Taylor Swift, Streaming And The Changing Tide

Taylor Swift made big waves over the weekend with her open letter to Apple protesting it should pay for its 3 month free trial.  Her voice was just one more following protests from across the indie community of which Swift and her label are both members. But it turned out that her voice was the loudest and Apple’s Eddy Cue swiftly announced a u-turn on Apple’s free trial pay outs. This is just one more twist in the much bigger streaming story but it does highlight some interesting dynamics, not least of which is how Swift’s worldview differs from many of her contemporaries.

Taylor Swift’s Sales Outlook Is Surprisingly Old School

As paradoxical as it may sound for such a digitally savvy artist as Taylor Swift, she is in fact from the old school when it comes to recorded music.  Swift started her career so early – she signed her first label deal when she was just 14 years old – that she is effectively further into her recording career than most successful 30 something artists.  So she is an album era artist who, with her label Big Machine, managed to build a long-standing successful music sales career.  Streaming, with all of its substitutive impact on sales, does not fit well with the Swift / Big Machine model.   In many respects Swift’s recorded music worldview has more in common with artists of Coldplay’s generation than it does hers.  The contrast with successful contemporary mainstream pop artists is stark. The take of Ed Sheeran (who is just one year younger than Swift) on the role of recorded music is “I’m in the music industry to play live. That’s why I make records” while Calvin Harris (currently romantically linked with Swift) is famously a co-owner of streaming platform TIDAL.  Both of those artists have been supremely successful on Spotify and neither has a decade of platinum selling albums behind them.  For them, streaming is simply how it is and they are learning how to make that work.

Streaming Is Fundamentally Substitutive

None of this is to belittle the hugely disruptive impact of going from a sales model which guaranteed up front revenue to an access model where revenue is fractionalised over many years.  In the sales era a purchased album generated $10 of gross revenue whether it was listened to once or a thousand times.  In a streaming service an album that is listened to once generates $0.10 and only reaches $10 when listened to a hundred times.  If you are a superstar artist you can probably swallow the near term pain because a) your streaming volumes are in the billions so the pennies add up and b) you make the majority of your money from playing live.  If you are a smaller artist the outlook is bleaker for getting through the transition period i.e. until streaming services are big enough to ensure a high tide rises all boats.

Live Is Where The $$ Are For Superstars

Interestingly for Swift, for all her sales success, live is also where she makes her money.  She ranks as the highest earning artist on Billboard’s top earners list with $39 million but $30 million of that came from live.  She explains in her post that “[I] can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows” and that she is raising her voice for “the new artist or band that has just released their first single”.  This may well be the case but she is also very much doing this for her label Big Machine Records (which doesn’t get to benefit in any truly meaningful way from Swift’s live revenue).   Swift’s rise to prominence and continued success is intrinsically linked to that of her label Big Machine Records and it is fully understandable why she has been so perfectly aligned with Big Machine’s stance on streaming.  But it is a position nonetheless.

Apple Doesn’t Need Any Commercial Bail Outs To Launch Apple Music

None of this though detracts from the core issue at stake here, namely Apple not paying for a 3 month free trial.  Apple is in the business of selling music in order to sell hardware.  Apple’s primary concern is not what % of iTunes sales become substituted by free trials (near term) and subscriptions (long term) but instead how it helps them gain and retain device buyers. Swift, Big Machine and the rest have very good reason for being very cautious with Apple’s streaming strategy.  Apple is the leading source of digital music sales and accounted for approximately $2.8 billion of music sales revenue in 2014, or 40% of all digital music revenue.  If Spotify messes up a free trial the labels risk slowing the rate of new streaming revenue growth.  If Apple messes it up the money that keeps the lights on is at risk.

Apple doesn’t need any financial assistance in launching Apple Music (it does after all have $178 billion in cash reserves) but it does need careful attention from labels and artists alike to ensure it gets the strategy right. Whatever the outcome though the streaming transition is an inevitability and Taylor Swift is no more able to hold it back than King Canute was able to hold back the tide.

