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.


Hi-Res audio: It’s all about a maturing market

Apple and Amazon made a splash this week by integrating Hi-Res Dolby Atmos audio into the basic tiers of their streaming services. The timing, i.e. just after Spotify started increasing prices, is – how shall we put it, interesting. It also struck a blow against the music industry’s long-held hope that Hi-Res was going to be the key to increasing subscriber ARPU. While that might be true, for now at least, the move is an inevitable consequence of two streaming market dynamics: commodification and saturation.

Music streaming contrasts sharply with video streaming. While the video marketplace is characterised by unique catalogues, a variety of pricing and diverse value propositions (including a host of niche services) music streaming services are all at their core fundamentally the same product. When the market was in its hyper-growth phase and there were enough new users to go around, it did not matter too much that the streaming services only had branding, curation and interface to differentiate themselves from each other. Now that we are approaching a slowdown in the high-revenue developed markets, more is needed. Which is where Hi-Res comes in.

Now that streaming is, as Will Page puts it, in the ‘fracking stage’ in developed markets, success becomes defined by how well you retain subscribers rather than how well you acquire them. As all the key DSPs operate on the same basic model, they need to innovate around the core proposition in order to improve stickiness and reduce churn. Spotify started the ball rolling with its podcasts pivot, but the fact that its podcasts can be consumed by free users means it is not (yet) a tool for reducing subscriber churn.

On top of this, when podcasts are mapped with other positioning pillars, Spotify’s competitive differentiation spread is relatively narrow. Because Apple and Amazon now both have Hi-Res as standard, they not only boost audio quality but value for money (VFM) as well. Bearing in mind, both companies already scored well on VFM because they have Prime Music and Apple One in their respective armouries. 

It is Amazon, though, that looks best positioned of the four leading Western streaming services. In addition to audio quality and VFM, it is building out its podcasts play (as compared to the Wondery acquisition) and it has the potential to bundle in the world’s leading audiobook company, Audible. Given that spoken-word audio consumption grew at nearly twice the rate music did during 2020, being able to play in all lanes of audio will be crucial to competing in what will become saturated streaming markets. 

Immersive audio storytelling 

Finally, Dolby Atmos is more than simply Hi-Res audio; it is an immersive format that enables the creation of spatial audio experiences. If we are truly on the verge of a spoken-word audio revolution, then immersive audio may have a central role to play. Surround sound has been a slow burner for home video, but that may be because the video experience itself has improved so much (bigger screens, HD, more shows than ever) that the audio component has been less important (though the growing soundbar market suggests that may be beginning to change). However, in audio formats there is only the audio to do the storytelling. This could mean that tools like immersive audio become central to audio storytelling, which means, you guessed it, Amazon and Apple would then have a competitive advantage in podcasts and audiobooks that Spotify would not.

Spotify pushes prices up, but do not expect dramatic effects

Spotify finally announced a significant price increase, raising prices in the UK and some of Europe, with the US set to follow suit. The increases affect Family, Duo and Student plans. The fact that streaming pricing has remained locked at $9.99 since the early 2000s is an open wound for streaming, so this news is important – but less so for actual impact than statement of intent.

Back in 2019 MIDiA showed that since its launch, Spotify’s $9.99 price point had lost 26% in real terms due to inflation while over the same period Netflix (which increased prices) saw a 63% increase. Price increases are a must, not an option. Not increasing prices while inflation raises other goods and services means that streaming pricing is deflating in real terms. In this context, Spotify’s move is encouraging, but it is not yet enough. The increases of course do not affect the main $9.99 price point, currently apply to a selection of markets and do not address the causes of ARPU deflation (promotional trials, uptake of multi-user plans, emerging markets). But let’s put all that aside for the moment and look at just what impact these changes will have:

