Facebook Is Finally Ready To Become A Media Company

Male Finger is Touching Facebook App on iPhone 6 ScreenFacebook beat estimates with its latest earnings but announced that ad revenues would likely slow in 2017 as the digital ad market feels the pinch of advertiser budgets lagging the shift in user behaviour. Facebook’s stock fell by 7% but it already has Plan B in motion: to become a media company. Facebook delayed this move as long as it possibly could, showing little enthusiasm for getting bogged down with content licenses while it was able to drive audience growth and engagement by piggy backing other people’s content. That strategy has run its course. Facebook is now about to start looking and behaving much more like a media company, but in doing so it will rewrite the rule book on what a media company is.

The Socially Integrated Web

Back in 2011 I published a report ‘The Socially Integrated Web: Facebook’s Content Strategy and the Battle of the Ecosystems’. You can still download the report for free here. In it I argued that Facebook was starting out on a path to become a media company, but not the sort of media company anyone would recognise:

Change is afoot in the Internet.  Facebook’s new Socially Integrated Web strategy is set to make Facebook one of the most important conduits on the web. It is pushing itself further out into content experiences in the outside web while simultaneously pulling more of them into Facebook itself. Facebook is establishing itself as a universal content dashboard – a 21st century cable company for the Internet, a 21st century portal – establishing its own content ecosystem to compete with the likes of Apple and Amazon. While traditional ecosystems are defined by hardware and paid services, Facebook’s is defined by data and user experience.

Now with ad revenues set to slow, Facebook is flicking the switch on phase 2 of this strategy. Think of it as the Socially Integrated Web 2.0.

Wall Street Doesn’t Like Mature Growth Stories In Tech

As Apple, Pandora and others have found to their cost, Wall Street likes its tech stocks to be dynamic growth stories. It doesn’t like mature growth stories – that’s what traditional company stocks are for. So what can a tech company with a mature customer base do? The answer is to switch on new user monetization strategy, with content and services the lynchpin. Apple’s new supplemental investor materials outlining iOS users’ services spend is a case in point. Monetizing audiences is the new black. This is the game Facebook is now starting to play.

How Facebook Will Become A Next Gen Media Company

Moving from curating to licensing is a subtle but crucial shift in Facebook’s role as a content distribution platform. Here are the pieces that Facebook will stitch together as it begins its transition towards become a next generation media company:

  • Games: In August Facebook announced its gaming platform Facebook Gameroom, a Steam for casual games. It followed that with the announcement it will bring Instant Games to Messenger – an extension of its messaging bot strategy. Games is a logical place for Facebook to start carving out its media company role as it has become the default home of casual PC gaming. It also wants to own a slice of the hugely lucrative mobile gaming market.
  • Filters: Snapchat and Line have created global marketplaces for stickers and filters. Facebook is set to follow suit and is now experimenting with Snapchat-like filters. Filters may not look like media assets in the traditional sense, but the whole point about next generation media businesses is that they contain next generation content assets. Filters are an early indication of how the definition of content will change over the next decade and Facebook now has a horse in that race.
  • Video: Despite the embarrassment of having over reported some of its video metrics, Facebook has quickly become a major player in the online video space, accounting for 29% of short form video views. The next step for Facebook is to start building a discovery and curation layer. When it does, expect video consumption to boom. This will be a major step towards its media company future. It will however have to build a lot of tech for rights holders and content creators. Right now, its aversion of getting tied up with policing rights means that many rights holders don’t even post content there. YouTube has a massive head start with its highly sophisticated Content ID stack. Facebook will need to follow YouTube’s lead.
  • Live Stream: Facebook has been doubling down on its live streaming, expanding its focus from user and celeb streams towards more traditional media content such as Steven Colbert’s Showtime Monologue, partnering with 50 media outlets for presidential election coverage, and eSports. eSports could be as lucrative as traditional sports within the next 10 years and the shift has already begun – Twitch accounted for more streaming video bandwidth than the Olympics.
  • Next generation TV operator: One of the most disruptive moves Facebook can make, at least from the perspective of traditional media, is to stitch together its video assets and combine them with video subscription apps like Netflix and TV channel apps like iPlayer and HBO Go to create an all-in-one video destination straddling, UGC, short form, live streaming and TV content. The rise of video apps has created a bewilderingly fragmented video landscape. Facebook can stitch it all together to become a next generation TV operator. It will face direct competition from Apple, Amazon and Alphabet if/when it does.
  • Editorial: Facebook took a lot of flak for its decision to censor, on grounds of nudity, a famous Vietnam photo showing the effects of a napalm attack on Vietnamese children. The photo had been posted by Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten and its editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen wrote “Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor”. Facebook eventually bowed to public pressure and reinstated the photo. While Facebook may have been wrong to censor the photo it revealed that Facebook is already a ‘master editor’ whether Facebook or traditional media like it or not. Facebook hosts such a vast amount of content that the master editor role is inescapable. Aftenposten might have editorial credibility but what about a white supremacist publication? Facebook is already an editor in chief, in short it is already a media company.
  • Music: Facebook’s recent ad for a music licensing executive got music business types all excited. But music is the content vertical Facebook probably has least to gain from switching from host to licensed service. Streaming music is a notoriously difficult business to make money in (Spotify’s gross operating margin is around 17%). Facebook needs to grow margin, not just revenue, and with all its other content options it doesn’t make sense for Facebook to loss lead with an AYCE music service when it can get a bigger return on that investment elsewhere. IF Facebook does do something in music either expect it to be a more radio-like experience for its mainstream audiences (Pandora had a gross operating margin of around 40% in 2015) or – and this is more likely – something for younger users that has music at its core but that is not a streaming service. Think something along the lines of lip synching app Musical.ly.

Facebook is a past master at business model transformation. Its co-opting of younger audience focussed messaging platforms in the face of ageing social network audiences was a best-in-class example of a company disrupting itself before someone else did. Now Facebook is set to make another major change in its strategy before it finds its core business disrupted. Media companies beware, there’s a new player in town and its betting big, real big.

Just What Is BandLab Up To With Rolling Stone?

News emerged yesterday that Singapore music creator community and collaboration platform BandLab bought a 49% stake in Rolling Stone. For those unfamiliar with BandLab this might have prompted a ‘What? Who? Why?’ moment. BandLab is the creation of Kuok Meng Ru, the son of one of Singapore’s most wealthy and successful businessmen Kuok Khoon Hong who founded and built the world’s largest Palm Oil business. Unsurprisingly the father has backed the son in his venture and so, yes, Rolling Stone has been bought, albeit indirectly, with Palm Oil money. But the question remains, why?

Kuok Meng Ru has a bold vision and ambition for Bandlab, he sees this as an opportunity to create a full stack music company from the ground up, built around the next generation of creators rather than trying to carve a slice out of the incumbent industry. There is no doubt that the music industries are a complex web of inefficiencies and that if they were being redesigned tomorrow that they would be a far more streamlined, effective and transparent proposition. This on the surface makes the music business ripe for disruption. But unlike fully open markets like the smartphone business, the music industries are interwoven with complications such as de facto monopolies, statutory licensing frameworks and global networks of reciprocal agreements. All of which shelter the business from the full impact of disruption. Change happens slowly in the music business.

BandLab Is Built By Music Super Fans For Music Super Fans

None of this means that change is not happening and that the rate of change will not continue to happen. But the odds are heavily stacked against a single entity aiming to unseat the marketplace with an end-to-end creation-to-marketing-to-distribution solution such as BandLab. Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept of BandLab. As a life long musician and as a music super fan, it is exactly the sort of platform I would probably build i.e. a musician’s platform for musicians. But the harsh reality is that the majority of consumers (67%) are casual fans and less than 5% create music and upload it to the web. BandLab is a platform full of cool creator tools and community features. It nurtures a creative feedback loop between fans and artists. In fact, it adheres neatly to the principles of Agile Music that I laid out in 2011 and it fits in with the zeitgeist of the death of the creative full stop. But a mainstream proposition it is not. At least not in its current guise.