Apple, The Indies And The Rise Of The Digital Monopsony

Much of the independent label community have come out in public opposition to Apple’s request for a 3 month free trial that crucially would not involve any royalty payments to labels. Besides the fact this has revealed inconsistency in major label licensing strategy (some services have to pay royalties for their free trials) it also raises questions about Apple’s growing role as a content platform. In the old model (i.e. selling CDs on the high street and mall) retailers held all the power, charging labels for prime placement, priority shelf space and carving out additional commercial benefits such as breakage (whereby they were given a discount on a set assumption of a % of shipments that would break in transit, even if they didn’t). In the old new model (i.e. where we are now) the power shifted to the labels with music stores and services having to pay advances, minimum guarantees etc. in order to sell the labels’ content. Even breakage got reinvented and turned into a commercial benefit for labels (they get paid for under usage of services). Now a new model is emerging where a few big platforms are beginning to exercise the power they have been quietly building for the last half a decade or so.

Apple, Amazon And Google – The Digital Superpowers

Apple, Amazon and Google are all digital content platforms. They each own the customer, control billing, know everything about him/her, control some or all of the hardware and have a diverse portfolio of content assets. Each has also become super important to media company partners. For music labels Apple has become the dominant source of digital retail revenue, Amazon the dominant source of physical retail revenue and Google the dominant digital discovery platform. Each holds the whip hand in their respective area of dominance. Now they all want more. They may each want slightly different things but none are shy of wielding their respective spheres of influence to get to what they want. This is where the indies’ dispute with Apple comes into play. Apple is in the business of music in order to sell hardware and has known for a number of years that streaming is going to be how it transitions that role in a post-download world. It has thus far taken a very responsible approach to its sales role and has been sensitive to the risk of decimating label revenue if it does not time its streaming transition properly. But the first step on that journey has now been taken and the point of no return is fast approaching. Which is why it is crucial that all rights holders have the right agreements in place and which is why the indies are making the noise they are.

The Power Of The Platform

In an echo of Google’s heavy-handed YouTube Music Key negotiations with indies and DIY artists, one independent artist has claimed that Apple has threatened to remove his music from the iTunes Store if he does not allow his music to be used in the free trial. Whether this is true or not (and it may well not be) is almost not the point. What it highlights is Apple’s power as a platform. Artists and labels alike simply cannot do without iTunes revenue. Whether Apple needs to overtly play the card or not, the implication of the veiled threat is clear. And Apple is not exactly alone. Last year Amazon clashed with book publisher Hachette over eBook pricing and during the dispute employed a number of pressure tactics including: refusing to take pre-orders on Hachette titles, placing a 6 week delay on delivery of them and even pointing users to competitor titles when they searched for an Hachette book. All of these were clear misuse, possibly even abuse, of Amazon’s role as distribution platform but no regulatory body even raised an eyelid. Apple will have watched the development with acute interest.

The Rise Of The Digital Monopsony

Apple, Amazon and Google are all unique cases. They have become de facto monopolies for their respective sectors, exercising control over the entire platform of user, supplier and interaction between them. There isn’t really an economic term that properly explains them but monopsony is the closest: a company that is the only effective buyer and seller of a product and can thus dictate terms at both ends of the equation. These digital monopsonies are growing pains of the digital economy. After all, we are still in the very early stages of the digital economy. If this were the industrial revolution Robert Stephenson wouldn’t have developed the steam locomotive yet. Consider this phase market adolescence. This raises challenges for regulation with regulatory bodies largely unable to deal with companies that exercise effective monopoly power but that do not meet the criteria of a pre-digital era economy monopoly. Of course the indie labels cannot afford to wait for that dynamic to change so in the meantime they must seize the initiative in this issue and others like it.

An Opportunity To Change The Narrative

Right now though the indies have an opportunity to use this case to genuinely move the needle. Apple has pushed them out of their comfort zone. Instead of just digging in their heels they can decided to push Apple out of its comfort zone and request something similarly game changing of Apple in return. In short, turn a defensive move into an offensive one and help set the agenda rather than being stuck in the familiar rut of responding to the one set by the major labels and Apple. Apple Music may have underwhelmed at launch but the company still has the most important music monetization platform on the planet. Most indie labels and majors alike would all but collapse if iTunes revenue disappeared overnight.

Right now Apple still wants to play the role of good partner, albeit one that negotiates hard. So the labels still have a chance to help shape what the next chapter in Apple’s music story can look like. That may not always be the case, especially if Artist Connect has developed into a label like service layer 3 years from now, which I suspect will be the case. Apple is no Google, it still wants first and foremost to sell music rather than give it away. That may not always hold true.   Similarly the power of the digital monopsonies will likely strengthen over the coming half decade or so. So right now the indies are probably in the strongest position they will be in for some time, even if it might not feel like it to them. They need to seize this moment.

