New MIDiA Artist Survey – Take Part!

Firstly, thanks to all of you who took part in our artist survey last year. If you did so, you should by now have received the link to the free report. If not, email us at info@midiaresearch and we’ll get it to you.

We are now fielding a new artist survey and we’d like you to take part! This time we are diving into the tools and services that artists use and what they think about them. All respondents will get a free copy of the final report when it is published.

You can complete the survey by following this link

Independent Artists: The Age of Empowerment

MIDiA - Amuse Independent Artist ReportMIDiA is proud to announce an exclusive new report in conjunction with Amuse – Independent Artists: The Age of Empowerment. The report is based on a global survey of independent artists that we conducted earlier this year, with respondents from all of the world’s continents. The full report is immediately available for free download here. Here are some of the key themes and findings of the report:

The science fiction author William Gibson once said, “The future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.” He wasn’t writing about the rise of independent artists, but he could have been. We are seeing the beginning of what may be the biggest paradigm shift in the music business in decades, but as with all big changes, we won’t appreciate the true magnitude of it until further down the road when more of the pieces have fallen into place.

In the old music business, artists had a limited number of choices when planning their careers. They could sign with a record label and hope they were the one in ten that made it, or they could treat music as a hobby, contenting themselves with playing the local bars and clubs. Then a UK rock band did something in 2001 that little known to them would act as the genesis for an entire new way of being a recording artist. After having split with record label EMI, Marillion decided to ask their fans to pre-order an album they hadn’t made yet. More than twelve and half thousand fans did so and with the resulting hundreds of thousands of dollars they recorded Anoraknophobia. Music crowdfunding was born. Marillion had just shown the artist community that there was a new way to be a successful recording artist.

Fast forward 18 years and artists now have more tools, services and choices than at any previous time in the history of recorded music. An entire industry has evolved to enable artists to plot their own unique paths through the fast-changing music industry. From finding a vocalist, through remote mastering, to funding, marketing and distribution, artists now have the tools at their disposal to create their own virtual record labels.

Forget digital service provider (DSP) disintermediation; artist disintermediation is the real threat

Record labels often worry about streaming services disintermediating them, but they should be more concerned about artists disintermediating them themselves. With all of the tools and services at their disposal, artists have the ability to create their own bespoke labels. In this ‘label as a service’ world, record labels have to define a new role for themselves, one in which artists will place ever greater focus on retaining creative and commercial independence. Signing a traditional record label deal is now just one option among many for artists.

Independent Artist Data MIDiA Research

  • Culture first, cash second. Artists’ definition of success is very much culture first, then cash. They are looking for respect and recognition first and foremost. With this respect and recognition, they can become viable touring acts with the chance to earn loyal fan bases.
  • Labels are not a prerequisite.Artists now view labels very much as one possible means to an end. Less than a third of label artists consider it important to get signed to a record label, while for independent artists (i.e. those without record labels) the rate rises to a little over a half.
  • Earnings are the biggest obstacle. It is just as well that artists take a culture first, cash second attitude as most artists should not expect to earn a living from music without something close to divine intervention. Nearly three quarters of independent artists earn less than $10,000 a year from music, and average incomes are also low even for signed artists.
  • Artists’ income streams vary widely. Streaming income, along with earnings from live performances, make up the majority of artist revenues today. For independent artists, streaming is now their primary source of income at 30%.
  • Signing to a label is not enough for artists’ financial security. Being signed to a label often does little to ease an artist’s financial woes. Overwhelmingly, both independent and label artists do not feel that they earn enough from music to not worry about their financial situation.
  • Don’t give up the day job: Most artists have plural careers. Whether signed to a label or not, over two thirds of artists feel they will have to keep up other work alongside making music in order to make ends meet.
  • The age of artist empowerment has arrived. Despite the challenges of a music career, the vast majority of artists now feel they have more control over their careers than ever before. With their choices both increasing and improving, nearly two-thirds of artists have a positive outlook about their career paths.
  • Artists want to listen. The modern day artist has flexibility and freedom to make choices – but how do they make the right choices? While the vast majority of artists do not want to lose creative control, most of them are open to influence and advice about their creative direction.

Download the report for free now!

Free-to-Attend Event: Monetising Fandom

monetisingfandomspeakers2x2Join us on Wednesday 17thJuly in central London for MIDiA’s next free-to-attend event: Monetising Fandom in a Fragmented Content Landscape. Regular attendees of our events will know that they combine great new data and analysis with insightful panels and a mix of attendees not quite like at any other event, with representation from across multiple industries.