Kuok Meng Ru wants BandLab to do to music what Flickr did to photo sharing and creativity. But there are many, many more people that create and share photos than create and share music. Soundcloud is arguably the single biggest cloud creator platform, yet the vast majority of its growth happened when it cowed to investor pressure and pursued the listener rather than the creator. As I said last month in a Bloomberg article about BandLab, There’s always going to be far bigger audience of listeners than there is of creators. And unfortunately the vast majority of aspiring creators are not good enough, nor ever will be, to amass sizeable audiences. If BandLab decide to start licensing in established repertoire, or acquiring it unofficially (Soundcloud style), then it can build audience at scale.

Where Next For Rolling Stone?

So, back to the title of this post, just what is BandLab up to with Rolling Stone? Rolling Stone and BandLab plan to open a Singapore subsidiary focused on live events and marketing. For Rolling Stone this means diversifying revenue and growing its South East Asia footprint. For BandLab this means leveraging Rolling Stone’s brand as a short cut to credibility and extending the promotional capabilities of its creator platform. Who will do best out of this deal is hard to say. It’s a tough time to be a news publisher and so when big money comes calling it is hard to say no. But whether this is the right deal for Rolling Stone is another question entirely. My money is on Rolling Stone being sold on in reduced circumstances some time within the next 3 years (5 at the outside) when BandLab either gets bought or refocuses its ambitions.

The End Of Freemium For Spotify?

‘Leaked’ Spotify numbers emerged today indicating that the streaming service has just hit 37 million subscribers, which puts more clear water between it and and second placed Apple Music, despite the latter’s recent growth. It also means that Spotify is now nearly 10 times bigger than Tidal and probably Deezer (which hasn’t reported numbers since its France Telecom bundle partnership ended). It is beginning to look suspiciously like a 2 horse race. But there is a more important story here: Spotify’s accelerated growth in Q2 2016 was driven by widespread use of its $0.99 for 3 months promotional offer. Which itself comes on the back of similar offers having supercharged Spotify’s subscriber growth for the last 18 months or so. In short, 9.99 needs to stop being 9.99 in order to appeal to consumers. Which is another way of saying that 9.99 just isn’t a mainstream price point.

spotify june 1

As the IFPI’s 2015 numbers revealed, the average label revenue per music subscriber fell globally from $3.16 in 2014 to $2.80 in 2015, with price discounting a key factor. According to Music Business Worldwide, 4 million of Spotify’s newly acquired 7 million subscribers were on promotional offers and around 1.5 million of those are expected to churn out when their promotional period ends. That might sound high but it actually represents a 79% conversion ratio, which is a stellar rate by anyone’s standards. Meanwhile Spotify’s total user base is 100 million which means the free-to-paid ratio is 37%. So price promos are converting at more than double the rate of freemium. Does this mean the end of freemium?

spotify june 2

Freemium proved highly valuable to Spotify in its earlier years and continues to be an important entry strategy for new markets. But last year record label execs started to observe that free just wasn’t converting at the same rate it once did in mature markets like the US. This was because most of the likely subscribers had already been converted and so the majority remaining were freeloaders who were never going to pay, and warm prospects who just couldn’t bring themselves to pay 9.99. This is where price promos come into play. They deliver the impact of mid priced subscriptions, which is enough to to hook those wavering free users. Once they get used to paying the majority tend to stick around when the price goes back up.

Mid Priced Subscriptions Will Drive The Market, Even If By Stealth

I have long argued that mid priced subscriptions are crucial to driving the streaming market, and the burgeoning success of Spotify’s mid-priced-subscriptions-by-stealth strategy provides a bulging corpus of supporting evidence. In fact, the average spend of Spotify’s 7 million net new subscribers in Q2 2016 was $3.09 a month.  The tantalizing question is whether that 1.5 million promo users that are expected to churn out would take a $3.99 product if it was available?

