How Spotify Can Become A Next Generation “Label”

Spotify on iPhoneOne of the themes my MIDiA colleague Tim Mulligan (the name’s no coincidence, he’s my brother too!) has been developing over in our online video research is that of next generation TV operators. With the traditional pay-TV model buckling under the pressure of countless streaming subscriptions services like Netflix (there are more than 50 services in the US alone) pay-TV companies have responded with countless apps of their own such as HBO Go and CBS All Access. The result for the consumer is utter confusion with a bewildering choice of apps needed to get all the good shows and sports. This creates an opportunity for the G.A.A.F. (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook) to stitch all these apps together and in doing so become next generation TV operators. Though the G.A.A.F. are a major force in music too, the situation is also very different. Nonetheless there is an opportunity for companies such as these to create a joined up music experience that delivers an end-to-end platform for artists and music fans alike. Right now, Spotify is best placed to fulfil this role and in doing so it could become a next generation “label”. I added the quote marks around the word “label” because the term is becoming progressively less useful, but it at least helps people contextualise the concept.

Creating The Right Wall Street Narrative

When news emerged that Spotify was in negotiations to buy Soundcloud I highlighted a number of potential benefits and risks. One thing I didn’t explore was how useful Soundcloud could be in helping Spotify build out its role as a music platform (more on that below). As I have noted before, as Spotify progresses towards an IPO it needs to construct a series of convincing narratives for Wall Street. The investor community generally looks upon the music business with, at best, extreme caution, and at worst, disdain. To put it simply, they don’t like the look of low-to-negative margin businesses that have little control over their own destinies and that are trying to sell a product that most people don’t want to buy. This is why Spotify needs to demonstrate to potential investors that it is working towards a future in which it has more control, and a path to profitability. The major label dominated, 17% gross operating margin (and –9% loss) 9.99 AYCE model does not tick any of those boxes. Spotify is not going to change any of those fundamentals significantly before it IPOs, but it can demonstrate it is working to change things.

The Role Of Labels Is As Important As Ever

At the moment Spotify is a retail channel with bells and whistles. But it is acquiring so much user data and music programming expertise that it be so much more than that. The role of record labels is always going to be needed, even if the current model is struggling to keep up. The things that record labels do best is:

  1. Discover, invest in and nurture talent
  2. Market artists

Someone is always going to play that role, and while the distribution platforms such as Spotify could, in theory at least, play that role in a wider sense, existing labels (big and small) are going to remain at the centre of the equation for the meaningful future. Although some will most likely fall by the wayside or sell up over the next few years. (Sony’s acquisition of Ministry Of Sound is an early move rather than an exception.) But what Spotify can do that incumbent labels cannot, is understand the artist and music fan story right from discovery through to consumption. More than that, it can help shape both of those in a way labels on their own cannot. Until not so recently Spotify found itself under continual criticism from artists and songwriters. Although this has not disappeared entirely it is becoming less prevalent as a) creators see progressively bigger cheques, and b) more new artists start their career in the streaming era and learn how to make careers work within it, often seeing streaming services more as audience acquisition tools rather than revenue generators.

The Balance Of Power Is Shifting Away From Recorded Music

Concert crowd.In 2000 record music represented 60% of the entire music industry, now it is less than 30%. Live is the part that has gained most, and the streaming era artist viewpoint is best encapsulated by Ed Sheeran who cites Spotify as a key driver for his successful live career, saying “[Spotify] helps me do what I want to do.” Spotify’s opportunity is to go the next step, and empower artists with the tools and connections to build all of the parts of their career from Spotify. This is what a next generation “label” will be, a platform that combines data, discovery, promotion (and revenue) with tools to help artists with live, merchandise and other parts of their career.

How Spotify Can Buy Its Way To Platform Success

To jump start its shift towards being a next-generation “label” Spotify could use its current debt raise – and post-IPO, its stock – to buy companies that it can plug into its platform. In some respects, this is the full stack music concept that Access Industries, Liberty Global and Pandora have been pursuing. Here are a few companies that could help Spotify on this path:

  • Soundcloud: arguably the biggest artist-to-fan platform on the planet, Soundcloud could form a talent discovery function for Spotify. Spotify could use its Echo Nest intelligence to identify which acts are most likely to break through and use its curated playlists to break them on Spotify. Also artist platforms like BandPage and BandLab could play a similar role.
  • Indie labels: Many indie labels will struggle with cash flow due to streaming replacing sales, which means many will be looking to sell. My money is on Spotify buying a number of decent sized indies. This will demonstrate its ability to extend its value chain footprint, and therefore margins (which is important for Wall Street). It could also ‘do a Netflix’ and use its algorithms to ensure that its owned-repertoire over performs, which helps margins even further. But more importantly, indie labels would give Spotify a vehicle for building the careers of artists discovered on Soundcloud. Also the A&R assets would be a crucial complement to its algorithms.
  • Tidal: Spotify could buy Tidal, taking advantage of Apple’s position of waiting until Tidal is effectively a distressed asset before it swoops. Though Tidal is most likely to want too much money, its roster of exclusives and its artist-centric ethos would be a valuable part of an artist-first platform strategy for Spotify.
  • Songkick: In reality Songkick is going to form part of Access’ Deezer focused full stack play. But a data-led, live music focused company (especially if ticketing and booking can play a role) would be central to Spotify driving higher margin revenues and being able to offer a 360 degree proposition to artists.
  • Arguably the most exciting music innovation of the decade, would give Spotify the ability to appeal to the next generation of music fans. The average age of a user is 20, for Spotify it is 27. Spotify has to be really careful not to age with its audience and music messaging apps are a great way to tap the next generation in the same way Facebook did (average age 35) did by buying up and growing messaging apps. (e.g. Instagram’s average age is 26).
  • Pandora: A long shot perhaps, but Pandora would be a shortcut to full stack, having already acquired Ticket Fly, Next Big Sound and Rdio. If Pandora’s stock continues to tank (the last few days of recovery notwithstanding) then who knows.

