Niche is the New Mainstream

Fandom is fragmenting. Streaming personalization and falling radio audiences are combining to rewrite the music marketing rulebook, ushering in a whole new marketing paradigm. Hits used to be cultural moments; artist brands built by traditional mass media. However, this fire-hydrant approach to marketing lacked both accountability and effective targeting. Now, hyper targeting, both in marketing campaigns and streaming recommendations, is creating a new type of hit and a new type of artist. Global fanbases are being built via the accumulation of local niches, while a few big hits for everyone are being replaced by many, smaller hits for individuals. Niche is the new mainstream.

The marketing rulebook is being re-written

Three trends have reshaped how music marketing works:

  1. Digital targeting: The rise of social media provided label marketing teams with masses of data and unparalleled targeting
  2. Linear decline:The steady decline of linear radio and TV audiences is eroding these platforms’ contribution to music marketing effectiveness
  3. Streaming curation:Streaming algorithms and curation teams are overriding label marketing efforts, delivering users what the streaming services want to deliver rather than what labels want to

fragmented fandom midia research - niche is the new maiostream

Artist marketing used to be about building exposure and brands across mass market analogue platforms. With radio, TV and print all in decline – especially among the crucial younger audience segments – that approach is being replaced with targeted digital campaigns which in turn are fragmenting fandom and transforming what global fanbases look like:

  • The marketing transition:Marketing of media brands is locked in a transition phase, moving from the old model of one-to-many messaging to targeted digital campaigns. As in all transitions, the old and new models will co-exist for some time. For music marketers though, there is a greater need for emphasis on digital because this is where the younger music fans are that are so crucial to the success of so many frontline acts.
  • Democratization of access:In the old model, mainstream linear media (TV and radio especially) was the power tool of big record labels. Access to these finite schedules is inherently scarce and bigger record labels have an inbuilt advantage due to their scale and influence. In on-demand environments access is democratized, with anyone able to run their own self-serve campaigns on platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube and Google search. The result is that labels and artists of all sizes can reach their global audiences.
  • From cultural moments to cultural movements:Linear schedules have the unrivalled ability to create simultaneous audiences at scale around a specific piece of content. Creating these cultural moments remains the crucial asset that TV and radio bring. But the weakness of this approach is that much of the impact is diluted. It is carpet bombing compared to the laser-guided missile of digital marketing, resulting in a lot of wasted exposure and effort. Mass reach is progressively less useful for driving fandom. Against this, the hyper-targeting of digital creates super-engaged fanbases that can often thrive under the mainstream radar. Kobalt artists such as Lauv (2.5+ billion streams) and Rex Orange County (0.8+ billion streams) are examples of this new paradigm, creating global-scale cultural movements rather than linear cultural moments. Niches thrive in this world of fragmented fandom, but niche no longer inherently means small. Indeed, the cumulative effect of many local niches is global-scale fanbases. Niche is the new mainstream.

The old living side by side with the new

As when every new paradigm shift occurs, the old and the new will live side by side. There will still be plenty of artists that appeal to younger audiences that become household names too across mainstream media – look no further than Billie Eilish. But make no mistake, the shift is happening. More and more global artist success stories will happen outside the mainstream. These fan bases will be increasingly passionate and loyal, acting as strong platforms for building impactful artist stories. Success will be built around audiences that want a piece of everything that artist has to offer, from streaming to merch to tickets. This is how independent artists and many independent label artists have been building careers for years. They no longer have the exclusive, however.

Fragmented fandom is an asset, not a challenge

Artists that once would have been household names – mass media brands with large but often passive fanbases – are now rising as under-the-radar superstars. It has never been more important for this to happen. With streaming pushing more listeners towards tracks and away from artists and albums, building passionate clusters of fans is not just key to success, it is the very thing that success will be built on. Fandom is fragmenting but it may be the best thing that has ever happened to it.

