Why Zane Lowe Could Do More For Discovery At Apple Than Echonest’s $25.6 Million Does For Spotify

BBC Radio One DJ Zane Lowe just announced a shock move to Apple. For the non-Brits and non-Anglophiles Zane Lowe is arguably the most influential radio DJ in the UK and is renowned for being a tastemaker with an eclectic pallet. His left of centre focus and his commitment to supporting and breaking new acts has allowed Radio One the freedom to be unashamedly mainstream in much of its other output. So why does this all matter for Apple? While it is not yet clear what sort of role Lowe will assume at Cupertino it is a move bristling with significance and a clear statement of intent from Apple.

Fixing the Tryanny Of Choice

The Tyranny of Choice remains one of the biggest challenges for streaming services, namely how to make sense of 35 million songs. It has been challenge enough for the Aficionados at the vanguard of the first wave of subscription service adoption. It is a problem of far greater proportions for the next wave of subscribers, the later adopters who do not have the expertise nor intent to invest great effort into discovering new music. It is not as simple as ‘lean forward’ versus ‘lean back’. But instead gradations between the two. Beyond Apple’s inevitable Spotify-subscriber win back efforts, these early followers will be at the core of Apple’s streaming strategy.

The 6th Of March: Man Versus Machine

Spotify showed its own music discovery statement of intent when it acquired the Echo Nest on the 6th of March 2014. Zane Lowe’s final Radio One show will broadcast on the 5th of March 2015, leaving him free to join Apple on the 6th of March 2015, yes, 1 year to the day after the Echo Nest. Coincidence? Perhaps. Either way, the symmetry of Spotify making its bet on algorithmic curation and Apple making its bet on human curation is unavoidable. It is man versus machine, with Apple for once coming down on the side of flesh and blood over technology.

However expensive Lowe’s salary might be, it will be far short of the millions Spotify paid for the Echo Nest, which had burned through $25.6 million of investment to get to that point. Yet there is every chance that Lowe, used properly, could deliver more value to Apple’s music discovery than the Echo Nest can to Spotify. Don’t get me wrong, the Echo Nest is a fantastic outfit with some of the smartest music analytics people going. Along with Pandora’s Music Genome Project the Echo Nest is as good as it gets for music discovery algorithms. In fact when it comes to implementation and cool data driven projects, the Echo Nest leads the way. But there is a limit to how far algorithms can fix the problems posed by the Tyranny of Choice.

Filter Bubbles

As Eli Pariser identified in his excellent Ted Talk ‘Beware Of Filter Bubbles’ there is a risk that recommendation algorithms actually narrow our choice and limit discovery. That by continually refining recommendations based on previous taste and choice they make our world views increasingly narrow and ultimately boring. Music discovery is not simply about finding music that sounds like other music we already like. It is also about serendipitous moments of wonder when something comes at us from the left field and leaves us breathless. That is the antithesis of ‘here are three other bands like this you might like’.

Of course it would be unfair to suggest that the Echo Nest is not sophisticated enough to engineer serendipity and surprise into its discovery system. (And Spotify is beginning to double down on human curation too). But the ability of a stack of code to perform this task versus an expert tastemaker is significantly less. And, another ‘of course’, it is impossible to definitively prove this one way or the other because ultimately the results are subjective and not properly measureable. Because one person’s awesome discovery is another’s sonic tripe. But that is entirely the point of the whole debate.

People Don’t Want Discovery, Well They Don’t Think They Do

There is a fundamental problem with algorithmic discovery: people don’t want it. In numerous consumer surveys I have fielded for numerous clients, respondents show little or no interest in discovery or recommendation features. Yet in the same surveys the vast majority of them state that they regularly listen to music radio, which is of course recommendation and discovery. The big difference is that it doesn’t feel like it. Instead it is an inherent part of the DNA radio. It is not an awkward artificial appendage that most people just don’t get.

Earned Trust

During his Monday – Thursday 2 hour show Lowe will play 20 to 30 or so tracks. Listeners know and understand that these are the tiny tip of the iceberg he has sifted through that week, that these are the songs he has decided are the ones that need to be heard. And when he announces his ‘hottest record in the world’ they know it is probably going to be something pretty special, even if they might not actually like it. His audience appreciates him that way because he earned their trust over weeks, months and years. That is the asset Apple are buying. Even if he has to earn that trust all over again with a new audience, that is the model.