Spotify Plays The Big Numbers Game

Hot on the heels of Apple’s less-than-dazzling entrance into the streaming market Spotify made two big announcements: a further $526 million in funding and 20 million paying subscribers with 55 million free users. Not a bad retort.

spotify 20 million

Subscriber Growth Outpaced Free User Growth, Depending On Which Metric You Use

Between December 2014 and June 2015 added an average of 2 million free users a month and 1 million paid users a month. Although this meant Spotify’s free user base added twice as many users (10 million compared to 5 million) paid users grew faster in percentage terms, increasing by 33% compared to 22% for free.   These numbers can, and will, be taken to support both sides of the freemium argument and things are complicated by the fact that Spotify’s free user base is probably higher than 55 million. However the key takeaway is that based on the publically available numbers subscriber growth was faster than free growth in the first half of 2015.

Spotify Is Now Worth More Than Half Of the Entire Global Recorded Music Industry

Spotify was already the most heavily financed music service in history and it has nearly doubled its total investment in one single round, taking the total to more than $1.1 billion with a valuation of $8.5 billion. That translates to $55 of investment per subscriber. Or on a valuation basis $425 per subscriber which would take 3 and half years of continual subscription per subscriber to recoup in headline revenue terms. However as Spotify only gets 30% of revenue it would actually need 12 years of subscription per subscriber to generate $8.5 billion.

Of course VC funded company valuations are more about potential than they are realised value so the comparisons are slightly unfair. But given that $8.5 billion represents 57% of the entire global recorded music industry revenue in 2014 there are some pretty big assumptions being made.

Apple Music Is Still Likely To Prove A Fierce Adversary Even If It Is No Killer App Yet 

Make no mistake, Spotify has established itself as the global leader in its space and has good reason to feel confident. However Apple has so many structural advantages (owning the platform and billing relationships, massive addressable base etc.) that it is still likely to become the global streaming leader 3 years or so from now. (Assuming of course it ups its game from its entry product.) But that does not mean Spotify cannot be a success too.

Apple entered the download market when none of the existing stores had any meaningful customer base. Even with that supreme head start Apple still only managed around a 65% global market share of the download business. Granted most of the competitors were bit part players but in the streaming arena it is entering an established market with proven customer bases. This will not be a winner takes all market and I fully expect Spotify to be closer to Apple than Deezer (the current #2) is now to Spotify.

These are big numbers from Spotify that prior to Apple’s announcement it probably thought it would need even more than proved to be the case. Regardless, both sets of figures show that Spotify is geared up for a fight for supremacy. Game on!

What I Want To See Next From Apple

With Apple Music barely a few hours old it might seem a little perverse to focus on what Apple needs to do next but Apple’s potential remains more latent than realized. Apple has an opportunity to launch the sort of music platform the industry has been waiting for during the entire digital era but has not yet seen. It hasn’t done it yet but it now has the right materials with which to build it.

If Apple is going to make a meaningful long term impact on the streaming market it will need to play the innovation card.  Apple music products have been something of the poor relation in innovation terms over the last half decade or so, looking on wistfully from their music downloads backwater while Apple’s devices undergo an innovation and design revolution.

If Apple can seamlessly integrate all its assets (radio, podcasts, downloads, on demand streaming, apps etc.) then it could create the most comprehensive and engaging music experience in the marketplace. Imagine listening to a Zane Lowe show on demand, but tracks are played in sequence.  You like one of the tracks so you click ‘more by this artist’ and start listening to the latest album.  After a few tracks you pull back into the show, listen a bit more and then see a link to an Artist Connect video of an interview by Zane with the last artist you listened to. You jump to listen to that then jump back into the show, decide you want to hear the first couple of tracks and what Zane had to say about them again and jump back to there.

In that scenario the user has jumped from semi-interactive radio, into on demand, back into semi interactive radio, non-music content, back into semi-interactive radio, then into fully interactive radio. Of course there are multiple business models at play with multiple rights frameworks but if a user was able to top up on Apple Music credit to use across the entire platform then s/he need never know when boundaries are crossed and the credit would simply get auto deducted from the balance.

