Niche is the New Mainstream

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

The marketing rulebook is being re-written

Three trends have reshaped how music marketing works:

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

fragmented fandom midia research - niche is the new maiostream

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

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

The old living side by side with the new

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

Fragmented fandom is an asset, not a challenge

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

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

Music Sync: A Market Ripe for Change

Florence and the Machine’s performance of Jenny of Oldstones, which appeared over the closing credits of the April 21st HBO’s Game Of Thrones episode, has registered the most Shazams in 24 hours ever.The placing of a song has always had the ability to transform its fortunes, and that has never been more the case than now. The music sync market is booming, with the number of syncs higher than ever and more platforms and productions seeking new music. It is also a market with a host of structural challenges, which is the focus of MIDiA’s latest major new report on the music sync market – Music Sync Market Assessment: A Market Ripe for Change. Clients can access here and non-clients can purchase here from our report store.

We interviewed senior sync market executives of labels, publishers, sync agencies, sync tech, TV, games etc. for the report to help create the definitive take on this important but problematic sector. Here are some brief highlights of the report.

midia music sync tech landscape

The music sync market has long been a source of high-margin income for rights holders as well as a means for helping break artists, with a well-placed, successful track having the ability to transform the career of an emerging artist. The growth of channels such as games, social video, and online video (like Netflix), and the corresponding renaissance in TV drama production, have combined to create an unprecedented volume of demand for the sync marketplace. A wave of tech start-ups has followed, each trying to fix parts of an otherwise very ad hoc and relationships-based industry.

Total sync revenues grew by 11% in 2017, but remain a minority component of music publisher revenue and have even less value for labels. Despite a boom in demand, much of the opportunity remains untapped. This is largely because the sync market is a complex, interconnected web of closely guarded personal relationships that operate on tradecraft, reputation and personal connections. It is a marketplace that technology has only brushed the edges of – but when it has, the results have been mixed. For example, streaming playlists have quickly become an established tool used by music supervisors, but on the other hand, many of the new start-ups addressing the space have failed to gain meaningful traction. In part this is because it is a sector that has modest appetite for change. Indeed, with personal reputations an industry currency, and lack of pricing transparency a well-used tool for securing price premiums, there is more internal incentive to remain in stasis than to embrace innovation.

A host of technology companies have come to market attempting to improve the music sync workflow, but many require pre-cleared rights. This is something that would undoubtedly accelerate the market but that rightsholders are typically unwilling to agree to because:

  1. They need individual creator approval
  2. They do not want to cede negotiating power

The music sync market has managed to remain strong by changing far less than most other parts of the music business. However, strategic shifts by newer, large-scale buyers such as Netflix, coupled with wider technology shifts, mean that the sync market will not be able to resist change for much longer.

Micro licensing (e.g. YouTube content) represents a major opportunity, especially if Facebook manages to execute on its thus-far underwhelming social music strategy. However, that requires a technology solution (e.g. Qwire, OCL) and simply cannot work on the same highly-manual and very slow mechanisms that mainstream sync operates with. Unless a tech solution is created, it will be royalty-free music providers like Epidemic Sound that will take most of the scale opportunity.

To read much more on the music sync market, check out the report here (Clients)   (Non-clients).

Companies and brands mentioned in the report:A+G Sync, Amazon, Beggars Group, Cue Songs, DISCO, Electronic Arts, Epidemic Sound, HBO, Jingle Punks, Jukedeck, Lickd, Musicbed, Music Gateway, MXX, Netflix, OCL, Proctor and Gamble, Qwire, Reverbnation, Songtradr, Sony/ATV, Soundvault, SyncFloor, Synchtank, Tunefind, Universal Music, Warner Chappell, YouTube

10 Trends That Will Reshape the Music Industry

The IFPI has reported that global recorded music revenues have hit $19.1 billion, which means that MIDiA’s own estimates published in March were within 1.6% of the actual results. This revenue growth story is strong and sustained but the market itself is undergoing dramatic change. Here are 10 trends that will reshape the recorded music business over the coming years:

