What UMG’s IPO Means for the Business of Music

Finishing 2019 on $6.4 billion, Universal Music is to go to IPO hot on the heels of Warner Music’s announcement to do the same. This of course also follows the Tencent-led agreement to acquire 10% of UMG for $3 billion with an option to acquire another 10%. Added into the context of a total of $10 billion in music rights mergers and acquisitions (M&A) in the last decade, we have a clear case of capital flowing into the booming recorded and music publishing businesses. The global recorded music market looks set to have reached a little under $21 billion in 2019, up 10% on 2018 (MIDiA’s definitive market estimate will be ready within the next few weeks). That 10% growth was up on the 8% seen in 2018. Investors of all sizes are either already invested in the music business or are looking for a route in, and UMG just gave them a new, very attractive option. But where is all this heading? How far can it go? And what are the implications for the business of music itself?

Looking for a return

The power behind UMG parent Vivendi is Vincent Bolloré. Although he stepped down from the board last year, he helped instigate a share buyback programme that will leave his family the majority shareholder and could even trigger a mandatory takeover. Additionally, Vincent Bolloré remains as a ‘censor and special advisor’ to Vivendi’s chairman, his son Yannick. This all matters because the motivations of Vivendi’s prime mover are, according to investors we’ve spoken to, focused on maximisation of value for Bolloré Group and for investors. This is not inherently a bad thing. The Bolloré Group has invested billions in Vivendi, so it is only natural that it will be seeking a return on that investment. And the likelihood is that Vivendi will only list a minority of UMG stock, otherwise Vivendi – Bolloré Group’s key financial interest here – would most likely lose value.

Why an IPO?

The IPO announcement follows a previous statement from Vivendi that it would look for other equity buyers for UMG. The IPO may well reflect that this course of action has not delivered fruit. But this does not mean the IPO would struggle. Equity buyers may have balked at the valuation and the lack of company control they would acquire. Stock investors, however, have a different perspective. For example, asset managers will be looking to add a profile of asset class that slots into a particular segment of their portfolios. Meanwhile, hedge funds would see UMG stock as a way to directly bet for (and against) rights in the emerging ‘rights versus distribution’ investment thesis. Finally, publicly-traded stock inherently reflects what the market values a company at, not what the company values itself at.

Investing back into the music business

Sales and IPOs during the peak of markets are usually a good way of maximising return. The question is how much of the income from the equity sales and IPO will flow back into the UMG business, compared to profit taking by investors. The same question of course applies to Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries’ proposed WMG IPO.

In its earnings release Vivendi stated that the income from the various UMG transactions “could be used for substantial share buyback operations and acquisitions”. Share buyback suggests further potential consolidation of the Bolloré Group’s relative dominance of Vivendi shareholding, while acquisitions could refer to activity at both Vivendi and UMG levels. There is a strong case for IPO proceeds being reinvested in the businesses of both UMG and WMG. The music market is growing and both companies outperformed total market growth in 2019 – but a slowdown is coming. Both UMG and WMG added less new streaming revenue in 2019 than they did in 2018. Not by much, but the early signs are there.

Time for plan B, C and D

Emerging and mid-tier markets will drive much of the growth over the next half decade, but the lower average revenue per user (ARPU) rates mean that subscribers will grow faster than revenue. So, the record labels need a new revenue driver. UMG actually saw physical sales grow a little in 2019 (due in part to deluxe editions of Beatles classic releases). But physical is not going to be the long-term revenue driver. Innovating in new revenue streams (e.g. creator tools) and new business models (e.g. streaming services that monetise fandom rather than consumption) is more promising. There is an opportunity here for UMG and WMG to supercharge growth beyond the coming streaming slowdown. In fact, MIDiA would go further and say there is an imperative to do so. Larger independents such as Downtown Music Holdings, Kobalt, BMG and Concord are collectively taking billions worth of capital and investing it in growing their businesses. If the majors do not follow suit, then they will lose ground to this emerging generation of innovative music companies.

This is looking to be the time to capitalise on the music industry’s revenue renaissance. Which begs the question: if/when will Sony spin off some of Sony Music via an IPO?