Implementation wouldn’t be simple (especially form a licensing perspective) but that is the sort of innovation bar that Apple should now be aspiring to. Apple has a unique opportunity to become a true music platform. The first step has been taken (and some of the Artist Connect functionality may prove to be super cool) but now it is time for the real innovation fun to begin.

Apple Music: A Platform Play With Hidden Nuance

Today Apple finally announced its long, long anticipated entry into the streaming music space with Apple Music. Apple has spent the last few years as the sleeping giant of streaming music watching Spotify et al seize the innovation mantle and dominate both consumer behaviour and the industry narrative. With all the anticipation expectations were understandably high, too high perhaps. Thus in many respects Apple Music underwhelmed (a 9.99 on demand service;  a 24/7 live broadcast radio offering Beats1; a fan / artist engagement platform Artist Connect). But there is also more than first meets the eye, there is a nuanced strategy at play.

Radio Takes Centre Stage

Placing radio centre stage is smart, as that’s how Apple will engage the early follower consumer, who will be Apple’s core target (other than winning back some existing Spotify users). Remember, Apple’s core priority is delivering the best possible music experience to as many of its device owners as possible. A 9.99 subscription service that works for 10% of them is much less interesting than a free radio service that works for 500 million of them.

There’s no little irony that Apple triggered an industry knee jerk reaction against free music only to go and put free music at the core of its streaming play. Of course the crucial difference here is that the free music is not on demand. Apple is using radio, real time broadcast and high profile DJs as a way of bringing context and meaning to internet radio for the Apple mainstream (which of course is slightly different from the broader mainstream). Whether Beats1 is enough on its own for that purpose is another question.  Beats2 and 3 to follow shortly?

Taking The First Step Towards A Platform Play?

Apple continues to be ridiculed for its failed Ping! music social network. While it was no killer app it nonetheless represented an attempt to turn iTunes into a music platform. Now that same strategy has been rekindled with the launch of Artist Connect. This is Apple’s attempt to turn itself into an artist-fan engagement platform. Artist-fan engagement is the gold dust of the digital era music business. It’s the scarce, invaluable commodity that music fans crave in a post-scarcity music world. The non-music content is also interesting. Artists can push photos, videos and works in progress to their fans. This combines elements of the D.I.S.C. music format I wrote about here and also the Agile Music concept I wrote about in 2011. There is no reason why music should be a creative full stop in the digital era nor why the static audio file should be the be all and end all. Music fans want more than just the song.

There’s no shortage of competition in this space but while DIY sites of various guises are niche, Apple presents the opportunity to reach more than a hundred million of the world’s most valuable (i.e. highest spending) music fans. Sure some of them now pay for Spotify but they’re still iTunes users also.  If Apple’s featureset for artist is strong enough, expect strong uptake, especially from the bigger labels and artists.

Apple Is Making A Play For A Bigger Role Than Ever In Music

The long term implications are intriguing. If Apple establishes itself as one of the key engagement platforms it will change some of the core dynamics of music marketing. All the while strengthening its hand and establishing an indispensable role for itself if it doesn’t make meaningful inroads into the subscription market. Consider it a back up plan. But even more interestingly, if it succeeds at both subscriptions and marketing then it suddenly has more power than it ever did in the hey day of the iTunes Store. Apple could emerge with the power to break and then make an artist. Once it gets there record labels will rightly start casting nervous glances over their shoulders.

Soundcloud Edges Towards Making YouTube The Odd One Out

Soundcloud took another step away from being an ‘under licensed’ service to a ‘fully licensed’ one with its deal today with indie licensing body Merlin. This follows on the footsteps of deals with Warner and the National Music Publishers Association. Soundcloud is a long way yet from being out of the licensing woods but momentum is clearly building. Most importantly though, Soundcloud is inadvertently playing the role of ice breaker in the new wave of deals for sites that traded as promotional sites in the download era and are having to, willingly or not, accept a new role that looks and feels a lot more like a straight forward streaming service.

Merlin’s CEO Charles Caldas nailed it in this quote from an interview with Music Ally:

As the value of the streaming market grows, people are starting to realise that consumption is the new sales. Anywhere that people are listening to music is actually the end-game now. This notion that everything is promotional: that way that people used to talk about YouTube as a ‘promotional channel’. When that becomes the destination for music fans, it needs to compete in the marketplace with all the platforms that are monetised,” said Caldas.

