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.

Kanye West, Leonard Cohen And Death Of The Creative Full Stop

When Kanye West started tinkering with ‘The Life Of Pablo’ he triggered a minor maelstrom of chatter among the music business and his fans alike. From a month after the album had been made available exclusively on Tidal, Kanye started changing track names here, adding lines there, re-mastering here, giving guest vocalists more space there. Cynics might argue that the changes started to happen just after the Tidal free trial period ended for fans who’d signed up to access the album. But the changes carried on months after and doubtlessly will continue to do so. As intriguing as Kanye’s tampering may be though, the really surprising thing is its exceptionality – why in these digital days, where shelves of physical products are a dying breed, do 99.99% of artists and labels still allow themselves to be constrained by the straight jacket of the album, turning everything into a creative full stop?

The Long And Windy Road Of Hallelujah

imgres-5In his excellent podcast series ‘Revisionist History’, Malcolm Gladwell – he of ‘The Tipping Point’ – focuses one episode on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. Nowadays ‘Hallelujah’ is widely recognized as a masterpiece but it went on an epic journey to acquire that status. ‘Hallelujah’ starts out as a mediocre track on a 1984 album ‘Various Positions’ that Cohen’s label CBS refused to release and is instead put out by indie Passport Records. The release, as Gladwell puts it, “barely makes a ripple”. The magic in the song was all but invisible at this stage. But Cohen doesn’t see that 1984 recording as the end of the story, in fact it is just the start. Over the following years playing live he tinkers, tampers and reworks ‘Hallelujah’, slowing it down, making it twice as long, changing verses and making it even darker.

Finally, John Cale sees Cohen playing a reworked version at a gig and there is enough magic in it to compel him to ask Cohen to send him the lyrics so he can record his own version. Cohen then faxed Cale fifteen pages of lyrics (reflecting just how much tinkering he had done) and Cale “went through and just picked out the cheeky verses.” His recording of ‘Hallelujah’ is the first of the song as the world knows it – in part because it ended up on Shrek. The magic is finally released, or as Gladwell puts it Cale “cracks the code of ‘Hallelujah’”.

imgres-6Cale’s version appears on an obscure Leonard Cohen tribute album put together by a French Music magazine ‘I’m Your Fan’ which by pure serendipity ends up in the CD collection of a woman who a certain Jeff Buckley is house sitting for. He hears Cale’s version, is blown away, and performs his take on Cale’s take. A Colombia A&R exec hears Buckley performing it, is equally blown away, signs him up and records it in what would prove to be Buckley’s only – but highly influential – 1994 studio album ‘Grace’. Buckley’s version becomes the defining version of ‘Hallelujah’ and connects it with the world.

The Pseudo-Permanence Of Mass Media Was A Historical Anomaly

‘Hallelujah’s tale may be an exceptional one yet it also applies to all songs. Singers and bands reworking old songs into their live performances is no new thing, they like to update the songs to make them match where they are now as people, performers and songwriters. But only rarely does that then translate into a new recorded version. And this is the problem with record media. It creates an entirely arbitrary creative full stop. This though, isn’t the natural state of things.

The pseudo-permanence of mass media is an artefact of the distribution era, of the time when people were conditioned to believe that everyone could own their favourite music, movies and TV shows for ever. But of course nothing last for ever, especially not recorded media. Vinyl scratches and warps, cassette tapes degrade, DVDs and CDs lose their reflective quality and crack. And then to compound matters, these physical formats die out as products. So the ‘permanence’ was only ever transient. Nonetheless it ossified the creative output.

imgres-7Until Edison invented the Phonograph in 1887, music, with the exception of the highly regimented genre classical music which was ossified in musical score – though reinterpreted by conductors, was an ever evolving thing. Folk songs morphed out of all recognition as they passed down the generations, jazz musicians would tear apart songs with their own interpretations, blues numbers would ebb and flow like the Mississippi delta with each subsequent interpretation. No one ‘owned’ the music in the moment and no one ‘knew’ the correct performance of it because there was no ‘correct’ official performance. Radio and the phonograph changed all that. But now, with streaming there is no need for this arbitrary ossification of music. Music can return to its living breathing roots rather than imitating a museum piece in a glass case.

Conceptual Innovation Versus Experimental Innovation

There is a very important cultural reason why the creative full stop needs consigning to the waste bin of history: it curtails creativity. In his podcast Gladwell outlines two key types of innovators:

  • Conceptual innovators: they’re the ones who create in an instant, and often burn bright and short. They’re the ones we most often think of as geniuses.
  • Experimental innovators: these are the ones who continually iterate, changing, tinkering, for ever looking to perfect their work.

Both groups have creative geniuses within them. Pablo Picasso was a conceptual innovator, bursting onto the scene and transforming the art world in an instant. Paul Cézanne though, an equally important artist from the same era, was entirely different, he would create endless different versions of paintings, often not finishing or even destroying them. He was on a continual journey of creative discovery, he was an experimental innovator.

