Can Spotify break out of its lane?

After years of relative stability, music consumption is shifting, with the DSP streaming model beginning to lose some ground as illustrated by the major labels growing streaming revenue by 33% in Q2 2021 while Spotify was up by just 23%. It is never wise to read long-term market trends into one quarter’s worth of results, but there was already enough preceding evidence to suggest we are entering a genuine market shift. The question is whether Spotify and the other Western DSPs are going to find themselves left behind by a fast-changing market, or can they innovate to keep up the pace?

Social music is streaming’s new growth driver, generating around $1.5 billion in 2020 and growing fast in 2021. It represents a natural evolution of social media rather than an evolution of streaming. Audio is just another tool for social expression, along with video, pictures and words. MIDiA has long argued that Western streaming focuses too heavily on monetizing consumption, at the expense of fandom. While social video does not fix the fandom problem, it does cater to some of the key elements of fandom: self-expression, identity and community. Which means that, in some respects, Spotify and the other DSPs only have themselves to blame for having kept fandom out of their propositions. In doing so, they created a vacuum that TikTok and Instagram eagerly filled.

The data in the above chart comes from MIDiA’s latest music consumer survey report which is available now to MIDiA clients and is also available for purchase here.

Rights holder licensing met market demand

Spotify and the other DSPs are the dominant, core component of recorded music and they will remain so for the foreseeable future. But whereas a couple of years ago it looked like they might be the entire story, now music consumption is moving beyond, well, consumption. Finally, we are seeing music becoming an enabler of other experiences. Historically this was restricted to non-scalable, ad hoc sync deals. Now rights holders have established licensing frameworks that are flexible, dynamic and scalable enough to enable a whole new generation of experiences with music either in a central or supporting role.

DSPs occupy one of streaming’s lanes

The implication of this is that Spotify and the other DSPs now risk looking like they are stuck in just one lane of the streaming market. What looked like a highway is now just a single lane – and Spotify, Apple and Amazon do not have the assets to build propositions that can get them out of it. Being part of this social music revolution requires both massively social communities and video. They could all build that, of course, but with little guarantee of success. YouTube is a different case, having launched Shorts in a belated bid to ward off TikTok’s audience theft – but at least it is now running that race, and Alphabet reported 15 billion daily global views for Q2.

An increasingly segmented market

Spotify and other DSPs now find themselves not being part of streaming’s new growth story and, YouTube excepted, with no clear path to becoming part of it. To be clear, Spotify will continue to be the world’s largest subscription revenue generator and the DSP subscription model will continue to be the biggest source of revenue, at least for the foreseeable future. But revenue growth will increasingly come from elsewhere. In many respects this simply reflects the maturation of the music streaming market. Consider video streaming. Netflix added just 1.5 million subscribers in Q2 2021 while YouTube grew by 84% and TikTok went from strength to strength. Netflix occupies just one lane in a multifaceted streaming market. The same is now becoming true of the DSPs.

Time to do a Facebook?

So, what can Spotify and the other DSPs do about it? If Spotify really wants to ‘own’ audio, then it will have to do what Facebook did to ‘own’ social: create a portfolio of standalone sister apps. Facebook would have become the Yahoo of social media if it hadn’t bought / launched Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. The signs are already there for Spotify. Even ignoring the slowdown in monthly active user (MAU) growth in Q2 2021, podcast users stopped meaningfully growing as a share of overall MAUs in Q4 2020. It turns out that trying to compete with yourself in your own app is hard to do. The time may have come for a standalone podcast / audiobook app (by the way, I’m just taking it as read that Spotify is going to take audiobooks a whole lot more seriously). If Spotify does launch a podcast app, then the case suddenly becomes a lot clearer for other audio-related apps, all of which could include subscription tiers, such as social short video, karaoke, and artist channels.

The more probable outlook however is for specialisation, with segments going deep and vertical rather than wide and horizontal. While Spotify, and other DSPs, might have success in one or more side bets, it will be the specialists who lead in streaming’s other lanes. Whatever the final market mix looks like as a result of this change, the streaming market is going to be more diverse and innovative for it.

Spotify and music listening 10 years from now

July marks ten years since Spotify’s US launch. Although the tendency among some is to consider this ‘year zero’ for streaming (thus ignoring everything that had happened in prior years both within and outside of the US) it does present a useful opportunity to reflect on what the next decade might hold for Spotify. 

