After The Album: How Playlists Are Re-Defining Listening

Later this week we’ll be publish a new report in the MIDiA Research Music report and data service: ‘After The Album: How Playlists Are Re-Defining Listening’.  In it we explore the changing role of streaming playlists and in particular how they are impact albums both as a consumption format and as a revenue model. The full 18 page report includes half a dozen graphics and a couple of sheets of excel, including a detailed revenue model.  I want to share with you here one of the key themes we explore in the report…

Playlists Are The Lingua Franca Of Streaming

Streaming hit a host of milestones in 2015, reaching 67.5 million subscribers and driving $2.9 billion of trade revenue, up 31% on 2014. While the competitive marketplace upped the ante, music services wielded curation to drive differentiation. Playlists have always been the core currency of streaming, but now more than ever they are becoming the beating heart, the fuel which drives both discovery and consumption. In doing so they are helping drive hit singles into the ascendancy and albums to the side lines.

The Album Is No Longer The Market

Perhaps the biggest problem with streaming’s dissolution of the album is that the wider industry is still catching up with the concept. Artists still consider the album as their core creative construct, their novel. Similarly, labels still build P&Ls, marketing campaigns and their core business models around albums and album release schedules. There will long remain a market for albums, especially among core fan bases, as TIDAL’s exclusive album campaigns for Kanye West and Beyoncé reveal. But it is just that: a market, not the market anymore.

Income Per Streaming User

The most effective way to measure the value of streaming is to measure the value per user. For record labels at a macro level this equated to $2.80 annual revenue per subscriber and $0.37 per free streamer globally in 2015. But even that measure is too blunt to allow label campaign teams, artists and their managers to understand the value to them because that value is wrapped up with all the music in the world. For these stakeholders a more meaningful measure is the average amount they earn per album per streaming user.

Income Per Album Per Streaming User

Music subscribers in the US and UK streamed an average of 3,447 streams each in 2015, averaging 66 streams a week. But the average number of complete unique albums streamed was just 47 for the whole year. The average across free and paid streaming users was 11. Less than one new album per year. In the old model that average would have been just fine, pulling in more than $100 in retail revenue per user but in the streaming model that equate to a combined total of $0.73 in rights holder revenue.

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Even that measure though, is only partially useful for an artist, manager, songwriter or label campaign manager. What matters for them is how much they earn per streaming user, not the music industry in general. The average royalty income per album per streaming user is $0.21, with $0.03 flowing to the artist and $0.02 flowing to the songwriter. For subscribers the average income is $0.44 with $0.05 flowing to the artist and $0.04 flowing to the songwriter. While for free users it is $0.13 and $0.01 for artists and $0.01 for songwriters.

What It All Means

Albums are not the currency of streaming.  Everyone needs to rethink what long form, artist led content consumption looks like on streaming. Music fans still want artist led experiences. Drake’s 46 million Spotify listeners is more than double all the Filtr, Digster, Topsify and Todays’ Top Hits followers put together. As I have suggested before, multimedia artist subscription bundles for $1.50 on top of standard streaming fees feel like the right fit and would also help start pushing up streaming ARPU.

The power of music discovery used to lie in the hands of the radio DJ, now it lies in the hands of the playlist curator. And because streaming has melded discovery and consumption into a single whole, that means their power is becoming absolute. Albums are not quite an afterthought in the curated playlist world, but they are certainly an awkward relative that doesn’t quite fit in at the party.

None of this to say that the album is dead, but it can no longer be considered the main way most people listen to music. Of course some would argue that with radio it has ever been thus…

To find out more about the report and how to access MIDiA reports and data either visit our website or email us on info AT midiaresearch DOT COM

Streaming Hits 67.5 Million Subscribers But Identity Crisis Looms

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For our recently published MIDiA report ‘State of the Streaming Nation’ we conducted an exhaustive programme of research to assess the global streaming music market, from each of the consumer, market and service perspectives. In pulling together subscriber numbers for each of the music services (there’s a full table in the report) we found that there were 67.5 million subscribers globally in 2015. That was 24 million more subscribers compared to 2014 (also nearly double the number of new subscribers in 2014). It is clear that global subscriptions are gathering pace. However, all is not as it may at first appear:

  • Zombies still walk the streaming streets: Back in 2013 I ruffled a few feathers highlighting the issue of zombie subscribers, music subscribers that are recorded in the headline numbers but that are actually inactive, normally because they are on telco bundles. Fast forward to 2016 and the issue is more firmly in the public domain due to Deezer’s IPO filings. Zombies coupled with overstating by music services accounted for around 12 million subscribers in 2015 so the active ‘actual’ subscriber number was nearer 55 million.
  • Emerging markets are gaining share: Emerging markets will play a key role for streaming over the next few years. They are already driving growth for Apple and Spotify and they will collectively bring the most dynamic growth with western markets nearing saturation for the 9.99 price point. Much of the growth though will come from indigenous companies, such QQ Music (China), KKBOX (Taiwan), MelOn (South Korea) and Saavn (India).
  • Free still dominates: For all the scale of of subscriptions, free still leads the way with free streaming services accounted for nearly 600 million unique users (1.3 billion cumulative users if you add together the user counts of all the services). Free thus outweighed paid by a factor of 10-to-1.

Streaming’s Identity Crisis

Streaming must overcome its identity crisis. Depending on where you sit in the music industry, streaming is either the future of retail or the future of radio. It can be both, but there is increasing pressure for it to be retail only. That would see only a fraction of the opportunity realised. Throughout its history, a small share of people have accounted for the majority of spending. Casual buyers and radio accounted for the rest.

17% of music buyers account for 61% of spending. These are the people who are either already subscribers or that will become subscribers over the next couple of years. Which leaves us with the remaining 83% of consumers. The majority of these listen to radio while a growing minority use free streaming (mainly YouTube). The question the music industry must now answer is how seriously does it want to treat the opportunity represented by these consumers? Does it want to only serve its super fans or does it also want to be global culture? Radio enabled music to be global culture in the 20th century, free streaming will enable it to be in the 21st.

The Free Streaming Debate Is As Complex As It Is Nuanced

This is why the free streaming debate is important but also so complex. Yes, too much free music will curtail the opportunity for paid subscriptions, but too little could consign music culture to the margins. With streaming there is an opportunity to monetize a bigger audience at higher rates than radio ever enabled. At the moment free streaming bears the burden of being all about driving sales (either subscriptions or music purchases) but that misses the far bigger opportunity for free in the streaming era: mass monetization.

What we have now is a dysfunctional system. Freemium services have licensing minimas (the minimum that must be paid per stream) that effectively prevent them from building profitable ad supported businesses, while YouTube has licenses unlike any other but is the industry’s bête noire. Only Pandora has a model that is both (largely) acceptable to the industry and (theoretically) profitable. I say, ‘theoretically’ because Pandora could get towards a 20% margin if it wasn’t investing so heavily in ad sales infrastructure and other companies.

Out of those three disparate models an effective middle ground can and should be found so that the streaming debate becomes one of free AND paid rather than free VERSUS paid. Then we will have the foundations for creating a market that enables subscriptions to thrive within their niche and for global audiences to be monetized like never before.

Spotify’s Billion Dollar Challenge

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Spotify just changed the rules of the game, raising an unprecedented $1 billion in convertible debt. I’ll leave the financial analysts to pore over the financial permutations (and there are plenty) but there are a few key strategic implications:

  • This is an IPO war chest: Spotify is effectively priced out of trade sales for two reasons 1) it has received so much funding that its valuation is astronomic (somewhere close to $10 billion) and 2) the competitive market has changed so much that most companies that were potential buyers 3 years ago no longer are. Samsung neither has the growth story nor the music focus any longer, Microsoft is almost out of the game, Sony is out of the game, Apple couldn’t admit defeat so soon, Amazon is focused on the mass market and Google is focused on YouTube. So an IPO is the only realistic option and for that….
  • Spotify needs a growth story: To achieve an IPO valuation as high as Spotify needs, it is not enough to just be the leading player, it needs to be seen to be growing at a healthy clip, especially with Apple constantly making up ground and still odds on to be the long term market leader. Wall Street needs growth stories. Just look at what has happened to Pandora, a company with stronger fundamentals and a more secure licensing base. Yet Pandora has lost billions of market cap because Wall Street hasn’t warmed to the long term mature company story.
  • Growth will come from three key areas: The $9.99 model only has finite opportunity. The top 10% of music buyers only spend $10 a month on music. So to grow beyond that beachhead Spotify has to grow where the market isn’t yet mature (emerging markets), make the offering feel like free (telco deals) and make the offering feel super cheap ($1 for 3 months promos). All, in different ways, cost, which is where much of this money will be spent, along with hefty marketing efforts.
  • Some of it will be spent on strategic acquisitions: Small music services around the globe will be hastily editing their investor decks, pitching for an acquisition or hoping Spotify will come calling uninvited. But there aren’t too many realistic targets. Soundcloud would probably cost most of the raise, and Spotify would have the same problem Soundcloud now has of trying to force a 9.99 model on a user base it doesn’t fit. TIDAL wouldn’t be cheap either and besides a bunch of exclusive rights for some super star artists, would only add 10% to Spotify’s user base, less after all those users who came in for ‘Life of Pablo’ churn out. A more realistic bet would be for Spotify to target a portfolio of niche services that would add little to its user base but would communicate to the street that it is set up for super serving niches to grow its user base.
  • All bets are on Spotify: For the last 2 years the recorded music industry, the majors in particular, has been holding its collective breath. If Spotify has a successful IPO it will likely spur an inflow of much needed investment to the space. If it doesn’t then it is back to the drawing board. In many respective that should happen anyway. The 9.99 subscription model is incredibly difficult (perhaps impossible) to run profitably at scale.

The next 6 months will be ones of hyper activity for streaming, and don’t expect Apple to take this lying down. Await the battle of the gargantuan marketing budgets. Even if no one else does well out of this, the ad agencies will make hay.

 

Students, Cross-Border Pollination And Streaming Growth

Streaming’s big challenge for the next couple of years is how to reach new audiences as it nears saturation of the hard core music aficionados in key markets. Telco bundles, emerging markets and mid price subscriptions are all tools that will be used. But one of the most important segments is the student population. Students comprise some of the most ardent music fans, living and breathing music. However, they also happen to spend most of their time skint. Though students are generally better off now than they were a couple of decades ago, $/£/€10 a month is still a stretch too far for many, competing with PAYG phone credits, a shared household Netflix subscription and, most importantly, beer money. The good news, for streaming services, and students, is that rights holders understand the importance of flexibility in reaching students and have enabled the likes of Spotify and Deezer to launch half priced subscriptions for them. In effect making the AYCE proposition a mid tier product for the student population. The initiatives have proven highly successful. But there is more to student streamers than simply a mid price success story, they also help drive adoption in markets that are approaching scale.

We were fortunate enough to have Spotify share some German streaming data with us that helps illustrate just how important the student segment is and also how a diverse mix of local factors can impact streaming adoption.

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The Power Of Student Ambassadors

Subscription revenue represented just 5% of German recorded music revenue in 2014. In a market dominated by CD sales (70% – including vinyl) streaming was struggling to make much of a dent in the market. Fast forward to 2015 and subscriptions nearly tripled their share to 14%, helping the total market grow by 3.9% – though interestingly physical lost less than 1% of market share.

There were many factors underpinning that subscription growth and one of them was the German student population. As in many markets, Spotify recruited a network of student ambassadors to spread the word on campuses across the country. As the graphic shows, 10 out of 12 of the cities with student ambassadors went onto become half of the German cities with highest streaming penetration, while one of them – Giessen – was the fastest growing. While it would be inaccurate to suggest that students were the only factor in driving growth in these cities, they played a significant role in pushing German streaming penetration to the next level.

Cross Border Pollination

There are also a couple of other interesting insights that emerge from the Spotify data.  The first of which is the that the economic disparity in Germany is illustrated by the significantly lower adoption in east German cities compared to western German cities. But the most interesting of all is the northern town of Flensburg, which emerged as both the earliest adopting and fastest growing town or city for Spotify in Germany. Flensburg probably doesn’t feature in many people’s list of ‘important music towns’. So why the stand out streaming adoption? It transpires that Flensburg’s music fans routinely hop across the border to see gigs in Denmark and Danish acts come over to play in Flensburg. So what took place was cross-border-pollination of streaming. The fusing of the music cultures across the border exposed Flensburg’s music fans not just to Danish music but also to Spotify. A Viking raid of culture and technology.

If there’s one big take away from the Spotify data, it is that streaming adoption is a multi faceted beast with countless anomalies and hyper-local market factors that combine to create macro trends. Streaming’s success is thus the accumulation of a multitude of micro events.