WMG to IPO: Here’s What You Need to Know

Throughout the last decade more than $10 billion has been invested into music catalogues. UMG bookended the merger and acquisition (M&A) boom with the Tencent-led $3 billion stake in its business, but was exceptional in that the majority of the investment was otherwise going into the independent sector (especially independent publishers). It follows that this remaining $7 billion flowing into the independent sector, even if only a minority is reinvested into the companies themselves, is going to boost the sectors’ capabilities vis-à-vis majors. UMG wanted a piece of the action – and now so does WMG, having just announced its intention to IPO. Current owner Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries will rightly be expecting a good return for the $3.2 billion it cost to acquire WMG in 2011. No doubt this is a good time for an IPO – but we are also on the cusp of disruptions and innovations that will transform the music business, many of which WMG hints at in its S1 filing.

Revenue performance

WMG’s S1 filings hold fewer surprises than most, as it has been filing SEC-compliant documents since the Access takeover as part of debt obligations. Nonetheless, WMG’s Q4 results and its stated risk factors, with a little bit of interpretation, present an intriguing view of where WMG sits in the fast-changing competitive marketplace.

Firstly, a quick review of some key financial metrics:

  • WMG full-year (FY) 2019 (calendar year basis) recorded music revenues were $3,883 million, up 11% year-on-year (YoY) – in line with the total market which should come in at around $21 billion, giving WMG around 18% market share.
  • However, Q4 revenues were only up 4% YoY which reflects the continued decline of physical and the start of the streaming slowdown. This is a secular trend, not a WMG-specific one.
  • Artist and repertoire (A&R) and production costs were 52% of 2019 revenues (fiscal year basis) and grew in line with revenue over the same period, though A&R grew more slowly than production costs (which were up 18% YoY). In Q4 A&R spend was actually flat from Q3, while production was up 12% (three times faster growth than revenues). Key takeaway: it is costing more to make major label quality music.

Market outlook

Risk factors are an integral part of company filings and are normally so intentionally bland as to make the risk factors look like they’re not really risks at all. With a little bit of focussed interrogation, however, they can be revealed. Here are the key ones for WMG:

“Our prospects and financial results may be adversely affected if we fail to identify, sign and retain recording artists and songwriters and by the existence or absence of superstar releases.”

WMG references rising competition from the ‘technological developments’ of insurgents. This points to the emerging generation of those such as AWAL and Downtown Music Holdings that are employing new, tech-led approaches with businesses built for the digital era rather than having to evolve into it. All traditional labels are playing catch-up. That doesn’t mean they won’t get there, but they are having to work doubly hard to do so. It is often far easier to compete as an insurgent stealing market share than it is to be an incumbent defending it.

“If streaming adoption or revenues grows less rapidly or levels off, our prospects and our results of operations may be adversely affected.”

At the start of last year MIDiA predicted that streaming revenue growth would slow towards the end of 2020. We are seeing the first signs of this and all labels, WMG included, know it is coming. The question is not ‘if’, but ‘by how much’. MIDiA’s view is that despite growth slowing to single digits by 2021 the market will still nearly double between 2019 and 2026. The bigger question is whether we will have a plan B for streaming by then, alternative to the 9.99 model dominated by three global players – which brings us onto the next point…

“We are substantially dependent on a limited number of digital music services for the online distribution and marketing of our music, and they are able to significantly influence the pricing structure for online music stores and may not correctly calculate royalties under license agreements.”

With the big three digital service providers (DSPs) accounting for 66% of global subscribers (80% if we remove single-market DSPs like Tencent) labels are becoming worried about the hard power (licensing negotiations) and soft power (curation and discovery) of Spotify, Apple and Amazon. Labels have been unable to exercise ‘divide and rule’ over them so far and really need a new competitive force in the market. Few investors would back a vanilla 9.99 challenger, so rightsholders need to think about licensing the next new thing. MIDiA’s bet is on monetising fandom (virtual gifts, tipping, live streaming etc.) to complement the current model of monetising consumption.

“Our business may be adversely affected by competitive market conditions, and we may not be able to execute our business strategy.”

The emerging generation of new competitor music companies are building a complex web of entirely new music business structures. The only unifying factor is diversity. Major labels are responding in kind. Expanded rights were the first step, label services the next. But we are just at the start of this journey, and much more will need to be done. WMG dipped its toes into the ‘top of funnel’ business with the launch of Level in 2018. This will remain a crucial growth area, but creator tools are becoming the new top of funnel. Spotify is currently leading the charge here. WMG and other majors will need to follow suit, or be left behind.

