Just How Well Is Streaming Really Doing?

All of the three major record labels announced strong streaming music revenue growth in the 2nd quarter of 2016. On the surface it is a clear cut success story, but as is so often the case with music industry statistics, all is not quite how it seems.

The Global Streaming Market

First of all, let’s look at the global picture. According to the IFPI’s Recording Industry in Numbers (RIN) 2016 edition record label streaming revenue grew by 45% in 2015 reaching $2.9 billion, up from $1.9 billion in 2014. But even that number requires a little due diligence. The IFPI restates its historical numbers every year to reflect the current year’s exchange rates, which can, and does, overstate things. Indeed, a quick look at the 2015 edition of RIN shows that streaming revenue was reported as $2.2 billion for 2014. So on a non-adjusted basis (i.e. without restating the numbers) streaming revenue actually grew by 31%.

Spotify’s Contribution

31% is still impressive growth but the plot thickens when we factor in Spotify’s contribution to those label revenues. Spotify’s total royalty payments were $1.9 billion in 2015, of which around $1.4bn were label payments, and of those around $1.1 billion were royalty payments (i.e. minus advance payments such as Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs) paid in anticipation of future growth). That $1.1 billion was up 85% from $610 million in 2014. As the IFPI numbers only represent payments in respect of actual royalties (i.e. minus advance payments) the Spotify label royalty payments can be considered as a share of that global total. That share was 39% of all label streaming revenue in 2015, up from 28% in 2014.

This results in 2 interesting points:

  1. Spotify’s share of the global music subscriber total was 35% in 2014 and 37% in 2015. So the label royalty payments over indexed in 2014 and under indexed in 2015. The fact that 2015 was a big year for heavily discounted promotional offers such as $1 for 3 months most probably plays a key role here.
  2. If we remove the Spotify label royalty payments from the equation, label payments from other streaming services grew by just 10% from $1.6 billion in 2014 to $1.8 billion in 2015. Not exactly the most robust of pictures for the wider streaming market place.

major label streaming

So much for 2015, let’s look at where we are now. All three major labels reported strong streaming growth in Q2 2016. Together they reported $918 million, up 51% from $607 in Q2 2015. That growth generated $311 million of new digital revenue. At the same time, and as a direct consequence, download revenue fell by 24% from $925 in Q2 2015 to $705 million. So streaming is now nearly as big as downloads were 12 months ago. The net increase in combined digital music revenue was $91 million, or a combined digital growth rate of 6%. Solid growth, but not far from treading water. This is a transition process, not a transformative growth process.

Universal Is The Big Streaming Winner

Each of the 3 majors had differing streaming experiences. Universal was the big winner, growing its share of major label streaming revenue from 38% in Q2 2015 to 42% in Q2 2016 (boosted more than other majors by ‘embedded’ independent label revenue). UMG’s streaming revenue grew by more than 60% while Sony and Warner grew by an average of 42%. However, it is important to note that UMG’s reported streaming numbers may be skewed more by currency restating than the other majors, so this share increase might be slightly on the high side.

Sony Music meanwhile lost share from 35% to 33% while Warner Music, which was most coy about its streaming revenue in its reporting, also saw a fall from 26% to 25%. Warner’s and Sony’s loss was Universal’s gain. An interesting side note: Sony was the only major that saw growth in physical music sales over the period. Yet more evidence of the Adele effect?

The Role Of Advanced Payments

But perhaps the most important element of the majors’ streaming reports is the difference between royalty payments (i.e. money earned for music streamed) and total streaming revenue (i.e. including advanced payments such as MRGs). Spotify states rights payments are 70% of its revenue though its 2015 accounts show royalty payments as 82% of revenue due in large part to advanced payments. Using this benchmark advanced payments represent around 16% of all label payments. Applying this to the label reported numbers we can extrapolate that $145 million of all major label streaming revenue is advanced payments.

Why does this matter? Because this is the major record label’s streaming reality distortion field. They get streaming revenue regardless of how well the marketplace actually performs. If a streaming service pays an MRG of $30 million but only earns $10 million the label still gets $30 million. So in that scenario the label’s view of that part of the streaming music market is 3 times better than it actually is. If the music service wins, the label wins, if the music service loses, the label still wins. This disconnect between how the market performs and how the label performs is one of the festering wounds of the streaming music market. And its revenue impact is massive. In fact, advanced label streaming payments were 158% of the $91 million that digital music revenue grew by in Q2 2016. Yes, that’s right, advanced streaming payments accounted for all of the digital music growth, and more.

Streaming Will Continue To Grow, But Haunted By Advanced Payments

So where does all this leave us? The streaming market is without doubt entering a phase of accelerating growth and is doing enough to counter the resulting decline in downloads to contribute to a combined total recorded music revenue growth of 4% for major labels in Q2 2016. But growth is not quite as stellar as the headline numbers would suggest, with the single most important factor being the impact of advanced payments distorting the bigger picture and crippling cash flow for streaming music services. Expect more impressive growth throughout the remainder of 2016 but also expect streaming music economics to continue to be fractured.

