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, 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 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.


I’d been aware of 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 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 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, taps this somewhat narcissistic drive to outperform the rest. But while selfies and filters are the language of Instagram for kids, on 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 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. 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. 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.


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.


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

The Great Music Industry Power Shift

The long drawn out demise of recorded music revenue is well documented, as is the story of artists, labels and managers all trying to make sense of a world in which music sales can no longer be counted upon.  But the contraction of recorded revenue has occurred at the exact same time that the live music sector has undergone a renaissance.  The net effect, when coupled with publishing revenue holding its own and  the growth of albeit modest, merchandise revenue, is that the global music industry has largely held its own, contracting by just 3% between 2000 and 2013 (see figure).  Compare and contrast with the 41% decline in (retail) recorded music revenue over the same period.  Indeed it is the 60% growth in live revenue that has done most to offset the impact of declining music sales.

music industry revenuePerhaps most significantly of all, the contrasting fortunes of the music industry’s two main revenue streams is that the share of total revenues accounted for by recorded income has dropped from 60% in 2000 to just 36% in 2013.  The balance of power has firmly shifted away from labels to the live value chain.  Yet it is not as clear a picture as might first appear:

  • Recorded music is still the main way people interact with music:  Whether it be on the radio, YouTube, Spotify, an iTunes or a CD, the vast majority of consumers spend the vast majority of their music consumption time with the recorded product not the live product.  In fact just 15% of people regularly go to gigs.  And even for these consumers live is, in terms of total time spent, just a small fraction of their music consumption.  So labels are faced with paradox of making less money from artists yet those same artists still needing the recording in order to drive live and merch income.  This is why we ended up with 360 deals.
  • Much of the market growth didn’t make it down to artists: The live music value chain is an incredibly complex one with multiple stakeholders taking their share (ticketing, secondary ticketing, venues, booking agents, promoters, tax, expenses etc.).  The share of live revenue that artists make from live has declined every year since 2000.  The impact on the total market is that  total artist income (i.e. from all revenue sources) has declined every year too since 2009.

The Next Music Industry

It is probably fair to say that we are approximately half way through a huge period of transition for the music industry.  The realignment of revenue is merely a precursor to the new business models, products and career paths that will emerge to capitalize on the new world order.  It is in this next phase that the real ‘fun’ will start.  Expect every traditional element of the industry to be challenged to its core, expect dots to be joined and old models to be broken.  But be in no doubt that what we will end up with will be an industry set up for success in the digital era.

NOTE: the figures quoted in this post are taken from a forthcoming MIDiA report: The Superstar Artist Economy: Artist Income and the Top 1%.  The report is a follow up to the previous MIDiA report ‘The Death of the Long Tail’



IFPI and RIAA 2013 Music Sales Figures: First Take

The IFPI and RIAA today released their annual music sales numbers.  Though there are positive signs, overall they make for troubling reading 

  • Total sales were down 3.9%.  Based on 2012 numbers the trend suggested that 2013 revenues should have registered a 2% growth, so that is a -6% swing in momentum.
  • Digital grew by 4.3% which was not enough to offset the impact of declining CD sales, which has been the story every year since 2000 except last.
  • Download sales declined by 1%. Continued competition from apps and other entertainment, coupled with subscriptions poaching the most valuable download buyers is finally taking its toll.
  • Subscriptions up by 51%: An impressively strong year for subscriptions but not enough to make the digital increase bigger than the physical decline on a global basis nor in key markets, including the US.

Global numbers of course can be misleading and there is a richly diverse mix of country level stories underneath them, ranging from streaming driven prosperity in the Nordics, through market stagnation in the US to crisis in Japan – where revenues collapsed by 16.8%.  The Nordic renaissance helped push Europe into growth but data from the RIAA, show that total US music revenues were down a fraction – 0.3%.  US download sales were down by 0.9% while subscriptions were up an impressive 57% to $628 million.

On the one hand this shows that Spotify has managed to kick the US subscription market into gear following half a decade or so of stagnation.  But on the other it shows that subscriptions take revenue from the most valuable download buyers.  This backs up the trend I previously noted, that streaming takes hold best in markets where downloads never really got started.  Thus markets like the US with robust download sectors will feel growth slowdown as high spending downloaders transition to streaming, while in markets like Sweden where there was no meaningful download sector to speak of, subscriptions can drive green field digital revenue growth.

The Download Is Not Dead Yet

Though subscriptions now account for 27% of digital revenue, the value trend obscures the consumer behavior trend.  For Spotify’s c.9.5 million paying subscribers (or 6 million last officially reported) Apple’s installed base of iTunes music buyers stands at c.200 million (see figure).  The IFPI report that there are now 28 million subscription customers globally.  In the US and UK this translates into 4 or 5% of consumers. Subscriptions do a fantastic job of monetizing the uber fans, just like deluxe vinyl boxsets and fan funding sites like Pledge do so also.  But they are inherently niche in reach.  This is why downloads remain the music industry’s most important digital tool.  Downloads are the most natural consumer entry point into digital music, and if anyone else had been able to come close to matching Apple’s peerless ability to seamlessly integrate downloads into the device experience, then the sector would be much bigger than it is now.

service bubbles

Do not confuse this with being a luddite view that streaming and subscriptions are not the future, they are, but there is a long, long journey to that destination that we are only just starting upon for most consumers.   And before that there is a far more important issue, namely how to get the remaining CD buyers to go digital.