“We face a potential loss of catalogue to the extent that our recording artists have a right to recapture rights in their recordings under the U.S. Copyright Act.”

Although this risk factor specifically refers to the US Copyright Act, there is a more fundamental market dynamic at play: as more artists move towards label services deals, major record labels will grow their owned catalogues much more slowly than their revenues due to artists retaining their rights. Just 8% of independent artists plan to sign a traditional record label deal. The music business is about to be transformed by the emerging generation of artists.

Right place, right time – but choppy waters ahead

This is good time for WMG to IPO. The music rights M&A market has until now been constrained by supply. Now, large institutional investors have another way in which they can place bets in the burgeoning recorded and music publishing businesses. Unlike owning shares in UMG parent Vivendi or Sony Music parent Sony Corporation, this is a direct investment not diluted by other corporate assets. But we are also on the cusp of what will be the most transformational era that the music business has been through in decades. The 2010s was the decade of streaming, the foundation for business model transformation. The 2020s will be the decade of the artist. To thrive in this new world, WMG will have to follow one guiding principle: putting the artist first.

Backing Both Horses: The Thinking Behind Tencent’s UMG Stake

As long expected, Tencent is poised to take a stake in Vivendi, reported to be 10%. While the news might not be surprising, there are a number of important factors at play:

  • Tencent fast-tracked? Given that various entities stated their interest in investing in UMG, Vivendi appears to have fast-tracked Tencent. This might well be because Tencent showed the most appetite for paying a premium, and therefore Vivendi wanted to close the deal so as to create a price that subsequent bidders would have to work with.
  • Betting on both horses: The investment community is increasingly viewing music as a battle between rights and distribution, with Spotify versus UMG as the publicly traded vehicles through which the contest can be backed. Tencent already secured around 5% of Spotify via its Tencent Music Entertainment subsidiary back in 2017, and it is now securing 10% in UMG. Tencent is backing both horses in the race.
  • Investing within constraints: Back in 2016, concerned about capital flowing out of the country,Chinese authorities implemented restrictions on Chinese companies investing in overseas entities. This has compelled Tencent to focus on minority stakes rather than outright acquisitions. The UMG stake fits this investment framework.
  • Outgrowing China: Tencent had a 74% market share of the Chinese music subscriptions market in Q2 2018. While growth in the market is solid, it is slowing. Tencent will recognize that there is only so much remaining near-term opportunity at home. Being a part of the global market is a way of ensuring it is not constrained by its domestic marketplace.
  • Proxy wars: Back in 2018 I argued that Spotifyshould be wary of Tencent setting itself up as a competitor in markets where Spotify is not yet established (Russia, sub-Saharan Africa, some Asian markets etc). Tencent may still do this, and this may be part of the preparations, but for now ByteDance looks the most likely candidateto pursue this strategy.
  • Look east:While streaming is giving an old industry new legs in the west, China’s music industry is effectively being built from scratch. As a consequence, it doesn’t have decades of irrelevant baggage. This is seen in China’s music apps. Western streaming is all about monetising consumption; China’s isabout monetising fandom. If the Western music industry was born today, it too would be putting social at its core. Many argue that apps like WeSing can only really work in China – but I remember people saying the same about mobile picture messaging when i-mode was getting going in Japan nearly 20 years ago. Just look at TikTok’s global success if you need any further convincing.

State of the Streaming Nation 3.0: Multi-Paced Growth

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

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

Below are some details of the report.

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

Key findings: 

THE MARKET

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

CONSUMER BEHAVIOUR

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

ADOPTION

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

OUTLOOK

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

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

The Frank Ocean Days May Be Gone, but Streaming Disintermediation Is Just Getting Going

Aaron_Smith
At the start of this month Apple struck a deal with French rap duo PNL. PNL are part of a growing breed of top-tier frontline artists that have opted to retain ownership of their masters. In our just-published Independent Artists report (MIDiA clients can read the full report here)we have sized out the label services marketplace, and when it is coupled with artists direct (i.e. DIY) the independent artist sector was worth 8% of the entire recorded music business in 2018.

