Amazon Music: From Dark Horse to Thoroughbred

Neatly ahead of Spotify’s Q4 earnings, Amazon has taken the rare step of announcing subscriber metrics for Amazon Music (inclusive of Prime Music and Music Unlimited). Amazon Music closed 2019 with 55 million ‘customers’ across free and paid. Based on our Q2 2019 numbers for Amazon and the fact that Amazon’s free tier was only rolled out in late 2019 across a few markets, MIDiA estimates Amazon Music’s actual subscriber number to be 50 million. This implies a subscriber growth of 16 million on 2018. Make no mistake, this is a really strong performance. From a bit-part player in 2015 and 2016, Amazon Music is now firmly established in streaming’s leading pack and looks set to overtake Apple Music in 2020. What’s more, unlike Apple and Spotify, Amazon’s wider business is not a top-tier player in dozens of countries, so Amazon Music’s geographic footprint is uneven – making its global figure even more impressive. Indeed, underneath this headline figure Amazon is the number two player in some of the world’s biggest music markets. Amazon is now in the big league.

amazon music 55 million users 50 millionn subscribers midia research

Since Q4 2016, Spotify has averaged 34.8% global music subscriber market share, meaning that despite fierce competition it has managed to stay ahead of the pack, actually increasing share slightly from 34.2% to 35.3%. Amazon’s success is in some respects even more impressive. In Q4 2015 Amazon Music’s subscriber base was just 18% of Spotify’s. By Q4 2019 (assuming Spotify hit the 124 million that MIDiA predicted for Q4 2019) Amazon’s 55 million subscribers represented 40% of Spotify’s – more than doubling its relative scale.

However, the DSP that should be paying most attention is Apple Music. Over the same period Amazon Music went from 49% of Apple’s subscriber base to 82%. At this rate Amazon could trump Apple for second place in 2020. It has already done so in a number of major music markets, including Germany, the UK and Japan – three of the world’s top four recorded music markets.

Extending the market

Amazon is often competing around, rather than with, Spotify and Apple. The combination of Prime Music and Echo / Alexa means that Amazon is extending the addressable market for streaming by unlocking older, higher-income households that do not fit the young, mobile-first demographic mold that the streaming market generally trades upon. Ellie Goulding’s Amazon exclusive ‘River’ claiming the UK Christmas number one spot illustrates that this under-served segment is far from a niche. Of course, Amazon is now also competing for the younger, mobile-centric consumer – Music Unlimited grew by more than 50% in 2019 – but, along with its new ad-supported and HD tiers, Amazon is pursuing a segmented strategy that is pushing beyond its older Prime Music beachhead.

Amazon Music’s success trades heavily on Amazon’s overall brand reach and existing customer relationships, so its global brand reach will always be less evenly distributed than Apple and Spotify’s. However, throughout 2018 and 2019 Amazon has been assertively building its reach in non-core markets through music and video. Traditionally Amazon has been a retailer first and a content brand second. Now, in newer markets across the globe, Amazon is building a reputation as a digital content provider first and retailer second. Though Amazon is clearly going to remain a retailer first globally, streaming is proving to be a powerful tool for establishing the company in markets that would have previously taken years and hundreds of millions of dollars to set up as fully functioning e-commerce markets.

While rightsholders will have well-grounded concerns about Amazon’s corporate objectives of using content to help sell consumer products, what is now undeniable is that Amazon Music and Video are both top-tier content services. Back in 2017 we suggested that the dark horse of Amazon was emerging from the shadows; now it is clear to see it is a thoroughbred in its own right.