In conclusion, Spotify’s future is going to be much more than being the future of music retail. With or without any of the above acquisitions, expect Spotify to lay the foundations for a bold platform strategy that has the potential to change the face of the recorded music business as we know it.

For more information on the analysis and statistics in this post check out MIDiA Research and sign up to our free weekly research digest.

Amazon: Reverse Pricing, And The Rise Of Zero UI

Amazon’s announcement of its AYCE streaming service Amazon Music Unlimited should not come as a surprise to anyone whose been keeping even half an eye on the digital music market. Amazon are the sleeping giant / dark horse (select your preferred descriptive cliché) of digital music. With 60 million Prime Memberships it has a bigger addressable base of subscribers than Spotify, and its 300 million credit card linked customer accounts surpasses most but falls well short of Apple’s 800 million. Nonetheless, Amazon is the last major force to play its streaming hand. However, what the two really interesting things about Amazon Music Unlimited are its ‘reverse pricing’ strategy and the move towards Zero UI music experiences.

Sleeping Or Coma?

Being the sleeping giant of a space can work both ways. It normally implies major resources, a large legacy audience waiting to be tapped, and years of brand equity and trust. Amazon certainly ticks all those boxes, and some. But it can also mean that you’ve left it too late, allowing new entrants steal away your customers with new product offerings. HMV, Tower Records and Fnac were all sleeping giants but they all moved too late and too cautiously to be able to prevent Amazon, and then Apple, and then Spotify from stealing their customers. Things should though, be different for Amazon and streaming. Although streaming is growing fast we are still short of 100 million subscribers globally and in most markets subscriber penetration is below 10%. Even more importantly, the majority of adoption is being driven by music aficionados (those consumers that spend above average time and money with music). The next opportunity is the engaged end of the mainstream. This is where Amazon plays best.

Targeting The Mainstream Music Fan  

Amazon’s streaming strategy to date has revolved around a limited catalogue, curated streaming service bundled into Amazon Prime. Although it has struggled for visibility by being 3rd in the Prime pecking order (behind free shipping and video) it nonetheless deserves much credit for genuinely trying to do something different in the increasingly homogenous streaming marketplace. It is a lean back, curated experience for the music fan that is neither passive nor aficionado. This group is nearly double the size of the high spender group (see our MIDiA subscriber reports on music segmentation for much more detail). What makes this group even more interesting is that none of the other big streaming services are going after it. Why? Because they spend less than $10 a month.

So on the surface Amazon’s new $7.99 is a smart move, pushing a price point into the market that unlocks the next tier of users. The move is less radical than it first appears though, as this price is only available for Amazon Prime subscribers (all others have to pay $9.99). Also Spotify and Deezer’s aggressive price discounting ($1 for 3 months) have both created effective price deflation. That aside, there is however no doubt that Amazon’s $7.99 price point will have a major impact on consumer perceptions of pricing and will in the longer run help bring the main $9.99 price point down to $7.99 (something Apple tried and failed to do when it launched Apple Music).

Amazon’s Reverse Pricing Strategy

But Amazon’s pricing strategy is way smarter than just that, here’s why. Note the name of the service: Amazon Music Unlimited. Not Amazon Music. It echoes Google’s Google Play Music All Access. Each service’s naming convention ensures that it does not give the impression of being the core music offering for each company. In Amazon’s case this is its music sales business (CDs and downloads) and its pre-existing Prime bundled streaming service. The great thing about having a $7.99 / $9.99 product in the market is that it suddenly creates very clear perceived monetary value for its Prime-bundled service. How could consumers understand the value of something that didn’t have a price point anywhere? Now it is abundantly clear that it is $7.99 / $9.99 worth of value. This is Amazon’s Reverse Pricing Strategy: price a decoy product high to make a core product appeal more valuable. Now, a seasoned music exec might argue, ‘ah, yes, but it’s not unlimited on demand, so it’s not worth that’. But if an Amazon user gets full satisfaction from a curated, limited catalogue streaming service then the AYCE distinction doesn’t matter. It’s like telling some one that unless they eat until they are sick at an all you can eat buffet that they are not getting their money’s worth. Let’s just hope that Amazon’s reverse pricing strategy is not accidental…

Music’s Zero UI Era

Finally, onto Alexa and Amazon Echo. For just $3.99 a month Echo owners can get the full Amazon Music Unlimited service, controlling the entire experience via the Alexa voice controlled assistant. Although initially it will prove challenging to do anything other than the more rudimentary elements of using the service with the Echo, voice control is going to come of age over the next five years. Three of the big four tech companies have a voice play (Apple has Siri, Alphabet has Google Assistant and Amazon has Alexa). Also Microsoft has Cortana. Voice will play an increasingly important role in our digital lives and will help move smartphones towards post-app experiences, with app functionality increasingly built into the OS of devices and called upon via voice.