Soundcloud always had a lot of goodwill within the indie community and indeed even within the marketing and A&R departments of majors because of its roots as a platform for helping labels, artists (and more recently) fans interact more effectively. The labels’ commercial affairs teams however have been far less enamoured, instead asking why Soundcloud should be able let people listen for free, on demand, without licenses when others can’t.

The role of standalone promotional streaming services made sense when everyone was still buying music, but with download sales and CD sales both on the slide globally the model is less obvious. The discovery journey has also become the consumption journey but the change is happening so fast that it is easy to confuse the two. This is why we have the paradoxical situation where 10 million streams on Spotify is considered to be x amount of lost sales while 10 million YouTube views is considered a marketing success. Right now a large chunk of digital marketing activity that is driving streams on YouTube and Soundcloud is tactic without purpose. It is marketing for marketing’s sake without a clear enough sense of what the end goal is.

This is why Soundcloud needs to get these deals in place. It will completely transform the commercial dynamics of Soundcloud, and there will undoubtedly be disgruntled artists and fans, but the music world has changed and it needed to also. All of which leaves YouTube the odd one out without a chair to sit on when the music stops.

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An honourable mention goes to Songkick who today announced a merger with Crowdsurge and a combined raise of $16m. Congrats to Songkick and Crowdsurge co-CEO Ian Hogarth who is one of the smartest minds in the music industry.

Rdio Goes After The Squeezed Middle

Streaming monetization is polarized between premium subscriptions on one end and free streaming on the other. The middle ground that was the scale heartland of the CD and the download is disappearing and taking with it the mainstream consumer.  It is into this environment Rdio just announced a new $3.99 tier.

mind the gap

Mid priced subscription tiers are thin on the ground.  We have a couple in the UK (MTV Trax and O2 Tracks from MusicQubed, Blinkbox Music, now owned by Guevara) and a number of ad free radio offerings from Pandora, Rhapsody and Slacker.  It is a heavily underserved segment as the slide above shows.  The mainstream streaming subscription market is squeezed between premium and nothing.  The average music spend of a consumer is around $3 a month, so $9.99 subscriptions are far out of reach of most consumers.  $3.99 however is far, far closer to a realistic price point for the mass market.

Regular readers will know that I have been a long term advocate of lower priced subscriptions and micro-billing / Pay As You Go pricing models to entice the more mainstream user.  The labels have been super cautious because they are scared of cheaper services cannibalizing the premium tier.  The concern is a valid one but ultimately if a bunch of 9.99 users aren’t getting full value from an unlimited service they are going to bail out eventually anyway.  At least with mid priced subscriptions they have somewhere to land instead of disappearing straight to free streaming.

monetization pyramid

Currently streaming monetization is split between the top and the bottom of the monetization pyramid and this needs to change.  Rdio’s new Select tier gives users ad free radio plus 25 songs of their choice each day. That might not sound like a lot of tracks but for the majority of mass market music listeners that will be more than enough.  In fact in some respects it could almost be too much.  What matters for the mass market listener is less the number of tracks and more how the tracks they like are surfaced to them.  Curation is a much-overused term these days, but expert curation and programming is crucial to engaging the mainstream.  Radio is still so popular because most mainstream consumers are lean back customers that want to be led on a music journey not to have to hack their way through the musical undergrowth themselves.

Monetizing The Revenue No-Man’s Land

The leap from zero to 9.99 is far too big and Rdio Select is an important step towards monetizing the revenue no-man’s land between free and premium.  Of course zero to anything is still a major hurdle but the success of iTunes (250 million global buyers) shows us once you make the first step small enough, consumers will follow.  The simple fact is that the streaming market will not be sustainable without the mainstream engaged as paying customers on the same sort of scale that was achieved with downloads.  An even simpler fact is that 9.99 will not achieve that end.