As the streaming market becomes increasingly sophisticated, the leading players will have to rely ever more heavily on differentiation strategies. For Tidal and Apple that means urban focused exclusives, for Spotify (for now at least) that means algorithmic, personalized curation and aggressive price discounting. And in Q2 2016 it is Spotify’s strategy that is winning out, resulting in 2.3 million net new subscribers each month compared to 1.4 million for Apple Music and 0.3 million for Tidal.

Freemim is dead, long live price promos?

 

 

French Music Sales Are In A Tailspin, Get Used To It

france decline2015 was another year of mixed fortunes for the music industry, with Nordic markets showing positive signs (again) while some bigger markets struggle. It is in this context that French music industry trade body SNEP announced that the French recorded music market registered a whopping 7% decline in 2015, which followed hot on the heels of another 7% decline in 2014. The net result is that France’s recorded music market is now 67% smaller than it was in 2000. To give an extra sense of perspective, if the French market had declined by the same €32 million in 2001 that it did in 2015, the market would have reduced by just 2%. Streaming revenues were up an impressive 47% but physical sales fell by 16% and downloads by a staggering 21%.

Streaming is an increasingly important part of the mix but it is still a minority player, increasing its market share from 16% in 2014 to 24% in 2015. Even though the download collapse was seismic, the lost revenue (€12.7 million) was less than half the amount that streaming grew by (€33.2). So however much streaming may be cannibalising downloads (and it is) it is adding more than it is taking, in France anyway. But we are not just experiencing one format transition, the CD is dying off too. So when you add the decline in download sales and physical sales together, the total (€64.3 million) is nearly double what streaming added. The recorded music business is switching from a sales model to an access model but the revenue transition is lagging the behavioural shift.

midia forecastsPerhaps most perplexing though was the fact that ad supported streaming revenue, for both audio and video, declined by 8%. As regular readers will know, I have long advocated that free streaming should move towards a Pandora like model and away from full on demand. Now the revenue story is building to support this case.

Back in October we published our MIDiA Research music forecasts report ‘Global Music Forecasts 2015-2020: Declining Legacy Formats Cancel Out Streaming Growth’ (from which the above chart is taken and which you can buy here). We predicted that the continued decline of legacy formats (i.e. the download and the CD) would undo all the positive growth work of streaming resulting in market stagnation / market decline. As the French experience shows us, this reality is already coming to pass.

Music’s Role In Digital Content Is Small And Shrinking

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

  • Digital Music
  • Online Video
  • Mobile Apps

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

media company arpu

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

forecasts midia

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

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

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

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

Streaming Report Card 2014

2014 was the year streaming broke through to mainstream consciousness, not because of the marketing prowess of Spotify but because Taylor Swift decided to withdraw her content from the Swedish streaming heavyweight and other freemium services. It was a mixed year of momentous achievement and intensifying controversy, which makes it an opportune moment for an end of term report card.

Growth – 8/10

No complaints here. Impressive growth for both paid and free streaming with a likely combined annual growth of about 50% and total subscribers getting to about 35 million. Although there are some signs of slowdown this is to be expected as much of the addressable audience for the 9.99 price point is reached. In fact the growth slowdown was less pronounced than expected in some markets. If it hadn’t been for the fact that download sales for the year will be down about 10% this would have been a 9/10.

Transparency – 2/10

Two years ago I asked the CEOs of 10 leading streaming companies what the coming years would hold. Unfortunately for 5 of them it meant looking for a new job. One thing most were in agreement on however was the need to introduce far greater transparency for artists. Two years on and the issue is every bit as problematic. For the most part the discontent has been voiced by smaller artists or those later in their careers, but not by frontline artists in their prime. Until last week that is, when Ed Sheeran told the BBC that it is ‘fact’ that labels are holding money back from artists. Some time soon, some time very soon, labels are going to have to get on top of this if they want the model to work.