Spotify AND Apple Lead Podcasts – It’s All Down to How You Measure It

midia podcast tracker q4 2020The podcast platform data from MIDiA’s Q4 tracker is in. These are the high-level findings:

  • Apple still leads overall: A recent report showed that Spotify has become the leading podcast platform in the US. MIDiA’s Q4 Tracker data shows that among regular podcast users, Spotify is very nearly but not quite the leading platform in the US, just trailing Apple’s podcast app – though the difference is so small that it could be within margin of survey error. However, when Apple Music is factored into the equation, Apple remains the leading platform.
  • Spotify the leading single platform: In terms of single platforms – i.e. considering Apple Music and Apple’s podcast apps separately – Spotify has quickly established a leading position across all markets surveyed except the US. Spotify is betting big on podcasts, but this bet is as defensive as it is offensive. Spotify knows that its users over index for podcasts – 28% use them weekly, compared to 15% of overall consumers. If it did not go big with podcasts it was always at risk of losing share of ear as podcasts grew, in the same way Amazon lost CD buyers to Apple’s iTunes. It has taken Amazon years to start winning back the spend of its music consumers, but it could tolerate that inconvenience as it makes most of its money elsewhere. Spotify has no such luxury.
  • National broadcasters faring well: Radio broadcasters lost their younger music audiences to streaming. They were not going to sit back and let streaming services then go and steal their older, spoken word audiences without a fight. In many respects, radio broadcasters have a greater chance of being power players in podcasts because their decades of programming expertise will take time for streaming services to learn. With music, they were sitting on the shoulders of a decade of experience learned by Apple’s iTunes. The three national broadcaster apps we tracked (BBC Sounds, NPR One, CCBC Listen) had mixed fortunes, but all have solid adoption. None more so than BBC Sounds, which is the second-most widely used single platform in the UK – a testament to the BBC’s sometimes controversial Sounds strategy. However, one major factor is that broadcaster podcast app users are much older than streaming service podcast users, and indeed of dedicated apps like Acast and Stitcher. This shows that broadcasters are doing a good job of bringing their older audiences over to podcasts but are not yet making podcasts an entry point for younger users lost to streaming.

These findings come from MIDiA’s quarterly tracker survey and will be presented in much more detail in MIDiA’s forthcoming ‘Podcast Platforms’ report.

If you are not already a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about how to get access to MIDiA’s research, data and analysis, then email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Music Subscriber Market Shares H1 2019

Music Subscriber Market Shares 2019 MIDiA Research

The global streaming market continues to grow at pace. At the end of June 2019 there were 304.9 million music subscribers globally. That was up 34 million on the end of 2018, while the June 2018 to June 2019 growth was 69 million – exactly the same rate of additions as one year earlier.

Spotify remained the clear market leader with 108 million subscribers, giving it a global market share of 35.6%, EXACTLY the same share it had at the end of 2018 AND at the end of 2017. In what is becoming an increasingly competitive market, Spotify has continued to grow at the same rate as the overall market.

Meanwhile both Apple and Amazon have grown market share, though Apple is showing signs of slowing. At the end of 2017 Amazon (across all of its subscription tiers) had 11.4% global market share, pushing that up to 12.6% by end June 2019 with 38.3 million subscribers. Apple went from 17.3% to 18% over the same period – hitting 54.7 million subscribers, but while Amazon added share every quarter, Apple peaked at 18.2% in Q1 2019 before dropping slightly back to 18% in Q2 2019. Though at the same time, Apple increased market share in its priority market – the US, going from 31% in Q4 2018 to 31.7% in Q2 2019 with 28.9 million subscribers.

Google has been another big gainer, particularly in recent quarters following the launch of YouTube Music, going from just 3% in Q4 2017 to 5.3% in Q2 2019. Google had a well-earned reputation for being an under-performer in the music subscriptions market, a company that did not appear to actually want to succeed. Now, however, Google appears to be far more committed to subscriptions, pushing both YouTube Premium and YouTube Music hard, with a total of 16.9 music subscriptions in Q2 2019, compared to just 5.9 million at the end of 2017.

With the big four all gaining market share, the simple arithmetic is that smaller players have lost it. The share accounted for by all other services fell from 32.8% end-2017 to 28.4% mid-2019. This of course does not mean that all of these services lost subscribers; indeed, most grew, just not by as much as the bigger players. Of the other services, most are large single-market players such as Tencent (31 million – China), Pandora (7.1 million – US) MelOn (5.3 million – South Korea) with Deezer now the only other global player of scale (8.5 million).

