Just Who Would Buy Universal Music?

Vivendi continues to look for a buyer for a portion of Universal Music. Though the process has been running officially since May 2018, the transaction (or transactions) may not close until 2020. In many instances, dragging out a sale could reflect badly, suggesting that the seller is struggling to find suitable buyers. But in the case of UMG it probably helps the case. A seller will always seek to maximise the sale price of a company, which means selling as close to the peak as possible. It is a delicate balance, sell too early and you reduce your potential earnings, sell too late and the price can go down as most buyers want a booming business, not a slowing business. In the case of UMG, with institutional investors looking for a way into the booming recorded music business, UMG is pretty much the only game in town for large scale, global institutional investors.

In this sellers’ market, banks have been falling over themselves to say just how valuable UMG could be, with valuations ranging from $22 billion to $33 billionand Vivendi even suggesting $40 billion. Meanwhile, recorded music revenues continue to grow — up 9.0% in 2017, and up 8.2% in 2018 according to MIDiA’s estimates. 2019 will likely be up a further 6%, all driven by streaming. With UMG’s market share (on a distribution base) relatively stable, the market growth thus increases UMG’s valuation. This in turn increases Vivendi’s perceived value, and that is the crux of the matter.

The role of Bolloré Group

Vivendi board member and major shareholder Vincent Bolloré was Vivendi chairman until April 2018, when he handed power to his son Yannick, one month before he was reportedly taken into police custody for questioning as part of an investigation into allegations of corrupt business practices in Africa. Bolloré senior remains the chairman and CEO of Bolloré Group, which retains major shareholdings in Vivendi. Bolloré Group’s Vivendi holdings will inherently be devalued by a sale of prize asset UMG, which is a key reason why only a portion of the music group is up for sale. But, even selling a portion of UMG will have a negative impact on Vivendi’s valuation and thus also on Bolloré Group’s holdings. So, the sale price needs to be high enough to ensure that Bolloré Group makes enough money from the sale to offset any fall in valuation. Hence, dragging out the sale while the streaming market continues to boom. All this also means the sale is of key benefit to Bolloré Group and other Vivendi investors. It is perhaps as welcome as a hole in the head to UMG. Little wonder that some are suggesting UMG is markedly less enthusiastic about this deal than Vivendi is.

vivendi umg potential buyers

All of which brings us onto which company could buy a share of UMG. These can be grouped into the four key segments shown in the chart above. Normally, higher risk buyers (i.e. those that could negatively impact UMG’s business by damaging relationships with partners etc.) would not be serious contenders but as this is a Vivendi / Bolloré Group driven process rather than a UMG driven one, the appetite for risk will be higher. This is because the primary focus is on near-term revenue generation rather than long-term strategic vision. Both are part of the mix, but the former trumps the latter. Nonetheless, the higher-risk strategic buyers are unlikely to be serious contenders. Allowing a tech major to own a share of UMG would create seismic ripples across the music business, as would a sale to Spotify.

Financial investors

So that leaves us with the lower-risk strategic buyers, and both categories of financial buyers. Let’s look at the financial buyers first. Private equity (PE) is one of the more likely segments. We only need to look back at WMG, which was bought by a group of investors including THL and Providence Equity before selling to Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries in 2011 for $3.3 billion. Private equity companies take many different forms these days, with a wider range of investment theses than was the case a decade ago. But the underlying principle remains selling for multiples of what was paid. Put crudely, buy and then flip. The WMG investors put in around half a billion into the company, but a six-fold increase is less likely for UMG, as the transaction is taking place in a bull market while WMG was bought by Providence and co in a bear market. Where the risk comes in for UMG is to whom the PE company/companies would sell to in the future. At that stage, one of the current high-risk strategic companies could become a potential buyer, which would be a future challenge for UMG. The other complication regarding PE companies is that many would want a controlling stake for an investment that could number in the tens of billions.

Institutional investors such as pension funds are the safest option, as they would be looking for long-term stakes in low-risk, high-yield companies to add to their long-term investment portfolios. This would also enable Vivendi to divide and rule, distributing share ownership across a mix of funds, thus not ceding as much block voting power as it would with PE companies.

Strategic investors

The last group of potential buyers is also the most interesting: lower risk strategic. These are mainly holding companies that are building portfolios of related companies. Liberty Media is one of the key options, with holdings in Live Nation, Saavn, SiriusXM, Pandora, Formula 1 Racing and MLB team Atlanta Braves. Not only would UMG fill a gap in that portfolio, Liberty has gone on record stating it would be interested in buying into UMG.

Access Industries is the one that really catches the eye though. Alongside WMG, the Access portfolio includes Perform, Deezer and First Access Entertainment. On the surface Access might appear to be a problematic buyer as it owns WMG. But compared to many other potential investors, it is clearly committed to music and media, and is likely to have a strategic vision that is more aligned with UMG’s than many other potential suitors.

There is of course the possibility of being blocked by regulators on anti-competitive grounds. However, at year end 2017 WMG had an 18% market share, while UMG had 29.7% (both on a distribution basis). If Access acquired 25% of UMG, respective market shares would change to 25.4% for WMG and UMG for 22.2% (still slightly ahead of Sony on 22.1%). It would mean that the market would actually be less consolidated as the market share of the leading label (WMG) would be smaller than UMG’s current market leading share. While the likes of IMPALA would have a lot to say about such a deal, there is nonetheless a glimmer of regulatory hope for Access. Especially when you consider the continued growth of independents and Artists Direct. All of which point to a market that is becoming less, not more, consolidated.

The time is now

Whatever the final outcome, Bolloré Group and Vivendi are currently in the driving seat, but they should not take too much time. 2019 will likely see a streaming growth slowdown in big developed streaming markets such as the US and UK, and it is not yet clear whether later stage major markets Germany and Japan will grow quick enough to offset that slowdown in 2019. So now is the time to act.