Thanks go to Will Page and Paulus Yezbek at Spotify for having compiled the Spotify data in this post.

What’s Going On With Free Streaming?

Earlier this week Soundcloud’s financials revealed that the company was haemorrhaging cash (even before it had to start worrying about content license fees). Now news comes that Pandora is working with Morgan Stanley to meet with potential buyers. Back in Q4 2014 free streaming got a stay of execution when the majors decided to put their weight behind freemium after a period of many executives seriously considering canning the model. In 2015 free streaming was the growth story, with YouTube out performing everyone. Now though free streaming looks to be in seriously troubled waters. So what gives?

Pandora’s Problem Is Wall Street

Probably the biggest problem of all that Pandora has is the story it tells Wall Street. Every year Pandora accounts for a little bit more of total US radio listening, builds ad revenue and steadily strengthens its business. But that’s not the sort of story Wall Street expects from a streaming media company. Investors expect dynamic growth. But Pandora is, along with Rhapsody, the granddaddy of streaming and had 10 million users before Spotify was even launched in Sweden, let alone the US. Pandora long since passed its dynamic growth stage in the US and is now a mature business that is going about sensibly building a sustainable business.

The standard thing to do at this stage for streaming companies is to roll out internationally and find new markets where you can start a new dynamic growth story. This is exactly what Netflix is doing now that US subscriber growth has slowed. The approach has also served Spotify well. But the unique compulsory licensing structure in the US the underpins Pandora’s business model does not exist elsewhere. There is no global landscape of SoundExchanges for Pandora to plug into. With the exception of Australia and New Zealand Pandora has not been able to negotiate rates that it launch internationally with.

Actually, Slowing Growth Is A Problem Too 

All of which explains why Pandora has gone down the acquisition route, buying Next Big Sound, Ticket Fly and Rdio in a bid to become a full stack music company. The problem is that Wall Street either does not buy it, or simply does not get it. In fact, Wall Street does not really make much of a distinction between semi-interactive radio or on-demand streaming. The pervasive view among the investor community is that Pandora is being out competed by Spotify, regardless of the fact that there is only partial competitive overlap in terms of value proposition, target audience and business model. The net result is that Pandora’s market capitalization has fallen from $7bn to $1.8bn and to make matters worse it had to raise $500 million in debt, with revenue growth slowing.

Pandora Needs A New Wall Street Narrative

In just the same way Apple needs a new Wall Street narrative, so does Pandora. Even if just to maintain some market value while it finds a buyer. The full stack music strategy should be central to that narrative, even though the real story is that Pandora is the future of radio. Unfortunately that story will take a decade or more to play out and most investors do not have that kind of patience. (Spotify, these are the sorts of problems you’ll be having to worry about this time next year). And, to be precise, it is the Pandora model that is the future of radio, not necessarily Pandora itself.  Though the odds are still on Pandora playing that role, in the US at least.

If Pandora really does not have the stomach for seeing out the long game it should not find it too difficult to find a buyer, if the price is right. Exactly because Pandora is the future of radio, some of those big radio incumbents are likely buyer. Hello iHeart Media.

 

Warner’s Streaming Equity Pay Out Is Commendable But Not Enough

During his latest investor conference call Warner Music’s CEO Stephen Cooper announced that the label will pay artists a portion of any income it earns from equity stakes in services such as Spotify and Soundcloud. With Spotify potentially announcing its IPO next quarter the announcement is more than a token gesture. It is a bold move by Warner and follows on from Sony and Universal both announcing last year that they will pay artists a portion of streaming breakage revenue (the difference between what services pay labels in guarantees and how much royalty revenue they actually generate – WMG has been doing this since 2009). The big labels are waking up to the fact that transparency is key if they are going to keep artists on side. Streaming is where consumer behaviour is going, but currently YouTube is growing quicker than everyone else. The labels need premium and freemium services to make up ground fast. Which is why they cannot afford the Black Keys-Taylor Swift-Adele-Coldplay trickle to turn into a torrent. They need artists to be as vested as they are.

Streaming Hostilities May Have Thawed But Underlying Issues Remain

With the exception of the songwriter class action suits that closed out the year, 2015 was actually a pretty good year for streaming service – artist relations. Artists became a little more accustomed to streaming and many started to see a meaningful in their streaming income. But there is still much distance to go. The crucial issue for the majority of mid ranking and lower artists is how to deal with sizeable up front payments being replaced by a long term flow of micro payments. If you are a sizable label or a big artist you won’t feel the pain too much, but for the rest it normally means a very serious tightening of the belt.

