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

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

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

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

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

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

Immersive audio storytelling 

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

Growth drivers – what comes after streaming

The pandemic-defined 2020 was an outlier year across digital entertainment, with the extra 12% of time consumers spent with entertainment boosting everything, including music. One of the effects was that streaming grew more than it would have otherwise, delaying the inevitable slowdown in streaming revenue growth. This artificial 2020 boost meant that the slowdown impact was felt even more strongly when it arrived in Q1 2021. 

The major labels saw streaming revenue grow by just 0.8% between Q4 2020 and Q1 2021, while Spotify saw revenues fall by 1%. Seasonality plays a major role here (a similar trend was seen last year) and year-on-year revenues were up by around a quarter. Nonetheless it reflects a maturing market. 

Back in 2019 Spotify’s revenues grew 15.7% from Q4 2018 to Q1 2019, while the majors’ streaming revenue was up 3% between Q4 2017–Q1 2018. In short, when the market was growing faster, seasonality did not result in flat / negative growth. Streaming is still in good shape and is going to remain the core of recorded music revenues for the foreseeable future, and Spotify’s price increases will bring a little extra revenue in 2021, but it is clearly time to start thinking about what comes next.

There is an argument that in today’s post-format world, we should not even be thinking about the next thing. So, it is better to think about what new business models and user experiences can grow alongside streaming, to diversify the music industry’s income mix. 

Music businesses, labels in particular, are busy exploring where future growth will come from. The more pessimistic argue that this is largely as good as it gets, that there will not be a ‘next streaming’. That might be right in terms of a single revenue source, but the early signs are that there is enough potential in a range of sources to collectively drive growth. Here are a few of the music industry’s potential growth drivers:

  • Games: Ever since the Marshmello Fortnite event, games has acquired a new degree of importance for the music business. WMG’s stake in Roblox points to just how serious labels are taking the opportunity. With global games revenues hitting $120 billion in 2020 (around $100 billion more than the recorded music market) and more than a third of those revenues being driven by cosmetic (i.e., non-gameplay) spend, there is a wealth of opportunity. But to succeed, music companies will need to think about creative ways to enhance the gaming experience rather than simply seeing it as another licensing play.
  • Social: Revenue from the likes of TikTok and Facebook finally became meaningful in 2020, accounting for around three quarters of the growth registered in ad supported. We are still scratching the surface of what social can do for music, but building tools for users to create their own music and audio will be key. Facebook’s Sound Studio could prove to be a defining first step towards the establishment of the consumer’s version of the social studio.
  • Creator tools: As regular readers will know, MIDiA considers the current revolution in the creator tools space to be one of the most important shifts to the entire music business in recent years. Not only is it transforming the culture of music creation, it represents a new set of opportunities for deepening artist-fan relationships and a set of new facets for the future of music companies.
  • Next-generation sync: Although traditional music sync revenues fell in 2020, music production libraries (including royalty free) grew. We are on the cusp of a major new wave of opportunity in sync, with social content, platform and creators representing a scale of demand that far exceeds that of the traditional sync market. And it is the slow-moving nature of that traditional sector which means that the likely winners in the social sync market will be the new generation of companies that offer solutions that are sufficiently agile and fast to meet the scale of micro-sync demand.
  • Live streaming: The pandemic virtually created the live stream marketplace, resulting in a tidal wave of new start-ups rushing to fill the void left by live. While the results have been a mixed bag, there have been enough high-quality successes to suggest that this is a sector with longevity that will outlive lockdown. The services that will prosper when IRL returns are those that deliver genuinely differentiated experiences that complement rather than try to replace IRL live. 
  • Fitness: Another of the pandemic’s second order effects was a surge in consumer spending on home fitness equipment, including Peleton. Right now there is some meaningful music licensing revenue building around the space, but Beyoncé’s Peleton partnership shows that the opportunity goes way beyond simply piping music into workouts. Crucially, the Beyoncé partnership creates an audience that is focusing their entire attention on the artist, which is rarely the case when people are listening to music on audio streaming services.
  • Fandom: Fandom is the next frontier for music monetisation. Western streaming services monetise consumption, whereas Tencent Music Entertainment monetises fandom, with two thirds of its revenue coming from non-music activity. We are beginning to see a flurry of activity in artist subscriptions and meanwhile, Patreon goes from strength to strength. Check out this free MIDiA report for more on how to tap the fandom opportunity.

