Spotify May Already Be Too Big for the Labels to Stop it Competing With Them

Spotify’s Daniel Ek is betting big on developing a ‘two sided marketplace’ for music. With the company’s market cap on a downward trend despite strong growth metrics, Ek might find himself having to play up the disruption narrative more boldly and more quickly than he’d planned. Investors are betting on a Netflix-like disruptor for the music industry, rather than a junior distribution partner for the labels. And this is where it gets messy. Whereas Netflix can play individual TV networks off each other and can even afford to lose Disneyand Fox, each major record label has enough market share to have the equivalent of a UN Security Council Veto. So when Spotify announced it was going to let artists upload music directly and thenadded distribution to other streaming services via DistroKid,the labels understandably smelt a rat. To the extent they threatened to block access to India. Spotify’s balancing act may be reaching a tipping point (mixed metaphor pun intended), but it may already be too late for the labels to act. Here’s why…

In search of market share

If Spotify is able to become more competitive (and therefore threatening) to labels and keep hold of them, it will all be down to market share. The less market share the big labels have on Spotify, the more negotiating power Spotify has. It is a classic case of divide and rule. If Spotify really wants to play the role of market disruptor (and so far we have strong hints rather than outright statements), it will need to whittle down the power of the majors before they call it and pull their content. Here’s a scenario for how Spotify could achieve that.

1 – Direct indie label deals

The first step is detangling embedded indie label market share from the majors that distribute them and therefore wield their market share as part of their own in licensing negotiations. There are two ways to measure market share:

  1. By distribution (this includes indie labels distributed via major labels being included in the share of the bigger labels)
  2. By ownership (this measures based on the original label, so does not count any indie labels as part of major labels)

By the first measure, the major labels had an 82% market share in 2016 and 79% market share in 2017. By the second measure, according to the WINTel report, major label market share was 62% in 2016 (the 2017 WINTel number is not yet out but will be shortly). So, if Spotify does direct deals with the larger indies currently distributed by majors or major-owned distributors (or persuades them to join Merlin), it unpacks up to more than a fifth of major label market share.

2 – More artists direct

DIY artists uploading directly to Spotify is a long-term play, aimed at harnessing the potential of tomorrow’s stars. In the near term, these artists will generate a smallish amount of streams, even with a helping hand from Spotify’s algorithms and curators. There are about 300 artists right now; let’s say Spotify gets to 2,500 next year, it could potentially deliver around a third of a percent of share of Spotify streams.

3 – Library music

Fake artist gatesaw a lot of people getting very hot under the collar, but nothing that was done was against any rules. Instead library music companies like Epidemic Sounds were – and still are – serving tracks into mood based playlists. The inference is that Spotify is paying less for Epidemic Sounds tracks than to labels. Whether it is or isn’t, this still eats away at label market share on Spotify. With a bit more support from Spotify’s playlist engine, these could account for around 0.7% of streams.  Coupled with artists direct, that’s a single point of share. Not exactly industry changing, but a pointer to the future, and a point of share is a point of share.

4 – Top 20 artists

Where Spotify could really move the needle is doing direct deals with top tier, frontline artists, probably on label services deals, as Spotify doesn’t appear to want to become a copyright owner – not yet at least. Netflix is funding its original content investments with around $1.5 billion of debt every two years, which it raises against its subscriber growth forecasts. No reason why Spotify couldn’t do the same, paying advances that other labels couldn’t compete with. The top 20 artists on Spotify account for around 22% of all Spotify streams. If Spotify could do direct deals with each of them and promote the hell of out of their latest releases, they could contribute up to 15% of all streams. Of that top 20, Taylor Swift is on the lookout for a new label, and Drake is putting out ‘albums’ so frequently that he must be pushing up close to the end of his deal.

spotify streaming repertoire shares midia research

When we add all these components together we end up in a situation where the major labels’ share of total streams would be just 47%. Spotify would have the second highest individual market share, while regional repertoire variations mean that SME and WMG could drop towards 10-11% in a couple of regions.

Of course, this is a hypothetical scenario, and one on steroids: the odds of Spotify signing up all the top 20 artists in the next 12 months is slim, to put it lightly, but it is useful for illustrating the opportunity.

Prisoners’ Dilemma

At this stage we move on to a prisoners’dilemma scenario for the majors:

  • All of the majors help Spotify’s case by over prioritising Spotify as a promotional tool in light of its share of total listening compared to radio, YouTube, other streaming services etc
  • WMG and SME probably couldn’t afford to remove their content from Spotify but would be watching UMG, the only one that probably feel confident enough to do so
  • However, UMG would be thinking if it jumps first and removes its content, each of the other two majors would benefit from it not being there (and would probably be secretly hoping for that outcome)
  • Each other major would be thinking the same, and regulatory restrictions prevent the majors from discussing strategy to formulate a combined response
  • But even if UMG did pull its content, this would hurt Spotify but would not kill it (Amazon Prime Music launched without UMG and spent 15 months growing just fine until UMG came on board)
  • Spotify could easily tweak its curation algorithms to minimise the perceived impact of the missing catalogue, making it ‘feel’ more like 10%
  • So, the likely scenario would be each major paralysed by FOMO and so none of them act

Thus, maybe Spotify is already nearly big enough to do this, and could do so next year. And the more that Spotify’s stock price struggles, the more that Spotify needs to talk up its disruption. History shows that when Spotify makes disruptive announcements, its stock price does better than when it delivers quarterly results. Maybe, just maybe, the labels have already missed their chance to prevent Spotify from becoming their fiercest competitor. The TV networks left it too late with Netflix…history may be about to repeat itself.