Artists Direct and Streaming the Big Winners in 2018

With less than two weeks of 2018 left, the die is largely cast for the year, but we’ll have to wait at least a couple more months for the major labels to announce their results (though WMG still hasn’t declared its calendar Q3 results), and then another month or so for the IFPI numbers. So, in the meantime, here are MIDiA’s forecasts for 2018 based on the first three quarters of the year and early indicators for Q4.

midia research 2018 music revenues and market shares

To create our end of year revenue estimate, we collected data from record labels, national trade associations and also confidential data from the leading Artist Direct / DIY platforms. We plugged this data into MIDiA’s Music Market Share model and benchmarked against quarterly and full year 2017 growth.

The headline results:

  • Recorded music revenue will hit $18.9 billion this year: This represents an increase of 8.2% on 2017 which is a slight lower growth rate than 2016–2017, which was up 9%. However, net new revenue ($1.4 billion) – is almost exactly the same amount as one year previously. The recorded music market appears to be settled into a steady, strong growth pattern.
  • Streaming revenue up to $9.6 billion: The 41% growth rate of 2017 may be gone, replaced by 29%, but the absolute amount of new revenue generated was, as with the recorded music total, the same as 2017 $2.2 billion. There was enough growth in the big mature streaming markets – the US especially – to ensure that streaming continued to plot a strong course in 2018. Though the fact that total revenues grew by $0.8 billion less than streaming revenue, indicates the pace at which legacy formats continue to decline.
  • Artists Direct the big winners: MIDiA was the first to quantify the global revenue contribution of the Artists Direct (i.e. Independent Artists, DIY etc.) last year when we published our annual market shares report. Now we can report that the spectacular growth registered by this segment continued in 2018. Total Artist Direct revenue was $643 million, up an impressive 35% on 2017, i.e. more than three times faster than the market. Unlike the rest of the market, Artists Direct revenue growth is accelerating in both percentage and absolute terms, with market share up from 2.7% in 2017 to 3.4% in 2018. (It’s worth noting that only a portion of Artists Direct revenue is measured by the IFPI. Categories such as at-gig CD sales aren’t captured by either the labels or measurement companies that national trade associations depend upon to measure the market. So, expect the IFPI’s global recorded music total to come in closer to $18.6 billion).

It was another great year for the recorded music business, with streaming consolidating its role as industry engine room. Here are the key takeaways for 2019:

  • Global recorded revenues will grow once again in 2019 – this rebound has a good number of years left in it. Even if label revenues hit $25 billion (where the market was at in 2000 before the decline) in real terms (i.e. factoring in inflation etc.), that would actually be around half the actual value. While it is not realistic to expect a $50 billion market, getting towards the inflation-reduced $25 billion is certainly a realistic target.
  • Streaming growth will slow in the big mature markets (US, UK), but impact will be offset by growth in markets such as Japan, Germany, Brazil, Mexico. Overall market growth, though still strong, will be slower.
  • 2019 will be a coming of age year for Artists Direct, label services companies, JVs and other alternative models that have been establishing themselves in recent years. It’s never been a better time to be an artist, as long as you and / or your management are clued up enough to know what to ask for.

Independent Labels Grew Global Market Share to 39.9% in 2017

The global independent label trade body WIN has just published the third edition of the Worldwide Independent Market report. You can download the entire report for free here. As regular readers will know, MIDiA Research has conducted this study on behalf of WIN for each of the three editions, collecting an unparalleled volume of data from many hundreds of independent record labels right across the globe. This highly detailed, company-level data is provided to us on a strictly confidential basis and enables us to create a precise and authoritative view of the global independent sector. Think of it as the IFPI Recorded Industry in Numbers for the independent sector, but with the additional benefit of greater detail on how the labels operate. This year MusicAlly wrote the text of the report.

‘Why is this report necessary?’ you may ask, ‘surely you can just deduct the major record labels’ revenue from the IFPI global total. There are two key reasons why this is essential:

  1. There is additional Artists Direct revenue that the IFPI cannot and does not track, such as CDs and vinyl sold directly at gigs by bands, and artists selling directly to fans on DIY platforms such as Bandcamp and Pledge Music
  2. Large portions of independent label revenue are distributed via major record labels, or wholly owned major record label distributors, such as the Orchard (which is owned by Sony Music). This revenue appears in the major labels’ financial statements and thus appears as major record label revenue

In the Worldwide Independent Market report, we add in the portion of Artist Direct revenue that is not tracked by the IFPI and we additionally carve out the independent label revenue that is distributed via majors and allocate this back to the independent sector. We are able to do this because the independent labels tell us how much of their revenue is distributed via majors, and which companies they use for the distribution. This added up to $1.5 billion in 2017.

So, methodology out of the way, here are the headlines.

midia wintel indie market share

Independent revenue grew by 11.3% in 2017 to reach $6.9 billion, which compares to a total growth of 9.7% for the major labels, which in turn meant that the independents’ share of global revenue grew from 39.6% in 2016 to 39.9% in 2017.

midia wintel indie market share

Growth was not evenly distributed though. For example, Brazilian independent revenue grew by 30% while in Japan it fell by 1%, which resulted in a slight growth in major share in Japan, a market in which the western majors have long been a minority player (market share was just 36.6% in 2017).

As with the total market, streaming was the engine room of growth, increasing by 46% to reach $3.1 billion, representing 44% of all revenues (the share was 34% in 2016). Physical and downloads both fell, by -2% and -22% respectively. As for major labels, independent labels are on path to becoming streaming-first in revenue terms.

midia wintel indie market share

One of the really interesting themes to emerge from this year’s work was the loyalty that independent labels enjoy from their artists. When offered, 77% of artists choose to renew their contracts with their independent labels, with that rate above 90% in Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands and Denmark.

A nuanced, but crucial takeaway from this year’s research is that the independent sector is booming, but that the major record labels are important partners in that growth, providing independent labels with the global scale tools and teams that they need to compete in this increasingly global music market.

Taylor Swift, Label Services and What Comes Next

universal-music-group-logoTaylor Swift has done it again, striking a deal with UMG that includes a commitment from the world’s largest label group to share proceeds from Spotify stock sales with artists, even if they are not recouped (ie haven’t generated enough revenue to have paid off the balance on their advance so not yet eligible to earn royalty income). This follows Swift’s 2015 move to persuade Apple to pay artists for Apple Music trials. That Swift has influence is clear, though whether she has that much influence is a different question. Let’s just say it served both Apple and Universal well to be seen to be listening to the voice of artists. But it is what appears to be a label services part of the deal that has the most profound long-term implications, with Swift stating that she is retaining ownership of her master recordings.