To reiterate, streaming is, and will remain for many years, the beating heart of recorded music revenue. In fact, more than that, most of these new opportunities exist at such scale because of streaming. Until now, streaming enabled revenue growth in its own right, now it will enable growth in new adjacent markets.

Spotify pushes prices up, but do not expect dramatic effects

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assessing the streaming opportunity: You’re doing it wrong

Buoyed by lockdown, streaming enjoyed another strong year in 2020, up 17.1% on 2019 according to MIDiA’s recorded music market shares report. But the revenue slowdown will come in 2021, driven by the maturation of the big music markets (e.g. US, UK, Australia) and the growth of emerging markets. Identifying emerging markets growth as a slowdown factor might sound oxymoronic but the lower ARPU in these markets means that subscriber growth and revenue growth are becoming uncoupled. Look no further than Spotify’s earnings: subscribers were up 25% in 2020 but premium revenue was up just 17%, driven by a premium ARPU decline of -9%. Despite the dampening effect of emerging markets, they will be crucial to future growth – yet much of their potential may go untapped. The reason is all to do with how the music industry measures the opportunity, and that approach needs to change.

Anyone who has seen, or prepared, an investor presentation will be familiar with the total addressable market (TAM) concept. It is the big number that is used to impress investors with just how big the market opportunity is. The framework is also widely used in the music business to illustrate how much growth remains for streaming. But it only tells part of the story, and crucially it can be highly misleading – especially so for the streaming music market.

When MIDiA works on market opportunity projects for clients we always take the next two steps in the TAM approach: serviceable addressable market (SAM) and serviceable obtainable market (SOM). Here’s how it works:

  • TAM is how big the pond you are fishing in is
  • SAM is how many fish there are in the pond
  • SOM is how many fish you are likely to catch

TAM: you’re doing it wrong

The obsession with the TAM can be problematic because, while it results in impressive-sounding numbers, it is not a useful measure for understanding what a company or sector can actually do. If you are one person fishing in a lake, it does not matter how big the lake is nor how many fish there are; you and your fishing rod can only catch so many fish. When Spotify announced its extra 85 markets in February it said it was bringing its service to ‘more than a billion people’. That might give the impression of representing massive future growth, but it is simply the TAM. In fact, the figure is more than the TAM because only a sub-component of that one billion have mobile data plans – the industry’s principal TAM measure. In order to understand where the streaming market can really go, we need to go deeper and lay out the SAM and SOM.

The SAM and SOM layers are even more important for emerging markets than developed markets. There is a tendency to assume that because most people listen to music in some way or another, they are all addressable by music. But this is not the case. Most people, at least in developed markets, read – but that does not mean they all buy books, magazines or newspapers. The same applies for music.

Going beyond the TAM hype

In order to get beyond the TAM hype, MIDiA is building a new TAM, SAM, SOM model for music and we are for the first time going to use it to drive our forecasts (we have previously used a weighted scorecard methodology). One of the key reasons for the shift is to better understand just how much, or little, opportunity can be tapped in emerging markets with currency pricing strategies. Although subscriptions are much cheaper in emerging markets in dollar terms, when they are looked at in affordability terms, a very different picture emerges. Take India: the average headline cost of a subscription is just 15% of what it costs in the US. But when looked at on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis (i.e. a measure of relative affordability) it is five times more expensive. Therefore in India, one of the world’s lower per-capita GDP markets, music streaming has been priced for the well-off, urban elites. And that is fine, as there are plenty of them. But it means that streaming subscriptions are out of reach for the majority of the population, which means that it is irrelevant to refer to India’s 1.4 billion people when talking about the opportunity, unless prices are reduced by a fifth – something music rights holders, at least Western ones, are currently loathe to do.