If Lowe was simply to push 20 to 30 songs a day to Apple users (whether that be on a radio show on iTunes Radio, as an iTunes podcast or as an iTunes playlist, or all of the above) the odds are in favour of some or most of those resonating with a large swathe of the target audience. Even if just one track blows away just a quarter of the audience each day, the impact of one fantastic discovery will have more impact than a torrent of ‘sounds a bit like’ recommendations.

30% Not 80%

An Amazon Prime executive recently said that when commissioning shows he didn’t want hits that 80% of his audience quite liked, he wanted shows that 30% of his audience loved. That is what discovery is all about. Not being content most of the time, but being blown away some of the time.   Zane Lowe is not going to solve Apple’s discovery problem all by himself, but the hire shows that Apple is putting its money on moments of human magic being the nitrous oxide in its music discovery engine.

What $500 Million And Jay-Z Say About the State Of Streaming In 2015

2014 was a big year for streaming, 2015 will be bigger. Apple entering the fray is the catalyst. Apple enters a market when it is ready for primetime. Apple lets the pioneers establish the market, prove the model and create consumer mindshare before it comes in and most often assumes a leadership role. Apple is certainly leaving it later than normal with subscriptions but it is still the same classic follower model, and the marketplace knows it. Hence Jay-Z’s reported €50 million interest in Norwegian streaming service WiMP and Spotify’s reported pursuit of a further $500 million. The first move is ‘let’s get in a market Apple is about to make huge’ and the second is an Apple war chest

Spotify’s 2014 growth was little short of spectacular, especially its December surge. But it is still not enough to IPO on. Not because 15 million subscribers in itself is not a huge achievement – it is – but because the market place is holding its breath, waiting to see what Apple does. Apple remains the world’s largest digital music company and is on the verge of becoming the world’s leading shipper of smartphones. But most crucially Apple has the iTunes ecosystem and a deep, deep understanding of the world’s most valuable content consumers. If anyone can take subscriptions to the mainstream Apple can. And in the process it will likely take back a chunk of the iTunes Music buyers that Spotify ‘stole’. Which is not to say that Spotify will not be able to continue to grow, but instead that rapid growth will be harder when Apple is snapping at its heels.

Pricing will be key, as will the role of free. If Apple succeeds in bringing the standard price point down to 7.99 (and perhaps a subsidised price point of 4.99) then a whole new swathe of users will be brought into the marketplace. Still not the mainstream, but certainly getting towards the higher end of the mainstream that Netflix competes in. And certainly a bigger marketplace than the current one. If Spotify finds its free tier heavily capped then it will lose much of its customer acquisition strength, which may force it to spend more heavily on traditional acquisition tactics like app marketing and TV ad spots.

In this expanded marketplace a $500 million war chest would give Spotify the ability expand into new territories, double down on churn management and market in core markets. The intent will most likely be to weather the Apple storm and to be in solid enough shape the other end to IPO. As we have seen in the smartphone and tablet business, Apple can be leader but still leave plenty enough space for a vibrant and competitive marketplace. That is the scenario Spotify, Deezer, Rdio, Rhapsody and Jay-Z’s new plaything-to-be WiMP will be hoping for.

What Spotify’s December Growth Tells Us About Pricing

Spotify just announced the addition of 2.5 million paying since mid November to reach 15 million total subscribers. This is unprecedented growth not just for Spotify but for the subscription market as a whole. It also comes at a time when Spotify needs the best possible numbers to keep labels on board during its crucial renegotiations. But what is most interesting is what the growth tells us about pricing.

spotify 15 million

Long term readers will know that I firmly believe there is a watertight case for reducing the price of subscriptions. Only about 10% of music buyers spend $10 or more a month on music (across all recorded music formats) and most of those have already been converted to subscriptions. While there is absolutely a case that some consumers can be ‘educated’ to spend more on music, in just the same way cell phones educated them to spend more on telephony, many simply will not because there are such compelling free alternatives.