Rather than focus on the business outlook, I am going to explore how Spotify and other streaming services, could change the way in which music is consumed ten years from now. But first, three quick future business scenarios for Spotify:

  1. It continues to be the global leader but with reduced market share due to the rise of regional competitors in emerging markets
  2. It loses market momentum, stock price tumbles and is acquired by another entity 
  3. It morphs into a true multi-sided entertainment and creation platform, doing for entertainment what Amazon now does for retail but with more tools and services

So, on to the future of music consumption.

To map the future, you need to know the past. These are (some of) the key ways streaming has transformed how we engage with music:

  • We listen to a larger number of artists but spend less time with individual artists
  • We listen to tracks and playlists more, and albums less
  • Music is programmed (by ourselves and by streaming services) to act as a soundtrack for our daily lives and routines
  • Genre divisions are becoming less meaningful
  • Artist brands are becoming less visible
  • Music fandom is becoming less pronounced

Music is more like the soundtrack to daytime TV than blockbuster movies

In 2015 Spotify’s Daniel Ek said that he wanted Spotify to ‘be the soundtrack of your life’. Undoubtedly, Spotify and other streaming services are achieving that but the utopian vision is more prosaic in practice. Less ‘that was the best day of the summer’ and more ‘put on some tunes while I cook’. It is a soundtrack, but less the soundtrack to a blockbuster movie and instead more like the soundtrack to daytime TV. Music has become sonic wallpaper that is a constant backdrop to our daily mundanity. (Though the pandemic, the climate crisis and stagnant labour markets can make even the mundane look aspirational for many).

Like it or loathe it, this sound tracking dynamic is likely to play a key role in what the future of music consumption looks like. But it is not all sonic dystopias; personalisation, algorithms, user data and programming also have the potential to reinvigorate music passion. Here are two key ways in which Spotify and other streaming services could transform music listening ten years from now:

  • Dynamic and biometric personalisation: The current recommendation arms race works from a comparatively small dataset, focused on users’ music preferences and behaviour. The next battle front will be the listener’s entire life. Any individual user can appear to be a dramatically different music listener depending on the context of their listening. Even the same time of day can have very different permutations; for example, looking for chilled sounds at 7pm after a manic Monday but banging beats at the same time on a Friday. If streaming services could harvest data from personal devices and the social graph, elements such as heart rate, location, activity, facial expression and sentiment could all be used to create a music feed that dynamically responds to the individual. Instead of having to actively seek out a workout or study playlist, the music feed would automatically tweak the music to the listener’s behaviour and habits. The faster the run, the more up-tempo the music; the later in the evening, the more chilled (unless it’s 9pm and you’re getting ready for a big night out). Selecting mood and activity-based playlists will look incredibly mechanical in this world. Think of it like the change from manual gear change to automatic in cars.

  • Music catalogue reimagined: Just as activity and mood-based listening will become more push and less pull, so can music catalogue. Traditionally catalogue consumption is driven by a combination of user behaviour (‘I haven’t listened to that band in a while’) and marketing pushes by labels, publishers and now music funds’ ‘song management’. But it needn’t be that way anymore. Over the years, streaming services have collected a wealth of user data. Just as Facebook introduced memories for users’ posts, so streaming services could deliver music memories, showing users what they were listening to on this day ten years ago, or what the soundtrack to your summer was way back in 2021. Clearly Spotify is already making steps in this direction with Wrapped but this would be much bigger step, routinely delivering nostalgia nuggets throughout a day, week, month, year. In many respects the result would be a democratisation of catalogue consumption. It wouldn’t simply be the rights holders with the biggest marketing budgets and smartest campaigns on TikTok (or whatever has replaced TikTok ten years from now) that get the biggest catalogue bumps. Instead, catalogue consumption across the board would boom. This could make the current 66% of all listening look like small fry in comparison. What that means for frontline releases finding space is another question entirely.

These are of course just two well-educated guesses, and their weaknesses are that they are based on what has happened so far rather than what currently unforeseen consumption shifts may happen in the future. Indeed, streaming itself may have been surpassed ten years from now. But tomorrow’s technology often looks more like today than it does tomorrow. Henry Ford’s model T Ford looked more like a horse and trap than it did the swept wing aerodynamics of 1950s cars. Change takes time. But ten years is a long time in the world of technology, so even if neither of the above come to pass, you can be sure that music listening is going to look a whole lot different than it does now.