Sleepwalking Into a Post-CD Collapse

Last year the IFPI numbers showed a modest globally recovery but despite the widespread optimism that surrounded those numbers I remained cautious and wrote that it was “a long way from mission accomplished.”  My overriding concern then was the same as it is now, namely that the music industry does not have a CD buyer migration strategy and it desperately needs one.  So much so that unless it develops one it will end up sleepwalking into a CD collapse.   In fact I predicted exactly what has happened:

“CD sales decline will likely accelerate.  Among the top 10 largest music markets in the world CD revenue decline will likely accelerate markedly in the next few years.  In France and the UK leading high street retailers are on their last legs while in Germany and Japan the vast majority (more than 70%) of sales are still physical.  So the challenge for digital is can it grow as quickly as the CD in those markets will decline?

The IFPI have stressed the fact that Japan’s dramatic 15% decline was the root cause of the global downturn.  While this is largely true – without Japan included global revenues still declined 0.1% – Japan’s problems are simply the global industry’s problems squared.  In 2012 a staggering 80% of Japanese music sales were physical but despite the digital market actually declining 4 successive years total revenues increased 4%.  As the world’s second biggest market, when Japan sneezes the global industry catches a cold.   But expect Japan to continue to drag down global revenues and also keep an eye on Germany.  Germany saw a modest 1.2% increase in revenues in 2013 but only 22.6% of sales were digital.  The most likely scenario is that Germany will follow the Japanese trend and go into a CD-driven dive in 2014 and / or 2015.

In conclusion, there is still cause for optimism from these numbers.  Subscriptions are going from strength to strength, at least in revenue terms, and the download sector remains robust in buyer number terms.  But unless the CD problem is fixed, the best both those digital revenue streams can hope to do is consolidate the market around a small rump of digital buyers.

The Death of the Long Tail

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

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

The Superstar Artist Economy

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


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

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


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

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

The Catalogue Size Arms Race

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

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

How The Role of Genres Has Changed In Music Culture

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

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

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

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

genre ladder

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

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

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

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

Lady Gaga, O2 Tracks and the Reinvention of the Pre-Release Sale Cycle

Back in the glory days of music sales, long before the web had done away with scarcity, albums and singles could hit the top of the charts on pre-sales alone.  Those days are long gone, but exclusive pre-release listening initiatives are beginning to reinvent the pre-release sale cycle.  There have been a number of diverse efforts of late including Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ being streamed exclusively on iTunes a week prior to release and Jay-Z’s Samsung ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ hard bundle.   This week sees the arrival of another high profile artist effort: Lady Gaga’s ‘Artpop’ is going to be available one week ahead of release exclusively in the UK on mobile music service O2 Tracks.  Done right, pre-release digital previews could be a crucial shot in the arm for music sales.

The debate around whether streaming cannibalizes downloads is going to run for a few years yet, and we’ll probably only have enough data to draw definitive conclusions when streaming’s ascent and downloading’s descent are irrevocably set.  Until then, the challenge is how best to leverage the capabilities of existing digital platforms to drive sales of both downloads and good old fashioned CDs and LPs.  Previewing on an all your can eat streaming service will always both drive and cannibalize sales, just in the same way that radio has always done so.  But build the preview experience into the structure of a music store and the chances of conversion are much higher.  Daft Punk’s iTunes preview was a run away success because it was in the heart of the globe’s biggest music retailer (though of course the impact of the uber effective marketing campaign cannot be discounted).

Powered by UK music start up MusicQubed, O2 Tracks is far from a download store (it delivers users a small selection of handpicked playlists for £1 a week) but it is nonetheless a proven driver of music sales.  MusicQubed reports that O2 Tracks users frequently click to purchase tracks in the app, with stores such as iTunes providing the fulfillment. Thus O2 Tracks is an opportunity to drive hype (O2 are investing heavily in marketing the preview project) and to drive sales.

Lady Gaga is truly a digital era artist, with music sales that are strong but overshadowed by super high social engagement metrics such as Facebook Likes and YouTube views (see this chart for more). So while Lady Gaga’s management will be most interested in the strong marketing support from O2 and will in part measure success in terms of social footprint, her label Polydor will of course be paying much closer attention to conversions to sales.  O2 Tracks should deliver on both counts.

As more pre-release digital initiatives are run we will get a better sense of what works best, and where.  As that data builds I expect a clear case to emerge of a more structured and consistent approach to pre-release marketing.  A crucial ingredient will be exclusive extra content, not just the album itself (the O2 Tracks ‘Artpop’ preview includes an eight minute interview with Lady Gaga). This is the sort of content that delivers genuine added value to core fans of any given artist and that helps build even more reason for fans to listen to pre-release album previews.  The days of albums regularly topping the charts on pre-sales alone may be a thing of the past, but the pre-release sales cycle is waking up to a whole new lease of life in the digital age.