Kanye just obliterated the creative full stop

Kanye just obliterated the creative full stop 

Kanye West knows how to stir things up, not least in making us rethink what music is and nudging us away from considering it as linear and static. First there was his announcement that Life of Pablo was a “living, breathing, changing creative expression”, and now there is his Donda Stem Player – which we wrote about here last week. Transformational change does not normally happen in one big wave, but instead is triggered by disruptive outliers, things that, at the time, might look like inconsequential edge cases, but act as the ice breakers for the paradigm shift that follows. Digital entertainment in its wider sense is entering its lean inphase, where audiences participate with content, whether that be simply commenting on a YouTube video or creating your own TikTok video. Given simple but powerful tools, it turns out that the consumers like to be creators too. First it was pictures and video, but now it is audio’s turn, and Kanye’s Donda Stem Player could prove to be a pivotal step in that journey.

Formats do not need to be how they have always been

The future always looks much more like the past. The Model T Ford looked more like a horseless cart than it did a 1950’s car. Change takes time. Digital entertainment business models have undergone dramatic change, but the content itself much less so. We think of TV shows, movies and music as being clearly defined things that have always been thus, but, in truth, they were defined by analogue technology in the 19th century. Now that linear TV schedules, radio and CD players are entering their final phases, there is no need for the traditional formats to continue to dominate. Creatives who argue that a 45-minute drama and 3.5-minute song are simply the best formats, do so because that is all that they have ever known. Yes, they work, but that does not mean that other formats cannot also work. Just look at the album. Many artists still like the creative construct, but just 21% of music streamers regularly listen to albums on streaming services. Music fans have already decided that this format is not part of their future.

Fluid audio erases the creative full stop

The Donda Stem Player, made for Kanye by Kano, takes this concept and runs with it. This, as my colleague, Kriss Thakrar, identifies, is fluid audio, and it fits into the Agile Music that we first identified back in 2011. Analog entertainment formats were inherently creative full stops. When an album was recorded, it was done – final. It did not matter if the artist’s creative vision had moved on, as the songs remained the same. This seems entirely natural, but until the recording era, this would have appeared as a creative anathema in popular music. Before recordings, a song was never the same twice. It only existed as a live performance that was played in the moment and survived in the listener’s memory. Songs evolved and changed. Whether that be centuries of evolution in European folk music or decades in American blues and jazz. Then recording came along and songs became petrified – the stuffed animals of creativity. 

Kanye took his first swipe at the creative full stop with his continual updates of Life of Pablo. Not everyone got it. Many fans simply wanted it to sound the way it did when they first heard it. It takes time for people to get their heads around change – quite literal change in the case of Life of Pablo. Now, with the Donda Stem Player, Kanye has obliterated the creative full stop. Donda will never sound the same twice, and that is now literally in the hands of his fans.

In some respects, making a piece of physical kit looks to be quite a retro move in this digital era, but the subtle, yet crucial idea here is to make the Donda Stem Player an actual instrument. It is the ultimate form of creator culture, by turning songs made with instruments into an instrument itself. How very meta!

Back in 2015, I published my book ‘Awakening’, which was part history of the digital music business and part vision for the future. Some of my predictions did not age as well as I would have liked, but some of them are still looking good. One of them was the DISC concept. I proposed that future music formats needed to be:

Dynamic

Interactive

Social

Creative

I mainly aimed this at the digital realm, and we are already seeing it happen, whether that be TikTok lip sync videos, Facebook Audio Studio, Clean Bandit’s Splice sounds pack, or apps like Voisey and Trackd. But I also suggested that it could apply to physical formats in order to free music of its smartphone chains. One theoretical proposal was for pieces of art that would enable to the user to change the songs by walking between them, triggering a vocal part here, a drum beat there, etc. It is not a million miles away from the Donda Stem Player.

A lean in future

The entire music world is not suddenly going to go from static streams to interactive widgets, but change is a coming. In a year from now, we may look back on the Donda Stem Player as being a fun gimmick, but if we do, it will be because we have not yet found the Model T Ford, rather than the underlying principles being wrong. Of course, the majority of music listening will most likely remain lean back and static, but not all of it will. As audiences lean in ever further, more of them will want to create as much as they consume, just like they do with social video today. There is one thing we can be certain of – the future of music creativity and consumption is changing, and Kanye just played his part, again.