Spotify, DistroKid and the Two Sided Marketplace

distrokid spotify

Spotify has taken a minority stake in DistroKid. In itself, it may be a slightly left field but relatively insignificant move, except that it is in fact one small but important step on a much bigger journey. Back in September, Spotify announced that it was enabling artists to upload their music directly to Spotify, simultaneously aggravating record labels, distributors, DIY platforms and Soundcloud all in one fell swoop. This raised an intriguing possibility of a ‘coalition of the willing’ forming against Spotify from slighted partners and competitors. But that’s another blog post. Right now, though, DistroKid’s role in this performance is as an enabler for Spotify in its path to becoming a next generation label / creating a two-sided marketplace (delete as appropriate depending on how all this affects your business).

Bringing efficiencies into the supply chain

Spotify’s DistroKid deal will enable Spotify’s direct artists to “seamlessly distribute their music to other platforms through DistroKid”.So, instead of putting all their streaming eggs in one basket, Spotify’s direct artists now get to stream their music on Apple, Amazon, Deezer and the rest too. What wasn’t made clear in the announcement is whether Spotify will have visibility of the streaming data from those other platforms and / or whether the revenue will be recognised as Spotify revenue and then distributed to its artists. If these statements were to be the case, then Spotify’s competitors would be feeding it data and revenue…

UPDATE: A Spotify spokesperson clarified that “Spotify has no rights to see data from other digital service providers and DistroKid will not share confidential information.”

Why this relatively small announcement matters, is that it is another piece of Spotify’s strategy of shifting its way up the value chain by a) removing some of the distribution component and b) entering into direct relationships with artists. It’s what west coast tech firms call ‘bring efficiencies into the supply chain’. If it all works, Spotify will get more margin, artists will get more margin, but middle players (labels, distributors etc.) will get squeezed.

Treading a subtler path

This is how Spotify can edge quietly towards becoming a record label without going nuclear from the get go. It is a strategy we predicted by in April ahead of Spotify’s DPO:

“As much as the whole world appears to be saying Spotify needs to do a Netflix (and it probably does) it just can’t, not yet at least. In TV, rights are so fragmented that Netflix can have Disney and Fox pull their content and it’d still be a fast growing business. If UMG pulled its content from Spotify, the latter would be dead in the water. So, Spotify will take a subtler path to ‘doing a Netflix’, first by ‘doing a Soundcloud’ i.e. becoming a direct platform for artists and then switching on monetisation etc.”.

The challenge for Spotify is whether it can execute on the strategy quickly enough to excite investors (and thus drive up the share price), but slowly enough to keep record labels on board…so that when they realise where things are heading then it is too late for them to do anything about it.

 

Spotify’s Tencent Risk

NOTE: a previous version of this post referred to a non-compete clause with Spotify detailed in this SEC filing. I have been advised that the scope of this clause is narrower than I had originally interpreted. I have therefore updated this post to remove reference to that clause but the essence of the post remains intact due to the potential role of the major labels which, as outlined below, could have the same effect as a non-compete clause.

On Thursday (September 20th) Spotify grabbed the headlines with its announcement that it is launching a free-to-use direct upload service for artists. While it is undoubtedly a big move, and one that will concern Soundcloud among others, it was not a surprising move. In fact, in April we predicted this would happen soon:“Spotify will take a subtler path to ‘doing a Netflix’, first by ‘doing a Soundcloud’, i.e. becoming a direct platform for artists and then switching on monetisation”. Will labels be concerned, sure, because although Spotify might not be parking its tanks on their lawn yet, it is certainly slowly reversing them in that general direction. However, they may just have a way of clipping Spotify’s wings and waiting in, er, the wings…Tencent.

Still waiting for IPO metrics

Tencent is prepping its music division (TME) for a partial US IPO but announced earlier this week that it will be reducing the amount it is seeking to raise from $4 billion to $2 billion, though still against a reported valuation of around $25 billion. Regular readers will know I have a healthy scepticism of Tencent’s music numbers. It has only ever reported one subscriber number officially – 4.7 million for QQ Music in Q1 2016, therefore it has plausible deniability over all the non-official numbers it puts out via the press. So, the fact there still isn’t an F1 filing revealing TME’s metrics is intriguing to say the least.

Go west

The likelihood is that the numbers will show a relative flattening in music subscriber growth (though other areas of its business should be robust). If so, they fit a wider narrative of Tencent nearing the limits of its potential in China. Video subs, which have grown superfast, will soon slow, messaging is saturated and the Chinese government is curtailing Tencent’s games operations. The title of our April report says it all: “Tencent Has Outgrown China: Now Comes the Next Phase of Growth”. Until last year’s change in Chinese regulations, Tencent could quite happily have spent its time strolling across the globe buying up companies to spread its global wings. But now, operating under limits of how much it can spend on overseas companies, Tencent is restricted to taking minority stakes in companies like Gaana and Spotify. But those efforts do not deliver Tencent the scale of global growth it needs. You can probably see where this is heading: to grow its music business TME will have to roll out internationally, which is quite possibly part of the story it will use to justify its $25 billion valuation.

Ring fencing Spotify’s global reach 

Should TME decide to use the $2 billion it raises via IPO as a war chest, it could then go on a global roll out to all the markets where Spotify is currently not present. Getting their first, with the backing of Tencent and of the $2bn IPO windfall would put Spotify on the back foot. Especially if, and here’s the crucial part, the major record labels took this as an opportunity to knock Spotify down a peg because of its increasingly competitive behaviour. They’ve been relying on Indian licenses already, that could prove to be a template, with Tencent the grateful beneficiary.  This would have the effect of ring-fencing Spotify’s global roll out plans. For fans of the board game Risk, the board would look something like this:

Spotify tencent risk 1

But Risk’s map doesn’t really do it justice. Using a political global map, the respective footprints would look more like this:

Spotify tencent risk 2

The major labels have proven unwilling to license Spotify for India because they weren’t happy with Spotify offering direct deals for a small number of artists. Imagine how they are going to feel with this latest move. With TME waiting patiently on the side lines, they may just see it as an opportunity to carve up the global streaming landscape into two halves, creating a cold war stalemate. Your move Spotify.