  • Pricing: The increase is 13% for a Family plan and 20% for Student, both meaningful but below the 26% real terms deflation that was hit back in 2019. Averaged across all price points, the price increase represents a 10% uplift (in the markets where this is being done). By comparison, Netflix’s last major price hike averaged out at 11% across all price points, so it is line with that, though obviously Netflix had numerous other previous increases.
  • ARPU: ARPU (i.e. how much people are actually spending) matters more than nominal retail price points, which are subject to promotions and discounts. Spotify ARPU fell from €4.72 in 2019 to €4.31 in 2020. Let us conservatively estimate that would fall to €4.00 in 2021 without any price increases. Let us also assume that the announced price increases roll out to every single Spotify market (which of course they won’t) and let’s assume it all happened on January 1st 2021 (which of course it didn’t). On that basis, and factoring in what share of Spotify subscribers are on family and student plans, total revenue and premium ARPU would increase by 6.2%. ARPU would hit €4.25 (still below 2020) and premium revenue would hit €9.5 billion.
  • Income: Spotify would earn an extra €166 million gross margin, music rights holders would earn an extra €388 million, record labels €310 million and the majors €212 million, representing 2% of their total income. UMG would earn €95 million. Meanwhile, a recouped major label artist could expect to see a million streams generate €1,487 rather than €1,400 (assuming all the streams were premium).

All of these assumptions are based on this rollout being global and FY 2021, neither of which are the case. So the actual effect will be markedly less. The key takeaway is that this is an important first step on what needs to be a continual journey, and one followed by the other streaming services. Spotify was previous locked in a prisoner’s dilemma where no one was willing to make the first move. Spotify had the courage to jump first. What needs to happen next are (though not necessarily in this order):

  • Pricing increase to all remaining tiers, especially $9.99
  • Other streaming services follow suit
  • Tightening up of discounts and promotional trials in well-established markets

Good first step by Spotify; now let the journey begin.

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.

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 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.

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.

Sonos @ 15

Sonos_2015-LogoSonos, granddaddy of the connected home audio marketplace, is now 15 years old. Sonos was a pioneer that was so far ahead of its time, it inadvertently found itself as one of the key early drivers of streaming subscriptions. Visionary founders John MacFarlane and Tom Cullen had some long-term inkling that streaming would eventually be a major force for them, but their near-term vision was built on getting music downloads piped around the home. Now, 15 years on, Sonos has effectively achieved two missions: deploying iTunes around the home, as well as Spotify and co around the home. But now, the outlook is less clear. Sonos’s marketplace is complex and competitive more than ever. Furthermore, the departure of MacFarlane, a round of lay-offs and having ‘missed voice’, may have left Sonos looking less vibrant than it once did. So, where next for Sonos?

These are some of the key challenges Sonos faces:

  • Battle of the apps: Sonos hardware reflects the company’s obsession with elegance and attention to detail. But, as with so many hardware companies (in fact the majority of them), Sonos’s weak point is software. Apple makes seamless software-hardware integration look deceptively easy – it is, in fact, nigh on impossible to do well. The Sonos app works well enough, certainly much better than it used to, and the networking of devices is usually relatively pain free. But in the app economy, consumers expect apps to work perfectly, not ‘well enough’. They expect high-quality user experiences, not functional experiences with lots of clicks and swipes, which is what Sonos can feel like when doing activities like building playlists. In spite of this, the biggest software threat for Sonos is the very fact that it is a standalone app. A Spotify user does not want to have one app to use on the train, or in the car, and a different one to use in the home. This is what Sonos effectively does right now. Sonos’s new CEO, Patrick Spence, knows this needs fixing but the question is whether Sonos can make the fix before Spotify and co come up with their own fix.
  • Just play: Traditional home audio just works. You press play and there’s music. Sonos stood out way ahead of the pack – an admittedly poor quality pack – for out-of-the-box simplicity, though even now it remains a marker of good practice. However, the convenience benchmark for connected home audio still falls far short of traditional home audio. Sonos works most of the time, emphasis on most of the time. Every so often there’s a network problem; sometimes this is due to a firmware issue, other times it is the network itself. The network glitches of course aren’t Sonos’s fault but that doesn’t matter to the user experience. A CD player works every time, Wi-Fi or not. That is the convenience benchmark Sonos and all other connected audio players must meet. But even without Wi-Fi issues, pressing play is not always so straight forward because Sonos’s app experience is not on a par with its hardware experience.
  • Sonos…sonos….sonos…: Ok, that was meant to be an Echo. Yes, Amazon’s Alexa vehicle has totally shaken up the connected home audio space. And with Amazon Music integration, it sets a standard for what an integrated hardware-software service experience should be. One voice command pulls up a song in an instant, no having to select which music source to choose. Yet Echo is far from the end game. In fact, voice is not an ideal interface for music. It’s fine for when you know exactly what you want to play, it’s also pretty good for when you want to select a lean back experience e.g. ‘play me music to work out’ – but it struggles with the more nuanced use cases that lie in between. Voice is another thing that Spence knows needs fixing.
  • Good enough: And of course, the Echo is not a super high-quality audio experience. It’s a decent audio experience. Sonos might grumble at otherwise sophisticated users tolerating modest audio playback, but ever since the advent of MP3s and iPod earbuds, convenience trumps quality for most when it comes to music. Even Sonos is guilty of playing the convenience game. Though its speaker quality has improved, Sonos speakers are still a long way off the audio specs audiophiles seek. And yet, even this isn’t the biggest challenge for Sonos. The core problem Sonos faces is that the likes of Amazon, Google and even Apple are not focused on winning the home audio race, instead they view smart speakers as a beachhead for controlling the smart home. That is the war, home audio is the first battle. Just as Apple used the iPod as the first step towards winning the personal digital life war, smart speakers are being used in the same way in the home.