This blog post pulls insight from a forthcoming MIDiA report Music Marketing: Niche is the New Mainstream that will be published in MIDiA’s new Marketing and Brands service. To find out more about how to get access to this research practice – a must have for anyone involved in marketing of media brands – email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Podcasts: a Netflix Moment for Radio But Perhaps not the Future of Spotify

spotify gimlet anchor podcasts midiaWednesday was a busy day for Spotify: it reported above-expected subscriber growthto hit 96 million paid subscribers, strong total user growth to hit 207 million MAUs, improved margins and its first ever profitable quarter, registering an operating profit of €94 million. And the news didn’t stop there, Spotify also announced the acquisition of two podcasting companies, Gimlet and Anchor.Spotify unsurprisingly referenced podcasts in its earnings note, pointing to 185,000 podcast titles available, ‘rapidly’ growing consumption and 14 exclusives to including the 2nd season of Crimetown, The Rewind with Guy Raz, and the Dissect Mini Series hosted by Lauryn Hill. Podcasts is clearly becoming a big part of Spotify’s plans and the rationale is simple: more owned content, and more cheaply licensed content means higher margins than can be generated by record label content. But for all its commitment to the format, Spotify may find the podcast battle harder to win than expected.

An opportunity with many intertwined layers

After many years stuck on the side lines, podcasts are now becoming sought after by everyone from radio companies, streaming services, newspaper publishers to TV companies and many, many more. Media brands of all forms see podcasts as a part of their future, a way to increase and diversify listening time (streaming services); fight back against streaming (radio); reach new audiences (news); and extend audience engagement (TV). To some degree podcasts can probably deliver on all those expectations, and while the creative possibilities are clear, the path ahead is not so straight forward:

  • A Netflix moment for radio: Netflix transformed the TV market not just by giving consumers a cheap, value-for-money way of getting great TV, but by changing forever the way in which TV is made. No longer shackled by the constraints of linear schedules and needing to keep everyone on the sofa happy at the same time, studios and networks started smashing the boundaries of what could be made and what a TV show looks like. We are now in the golden age of TV. Podcasts do the same for radio, allowing every niche topic under the sun to be explored in huge detail and without any constraints on number or length of episodes. Podcasts create even more of a blank canvass for what was once only radio content than Netflix did for what was once only TV content.
  • Apple iTunes stranglehold: Apple is the powerhouse of podcast distribution. In what is otherwise a highly fragmented podcast distribution landscape, Apple is as close as it gets to a unified podcast platform – which is also integrated into Apple Music. During podcasting’s wilderness years, Apple quietly built up a loyal base of podcast users. Given that more than half of Spotify’s subscribers are iOS users, those that are podcast users are most likely also Apple podcast users. Spotify will have to bank on converting those users while simultaneously flicking the ‘market creation’ switch by converting new users to podcasts. A double challenge.
  • Radio:As MIDiA identified early last year, radio is streaming’s next frontier. Spotify has built a sizeable ad supported audience – 11 million as of Q4 2018 – but it has not yet built a viable ad model – ad user ARPU is just $0.28 which is just one cent up on Q4 2017. To persuade radio’s big advertisers to switch, it needs to woo more of radio’s core audience but it currently lacks the content assets (news, weather, sports etc). Podcasts are a step in that direction but radio companies will feel they have a better chance of owning this space than Spotify, and many are currently investing heavily in podcasts. As Apple has been learning with Beats 1, just because you want to do something does not mean you necessarily can, even if you hire many of the industry’s power players.
  • Programmatic ad buying:Spotify is doubling down on its programmatic ad buying and this will be crucial to monetizing podcasts. Spotify reported in its Q4 earnings that programmatic is growing fast and, along with self-serve, now accounts for 25% of all ad sales – though as ad ARPU is flat (up just $0.15 y-o-y), it is not growing fast enough.
  • Use cases:Lastly, but most importantly, the underlying use cases for podcasts potentially limit the market opportunity for podcasts. The addressable audience for podcasts is not all the time spent listening to audio. Listening to music is a lean back experience that we can do while doing other things like work and study. Podcasts tend to require more of our attention and thus the use cases for podcasts are more limited. Also, unlike TV shows, users are less likely to have a large number of podcasts on the go at the same time. Spotify will hope that it will be able to generate appointment-to-listen behaviour, with users tuning in for their favourite podcasts on a specific day. But that necessitates users re-learning how they use Spotify.

The podcast opportunity is undoubtedly strong but there will be many competing to be the owner of podcasting’s future and radio may well do a better job of winning this battle than it has retaining its music listeners. Spotify is betting big on podcasts being part of the future of streaming, but the future of podcasts may lie elsewhere.