What Frank Ocean’s Bombastic Blond Moment Tells Us About The Future Of Artists And Labels

When frank-ocean-blond-compressed-0933daea-f052-40e5-85a4-35e07dac73dfFrank Ocean’s latest album ‘Blond’ dropped, it did so like a nuclear bomb, sending shockwaves throughout the music industry. In one of the audacious release strategies of recent years Ocean and his team at 360 fulfilled the final album contractual commitment to Universal Music by ushering his breaking-the-mold visual album ‘Endless’ onto Apple Music.  Featuring collaborations from the likes of Sampha and James Blake and set as a loose soundtrack to art house visuals, ‘Endless’ looked like the sort of digitally native, creative masterstroke that would win plaudits and awards in equal measure. But no sooner had Universal executives started daydreaming about Grammys then along came what turned out to be the ‘actual’ album ‘Blonde’, self released by Ocean (Universal contractual commitments now of course conveniently fulfilled) and, for now at least, exclusively available on Apple Music. You can just imagine seeing the blood drain from (Universal CEO) Lucian Grainge’s face as the full magnitude of what had just happened came into focus. In truth ‘audacious’ doesn’t even come close to explaining what Ocean pulled off, but where it gets really interesting is what this means for the future of artist careers.

Artist-Label Relationships Are Changing

Quickly sensing the potential implications, Grainge swiftly sent out a memo to Universal staff outlawing streaming exclusives…though voices from within Universal suggest that this diktat had been in the works for some time . A cynic might even argue that it was politically useful for Universal to be seen to be taking a strong stand ahead of the impending Vivendi earnings call. As the ever excellent Tim Ingham points out, in practice Universal could put a streaming exclusives moratorium in place and still have a good number of its front line artists put out streaming exclusives. This is because many of the deals these artists have are not traditional label deals where Universal owns all the rights. And that itself is as telling as Ocean’s bombastic blond moment. Not so much that Universal is probably the major with the highest amount of its revenue accounted for by licensed and distributed works, but that any label’s roster is now a complex and diverse mix of deal types. Artists are more empowered than ever before, and thanks to the innovation of label services companies and next generation music companies like Kobalt, labels have been forced to steal the disruptors’ clothing in order to remain competitive.

Streaming Exclusives Represent Another Option For Artists

Just as labels had started to successfully co-opt the label services marketplace by launching their own – e.g. Universal’s Caroline – or by buying up the competition – e.g. Sony’s acquisition of Essential Music & Marketing – along come streaming services giving artists another non-label route to market. In truth, the threat has remained largely unrealised. Exclusives on Tidal have most often proved to be laced with caveats and get out clauses (e.g. Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ arriving on iTunes 24 hours after landing ‘exclusively’ on Tidal). Chance The Rapper’s (in name only) mixtape ‘Colouring Book’ and Ocean’s ‘Blond’ are exceptions rather than the rule. So all that’s about to change now right? Not necessarily…

Album Releases Require More Time Than Apple Probably Has

As anyone who works in a label will tell you, releasing an album is typically a long, carefully planned process with many moving parts. It’s not something you do in a couple of weeks (Ocean started building the hype and expectation for his latest opus a year ago). If, for example, Apple was going to start doing exclusives routinely, even if it just did 20, that’s still a new exclusive to push every 2 weeks. That might work, at a stretch, for music service retailing promotional pushes but is far short of a fully fledged album release cycle. Which means that even for just 20 exclusives Apple would have an intricate mesh of overlapping release campaigns. This is something that labels do with their eyes closed but would it require new organizational disciplines for Apple. Not impossible, but not wholly likely either.

In practice, exclusives are likely to be limited to being the crown jewels of streaming services, their most valuable players, creative playmakers if you like. Even for Netflix, that pioneering exemplar of the streaming originals strategy, only spends 15% of its $3 billion content budget on originals and probably won’t break 20% even by 2020. What Apple and Netflix have in common is that they are using exclusives as a customer acquisition strategy, achieving their aims by making a big noise about each one. But if you’re releasing exclusives every week or two the shine soon wears off. And suddenly the return on investment diminishes.

Streaming Exclusives Are Unlikely To Turn Into A Flood

None of this means that we won’t see more artists striking streaming exclusives. We will, regardless of what labels may actually want to happen. And most of those will probably be on Apple – the service with bottomless pits masquerading as pockets. But the trickle will not turn into a flood, a fast flowing stream perhaps (see what I did there) but not a torrent.

Although they might not realise it yet, Kobalt might find themselves hurting more than the majors from this latest twist in the Exclusives Wars. Kobalt has probably done more than any single other music company to drive change in the traditional music industry in the last 5 years, showing artists and songwriters that there is another way of doing things. But Frank Ocean has just shown that there is now new another option for established artists looking for options at the end of a label deal.

Most importantly of all though, is that streaming exclusives (and indeed label services deals) work best when an artist has already established a brand and an audience. Most often that means after an artist has had a record label recording career. Apple cannot be relied upon to build anything more than a handful of artist brands. One of the founding myths of the web was that it was going to do away with labels and other traditional ‘gatekeepers’. Now, decades later, labels still account for the vast, vast, vast majority of music listening. Make no mistake, a momentous value chain shift is taking place, with more power and autonomy shifting to the creators, but that is a long journey and ‘Blond’ is but one part of this much bigger shift.