While that number may sound relatively modest, it is growing fast and represents the future. Traditional label deals are not disappearing, but they are becoming just one component of an increasingly complex recorded music revenue mix. This is the industry context that enables initiatives such as Apple’s PNL deal and both Spotify and Apple backing Aaron Smith, who incidentally is signed to artist accelerator Platoon, which is a company that Apple acquired in December 2018.

Independent artists open up new opportunities for streaming services

When Apple did its exclusive with Frank Ocean back in 2016it caused such an industry backlash that UMG head Lucian Grainge banned his labels from doing exclusive deals and the movement seemed dead in the water. If there was any doubt, Spotify kicked up so much label ill will when it launched its Direct Artists platform that it officially shuttered the initiative in July. However, now we are seeing that there many more ways to skin the proverbial cat. It is perfectly possible to disintermediate labels without having to actually disintermediate them. Doing an exclusive with an independent artist or giving him / her priority promotion is doubly effective for streaming services as:

  1. Record labels have no right to complain because independent artists have just the same right of access to audiences as label artists
  2. The more exposure independent artists get, the more their market share will grow, which will lessen record labels’ market share, which makes it harder for them to resist and easier for the streaming services to start making bolder moves down the line

Ambiguity will be the shape of things

Even this structure plays into the traditional view of labels versus the rest. The new truth is much more nuanced. For example, when Stormzy was duetting with Ed Sheeran at the Brits, signed on a label services deal to WMG’s ADA, was he a Warner artist or an independent artist? He was, of course, both. The evolution of the market will be defined by progressively more of this ambiguity, which will give streaming services equally more ability to not only play to these market dynamics but to stress-test the boundaries. The simple fact is that streaming services will become ever-agnostic with regards to artists’ commercial partnerships and in turn they will become a more important component of the value chain. Apple Music did the PNL deal because they had much more commercial flexibility dealing with an independent artist than dealing with a label artist. At some stage, labels will have to decide whether they want to revisit the exclusives model. Without doing so, they may not get a seat at the new table.

The Artist Marketing Playbook Needs Rewriting

The whole essence of fandom is being turned upside down. An emerging crop of streaming-native artists is finding its audience in a much more targeted and efficient way than via the traditional music marketing. Instead of blowing a huge budget on carpet bombing TV, radio, print, online artists and their teams are finding their exact audiences, focusing on relevance and engagement rather than reach and scale.

The traditional model is great at creating household brands but so much of that brand impact is wasted on the households or household members that are not interested in the artist. Niche is the new mainstream. Targeted trumps reach. But too many label marketers fear that unless they use the mass media platforms, they will not be able to build national and global scale brands. They might be right, at least in part, but this is how the future will look and new marketing disciplines and objectives are required. Here’s some brand new data to show why.

midia index music fandom

Since Q4 2016 MIDiA has been tracking leading TV shows every quarter for awareness, fandom, viewing and streaming. Since the start of 2019 we have been doing the same for artists, with viewing swapped out for listening. These metrics provide a rounded picture of an artist’s full brand impact and consumption, while the ratios between these metrics give a unique view of just how individual artists are performing and of the impact of their respective marketing strategies. Later in the year we will be feeding this data into Index for Music,a unique new dashboard tool to combine with data from social platforms, streaming, searches, reviews and other metrics that create an end-to-end view of artist impact. We have already built our Index for Video tool which you can find out more about here.

In the above chart, using the consumer data component of Index, we have taken a contiguous sample of the five artists that represent the mid-point of each third of the rankings (i.e. top, middle and bottom) for two of these ratios:

  • Fandom-to-streaming, which we call Streaming Conversion
  • Awareness-to-fandom, which we call Brand Conversion

The results show some very clear artist clusters with clear implications for artist success and marketing strategy (remember, these are ratios not rankings of how well streamed or popular they are):

Streaming Conversion

  • Rising streaming stars: These artists have twice as many people streaming them as they do fans. These artists are largely younger, frontline artists that are building their careers first and foremost on streaming platforms. These are artists that have not yet built their fanbases but are being pushed hard by their labels on streaming and elsewhere. Their listening is being driven by promotional activity. Pusha-T is the exception, a much longer established artist.
  • Established artists: These artists are largely well-established artists whose streaming audience penetration correlates with their fanbases. Their listening is largely organic. Dua Lipa is the exception, still relatively early in her career but already with an established fanbase driving organic streaming.
  • Low-streamed superstars: These are artists that built their careers in the pre-streaming era and while are household names, have streaming audiences smaller than their fanbases, not having managed to migrate large shares of their audiences to streaming