Global music subscriber market shares Q1 2021

The music industry’s growing obsession with declining ARPU will continue to colour the outlook for the global streaming market in revenue terms, but the positive driver of this equation is the rapid growth of music subscribers. There were 100 million new music subscribers in 2020, taking the total to 467 million. (In 2019 there were just 83 million net new subscribers). A further 19.5 million new subscribers in Q1 2021 pushed the number up to 487 million. While the failure of subscription revenues to keep up with the pace resulted in ARPU falling by 9% in 2020, this lens detracts from the huge momentum in paid user adoption. Subscription revenue might not be increasing as fast as some would like, but the global music subscriber base is not just growing – it is growing faster than ever.

Spotify continues its global dominance, adding 27 million net subscribers between Q1 2020 and Q1 2021, more than any other single service. However, it lost two points of market share over the period because its percentage growth rate trailed that of its leading competitors. Google was the fastest-growing music streaming service in 2020, growing by 60%, with Tencent second on 40%. Amazon continued its steady trajectory, up 27%, while Apple grew by just 12%.

Google’s YouTube Music has been the standout story of the music subscriber market for the last couple of years, resonating both in many emerging markets and with younger audiences across the globe. The early signs are that YouTube Music is becoming to Gen Z what Spotify was to Millennials half a decade ago.

Emerging markets are now central to the music subscriber market, with Latin America, Asia Pacific and Rest of World accounting for 60% of all 2020 subscriber growth. This is of course, also a key reason why global ARPU declined. Nonetheless, a number of emerging markets services now boast large subscriber bases. Beyond Tencent’s 61 million, China’s NetEase hit 18 million subscribers in Q1 2020 and Russia’s Yandex hit 8 million. (For more on streaming in emerging markets check out MIDiA’s latest free report: Local Sounds, Global Cultures.)

MIDiA will be publishing its country-level music subscriber numbers as part of the global music forecast report and dataset which will be available to clients Monday 12th July. If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to know how to get access to the data, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Hi-Res audio: It’s all about a maturing market

Apple and Amazon made a splash this week by integrating Hi-Res Dolby Atmos audio into the basic tiers of their streaming services. The timing, i.e. just after Spotify started increasing prices, is – how shall we put it, interesting. It also struck a blow against the music industry’s long-held hope that Hi-Res was going to be the key to increasing subscriber ARPU. While that might be true, for now at least, the move is an inevitable consequence of two streaming market dynamics: commodification and saturation.

Music streaming contrasts sharply with video streaming. While the video marketplace is characterised by unique catalogues, a variety of pricing and diverse value propositions (including a host of niche services) music streaming services are all at their core fundamentally the same product. When the market was in its hyper-growth phase and there were enough new users to go around, it did not matter too much that the streaming services only had branding, curation and interface to differentiate themselves from each other. Now that we are approaching a slowdown in the high-revenue developed markets, more is needed. Which is where Hi-Res comes in.

Now that streaming is, as Will Page puts it, in the ‘fracking stage’ in developed markets, success becomes defined by how well you retain subscribers rather than how well you acquire them. As all the key DSPs operate on the same basic model, they need to innovate around the core proposition in order to improve stickiness and reduce churn. Spotify started the ball rolling with its podcasts pivot, but the fact that its podcasts can be consumed by free users means it is not (yet) a tool for reducing subscriber churn.

On top of this, when podcasts are mapped with other positioning pillars, Spotify’s competitive differentiation spread is relatively narrow. Because Apple and Amazon now both have Hi-Res as standard, they not only boost audio quality but value for money (VFM) as well. Bearing in mind, both companies already scored well on VFM because they have Prime Music and Apple One in their respective armouries. 

It is Amazon, though, that looks best positioned of the four leading Western streaming services. In addition to audio quality and VFM, it is building out its podcasts play (as compared to the Wondery acquisition) and it has the potential to bundle in the world’s leading audiobook company, Audible. Given that spoken-word audio consumption grew at nearly twice the rate music did during 2020, being able to play in all lanes of audio will be crucial to competing in what will become saturated streaming markets. 