In summary, 2019 was a year of growth and consolidation, with the global picture dominated by the big four players and Spotify retaining market share despite all three of its main competitors making up ground. 2020 is likely to be a similar year, though with a few key differences:

  • Key western markets like the US and UK will likely slow from Q4 2019 through to 2020. Meanwhile, emerging markets will pick up pace
  • This could shift market share to some regional players. For example, in Q3 Tencent’s subscriber growth accelerated at an unprecedented rate to hit 35.4 million subscribers. Tencent could be entering the hockey stick growth phase, and at just 2.6% paid penetration there is a LOT of potential growth ahead of it
  • Bytedance could create a new emerging market dynamic with its forthcoming streaming service. Currently constrained to India and Indonesia, Western rights holders may remain cautious about licensing it into Western markets. The unintended consequence is that the staid western streaming market could by end 2020 be looking enviously upon a more diverse and innovative Asian streaming market

These figures and findings are taken from MIDiA’s forthcoming Music Subscriber Market Shares, which includes quarterly data from Q4 2015 to Q2 2019 for 23 streaming services across 30 different markets. The data will be available on MIDiA’s Fuse platform later this week and the report will follow shortly thereafter.

If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to know how to get access to this report and dataset, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Spotify Podcasts Q3 2019: Solid Start

Word count is always a useful guide for how important something is to a company’s ambitions. It is therefore no small detail that Spotify’s Q3 2019 earnings release mentioned the word ‘podcast’ thirteen times. Spotify has bet big on podcasts – spending $340 million on Gimlet and Anchor – and they now form a central component of Spotify’s strategy for five main reasons:

  1. They are Spotify’s most realistic mid-term means of creating original content at scale
  2. They represent Spotify’s (current) biggest long-term revenue bet outside of music
  3. They are crucial to helping Spotify fulfil its ambition of enabling a million creators to earn a living from their art
  4. They help Spotify diversify its content offering
  5. They represent an opportunity to improve margins

Podcasts also enable Spotify to compete on a bigger stage: radio. The commercial radio market is a bigger pond to fish in than the recorded music market and represents an opportunity to drive the continued growth investors so crave should subscriber growth slow.

spotify podcasts metrics midia research q3 2019Spotify announced in its Q3 2019 earnings that 14% of its monthly average users (MAUs) streamed podcasts on the platform during the quarter, representing 33.7 million users and generating $15.9 million.* With total podcast hours up 39% on Q2, there is clearly momentum too – though this growth will be boosted by new podcast users shifting more of their podcast time to Spotify. Spotify has established itself as an important player in the global podcast marketplace but is far from a dominant player yet (it will likely hit 5.5% of global podcast revenue market share by year end 2019). Also, podcasts are still a tiny part of Spotify’s business (just 0.8% of Spotify’s total Q3 2019 revenue).

Competing for share of ear

Spotify’s podcast moves however are motivated not just by growth ambition but also as a defensive strategy for maintaining its audience’s attention.Prior to adopting its bold podcast strategy, Spotify’s users were already active podcast users – the problem was that they were going elsewhere to listen. So, podcasts for Spotify are as much about competing for share of ear as they are driving ad revenue. As of Q3 2019, just under 14% of Spotify’s user base streamed podcasts on the platform. MIDiA’s consumer data indicates that 32% of Spotify’s weekly active users (WAUs) listen to podcasts monthly, 27% weekly and 19% daily. Spotify’s reported numbers are on a quarterly basis so a comparison with the monthly figure is generous to Spotify, but even on that basis more than half of Spotify’s user base is still listening to podcasts elsewhere. This is clearly both challenge and opportunity for Spotify and points to why it is taking originals so seriously.