Spotify Made 9.99 Feel Close To Free 

There are two short term and two long term drivers of Spotify’s December growth:

  • Long Term 1: Student plans – effective discount: 50%
  • Long Term 2: Family plans- effective discount: 50%
  • Short Term 3: Holiday gifting - effective discount: 100%
  • Short Term 4: Holiday 0.99 promotion – effective discount: 90%

Of all of those the 0.99 for 3 months holiday promotion had the biggest impact. There is an argument that customers acquired this way are effectively monetized trialists and it is highly likely a large share, perhaps even the majority, will not continue to pay after the promotion is ended. But that almost misses the point. What the surge in adoption at lower price points shows us is a purer measure of the demand curve for on demand subscriptions, without the distortion of the 9.99 price point. Of course 0.99 is not a feasible long term price point but 4.99 is, or perhaps more realistically for now, 7.99 is.

Some of those trialists will unsubscribe after 3 months, some will forget to unsubscribe and some will decide that 9.99 is actually pretty good value. The net effect for Spotify will be more subscribers than it would have had without the campaign.

Taylor Swift, Labels and Investors

The stellar growth is also intended to catch the eyes of various other vested interests. For investors ahead of a potential IPO these numbers help show that Spotify may have its best days ahead of it. For labels this, ‘conveniently’, creates the best possible numbers for them to consider during contract negotiations. And for Taylor Swift it shows that for all her windowing antics Spotify grew faster than ever. In fact, the wall-to-wall media coverage of the ‘Swiftify’ debacle actually boosted Spotify’s profile and may even have modestly helped the numbers.

2015 will be a huge year for Spotify with the super heavyweights Apple and Google both playing their subscription hands and with growing label concerns about the freemium model. It would be naïve to suggest Spotify will not feel the pressure of those factors alongside the continued growth of competitors such as Rhpasody, Rdio and Deezer. But starting the year with 2.5 million new holiday season subscribers is about as good a start as Spotify could possibly have hoped for.

Streaming Report Card 2014

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

Growth – 8/10

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

Transparency – 2/10

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

Platform – 5/10

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

Pricing – 3/10

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

Global expansion – 6/10

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

Sustainability – 4/10

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

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

Why It Is Time To Make YouTube Look Less Like Spotify And More Like Pandora

2014 has been a dramatic year for the music industry and may prove to be one of its most significant. The brief history of digital music is peppered with milestones such as Napster rising its head in 1999, the launch of the iTunes Music Store in 2003, Spotify in 2008. The 2014 legacy looks set to be more nuanced but equally important: it is the year in which streaming started to truly transform the music industry. The significance though lies in how the music industry is responding. With download sales tumbling, royalty rates still being questioned, and Taylor Swift’s hugely publicised windowing, the music industry is taking a long hard look at what role streaming should play. Spotify and Soundcloud will find themselves in the cross hairs, but there is also a case for redefining YouTube’s remit too.

Don’t Throw Out Freemium With the Windowing Bathwater 

Swift’s windowing move centred around free streaming. If Spotify had been willing to treat the free tier as a separate window from its paid tier, the odds are it would have got ‘1989’. Spotify’s argument that weakening the free tier could affect their ability to convert is logical. But ultimately the purpose of the free tier is to persuade people to pay to stream, not to deliver a fantastic free experience. I first made the case for windowing back in 2009 and I remain convinced it will be crucial to long term success.

By playing an all-or-nothing negotiating game freemium services risk being left with the latter. And it would be a tragedy if freemium got thrown out with the windowing bath water. Windowing will quite simply make free tiers more palatable. Windowing can drive huge success. Look at Netflix: with 50 million subscribes gloably Netflix has the traditional broadcast industry running scared yet is far more heavily windowed than Spotify – how many new movies do you find on Netflix?

One Rule For YouTube Another For The Rest

But the core problem is that Spotify does not exist in a vacuum. While Swift windowed Spotify her videos stayed on YouTube and Vevo. Unless YouTube is treated with a similar approach to other free services then any windowing efforts will simply drive more traffic to YouTube rather than drive more sales or subscriptions. 5 years ago a YouTube stream could be seen as driving sales, now a YouTube stream drives another YouTube stream.

Among the Top 10 fastest growing YouTube channels (in terms of views), half are music. More people are streaming more music on YouTube than ever. The reason YouTube remains untouchable has much to do with the fact labels still see it as a promotional vehicle despite the fact it has become a fully fledge consumption platform. Without doubt YouTube plays the discovery role for youth that radio does for older generations. But it is also the end point for youth.

Time For A New Role For YouTube

So what is the solution? Simple. If YouTube is the radio equivalent for youth, make it look and feel more like radio, not like Spotify premium with video. Instead, make YouTube look like Pandora with video. If YouTube is all about promotion then swap out unlimited on demand mobile plays for DMCA compliant stations. Let any user search and discover a new song but once they have discovered it the next few music videos are automatically selected related videos.

I remember Beggars’ Martin Mills quoting music industry veteran Rob Dickens:

‘If you play what I want when I want I’ll accept it is promotion. If it is what you want when you want it is business.’

That is at the core of what makes a streaming service additive versus substitutive. This is why Pandora stands out as a complement to ‘sales’ revenue and why YouTube no longer can. If YouTube’s core value to the music business is still discovery then this approach is how that role can be protected without damaging the ability of subscription services to proposer.

Do Not Conflate Music Key With YouTube

Now of course, YouTube has its own subscription service too in the form of Music Key, which is great: YouTube is a hugely welcome addition to the subscription market. But this does not mean YouTube music videos should be free on demand to all. Only 3% of UK and US consumers say they would pay for Music Key (and consumer surveys typically over report on intent to purchase).   Instead, YouTube’s free on demand music videos should be only available for users that register for Music Key. This would be Music Key’s freemium base, not the entire installed base of YouTube users.

With on demand free music it is all about the conversion path: how many of those consumers that listen for free are likely to pay. With YouTube’s 1 billion users it is a tiny per cent so there is little business rationale for letting them take the Ferrari out for a test drive when they are only ever going to get the bus.

Is 9.99 too expensive for most free music users? Of course it is. Should PAYG options be added in to the mix? Yes, absolutely. But none of those will work unless the music industry takes a consistent and fair approach to freemium.

Turning YouTube into a video enabled Pandora is clearly a controversial proposal and it will have huge opposition. It may even cause some meaningful disruption in the mid term, but unless equally meaningful change is made the music industry will remain locked on course to a future in which subscription services will never be able to realise their full potential.

How Data And Mobile Apps Shape Spotify’s Quest For Profitability

Spotify’s has announced the 2013 financial results for its global parent company. The headline is a -12% operating loss, down from a -19% loss in 2012. The numbers are in stark contrast to the small operating profits recently reported in Spotify’s UK and France subsidiaries. Both were able to do so because only a portion of Spotify’s costs reside in those businesses. This raises the interesting point of Spotify making efforts to report an operating profit where ever it possibly can to help build an evidence base that its model is sustainable. Which contrasts sharply with Pandora’s prolonged efforts to do what it can to not make a profit in order to help its rate lobby efforts.

Having spent the last few weeks knee deep in a client project exploring the profitability of digital music services I had a stronger than usual sense of ‘told you so’ when Spotify’s numbers came out. The headline of rights costs being the large cash drain on the subscription business model is well known, but there are other accelerating costs that are less well known. Spotify’s research and development costs rose by 92% between 2012 and 2013.

Music services find themselves running to keep up in the mobile world. Mobile apps are how the vast majority of subscribers interact with streaming services yet mobile app development is only an ancillary competence of subscription services. Unlike a King.com, a Supercell or a Mojang, Spotify’s core operating structures are built around cloud distribution, content management and music programming. Spotify and other subscription services are now having to develop mobile as core competence too and the rapid rate of innovation and change in mobile experiences mean that this more resembles an arms race that it does a standard operating cost.

The other big change is data. Streaming services generate vast quantities of usage data and making sense of that data is an ever more important task for streaming services of all kinds, not just music. Netflix spends $150 million on recommendations alone and has 150 staff just for this single data driven task.   Call it ‘big data’ if you will, but managing large data sets effectively is crucial to the success of streaming services for everything from managing churn through to rights holder reporting.

The key takeaway? Scale will definitely help streaming subscription services move closer towards profitability (as Spotify’s narrowing loss attests) but costs are also going to continue to rise for any streaming service that takes competencies such as app development and data intelligence seriously.