Making Free Pay

2018 was a big year for subscriptions, across music (Spotify on target to hit 92 million subscribers), video (global subscriptions passed half a billion), games (98 million Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus subscribers) and news (New York Times 2.5 million digital subscribers). The age of digital subscriptions is inarguably upon us, but subscriptions are part of the equation not the whole answer. They have grown strongly to date, will continue to do so for some time and are clearly most appealing to rights holders. However, subscriptions only have a finite amount of opportunity—higher in some industries than others, but finite nonetheless. The majority of consumers consume content for free, especially so in digital environments. Although the free skew of the web is being rebalanced, most consumers still will not pay. This means ad-supported strategies are going to play a growing role in the digital economy. But set against the backdrop of growing consumer privacy concerns, we will see data become a new battle ground.

Industry fault lines are emerging

Three quotes from leading digital executives illustrate well the fault lines which are emerging in the digital content marketplace:

“[Ad supported] It allows us to reach much, much deeper into the market,” Gustav Söderström, Spotify

“To me it’s creepy when I look at something and all of a sudden it’s chasing me all the way across the web. I don’t like that,” Tim Cook, Apple

“It’s up to us to take [subscribers’] money and turn it into great content for their viewing benefit,”Reed Hastings, Netflix

None of those quotes are any more right or wrong than the other. Instead they reflect the different assets each company has, and thus where they need to seek revenue. Spotify has 200 million users but only half of them pay.  Spotify cannot afford to simply write off the half that won’t subscribe as an expensively maintained marketing list. It needs to monetise them through ads too. Apple is a hardware company pivoting further into services because it needs to increase device margins, so it can afford to snub ad supported models and position around being a trusted keeper of its users’ data. Netflix is a business that has focused solely on subscriptions and so can afford to take pot shots at competitors like Hulu which serve ads. However, Netflix can only hike its prices so many timesbefore it has to start looking elsewhere for more revenue; so ads may be on their way, whatever Reed Hastings may say in public.

The three currencies of digital content

Consumers have three basic currencies with which the can pay:

  1. Attention
  2. Data
  3. Money

Money is the cleanest transaction and usually, but not always, comes with a few strings attached. Data is at the other end of the spectrum, a resource that is harvested with our technical permission but rarely granted by us fully willingly, as the choice is often a trade-off between not sharing data and not getting access to content and services. The weaponisation of consumer data by the likes of Cambridge Analytica only intensifies the mistrust. Finally, attention, the currency that we all expend whether behind paywalls or on ad supported destinations. With the Attention Economy now at peak, attention is becoming fought for with ever fiercer intensity. Paywalls and closed ecosystems are among the best tools for locking in users’ attention. As we enter the next phase of the digital content business, data will become ever more important assets for many content companies, while those who can afford to focus on premium revenue alone (e.g. Apple) will differentiate on not exploiting data.

Privacy as a product

So, expect the next few years to be defined as a tale of two markets, with data protectors on one side and data exploiters on the other. Apple has set out its stall as the defender of consumer privacy as a counter weight to Facebook and Google, whose businesses depend upon selling their consumers’ data to advertisers. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the start rather than the end. Companies that can — i.e. those that do not depend upon ad revenue — will start to position user privacy as a product differentiator. Amazon is the interesting one as it has a burgeoning ad business but not so big that it could opt to start putting user privacy first. The alternative would be to let Apple be the only tech major to differentiate on privacy, an advantage Amazon may not be willing to grant.

The topics covered in MIDiA’s March 27 event ‘Making Free Pay’.The event will be in central London and is free-to-attend (£20 refundable deposit required). We will be presenting our latest data on streaming ad revenue as well as diving deep into the most important challenges of ad supported business models with a panel featuring executives from Vevo, UK TV and Essence Global. Sign up now as places are going fast. For any more information on the event and for sponsorship opportunities, email dara@midiaresearch.com 

Just Who Would Buy Universal Music?