Amazon has pushed the dial for music and voice, it might even have got a little ahead of itself. But more and more of music consumption will be voice and gesture driven and Amazon is setting the pace for the voice side of the ‘Zero UI’ equation. To be clear, Zero UI does not mean Zero functionality nor Zero UX. In fact, functionality has to be even better in a Zero UI context, as it has to be able to deliver user benefits without visual reference points. But what it does mean, is that there is less friction between the listener and the music. The music becomes the experience.

Regardless of whether this ‘sleeping giant’ has timed its entry into the AYCE market right or not, its lasting legacy could well be making the first truly bold step towards music’s Zero UI era.

Spotify May Be Buying Soundcloud, But Who Wins?

spotify-pac-manThe Financial Times has reported that Spotify is in advanced talks to buy Soundcloud. Soundcloud has been shopping itself around for some time, while Spotify needs to continue outpacing Apple as it heads towards an IPO. Which is why the deal has been rumoured for some time. But who would do best out of the deal (if indeed it goes ahead)?

  • Soundcloud has peaked: Throughout the 2010’s Soundcloud’s growth was impressive, growing from 1 million registered users in May 2010 to 150 million by December 2014. But registered user numbers only ever tell part of the story. The most telling statistic is Soundcloud’s Monthly Active User (MAU) number: 175 million. Impressive enough, and 50 million more than Spotify’s 125 million. But Soundcloud hit that number in August 2014 and it hasn’t reported a bigger number since. In fact, it could well be that Soundcloud hasn’t actually issued a new number since, but instead has simply being restating that number. If it had grown, you can be sure we’d have heard about it. If it had fallen, perhaps not. On top of this, in October 2013 CEO Alexander Ljung stated that Soundcloud had hit 250 million MAUs. A number that has not since been repeated. So best case, Soundcloud usage has peaked, worst case it is in decline. DEAL WINNER: Soundcloud
  • Soundcloud users are male super fans: According to MIDiA’s consumer data 7% of consumers are Weekly Active Users (WAU) of Soundcloud, about half the rate of Spotify (again suggesting that Soundcloud’s headline user numbers aren’t all they appear). But crucially 60% of its WAUs are male while Spotify’s are 50/50 male/female. Spotify has spent the last few years diversifying its user base away from this male super fan skew. All that work would be undone if the Soundcloud user base is absorbed. DEAL WINNER: Evens
  • Soundcloud users are a funnel: Spotify’s model relies upon giving new audiences a taste of its offering via its free tier, super trials and telco bundles, before converting to paid. To keep ahead of Apple, Spotify has to keep filling up its funnel. So Soundcloud’s user base will be a welcome boost to Spotify’s user acquisition as it seeks to maintain momentum as it heads towards IPO. DEAL WINNER: Spotify
  • Many Soundcloud users are already subscribers: 28% of Soundcloud users already have a music subscription, with the majority of those already paying for Spotify rather than Soundcloud Go. So many of the low hanging fruit users have already been converted, weakening the value of the audience. DEAL WINNER: Soundcloud
  • Soundcloud has a unique catalogue: A key reason so many Soundcloud users also use Spotify is that so much Soundcloud catalogue can only be found there. This is a rich asset for Spotify but as much of it is not licensed so it could prove to be a licensing quagmire for Spotify. DEAL WINNER: Spotify, if it can sort out the licensing
  • Soundcloud’s valuation is high: Reported valuations for Soundcloud have ranged from $700 million to $2 billion. Even if it comes in at $500 million, unless the deal is heavily skewed towards stock, Spotify will burn through a massive chunk of its latest $1 billion debt round. DEAL WINNER: Soundcloud

There is an additional wild card, that Spotify could use Soundcloud as vehicle for becoming a serious player in ad supported in its own right (which will delight Apple’s Jimmy Iovine, not). The deal of course may not even happen, but if it does, it is far from a guaranteed winner for Spotify. It will help Spotify build a bullish growth story for Wall Street but Spotify will have to IPO before the shine starts to come off if Soundcloud’s user base turns out to be smaller and less valuable pickings than at first appears.


Have Spotify and Apple Music Just Won The Streaming Wars?

Spotify has just delivered 2 landmark data points: 40 million subscribers and $5 billion paid to rights holders to date. Although the 3 million added in Q3 was down on the 7 million added in Q2 (boosted by a summer pricing promo) there is no escaping the fact that Spotify’s momentum has accelerated rather than declined since the emergence of Apple Music. 2016 is proving to be Spotify’s year. The question is how well the rest of the market is performing beyond the 2 market leaders?

The streaming music market as a whole is experiencing unprecedented growth, with the major labels collectively reporting a 52% increase in streaming revenue in Q2 2016 compared to the same period 12 months ago. Given that total streaming revenues (including YouTube etc. but not Pandora) grew by 44% in 2015 (according to the IFPI) the picture that is emerging is one of, at worst, sustained growth, at best, accelerating growth.

Although the major label numbers have to be interpreted with caution due to factors such as Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs) – see my previous post for much more detail on this – the headline trend is growth. However, headline growth is not necessarily a reflection of how most of the market is actually performing. In fact, a forensic examination of these numbers cross referenced against reported Apple Music and Spotify numbers reveals that the outlook for the rest of the pack is very different indeed.