Article 13 – Laws of Unintended Consequences

I do not normally add disclaimers or qualifiers at the start of blog posts, but given how divisive the whole Article 13 debate has become, there is a big risk that some readers will make incorrect assumptions about my position on Article 13. The emerging defining characteristic of popular debate in the late 2010s has been the polarization of opinion e.g. Brexit, Trump, immigration. Article 13 follows a similar model, leaving little tolerance for the middle ground. You are either anti-copyright / pro-big tech or you’re pro-big government / anti-innovation.

Such extremes are the inevitable result of multi-million-dollar lobby campaigns by both sides. Reasoned nuance doesn’t really play so well in the world of political lobbying. My objective, and MIDiA’s, from the outset has been to strike an evidence-based, agenda-free position, that considers the merits of all aspects of both sides’ arguments. So, before I embark on a blog post that will likely be viewed by some of being pro-Google and anti-rights holder (it is not, nor is it the opposite), these are some ‘value gap’ principles that MIDiA holds to be true:

  • YouTube has misused fair use and safe harbour provisions against the legislation’s original intent
  • YouTube’s ‘unique’ licensing model creates an imbalance in the competitive marketplace
  • YouTube’s free offering is so good that it sucks oxygen out of the premium sphere
  • Google has rarely demonstrated an unequivocal commitment to, nor support of current copyright regimes
  • YouTube being able to license post-facto rather than paying for access to repertoire, gives it a competitive advantage over traditional licensed services
  • There is too big a gap between YouTube ad-supported payments and Spotify ad-supported payments, meaning too little gets to rights holders and creators
  • Take down and stay down is a feasible and achievable solution (albeit within margins of error)
  • The current situation needs fixing in order to rebalance the streaming market

Nonetheless, for each one of these positions from the rights holder side of the debate, we also see an equally long and compelling list of points from YouTube’s side. Rather than list them however, I want to explain how ignoring some of the counterpoints could unintentionally create a far bigger problem for the music industry than the one it is trying to fix.

Value gap or control gap?

What really riles labels is that they cannot exercise the same degree of control over YouTube that they can over Spotify and co. This is very understandable, as they rightly want to be able to determine who uses their music, how it is used and how partners pay for usage. However, taking a very simplistic view of the world, the label-licensed approach has created: a few tech major success stories that don’t need to wash their own faces (Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music); a collection of smaller loss-making services (e.g. Deezer, Tidal); and one big break out success story that can’t turn a profit (Spotify). In short, the label-led model has not (yet at least) resulted in the creation of a commercially sustainable marketplace. Rights holders want to pull YouTube into this controlled economy model. YouTube is understandably resistant. After all, YouTube is a crucial margin driver for Alphabet. It cannot afford it to be loss leading. Alphabet’s core ad businesses generate the margin that subsidises Alphabet’s loss-making bets such as space flight, autonomous cars and curing death (I kid you not). Ad revenue has to be profitable.

Fixed costs / variable revenue

As we explained in our recent State of the YouTube Economy 2.0 report, YouTube went double or quits during the last two years, doubling down on music, making music over index across its user base, in order to try to make it an indispensable hit-making partner for labels. That bet now looks to have failed. So, the question is, will YouTube acquiesce to the new command economy approach to streaming or do something else—perhaps even walk away from music?

The fundamental commercial imperative for YouTube is as follows:

  • Spotify pays a fixed minimum fee to rights holders for each ad supported stream, even if it does not sell any advertising against it. The rate is the same for every song, every day of the year.
  • YouTube pays as a share of ad revenue. This means it is always paying rights holders a consistent share of its income, including all the up side on revenue spikes. But ad inventory is not worth the same 365 days a year. There are seasonal variations meaning a song can generate less rights holder income in December say, than January. Also, not all songs are worth the same to advertisers: they are willing to pay much more to advertise against a Drake track than they are for an obscure 1970s album track.

This revenue share approach without minimum per stream rates is why YouTube has a profitable, scalable ad business, but Spotify does not (as recently as Q1 2018 Spotify had a gross margin of -18% for ad supported, compared to a +14% gross margin for premium). Remember, that’s gross margin, imagine how net margin looks…

The walk away scenario

Minimum per-stream rates could break YouTube’s business model, especially in emerging markets where it usage is strong, but digital ad markets are not yet developed. It would also set a precedent that other YouTube rights holders and creators would want the same applied to them.

So, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that YouTube could simply opt to walk away from music, applying take down and stay down its way (i.e. every piece of label content stays down). It could feasibly continue to provide ad sales support and audience to Vevo, but if YouTube gets to this point, then relationships are likely to be fractured beyond repair, meaning Vevo would likely have to decamp to Facebook and build a new audience there, one which is crucially not accessible to under 13s.

A YouTube shaped hole

So, what? you might ask. The so what, is the YouTube shaped hole that would exist in the music landscape. Readers of a certain vintage will remember the long dark years of piracy booming and corroding the recorded music business. It was YouTube that killed piracy, not enforcement. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but the ubiquitous availability of all the world’s music on demand, on any device, nullified the use case for P2P in an instant. Add in stream rippers and ad blockers, and you’ve got a like-for-like replacement. Piracy created and filled a demand vacuum. YouTube (and Spotify, Soundcloud, Deezer etc.) have all since filled that same space, pushing P2P to the margins. YouTube, however, has had by far the biggest impact due to its sheer global scale. If YouTube pulls out from music, that YouTube shaped hole will be filled because the demand has not changed. Kids still want their free music, as in fact so do consumers of just about every age.

Piracy could be the winner

The most likely mid-term effect of YouTube shuttering music videos would be piracy in some form or another raising its head, filling the demand vacuum. Probably a decentralised, end-to-end encrypted, streaming interface built on top of a torrent structure, sort of like a Popcorn Time for music. Then it really would be back to the bad old days.

