to sate their on demand appetite on free. In short, free music needs to be less on demand and more programmed. That is not to say YouTube or Soundcloud need to become Pandora, but they do need to explore meeting somewhere midway.
  • Use data to segment: It is not enough to simply say users can choose between different services, they services need to better use their data to determine who gets what experience within them. Someone who watches 20 YouTube music videos a day is clearly a target for a Music Key subscription. That person should not just be marketed Music Key, s/he should also have their free experience progressively dialled down to push them towards it.
  • Fix the models: Pandora is a highly viable ad business that happens to have a radio service built on it. There is a world of difference between Pandora’s ad business and Spotify’s. Spotify’s deals with the rights holders essentially preclude it from making free a viable business, which is fair enough. But it does create the unfortunate vicious circle of there never being a case for Spotify investing enough in ad sales infrastructure to drive up CPMs enough to boost ad supported revenue. Labels and publishers need to think hard about what tweaks may need to be made to business models if they want freemium services to be strong enough financially to drive a vibrant subscription market. Not fixing the models will only skew the market to the companies with ulterior business models who can afford to perpetually lose money on free.
  • Don’t give up on free fans: A generation weaned on free music will grow up craving more free music. Just because free dominates younger consumers’ digital lexicon now does not mean that it will inherently always do so. Don’t give up on the lost generation of music consumers with the default position of free.
  • Strike the right balance: This is simultaneously the most important and most difficult part to get right. YouTube, Soundcloud and Spotify’s free tier are legal alternatives to piracy. Turn back the dial too much on the legal sources and illegal ones will flourish again. However the fact that more than a third of free streamers use stream ripper apps to turn streams into downloads means that the distinction between licensed and pirated has long since blurred. Nonetheless the balance needs to be better struck, probably somewhere equidistant between YouTube and Pandora. Ultimately it will require lots of real time honing and perfecting to get the right mix.

Free music will always be part of the equation and it has become a key part of the music industry’s armoury. But there is a difference between a controlled burn and an out of control forest fire. The freemium wars have already accounted for some high profile scalps and more controversy will follow. Free will remain a crucial part of the landscape but it is time for a reassessment of its role and that must encompass all elements of on demand free, not just Spotify.

What the Numbers Tell Us About Streaming in 2014

By the end of 2014 streaming revenues will account for $3.3 billion, up 37% from 2013. However headline market value numbers only ever tell part of the story. Just as important are the numbers on the ground that give us some sense of where the money is flowing and of the sustainability of the business models. During the last two weeks we have been fortunate to have four different sets of data that go a long way to filling in those gaps:

Each is interesting enough in isolation but it is the way that they interact and interdepend that gets really interesting:

  • Sustainability: A lot is rightly made of whether the subscription business model is sustainable. Spotify has showed us that, at least in a local subsidiary, an operational profit can be turned. However that profit rate was just 2.5%, does not account for previously acquired losses and also does not account for the broader company’s cost base where many of Spotify’s other costs lie. 2.5% is a wafer thin margin that leaves little margin for error and would be wiped out in an instant with the sort of the advertising Spotify has been using in the US. Meanwhile Soundcloud have demonstrated that it is also entirely possible to post a heavy loss even without rights costs. Soundcloud is going to need every ounce of its investor money and new revenue streams when it adds a 73.2% rights cost to its bottom line (though Soundcloud is doing all it can to ensure it doesn’t have to play by those rules and instead hopes to operate under YouTube’s far more preferable rates).
  • Transition: Nielsen’s US numbers should finally remove any lingering doubt about whether streaming is eating directly into download revenue. As MIDiA Research revealed last month, 23% of streamers used to buy more than an album a month but no longer do so. Streaming is converting the most valuable downloaders into subscribers and in doing so is reducing their monthly spending from $20 or $30 to $9.99. The combined effect of the perpetual decline of the CD and now of the download make it hard for streaming to turn the total market around. That won’t happen globally until 2018, though in many individual markets streaming driven growth is already here. Spotify pointed to bundles with the Times of London newspaper and mobile carrier Vodafone as key sources of growth in the UK. This sort of deal points to how subscriptions can break out of the early adopter beachhead and drive incremental ‘found’ revenue.
  • The Ubiquity of Free: YouTube, Pandora, Soundcloud and Spofity free are among the largest contributors to streaming’s scale. Some business models are more proven than others – Pandora looks better placed than ever to be a central part of the long term future of radio. YouTube’s role remains controversial though. Its proudly announced $1bn payout milestone is less impressive when one considers Content ID was launched in 2007 and that this is all rights holders, not just music. So let’s say 60% was to music rights holders, over the course of seven years that averages out at $0.07 per year for each of YouTube’s current one billion monthly users. That’s a pretty small return for the globe’s biggest music service.