 

Brand Conversion

  • Heritage superstars: The majority of people who know these big heritage acts like them. In some ways brand conversion is an easier task for such artists than frontline artists. As they have been around so long, it tends to be the very bests of their catalogue that people know. The fact Queen outranks the Beatles is testament to the way in which the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has created new relevance for the band.
  • Big brand artists:This eclectic mix of artists are – Julia Michaels excepted – well established artists that have benefited from years of label marketing support, with about half of all people that know them liking them.
  • Over-extended brands: One of the most important changes wrought by streaming and social is that fanbases no longer need to be built via mass media. However, big artists, especially major label ones, still rely upon mass media to become global stars. The result is a lot of wasted marketing budget. In this group, which is dominated by Hip Hop artists, more than half of the people who have been made aware of the artists do not like them. The marketing dollars spent on reaching those people has not converted.

We will be diving much deeper into this data in a forthcoming MIDiA client report and also at our next free-to-attend (depose required) event in central London: Managing Fandom in a Fragmented Content Landscape. Join us at the event to get a sneak peak of MIDiA’s artist data and our Index tool. All attendees will get a free copy of the presentation. In addition to the data key note there is a panel featuring people from Kobalt, TikTok, ATC and more to be confirmed. Sign up now, only limited places remain!

See you there!

Music Sync: A Market Ripe for Change

Florence and the Machine’s performance of Jenny of Oldstones, which appeared over the closing credits of the April 21st HBO’s Game Of Thrones episode, has registered the most Shazams in 24 hours ever.The placing of a song has always had the ability to transform its fortunes, and that has never been more the case than now. The music sync market is booming, with the number of syncs higher than ever and more platforms and productions seeking new music. It is also a market with a host of structural challenges, which is the focus of MIDiA’s latest major new report on the music sync market – Music Sync Market Assessment: A Market Ripe for Change. Clients can access here and non-clients can purchase here from our report store.

We interviewed senior sync market executives of labels, publishers, sync agencies, sync tech, TV, games etc. for the report to help create the definitive take on this important but problematic sector. Here are some brief highlights of the report.

midia music sync tech landscape

The music sync market has long been a source of high-margin income for rights holders as well as a means for helping break artists, with a well-placed, successful track having the ability to transform the career of an emerging artist. The growth of channels such as games, social video, and online video (like Netflix), and the corresponding renaissance in TV drama production, have combined to create an unprecedented volume of demand for the sync marketplace. A wave of tech start-ups has followed, each trying to fix parts of an otherwise very ad hoc and relationships-based industry.

Total sync revenues grew by 11% in 2017, but remain a minority component of music publisher revenue and have even less value for labels. Despite a boom in demand, much of the opportunity remains untapped. This is largely because the sync market is a complex, interconnected web of closely guarded personal relationships that operate on tradecraft, reputation and personal connections. It is a marketplace that technology has only brushed the edges of – but when it has, the results have been mixed. For example, streaming playlists have quickly become an established tool used by music supervisors, but on the other hand, many of the new start-ups addressing the space have failed to gain meaningful traction. In part this is because it is a sector that has modest appetite for change. Indeed, with personal reputations an industry currency, and lack of pricing transparency a well-used tool for securing price premiums, there is more internal incentive to remain in stasis than to embrace innovation.

A host of technology companies have come to market attempting to improve the music sync workflow, but many require pre-cleared rights. This is something that would undoubtedly accelerate the market but that rightsholders are typically unwilling to agree to because:

  1. They need individual creator approval
  2. They do not want to cede negotiating power

The music sync market has managed to remain strong by changing far less than most other parts of the music business. However, strategic shifts by newer, large-scale buyers such as Netflix, coupled with wider technology shifts, mean that the sync market will not be able to resist change for much longer.

Micro licensing (e.g. YouTube content) represents a major opportunity, especially if Facebook manages to execute on its thus-far underwhelming social music strategy. However, that requires a technology solution (e.g. Qwire, OCL) and simply cannot work on the same highly-manual and very slow mechanisms that mainstream sync operates with. Unless a tech solution is created, it will be royalty-free music providers like Epidemic Sound that will take most of the scale opportunity.