The rise of label services

The traditional label model of building large banks of copyrights and exploiting them is slowly being replaced, or at the very least complemented, by the rise of label services deals. In the former model the label retains ownership of the master recordings for the life time of the artist plus a period eg 70 years. In label services deals the label has an exclusive period for exploiting the rights, after which they revert to full ownership of the artist. Artist normally cede something in return, such as sharing costs. Companies like Kobalt’s AWAL and BMG Music Rights have led the charge of the label services movement. However, Cooking Vinyl can lay claim to being the ‘ice breaker’ with its pioneering 1993 label services deal with Billy Bragg, negotiated between his manager Pete Jenner and Cooking Vinyl boss Martin Goldschmidt. It may have taken a couple of decades, but the recording industry has finally caught up.

Major labels in on the act

The major labels remain the powerhouses of the recorded music business in part because they have learned to embrace and then supercharge innovation that comes out of the independent sector. Label services is no exception. Each of the major labels has their own label services division, including buying up independent ones. Label services are proving to be a crucial asset for major labels. The likes of AWAL and BMG have been mopping up established artists in the latter stages of their careers, with enough learned knowledge to want more control over their careers. By adding label services divisions the majors now have another set of options to present to artists. This enables them to not only hold onto more artists but also to win new ones – which if of course technically what UMG did with Swift, even though it had previously been Swift’s distributor. As with all new movements, examples are often few and far between but they are there. The UK’s Stormzy is a case in point, signing a label services deal with WMG before upgrading it to a JV deal between WMG’s Atlantic Records and his label #MERKY. For an interesting, if lengthy, take on why Stormzy and WMG took this approach – including the concept of secret ‘Mindie Deals’ that allow more underground artists maintain some major label distance for appearances’ sake, see this piece.

The early follower strategy 

In August 2018UMG’s Sir Lucian Grainge called out the success of UMG’s label services and distribution division Caroline, noting it had doubled its US market share over the previous year. UMG was already not only on the label services deal path but had identified it as a key growth area and wanted the world – including investors – to know. UMG has stayed ahead of the pack by pursuing an early follow strategy of identifying new trends, testing them out and then throwing its weight behind them. Before you think of that as damning with faint praise, the early follower strategy is the one pursued by the world’s most successful companies. Google wasn’t the first search engine, Apple wasn’t the first smartphone maker, Facebook wasn’t the first social network, Amazon wasn’t the first online retailer.

What comes next

The label services component of the UMG deal was actually announced by Taylor Swift herself rather than UMG, writing:

“It’s also incredibly exciting to know that I own all of my master recordings that I make from now on. It’s really important to me to see eye to eye with a label regarding the future of our industry.”

While this might betray which party feels most positive about this component of the deal, the inescapable fact is that other major artists at the peak of their powers will now want similar deals. Label services success stories to date had been older artists such as Rick Astley, Janet Jacksonand Nick Cave as well as upcoming artists like Stormzy. Now we will start to see them becoming far more commonplace in the mainstream.

But perhaps now is the time. Catalogue revenues are going to undergo big change in the coming years, as MIDiA identified in our June 2018 report The Outlook for Music Catalogue: Streaming Changes Everything. Deep catalogue is not where the action is anymore. For example, 1960s tracks accounted for just 6.4% of all UK catalogue streams in the UK in 2017, while catalogue from the 2000s accounted for 60.4%, according to the BPI’s invaluable All About the Music report. So, by striking a long-term label services type deal, UMG secures Swift’s signature and can still benefit from the main catalogue opportunity for the first few releases without actually owning the catalogue.

Label services have come a long way since Billy Bragg’s 1993 deal and Taylor Swift has just announced that they are ready for prime time.

Penny for the thoughts of Bill Bragg having paved the way for the queen of pop’s latest deal….

Spotify May Already Be Too Big for the Labels to Stop it Competing With Them

Spotify’s Daniel Ek is betting big on developing a ‘two sided marketplace’ for music. With the company’s market cap on a downward trend despite strong growth metrics, Ek might find himself having to play up the disruption narrative more boldly and more quickly than he’d planned. Investors are betting on a Netflix-like disruptor for the music industry, rather than a junior distribution partner for the labels. And this is where it gets messy. Whereas Netflix can play individual TV networks off each other and can even afford to lose Disneyand Fox, each major record label has enough market share to have the equivalent of a UN Security Council Veto. So when Spotify announced it was going to let artists upload music directly and thenadded distribution to other streaming services via DistroKid,the labels understandably smelt a rat. To the extent they threatened to block access to India. Spotify’s balancing act may be reaching a tipping point (mixed metaphor pun intended), but it may already be too late for the labels to act. Here’s why…

In search of market share

If Spotify is able to become more competitive (and therefore threatening) to labels and keep hold of them, it will all be down to market share. The less market share the big labels have on Spotify, the more negotiating power Spotify has. It is a classic case of divide and rule. If Spotify really wants to play the role of market disruptor (and so far we have strong hints rather than outright statements), it will need to whittle down the power of the majors before they call it and pull their content. Here’s a scenario for how Spotify could achieve that.

1 – Direct indie label deals

The first step is detangling embedded indie label market share from the majors that distribute them and therefore wield their market share as part of their own in licensing negotiations. There are two ways to measure market share:

  1. By distribution (this includes indie labels distributed via major labels being included in the share of the bigger labels)
  2. By ownership (this measures based on the original label, so does not count any indie labels as part of major labels)

By the first measure, the major labels had an 82% market share in 2016 and 79% market share in 2017. By the second measure, according to the WINTel report, major label market share was 62% in 2016 (the 2017 WINTel number is not yet out but will be shortly). So, if Spotify does direct deals with the larger indies currently distributed by majors or major-owned distributors (or persuades them to join Merlin), it unpacks up to more than a fifth of major label market share.

2 – More artists direct

DIY artists uploading directly to Spotify is a long-term play, aimed at harnessing the potential of tomorrow’s stars. In the near term, these artists will generate a smallish amount of streams, even with a helping hand from Spotify’s algorithms and curators. There are about 300 artists right now; let’s say Spotify gets to 2,500 next year, it could potentially deliver around a third of a percent of share of Spotify streams.

