Here’s Why Vinyl Isn’t About To Save The Music Business And Why Albums Need Rethinking

The BPI announced that ‘album equivalent sales’ were up by 1.6% in volume terms in 2016, with vinyl and streaming identified as the key drivers. Many people retain a nostalgic soft spot for vinyl, so an apparently vinyl led revival is always going to get people’s attention. But not only is vinyl not the future (it was just 2.6% of sales in 2016), the big differences between the most popular vinyl, streaming, singles and album artists reveal just how fragmented the music business has become.

Each of the top 10 charts (album sales, singles, top streaming artists, vinyl sales) almost reads as a standalone group of artists with remarkably little cross over. In fact, only 2 artists (the ubiquitous Drake and Justin Bieber) appear across streaming, singles and albums. None appear across all four charts.

top-10s-20165

The fragmentation adds complexity to an already sophisticated and nuanced landscape:

  • Two tribes: Only one of the top single artists of 2016 (Justin Bieber) was also a top album artist. This is why the album vs playlist album argument will continue way beyond 2017. Both realities co-exist with one catering more towards older audiences and the other to younger ones. The top 10 albums list is like browsing through a high street music store CD rack circa 2005: Elvis Presley, David Bowie (twice), Coldplay, Michael Ball. Of course, there is some overlap with streaming, an inescapable overlap considering that streams are now (for all the wrong reasons) counted towards album sales. Thus, we see contemporary artists Little Mix, Drake and Jess Glyn fill the 7,8 and 9 slots, while Justin Bieber is at #4. But first and foremost this is a tale of 2 tribes, 2 groups of music fans whose tastes and consumption patterns rarely overlap.
  • Old format, old bands: Vinyl sales may have hit their highest level in the UK since 1991 but this is hardly a sign of what is to come. Indeed, a quick look through the top 10 vinyl albums of 2016 reveals that all but one of the artists were releasing music back in 1991! The exception is Amy Winehouse and she’s dead. The majority of the volume of vinyl sales is driven by nostalgic older music fans. Of course, younger people do buy vinyl too, but interestingly they generally do so as either a form of merch or as a way of supporting their favourite artist. In fact, many under 30’s vinyl buyers don’t even have turntables.

The really important takeaway from all this though, is what it means for driving sales and marketing artists in 2017. One size stopped fitting all long ago, but now there are clearly two broad groups of music audiences which must be addressed in entirely different ways, across different channels and with different tactics. At the most base level this is a case of youth versus grey, of digital native versus digital immigrant, of playlist versus album, of sales versus consumption. But it is also more complex and nuanced than that. There are overlaps and cross pollination. They may be relatively thin on the ground right now, but like some long-lost treasure map, they may point to how bridges can be built across these two worlds. If no such links can be made then ultimately this will be a story of one world hurtling to oblivion while the other booms. That is of course the more likely scenario, highlighted by the fact that (in volume terms) UK CD sales fell by 12% and download sales by 26% in 2016 while streams were up 67%.

As large volumes of older consumers switch to streaming (and Amazon should play a key role here) there will be more opportunity to join the dots. But do not mistake this simply as an opportunity to try to revive yesterday’s formats in today’s platforms. The album is clearly fading. According to MIDiA Research survey data, 68% of subscribers state that playlists are replacing albums for them. It is time to start investing though and effort in rethinking what album experiences should be in the digital era. And that conversation should have no bounds, everything should be on the table (number of tracks, street date vs continual updates, interactivity, changing content etc.).

The 2016 sales figures show us that the album in its traditional format still has a very solid, albeit quickly declining, audience. But if it is to outlive that dwindling customer base it must be rethought for the streaming era.

Why Apple Music Matters So Much To Apple

Apple today announced a much anticipated refresh to Apple Music at its WWDC event. Apple Music has found itself at the centre of long running criticism from many parts due to its perceived product weaknesses. This is the bar against which Apple is measured. It has spent years building a well earned reputation for high quality products so its users understandably measure its services by the same standards. Apple Music was a highly ambitious version 1.0 that has since been iterated to iron out user journey kinks. Now today’s feature announcements look set to move Apple Music onto its next stage.