To read much more on the music sync market, check out the report here (Clients)   (Non-clients).

Companies and brands mentioned in the report:A+G Sync, Amazon, Beggars Group, Cue Songs, DISCO, Electronic Arts, Epidemic Sound, HBO, Jingle Punks, Jukedeck, Lickd, Musicbed, Music Gateway, MXX, Netflix, OCL, Proctor and Gamble, Qwire, Reverbnation, Songtradr, Sony/ATV, Soundvault, SyncFloor, Synchtank, Tunefind, Universal Music, Warner Chappell, YouTube

Creator Support: A New Take on User Centric Licensing

User-centric licensing (i.e. stream pay-outs based on sharing the royalty income of an individual user split across the music they listen to) has stimulated a lot of debate. I first explored the concept of user-centric licensing back in 2015and stirred up a hornet nest, with a lot of very mixed feedback. The big issue then, as now, was that it is a very complex concept to implement which may well only have modest impact on a macro level but may also have the unintended consequence of worsening income for smaller artists. Fans of smaller artists tend to be more engaged listeners who generate a larger number of streams spread across a larger number of artists. The net result could be lower average income for smaller indie artists, and higher income for mainstream pop acts who have listeners with lower average streams spread across a smaller number of artists. Since then, Deezer has actively explored the concept and it continues to generate industry discussion. It is unlikely there will ever be consensus on how user-centric licensing should work, but the underlying principle of helping artists earn from their fans remains a valid one. So, here is an alternative approach that is both pragmatic and far simpler to implement: creator support. A new way to solve an old problem.

Creator support is gaining traction across the digital content world

In the on-demand world, monthly streaming income for creators can be both modest and unpredictable. Amuse’s Fast Forward,YouTube’s channel memberships and Patreon are illustrations of how the market is developing solutions to give content creators (especially artists, podcast creators, YouTubers and Twitch streamers) an effective way to supplement income. But it is Epic Game’s ‘Support-A-Creator’ model that provides the best example of an alternative to user-centric licensing. Epic Games enables Fortnite players to choose a favourite creator to support (which typically means YouTube and Twitch Fortnite players). Epic Games then contributes the equivalent of around 5% of all in-app purchases that the gamer makes to that creator.

How creator support can work for music streaming

Using Spotify and a selection of artists as an illustration, here is how a creator support approach could work for streaming music:

  • All Spotify subscribers get given the option to ‘support’ up to two of their favourite artists
  • For each artist that a subscriber supports, 1% of the record label royalties derived from that subscriber’s subscription fee goes directly to the artist, regardless of how many streams that user generates
  • The label of each artist then pays 100% of this ‘support’ income

creator support midia streaming model

To illustrate how creator support can work, we created a model using Spotify and a selection of diverse artists. We assumed that 75% of Spotify subscribers support an average of 1.5 artists. In the above chart we took five contemporary frontline artists across major labels and label services, and we assumed that 10% of their monthly Spotify listeners support them. Factoring the different types of deals and royalty rates these artists have, as well as the ratios between average monthly streams and monthly listeners, there is an intriguing range of revenue impact that creator support delivers. For Taylor Swift (on a major deal, but one in which she held the negotiating whip hand), Lauv and Rex Orange Country (both on Kobalt label services deals) the creator support income is between 18% and 22% of their existing streaming royalties from Spotify. For Billie Eilish and Circa Waves, both on their first major label deals, creator support income would represent a much larger 78% and 65% of streaming royalties. The rate is higher for Billie Eilish as she has a higher streams-to-listeners ratio.

Artists get paid more with minimal impact on the wider royalty pot

Putting aside the irony that this approach would help put many major label artists more on par with what label services and independent artists earn from streaming, the clear takeaway is that creator support can be an effective way of fans ensuring that some of their streaming spending directly benefits their favourite artists. Because we have structured the model to be just 1% per artist (rather than Fortnite’s 5%) the net impact on the total label royalty pot is minimal. Applying the above assumptions to Spotify’s 2018 label payments, the royalty pot (and therefore per-stream rates) would reduce by just 1.13%, meaning that non-supported artists would feel negligible impact.

We think the creator-approach model enables labels and streaming services to deliver on the ambition of user-centric licensing without the complexities and unintended inequities. But perhaps most importantly, it helps put artists and fans closer together, bringing the pledging model to the mainstream.