Quick Take: Sony Music UK Buys Ministry Of Sound Recordings

Leading UK indie Ministry of Sound Recordings today announced its sale to Sony Music UK. While this is undoubtedly another case of a big major swallowing up a smaller indie, there is a much more important angle to this – surviving in the streaming era. Ministry of Sound is unusual in that it is a label with a relatively small catalogue, instead its business is built around compilations. In doing so it has built an incredibly robust and profitable business. No mean feat in the current climate. But Ministry’s core strength has also become an Achilles Heel with the onset of streaming.

Ministry licenses music from other labels to build its compilations. This approach works well in a sales model where proceeds are split between the respective parties. But in the context of streaming, any money generated by plays of tracks on a compilation go to the label that owns the track not to the label that curated the compilation. This is why Ministry compilations have been conspicuously absent from streaming services and it is also why Ministry ended up in conflict with Spotify when the streaming service initially refused to take down user playlists that replicated Ministry compilations and that used Ministry artwork.

At the time, the Spotify case raised the still-to-be-answered question of just how much curation is actually worth. Spotify and Ministry settled their differences but the underlying economics remain, and meanwhile Spotify also upped its curation game. Ministry thus faced the double whammy of increased curatorial competition and an inability to make streaming pay. Enter stage left, Sony Music.

With its co-owned Now brand, Sony is as good a fit as Ministry could find in a major. Sony for their part are getting one the most valuable compilation brands and immediate dance music culture credibility. Sony also has big digital plans for Now, which Ministry will no doubt slot into nicely. On top of this, because Sony own so much catalogue themselves, they can make the economics of compilations work in the streaming environment.

The fact that 25% of music subscribers still buy compilation albums show that however a good job streaming playlists might be doing, there remains a big demand for compilations, even within the core of streaming music aficionados. Curated playlists will continue to gain importance but compilations are going to live alongside them for a good long time to come. And all the while the distinction between what constitutes a playlist and a compilation will continue to blur.

The Real Value Of The Independent Sector

Over the course of the last year MIDiA has been working with WIN (the global indie label trade body) on a major study to define the independent sector’s contribution to the global recorded music business. The default accepted wisdom is that the indies account for something like 20% of the global revenue total. However, this study revealed, that figure strongly underestimates the actual share…it is in fact 37.6%. This matters not for bragging rights but because in the digital marketplace, market share shapes the deals that are struck, with more market share translating into better terms. So a more accurate measure of share can help the independent sector compete on fairer terms.

Distribution Versus Ownership

Distribution is the largest single contributor to the variance in market share. The 20% refers to the labels that distribute the music while the 37.6% refers to which labels actually own the music. Indeed, 3rd party distribution is becoming an ever more central element of the independent sector. The growth of streaming services and social media have helped create a burgeoning international opportunity for independent labels across the world. However, because most of these labels do not have the international infrastructure required to tap this global opportunity they often utilise 3rd party partners for distribution and other services. Often these parties are major labels or major label owned distributors. As the music market becomes more global, 3rd party distribution becomes more important for indies. But while this gives the independent sector global scale it also means that much of their revenue ends up being accounted as major label revenue, creating a distorted view of the market.

Most Indies Use International Distributors

In fact, 72% of independent labels use a 3rd party international distributor while 52% use a major label owned one or go direct via a major for distribution. The impact on the global market is huge. Just look at 2 of the biggest independent artist albums recently: Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ on Big Machine but distributed by Universal Music, and Adele’s ‘25’ on XL/Beggars but distributed by Sony in the US and South America. 2 leading independent success stories that now appear as major label success stories in investor decks. There is no questioning the value that majors and major owned distributors bring but just as importantly these are nonetheless indie label artists.

A Diverse Global Picture 

Even using the ownership approach, there is a massively diverse global picture, with indie market share ranging from just 16% in Finland, up to 64% in Japan and 88% in South Korea. In fact, Japan, South Korea and the US (where the distribution methodology has been in place for a few years now) account for 64% of all global indie revenue.

The disparity between ownership and distribution measures will only increase as music’s shift to streaming accelerates. The more that international markets open up, the more that smaller labels need to utilize international partners to reach music fans in those markets.  And the more that happens, the less relevant distribution market share becomes.

You can download the entire report by following this link.

Meanwhile, this graphic highlights some of the key findings.