Immersive audio storytelling 

Finally, Dolby Atmos is more than simply Hi-Res audio; it is an immersive format that enables the creation of spatial audio experiences. If we are truly on the verge of a spoken-word audio revolution, then immersive audio may have a central role to play. Surround sound has been a slow burner for home video, but that may be because the video experience itself has improved so much (bigger screens, HD, more shows than ever) that the audio component has been less important (though the growing soundbar market suggests that may be beginning to change). However, in audio formats there is only the audio to do the storytelling. This could mean that tools like immersive audio become central to audio storytelling, which means, you guessed it, Amazon and Apple would then have a competitive advantage in podcasts and audiobooks that Spotify would not.

Spotify pushes prices up, but do not expect dramatic effects

Spotify finally announced a significant price increase, raising prices in the UK and some of Europe, with the US set to follow suit. The increases affect Family, Duo and Student plans. The fact that streaming pricing has remained locked at $9.99 since the early 2000s is an open wound for streaming, so this news is important – but less so for actual impact than statement of intent.

Back in 2019 MIDiA showed that since its launch, Spotify’s $9.99 price point had lost 26% in real terms due to inflation while over the same period Netflix (which increased prices) saw a 63% increase. Price increases are a must, not an option. Not increasing prices while inflation raises other goods and services means that streaming pricing is deflating in real terms. In this context, Spotify’s move is encouraging, but it is not yet enough. The increases of course do not affect the main $9.99 price point, currently apply to a selection of markets and do not address the causes of ARPU deflation (promotional trials, uptake of multi-user plans, emerging markets). But let’s put all that aside for the moment and look at just what impact these changes will have:

  • Pricing: The increase is 13% for a Family plan and 20% for Student, both meaningful but below the 26% real terms deflation that was hit back in 2019. Averaged across all price points, the price increase represents a 10% uplift (in the markets where this is being done). By comparison, Netflix’s last major price hike averaged out at 11% across all price points, so it is line with that, though obviously Netflix had numerous other previous increases.
  • ARPU: ARPU (i.e. how much people are actually spending) matters more than nominal retail price points, which are subject to promotions and discounts. Spotify ARPU fell from €4.72 in 2019 to €4.31 in 2020. Let us conservatively estimate that would fall to €4.00 in 2021 without any price increases. Let us also assume that the announced price increases roll out to every single Spotify market (which of course they won’t) and let’s assume it all happened on January 1st 2021 (which of course it didn’t). On that basis, and factoring in what share of Spotify subscribers are on family and student plans, total revenue and premium ARPU would increase by 6.2%. ARPU would hit €4.25 (still below 2020) and premium revenue would hit €9.5 billion.
  • Income: Spotify would earn an extra €166 million gross margin, music rights holders would earn an extra €388 million, record labels €310 million and the majors €212 million, representing 2% of their total income. UMG would earn €95 million. Meanwhile, a recouped major label artist could expect to see a million streams generate €1,487 rather than €1,400 (assuming all the streams were premium).

All of these assumptions are based on this rollout being global and FY 2021, neither of which are the case. So the actual effect will be markedly less. The key takeaway is that this is an important first step on what needs to be a continual journey, and one followed by the other streaming services. Spotify was previous locked in a prisoner’s dilemma where no one was willing to make the first move. Spotify had the courage to jump first. What needs to happen next are (though not necessarily in this order):

  • Pricing increase to all remaining tiers, especially $9.99
  • Other streaming services follow suit
  • Tightening up of discounts and promotional trials in well-established markets

Good first step by Spotify; now let the journey begin.

Spotify Q3 2020: What price growth?

Spotify reported another strong quarter in Q3 2020, with subscriber growth up 27% year-on-year (YoY) and ad-supported user growth up 21%. Spotify continues to set the pace for the global streaming market and has demonstrated that streaming has proven resilient to lockdown. (Spotify finished the quarter with 144 million subscribers, just above MIDiA’s 143 million forecast – we maintain our end of year forecast for 154 million.) Further evidence of Spotify’s lockdown resilience is that global consumption hours surpassed pre-COVID levels and that churn levels fell. However, Spotify’s premium revenue growth continues to trail subscriber increases, which raises the question: what price is growth coming at for rightsholders and creators?

Spotify’s Q3 2020 premium revenue was €1,790 million, up 15% YoY – notably lower than the 27% subscriber growth. This is a long-term trend for Spotify, resulting in a steady erosion of premium average revenue per user (ARPU). Q3 2020 ARPU fell to €4.19, down from €4.67 in Q3 2019 and €5.76 back in Q3 2016.

There are multiple factors underpinning this shift:

Growth of emerging markets where ARPU is lower

Growth of family and duo plans

Use of promotional offers

Growth of low-priced tiers (telco bundles, student plans)

Spotify emphasised that ‘product mix’ was the core driver of lower ARPU in Q3 2020 and pointed to price increases for family plans across four Latin American markets, Australia, Belgium and Switzerland. Rightsholders and creators will be hoping that this is the start of a wider strategy. 

‘Measure us on growth’

Spotify continues to tell the markets to measure it on growth and market share rather than margin or ARPU. That serves Spotify better than rightsholders and creators. However, this may be about to change. Spotify’s big growth bet is podcasts, which it is monetising via advertising. Although Spotify had a decent quarter for ad revenue (after many weak ones) it is still just 9% of total revenue. Podcasts have the potential to be bigger than music for Spotify but it is going to take a long time to realise the potential, especially as the coming recession will likely dent the global ad market. 

A new growth story

Why this matters for music stakeholders is that Spotify may find it hard to convince investors to start backing yet another ‘measure us on growth’ story when it already has one. As streaming starts to mature in Western markets, Spotify may now be on a path to shift its music subscriptions narrative to one of turning around the ARPU decline, focusing on increasing “lifetime value”, reducing churn and improving margins. It can then make podcasts the ‘growth story’ and music the ‘margin and ARPU story’.

Music rights holders may be concerned that podcasts threaten their share of Spotify revenue, but they may also end up thanking Spotify’s podcasts strategy for indirectly resulting in a stronger focus of improving music monetisation. This in turn will mean higher per-stream rates – something that artists and songwriters in particular will appreciate.

What AWAL’s $100k artists mean for the streaming economy

Kobalt’s AWAL division announced that ‘hundreds of its artists have reached [the] annual streaming revenue threshold [of $100,000]’. Make no mistake, this is major milestone for a record label that has around 1% global market share. It is compelling evidence for how a label built for today’s streaming economy can make that economy work for its artists. So, how does this tally up with all of the growing artist concern in the #brokenrecord debate?

It’s complicated. The short version is that we have a superstar economy in streaming quite unlike the old music business, one in which artists on smaller independent labels have just as much chance of breaking into that exclusive club as those on bigger record labels. Given that AWAL states its cohort of $100k+ artists grew by 40% (assuming they mean annually) while global label streaming revenues grew by 23%, the implication is that AWAL is getting better at doing this than the wider market. And it is the implied growth of the rest of the market where things get really interesting.

(A model with more than 50 lines of calculations was required to build this analysis so I am going to walk through some of the key steps so you can see how we get there. Bear with me, it will be worth it I promise you!)

Finding the third data point

To do this analysis I am going to share one of MIDiA’s secrets with you: finding the third data point. Companies, understandably, like to share the numbers that make them look good and hold back those that do not help their story. Often though, you can get at what that third number is by triangulating the numbers they do report. A really simple example is if a company reports its revenues and subscribers but not its average revenue per user (ARPU), you can get to an idea of what the ARPU is by dividing revenue by subscribers (and if you have a churn number to work with, even better).

In this instance, Spotify gives us the ‘second’ dataset to go with AWAL’s ‘first’ dataset. In early August, Spotify reported that 43,000 artists generated 90% of its streams, up 43% from one year earlier – you’ll note how similar that 43% growth is to AWAL’s 40% growth. Combining Spotify’s data with AWAL’s, we now have what we need to create the picture of the global artist market.

Superstars within superstars

Spotify generated 73 billion hours of streams in 2019, which equates to around 1.3 trillion streams. Interestingly, taking its roughly $7.6 billion of revenue, this implies that its global per-stream royalty rate (masters and publishing, across free and paid) stood at $0.00425 – which is a long way from a penny per stream. This highlights how promotions, multi-user plans, free tiers and emerging markets are driving royalty deflation. But that’s a discussion for another day…

For the purposes of this work let’s assume that the average artist royalty rate (across standard major, indie and distribution deals) is 35%. Spotify’s 90% of streaming label royalties in 2019 was $3.9 billion, which translates to an average artist royalty income of $29,221 for each of those 43,000 artists. That is obviously south of AWAL’s $100k cohort, which illustrates that those AWAL artists are not just superstars but an upper tier of superstars.