Can Spotify break out of its lane?

After years of relative stability, music consumption is shifting, with the DSP streaming model beginning to lose some ground as illustrated by the major labels growing streaming revenue by 33% in Q2 2021 while Spotify was up by just 23%. It is never wise to read long-term market trends into one quarter’s worth of results, but there was already enough preceding evidence to suggest we are entering a genuine market shift. The question is whether Spotify and the other Western DSPs are going to find themselves left behind by a fast-changing market, or can they innovate to keep up the pace?

Social music is streaming’s new growth driver, generating around $1.5 billion in 2020 and growing fast in 2021. It represents a natural evolution of social media rather than an evolution of streaming. Audio is just another tool for social expression, along with video, pictures and words. MIDiA has long argued that Western streaming focuses too heavily on monetizing consumption, at the expense of fandom. While social video does not fix the fandom problem, it does cater to some of the key elements of fandom: self-expression, identity and community. Which means that, in some respects, Spotify and the other DSPs only have themselves to blame for having kept fandom out of their propositions. In doing so, they created a vacuum that TikTok and Instagram eagerly filled.

The data in the above chart comes from MIDiA’s latest music consumer survey report which is available now to MIDiA clients and is also available for purchase here.

Rights holder licensing met market demand

Spotify and the other DSPs are the dominant, core component of recorded music and they will remain so for the foreseeable future. But whereas a couple of years ago it looked like they might be the entire story, now music consumption is moving beyond, well, consumption. Finally, we are seeing music becoming an enabler of other experiences. Historically this was restricted to non-scalable, ad hoc sync deals. Now rights holders have established licensing frameworks that are flexible, dynamic and scalable enough to enable a whole new generation of experiences with music either in a central or supporting role.

DSPs occupy one of streaming’s lanes

The implication of this is that Spotify and the other DSPs now risk looking like they are stuck in just one lane of the streaming market. What looked like a highway is now just a single lane – and Spotify, Apple and Amazon do not have the assets to build propositions that can get them out of it. Being part of this social music revolution requires both massively social communities and video. They could all build that, of course, but with little guarantee of success. YouTube is a different case, having launched Shorts in a belated bid to ward off TikTok’s audience theft – but at least it is now running that race, and Alphabet reported 15 billion daily global views for Q2.

An increasingly segmented market

Spotify and other DSPs now find themselves not being part of streaming’s new growth story and, YouTube excepted, with no clear path to becoming part of it. To be clear, Spotify will continue to be the world’s largest subscription revenue generator and the DSP subscription model will continue to be the biggest source of revenue, at least for the foreseeable future. But revenue growth will increasingly come from elsewhere. In many respects this simply reflects the maturation of the music streaming market. Consider video streaming. Netflix added just 1.5 million subscribers in Q2 2021 while YouTube grew by 84% and TikTok went from strength to strength. Netflix occupies just one lane in a multifaceted streaming market. The same is now becoming true of the DSPs.

Time to do a Facebook?

So, what can Spotify and the other DSPs do about it? If Spotify really wants to ‘own’ audio, then it will have to do what Facebook did to ‘own’ social: create a portfolio of standalone sister apps. Facebook would have become the Yahoo of social media if it hadn’t bought / launched Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. The signs are already there for Spotify. Even ignoring the slowdown in monthly active user (MAU) growth in Q2 2021, podcast users stopped meaningfully growing as a share of overall MAUs in Q4 2020. It turns out that trying to compete with yourself in your own app is hard to do. The time may have come for a standalone podcast / audiobook app (by the way, I’m just taking it as read that Spotify is going to take audiobooks a whole lot more seriously). If Spotify does launch a podcast app, then the case suddenly becomes a lot clearer for other audio-related apps, all of which could include subscription tiers, such as social short video, karaoke, and artist channels.

The more probable outlook however is for specialisation, with segments going deep and vertical rather than wide and horizontal. While Spotify, and other DSPs, might have success in one or more side bets, it will be the specialists who lead in streaming’s other lanes. Whatever the final market mix looks like as a result of this change, the streaming market is going to be more diverse and innovative for it.

Spotify and music listening 10 years from now

July marks ten years since Spotify’s US launch. Although the tendency among some is to consider this ‘year zero’ for streaming (thus ignoring everything that had happened in prior years both within and outside of the US) it does present a useful opportunity to reflect on what the next decade might hold for Spotify. 