Recorded media forces experimental innovators into the confines of conceptual innovators. Which means that so much great music was never allowed to find its true greatness, instead being bound to a recording long before it was ready to be. During his updates to ‘Life Of Pablo’ Kanye wrote “Fixing Wolves 2day… Worked on it for 3 weeks.”  He’s an experimental innovator, a perfectionist. The irony is that the album he continually hones is called ‘The Life Of Pablo’, which quite probably refers to that archetype of the conceptual innovator Picasso (Kanye even said once “My goal, if I was going to do art, fine art, would have been to become Picasso or greater.”). So a more appropriate name for the album would have been called ‘The Life Of Paul [Cézanne]’

Agile Music

images-1Back in 2011 I wrote a report entitled ‘Agile Music: Music Formats and Artist Creativity In The Age of Media Mass Customization’ – you can still download it for free here and you can watch my Midem keynote here. In it I made a case for bringing audiences into the creative process and for the death of the creative full stop; for music to become a living, breathing entity that artists can continually edit and evolve. Almost exactly 5 years on and virtually no one, Kanye obviously excepted, is doing this. Why? Because artists and labels still have static audio files as their reference points. Yet there is simply no need for this to be the case anymore. Sure, there has to be caution – if every single track changes all the time audiences would oscillate between apoplexy and utter confusion. But with moderation and clear context, Agile Music can reclaim music from the orthodoxy of the physical format that somehow still dictates the streaming environment. As more artists and labels embrace the approach, brace yourself for ‘Hallelujah’s becoming the norm not the exception.

Welcome To The 15 Second Song

Music messaging apps have become something of a boom area in recent years with the likes of MSTY, Dubsmash, PingTune, Flipagram and WordUp pursuing a variety of approaches. It is clear that messaging and music sharing both play to the fundamental human need to connect. What has been less clear is the market opportunity in the context of booming growth among pure play messaging apps like LINE and WhatsApp. The global number of monthly active users of messaging apps is now over 5 billion (which compares to just 2.6 billion for social networks). Messaging platforms are the new place digital audiences congregate. Conscious of the need to add to, rather than compete with, the messaging incumbents, music messaging app Musical.ly has taken a different approach. Instead of creating a soundtrack for messages it has focused on an Instagram-meets-Vine use case, with users creating their own videos to accompany a selection of songs served up by the app. It may seem like a relatively subtle difference but it has created an utterly different use case, one that challenges the very essence of what music consumption actually is, and what a song should be.

Peacocking

I’d been aware of Musical.ly for some time (music messaging apps, along with artist subscription apps, is one of the areas of music innovation that I’m currently paying a lot of attention to). But what really woke me up to the power of Musical.ly was seeing my daughter use it. Within seconds she was creating her first video, finding friends and racking up the likes. In a very similar way to Instagram Musical.ly is a perfect fit for the tweens and early teens. It appeals to the peacocking psychology of kids as they explore and define their identities, and as they learn about friendships and social circles.

musicallyJust as with kids in the school yard competing for who’s got the most Instagram followers, Musical.ly taps this somewhat narcissistic drive to outperform the rest. But while selfies and filters are the language of Instagram for kids, on Musical.ly it is music. Users are presented with a curated selection of tracks to chose from against which they create their own videos, whether they be lip synching, sharp dance routines or creative videos. As a slightly over bearing parent I insisted my daughter did not reveal her face on Musical.ly so she set about creating endless streams of stop motion animation, ranging from her Converse walking themselves across the floor to a biscuit disappearing one nibble at a time, all with a song as the soundtrack. This enforced creativity appears to have paid dividends as she quickly amassed followers and requests to collaborate.

The 15 Second Song

All well and good, but the really interesting bit for me was that each of the songs used in the videos was between 15 and 25 seconds long. Yet she plays the videos back again and again, on loop, as do her followers. So she ends up listening to, for example, 15 seconds of Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry’ sound tracking her self-propelled Converse many, many more times than she ever listened to the full song. Musical.ly will doubtlessly pitch this to rights owners as ‘discovery’. But it’s not. It is consumption in its own right, and like we’ve never really seen before. The 15 second hook is the song. The other 3 minutes are unnecessary baggage.

Breaking Free Of The 3 Minute Straight Jacket

We have the the 3 minute pop song because that’s what radio wanted, not because that is how long a song should naturally be. So now that we are becoming freed of the constraints of radio schedules, 7 inch vinyl and other analogue formats, there is no reason that the 3 minute straight jacket should dominate anymore. There have long been exceptions, such as Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (5.55) and Napalm Death’s ‘You Suffer’ (0.01). And although the pop music average remains firmly nailed to 3 minutes, change is a-coming. For example, Canadian Shawn Mendes, now firmly signed to Universal Music’s Island, found his way to fame by releasing 6 second songs on Vine. Generation Edge (i.e. Millennials aged 16 or under) have more apps, entertainment and technology competing for their attention than any previous generation. It’s not so much that their attention spans are shortening, but that they simply cannot afford to focus on any one thing too long else they miss out on everything else.