Platform – 5/10

I had high hopes for Spotify’s app platform, it looked like it was heralding the dawn of the ‘music platform’ that the digital market has needed, well, forever. Unfortunately label wrangling ensured that Spotify was not able to get the deals to allow app developers to monetize their apps so the venture was effectively still born, save for the highly credible efforts of some traditional media brands, such as the BBC, Now! And Deutsche Grammophon who didn’t have to worry about making money from the apps. Luckily the streaming companies haven’t given up on the ‘streaming as a platform’ vision and a host of integrations with the likes of Bandpage and PledgeMusic have the potential to help artists transform streaming cents into digital dollars.

Pricing – 3/10

I’ve been banging the pricing drum for so long the stick has broken. Unfortunately there was pitifully little progress in 2014, with label fears of cannibalising 9.99 dominating thoughts. On the plus side there is a huge amount of negotiating activity taking place right now and that should bear fruit in 2015. Expect Apple to try to get to market with the same 7.99 that YouTube’s Music Key is currently in market with (and expect that short term promotion for YouTube to eventually become permanent). And if 7.99 is the new 9.99 then prices will have to cascade. 4.99 will be the new 3.99, 3.99 will become 2.99 and so forth. And there remains the super urgent need for PAYG pricing leveraging in app payments. I predicted pricing innovation in 2012 and 2013 and it didn’t happen. Here’s to third time lucky.

Global expansion – 6/10

Deezer had already set a great precedent for rolling out into a vast number of global territories and Spotify played an admirable game of catch up in 2013 which continued with another five new countries in 2014. Rdio’s acquisition of Indian streaming service Dhingana was another interesting move.  Meaningful revenue is yet to follow in these Rest of World markets though – the US and Europe accounted for more than four fifths of global streaming revenue in 2014.  But the foundations have been laid and that in itself is an important step worthy of credit.

Sustainability – 4/10

The ripple effects of Taylor Swift’s windowing antics will be felt throughout 2015 with countless other big artists and their managers already making it very clear to labels that they want to do the same. The sooner Spotify can agree to having the free tier treated as a distinct window the sooner the streaming space can start rebuilding.   The whole ‘changing download dollars into streaming cents’ issue continues to haunt streaming though. And with streaming services struggling to see a route to operational profitability the perennial issue of sustainability remains a festering wound. The emerging generation of artists such as Avicii and Ed Sheeran who have never known a life of platinum album sales will learn how to prosper in the streaming era. The rest will have to learn to reinvent themselves, fast, really fast.

Overall Streaming gets a 6/10 for a year that saw huge progress but also the persistence of perennial problems that must be fixed for the sector to succeed.

How The iPhone 6 May Be The Start Of Apple’s ‘Back To Music’ Strategy

With the launch of its new iPhones just round the corner Apple could be forgiven for feeling rather more positive about its smartphone outlook than it has for a while. The sheen has worn off its number one competitor Samsung, with cheap Chinese and Indian competitors seriously eating into its market share and the investor community realising that the smartphone business is actually a lot like the music business: you are only as good as your last hit. But if Samsung is a major label, measured solely on market share and sales, then Apple has managed to partially maintain the role of big indie, where the quality of its output is just as important. Apple’s Eddie Cue believes that Apple are on the cusp of product strategy renaissance. Crucially, Apple’s CE product portfolio has become wide enough now, especially with the acquisition of Beats, to allow Apple some innovation freedom. I think this could translate into an iTunes phone before the end of 2015.

The Mainstreaming of Apple’s Customer Base

Apple’s customer base has changed from the vanguard of the tech savvy early adopters to a much broader group including large swathes of early followers, later adopters and even mass market laggards. The iPhone was primarily responsible for the transformation and while it has brought undoubted success has also caused Apple problems. As a company with a small product number of products in its portfolio, especially within the mobile category, Apple has never been able to play the ‘Hero Phone’ strategy of phone specialists like HTC and Samsung. So while those companies have been able to sway those all-important investors with small selling but super-specced uber phones, Apple has, until the launch of the 5C, had roll its entry and hero devices into one single new product. But even the combined strategy of the 5C and of targeting lower end consumers with older models still leaves Apple little room to be truly adventurous with its product strategy, for fear of alienating its mainstream users.

