Here’s Why The Music Industry Needs To Dump Non-Discretionary Pricing

Spotify’s 2015 UK accounts painted a vibrant picture with both profits and above average Average Revenue Per User (ARPU). However, a little caution is required before assuming all the answers to the streaming market’s woes can be found here. Firstly, only a portion of Spotify’s costs are based in the UK. For example, much of the (more highly paid) exec team is in the US and much of the development team is based in Sweden. Such are the vagaries of financial reporting for multi-territory companies. More importantly though, is Spotify’s higher UK subscriber ARPU (€6.47 per month compared to €5.20 per month globally according to the ever insightful Music Business Worldwide). On the surface this is clear success (and indeed the UK may well have a higher paid-to-free ratio). However, the main reason for the ARPU difference is the music industry’s fixation with non-discretionary pricing. 9.99 is 9.99 in the US, the UK and the Euro zone, even though each of those currencies have very different values. Especially now post-Brexit referendum.

subscription pricing

At current exchange rates, the Euro Zone €9.99 is equivalent $10.86 and the UK £9.99 price point is equivalent to $12.18. Thus Euro Zone subscribers are paying 9% more than US subscribers while UK subscribers are paying 22% more. What makes matters even worse is that US per capita GDP (a measure of relative wealth of the population) is 55% higher in the US than in the EU and 27% higher than in the UK. So in effect that means a combined pricing ‘swing’ of 63% for the US compared to the Euro Zone and 49% compared to the UK.

In short, European subscribers are getting doubly hit by the music industry’s insistence on non-discretionary pricing for music subscriptions. While there are a host of commercial factors that can be cited in favour of the approach (e.g. it helps mitigate against currency fluctuations) there is zero customer value, unless of course you happen to be a US resident consumer.

Regular readers will know I am a long term advocate of a more sophisticated approach to subscription pricing (e.g. mid tier products and super-premium options) but before we get there, a first step should be to ensure that European music fans get a fair deal compared to their US peers. Or of course, we could try the alternative: increasing US subscriptions by 63% which would mean a $16.32 price point. Sounds crazy right? Exactly…

Amazon: Reverse Pricing, And The Rise Of Zero UI

Amazon’s announcement of its AYCE streaming service Amazon Music Unlimited should not come as a surprise to anyone whose been keeping even half an eye on the digital music market. Amazon are the sleeping giant / dark horse (select your preferred descriptive cliché) of digital music. With 60 million Prime Memberships it has a bigger addressable base of subscribers than Spotify, and its 300 million credit card linked customer accounts surpasses most but falls well short of Apple’s 800 million. Nonetheless, Amazon is the last major force to play its streaming hand. However, what the two really interesting things about Amazon Music Unlimited are its ‘reverse pricing’ strategy and the move towards Zero UI music experiences.

Sleeping Or Coma?

Being the sleeping giant of a space can work both ways. It normally implies major resources, a large legacy audience waiting to be tapped, and years of brand equity and trust. Amazon certainly ticks all those boxes, and some. But it can also mean that you’ve left it too late, allowing new entrants steal away your customers with new product offerings. HMV, Tower Records and Fnac were all sleeping giants but they all moved too late and too cautiously to be able to prevent Amazon, and then Apple, and then Spotify from stealing their customers. Things should though, be different for Amazon and streaming. Although streaming is growing fast we are still short of 100 million subscribers globally and in most markets subscriber penetration is below 10%. Even more importantly, the majority of adoption is being driven by music aficionados (those consumers that spend above average time and money with music). The next opportunity is the engaged end of the mainstream. This is where Amazon plays best.

Targeting The Mainstream Music Fan  

Amazon’s streaming strategy to date has revolved around a limited catalogue, curated streaming service bundled into Amazon Prime. Although it has struggled for visibility by being 3rd in the Prime pecking order (behind free shipping and video) it nonetheless deserves much credit for genuinely trying to do something different in the increasingly homogenous streaming marketplace. It is a lean back, curated experience for the music fan that is neither passive nor aficionado. This group is nearly double the size of the high spender group (see our MIDiA subscriber reports on music segmentation for much more detail). What makes this group even more interesting is that none of the other big streaming services are going after it. Why? Because they spend less than $10 a month.