To better determine the market opportunity, MIDiA is using the following approach:

  • TAM: A hybrid measure of people with smartphones and data plans (including assessing the ratios between them)
  • SAM: The share of the TAM that is interested to some degree in paying for music
  • SOM: The SAM with additional discounts for factors such as a PPP measure of streaming pricing and urbanisation rates

Although this approach results in much smaller end figures, it is a much more useful way of understanding where music subscriptions are likely to get to in the next five to ten years. It also helps us better segment the emerging market opportunity, with some regions, such as the Middle East and North Africa, coming out much stronger – in large part because of better affordability in relation to per-capita GDP.

I appreciate we are giving away some of MIDiA’s ‘secret sauce’ here, but we think that this is such an important issue that we want to highlight it to as many people as possible. If your research provider (internal or external) is providing you with TAM figures to assess the market opportunity, then they are simultaneously under-selling you and over-selling the market opportunity.

Recorded music revenues hit $23.1 billion in 2020, with artists direct the winners – again

The global pandemic caused widespread disruption to the music business, in particular decimating the live business and impacting publisher public performance royalties. Although the recorded music business experienced a dip in the earlier months of the pandemic, the remainder of the year saw industry revenue rebound, making it the sixth successive year of growth. Global recorded music revenues grew 7% in 2020 to reach $23.1 billion in record label trade revenue terms. The growth rate was significantly below the 11% increases seen in both 2018 and 2019, and the annual revenue increase was just $1.5 billion, compared to $2.1 billion in 2019. These metrics reflect the dampening effect of the pandemic. Global revenue was down 3% in Q2 2020 compared to one year earlier, but up to 15% growth in Q4 2020, suggesting a strong 2021 may lie ahead if that momentum continues.

Streaming growth driven by independents (labels and artists)

Streaming revenues reached $14.2 billion, up 19.6% from 2019, adding $2.3 billion, up from the $2.2 billion added in 2019. So, 2020 was another year of accelerating streaming growth and, given that Spotify’s revenue growth increased by less in 2020 than 2019, this indicates that it is for the first time meaningfully under-performing in the market, due to the rise of local players in emerging markets and strong growth for YouTube. For the first time, the major labels under-performed in the streaming market – but not all majors were affected in the same way. Sony Music Entertainment (SME) was entirely in line with streaming market growth, Universal Music Group (UMG) slightly below and Warner Music Group (WMG) markedly below. Independent labels and artists direct both strongly overperformed in the market, collectively growing at 27% and thus increasing their combined streaming market share to 31.5%.

Market share shifts

The major record labels saw collective market share fall from 66.5% in 2019 to 65.5% in 2020. While this shift is part of a long-term market dynamic, most of the dip was down to WMG reporting flat revenues for the year. SME gained share and UMG remained the largest record label with 29.2% market share. Independent labels also saw a 0.1 point drop in market share, but there was a very mixed story for independents. MIDiA fielded a global survey of independent labels and the data from that helped us track the contribution of independents. Independent labels as a whole grew by 6.7% (i.e. slightly below the market), but within the sector there was a massive diversity of growth rates, with smaller, newer indies tending to grow faster than the market (some dramatically so) and larger, more established indies growing below the market rate. There were also many independents (of all sizes) that saw revenues fall in 2020.

The unstoppable rise of independent artists

In 2019, artists direct were the stand-out success story, massively outperforming the market. History repeated itself in 2020 with artists direct growing by a staggering 34.1% to break the billion-dollar market for the first time, ending the year on $1.2 billion and in the process increasing market share by more than a whole point, up to 5.1% in 2020. The continued rise of independent artists reflects the clear and pronounced market shift towards this new, emerging generation of artists. With lots of private equity money now pouring into creator tools companies like Native Instruments, expect this space to heat up even further in 2021. The recorded music business is changing, and it is changing fast.

Smaller independents and artists direct grew fastest in 2020

Last year we identified a small but crucial metric from Spotify’s annual report: the share of all streams accounted for by majors and independent licensing body Merlin. It was crucial because it enabled us to segment the streaming market in detail, when combined with market data from majors and independent artist platforms. The key takeaway was that independents grew fastest, but that not all independents grew at the same rate. Now the 2020 figure is out from Spotify and the trends have accelerated.