Rather than focus on the business outlook, I am going to explore how Spotify and other streaming services, could change the way in which music is consumed ten years from now. But first, three quick future business scenarios for Spotify:

  1. It continues to be the global leader but with reduced market share due to the rise of regional competitors in emerging markets
  2. It loses market momentum, stock price tumbles and is acquired by another entity 
  3. It morphs into a true multi-sided entertainment and creation platform, doing for entertainment what Amazon now does for retail but with more tools and services

So, on to the future of music consumption.

To map the future, you need to know the past. These are (some of) the key ways streaming has transformed how we engage with music:

  • We listen to a larger number of artists but spend less time with individual artists
  • We listen to tracks and playlists more, and albums less
  • Music is programmed (by ourselves and by streaming services) to act as a soundtrack for our daily lives and routines
  • Genre divisions are becoming less meaningful
  • Artist brands are becoming less visible
  • Music fandom is becoming less pronounced

Music is more like the soundtrack to daytime TV than blockbuster movies

In 2015 Spotify’s Daniel Ek said that he wanted Spotify to ‘be the soundtrack of your life’. Undoubtedly, Spotify and other streaming services are achieving that but the utopian vision is more prosaic in practice. Less ‘that was the best day of the summer’ and more ‘put on some tunes while I cook’. It is a soundtrack, but less the soundtrack to a blockbuster movie and instead more like the soundtrack to daytime TV. Music has become sonic wallpaper that is a constant backdrop to our daily mundanity. (Though the pandemic, the climate crisis and stagnant labour markets can make even the mundane look aspirational for many).

Like it or loathe it, this sound tracking dynamic is likely to play a key role in what the future of music consumption looks like. But it is not all sonic dystopias; personalisation, algorithms, user data and programming also have the potential to reinvigorate music passion. Here are two key ways in which Spotify and other streaming services could transform music listening ten years from now:

  • Dynamic and biometric personalisation: The current recommendation arms race works from a comparatively small dataset, focused on users’ music preferences and behaviour. The next battle front will be the listener’s entire life. Any individual user can appear to be a dramatically different music listener depending on the context of their listening. Even the same time of day can have very different permutations; for example, looking for chilled sounds at 7pm after a manic Monday but banging beats at the same time on a Friday. If streaming services could harvest data from personal devices and the social graph, elements such as heart rate, location, activity, facial expression and sentiment could all be used to create a music feed that dynamically responds to the individual. Instead of having to actively seek out a workout or study playlist, the music feed would automatically tweak the music to the listener’s behaviour and habits. The faster the run, the more up-tempo the music; the later in the evening, the more chilled (unless it’s 9pm and you’re getting ready for a big night out). Selecting mood and activity-based playlists will look incredibly mechanical in this world. Think of it like the change from manual gear change to automatic in cars.

  • Music catalogue reimagined: Just as activity and mood-based listening will become more push and less pull, so can music catalogue. Traditionally catalogue consumption is driven by a combination of user behaviour (‘I haven’t listened to that band in a while’) and marketing pushes by labels, publishers and now music funds’ ‘song management’. But it needn’t be that way anymore. Over the years, streaming services have collected a wealth of user data. Just as Facebook introduced memories for users’ posts, so streaming services could deliver music memories, showing users what they were listening to on this day ten years ago, or what the soundtrack to your summer was way back in 2021. Clearly Spotify is already making steps in this direction with Wrapped but this would be much bigger step, routinely delivering nostalgia nuggets throughout a day, week, month, year. In many respects the result would be a democratisation of catalogue consumption. It wouldn’t simply be the rights holders with the biggest marketing budgets and smartest campaigns on TikTok (or whatever has replaced TikTok ten years from now) that get the biggest catalogue bumps. Instead, catalogue consumption across the board would boom. This could make the current 66% of all listening look like small fry in comparison. What that means for frontline releases finding space is another question entirely.

These are of course just two well-educated guesses, and their weaknesses are that they are based on what has happened so far rather than what currently unforeseen consumption shifts may happen in the future. Indeed, streaming itself may have been surpassed ten years from now. But tomorrow’s technology often looks more like today than it does tomorrow. Henry Ford’s model T Ford looked more like a horse and trap than it did the swept wing aerodynamics of 1950s cars. Change takes time. But ten years is a long time in the world of technology, so even if neither of the above come to pass, you can be sure that music listening is going to look a whole lot different than it does now.