Let us know what you think. Also, we’ve added the excel model to this post for you to download and test your own assumptions against it.

MIDiA Research Streaming Creator Support Model 4 – 19

Here’s How Spotify Can Fix Its Songwriter Woes (Hint: It’s All About Pricing)

Songwriter royalties have always been a pain point for streaming, especially in the US where statutory rates determine much of how songwriters get paid. The current debate over Spotify, Amazon, Pandora and Google challenging the Copyright Royalty Board’s proposed 44% increase illustrates just how deeply feelings run. The fact that the challenge is being portrayed as ‘Spotify suing songwriters’ epitomises the clash of worldviews. The issue is so complex because both sides are right: songwriters need to be paid more, and streaming services need to increase margin. Spotify has only ever once turned a profit, while virtually all other streaming services are loss making. The debate will certainly continue long after this latest ruling, but there is a way to mollify both sides: price increases.

spotify netflix pricing inflation

When Spotify launched in 2008, the industry music standard for subscription pricing was $9.99. So, when its premium tier was launched in May 2009, it was priced at $9.99. Incidentally, Spotify racked up an initial 30,000 subscribers that month – it has come a long way since. But now, nearly exactly ten years on, Spotify’s standard price is still $9.99. Its effective price is even lower due to family plans, trials, telco bundles etc., but we’ll leave the lid on that can of worms for now. Over the same period, global inflation has averaged 2.95% a year. Applying annual inflation to Spotify’s 2009 price point, we end up at $13.36 for 2019. Or to look at it a different way, Spotify’s $9.99 price point is actually the equivalent of $7.40 in today’s prices when inflation is considered. This means an effective real-term price reduction of 26%.

Compare this to Netflix. Since its launch, Netflix has made four major increases to its main tier product, lifting it from $7.99 in 2010 to $12.99 in 2019. Crucially, this 63% price increase is above and beyond inflation. An inflation-adjusted $7.99 would be just $10.34. Throughout that period, Netflix continued to grow subscribers and retain its global market leadership, proving that there is pricing elasticity for its product.

Spotify and other streaming services are locked in a prisoner’s dilemma

So why can’t Spotify do the same as Netflix? In short, it is because it has no meaningful content differentiation from its competitors, whereas Netflix has exclusive content and so has more flexibility to hike prices without fearing users will flock to Amazon. If they did, they’d have to give up their favourite Netflix shows. Moreover, Netflix has to increase prices to help fund its ever-growing roster of original content, creating somewhat circular logic, but that is another can of worms on which I will leave the lid firmly screwed.

If Spotify increases its prices, it fears its competitors will not. Likewise, they fear Spotify will hold its pricing firm if any of them were to increase. It is a classic prisoner’s dilemma.  Neither side dare act, even though they would both benefit. Who can break the impasse? Labels, publishers and the streaming services. If they could have enough collective confidence in the capability of subscriptions over free alternatives, then a market-level price increase could be introduced. Rightsholders are already eager to see pricing go up, while streaming services fear it would slow growth. Between them, there are enough carrots and sticks in the various components of their collective relationships to make this happen.

However – and here’s the crucial part – rightsholders would have to construct a framework where streaming services would get a slightly higher margin rate in the additional subscriber fee. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in exactly the same position we are now, with creators, rightsholders, and streaming services all needing more. When Netflix raises its prices it gets margin benefit, but under current terms, if Spotify raises prices it does not.

The arithmetic of today’s situation is clear: both sides cannot get more out of the same pot of cash. So, the pot has to become bigger, and distribution allocated in a way that not only gives both sides more income, but also allows more margin for streaming services.

Streaming music in 2019 is under-priced compared to 2009. Netflix shows us that it need not be this way. A price increase would benefit all parties but has to be a collective effort. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Kobalt is a Major Label Waiting to Happen

Disclaimer: Kobalt is a label, a publisher as well as a Performing Rights Organisation (PRO). This post focuses on its label business, but does not presume to overlook its other aspects.

Lauv Kobalt

News has emerged of Kobalt potentially looking to raise an additional $100 million of investment, following a 2017 round of $89 million and a 2015 $60-million round led by Google Ventures. Kobalt has been the poster child for the changing of the guard in the music business, helping set the industry agenda by pursuing a creators-first strategy while

building an impressive roster of songwriters and artists at a scale that would have most indies salivating. But it does not have its sights set on being the leading player of the indie sector, instead playing for the big game: Kobalt is the next major label waiting to happen.