3 – Library music

Fake artist gatesaw a lot of people getting very hot under the collar, but nothing that was done was against any rules. Instead library music companies like Epidemic Sounds were – and still are – serving tracks into mood based playlists. The inference is that Spotify is paying less for Epidemic Sounds tracks than to labels. Whether it is or isn’t, this still eats away at label market share on Spotify. With a bit more support from Spotify’s playlist engine, these could account for around 0.7% of streams.  Coupled with artists direct, that’s a single point of share. Not exactly industry changing, but a pointer to the future, and a point of share is a point of share.

4 – Top 20 artists

Where Spotify could really move the needle is doing direct deals with top tier, frontline artists, probably on label services deals, as Spotify doesn’t appear to want to become a copyright owner – not yet at least. Netflix is funding its original content investments with around $1.5 billion of debt every two years, which it raises against its subscriber growth forecasts. No reason why Spotify couldn’t do the same, paying advances that other labels couldn’t compete with. The top 20 artists on Spotify account for around 22% of all Spotify streams. If Spotify could do direct deals with each of them and promote the hell of out of their latest releases, they could contribute up to 15% of all streams. Of that top 20, Taylor Swift is on the lookout for a new label, and Drake is putting out ‘albums’ so frequently that he must be pushing up close to the end of his deal.

spotify streaming repertoire shares midia research

When we add all these components together we end up in a situation where the major labels’ share of total streams would be just 47%. Spotify would have the second highest individual market share, while regional repertoire variations mean that SME and WMG could drop towards 10-11% in a couple of regions.

Of course, this is a hypothetical scenario, and one on steroids: the odds of Spotify signing up all the top 20 artists in the next 12 months is slim, to put it lightly, but it is useful for illustrating the opportunity.

Prisoners’ Dilemma

At this stage we move on to a prisoners’dilemma scenario for the majors:

  • All of the majors help Spotify’s case by over prioritising Spotify as a promotional tool in light of its share of total listening compared to radio, YouTube, other streaming services etc
  • WMG and SME probably couldn’t afford to remove their content from Spotify but would be watching UMG, the only one that probably feel confident enough to do so
  • However, UMG would be thinking if it jumps first and removes its content, each of the other two majors would benefit from it not being there (and would probably be secretly hoping for that outcome)
  • Each other major would be thinking the same, and regulatory restrictions prevent the majors from discussing strategy to formulate a combined response
  • But even if UMG did pull its content, this would hurt Spotify but would not kill it (Amazon Prime Music launched without UMG and spent 15 months growing just fine until UMG came on board)
  • Spotify could easily tweak its curation algorithms to minimise the perceived impact of the missing catalogue, making it ‘feel’ more like 10%
  • So, the likely scenario would be each major paralysed by FOMO and so none of them act

Thus, maybe Spotify is already nearly big enough to do this, and could do so next year. And the more that Spotify’s stock price struggles, the more that Spotify needs to talk up its disruption. History shows that when Spotify makes disruptive announcements, its stock price does better than when it delivers quarterly results. Maybe, just maybe, the labels have already missed their chance to prevent Spotify from becoming their fiercest competitor. The TV networks left it too late with Netflix…history may be about to repeat itself.

Article 13 – Laws of Unintended Consequences

I do not normally add disclaimers or qualifiers at the start of blog posts, but given how divisive the whole Article 13 debate has become, there is a big risk that some readers will make incorrect assumptions about my position on Article 13. The emerging defining characteristic of popular debate in the late 2010s has been the polarization of opinion e.g. Brexit, Trump, immigration. Article 13 follows a similar model, leaving little tolerance for the middle ground. You are either anti-copyright / pro-big tech or you’re pro-big government / anti-innovation.

Such extremes are the inevitable result of multi-million-dollar lobby campaigns by both sides. Reasoned nuance doesn’t really play so well in the world of political lobbying. My objective, and MIDiA’s, from the outset has been to strike an evidence-based, agenda-free position, that considers the merits of all aspects of both sides’ arguments. So, before I embark on a blog post that will likely be viewed by some of being pro-Google and anti-rights holder (it is not, nor is it the opposite), these are some ‘value gap’ principles that MIDiA holds to be true:

  • YouTube has misused fair use and safe harbour provisions against the legislation’s original intent
  • YouTube’s ‘unique’ licensing model creates an imbalance in the competitive marketplace
  • YouTube’s free offering is so good that it sucks oxygen out of the premium sphere
  • Google has rarely demonstrated an unequivocal commitment to, nor support of current copyright regimes
  • YouTube being able to license post-facto rather than paying for access to repertoire, gives it a competitive advantage over traditional licensed services
  • There is too big a gap between YouTube ad-supported payments and Spotify ad-supported payments, meaning too little gets to rights holders and creators
  • Take down and stay down is a feasible and achievable solution (albeit within margins of error)
  • The current situation needs fixing in order to rebalance the streaming market

Nonetheless, for each one of these positions from the rights holder side of the debate, we also see an equally long and compelling list of points from YouTube’s side. Rather than list them however, I want to explain how ignoring some of the counterpoints could unintentionally create a far bigger problem for the music industry than the one it is trying to fix.

Value gap or control gap?

What really riles labels is that they cannot exercise the same degree of control over YouTube that they can over Spotify and co. This is very understandable, as they rightly want to be able to determine who uses their music, how it is used and how partners pay for usage. However, taking a very simplistic view of the world, the label-licensed approach has created: a few tech major success stories that don’t need to wash their own faces (Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music); a collection of smaller loss-making services (e.g. Deezer, Tidal); and one big break out success story that can’t turn a profit (Spotify). In short, the label-led model has not (yet at least) resulted in the creation of a commercially sustainable marketplace. Rights holders want to pull YouTube into this controlled economy model. YouTube is understandably resistant. After all, YouTube is a crucial margin driver for Alphabet. It cannot afford it to be loss leading. Alphabet’s core ad businesses generate the margin that subsidises Alphabet’s loss-making bets such as space flight, autonomous cars and curing death (I kid you not). Ad revenue has to be profitable.