As I wrote about previously, the acquisition of Beats presents Apple with the opportunity to innovate with more freedom in the Beats product ranges and then take the innovations that work best there back into the Apple product portfolio. Even if Apple more tightly harmonizes its two divisions’ product ranges, Apple will still be left with a larger and more segmented product portfolio, giving it more ability to super-serve important niches. This is where Apple’s music device strategy renaissance can come into play.

 

itunes phone

Music Changed Apple

When Apple launched the iPod in 2001 it was the start of a musical journey for Apple. I remember attending Apple analyst briefing sessions in those early iPod days and being the only one there interested in this small little side project. Of course over the following years the iPod, with music at the core, took Apple’s product strategy in an entirely new direction. You might say that music changed Apple. But even by 2004 the winds of change were stirring: the launch of the iPod Photo with its colour screen was the first tentative step towards turning Apple’s portable device strategy from music to something much bigger. The iPhone and iPad are the current culmination of that shift, multimedia devices that do many things for many groups of people. Not one thing for one group of people in the way the iPod did.

The strategy has been inarguably successful but just as music stopped looking like it mattered so much, it started biting Apple in the behind. Spotify and other streaming subscription services started stealing Apple’s best iTunes music customers, turning them from downloaders into streamers. That in itself should have been an irritation rather than a problem. But these most valuable of customers now have much less reason to stay with Apple when the buy their next phone because their Spotify playlists will work just as well on Android as they will on iPhones.

Apple’s New Music Strategy

Apple needs a stand out music value proposition to win them back. A subscription service built around Beats Music and iTunes Radio will be the fuel in the engine but will not do enough on its own quickly enough. While Beats Music may have different features from Spotify the fundamentals are essentially the same (millions of songs, c $10 a month). So iPhone owning Spotify customers are unlikely to switch straight away just because it’s there.

Apple needs more. That ‘more’ can be delivered in two ways:

1. Price
2. Device

Apple has always been in the business of loss leading with music to sell hardware. Once that was a growth strategy now it assumes the urgency of defence strategy. That should persuade Apple to heavily subsidize the price of a subscription. In the near term this could be 3 month Beats Music trial plus a discounted $5 subscription offer at the end of the trial free with one of the forthcoming iPhone 6 models. Longer term it should translate into something much more ambitious.

 

The iTunes Phone or The Beats Phone?

Before the end of 2015 I expect Apple to launch a music specialist phone. Whether that is branded as an iTunes Phone or a Beats Phone will depend on who wins the internal branding wars at Apple, but expect it to be one of those labels. The device will be squarely targeted at the music aficionado and will crucially combine the music subscription and device into a single purchase by hard bundling a music subscription into the device cost. It will likely also be squarely focused on pushing Beats hardware sales so it may be both bundled with a Beats Bluetooth headphones and also be the first iPhone without a 3.5mm stereo jack, instead offering Bluetooth only.

The broad feature set could look something like this:

• Hard bundled Beats Music subscription
• Unlimited iCloud access
• Ad free iTunes Radio
• Top level UI music apps
• Bundled Beats Headphones
• Bluetooth only headphone support

This strategy is Apple’s best shot at reclaiming its wavering aficionado fan base but be in no doubt, it would also be a game changer for the digital music space by once again tying the importance of music experiences to device not just app.

Why Amazon’s Streaming Music Service Is A Bigger Deal Than You Might Think

Amazon today entered the streaming music foray with the launch of its own bundled music service. Amazon Prime subscribers get free access to on demand streaming from a catalogue of 1 million tracks, the majority of which are older catalogue titles rather than frontline hits. Amazon’s move has received considerably less interest and hype than Apple’s acquisition of Beats but is in many respects every bit as important.

