We Are At a Turning Point for Social Music

In recent days we have seen three major developments that, collectively, are a potential pivot point for social music:

  1. TikTok close to a US-entity buyout by Microsoft to avoid potential sanctions, following hot on the heels of an India blackout
  2. Facebook launched a (US-only) YouTube competitor for music videos
  3. Snap Inc signed a licensing deal with WMG and others, also for music videos

As cracks begin to appear in the audio streaming market, there is a growing sense in the music industry of the need for a plan B. This has been driven by growing discontent among the creator community, and a slowdown in revenue growth (UMG streaming revenues actually fell in Q2 as did Sony Music’s); the tail wagging the artist-and-revenue (A&R) dog. The search for new growth drivers is on, and social music – for so long a promise unfulfilled in the West – is one of the bets. TikTok was meant to be a major part of that bet. But with the US future of the app so at risk that a Microsoft US-entity buyout may be the only option, and the continued impact of COVID-19 on core revenue streams, the future is beginning to look a little more troublesome. Perhaps now more than ever, the music industry needs social music to start delivering.

There are three key issues at stake here:

  1. How consumers discover music
  2. How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music
  3. Competing with YouTube

How consumers discover music

Among the under-aged 35 demographic, YouTube is the primary music discovery channel, followed by music streaming, then radio, and only then by social. Streaming discovery is heavily skewed towards tracks and playlists, and away from artists and release projects, which is fine for streaming platforms but impedes building sustainable artist careers. Radio is losing share of ear and YouTube… well, YouTube is YouTube (more on that below), so the music business needs a new discovery growth driver. Social has the potential to be just that. But spammy artist pages on Facebook and more-than-perfect Instagram photos are not it. TikTok, for all its amazing momentum, actually has a really uneven impact on discovery. Some tracks blow up out of nowhere while most do little, and rarely is it because of a smart label marketing strategy but instead because certain tracks just work on the platform and the community leaps on them. For now, TikTok is too unpredictable to plan around. Facebook (Instagram especially) and Snap Inc have a fantastic opportunity to do something special here. They have the audience and the social know-how. Whether they can deliver is a different matter entirely.

How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music

What TikTok lacks in consistent marketing contribution it makes up in consumption. Following on from Musical.ly’s start, TikTok has reimagined how music can be part of social experiences for young audiences. It has made music a highly relevant and integral part of self-expression, something that CD collections and music dress codes used to do in the pre-digital world but that soulless, ephemeral playlists wiped out. While labels pin hopes on TikTok successes to drive wider consumption, the discovery journey is also the destination for most TikTok users – they hear the track in a video and swipe onto the next one. That is no bad thing. This is a new form of consumption, and if TikTok were to disappear or fade then someone else needs to pick up the baton. Whether Facebook and Snap Inc can do so is, again, an open question.

Competing with YouTube

Now we get to the heart of the Facebook and Snap Inc deals. As important as the previous two points are, they were not the overriding priorities of the commercial teams driving these deals. Instead they were focused on expanding the revenue mix and part of that is creating more competition for the notoriously low-paying YouTube. Well, maybe not that low paying after all.

spotify youtube arpu

The internet is full of statements from trade associations, rightsholders and creators about how much less YouTube pays than Spotify. YouTube does pay less, because it manages to escape paying minimum per-stream rates for ad-supported videos – but it is a more nuanced picture than lobbyists would have you believe. Firstly, in terms of its Premium business, Google is entirely on par with Spotify. But then, that is the part that is licensed in the same way as the rest of the market.

Ad-supported is a mixed story. In North America, where there is a mature digital ad market, YouTube’s ad-supported average revenue per user (ARPU) is entirely on par with Spotify’s. However, on a global basis, ad-supported ARPU is dragged down by its large user base in emerging markets where digital ad markets are nascent. Spotify’s ARPU is 66% higher, in part because it has to pay minimum per-stream rates, i.e. it pays a fixed rate per stream regardless of whether it has sold any ad inventory against the track. This boosts ad-supported ARPU but it risks making the model unstainable, to the extent that Spotify reported -7% gross margin for ad-supported in Q1 2020 (and note, that’s gross margin, not net margin).

Rightsholders will be hoping for Facebook and Snap Inc to bring a similar level of competition to music video as exists in streaming audio, which in turn may give them a path to higher global ad-supported ARPU rates and a healthier marketplace. However, what will determine that objective is not business strategy but product strategy. The key question is what can they both do with music videos that YouTube cannot? YouTube has years of experience and user data around music videos, Snap Inc and Facebook do not. They will be playing catch-up with a weaker portfolio of content assets: Snap Inc is only partially licensed and both it and Facebook have only licensed official music videos. Unofficial videos (mash ups, covers, lyrics, TV show appearances etc.) account for 25% of the views of the top 30 biggest YouTube music videos. Those videos are crucial in that they provide the lean-forward element for viewers; they are crucial to making YouTube music social rather than just a viewing platform.