Fixed costs / variable revenue

As we explained in our recent State of the YouTube Economy 2.0 report, YouTube went double or quits during the last two years, doubling down on music, making music over index across its user base, in order to try to make it an indispensable hit-making partner for labels. That bet now looks to have failed. So, the question is, will YouTube acquiesce to the new command economy approach to streaming or do something else—perhaps even walk away from music?

The fundamental commercial imperative for YouTube is as follows:

  • Spotify pays a fixed minimum fee to rights holders for each ad supported stream, even if it does not sell any advertising against it. The rate is the same for every song, every day of the year.
  • YouTube pays as a share of ad revenue. This means it is always paying rights holders a consistent share of its income, including all the up side on revenue spikes. But ad inventory is not worth the same 365 days a year. There are seasonal variations meaning a song can generate less rights holder income in December say, than January. Also, not all songs are worth the same to advertisers: they are willing to pay much more to advertise against a Drake track than they are for an obscure 1970s album track.

This revenue share approach without minimum per stream rates is why YouTube has a profitable, scalable ad business, but Spotify does not (as recently as Q1 2018 Spotify had a gross margin of -18% for ad supported, compared to a +14% gross margin for premium). Remember, that’s gross margin, imagine how net margin looks…

The walk away scenario

Minimum per-stream rates could break YouTube’s business model, especially in emerging markets where it usage is strong, but digital ad markets are not yet developed. It would also set a precedent that other YouTube rights holders and creators would want the same applied to them.

So, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that YouTube could simply opt to walk away from music, applying take down and stay down its way (i.e. every piece of label content stays down). It could feasibly continue to provide ad sales support and audience to Vevo, but if YouTube gets to this point, then relationships are likely to be fractured beyond repair, meaning Vevo would likely have to decamp to Facebook and build a new audience there, one which is crucially not accessible to under 13s.

A YouTube shaped hole

So, what? you might ask. The so what, is the YouTube shaped hole that would exist in the music landscape. Readers of a certain vintage will remember the long dark years of piracy booming and corroding the recorded music business. It was YouTube that killed piracy, not enforcement. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but the ubiquitous availability of all the world’s music on demand, on any device, nullified the use case for P2P in an instant. Add in stream rippers and ad blockers, and you’ve got a like-for-like replacement. Piracy created and filled a demand vacuum. YouTube (and Spotify, Soundcloud, Deezer etc.) have all since filled that same space, pushing P2P to the margins. YouTube, however, has had by far the biggest impact due to its sheer global scale. If YouTube pulls out from music, that YouTube shaped hole will be filled because the demand has not changed. Kids still want their free music, as in fact so do consumers of just about every age.

Piracy could be the winner

The most likely mid-term effect of YouTube shuttering music videos would be piracy in some form or another raising its head, filling the demand vacuum. Probably a decentralised, end-to-end encrypted, streaming interface built on top of a torrent structure, sort of like a Popcorn Time for music. Then it really would be back to the bad old days.

Is this the most likely scenario? Perhaps not. But perhaps it is. I suppose a just-as-possible outcome is that YouTube sticks up the proverbial middle finger and creates its own parallel music industry, using a unified music right and ‘doing a Netflix’. Yes, YouTube could be a next-generation record label, with more reach and bigger pockets than any major record label. If the labels are worried about Spotify disintermediation, YouTube could make that threat look like a children’s tea party.

As one YouTube executive said to me a couple of years ago: “This is how we are as friends. Imagine how we’d be as enemies.”

Too much to handle?

‘Couldn’t Spotify, Deezer and Soundcloud fill the potential YouTube shaped hole?’ I hear you ask. If these companies did take on YouTube’s 1.5 billion music users on the current financial agreements they have with rights holders, and with their currently far inferior ad sales infrastructure, they would be out of money in no time. It would literally kill their businesses. Based on YouTube’s likely music streams for FY 2018 and, say, a minimum per stream rate of $0.002, Spotify and co would need pay nearly $3 billion in rights revenue, regardless of how much revenue it could generate. Let alone the unprecedented bandwidth costs for delivering all that video. Of course the flip side, is that in the mainstream streaming model, that is how much potential revenue is up for grabs. So, more money would flow back to rights holders. But the extra revenue could come at the expense of the survival of the independent streaming services, ceding more power to the tech majors.

The artist and songwriter value gap

Throughout all of this you’ll have noted I haven’t said much about artists and songwriters. That’s because the value gap isn’t really about how much they get paid, even though they get put front and centre of lobbying efforts. It’s about how much labels, publishers and PROs get paid. And none of them are talking about changing the share they pay their artists and songwriters once Article 13 is put into action. That particular value gap isn’t going to be fixed. Even if Spotify picked up all of YouTube’s traffic, on say a $0.002 minimum per stream rate, a typical major label artist would still only earn $300 for a million streams, while a co-songwriter would earn just $150. The new boss would look pretty much like the old boss.

Be careful what you wish for

The laws of unintended consequences tend to proliferate when legislation tries to fix commercial problems without a clear enough understanding of the complexities of those very commercial problems.

It is of course in the best interests of YouTube and rights holders to carve out a workable commercial compromise, and I truly hope they do. But there is a very real risk this may not happen if Article 13 is successfully enacted into national member state legislation. Perhaps the phrase that rights holders should be considering right now is ‘be careful what you wish for’.

How Streaming is Changing the Shape of Music Itself [Part I]

[This is the first of two thought pieces on how streaming is reshaping music from creation to consumption] 

The streaming era has arrived in the music business, but the music business has not yet fully arrived in the streaming era. Labels, publishers, artists, songwriters and managers are all feeling – to differing degrees – the revenue impact of a booming streaming sector. However, few of these streaming migrants are fundamentally reinventing their approach to meet the demands of the new world. A new rule book is needed, and for that we need to know which of today’s trends are the markers for the future. This sort of future gazing requires us to avoid the temptation of looking at the player with the ball, but instead look for who the ball is going to be passed to.