The share of Spotify streams accounted for by the majors and Merlin fell four percentage points in 2020 to 78%, down from a high of 85% in 2018. The recorded music market is one in which label market shares typically move at a near glacial pace. In comparison, this shift is nothing short of tectonic. What we are witnessing is not just the emergence of a new pattern of growth in the recorded music business but also the emergence of a new breed of record label.

Firstly, the methodological health warning: this percentage reported by Spotify refers to streams, not revenue, so will have some margin of error as there are certain types of labels that do better among ad supported users than paid, which means their contribution to revenue is less than to streams. Emerging markets such as India (which skew heavily to free users) will also over index. Also, non-Merlin independents will include by inference all record labels that are not majors and that are not Merlin licensed, so this will include big record labels in Korea, Japan, India etc. who in their own markets are the equivalents of majors.

All that said, the shares are still directionally invaluable and provide us with some great market insight. By applying the major labels’ market shares for revenue, coupled with artists direct (i.e. DIY) and independents overall, we can work out what the splits between Merlin, the majors and everyone else are.

The headline is that independents as a whole grew market share in 2020 from 29.7% to 31.1%. In 2018 the figure was 28.3%. That is nearly three whole points of market share gained. To drive such big shifts in market share in a fast growing market like streaming, big revenue growth is needed. The Spotify figures would suggest that majors grew by 14%, Merlin was down by 3%, artists direct were up by 28% and non-Merlin independents were up by 49%. As in 2019, artists direct and non-Merlin independents were the big winners. These two segments represent the new vanguard of streaming-era music strategy, entities that have learned how to use their smaller scale to be agile and play to the unique rhythms of streaming in a way that bigger, more established companies have not. 

Merlin’s dip in streams may well not be reflected in revenues, as Merlin labels tend to over index for premium streams. Even if they were around flat or even slightly positive in revenue terms, the contrast with the newer breed of smaller independent labels is clear. Of course, not all Merlin labels are the same, but the category-level trend suggests that many Merlin labels might be stuck in the difficult middle ground between the agility of newer, smaller labels, and not having the scale of tech, data and catalogue to enjoy the same scale benefits that majors do.

Even with all the caveats considered, the direction of travel is clear: streaming is paving the way for a new breed of independent, one that is gaining share at the expense of both majors and traditional independents.

Equitable remuneration, artist income and unintended consequences

The UK Parliament’s inquiry on the economics of streaming appears to be building a case for equitable remuneration (ER). There are many iterations of what ER can mean, but a simplified description of what is in play here is: a share of streaming revenue being paid directly by the DSPs to an entity which then distributes directly to artists, thus bypassing the whole ‘do labels pay artists enough’ debate. Though there are some examples of ER in place – such as in Spain – if the UK went down this route it would, in many respects, be setting a global streaming precedent. What is more, it is a solution that would likely have more income impact on artists than alternatives such as user-centric licensing. ER has the potential to transform artist income, but quite probably not the way you think.

Superstar skews even apply to streaming’s superstars

The starting point for ER is the premise that most artists do not make enough money from streaming. It is tempting to look at Spotify’s 43,000 artists that account for 90% of its plays as evidence that the pool of high-earning artists is becoming sizeable. Indeed, the implied average income for these artists was around $100,000 in 2020. But averages can be misleading, especially when there is non-linear distribution. 

To illustrate the point, we can slice this 43,000 a few ways thanks to a number of industry figures. In his DCMS presentation, WMG’s Tony Harlow stated that the label had eight artists globally that had a billion streams. Assuming that is a ‘lifetime’ rather than annual figure and applying market share assumptions, that gives us around seven artists across all labels generating a billion streams a year. Additionally, the BPI recently reported that 200 artists generated more than 100 million streams each in the UK in 2020. Taking these figures into account, applying assumptions to account for global figures and Spotify market shares and then factoring in per-stream rates and the total number of releasing artists globally, we end up with the following:

98% of Spotify’s 43K club earn a more modest $29,046 a year (after label deductions). Which isn’t bad when you consider that Spotify is just one part of much bigger streaming economy. Against that, though, those artists are just 0.76% of all artists globally – this is very nearly as good as it gets to be as an artist. Only 1,007 do better. 

The remaining 99% earn an average of just $26 a year, and that figure includes not just the around five million artists direct, but also independent artists and even major label artists. Also, just as within the superstar segment, distribution is not linear, but the point is hopefully clear.

The added complication in all of this is that not all of the royalties that Spotify pay for the streams of its 43K club actually end up with artists, as many will not be recouped. WMG’s Harlow suggested that a typical major label artist might need to generate a billion streams to be recouped, and there were just seven of those made in 2020 (indeed an artist on a 15% deal would need 1,010,101,010 streams to pay off a $500,000 advance, assuming a headline per-stream rate of $0.0033 for the label). As artists recoup over multiple years, the recouped figure will be far north of seven and may be closer to the 1,000 that generated between 100 million and one billion streams. So, a majority of Spotify’s 43K club may not be earning any royalties at all.

Hence, there is a double case for ER:

  1. To ensure all artists earn more
  2. To ensure artists who are not recouped earn at least some royalty income

And so, onto ER…

Again, using Spotify to illustrate, a 5% ER levy on Spotify would be equivalent to around $400 million for 2020, and around $1.1 billion at an industry level (excluding YouTube from the calculations). Not considering recoupment rates and assuming a single artist share of 32.5% (the average of major and indie royalty splits) this would equate to a 28% increase of income for all artists. Certainly, a welcome shift. But, just in the same way that user centric can have the unintended consequence of benefiting bigger artists, it is the superstars who do best, by dint of simple arithmetic. 

There is an implied misconception with ER that ‘equitable’ implies some sort of quasi-socialist redistribution of wealth. It does not. Instead, it allocates income with the same distribution skews that make streaming the superstar economy that it is.

The one billion-plus-streams artists would earn an extra $125,400 a year from Spotify (around $350,000 across all services), but further down the ladder the pickings are more meagre. The 98% of Spotify’s 43K club that currently earn $29,046 would get an extra $8,125 (around $21,000 across all services). A meaningful amount, but unless you are a solo act probably not enough to transform streaming into a liveable income source. And don’t forget, we are still talking about the very top echelon of artists here; for the remaining 99% of artists the average additional income from ER would be $7 a year (though again, the distribution would not be linear, so some will earn in the hundreds and some in the low thousands).

An intriguing unintended consequence is that the average major label artist would likely see a higher percentage increase than independent artists. The reason is very simple: around 80% of major label artists are not recouped so they are currently earning zero streaming royalties, which means ER would be a 100% increase. A far smaller share of independent artists have advances so will be in the 28% bracket.

There is no silver bullet solution to artist income

The key takeaway from this exercise is that just as with user centric, ER is not a silver bullet that is going to fix all of the ails of streaming for creators, mainly because there is no silver bullet. The fractional economics of streaming need scale to deliver benefits, which means that rightsholders (i.e. those with large scale catalogues) benefit far more than the majority of artists (i.e. those with small scale catalogues). 

None of this is to say efforts like ER should not be pursued – they should. But expectations should be managed for the majority of artists. As Will Page puts it, there are simply too many mouths to feed (i.e. too many artists fighting for ever smaller slices of a finite royalty pot). 

And did you miss the glaring omission from this analysis? Songwriters. In fact, if Spotify and co. are compelled to pay 5% ‘off the top’ to artists, then they are going to need to make up that revenue somewhere else, which probably means a combination of royalty dilution through podcasts and audiobooks, reduced rates paid to labels, more direct deals with artist etc. Crucially, with DSP margins pulverised, good luck with publishers squeezing any further increases in rates in the future. Artist ER could inadvertently put a stop to songwriter royalty increases. Such are the ways of unintended consequences.

Music has developed an attention dependency

The attention economy defines and shapes today’s digital world. However, we have long since reached peak in the attention economy with all available free time now addressed. What this means is that previously, when digital entertainment propositions grew, they were often using up users’ free time. Now though, every minute gained is at someone else’s expense. The battle for attention is now both fierce and intense. What is more, it will get worse when much of the population finally returns to commuting and going out, as 2020 was defined by entertainment filling the extra 15% of free time people found in their weekly lives. But there is an ever bigger dynamic at play, one which gets to the very heart of entertainment: the attention economy is becoming a malign force for culture. Consumption is holding culture hostage. 

The increasingly fierce competition for consumers’ attention is becoming corrosive, with clickbait, autoplay and content farms degrading both content and culture. What matters is acquiring audience and their time, the type of content and tactics that captures them is secondary. It is not just bottom feeder content farms that play this game, instead the wider digital entertainment landscape has allowed itself to become infected by their strategic worldview.

The attention dependency goes way beyond media

Do not for a minute think this is a media-only problem. The corrosive impact of the attention economy can be seen right across digital entertainment, from hastily churned out scripted dramas, through to music. Artists and labels are locked in a race to increase the volume and velocity of music they put out, spurred on by Spotify’s Daniel Ek clarion call to up the ante even further. In this volume and velocity game, algorithm-friendly A&R and playlist hits win out. Clickbait music comes out on top. And because music attention spans are shortening, no sooner has the listener’s attention been grabbed, then it is lost again due to the next new track. In the attention economy’s volume and velocity game, the streaming platform is a hungry beast that is perpetually hungry. Each new song is just another bit of calorific input to sate its appetite. 

In this world, ‘streamability’ trumps musicality, but it is not just culture that suffers. Cutting through the clutter of 50,000 new songs every day also delivers diminishing returns for marketing spend. Labels have to spend more to get weaker results. 

Music subscriptions accentuate the worst parts of the attention economy 

Perhaps most importantly of all though, music subscriptions are the worst possible ecosystem in which to monetise the attention economy. In online media, more clicks means more ads, which means more ad revenue. In music subscriptions it is a fight to the death for a slice of a finite royalty pot. A royalty pot that is also impacted by slowing streaming growth and declining ARPU. The music industry has developed an attention dependency in the least healthy environment possible.

This is not one of those market dynamics that will eventually find a natural course correction. Instead, the music industry has to decide it wants to break its attention dependency and start doing things differently. Until then, consumption and content will continue to push culture to the side lines.

It is time to take hold of the wheel

Some years ago, Andrew Llyod Webber said this: “The fine wines of France are not merely content for the glass manufacturing business”. Although those words are of someone from the old world grappling with the new, the underlying premise remains. None of this is to suggest that streaming consumption is not the future. Nor is it to even suggest that all of the changes to the culture of music that streaming has brought about are negative. In fact, it may be that streaming-era music culture is simply what the future of music is going to be. But what is crucial is that artists, labels, songwriters and publishers take an active role in steering the ship to the future rather than simply getting pulled along by the streaming tide.

2021 Predictions: The year of the immersive web

As we approach the end of 2020 it is time to look forward to what 2021 may bring. MIDiA has published the fifth edition of our Annual Predictions report which clients can read here. There are 27 predictions in the report, but I am sharing a few of them here. MIDiA has a pretty good track record with its predictions; 79% of our predictions for 2020 were correct.

These are the seven meta and cultural trends that we believe will shape 2021: 

  1. The immersive web
  2. Recessionary impact
  3. The great reaggregation
  4. The return of synchronous experiences
  5. Social consumption and micro communities
  6. Video streaming as a cultural catalyst 
  7. The end of influencers

The immersive web

Web 1.0 was an information dump; web 2.0 added multimedia and social. Now we are entering the third phase, which MIDiA terms the immersive web. As is usually the case with big epoch shifts, this will not be a clear and sudden change but instead a steady change – a change that is, in fact, already happening. The immersive web is characterised by environments in which we do not simply conduct extensions of IRL activity (e-commerce, video calls) but ones that create behaviours and relationships that only, and can only, exist within these environments. Apps and platforms like Roblox, TikTok and Discord are early iterations of the immersive web, but merely hint at what will come. The trend will be driven by Gen Z, who have grown up with social apps from the playground onwards. Gen Z relies more than any previous generation on such apps for social interaction and expression, forming muscle memory for digital-first relationships. The COVID-19 lockdown measures have accentuated this shift, further solidifying Gen Z’s receptivity to future immersive web experiences.