top 10 trends

  1. Streaming is eating radio: Younger audiences are abandoning radio for streaming. Just 39% of 16-19-year olds listen to music radio, while 56% use YouTube instead for music. Gen Z is unlikely to ever ‘grow into radio’; if you are trying to break an artist with a young audience, it is no longer your best friend. To make matters worse, podcasts are looking like a Netflix moment for radio and may start stealing older audiences. This is essentially a demographic pincer movement.
  2. Streaming deflation: Streaming music has allowed itself to be outpaced by inflation. A $9.99 subscription from 2009 is actually $13.36 when inflation is factored in. Contrast this with Netflix, for which theinflation-adjusted price is $10.34 but the actual 2019 price is $12.99. Netflix has stayed ahead of inflation; Spotify and co. have fallen behind. It is easier for Netflix to increase prices as it has exclusive content, but rights holders and streaming services need to figure out a way to bring prices closer to inflation. A market-wide increase to $10.99 would be a sound start, and the fact that so many Spotify subscribers are willing to pay $13 a month via iTunes shows there is pricing tolerance in the market.
  3. Catalogue pressure: Deep catalogue has been the investment fund of labels for years. But with most catalogue streams coming from music made in this century, catalogue values are being turned upside down (in the streaming era, the Spice Girls are worth more than the Beatles!). Labels can still extract high revenue from legacy artists with super premium editions like UMG did with the Beatles in 2018, but a new long-term approach is required for valuing catalogue. Matters are complicated further by the fact that labels are now doing so many label services deals, and therefore not building future catalogue value.
  4. Labels as a service (LAAS): Artists can now create their own virtual label from a vast selection of services such as 23 Capital, Amuse, Splice, Instrumental, and CDBaby. A logical next step is for a 3rdparty to aggregate a selection of these services into a single platform (an opening for Spotify?). Labels need to get ahead of this trend by better communicating the soft skills and assets they bring to the equation, e.g. dedicated personnel, mentoring, and artist and repertoire (A+R) support.
  5. Value chain disruption: LAAS is just part of a wider trend of value chain disruption with multiple stakeholders trying to expand their roles, from streaming services signing artists to labels launching streaming services. Things are only going to get messier, with virtually everyone becoming a frenemy of the other.
  6. Tech major bundling: Amazon set the ball rolling with its Prime bundle, and Apple will likely follow suit with its own take on the tech major bundle. Music is going to become just one part of content offerings from tech majors and it will need to fight for supremacy, especially in the ultra-competitive world of the attention economy.
  7. Global culture: Streaming – YouTube especially – propelled Latin music onto the global stage and soon we may see Spotify and T-Series combining to propel Indian music into a similar position. The standard response by Western labels has been to slap their artists onto collaborations with Latin artists. The bigger issue to understand, however, is that something that looks like a global trend may not be a global trend at all but is simply reflecting the size of a regional fanbase. The old music business saw English-speaking artists as the global superstars. The future will see global fandom fragmented with much more regional diversity. The rise of indigenous rap scenes in Germany, France and the Netherlands illustrates that streaming enables local cultural movements to steal local mainstream success away from global artist brands.
  8. Post-album creativity: Half a decade ago most new artists still wanted to make albums. Now, new streaming-era artists increasingly do not want to be constrained by the album format, but instead want to release steady streams of tracks in order to keep their fan bases engaged. The album is still important for established artists but will diminish in importance for the next generation of musicians.
  9. Post-album economics: Labels will have to accelerate their shift to post-album economics, figuring out how to drive margin with more fragmented revenue despite having to invest similar amounts of money into marketing and building artist profiles.
  10. The search for another format: In 1999 the recorded music business was booming, relying on a long established, successful format that did not have a successor. 20 years on, we are in a similar place with streaming. The days of true format shifts are gone due to the fact we don’t have dedicated format-specific music hardware anymore. However, the case for new commercial models and user experiences is clear. Outside of China, depressingly little has changed in terms of digital music experiences over the last decade. Even playlist innovation has stalled. One potential direction is social music. Streaming has monetized consumption; now we need to monetize fandom.

Apple’s Subscription Pivot

On Tuesday Apple announced its arrival on the world stage as a media company, using the lion’s share of its product keynote as the platform for a succession of super star actors, directors and other personalities to tell the story of their respective Apple original TV shows. Breaking with a longstanding tradition of using these keynotes to announce new hardware, Apple used this one to showcase content and its creators. While services revenue is still but a small minority of Apple’s business (11% in Q4 2018), there is no doubt that Apple is placing a far greater priority on content – a strategic pivot made necessary by slowing device sales in a saturated global smartphone market. Apple has already made itself a power player in music, but has the potential to turn the entire digital content marketplace upside down should it so decide.

four phases of media formats midia

Apple’s ramping up of its content strategy is best understood by looking at its place in the four stages of media formats:

  1. Phase 1 – physical media formats:In the old world, consumer electronics companies came together to agree on standards and then competed in a gentlemanly fashion on execution. This approach underpinned the eras of the CD and DVD.
  2. Phase 2 – walled garden ecosystems: In the internet era companies competed fiercely, building proprietary formats into impenetrable walls that locked consumers in. This resulted in the rise of walled gardens such as iTunes and Xbox.
  3. Phase 3 – post-ecosystem: App stores became the chink in the armour for walled garden models, allowing a generation of specialist standalone apps such as Spotify and Netflix.
  4. Phase 4 – aggregation: Walled garden players had inadvertently created global platforms for specialist competitors, so are now figuring out how to avoid going the route of telcos and becoming dumb pipes. The likes of Xbox, Amazon and Apple have started to embrace some of their standalone competitors, adding curatorial layers on top via hardware and software. This is how we have Amazon channels, Fortnite’s marketplace within Xbox and, soon, Apple channels.

Apple just prepped its content portfolio for a subscription pivot

Apple built its modern-day business firmly on the back of content. The iPod was the foundation stone for its current device business and simply would not have existed without music. While its current device portfolio meets a much wider set of user needs, content remains the use case glue that holds its device strategy together. On Tuesday Apple announced new subscriptions for news (News+), games (Arcade) and video (TV+). Interestingly, in an entire keynote focused on media, Apple Music did not even get a mention, despite Zane Lowe’s Beats One show providing the background music prior to the presentations. Perhaps Apple felt Apple Music is so well established that it did not merit a mention, but the lack of an update felt like more than an oversight, intentional or otherwise.