$66,796 is good, as long as you don’t have to split it

But how does this look outside of Spotify? Firstly, the top 90% of global streaming label revenues was $10.8 billion in 2019. We then scale up Spotify’s 43,000 top-tier artists to the global market and deduplicate overlaps across services and we end up with a global base of around 56,000 top-tier artists earning an average of $66,796 per year from streaming (audio and video).

$66,796 is a decent amount of annual income but it looks a lot better if you are a solo artist than, say, a four-piece band splitting that revenue into $16,699 slices. Interestingly, AWAL seems to skew towards solo artists (94% of AWAL’s featured artists are solo acts) so the $66,796 goes a lot further for them than an average indie label rock band.

And then there’s the remaining 99% of artists…

But of course, this is how things look for the most successful artists. What about the remainder that have to share the remaining 10% of streaming revenue? That remaining label revenue is $1.2 billion of which $0.7 billion (i.e. 57%) is Artists Direct. That means the entire global base of label-signed artists that are not in the top tier have to share 4% of global streaming revenues. This translates to an average annual streaming income of $425. Artists Direct meanwhile earn an average of $176 (only 59% less than those non-superstar label artists).

The 90/1 rule

The key takeaway then is that streaming is levelling the playing field for success. Consistently breaking into the top bracket is now achievable for artists on major and indie labels alike and, if anything, independents are enjoying progressively more success. But this is a very different thing from all artists doing well. Music has always been a hits business. Streaming is widening the distribution but with less than 1% of artists generating 90% of income, the spoils are far from evenly shared. Music streaming has taken Pareto’s 80/20 principle and turned it into a 90/1 rule.

Newsflash: UMG, WMG and Spotify may have a problem with Tencent

UPDATE: AWhite House official confirmed to the LA Times that the announcement, at this stage, will not affect Tencent shareholdings of companiesand clarified that the order only refers to transactions ‘related to’ WeChat. How tight or narrow that definition will prove to be is another matter. This is a case of watch this space but whatever path the order eventually takes when put in action 45 days from now, Tencent’s global entertainment investment strategy has at the absolute least been put on a warning. The potential repercussions remain vast.

Donald Trump just signed a presidential order prohibiting any company subject to US jurisdiction from “any transactions” with Tencent Holdings Limited or “any subsidiary of” Tencent. This will have just put Universal Music, Warner Music and Spotify into emergency planning mode, not to mention Snap Inc, Epic Games, Blizzard Entertainment, AMC cinema and countless other entertainment companies that have taken Tencent investment. What had looked like a mischievously smart global strategy, giving Tencent back-door reach and influence over the Western entertainment business has just been dealt a potentially fatal blow by the stroke of the US president’s pen.

Donald Trump’s campaign against Bytedance and TikTok has had centre-stage media coverage (which of course has benefits during an election year) but by now pulling Tencent into the bitter dispute he may have (though probably inadvertently) started a domino effect that could cause major disruption to the US entertainment world. The wording of the presidential executive order (full text here) while aimed primarily at WeChat is incredibly vague and broad in reach, far beyond the WeChat app. While a White House official has since suggested the order is narrower in scope than the order suggests, the order says Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will not identify what transactions are covered until the order comes into effect in 45 days time.

There is a possibility that the scope of the order will be more tightly defined when it comes into effect, which will be in late September, just in time for peak presidential election campaigning. If it is broad in scope then it will likely be subject to legal challenges but they are lengthy affairs and going to legal war against a president that takes things very personally, especially during an election, is going to get messy. The kind of messy that already jittery stick markets do not like.

So, the near term scenario for UMG, WMG and Spotify is that they may all have to sever ties with Tencent (including Tencent Music Entertainment as it is a Tencent subsidiary) and then maybe even have to ensure Tencent divests its shareholdings (though that of course would require “transactions” – see how messy this is going to be). After that, the big repercussions for music could kick in. Tencent has been willing to pay a premium for the investments it has made in US based music companies. In doing so it has helped push up the overall value of music assets. Tencent’s sudden (potentially permanent) withdrawal from the market at a time when the global economy is entering a recession, could have long term impact. And in principle, any US label, publisher or CMO licensing music to Chinese streaming services via Tencent could easily be considered ‘transactions’.

Trump’s campaign against TikTok, while controversial, is relatively narrow in scope for the West, but Tencent represents an entirely different scale. Years of building its Western investments mean that Tencent’s tentacles of commercial interest stretch throughout the Western entertainment world. To date, Tencent has played a relatively passive role in its invested companies, if Tencent decides to go down fighting, that may be about to change. Whether it does so or simply deflates the music investment market by vacating it, the potential ramifications of Trump’s order for US based entertainment companies are huge.