Who will own the virtual concert space?

2020 will go down as a rough year for many artists, largely because of the income they lost when live ground to a halt. Unfortunately, the live music sector is still going to be disrupted in 2021 and it may take even longer for the sector to return to ‘normal’. In fact, we could see the bottom of the live sector thinned out as the smaller venues, agencies and promoters do not have the access to bridging finance that the bigger players have. So, smaller artists may find the face of live permanently changed for them in a way that larger artists do not. Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear: live music is not going to be the same again, and the innovations in virtual and streamed events are not simply a band-aid to get us through tough times. Instead, they are the foundations for permanent additions to the live music mix. The big unanswered question is, who is going own the live-streamed and virtual concert sector?

Bringing it all together

One of the most important things digital tech does is to bring things together. The smartphone is a perfect example. 20 years ago people switched between phones, calendars, diaries, computers, maps, phones, music players, DVD players etc. Now these are all in one device. Streaming did the same to music, taking radio, retail, music collections and music players and putting them together into one unified experience. Until now, live music was not subject to streaming’s great assimilation process. But COVID-19 changed all that. Live used to be separate because it required logistical assets like buildings, ticketing operations, relationships etc. The last few months have shown us that the virtual live sector can operate entirely independent of the traditional sector’s frameworks – which is one of the reasons so much innovation and experimentation has happened. Sure, lots of the early stuff was scrappy and of patchy quality, but is through mistakes that we learn the right way forward. Thus, we have new companies like Driift emerging to bring a more structured and professional approach to a fast-growing but nascent sector.

Disruption is coming

The big traditional live companies right now may be most concerned about whether the still-dormant venues are looking at the new ticketing models being deployed with the likes of Dice and wondering whether they can rethink their entire way of doing business when they reopen. While that may trigger what could prove to be the biggest-ever shift in the live business, the virtual part of the business is where the money is flowing right now: Melody VR bought pioneering but struggling streaming service Napster, Scooter Braun invested in virtual concert company Wave and Tidal bought seven million dollars’ worth of access into virtual concert ‘space’ Sensorium. Virtual reality (VR) spent much of the last couple of years in the trough of disillusionment but now COVID-19’s catalysing impact may see it starting to crawl onwards and upwards. Prior to COVID-19 VR was a technology searching for a purpose. COVID-19 has created one. This is not to say that all of VR’s prior failings no longer matter – they do – but it at least has a set of music use cases to build on. VR can now realistically aspire to be a meaningful component of the wider virtual event sector.

Streaming+

It is no coincidence that streaming is playing a key role. Nor is it just the smaller streaming services at play – Spotify has built the tech infrastructure for live events, while Apple is introducing artificial reality (AR) into Apple TV+, so it is not too big a leap to assume Apple Music AR experiences will follow. Live was the last major component of the music business that streaming could not reach, and that is all about to change. The value proposition for music fans is clear: why go to multiple different places for all your favourite music experiences when they can all be in one place? Think of it as Streaming+. Whatever the future of live is going to be, we can be certain about one thing: it will never be the same again.

Music Streaming Needs a New Future

While doing some research on the Chinese streaming market I came across this fantastic UX tear down of Xiami Music. I recommend you read it in full. The day before I found this – also must-read –article on Beyoncé’s streaming strategy, which explains how she uses different platforms to segment her fanbase (Tidal – super fans, Spotify engaged fans, Netlix, passive fans). These two articles may seem entirely unrelated, but they are in fact two sides of the same coin: fandom.

Regular readers of MIDiA’s output will know that we have made fandom one of our central research themes, most recently identifying it as one of the next five growth drivers for the music business. We have also discussed at length how Chinese streaming services have built businesses around monetising fandom while Western streaming services instead simply monetise consumption.

Now I am going to take this thinking one step further by proposing a new way to consider how to segment the music consumption journey and how Western companies can become part of this new vision.

the three srtags of the music journey

Consider music consumption as three key steps:

  1. The song
  2. The (artist) story
  3. The fan

Streaming services now own the song. Social is doing an okay, but far from perfect job of owning the artist story. But no one – digitally – is owning the fandom. Music fans have to hop from one place to another to join the dots. This of course contrasts sharply with Chinese streaming services which own all three steps in the music journey. Let’s take a look at Xiami Music to illustrate the point.