That aside, Apple now has prepped its content proposition for a subscription pivot. Prior to these new announcements, Apple’s content offering (Apple Music excepted) was firmly rooted in the increasingly archaic world of downloads. Shifting from downloads to streaming is no easy task, and Apple will have to tread a cautious path so as not to risk alienating less adventurous download customers. It is the exact same shift that Amazon is navigating. But now Apple has the subscriptions toolset to start that journey in earnest. It has decided that subscriptions are ready for primetime.

This primetime strategy underpins Apple’s early follower strategy across its entire product and services portfolio. As its customer base has gotten older and more mainstream, it has had to progressively stretch out launches, to such an extent that at times it looks at risk of being too late. Apple Music looked too late when it launched, but still made it to a clear number two position. TV+ was even later to market, but don’t count against it plotting a similar path to Apple Music.

What Apple needs from content

Watch and TV could both be long-term contenders for Apple’s revenue growth until it launches a product category to drive new, iPhone-scale hardware growth, but the odds are not yet in their favour. Services look like the best midterm bet. But Apple has some tough decisions to make about what role it wants content to play in its business. This is because subscriptions pose two challenges for Apple:

  • Margin could be a real problem:Apple’s high profile spat with Spotify over its App Store levy hides a bigger commercial issue. With margins in streaming as low as they are, Apple most likely makes more margin on its Spotify App Store levy than it does selling its own Apple Music subscriptions. The amount of money it has invested in its lineup of TV+ originals is also unlikely to do its services margins any favours.
  • Subscriptions have to get really big: Standalone subscriptions will not only be low (perhaps negative) net margin contributors, but will not deliver enough revenue. It would take more than one billion Apple customers paying for two $9.99 subscriptions every month of the year to generate the same amount of revenue it currently makes from hardware. The App Store is Apple’s current services cash cow, and Apple’s new slate of subscriptions are preparing for a post-App Store world. Yet it would take a hundred million $9.99 subscriptions every month of the year to get Apple’s services revenue to where it is now. That number is eminently achievable but generates revenue stagnation, not growth.

Doing an Amazon

So how does Apple square the circle? Probably through a combination of standalone subscriptions, bundles and a single Apple bundle plan. And yes, once again, this is exactly what Amazon has been doing for years now. In fact, you could say Apple is doing an Amazon. The Prime-like bundle could be the most disruptive move of the lot. Imagine if Apple, alongside the full-fat subscriptions, deployed a lite version of Music, Games and TV+ available for a single annual fee and / or as part of a device price (like Amazon Music Unlimited vs Amazon Prime Music). This option would mean that Apple would be simultaneously doing free without ads and subscription with fees. The implications for pure subscription and ad supported businesses are clear.

Whatever options Apple pursues, the permutations will be felt by all in the digital content marketplace.

Preparing for the Post-Album Industry

This is a guest post by Keith Jopling, MIDiA’s Consulting Lead. It is a follow-up piece to What’s Next In Playlist Innovation?

Every week I’m still excited to check out the latest album releases. They are the gift that keeps on giving. But that gift feels different these days, more like receiving flowers or chocolate and less like anything you might say is a keepsake.

It’s becoming very rare these days for me to fall in love with an album the way I used to. I miss it, but there it is. Some of this is a conscious trade-off, since I enjoy compiling and curating playlists. But to some extent, it just feelslike I don’t have the time to give (i.e. invest in repeated listens) in the way albums – good ones – truly deserve.

Broader listening trends confirm that this applies to people in general. The penetration of adults that claim to listen to whole albums monthly, stands at just 16% (Q4 ‘18 data from MIDiA, a drop from 22% in the previous quarter), compared with say, 35% listening to music on the phone.

This is self-reported of course. Behavioural data on actual album listening is a patchwork of proxy measures, such as ‘listens (to individual album tracks) from the artist’s album page’ on Spotify. To be fair, we never ever really knew how consumers who bought albums actually listened to them. Survey data I saw a long time ago, before the streaming era kicked-in suggested that some purchased albums were played on average, just over once.

Competing in the attention economy

As the management consultants say, what can’t be measured won’t get done, and so in a world of real-time statistical feedback, why make an album if you cannot know who is listening and how? There is already a creative conversation in the industry about “skip-rate reduction” and one way to achieve this is to front load albums with the catchiest tracks, but where does that leave the art of album sequencing and story-telling?

The album’s competitive pressures go wider than music. In the attention economy, albums compete with Netflix, Fortnite, TikTok and Instagam. In music’s own attention economy, albums compete with singles, playlists, games, podcasts and box sets. And those latter two categories are literally stealing the show. This is unsurprising in the streaming world – a better way of coping with the content waterfall is a ‘consume-once-only’ approach. The idea of spending the same 45 minutes over & over to build up familiarity with a record seems taxing.