Vivendi continues to look for a buyer for a portion of Universal Music. Though the process has been running officially since May 2018, the transaction (or transactions) may not close until 2020. In many instances, dragging out a sale could reflect badly, suggesting that the seller is struggling to find suitable buyers. But in the case of UMG it probably helps the case. A seller will always seek to maximise the sale price of a company, which means selling as close to the peak as possible. It is a delicate balance, sell too early and you reduce your potential earnings, sell too late and the price can go down as most buyers want a booming business, not a slowing business. In the case of UMG, with institutional investors looking for a way into the booming recorded music business, UMG is pretty much the only game in town for large scale, global institutional investors.

In this sellers’ market, banks have been falling over themselves to say just how valuable UMG could be, with valuations ranging from $22 billion to $33 billionand Vivendi even suggesting $40 billion. Meanwhile, recorded music revenues continue to grow — up 9.0% in 2017, and up 8.2% in 2018 according to MIDiA’s estimates. 2019 will likely be up a further 6%, all driven by streaming. With UMG’s market share (on a distribution base) relatively stable, the market growth thus increases UMG’s valuation. This in turn increases Vivendi’s perceived value, and that is the crux of the matter.

The role of Bolloré Group

Vivendi board member and major shareholder Vincent Bolloré was Vivendi chairman until April 2018, when he handed power to his son Yannick, one month before he was reportedly taken into police custody for questioning as part of an investigation into allegations of corrupt business practices in Africa. Bolloré senior remains the chairman and CEO of Bolloré Group, which retains major shareholdings in Vivendi. Bolloré Group’s Vivendi holdings will inherently be devalued by a sale of prize asset UMG, which is a key reason why only a portion of the music group is up for sale. But, even selling a portion of UMG will have a negative impact on Vivendi’s valuation and thus also on Bolloré Group’s holdings. So, the sale price needs to be high enough to ensure that Bolloré Group makes enough money from the sale to offset any fall in valuation. Hence, dragging out the sale while the streaming market continues to boom. All this also means the sale is of key benefit to Bolloré Group and other Vivendi investors. It is perhaps as welcome as a hole in the head to UMG. Little wonder that some are suggesting UMG is markedly less enthusiastic about this deal than Vivendi is.

vivendi umg potential buyers

All of which brings us onto which company could buy a share of UMG. These can be grouped into the four key segments shown in the chart above. Normally, higher risk buyers (i.e. those that could negatively impact UMG’s business by damaging relationships with partners etc.) would not be serious contenders but as this is a Vivendi / Bolloré Group driven process rather than a UMG driven one, the appetite for risk will be higher. This is because the primary focus is on near-term revenue generation rather than long-term strategic vision. Both are part of the mix, but the former trumps the latter. Nonetheless, the higher-risk strategic buyers are unlikely to be serious contenders. Allowing a tech major to own a share of UMG would create seismic ripples across the music business, as would a sale to Spotify.

Financial investors

So that leaves us with the lower-risk strategic buyers, and both categories of financial buyers. Let’s look at the financial buyers first. Private equity (PE) is one of the more likely segments. We only need to look back at WMG, which was bought by a group of investors including THL and Providence Equity before selling to Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries in 2011 for $3.3 billion. Private equity companies take many different forms these days, with a wider range of investment theses than was the case a decade ago. But the underlying principle remains selling for multiples of what was paid. Put crudely, buy and then flip. The WMG investors put in around half a billion into the company, but a six-fold increase is less likely for UMG, as the transaction is taking place in a bull market while WMG was bought by Providence and co in a bear market. Where the risk comes in for UMG is to whom the PE company/companies would sell to in the future. At that stage, one of the current high-risk strategic companies could become a potential buyer, which would be a future challenge for UMG. The other complication regarding PE companies is that many would want a controlling stake for an investment that could number in the tens of billions.

Institutional investors such as pension funds are the safest option, as they would be looking for long-term stakes in low-risk, high-yield companies to add to their long-term investment portfolios. This would also enable Vivendi to divide and rule, distributing share ownership across a mix of funds, thus not ceding as much block voting power as it would with PE companies.

Strategic investors

The last group of potential buyers is also the most interesting: lower risk strategic. These are mainly holding companies that are building portfolios of related companies. Liberty Media is one of the key options, with holdings in Live Nation, Saavn, SiriusXM, Pandora, Formula 1 Racing and MLB team Atlanta Braves. Not only would UMG fill a gap in that portfolio, Liberty has gone on record stating it would be interested in buying into UMG.