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The 2 Spotify Charts You Need To See

Tuesday’s media scrum around Spotify’s financials illustrate that whatever ground Apple and Tidal may have made in recent months, Spotify clearly remains the poster child / bellwether for streaming. The stories oscillated between the broken nature of the underlying economics to how streaming is the future of the music business. Both are true. But a closer look at the numbers reveal some even more important findings.

spotify margin per user

Rights costs are Spotify’s Achilles Heel. Rights and associated costs accounted for 83% of Spotify’s 2015 revenue, up from 81% in 2014 and this resulted in a dramatic fall in Spotify’s gross margin per user: down from $4.20 in 2013 to $3.45 in 2015. This is particularly challenging for a model with already wafer thin margins. A number of factors underpin this decline:

  • Discounted promotions: Promos such as the £0.99 for 3 months have supercharged Spotify’s growth for the last 18 months. But as labels only contribute part of the cost this means that Spotify loses more margin with every new promo user
  • Advanced label payments: When Spotify strikes its licensing deals with labels it makes advanced payments and guarantees based on its expected growth. This means that for a growth stage company like Spotify, booked rights costs will always be higher than current booked revenue. This has obvious cash flow implications. Also, should Spotify’s growth slow and it miss those targets, it will still have to pay the monies guaranteed to labels, at which point the rights costs share will rise even further
  • Publisher rates: Over the last couple of years, music publishers have been asserting their role in the digital music value chain, pushing for more equitable rates. The net result is that publishing rights costs can now range up to 15%, depending on the deal, up from a low of 10% in some cases. This upward momentum will continue, and as labels aren’t decreasing their rates, it means less margin for Spotify and other streaming services

As Spotify edges towards an IPO it is doing everything within its power to get its house in order. It is investing in video to show Wall Street it is attempting to lessen its dependence on the labels and it is improving is cost ratios virtually everywhere else in its business, other than rights. Between 2013 and 2015, the Average Cost Per User (ACPU) for Research and Development fell from $2.12 to $1.61 and for Marketing it fell from $3.23 to $2.77. But Rights ACPU grew from $17.59 to $18.35. In fact, even in terms of costs as a % of revenues, every single expense Spotify reported fell except Rights (and Depreciation and Amortization which increased slightly). It is rising rights costs that are keeping Spotify from commercial sustainability.

spotify average pricing

There is another really important part of Spotify’s growth story: subscriber ARPU has fallen from $79.09 in 2013 to $62.30 in 2015. This is a result of multiple efforts to drive growth, including the price promos, telco bundles and student discounts. All of which are viable tactics but the fact they are necessary to drive Spotify’s growth underscore a point I have been making for years: 9.99 is not a mass market price point, and Spotify’s subscribers agree. By transforming the ARPU into an effective monthly retail price, Spotify’s average price point is now just $6.49, down from $8.24. It is about time that the music industry stopped pretending that this isn’t the reality of the market and instead starts pursuing proper pricing innovation rather than by stealth via discounting, which only serves to confuse consumers about long term value.

The music industry is in a transition phase. In such periods, the old and new worlds co-exist and collide. There are statistics that both sides of any argument can hold up in their defence, in fact they can often hold up the very same numbers to support opposite perspectives. Similarly, the comparisons you chose to benchmark with, can paint entirely different pictures. Such is the nature of transitions of human and business behaviour. For example, 83% of Spotify’s gross revenue going to rights is clearly too high and unsustainable, yet $0.00098 per song going to artists is also clearly too low and unsustainable. Something needs to give, for both ends of the value chain.

Maybe if/when Spotify gets to 50 million subscribers it will feel it has enough clout to compel rights holders to rethink licensing economics. Perhaps it will take Spotify getting to a 100 million to make that happen. Perhaps it will never happen. But if it doesn’t, the economics of streaming will remain so broken that only companies with ulterior business objectives will remain viable players, enter stage left streaming’s Triple A: Apple, Amazon and Alphabet (Google). The labels need to ask themselves whether that is the streaming future they want…

IFPI First Take: Declining Legacy Formats Continue To Hold Back Growth

 

ifpi midia 1

This post has been updated following a conversation with the IFPI

The IFPI today announced its annual assessment of the size of the global recorded music business.  For the first time in a long time the music industry has been able to announce a significant growth in revenue: 3% up on 2014 to reach $15 billion. Except that the growth isn’t quite what it first appears to be. In fact, the IFPI reported $15 billion last year for 2014, and for 2013 too. So on the surface that appears to actually be three years of no growth.

The IFPI has done this before. For example, it had previously announced a small 0.2% growth in 2013 (which was the big headline of the numbers that year). But it then downgraded that to a small decline the following year before then upgrading it to a small growth again in 2015.

The IFPI explained that they have retrospectively downgraded their 2014 number to $14.5 billion to reflect some changes in the way they report performance royalties (a minor revenue impact) and, more importantly, to create ‘constant currency’ numbers i.e. to try to remove the impact of currency exchange fluctuations. That approach works well for company reports but less well for the macro picture. The IFPI have to report this way as they are essentially summing up company reports, however when we are talking about global macro markets we run into difficulties, for example looking at music revenue as a % of GDP etc.

The approach also has the effect of generating very different growth rates. For example, if we assume that the top 10 music markets each grew at 3% in local currency terms in 2015, using the exchange rates the years took place (i.e. 2014 USD to local currency and 2015 USD to local currency) there would only have been 0.48% growth in US dollar terms. If, however, we take the constant currency approach we see 3.2% growth. When we are talking about individual companies there is a lot of value in reporting at constant currency rates as those companies are dealing with repatriating and recording revenue from across the world into their local reporting HQs. But when we are talking about global markets comprised of many local companies (e.g. the vast majority of South Korean and Japanese revenues stay in local companies so are not directly shaped by currency fluctuations) the methodology is less useful. The cracks really begin to show when you take the long view. For example if we went back 5 years with constant currency rates the value of the music business as a % of the global economy would be over stated.