XiamiI have written a lot in the past about Tencent Music’s portfolio of apps. Alibaba’s Xiami Music is one of the smaller players and its end-to-end value proposition is all the more impressive for that: this sort of functionality is table stakes for competing for audience attention in the Chinese market.

Delivering the music is almost just the starting point for Xiami Music, wrapping the music with endless additional context and features including (but by no means limited to): music videos, lyrics, commentaries, reviews, news, comment streams, virtual tipping, badges, trophies, lyrics poster, you can even grow your own Tamagotchi. As Siew writes in his UX tear down:

“Every piece of music has its own entourage — live versions, videos (the official one and the live ones), behind-the-scene footage, outtakes, remakes or covers, reviews etc.

Xiami has taken a leaf out of WeChat’s playbook. Everything you need about a song, an album, or an artiste/band, you can get it on Xiami. No need for you to google for lyrics, head to YouTube for a video, or launch Twitter/Weibo for news.”

Time to stop leaning back

Another insightful observation that Siew makes is that Xiami Music – as with other Chinese streaming apps – has a white background to make it easier to read and interact with lots of content. Whereas Western streaming apps have dark backgrounds as they behave as largely passive vehicles for delivering music: find your playlist, press play, close screen.

There is a fundamentally different UX ethos:

  • Western apps: lean back, listen with minimal friction
  • Chinese apps: lean forward, dive in, interact

Years ago (11 to be precise) I laid out a vision for lean forward music experiences, where interactive context and social features were built around the music. Now is the time for Western streaming services to push themselves out of their UX comfort zones and start to own stages two and three of the music journey.

Lead, don’t follow

It is important that they do not all follow the same path. Differentiation – or the abject lack of it – is the Achilles heel of Western streaming services. The hope here is that they each pursue their own path and use this blank canvass to develop their own unique identities. Which will make it easier for record labels and artists to follow Beyoncé’s approach of segmenting their audiences across different platforms.

Of course this will take time. It may even take another 11 years (though hopefully not). In the meantime radio companies should be seeing this as a great opportunity to carve out a role for themselves in step two (artist story telling). Most have realised by now that they cannot compete with streaming but instead should compete around it. Get it right and radio could become the home of artist storytelling, a genuine complement to streaming consumption. Meanwhile, TikTok may well be best placed to act fast to own step three (fandom) before the Western streaming services can get their respective acts in gear.

There is nothing quite like some fierce competition to focus the mind.

The Music Industry’s Next Five Growth Drivers

The risk with trying to imagine what the future might look like is to simply think it is going to be a brighter, shinier version of today. At this precise moment in time, this has perhaps never been truer.

The COVID-19 lockdowns were a seismic shock to the economy, one which will take months, possibly years to recover from. Entertainment consumption patterns have been transformed, with some need states becoming void states in an instant, while new ones have filled their place.

Whether COVID-19 goes for good in the coming months or whether it is with us for years to come, some behaviour patterns have changed for good, creating new opportunities, many of which (e.g. virtual events) have yet to be properly monetised. So at a time when it seems that the whole world is creating music forecasts, it is now the time to think about what comes next rather than just predicting how big the long established revenue streams will get.

With streaming growth slowing and creators feeling short changed, it is time to think about what plan B is, for the sakes of both the industry and the creator community.

At MIDiA we are currently compiling our music industry forecasts with a lot of detailed work being put into estimating how COVID-19 and the coming recession will impact a revenue growth. We’re modelling everything from ARPU, churn, net adds, and disposable income patterns through to store closures. We’re confident that this new methodology will make our already reliable forecasts even better (for the record our 2019 subscription forecasts with within 4.5% of the actual figures).

We’re also going to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and over the course of the year forecast some new revenue streams for which a comprehensive set of historical data does not exist. This means our chances of making incorrect calls is higher, but we’re doing it because we think it is crucial to start trying to frame what the future landscape will look like.

Here are the five emerging revenue sectors that we think could collectively be the music industry’s next growth driver

  1. Contextual experiences: Two big lockdown winners have been mindfulness / meditation apps and online fitness training. With it looking likely that consumers will be spending more time at home and away from public places for some time to come, the opportunity for these categories is twofold: 1) build audience now, 2) establish behaviour patterns that will outlive lockdown.

