Looking for the Music in Tencent Music

The Tencent Music Entertainment (TME) F1 filingmakes for highly interesting reading, but don’t expect copious amounts of data to give you an inside track in the way that Spotify’s F1 filing did. Instead TME’s F1 bears much closer resemblance to iQyi’s F1, namely a basic level of KPIs, lots of market narrative and even more space assigned to explaining all of the risks associated with investing in a Chinese company. But, perhaps the most significant thing of all is that TME isn’t really a music company or investment opportunity, but is instead a series of social entertainment platforms, of which music – and much of it not even streaming music – is one minor part.

Risk factors – there’s a lot of them

As with iQiYi’s F1 filing, a lot of the document is taken up with outlining the risks associated with investing in a Chinese company, particularly with regard to the various ways in which the Chinese government can potentially put the business out of existence. Evidence of just how real this threat is for Tencent is very close to home. The Chinese authorities are currently refusing to authorise any new Tencent games – and have not done so since March,  while it brings in new restrictions on game playing for kids.Tencent’s shares tumbled as a result. The problem for Chinese companies providing due diligence for overseas investors is that they have to admit that they might not be compliant with all Chinese laws. With the PRC (People’s Republic of China) government not having democratic checks and balances, Chinese companies have to face the real possibility of unpredictable, unchallengeable, draconian intervention, such as is happening with games.

Two particular areas of potential difficulty that the TME F1 highlights are social currency and overseas interests:

  1. TME makes much of its money from social gifting and virtual items. TME argues this does not constitute virtual currency, so should not be subject to tight PRC regulations. The PRC government may disagree.
  2. TME is registered in the Cayman Islands and does not actually own many of its Chinese streaming services but instead has shareholdings in, and contractual relationships with, them. This is a risk-laden approach at the best of times, but is given extra spice by the fact the PRC could determine TME to be a foreign interest, which would put it in breach of a whole bunch of PRC regulations.

Other notable risk factors are:

  • UGC:TME explains: “Under PRC laws and regulations, online service providers, which provide storage space for users to upload works or links to other services or content, may be held liable for copyright infringement”. It goes on to say: “Due to the massive amount of content displayed on our platform, we may not always be able to promptly identify the content that is illegal.” There are two potential outcomes: 1) things carry on as they are 2) rights holders get itchy feet and TME needs to find someone to help it monitor and police copyright infringement.
  • ADS: TME is not offering shares for sale but instead American Depositary Shares (ADS), which in heavily simplified terms means that investors’ money is deposited in US banks in USD and then can in principle be converted into RMB shares at the prevailing currency exchange rate, which may be higher or lower than when the ADS was purchased.

What’s in a number?

Prior to this filing, Tencent had only released one audited music subscriber number – back in Q1 2016 it announced 4.3 million QQ Music subscribers. After that came a succession of press cited numbers that got a lot bigger, but nothing audited. Finally we have a whole collection of numbers to play around with (though see the PS at the end of this post for a health warning on interpreting Chinese company numbers reported in SEC documents).

TME 1

In 2016, TME was very much a music company, with music accounting for nearly half of its RMB 4.4 billion revenues. But by 2017 that picture had changed…and some…with just 29% of its revenues classified as ‘online music services’. Online music revenues grew by 47%, which is impressive enough in isolation, but is much slower growth than the rest of the Chinese paid content market. Video, which parent company Tencent is a key player in, is a major growth area. One sub strand of this is social video, where TME is also market heavyweight. Luckily for TME, it has eggs in many baskets. Social video, which largely comprises live streaming in China, contributed to TME’s social entertainment services revenue growing by 253% (i.e. five times more quickly than online music) in 2017 to reach RMB 7.8 billion – 71% of TME’s total RMB 10.9 billion.

This revenue was driven in large part by live streaming services Kugou Live and Kuwo Liveand by social karaoke app Quanmin K Ge, known as WeSing in the west. WeSing is arguably the biggest ‘music’ app many people don’t know about. Music doesn’t play the same cultural role in China as it does in western markets, thanks in part to the legacy of the oxymoronically named Cultural Revolution, which limits the potential opportunity for music services in China. Karaoke, however, is huge, and WeSing does a fantastic job of converting this demand. By putting social centre stage, TME is able to monetise social in a way that would make Facebook green with envy. As TME explains:

“We provide to our users certain subscription packages, which entitle paying subscribers a fixed amount of non-accumulating downloads per month and unlimited “ad-free” streaming of our full music content offerings with certain privilege features on our music platforms.

We sell virtual gifts to users on our online karaoke and live streaming platforms. The virtual gifts are sold to users at different specified prices as pre-determined by us.” 

Putting social centre stage

But TME’s social skills are not limited to WeSing. Social seeps from virtually every pore of its music services, with features such as likes, comments, shares, ability to create and share lyrics posters from a song, ability to sing along to songs, see local trending tracks, get VIP packages etc. TME has worked out how to bake true social behaviour into the centre of its music services in a way few western companies have (YouTube and Soundcloud are rare exceptions). Both Soundcloud and YouTube built their services without having to play by the record label rule book. Read into that what you will.

The social power of TME’s end-to-end social music offering is illustrated by this case study:

Ada Zhuang (  ). Ada started out as a talented singer on our live streaming platform. A few months later, she released her debut album on Kugou Music. Since then, Ada has released over 200 songs that have won numerous music awards. Her popularity continued to grow through concerts held across China. A single released by Ada in October 2015 has since then been played over three billon times on our platform. 

TME2

Through its acquisition of competitor services Kugo and Kuwou, TME has built a music empire, giving it a 76% music subscriber market share and leaving two key competitors: Apple Music and NetEase Cloud Music. TME pointedly makes no reference to Apple Music, despite it having 2.6 million Chinese subscribers in 2017. NetEase, however, does get a name check.