So, with all that said, for the purposes of this analysis I am going to use as my baseline for comparison the IFPI’s previously reported 2014 numbers stated in its ‘Recording Industry In Numbers, 2015 Edition’.  Here are some of the key takeaways (further charts at the end of this post):

  • Revenue was flat: Despite all of the dynamic growth in streaming declining legacy formats (CDs and downloads) offset their impact, keeping revenues flat. Also, once performance and synchronization revenues are removed from the mix, revenue fell slightly. This highlights the industry’s transition from a pure sales business into a multi-revenue stream model. It also emphasises the fact that we are still some way from a recovery in consumer spending on music
  • Downloads and physical still both falling: Download revenue was down 16% while physical was down 4.5%. The physical decline was lower than the 8% decline registered in 2014 and played a major role in helping total revenues grow. If physical revenue had fallen at the same rate as 2014 there would have been $0.25 billion less revenue which in turn would have brought total revenues down into decline. The Adele factor can once again be credited for helping the industry out of a sticky patch. The download decline was more than double than in 2014 (6.6%) and that drop is accelerating in 2016, with Apple Music playing a major role in the cannibalization / transition trend (delete as appropriate depending on your world view). What is clear is that downloads and subscription growth do not co-exist. Though it is worth noting that the move away form purchase and ownership is a bigger trend that long preceded Spotify et al.
  • Streaming growth accelerating, just: Total streaming revenue was up 31% in 2015, growing by $0.69 billion compared to 39% / $0.62 billion in 2014. This is undeniably positive news for subscriptions and a clear achievement for the market’s key players. However, it is worth noting that over the same period the number of subscribers by 63%, up from 41.4 million to 68 million (for the record MIDiA first reported the 67.5 million subscribers tally last week based on our latest research). So what’s going on? Well a big part of the issue is the extensive discounting that Spotify has been using to drive sales ($1 for 3 months) coupled with 50% discounts for students from both Spotify and Deezer and finally the surge in telco bundles (which are also discounted).  The number of telco partnerships live globally more than doubled in 2015 to 105, up from 43 the prior year. But even more significant was…
  • Ad supported revenue fell: Ad supported streaming revenue was just $0.634 billion in 2015, down very slightly from $0.641 billion in 2014. YouTube obviously plays a role, and that was a key part of the IFPI’s positioning around these numbers. You’ll need to have been on Mars to notice the coordinated industry briefings against YouTube of late, and these numbers are used to build that narrative.  But YouTube is far form the only ad supported game in town, with Soundcloud, Deezer and Spotify accounting for well over a quarter of a billion free users between them. Also, the IFPI doesn’t count Pandora as ad supported, one of the most successful ad supported models. Then there are an additional quarter of a billion free users across services like Radionomy, iHeart and Slacker. So the music industry doesn’t just have a YouTube problem, it has an ad supported music problem.
  • Streaming ARPU is up but subscription ARPU is down: The net effect of streaming users growing faster than revenue is that subscriber Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) fell to $2.80, from $3.16 in 2014, and $3.36 in 2013. Ad supported ARPU was down from $0.10 to $0.08 while subscription ARPU was down. The fall in subscriber ARPU is down to a number of factors including 1) discounting, 2) bundles, 3) churn, 4) growth of emerging markets services such as QQ Music (monthly retail price point $1.84) and Spinlet (monthly retail price point $1.76). For a full list of emerging markets music service price points check out the MIDiA ‘State Of The Streaming Nation’ report. The irony is that the major record labels are increasingly sceptical of mid tier price points yet they have inadvertently created mid tier price points via discounted pricing efforts. Total blended monthly streaming ARPU for record labels was $0.37 in 2015. And if you’re wondering how ad supported and subscription ARPU can both be down but total ARPU up, that is because subscriptions are now a larger share of total streaming revenue (up to 78% compared to 71% in 2014).

So the end of term report card is: an ok year, with the years of successive decline behind us, but long term questions remain about sustainability and the longer term impact of incentivized growth tactics.

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ifpi midia 3

Quick Take: Soundcloud Goes Premium

 

SoundCloud_logo.svgFollowing weeks of licensing announcements, Soundcloud has finally launched its premium subscription service, a $9.99 tier ($12.99 on iOS), currently only in the US. The move is both encouraging and disappointing. Soundcloud has a truly unique market footprint and has the potential to be a platform for an entirely new approach to monetizing streaming music. But it is also a poor fit for a cookie cutter $9.99 freemium model.