Under attack from all sides

There are countless other challenges too. Sonos’s mission of filling rooms with audio might not actually be what most people want. A smart speaker in the kitchen and a sound bar under the TV might be enough for most, and those may be best served via a native hardware / software / content ecosystem like Amazon’s Prime. At the bottom end of the market, cheap Bluetooth speakers are flooding the market, while for those consumers who do value audio quality over convenience, incumbent audio companies like Bose, Panasonic and Sony are all upping their games. (In virtually all markets MIDiA tracks, Bose wireless speakers are more widely adopted than Sonos.)

Foundations for success

Sonos is also upping its game and tweaking its strategy. The recently launched PlayBase shows both high-quality product design and a recognition that TV is the next big battle Sonos needs to fight, having already made good ground with its PlayBar. Sonos needs all the strategic nous and product excellence it can get. It has the low-end and high-end squeezing it in a pincer movement, while the big tech companies carpet bomb its heartland simply to gain a foothold in the smart home. Five years ago, Sonos was the golden child of its market. Now it is a company with a very strong brand in need of some laser focussed positioning in a remarkably competitive field. Sonos has enviable foundations, it now needs to build a new house.

Pandora Plus And The Mid Tier Opportunity

Pandora continued its steady path towards subscriptions today with the announcement of a revamp of its premium radio offering Pandora One and confirmation of a forthcoming 9.99 tier. These of course have been in the works since its acquisition of Rdio’s assets back in November 2015. In the update Pandora One becomes Pandora Plus and gets new features including: ‘predictive offline playback’ for when signal drops, unlimited skips and unlimited replays. Pandora Plus may have a mid tier price point ($4.99) but it is not a mid priced subscription service, instead it is a premium priced radio service. This is not a revival of Rdio’s $3.99 Select offering nor is it a shot across Spotify and Apple’s bows. Nonetheless it is the start of a bolder streaming strategy for Pandora and it does raise the perennial issue of the case for mid priced subscriptions. Premium radio offerings like Pandora One Plus represent around 5 million subscribers in the US and are an important part of the market. But they are only the tip of the opportunity.

The case for mid priced subscriptions is clear: $9.99 is not a mainstream price point. It is fantastic value for music super fans, but more than mainstream fans are willing to pay. 9.99 subscriptions will continue to grow solidly for the next few years as the remaining untapped super fans are converted. But once that base is saturated the market needs something more, that’s where mid priced subscriptions come into play, helping unlock the next layer of consumers. Mid priced subscriptions can represent the best of both worlds, delivering large scale and premium revenue.

Mid Price Is No Easy Sell

However, the mid priced market is not without challenges, indeed, of the original wave of mid priced subscription services that came to market Blinkbox is gone, Cur Media is gone, Guvera is all but gone while Psonar and MusicQubed are still in market. The key challenges this market faces are:

  • It is not easy selling to mainstream consumers: mainstream consumers have less disposable income, are less engaged with music than super fans and are harder to convert
  • It is hard to compete against free: while there are on demand free services in the market (YouTube, Vevo, Spotify free) it is hard for mid priced products to compete in value terms. These free services steal much of the oxygen out of the market. $1 for 3 month trials from Spotify and co only compounds this issue
  • It is hard to differentiate: Label licensing constraints mean that the mid priced products deliver far less value than full priced products due to the restrictions imposed on them. Pandora’s INSERT gives the users 100 on demand tracks a month. That is 0.0003% of the 30 million on Spotify for 40% of the price of Spotify, or 1197% of the price of Spotify’s $1 for 3 months trial