    Music is often a core part of these but it is not always licensed. The example of artists and rightsholders making music available to fitness trainer Joe Wicks illustrates the point. To date, streaming services have provided the soundtrack to such activities with contextual playlists (chill, study, workout). But it is of course far better for the context itself to deliver the music. We expect the next few years to see categories like online wellness and fitness to eat into the time that people were previously using streaming for the soundtrack. Instead of bring your own music, the trend will be the context will bring it. UMG’s Lego partnership is a case in point.

  2. Creator tools: There is an increasingly diverse mix of tools for music creators, including production, collaboration, sounds, reporting, mastering and marketing. The vast majority of the millions of independent artists will spend much more on creator tools than they will ever earn from their music. The revenue opportunity is clear, but there is more to it than that.

    Artist distribution platforms built a role as top of funnel tools, helping labels find the next big hit. But the music creation itself, enabled through online SAAS tools is in the fact the real top of funnel. Anyone who can establish relationships there does so before they release music. Right now, Spotify looks better placed to capitalise on this opportunity than labels. But labels should be paying close heed. Just in the way that distribution platforms came out of nowhere to become an established part of the label toolkit, so will artist tools. Simply put, creator tools will become part of what it is to be a music company.

  3. Virtual events: As we wrote about earlier this week, there is a huge opportunity to make virtual events (live streaming, listening sessions, avatar performances) a major income stream. The sector is in desperate need of commercial structure and product tiering, but it can happen. A freemium model with free, pay to stay, premium and super-premium tiers will enable this fast-growing sector to be more than a lockdown stop gap.
  4. Fandom: Regular readers will know that MIDiA has long argued that phase one of streaming was monetising consumption and that phase two will be about monetising fandom. Tencent Music Entertainment already does a fantastic job of this with live streams, virtual gifts and virtual currencies. So do K-Pop artists and Japanese Idol artists. Now is the time for western social and streaming platforms to wake up to the opportunity. Virtual merch, artist badges, premium chat, artist avatars—there are so many opportunities here waiting to be tapped.
  5. Social music: As an extension of fandom, the fact that the vast amount of music-centred social activity on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok has not yet been properly monetised is a gaping hole of opportunity. TikTok will be crucial. As my colleague Tim Mulligan wrote, TikTok is having its ‘Snapchat moment’, trying to identify what commercial route it will take. I’d go even further and frame it as a YouTube or Facebook moment. Both those platforms went on to massively expand their remit and build diversified business models.

    TikTok clearly has momentum that far exceeds that of previous similar apps. It can either choose to just carry on being good at one thing or instead become the next big social platform, growing as its audience ages. Just like Facebook did. TikTok now is where YouTube was back in the late 2000s. If rights holders can establish an entirely new monetisation framework then TikTok could become the biggest single driver of future revenue.

As with any future gazing, the odds are that not all of these opportunities will transpire, but what is clear is that the current dominant format is not enough on its own. Rights holders and creators alike need new future revenue streams to offset the impact of slowing revenue growth and royalty crises.

The last time the music industry had one dominant format and no successor was the CD and we all know what happened then. The music industry is not about to enter a decade of freefall this time, but it is at risk of stagnating, especially as its leading music service is now so eager to diversify away from music that it offers a podcaster more money in one deal than most artists will ever earn in their lifetime from it. Let’s make this next chapter of the industry’s growth about innovation, growth, new opportunities and fresh thinking.

The Future of Music: A Vision of Post-Format

Formats have shaped and dictated the evolution of recorded music. The constraints that formats set have, in turn, become the creative frameworks within which music has operated. Now, in the internet era, formats are becoming a thing of the past – and yet the way in which music is made and distributed still conforms to the old physical world. It is time for a change in how we think about music, right from the creation process through to what a song actually sounds like. Here is a vision for what the future of music could be.

Bringing dead sounds back to life

When Edison invented the phonograph, a denigrator called it a machine ‘that brings dead sounds back to life’. Conditioned by the recorded era, it is hard for us to conceptualise a time when music only existed in the moment and was never heard exactly the same way twice. Nevertheless, this is a historical anomaly – a legacy of physical media. Songs became fixed, static and permanent because that was the only way we could squeeze music into little discs – mummified echoes of live performances.