The future of digital content is going to be defined by the content and device strategies of three companies: Apple, Amazon and Google.  Each has a very different approach resulting in an equally diverse set of products and audiences (see figure).  Amazon and Apple have mirror opposite content strategies: Apple loss leads on content to sell devices whereas Amazon loss leads on devices to sell content.  (Google loss leads on both because its end goal is your data).  All three have a strong focus on music but all three understand clearly that the future of digital content lies in having multiple genre stores that traverse music, games, apps, video, books etc.  All three also recognize the importance of hardware for delivering the crucial context for the content experience.  Similarly, all three have a Content Connector strategy aimed at opening up the mass-market digital content opportunity in the home via the TV.

content strategies

Amazon’s inclusion of music streaming in its Prime offering speaks volumes about the perceived importance of music as a product to the retailer.  Music used to be the crucial first rung on the ladder for Amazon customers.  Buyers would start off with a low consideration purchase item like a CD or DVD and the next thing they knew they were buying microwaves and computers.  Music is still plays an important role in Amazon’s customer life cycle, but it is no longer a product needs paying for with a separate payment.  Music has become the ‘feels like free’ soundtrack to a video subscription with the added benefit of free shipping for online shopping.  Out of those three core value pillars of Amazon Prime, music streaming is probably the smaller. Music has become the National Geographic channel in the cable subscription: a nice part of the overall proposition but not something that carries inherent monetary value on its own.

The harsh reality is that this is probably a sound strategy for engaging the mainstream consumer with music streaming (the extensive selection of curated playlists on top of a modest 1 million track catalogue hints at the mass market positioning).  But whether this is the best strategy for the mainstream is another thing entirely.  Labels fear that free services like Spotify free and Pandora threaten to erode consumers’ perceptions of music as a paid for commodity.  But at least in those environments they are actively adopting a music service in its own right. With Amazon Prime there is a real risk that music is being relegated to the role of muzak in the elevator.

What 10 Million Spotify Subscribers Actually Means

Spotify today announced that it had hit its much anticipated milestone of 10 million premium subscribers.  Make no mistake this is a highly significant achievement for Spotify itself and for the broader digital marketplace.  But it is a long way from mission accomplished. Here’s why:

  • Paid growth is flat: When a new technology enters into the marketplace it goes through a few stages of growth. Initial uptake is driven by the early adopters.  If it succeeds with them it breaks through to the early followers where growth really accelerates through to mainstream before slowing as the market saturates, creating the well know s-curve – see this graphic for how this process works.  Not all technologies follow this pattern though, some never break out of that early adopter niche.  Right now Spotify’s paid subscriber count looks firmly locked in that early adopter segment.  If growth rates sustain at this level it will be late 2016 before we see the 20 million mark hit.
  • Free however is booming: Spotify’s free user count though is showing dynamic growth.  In fact it is following the right trajectory for a technology breaking through.  What’s more the growth is uncannily similar to that of Pandora during the same stage of its growth (see figure below).  In fact by its 66th month Pandora had 39 million active users, while Spotify now has 40 million, also after 66 months.  If Spotify’s free and paid user bases continue to grow at their current rates the currently impressive 3-to-1 free-to-paid ratio will widen markedly.  Free is where the action is.  Just ask potential Twitter suitor Soundcloud with its 250 million active users or YouTube with its 1 billion active users.
  • Paid users still biased to the aficionado: Key to the paid growth problem is that 9.99 subscriptions are the domain of the super fan, the engaged, high spending music aficionado.  And this is very much a music subscription phenomenon rather than an issue with digital subscriptions more broadly. While 60% of music subscribers are male and 48% of them are aged 25-34, 54% of video subscribers (Netflix, Amazon Prime) are female and just 35% are aged 25-34.
  • Churn is likely slowing growth: Being an early stage growth company is great fun but when your business starts to mature attention switches to the much more mundane task of managing churn i.e. making sure the rate at which people stop paying for your product is slower than the rate at which they join.  It sounds deceptively easy but it is in fact a vastly complex discipline and Spotify will be focussing an ever larger share of its resources on it.
  • Twitter’s depressed stock price may slow an IPO: An IPO remains Spotify’s most likely exit and hitting the 10 million mark with an impressive free-to-paid ratio was always going to be a prerequisite for that process.  However as I wrote last year, the performance of Twitter’s stock price will play a key role.  As illogical as it may seem, many investors will look at Twitter’s stock performance as an indicator of how Spotify may fare.  Right now Twitter’s stock is bombing.  Spotify will probably want to wait for that to hit a positive trajectory before moving ahead with an IPO, should that be its planned course of action.  Though I’m sure Spotify will be keen to point to the much better long term story of Pandora’s stock as a reference point.

So, 10 million premium subscribers is a fantastic milestone for Spotify and for the digital music marketplace, but it raises as many questions about the 9.99 model as it answers.

free steraming growth

Apple: The Bigger Beat

As a music industry analyst, my post last Friday on the rumoured Apple / Beats deal focused squarely on the Beats Music part of the equation – if you are a hammer everything looks like a nail right?  There are of course much bigger pieces in play than an unproven music service, so to illuminate some of the bigger picture, here are some of the broader product strategy implications of what the deal could mean if it does close:

  • Wearable tech: Apple is a consumer tech company whose reputation for innovation was dented in recent years while it grappled with the challenge of retaining relevance for the mass market with a limited device portfolio while at the same time trying to nudge the innovation needle forward.  Wearable technology is an area in which Apple can innovate bravely while leaving its more mainstream phone and tablet product lines to evolve at more conservative paces.  The nascent nature of the wearable tech space means that there is much that Apple can do to both push the boundaries and gain innovation kudos.  Beats is a wearable products company, Apple is a portable technology company.  It is a wearable tech partnership waiting to happen.  Beats could even conceivably be the Apple brand / division for wearable tech, keeping it cleanly differentiated from the core device business.Whether the outcomes would be smart headphones, fitness devices, smart watches etc. almost doesn’t matter.  The important implication would be that Apple would have a fantastic platform and brand for opening up new markets.    For more on the wearable tech angle, watch this fantastic video blog from my former Forrester colleague James McQuivey
  • Segmenting music consumers: When Apple’s portable device business portfolio consisted of iPods alone it was immediately obvious who the music fans were within its customer base.  Now it is far more difficult for Apple to identify the media preferences of potential customers until they have actually started using an Apple device.  That is one of the retailing implications of producing multi-purpose devices. But start selling device-headphone bundles, or even device-headphone-music service bundles and Apple will find itself with a highly effective tool for targeting the music aficionados.  These super fans can be sold premium music products without the risk of alienating other customers with premium price points in the main product portfolio.
  • Reinvigorating the brand: Apple is not a high-end brand and never has been.  Instead Apple plays in the same brand space Sony did in the 1980s and 1990s, namely that of the aspirational premium mainstream: the top end of the mass market and just scraping the lower reaches of the upper echelons.  But the price Apple has paid for large-scale success is that its user base and brand have crept downwards.  No product can take more blame than the iPhone: the smartphone market is the most commoditized of sectors, with fixed replacement cycles, carrier subsidies, fierce competition, aggressive marketing all reducing brand loyalty and value.  Beats, for all the criticism of the technical quality of its headphones, has created an aspirational, youth focused brand built on the foundations of the aesthetics of quality.  Like Apple, Beats is a brand focused on the upper end of the mainstream and would be a great strategic complement, presenting the opportunity for Apple to reinvigorate its core brand values and at the same time enhance youth resonance.
  • Putting cash to work: Apple is a very cash generative business with an investor community that has consistently higher expectations than Apple is able to deliver on.  Consequently Apple has had to face the paradoxical situation of delivering results of unprecedented quality only to see tepid investor response.  Couple that with ever growing demands to redistribute its vast cash reserves to investors in the form of dividends and it is little wonder that Apple has been on something of a spending spree of late.  Spending big on Beats kills two birds with one stone: it puts cash to work and sends a strong message to investors.

Whatever happens to the prospective deal, what it clear is that there are countless potential benefits to Apple.  And if the deal does not transpire then it is equally clear that Apple either needs another such partner quick, or instead needs to put its cash to work right away on addressing each and every of these strategic permutations.