Where we are now

These are changes that represent the start of the long-term fundamental shifts that will ultimately evolve into the future of the music business:

  • A+R strategy: Record labels are chasing the numbers, building A+R and marketing strategies geared for streaming. The bug in the machine is the ‘known unknown’ of the impact of lean-back listening, people listening to a song because it is in a pushed playlist rather than seeking it out themselves. Are labels signing the artists that music fans or that data thinks they want?
  • Composition:Songwriters are chasing the numbers too. The fear of not getting beyond the 30 second skip sees songs overloaded with hooks and familiar references. The industrialisation of song writing among writing teams and camps creates songs that resemble a loosely stitched succession of different hooks. Chasing specific playlists and trying to ‘sound like Spotify’delivers results but at the expense of the art.
  • Genre commodification:The race for the sonic centre ground is driving a commodification of genres. The pop music centre ground bleeding ever further outwards, with shameless cultural appropriating par for the course. Genres were once a badge of cultural identity, now they are simply playlist titles.
  • Decline of the album:iTunes kicked off the dismembering of the album, allowing users to cherry pick the killer tracks and skip the filler. The rise of the playlist has accentuated the shift. Over half of consumers aged 16–34 are listening to albums less in favour of playlists. The playlist juggernaut does not care for carefully constructed album narratives, nor, increasingly, do music listeners.
  • Restructuring label economics:Achieving cut though for a single takes pretty much the same effort as for an album. So, it is understandable that label economics still gravitate around the album. But streaming is rapidly falsifying the ROI assumption for many genres, with it being the tracks, not the albums that deliver the returns in these genres.
  • Decline of catalogue:Streaming’s fetishisation of the new, coupled with Gen Z’s surplus of content tailored for them, deprioritises the desire to look back. Catalogue – especially deep catalogue, will have to fight a fierce rear-guard action to retain relevance in the data-driven world of streaming.
  • Audience fragmentation: Hyper targeting is reshaping marketing and music is no different. While the mainstream of A+R chases the centre ground, indies, DIY artists and others chase niches are becoming increasingly fragmented. Yet, most often, this is not a genuine fragmentation of scenes, but an unintended manifestation of hyper- focused targeting and positioning.
  • End of the breakthrough artist:Fewer artists are breaking through to global success. None of the top ten selling US albums in 2017 were debut albums, just one was in the UK. Just 30% of Spotify’s most streamed artists in 2017 released their first album in the prior five years. Streaming’s superstars – Drake, Sheeran etc. – pre-date streaming’s peak. Who will be selling out the stadium tours five years from now?
  • Massively social artists:Artists have long known the value of getting close to their audiences. Social media is central to media consumption and discovery, and its metrics are success currency. Little wonder that a certain breed of artist may appear more concerned with keeping their social audiences happy than driving streams.
  • Value chain conflict:BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti once said “content may still be king but distribution is the queen and she wears the trousers”. Labels fear Spotify is out to eat their lunch, Spotify fears labels want to trim its wings. Such tensions will persist as the music industry value chain reshapes to reflect the shifts in where value and power reside.

Next week: where these trends will go.

To paraphrase Roy Amara:“It is easy to overestimate the near-term impact of technology and underestimate the long-term impact.”

Are Record Labels Facing an A&R Crisis?

A succession of conversations with record labels over the last couple of months has made me start to ponder whether we are approaching a tipping point in streaming era A&R. At the heart of the conversations is whether the growing role of playlists and the increased use of streaming analytics is making label A&R strategy proactive or reactive? Is what people are listening to shaped by the labels or the streaming service? To subvert Paul Weller’s 1980s Jam lyrics: Does the public get what the public wants or does the public want what the public gets?

An old dynamic reinvented

Radio used to be the main way in which audiences were essentially told what to listen to. Labels influenced what radios would play through a range of soft tactics – boozy lunches, listening sessions etc. – and hard tactics – pluggers, payola etc. Now radio is in long-term decline, losing its much-coveted younger audience to YouTube and audio streaming services. Streaming services have learned to capture much of this listening time by looking and feeling a lot more like radio through tactics such as curated playlists, stations, personalisation and podcasts. Curated listening is increasingly shaping streaming consumption, ensuring that the listening behaviours of streaming users resembles radio-like behaviour as much as it does user-led listening. The problem for the record labels is that they have less direct influence on streaming services’ playlists than they did on radio.

Chasing the data

All record labels have become far more data savvy over recent years, with the major labels in particular building out powerful data capabilities. This has resulted in a shift in emphasis from more strategic, insight-led data, such as audience segmentation, to more tactical, data such as streaming analytics.

At MIDiA we have worked with many organisations to help them improve their use of data and the number one problem we fix, is going to deep with analytics. It might sound like a crazy thing to say, but we have seen again and again, companies fetishize analytics, pushing out endless dashboards across the organisation. Too often the results are:

  1. decision makers paradoxically pay less attention to data than previously, not more, because they assume someone else must be ‘on it’ because of all the dashboards
  2. strategic decisions are made because of ‘blips’ in the data.

There is a danger that record labels are now following this path, relying too heavily on streaming analytics. It is interesting to contrast labels with TV companies. Until the rise of streaming, TV networks were obsessed with ‘overnight ratings’, looking at how a show performed the prior night. Now streaming has made the picture more nuanced, TV networks are turning to a diverse mix of metrics, incorporating ratings, streaming metrics, social data and TV show brand trackers. Streaming made the TV networks take a more diverse approach to data, but has made record labels pursue a narrower approach.

The risk for record labels is that doubling down on streaming analytics can easily result in double and fake positives and create the illusion of causality. Arguably the biggest problem is making curation-led trends look like user-led trends, mis-interpreting organic hits for manufactured ones.

Lean-back hits

One major label exec was recently telling me about how one of his label’s artists had ended up in Spotify Today’s Top Hits and racked up super-impressive stats. The success surprised the label as everything else they knew about the artists suggested it would not be such a big breakthrough performer. Nonetheless the label decided to rewrite its plan and threw a huge amount of marketing support behind the next single. Yes, you guessed it, it flopped. When the label went back to the streaming stats, it transpired that the vast majority of plays were passive. It was a hit because it was in a hit playlist that users tend not to skip through, which created an artificial hit, albeit a transitory one.