Over time, as recording techniques and technology improved, the recorded song developed into its own art form, with multitrack recording, effects, synthesis and programming enabling the creation of sounds that could never be truly replicated live. Now, with physical media accounting for an ever-smaller share of music consumption, there is no need to adhere to its constraints. We have 14 track albums because CDs were designed to fit Beethoven’s 9thSymphony; we have static recordings to serve legacy distribution models; we have three minute songs to fit radio schedules. All three straightjackets can be discarded. Here is how:=

  • Write and produce for the medium: We are already locked into a process of music being designed for Spotify success, through so-called Spotify Core and with the industrialisation of song writing seeing songs stitching together the best hooks from multiple songwriters. Much of this can be reductive, dumbing down to the lowest common denominator.However, it is the execution and intent that requires attention, not the strategy. In fact, it needs pushing further – much further. TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and Spotify are all dramatically different propositions with equally diverse use cases. So why would we expect a song to perform equally across each one? What video producer would create a meme for Netflix, or a two-hour movie for Snapchat? It is time to follow video’s lead and write for where the song is going to be listed to most. Lil Nas X when writing Hometown Road was focused on making something viral, something that would blow up on TikTok. The idea that songs should have fixed lengths, choruses, verses – all of this can now be played with in the mainstream in the way that it has been on the experimental fringe of music for many years. This time, it is to give listeners what they want rather than for avant-garde expression.
  • Ditch / evolve the album: Just 16% of consumers listen to traditional albums and an even smaller 10% listen to full albums on streaming. 59% of consumers say they are listening to albums less because of streaming playlists. The album is not dead, but its addressable audience is far smaller. Now a new generation of artists is coming through who grew up with playlists, not albums, so do not even think in album terms. Of course, many artists, especially older ones, still want to write albums and they absolutely should do so. They should not, however, expect the majority of their audiences to listen to them in full. There will always be exceptions (Ed Sheeran, Adele etc.) but the direction of travel is clear. Artists and labels need to rethink what the album should be. We’re beginning to see artist contracts that stipulate numbers of tracks rather than albums. This is hugely positive and will enable far more creative freedom. Artists need to start pushing the boundaries, pulling every lever available (e.g. more tracks, fewer tracks, all tracks at once, over time, mixing in spoken word, images and video, EPs etc.). The only rule should be that there are no rules.
  • Fill the space between recorded and live: Despite its ‘dead sounds’ origins, the recorded song is an established entity with established consumption patterns that is not going to disappear in any meaningful timeframe. But that does not mean that it has to be the only entity. Technologies such as live streaming, real time tipping, comment streams, virtual gifts and collaboration tools can be used to create music experiences that are neither live nor recorded, but something in between. Imagine an artist doing a pay-to-view live stream in the studio, with a set of beats in a shared folder that the audience can drop in and out but that only changes what they each individually hear. Then the guitarist starts cycling through a few riffs, and the viewers upvote their favourite one in the comment stream. Then as the keyboard player starts, listeners change the synth patch, but again just for their own stream. Think of this not as a blueprint for what the format could be, but an illustration of how to think about it. To create something that is unique, that exists in the moment and creates an indelible bond between artist and fan. 

This was not a definitive list of what post-format innovation needs to do but instead three principle areas of focus and illustrations of how to structure thought. Now it is time for creative artists, writers, labels and tech companies to pick up the baton and run with it. Standing still is of course an option, but in the increasingly competitive attention economy, if music does not up its game there can be no complaints if it loses share to video, games and social.

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 

Sweden Might Just Have Shown Us What the Future of Music Revenues Will Look Like

Earlier this week the IFPI released its Global Music Report – an essential tool for anyone with a serious interest in the global recorded music business. One interesting trend to emerge was the slowdown in Swedish streaming growth and its knock-on effect on overall recorded music revenues. Sweden has long been the leading indicator for where streaming is likely to head, providing a picture of just how vibrant a sophisticated streaming market can be. But now, with the market reaching saturation, it also gives us some clues as to what the long-term revenue outlook for the global music market could be.

sweden growth

According to the IFPI, Swedish streaming revenues reached $141.3 million in 2017, up from $125.7 million in 2016, with subscriptions accounting for 96% of the total. That was an increase of just $9.3 million, or 7% year-on-year growth, down from 10% in 2016 and 23% in 2015. This is a typical trajectory for a market when it has progressed to the top end of the growth curve. With synchronisationand performance revenues collectively growing by just $1.5 million in 2017 and downloads and physical both continuing their long-term decline, streaming is not only the beating heart of Swedish music revenues, it is the only driver of growth. Consequently, overall Swedish recorded music revenues grew by just 4% in 2017, compared to 6% in 2016 and 10% in 2015. As streaming matures, total market growth slows.