Is this the most likely scenario? Perhaps not. But perhaps it is. I suppose a just-as-possible outcome is that YouTube sticks up the proverbial middle finger and creates its own parallel music industry, using a unified music right and ‘doing a Netflix’. Yes, YouTube could be a next-generation record label, with more reach and bigger pockets than any major record label. If the labels are worried about Spotify disintermediation, YouTube could make that threat look like a children’s tea party.

As one YouTube executive said to me a couple of years ago: “This is how we are as friends. Imagine how we’d be as enemies.”

Too much to handle?

‘Couldn’t Spotify, Deezer and Soundcloud fill the potential YouTube shaped hole?’ I hear you ask. If these companies did take on YouTube’s 1.5 billion music users on the current financial agreements they have with rights holders, and with their currently far inferior ad sales infrastructure, they would be out of money in no time. It would literally kill their businesses. Based on YouTube’s likely music streams for FY 2018 and, say, a minimum per stream rate of $0.002, Spotify and co would need pay nearly $3 billion in rights revenue, regardless of how much revenue it could generate. Let alone the unprecedented bandwidth costs for delivering all that video. Of course the flip side, is that in the mainstream streaming model, that is how much potential revenue is up for grabs. So, more money would flow back to rights holders. But the extra revenue could come at the expense of the survival of the independent streaming services, ceding more power to the tech majors.

The artist and songwriter value gap

Throughout all of this you’ll have noted I haven’t said much about artists and songwriters. That’s because the value gap isn’t really about how much they get paid, even though they get put front and centre of lobbying efforts. It’s about how much labels, publishers and PROs get paid. And none of them are talking about changing the share they pay their artists and songwriters once Article 13 is put into action. That particular value gap isn’t going to be fixed. Even if Spotify picked up all of YouTube’s traffic, on say a $0.002 minimum per stream rate, a typical major label artist would still only earn $300 for a million streams, while a co-songwriter would earn just $150. The new boss would look pretty much like the old boss.

Be careful what you wish for

The laws of unintended consequences tend to proliferate when legislation tries to fix commercial problems without a clear enough understanding of the complexities of those very commercial problems.

It is of course in the best interests of YouTube and rights holders to carve out a workable commercial compromise, and I truly hope they do. But there is a very real risk this may not happen if Article 13 is successfully enacted into national member state legislation. Perhaps the phrase that rights holders should be considering right now is ‘be careful what you wish for’.

How Streaming is Changing the Shape of Music Itself [Part I]

[This is the first of two thought pieces on how streaming is reshaping music from creation to consumption] 

The streaming era has arrived in the music business, but the music business has not yet fully arrived in the streaming era. Labels, publishers, artists, songwriters and managers are all feeling – to differing degrees – the revenue impact of a booming streaming sector. However, few of these streaming migrants are fundamentally reinventing their approach to meet the demands of the new world. A new rule book is needed, and for that we need to know which of today’s trends are the markers for the future. This sort of future gazing requires us to avoid the temptation of looking at the player with the ball, but instead look for who the ball is going to be passed to.

Where we are now

These are changes that represent the start of the long-term fundamental shifts that will ultimately evolve into the future of the music business:

  • A+R strategy: Record labels are chasing the numbers, building A+R and marketing strategies geared for streaming. The bug in the machine is the ‘known unknown’ of the impact of lean-back listening, people listening to a song because it is in a pushed playlist rather than seeking it out themselves. Are labels signing the artists that music fans or that data thinks they want?
  • Composition:Songwriters are chasing the numbers too. The fear of not getting beyond the 30 second skip sees songs overloaded with hooks and familiar references. The industrialisation of song writing among writing teams and camps creates songs that resemble a loosely stitched succession of different hooks. Chasing specific playlists and trying to ‘sound like Spotify’delivers results but at the expense of the art.
  • Genre commodification:The race for the sonic centre ground is driving a commodification of genres. The pop music centre ground bleeding ever further outwards, with shameless cultural appropriating par for the course. Genres were once a badge of cultural identity, now they are simply playlist titles.
  • Decline of the album:iTunes kicked off the dismembering of the album, allowing users to cherry pick the killer tracks and skip the filler. The rise of the playlist has accentuated the shift. Over half of consumers aged 16–34 are listening to albums less in favour of playlists. The playlist juggernaut does not care for carefully constructed album narratives, nor, increasingly, do music listeners.
  • Restructuring label economics:Achieving cut though for a single takes pretty much the same effort as for an album. So, it is understandable that label economics still gravitate around the album. But streaming is rapidly falsifying the ROI assumption for many genres, with it being the tracks, not the albums that deliver the returns in these genres.
  • Decline of catalogue:Streaming’s fetishisation of the new, coupled with Gen Z’s surplus of content tailored for them, deprioritises the desire to look back. Catalogue – especially deep catalogue, will have to fight a fierce rear-guard action to retain relevance in the data-driven world of streaming.
  • Audience fragmentation: Hyper targeting is reshaping marketing and music is no different. While the mainstream of A+R chases the centre ground, indies, DIY artists and others chase niches are becoming increasingly fragmented. Yet, most often, this is not a genuine fragmentation of scenes, but an unintended manifestation of hyper- focused targeting and positioning.
  • End of the breakthrough artist:Fewer artists are breaking through to global success. None of the top ten selling US albums in 2017 were debut albums, just one was in the UK. Just 30% of Spotify’s most streamed artists in 2017 released their first album in the prior five years. Streaming’s superstars – Drake, Sheeran etc. – pre-date streaming’s peak. Who will be selling out the stadium tours five years from now?
  • Massively social artists:Artists have long known the value of getting close to their audiences. Social media is central to media consumption and discovery, and its metrics are success currency. Little wonder that a certain breed of artist may appear more concerned with keeping their social audiences happy than driving streams.
  • Value chain conflict:BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti once said “content may still be king but distribution is the queen and she wears the trousers”. Labels fear Spotify is out to eat their lunch, Spotify fears labels want to trim its wings. Such tensions will persist as the music industry value chain reshapes to reflect the shifts in where value and power reside.