Access Industries is the one that really catches the eye though. Alongside WMG, the Access portfolio includes Perform, Deezer and First Access Entertainment. On the surface Access might appear to be a problematic buyer as it owns WMG. But compared to many other potential investors, it is clearly committed to music and media, and is likely to have a strategic vision that is more aligned with UMG’s than many other potential suitors.

There is of course the possibility of being blocked by regulators on anti-competitive grounds. However, at year end 2017 WMG had an 18% market share, while UMG had 29.7% (both on a distribution basis). If Access acquired 25% of UMG, respective market shares would change to 25.4% for WMG and UMG for 22.2% (still slightly ahead of Sony on 22.1%). It would mean that the market would actually be less consolidated as the market share of the leading label (WMG) would be smaller than UMG’s current market leading share. While the likes of IMPALA would have a lot to say about such a deal, there is nonetheless a glimmer of regulatory hope for Access. Especially when you consider the continued growth of independents and Artists Direct. All of which point to a market that is becoming less, not more, consolidated.

The time is now

Whatever the final outcome, Bolloré Group and Vivendi are currently in the driving seat, but they should not take too much time. 2019 will likely see a streaming growth slowdown in big developed streaming markets such as the US and UK, and it is not yet clear whether later stage major markets Germany and Japan will grow quick enough to offset that slowdown in 2019. So now is the time to act.

The Meta Trends that Will Shape 2019

MIDiA has just published its annual predictions report. Here are a few highlights.

2018 was another year of change, disruption and transformation across media and technology. Although hyped technologies – VR, blockchain, AI music – failed to meet inflated expectations, concepts such as privacy, voice, emerging markets and peak in the attention economy shaped the evolution of digital content businesses, in a year that was one to remember for subscriptions across all content types. These are some of the meta trends that we think will shape media, brands and tech in 2019 (see the rest of the report for industry specific predictions):

  • Privacy as a product: Apple has set out its stall as the defender of consumer privacy as a counter weight to Facebook and Google, whose businesses depend upon selling their consumers’ data to advertisers. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the start rather than the end. Companies that can – i.e. those that do not depend upon ad revenue – will start to position user privacy as a product differentiator.
  • Green as a product: Alphabet could potentially position around environmental issues as it does not depend as centrally on physical distribution or hardware manufacture for its revenue. For all of Apple’s genuinely good green intentions, it fundamentally makes products that require lots of energy to produce, uses often scarce and toxic materials and consumes a lot of energy in everyday use. Meanwhile, Amazon uses excessive packaging and single delivery infrastructure, creating a large carbon footprint. So, we could see fault lines emerge with Alphabet and Facebook positioning around the environment as a counter to Apple and potentially Amazon positioning around privacy.
  • The politicisation of brands: Nike’s Colin Kaepernick advert might have been down to cold calculation of its customer base as much as ideology, but what it illustrated was that in today’s increasingly bipartisan world, not taking a position is in itself taking a position. Expect 2019 to see more brands take the step to align themselves with issues that resonate with their user bases.
  • The validation of collective experience: The second decade of the millennium has seen the growing success of mobile-centric experiences across social, music, video, games and more. But this has inherently created a world of siloed, personal experiences, of which being locked away in VR headsets was but a natural conclusion. The continued success of live music alongside the rise of esports, pop-up events and meet ups hints at the emotional vacuum that digital experiences can create. Expect 2019 to see the rise of both offline and digital events (e.g. live streaming) that explicitly look to connect people in shared experiences, and to give them the validation of the collective experience – the knowledge that what they experienced truly was something special but equally fleeting.
  • Tech major content portfolios: All of the tech majors have been building their content portfolios, each with a different focus. 2019 will be another year of content revenue growth for all four tech majors, but Apple may be the first to take the next step and start productising multi-content subscriptions, even if it starts doing so in baby steps by making Apple original TV shows available as part of an Apple Music subscription.
  • Rights disruption: Across all content genres, 2019 will see digital-first companies stretch the boundaries and challenge accepted wisdoms. Whether that be Spotify signing music artists, DAZN securing top tier sports rights, or Facebook acquiring a TV network. These are all very different moves, but they reflect a changing of the guard, with technology companies being able to bring global reach and big budgets to the negotiating table. Expect also more transparency, better reporting and more agile business terms.
  • GDPR sacrificial lamb: In 2018 companies thought they got their houses in order for GDPR compliance. Most consumers certainly thought they had, given how many opt in notifications they received in their inboxes.
    However, many companies skirted around the edges of compliance, especially US companies. In 2019 we will see European authorities start to police compliance more sternly. Expect some big sacrificial lambs in 2019 to scare the rest of the marketplace into compliance. They will also aim to educate the world that this is not a European problem, so expect some of those companies to be American. Watch your back Facebook.
  • Big data backlash: By now companies have more data, data scientists and data dashboards than they know what to do with. 2019 will see some of the smarter companies start to realise that just because you can track it does not mean that you need to track it. Many companies are beginning to experience data paralysis, confounded by the deluge of data, with management teams unable to decipher the relevance of the analysis put together by their data scientists and BI teams. A simplified, streamlined approach is needed and 2019 will see the start of this.
  • Voice, AI, machine learning (and maybe AR) all continue on their path: These otherwise disparate trends are pulled together for the simple reason that they are long-term structural trends that helped shape the digital economy in 2018 and will continue to do so in 2019. Rather than try to over simplify into some single event, we instead back each of these four trends to continue to accelerate in importance and influence. 