We are clearly still some distance away from a definitive set of evidence that can tell us exactly what streaming’s impact will be. But in many ways it is wrong to wait for that. There will never be a truly definitive argument. Instead the world will continue to change in ways that will better fit the streaming market. It is a case of streaming and the industry meeting half way. This is exactly what happened with downloads. Early fears that downloads would accelerate the demise of the CD and instigate the decline of the album were both confirmed but the music industry learned how to build a new set of businesses around these new digital realities. The same process will take place with streaming.

We are already seeing some remarkable resilience and appetite for change from artists, from DIY success stories like Zoe Keating, through veteran rockers like Iggy Pop, right up to corporate megastars like Ed Sheeran. These are as diverse a collection of artists as you could wish for but they are united in an understanding that the music industry is changing, again, and that simply bemoaning the decline in sales revenue will not achieve anything. Of course it sucks that sales revenue is falling and of course its infinitesimally easier for me to write these words than to live them. But that sort willingness to evolve to the realities of today’s rapidly changing market will set up an artist with the best chance of surviving the cull. The old adage rings truer than ever: adapt or die.

The Problem With Audiences (A Letter To Daniel Ek)

Dear Daniel

I enjoy our occasional Twitter exchanges and last night’s about MIDiA Research’s new music forecasts was no exception. For the record, I believe you deserve great credit for engaging as much as you do on Twitter. But as valuable a platform as Twitter is, it is not the best environment for discussing more complex and nuanced issues so I wanted to take this opportunity to build out from our conversation.

Your comments revolved around MIDiA’s estimate of the global ad supported music audience, which you think is lower than it should be at 202 million. I am really pleased you have picked up on this audience number. Part of what we are trying to do at MIDiA is educate the music industry to think less about Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) and more about how many people are actually engaging with digital music services. The audience-first approach has served the TV industry well and there are many lessons the music industry would do well to heed.

When Active Is In Fact Anything But

The accepted standard for measuring audiences of digital B2C companies is to look at regular users, typically considered as ‘at least one activity during the last 30 days’. If you are a marketer looking to understand the reach of different platforms then this is a perfectly adequate measure. It is similarly useful if you are a company trying to communicate value to advertisers or if you are a start up looking to demonstrate success to potential investors.   However it is the motives of the latter two groups that can lead to problems, especially in the ad supported music space.

For example most people take it as read that Pandora’s c.80 million regular users are monthly users. However Pandora’s imaginative definition for active users is: “…distinct registered users that have requested audio from our servers within the trailing 30 days to the end of the final calendar month of the period.” Which means that for quarterly accounting that can refer to up to a 120 day period, or for monthly accounting up to 60 days. Thus a user that plays just 30 seconds of one song in a two months period would be classified as a ‘monthly’ active user. That might serve Pandora’s purposes well but it is far from a useful measure for objective observers and vested interests such as songwriters and publishers. (Spotify of course defines active users using a straightforward 30 days measure). Another problematic trend is music services that classify active users as those that open the app rather than playing a song.

Why ‘Real’ Regular Usage Is So Important For Understanding YouTube

When we were building the MIDiA forecasts we were particularly concerned about YouTube. Music is crucially important to YouTube but it is not a music service. So, not only is a regular YouTube user not necessarily a music user, an occasional-but-monthly YouTube music user is not necessarily a music consumer in the way an occasional-but-monthly Spotify user is. Somebody who downloads Spotify does so because they want to listen to music, end of. Someone who, for example, watches a ‘Gangnam Style’ video that appears in their Facebook timeline is by no means guaranteed to be an engaged music fan. The highly diverse nature of YouTube’s content means that music can be a very small part of the 6 hours average monthly viewing of a YouTube user. Especially when you consider non-music videos from the likes of PewDiePie and SkyDoesMinecraft each average over 20 minutes. In short, the occasional-but-monthly YouTube user is less likely to be an engaged music fan than an occasional-but-monthly Spotify user.

So we decided to define regular users for YouTube as those who watch 20 or more music videos a month, which translates to about 5 a week and less than a fifth of the average YouTube user’s total monthly YouTube time. We did this because we want to provide the music industry with metrics that have actionable value. YouTube’s total music video audience is probably somewhere in the region of half a billion but less than half are regular users. Apple’s iTunes audience is c850 million only but only 200 million or so are music buyers.  Big numbers look great on Powerpoint slides but they don’t help make good business decisions if they are not truly instructive. 

Not All Active Users Are Created Equal

Of course, the ideal starting point for measuring different audiences is to apply a standard definition, but as we have just seen, this is not always best route to take. Particularly if you are trying to demonstrate where the value in digital music lies for each part of the value chain. For example, a regular download buyer, when defined as those who buy at least monthly, spends around $2 a month. As an artist, if one of those tracks was yours you might get $0.15 from that 1 infrequent regular user, while if that song was streamed 20 times by a infrequent regular Spotify user you might get $0.03, and if it was viewed 20 times by what would have to be a frequent regular YouTube user you would probably get around $0.01. An infrequent regular iTunes customer in this scenario is thus 15 times more valuable to an artist than a frequent regular YouTube user.

Scale Matters If You Do Not Have It

All of this might sound a little esoteric but it does matter, especially to artists, songwriters and smaller indie labels. If you are a big label, or indeed a music service, it is the total revenue that matters as you are effectively guaranteed a meaningful share of it. But if you are an artist, songwriter or small indie, your plays will be just a tiny share of the regular audience’s behaviour making it far harder to make meaningful money out of those users than it is from infrequent download buyers. While its great to see Calvin Harris and Avicii each clock up 1 billion Spotify streams, this feels more like a confirmation of my ‘long tail is dead’ theory rather than signs of a ‘high tide rises all boats’. If you are a big artist or label you have scale and you benefit from the scale of even infrequent audiences. For the rest, an infrequent user audience has little import, particularly as those users also skew towards the big hits. 

us audience

Audiences Really Do Matter

Like I said, I am really glad you’re focusing on the size of digital music audiences – I wish more people would take the same interest. Indeed if you look the chart above – which shows the audience of each type of music service mapped against the revenue – you can see that there is currently a huge imbalance between revenue and audience. This is exactly why I want the industry to focus on audience first and revenue second. In fact if we were to take the looser (bigger) measurement of YouTube’s audience it would make my point even more firmly.

So thank you once again Daniel for helping highlight the importance of audiences and hopefully I’ve gone some way to explaining why MIDiA decided to measure YouTube in the way we did. Though I have to say I am intrigued as to why you showed so much interest in the ad supported audience over all others? I do hope this doesn’t hint at a stronger focus on ad supported to come for Spotify. You have done a fantastic job at kick starting the subscription market and I know it is hard work, but if anyone can make premium subscriptions work at scale it is you. Though I totally get that you also need to highlight how much oxygen YouTube is sucking out of the marketplace – something I think you and I are in violent agreement on.

 

Yours,

 

Mark 

Apple, Beats and Streaming’s Mutual Fear Factor

Although the Apple-Beats deal is about far more than just streaming music, it is nonetheless an important part of the puzzle.  Apple has been going slow with streaming, introducing cloud experiences (iCloud, iTunes Match, iTunes Radio, Video rentals) slowly so as not to alienate its less tech-adventurous mainstream user base.  That strategy remains valid and will continue, but it has failed to protect the defection of its core, high value, early adopters.  This is why Apple has to get serious about streaming fast: it is scared of losing its best customers.  It is also why all other streaming companies, whatever they may admit publically, are getting ready to run scared.  This is streaming music’s mutual fear factor:

  • Velvet handcuffs: Music downloads are monetized CRM for Apple, a means of enhancing the device experience.  Purchased tracks and an iTunes managed library act as velvet handcuffs for Apple device owners.  But for those consumers that use a streaming subscription app, the playlists and music collection can exist on any device.  Suddenly the handcuffs slip off.  This is why Apple has to get streaming right in short order.  It simply cannot afford to lose swathes of its most valuable device customers at the next handset replacement cycle.
  • Chinks in the iTunes armour: Until the launch of the App Store, 3rd party music services had no way of breaking into the iTunes ecosystem and were, in the main, doomed to the role of also rans.  The App Store was the chink in the otherwise impregnable iTunes armour that allowed those 3rd parties to not just launch punitive raids but to set up camp in Apple’s heartlands. It was the price Apple had to pay to enter the next phase of its business, but now it is ready to shore up its defences once more.
  • Eating from Apple’s table: The vast majority of streaming music subscribers were already digital download buyers first, and of those the majority were either current or past iTunes Store customers when they became subscribers.  On a global scale, subscriptions have first and foremost been about transitioning existing spending rather than creating new digital customers. The picture is very different in Nordics, the Netherlands and South Korea but those markets contribute far less to global scale than the markets (US, UK, Australia etc.) where this trend dominates.  Apple has provided the core addressable market for streaming services for the last five years.  Now those companies worry over where will they be able to get new subscribers if Apple start taking subscriptions seriously.
  • Apple will not have to play fair: Although Apple knows it is under the watchful eye of various regulatory authorities following the eBook price fixing episode, there is still plenty it can do to make life hard for 3rd party streaming services.  Just take a look at what Amazon is reportedly getting away with in its book pricing dispute with Hachette: delaying shipments of the publisher’s books to customers, removing buy buttons from pre-ordered books, even pointing Amazon customers to competitive titles when searching for Hachette books.  Fair play or foul, the power of the retailer is huge.  Whether Apple simply ensures Spotify et al don’t appear in search results, or that they are never quite able to integrate seamlessly with iOS anymore for no specific reason that anyone can quite put their finger on….But even without resorting to such behavior, simply by deeply integrating an Apple (or Beats) branded subscription service natively into its devices and ecosystem, Apple will have the upper hand and 3rd parties will find it a whole lot harder to fish in Apple’s waters.

None of this is necessarily bad for the market either.  In fact it could be just what the subscriptions business needs.  To finally focus on green field opportunity beyond the confines of the Apple elite.  Nor should Apple even limit its subscription focus to streaming or to music.  The rise of the Content Connectors points to Apple, Amazon and Google pursuing digital content strategies in the round, that do not get bogged down with super serving any individual content type at the expense of the rest.  Apple’s best mid-term subscription play may yet simply prove to be a monthly allowance of iTunes credit across all content types, bundled into the cost of the device.  Put that on top of iCloud, iTunes Radio, Beats Music and suddenly you have a very compelling multi-content offering.  Something far out of the reaches of the current product roadmaps of any of the stand alone music services.

Can Apple afford to loss lead with music subscriptions to pursue such a strategy?  Well, remember Apple’s entire digital music business has been built on loss leading.  Whatever the final outcome, the mutual fear factor balance looks set to tip in Apple’s favour for a while.

What 10 Million Spotify Subscribers Actually Means

Spotify today announced that it had hit its much anticipated milestone of 10 million premium subscribers.  Make no mistake this is a highly significant achievement for Spotify itself and for the broader digital marketplace.  But it is a long way from mission accomplished. Here’s why:

  • Paid growth is flat: When a new technology enters into the marketplace it goes through a few stages of growth. Initial uptake is driven by the early adopters.  If it succeeds with them it breaks through to the early followers where growth really accelerates through to mainstream before slowing as the market saturates, creating the well know s-curve – see this graphic for how this process works.  Not all technologies follow this pattern though, some never break out of that early adopter niche.  Right now Spotify’s paid subscriber count looks firmly locked in that early adopter segment.  If growth rates sustain at this level it will be late 2016 before we see the 20 million mark hit.
  • Free however is booming: Spotify’s free user count though is showing dynamic growth.  In fact it is following the right trajectory for a technology breaking through.  What’s more the growth is uncannily similar to that of Pandora during the same stage of its growth (see figure below).  In fact by its 66th month Pandora had 39 million active users, while Spotify now has 40 million, also after 66 months.  If Spotify’s free and paid user bases continue to grow at their current rates the currently impressive 3-to-1 free-to-paid ratio will widen markedly.  Free is where the action is.  Just ask potential Twitter suitor Soundcloud with its 250 million active users or YouTube with its 1 billion active users.
  • Paid users still biased to the aficionado: Key to the paid growth problem is that 9.99 subscriptions are the domain of the super fan, the engaged, high spending music aficionado.  And this is very much a music subscription phenomenon rather than an issue with digital subscriptions more broadly. While 60% of music subscribers are male and 48% of them are aged 25-34, 54% of video subscribers (Netflix, Amazon Prime) are female and just 35% are aged 25-34.
  • Churn is likely slowing growth: Being an early stage growth company is great fun but when your business starts to mature attention switches to the much more mundane task of managing churn i.e. making sure the rate at which people stop paying for your product is slower than the rate at which they join.  It sounds deceptively easy but it is in fact a vastly complex discipline and Spotify will be focussing an ever larger share of its resources on it.
  • Twitter’s depressed stock price may slow an IPO: An IPO remains Spotify’s most likely exit and hitting the 10 million mark with an impressive free-to-paid ratio was always going to be a prerequisite for that process.  However as I wrote last year, the performance of Twitter’s stock price will play a key role.  As illogical as it may seem, many investors will look at Twitter’s stock performance as an indicator of how Spotify may fare.  Right now Twitter’s stock is bombing.  Spotify will probably want to wait for that to hit a positive trajectory before moving ahead with an IPO, should that be its planned course of action.  Though I’m sure Spotify will be keen to point to the much better long term story of Pandora’s stock as a reference point.

So, 10 million premium subscribers is a fantastic milestone for Spotify and for the digital music marketplace, but it raises as many questions about the 9.99 model as it answers.

free steraming growth

What Acquiring Beats Could Do For Apple (And Everyone Else)

Stories emerged last night that Apple is in talks to buy Beats, citing well-placed sources. If true – and if it actually goes through – the acquisition has countless potential impacts of seismic proportions, particularly if the deal includes nascent subscription service Beats Music. Apple has always been in the business of selling music for the business of selling hardware, and the potential acquisition must be considered in those terms. With download sales declining and subscriptions gaining traction, Apple has been locked in a process of soul searching, trying to work out what it can do to remain relevant in the digital music business in order to remain relevant in the device business. Beats is a ‘if you can’t beat them, buy them’ solution.

download slow down

There are a number of key considerations and potential impacts:

  • Digital music Plan A has run its course: Despite dynamic growth in Northern European markets, digital music growth nearly shuddered to a halt in 2013, slowing from 11% year-on-year growth in 2012 to just 2% last year, and that is unlikely to be much higher than 4% in 2014. The reason is quite simple: streaming subscriptions are, outside of Northern Europe, predominately converting the most valuable download buyers – who are most often iTunes buyers – into subscribers. Aficionados who bought a few digital albums a month are instead spending 9.99 a month. So instead of bringing up the average spend of music buyers it is bringing down the spending of many – I’ll be publishing some data on this in the coming weeks. Digital music needs a Plan B to reinvigorate growth
  • Apple is paradoxically holding back digital growth: Apple almost singlehandedly created the global digital music in the 2000’s but it is now actually holding back growth in the 2000’s. Streaming has taken off most quickly where Apple never got a foothold (see figure). Where Apple is firmly established streaming is a transition story, of download revenue shifting to streaming. Where it is not, streaming is green field growth. An interesting side effect of this is that because English speaking Apple has prospered most in English speaking markets, it is in these countries – US, UK, Canada, Australia, all of which are top ten music markets – where digital growth is now slowest. Apple has inadvertently passed the digital baton to the non-English language world.
  • Apple’s go-slow streaming strategy is too slow: All this translates into weakening digital relevance for Apple, which infers weakening hardware relevance. Apple has been here before, back in the heyday of Last.FM when Apple was still predominately a computer business, it tried to steal the social music revolution’s clothes with the launch of the now-defunct Ping and the just-about-still-around Genius. Yet Apple came out of that era stronger than ever. Now though, portable devices are the beating heart of Apple’s business, and with the relentless onslaught of Android it cannot afford its next music move to be another Ping. However Apple has had to go slow with streaming. Its user base is more mainstream than ever – as the growing popularity of Now compilations in its store attests – so it has to introduce new features in a way that does not overwhelm its less tech-adventurous customers. iCloud and iTunes Radio are great transition technologies to help introduce streaming to Apple users at a steady pace and to demonstrate clear relevance in the iTunes context. Unfortunately this long-term strategy for its mainstream users has done little to halt the defection of its more sophisticated and, crucially, most valuable, customers. Beats Music could be the defensive strategic option for them.
  • Subscriptions don’t have to be AYCE 9.99: 9.99 AYCE services have done a great job of monetizing the super fans, but with less than 5% penetration in major music markets, there is a clear need for something else for the more mainstream fan in top 10 music markets. Cheap priced subscriptions and telco hard bundles are both solutions to this problem. Apple should not feel compelled to jump on the 9.99 bandwagon. Digital content stores are breaking down the genre walls – as Google’s Play demonstrates so well. Apple gets much more revenue from other content genres – see this figure – so a multi-content genre subscription would be a much cleaner fit for Apple. As would a subscription that gave users a certain amount of credit to use on any iTunes products, sort of a virtual iTunes Gift Card subscription. Pricing would be blissfully simple – e.g. $10, $20, $30 etc. – and would help protect Apple from revenue cannibalization until it makes the full switch to access from ownership. $10 could include ad-free iTunes Radio, $20 and upwards could include unlimited music streaming.
  • Apple could make hard bundling work, and some: If Apple does get Beats Music, it would have an unprecedented opportunity to make bundled subscriptions work. Hardware has always been key to making digital content work, whether that be the Kindle, Xbox, Playstation, iPhone or the new generation of Content Connectors like Chromecast. Subscriptions are working now because Apple opened up a chink in its vertically integrated ecosystem armour by allowing streaming services to exist on its devices. In fact mobile access is responsible for the majority of the 9.99 model’s growth. Retailing an iPhone / Beats headphones subscription bundle would communicate clear value to users, and with the cost largely hidden in the premium price point associated with the bundle, could help consumers get over the hump of committing to monthly spending.
  • Beats would redefine Apple as a CE company: The implications on Apple’s device portfolio are intriguing tool. The simplicity of Apple’s limited product range has always been key to its success. Being able to retail a single phone when competing with the excessively vast portfolios of incumbent smartphone companies was a major differentiation point. Since those first iPhone days though Apple has multiplied its number of product SKUs. Incorporating a range of headphones would take that to another level. Whether Apple has the ability to seamlessly transform from a computer company with a small range of portable computing devices, to a fully-fledged CE company remains an intriguing open question.

There is no doubt that if Apple does buy Beats and Beats Music, that the impact on the competition will be dramatic. Spotify will be rightly worrying about the impact on its impending IPO – though expect words to the effect that this is simply a resounding validation of the model. But the competition should be welcomed. To date most digital music services have been strategically lazy, focusing their efforts on trying to sell new products to already existing digital customers, the majority of whom, in the big markets at least, are Apple customers. Now digital music companies will have to start thinking much more creatively about how they can compete around, rather than with Apple. About how they can create revenue in new consumer segments, not simply trying to extract more revenue from the preexisting ones. Some companies are doing this already but they are in the distinct minority – this should be a good time for them. If Apple does buy Beats, it will bring some much needed momentum to market that was beginning to suffer from hubris.