So what can we extrapolate from Sweden onto the global market? Firstly, there are a number of unique market characteristics to be considered:

  • Sweden is the home of Spotify, so adoption over indexes
  • Incumbent telco Telia provided a lot of early stage growth for Spotify
  • iTunes never really got going in Sweden, so the legacy download market was a much smaller part of the market than it is globally
  • Physical music sales are further along in their decline (now just 10% of all revenues)

These factors considered imply that Sweden is an indicator of an optimum state streaming market; others may not get there or will not get there so quickly. This could mean that legacy formats decline more quickly in comparison, making total revenue growth slower. However, given that downloads are a bigger chunk of revenues in most markets, these factors should cancel each other out. Therefore, an annual growth of 4% in total music revenues is a decent benchmark for long-term revenue growth.

The question is, what happens to the remnants of declining legacy format revenue? Do those CD and download buyers disappear out of the market, or does some of their revenue switch over to ensure that growth continues further? The likelihood is that Apple will see much of its longer-term growth come from converting higher value iTunes customers into subscribers, but there is a clear case for expanding the market beyond 9.99. The current 10% price hike experiment Spotify is running in Norway is one route. But, a suite of higher tier products is a better solution, as are super-cheap low-end products (e.g. $0.25 a week for Today’s Top Hits) and, of course, boosting ad-supported revenue to steal audience from radio. That latter point is probably the best long-term option for pushing real continual recorded music industry growth.

Musical.ly Sells For $800 Million But Peaked By Being Too Silicon Valley

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News has just emerged that lip synching app Musical.ly is to be sold for between $800 million and $1 billion to Chinese company Jinri Toutiao, which also bought Musical.ly predecessor Flipagram. I’ve long held the belief that Musical.ly and competitor companies like Dubsmash represent some of the only genuinely needle moving user experience innovation in music of recent years. Musical.ly introduced the concept of the 15-second song and shone a light on how to engage Gen Z with music-led experiences by playing by their rules not the traditional music industry’s rules. In doing so it created a whole generation of Musical.ly stars, such as Baby Ariel with 20 million Musical.ly followers.

But as with all previous lip synching and music messenger apps, Musical.ly has run into its inevitable user base peak and is now starting its equally inevitable decline. According to data from MIDiA’s Quarterly Brand Tracker, weekly active users (WAU) across the US, UK, Canada and Australia and was just 1.4% in Q3 2017, down from a high of 2.1% in Q1. Dubsmash is following a similar trajectory.

So, what’s gone wrong for Musical.ly?

To be clear, Musical.ly is not a failing company but it is beyond its peak. Musical.ly did an amazing job of laser targeting, becoming one of the destinations of choice for teen and tween females. More than four fifths of its user base are female. It recognized that the opportunity for this segment wasn’t full albums, nor even full tracks. It was short clips of music that they could use to express, and identify, themselves. In Musical.ly, music was the tool for Gen Z identity, not consumption. It tapped into Gen Z’s desire to digitally peacock, or to show off and say who they are. The problem for Musical.ly is that Snapchat and Instagram do a great job of this for these consumers too. Musical.ly became a one trick pony that suffered from not being able to use its core functionality as a beachhead for something much bigger. In the 20th century the railroad companies were disrupted by cars because they thought they were railroad companies and didn’t realise they were transportation companies. Similarly, Musical.ly got caught up with being a social music company rather than a social company.

In many respects Musical.ly was a victim of the West Coast VC bubble, following the mantra of obsessing with doing one thing really well. As a result, Silicon Valley has a habit of churning out feature companies rather than product companies. This isn’t a problem for VCs as it is easier for a company to buy and integrate a feature company, than it is a product company. But, it does leave the digital landscape unbalanced.

Jinri Toutiao has every opportunity to build a music messaging powerhouse with its acquired assets but to succeed, it will need to recognize that these are features not products.