For music, video, media, brands and games specific predictions, MIDiA clients can check out our report here. If you are not a client and would like to get access to the report please email arevinth@midiaresearch.com.

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.

Spotify’s Censorship Crisis is About Social Responsibility

Spotify has been forced into something of a rethink regarding its hate speech policy. Spotify announced it was removing music from playlists of artists that do not meet its new policy regarding hate speech and hateful behaviour. R.Kelly, who faces allegations of sexual abuseand XXXTentacion, who is charged with battering a pregnant woman, were two artists that found their music removed. Now Spotify is softening its stance following push back externally and internally, including from Troy Carter who made it known that he was willing to walk away from the company if the policy remained unchanged. Spotify had good intentions but did not execute well. However, this forms part of a much bigger issue of the changing of the guard of media’s gatekeepers.

Facebook has been here before

Back in late 2016, Facebook faced widespread criticism for censoring a historic photograph of the Vietnam warin which a traumatised child is shown running, naked, away from a US napalm attack. Facebook soon backed downbut it got to the heart of why the “we’re just a platform” argument from the world’s new media gatekeepers was no longer fit for purpose. Indeed by the end of the year, Zuckerberg had all but admitted that Facebook was now a media company.The gatekeepers might be changing from newspaper editors, radio DJs, music, film and TV critics and TV presenters, but they are still gatekeepers. And gatekeepers have a responsibility.

Social responsibility didn’t disappear with the internet

Part of the founding mythology of the internet was that the old rules don’t apply anymore. Some don’t, but many do. Responsibilities to society still exist. Platforms are never neutral. The code upon which they are built have the ideological and corporate DNA of their founders built into them – even if they are unconscious biases, though, normally, they are anything but unconscious. The new gatekeepers may rely on algorithms more than they do human editors, but they still fundamentally have an editorial role to play, as the whole Russian election meddling debacle highlighted. Whether they do so of their own volition or because of legislative intervention, tech companies with media influence have an editorial responsibility. Spotify’s censorship crisis is just one part of this emerging narrative.

Editorial, not censorship

As with all such debates, language can distort the debate. Indeed, the term ‘censorship’ conjures up images of Goebbels,but swap the term for ‘editorial decisions’ and the issue instantly assumes a different complexion. Spotify was trying to get ahead of the issue, showing it could police itself before there were calls for it to do so. Unfortunately, by making editorial decisions based upon accusations, Spotify made itself vulnerable to being accused of playing the role of judge and jury for artists who live in countries where innocence is presumed in legal process, not guilt. Also, by implementing on a piecemeal rather than exhaustive basis, it gave itself the appearance of selecting which artists’ misdemeanours were considered serious enough to take action upon. Spotify had the additional, highly sensitive, risk of appearing to be a largely white company deselecting largely black artists on playlists. Even if neither semblance was reflective of intent, the appearance of intent was incendiary.