At the end of 2015 there were 67.5 million subscribers, by the end of June 2016 that had increased to 83.2 million – a 23% increase from the end of 2015 and a 63% increase on Q2 2015. Spotify’s subscriber count for Q2 2016 was 37 million (including super trialists) while Apple Music was just under 16 million. This gives them a combined market share of 56%, which in itself is not particularly surprising. However, when we look at what has happened to the rest of the pack that things start to get really interesting…

The Rest Of The Pack Is Getting Left Behind

By end Q2 2015 Spotify had 20 million subscribers and Apple Music none. This meant that the rest had 31 million between them. By Q2 2016 this ‘remainder’ had shrunk to 30.5 million. Among this chasing pack there is a diverse mix of stories, with some services showing solid growth, some losing lots of paid subscribers and some disappearing all together. Meanwhile Spotify and Apple Music added 32.7 million to the global subscriber base. Thus over the same 12 month period these two players combined, became bigger then the entire rest of the market in subscriber terms with a 63% combined market share. An interesting side note: Tidal’s reported revenues of $47 million in 2015 mean that it can’t have had more than around 800,000 commercially active subscribers by year end, which means that the reported and ‘implied’ 4.2 million current subscriber count is probably closer to half that.

Streaming revenue followed a similar trend with Apple and Spotify dominating and the rest falling slightly (by 1 percentage point year on year). Spotify paid around $1.6 billion in royalties in 2015 and a cumulative $6 billion by September 2016, implying about $1.1 billion in 2016 already. The amount that Spotify paid to record labels in Q2 was somewhere between $479 million and $622 million, depending on when and how Spotify paid for those 7 million new super trialists it acquired that quarter. Towards the lower end of that range is probably the safer bet. Apple by comparison paid around $220 million. And as with subscriber numbers, the rest of the pack lost revenue.

It’s A 2 Horse Race

When Apple launched Apple Music some less informed observers suggested that it was too late to the party and that there was only room for one big player. The numbers from Q2 2016 show that Apple was far from too late (fashionably late perhaps) and that the rather than being a winner takes all scenario, the streaming market is a 2 horse race. Unfortunately for the rest of the pack it does look like there is only space for 2 leading global players, with Apple clearly having played a key role in knocking Deezer out of 2nd place and racing on ahead.

Still A Place For Regional Leaders

This does not mean that there is not space for other players, there is. Especially regional leaders like QQ Music, KKBox, Anghami and MelOn. But the consumer marketplace only has so much appetite for global scale $9.99 AYCE services. Which is why pricing and product innovation are so crucial if the recorded music business wants a vibrant streaming sector. Compare and contrast with the streaming video market where there is immense innovation with niche services and a diverse range of price points. Music streaming needs the same approach. Tidal may have (very successfully) differentiated on brand and content but it remains fundamentally an also-ran, $9.99 AYCE service. As things stand, the only really serious attempt to play by different rules is Amazon’s steadily emerging streaming strategy. Expect that dark horse to make up ground by playing by different rules. Perhaps even Pandora may be able to break the mould too.

But it is only through differentiated strategies that serious inroads can be made and unless pricing and product innovation occurs (and the labels and publishers need to enable it) expect the streaming race to continue to be a tale of 2 horses.

Pandora Plus And The Mid Tier Opportunity

Pandora continued its steady path towards subscriptions today with the announcement of a revamp of its premium radio offering Pandora One and confirmation of a forthcoming 9.99 tier. These of course have been in the works since its acquisition of Rdio’s assets back in November 2015. In the update Pandora One becomes Pandora Plus and gets new features including: ‘predictive offline playback’ for when signal drops, unlimited skips and unlimited replays. Pandora Plus may have a mid tier price point ($4.99) but it is not a mid priced subscription service, instead it is a premium priced radio service. This is not a revival of Rdio’s $3.99 Select offering nor is it a shot across Spotify and Apple’s bows. Nonetheless it is the start of a bolder streaming strategy for Pandora and it does raise the perennial issue of the case for mid priced subscriptions. Premium radio offerings like Pandora One Plus represent around 5 million subscribers in the US and are an important part of the market. But they are only the tip of the opportunity.

The case for mid priced subscriptions is clear: $9.99 is not a mainstream price point. It is fantastic value for music super fans, but more than mainstream fans are willing to pay. 9.99 subscriptions will continue to grow solidly for the next few years as the remaining untapped super fans are converted. But once that base is saturated the market needs something more, that’s where mid priced subscriptions come into play, helping unlock the next layer of consumers. Mid priced subscriptions can represent the best of both worlds, delivering large scale and premium revenue.