YouTube has dominated the music video globally for more than a decade. This might just be the time that this position starts to be challenged. But if Facebook and Snap Inc are going to do that, they will have to bring their product strategy A-game to the field. If they can, then the we may indeed witness a social music turnaround in the West.

Ellie Goulding and Billie Eilish Are Streaming’s New Normal

Less than a week into the new decade and we already have the first indications that the streaming rulebook continues to be rewritten faster than the ink can dry on its last entry. Three separate articles, on the surface unrelated, when stitched together create the outline of a new streaming narrative that while firmly rooted in recent developments represents an entirely new chapter for the music industry:

  1. Ellie Goulding’s ‘River’ was the UK Christmas number one despite being an Amazon exclusive
  2. Jimmy Iovine claims Drake and Billie Eilish each have more streams than the entirety of the 1980s
  3. UK streaming revenue growth slowed, adding £191 million in 2019 compared to £210 million in 2019

Fusing consumption and retail

Streaming’s impact is both commercial and cultural, in large part because it fuses what used to be retail and radio. Like some kind of musical nuclear fusion, it smashes discovery and consumption together to create a chain reaction with explosive implications. In the old world, repeated radio spins drove awareness and then sales. In streaming environments, lean-back streams are simultaneously radio-like listens and sales. The distinction does not matter for streaming services – they are focused on user acquisition, engagement and retention, but for labels it challenges the very premise of what marketing campaigns are meant to achieve. It is in this environment that today’s streaming stars are made.

‘More of more’

With streaming services lacking any meaningful way to differentiate, they are forced to compete on who can deliver their users’ the most new music to drive the most listening. This strategic imperative of ‘more of more’ is at direct odds with the objective of any label campaign, which is inherently about ‘more of less’, i.e. listen to this song more instead of more songs. The net result is vast amounts of streams spread widely, but also an environment in which hits become megahits. The songs that get traction experience a domino effect of successive algorithmic decisions, rapidly pushing songs with buzz to a progressively wider number of playlists and users. In the old world this would have been radio airplay success; now it is just volume of streams.

Catalogue Darwinism

Because of the focus on new, streaming-era artists end up with far bigger streaming volumes than older artists that were ‘bigger’ in their respective eras, but an afterthought in the streaming era. Hence, Drake and Billie Eilish being bigger than the entirety of the 1980s. Back in mid-2018 MIDiA published a report predicting that music catalogue was going to decline. We faced a lot of opposition then but now we are beginning to see that catalogue is indeed undergoing a fundamental change. For deep, legacy catalogue, streaming dynamics are stripping out the long tail and boiling down entire decades to a handful of tracks. Think of it this way: if 10% of the artists released in the 1980s were ‘successful’ at the time, and 10% of those were successful enough for their music to still be listened to now, and that the songs that are still listened to are 10% of these artists’ entire 1980s output, then you end up with 0.1% of the music from the 1980s being streamed at any meaningful scale now. Added to that, new music gets pushed to more lean-back playlists so is listened to more times. The multiplier effect for new music acts as a divider for older music. As an illustration, 40 music videos on YouTube have more than one billion views but in October 2019 Guns ‘n Roses ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ was the only one from the 1980s that had a billion views.

If you own the rights to those catalogue gems then the value of that asset is arguably higher now than ever before, because it has won the Darwinian game of catalogue evolution. But the rest fall by the wayside.

Ellie Goulding: niche mainstream

So, the current dynamics of streaming programming favour new versus old. It may not always be so, but this is where we are right now. These same dynamics can then be used to create hits – demand creation, if you like. This is where Ellie Goulding comes in. Goulding’s Joni Mitchell cover ‘River’ was an Amazon exclusive yet became the overall UK number one in large part because Amazon ensured it was on just about every holiday-themed playlist. Every time someone asked Alexa to play Christmas music, ‘River’ soon found its way there. Because Echo listening skews so heavily lean-back, ‘River’ simply became part of the sonic festive wallpaper, much in the same way ‘All I Want for Christmas’ did on radio. Just like with radio, lean-back listeners are unlikely to stop whatever else they are doing in order to change the track. Because streaming economics do not differentiate with lean-back and lean-forward listening, passive listening is just as valuable as active listening. Radio has become as valuable as retail but is much easier to manipulate.

The other crucial aspect of this is that Amazon has shown that you only need to find and activate a small slice of the mainstream to have a mainstream hit. As MIDiA first said last year, niche is the new mainstream.

At the start of this post I stated that streaming’s effects are both cultural and commercial. The commercial backdrop to all of these consumption and programming shifts is that the rate of revenue growth is beginning to slow (not just in percentage terms – that is a natural effect of markets getting bigger) but also in absolute terms. Early last year we predicted that streaming growth would start to slow towards the end of 2019 in developed markets and the ERA figures for the UK are the first evidence of this shift. Globally, growth will be sustained by emerging and mid-tier markets, but in markets like the UK and US, growth is peaking. The significance is that the conflation of radio and retail does not matter so much when everything is growing. When growth slows, however, quirks of the market can become business challenges. The ROI of throwing money at campaigns to cut through the audio clutter becomes problematic when the promise of the pie getting ever bigger begins to wane.