Music

Here is a short version of some of the trends we expect to shape music in 2021:

  • The start of an artist economy: Streaming is a song economy of which the scale benefits rights holders far more than creators. The industry needs to work towards a collection of models that work for artists. Components could be micro-communities (see below), sounds platforms, ticketed live streams, skills marketplaces, and virtual merch. 
  • The rise of micro-communities: Niche is the new mainstream. The next phase of this market dynamic is the emergence of micro-communities; small audiences of dedicated fans who almost consider it an honour-bound duty to support their artists. 
  • The creator tools revolution: Creator tools, particularly music production and collaboration, will be one of the most important market shifts in 2021. Companies like Splice, LANDR and Output will continue to build scale in 2021, changing both the culture and business of music. 
  • Live streaming professionalises: With live unlikely to be anything close to full capacity until the latter part of 2021, live streaming will be used by a growing body of artists as a genuine revenue driver, rather than the audience engagement role it played in much of 2020, driven by increased professionalisation, better distribution and more sophisticated monetisation.
  • Music continues to deliver as an asset class: Although the pandemic dented music publishing’s long-term growth story, music catalogues retain strong appeal as an asset class, not least because they are performing better in relation to many asset classes that have been hit hard by the pandemic and that look vulnerable to the coming recession. The imbalance between supply and demand remains, so expect prices paid to continue to accelerate. 
  • UGC continues to accelerate: User-generated content (UGC) music revenues reached $4 billion in 2020 and will push up to $4.9 billion in 2021. The crucial difference between UGC music now compared to five years ago, is that the focus is on genuine user creativity rather than users simply uploading others’ music.

2020 was a year like no other in modern times, with the impact on digital entertainment both pronounced and creating the foundations for accelerated innovation in 2021. Whatever may happen to the global economic and health outlook, digital entertainment will go through further dramatic change in 2021.

Time to move beyond the song economy

The UK parliament is currently running an inquiry into the streaming music economy, having called for evidence from across the music business. Earlier this week were the first verbal submissions, from a number of UK artists including Tom Gray (Gomez), Guy Garvey (Elbow), Ed O’Brien (Radiohead) and Nadine Shah.MPs heard impassioned but balanced submissions that shone a light on the reality of what it means to be an artist in the streaming era. Mercury Prize-nominated Shah explained that she makes so little money from streaming that she is struggling to pay her rent. Clearly, the demise of live during the pandemic has created a uniquely difficult period for artists, but it has spotlighted that streaming on its own is not working for artists. The fact that policy makers are hearing this viewpoint (albeit later rather than sooner) suggests that change will be coming. But, while the focus is understandably on how to ‘fix’ streaming, it might be that efforts would be better placed building a complementary alternative.

Direct action

In Steve McQueen’s new film Mangrove, there is a intense scene in which Darcus Howe implores café owner and community leader Frank Crichlow that after Frank’s fruitless attempts to fix the problem via the system that direct action is the only way to change things: “self-movement – external forces acting on the organism”.

The equivalent of direct action in the commercial world is innovation – it comes from the ground up. In 2008 Spotify came up with an innovation that made the problem of the time –piracy – effectively redundant. What’s required now are new innovations that make the current streaming model look like an alternative, not the only choice – to enjoy music. 

Now is the time

Now is the right time to be assessing the long-term impact of streaming. It is a mature business model and is the largest revenue driver in most of the world’s leading music markets. Whatever streaming is now, is pretty much how it is going to be. The future of what streaming can be is already here, today. Assessments must be on what the model delivers now, not some future potential. 

Streaming’s current performance can be assessed as follows:

  • Record labels and publishers have experienced strong revenue growth and improving margins. Their businesses have been improved
  • Artists and songwriters have more people listening to their music than ever before and more creators are able to earn income than ever before 

However, beyond the superstars, most do not earn a sustainable income from streaming alone and cannot see a pathway to this ever changing. This is Guy Garvey’s reference to the lack of any new (financially viable) music artists in the future. 