Mid Price Is No Easy Sell

However, the mid priced market is not without challenges, indeed, of the original wave of mid priced subscription services that came to market Blinkbox is gone, Cur Media is gone, Guvera is all but gone while Psonar and MusicQubed are still in market. The key challenges this market faces are:

  • It is not easy selling to mainstream consumers: mainstream consumers have less disposable income, are less engaged with music than super fans and are harder to convert
  • It is hard to compete against free: while there are on demand free services in the market (YouTube, Vevo, Spotify free) it is hard for mid priced products to compete in value terms. These free services steal much of the oxygen out of the market. $1 for 3 month trials from Spotify and co only compounds this issue
  • It is hard to differentiate: Label licensing constraints mean that the mid priced products deliver far less value than full priced products due to the restrictions imposed on them. Pandora’s INSERT gives the users 100 on demand tracks a month. That is 0.0003% of the 30 million on Spotify for 40% of the price of Spotify, or 1197% of the price of Spotify’s $1 for 3 months trial

Mid Tier Needs To Be Given More Substance

In short, the mid priced segment needs empowering with proper functionality. Mid tier products need more tracks and more on demand playback. Of course this has to be within clear bounds, else the risk of cannibalizing 9.99 tiers is to strong. But there are many other ways to do this rather than creating a painfully restrictive limit on the number tracks that can be played on demand. Here are some examples of how to differentiate mid tier while maintaining genuine user value by delivering more content and more choice in return:

  • Windowed content only (e.g. a 4 week window on new releases)
  • Limit on number of tracks that can be added to a playlist
  • Genre specific subscriptions
  • Strong focus on pushed playlists
  • Cheaper pricing ($2.99 or $3.99 to reflect the changed marketplace)

For mid tier to work, the music industry needs to have the confidence that the $9.99 product is good enough to keep its core customer base, that these users will not jump ship for a product squarely aimed at the mainstream.

After a couple of years in the wilderness it looks like the marketplace is beginning to warm to mid tier once again. In addition to Pandora’s moves, Sony Music and Universal Music quietly launched the £5.99 Now Music app into the UK market earlier this year while MusicQubed’s MTV Trax has been getting large scale TV advertising support from Viacom. Meanwhile QQ Music and Apple Music are both driving scale in China with a price point equivalent to around $2.

$9.99 was always a blunt instrument, a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Now though, while $9.99 adoption is still growing, is the time to have a far more sophisticated approach to pricing. The safe option would be to wait until $9.99 growth slows. But by then it would be too late.

Watch Out Access, Liberty Media Is Building A Full Stack Music Company

liberty-full-stackAccess Industries’ full stack music company has, ahem, company: Liberty Media. With a combined market market cap of $37 billion John Malone’s Liberty group of companies is by anyone’s standards is a serious player. In the world of media and telecoms it is one of the biggest. Liberty grabbed the headlines this week with its $2.7 billion acquisition of a 15% stake in Formula One, with an option to acquire the entire company, possibly by year’s end. It is a typically bold move for a company that makes a habit of acquiring companies and consolidating markets. Over the past 11 years Liberty Media and Liberty Global have spent around $50 billion on acquiring companies such as UK TV operator Virgin Media, Dutch cable company Ziggo and (indirectly via a holding company) major league baseball team Atlanta Braves. So far so good, but where’s the music angle I hear you ask. Well, just a few weeks ago Liberty made a bid for a certain Pandora Media to add to its already extensive collection of music assets.

Read the full post on the MIDiA Blog here.

Just How Well Is Streaming Really Doing?

All of the three major record labels announced strong streaming music revenue growth in the 2nd quarter of 2016. On the surface it is a clear cut success story, but as is so often the case with music industry statistics, all is not quite how it seems.

The Global Streaming Market

First of all, let’s look at the global picture. According to the IFPI’s Recording Industry in Numbers (RIN) 2016 edition record label streaming revenue grew by 45% in 2015 reaching $2.9 billion, up from $1.9 billion in 2014. But even that number requires a little due diligence. The IFPI restates its historical numbers every year to reflect the current year’s exchange rates, which can, and does, overstate things. Indeed, a quick look at the 2015 edition of RIN shows that streaming revenue was reported as $2.2 billion for 2014. So on a non-adjusted basis (i.e. without restating the numbers) streaming revenue actually grew by 31%.

Spotify’s Contribution

31% is still impressive growth but the plot thickens when we factor in Spotify’s contribution to those label revenues. Spotify’s total royalty payments were $1.9 billion in 2015, of which around $1.4bn were label payments, and of those around $1.1 billion were royalty payments (i.e. minus advance payments such as Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs) paid in anticipation of future growth). That $1.1 billion was up 85% from $610 million in 2014. As the IFPI numbers only represent payments in respect of actual royalties (i.e. minus advance payments) the Spotify label royalty payments can be considered as a share of that global total. That share was 39% of all label streaming revenue in 2015, up from 28% in 2014.

This results in 2 interesting points:

  1. Spotify’s share of the global music subscriber total was 35% in 2014 and 37% in 2015. So the label royalty payments over indexed in 2014 and under indexed in 2015. The fact that 2015 was a big year for heavily discounted promotional offers such as $1 for 3 months most probably plays a key role here.
  2. If we remove the Spotify label royalty payments from the equation, label payments from other streaming services grew by just 10% from $1.6 billion in 2014 to $1.8 billion in 2015. Not exactly the most robust of pictures for the wider streaming market place.

major label streaming

So much for 2015, let’s look at where we are now. All three major labels reported strong streaming growth in Q2 2016. Together they reported $918 million, up 51% from $607 in Q2 2015. That growth generated $311 million of new digital revenue. At the same time, and as a direct consequence, download revenue fell by 24% from $925 in Q2 2015 to $705 million. So streaming is now nearly as big as downloads were 12 months ago. The net increase in combined digital music revenue was $91 million, or a combined digital growth rate of 6%. Solid growth, but not far from treading water. This is a transition process, not a transformative growth process.