Spotify’s clear strategic focus suggests that there is plenty more to come and with nearly half of current podcast listeners also Spotify users, the moves it makes will have profound implications for all other companies in the podcast marketplace.

NOTE: This blog is based on an excerpt from MIDiA’s forthcoming report ‘­­­Spotify Podcast Strategy: Strong Start but a Long Way to Go’. If you are not already a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about how to get access to this report and MIDiA’s other podcast research email stephen@midiaresearch.com

*Spotify stated podcast revenues were ‘less than 10%’ of all ad revenues in its Q3 19 earnings release. As the results are SEC regulated we will assume that Spotify was not being intentionally misleading with this figure and that it does not also mean less than 5%. For this estimate we have taken the midpoint of 7.5% of all ad revenue.

Why Spotify and Netflix Need to Worry About a Global Recession

A growing body of economists is becoming increasingly convinced that a global recession is edging closer. The last time we experienced a global economic downturn was the 2008 credit crunch. Although the coming recession will likely be a bigger shock to the global economy, it nonetheless gives us a baseline for what happens to consumer spending habits. When consumer income declines or is at risk, discretionary spend is hit first and often hardest. Crucially, entertainment falls firmly into discretionary spend so, as in 2008, it will be a canary in the mine for recessionary impact. However, streaming is the crucial difference between 2008 and 2019, and is one that could prove to be like throwing petrol on a fire.

Streaming has driven the rise of the contract-free subscriber

The growth of streaming music and video has been a narrative of the new replacing the old; of flexibility replacing rigidity. Crucial in this has been the role of contracts. Traditional media and telco subscriptions are contract-based, legally binding consumers into long-term relationships that typically need to paid off in order to be cancelled. Digital subscriptions, however, are predominately contract-free. For video this has created the phenomenon of the savvy switcher – consumers that subscribe and unsubscribe to different streaming services to watch their favourite shows. For music, because all the services have pretty much the same music, there has been negligible impact. In a recession, however, all of this could change.

No contract, no commitment 

Faced with having to cut spending, the average streaming subscriber would most likely look to cut traditional subscriptions first. For example, a Netflix subscriber with a cable subscription may want to cut the cable subscription and keep hold of Netflix because a) it is cheaper, and b) it is a better match for their content consumption. However, that consumer would quickly learn that cancelling a cable subscription mid-contract actually costs a lot of money. So, they would end up having to cancel Netflix instead, because there is no contractual commitment. The irony of the situation is that a consumer is having to cut the thing they least want to cut, simply because that is all they can do.

Music subscriptions could be collateral damage

The same consumer may also find themselves having to cancel their Spotify subscription, because cancelling Netflix did not save anywhere near as much money as cancelling cable would have done. On top of this, they probably would not feel the impact of cancelling Spotify anywhere near as much as cancelling Netflix. When Netflix goes, it just stops. Spotify on the other hand has a pretty good free tier, and that’s without even considering YouTube, Soundcloud, Pandora and a whole host of other places consumers can get streaming music for free. Streaming music is essentially recession-proof, but in a way that works for consumers, not for services.

If we do enter a global recession and it is strong enough to dent entertainment spend, then a probable scenario is that traditional distribution companies will be the key beneficiaries through the simple fact that that have their subscribers locked into contracts. This could even give these incumbents breathing space to prepare for a second attempt at combatting the threat posed by streaming insurgents. It would almost be like winding back the clock.

Tech majors may bundle their way out of a recession

Some companies could use this as an opportunity to aggressively gain market share. Amazon’s bundled approach could prove to be a recession-buster proposition, giving consumers ‘free’ access to a range of content as part of the Prime package. Similarly, Apple could decide to take its suite of subscription services (including Apple Music and Apple TV+) and bundle them into the cost of iPhones. This would enable it to help drive premium-priced device sales in a recession by positioning them as value-for-money options.

Stuck between contracts and bundles

For Spotify, Netflix and other streaming pure-plays, a recession could see them squeezed between traditional distribution companies and ambitious tech majors with contracts on one side and bundles on the other. Streaming services have been the disruptors for the last decade. A recession may well role-switch them into the disrupted.

Take Five (The Big Five Stories and Data You Need To Know)

Spotify, price hike: Pricing is streaming’s big problem. With premium revenue growth set to slow and ARPU declining due to family plans, discounts, bundles etc., the business needs another way to drive revenue. Unlike video, where pricing has increased above inflation, music has stayed at $9.99 so has deflated in real terms. On the case, Spotify is reported to be experimenting with increasing family plan pricing by 13% in Nordic markets. An encouraging move, but falls short of what is needed.

Viacom and CBS, old flames: Back in 1999 Viacom and CBS merged in a deal valued at $35.6 billion. Things didn’t work out and the companies parted ways in 2005. Now, 20 years on, they’re at it again. This time CBS is buying Viacom in an all-stock deal valued at $28 billion that would consolidate 22% of US TV audience share. It is a very different move from 1999, when the deal saw the companies on the offensive. This is a defensive move against digital disruption. As Disney and Fox have shown, media companies need to be really big to take on tech companies. Expect more media company strategic mergers and acquisitions over the coming years.

Twitch, user revolt: Amazon’s games video streaming platform Twitch finds itself in an awkward spat with top Fortnite gamer Ninja. Twitch promoted other channels on Ninja’s channel, including inadvertently promoting porn. Ninja promptly left Twitch, lured by Microsoft’s deep pockets to switch allegiance to Mixer. Ironically, the big-pay-for-smaller-audience move is similar to the Top Gear presenters’ switch from the BBC to Amazon. Now Amazon knows how it feels. Before it happens again, it needs to decide whether streamers own their own channels – or whether it does.

Tencent, bleeding edge: Though the impending 30X EBITDA purchase of 10% of UMG has got the world’s attention right now, music has always been something of a side bet for Tencent. Games are more central to Tencent’s strategy. Still smarting from the Chinese authorities suddenly playing regulatory hardball on its domestic games business, Tencent is finding its stride again, including a partnership with chipmaker Qualcomm to innovate on the ‘bleeding edge’ of (mobile) games.

Nike, sneaker revolution: Who said subscriptions had to be digital? Nike has just launched a trainer / sneaker subscription aimed at kids. Well, it’s actually aimed at the parents of kids, with a monthly fee for quarterly, bimonthly or monthly purchases that results in net savings on trainers. Fast-growing kids constantly need new shoes, and this move reduces the risk of brand churn with cost-conscious parents. Footwear business economics aside, the growing legacy of digital content is familiarising consumers with subscription relationships.

Take Five (the big five stories and data you need to know) August 5th 2019

Spotify – steady sailing, for now: Spotify hit 108 million subscribers in Q2 2019 – which is exactly what we predicted. Spotify continues to grow in line with the wider market, maintaining market share. Subscriber growth isn’t the problem though, revenue is. As mature markets slow, emerging markets will keep subscriber growth up but with lower APRU will bring less revenue. Spotify needs a revenue plan B. If podcast revenue is it, then it needs to start delivering, fast.

Fortnite World Cup: It can be hard to appreciate the scale of transformative change while it is still happening. A few years from now we’ll probably look back at the late 2010s as when e-sports started to emerge as a global-scale sport in its own right. Epic Games’ inaugural Fortnite World Cup pulled in 2.3 million viewers on YouTube and Twitch, was played in the Arthur Ashe Stadium and the singles winner picked up more prize money ($3 million) than Tiger Woods at the Masters and Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon.

Facebook trying to do an Apple, and an Amazon: With 140 million daily users of its Watch video service, Facebook is positioning to become the video powerhouse it always looked like it could be. Now it is trying to follow in Apple and Amazon’s footsteps and make itself a video device company too. Currently in talks with all its key video competitors, Facebook wants to add streaming to its forthcoming video calling device. That would leave Alphabet as the only tech major without a serious video household device play (unless you count Android TV).

Ticking time bomb?: Having recently hit 120 million users in India, TikTok clearly has scale, but it also has a rights problem, calling in the UK Copyright Tribunal to resolve a dispute with digital licensing body ICE, which characterised TikTok as being ‘unlicensed’. This feels a lot like the days when YouTube was first carving out licenses. Sooner or later TikTok is going to need a licensing framework that rights holders will sign off on. Matters just took a twist with TikTok poaching ICE’s Head of Rights and Repertoire. It’ll take more than that though to fix this structural challenge. 

We’re competing with Fornite: Yes, more Fortnite….fresh from World Cup success and on the eve of the Ashes, the English Cricket Board said ‘There’s 200 million players of Fortnite…that is who we are competing against.’ Do not mistake this for a uniquely cricket problem, nor even a uniquely sports problem. In the attention economy everyone is competing against everyone. And while Fornite might be the go-to for middle-aged execs bemoaning attention competition (yes that means you Reed Hastings) the trend is bigger than Fortnite alone, way bigger.

State of the Streaming Nation 3.0: Multi-Paced Growth

MIDiA Research State of the Streaming Nation 3Regular followers of MIDiA will know that one of our flagship releases is our State of the Streaming Nation report. Now into its third year, this report is the definitive assessment of the streaming music market. Featuring 16 data charts, 37 pages and 5,700 words, this year’s edition of the State of the Streaming Nation covers everything from user behaviour, weekly active users of the leading streaming apps, willingness to pay, adoption drivers, revenues, forecasts, subscriber market shares, label market shares, tenure and playlist usage. The consumer data covers the US, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria and the UK, while the market data and forecasts cover 35 markets. The report includes the report PDF, a full Powerpoint deck and a six sheet Excel file with more than 23,000 data points. This really is everything you need to know about the global streaming market.

The report is immediately available to MIDiA clients and is also now available for purchase from our report store here. And – for a very limited-time offer, until midnight 31stJuly (i.e. Wednesday) the report is discounted by 50% to £2,500. This is a strictly time-limited offer, with the price returning to the standard £5,000 on Thursday.

Below are some details of the report.

The 20,000 Foot View: 2018 was yet another strong year for streaming music growth, with the leading streaming services consolidating their market shares. Consumer adoption continues to grow but as leading markets mature, future growth will depend upon mid-tier markets and later on emerging markets. Disruption continues to echo throughout the market with artists direct making up ground and Spotify spreading its strategic wings. Utilising proprietary supply- and demand-side data, this third edition of MIDiA’s State of the Streaming Nation pulls together all the must-have data on the global streaming market to give you the definitive picture of where streaming is.

Key findings: 

THE MARKET

  • Streaming revenue was up $X billion on 2017 to reach $X billion in 2018 in label trade, representing X% of total recorded music market growth
  • Universal Music consolidated its market-leading role with $X billion, representing X% of all streaming revenue
  • There were X million music subscribers globally in Q4 2018 with Spotify, Apple and Amazon accounting for X% of all subscribers, up from X% in Q4 2015
  • With X% weekly active user (WAU) penetration YouTube dominates streaming audiences, representing X% of all of the WAU music audiences surveyed

CONSUMER BEHAVIOUR

  • X% of consumers stream music for free, peaking at X% in South Korea and dropping to just X% in Japan
  • X% of consumers are music subscribers, peaking in developed streaming markets Sweden (X%) and South Korea (X%)
  • Free streaming penetration is high among those aged 16-19 (X%), 20-24 (X%) and 25-34 (X%) while among those aged 55+ penetration is just X%
  • Podcast penetration is X% with pronounced country-level variation, ranging from just X% in Austria to X% in Sweden

ADOPTION

  • 61% of music subscribers report having become subscribers either via a free trial or a $1 for three months paid trial
  • Costing less than $X is the most-cited adoption driver for music subscriptions at X%
  • Today’s Top Hits and the Global Top 50 claim the joint top spot for Spotify playlists among users, both X%
  • As of Q1 2019 there were X YouTube music videos viewed one billion-plus times, of which X were two billion-plus view videos and X were three billion-plus