This case study highlights the two big challenges we face:

  1. Streaming analytics stripped of the context of insight can mislead
  2. Lean-back hits are not real hits

Chasing the stats

The two points are now combining to create what may yet be an A&R crisis. By chasing streaming metrics, the more commercially inclined record labels – which does not exclusively mean major labels – are creating a data feedback loop. By signing the genre of artists that they see doing best on playlists, they push more of that genre into the marketplace which in turn influences the playlists, which creates the double positive of that genre becoming even more pervasive. This sets off the whole process all over again. And because the labels are chasing the same genre of artists, bidding wars escalate and A&R budgets explode. This leads to labels having to commit even more money to marketing those genres because they can’t afford for their expensively acquired new artists not to succeed. All of this helps ensure that the music becomes even more pervasive. And so on, ad infinitum. Five years ago, this probably wouldn’t have been a problem but now record labels are flush with cash again, they are throwing out advances that they can now afford on a cash flow basis, but not on a margin basis. Because record labels – majors especially – remain obsessed with market share, none are willing to jump off the spinning wheel in case they jump too soon. It is a game of chicken. As one label exec put it to me: “In the old days we were betting on the gut instinct of an A+R guy who at least knew his music, now we’re chasing stats rather than tunes”.

Not so neutral platforms

Of course, none of this should be happening. Streaming platforms should be neutral arbiters of taste, simply connecting users with the music that best matches their tastes. But streaming services are locked in their own market share wars, each trying to add the most subscribers and drive the most impressive streaming stats – just look at how Spotify and Apple fell over each other to claim who had streamed Drake’s Scorpion most. In such an intense arms race, can any streaming service risk delivering a song to its users that might result in fewer streams than another one? Therefore, what we are now seeing is a subtle, but crucial, change in the way recommendation algorithms work. Instead of simply looking a user’s taste to estimate what other music she might like, the algorithms test the music on a sample of users to make sure they like it first before pushing it to a wider group of users that match that profile. In short, the algorithms are playing it safe with hits, which means surprise breakouts are becoming ever less likely to happen. Passenger’s slow burning ‘Let Her Go’ simply might never have broken through if it had been launched today. And yes, if you didn’t skip that Scorpion track in Today’s Top Hits then you are now that bit more of a Drake fan, even if you actually aren’t.

Where this all goes

Something needs to change, and ideally someone will have the balls to jump off the wheel before it stops spinning. Right now, we are on a path towards musical homogeneity where serendipitous discovery gets shoved to the side lines. And with listeners having progressively less say in what they like because they are too lazy to skip, record labels will become less and less able to determine whether they are getting value for money from their marketing and A&R spend.

Pop will eat itself.

The Outlook for Music Catalogue: Streaming Changes Everything

Friday’s news that catalogue acquisition business Hipgnosis Songs Fund is set to float on the London Stock Exchange,having already raised around $260 million, reflects a booming market for music catalogues. However, the outlook for catalogue is not quite as straight forward as it at first appears. MIDiA Research has just published a major new report looking at the state of catalogue and its future: The Outlook for Music Catalogue: Streaming Changes Everything. This report was six months in the making and pulls data from a wide range of industry sources to provide a definitive view of the global catalogue market, both in terms of revenues and also mergers and acquisitions (M&A). The report is immediately available to MIDiA subscription clients and is also available for individual purchase on our report store here. Here follows a brief overview.

Album unbundling is now hitting catalogue

Music catalogue sales is fundamentally about nostalgia, enabling us to relive our younger years through rediscovering music that mattered to us. In the old sales model, record labels could release a greatest hits album every eight–10 years and convince consumers to pay for a dozen or more songs, when in reality they only ever wanted a handful of them. If you think about the artists that sound tracked your younger years but are not among your favourite artists, there are probably only around five songs that you can actually recall as liking. In the old sales model you would have listened most to those tracks on the full album, and even then, probablyonly a dozen or so times before lessening your listening. Now, with streaming, you can get straight to those five tracks, skipping the others, and probably still only listen to them a handful of times each, perhaps adding them to a playlist that you’ll listen to occasionally. The old model would have generated, say $5 gross revenue for the label. In the streaming model, five songs listened to ten times each would generate 28 cents for the label. It is the album unbundling dynamic all over again.

Younger audiences look forward, not back

Younger Millennials and Gen Z – those born between 1995–2014 – have more content pushed to them that is tailored specifically for them than at any other stage in history. This is digital’s baby boomer generation. They have never had it so good. With Instagram and Snapchat feeds perpetually filled with new content, they have little need or want to look back. The music industry isn’t helping things either with hundreds of thousands of tracks released every month, leaving little time for older music.

Even within streaming catalogue listening, the focus is very much on the new rather than the old. In the UK, according to the BPI, more than 70% of all catalogue (24-plus months old) streams are from on or after 2000. If we go back to the 1960s, where some of the most iconic catalogue artists were at their peak – e.g. the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – this decade accounted for just 3.6% of UK catalogue streams in [year]. In traditional catalogue valuations, the likes of the Beatles and the Stones will account for a major portion of valuations. In the streaming era, their value diminishes markedly.

 

midia research catalogue forecastsCatalogue is caught between the two extremes of streaming and physical, with current revenue boosted by older CD and vinyl buyers coalescing around old favourites. These physical formats are often high-priced premium products and therefore create a skewed picture when comparing the consumption business of streaming to the sales model. Catalogue’s outlook is nuanced. Music catalogue generated $11.5 billion in retail revenues in 2017, which was up from 2016 and it will continue to grow through to 2025. Yet catalogue’s share of recorded music revenues will diminish.

Many strings to catalogue’s bow

Catalogue also looks different depending on where you sit in the value chain. If you are an influential indie label group like Beggars, you’ll see catalogue still performing strongly on streaming because you have the influential music that fans want to discover. Meanwhile, publishing catalogues are commanding large fees, not least Sony ATV’s $2.3 billion acquisition of 60% of EMI Music Publishing. Music publishing has felt the impact of streaming much more slowly than labels, but it is happening. Mechanical royalties from sales are plummeting, sync revenues are stable but a far larger volume of syncs are happening thus reducing average synch incomes. Meanwhile on streaming, publishers get a much smaller share of revenue than labels. And of course, streaming is killing off radio, another key publishing income source. So what labels are beginning to experience now, publishers will too.