Next week: where these trends will go.

To paraphrase Roy Amara:“It is easy to overestimate the near-term impact of technology and underestimate the long-term impact.”

Are Record Labels Facing an A&R Crisis?

A succession of conversations with record labels over the last couple of months has made me start to ponder whether we are approaching a tipping point in streaming era A&R. At the heart of the conversations is whether the growing role of playlists and the increased use of streaming analytics is making label A&R strategy proactive or reactive? Is what people are listening to shaped by the labels or the streaming service? To subvert Paul Weller’s 1980s Jam lyrics: Does the public get what the public wants or does the public want what the public gets?

An old dynamic reinvented

Radio used to be the main way in which audiences were essentially told what to listen to. Labels influenced what radios would play through a range of soft tactics – boozy lunches, listening sessions etc. – and hard tactics – pluggers, payola etc. Now radio is in long-term decline, losing its much-coveted younger audience to YouTube and audio streaming services. Streaming services have learned to capture much of this listening time by looking and feeling a lot more like radio through tactics such as curated playlists, stations, personalisation and podcasts. Curated listening is increasingly shaping streaming consumption, ensuring that the listening behaviours of streaming users resembles radio-like behaviour as much as it does user-led listening. The problem for the record labels is that they have less direct influence on streaming services’ playlists than they did on radio.

Chasing the data

All record labels have become far more data savvy over recent years, with the major labels in particular building out powerful data capabilities. This has resulted in a shift in emphasis from more strategic, insight-led data, such as audience segmentation, to more tactical, data such as streaming analytics.

At MIDiA we have worked with many organisations to help them improve their use of data and the number one problem we fix, is going to deep with analytics. It might sound like a crazy thing to say, but we have seen again and again, companies fetishize analytics, pushing out endless dashboards across the organisation. Too often the results are:

  1. decision makers paradoxically pay less attention to data than previously, not more, because they assume someone else must be ‘on it’ because of all the dashboards
  2. strategic decisions are made because of ‘blips’ in the data.

There is a danger that record labels are now following this path, relying too heavily on streaming analytics. It is interesting to contrast labels with TV companies. Until the rise of streaming, TV networks were obsessed with ‘overnight ratings’, looking at how a show performed the prior night. Now streaming has made the picture more nuanced, TV networks are turning to a diverse mix of metrics, incorporating ratings, streaming metrics, social data and TV show brand trackers. Streaming made the TV networks take a more diverse approach to data, but has made record labels pursue a narrower approach.

The risk for record labels is that doubling down on streaming analytics can easily result in double and fake positives and create the illusion of causality. Arguably the biggest problem is making curation-led trends look like user-led trends, mis-interpreting organic hits for manufactured ones.

Lean-back hits

One major label exec was recently telling me about how one of his label’s artists had ended up in Spotify Today’s Top Hits and racked up super-impressive stats. The success surprised the label as everything else they knew about the artists suggested it would not be such a big breakthrough performer. Nonetheless the label decided to rewrite its plan and threw a huge amount of marketing support behind the next single. Yes, you guessed it, it flopped. When the label went back to the streaming stats, it transpired that the vast majority of plays were passive. It was a hit because it was in a hit playlist that users tend not to skip through, which created an artificial hit, albeit a transitory one.

This case study highlights the two big challenges we face:

  1. Streaming analytics stripped of the context of insight can mislead
  2. Lean-back hits are not real hits

Chasing the stats

The two points are now combining to create what may yet be an A&R crisis. By chasing streaming metrics, the more commercially inclined record labels – which does not exclusively mean major labels – are creating a data feedback loop. By signing the genre of artists that they see doing best on playlists, they push more of that genre into the marketplace which in turn influences the playlists, which creates the double positive of that genre becoming even more pervasive. This sets off the whole process all over again. And because the labels are chasing the same genre of artists, bidding wars escalate and A&R budgets explode. This leads to labels having to commit even more money to marketing those genres because they can’t afford for their expensively acquired new artists not to succeed. All of this helps ensure that the music becomes even more pervasive. And so on, ad infinitum. Five years ago, this probably wouldn’t have been a problem but now record labels are flush with cash again, they are throwing out advances that they can now afford on a cash flow basis, but not on a margin basis. Because record labels – majors especially – remain obsessed with market share, none are willing to jump off the spinning wheel in case they jump too soon. It is a game of chicken. As one label exec put it to me: “In the old days we were betting on the gut instinct of an A+R guy who at least knew his music, now we’re chasing stats rather than tunes”.

Not so neutral platforms

Of course, none of this should be happening. Streaming platforms should be neutral arbiters of taste, simply connecting users with the music that best matches their tastes. But streaming services are locked in their own market share wars, each trying to add the most subscribers and drive the most impressive streaming stats – just look at how Spotify and Apple fell over each other to claim who had streamed Drake’s Scorpion most. In such an intense arms race, can any streaming service risk delivering a song to its users that might result in fewer streams than another one? Therefore, what we are now seeing is a subtle, but crucial, change in the way recommendation algorithms work. Instead of simply looking a user’s taste to estimate what other music she might like, the algorithms test the music on a sample of users to make sure they like it first before pushing it to a wider group of users that match that profile. In short, the algorithms are playing it safe with hits, which means surprise breakouts are becoming ever less likely to happen. Passenger’s slow burning ‘Let Her Go’ simply might never have broken through if it had been launched today. And yes, if you didn’t skip that Scorpion track in Today’s Top Hits then you are now that bit more of a Drake fan, even if you actually aren’t.

Where this all goes

Something needs to change, and ideally someone will have the balls to jump off the wheel before it stops spinning. Right now, we are on a path towards musical homogeneity where serendipitous discovery gets shoved to the side lines. And with listeners having progressively less say in what they like because they are too lazy to skip, record labels will become less and less able to determine whether they are getting value for money from their marketing and A&R spend.