All of these things are of course simply part of a maturing and changing market. Nevertheless, the marketing strategies currently employed have been developed in an environment of growth abundance. The challenge for streaming’s next chapter is finding the new rules that are more ROI focused but can still play to streaming’s consumption strengths. Delineating different rates for lean-forward and lean-back streams feels like a logical place to start, but more evolution will need to follow – each iteration of which will trigger its own waves of unintended consequences. Exciting times.

Abbey Road 50 Years On: The Two Worlds of Music Listening

Half a century after it first after it first topped the charts, the Beatles’ Abbey Road is back at the summit of the UK charts. With the anniversary editions retailing for between $20 and $100, the impact on Universal Music’s revenue will be even more pronounced than the chart position, as we saw with the deluxe editions of the White Album (which had editions priced up to $145) helping the Beatles become the fourth-biggest UMG artist in revenue terms in 2018. The continued success of the Beatles tells us three main things:

  1. The band has enduring appeal in a way few bands have so long after their demise
  2. Universal is doing a fantastic job of managing the legacy of the Beatles with smart and effective catalogue marketing and product strategy
  3. Older, physical-focused music fans remain the quickest route to high-value, large-scale revenue

It is this last point that is going to be explored here.

Streaming is not yet everything, by a long stretch

While streaming is well established, it is still a minority activity (i.e. less than half of the population streams – the rate is even lower when you factor in emerging market regions such as sub-Saharan Africa). Most of you reading this will have been streaming for many years now, so this may sound a bit crazy, but we all live in our own filter bubbles, surrounded by people with similar world views and behaviours. The reality is that we are still in a transition period where the old and the new coexist. This dual-reality paradigm underpins the Beatles’ continued success.

MIDiA Index - Top Streamed and Top Listened to Artists - the Beatles 

Looking at data from MIDiA’s forthcoming artist insight platform Index, we can see that the top 15 biggest audiences ranked by overall listening is significantly different from the top 15 streaming audiences. The differences become far more pronounced as we work our way down the rankings. Mass market linear media (especially TV and radio) used to be the only way in which record labels turned artists into mainstream brands. The biggest artists of today (in fact all of the artists in both of the top 15 rankings) built their fanbases sitting on the shoulders of big, traditional media. Big media of course still plays a crucial role – as illustrated by the fact that the top five most-listened to artists have all recently been in major movies. In fact, movies are emerging as the mass medium that can still create globally relevant cultural moments in the way that radio and TV used to.

Niche is the new mainstream

Now though, newer artists are building their fanbases outside of traditional media, using digital marketing channels to laser-target specific audiences rather than the traditional carpet-bombing approach. As a consequence, when we look at the top 15 most-streamed artists based on those audiences that actually know the artist we see a totally different picture with artists like Post Malone, Martin Garrix and Bille Eilish among the top performing. These are still-big artists; artists that have found global niches with genuine scale, but niches nonetheless. This is the era of fragmented fandom. Niche is the new mainstream.

The first global pop band, perhaps

The Beatles were arguably the first big, global pop band – I say ‘arguably’ because there are many other claimants to that title, but whether they were first, or among the first, they helped create the template for artist success that shaped the modern recorded music industry. Now, as part of our cultural history they have an additional emphasis. The film ‘Yesterday’ will have introduced new audiences to the Beatles’ music, as will the hype around the return of Abbey Road. However, the majority of Beatles fans are old (59% are aged over 45) with an average age of 46. This aligns with average age of consumers that still buy CDs and that still listen to albums.

This does not mean that young people are not listening to the Beatles also (and on streaming they skew younger), also even with an average age of 45 this means that a large portion of the core fanbase are not from the Beatles’ original generation.

However, it is a very different demographic from Spotify users (average age 34) and, for example, Billie Eilish fans (29). Beatles fans skew towards older consumers that are more likely to buy and listen to physical albums.

For all the chart modifications, actual album sales still have key impact

 With all of the reformatting of charts to recognise streams, album sales still carry much more weight, because:

  1. A lot of streams are needed to be equivalent to an album (1,500 in the UK, 1,250 paid streams or 3,750 ad-supported streams in the US)
  2. Newer, streaming-centric artists tend to be track artists rather than album artists, and tend to have a larger share of ad-supported listeners, so it is harder for them to top album charts

When a once in a generation event like Abbey Road at 50 comes along, and the older, CD and vinyl buying audience comes out in force, you do not need too many of them to create a chart-topping album. As I illustrated in my post on the White Album, 75,000 sales of a $100 deluxe edition can generate the same label income as more than 60 million streams – though how much Universal actually retains of that due to its commercial relationships with the band and its estates is another issue entirely.

The key takeaway from Abbey Road at 50 is that we still have a long, long way to go on the streaming journey. In fact, you might say it is ‘the long and winding road’.