OUTLOOK

  • In retail terms global streaming music revenues were $X billion in 2018 in retail terms, up X% on 2017, and will grow to $X billion in 2026
  • There were X million music subscribers in 2018, up from X million in 2017 with Xmillion individual subscriptions

Companies and brands mentioned in this report: Alexa, Amazon Music Unlimited, Amazon Prime Music, Anchor, Anghami, Apple, Apple Music, Beats One, CDBaby, Deezer, Deezer Flow, Echo, Gimlet, Google, Google Play Music, KuGou, Kuwo, Loudr, MelOn, Napster, Netflix, Pandora, Parcast, QQ Music, RapCaviar, Rock Classics, Rock This, Sony Music, Soundcloud, SoundTrap, Spotify, Tencent Music Entertainment, Tidal, Today’s Top Hits, T-Series, Tunecore, Universal Music, Warner Music, YouTube

Spotify Takes Aim at Radio, Again

Spotify has launched a radio-like feature set for premium subscribers in the US called Your Daily Drive.Although it is only positioned as a playlist, the content mix includes podcast news content and plays music the listener already likes with a sprinkling of new tracks. This might not sound that special, but this ‘recurrent heavy’, news-anchored programming is Spotify taking the essence of US drive time radio and translating it into a playlist. As we wrote back in early 2018, radio is streaming’s next frontier, and nowhere is that more true than in the US.

streaming playlist usage midia research podcasts

Right now, streaming consumption is fragmented across multiple programming formats with no stand-out use case. Curated playlists are not for music what binge watching is for video. While this is positive in the context of multiple use cases being met within an increasingly diverse user base, if streaming is ever going to seriously challenge the mainstream mass-market audience that is radio, it needs a binge watching equivalent. Streaming needs a simple, easy to understand and access format that translates seamlessly to traditional radio audiences. Your Daily Drive is a very small first step on that journey.

The playlist is now just a delivery vehicle

If we were to rewind just a few years ago, the idea of Spotify delivering drive-optimized playlists interspersed with news may not have sounded totally outlandish but it would nonetheless have only felt a distant possibility. But now that Spotify has extensive podcast capabilities under its belt and a very proven willingness to insert podcasts throughout the music user’s experience, the concept of what constitutes a playlist needs rethinking entirely…largely because that is exactly what Spotify has just done. The industry needs to start thinking about playlists not as a collection of music tracks but instead as a targeted, personalized and programmed delivery vehicle for any combination of content. In old world parlance you might call it a ‘channel’, but that does not do justice to the vast personalization and targeting capabilities that playlists, and Spotify’s playlists in particular, can offer.

In this context, Your Daily Drive is not simply a playlist but instead Spotify’s first foray into next-generation radio broadcasting. There will doubtless be further Spotify playlist announcements over the coming months that leverage podcast content. As with Your Daily Drive, they won’t just be playlists; instead, pay attention to what they are aiming to compete with to understand their true intent.

Making radio work takes more than just making radio work

Radio programming itself will take a long time for Spotify to master – just look how long it is taking Apple. Even when it does, the even bigger challenge is monetisation. Ad-supported revenue simply isn’t growing fast enough, and the Q1 earnings (which recognized the revenue of its new podcast companies) did not indicate that podcasts were going to bring a big bump anytime soon either. To compete with radio in a meaningful way, Spotify will have to invest heavily in ad sales and ad tech to the same extent that Pandora has. That means having people pounding the streets, knocking on the doors of mom and pop stores selling local spot ads, through to competing with Google, Facebook and Amazon to deliver world class ad tech. No small task, but the rewards could be huge.