The True Value Of Streaming Doesn’t Lie In Equity Stakes After All

There has, wrongly, long been a suspicion among many that streaming services are some sort of elaborate money making scam for labels, with the real value hidden in the money they will earn from their equity stakes. But as the ever excellent Tim Ingham explains, Warner is likely to only make around $200 million from a successful Spotify floatation. Of course $200 million is no small amount of money, and would represent more than half of Warner’s quarterly digital income. But it represents just 16% of the money Warner has earned from streaming since 2010 and just 2% of all global streaming revenue in 2015 (at retail values). Thus the label equity stakes in Spotify & co. are meaningful but they are far from where the real label value exists. Indeed as Cooper stated: “the main form of compensation we receive from streaming services is revenue based on actual streams”.

So If Artist Equity Income Isn’t Going To Fix Streaming, What Will?

All of which then raises the awkward question: if artists getting a Spotify IPO pay out isn’t going to ‘fix’ the model for artists, then what is? There is not really much scope for streaming services to pay out more to rights holders (80% of revenue doesn’t leave much scope for operating profit). While there is certainly scope for increasing ARPU among the super fan subscribers, there is little opportunity to raise prices for the majority of users ($9.99 is already more than most are willing to spend). So the only part of the equation left is how much labels pay artists.

Streaming Is Neither A License Nor A Sale And Its Time Artist Deals Recognise It

Right now the entire recorded music business is trying to figure out whether streaming is replacing radio or sales. The likelihood is that it is doing both and by doing so creating something new in between. That means that labels need to rethink how they pay artists, because currently they typically pay them on either one or the other of those models, and most often on the basis of a stream being a sale. A stream being the equivalent of a sale is completely counterintuitive because streaming is all about consumption not transaction. So why are labels most commonly treating streams as sales? Because the % they have to pay artists is so much lower, often in the 10% to 15% range rather than around 50% for a license. Of course there is as strong an argument to be made for streams not to be considered as a pure license as there is a sale, but there is an even stronger one for a hybrid rate that sits in the middle. Doing so would double the amount of money most artists make from streaming, instantaneously transforming its revenue impact for many. There is some precedent too. In 2012 Universal was successfully sued by FTB Productions over its treatment of Eminem downloads as sales rather than licenses, for which Eminem would have been paid a 50% rate instead of the much smaller sales rate.

Warner Music deserve credit for their commitment to paying artists a portion of equity related income (though no mention of how much of course) but it is just one step on a bigger journey. A wholesale reassessment of artist streaming compensation is required. Increasing artist streaming rates will dent label margins but ultimately the labels need to decide whether they want to build a business that is as sustainable for artists as it is for them.

Postscript: One interesting quote stood out from Cooper: “Although none of these equity stakes have been monetized since we implemented our breakage policy…there are some services from which we receive additional forms of compensation”. Translation(?): Sony used to get paid by the big streaming services on some sort of stock dividend basis and probably still does from some others.

The Three Things You Need To Know About The UK Music Sales Figures

As most people expected, the UK recorded music industry returned to growth in 2015. The UK now follows an increasingly familiar European narrative of strong streaming growth helping bring total markets back to growth. Sales revenue increased 3.5% to reach £1.1 billion while total streams increased by 85% to reach 53.7 billion, with audio stream representing 49.9% of that total. There is no doubt that these are welcome figures for the UK music industry but as is always the case, a little digging beneath the surface of the numbers reveals a more complex and nuanced story. Here are the three things you need to know about UK music sales in 2015.

1 – Streaming Growth Accompanied A Download Collapse

Long term readers will know that I’ve long argued the ‘Replacement Theory’, that streaming growth directly reduces download sales. It is a simple and inevitable artefact of the transition process. Indeed a quarter of subscribers state they used to but no longer buy more than one album a month since they started paying for streaming. There have been plenty of opponents to this argument, normally from parties with vested interests. But the market data is now becoming unequivocal. While streams increased by 257% between 2013 and 2015 download sales decreased by 23%. And of course the vast majority of that streaming volume came from free streams, not paid.