So on the surface Amazon’s new $7.99 is a smart move, pushing a price point into the market that unlocks the next tier of users. The move is less radical than it first appears though, as this price is only available for Amazon Prime subscribers (all others have to pay $9.99). Also Spotify and Deezer’s aggressive price discounting ($1 for 3 months) have both created effective price deflation. That aside, there is however no doubt that Amazon’s $7.99 price point will have a major impact on consumer perceptions of pricing and will in the longer run help bring the main $9.99 price point down to $7.99 (something Apple tried and failed to do when it launched Apple Music).

Amazon’s Reverse Pricing Strategy

But Amazon’s pricing strategy is way smarter than just that, here’s why. Note the name of the service: Amazon Music Unlimited. Not Amazon Music. It echoes Google’s Google Play Music All Access. Each service’s naming convention ensures that it does not give the impression of being the core music offering for each company. In Amazon’s case this is its music sales business (CDs and downloads) and its pre-existing Prime bundled streaming service. The great thing about having a $7.99 / $9.99 product in the market is that it suddenly creates very clear perceived monetary value for its Prime-bundled service. How could consumers understand the value of something that didn’t have a price point anywhere? Now it is abundantly clear that it is $7.99 / $9.99 worth of value. This is Amazon’s Reverse Pricing Strategy: price a decoy product high to make a core product appeal more valuable. Now, a seasoned music exec might argue, ‘ah, yes, but it’s not unlimited on demand, so it’s not worth that’. But if an Amazon user gets full satisfaction from a curated, limited catalogue streaming service then the AYCE distinction doesn’t matter. It’s like telling some one that unless they eat until they are sick at an all you can eat buffet that they are not getting their money’s worth. Let’s just hope that Amazon’s reverse pricing strategy is not accidental…

Music’s Zero UI Era

Finally, onto Alexa and Amazon Echo. For just $3.99 a month Echo owners can get the full Amazon Music Unlimited service, controlling the entire experience via the Alexa voice controlled assistant. Although initially it will prove challenging to do anything other than the more rudimentary elements of using the service with the Echo, voice control is going to come of age over the next five years. Three of the big four tech companies have a voice play (Apple has Siri, Alphabet has Google Assistant and Amazon has Alexa). Also Microsoft has Cortana. Voice will play an increasingly important role in our digital lives and will help move smartphones towards post-app experiences, with app functionality increasingly built into the OS of devices and called upon via voice.

Amazon has pushed the dial for music and voice, it might even have got a little ahead of itself. But more and more of music consumption will be voice and gesture driven and Amazon is setting the pace for the voice side of the ‘Zero UI’ equation. To be clear, Zero UI does not mean Zero functionality nor Zero UX. In fact, functionality has to be even better in a Zero UI context, as it has to be able to deliver user benefits without visual reference points. But what it does mean, is that there is less friction between the listener and the music. The music becomes the experience.

Regardless of whether this ‘sleeping giant’ has timed its entry into the AYCE market right or not, its lasting legacy could well be making the first truly bold step towards music’s Zero UI era.

The 2 Spotify Charts You Need To See

Tuesday’s media scrum around Spotify’s financials illustrate that whatever ground Apple and Tidal may have made in recent months, Spotify clearly remains the poster child / bellwether for streaming. The stories oscillated between the broken nature of the underlying economics to how streaming is the future of the music business. Both are true. But a closer look at the numbers reveal some even more important findings.

spotify margin per user

Rights costs are Spotify’s Achilles Heel. Rights and associated costs accounted for 83% of Spotify’s 2015 revenue, up from 81% in 2014 and this resulted in a dramatic fall in Spotify’s gross margin per user: down from $4.20 in 2013 to $3.45 in 2015. This is particularly challenging for a model with already wafer thin margins. A number of factors underpin this decline:

  • Discounted promotions: Promos such as the £0.99 for 3 months have supercharged Spotify’s growth for the last 18 months. But as labels only contribute part of the cost this means that Spotify loses more margin with every new promo user
  • Advanced label payments: When Spotify strikes its licensing deals with labels it makes advanced payments and guarantees based on its expected growth. This means that for a growth stage company like Spotify, booked rights costs will always be higher than current booked revenue. This has obvious cash flow implications. Also, should Spotify’s growth slow and it miss those targets, it will still have to pay the monies guaranteed to labels, at which point the rights costs share will rise even further
  • Publisher rates: Over the last couple of years, music publishers have been asserting their role in the digital music value chain, pushing for more equitable rates. The net result is that publishing rights costs can now range up to 15%, depending on the deal, up from a low of 10% in some cases. This upward momentum will continue, and as labels aren’t decreasing their rates, it means less margin for Spotify and other streaming services

As Spotify edges towards an IPO it is doing everything within its power to get its house in order. It is investing in video to show Wall Street it is attempting to lessen its dependence on the labels and it is improving is cost ratios virtually everywhere else in its business, other than rights. Between 2013 and 2015, the Average Cost Per User (ACPU) for Research and Development fell from $2.12 to $1.61 and for Marketing it fell from $3.23 to $2.77. But Rights ACPU grew from $17.59 to $18.35. In fact, even in terms of costs as a % of revenues, every single expense Spotify reported fell except Rights (and Depreciation and Amortization which increased slightly). It is rising rights costs that are keeping Spotify from commercial sustainability.

spotify average pricing

There is another really important part of Spotify’s growth story: subscriber ARPU has fallen from $79.09 in 2013 to $62.30 in 2015. This is a result of multiple efforts to drive growth, including the price promos, telco bundles and student discounts. All of which are viable tactics but the fact they are necessary to drive Spotify’s growth underscore a point I have been making for years: 9.99 is not a mass market price point, and Spotify’s subscribers agree. By transforming the ARPU into an effective monthly retail price, Spotify’s average price point is now just $6.49, down from $8.24. It is about time that the music industry stopped pretending that this isn’t the reality of the market and instead starts pursuing proper pricing innovation rather than by stealth via discounting, which only serves to confuse consumers about long term value.

The music industry is in a transition phase. In such periods, the old and new worlds co-exist and collide. There are statistics that both sides of any argument can hold up in their defence, in fact they can often hold up the very same numbers to support opposite perspectives. Similarly, the comparisons you chose to benchmark with, can paint entirely different pictures. Such is the nature of transitions of human and business behaviour. For example, 83% of Spotify’s gross revenue going to rights is clearly too high and unsustainable, yet $0.00098 per song going to artists is also clearly too low and unsustainable. Something needs to give, for both ends of the value chain.

Maybe if/when Spotify gets to 50 million subscribers it will feel it has enough clout to compel rights holders to rethink licensing economics. Perhaps it will take Spotify getting to a 100 million to make that happen. Perhaps it will never happen. But if it doesn’t, the economics of streaming will remain so broken that only companies with ulterior business objectives will remain viable players, enter stage left streaming’s Triple A: Apple, Amazon and Alphabet (Google). The labels need to ask themselves whether that is the streaming future they want…

Rdio Goes After The Squeezed Middle

Streaming monetization is polarized between premium subscriptions on one end and free streaming on the other. The middle ground that was the scale heartland of the CD and the download is disappearing and taking with it the mainstream consumer.  It is into this environment Rdio just announced a new $3.99 tier.

mind the gap

Mid priced subscription tiers are thin on the ground.  We have a couple in the UK (MTV Trax and O2 Tracks from MusicQubed, Blinkbox Music, now owned by Guevara) and a number of ad free radio offerings from Pandora, Rhapsody and Slacker.  It is a heavily underserved segment as the slide above shows.  The mainstream streaming subscription market is squeezed between premium and nothing.  The average music spend of a consumer is around $3 a month, so $9.99 subscriptions are far out of reach of most consumers.  $3.99 however is far, far closer to a realistic price point for the mass market.