We Are At a Turning Point for Social Music

In recent days we have seen three major developments that, collectively, are a potential pivot point for social music:

  1. TikTok close to a US-entity buyout by Microsoft to avoid potential sanctions, following hot on the heels of an India blackout
  2. Facebook launched a (US-only) YouTube competitor for music videos
  3. Snap Inc signed a licensing deal with WMG and others, also for music videos

As cracks begin to appear in the audio streaming market, there is a growing sense in the music industry of the need for a plan B. This has been driven by growing discontent among the creator community, and a slowdown in revenue growth (UMG streaming revenues actually fell in Q2 as did Sony Music’s); the tail wagging the artist-and-revenue (A&R) dog. The search for new growth drivers is on, and social music – for so long a promise unfulfilled in the West – is one of the bets. TikTok was meant to be a major part of that bet. But with the US future of the app so at risk that a Microsoft US-entity buyout may be the only option, and the continued impact of COVID-19 on core revenue streams, the future is beginning to look a little more troublesome. Perhaps now more than ever, the music industry needs social music to start delivering.

There are three key issues at stake here:

  1. How consumers discover music
  2. How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music
  3. Competing with YouTube

How consumers discover music

Among the under-aged 35 demographic, YouTube is the primary music discovery channel, followed by music streaming, then radio, and only then by social. Streaming discovery is heavily skewed towards tracks and playlists, and away from artists and release projects, which is fine for streaming platforms but impedes building sustainable artist careers. Radio is losing share of ear and YouTube… well, YouTube is YouTube (more on that below), so the music business needs a new discovery growth driver. Social has the potential to be just that. But spammy artist pages on Facebook and more-than-perfect Instagram photos are not it. TikTok, for all its amazing momentum, actually has a really uneven impact on discovery. Some tracks blow up out of nowhere while most do little, and rarely is it because of a smart label marketing strategy but instead because certain tracks just work on the platform and the community leaps on them. For now, TikTok is too unpredictable to plan around. Facebook (Instagram especially) and Snap Inc have a fantastic opportunity to do something special here. They have the audience and the social know-how. Whether they can deliver is a different matter entirely.

How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music

What TikTok lacks in consistent marketing contribution it makes up in consumption. Following on from Musical.ly’s start, TikTok has reimagined how music can be part of social experiences for young audiences. It has made music a highly relevant and integral part of self-expression, something that CD collections and music dress codes used to do in the pre-digital world but that soulless, ephemeral playlists wiped out. While labels pin hopes on TikTok successes to drive wider consumption, the discovery journey is also the destination for most TikTok users – they hear the track in a video and swipe onto the next one. That is no bad thing. This is a new form of consumption, and if TikTok were to disappear or fade then someone else needs to pick up the baton. Whether Facebook and Snap Inc can do so is, again, an open question.

Competing with YouTube

Now we get to the heart of the Facebook and Snap Inc deals. As important as the previous two points are, they were not the overriding priorities of the commercial teams driving these deals. Instead they were focused on expanding the revenue mix and part of that is creating more competition for the notoriously low-paying YouTube. Well, maybe not that low paying after all.

spotify youtube arpu

The internet is full of statements from trade associations, rightsholders and creators about how much less YouTube pays than Spotify. YouTube does pay less, because it manages to escape paying minimum per-stream rates for ad-supported videos – but it is a more nuanced picture than lobbyists would have you believe. Firstly, in terms of its Premium business, Google is entirely on par with Spotify. But then, that is the part that is licensed in the same way as the rest of the market.

Ad-supported is a mixed story. In North America, where there is a mature digital ad market, YouTube’s ad-supported average revenue per user (ARPU) is entirely on par with Spotify’s. However, on a global basis, ad-supported ARPU is dragged down by its large user base in emerging markets where digital ad markets are nascent. Spotify’s ARPU is 66% higher, in part because it has to pay minimum per-stream rates, i.e. it pays a fixed rate per stream regardless of whether it has sold any ad inventory against the track. This boosts ad-supported ARPU but it risks making the model unstainable, to the extent that Spotify reported -7% gross margin for ad-supported in Q1 2020 (and note, that’s gross margin, not net margin).