Next week is a big one. We will be showcasing a brand-new stream of data for MIDiA: audience fandom. With audiences fragmenting across so many different platforms, formats and content genres, the attention economy not only puts pressure on every form of content, it also necessitates a complete rethink of how we measure success. Pre-streaming, success was much easier to understand: album sales and TV ratings were nice, simple-to-measure metrics. Now though, audiences are spread across a host of different platforms, sometimes consuming, sometimes simply engaging with social or promotional content. It all contributes to the artists’ brand impact, and in the era of the attention economy, extended brand reach is more important than it has ever been.

In this event we are going to showcase our latest audience insight data on music artists and TV shows, and we will present our case for an entire new way of measuring and understanding success.

The event itself will include a keynote presentation from Mark Mulligan, followed by a panel discussion featuring representatives from TikTok, ATC, Kobalt and Spirit Media.

Follow this link to sign up (fully-refundable deposit required).

For those of you who are not in London, a live stream will be made available on our Facebook page at 18.30 BST.

Big Machine (Inadvertently) Just Did a Promo Ad for Label Services Deals

Taylor-SwiftThe sales of Taylor Swift’s former label Big Machine Records to Scooter Braun has resulted in an ugly spat that has been played out very publicly. First Braun enthused about acquiring a ‘brilliant’ company and the global ‘opportunities’.Then Swift responded with an open letter saying that Braun had ‘stripped her of her life’s work,before Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta responded saying he had given her the ‘opportunity to own her masters’. The feud clearly has some distance to run but the issues of ‘who got what text message when’ are not the big deal here, the real deal is the big deal.

Whether she likes it or loathes it, Taylor Swift’s catalogue is Big Machine’s asset

Late last year Swift left Big Machine to sign a long-term deal with Universal Music that was most likely a label services deal. At the time she said it was ‘incredibly exciting’ to own her masters. But, however good her UMG deal might be, she is now in a position whereby her recordings are being sold to someone she’d much rather not have ownership of them. In her post she calls this a ‘worst case scenario’. From Big Machine’s perspective, it simply couldn’t sell the company without having either Taylor Swift or her recordings on its balance sheet. Without one of those, the company’s value would have been much lower. Swift may not like the feeling of being someone else’s asset but that is the very nature of what happens when an artist signs a traditional label deal.

Artists now have unprecedented commercial choice

Back in the early 2000s the Beatles wentto court to try to regain ownership of their master recordings because of a dispute with their label. Fast forward to now and we have another massive pop act angered at not having control of their own creation. At one level the world has not changed much, but on another it has done so, and dramatically so. The fact that Swift signed a label services type deal with UMG shows just how much more choice artists have with the type of deals they sign, whether that be label services, joint ventures, distribution deals or combinations of all three. Artists have never been so empowered and so educated. Nor have they ever had so many commercial options, from doing direct distribution with a CDbaby or Amuse, a label services deal with an AWAL or BMG or simply going direct to fans with platforms like Bandcamp.

Big Machine just highlighted the downside of traditional label deals

By allowing the dispute with Swift to become so public, Big Machine has just inadvertently done a promo campaign for label services deals. The more that the media is awash with stories like this, the more that artists will be considering their options. This does not however mean that all artists will be turning down traditional masters deals in favour of label services deal. A label services deal normally means trade-offs. A record label is going to get less, so in return it is going to give less back. Artists have to balance out factors such as smaller advances, lower royalty income, higher risk and bearing costs. For an artist that has spent years building to the point of signing a deal, a fat advance and guaranteed marketing spend will often be a more appealing prospect. Especially when you consider that successful artists will expect recording income to be just a minority of their total music income.

Artists increasingly use labels to build their own artist brands 

In this context, the record label becomes a marketing asset to the artist, a tool with which to become famous enough to ensure that all the other income streams (live, merch, publishing, brand partnerships etc.) kick in. In this era of empowered artists, more artists will be making an informed decision that matches their priorities. If they prioritise creative independence and control, then label services will make most sense. If they value building a large-scale audience fast, they may opt for a traditional label deal. Or they’ll take something in the middle. The bottom line is that there is no standard approach anymore. Any artist signing a deal now that finds themselves five years from now complaining about not having control of their masters will, to put it bluntly, only have themselves to blame. It will have been their choice.

Why Stormzy as a Glastonbury Headliner Makes Sense Post-Streaming

This is a guest post from MIDiA music analyst Zach Fuller.

glastonbury2-1On the eve of Stormzy becoming the first Grime artist to headline Glastonbury, it is worth considering what this represents in terms of the link between the new streaming economy and live music.