Spotify, Apple, YouTube And The Streaming Pincer Movement

The Financial Times yesterday reported that Apple is planning on integrating Beats Music into an iOS update as early as the first quarter of 2015. Which means the entire base of Apple’s 500 odd million iOS devices suddenly become Apple’s acquisition funnel. As I wrote back in May, this was always the strategy Apple was most likely to pursue. Of course being available to 500 iTunes customers is not anything like converting them all. Just ask U2. But it does give Beats Music – if Apple keep the name – a reach like no other subscriptions service on the planet. Especially if Apple is willing to roll out free trials to them all.   Currently just 8% of consumers in the US and UK have experienced a subscription trial, which translates into approximately 30 million people. Even if Apple does not quickly succeed in taking subscriptions to the mainstream it is about to take subscription trials to the mainstream, which is the crucial first step.

streaming pincer

Add this to YouTube’s recently announced Music Key subscription service, which should be aspiring to get 5 million or so subscribers in its first year to be considered a success, and a picture emerges of Spotify squeezed in the middle of a streaming pincer movement (see figure). In the near term Apple will be hoping to win back a lot of its lost high spending iTunes customers from Spotify. Longer term it will be looking to grow the market.

None of this means anything like the end for Spotify. Instead it will force Spotify to up its already high quality game. Competitive markets thrive far more than ones in which one or two key players dominate. It could mean that Spotify’s potential flotation or sale value is tempered for a while, which could push out Spotify’s exit timelines until it has proven its worth in a more competitive marketplace. But Spotify has the distinct advantage of being a) the incumbent and b) a pure play. Spotify, Deezer and Rhapsody are all in this game simply for music. That means each and every one of them has a laser focus on making the best possible music service proposition they can. The same is quite simply not the case for either Apple or YouTube. They will need to leverage that asset in their conversations with rights holders to ensure they are given more flexibility in terms to drive true marketplace innovation and experimentation.

subs numbers 11 14

But Spotify et al would be foolish to underestimate the scale of the challenge they will face. Apple has the largest installed base of digital music buyers on the planet (see figure). As creditable as Spotify’s 12.5 million paying subscribers is, it pales compared to Apple’s 200 million iTunes music buyers. Also Apple has many additional assets at its disposal. Integrating into iOS is just one tactic it can employ. Spotify et al depend on Apple’s platform for much of their survival. But there is no reason Apple has to play truly fair. Amazon set a platform precedent with its treatment of Hachette that Apple will have been watching closely. Don’t expect anything too obvious, but little tricks like tilting app store optimizing in favour of Beats over Spotify can go a long way.

Things are hotting up, no doubt. But Apple’s arrival in the subscription market will take the sector to a whole new level, and a high tide should rise all boats.

What the Numbers Tell Us About Streaming in 2014

By the end of 2014 streaming revenues will account for $3.3 billion, up 37% from 2013. However headline market value numbers only ever tell part of the story. Just as important are the numbers on the ground that give us some sense of where the money is flowing and of the sustainability of the business models. During the last two weeks we have been fortunate to have four different sets of data that go a long way to filling in those gaps:

Each is interesting enough in isolation but it is the way that they interact and interdepend that gets really interesting:

  • Sustainability: A lot is rightly made of whether the subscription business model is sustainable. Spotify has showed us that, at least in a local subsidiary, an operational profit can be turned. However that profit rate was just 2.5%, does not account for previously acquired losses and also does not account for the broader company’s cost base where many of Spotify’s other costs lie. 2.5% is a wafer thin margin that leaves little margin for error and would be wiped out in an instant with the sort of the advertising Spotify has been using in the US. Meanwhile Soundcloud have demonstrated that it is also entirely possible to post a heavy loss even without rights costs. Soundcloud is going to need every ounce of its investor money and new revenue streams when it adds a 73.2% rights cost to its bottom line (though Soundcloud is doing all it can to ensure it doesn’t have to play by those rules and instead hopes to operate under YouTube’s far more preferable rates).
  • Transition: Nielsen’s US numbers should finally remove any lingering doubt about whether streaming is eating directly into download revenue. As MIDiA Research revealed last month, 23% of streamers used to buy more than an album a month but no longer do so. Streaming is converting the most valuable downloaders into subscribers and in doing so is reducing their monthly spending from $20 or $30 to $9.99. The combined effect of the perpetual decline of the CD and now of the download make it hard for streaming to turn the total market around. That won’t happen globally until 2018, though in many individual markets streaming driven growth is already here. Spotify pointed to bundles with the Times of London newspaper and mobile carrier Vodafone as key sources of growth in the UK. This sort of deal points to how subscriptions can break out of the early adopter beachhead and drive incremental ‘found’ revenue.
  • The Ubiquity of Free: YouTube, Pandora, Soundcloud and Spofity free are among the largest contributors to streaming’s scale. Some business models are more proven than others – Pandora looks better placed than ever to be a central part of the long term future of radio. YouTube’s role remains controversial though. Its proudly announced $1bn payout milestone is less impressive when one considers Content ID was launched in 2007 and that this is all rights holders, not just music. So let’s say 60% was to music rights holders, over the course of seven years that averages out at $0.07 per year for each of YouTube’s current one billion monthly users. That’s a pretty small return for the globe’s biggest music service.