Regular readers will know that I have been a long term advocate of lower priced subscriptions and micro-billing / Pay As You Go pricing models to entice the more mainstream user.  The labels have been super cautious because they are scared of cheaper services cannibalizing the premium tier.  The concern is a valid one but ultimately if a bunch of 9.99 users aren’t getting full value from an unlimited service they are going to bail out eventually anyway.  At least with mid priced subscriptions they have somewhere to land instead of disappearing straight to free streaming.

monetization pyramid

Currently streaming monetization is split between the top and the bottom of the monetization pyramid and this needs to change.  Rdio’s new Select tier gives users ad free radio plus 25 songs of their choice each day. That might not sound like a lot of tracks but for the majority of mass market music listeners that will be more than enough.  In fact in some respects it could almost be too much.  What matters for the mass market listener is less the number of tracks and more how the tracks they like are surfaced to them.  Curation is a much-overused term these days, but expert curation and programming is crucial to engaging the mainstream.  Radio is still so popular because most mainstream consumers are lean back customers that want to be led on a music journey not to have to hack their way through the musical undergrowth themselves.

Monetizing The Revenue No-Man’s Land

The leap from zero to 9.99 is far too big and Rdio Select is an important step towards monetizing the revenue no-man’s land between free and premium.  Of course zero to anything is still a major hurdle but the success of iTunes (250 million global buyers) shows us once you make the first step small enough, consumers will follow.  The simple fact is that the streaming market will not be sustainable without the mainstream engaged as paying customers on the same sort of scale that was achieved with downloads.  An even simpler fact is that 9.99 will not achieve that end.

The Case For A Freemium Reset

Ministry Of Sound’s Lohan Presencer stirred up a hornets’ nest with his impassioned critique of the freemium model at a recent MWC panel. This is one of those rare panel discussions that is worth watching all the way through but the fireworks really start about 16 minutes in. For a good synopsis of the panel see MusicBusiness Worldwide’s write up, for the full transcript see MusicAlly. I’m going to focus on one key element: free competing with free.

Free Isn’t The Problem, On Demand Free Is

Free music is a crucial part of the music market and always has been thanks to radio. The big difference is that radio is not on demand. Even the Pandora model, which quite simply IS the future of radio, is not on demand. The on demand part is crucial. Although labels have a conflicted view about radio there is near universal agreement that the model works because it is a promotional vehicle, it helps drive core revenues. But turn free into an on-demand model and the business foundations collapse. The discovery journey becomes the consumption destination. To paraphrase an old quote from a label exec ‘if you are playing what I want you to play that is promotion, if you are playing what you want to play that is business’.

P2P Is In A Natural Decline, Regardless Of Freemium

The argument most widely used by streaming services in favour of the freemium model is that it reduces piracy. There is some truth in this but the case is over stated. P2P was the piracy technology of the download era. Its relevance is decreasing rapidly for music in the streaming era. In fact mobile music piracy apps (free music downloaders, stream rippers etc.) are now more than twice as widespread as P2P. So the decline in P2P can only partially be attributed to streaming music services as it is in a trajectory of natural decline as a music piracy platform.

Freemium Isn’t Killing Piracy, It Is Coexisting

But even more importantly free streamers are using those new, next-generation piracy apps to turn their freemium experiences into the effective equivalent of paid ones, by creating local device caches for ad free on demand play back. In fact free streamers are 65% more likely to use a stream ripper app than other consumers. They are also 64% more likely to use P2P and 57% more likely to use free music downloader apps. While it is always challenging to accurately separate cause and effect what we can say with confidence is that whatever impact freemium may have had on piracy, freemium users are still c.60% more likely to be music pirates also. (If you are a MIDiA Research subscriber and would like to see the full dataset these data points are taken from email info AT midiaresearch DOT COM)

Monetizing The Revenue No-Man’s Land Between Free and 9.99

So more needs to ensure the path from free to paid is a well travelled one. It might be that the accelerating shift to mobile consumption of streaming music may help recalibrate the equation. Mobile versions of free streaming tiers in principle may not be fully on demand but they often stretch definitions to the limit and some are simply too good to be free. Being able to create a playlist from a single album and then listening to it all in shuffle mode simply is on-demand in all but name. If we can get mobile versions of free tiers to look more like Pandora and less like Spotify premium, or YouTube for that matter, then we have a useful tool in the kitbag. And if users want more but aren’t ready to pay a full 9.99 yet, let them unlock playlists, or day passes for small in app payments. Lohan made the case for PAYG pricing to monetize the user that sits somewhere between free and 9.99 and it is an argument I have advocated for a long time now.