Pop will eat itself.

From Ownership to Access

MIDiA PanelLast Wednesday we held the third MIDiA Quarterly forum, exploring the shift from ownership to access across different media industries. In addition to MIDiA analyst presentations we had panellists from Sky, The Economist, Beggars Group, Reed Smith and Readly. The event was held at The Ministry in London and was a great success. Be sure to make it to our next one! Here are some of the key themes we explored.

Change is a coming

We opened with three quotes that summarise the tensions and transformations taking place in the digital content marketplace:

 ‘The fine wines of France are not merely content for the glass making industry’, Andrew Lloyd-Webber

‘We’re competing with sleep…sleep is my greatest enemy’, Reed Hastings, Netflix

‘Content may still be king but distribution is the queen and she wears the trousers’, Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed

All three quotes represent very different worldviews and illustrate how different things can look from the perspective of the companies being disrupted, those doing the disruption and those building businesses to harness the disruption. All three viewpoints are simultaneously valid, but the media landscape is changing at rapid pace, and fighting a rear-guard action against change only gives the disruptors a freer rein to, well, disrupt.

access slide 1Across most media industries – music, video and news especially, the future of content monetisation will be built around advertising for the mass market and subscriptions for the aficionados, while additional opportunities exist for one-off transactions within both environments (e.g. Tencent live streaming  Chinese boyband TFBoysand Epic Games selling $100 million a month of virtual items in Fortnite). What is going as a mainstream proposition is selling physical media, though niche markets for collectables will thrive—ironically exactly because of the demise of physical media. In an age without shelves full of CDs, DVDs and games, collectors want a physical manifestation of their tastes.

Music and video are plotting the most directly comparable paths towards access-based models, though there are also some very telling differences:

  • Scale:Globally there were 206 million music subscribers at the end of 2017, compared to 452 million video subscribers. But while subscriptions represented 45% of retail music revenues, it was just 12% of pay-TV revenues. Music though is a far smaller industry than pay-TV (11% of the size), so like-for-like comparisons aren’t always that useful.
  • Concentration:What is worth comparing though, is the degree of market concentration. In music, the top four subscription services account for 72% of subscribers, compared to just 54% for video. And while the long tail for music services isn’t very, well, long, in video there is a vast number of smaller services: there are around 60 different services in the US alone.
  • Variety:While music services largely offer the same catalogue, with the same usage terms at the same price, video is defined by diversity and exclusives. Using the US as an example again, more than half of the services are niche – such as Korean drama, 4K nature, horror, reality – and there are 23, yes 23, different price points.

Aside the different heritages of these industries – consumers are used to paying for different slices of TV content, there is another key reason for the differences: rights holder distribution. In music three big companies account for the majority of revenues; in TV there are dozens of key studios and networks. This means that in video, the distribution companies can play rights holders off each other and effectively set the pace of change. In music, the major record labels shape the market.

This dynamic is what Clayton Christensen outlined in the Innovator’s Dilemma. There are two key types of innovation:

  1. Sustaining innovations:the smaller, more evolutionary changes that companies make to improve their existing products. Every company does this if they can, it’s how to maintain the status quo and grow revenues predictably
  2. Disruptive innovations:these are dramatic, industry-altering changes that rarely come from the incumbents but instead from disruptive new entrants. P2P file sharing was the big one that shook the TV and music industries. TV responded by fighting free with free, by launching services like iPlayer, ABC.com and Hulu. The music industry responded by licensing to the iTunes Music store. One embraced disruption, one fought it.

Talking of disruption, the big existential threat media companies will have to face over the coming decade, is ceding power, willingly or otherwise, to the tech majors (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Facebook). Europe’s Article 13aims to offset some of the growing reach of the tech majors, but ultimately these companies will shape the future of media, across both ad supported and subscription models.

The tech majors generated $40.7 billion in ad revenue in Q1 2018 alone, including around $2 billion for Amazon, the global advertising revenue powerhouse that many still aren’t paying enough attention to. The tech majors have already sucked away much of the news industry’s audience and ad revenues; with assets such as YouTube and IGTVthey are competing for radio and TV too. But it is the content and services revenue that media companies need to pay most attention to. With $16.9 billion in Q1 alone – nearly the same as the recorded music market for the entirety of 2017, this is a sector that all four tech majors are taking seriously, very seriously. And even though Facebook is a late arrival to the party, it is making up for lost time with its new music offeringand evolving video strategy.

The reason all this matters for media companies is that the strategic objectives of the tech major are rarely aligned with those of media companies. The tech majors each use media as a means to an end, a tool for driving their core strategy. Access based models underpin the content strategies of these companies who often control distribution and access to consumers via tools such as app stores, mobile operating systems, search and social platforms. Thus, the shift from ownership to access could also translate into a shift towards a tech major dominated media world.

The Outlook for Music Catalogue: Streaming Changes Everything

Friday’s news that catalogue acquisition business Hipgnosis Songs Fund is set to float on the London Stock Exchange,having already raised around $260 million, reflects a booming market for music catalogues. However, the outlook for catalogue is not quite as straight forward as it at first appears. MIDiA Research has just published a major new report looking at the state of catalogue and its future: The Outlook for Music Catalogue: Streaming Changes Everything. This report was six months in the making and pulls data from a wide range of industry sources to provide a definitive view of the global catalogue market, both in terms of revenues and also mergers and acquisitions (M&A). The report is immediately available to MIDiA subscription clients and is also available for individual purchase on our report store here. Here follows a brief overview.