We are clearly still some distance away from a definitive set of evidence that can tell us exactly what streaming’s impact will be. But in many ways it is wrong to wait for that. There will never be a truly definitive argument. Instead the world will continue to change in ways that will better fit the streaming market. It is a case of streaming and the industry meeting half way. This is exactly what happened with downloads. Early fears that downloads would accelerate the demise of the CD and instigate the decline of the album were both confirmed but the music industry learned how to build a new set of businesses around these new digital realities. The same process will take place with streaming.

We are already seeing some remarkable resilience and appetite for change from artists, from DIY success stories like Zoe Keating, through veteran rockers like Iggy Pop, right up to corporate megastars like Ed Sheeran. These are as diverse a collection of artists as you could wish for but they are united in an understanding that the music industry is changing, again, and that simply bemoaning the decline in sales revenue will not achieve anything. Of course it sucks that sales revenue is falling and of course its infinitesimally easier for me to write these words than to live them. But that sort willingness to evolve to the realities of today’s rapidly changing market will set up an artist with the best chance of surviving the cull. The old adage rings truer than ever: adapt or die.

Google’s Acquisition Of Songza And ‘Fixing Discovery’

Google yesterday confirmed the much rumoured purchase of curated music service Songza for somewhere between $15 and $39 million. While it is not a vast investment for a company with the recent $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest as a benchmark, it is nonetheless a significant one for a company that already has a couple of streaming music services of its own. It is not a Beats sized deal but then if Google had wanted one of those it would have bought Spotify. So just why did Google splash the cash on Songza?

Access to all the music in thee world can be overwhelming, with so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all. This is the Tyranny of Choice. For all the efforts and intent of music services to ‘fix’ discovery no one has yet nailed it. Listen Services like Nokia Mix Radio, O2 Tracks and Pandora present one solution: effectively removing the burden of excessive choice by delivering a curated stream of music that requires little or no effort from the user. But this approach does not translate well to All You Can Eat (AYCE) services like Spotify and Googles’ Play Music All Access. These services are built on the foundations of giving access to everything, the exact opposite of what Listen Services are about. Which is why AYCE services are doubling down on enhancing their internal curation and recommendation capabilities. Spotify moved first with its acquisition of the EchoNest, Rdio followed by acquiring TastemakerX and now this move from Google. Beats Music took a different route entirely, building its service on the foundations of programming rather than superimposing it.

Google should be able to extract great value from Songza but as with all of these technologies it is just part of the solution. Human programming, as resource intensive as it might be, remains a pivotally important part of the equation, and though all the AYCE services have teams of curators, only Beats so far has done it at large scale.

First, Show People How To Find What They Have Already Found

And still the discovery problem is not fixed. Progress has been made in the last few years, but in many respects it is a case running before learning to walk. Recommendations, discovery and programming are just one part of the music consumption journey i.e. discovering new music. Arguably the most important aspect of the journey is the one that is most neglected: navigating the music people have already discovered. As counter intuitive as it may sound, people first of all need to be shown how to find what they have already found…their pre-existing music collections but also the music they have listened to in a service. Creating playlists and tags of songs is an often burdensome task that requires no small amount of discipline. Which means that newly discovered gems can all too quickly disappear back into bottomless pit of 30 million songs, rendering a discovery journey wasted.