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2 – The Transition Follows A Clear Defined Path

The download to streaming transition is an inevitability, whatever business models are wrapped around it. It is part of the fundamental shift from ownership to access of which streaming music is but single component. It comprises consumers progressively replacing one behaviour with another. In fact, the evolution is so deliberate and predictable that it manifests in a clear numerical relationship: the Transition Triangle.

The UK music industry trade body the BPI has created a number of additional classifications for music sales and consumption. These include Stream Equivalent Albums (1,000 streams = 1 album) and Track Equivalent Sales (10 track sales = 1 album). Using these classifications and adding in actual album download sales we see a very clear relationship between the growth of streaming and the decline of downloads. The difference in volumes between downloads and streams each year is almost exactly the same as the amount by which downloads decreased the previous year. At this point even the most ardent replacement theory sceptic might start suspecting there’s at least some degree of causality at play.

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3 – Thanks Are Due To Adele, Again

Back when Adele’s ‘21’ was setting sales records, music markets across the globe owed her a debt of gratitude for helping slow the incessant decline in sales. Global revenue decline fell to less than 1% and US revenue actually grew by 2.9% (falling back down the following year). Now she’s done it again with ’25’, giving album sales enough of a boost to ensure that the growth in streaming revenue lifted the entire market. For although album sales actually declined in 2015 and streaming volumes had grown more strongly in 2014, it was the combined impact of slowed album decline and streaming growth in 2015 that enabled the total market to grow so strongly.

Adele generated around £25 million of retail sales revenue in 2015, which was equivalent to 70% of the £36 million by which UK music sales revenue increased that year. While of course a portion of that £25 million would have been spent on other repertoire if ‘25’ had not been released, the majority would not. With ‘21’ and now with ‘25’ Adele has been able to pull casual music consumers out of the woodwork and persuade them to buy one of the only albums they’ll buy all year, often the only one.

Without that £25 million UK music sales would have increased by just 1%.  So in effect streaming services have Adele to thank for ensuring their growth lifted the whole market even though she famously held ‘25’ back from each and every one of them. Sweet irony indeed.

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As a final postscript, the role of YouTube, while underplayed in the official figures, is crucial. While audio streams grew by an impressive 81% in 2015, video streams grew by 88%. So however good a job the streaming services might be doing of growing their market, YouTube is doing an even better one.

Pandora’s Rate Ruling Reveals The Cracks In Streaming Economics

The much anticipated outcome of yesterday’s Copyright Tribunal decision was a 20% increase of Pandora’s ad supported stream rate from $0.0014 per non-interactive stream to $0.0017. The result was roughly equidistant between the two parties’ preferred rate: Pandora wanted $0.0011, SoundExchange (the body that collects the royalties on behalf of the labels) wanted $0.0025. As with any good compromise neither party will be truly happy, though on balance Pandora probably came out slightly better. Both the rate and the whole rate setting process shine a bright light on the economics of streaming, especially when contrasted against on-demand services.

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Pandora’s semi-interactive radio service operates under statutory rates in the US that are set by the Copyright Royalty Board for a few years at a time, with inflation baked in. This means a continual rise in rates (see figure). It also gives Pandora a degree of certainty over its mid term future but prevents record labels from negotiating for better rates (publishers however are able to strike direct deals with Pandora). Spotify, and other on-demand streaming services, negotiates deals directly with multiple record labels, publishers and rights bodies. Deals typically come up for renewal every couple of years, involve large upfront payments and Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs). They also run the risk of core product features being threatened in renegotiations – as we saw with the labels’ dalliance with killing off freemium this time last year.

The most significant difference between the models is how the per stream rate works. For on-demand services a royalty pot as a % of revenue is determined. This is then divided between rights holders based on plays in a given period and allocated on a per stream rate basis. Thus royalty payments remain a comparatively constant share of revenue, assuming of course that the service hits the MRG targets – if it doesn’t the share increases, often above 100% of revenue. This model also implies a clear ceiling to the potential profit an on-demand service can earn. By contrast Pandora pays out on a (largely) pure per stream basis. The direct consequence of this is that Pandora is able to increase it revenue per play faster than its rights cost per play which in turn creates the potential to grow margin (see next figure).

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Between 2009 and 2014 Pandora’s content acquisition costs per listener hour increased by 27% from $17.52 to $22.29. This reflects both the CRB set rate as well as deals with rights bodies and publishers. But over the same period Pandora’s revenue per listener hour increased by 114% from $21.48 to $45.97. Now clearly, an increase in revenue per hour does not inherently mean increased profitability, or even profitability at all. Indeed, Pandora’s continued losses have been a perennial bugbear for investors. But Pandora has chosen to invest its increased revenue to grow its business, building out regional ad sales teams and making acquisitions such as Next Big Sound, Ticket Fly and Rdio. In short, Pandora could have been profitable for some time now if it had so chosen. Instead it is chasing a bigger prize, namely to become the single biggest revenue driver in US radio. To get big it needs to spend big.

Pandora’s Core Strength Is Being Able Increase Profitability Per User

The underlying principle is clear: while on-demand services have little meaningful way of increasing revenue per user with the current model, Pandora has more than doubled revenue per user in 6 years while rights costs have declined in relative terms. Content acquisition costs fell from a high of 82% of revenue in 2009 to 48% in 2014. That rate will increase in 2015 due to direct deals struck with publishers and the $90 million pay out for the pre-1972 works ruling. But it still remains well south of Spotify’s 70%+.

On Demand Services Have Similar Fixed Costs But Tighter Margins Because Of Royalties

While there is a clear case for semi-interactive radio rates being markedly lower than on-demand rates many of the fixed costs of both types of streaming business are the same.  Both have to commit similar amounts to product development and tech, bandwidth, data analysis, reporting marketing, customer care, management. This puts on-demand services at an operational disadvantage compared to webradio services.

If paid-for streaming services are going to become commercially sustainable there is going to need to be pricing and product innovation to both reach more mainstream users (cheaper tiers) and to drive more revenue from high value users (more expensive tiers and bolt ons). Right now there is relatively little commercial incentive for on-demand services to innovate upwards as profitability will remain largely the same. There is an opportunity for labels to offer Spotify and co a Pandora-style pure per-play license structure for all products launched above and beyond the standard 9.99 tier. This would give the services the ability to follow Pandora’s path of growing revenue per user faster than rights costs per user, thus improving commercial sustainability and allowing them to invest more in product innovation.

Rights Frameworks Need To Engender Commercial Sustainability

Pandora is one of the few stand out, independent success stories of the entire history of digital music. It has become one of the world’s biggest music services despite being largely constrained to the US, it has built a commercially viable model and it has delivered a big return for investors via its IPO. Only Last.FM, Beatport and Beats Music can genuinely lay claim to having delivered big returns for their investors. There are many mitigating factors, but the unique licensing structure Pandora operates under is the single most important one. Do songwriters and labels feel that they’re getting short changed? Absolutely. But it is in the interest of every music industry stakeholder that the economics of digital music are structured in a way that enables standalone companies like Pandora, Spotify and Deezer to thrive. Otherwise there can be no complaints when the only options left on the table are companies like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google whose interest in music all stems from trying to sell something else. That’s when artists and songwriters are really at risk.

Why Profit Doesn’t Come Into It For Apple Music

Apple has only ever been in the music business in order to sell more devices.  Apple does not need to make money from music nor has it ever needed to.  That doesn’t stop it being a crucially important music industry partner (in fact Apple is still pretty much the single most important partner on a global basis).  Nor does that mean that Apple doesn’t care about music or that it doesn’t take its role in the marketplace seriously.  But Apple is not in this game to make money.  Apple routinely ran the iTunes Store at ‘an about break-even basis’ which is financial report code for ‘at a slight loss’.  (Or in fact probably at a big loss if half of the costs of the combined iTunes / iPod ads had been factored in.)  Now Apple is spending big again on marketing its music product, but this time the ads are only for Apple Music so costs can’t be attributed to other parts of the business. Why this all matters is because it shows us just how seriously Apple is taking Apple Music and also its appetite for running it a loss leader.

Why Doesn’t Apple Just Buy Spotify?

One of the recurring questions around Apple’s streaming strategy is ‘why doesn’t it just buy Spotify?’.  Besides the fact it had already acquired Beats Music as part of the much bigger Beats purchase, Apple is not in the business of running other companies’ services.  Apple runs Apple services. This is because Apple is first and foremost a hardware business and its software and services are an extension of this – part of the device value proposition.  If Apple was a software and services business it would build Mac OS, iLife, iWork etc for other platforms.  Apple even made music production software Logic Mac only after buying it from eMagic.  iTunes is one of the stand out exceptions for this strategy but it is a legacy of when iPod was a PC / Mac centric device, where not being on Windows would have stymied iPod growth. (There is of course talk of Apple Apple Music becoming available on Android but if it does so it will only be because Apple wants to win back iTunes customers from Spotify.)