Lyrics can be the decider

Now Spotify is having to rethink its approach. It would be as wrong for Spotify to opt for the ‘neutral platform’ approach as it would be ‘arbitrary censorship’. An editorial role is necessary. In just the same way radio broadcasters are expected to filter out hate speech, tech companies have a proactive role to play. A safer route for Spotify to follow, at least in the near term, would be to work with its Echo Nest division and a lyrics provider like LyricFind to build technology, moderated by humans, that can identify hate speech within lyrics and song titles. It wouldn’t be an easy task, but it would certainly be an invaluable one, and one that would give Spotify a clear moral leadership role. In today’s world of media industry misogyny and mass shootings, there is no place for songs that incite hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia or that glorify gun violence. Spotify can take the lead in ensuring that such songs do not get pushed to listeners, and thus start to break the cycle of hatred.

Facebook Has Got An Instagram Problem

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

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

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

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

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

Hiking ad rates hides the impact

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

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

If it looks like a duck

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

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

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

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

Disney, Netflix and the Squeezed Middle: The Real Story Behind Net Neutrality

Unless you have been hiding under a rock this last couple of weeks you’ll have heard at least something about the build up to the decision over turning net neutrality in the US, a decision that was confirmed yesterday. See Zach Fuller’s post for a great summary of what it means. In highly simplistic terms, the implications are that telcos will be able to prioritize access to their networks, which could mean that any digital service will only be able to guarantee their US users a high quality of service if they broker a deal with each and every telco. As Zach explains, we could see similar moves in Europe and elsewhere. If you are a media company or a digital content provider your world just got turned upside down. But this ruling is in many ways an inevitable result of a fundamental shift in value across digital value chains.

net neutrality value chains

Although the ruling effectively only overturns a 2015 ruling that had previously guaranteeing net neutrality, the world has moved on a lot since then, not least with regards to the emergence of the streaming economy across video, music and games. In short, there is a lot more bandwidth being taken up by streaming services and little or no extra value reverting to the upgraded networks.

Value is shifting from rights to distribution

Although the exact timing with the Disney / Fox deal (see Tim Mulligan’s take here) was coincidental the broad timing was not. The last few years have seen a major shift in value from rights companies (eg Disney, Universal Music, EA Games) through to distribution companies (eg Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify) with the value shift largely bypassing the infrastructure companies (ie the telcos).

The accelerating revenue growth and valuations of the tech majors and the streaming giants have left media companies trailing in their wake. The Disney / Fox deal was two of the world’s biggest media companies realising that consolidation was the only way to even get on the same lap as the tech majors. They needed to do so because those tech majors are all either already or about to become content companies too, using their vast financial fire power to outbid traditional media companies for content.

The value shift has bypassed infrastructure companies

Meanwhile telcos have been left stranded between rock and a hard place. Telcos have long been concerned about becoming relegated to the role of dumb pipes and most had given up any real hope of being content companies themselves (other than the TV companies who also have telco divisions). They see regulatory support for better monetizing their networks by levying access fees to tech companies as their last resort.

In its most basic form, this regulatory decision will allow telcos to throttle the bandwidth available to streaming services either in favour of their favoured partners or until an access fee is paid. The common thought is that telcos are becoming the new gatekeepers. In most instances they are more likely to become toll booths. But in some instances they may well shy away from any semblance of neutrality. For example, Sprint might well decide that it wants to give its part-owned streaming service Tidal a leg up, and throttle access for Spotify and Apple Music for Sprint users. Eventually Spotify and Apple Music users will realise they either need to switch streaming service or mobile provider. Given that one is a need-to-have, contract-based utility and the other is nice-to-have and no contract and is fundamentally the same underlying proposition, a streaming music switch is the more likely option. Similarly, AT&T could opt to throttle access for Netflix in order to give its DirecTV Now service a leg up. Those telcos without strong content plays could find themselves in the market for acquisitions. For example, Verizon could make a bid for Spotify pre-listing, or even post-listing.

The FCC ruling still needs congressional approval and is subject to legal challenges from a bunch of states so it could yet be blocked. If it is not, then the above is how the world will look. Make no mistake, this is the biggest growing pain the streaming economy has yet faced, even if it just ends up with those services having to carve out an extra slice of their wafer-thin margins in order reach their customers.