Smart of use of data can provide the foundations for the solution, ensuring that people’s streaming ‘collections’ are dynamically created and programmed. But data alone is not enough. What is needed is an entire new paradigm in music navigation. For all the faults of CDs they were visual reference points. A consumer might not remember the name of an artist or an album but would know roughly where the CD was on a shelf or what colour the cover was. (I remember as a DJ often identifying a record I was about to play only by the colour of the label on the centre of the vinyl).

Digital music lacks such visual reference points. iTunes transformed our music collections into featureless spreadsheets, with playlists emerging as simply another means of sorting the data. New visually rich interfaces in music services help enhance the user experience but most often simply try to shoe horn in the old album art approach into a digital context. This new navigation paradigm must start with a blank sheet and think in terms of multimedia, interactive, dynamic experiences. It will need to leverage rich visuals, touch, dynamic context aware programming, sound, voice control and Shazam, to create an immersive whole that gives the consumer clear, immediate results in a way that engages multiple senses. Only once we have fixed this first step of the music consumption journey can we really start thinking about ‘fixing discovery’.

YouTube, Record Labels And The Retailer Hegemony

YouTube (i.e. Google) has put itself in the midst of a music industry conflict that may yet turn into a much needed process of soul searching for the labels as they weigh up whether YouTube’s contribution to their business is net positive or net negative.  The controversy surrounds the imminent-ish launch of YouTube’s premium subscription service and the refusal of some independent labels to sign the terms Google is offering them.  Whereas normally this would just result in a service launching without a full complement of catalogue, in this instance YouTube is also the world’s second largest discovery platform after radio.  YouTube execs have been quoted as stating that labels that do not sign their terms will have their videos blocked or removed.  Exactly from where (i.e. the main YouTube service, or the premium offering) remains a matter of conjecture with both sides of the debate more than happy to allow the ambiguity cloud the debate.    But the fundamental issue is clear either way: YouTube has become phenomenally powerful but delivers comparatively little back in terms of direct revenue and is now happy to flex its muscle to find out who is really boss.

The Retailer Hegemony 

Google’s stance here fits into a broader phase in the evolution of digital content, with the big tech companies (Amazon, Apple, Google) testing how far they can push their content partners in order to consolidate and augment their already robust positions.  It fits into the same trend as Amazon making life difficult for book publishers Hachette and movie studio Warner Bros.  The big tech companies are becoming the three key powerhouses of digital content and each is fighting to own the customer.  Media companies are becoming collateral damage as the new generation of retailer behemoths carve out new territory

The record labels, indies included, have to take much of the blame here.  They let YouTube get too big, and on its terms.  The big labels had been determined not to let anyone ‘do an MTV again’ and yet they let YouTube do exactly the same thing, getting rich and powerful off the back of their promotional videos.  But this time YouTube’s resultant power is far more pervasive.

youtube subs impact

Stealing The Oxygen From The Streaming Market

Labels are beholden to YouTube as a promotional channel.  They have turned a blind eye to whether its ‘unique’ licensing status might be stealing the oxygen out of the streaming market for all those services which have to pay far more for their licenses.  The underlying question the labels must ask themselves is whether YouTube’s inarguably valuable promotional value outweighs the value it simultaneously extracts from music sales revenue.  Indeed 25% of consumers state that they have no need to pay for a music subscription service because they get all the music they need for free from YouTube (see figure).  This rises to 33% among 18 to 24 year olds and to 34% among all Brazilians.

Reversing Into Subscriptions Is No Easy Task

Of course the aspiration here is that YouTube is finally going to start driving premium spending, but reversing into a subscription business from being a free only service is far from straightforward.  It is far easier to make things cheaper than it is to raise prices, let alone start charging for something that was previously free.  Add to the mix that free music is not exactly a scarce commodity and you see just how challenging YouTube will find entering this market.  Indeed, just 7% of consumers are interested in paying a monthly fee to access YouTube music videos with extras and without ads.  The rate falls to just 2% in the UK.

The counter argument is that only a miniscule share of YouTube’s one billion regular users are needed to have a huge impact.  But if the price the music industry pays to get there is to kill off the competition then it will have helped create an entity with such pervasive reach that it will truly be beholden unto it.  If the music industry has hopes of retaining some semblance of power in this relationship, it must act now.