A Tunnel Vision Commitment To User Experience

The hardware-first / Apple-only strategy means that when Apple does buy other services it usually either assimilates them wholesale (remember LaLa?) or it strips them down to the bare bones and rebuilds them entirely (Beats Music).  This is all because Apple needs to own the customer relationship and customer experience in its entirety.  Apple’s tunnel vision commitment to user experience is the ideology that underpins this entire approach.  Which is why Apple didn’t buy Spotify.

Apple Could Make Most Streaming Margin By Promoting Spotify

apple music margin calcs

In fact Apple could make a LOT more money if it simply decided to spend money marketing Spotify to iOS customers.

For argument’s sake let’s assume Spotify has somewhere in the region of 6 million US subscribers, that 60% of those are on iOS and that 60% of those iOS users pay via iTunes, Apple thus generates $8.4 million a month in subscription revenue from Spotify.  To generate the same amount of US subscription margin from Apple Music, Apple would need 16.9 million US Apple Music subscribers (assuming an operating margin of 5%).  In fact, in practice Apple will be in heavy negative margins with Apple Music due to its extensive marketing efforts.

So if Apple was in the business of music for making money it wouldn’t even buy Spotify, it would simply spend money marketing it to the Apple customer base.  But that has never been the Apple way and is patently unlikely to become the Apple way. Thus Apple will continue on its mission to own every ounce of the streaming subscriber’s user journey.  Unfortunately the rest of the marketplace has to try to figure out how to compete while at the same time vainly searching for a profit.

Spotify Plays The Big Numbers Game

Hot on the heels of Apple’s less-than-dazzling entrance into the streaming market Spotify made two big announcements: a further $526 million in funding and 20 million paying subscribers with 55 million free users. Not a bad retort.

spotify 20 million

Subscriber Growth Outpaced Free User Growth, Depending On Which Metric You Use

Between December 2014 and June 2015 added an average of 2 million free users a month and 1 million paid users a month. Although this meant Spotify’s free user base added twice as many users (10 million compared to 5 million) paid users grew faster in percentage terms, increasing by 33% compared to 22% for free.   These numbers can, and will, be taken to support both sides of the freemium argument and things are complicated by the fact that Spotify’s free user base is probably higher than 55 million. However the key takeaway is that based on the publically available numbers subscriber growth was faster than free growth in the first half of 2015.

Spotify Is Now Worth More Than Half Of the Entire Global Recorded Music Industry

Spotify was already the most heavily financed music service in history and it has nearly doubled its total investment in one single round, taking the total to more than $1.1 billion with a valuation of $8.5 billion. That translates to $55 of investment per subscriber. Or on a valuation basis $425 per subscriber which would take 3 and half years of continual subscription per subscriber to recoup in headline revenue terms. However as Spotify only gets 30% of revenue it would actually need 12 years of subscription per subscriber to generate $8.5 billion.

Of course VC funded company valuations are more about potential than they are realised value so the comparisons are slightly unfair. But given that $8.5 billion represents 57% of the entire global recorded music industry revenue in 2014 there are some pretty big assumptions being made.

Apple Music Is Still Likely To Prove A Fierce Adversary Even If It Is No Killer App Yet 

Make no mistake, Spotify has established itself as the global leader in its space and has good reason to feel confident. However Apple has so many structural advantages (owning the platform and billing relationships, massive addressable base etc.) that it is still likely to become the global streaming leader 3 years or so from now. (Assuming of course it ups its game from its entry product.) But that does not mean Spotify cannot be a success too.

Apple entered the download market when none of the existing stores had any meaningful customer base. Even with that supreme head start Apple still only managed around a 65% global market share of the download business. Granted most of the competitors were bit part players but in the streaming arena it is entering an established market with proven customer bases. This will not be a winner takes all market and I fully expect Spotify to be closer to Apple than Deezer (the current #2) is now to Spotify.

These are big numbers from Spotify that prior to Apple’s announcement it probably thought it would need even more than proved to be the case. Regardless, both sets of figures show that Spotify is geared up for a fight for supremacy. Game on!