Universal Is The Big Streaming Winner

Each of the 3 majors had differing streaming experiences. Universal was the big winner, growing its share of major label streaming revenue from 38% in Q2 2015 to 42% in Q2 2016 (boosted more than other majors by ‘embedded’ independent label revenue). UMG’s streaming revenue grew by more than 60% while Sony and Warner grew by an average of 42%. However, it is important to note that UMG’s reported streaming numbers may be skewed more by currency restating than the other majors, so this share increase might be slightly on the high side.

Sony Music meanwhile lost share from 35% to 33% while Warner Music, which was most coy about its streaming revenue in its reporting, also saw a fall from 26% to 25%. Warner’s and Sony’s loss was Universal’s gain. An interesting side note: Sony was the only major that saw growth in physical music sales over the period. Yet more evidence of the Adele effect?

The Role Of Advanced Payments

But perhaps the most important element of the majors’ streaming reports is the difference between royalty payments (i.e. money earned for music streamed) and total streaming revenue (i.e. including advanced payments such as MRGs). Spotify states rights payments are 70% of its revenue though its 2015 accounts show royalty payments as 82% of revenue due in large part to advanced payments. Using this benchmark advanced payments represent around 16% of all label payments. Applying this to the label reported numbers we can extrapolate that $145 million of all major label streaming revenue is advanced payments.

Why does this matter? Because this is the major record label’s streaming reality distortion field. They get streaming revenue regardless of how well the marketplace actually performs. If a streaming service pays an MRG of $30 million but only earns $10 million the label still gets $30 million. So in that scenario the label’s view of that part of the streaming music market is 3 times better than it actually is. If the music service wins, the label wins, if the music service loses, the label still wins. This disconnect between how the market performs and how the label performs is one of the festering wounds of the streaming music market. And its revenue impact is massive. In fact, advanced label streaming payments were 158% of the $91 million that digital music revenue grew by in Q2 2016. Yes, that’s right, advanced streaming payments accounted for all of the digital music growth, and more.

Streaming Will Continue To Grow, But Haunted By Advanced Payments

So where does all this leave us? The streaming market is without doubt entering a phase of accelerating growth and is doing enough to counter the resulting decline in downloads to contribute to a combined total recorded music revenue growth of 4% for major labels in Q2 2016. But growth is not quite as stellar as the headline numbers would suggest, with the single most important factor being the impact of advanced payments distorting the bigger picture and crippling cash flow for streaming music services. Expect more impressive growth throughout the remainder of 2016 but also expect streaming music economics to continue to be fractured.

What Frank Ocean’s Bombastic Blond Moment Tells Us About The Future Of Artists And Labels

When frank-ocean-blond-compressed-0933daea-f052-40e5-85a4-35e07dac73dfFrank Ocean’s latest album ‘Blond’ dropped, it did so like a nuclear bomb, sending shockwaves throughout the music industry. In one of the audacious release strategies of recent years Ocean and his team at 360 fulfilled the final album contractual commitment to Universal Music by ushering his breaking-the-mold visual album ‘Endless’ onto Apple Music.  Featuring collaborations from the likes of Sampha and James Blake and set as a loose soundtrack to art house visuals, ‘Endless’ looked like the sort of digitally native, creative masterstroke that would win plaudits and awards in equal measure. But no sooner had Universal executives started daydreaming about Grammys then along came what turned out to be the ‘actual’ album ‘Blonde’, self released by Ocean (Universal contractual commitments now of course conveniently fulfilled) and, for now at least, exclusively available on Apple Music. You can just imagine seeing the blood drain from (Universal CEO) Lucian Grainge’s face as the full magnitude of what had just happened came into focus. In truth ‘audacious’ doesn’t even come close to explaining what Ocean pulled off, but where it gets really interesting is what this means for the future of artist careers.

Artist-Label Relationships Are Changing

Quickly sensing the potential implications, Grainge swiftly sent out a memo to Universal staff outlawing streaming exclusives…though voices from within Universal suggest that this diktat had been in the works for some time . A cynic might even argue that it was politically useful for Universal to be seen to be taking a strong stand ahead of the impending Vivendi earnings call. As the ever excellent Tim Ingham points out, in practice Universal could put a streaming exclusives moratorium in place and still have a good number of its front line artists put out streaming exclusives. This is because many of the deals these artists have are not traditional label deals where Universal owns all the rights. And that itself is as telling as Ocean’s bombastic blond moment. Not so much that Universal is probably the major with the highest amount of its revenue accounted for by licensed and distributed works, but that any label’s roster is now a complex and diverse mix of deal types. Artists are more empowered than ever before, and thanks to the innovation of label services companies and next generation music companies like Kobalt, labels have been forced to steal the disruptors’ clothing in order to remain competitive.