Soundcloud has a whole set of unique challenges and characteristics that make it so different than the rest of the pack:

  • Artist-first experiences: Unlike its now-direct streaming competitors Spotify and co, Soundcloud is an artist-to-fan platform. Most streaming services are effectively a music-store-meets-HBO hybrid. A place you go to get music. Music as a service, or even a utility. Soundcloud is that as well of course, but it is first and foremost it is a place where artists connect directly with their fans. A $9.99 All You Can Eat (AYCE) is not the right model for a place where fans go to engage with artists rather than looking to turn on the water tap.
  • This is a pivot for Soundcloud: Unlike Spotify and Deezer, whose free tiers have long been geared towards driving subscriptions, for Soundcloud this is not a funnel tweak, it is a pivot. It is a complete change in strategy.
  • Competing against free: The problem with giving something away for free for years is that its really difficult to convince people to start paying for it. It is the same challenge YouTube faces with YouTube Red Which is why instead of simply whacking a pay wall around previously free content, YouTube is investing so much in creating new original content only available on Red. In short, Soundcloud needs to explore how it can deliver new, unique value to paid users rather than simply charging them for what they already get (plus a few convenience features).
  • Non-traditional content: Soundcloud’s strength lies in the music that you just don’t find elsewhere, much of which also happens to be dance music. All of the mash ups, bootlegs, un-authorized remixes, 2 hour long mixes are what make Soundcloud such a valuable component of the music landscape. The only problem is that most of them are not covered in standard major label licenses. In fact, many of them aren’t covered at all. Even Dubset, which is trying to build a business around this type of non-traditional content, hasn’t yet been able to get a full suite of licenses in place. For now, it appears that the majors are willing to turn a blind eye to that content. Which raises an interesting question: who gets paid for the revenue generated by unlicensed tracks?
  • Major labels are shaping an indie platform: Major label content is a massive part of Soundcloud but not the majority. In fact, in dance mixes majors typically account for only 30% of the tracks. Yet it is the major labels that are shaping the future of Soundcloud, forcing it down a road that works well for majors on the AYCE services but could skew Soundcloud against its indie community.

No doubt, Soundcloud had to get licenses in place. It had traded on label good will for long enough. But the current model will not maximise Soundcloud’s vast potential. Instead of Spotify-like 15-20% conversion rates instead expect King and Supercell-like 1.5-5% rates. Let’s hope this is simply a hygiene release, preparing the way for a set of products that fit Soundcloud like a glove rather than odd boots. What could a next iteration look like? Well for a start it could be artist focused and secondly it could be cheaper. Imagine a $4 a month, 5 artist subscription that gives you everything by your favourite artists, including premium-only exclusives. Every month you can swap any number of those artists for different ones for the next month. That is the sort of thinking that needs to be applied to Soundcloud’s subscription business if it is going to live up to its capabilities. The alternative is being condemned to being a freemium also-ran.

Warner’s Streaming Equity Pay Out Is Commendable But Not Enough

During his latest investor conference call Warner Music’s CEO Stephen Cooper announced that the label will pay artists a portion of any income it earns from equity stakes in services such as Spotify and Soundcloud. With Spotify potentially announcing its IPO next quarter the announcement is more than a token gesture. It is a bold move by Warner and follows on from Sony and Universal both announcing last year that they will pay artists a portion of streaming breakage revenue (the difference between what services pay labels in guarantees and how much royalty revenue they actually generate – WMG has been doing this since 2009). The big labels are waking up to the fact that transparency is key if they are going to keep artists on side. Streaming is where consumer behaviour is going, but currently YouTube is growing quicker than everyone else. The labels need premium and freemium services to make up ground fast. Which is why they cannot afford the Black Keys-Taylor Swift-Adele-Coldplay trickle to turn into a torrent. They need artists to be as vested as they are.

Streaming Hostilities May Have Thawed But Underlying Issues Remain

With the exception of the songwriter class action suits that closed out the year, 2015 was actually a pretty good year for streaming service – artist relations. Artists became a little more accustomed to streaming and many started to see a meaningful in their streaming income. But there is still much distance to go. The crucial issue for the majority of mid ranking and lower artists is how to deal with sizeable up front payments being replaced by a long term flow of micro payments. If you are a sizable label or a big artist you won’t feel the pain too much, but for the rest it normally means a very serious tightening of the belt.

The True Value Of Streaming Doesn’t Lie In Equity Stakes After All

There has, wrongly, long been a suspicion among many that streaming services are some sort of elaborate money making scam for labels, with the real value hidden in the money they will earn from their equity stakes. But as the ever excellent Tim Ingham explains, Warner is likely to only make around $200 million from a successful Spotify floatation. Of course $200 million is no small amount of money, and would represent more than half of Warner’s quarterly digital income. But it represents just 16% of the money Warner has earned from streaming since 2010 and just 2% of all global streaming revenue in 2015 (at retail values). Thus the label equity stakes in Spotify & co. are meaningful but they are far from where the real label value exists. Indeed as Cooper stated: “the main form of compensation we receive from streaming services is revenue based on actual streams”.

So If Artist Equity Income Isn’t Going To Fix Streaming, What Will?

All of which then raises the awkward question: if artists getting a Spotify IPO pay out isn’t going to ‘fix’ the model for artists, then what is? There is not really much scope for streaming services to pay out more to rights holders (80% of revenue doesn’t leave much scope for operating profit). While there is certainly scope for increasing ARPU among the super fan subscribers, there is little opportunity to raise prices for the majority of users ($9.99 is already more than most are willing to spend). So the only part of the equation left is how much labels pay artists.

Streaming Is Neither A License Nor A Sale And Its Time Artist Deals Recognise It

Right now the entire recorded music business is trying to figure out whether streaming is replacing radio or sales. The likelihood is that it is doing both and by doing so creating something new in between. That means that labels need to rethink how they pay artists, because currently they typically pay them on either one or the other of those models, and most often on the basis of a stream being a sale. A stream being the equivalent of a sale is completely counterintuitive because streaming is all about consumption not transaction. So why are labels most commonly treating streams as sales? Because the % they have to pay artists is so much lower, often in the 10% to 15% range rather than around 50% for a license. Of course there is as strong an argument to be made for streams not to be considered as a pure license as there is a sale, but there is an even stronger one for a hybrid rate that sits in the middle. Doing so would double the amount of money most artists make from streaming, instantaneously transforming its revenue impact for many. There is some precedent too. In 2012 Universal was successfully sued by FTB Productions over its treatment of Eminem downloads as sales rather than licenses, for which Eminem would have been paid a 50% rate instead of the much smaller sales rate.

Warner Music deserve credit for their commitment to paying artists a portion of equity related income (though no mention of how much of course) but it is just one step on a bigger journey. A wholesale reassessment of artist streaming compensation is required. Increasing artist streaming rates will dent label margins but ultimately the labels need to decide whether they want to build a business that is as sustainable for artists as it is for them.

Postscript: One interesting quote stood out from Cooper: “Although none of these equity stakes have been monetized since we implemented our breakage policy…there are some services from which we receive additional forms of compensation”. Translation(?): Sony used to get paid by the big streaming services on some sort of stock dividend basis and probably still does from some others.

The Beatles, Streaming And The End Of The Record Label Business Model

So the Beatles are finally coming to streaming…well much of the Beatles’ catalogue is at least.  Is it a big deal?  Kind of. The Beatles were late to iTunes and they’re now late to streaming.  Fashionably late though. No so soon as to be left standing awkwardly waiting for something to happen and not too late to miss the real action.

The Beatles are unique enough, and important enough to dictate their own terms and set their own timetable. For streaming services the Beatles catalogue is strategically important in the way it was for iTunes in that it helps communicate the value proposition of all the music in the world…well most of it. For the Beatles it represents the opportunity to reach younger audiences that sales are currently missing (which in large part explains why the catalogue is being made available on free tiers too).

It’s All About Targeting

20 years ago everyone pretty much bought the same product, the CD. Now though the music consumer landscape is fragmented and siloed. The fact that Adele’s ‘Hello’ simultaneously delivered stellar performance across audio streaming, video streaming, download sales and radio illustrates that there are many highly distinct groups of consumers that do one but not the other. This what Universal will be banking on with bringing the Beatles to streaming: they’ll be hoping that most of the future prospective buyers of Beatles albums are not streaming. For as long as this elongated transition phase continues, this sort of approach can work.

What Happens When The Bottom Falls Out Of the Catalogue Business?

The business model of record labels has long depended on revenue from back catalogue propping up the loss-leading new artists, on whom labels have to spend heavily to break. That model works as long as back catalogue sales are vibrant. But cracks are now showing in that model. Labels, especially the big ones, are increasingly spending even more heavily on a smaller number of big bets. For major labels many of these are either manufactured or laser targeted pop acts that grow big fast but like genetically modified crops, soak the nutrients out of their fan-base soil and are less likely to have long term careers. This means breaking artists are costing more to break and have less long term revenue potential.

That double whammy in itself would be bad enough, but there is an even more important structural factor at play. Catalogue sales depend on people buying classic albums, reissues and retrospectives. The secret is in the term ‘sales’. The model does not translate the same way to sales. Getting someone to spend $10 on an album for old times’ sake that they might listen to a handful of times but value having in their collection is very different from earning $0.20 or so from the same number of listens. But that is the way the world is heading. Older music buyers (i.e. from late 30’s onwards) are the lifeblood of catalogue sales.

That model works for older consumers that grew up buying music and thus have the habit. But what happens what happens when the first millennials enter their late 30s? Which is exactly what is going to start happening from 2016 onwards. As each new cohort of aging millennials passes 35 a smaller percentage of them will have ever regularly bought music. Thus from 2016 onwards every year will mean an ever smaller number of catalogue buyers coming into the top of the funnel.

The long term implications are clear. While this will not be anything like an instant collapse, the impact will be progressively more painful as each year passes. The old label model of developing a vast bank of copyrights will become less and less relevant.

So Beatles, welcome to streaming, this will be your last new format hurrah.

Why Moving Video Centre Stage Is About More Than Just Doing Deals With YouTube Stars

 

 

This is the fourth post in my YouTube economy series. You can read the other posts here, here and here

The music industry has a long history of underplaying the role of video, insisting on seeing it as merely a tactic for driving sales.  In doing so it let two businesses that understood the wider value of music video become global superpowers.  MTV and YouTube knew that music fans, especially younger ones, could connect with their favourite artists via video in way that they could not with audio alone.  The labels were able to put MTV and YouTube down as an irritating mistake (albeit the exact same one made twice) because for a long while they were still selling units of music product, albeit in reducing numbers by the time YouTube arrived on the scene.  Now though, as we accelerate into the consumption era all bets are off.  Consumers want to pay for access to content – either with money (subscription) or with attention (ads).  With revenue generated by streams rather than up front transactions, both access models demand increased engagement.  This means that video must shift from marketing tactic to revenue bearing product.  Slowly but surely labels are waking up to this new reality and Sony Music’s deal with YouTube star Kurt Hugo Schneider hints at what the future may hold.