Rightsholders will be hoping for Facebook and Snap Inc to bring a similar level of competition to music video as exists in streaming audio, which in turn may give them a path to higher global ad-supported ARPU rates and a healthier marketplace. However, what will determine that objective is not business strategy but product strategy. The key question is what can they both do with music videos that YouTube cannot? YouTube has years of experience and user data around music videos, Snap Inc and Facebook do not. They will be playing catch-up with a weaker portfolio of content assets: Snap Inc is only partially licensed and both it and Facebook have only licensed official music videos. Unofficial videos (mash ups, covers, lyrics, TV show appearances etc.) account for 25% of the views of the top 30 biggest YouTube music videos. Those videos are crucial in that they provide the lean-forward element for viewers; they are crucial to making YouTube music social rather than just a viewing platform.

YouTube has dominated the music video globally for more than a decade. This might just be the time that this position starts to be challenged. But if Facebook and Snap Inc are going to do that, they will have to bring their product strategy A-game to the field. If they can, then the we may indeed witness a social music turnaround in the West.

Why Spotify needs Russia

Spotify’s delayed Russia launch finally happened this week. While it did not drive a stock price growth like the Josh Rogan deal did (the stock closed just 1 cent higher than the previous day’s close) it will actually prove much more important in the medium term.

Podcasts are Spotify’s long-term bet, the moon shot that keeps investors excited and that points to a future where Spotify is better able to plot its own destiny without being constrained by record labels. But that future destination does not mean anything if Spotify is unable to maintain strong growth in its core business in the interim. Which is where Russia comes in.

Spotify has an Apple-like problem but chose a very non-Apple solution

Global streaming revenue growth was 22% in 2019 and growth will slow significantly in the COVID-19 impacted 2020. Growth rates however were already slowing due to the maturation of developed western markets, while subscriber numbers were growing faster than revenues, pushing down ARPU. Spotify has the same challenge as Apple.

Apple is the market leader in smartphones but does not own the majority of the market and the overall smartphone market is slowing, which means that iPhone sales have slowed. Apple could have decided to go ‘down market’ and created cheaper devices for less affluent consumers and emerging markets. It decided not to, and instead to start pushing its top-end devices even higher up the market with higher price points. Spotify has taken the opposite approach. Rather than increase prices in high-value markets, it is prioritising lower ARPU emerging markets. Spotify has done so because a) it does not have a diversified product like Apple so is less able to risk slowing sales, and b) its product is not sufficiently differentiated from other streaming services to prevent churn if prices went up.

Betting big on emerging markets

Instead of focusing on maximising revenue growth among existing subscribers, Spotify is rolling the dice on subscriber growth. It keeps telling investors to measure it on growth and market share, and that is exactly the game Spotify has chosen to play. Which is where Russia comes in.

Emerging markets are where the subscriber growth lies: Asia Pacific, Latin America and Rest of World combined will drive 71% of global music subscriber growth between 2019 and 2027. Spotify is already committed to this strategy and is already seeing results. In its Q1 2020 earnings, Latin America and Rest of World were the workhorses of Spotify’s growth during the quarter, accounting for 73% of all new subscribers; one year previously the share was just 30%.

But emerging markets take time to convert, users need to get familiar with the service via ad supported and extended trials before slowly converting to paid, though always at lower rates than in developed markets due to lower spending power. So, Spotify needs to keep expanding the user acquisition funnel which means launching in populous new markets such as Russia.

Russia’s contribution to the global picture is what matters for Spotify

The question many are asking is, has Spotify left it too late for Russia? There is no doubt that 2019 was a big year for streaming in Russia, with revenues growing at 79% to reach $249 million in retail terms, which makes it a sizeable, but not (yet) a large market. By way of comparison, Brazil’s streaming revenues are comfortably more than double that. As of Q1 2020 there were 7.4 million subscribers with Vkontakte and Yandex commanding a combined market share of 80%, so Spotify is entering an established market with well-established indigenous players.

This is not Spotify’s modus operandi and the last time it took this approach was India, which is yet to deliver results. So Russia is unlikely to be a runaway success for Spotify, but it is entirely reasonable for it to expect to pick up three million subscribers there over the next three years, which in turn will help sustain Spotify’s global subscriber growth. This is not about winning in Russia but instead winning globally. Or put another way, Spotify needs Russia more than Russia needs Spotify.