Streaming Exclusives Represent Another Option For Artists

Just as labels had started to successfully co-opt the label services marketplace by launching their own – e.g. Universal’s Caroline – or by buying up the competition – e.g. Sony’s acquisition of Essential Music & Marketing – along come streaming services giving artists another non-label route to market. In truth, the threat has remained largely unrealised. Exclusives on Tidal have most often proved to be laced with caveats and get out clauses (e.g. Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ arriving on iTunes 24 hours after landing ‘exclusively’ on Tidal). Chance The Rapper’s (in name only) mixtape ‘Colouring Book’ and Ocean’s ‘Blond’ are exceptions rather than the rule. So all that’s about to change now right? Not necessarily…

Album Releases Require More Time Than Apple Probably Has

As anyone who works in a label will tell you, releasing an album is typically a long, carefully planned process with many moving parts. It’s not something you do in a couple of weeks (Ocean started building the hype and expectation for his latest opus a year ago). If, for example, Apple was going to start doing exclusives routinely, even if it just did 20, that’s still a new exclusive to push every 2 weeks. That might work, at a stretch, for music service retailing promotional pushes but is far short of a fully fledged album release cycle. Which means that even for just 20 exclusives Apple would have an intricate mesh of overlapping release campaigns. This is something that labels do with their eyes closed but would it require new organizational disciplines for Apple. Not impossible, but not wholly likely either.

In practice, exclusives are likely to be limited to being the crown jewels of streaming services, their most valuable players, creative playmakers if you like. Even for Netflix, that pioneering exemplar of the streaming originals strategy, only spends 15% of its $3 billion content budget on originals and probably won’t break 20% even by 2020. What Apple and Netflix have in common is that they are using exclusives as a customer acquisition strategy, achieving their aims by making a big noise about each one. But if you’re releasing exclusives every week or two the shine soon wears off. And suddenly the return on investment diminishes.

Streaming Exclusives Are Unlikely To Turn Into A Flood

None of this means that we won’t see more artists striking streaming exclusives. We will, regardless of what labels may actually want to happen. And most of those will probably be on Apple – the service with bottomless pits masquerading as pockets. But the trickle will not turn into a flood, a fast flowing stream perhaps (see what I did there) but not a torrent.

Although they might not realise it yet, Kobalt might find themselves hurting more than the majors from this latest twist in the Exclusives Wars. Kobalt has probably done more than any single other music company to drive change in the traditional music industry in the last 5 years, showing artists and songwriters that there is another way of doing things. But Frank Ocean has just shown that there is now new another option for established artists looking for options at the end of a label deal.

Most importantly of all though, is that streaming exclusives (and indeed label services deals) work best when an artist has already established a brand and an audience. Most often that means after an artist has had a record label recording career. Apple cannot be relied upon to build anything more than a handful of artist brands. One of the founding myths of the web was that it was going to do away with labels and other traditional ‘gatekeepers’. Now, decades later, labels still account for the vast, vast, vast majority of music listening. Make no mistake, a momentous value chain shift is taking place, with more power and autonomy shifting to the creators, but that is a long journey and ‘Blond’ is but one part of this much bigger shift.

The End Of Freemium For Spotify?

‘Leaked’ Spotify numbers emerged today indicating that the streaming service has just hit 37 million subscribers, which puts more clear water between it and and second placed Apple Music, despite the latter’s recent growth. It also means that Spotify is now nearly 10 times bigger than Tidal and probably Deezer (which hasn’t reported numbers since its France Telecom bundle partnership ended). It is beginning to look suspiciously like a 2 horse race. But there is a more important story here: Spotify’s accelerated growth in Q2 2016 was driven by widespread use of its $0.99 for 3 months promotional offer. Which itself comes on the back of similar offers having supercharged Spotify’s subscriber growth for the last 18 months or so. In short, 9.99 needs to stop being 9.99 in order to appeal to consumers. Which is another way of saying that 9.99 just isn’t a mainstream price point.

spotify june 1

As the IFPI’s 2015 numbers revealed, the average label revenue per music subscriber fell globally from $3.16 in 2014 to $2.80 in 2015, with price discounting a key factor. According to Music Business Worldwide, 4 million of Spotify’s newly acquired 7 million subscribers were on promotional offers and around 1.5 million of those are expected to churn out when their promotional period ends. That might sound high but it actually represents a 79% conversion ratio, which is a stellar rate by anyone’s standards. Meanwhile Spotify’s total user base is 100 million which means the free-to-paid ratio is 37%. So price promos are converting at more than double the rate of freemium. Does this mean the end of freemium?

spotify june 2

Freemium proved highly valuable to Spotify in its earlier years and continues to be an important entry strategy for new markets. But last year record label execs started to observe that free just wasn’t converting at the same rate it once did in mature markets like the US. This was because most of the likely subscribers had already been converted and so the majority remaining were freeloaders who were never going to pay, and warm prospects who just couldn’t bring themselves to pay 9.99. This is where price promos come into play. They deliver the impact of mid priced subscriptions, which is enough to to hook those wavering free users. Once they get used to paying the majority tend to stick around when the price goes back up.

Mid Priced Subscriptions Will Drive The Market, Even If By Stealth

I have long argued that mid priced subscriptions are crucial to driving the streaming market, and the burgeoning success of Spotify’s mid-priced-subscriptions-by-stealth strategy provides a bulging corpus of supporting evidence. In fact, the average spend of Spotify’s 7 million net new subscribers in Q2 2016 was $3.09 a month.  The tantalizing question is whether that 1.5 million promo users that are expected to churn out would take a $3.99 product if it was available?

As the streaming market becomes increasingly sophisticated, the leading players will have to rely ever more heavily on differentiation strategies. For Tidal and Apple that means urban focused exclusives, for Spotify (for now at least) that means algorithmic, personalized curation and aggressive price discounting. And in Q2 2016 it is Spotify’s strategy that is winning out, resulting in 2.3 million net new subscribers each month compared to 1.4 million for Apple Music and 0.3 million for Tidal.