A model for rights holders more than creators

Streaming benefits rights holders more than it does creators. It is far easier to enjoy the benefits of scale if you have scale. Here is a simple illustration: if a label has 100,000 tracks played 10 times each in a month (i.e., a million streams) it will earn around £/$5,000. But a self-released artist with just 100 tracks with 10 plays each (i.e., 1,000 streams) will only earn £/$5. Though this is the product of simple arithmetic, the first amount is the foundation of a small business, the other buys you a cup of coffee.

Record labels and publishers with large catalogues benefit from scale in a way that artists and songwriters do not, unless they have a megahit – and although streaming is great for megahits, they are few and far between. Changes to licensing (and there are many ways to do that) may make things better – but they will not change the underlying dynamic; it is simply how the model is.

We have a model that works for rights holders that is fuelled by artists and songwriters. Now we need an additional, parallel, model that works for artists.

Streaming music services are incentivised to drive consumption. What we need are additional models, incentivised to drive fandom. Streaming is a song economy, and we now need a parallel fan economy

Music used to be all about fandom. It was the way in which people identified and expressed themselves – a badge of honour and a symbol of personality. Streaming has industrialised music, turning it into a convenient utility that acts as a soundtrack to our everyday life. That may be fine, but it has simultaneously supressed those ways to express fandom. It’s not easy to express your fandom on a streaming platform, while on a social platform money must change hands. 

Music fandom hasn’t died, but it just has fewer places to live. 

The fan economy

So, what is a fan economy? A fan economy is one in which the value resides in the artist-fan relationship. Currently this model is pursued actively in Asia (e.g., Tencent Music in China, K-Pop in Korea) but far less so in the West. The fan economy will be defined by diversity but what its constituents will have in common is being built around micro-communities of fans.

Micro-communities that are built around an artist’s 1,000 true fans (or even fewer) allow the artist’s most loyal and dedicated fans to drive revenue that is small to the industry but large to the artist. For example, an artist with 1,000 subscribers paying $5 a month would generate the same $5,000 a month that a million streams would deliver a record label.

There are a number of platforms that are making a start, but now is the time for this to become a central music industry focus. Music rightsholders have a model that works well for them, so now they need to ensure that their artists and songwriters have models that work for them too. There is thus an onus on rights holders helping drive the fan economy, but to drive creator income rather than simply be another rights holder income.

A multi-pronged approach

This is the three-pronged approach we propose:

  • Governments, support new, innovative companies building fan economy models and ensure that they provide equitable remuneration for creators
  • Record labels, build teams geared at helping their artists find fan economy income streams (and take a service fee or revenue share)
  • Streaming services, allow artists more real estate to showcase where fans can find other content and experiences

None of this is to say that efforts to make streaming more equitable should not be pursued; they absolutely should. However, it should be done with a clear understanding of the ‘art of the possible’. Even if rates were doubled, the self-released artist with 1,000 streams would still only earn £/$10. For an artist with a million streams a month on a big label it would change monthly income from £/$1,250 a month to £/$2,000, i.e., £/$24,000 a year. Not a sustainable annual income. 

Our case is that streaming should indeed be made more equitable, but alongside proactive investment in a new generation of innovative fan economy apps. This is an opportunity to make UK Plc the innovation driver for the global music business. A unique opportunity that is there for the taking with the right strategy and support, from all vested interests.

The opportunity for the UK streaming inquiry

With the streaming inquiry, the UK government has an unprecedented opportunity to set a global standard for building a vibrant and viable future for music creators, but it is an opportunity that needs seizing now. In partnership with music creators and rightsholders, it can create a structure that supports the innovation and change the industry needs. Now that streaming has come of age, we can see both its strengths and weaknesses. Let’s use the weaknesses as a foundation for building something new, exciting and equitable. It is time to bring ways to allow music fans to express themselves and their support to artists more directly. That will keep music the uniquely valuable product it is, and not just the grease in the wheels. 

Mark Mulligan and Keith Jopling, MIDiA Research