Freemium Is Not Broken, But It Does Need Re-Tuning

Freemium absolutely can work as a model and it has achieved a huge amount already, but it needs recalibrating to ensure it delivers the next stage of market growth in a way that minimizes the risk to the rest of the business. None of this though can happen until YouTube is compelled to play by the same rules as everyone else. Otherwise all that we end up doing is hindering all music services except YouTube and Apple (which won’t have a free tier). Google and Apple are not exactly in need of an unfair market advantage. So a joined-up market level strategy is required, and right now.

It Is Time To Think Beyond The Monthly Subscription

Apple’s entry into the subscription market later this year will fire a broadside across the freemium model.  But there are not many companies that can do what Apple can.  Every product and service needs to acquire customers and usually that entails advertising and marketing.  If what you are selling is a relatively nuanced proposition, and music subscriptions are exactly that, then you are going to need to spend a lot of time and money building the awareness and understanding of the product.  That typically either means a big ad budget or having a captive audience to talk to directly without the marketing middleman. For freemium services that is the free tier.  For Apple that is the installed base of device owners.  It is all well and good for Apple to crusade against free in its entirety because that also happens to make it increasingly difficult for anyone else to make the subscription model work.  As I argued in my previous post there is a need for a rethink of free, to ensure that it acts as an acquisition funnel for subscriptions not as a replacement for them.  But there is another part of the puzzle that needs solving too: the subscription model itself. If freemium is on borrowed time, a solution is needed that the entire market can work with, not just Apple.  Pay As You Go (PAYG) is part of the answer.

Music Subscriptions Cap ARPU

Currently the music industry is trying to migrate all of its paying customers to subscriptions.  The theory is that this should increase the Average Spend Per User (ARPU) to 9.99 but as MIDiA’s research revealed, thus far it appears to be doing a better job of reducing the ARPU of the most valuable. Thus we have a worst of both worlds scenario in which the ARPU of the most valuable customers is capped (something no other media industry does) and the lower value customers aren’t offered enough options to get on the spending ladder.

When I wrote back in October that it was time for a pricing reset I pointed to three things that need to happen:

  1. More price tier differentiation
  2. Reduce the main $9.99 price point to $7.99
  3. Introduce PAYG / Top Ups

The good news is that we’re beginning to see some movement on all three counts, including Apple poised to tick off the second item later this year when it launches its subscription offering.

The Return Of The Day Pass

Last week Pandora announced that it was introducing a $0.99 day pass to its ad free subscription offering.  The idea isn’t new, Spotify had a day pass in its earlier days, but the timing is now right for a reassessment of the tactic.   Most people are not in the habit of paying for music on a monthly basis and most do not spend anything close to 9.99 a month.  Little surprise then that only 10% of consumers are interested in a 9.99 subscription.  But PAYG pricing interest, while still relatively modest, is the clearly the pricing that has strongest appeal (see figure).  PAYG pricing allows consumers to ‘suck it and see’ to try out.  It is what the mobile phone business needed to kick start cellular subscriptions and it is what the music industry needs too.  And done right PAYG can even uncap ARPU by allowing customers to spend more than they would on a monthly plan, something that happens frequently among pre-pay mobile phone customers.

payg pricing

Currently there is only a handful of companies pioneering this approach, including the MusicQubed powered MTV Trax’s ‘Play As You Go’ model and Psonar’s ‘Pay Per Play’ offering.  It should only be a matter of time before the big streaming services start experimenting with a la carte pricing but they will have to tread carefully to ensure they do not cannibalize the spending of their 9.99 customers.  At an industry level though the case is clear and it is one that other media industries are already heeding.  In the TV industry services like Netflix are empowering cable and satellite TV subscribers to cancel or reduce their subscriptions.  Consequently TV companies are busy experimenting with unbundling their subscription offerings to meet the needs of their newly empowered customers.  The most interesting example for the music industry is Sky’s Now TV in the UK which offers its core programming with no monthly contract and enables users to simply add on extra content such as and ‘entertainment pass’ or a ‘sports pass’ as one off payments.

The future of music consumption is clearly going to be on demand but 9.99 subscriptions are just one part of the mix. PAYG pricing will be crucial to ensuring that streaming can break out of its early adopter beachhead.