Freemim is dead, long live price promos?



How Apple Music And Tidal Transformed Streaming (And Why Apple May Be Buying Tidal)


It is 15 months since the launch of Tidal (which was 2 months after Jay-Z’s Project Panther Bidco bought Aspiro) and it is 12 months since the launch of Apple Music (which was a year after Apple bought Beats Music). The streaming world has changed a lot in that time and both those companies have had a disproportionately large amount on influence on the market’s direction of travel. Their arrivals defined Spotify’s role as incumbent while simultaneously casting Apple and Beats as challengers. They have performed their roles of disruptive entrants well, reshaping the competitive marketplace with a strong focus on brand and artist exclusives. Now reports emerge that Apple is in talks to buy Tidal. First victory in the exclusives war or overspending for market share?

When Is An Exclusive And Exclusive?

In the streaming video world an exclusive means exactly that. If you want to watch ‘House Of Cards’ you need Netflix, if you want to watch ‘Man In The High Castle’ you need Amazon Prime. But in music the rules are far more flexible.


Looking at the flagpole exclusives across Apple Music, Tidal and Spotify, most of these are available on other platforms as downloads, while many are available to stream. For example, Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ is only available to stream via Tidal but was available to download on iTunes within 24 hours of release. Understandably, the exclusive albums of each company’s respective godfather are genuinely exclusive. But Rihanna’s ‘Anti’ was given away by Samsung while Spotify’s rock legends exclusives are streaming only.

Apple is beginning to push the envelope though, pitching creative solutions to labels and artists, resulting in output like videos for The Weekend and Drake. At the same time it is beginning to look suspiciously like a record label with the release of Chance The Rapper’s ‘Colouring Book’ mixtape. The net result of all this clamouring to be seen as the ‘home’ of an artist is resounding confusion and frustration for music fans. An avid TV fan may well accept the need to have both a Netflix and Amazon subscription because no video service claims to have all the TV shows and movies on the planet. However, the central proposition of streaming music services is exactly that…or at least it was until Tidal and Apple Music upset the the apple cart (ahem). The irony is that in scoring a quick win against Spotify, Tidal and Apple may have fundamentally undermined the long term positioning of the entire streaming music product.

Exclusives Cannot Recreate The 1990s

Apple Music’s head of original content Larry Jackson has said he wants to make Apple Music to emulate the success of MTV in the 80’s and the 90’s, creating the sense that artists ‘live there’. It is an admirable goal but the music world of the 2010’s is a dramatically different one. In those days there was scarcity (you had to buy music to listen on demand) and there was a finite amount of radio and TV. It was possible to control both the message and the audience. Now we are in the Era of Distributed Audiences where people are simultaneously in multiple digital places, with artists and labels racing after them in all those places. No amount of exclusive windowing is going to change that. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

The Economics Of Exclusives

Where the streaming video and streaming music markets match up is that content budgets are currently being used to drive user acquisition. While streaming services have a long way to go before they reach Netflix’s $6 billion annual content budget, both types of streaming service will overspend to get market share and will reel budgets back in later. So it should be no surprise that the amounts being spent on artists don’t really add up.

For example, Apple is reported to have spent $19 million on Drake and was rumoured to have bid up to $25 million for Harry Styles. If Styles had signed, even if he had racked up the same number of streams as Drake on Spotify in 2015 (1.8 billion, the highest number of any artist) he would still only have generated gross revenue of $18 million and net revenue of revenue of around $14 million, leaving something like an $8 million loss for Apple when Apple Music’s additional retailer margin is factored in. Apple would however have been able to make up the remainder on album sales, but Styles would have needed to have shifted a good number of albums. (Adele’s ‘25’, the biggest selling download album in the US in 2015 drove around $15 million in label revenue.) So for now, it takes selling albums to make the economics of streaming exclusives add up.

apple vs tidal

Jay-Z paid $56 million for Aspiro’s 512,000 subscribers, $110 per subscriber. Assuming he’d want a similar per subscriber price, that would put Tidal’s price tag at around $440 million. That’s no small amount of money for around 5% of the global subscriber market. Or to put it another way, Apple could another 23 Drake exclusives for that money which most likely would have a bigger impact on subscriber growth. Indeed, on all growth measures Apple Music has outperformed Tidal over the last 12 months, adding 12.5 million new subscribers to Tidal’s 3.1 million, growing by an average of 1.4 million subscribers a month compared to 0.3 million for Tidal. Apple even has the edge in % growth terms (352% compared to 328%).

So why is Apple in the market for Tidal (albeit reportedly)? Probably more than anything it is about taking an irritatingly threatening competitor out of the market. Tidal has been stealing Beat’s core customer base from right under its nose. It’s no coincidence that Apple Music’s exclusives strategy has had a strong urban bias. Apple wants its Beats customers back, just like it wants its iTunes customers back from Spotify.

Even if Apple does buy Tidal, don’t expect the exclusives wars to go away. Indeed, Spotify just acquired its own exclusives supremo in the shape of Troy Carter, and Apple clearly has its mind set on continuing to spend heavily. So the next few years of streaming will be  defined by streaming services getting closer to artists (with Connect becoming much more important for Apple) which in turn will see the distinctions between what constitutes a streaming service and a record label blur all the more.

As science fiction write William Gibson wrote: the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet…