Everyone hurts – the problem with ‘fixing’ streaming

Apple’s Q4 2022 revenue fall was further illustration that the global economic environment is affecting everyone. During such times, companies look for ways to avoid the worst of the impacts, partially through ‘efficiencies’ but also through growth, by exploring new income streams and improving deal terms. The music industry is no exception. With global streaming revenues slowing – despite a strong performance from Spotify– there is growing pressure on music rightsholders to identify new growth drivers. This is especially the case for major labels, who have new institutional investors who have become acclimatised to rapid growth. All of which leads to streaming royalties taking centre stage. But the problem is that everyone in the streaming ecosystem has problems with the model. So, can any fix make everyone happy? [TL;DR, no]

To heavily oversimplify, streaming has three main constituents:

  • Creators (songwriters, artists, etc.)
  • Rightsholders (labels, publishers, distributors, CMOs, etc.)
  • Streaming services 

At the start of 2023, all three have issues with streaming:

  1. Songwriters continue to push for higher royalties while long and mid-tail artists cannot make streaming economics add up
  2. Publishers continue to lobby for higher rates while UMG is now advocating for a new royalty system
  3. Spotify just reported a net loss of nearly half a billion dollars for 2022

Then add in all the perennials: too much music being released; no artist longevity; the commodification of music; listening fragmentation; the decline of superstars etc.

We have a streaming market in which none of the stakeholder groups feel entirely content with the current market and all would like a larger share of the revenues to flow to them. Because they all extract value from the same revenue pot, the arithmetic is simple: one stakeholder’s gain is another’s loss.

None of this is an argument for, or against, the relative merits of the case of any of the three main interest groups. But it does mean that any change to the system will leave someone unhappy. This is the impossible equation that must be balanced.

What further complicates matters is that market benefits to different stakeholders can be perceived as negatives to others. For example:

  • Streaming helped democratise the means of production and distribution. Long-tail and mid-tail artists benefit, and superstars lose their share
  • Streaming helped make music the soundtrack of daily routines. Suppliers of mood music benefit, traditional artists, and labels lose listening share
  • Streaming helped level the playing field, making it easier for smaller labels to compete. Larger labels faced stronger competition

The debate around new royalty regimes has been around for some time, but momentum is picking up. When the CEO of the world’s biggest record label weighs in, then you know that change is going to come. But as the above illustrates, what might make a major label happy, has the potential be detrimental to other stakeholders. There is no ‘make everyone happy’ fix.

Here are two pragmatic alternatives:

Lean forward premium 

One of the cleanest fixes would be to create a two-tier royalty system based on the nature of the plays:

  1. Lean forward plays (higher royalty): when a consumer plays from their own collection or seeks out a song to play it
  2. Lean back plays (lower royalty): when a consumer listens to music in an algorithmic ‘radio’ channel or listens to curated playlists

As with all streaming ‘fixes’, the approach would not be without problems. Mood-based music would certainly find itself generally collecting a smaller share of royalties, but also, many of streaming’s hits (including those from majors) rely on driving larger numbers of streams in curated playlists and ‘stations’ – which in turn help fire up the algorithms and power songs to further success.

Penny per stream

Another approach would be a fixed stream rate, which would effectively mean metered streaming. For example, if every stream generated $0.01, a subscriber would be able to listen until their subscription fee was used up, with the ability to top up to listen further or upgrade to a higher capacity tier. This would certainly help drive increased ARPU (something all parties want) but could deter some subscribers as it would mean an end to the all-you-can-eat (AYCE) proposition. But maybe it is time for that. Music is not a scalable resource in the way that, say, mobile data is. Everyone’s song is someone’s creation. Also, there would need to be a solution for free streams.

Don’t forget the listener, ever

Of course, there is a massive missing detail in all of this, the missing stakeholder in the streaming economy: the listener. Crucially though, for all the problems creators and rightsholders face, consumers are not complaining en masse. They are content with a proposition that not only represents exceptional value for money but that also evolves to meet their tastes and behaviours. 

Streaming’s problems are supply side issues, not demand-side. All industry stakeholders should be careful about pushing solutions that could favour the supply side without proper consideration of the demand side. The history of business is littered with the corpses of companies that did not properly consider the needs of their customers.

Streaming was built for yesterday’s music business

The saying goes that in a good compromise, no one is truly happy. So, there is an argument that streaming is already the balance of compromise. Against this though, streaming was built for an industry that is very different than today, so it is only logical that the model needs honing to catch up, and many of streaming’s second-order consequences cannot be undone. On the demand side, music consumption has become commodified, transformed from a largely artist-centric fan experience (radio excepted) into an audio soundtrack to everyday life. On the supply side, there are simply more people than seats at the table.

Any significant ‘fix’ is going to come at one, or more, stakeholder’s expense. And even then, increased royalties will only go so far. For example, an independent label artist might expect to earn around $2,000 from a million streams (after distribution and label deductions). Members of a four-piece band would thus take home $250 each. Even doubling the standard royalty rate (which could not happen without breaking the entire model) would still only mean $500 each, which is not going to turn streaming into a living wage for most mid-tail artists, let alone the long-tail. So, ‘fixes’ will only go so far. Perhaps it is time to double down on building new things on top of and around streaming, and nurture those that already exist (Bandcamp, etc.). 

Absolutely continue to focus on improving streaming economics but do so alongside building a new industry infrastructure that is built to meet the needs of today’s creators and business rather than those of the noughties. In short, grow the pie rather than simply look at how to re-slice it.

Has the streaming slowdown arrived?

ERA, The UK trade association for entertainment retailers released its annual estimates for the UK entertainment market, showing strong growth for video but less impressive increases for music and games. The streaming slowdown has been on the cards for some time now and there is an argument that the strong growth recorded in 2021 was boosted by the combination of the global economy’s catch-up process that year, following the pandemic-depressed 2020 and the extra impetus delivered by upfront payments for non-DSP streaming. By Q3 2022, global label streaming revenues were up by 7%, compared to 31% for the same period one year earlier. Now ERA estimates* that UK retail streaming revenues were up by just 5%. Meanwhile, the BPI – whose numbers are based on actual market data – reported total audio streams were up by 8% in the UK. A clear streaming market trend is beginning to emerge.

There are no two ways about it, 2023 is going to be a challenging year. The sheer volume of disruptive trends is unprecedented in modern times, and this comes at the exact same time that the Western music streaming market is beginning to slow. A perfect storm. But slowdown does not need to mean decline, at least not for subscriptions. MIDiA’s data shows that consumers are going to cut down on going out and on real live events before cancelling subscriptions, and because they will be going out less, they will need more to keep them occupied at home. So, streaming subscriptions (music, video, and games) may prove to be the affordable luxuries that keep consumers entertained throughout the coming year. Holding onto subscribers should, therefore, be an achievable goal – adding large numbers of new subscribers, though, may be a step too far, particularly in markets most impacted by the economic headwinds. Emerging markets might be a different story.

Ad supported though, is a different story. If overall consumer spending softens, then so too will ad spend. With ad revenues representing 27% of all streaming revenues, a significant drop in ad revenue in 2023 (e.g., -8%) could, in a bear-case scenario, be enough to slow overall global streaming revenue growth almost to a halt. Non-DSP was a major driver of industry growth in 2020 and 2021, but as most of it is ad supported, this segment is far more vulnerable to economic pressures than subscriptions. Non-DSP is a segment for periods of plenty, perhaps less so for times of scarcity.

If the global streaming market finishes 2022 with the 7% growth that it is currently tracking to be, it will be entirely in line with the bear-case scenario that MIDiA published last year. We would much rather have had it tracked to our growth-case rate of 27% but, unfortunately, this looks like it may be one of those situations where MIDiA’s glass-half-empty view proved to be on the money.

The next few months will provide a much clearer picture, with the big labels, publishers and DSPs reporting their full year figures. Until then, consider this the first note of caution.

For more insight on what 2023 may hold, join the MIDiA analyst team for our free-to-attend 2023 predictions webinar on Wednesday 11th January.

* ERA did a major restatement of its 2021 figures – upscaling them by a fifth from the £1.3 billion that it reported in 2021 to £1.6 billion, having changed the underlying assumptions for its estimates.

Music industry revenues in review – what 2022 tells us about 2023

With a 2023 set to be a challenging year for the global economy, it is a good time to look at how the music industry has performed in the year to date. That is exactly what we have done in our forthcoming report: ‘Music industry earnings Q3 2022: Pre-recession growth’. We have tracked the performance of leading labels, publishers, DSPs, and live companies across the globe to create a holistic view of how the music business is performing across rights, distribution and live. Here are a few highlights that provide useful pointers as to how 2023 might shape up.

These are the key trends for revenue growth for Q1-Q3 2022 compared to Q1-Q3 2021:

  • Record labels were up 14.3%, which is above the 11.8% that MIDiA forecasted at the start of the year, but with Q4 looking to be the quarter most heavily hit by the economic downturn, the full-year figure may well end up closer to 12% than 14%. Nonetheless, double-digit growth is commendable performance in such a tough economic environment, and bodes well for 2023.
  • Publishers were up 21.1%, outperforming labels, reflecting factors such as the effect of historical digital royalty settlements, improved shares of streaming revenue (especially non-DSP), and the rebound of traditional performance income. Publishers have worked hard over recent years to ensure that they get a large share of income flowing to their songwriters, and 2022 reflects a job well done, though, of course, with further room for improvement.
  • DSPs saw revenue growth of a more modest 6.2%, though this was pulled down by a dramatic slowdown in the Chinese market with Tencent Music Entertainment’s revenues flat. Spotify performed more strongly (7.7%), which was almost exactly in line with the major label’s streaming revenue growth of 7.3%. Subscriber growth across all companies was more than ten points stronger, thus indicating that consumer demand for streaming is strong going into 2023.
  • Live continued its post-Covid rebound, with dramatic growth, benefiting from the still strong latent demand both from consumers and artists, eager to get touring again. However, with going out and going to concerts being the main things that consumers state they will cut back on during the recession, live may find the coming year more difficult than music rightsholders and DSPs.

Recessions have a habit of being self-fulfilling prophesies, with companies slowing down spend in anticipation of a coming slowdown, thus slowing down revenue growth for their suppliers, who then pass on the same cut backs to their suppliers and so forth. Despite all this, music rights and streaming may be well placed in the recession.

The lipstick effect

The case for music lies in lipstick, of all places. During previous recessions, lipstick sales boomed, representing an affordable luxury for consumers who could no longer afford the big-ticket items that they had been saving for or were used to buying. Music subscriptions may play an affordable luxury role, the soundtrack to evenings spent at home, when going out is a cost too far.

The early 2020s saw an influx of capital into the music business, with the promise of music rights being an asset class that was uncorrelated with the wider economy. The irony is that, as music catalogue investments slowed (due to rising costs of capital), the first nine months of 2022 saw the music business deliver a performance that suggests the industry is indeed setting a path that is not being pulled down by recessionary conditions as much as many other industries. There were areas of concern, of course, but the overall picture so far is a positive one.

Music subscriber market shares 2022

MIDiA has just released its annual ‘Music subscriber market shares’ report and dataset, with data for 23 DSPs across 33 different markets (clients can access it here). Here are some of the key global trends:

Music subscriptions may be recession-resilient, as China leads the way

As the world edges towards a recession, the music streaming market continues to stand strong. Despite indications of slowdown in some markets, the global music subscriber market remains buoyant. Growth, though, is uneven, with a number of leading streaming services outpacing the rest, especially the Chinese ones, which are now setting the global pace. 

Home entertainment tends to perform well during recessions, not least because people are inclined to cut down on leisure spend (eating out, bars, clubs, etc.), and thus spend more time at home. In previous recessions, lipstick sales boomed, reflecting their role as an affordable luxury that consumers turn to when they can no longer afford the more expensive luxuries. Music subscriptions have a good chance of playing a similar role in the coming recession.

The early signs are positive (subscriber growth was stronger in the full year of 2021 than 2020), and though the first half (H1) of 2022 growth was down from H1 2021, this reflects the mature state of the streaming market in many markets, as much as it does global economic headwinds.

The evolution of the global music subscriber market is beginning to fork between the leading Western digital service providers (DSPs) and those in Asia – China especially so. Nearly all the leading DSPs continue to experience strong subscriber growth, but none more so than Chinese DSPs Tencent Music Entertainment (TME) and NetEase Cloud Music. 

These were the key trends in 2021 and the first half of 2022:

  • Subscribers: There were 616.2 million subscribers by the mid-point of 2022, up by 7.1% from the end of 2021. Total net subscriber additions for the first six months of 2022 (42.1 million) were down on the 53.8 million that were added one year earlier, hinting at the slowing global economy. However, more subscribers were added in 2021 than 2020
  • Revenue: The $12.9 billion of subscription label trade revenue generated in 2021 was up by 23.1% on 2020, and it was the first year since 2017 that revenue growth exceeded subscriber growth, resulting in a 1.0% increase in global annual ARPU, reaching $22.42
  • Spotify: With 187.8 million subscribers in Q2 2022, Spotify remained by far the largest DSP. However, its market share has steadily eroded since Q4 2020, and its Q2 2022 share of 30.5% was down from a high of 33.2% in Q2 2018
  • Tencent Music Entertainment and NetEase Cloud Music: Spotify’s declining market share has much to do with the growth of the Chinese market (where Spotify does not operate). In Q4 2021, TME overtook Amazon Music to become the third largest DSP globally, and in Q2 2022 it had 82.7 million subscribers (13.4% market share). China has long been the world’s second largest subscriber market and is on track to soon surpass the US as the world’s largest
  • Apple, Amazon, and YouTube: Amazon Music was the fourth largest DSP, with 82.2 million subscribers, and YouTube Music was fifth, with 55.1 million. Both gained share between Q2 2021 and Q2 2022, growing faster than the total market. While YouTube and Amazon both gained share in 2022, albeit it at a declining rate, second-placed Apple Music continued its long-term trend of underperforming the market, with its 84.7 million subscribers recording a 13.8% market share, down 1.2% from Q2 2021. 

The global music subscriber market is approaching a pivot point, with the slowdown in mature, Western markets contrasting with more dynamic growth in other regions. It is realistic to assume that the global recession and the organic maturation of the global subscriber market will result in some slowdown of growth in 2023, even if the sector remains otherwise resilient.

The slowing growth should be the catalyst for what needs to come next, especially in developed markets: unlocking growth pockets through differentiation. Western DSPs have managed to grow with largely undifferentiated product propositions. Music rightsholders should explore creative ways in which they can empower their DSP partners with differentiated content assets, enabling them to super-serve specific consumer segments and thus unlock extra growth within them.

If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to find out how to get access to this report and data then email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Why Amazon Music is primed for success

Amazon Music today announced that it was extending the number of songs available on its Prime Music tier from two million to one hundred million. It is kind of a big deal, but not that big a deal when you consider the actual value of these additional 98 million tracks. With around 2.5 million new songs being uploaded to streaming services every single month, the simple truth is that most people will not listen to most of the catalogue. Prime Music already had a good chunk of the most valuable tracks, now it has all of them, alongside tens of millions of streaming detritus. And yet, the catalogue increase is actually really important, but because of what it represents rather than what it actually is.

A dark horse no longer

Back in the mid-2010s, MIDiA first identified Amazon as being the dark horse of streaming music, but these days there is no doubting Amazon Music’s thoroughbred pedigree. It has the third-largest subscriber count of any Western streaming service and will likely pass Apple Music in second place sometime within the next twelve months, quite possibly sooner. But what makes Amazon Music so important to the music industry is not just its size but its audience segmentation. Which is a good part of the reason it just unlocked those extra 98 million tracks for Prime Music users.

Prime Music has come a long way

When Amazon launched Prime Music, it was not exactly with exuberant support from music rightsholders. So much so that Universal Music did not license it until 15 months later (making Amazon the only global scale streaming service that was able to successfully launch without all three majors on board). At the time, Prime Music looked risky to rightsholders: just as subscriptions were beginning to get traction, along comes a service that gives consumers a music subscription experience, free at point of access. So, rightsholders insisted on a limited catalogue size to ensure that it did not risk cannibalising potential 9.99 subscriptions. Over the years, rightsholders unlocked extra slices of catalogue, but today’s announcement is the genuine step change. 

A segment-based approach

So what changed? The market did. Now, as subscriptions reach maturing in most of the world’s bigger music markets, rightsholders are shifting focus from full frontal growth to a more segmented approach that can unlock growth pockets in otherwise mature markets. This is no easy task when they provide broadly similar licenses and the same catalogue to all streaming partners. But Amazon has managed to make a silk purse out of sow’s ear, launching a stack of different streaming products and deploying them strategically across different markets. If you need convincing, take a look at its product availability list. While most streaming services have built their audiences around mobile-centric millennials, Amazon has managed to build an audience that looks very different. 34% Prime Music users listen to music on a smart speaker compared to 14% overall consumers, while 22% are aged 55+ compared to 9% Spotify users. 

Competing around everyone else

Rather than just competing with the other streaming services, Amazon Music has competed around them. In doing so, it has expanded the addressable market for streaming, helping mature markets still grow strongly (while YouTube Music has been having a similar effect at the opposite end of the age spectrum, converting younger subscribers at scale). It is in this later stage of streaming growth that the more segmented partners, like Amazon and YouTube, become so important to music rightsholders. Unlocking 98 million more tracks, reflects both this elevated importance and an understanding among rightsholders that enhancing Prime Music will grow the market around Spotify and co., not at the expense of them. 

Another super power

On top of all this, Amazon Music has another super power at its disposal: emerging markets. These regions have long been identified as the driver of future growth, but they have also struggled to deliver in many cases. Markets like India and China number their free streaming users in the hundreds of millions, but paid users in the tens of millions (in China’s case) and single millions in India. Ad-supported revenue massively lags subscription revenue, even in Western markets, but in lower per capita GDP markets, ad spend is even smaller. Prime Music is proving to be a happy middle ground in markets like Brazil and India, striking the balance between scale and ARPU. With premium subscriptions needing time to find their audiences, Amazon looks set to become an ever more important partner in some of the key emerging and mid-tier markets.

When Amazon first launched Prime Music, the value proposition: pay for free shipping and get a music service for ‘free’, or as Amazon puts it, as a perk of membership. Now though, Prime is becoming much more than just free shipping, it is an ever-expanding household subscription in which entertainment now plays a central role (the recently announced Amazon Music Live / Thursday Night Football line-up is a case in point). As we enter a global recession, where consumers will likely cut back on buying things, a free shipping subscription could look like an unaffordable luxury. But a music and video service that has the benefit of free shipping suddenly looks like a value-for-money proposition. Prime may not be recession proof, but music and video certainly reduce its exposure to risk. The value equation in Prime Music is beginning to shift, as is Amazon’s role in the global music business. From dark horse to top-tier player in half a decade is no mean feat. 

TikTok Music could change the game

There has been talk for some time now of TikTok parent ByteDance launching a music streaming service in Western markets. It already has Resso in Indonesia, India, and Brazil, but has spiked interest recently with trademark registrations, new Twitter accounts, and reports that ‘more than a dozen’ new markets are being prepped. TikTok has become one of the central forces in the digital music market ecosystem, eroding the cultural capital of traditional streaming services. It is a logical leap to assume that if TikTok becomes a key force in music discovery, it could do the same for consumption. While this is certainly the case, ByteDance’s streaming opportunity is a whole lot bigger and more disruptive than Resso:

TikTok Music: Resso is a perfectly decent streaming service, but similarly to YouTube Music, it only scratches the surface of what it could be. Both TikTok and YouTube have unique content, behaviour, features, and culture that stand in stark contrast to standard streaming. It is difficult to translate much of this because of licensing constraints but doing so should be the priority for both TikTok and YouTube. This will drive differentiation and help the industry carve out genuine new growth pockets rather than just unearthing the remnants of the addressable base for standard streaming. Of even more relevance to the music business, unless rightsholders can empower ByteDance’s streaming offering with something truly different, is the risk that its growth will largely comprise of switching Spotify subscribers. The music business needs the maturing streaming market to be about growth, not substitution. Perhaps TikTok Music Twitter profiles point to something bigger and bolder than Resso.

Discovery is consumption: People used to discover music on the radio and then go and buy it. That model has been turned upside down. Now, people (younger audiences in particular) discover most of their new music on TikTok or YouTube before going to radio-like streaming services to consume it. What is more, much of the ‘discovery’ that happens on TikTok is consumption. It is not just consumption either, it is consumption that streaming cannot replicate. This is before even considering the importance of ‘lean through’ creative behaviour, such as doing a duet or a dance challenge to your favourite artist’s new track. Music is the soundtrack and often the catalyst to this ‘consumption’, but when that music is listened to on streaming, it is stripped of all that creative and cultural context – It is like only listening to the soundtrack of a movie. Movie soundtracks do well as formats, but they only exist because of the movies as that is where the real value lies. All of this is why a TikTok Music service could be so exciting as it could provide both the creative and cultural context, not just the stripped-down audio file.

Ecosystem: The single most important factor of all though is TikTok’s ecosystem play. In the traditional streaming value chain, you have creators, rights, distribution, promotion, and consumption. TikTok achieves these with its superpower: its audience. Creation comes from the audience, who then distribute and market the content (via the user-centric algorithm framework, user shares, recreation, and other means), and then, of course, the audience consumes. It is a self-contained, virtuous cycle – An ecosystem. Right now, artists are pumped into the system by label marketing teams, and independent artists can push out of the system into traditional streaming with SoundOn. Yet, over time, TikTok’s creation, distribution, and consumption will become ever more self-contained, making TikTok part of what MIDiA identified as the music industry counter-culture. TikTok Music could be a major step on that journey.

Time to jump off the algorithm highway

Life is perpetual change, so it is perhaps overdoing it to suggest that the music business is at a cultural pivot point. Yet, what comes next has the potential to be looked at, years from now, as a dividing line between before and after. For more than half a decade, the music business has been hurtling down the algorithm highway, repurposing artist development, marketing, fan engagement, and even the structure of the song itself in order to stay the path. Everything is splintering, from attention to remuneration, with creators and rightsholders alike finding themselves feeding a beast whose hunger is never sated. Much like an addict who wants to quit but cannot, the music business understands the problem and the costs it incurs them, yet they dare not jump off the algorithm highway for fear of being left behind by those who do not. And yet, jumping is exactly what is needed, to halt the perpetual commodification of both music and creators. It is a leap of faith, but onto a welcoming crash mat: scenes.

At Future Music Forum this week, myself and fellow MIDiA analysts Tatiana Cirisano and Kriss Thakrar talked a lot about MIDiA’s new research into scenes and identity (MIDiA clients can read our latest report on the topic here). Regular readers will be familiar with our work on fragmented fandom and how the splintering of consumption has created a parallel splintering of culture, with new hits becoming smaller and more short-lived. In this song economy environment, it is the song, not the artist, that is the central currency, thus making nurturing smaller fandoms mission critical. But fandom itself is the symptom, the cause is identity, and this, along with the scenes in which it manifests, is where the future of music marketing lies.

Algorithms have assumed a central role in the success of artists in today’s music business, with marketers forever trying to improve their understanding of their inner workings in order to gain advantage for their artist. It is, in many respects, a fool’s errand, as it is in the platforms’ interest to continually evolve the algorithms in order to ensure it is themselves that determine success, not third parties. Nonetheless, there are ways to succeed in the song economy: you may not be able to beat the algorithm, but you can join it. This means thinking and behaving like an algorithm, to hold virality by the hand. Just like an algorithm, this means real-time multivariate testing within target segments, and progressively expanding only to next-level associated segment, resisting the ability to go big as soon as something fires. But using the algorithm as a marketing discipline truly effectively entails a degree of ruthlessness that many artists and labels would find unpalatable. Algorithms find success by casting out failure instantly, instead only amplifying that which resonates within target segments. So a label pursuing this approach would need to be willing to ditch a campaign incredibly early if it does not, however much the label might believe in the release or however big a priority the artist might be. Artist rosters would become a production line of bets, as quickly discarded as signed. Failing fast is as important as succeeding fast in the song economy. 

This ruthlessness does not sit well with the traditional model of building an artist but, as dystopian a vision as it might be, is the exact path that labels already find themselves on. Scenes represent an alternative way forward.

Scenes and identity

Scenes have always existed, but now there is a growing proliferation of online scenes that allow a degree of specificity that was simply not possible previously. As Tatiana puts it:

“Not only can people find people across the globe with the exact same interests and values, algorithms actually push those people closer together”.

Though scenes can be transitory and ephemeral, subject to fast-shifting cultural trends, the really valuable ones are those that are rooted in identity, that speak to who people are about. The eBoy scene, with Young Blud as an icon, is a case in point, reflecting the values of a tribe that does not identify with the Instagram-perfect archetype of appearance. 

These scenes sometimes revolve around music, but most often, music is simply the soundtrack, with a number of artists emerging as icons, not because they have cynically targeted them but because they come from those communities and reflect their values. Fandom is an output of this shaping of identity. It is simultaneously a way of showing how much identity matters to you and of reinforcing that identity. In fact, fandom is identity’s virtuous circle of influence, with people’s fandom reinforcing their identity and communicating it to their scene community, thus reinforcing their bonds within it.

Identity is fandom’s ground zero. Music marketers that are able to identify and nurture it (rather than simply attempt to harvest it) have an opportunity to forge a depth of artist-fan relationship that will endure far beyond the whim of any algorithm, survive both hit and miss singles, and will not disappear into the black hole of lean-back consumption. 

Streaming put fandom on hiatus. Scenes represent an opportunity to reforge fandom for the modern era, an incubator for artist careers. In short, an antidote to the song economy.

MIDiA music forecasts: the new era of growth

MIDiA has just published its latest music forecasts, available to clients in full here. Here are some of the highlights.

2021 was a huge year for the recorded music business with retail values up 23% to reach $51.9 billion (retail values include masters, publishing, and retailers / DSPs). Label trade revenue was up 20% to reach $22.9 billion. Part of the reason for the wide gap between retail and label growth was the rise of non-DSP streaming that sees a much higher share go to publishing than for DSP streaming. Non-DSP streaming was worth $3.0 billion in 2021 across masters, publishing, and platforms. Production music (a segment missed out of most other market estimates) was another strong performer, generating around one billion dollars.

MIDiA forecasts global recorded music revenues to reach $89.1 billion by 2030 in retail terms. That is an increase of 72% on 2021. The $37.2 billion that will be added by 2030 will be more than was added between 2014 and 2021, meaning the music business is not even yet halfway through a long-term rebound phase. While there is a well-reasoned argument that music revenues are still not back to pre-Napster levels, the coming years should right that anomaly (rampant inflation permitting). 

Streaming will be 82% of 2030 music revenues and it is therefore streaming market dynamics that will underpin overall market growth: 

Subscriptions: Increased ARPU in Western markets and increased subscribers in emerging markets. Europe and North America will represent just 23% of subscriber growth between 2021-2030

Non-DSP: Emerging social, games, and metaverse platforms will offer new licensing opportunities. Non-DSP provides a licensing and business model framework for future emerging consumer technologies, such as Web 3.0, giving rightsholders crucial revenue diversification as subscriptions mature

Emerging markets: Asian markets in particular will become the engine room of subscriber growth. The Asia-Pacific region alone will have 0.5 billion subscribers by 2030. China accounted for 39% of global subscriber growth in 2021

The US: Even though the US will lose a share of subscriber growth by 2030 (due to China’s growth), it will drive the largest share of subscription revenue growth and will remain the world’s largest market by 2030 in revenue terms

Label trade subscriber ARPU will grow by more than 7% globally by 2030, lifted by price increases equivalent of 17%, but offset by reduction due to the growth of multi-user plans and a drop in label share.

Bull or bear?

With the influx of capital into the music business in recent years (IPOs, catalogue acquisitions, etc.) there is more attention on the space than ever. 2021 was the year in which the music business met those inflated expectations with exceptional performance, underpinned by the early fruits of a new and diversified commercial strategy that is ready to soundtrack the future of the web. 

It was a combination of these factors, forecasting non-DSP for the first time, and accounting for the exceptional performance of China in 2021, that led to MIDiA significantly increasing its forecasts by around 25%. We believe this significant increase (our biggest ever) reflects the new potential of the global music business as it enters a new chapter that will be shaped by non-DSP, Web 3.0, and emerging markets.

But – and it wouldn’t be MIDiA without a ‘but’ – this bullish outlook coincides with the global economy on the brink of entering a tailspin. So, to be prudent, MIDiA’s forecasts also include a detailed bear scenario dataset with label trade revenues slowing to just 3% for 2022, and from there, adding just another 14.3% by 2030.

We think this bear scenario is unlikely to play out, despite being within the realms of possibility. Should the global economy slow, then the likelihood is that while music will prove not be ‘recession proof’, it will neither be recession vulnerable.

If you would like to learn more about MIDiA’s music forecasts email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Churn in the era of dynamic retention

Kantar, a survey vendor, has been getting some attention by passing off consumer data as an actual measure of subscribers and suggesting that the music subscriber base actually declined in Q1 2022. It said the same in Q4 2021, but 2021 was a spectacular year for music subscriber growth, with the global base of subscribers growing by 118.8 million in 2021 – the largest ever increase in a single year – to reach 586 million. Of course, it would be obtuse to suggest that all is rosy in the world of digital subscriptions. After all, the attention recession has slowed growth and the actual recession will push up churn rates. But it is wrong to assume that digital subscriptions behave like their traditional counterparts, which is exactly why music subscriptions are well placed to weather the perfect storm of both recessions.

Digital subscriptions are different

Traditional subscriptions (pay-TV, internet, phone etc.) are slow moving, predictable beasts. Consumers are locked into contracts for fixed periods and must pay penalty clauses to exit them early. Which is why, when churn happens in these subscriptions, it is a big deal. It represents a hard break, the end of a subscriber relationship. But digital subscriptions are wired differently:

  • Churn doesn’t necessarily mean churn: Few have contracts, and most are as easy to leave as they are to join. They are built (if not necessarily designed) for hop-on / hop-off behaviour. When someone drops a Netflix subscription, the likelihood is that they will be back in a few months. The same does not apply for traditional subscribers.
  • Digital subscriptions are less critical: Most traditional subscriptions are utilities (phone, broadband etc.). Even a pay-TV subscription is a utility because the TV set may literally stop receiving signal without a subscription. So, cancelling one is a much bigger deal. But digital subscriptions usually just make digital entertainment better (e.g., an extra catalogue of TV shows to watch, music without ads etc.)
  • Many are still getting started: Even though music subscriptions growth is slowing in many markets, large numbers of consumers are still trying out subscriptions for the first time. This means there is always a high turnover of subscribers. Even more so in video and games where new services have come to market.

The last point is perhaps most important. MIDiA’s Q1 consumer data indicates that more people signed up to music subscriptions in the previous year (13%) than cancelled (10%) – both figures are as a share of all consumers that either had or used to have a music subscription.

The takeaway is that music subscriptions are highly fluid at the edges. They resemble a duck in water: elegant and slow moving above the water line, but legs pumping furiously below it. We can see this in Spotify’s reported numbers too. In 2020 Spotify added 25 million subscribers to its tally to reach 180 million. But it actually added twice as many subscribers as that before it also lost 25 million due to churn.

Churn is built into the model

Churn is quite simply part of the equation for music subscriptions. But at risk of sounding too Pollyanna-ish about this, there is no denying that dark clouds are building on the horizon. The cost-of-living crisis is accelerating, inflation and interest rates are going up, and wages are steadfast. As MIDiA’s recession data shows, around a fifth of music subscribers would consider cancelling their subscriptions if their everyday costs spiralled. A subscriber slowdown may indeed come. Those that do cancel should not be considered ‘lost’ but instead as taking a break. They will be there, ready to dive back in as soon as they can. 

DSPs will need to think in terms of what MIDiA calls dynamic retention. Instead of being focused on having a subscriber for all 12 months of a year, understand that in the coming economic climate, subscribers will likely require more flexibility. So, think instead of how many subscriber months can be had from that subscriber over a 12-month period, regardless of whether they are consecutive or not. It is certainly a shift in mindset, but this kind of pragmatic and flexible thinking will be crucial for navigating the times ahead.

The attention recession has hit Spotify too

Spotify added two million subscribers in Q1 2022. Yes, this incorporates the impact of 1.5 million lost Russian subscribers and is set against Netflix having lost 0.2 million subscribers over the same quarter. But while Spotify did well to not suffer the same fate as Netflix, it was not able to buck the broader trend affecting the entertainment market: the attention recession. The attention recession is the combined impact of: 1) the end of the Covid entertainment boom (consumers have less time and money as pre-pandemic behaviours resurface); 2) economic headwinds (rising inflation and interest rates), and 3) the geo-political situation (the Russo-Ukrainian war). Spotify’s Q1 earnings provide further early evidence of the attention recession’s impact. Spotify’s earnings were shaped by all three.

Looking at the ad-supported and paid users of a number of leading digital entertainment companies that have already reported their Q1 2022 results, a clear trend emerges: paid user growth slowed in Q1 2022, while free users continued to grow strongly. With consumers having less time on their hands and less money in their pockets, free is growing faster than paid.

Entertainment monetisation trends followed an almost mirror opposite of user behaviour. The first quarter of every year is typically down from the preceding fourth quarter for ad businesses, with the Q4 advertiser spend surge receding. Yet the declines in Q1 ad revenues for Snap and YouTube were both significantly bigger in 2022 than in 2021, with a combined drop of 22% compared to 13% the year before. Snap’s Evan Spiegel even went on record to explain just how problematic a quarter Q1 2022 had been and how there are growing concerns about the outlook for ad spend. This is because, as consumers have less disposable income, they buy less, which means advertisers get lower returns on their spend. Ad revenue is most often an early victim of a recession.

Conversely, Q1 2022 subscription revenues were up slightly, though much less so than in Q1 2021, and Spotify’s premium revenues were down 1%. Nonetheless, the key takeaway is that subscription monetisation was less vulnerable in the first phase of the attention recession. While free services and tiers benefited from incoming cost-conscious users, they were not able to harness the shift commercially. 

As MIDiA said back in 2020, all companies were going to feel the impact of the attention recession, which we identified was imminent following the pandemic. It is a case of simple arithmetic: more time and more spend during the pandemic benefited all companies. Post-pandemic, both of those increases recede, which means that all entertainment companies have to fight hard to hold on to their newly-found boosts to revenue and users, let alone grow. When we made that prediction, it was before the additional elements of economic and geo-political trends raised their heads. Rising inflation is going to hit all consumers’ pockets (with food and fuel prices being particularly hit), forcing many households to make trade-offs between essentials and luxuries. 

Though Spotify’s move to wind down Russian operations was admirable, it illustrates how the impacts of the Russo-Ukrainian war on digital entertainment will be both varied and far reaching, not least because of its impact on inflation due to its disruption of global food and fuel supplies. 

We are living in ‘interesting times’ and the future is always uncharted, but especially so now.