Here’s Why The Music Industry Needs To Dump Non-Discretionary Pricing

Spotify’s 2015 UK accounts painted a vibrant picture with both profits and above average Average Revenue Per User (ARPU). However, a little caution is required before assuming all the answers to the streaming market’s woes can be found here. Firstly, only a portion of Spotify’s costs are based in the UK. For example, much of the (more highly paid) exec team is in the US and much of the development team is based in Sweden. Such are the vagaries of financial reporting for multi-territory companies. More importantly though, is Spotify’s higher UK subscriber ARPU (€6.47 per month compared to €5.20 per month globally according to the ever insightful Music Business Worldwide). On the surface this is clear success (and indeed the UK may well have a higher paid-to-free ratio). However, the main reason for the ARPU difference is the music industry’s fixation with non-discretionary pricing. 9.99 is 9.99 in the US, the UK and the Euro zone, even though each of those currencies have very different values. Especially now post-Brexit referendum.

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At current exchange rates, the Euro Zone €9.99 is equivalent $10.86 and the UK £9.99 price point is equivalent to $12.18. Thus Euro Zone subscribers are paying 9% more than US subscribers while UK subscribers are paying 22% more. What makes matters even worse is that US per capita GDP (a measure of relative wealth of the population) is 55% higher in the US than in the EU and 27% higher than in the UK. So in effect that means a combined pricing ‘swing’ of 63% for the US compared to the Euro Zone and 49% compared to the UK.

In short, European subscribers are getting doubly hit by the music industry’s insistence on non-discretionary pricing for music subscriptions. While there are a host of commercial factors that can be cited in favour of the approach (e.g. it helps mitigate against currency fluctuations) there is zero customer value, unless of course you happen to be a US resident consumer.

Regular readers will know I am a long term advocate of a more sophisticated approach to subscription pricing (e.g. mid tier products and super-premium options) but before we get there, a first step should be to ensure that European music fans get a fair deal compared to their US peers. Or of course, we could try the alternative: increasing US subscriptions by 63% which would mean a $16.32 price point. Sounds crazy right? Exactly…

How Spotify Can Become A Next Generation “Label”

Spotify on iPhoneOne of the themes my MIDiA colleague Tim Mulligan (the name’s no coincidence, he’s my brother too!) has been developing over in our online video research is that of next generation TV operators. With the traditional pay-TV model buckling under the pressure of countless streaming subscriptions services like Netflix (there are more than 50 services in the US alone) pay-TV companies have responded with countless apps of their own such as HBO Go and CBS All Access. The result for the consumer is utter confusion with a bewildering choice of apps needed to get all the good shows and sports. This creates an opportunity for the G.A.A.F. (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook) to stitch all these apps together and in doing so become next generation TV operators. Though the G.A.A.F. are a major force in music too, the situation is also very different. Nonetheless there is an opportunity for companies such as these to create a joined up music experience that delivers an end-to-end platform for artists and music fans alike. Right now, Spotify is best placed to fulfil this role and in doing so it could become a next generation “label”. I added the quote marks around the word “label” because the term is becoming progressively less useful, but it at least helps people contextualise the concept.

Creating The Right Wall Street Narrative

When news emerged that Spotify was in negotiations to buy Soundcloud I highlighted a number of potential benefits and risks. One thing I didn’t explore was how useful Soundcloud could be in helping Spotify build out its role as a music platform (more on that below). As I have noted before, as Spotify progresses towards an IPO it needs to construct a series of convincing narratives for Wall Street. The investor community generally looks upon the music business with, at best, extreme caution, and at worst, disdain. To put it simply, they don’t like the look of low-to-negative margin businesses that have little control over their own destinies and that are trying to sell a product that most people don’t want to buy. This is why Spotify needs to demonstrate to potential investors that it is working towards a future in which it has more control, and a path to profitability. The major label dominated, 17% gross operating margin (and –9% loss) 9.99 AYCE model does not tick any of those boxes. Spotify is not going to change any of those fundamentals significantly before it IPOs, but it can demonstrate it is working to change things.

The Role Of Labels Is As Important As Ever

At the moment Spotify is a retail channel with bells and whistles. But it is acquiring so much user data and music programming expertise that it be so much more than that. The role of record labels is always going to be needed, even if the current model is struggling to keep up. The things that record labels do best is:

  1. Discover, invest in and nurture talent
  2. Market artists

Someone is always going to play that role, and while the distribution platforms such as Spotify could, in theory at least, play that role in a wider sense, existing labels (big and small) are going to remain at the centre of the equation for the meaningful future. Although some will most likely fall by the wayside or sell up over the next few years. (Sony’s acquisition of Ministry Of Sound is an early move rather than an exception.) But what Spotify can do that incumbent labels cannot, is understand the artist and music fan story right from discovery through to consumption. More than that, it can help shape both of those in a way labels on their own cannot. Until not so recently Spotify found itself under continual criticism from artists and songwriters. Although this has not disappeared entirely it is becoming less prevalent as a) creators see progressively bigger cheques, and b) more new artists start their career in the streaming era and learn how to make careers work within it, often seeing streaming services more as audience acquisition tools rather than revenue generators.