Albums are no longer water cooler moments

What seems particularly telling for music, is that ‘Netflix and shows’ is the water cooler conversation now. Pop culture talk is all about what you’ve watched, are watching or should watch, and any similar conversation about listening is conspicuous by its absence. The ‘event album’ seems to be over. Is it just me or do artists seem to want to drop albums with less fuss now anyway? Perhaps the element of surprise (Bowie’s legacy yet again) is smarter than facing the “aftermath of promotion”. But it’s also not without risk given the tonnage of new music flowing through. Coupled with this, some artists are either eschewing the format or at the very least questioning it. If we take the world’s biggest artist right now, Ariana Grande – what role did her album play in the scheme of things?

What choices does this leave labels and artists?

When the CD began to give way to streaming, it’s fair to say the labels embraced it. In some ways, the CDs decline was ushered in rather than managed out. Back around 2012 I was in the room when one label boss took hold of a CD and flung it across the room smashing it into shards. I was impressed if surprised. But are labels taking the same level of aggressive-progressive when it comes to succeeding the album?

I’ve already argued previously that the main format to succeed the album is the playlist, and that there is further innovation to go (also acknowledging Apple’s release regarding a more creative approach top playlist cover art). Meanwhile there is no doubt that the EP has made a comeback, and has become a useful vehicle for new artists to drop a collection of songs as a showcase of their repertoire.

But let’s take a look at some other options:

  • (Bring back) Album Exclusives:With some services so favouring the single track, could the labels divide & rule with full album licensing fenced off to other album focused services? Now I know we’ve been there before, and ‘nobody’ liked it much, but things are different now, and platform differentiation is a strategy both labels and platforms need when it comes to content. If some services stepped up in full support of the album, it stands a better chance longer term. A more radical option? Sell full albums exclusively on label-owned streaming services.
  • Physical Exclusives (through vinyl):Favouring both the true fan and the artist, perhaps vinyl should become the exclusive way to hear the whole collected work. With traditional vinyl at capacity one innovation I am keeping an eye on is Virylsteam-based manufacture. For artists looking to do something truly different, this is an option. Pre-order, custom versions, pre-sale and merch during tours, and pop-ups, as well as sell-through Amazon, Bandcamp and brick & mortar, the product sale potential is larger than it looks.
  • More visual outputs:Universal has doubled-down on video. Apple has doubled-down on video. Video remains huge, and continues to grow in short-form, and now long-form too. TV and theatrical productions are hunting very actively on music’s turf. It’s fascinating but by definition, not the same ubiquity potential of audio formats. Music films can do wonders for song catalogues however, Bohemian Rhapsdoy has proven that.
  • Experiment with entirely new formats:Easy to say, harder to do. New platforms such as voice and the car provide options without a doubt. Of course, an option for the producer sector is to do nothing much – simply wait for the technology sector to stumble on the next scaleable format. They are certainly trying, from Spotify’s Canvas moving images, to Pandora’s new Stories format, to Apple’s continued video format innovations such as Up Next. The platforms pitch these formats to artists as much as labels. One problem for labels is keeping up with the tail wagging the dog. Without knowing if the format will last, should they invest and convince artists to make stuff the platforms want? For example, should they make vertical videos just because Spotify wants vertical videos that month, or podcasts because it’s now all about podcasts, until it isn’t?
  • Expand into the live sector: Not easy. Wider representation of artists got a bad rap with the ‘360’ degree deals, but yet again, times have changed and a re-evaluation is due. With money coming in from streaming as well as outside investment, labels could buy smaller live promoters and venues.

What does this mean to the artist proposition and label economics?

Okay, so now we are down to the rub. The album is still the format that drives industry economics as a whole. The conversation around the artist proposition (and therefore the deal) has been changing for some years, but still essentially centres on the album as the economic unit. This must surely see more rapid change, to be replaced by agreed song numbers, or simply a time period covering numerous ‘artist projects’. We’ve already seen the first ‘lifetime’ deal between Elton John and Universal.

For the vast majority of artists, revenues are now following a pareto curve, with their ‘top songs’ (between five and ten say) making up a fraction of their catalogue but the large majority of their streaming income. When an established active artist releases a new album, the impact is often on those jewels in the crown more than the new collection, and if one or two songs make it into the crown, then bingo! The project pays off. The goal of any artist project is to get another jewel in the crown, but is an album the critical vessel to achieve that goal?

Perhaps the golden rule here is that the one size fits all model is becoming unfit for purpose. We’re already seeing some innovation, especially from Hip Hop artists like Migos, Drake and Kanye, but this trickle needs to turn into a flood. We’re getting to the time for ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’.

The last days of All Killer No Filler?

I still use my primary source of the past 20 years to find new records, The Guardian G2 and Pitchfork. I can’t find any new albums via Spotify’s personalised feeds, because that’s mostly now just ‘for me’, or singles. Apple Music does a better job of presenting new release albums, and I guess both the streaming rivals are serving their own listener base appropriately.

Despite everything you read above, I feel the album will endure. The digital streaming age is a challenge to artists to make better albums, the ‘all killer no filler’ approach. The album as a canvas still feels relevant for some artists, but only some.

The album is already a niche in consumption terms, unmeasurable in streaming terms, but still the essential deliverable in the deal. That’s out of step, and those labels and artists with one eye on the mid-term future will already be planning for what the game looks like going forward. It’s what Reed Hastings calls “constantly worrying about what’s next” and it’s worked for him so far.

We don’t just write it. For a ‘post album world’ conversation with Keith & Mark contact us at MIDiA. We’ve already been helping labels, artists and managers rethink the album, drop us a line at info@midiaresearch.comto see how we could work with you.

 

Kobalt is a Major Label Waiting to Happen

Disclaimer: Kobalt is a label, a publisher as well as a Performing Rights Organisation (PRO). This post focuses on its label business, but does not presume to overlook its other aspects.

Lauv Kobalt

News has emerged of Kobalt potentially looking to raise an additional $100 million of investment, following a 2017 round of $89 million and a 2015 $60-million round led by Google Ventures. Kobalt has been the poster child for the changing of the guard in the music business, helping set the industry agenda by pursuing a creators-first strategy while

building an impressive roster of songwriters and artists at a scale that would have most indies salivating. But it does not have its sights set on being the leading player of the indie sector, instead playing for the big game: Kobalt is the next major label waiting to happen.

So, what makes Kobalt so different? In some respects, nothing. Most of what Kobalt is doing has been done before, and there are others plotting a similar path right now (e.g. BMG, United Masters, Hitco). What matters is how it is executing, how well backed it is and the scale of its ambitions:

  • Moving beyond masters: In the old model, artists signed away their rights in perpetuity to record labels, with nine out of ten of them permanently in debt to the label not yet having paid off their advances. The new model (i.e. label services) pursued by the likes of Kobalt, reframes the artist-label relationship, turning it one more akin to that of agency-client. In this rebalanced model artists retain long-term ownership of their copyrights and in return share responsibility of costs with their label. This approach, coupled with transparent royalty reporting, lower admin costs and continual tech innovation has enabled Kobalt to build a next-generation label business.
  • Laser focus on frontline: In a label services business the entire focus is on frontline, as there isn’t any catalogue. An artist signed to such a label therefore knows that they have undivided attention. That’s the upside; the downside is that the label does not have the benefit of a highly-profitable bank of catalogue to act as the investment fund for frontline. This means that a label like Kobalt often cannot afford the same scale of marketing as a major one, which helps explain why Kobalt is looking for another $100 million. However, there is a crucial benefit of being compelled to spend carefully.
  • Superstar niches: In the old model, labels would (and often still do) carpet-bomb TV, radio, print and digital with massive campaigns designed to create global, superstar brands. Now, labels can target more precisely and be selective about what channels they use. Kobalt’s business is based around making its roster superstars within their respective niches, finding a tightly-defined audience and the artists they engage with. The traditional superstar model sees an artist like a Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran or a Taylor Swift being a mass media brand with recognition across geographies and demographics. The new superstar can fly under the radar while simultaneously being hugely successful. Take the example of Kobalt’s Lauv, an artist tailor-made for the ‘Spotify-core’ generation that hardly registers as a global brand, yet has two billion audio streams, half a billion YouTube views and 26 million monthly listeners on Spotify. By contrast, heavily-backed Stormzy has just three million monthly Spotify listeners.
  • Deep tech connections: The recent WMG / Spotify spat illustrates the tensions that can exist between labels and tech companies. Kobalt has long focused on building close relationships with tech companies, including but not limited to streaming services. This positioning comes easier to a company that arguably owes more to its technology roots than it does its music roots. The early backing of Google Ventures plays a role too, though with some negative connotations; some rights holders fear that this in fact reflects Google using Kobalt as a proxy for a broader ambition of disrupting the traditional copyright regime.
  • A highly structured organisation: One of the key differences between many independent labels and the majors is that the latter have a much more structured organizational set up, with large teams of deep specialisation. This is the benefit of having large-scale revenues, but it is also a manifestation of ideology. Most independents focus their teams around the creative end of the equation, putting the music first and business second. Major labels, while still having music at their core, are publicly-traded companies first, with corporate structures and a legal obligation on management to maximise shareholder value. Kobalt has undoubtedly created an organisational structure to rival that of the majors.

Earned fandom

Kobalt is a next-generation label and it is plotting a course to becoming a next generation-major. That success will not be reflected in having the rosters of household names that characterise the traditional major model, but instead an ever-changing portfolio of niche superstars. The question is whether the current majors can respond effectively; they have already made big changes, including label services, JV deals, higher royalty rates, etc.

Perhaps the most fundamental move they need to make, however, is to understand what a superstar artist looks like in the era of fragmented fandom. The way in which streaming services deliver music based on use behaviours and preferences inherently means that artists have narrower reach because they are not being pushed to audiences that are relevant. This shifts us from the era of macro hits to micro hits ie songs that feel like number one hits to the individual listener because they so closely match their tastes. This is what hits mean when delivered on an engagement basis rather than a reach basis. Quality over quantity.

Majors can still make their artists look huge on traditional platforms, which still command large, if rapidly aging audiences. But what matters most is engagement, not reach. It is a choice between bought fandom and earned fandom. In the old model you could build a career on bought fandom. Now if you do not earn your fandom, your career will burn bright but fast, and then be gone.

What’s Next For Playlist Innovation?

This is a guest post from MIDiA Research’s Keith Jopling.

In this era of access to all music and everything about it, I do enjoy reading artist interviews, and pay attention to artists’ views on the modern music industry. What caught me recently were Mark Ronson’s remarks on songwriting in the age of the playlist in The Guardian:

“Everything has to be produced so it sounds competitively as loud as possible coming out of an iPhone or as loud as possible when it comes out of a Spotify hits playlist; you have to make sure the kick drum and the guitar have the same loudness and presence all the way through the whole fucking song or you don’t stand a chance. It’s kind of crazy how you have to think about music now.”

I have heard similar views from artists in recent years and they do have grounds, though you’ll be hard pressed to prove that streaming and playlists have truly altered music per se. After all how would that equate with the huge success of ‘slow music’ playlists, from Peaceful Piano to Esquenta Sertanejo to Your Favourite Coffeehouse?

There has certainly been an industry skew towards ‘streaming hits’ though. More artists are making “Spotify-core” (i.e. music that will do anything to avoid being skipped) and that’s a genre perhaps lacking in subtlety, But can it be accused of crowding out other, subtler types of music?

I would argue that playlists have changed the way we listen more than they have changed music itself. If the first port-of-call for music consumers is to hear songs on playlists, a lot of context around the music is lost. Already, research has shown that listeners are hard pushed to recall song titles, let alone the albums those songs are taken from. Speaking of albums, it strikes me as high time the industry now evaluate just what a ‘post-album’ world will look and sound like. So perhaps somewhere to start is to think about more innovation with the format that in essence, has replaced the album – playlists.  

Are playlists now set in stone as 30-50 tracks that are forever subject to optimisation tools and analytics? I very much doubt it. Despite playlists becoming valuable commercial music real estate in their current form (at least on Spotify) it seems to me that there is plenty of scope for further creative development of the format. We are far from ‘peak playlist’. A glance at the latest MIDiA global consumer data for Q4 2018 would back this up, with just 17% of music streamers claiming to listen to playlists regularly. though that number nearly doubles for Spotify subscribers to 31%. Critical mass for Spotify but hardly mass behaviour for the market overall.

That said, playlists do greatly reflect the way consumers interact with music: compiling or selecting, listening and sharing, sometimes adding context along the way. The opportunities these behaviours offer as a vehicle for promoting and monetizing artists are immense and perhaps still largely untapped, especially with regard to contextualization of new talent, as well as the creative resurfacing of songs from within music catalogues too.

A slowdown in playlist innovation

Spotify came to be the platform that really owns the playlist format, and it achieved this through a breakneck period of innovation between July 2015 and September 2016, with curated playlists brands like Rap Caviar and Today’s Top Hits augmented with the personalised “made for you” power triangle of Discovery Weekly, Release Radar and Daily Mix.

But since then, in over two years there has been little of that same calibre, other than somewhat lighter initiatives such as “Your Time Capsule”. More recently, Spotify has begun to fuse some curated playlists together with algorithmic suggestions (‘algotorial’). The strategy to personalise more playlists not only makes it harder for its competitors to copy, but introduces many more song slots for direct or independent artists to fill. The strategy is smart but perhaps lacks imagination.

Playlist Innovation Timeline: There has been a slowdown following 18 months of blistering innovation led by Spotify between July ‘15 and September ‘16.

Playlist-Timeline

Despite this, remarkably none of the major streaming competitors have made moves to innovate in the playlist space either, which seems a shame when streaming services are desperate for differentiation strategies. Instead, Amazon, Apple and Deezer seem to have largely played a game of follow the leader, with similar playlists themes, visual presentation and even ever blander names. In recent days Pandora has launched something called Stories, a mesh of podcast + playlist, which seems not only to lack imagination but to be muddled. Isn’t that just a tweak on radio?

Many artists and labels are concerned about the power that services have with regard to playlisting. While getting tracks on to the current raft of major playlist properties represents a challenge for A&R and marketers the music industry, the more accessible platform-hosted independent curated playlist have been around since Napster.

There are few, if any, limits to the potential reach of these playlists, and their value is determined in part by how creative they are, and in part how shareable they are. The recording industry’s earlier efforts to build playlists or influence playlists have fallen short though lack of imagination, global thinking, context and shareability, but that just means that the industry is free to work more creatively with the wider playlist community. It surprises me that Spotify, which plays host to independent curators still (and hopefully will continue to) doesn’t do more to tend to the community. But this perhaps creates room for others to do so.

Personally, I can see new exciting playlist platform tools like Soundsgood helping global playlist curators reach audiences more easily, providing many more opportunities for artists, labels and creators in the process. Other platforms like Stationhead and Lost are doing interesting things too with curators and tracks, but perhaps could get more traction if they switched focus to playlists?

Bringing back context

I like playlists as much as the next music fan, but like Mark Ronson and many other artists and music fans, I also feel they have commodified music somewhat. One thing I would like to see much more of for playlists is context. Why can’t we have sleeve notes for playlists about how they were put together (let alone by whom and why?). It looks to me like there is an opportunity to bring some context and personality back into playlisting. Mixtapes from the cassette age were lovingly compiled, often with handwritten notes and homemade cover art.

I’ve played with some of these ideas with my own playlist site the Song Sommelier. The Song Sommelier was created as a passion project to bring mixtape and vinyl values back to playlisting. Each playlist is accompanied by bespoke artwork by ‘resident’ artist Mick Clarke, and a reader or ‘digital sleeve notes’ by the playlist curator. For this project we chose to use the Soundsgood player to allow users of any streaming service access the playlists, doing away with those widgets that direct the music fan to either Spotify or Apple. It’s still more than a two horse race after all.

My hope is that with the artwork, sleeve notes and more original themes for the playlists, will make fans and listeners listen to playlists more like they used to with albums – paying more attention and hopefully connecting with the song collection on a deeper level. At least that might make Mark Ronson cheer up a bit (though his new “Club Heartbreak” playlist on Apple Music suggests it might be a while).

Perhaps a key question is how important is context to the music itself? It depends on your point of view, but context may be the thing that divides the passionate music fan from the casual one. Really, who wants to listen to a collection called “Get Home Happy” or “Prime Chill”, whether it’s curated or personalised? Except I guess some people do. Mostly, I would welcome some more creative thinking and innovation that can take playlists to another level.

Taylor Swift, Label Services and What Comes Next

universal-music-group-logoTaylor Swift has done it again, striking a deal with UMG that includes a commitment from the world’s largest label group to share proceeds from Spotify stock sales with artists, even if they are not recouped (ie haven’t generated enough revenue to have paid off the balance on their advance so not yet eligible to earn royalty income). This follows Swift’s 2015 move to persuade Apple to pay artists for Apple Music trials. That Swift has influence is clear, though whether she has that much influence is a different question. Let’s just say it served both Apple and Universal well to be seen to be listening to the voice of artists. But it is what appears to be a label services part of the deal that has the most profound long-term implications, with Swift stating that she is retaining ownership of her master recordings.

The rise of label services

The traditional label model of building large banks of copyrights and exploiting them is slowly being replaced, or at the very least complemented, by the rise of label services deals. In the former model the label retains ownership of the master recordings for the life time of the artist plus a period eg 70 years. In label services deals the label has an exclusive period for exploiting the rights, after which they revert to full ownership of the artist. Artist normally cede something in return, such as sharing costs. Companies like Kobalt’s AWAL and BMG Music Rights have led the charge of the label services movement. However, Cooking Vinyl can lay claim to being the ‘ice breaker’ with its pioneering 1993 label services deal with Billy Bragg, negotiated between his manager Pete Jenner and Cooking Vinyl boss Martin Goldschmidt. It may have taken a couple of decades, but the recording industry has finally caught up.

Major labels in on the act

The major labels remain the powerhouses of the recorded music business in part because they have learned to embrace and then supercharge innovation that comes out of the independent sector. Label services is no exception. Each of the major labels has their own label services division, including buying up independent ones. Label services are proving to be a crucial asset for major labels. The likes of AWAL and BMG have been mopping up established artists in the latter stages of their careers, with enough learned knowledge to want more control over their careers. By adding label services divisions the majors now have another set of options to present to artists. This enables them to not only hold onto more artists but also to win new ones – which if of course technically what UMG did with Swift, even though it had previously been Swift’s distributor. As with all new movements, examples are often few and far between but they are there. The UK’s Stormzy is a case in point, signing a label services deal with WMG before upgrading it to a JV deal between WMG’s Atlantic Records and his label #MERKY. For an interesting, if lengthy, take on why Stormzy and WMG took this approach – including the concept of secret ‘Mindie Deals’ that allow more underground artists maintain some major label distance for appearances’ sake, see this piece.

The early follower strategy 

In August 2018UMG’s Sir Lucian Grainge called out the success of UMG’s label services and distribution division Caroline, noting it had doubled its US market share over the previous year. UMG was already not only on the label services deal path but had identified it as a key growth area and wanted the world – including investors – to know. UMG has stayed ahead of the pack by pursuing an early follow strategy of identifying new trends, testing them out and then throwing its weight behind them. Before you think of that as damning with faint praise, the early follower strategy is the one pursued by the world’s most successful companies. Google wasn’t the first search engine, Apple wasn’t the first smartphone maker, Facebook wasn’t the first social network, Amazon wasn’t the first online retailer.

What comes next

The label services component of the UMG deal was actually announced by Taylor Swift herself rather than UMG, writing:

“It’s also incredibly exciting to know that I own all of my master recordings that I make from now on. It’s really important to me to see eye to eye with a label regarding the future of our industry.”