So, what makes Kobalt so different? In some respects, nothing. Most of what Kobalt is doing has been done before, and there are others plotting a similar path right now (e.g. BMG, United Masters, Hitco). What matters is how it is executing, how well backed it is and the scale of its ambitions:

  • Moving beyond masters: In the old model, artists signed away their rights in perpetuity to record labels, with nine out of ten of them permanently in debt to the label not yet having paid off their advances. The new model (i.e. label services) pursued by the likes of Kobalt, reframes the artist-label relationship, turning it one more akin to that of agency-client. In this rebalanced model artists retain long-term ownership of their copyrights and in return share responsibility of costs with their label. This approach, coupled with transparent royalty reporting, lower admin costs and continual tech innovation has enabled Kobalt to build a next-generation label business.
  • Laser focus on frontline: In a label services business the entire focus is on frontline, as there isn’t any catalogue. An artist signed to such a label therefore knows that they have undivided attention. That’s the upside; the downside is that the label does not have the benefit of a highly-profitable bank of catalogue to act as the investment fund for frontline. This means that a label like Kobalt often cannot afford the same scale of marketing as a major one, which helps explain why Kobalt is looking for another $100 million. However, there is a crucial benefit of being compelled to spend carefully.
  • Superstar niches: In the old model, labels would (and often still do) carpet-bomb TV, radio, print and digital with massive campaigns designed to create global, superstar brands. Now, labels can target more precisely and be selective about what channels they use. Kobalt’s business is based around making its roster superstars within their respective niches, finding a tightly-defined audience and the artists they engage with. The traditional superstar model sees an artist like a Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran or a Taylor Swift being a mass media brand with recognition across geographies and demographics. The new superstar can fly under the radar while simultaneously being hugely successful. Take the example of Kobalt’s Lauv, an artist tailor-made for the ‘Spotify-core’ generation that hardly registers as a global brand, yet has two billion audio streams, half a billion YouTube views and 26 million monthly listeners on Spotify. By contrast, heavily-backed Stormzy has just three million monthly Spotify listeners.
  • Deep tech connections: The recent WMG / Spotify spat illustrates the tensions that can exist between labels and tech companies. Kobalt has long focused on building close relationships with tech companies, including but not limited to streaming services. This positioning comes easier to a company that arguably owes more to its technology roots than it does its music roots. The early backing of Google Ventures plays a role too, though with some negative connotations; some rights holders fear that this in fact reflects Google using Kobalt as a proxy for a broader ambition of disrupting the traditional copyright regime.
  • A highly structured organisation: One of the key differences between many independent labels and the majors is that the latter have a much more structured organizational set up, with large teams of deep specialisation. This is the benefit of having large-scale revenues, but it is also a manifestation of ideology. Most independents focus their teams around the creative end of the equation, putting the music first and business second. Major labels, while still having music at their core, are publicly-traded companies first, with corporate structures and a legal obligation on management to maximise shareholder value. Kobalt has undoubtedly created an organisational structure to rival that of the majors.

Earned fandom

Kobalt is a next-generation label and it is plotting a course to becoming a next generation-major. That success will not be reflected in having the rosters of household names that characterise the traditional major model, but instead an ever-changing portfolio of niche superstars. The question is whether the current majors can respond effectively; they have already made big changes, including label services, JV deals, higher royalty rates, etc.

Perhaps the most fundamental move they need to make, however, is to understand what a superstar artist looks like in the era of fragmented fandom. The way in which streaming services deliver music based on use behaviours and preferences inherently means that artists have narrower reach because they are not being pushed to audiences that are relevant. This shifts us from the era of macro hits to micro hits ie songs that feel like number one hits to the individual listener because they so closely match their tastes. This is what hits mean when delivered on an engagement basis rather than a reach basis. Quality over quantity.

Majors can still make their artists look huge on traditional platforms, which still command large, if rapidly aging audiences. But what matters most is engagement, not reach. It is a choice between bought fandom and earned fandom. In the old model you could build a career on bought fandom. Now if you do not earn your fandom, your career will burn bright but fast, and then be gone.