TME reported its combined (net) mobile music MAUs to be 644 million in Q2 2018, though defining its users as unique devices rather than unique users. (Interestingly, it defines its social users on an individual basis.). What is clear is that TME’s music users and social users are mirror opposites in user tally and the revenue they generate; social users are just 26% of users but account for 71% of revenues. Clearly, TME has identified there is a lot more money to be made from social experiences than streaming music. Few western companies saw this opportunity. Musical.ly, founded by Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang, did, and was predictably bought for $1 billion by Chinese company Bytedance, home to Douyin (known as TikTok in the west).

TME3

TME’s ARPU numbers hammer home the scale of success for its social segment versus its music side. In Q2 2018 TME was earning RMB 122 a month from social users, against a paid user base of 9.5 million, while its paid music base of 23.3 million was generating an ARPU of just RMB 9.

 

Interestingly, international expansion is not mentioned once in the 198,984 words of the TME F1 filing. TME explains exactly how it intends to spend the money from the IPO but international is not spelt out. Our bet though, is that TME is playing its cards close to its chest and will indeed go west.

Wildcard

TME is one of a number of Chinese tech firms listing a portion of their stock on US exchanges. Should the US economy topple into a downward trend at some stage, for example as a resulting of an escalating trade war with China, then stocks like TME could give US investors a seamless way of transferring their holdings out of US companies into Chinese ones, without having to change their portfolio mix (ie one tech stock for another) and without having to change jurisdiction. And with China sitting on $3 trillion of foreign currency reserves – with USD the largest part – China could even hasten things along by flooding US currency into the markets, triggering a tumbling exchange rate.

PS

There is an international jurisdictional loophole between the SEC in the US and the CSRC in China. Which in overly simplified terms means that Chinese companies can falsely report numbers in SEC filings,withtheSEC unable to prosecute Chinese miscreant companies and the CSRC unable to take action over the SEC filing.This has resulted in a significant number of fraudulent filings by Chinese companies reverse listing onto US exchanges via dormant US companies, with SEC filings showing numbers up to 10 times higher than their CSRC filings. The only watertight way to validate Chinese company SEC filed numbers, is to corroborate them with CSRC filings. Unfortunately, TME is not a separate entity in China so has not filed any numbers, and, as stated above, Tencent has rarely reported any numbers for its music division. This does not mean that TME’s should not inherently be taken at face value, but it does suggest extra scrutiny might be wise.

Making Free Pay: Finetuning Freemium

Streaming is transforming music and TV business models, driving growth in both audiences and revenue. A balance between free and paid tiers and services has been key to this success, but, growth is not always balanced, and as we approach maturity in many western markets, more may be needed of free, ad supported options. Likewise, for unlocking longer-term, larger-scale growth in emerging markets.

MIDiA Making Free Pay

We know these issues matter, but we also know it can be hard to plan for the next phase when there is so much activity and resource requirement being delivered by the current phase. Therefore, to help media companies and streaming services alike, we have put together a curated insight event to provide the definitive evidence base for setting the balance between free and paid.

Join us for this free event, to see exclusive, previously unseen MIDiA data presented by our Research Director Tim Mulligan and a panel of industry experts tackle the burning questions. This event will help you understand:

  • Just how big will streaming music and video advertising get?
  • What is the right balance to strike between free and paid?
  • How will this balance vary across different regions across the globe?
  • How many more consumers will make the path from free to paid?
  • Why are streaming audiences so interesting to advertisers and how can they reach them?
  • What impact will the tech majors’ domination of global ad revenues have on streaming services?

The event is free to attend, and will be in central London on the 17thOctober. Places are limited though and going fast, so be sure to sign up soon if you plan to come.

As a sneak peak, here is one snippet from Tim’s presentation:

midia making free pay data

TV and music have a long history in ad supported via broadcast TV and radio. Both also have had the opportunity to convert an unprecedented volume of consumers to subscription relationships through streaming. The focus right now is all on subscriber growth, but the flatten out phase of the s-curve will come and when it does, ad supported can, and should, pick up the baton and run with it. The challenge is how to do that without unravelling subscription revenue.

Both music and video will follow a similarly shaped growth trajectory over the coming years in terms of advertising’s share of total revenue. However, music will lag far behind with just 38% of streaming revenue coming from ad revenue in 2025, compared to 56% for video. This will reflect both the positive and the negative. On the plus side, music will be generating strong subscription revenue in 2025, thus commanding much of the revenue share. However, it will also be generating much less annual ad revenue per user (ARPU) in 2025 than video: $4.69 compared to $20.37. In fact, video will see ad supported ARPU nearly double by 2025 from 2017, while music will add just one dollar.

This reflects multiple factors, including:

  1. Social video (YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook) will generate far more ad supported video revenue than it will ad-supported music revenue
  2. Video ads command a higher ad rate than audio ads
  3. TV ad budgets are much bigger than radio ad budgets, and their transition to streaming will accelerate video ad revenue growth
  4. Few music services have scaled their ad sales outside of the US (though some encouraging signs are occurring there)
  5. Emerging markets will be key drivers of ad-supported music audiences, but digital ad markets will take time to get established

Ultimately, streaming ad growth will be shaped in equal measure by traditional ad market dynamics, and the tech and ad sales capabilities of the streaming services in each and every respective market. This means that in many markets we will see free audience growth far outstrip ad revenue growth. Just one of the many challenges posed by a growing ad supported streaming sector.

Join us on the 17thfor this and much more – see you there!

Spotify’s Tencent Risk

NOTE: a previous version of this post referred to a non-compete clause with Spotify detailed in this SEC filing. I have been advised that the scope of this clause is narrower than I had originally interpreted. I have therefore updated this post to remove reference to that clause but the essence of the post remains intact due to the potential role of the major labels which, as outlined below, could have the same effect as a non-compete clause.