Playlist Malfeasance Will Create a Streaming Crisis

Streaming economics are facing a potential crisis. The problem does not lie in the market itself; after all, in Q1 2019 streaming revenue became more than half of the recorded music business and Spotify hit 100 million subscribers. Nor does it even lie in the perennial challenge of elusive operating margins. No, this particular looming crisis is both subtler and more insidious. Rather than being an inherent failing of the market, this crisis, if it transpires, will be the unintended consequence of short-sighted attempts to game the system. The root of it all is playlists.

Streaming makes casual listeners ‘more valuable’ than aficionados

Streaming took the most valuable music buyers and turned them into radio listeners. Now, as the market matures, it is taking more casual music consumers and also turning them into radio listeners. Although curated playlist penetration is still low (just 15% of streaming consumers listen regularly to curated playlists, fewer than listen to podcasts), the impact on listening over indexes.

While a lean-forward, engaged music listener may select an album or a handful of tracks to listen to and then move on, casual listeners might put on a 60-track peaceful piano playlist in the background while studying, doing housework etc. The paradox here is that casual fans have the potential to generate more streams than engaged listeners.

With casuals being the next wave of streaming adopters, their impact will increase. But despite being ‘more valuable’ they will also reduce royalties, because more streams per user means revenue gets shared between more tracks, which means lower per-stream rates. The music industry thus has an apparently oxymoronic challenge: it is not in its interest to significantly increase the amount of media consumption time it gets per user, but instead it will be better served by getting a larger number of people listening less! 

Current market trajectory points to more streams per user, which – for subscriptions, where royalties are paid as a share of revenue – means lower per-stream rates.

Playing the game

Against this growing background consumption trend, streaming services, labels, songwriters and artists are all making matters worse by gaming the system whether that be by structuring songs to work on streaming, creating Spotify friendly soundsor simply gaming playlists.

With playlists being so important for both marketing and revenue, it was inevitable that people would seek out ways to attain any possible advantage. Consequently, playlists are becoming gamed, whether that be major labels getting more than their fair share of access to the biggest playlistsor ‘fake artists’filling them out.Most recently, Humble Angel’s Kieron Donoghue identified a cynically constructed playlist called ‘Sleep & Mindfulness Thunderstorms’(all terms optimised for user searches) that contained 330 one-minute songs of “ambient noise of rain and a few thunder storms thrown in for good measure”. The one-minute track length ensures they are long enough to qualify for a royalty share, but short enough to ensure that a typical listening session will generate a vast quantity of streams, thus generating more royalties.

The twist to this story is that this playlist was created by Sony Music and the artist behind all these tracks appears to be a Sony Music artist. Crucially Sony isn’t the only one doing this, with UMG getting in on the actand Warner Music signing an algorithm.

Playlist deforestation

This sort of activity may make absolute commercial sense but is creatively bankrupt. It certainly makes record complaints about ‘fake artists’ ring less true. Just because you can do something does not mean that you should. This model works until it doesn’t. In fact, there are parallels with deforestation. A logger in the Amazon will likely not be thinking about the destructive impact on the environment he is directly contributing to. In similar manner, it is unlikely that the people creating these playlists realise that they are contributing to a market-level crisis. This is because, the more of these types of playlists that are created, the lower per-stream rates they will generate for everyone.

Well, not ‘everyone’. If overall streaming revenue rises but stream rates decline, then the companies with large catalogues of music, especially those that are also creating arsenals of playlist-filler ammunition, will still feel revenue growth. For individual artists and songwriters, however, royalty payments could actually fall.

Fixing the problem

The casual listening problem will not fix itself. In fact, despite labels worrying about declining ARPUthe only way they can keep ahead of declining streaming rates is by increasing their share of streams. That means more of this sort of playlist gaming activity, which further accentuates the problem.

There is however a simple solution: reduce per-stream rates for lean-back playlist plays.This would ensure the songs people actively seek out get better pay-outs. The demarcations between lean back and lean forward used to be elegantly simple (e.g. Pandora versus Spotify), but now curated playlists and other forms of streaming curation are supporting radio-like behaviour on the same platforms as on-demand. It is time for royalty models to catch up with this new reality.