The Balance Of Power Is Shifting Away From Recorded Music

Concert crowd.In 2000 record music represented 60% of the entire music industry, now it is less than 30%. Live is the part that has gained most, and the streaming era artist viewpoint is best encapsulated by Ed Sheeran who cites Spotify as a key driver for his successful live career, saying “[Spotify] helps me do what I want to do.” Spotify’s opportunity is to go the next step, and empower artists with the tools and connections to build all of the parts of their career from Spotify. This is what a next generation “label” will be, a platform that combines data, discovery, promotion (and revenue) with tools to help artists with live, merchandise and other parts of their career.

How Spotify Can Buy Its Way To Platform Success

To jump start its shift towards being a next-generation “label” Spotify could use its current debt raise – and post-IPO, its stock – to buy companies that it can plug into its platform. In some respects, this is the full stack music concept that Access Industries, Liberty Global and Pandora have been pursuing. Here are a few companies that could help Spotify on this path:

  • Soundcloud: arguably the biggest artist-to-fan platform on the planet, Soundcloud could form a talent discovery function for Spotify. Spotify could use its Echo Nest intelligence to identify which acts are most likely to break through and use its curated playlists to break them on Spotify. Also artist platforms like BandPage and BandLab could play a similar role.
  • Indie labels: Many indie labels will struggle with cash flow due to streaming replacing sales, which means many will be looking to sell. My money is on Spotify buying a number of decent sized indies. This will demonstrate its ability to extend its value chain footprint, and therefore margins (which is important for Wall Street). It could also ‘do a Netflix’ and use its algorithms to ensure that its owned-repertoire over performs, which helps margins even further. But more importantly, indie labels would give Spotify a vehicle for building the careers of artists discovered on Soundcloud. Also the A&R assets would be a crucial complement to its algorithms.
  • Tidal: Spotify could buy Tidal, taking advantage of Apple’s position of waiting until Tidal is effectively a distressed asset before it swoops. Though Tidal is most likely to want too much money, its roster of exclusives and its artist-centric ethos would be a valuable part of an artist-first platform strategy for Spotify.
  • Songkick: In reality Songkick is going to form part of Access’ Deezer focused full stack play. But a data-led, live music focused company (especially if ticketing and booking can play a role) would be central to Spotify driving higher margin revenues and being able to offer a 360 degree proposition to artists.
  • Musical.ly: Arguably the most exciting music innovation of the decade, Musical.ly would give Spotify the ability to appeal to the next generation of music fans. The average age of a Musical.ly user is 20, for Spotify it is 27. Spotify has to be really careful not to age with its audience and music messaging apps are a great way to tap the next generation in the same way Facebook did (average age 35) did by buying up and growing messaging apps. (e.g. Instagram’s average age is 26).
  • Pandora: A long shot perhaps, but Pandora would be a shortcut to full stack, having already acquired Ticket Fly, Next Big Sound and Rdio. If Pandora’s stock continues to tank (the last few days of recovery notwithstanding) then who knows.

In conclusion, Spotify’s future is going to be much more than being the future of music retail. With or without any of the above acquisitions, expect Spotify to lay the foundations for a bold platform strategy that has the potential to change the face of the recorded music business as we know it.

For more information on the analysis and statistics in this post check out MIDiA Research and sign up to our free weekly research digest.

What Frank Ocean’s Bombastic Blond Moment Tells Us About The Future Of Artists And Labels

When frank-ocean-blond-compressed-0933daea-f052-40e5-85a4-35e07dac73dfFrank Ocean’s latest album ‘Blond’ dropped, it did so like a nuclear bomb, sending shockwaves throughout the music industry. In one of the audacious release strategies of recent years Ocean and his team at 360 fulfilled the final album contractual commitment to Universal Music by ushering his breaking-the-mold visual album ‘Endless’ onto Apple Music.  Featuring collaborations from the likes of Sampha and James Blake and set as a loose soundtrack to art house visuals, ‘Endless’ looked like the sort of digitally native, creative masterstroke that would win plaudits and awards in equal measure. But no sooner had Universal executives started daydreaming about Grammys then along came what turned out to be the ‘actual’ album ‘Blonde’, self released by Ocean (Universal contractual commitments now of course conveniently fulfilled) and, for now at least, exclusively available on Apple Music. You can just imagine seeing the blood drain from (Universal CEO) Lucian Grainge’s face as the full magnitude of what had just happened came into focus. In truth ‘audacious’ doesn’t even come close to explaining what Ocean pulled off, but where it gets really interesting is what this means for the future of artist careers.

Artist-Label Relationships Are Changing

Quickly sensing the potential implications, Grainge swiftly sent out a memo to Universal staff outlawing streaming exclusives…though voices from within Universal suggest that this diktat had been in the works for some time . A cynic might even argue that it was politically useful for Universal to be seen to be taking a strong stand ahead of the impending Vivendi earnings call. As the ever excellent Tim Ingham points out, in practice Universal could put a streaming exclusives moratorium in place and still have a good number of its front line artists put out streaming exclusives. This is because many of the deals these artists have are not traditional label deals where Universal owns all the rights. And that itself is as telling as Ocean’s bombastic blond moment. Not so much that Universal is probably the major with the highest amount of its revenue accounted for by licensed and distributed works, but that any label’s roster is now a complex and diverse mix of deal types. Artists are more empowered than ever before, and thanks to the innovation of label services companies and next generation music companies like Kobalt, labels have been forced to steal the disruptors’ clothing in order to remain competitive.

Streaming Exclusives Represent Another Option For Artists

Just as labels had started to successfully co-opt the label services marketplace by launching their own – e.g. Universal’s Caroline – or by buying up the competition – e.g. Sony’s acquisition of Essential Music & Marketing – along come streaming services giving artists another non-label route to market. In truth, the threat has remained largely unrealised. Exclusives on Tidal have most often proved to be laced with caveats and get out clauses (e.g. Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ arriving on iTunes 24 hours after landing ‘exclusively’ on Tidal). Chance The Rapper’s (in name only) mixtape ‘Colouring Book’ and Ocean’s ‘Blond’ are exceptions rather than the rule. So all that’s about to change now right? Not necessarily…

Album Releases Require More Time Than Apple Probably Has

As anyone who works in a label will tell you, releasing an album is typically a long, carefully planned process with many moving parts. It’s not something you do in a couple of weeks (Ocean started building the hype and expectation for his latest opus a year ago). If, for example, Apple was going to start doing exclusives routinely, even if it just did 20, that’s still a new exclusive to push every 2 weeks. That might work, at a stretch, for music service retailing promotional pushes but is far short of a fully fledged album release cycle. Which means that even for just 20 exclusives Apple would have an intricate mesh of overlapping release campaigns. This is something that labels do with their eyes closed but would it require new organizational disciplines for Apple. Not impossible, but not wholly likely either.

In practice, exclusives are likely to be limited to being the crown jewels of streaming services, their most valuable players, creative playmakers if you like. Even for Netflix, that pioneering exemplar of the streaming originals strategy, only spends 15% of its $3 billion content budget on originals and probably won’t break 20% even by 2020. What Apple and Netflix have in common is that they are using exclusives as a customer acquisition strategy, achieving their aims by making a big noise about each one. But if you’re releasing exclusives every week or two the shine soon wears off. And suddenly the return on investment diminishes.

Streaming Exclusives Are Unlikely To Turn Into A Flood

None of this means that we won’t see more artists striking streaming exclusives. We will, regardless of what labels may actually want to happen. And most of those will probably be on Apple – the service with bottomless pits masquerading as pockets. But the trickle will not turn into a flood, a fast flowing stream perhaps (see what I did there) but not a torrent.

Although they might not realise it yet, Kobalt might find themselves hurting more than the majors from this latest twist in the Exclusives Wars. Kobalt has probably done more than any single other music company to drive change in the traditional music industry in the last 5 years, showing artists and songwriters that there is another way of doing things. But Frank Ocean has just shown that there is now new another option for established artists looking for options at the end of a label deal.

Most importantly of all though, is that streaming exclusives (and indeed label services deals) work best when an artist has already established a brand and an audience. Most often that means after an artist has had a record label recording career. Apple cannot be relied upon to build anything more than a handful of artist brands. One of the founding myths of the web was that it was going to do away with labels and other traditional ‘gatekeepers’. Now, decades later, labels still account for the vast, vast, vast majority of music listening. Make no mistake, a momentous value chain shift is taking place, with more power and autonomy shifting to the creators, but that is a long journey and ‘Blond’ is but one part of this much bigger shift.

Music’s Role In Digital Content Is Small And Shrinking

This week I delivered a keynote at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on the future of media. I focused on three key areas of digital content:

  • Digital Music
  • Online Video
  • Mobile Apps

Pulling together these three different strands really shone a light on where music sits in the broader digital economy.  One of the key themes I explored was how the streaming music business relies on pretty much the same model as mobile games like Clash Of Clans, i.e. relying on a tiny share of the total audience to pay. The big difference is that the annual ARPU of a King customer is $290.41 while for Universal Music the annual ARPU of a streaming music subscriber is $29.77.  Universal Music rightly got a lot of attention recently for becoming the first billion Dollar streaming music company. Universal has managed to make streaming revenue scale. However streaming remains a revenue stream that is plagued by free. Only 10% of the total streaming audience (i.e. including YouTube and Soundcloud) is paid, and though this small group generates 71% of Universal’s streaming revenue, the blended ARPU is just $4.15. That’s $4.15 for the entire year of 2015, not per month. You can see my full analysis of how free-to-paid conversion ratios and ARPU compare across big media companies here.

media company arpu

But perhaps most revealing is the relative scale of music compared to everything else. As the graphic below reveals, digital music (at retail values) will be just 10% of digital content revenue by 2020, down from 16% in 2015. So digital music is both small and losing market share. Online video, which is at an earlier stage of its development, is already bigger (at retail value) than the entire recorded music business (at trade value), while mobile app revenue is double that of online video.

forecasts midia

Yet music continually punches above its weight. Its impact on culture and emotions far outweighs that of apps (for now at least) and music artists still have far more dedicated fan bases than actors generally do (again, for now at least). Music’s impact is far beyond its revenue, even in business terms. Just look at all the brands, telcos and device companies that fall over themselves to be associated with music.

Nonetheless, the reality that must be accepted is that sooner or later, recorded music’s diminished revenue footprint is going to catch up with it. Major record labels enjoy a privileged position, because rights are so concentrated in music they each have an effective monopoly power because each of them have the power of veto if they say no. (You try launching a mainstream music service without one of the majors). This can sometimes lead to hubris and over confidence. In video and apps, rights are far more fragmented and consequently no single rights owner has market shaping power. (As an aside it is worth asking whether rights concentration is contributing to digital music losing pace with the digital content economy.) The clear risk is that music rights holders eventually overplay their hand, demanding too much from partners with too little flexibility. I have been hearing for some time from a number of ‘partner’ companies that they are beginning to question whether music is worth the hassle. Meanwhile SVOD services and YouTubers are waiting eagerly in the wings…

Another part of the equation is that recorded music revenue only paints a small part of the global music industry picture (i.e. also including publishing, live and merch). In fact, recorded music has declined from being 60% of all music industry revenue in 2000 to around 30% today.  Most artist managers now view recorded music primarily as a marketing platform to drive live revenue. Unfortunately record labels aren’t in a position to think that way.

Whatever perspective you view this from though, one thing is clear, music’s role in the global digital content marketplace is small and shrinking.

The Beatles, Streaming And The End Of The Record Label Business Model

So the Beatles are finally coming to streaming…well much of the Beatles’ catalogue is at least.  Is it a big deal?  Kind of. The Beatles were late to iTunes and they’re now late to streaming.  Fashionably late though. No so soon as to be left standing awkwardly waiting for something to happen and not too late to miss the real action.

The Beatles are unique enough, and important enough to dictate their own terms and set their own timetable. For streaming services the Beatles catalogue is strategically important in the way it was for iTunes in that it helps communicate the value proposition of all the music in the world…well most of it. For the Beatles it represents the opportunity to reach younger audiences that sales are currently missing (which in large part explains why the catalogue is being made available on free tiers too).

It’s All About Targeting

20 years ago everyone pretty much bought the same product, the CD. Now though the music consumer landscape is fragmented and siloed. The fact that Adele’s ‘Hello’ simultaneously delivered stellar performance across audio streaming, video streaming, download sales and radio illustrates that there are many highly distinct groups of consumers that do one but not the other. This what Universal will be banking on with bringing the Beatles to streaming: they’ll be hoping that most of the future prospective buyers of Beatles albums are not streaming. For as long as this elongated transition phase continues, this sort of approach can work.

What Happens When The Bottom Falls Out Of the Catalogue Business?

The business model of record labels has long depended on revenue from back catalogue propping up the loss-leading new artists, on whom labels have to spend heavily to break. That model works as long as back catalogue sales are vibrant. But cracks are now showing in that model. Labels, especially the big ones, are increasingly spending even more heavily on a smaller number of big bets. For major labels many of these are either manufactured or laser targeted pop acts that grow big fast but like genetically modified crops, soak the nutrients out of their fan-base soil and are less likely to have long term careers. This means breaking artists are costing more to break and have less long term revenue potential.

That double whammy in itself would be bad enough, but there is an even more important structural factor at play. Catalogue sales depend on people buying classic albums, reissues and retrospectives. The secret is in the term ‘sales’. The model does not translate the same way to sales. Getting someone to spend $10 on an album for old times’ sake that they might listen to a handful of times but value having in their collection is very different from earning $0.20 or so from the same number of listens. But that is the way the world is heading. Older music buyers (i.e. from late 30’s onwards) are the lifeblood of catalogue sales.

That model works for older consumers that grew up buying music and thus have the habit. But what happens what happens when the first millennials enter their late 30s? Which is exactly what is going to start happening from 2016 onwards. As each new cohort of aging millennials passes 35 a smaller percentage of them will have ever regularly bought music. Thus from 2016 onwards every year will mean an ever smaller number of catalogue buyers coming into the top of the funnel.

The long term implications are clear. While this will not be anything like an instant collapse, the impact will be progressively more painful as each year passes. The old label model of developing a vast bank of copyrights will become less and less relevant.

So Beatles, welcome to streaming, this will be your last new format hurrah.

Why Moving Video Centre Stage Is About More Than Just Doing Deals With YouTube Stars

 

 

This is the fourth post in my YouTube economy series. You can read the other posts here, here and here

The music industry has a long history of underplaying the role of video, insisting on seeing it as merely a tactic for driving sales.  In doing so it let two businesses that understood the wider value of music video become global superpowers.  MTV and YouTube knew that music fans, especially younger ones, could connect with their favourite artists via video in way that they could not with audio alone.  The labels were able to put MTV and YouTube down as an irritating mistake (albeit the exact same one made twice) because for a long while they were still selling units of music product, albeit in reducing numbers by the time YouTube arrived on the scene.  Now though, as we accelerate into the consumption era all bets are off.  Consumers want to pay for access to content – either with money (subscription) or with attention (ads).  With revenue generated by streams rather than up front transactions, both access models demand increased engagement.  This means that video must shift from marketing tactic to revenue bearing product.  Slowly but surely labels are waking up to this new reality and Sony Music’s deal with YouTube star Kurt Hugo Schneider hints at what the future may hold.

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Sony’s Schneider Deal Is A Nod To The Future Music Economy

Sony’s partnership with Schneider will see the creation of a 10 episode series of shows featuring Sony artists performing their songs with him.  Crucially the shows will be distributed via Schneider’s YouTube channel which has 6 million subscribers and 40 million monthly views.  5 years ago, even trying to build the business case for such a project around a frontline Sony artist would have been nigh-on impossible with production costs failing to justify likely TV licensing revenue.  But with YouTube Sony can both spend less on production and cut out the TV network middleman, going direct to the audience. Whilst a big part of the internal business case justification at Sony will likely centre around the ‘exposure’ Sony’s artists will get, there will be no small number of Sony execs who know that the real value of this is the video series itself, both in terms of audience engagement and revenue.

As I explained in my previous YouTube posts, the platform is emerging as the single most important content destination for Millennials and their younger siblings Generation Edge (i.e. those born since 2000).  Right now traditional music artists are at a marked disadvantage to native YouTube creators: they put out 1 music video maybe once every 3 months while a YouTuber will put out that many videos a week.  A middle ground exists between those two extremes, one that can provide the vital ingredients for helping music artists get more viewing time and help transition music video from low income marketing tool into a meaningful revenue generating product in its own right.

Universal’s KSI Deal Only Scratches The Surface

Universal Music have taken a more traditional approach to tapping YouTube, picking a successful YouTuber and turning him into a pop star.   The YouTuber in question is British gamer KSI who numbers 2 billion YouTube views, 11 million subscribers and $4.5 million in annual YouTube earnings, making him the fifth highest YouTuber globally.  So far his cross over pop/Grime singles have had modest success though Island will be hoping his latest collaboration with JME, ‘Keep Up’ will make bigger sales waves.  But even if it does that will be missing so much of KSI’s potential.  By his own admission KSI is a YouTuber first and a rapper second.  Island should be exploring all the ways they can make that distinction blur into insignificance.  Partnering with YouTubers like KSI is an invaluable first step, but the real opportunity for Universal is to explore how KSI can take them on a journey into the YouTube industry not for them to take KSI on a journey into the music industry.

Online Video Momentum Is Acclerating, And Some

The direction of travel of the video market is hard to discount.  Short form video is growing at an unprecedented rate: there were 5.9 trillion short from video views in in the first three quarters of 2015 with growth more than doubling from Q4 2014.  (See the MIDiA report ‘Short Form Video Growth’ for more).  Meanwhile the glut in online display ad inventory driven by content farms like Outbrain and Taboola is making video advertising an increasingly sought after commodity.  Will video revenue ever be enough to offset lost music sales revenue at an industry level? Perhaps not, but it certainly can at an artist level.  Not too many artists can boast KSI’s $4.5 million annual income.

The Business Case For YouTube’s Music Economy Role Needs To Be More Rounded

We need to take a realistic view of YouTube’s current role in the music ecosystem.  It can no longer be justified as a loss leader for driving sales and ‘exposure’.  The number one activity that consumers do after they discover a new artist on YouTube is….watch them on YouTube some more.  65% of under 25’s say they use YouTube this way. So more value needs to extracted from those users when they are on YouTube, rather than hoping for them to pop over to Spotify or iTunes to do something that creates bigger chunks of direct music industry revenue.  Sure some of that is still going to happen but it will do so in dwindling numbers over the next 5 years, with music sales revenue declining by 39% by 2020.

The business case for YouTube has to be much more rounded and nuanced while the industry continues through its transition phase. Sales and access will coexist for many years, occasionally giving the impression of a schizophrenic nature. Adele encapsulates the twin-speed nature of the music industry as it transitions between eras.  As impressive as Adele’s sales figures are they are an anomaly, a temporary high tide while the music sales waters continue to irretrievably recede.  Plotted against the longer music sales trend it is clear that ‘21’ followed exactly the same path – a dramatic stand out success that was a blip on the downward curve.  Adele is also unique in having such strong audience reach among older consumers that still buy music and younger ones that stream. So while she’s been busy breaking sales records she has also excelled on streaming, racking up half a billion views of her ‘Hello’ video.

For Better Or For Worse, YouTube Is Generation Edge’s Punk

Music fans exist in multimedia, on demand environments where video, social engagement are the norm and authentic connections with stars are the gold dust that they seek out.  YouTube is the punk movement of Generation Edge.  It is an antidote to the over-produced, generic, middle of the road, overtly commercialism of traditional media.  YouTube creators may still be finding their creative voices but the fact Sid Vicious couldn’t really play bass was part of the entire point of the Sex Pistols.  It was a big fat two fingers up at the establishment.  Sure, most YouTubers are hardly rebels without a cause but they are outside the traditional media establishment and therein lies the real power of video that the music most learn how to participate in without ending up looking like a dancing dad.

Why Spotify’s Acquisition of the Echo Nest is a Test Case for the Age of the API

Spotify’s acquisition of music data and recommendation company the Echo Nest is a clear statement from a pre-IPO Spotify to the market that it takes the challenge of the Tyranny of Choice seriously.  In doing so it has established ideological fault lines between it and rival Beats Music. While Beats has put its faith in human curation Spotify has bet big on algorithms. It’s men against machines.  But the most important implication is neither this nor even the fact that Spotify now powers the discovery tools of many of its competitors, but instead the shockwaves that Spotify could send throughout the entire tech start up ecosystem if its screws up how it deals with the Echo Nest’s API.  This is the first major text case for the Age of the API.

Over the last half decade open APIs have become a central component of the technology space with countless start ups opening up their code and data for other start ups to riff off.  It has been a win-win for start ups on both sides of the equation: the givers more quickly permeate throughout their target marketplaces while the takers get to short cut to functionality that might be otherwise unobtainable.  Consequently we now have countless companies that are built upon a patchwork of interconnected APIs and a richer seam of products and services.

This is the exact strategy the Echo Nest pursued, aggressively pushing their API out into the digital music market place with very liberal usage terms and putting themselves at the heart of the Music Hackday movement.  (Few Hackday entrants worth their salt will be found without the Echo Nets API coursing through their virtual veins.)  Only Soundcloud can lay claim to having been more successful in the music API game.

But now that the Echo Nest is deeply embedded in the digital music marketplace what happens if it turns off or dials back its API? Currently it is making all the right noises, that its API will remain both “free and open”.  But there is a big difference between the aspirations of a newly acquired company and the actual behavior of the buyer 12 months or so down the line.  Indeed, a highly plausible scenario is that Spotify will eventually wind down the Echo Nest as a distinct entity, bringing all of its functionality behind the walls.  After all, if you break down what motivated Spotify’s acquisition, other than the prime motive of sending the right message to the street, the core assets are not the data itself – Spotify has plenty enough of that – but instead the expertise and the technology.  Data is worthless if you cannot interpret it properly.  Why let competitors benefit from that?

So right now the technology sector as a whole should be paying close attention to what Spotify does with the Echo Nest’s API.  If it does indeed eventually turn off the tap then it will rightly make investors and start ups alike question the strategic integrity of building businesses on the foundations of third party APIs.  Spotify needs to get this one right because the implications are far bigger than Spotify’s IPO, or indeed even the broader digital music market.  Instead this is the future of the entire technology start up marketplace.

 

The Death of the Long Tail

Long Tail CoverToday MIDiA Consulting is proud to announce the publication of an important new report: The Death of the Long Tail: The Superstar Music Economy.  The report is available free of charge to Music Industry Blog subscribers.  (If you are not yet a subscriber to this blog simply enter your email address in the box on the right hand column of the home page.)

The 21st century decline in recorded music revenues continues to send shockwaves throughout the music industry and although there are encouraging signs of digital-driven growth, the impact on artists is less straightforward.  Total global artist income from recorded music in 2013 was $2.8 billion, down from $3.8 billion in 2000 but up slightly on 2012.  Meanwhile artists’ share of total income grew from 14% in 2000 to 17% in 2013.  But the story is far from uniform across the artist community.

The Superstar Artist Economy

The music industry is a Superstar economy, that is to say a very small share of the total artists and works account for a disproportionately large share of all revenues.  This is not a Pareto’s Law type 80/20 distribution but something much more dramatic: the top 1% account for 77% of all artist recorded music income (see figure).

fig4

The concept of the long tail seemed like a useful way of understanding how consumers interact with content in digital contexts, and for a while looked like the roadmap for an exciting era of digital content.  Intuitively the democratization of access to music – both on the supply and demand sides – coupled with vastness of digital music catalogues should have translated into a dilution of the Superstar economy effect.  Instead the marketplace has shown us that humans are just as much wandering sheep in need of herding online as they are offline.

In fact digital music services have actually intensified the Superstar concentration, not lessened it (see figure).  The top 1% account for 75% of CD revenues but 79% of subscription revenue.  This counter intuitive trend is driven by two key factors: a) smaller amount of ‘front end’ display for digital services – especially on mobile devices – and b) by consumers being overwhelmed by a Tyranny of Choice in which excessive choice actual hinders discovery.

fig5

Ultimately it is the relatively niche group of engaged music aficionados that have most interest in discovering as diverse a range of music as possible.  Most mainstream consumers want leading by the hand to the very top slither of music catalogue.  This is why radio has held its own for so long and why curated and programmed music services are so important for engaging the masses with digital.

Music has always been a Superstar economy and there will always be winners and losers in music sales, with the big winners winning really big.  Over time the improved discovery and programming in digital music services should push the needle for the remainder artist tier but a) it will not happen over night and b) it will still have a finite amount of impact.

The Catalogue Size Arms Race

Matters are worsened by the music services’ catalogue arms race which has become entirely detrimental to consumers’ digital music experiences.  Action needs taking urgently to make sense of 25 million songs, not just through discovery and editorial, but also by taking the brave decision to keep certain types of content, such as sound-alikes, outside of music services’ main functionality.

Until labels, distributors and artists come to together to fix the issue of digital catalogue pollution – sound alikes and karaoke especially – the Tyranny of Choice will reign supreme, hiding 99% of artists under a pervasive shroud of obscurity and giving the Superstars another free lap of the track.

How The Role of Genres Has Changed In Music Culture

The Echo Nest’s Paul Lamere has been doing some interesting work around age and gender music preferences which got me thinking about a bit more about how the relevance of genres has changed.  A school of thought that is gaining traction is that genres matter much less than they did and that they are no longer so useful for categorising music (just look at the rise of mood based discovery from the likes of Songza and Beats Music).  But as much as mood and activity are highly useful ways of programming music, genre does in fact matter just as much as it ever did, only in a different way.

Up until 20 years or so ago, music was the defining cultural reference point.  Throughout prior decades it had been possible to identify people’s music affinity by the clothes they wore and the style of their hair.  From the leather jackets and Brylcreemed hair of rockers in the 1950’s, through the mohicans and safety pins of punks in the 1970’s, to the baggy trousers and hooded tops of ravers in the 1980’s, musical identity was worn as much as it was played.  The definition of a casual music fan was more engaged than today, with a casual fan typically every week buying a seven inch single and tuning into the charts show on the radio.  Because music was the core cultural reference point the average ‘music IQ’ was high.

Now though, music competes with a fierce array of alternative cultural identifiers such as branded clothing, extreme sports, networked gaming etc.  And of course media consumption time and wallet share are also competed for more intensely than ever before.  The result is that the average mass market music fan is less engaged than in the analogue era and the overall average ‘music IQ’ has dropped.

This manifests itself in a greater number of mainstream consumers coalescing in the middle ground of popular music.  Consequently pop music has become more amorphous, with all genres of music having strong footholds in the pop end of the spectrum.  But this does not mean that genres have stopped mattering.  In fact what has changed is that they have different relevance according to the sophistication of the consumer.  What we have is in fact a genre ladder (see figure).

genre ladder

At the top of the genre ladder we have the mainstream music fan, who will think about genres in very broad terms such as rock, dance and urban, but will often have little strong preference between one or another.  These are the sorts of consumers who when asked what type of music they like will most often say ‘I like a bit of everything’.  What they actually mean is that they like the sanitized pop end of most styles of music.

Next step down the genre ladder we get to the music fans.  These are consumers that have clearly defined music tastes and will think about the genres they like in terms of broad groupings such as heavy rock or indie rock.  Even at this level things start to get tribal.  For example a house fan will often have little time for trance let alone metal.

The third and final step on the genre ladder is the micro genre, where the aficionados are most often found.  This is where music fans think in terms of labels like Psy-Trance, Dirty South and Screamo.  It is where music tastes become most tribal and in many ways behave most like they did in previous decades. Though these consumers are the smallest group they are the ones that the music industry depends upon most heavily.  These are the ones that go to most gigs, that buy most merchandise, that spend most on music and are the most likely to be subscription customers.

In many ways at this end of the spectrum there is a genre renaissance.  There has never been such granularity of styles.  The digital era has enabled bands to build and reach niches on a global scale.  So while genres have become more blurred at the first rung of the genre ladder, here they mean more than they ever did.

Why Radio is Stuck in the Middle of a Streaming Pincer Movement

2014 will be another year of growth and of controversy for streaming, with much of the debate set to focus on how streaming may, or may not, cannibalize download sales.  The evidence from Sweden and from the US so far suggests that streaming revenues may indeed grow at the direct expense of downloads.  But while we may be some way off from a definitive judgment on that issue, there is one cannibalization threat that is looking increasingly incontrovertible, yet has got far less attention: the cannibalization of radio.  In fact radio faces a two-pronged attack on its two heartlands, the home and the car.

The Home Front

There are many forms of streaming service and each sub-segment is eager to declare its uniqueness.  Spotify and Pandora practically fall over themselves to explain how different they are.  And indeed, in many ways they are, but what they have in common is that they are both direct competitors for radio listening time.  While they do not compete for all radio listening, nor for all radio listeners, they compete for much of the listening of some of the most valuable listeners.    Indeed streaming is looking more like radio with every passing day. The intensifying focus on curation as a means of making sense of 30 million songs is leading to on-demand services delivering a richer suite of lean-back, programmed and semi-programmed experiences.  In doing so the competitive threat to radio intensifies.  Whereas radio broadcasters can rightly claim that radio delivers a low effort, lean back listening experience, streaming services now wear those clothes too and they are not going to relinquish them.

Where things have really heated up though is the surge in streaming playback technology for the home.  Companies like Sonos and Pure have pioneered in-home streaming technology and CES saw this whole sector upping its game.  Music hi-fi is disappearing out of the home and these companies plan to bring it back with streaming at its core.  While radio is a key component of these devices, any hardware that gives a user the choice between traditional radio and interactive streaming is going to mean that radio is directly competing for listening time on that very device.  The home is one of radio’s heartlands, and broadcasters are now having to fend off the unwanted attentions of streaming music services establishing an in-home beachhead with consumer adoption of home streaming devices.

Digital Radio Fragmentation Plays Into the Hands of Streaming Services

Dedicated digital radio devices such as DAB and satellite radio players have only found traction in a handful of markets, with the US and UK notable exceptions at the forefront.  But international and domestic squabbles over competing digital radio standards mean that the global digital radio landscape is a fragmented mess of half-baked trials and aborted roll outs.  All the while internet streaming adoption accelerates on smartphones and tablets.  Radio may even buckle under the weight of this app invasion.  The more radio broadcasters rely on internet streaming for digital strategy, the more they put themselves directly in competition with streaming services, both on-demand and interactive radio.

The Battle for the Car

If the onslaught on the home was not enough, the growth of interactive car dashboards means that streaming services are getting straight into the car too.  In the US SiriusXM has long been held up as a standout success story for digital content with 25.6 million paying subscribers outshining any on demand music service by a country mile. But the same app invasion that is threating radio on smartphones and tablets is now pouring into the car via interactive dashboards. Car manufacturers are striking up deals at a bewildering rate with streaming providers with Pandora and Spotify being particularly active.  SiriusXM had a decent run at things, offering a truly national radio experience in the US, but now more and more consumers will start wondering why they need to pay $15 a month when they can get Pandora and Songza for free.

streaming pincer movement

The Free Music Land Grab

Thus radio finds itself locked in a streaming music technology pincer movement that threatens it like never before.  Radio broadcasters have countless assets at their disposal – talk radio, DJs, market-leading programming expertise – but they cannot rely on these alone anymore.  They have to up their innovation ante posthaste.  They also face a further and utterly crucial disruptive threat from streaming: the free music land grab.

Spotify and Apple only offer free music as a means to sell their core products.  Advertising revenue is a nice way of covering some costs but is not their lifeblood in the way it is for commercial broadcasters.  This means that they can be more cavalier in their ad sales strategies and undercut radio broadcasters for business with rates that might not be sustainable for a commercial broadcaster.  2014 will see these two powerhouses pursue aggressive advertiser strategies and when coupled with Pandora’s burgeoning ad sales record, traditional broadcasters may find themselves becoming collateral damage in the free music land grab.

Is 2014 a Napster Year for Radio?

2014 will be an important year for streaming, but it will be even more pivotal for radio.  It is far too early in the development of streaming to say that this is a make or break year for radio, but it is fair to say that 2014 looks and smells for radio a lot like 1999 did for the music industry.  Back then the labels failed to respond to Napster with innovation and they spent the next decade paying the price.  Radio broadcasters would be well served to –learn from the labels’ mistake.

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For those of you at Midem next week I will be giving a presentation on Monday entitled ‘Making Streaming Add Up’.  See you there.