Album unbundling is now hitting catalogue

Music catalogue sales is fundamentally about nostalgia, enabling us to relive our younger years through rediscovering music that mattered to us. In the old sales model, record labels could release a greatest hits album every eight–10 years and convince consumers to pay for a dozen or more songs, when in reality they only ever wanted a handful of them. If you think about the artists that sound tracked your younger years but are not among your favourite artists, there are probably only around five songs that you can actually recall as liking. In the old sales model you would have listened most to those tracks on the full album, and even then, probablyonly a dozen or so times before lessening your listening. Now, with streaming, you can get straight to those five tracks, skipping the others, and probably still only listen to them a handful of times each, perhaps adding them to a playlist that you’ll listen to occasionally. The old model would have generated, say $5 gross revenue for the label. In the streaming model, five songs listened to ten times each would generate 28 cents for the label. It is the album unbundling dynamic all over again.

Younger audiences look forward, not back

Younger Millennials and Gen Z – those born between 1995–2014 – have more content pushed to them that is tailored specifically for them than at any other stage in history. This is digital’s baby boomer generation. They have never had it so good. With Instagram and Snapchat feeds perpetually filled with new content, they have little need or want to look back. The music industry isn’t helping things either with hundreds of thousands of tracks released every month, leaving little time for older music.

Even within streaming catalogue listening, the focus is very much on the new rather than the old. In the UK, according to the BPI, more than 70% of all catalogue (24-plus months old) streams are from on or after 2000. If we go back to the 1960s, where some of the most iconic catalogue artists were at their peak – e.g. the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – this decade accounted for just 3.6% of UK catalogue streams in [year]. In traditional catalogue valuations, the likes of the Beatles and the Stones will account for a major portion of valuations. In the streaming era, their value diminishes markedly.

 

midia research catalogue forecastsCatalogue is caught between the two extremes of streaming and physical, with current revenue boosted by older CD and vinyl buyers coalescing around old favourites. These physical formats are often high-priced premium products and therefore create a skewed picture when comparing the consumption business of streaming to the sales model. Catalogue’s outlook is nuanced. Music catalogue generated $11.5 billion in retail revenues in 2017, which was up from 2016 and it will continue to grow through to 2025. Yet catalogue’s share of recorded music revenues will diminish.

Many strings to catalogue’s bow

Catalogue also looks different depending on where you sit in the value chain. If you are an influential indie label group like Beggars, you’ll see catalogue still performing strongly on streaming because you have the influential music that fans want to discover. Meanwhile, publishing catalogues are commanding large fees, not least Sony ATV’s $2.3 billion acquisition of 60% of EMI Music Publishing. Music publishing has felt the impact of streaming much more slowly than labels, but it is happening. Mechanical royalties from sales are plummeting, sync revenues are stable but a far larger volume of syncs are happening thus reducing average synch incomes. Meanwhile on streaming, publishers get a much smaller share of revenue than labels. And of course, streaming is killing off radio, another key publishing income source. So what labels are beginning to experience now, publishers will too.

The future needs rewriting

None of this means that catalogue is dead, but it does need an overhaul if it is to retain relevance. Selling people nostalgia is no longer enough on its own (though of course a solid market still exists for selling digital remasters to aging rock fans). The Guardians of the Galaxy is a great example of how to make catalogue work in the current market. For young fans of the movie, the music is simply the soundtrack to part of their culture that just happens to be decades old. The music is given new cultural context for a new generation. This is the sort of thinking catalogue needs to thrive in the streaming era.

A catalogue bubble

There is a risk that we are in a catalogue bubble. Acquisitions are on a rapid rise – check out the reportfor our year-by-year catalogue M&A activity – and will likely continue to rise over coming years, as illustrated by Hipgnosis, though given that the average transaction value for catalogues is $140 million the initial $260 million may not go that far.

The risk with the current market is that valuations are being built using the models that were shaped in the distribution era and that don’t properly reflect the dynamics of streaming. Also, there is a finite number of decent sized catalogues for sale, which means it is a sellers’ market, thus driving prices up further still. 

With these dynamics and streaming’s emphasis on the new set to create a world of mega hits and audiences with less inclination towards looking back, catalogue is at a tipping point. Either it changes to meet the market or the market leaves it behind.

Could Article 13 Kill Off Music on YouTube?

It was a day of two halves for YouTube. On one side a big press release went out championing a host of impressive new stats – including hitting 1.9 billion logged in users, following an official launch of YouTube Musicthe day before. Meanwhile, on the other side, the European parliament’s legal affairs committee voted in support of Article 13, whichwill overturn some basic premises of the fair use / safe harbour frameworks under which YouTube operates. The question is which half will prove to be most impactful on YouTube’s music strategy.

It’s complicated

If YouTube was to post the status of its relationship with the labels on its Facebook profile it would be ‘It’s complicated’. The whole value gap argument – which posits that YouTube does not pay as much as other streaming services because it does not have to directly license in the way they do – has created a war of words characterised by obfuscation and disinformation on both sides. Its super-recent new premium strategy was almost certainly timed to coincide with this vote and it helps present YouTube as a premium player, doing what the labels want.

But fundamentally, Google and its YouTube subsidiary are all about selling advertising. If you put too many of your most valuable customers behind an ad-free pay wall, advertisers will eventually stop paying as much for ads. Google is not about to kill off a large scale, high-margin business for a small scale, low margin one. In short, Google cannot afford for music subscriptions to be too successful.

value gap

The three numbers that matter

The EU vote will likely get pushed to a full parliamentary vote, so the legislative picture is still far from resolved. When determining the outcome, policy makers, YouTube and rights holders should consider three metrics: $0.0020, -51% and 171:

  • $0.0020: In the US, where there is a strong video ad market, effective per stream rates for YouTube actually increased by 14% in 2017 to $0.0020. Bet you haven’t heard that spoken about much by rights holders? Globally however, the rate fell for labels but, interestingly, was about flat for rights holders overall (publishers get paid on videos—such as cover versions, so there are more videos they get paid on, labels do not).What it means:YouTube’s US experience shows market economics can reduce the value gap.
  • 51%: This was Spotify’s gross margin on ad supported in Q1 2016. By Q1 2018 it had risen to 13%. This was in large part because the labels had cut Spotify better deals on ad supported, which meant that the difference between what YouTube pays and what Spotify pays now is smaller than it was in 2016 when the value gap lobbying was in full effect. What it means: the labels have reduced the value gap!
  • 171: This is how many days it took on average for music videos to reach one billion views in 2017. In 2010 it took 1,841. YouTube has become far more effective at turning songs into hits, thus making it more valuable to the music business than ever before. Major record labels are in the business of making superstars, but superstars need massive global audiences to turn them into global brands—much bigger audiences than you get behind a Spotify paywall. The majors need YouTube’s scale to make global successes. What it means: the labels need YouTube as much as it needs them.

Commercial sustainability is the core issue

At the heart of the value gap argument is a fight for control. Rights holders want more control over YouTube to extract better deals and YouTube does not want to cede that control. But there is an argument that YouTube’s greater control enabled it to build a commercial sustainable model. Spotify, which does not have YouTube’s negotiating power, is still not generating a net profit on streaming. On a sliding scale, there are label-defined rates with a non-commercially sustainable business model at one end, while at the other end there is YouTube, which does not pay rights holders what they want, but has a commercially sustainable model. The solution clearly lies somewhere between the two extremes. Moreover, what is crucial, if YouTube is going to remain incentivised to continue to make music videos a success, is that rights payment need to be a share of revenue, not based on a minimum per track fee.

Would YouTube walk away from music?

Spotify is, for now at least, all about music, so it has to make it work. YouTube is not. If music suddenly becomes lower margin for YouTube with fixed per stream costs, then it would be commercially foolish for YouTube to do anything other than push its viewers to other forms of content than music. That 171-day metric didn’t happen on its own. YouTube honed its algorithms to ensure it can make hits faster for the music industry, but it can dial that back in an instant.

There is even a possibility that paying more for music rights could scupper YouTube’s entire business model as other types of rights holders might start demanding better rates too. The crux of the matter is that the current economics suit YouTube but not rights holders. What we have to be careful to avoid is a new paradigm where roles are reversed. As important as music is to YouTube, Google could walk away if it really wanted to. Rights holders—labels especially, need to think whether that is a price they are willing to pay.

Spotify’s New Rules of Engagement

It is easy to feel that the pervasive obsession with Spotify overplays its importance to the recorded music industry. On the one hand it may only represent 27% of global recorded music revenues, but this compares to a peak of around 10% that Apple enjoyed at the peak of the iTunes Music Store. So, whatever label concerns existed back then about market influence – and there were plenty – their apprehensions have now multiplied. The assumption among many investors and label executives is that Spotify’s market share will lessen as the market grows. However, Spotify has thus far held onto its subscriber market share as the market has grown and looks set to do so in the foreseeable future.

If revenue is Spotify’s ‘hard power’ its real influence comes in its ‘soft power’. This takes two key forms:

  • Cultural influence:Despite being less than a third of revenues, record labels, artists and managers typically see Spotify as the proving ground, the place where hits are made. Marketing and promotion efforts are centred around getting traction on Spotify, knowing that success there normally leads to success elsewhere. Thus, Spotify’s cultural influence far outweighs its market share. As is so often the case with soft power, those affected most by it are those who inadvertently ceded it.
  • Innovation / disruption / innovation:Since embarking on its DPO path Spotify has been talking out of both sides of its mouth at the same time. On the one hand it positions itself as a safe pair of hands for the records labels, and on the other it lays out for investors a vision of a future world were artists don’t have to choose to work with labels. Labels have long feared just how far Spotify is willing to go and also, just how quickly. Spotify is now showing signs of going full tilt.

 

A rabbit out of the hat

When Spotify reported its Q1 earnings, the music industry consensus was a job well done. It delivered nearly on-target revenues (though they were down slightly on Q4), solid subscriber growth, improved margins and reduced churn. But it wasn’t enough for Wall Street. Spotify’s stock price fell to $150.07 down from a high of $170 in the days building up to the earnings. So what went wrong? Investors were expecting Spotify to pull a rabbit out of the hat. They’d been promised an industry changing investment and had instead got an industry sustaining investment. Such fickle investor confidence so early on in the history of a public company can be fatal. So, Spotify quickly searched for that rabbit; it announced that it will do direct deals with some artists and managers. Guess what happened? Spotify’s stock price rose to $172.37. The rabbit was bounding across the stage.

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Investors want the new world now

These are the new rules of streaming music. As the bellwether of streaming, Spotify has been dictating the narrative for years, but always with the focus of being a partner for rights holders. Now that it is public, Spotify has found that tough talking trumps sweet talking. Even if Spotify does not intend to go fast on its next gen-label strategy, it now knows it has to talk fast. Speaking from the experience of months of deep conversations with large institutional investors, Wall Street has pumped money into Spotify stock not because of how it will help labels’ businesses, but because they expect it to replace labels, or, at the very least, compete with them at scale. Spotify’s stock was not cheap, so to deliver to investors the returns they crave, it has to show that its influence is as disruptive / innovative (delete depending on your perspective) for the music business as Netflix has been for the TV business. They are investing in the potential upside on a future industry changer, not a present-day industry defender.

Spotify needs to speak boldly but act responsibly

Spotify cannot of course go all guns blazing yet, as it simply cannot afford to operate without the major labels. Netflix could get away with what it did because the TV rights landscape is fragmented. Therefore, Spotify will have to tread carefully until it can pick away at major label market share through various forms of direct deals. But it also has to do this cautiously (as I explained in this post). If it is too quick and bold it will incite retaliatory action from the labels. So, the new rules of engagement for Spotify and rights holders are a bit like international diplomacy: make bold public statements to keep domestic voters happy but adopt a more conciliatory approach with partners behind closed doors. Let’s just hope that Spotify opts for the Justin Trudeau school of international diplomacy over the Donald Trump approach.