Mid Tier Needs To Be Given More Substance

In short, the mid priced segment needs empowering with proper functionality. Mid tier products need more tracks and more on demand playback. Of course this has to be within clear bounds, else the risk of cannibalizing 9.99 tiers is to strong. But there are many other ways to do this rather than creating a painfully restrictive limit on the number tracks that can be played on demand. Here are some examples of how to differentiate mid tier while maintaining genuine user value by delivering more content and more choice in return:

  • Windowed content only (e.g. a 4 week window on new releases)
  • Limit on number of tracks that can be added to a playlist
  • Genre specific subscriptions
  • Strong focus on pushed playlists
  • Cheaper pricing ($2.99 or $3.99 to reflect the changed marketplace)

For mid tier to work, the music industry needs to have the confidence that the $9.99 product is good enough to keep its core customer base, that these users will not jump ship for a product squarely aimed at the mainstream.

After a couple of years in the wilderness it looks like the marketplace is beginning to warm to mid tier once again. In addition to Pandora’s moves, Sony Music and Universal Music quietly launched the £5.99 Now Music app into the UK market earlier this year while MusicQubed’s MTV Trax has been getting large scale TV advertising support from Viacom. Meanwhile QQ Music and Apple Music are both driving scale in China with a price point equivalent to around $2.

$9.99 was always a blunt instrument, a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Now though, while $9.99 adoption is still growing, is the time to have a far more sophisticated approach to pricing. The safe option would be to wait until $9.99 growth slows. But by then it would be too late.

Why Apple Music Matters So Much To Apple

Apple today announced a much anticipated refresh to Apple Music at its WWDC event. Apple Music has found itself at the centre of long running criticism from many parts due to its perceived product weaknesses. This is the bar against which Apple is measured. It has spent years building a well earned reputation for high quality products so its users understandably measure its services by the same standards. Apple Music was a highly ambitious version 1.0 that has since been iterated to iron out user journey kinks. Now today’s feature announcements look set to move Apple Music onto its next stage.

Being An Early Follower Requires Super High Standards

As an early follower rather than a leader Apple always sets itself the challenge of being measured against incumbents that have had years to refine their product offerings. With hardware, Apple normally meets and exceeds those standards. With Apple Music it launched a product that was light years ahead of where most of the incumbents were at launch, but that didn’t compare as favourably against their current offerings. Google Music Play All Access faced a similar challenge. The streaming music market has evolved so much since Spotify and Deezer’s inceptions that a music service cannot now afford to simply launch with the basics. It must do so much more.

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Image courtesy of the Verge

The revamped Apple Music includes a new simplified white interface, lyrics integration and better interaction with cloud libraries (a long running bug bear). These are not exactly step change innovations but they are a significant move forward in what is proving to be a process of continual change. Ultimately this update is about making Apple Music more intuitive and for it to make more sense to mainstream users. Is all this enough to blow Spotify and Tidal out of the water? No, but add in Apple’s bottomless pockets for exclusives and marketing, and you have a potent mix.apple music wwdc

Apple also announced a subscriber milestone, hitting 15 million subscribers. The number suggest that Apple’s growth is beginning to outpace that of its key challenger Spotify. Last year I suggested Apple would reach 20 million subscribers by the end of 2016. These numbers show it is well on track. Apple could yet be the leading music service by the end of 2017 if it starts to fully leverage all its ‘unfair advantages’.

Other metrics that Apple announced included:

  • 130 billion App Store downloads
  • 2 million apps available
  • $50 billion paid out to developers
  • 60 million Apple News users

10 Years On, Music Matters To Apple Once Again

Apple Music matters to Apple not because it will generate large profits (it won’t) but because it is the pace setter for Apple’s strategic shift towards being a services company. Apple is building a new narrative for Wall Street that focuses on the revenue it generates from its existing customer base (in order to distract attention from slowing device sales). Apple Music is the proof of concept. If it gets Apple Music right it will demonstrate its ability to deliver on best-in-class digital services. And because Apple still hasn’t been able to launch its TV subscription (it instead launched a partnership integration with Sling TV) it needs to get Music right until it is able to get the requisite TV deals in place.

This why the stakes are so high for Apple Music. Get it right, Apple re-establishes its market leadership role. Get it wrong, Apple’s own rescue plan goes down the pan. Music was so important to Apple in the mid 2000’s because it helped sell the iPod which in turn became the platform for growth that Apple trades upon today. Now 10 years on music has just reassumed its importance, this time to help sell Apple itself not just its hardware.