Being An Early Follower Requires Super High Standards

As an early follower rather than a leader Apple always sets itself the challenge of being measured against incumbents that have had years to refine their product offerings. With hardware, Apple normally meets and exceeds those standards. With Apple Music it launched a product that was light years ahead of where most of the incumbents were at launch, but that didn’t compare as favourably against their current offerings. Google Music Play All Access faced a similar challenge. The streaming music market has evolved so much since Spotify and Deezer’s inceptions that a music service cannot now afford to simply launch with the basics. It must do so much more.

applemusicwwdc

Image courtesy of the Verge

The revamped Apple Music includes a new simplified white interface, lyrics integration and better interaction with cloud libraries (a long running bug bear). These are not exactly step change innovations but they are a significant move forward in what is proving to be a process of continual change. Ultimately this update is about making Apple Music more intuitive and for it to make more sense to mainstream users. Is all this enough to blow Spotify and Tidal out of the water? No, but add in Apple’s bottomless pockets for exclusives and marketing, and you have a potent mix.apple music wwdc

Apple also announced a subscriber milestone, hitting 15 million subscribers. The number suggest that Apple’s growth is beginning to outpace that of its key challenger Spotify. Last year I suggested Apple would reach 20 million subscribers by the end of 2016. These numbers show it is well on track. Apple could yet be the leading music service by the end of 2017 if it starts to fully leverage all its ‘unfair advantages’.

Other metrics that Apple announced included:

  • 130 billion App Store downloads
  • 2 million apps available
  • $50 billion paid out to developers
  • 60 million Apple News users

10 Years On, Music Matters To Apple Once Again

Apple Music matters to Apple not because it will generate large profits (it won’t) but because it is the pace setter for Apple’s strategic shift towards being a services company. Apple is building a new narrative for Wall Street that focuses on the revenue it generates from its existing customer base (in order to distract attention from slowing device sales). Apple Music is the proof of concept. If it gets Apple Music right it will demonstrate its ability to deliver on best-in-class digital services. And because Apple still hasn’t been able to launch its TV subscription (it instead launched a partnership integration with Sling TV) it needs to get Music right until it is able to get the requisite TV deals in place.

This why the stakes are so high for Apple Music. Get it right, Apple re-establishes its market leadership role. Get it wrong, Apple’s own rescue plan goes down the pan. Music was so important to Apple in the mid 2000’s because it helped sell the iPod which in turn became the platform for growth that Apple trades upon today. Now 10 years on music has just reassumed its importance, this time to help sell Apple itself not just its hardware.

Ad Supported Is 56% Of US Streaming Revenue

Late 2014 a minor crisis emerged in the music industry, with major record labels at one stage looking like they were going to kill off freemium.  The outcome of the Freemium Wars was actually less dramatic, resulting instead in an effective continuation of the status quo.  The labels had however made it very clear to Spotify who held the whip hand.  Though their tones have softened, major label execs retain an at best sceptical view of free streaming.  The net result is that freemium has almost become the inconvenient streaming truth that no one really talks about.  However free is too big to ignore.  In fact free is much bigger than some would like to admit.

freemium what freemium

According to the IFPI ad supported streaming accounted for just 19% of all US streaming revenues in 2014, down from a high of 30% in 2011.  Which points to the success of subscriptions.  Except that those numbers ignore a major part of the equation: Pandora (and other semi-interactive radio services).  The IFPI has Pandora hidden away with cloud locker services, SiriusXM and a mixture of other revenues in ‘Other Digital’.  Extracting the semi-interactive radio revenues that count as label trade revenues wasn’t the most straight forward of tasks but it was worth the effort.  Once Pandora is added into the mix it emerges that 56% of US streaming revenues are from free, ad supported services.  While that share is down from a high of 66% in 2012 it remained flat in 2013 and 2014.  Which means that however fast subscriptions grew Pandora, Slacker, Rhapsody UnRadio and co grew even faster in order to offset the decline in on demand ad supported income.

us subscriber growth and pandora

Semi-interactive radio revenues grew by 40% in 2014 compared to 35% for subscriptions.  Subscriptions had grown much faster in 2013 (76% compared to 25%) but Pandora and co found their mojo again in 2014.  None of this is to suggest that subscriptions aren’t making great progress but it does show us that free is more than an inconvenient truth, it is both the most widely adopted behaviour and the largest revenue source in the US (which accounts for 48% of global digital revenues).

The music industry is beginning to get its head around the fact that the role of streaming as a retail channel (i.e. subscriptions) is always going to be smaller (in reach terms at least) than its role as a radio channel (i.e. free streaming).  This more accurate view of the US streaming market shows us that free is even more important than many thought.

Free streaming also has much bigger growth potential. The percentage of consumers that have the inclination to pay 9.99 a month for music is inherently limited, thus constraining subscriptions to a niche addressable audience.  Music radio listening by contrast has near ubiquitous reach.  Most significantly Pandora currently only represents about 10% of all US radio listening time.  The addressable market is much bigger and the vast majority of it remains untapped.