The future needs rewriting

None of this means that catalogue is dead, but it does need an overhaul if it is to retain relevance. Selling people nostalgia is no longer enough on its own (though of course a solid market still exists for selling digital remasters to aging rock fans). The Guardians of the Galaxy is a great example of how to make catalogue work in the current market. For young fans of the movie, the music is simply the soundtrack to part of their culture that just happens to be decades old. The music is given new cultural context for a new generation. This is the sort of thinking catalogue needs to thrive in the streaming era.

A catalogue bubble

There is a risk that we are in a catalogue bubble. Acquisitions are on a rapid rise – check out the reportfor our year-by-year catalogue M&A activity – and will likely continue to rise over coming years, as illustrated by Hipgnosis, though given that the average transaction value for catalogues is $140 million the initial $260 million may not go that far.

The risk with the current market is that valuations are being built using the models that were shaped in the distribution era and that don’t properly reflect the dynamics of streaming. Also, there is a finite number of decent sized catalogues for sale, which means it is a sellers’ market, thus driving prices up further still. 

With these dynamics and streaming’s emphasis on the new set to create a world of mega hits and audiences with less inclination towards looking back, catalogue is at a tipping point. Either it changes to meet the market or the market leaves it behind.

Is YouTube Serious About Music Subscriptions This Time Round?

In 2014 YouTube launched its inaugural music subscription service YouTube Music Keyin beta. The following year YouTube announced it was closing it ahead of the launch of YouTube Red, a multi-format subscription video on demand (SVOD) offering, of which music was going to be sub-component. Soon after Music Key’s launch I announced on stage at a Mixcloud Curates event that it would close within two years: and

I’m gonna put my cards on the table and say it [YouTube Music Key] won’t exist in 18-24 months after

Now YouTube is backfor another round at the table with the launch of YouTube Music.

In 2014 my Nostradamusmoment was less about being a psychic octopusthan it was simply a case of joining the strategic dots. YouTube is all about advertising. Advertisers pay most to reach the best consumers, who are also the ones most likely to pay for a subscription service, which is ad free. YouTube’s ad business is high margin and large scale. Its music subscription business is low margin and low scale. Hence, the more successful YouTube’s music subscription business is, the more harm it does to its core business and operating margins. The same principles apply today as they did four years ago.

So why bother at all? Because it has to keep the labels on side. Although the labels scored a lobbying own goal with their Facebook music deal, they are still applying pressure on YouTube for its safe harbour framework and the ‘value gap’. So if YouTube does not play ball on premium, it puts its core ad business at risk. And music is still the largest single source of YouTube’s ad revenue. Total YouTube ad revenue was $9.6 billion in 2017 – that is a revenue stream that parent company Alphabet cannot put at risk.

youtube spotify.png

When YouTube launched Music Key it used those negotiations to get better features for the free YouTube music offering, including full album playlists, which went live the day after the deal was announced and are still there now, even though Music Key is not. YouTube is no slouch when it comes to doing deals. This time however, YouTube Music will last longer. Here’s why:

  • This isn’t actually year zero:Google already has around five million Play Music subscribers and around the same number of YouTube Red subscribers. Red subscribers will become YouTube Premium subscribers, Play Music subscribers will get access to YouTube Music. So, inasmuch as YouTube is launching a cool new app with lots of new features, this is not Google entering the streaming fray, it is simply upping its game.
  • Spotify is making up ground:YouTube Music is not about to become the global leader in music subscriptions, for all the above stated reasons and more, but it can’t stand on the side lines either. Data from MIDiA’s Quarterly Brand Tracker shows that while YouTube is still the leading streaming music app in weekly active user (WAU) terms, Spotify is making up ground. Crucially, Spotify is now more widely used (for music) among 16–19 year olds. And Spotify is betting big on ad-supported, largely because it has finally persuaded the labels and publishers to amend its deals to allow it to, evidenced by the fact that Q1 2018 ad-supported gross margin increased dramatically from -18% to 13% in Q1 2017. YouTube Music is in part a defensive play to ensure it has an enriched offering for thoseconsumers, both now as free users, and for when they want to pay.
  • YouTube is the best featured music service: One of the great ironies of the recorded music industry’s relationship with YouTube is that because it doesn’t have to negotiate deals in the way other services to, it now has the best featured music service. Streaming and social have risen in tandem, but only YouTube has fully embraced this with comments, likes / dislikes, mash ups, user cover versions, parodies, unofficial remixes etc. And all of these features are front and centre in the new service. Spotify and co can’t get that sort of content because the labels can’t license it. Moreover, labels don’t like users being able to thumb down their songs or comment negatively on them. This launch enables YouTube to shout from the roof top about what it has and, by inference, what Spotify does not.
  • Testing:YouTube Music is being rolled out in the same markets as YouTube Red was (US, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and South Korea). This slightly eclectic mix of markets represent a test base; a wide range of varied markets that will provide diverse user data to enable YouTube to model what global adoption will look like.
  • Upping the ad load: YouTube’s global head of music Lyor Cohen has nailed his colours firmly to the subscription mast. Although Cohen may not be up high in the Alphabet hierarchy he is a strong voice in YouTube’s music business. It also serves Alphabet well to have this particular voice with that sort of message at the forefront. Cohen has gone on record stating that YouTube will up its ad load to force more users to paid, and it is happening, but it is not just a music thing. Ad loads are up across the board on YouTube. Either way, this element was patently missing back in the days of Music Key.

YouTube Music may not be the start of Alphabet’s streaming game, but it is certainly its biggest play yet. And while it will remain focused on protecting its core business, it will likely explore ways to drive ad revenue within its ‘ad free’ premium offerings. Sponsorship and product placement will be one tactic; using MirriAd’s dynamic product placement ad tech could be another. YouTube is unlikely to become the leading music subscription service soon, but there is no denying that it has clearly upped its game.

The data in this chart and some of the analysis will form part of MIDiA’s forthcoming second edition of its landmark ‘State of the YouTube Music Nation’ report. If you are not already a MIDiA client and would like to know how to get access to this report and data, email stephen@midiaresearch.com