On Thursday (September 20th) Spotify grabbed the headlines with its announcement that it is launching a free-to-use direct upload service for artists. While it is undoubtedly a big move, and one that will concern Soundcloud among others, it was not a surprising move. In fact, in April we predicted this would happen soon:“Spotify will take a subtler path to ‘doing a Netflix’, first by ‘doing a Soundcloud’, i.e. becoming a direct platform for artists and then switching on monetisation”. Will labels be concerned, sure, because although Spotify might not be parking its tanks on their lawn yet, it is certainly slowly reversing them in that general direction. However, they may just have a way of clipping Spotify’s wings and waiting in, er, the wings…Tencent.

Still waiting for IPO metrics

Tencent is prepping its music division (TME) for a partial US IPO but announced earlier this week that it will be reducing the amount it is seeking to raise from $4 billion to $2 billion, though still against a reported valuation of around $25 billion. Regular readers will know I have a healthy scepticism of Tencent’s music numbers. It has only ever reported one subscriber number officially – 4.7 million for QQ Music in Q1 2016, therefore it has plausible deniability over all the non-official numbers it puts out via the press. So, the fact there still isn’t an F1 filing revealing TME’s metrics is intriguing to say the least.

Go west

The likelihood is that the numbers will show a relative flattening in music subscriber growth (though other areas of its business should be robust). If so, they fit a wider narrative of Tencent nearing the limits of its potential in China. Video subs, which have grown superfast, will soon slow, messaging is saturated and the Chinese government is curtailing Tencent’s games operations. The title of our April report says it all: “Tencent Has Outgrown China: Now Comes the Next Phase of Growth”. Until last year’s change in Chinese regulations, Tencent could quite happily have spent its time strolling across the globe buying up companies to spread its global wings. But now, operating under limits of how much it can spend on overseas companies, Tencent is restricted to taking minority stakes in companies like Gaana and Spotify. But those efforts do not deliver Tencent the scale of global growth it needs. You can probably see where this is heading: to grow its music business TME will have to roll out internationally, which is quite possibly part of the story it will use to justify its $25 billion valuation.

Ring fencing Spotify’s global reach 

Should TME decide to use the $2 billion it raises via IPO as a war chest, it could then go on a global roll out to all the markets where Spotify is currently not present. Getting their first, with the backing of Tencent and of the $2bn IPO windfall would put Spotify on the back foot. Especially if, and here’s the crucial part, the major record labels took this as an opportunity to knock Spotify down a peg because of its increasingly competitive behaviour. They’ve been relying on Indian licenses already, that could prove to be a template, with Tencent the grateful beneficiary.  This would have the effect of ring-fencing Spotify’s global roll out plans. For fans of the board game Risk, the board would look something like this:

Spotify tencent risk 1

But Risk’s map doesn’t really do it justice. Using a political global map, the respective footprints would look more like this:

Spotify tencent risk 2

The major labels have proven unwilling to license Spotify for India because they weren’t happy with Spotify offering direct deals for a small number of artists. Imagine how they are going to feel with this latest move. With TME waiting patiently on the side lines, they may just see it as an opportunity to carve up the global streaming landscape into two halves, creating a cold war stalemate. Your move Spotify.

Article 13 – Laws of Unintended Consequences

I do not normally add disclaimers or qualifiers at the start of blog posts, but given how divisive the whole Article 13 debate has become, there is a big risk that some readers will make incorrect assumptions about my position on Article 13. The emerging defining characteristic of popular debate in the late 2010s has been the polarization of opinion e.g. Brexit, Trump, immigration. Article 13 follows a similar model, leaving little tolerance for the middle ground. You are either anti-copyright / pro-big tech or you’re pro-big government / anti-innovation.

Such extremes are the inevitable result of multi-million-dollar lobby campaigns by both sides. Reasoned nuance doesn’t really play so well in the world of political lobbying. My objective, and MIDiA’s, from the outset has been to strike an evidence-based, agenda-free position, that considers the merits of all aspects of both sides’ arguments. So, before I embark on a blog post that will likely be viewed by some of being pro-Google and anti-rights holder (it is not, nor is it the opposite), these are some ‘value gap’ principles that MIDiA holds to be true:

  • YouTube has misused fair use and safe harbour provisions against the legislation’s original intent
  • YouTube’s ‘unique’ licensing model creates an imbalance in the competitive marketplace
  • YouTube’s free offering is so good that it sucks oxygen out of the premium sphere
  • Google has rarely demonstrated an unequivocal commitment to, nor support of current copyright regimes
  • YouTube being able to license post-facto rather than paying for access to repertoire, gives it a competitive advantage over traditional licensed services
  • There is too big a gap between YouTube ad-supported payments and Spotify ad-supported payments, meaning too little gets to rights holders and creators
  • Take down and stay down is a feasible and achievable solution (albeit within margins of error)
  • The current situation needs fixing in order to rebalance the streaming market

Nonetheless, for each one of these positions from the rights holder side of the debate, we also see an equally long and compelling list of points from YouTube’s side. Rather than list them however, I want to explain how ignoring some of the counterpoints could unintentionally create a far bigger problem for the music industry than the one it is trying to fix.

Value gap or control gap?

What really riles labels is that they cannot exercise the same degree of control over YouTube that they can over Spotify and co. This is very understandable, as they rightly want to be able to determine who uses their music, how it is used and how partners pay for usage. However, taking a very simplistic view of the world, the label-licensed approach has created: a few tech major success stories that don’t need to wash their own faces (Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music); a collection of smaller loss-making services (e.g. Deezer, Tidal); and one big break out success story that can’t turn a profit (Spotify). In short, the label-led model has not (yet at least) resulted in the creation of a commercially sustainable marketplace. Rights holders want to pull YouTube into this controlled economy model. YouTube is understandably resistant. After all, YouTube is a crucial margin driver for Alphabet. It cannot afford it to be loss leading. Alphabet’s core ad businesses generate the margin that subsidises Alphabet’s loss-making bets such as space flight, autonomous cars and curing death (I kid you not). Ad revenue has to be profitable.