The Internet’s Adolescence: The Real World Catches Up Eventually

I started my career as an internet analyst back in the period of the dot-com bubble. They were heady days in which anything seemed possible. The world was changing in unprecedented ways and the possibilities were endless. The rules that governed the old world didn’t apply. Except they did. Investors soon twigged that dot-com startups were simply not able to deliver on their revenue promises and so pulled their funding. In an instant, the whole edifice came tumbling down. It turned out that those old fashioned and outdated concepts such as turning a profit actually applied to internet companies too. We have come a long way since the dot-com bubble, but it would be wrong to think of the internet as being a mature medium yet. Instead, it is entering its market adolescence and consequently still has a lot of growing up to do.

Regulation Comes Eventually

Although the internet and its associated technologies (apps, social, streaming, e-commerce, etc) are deeply embedded in our daily lives in the developed world (and increasingly so in emerging markets), it is still fundamentally just getting going. On a global level, each key sector of the internet economy is dominated by 1 company (Amazon/e-commerce, Google/search, Facebook/social, etc). A single dominant company is typically an indication of an early stage market and/or one that is about to be opened up with regulation. In the case of internet industries, it is likely to be a combination of both. Thus far, regulation has not yet properly caught up with internet companies. The global, borderless nature of their propositions and their relative lack of precedents makes regulation a highly challenging task. But it will happen.

Regulatory Repercussions

To be clear, regulation is not some shining panacea for business. But it is the price of being part of society and global commerce. The more deeply integrated into civic society that internet companies become, the stronger the likelihood for them to become regulated. And when regulation happens, the effects can be devastating for companies that have previously operated with free reign. When the European Commission, under lobbying pressure from Real Networks, compelled Microsoft to unbundle the Windows Media Player (then by far the most popular music player) from Windows in 2004, it was the trigger for a long period of decline for Microsoft, from which it is only just beginning to recover. Clearly, there were other market factors that contributed to its decline, but regulation was the tipping point. And the model of a competitor (Real Networks) shamelessly using regulation to give it a competitive edge over an established rival could reoccur. For example, any number of big Chinese companies looking to extend their reach to the west may view EU regulators as an opportunity to prize open the market for them.

The Pendulum Swing Of Disruption

When a new technology disrupts a traditional incumbent, it normally does so by being 3 things to the end user:

  1. Cheaper/free
  2. Quicker
  3. More convenient

Napster, YouTube, Amazon, Uber, Netflix, all of these companies have done exactly this. Because they most often build market share and presence using external funding, such companies turn existing economics upside down with loss leading tactics. The result is that audiences switch in their millions and incumbents are left in tatters. Any old business that relies on scarcity economics will be swept away.

Take Uber’s impact on taxi drivers across the world. In the UK, a black cab driver will spend 5 years riding around every street in London on a scooter, memorising every street before taking a $60,000 loan on a black cab. 8 or 9 years into the venture, a black cabbie might be in the money. In the days of Google Maps and Uber, those principles go out of the window. Uber has had such an impact in London, that the cab rank queues at train stations can be miles long because black cabs have so little street side business left. In New York, yellow taxi medallions (the city’s government certification for official taxis), once traded as high as $1.3 million each in secondary markets, but have dropped to $240,000 now that Uber and Lyft have ensured that you no longer need a medallion to operate as a taxi in New York.

This is the pendulum swing of disruption. But pendulums eventually swing back. That is when regulations, real world economics and new business model innovation come into play. The original market disruptors often either disappear or get bought. The recorded music industry is now finally building a new set of effective businesses around the disruption brought by Napster, which died as an entity before the millennium really got going. YouTube transformed video and was bought by Google, Skype cannibalized mobile carriers and was ultimately bought by Microsoft, Linkedin disrupted recruitment advertising and was also bought by Microsoft, PayPal disrupted credit card companies and was bought by eBay.

All Of This Has Happened Before And Will Happen Again

Today’s internet giants may have the appearance of being permanent features of the digital landscape, but they’re not. AOL, Yahoo, Netscape or MySpace looked immortal in their days, as the GAAF (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook) do now. That doesn’t mean these companies cannot become long serving global superpowers. But history has a habit of repeating itself. Or as the fictional mythical Sacred Scrolls of Battlestar Galactica said: “All of this has happened before and will happen again.”

Never mistake normality for permanence.