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Sony’s Schneider Deal Is A Nod To The Future Music Economy

Sony’s partnership with Schneider will see the creation of a 10 episode series of shows featuring Sony artists performing their songs with him.  Crucially the shows will be distributed via Schneider’s YouTube channel which has 6 million subscribers and 40 million monthly views.  5 years ago, even trying to build the business case for such a project around a frontline Sony artist would have been nigh-on impossible with production costs failing to justify likely TV licensing revenue.  But with YouTube Sony can both spend less on production and cut out the TV network middleman, going direct to the audience. Whilst a big part of the internal business case justification at Sony will likely centre around the ‘exposure’ Sony’s artists will get, there will be no small number of Sony execs who know that the real value of this is the video series itself, both in terms of audience engagement and revenue.

As I explained in my previous YouTube posts, the platform is emerging as the single most important content destination for Millennials and their younger siblings Generation Edge (i.e. those born since 2000).  Right now traditional music artists are at a marked disadvantage to native YouTube creators: they put out 1 music video maybe once every 3 months while a YouTuber will put out that many videos a week.  A middle ground exists between those two extremes, one that can provide the vital ingredients for helping music artists get more viewing time and help transition music video from low income marketing tool into a meaningful revenue generating product in its own right.

Universal’s KSI Deal Only Scratches The Surface

Universal Music have taken a more traditional approach to tapping YouTube, picking a successful YouTuber and turning him into a pop star.   The YouTuber in question is British gamer KSI who numbers 2 billion YouTube views, 11 million subscribers and $4.5 million in annual YouTube earnings, making him the fifth highest YouTuber globally.  So far his cross over pop/Grime singles have had modest success though Island will be hoping his latest collaboration with JME, ‘Keep Up’ will make bigger sales waves.  But even if it does that will be missing so much of KSI’s potential.  By his own admission KSI is a YouTuber first and a rapper second.  Island should be exploring all the ways they can make that distinction blur into insignificance.  Partnering with YouTubers like KSI is an invaluable first step, but the real opportunity for Universal is to explore how KSI can take them on a journey into the YouTube industry not for them to take KSI on a journey into the music industry.

Online Video Momentum Is Acclerating, And Some

The direction of travel of the video market is hard to discount.  Short form video is growing at an unprecedented rate: there were 5.9 trillion short from video views in in the first three quarters of 2015 with growth more than doubling from Q4 2014.  (See the MIDiA report ‘Short Form Video Growth’ for more).  Meanwhile the glut in online display ad inventory driven by content farms like Outbrain and Taboola is making video advertising an increasingly sought after commodity.  Will video revenue ever be enough to offset lost music sales revenue at an industry level? Perhaps not, but it certainly can at an artist level.  Not too many artists can boast KSI’s $4.5 million annual income.

The Business Case For YouTube’s Music Economy Role Needs To Be More Rounded

We need to take a realistic view of YouTube’s current role in the music ecosystem.  It can no longer be justified as a loss leader for driving sales and ‘exposure’.  The number one activity that consumers do after they discover a new artist on YouTube is….watch them on YouTube some more.  65% of under 25’s say they use YouTube this way. So more value needs to extracted from those users when they are on YouTube, rather than hoping for them to pop over to Spotify or iTunes to do something that creates bigger chunks of direct music industry revenue.  Sure some of that is still going to happen but it will do so in dwindling numbers over the next 5 years, with music sales revenue declining by 39% by 2020.

The business case for YouTube has to be much more rounded and nuanced while the industry continues through its transition phase. Sales and access will coexist for many years, occasionally giving the impression of a schizophrenic nature. Adele encapsulates the twin-speed nature of the music industry as it transitions between eras.  As impressive as Adele’s sales figures are they are an anomaly, a temporary high tide while the music sales waters continue to irretrievably recede.  Plotted against the longer music sales trend it is clear that ‘21’ followed exactly the same path – a dramatic stand out success that was a blip on the downward curve.  Adele is also unique in having such strong audience reach among older consumers that still buy music and younger ones that stream. So while she’s been busy breaking sales records she has also excelled on streaming, racking up half a billion views of her ‘Hello’ video.

For Better Or For Worse, YouTube Is Generation Edge’s Punk

Music fans exist in multimedia, on demand environments where video, social engagement are the norm and authentic connections with stars are the gold dust that they seek out.  YouTube is the punk movement of Generation Edge.  It is an antidote to the over-produced, generic, middle of the road, overtly commercialism of traditional media.  YouTube creators may still be finding their creative voices but the fact Sid Vicious couldn’t really play bass was part of the entire point of the Sex Pistols.  It was a big fat two fingers up at the establishment.  Sure, most YouTubers are hardly rebels without a cause but they are outside the traditional media establishment and therein lies the real power of video that the music most learn how to participate in without ending up looking like a dancing dad.