The South Londoner’s slot is notable less for the now-obligatory controversy that greets any Worthy Farm headliner that isn’t an established rock band (as per Jay-Z and Kanye West’s turns at the festival), but rather should be viewed as a pivot in what the wider live audience ought to expect from the next wave of headliners. Those complaining that Stormzy is not headline material (although a number one album and single could easily suggest otherwise) seem to be missing the point in the transformation being undergone by the live industry – the headliners of yesteryear arrived in a completely different paradigm to the music industry of the present. Additionally, if people expect the live industry as it exists now to reflect modern music consumption, then they are sorely mistaken:

  • Streaming and live genres are inverted: 20% of the top 25 Spotify artists (February 2019) are hip hop artists, compared to 12% of the top global touring acts. Meanwhile, rock represents just 12% of the top 25 Spotify artists but 28% of the top live artists. This disconnect between what people are streaming and what they are paying to see live is a potential fault line between two sides of the global music business. Live has always been a lagging indicator of taste, with artists’ live careers peaking later than their recorded careers. It is small surprise that the average age of the top 25 Spotify artists is 34, while for live it is 55.
  • The festival boom points to the future: Listeners are less likely to invest in individual artists for an extended period of time, a trend caused by the increased choice among consumers that both downloads and streaming have facilitated. While festivals serve this audience better than individual shows, it could be argued that in the coming years, extended sets by a particular artist make less sense to someone who only streams a few songs by an individual act. The festival-goer’s desire for shorter sets may conflict with the artist’s desire for a longer show given the fee they are being paid. The current live show format of long performance sets looks divorced from consumers’ listening habits. Live venues are already preparing for this post-concert future, which bears greater resemblance to the variety act format so popular in Britain up until the early 60’s when the advent of rock gave rise to the traditional concert format.

The takeaway is that the live industry effectively must play catch-up with streaming if it is to have these types of headliners at all in the future. Even if Stormzy’s streaming numbers do not yet match those in the existing headline bracket, festivals NEED new artists to come through at that level if they are to keep the format together. Either festivals will break apart into niches (a trend already in process when reflecting on the British summertime festival calendar), or streaming acts will see themselves pushed into the big leagues early than anticipated

The Classical Music Market: Streaming’s Next Genre?

MIDiA-Research-Idagio-Classical-Music-Market_Image-724x1024Classical music has long been viewed by many as a rarified genre that stands apart from other forms of music. While there is clearly something in that, something new is happening to the classical market: streaming is opening up a new, more diverse base of fans. Many of these are finding new entry points to classical music, such as hearing piano concertos on Relaxing Piano playlists. These new audiences bring with them new expectations about what classical music listening should be like and they present a major new opportunity for the classical market.

I am excited to announce the release of a report on the global classical music market that covers this concept and much, much more. MIDiA researched and wrote the report on behalf of classical music streaming service Idagio. (To be clear, this report is an objective and independent analysis of the classical market, not one of those ‘white papers’ that exists to champion the virtues of the client’s proposition.)

With that important caveat out of the way, I strongly recommend you download the full report for free here. It is packed with exclusive new consumer data that presents a unique view of classical music consumers and how they are engaging with streaming. The survey was fielded in the US, UK, Mexico, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Germany and South Korea.

A fill list of contents is at the bottom of this post.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from the report that helps contextualise why classical music is gaining new relevance in today’s streaming world:

Classical music fans are a crucial music consumer segment that is too often overlooked in the mainstream of the music industry, and especially within the streaming market. However, the clear picture that has emerged in this report is one of a large and diverse group of consumers that include large volumes of mainstream music consumers who are also fans of other genres. The traditional image of Classical fans of only being older, traditionally minded and musically aloof does not stand up to scrutiny. Instead we see a group of people that are increasingly both youthful and digitally savvy, and that have wide tastes that go beyond just Classical music. This though, is not just a reflection of the diversity of these consumers but also of the way in which streaming is helping Classical music find a new, younger generation of fans.

Alongside this, streaming services risk getting locked in a race to the musical middle-ground in order to build the biggest audiences possible, with record labels and producers rushing to fill this overcrowded space with increasingly formulaic playlist-optimized songs. Songs that like fresh fruit are designed for quick, immediate consumption, not for longevity. This vicious circle of song optimization / playlist optimization may be the path of least resistance but it can ultimately lead to an unsatisfying overall music experience. Classical music provides an antidote to the algorithm-defined mainstream, and of the status update driven chaotic maelstrom that is digital life. Now we are starting to see the signs of a new generation of Classical music fans searching for a refreshing, reassuring alternative to the tumult and homogeneity of mainstream.

Go download the free report! (No registration required)

classical music report contents

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.