Fixed costs / variable revenue

As we explained in our recent State of the YouTube Economy 2.0 report, YouTube went double or quits during the last two years, doubling down on music, making music over index across its user base, in order to try to make it an indispensable hit-making partner for labels. That bet now looks to have failed. So, the question is, will YouTube acquiesce to the new command economy approach to streaming or do something else—perhaps even walk away from music?

The fundamental commercial imperative for YouTube is as follows:

  • Spotify pays a fixed minimum fee to rights holders for each ad supported stream, even if it does not sell any advertising against it. The rate is the same for every song, every day of the year.
  • YouTube pays as a share of ad revenue. This means it is always paying rights holders a consistent share of its income, including all the up side on revenue spikes. But ad inventory is not worth the same 365 days a year. There are seasonal variations meaning a song can generate less rights holder income in December say, than January. Also, not all songs are worth the same to advertisers: they are willing to pay much more to advertise against a Drake track than they are for an obscure 1970s album track.

This revenue share approach without minimum per stream rates is why YouTube has a profitable, scalable ad business, but Spotify does not (as recently as Q1 2018 Spotify had a gross margin of -18% for ad supported, compared to a +14% gross margin for premium). Remember, that’s gross margin, imagine how net margin looks…

The walk away scenario

Minimum per-stream rates could break YouTube’s business model, especially in emerging markets where it usage is strong, but digital ad markets are not yet developed. It would also set a precedent that other YouTube rights holders and creators would want the same applied to them.

So, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that YouTube could simply opt to walk away from music, applying take down and stay down its way (i.e. every piece of label content stays down). It could feasibly continue to provide ad sales support and audience to Vevo, but if YouTube gets to this point, then relationships are likely to be fractured beyond repair, meaning Vevo would likely have to decamp to Facebook and build a new audience there, one which is crucially not accessible to under 13s.

A YouTube shaped hole

So, what? you might ask. The so what, is the YouTube shaped hole that would exist in the music landscape. Readers of a certain vintage will remember the long dark years of piracy booming and corroding the recorded music business. It was YouTube that killed piracy, not enforcement. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but the ubiquitous availability of all the world’s music on demand, on any device, nullified the use case for P2P in an instant. Add in stream rippers and ad blockers, and you’ve got a like-for-like replacement. Piracy created and filled a demand vacuum. YouTube (and Spotify, Soundcloud, Deezer etc.) have all since filled that same space, pushing P2P to the margins. YouTube, however, has had by far the biggest impact due to its sheer global scale. If YouTube pulls out from music, that YouTube shaped hole will be filled because the demand has not changed. Kids still want their free music, as in fact so do consumers of just about every age.

Piracy could be the winner

The most likely mid-term effect of YouTube shuttering music videos would be piracy in some form or another raising its head, filling the demand vacuum. Probably a decentralised, end-to-end encrypted, streaming interface built on top of a torrent structure, sort of like a Popcorn Time for music. Then it really would be back to the bad old days.

Is this the most likely scenario? Perhaps not. But perhaps it is. I suppose a just-as-possible outcome is that YouTube sticks up the proverbial middle finger and creates its own parallel music industry, using a unified music right and ‘doing a Netflix’. Yes, YouTube could be a next-generation record label, with more reach and bigger pockets than any major record label. If the labels are worried about Spotify disintermediation, YouTube could make that threat look like a children’s tea party.

As one YouTube executive said to me a couple of years ago: “This is how we are as friends. Imagine how we’d be as enemies.”

Too much to handle?

‘Couldn’t Spotify, Deezer and Soundcloud fill the potential YouTube shaped hole?’ I hear you ask. If these companies did take on YouTube’s 1.5 billion music users on the current financial agreements they have with rights holders, and with their currently far inferior ad sales infrastructure, they would be out of money in no time. It would literally kill their businesses. Based on YouTube’s likely music streams for FY 2018 and, say, a minimum per stream rate of $0.002, Spotify and co would need pay nearly $3 billion in rights revenue, regardless of how much revenue it could generate. Let alone the unprecedented bandwidth costs for delivering all that video. Of course the flip side, is that in the mainstream streaming model, that is how much potential revenue is up for grabs. So, more money would flow back to rights holders. But the extra revenue could come at the expense of the survival of the independent streaming services, ceding more power to the tech majors.

The artist and songwriter value gap

Throughout all of this you’ll have noted I haven’t said much about artists and songwriters. That’s because the value gap isn’t really about how much they get paid, even though they get put front and centre of lobbying efforts. It’s about how much labels, publishers and PROs get paid. And none of them are talking about changing the share they pay their artists and songwriters once Article 13 is put into action. That particular value gap isn’t going to be fixed. Even if Spotify picked up all of YouTube’s traffic, on say a $0.002 minimum per stream rate, a typical major label artist would still only earn $300 for a million streams, while a co-songwriter would earn just $150. The new boss would look pretty much like the old boss.

Be careful what you wish for

The laws of unintended consequences tend to proliferate when legislation tries to fix commercial problems without a clear enough understanding of the complexities of those very commercial problems.

It is of course in the best interests of YouTube and rights holders to carve out a workable commercial compromise, and I truly hope they do. But there is a very real risk this may not happen if Article 13 is successfully enacted into national member state legislation. Perhaps the phrase that rights holders should be considering right now is ‘be careful what you wish for’.

Mid-Year 2018 Streaming Market Shares

Music subscribers grew by 16% in the first half of 2018 to reach 229.5 million, up from 198.6 million at the end of 2017. Year-on-year the global subscriber base increased by 38%, adding 62.8 million subscribers. This represents strong but sustained, rather than strongly accelerating, growth: 60.8 million net new subscribers were added between H1 2016 and H1 2017. This indicates that subscriber growth remains on the faster-growth midpoint of the S-curve. MIDiA maintains its viewpoint that this growth phase will last through the remainder of 2018 and likely until mid-2019.

midia mid year 2018 subscriber mareket shares

This will be the stage at which the early-follower segments will be tapped out in developed markets. Thereafter, growth will be driven by mid-tier streaming markets such as Japan, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, and Russia. These markets have the potential to drive strong subscriber growth, but, in the case of the latter three, will require aggressive pursuit of mid- tier products – including cut-price prepay telco bundles, as seen in Brazil. Without this approach, the opportunity will be constrained to the affluent, urban elites that have post-pay data plans and credit cards. These sorts of products though, will of course deliver lower ARPU in already lower ARPU markets. All of this means: expect revenue to grow more slowly than subscribers from mid 2019.

The key service-level trends were:

  • Spotify:Spotify once again maintained global market share of 36%, the same as in Q4 2017, with 83 million subscribers. Spotify has either gained or maintained market share every six months since Q4 2016. Spotify added more subscribers than any other service in H1 2018 – 11.9, which was 39% of all net new subscribers across the globe in the period.
  • Apple Music:Apple added two points of market share, up to 19%, and up three points year-on-year, with 43.5 million subscribers. Apple Music added the second highest number of subscribers – 9.2 million, with the US being the key growth market.
  • Amazon:Across Prime Music and Music Unlimited Amazon added just under half a point of market share, stable at 12%. Amazon experienced the most growth within its Unlimited tier, adding 3.3 million to reach 9.5 million in H2 2018. In total Amazon had 27.9 million subscribers at the end of the period.
  • Others:There were mixed fortunes among the rest of the pack. In Japan, Line Music experienced solid quarterly growth to reach one million subscribers, while in South Korea MelOn had a dip in Q1 but recovered in Q2 to finish slightly above its Q4 2017 figure. Elsewhere, Pandora had a solid six months, adding 0.5 million subscribers, while Google performed strongly on a global basis

The mid-term report card for the music subscriptions market in 2018 is strong, sustained growth with a similar second half of the year to come.

How Streaming is Changing the Shape of Music Itself [Part I]

[This is the first of two thought pieces on how streaming is reshaping music from creation to consumption] 

The streaming era has arrived in the music business, but the music business has not yet fully arrived in the streaming era. Labels, publishers, artists, songwriters and managers are all feeling – to differing degrees – the revenue impact of a booming streaming sector. However, few of these streaming migrants are fundamentally reinventing their approach to meet the demands of the new world. A new rule book is needed, and for that we need to know which of today’s trends are the markers for the future. This sort of future gazing requires us to avoid the temptation of looking at the player with the ball, but instead look for who the ball is going to be passed to.

Where we are now

These are changes that represent the start of the long-term fundamental shifts that will ultimately evolve into the future of the music business:

  • A+R strategy: Record labels are chasing the numbers, building A+R and marketing strategies geared for streaming. The bug in the machine is the ‘known unknown’ of the impact of lean-back listening, people listening to a song because it is in a pushed playlist rather than seeking it out themselves. Are labels signing the artists that music fans or that data thinks they want?
  • Composition:Songwriters are chasing the numbers too. The fear of not getting beyond the 30 second skip sees songs overloaded with hooks and familiar references. The industrialisation of song writing among writing teams and camps creates songs that resemble a loosely stitched succession of different hooks. Chasing specific playlists and trying to ‘sound like Spotify’delivers results but at the expense of the art.
  • Genre commodification:The race for the sonic centre ground is driving a commodification of genres. The pop music centre ground bleeding ever further outwards, with shameless cultural appropriating par for the course. Genres were once a badge of cultural identity, now they are simply playlist titles.
  • Decline of the album:iTunes kicked off the dismembering of the album, allowing users to cherry pick the killer tracks and skip the filler. The rise of the playlist has accentuated the shift. Over half of consumers aged 16–34 are listening to albums less in favour of playlists. The playlist juggernaut does not care for carefully constructed album narratives, nor, increasingly, do music listeners.
  • Restructuring label economics:Achieving cut though for a single takes pretty much the same effort as for an album. So, it is understandable that label economics still gravitate around the album. But streaming is rapidly falsifying the ROI assumption for many genres, with it being the tracks, not the albums that deliver the returns in these genres.
  • Decline of catalogue:Streaming’s fetishisation of the new, coupled with Gen Z’s surplus of content tailored for them, deprioritises the desire to look back. Catalogue – especially deep catalogue, will have to fight a fierce rear-guard action to retain relevance in the data-driven world of streaming.
  • Audience fragmentation: Hyper targeting is reshaping marketing and music is no different. While the mainstream of A+R chases the centre ground, indies, DIY artists and others chase niches are becoming increasingly fragmented. Yet, most often, this is not a genuine fragmentation of scenes, but an unintended manifestation of hyper- focused targeting and positioning.
  • End of the breakthrough artist:Fewer artists are breaking through to global success. None of the top ten selling US albums in 2017 were debut albums, just one was in the UK. Just 30% of Spotify’s most streamed artists in 2017 released their first album in the prior five years. Streaming’s superstars – Drake, Sheeran etc. – pre-date streaming’s peak. Who will be selling out the stadium tours five years from now?
  • Massively social artists:Artists have long known the value of getting close to their audiences. Social media is central to media consumption and discovery, and its metrics are success currency. Little wonder that a certain breed of artist may appear more concerned with keeping their social audiences happy than driving streams.
  • Value chain conflict:BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti once said “content may still be king but distribution is the queen and she wears the trousers”. Labels fear Spotify is out to eat their lunch, Spotify fears labels want to trim its wings. Such tensions will persist as the music industry value chain reshapes to reflect the shifts in where value and power reside.

Next week: where these trends will go.

To paraphrase Roy Amara:“It is easy to overestimate the near-term impact of technology and underestimate the long-term impact.”

State of the YouTube Music Economy 2.0: A Turning Point for All Parties

YouTube is the most widely used streaming music app globally but it is also the most controversial one, locked in a perpetual struggle with music rights holders, with neither side quite trusting the intent of the other. 2018 has already seen YouTube’s renewed focus on subscriptions as well as a European Parliament vote that could potentially remove YouTube’s safe harbour protection. Meanwhile, oblivious to these struggles, and despite the rise of audio streaming services, consumers are flocking to YouTube in ever greater numbers and, crucially, using it for music more than ever before. Back in 2016, at the height of the value gap / grab debate, MIDiA published its inaugural State of the YouTube Music Economy report. Now two years on we have just released the second edition of this landmark report. MIDiA clients have immediate access to the ‘State of the YouTube Music Economy’ report, which is also available for purchase on our report store. Here are some of the highlights from the report.

state of the youtube music economy midia research

2016 proved to be a pivot point for YouTube. Rights holder relationships were at an all-time low with value gap / value grab lobbying reaching fever pitch. Meanwhile, vlogger hype was also peaking and longer-form gaming videos were beginning to get real traction. If there was ever a point at which YouTube could have walked away from music, this could have been it. The picture though, has transformed, with YouTube doubling down on music and in doing so, making itself an even more important partner for record labels.

With young consumers abandoning radio in favour of streaming, YouTube is the biggest winner among Gen Z and Millennials; penetration for YouTube music viewing peaks at 73% among 16–19 year olds in Brazil. But its reach is even wider: YouTube is the main way that all consumers aged 16 to 44 discover music.

Doubling down on music

YouTube has responded by improving its discovery and recommendation algorithms and gearing them more closely to music. The combined impact of demographic shifts and tech innovation is that YouTube is making hits bigger, faster. Billion-views music videos used to be an exceptional achievement, now they are becoming common place. By end July 2018, Vevo reported that there were already ten 1 billion views music videos for tracks released that year, accounting for 17.2 billion views between them. One billion view music videos that were released in 2010 took an average of 1,841 days to reach the milestone. Videos released five years later took an average of just 462 days, while those from 2017 took an average of just 121 days to get to one billion views. Over the course of eight years, YouTube has become more than ten times faster at creating billion-view hits.

Under indexing

The impact on revenue is less even. Music videos are the single most popular video category on YouTube, accounting for 32% of views but a smaller 21% of revenue. Music is still the leading YouTube revenue driver with $3.0 billion in 2017 but many other genres, gaming especially, over index for revenue. (Many YouTube gamers have multiple video ads placed at chapter markers throughout their videos. Because music videos are shorter they get a smaller share of video ads.) Emerging market audiences are also pulling down ad revenues. The surge in Latin American markets has pushed artists like Louis Fonsi to the fore, but the less-developed nature of the digital ad markets there means less revenue per video. This trend is accentuated with the rise of emerging markets music channels like India’s T-Series becoming some of the most viewed YouTube channels globally.

The net result is that effective per stream rates are going down on a global basis, but are going up in developed markets like the US, where the digital ad market is robust. This brings us to one of the existential challenges for YouTube. What does the music industry want YouTube to be? After years of nudging by labels, YouTube is now embarking on a serious premium strategy, but is that really what YouTube is best at? What YouTube does better than anyone else in the market is monetise free audiences at scale on a truly global basis (China excepted).

A turning point

2018 is a turning point for YouTube. The accelerated success it and Vevo have enjoyed since 2016 over indexes compared to YouTube as a whole, which means that music is a more central component of the YouTube experience than it has ever been. However, driving impressive viewing metrics was never YouTube’s problem, convincing music rights holders that it is a good partner is. The value gap war of words may have died down a little but that is as much a reflection of the rise of audio streaming and a return to growth for record labels than anything else, as the European Parliament’s Article 13 vote highlighted. Safe harbour was never designed to be used the way YouTube does for music, and the fact it does so creates a commercial disincentive for other streaming services to play by music rights holders’ rules. The fact that YouTube can get a greater volume of rights and more cheaply than other services andbe the largest global streaming service unbalances the streaming market. Though against this must be set the fact that YouTube has been able to create a more rounded value proposition without operating within the same confines as other streaming services.

The music industry needs the YouTube-Vevo combination, especially while Spotify scales its global free audience. The road ahead will be rocky, especially if Article 13 is eventually passed and also if rights holders continue to be disappointed by engagement growth out accelerating revenue growth due to the growing role of emerging markets. But it is in the interests of all parties to make the relationship work because neither side wants a YouTube shaped hole in the streaming marketplace, even if a Facebook / Vevo partnership was to try to fill some of it.

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 16.54.06Click here to see more details of the 29-page, 6,000 word, 11 chart reporton which this blog post is based. The report is based upon months of extensive research, industry conversations, MIDiA data and proprietary company data and represents the definitive assessment of the YouTube Music Economy.

Emerging Music Markets: Streaming’s Third Wave

MIDiA has just published a new report that deep dives into how streaming is, or in some cases is not, lifting off in emerging markets. The regions we focused on were Russia, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, China and India. The report ‘Emerging Music Markets: Streaming’s Third Wave’ is immediately available to MIDiA subscription clients and can also be purchased, along with its full dataset (including service- and country-level subscriber and free users numbers, as well as consumer data for India and China) on our report store here.

Here are some of the key findings and themes of the report.

emerging markets midia streaming

With streaming growth set to slow in mature western markets by 2019, the next wave of fast growth will come from a mixture of mid-tier markets such as Mexico, Brazil, Japan and Germany. The lower income mid-tier markets such as Brazil and Mexico are so populous that the urban elites have been big enough to generate paid user bases that are comparable to those of smaller European markets. The real scale opportunity, however, exists in monetising lower income groups with much cheaper propositions. Beyond that, the streaming market will need to look towards emerging markets for growth. Emerging markets in Asia and Africa present a diverse variety of opportunities, but current evidence suggests that the outlook for these markets is far from uniform.

The rule that defines emerging markets for streaming music is that there isn’t one. China has a large base of free users and a solid base of subscribers. India has large numbers of free users, but a tiny paid base. Russia and the Middle East both have a solid ratio of free-to-paid users while Africa has the lowest per capita metrics for both paid and free.

Arguably, the single most important reason for these differences is mobile data network availability and affordability. In China and India mobile data use is increasingly widespread, making streaming a compelling proposition, while in most sub-Saharan African countries coverage is patchy and expensive.

Despite their differences, these regions will be crucial to the long-term outlook for streaming growth. So, mapping their respective trajectories helps to forecast long-term global market growth for streaming. Rights holders will need to innovate out of their comfort zone if they are to truly seize the emerging markets opportunity. The fact that Nigeria’s MTN only gets a retail ARPU of around $2 a year across sub-Saharan Africa for its music products, including ringtones and downloads, hints at where ARPU expectations may have to be set.

Companies and brands mentioned in the report:Baidu Music, Gaana, Hungama, iRoking, Jio Music, Kugou, Kuwo, Mdundo, Mkito, MTN, MTN Music+, Mzliki, Netease Cloud Music, QQ Music, Quan Min K G, Saavn, Simfy Africa, Vkontakte, Vkontakte Music, Vuga, Wynk Music, Yandex, Yandex Music, Zvook

Click here to view the report on MIDiA’s report store.

Are Record Labels Facing an A&R Crisis?

A succession of conversations with record labels over the last couple of months has made me start to ponder whether we are approaching a tipping point in streaming era A&R. At the heart of the conversations is whether the growing role of playlists and the increased use of streaming analytics is making label A&R strategy proactive or reactive? Is what people are listening to shaped by the labels or the streaming service? To subvert Paul Weller’s 1980s Jam lyrics: Does the public get what the public wants or does the public want what the public gets?

An old dynamic reinvented

Radio used to be the main way in which audiences were essentially told what to listen to. Labels influenced what radios would play through a range of soft tactics – boozy lunches, listening sessions etc. – and hard tactics – pluggers, payola etc. Now radio is in long-term decline, losing its much-coveted younger audience to YouTube and audio streaming services. Streaming services have learned to capture much of this listening time by looking and feeling a lot more like radio through tactics such as curated playlists, stations, personalisation and podcasts. Curated listening is increasingly shaping streaming consumption, ensuring that the listening behaviours of streaming users resembles radio-like behaviour as much as it does user-led listening. The problem for the record labels is that they have less direct influence on streaming services’ playlists than they did on radio.

Chasing the data

All record labels have become far more data savvy over recent years, with the major labels in particular building out powerful data capabilities. This has resulted in a shift in emphasis from more strategic, insight-led data, such as audience segmentation, to more tactical, data such as streaming analytics.

At MIDiA we have worked with many organisations to help them improve their use of data and the number one problem we fix, is going to deep with analytics. It might sound like a crazy thing to say, but we have seen again and again, companies fetishize analytics, pushing out endless dashboards across the organisation. Too often the results are:

  1. decision makers paradoxically pay less attention to data than previously, not more, because they assume someone else must be ‘on it’ because of all the dashboards
  2. strategic decisions are made because of ‘blips’ in the data.

There is a danger that record labels are now following this path, relying too heavily on streaming analytics. It is interesting to contrast labels with TV companies. Until the rise of streaming, TV networks were obsessed with ‘overnight ratings’, looking at how a show performed the prior night. Now streaming has made the picture more nuanced, TV networks are turning to a diverse mix of metrics, incorporating ratings, streaming metrics, social data and TV show brand trackers. Streaming made the TV networks take a more diverse approach to data, but has made record labels pursue a narrower approach.

The risk for record labels is that doubling down on streaming analytics can easily result in double and fake positives and create the illusion of causality. Arguably the biggest problem is making curation-led trends look like user-led trends, mis-interpreting organic hits for manufactured ones.

Lean-back hits

One major label exec was recently telling me about how one of his label’s artists had ended up in Spotify Today’s Top Hits and racked up super-impressive stats. The success surprised the label as everything else they knew about the artists suggested it would not be such a big breakthrough performer. Nonetheless the label decided to rewrite its plan and threw a huge amount of marketing support behind the next single. Yes, you guessed it, it flopped. When the label went back to the streaming stats, it transpired that the vast majority of plays were passive. It was a hit because it was in a hit playlist that users tend not to skip through, which created an artificial hit, albeit a transitory one.

This case study highlights the two big challenges we face:

  1. Streaming analytics stripped of the context of insight can mislead
  2. Lean-back hits are not real hits

Chasing the stats

The two points are now combining to create what may yet be an A&R crisis. By chasing streaming metrics, the more commercially inclined record labels – which does not exclusively mean major labels – are creating a data feedback loop. By signing the genre of artists that they see doing best on playlists, they push more of that genre into the marketplace which in turn influences the playlists, which creates the double positive of that genre becoming even more pervasive. This sets off the whole process all over again. And because the labels are chasing the same genre of artists, bidding wars escalate and A&R budgets explode. This leads to labels having to commit even more money to marketing those genres because they can’t afford for their expensively acquired new artists not to succeed. All of this helps ensure that the music becomes even more pervasive. And so on, ad infinitum. Five years ago, this probably wouldn’t have been a problem but now record labels are flush with cash again, they are throwing out advances that they can now afford on a cash flow basis, but not on a margin basis. Because record labels – majors especially – remain obsessed with market share, none are willing to jump off the spinning wheel in case they jump too soon. It is a game of chicken. As one label exec put it to me: “In the old days we were betting on the gut instinct of an A+R guy who at least knew his music, now we’re chasing stats rather than tunes”.

Not so neutral platforms

Of course, none of this should be happening. Streaming platforms should be neutral arbiters of taste, simply connecting users with the music that best matches their tastes. But streaming services are locked in their own market share wars, each trying to add the most subscribers and drive the most impressive streaming stats – just look at how Spotify and Apple fell over each other to claim who had streamed Drake’s Scorpion most. In such an intense arms race, can any streaming service risk delivering a song to its users that might result in fewer streams than another one? Therefore, what we are now seeing is a subtle, but crucial, change in the way recommendation algorithms work. Instead of simply looking a user’s taste to estimate what other music she might like, the algorithms test the music on a sample of users to make sure they like it first before pushing it to a wider group of users that match that profile. In short, the algorithms are playing it safe with hits, which means surprise breakouts are becoming ever less likely to happen. Passenger’s slow burning ‘Let Her Go’ simply might never have broken through if it had been launched today. And yes, if you didn’t skip that Scorpion track in Today’s Top Hits then you are now that bit more of a Drake fan, even if you actually aren’t.

Where this all goes

Something needs to change, and ideally someone will have the balls to jump off the wheel before it stops spinning. Right now, we are on a path towards musical homogeneity where serendipitous discovery gets shoved to the side lines. And with listeners having progressively less say in what they like because they are too lazy to skip, record labels will become less and less able to determine whether they are getting value for money from their marketing and A&R spend.

Pop will eat itself.

What Netflix’s Missing $9 Billion Tells Us About Spotify’s Business Model

On Monday (July 16th), Netflix’s quarterly earnings missed targets, resulting in $9.1 billion being wiped off its market capitalisation due to twitchy investors jumping ship. To be clear, Netflix had a strong quarter, continuing to grow strongly in both the US – a much more saturated market for video subscriptions than for music – and internationally. Netflix also registered a net operating profit. What it failed to do was meet the ambitious expectations it had set. The lessons for Spotify are clear. With Spotify’s Q2 earnings due later this month, it will be bracing itself for another potential drop in stock value if its performanceis good but not good enough to keep ambitious investors happy. Such is the life of a publicly traded tech company.

But perhaps the most telling part of Netflix’s stock performance was that the $9.1 billion of market cap it lost is more than a quarter of Spotify’s entire market cap ($33.3 billion on Tuesday). Netflix of course plays in a much bigger market than Spotify: the US video subscription market will be worth $17.3 billion in 2018—the same amount that the IFPI estimates the entire global recorded music business generated in 2017. But, the perspective is crucial. Lots of institutional investment has flowed into Spotify since it went public – and indeed prior to that, but music is a tiny part of those investors’ portfolio. Netflix’s loss in market cap shows that even the golden child of streaming does not deliver enough promise for many of those investors, but investors have plenty of other TV industry bets to make if they abandon Netflix. For music, institutional investors basically have Spotify or Vivendi. So, while Netflix struggling is a problem for Netflix, a struggling Spotify would be a problem for the entire recorded music business.

Savvy switchers – Netflix’s churn problem

Netflix’s earnings also present some positive signs for the strength of Spotify’s business model compared to Netflix’s, such as its growing quarterly churn rate: around 8% in Q2 2018, up from 6% the prior quarter. This reflects what my colleague Tim Mulligan refers to as ‘savvy switchers’– video subscribers who churn in and out of services when there’s a new show to watch. This is a dynamic unique to video, created by the walled garden approach of exclusives. No such problem faces Spotify, for now at least, because all of its competitors have largely the same catalogue.

Content spend: uncapped versus fixed

Most relevant though, is Netflix’s content spend. One of the much-used arguments against Spotify in favour of Netflix is that Spotify has fixed content costs, hindering its ability to increase profits, because costs will always scale with revenue. However, Spotify’s advantage is in fact that content costs are fixed, there is a cap on how much it will spend on rights. Netflix has no such safeguard, which means that the more competitive its marketplace gets, the more it has to spend on content.

This is why Netflix has had to take on successive amounts of debt – accruing to $9.7 billion since 2013. Servicing this debt cost Netflix $318.8 million for the 12 months to Q2 2018, one year earlier the cost was $181.4 million. For the 12 months to Q2 2018, Netflix’s streaming content liabilities were $10.8 billion, representing 80% of streaming revenues, which compares favourably with Spotify’s 78%. One year earlier, those liabilities for Netflix were $9.6 billion, representing a whopping 99% of streaming revenues. The reason Netflix can do this and generate a net margin is that it amortises the costs of its originals (essentially offsetting some of its tax bill). For the 12 months to Q2 2018 Netflix amortised 64% of its content liabilities, one year earlier that share was 57%, reflecting originals being a larger share of content spend during 12 months to Q2 2018. The more originals Netflix makes, the more it can increase its margin. Which creates the intriguing dynamic of the US Treasury subsidising Netflix’s business model. Welcome to the next generation of state funded broadcaster!

Q2 will tell

Spotify spending billions on original content is some way off yet – assuming it engineers a way to do so without antagonising its label partners, but until then it can rest assured that while Netflix faces growing content costs, it has its exposure capped, allowing it to focus on growing its customer base and enhancing its product. The reaction to the forthcoming Q2 earnings will show us whether investors see it that way too.