While this might betray which party feels most positive about this component of the deal, the inescapable fact is that other major artists at the peak of their powers will now want similar deals. Label services success stories to date had been older artists such as Rick Astley, Janet Jacksonand Nick Cave as well as upcoming artists like Stormzy. Now we will start to see them becoming far more commonplace in the mainstream.

But perhaps now is the time. Catalogue revenues are going to undergo big change in the coming years, as MIDiA identified in our June 2018 report The Outlook for Music Catalogue: Streaming Changes Everything. Deep catalogue is not where the action is anymore. For example, 1960s tracks accounted for just 6.4% of all UK catalogue streams in the UK in 2017, while catalogue from the 2000s accounted for 60.4%, according to the BPI’s invaluable All About the Music report. So, by striking a long-term label services type deal, UMG secures Swift’s signature and can still benefit from the main catalogue opportunity for the first few releases without actually owning the catalogue.

Label services have come a long way since Billy Bragg’s 1993 deal and Taylor Swift has just announced that they are ready for prime time.

Penny for the thoughts of Bill Bragg having paved the way for the queen of pop’s latest deal….

Spotify, DistroKid and the Two Sided Marketplace

distrokid spotify

Spotify has taken a minority stake in DistroKid. In itself, it may be a slightly left field but relatively insignificant move, except that it is in fact one small but important step on a much bigger journey. Back in September, Spotify announced that it was enabling artists to upload their music directly to Spotify, simultaneously aggravating record labels, distributors, DIY platforms and Soundcloud all in one fell swoop. This raised an intriguing possibility of a ‘coalition of the willing’ forming against Spotify from slighted partners and competitors. But that’s another blog post. Right now, though, DistroKid’s role in this performance is as an enabler for Spotify in its path to becoming a next generation label / creating a two-sided marketplace (delete as appropriate depending on how all this affects your business).

Bringing efficiencies into the supply chain

Spotify’s DistroKid deal will enable Spotify’s direct artists to “seamlessly distribute their music to other platforms through DistroKid”.So, instead of putting all their streaming eggs in one basket, Spotify’s direct artists now get to stream their music on Apple, Amazon, Deezer and the rest too. What wasn’t made clear in the announcement is whether Spotify will have visibility of the streaming data from those other platforms and / or whether the revenue will be recognised as Spotify revenue and then distributed to its artists. If these statements were to be the case, then Spotify’s competitors would be feeding it data and revenue…

UPDATE: A Spotify spokesperson clarified that “Spotify has no rights to see data from other digital service providers and DistroKid will not share confidential information.”

Why this relatively small announcement matters, is that it is another piece of Spotify’s strategy of shifting its way up the value chain by a) removing some of the distribution component and b) entering into direct relationships with artists. It’s what west coast tech firms call ‘bring efficiencies into the supply chain’. If it all works, Spotify will get more margin, artists will get more margin, but middle players (labels, distributors etc.) will get squeezed.

Treading a subtler path

This is how Spotify can edge quietly towards becoming a record label without going nuclear from the get go. It is a strategy we predicted by in April ahead of Spotify’s DPO:

“As much as the whole world appears to be saying Spotify needs to do a Netflix (and it probably does) it just can’t, not yet at least. In TV, rights are so fragmented that Netflix can have Disney and Fox pull their content and it’d still be a fast growing business. If UMG pulled its content from Spotify, the latter would be dead in the water. So, Spotify will take a subtler path to ‘doing a Netflix’, first by ‘doing a Soundcloud’ i.e. becoming a direct platform for artists and then switching on monetisation etc.”.

The challenge for Spotify is whether it can execute on the strategy quickly enough to excite investors (and thus drive up the share price), but slowly enough to keep record labels on board…so that when they realise where things are heading then it is too late for them to do anything about it.

 

Introducing The Future Music Forum

fmf-sync-logoThis September MIDiA will be participating in the Future Music Forum (FMF) in Barcelona. We’ve been involved with the FMF since its inception and we think it’s a great, intimate event that combines forward thinking presentations with informal but highly productive networking. And of course it is in sunny Barcelona!

This year I’ll be doing the opening keynote: Music Rebooted: How Emerging Technologies And Gen Z Are Changing Music For Good. In this presentation I will be looking at how audiences are changing, talent is changing, content is changing, and all at an unprecedented rate. How what used to work doesn’t and what does work won’t in the future. Technologies as diverse as VR, Musical.ly and Snapchat are transforming what success looks like and writing new rules for success. So, just as you thought you were getting your head around how to make the economics of streaming work now you have to change the entire way you look at what music looks like and what it means to fans.

In addition, MIDiA’s Paid Content analyst Zach Fuller will be moderating a panel: Social Media Influencers / Music Industry’s New Talent Pipeline. In this panel Zach will lead a discussion exploring how millennial audiences now rely on social media platforms to capture their experiences, communicate with others, and find information used to make purchasing decisions (among other things). He’ll look at how marketing with social media influencers is one of the most cost-effective and powerful ways that brands can reach millions of consumers on Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube.

FMF runs from the 20th of September to the 21st, with an additional Synch Summit running alongside starting on the 19th. We hope to see you there.