The changing structure of pop songs to feature hooks throughout, rather than simply in the chorus, means that in many ways pop songs are already becoming a stitched together collection of mini-songs. They inherently lend themselves to being unbundled. Musical.ly and its model of super-short-form music experiences is by no means the entire future of music consumption and creativity, but it absolutely does represent an entirely new strand of both of those.

The Orchard’s co-founder Scott Cohen started suggesting a few years ago that the future of the song could mean embracing 30 seconds as a creative format. It’s beginning to look like Scott may have called it right.

The Three Things You Need To Know About The UK Music Sales Figures

As most people expected, the UK recorded music industry returned to growth in 2015. The UK now follows an increasingly familiar European narrative of strong streaming growth helping bring total markets back to growth. Sales revenue increased 3.5% to reach £1.1 billion while total streams increased by 85% to reach 53.7 billion, with audio stream representing 49.9% of that total. There is no doubt that these are welcome figures for the UK music industry but as is always the case, a little digging beneath the surface of the numbers reveals a more complex and nuanced story. Here are the three things you need to know about UK music sales in 2015.

1 – Streaming Growth Accompanied A Download Collapse

Long term readers will know that I’ve long argued the ‘Replacement Theory’, that streaming growth directly reduces download sales. It is a simple and inevitable artefact of the transition process. Indeed a quarter of subscribers state they used to but no longer buy more than one album a month since they started paying for streaming. There have been plenty of opponents to this argument, normally from parties with vested interests. But the market data is now becoming unequivocal. While streams increased by 257% between 2013 and 2015 download sales decreased by 23%. And of course the vast majority of that streaming volume came from free streams, not paid.

bpi 1

2 – The Transition Follows A Clear Defined Path

The download to streaming transition is an inevitability, whatever business models are wrapped around it. It is part of the fundamental shift from ownership to access of which streaming music is but single component. It comprises consumers progressively replacing one behaviour with another. In fact, the evolution is so deliberate and predictable that it manifests in a clear numerical relationship: the Transition Triangle.

The UK music industry trade body the BPI has created a number of additional classifications for music sales and consumption. These include Stream Equivalent Albums (1,000 streams = 1 album) and Track Equivalent Sales (10 track sales = 1 album). Using these classifications and adding in actual album download sales we see a very clear relationship between the growth of streaming and the decline of downloads. The difference in volumes between downloads and streams each year is almost exactly the same as the amount by which downloads decreased the previous year. At this point even the most ardent replacement theory sceptic might start suspecting there’s at least some degree of causality at play.

BPI 2

3 – Thanks Are Due To Adele, Again

Back when Adele’s ‘21’ was setting sales records, music markets across the globe owed her a debt of gratitude for helping slow the incessant decline in sales. Global revenue decline fell to less than 1% and US revenue actually grew by 2.9% (falling back down the following year). Now she’s done it again with ’25’, giving album sales enough of a boost to ensure that the growth in streaming revenue lifted the entire market. For although album sales actually declined in 2015 and streaming volumes had grown more strongly in 2014, it was the combined impact of slowed album decline and streaming growth in 2015 that enabled the total market to grow so strongly.

Adele generated around £25 million of retail sales revenue in 2015, which was equivalent to 70% of the £36 million by which UK music sales revenue increased that year. While of course a portion of that £25 million would have been spent on other repertoire if ‘25’ had not been released, the majority would not. With ‘21’ and now with ‘25’ Adele has been able to pull casual music consumers out of the woodwork and persuade them to buy one of the only albums they’ll buy all year, often the only one.

Without that £25 million UK music sales would have increased by just 1%.  So in effect streaming services have Adele to thank for ensuring their growth lifted the whole market even though she famously held ‘25’ back from each and every one of them. Sweet irony indeed.

BPI 3

As a final postscript, the role of YouTube, while underplayed in the official figures, is crucial. While audio streams grew by an impressive 81% in 2015, video streams grew by 88%. So however good a job the streaming services might be doing of growing their market, YouTube is doing an even better one.

What Future For The Album In The On-Demand Age?

Recently BBC Radio 1’s head of music George Ergatoudis stirred up something of a storm with his claim that “albums are edging closer to extinction”. Nonetheless there is a growing body of evidence that the album does indeed seem to be losing its relevance in today’s track and playlist led world. And the implications stretch much further than the confines of the recorded music business. (Hint: live music industry, you need to be watching your back too.)

The Advent Of Grazing

When Napster emerged 15 years ago it kick started an irreversible transformation in music consumption. The music business had spent the previous three decades turning the singles dominated market of the 1950’s into the albums led market of the 1990’s, but with Napster consumers suddenly did not have to take the whole album package anymore. The labels had their own fair share of blame. When the vinyl LP had been the dominant format albums typically had 8 tracks, but with the CD labels felt compelled to fill every one of its 74 minutes’ capacity, resulting in a preponderance of filler tracks over killer tracks. Couple this with album price hyperinflation and you had the perfect recipe for consumer revolt. Little wonder that music fans cherry picked tracks, skipping the filler for the killer. Grazing replaced immersion.

Ironically the issue became even more pronounced with the advent of the iTunes Music Store. Whereas with file sharing many users downloaded entire albums – and as bandwidth and storage improved, entire discographies – listening still skewed towards the stand out tracks. Indeed the hoarding mentality of these digital immigrants was one borne out of being children of the age of scarcity, with a ‘fill up quick while you still can’ mentality. With iTunes, price was a limiting factor and so people focused on acquiring single tracks rather than albums. Labels and artists had been scared iTunes would cannibalise album sales, they were right.

Digital Natives Set A New Pace

In the subsequent decade new digital behavior patterns have become more clearly defined, particularly among the digital natives. Playlists and individual tracks have become the dominant consumption paradigm. Even music piracy has moved away from the album to smaller numbers of tracks, with free music downloader mobile apps and YouTube rippers now more widespread than P2P. This is the piracy behavior of the digital natives who have no need to hoard vast music collections because they know they can always find the music they want on YouTube or Soundcloud if they want it.

playlists versus albums

The behavior shift is clearly evidenced in revenue numbers. Since 2008 alone US album sales (CD and digital) have declined by 22% (IFPI), while digital track sales outpace digital album sales by a factor of 10 to 1. The top 10 selling albums in the US shifted 56.4 million units in 2000.  In 2013 the number was 14.7 million (Nielsen SoundScan). Even more stark is the contrast between playlists and albums on streaming service. Spotify has 1.5 billion playlists but just 1.4 million albums (see figure). While the comparison is not exactly apples-to-apples (album count is a catalogue count and playlist count is a hybrid catalogue / consumption count) it is nonetheless a useful illustration of the disparity of scale. (In fact the 1.4 million album assumption is probably high due to a) duplicates b) singles and EPs c) compilations.)

Even the much heralded success of Ed Sheeran’s album ‘X’ does not exactly paint a robust argument for the album. ‘X’ set the record for first week global plays of an album on Spotify with 23.8 million streams. But that represents just 0.27% of weekly Spotify listening (based on Spotify’s reported 40 million active users, 110 minutes daily listening and an average song length of 3.5 minutes).

The Album As A Mainstream Consumption Paradigm Was A Historical Anomaly

This is the consumer behavior backdrop for the demise of the album.  Creatively the album still represents the zenith of an artist’s creativity and many albums are still most often best appreciated as a creative whole. Core fans and music aficionados will still listen to albums but the majority of consumers will not. The album as the mainstream consumption paradigm was a historical anomaly of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. In the 50’s and the 60’s the single was the way the majority interacted with music, and now in the early 21st century it is once again. There has always been space for vast diversity of artists along the niche to mainstream spectrum but as a consumption format the album is closer to the Steve Reich end than it is the Katy Perry end.

Artists And Labels Need To Catch Up With Consumer Behaviour

The majority of artists will still make albums and labels will indulge them because their organizations and business models are built around the format. But therein lies the problem: the more that consumer behavior evolves, the more distant the gap between artists’ recorded output and their fans’ demand becomes.

There is more music released now than ever before and most likely more music listened to than ever before. But the amount of music listeners in the world’s top 10 music markets – which account for 91% of revenue – has not increased at anything like the same rate. People are spending less time with individual artists and albums. In the on-demand age with effectively limitless supply they flit from here to there, consuming more individual artists in a single playlist than an average music fan would have bought albums by in an entire year in the CD era. Fewer fans develop deep relationships with individual artists. Right now this translates into fewer album sales. In 10 years’ time it will manifest as a collapse in arena and stadium sized heritage live acts. In fact we are already witnessing the impact, after all what are festivals and DJ sets if not the playlist translated into a live experience?

As painful as it may be for many to accept, the tide has already turned against the album. The challenge to which artists and labels must now rise is to reinvent creativity in ways that meet the realities of the on-demand world.* If they do not, artists will eventually find the chasm between their wants and their audiences’ needs quite simply too wide to traverse.

*For those interested I wrote a couple of reports on this very topic a few years ago:

The Music Format Bill of Rights: A Manifesto For The Next Generation Of Music Products

Agile Music: Music Formats and Artist Creativity In The Age of Mass Customisation