The Streaming Maturation Effect

What do Netflix and music subscriptions have in common?  They both experienced slowing growth in 2014 in the US.  Subscriptions are the monetization focal point of streaming but there have long been signs that the market opportunity is far short of the mainstream. Reports suggest that Spotify may (finally) be about to launch video, as a means of differentiating in an increasingly competitive marketplace that is about to get a whole lot more competitive on the 9th of June (i.e. when Apple announces its long mooted arrival into the space).  Spotify needs a differentiation point.  It may be the runaway market leader but it doesn’t have the feature badge of identity that many of its competitors do (e.g. Rdio is the social discovery service. TIDAL is the high def service. Beats is the curation service etc.).  However, even with a feature differentiation point, Spotify and all of its subscription peers face a more substantial challenge than competing with each other: they are collectively in danger of banging their heads on the ceiling of demand for music subscriptions.

Behaviours Will Change, But Slowly

The world is unequivocally moving from ownership to access and streaming will be a central component of this new consumption and distribution paradigm.  9.99 subscriptions however have no such mainstream inevitability.  They are too expensive for most consumers but most crucially they require consumers to pay for music every month when most people instead spend when one of their favourite artists is in cycle with a new album, single or tour.  Over time (a half generation or so) some consumers will have their behaviours modified, but the majority will not.  In some sophisticated markets (such as South Korea, the Nordics and, to some degree, the Netherlands) subscriptions are showing some sign of edging towards a wider audience (though still far short of mainstream).  In most major music markets though, they remain firmly locked in single digital percentage adoption ranges. They are niche services for the high spending aficionados.

maturation effect

But this isn’t solely a music subscription problem.  It is a dynamic of digital subscriptions more broadly.  Take a look at the US. In 2014 net new subscribers (i.e. the amount of subscribers by which the market grew) fell to 1.5 million, down from 2.8 million in 2013 – which translated to a 46% decline in net adds.  And that was in one of the highest profile years yet for subscriptions.  Over the same time period, Netflix’s net new US subscriber growth fell from 6.4 million to 5.7 million, which was a more modest 11% decline in net adds.

This is not to say either business model has run its course – far from it, and of course both sectors still gee in 2014 – but instead that premium subscriptions are not mass market value propositions. And once you have mopped up your early adopters and early followers growth inherently slows.  The music industry may be locked in an identity crisis over how it deals with freemium services, but it needs to have a realistic understanding of just how far subscription services can go without lower price tiers and more ability for users to easily dip in and out and, ideally, pay as they go rather than being tied to monthly commitments.

The incessant success of YouTube and Soundcloud show us that mainstream consumers want on-demand music experiences but the slow down of subscriber growth in the US shows us that the incumbent model only has a certain amount of potential. Sure, Apple will doubtlessly unlock a further tier of early followers to meaningfully grow the market, but it will only be a matter of time before it hits the same speed bumps.

Access based models are the mainstream future, subscriptions can be too, premium subscriptions though are not.

The Problem With Streaming Exclusives

Jay-Z’s ambitions for TIDAL has triggered a lot of discussion about how streaming models can evolve.  One focus has been exclusives with a number of references to TIDAL ‘doing a Netflix’ by commissioning exclusives.  Netflix can attribute much of its growth over the last couple of years to its flagship ‘Netflix Originals’ such as ‘House Of Cards’ and ‘Orange Is the New Black’.  It is an appealing model but the Netflix Originals approach cannot so easily be transferred to music.

There are three main types of exclusives:

1.    Service Window: album is released exclusively to a single music service for a fixed period of time e.g. only on TIDAL for 1 month

2.    Tier Window: album is released across one type of music service tier before others e.g. only on paid subscription tiers for 3 months

3.    Service Exclusive: music service acquires exclusive rights to an album so that it will never appear anywhere else unless the service decides to let it

The first two will become increasingly common components of the streaming landscape over the next couple of years.  Daniel Ek and Spotify fought a brave rear guard action against Taylor Swift and Big Machine to ensure the Tier Window model did not carve out a beachhead with ‘1989’ but it is an inevitability.  If free tiers are to have a long term role alongside paid tiers they have to be more clearly differentiated.

TIDAL and Apple look set to become the heavyweight players in the Service Window, duking it out for the biggest releases.  TIDAL will argue it pays out more to rights holders (75% compared to 70%) while Apple will argue that it can directly drive download sales (which is where everyone still makes their real sales revenue).  Apple will have to play that card carefully though as it stands just as much chance of accelerating download cannibalization as it does driving new sales.

When Is A Label A Label?

The really interesting, and potentially most disruptive, exclusive is the Service Exclusive.  This model would start blurring the distinction between what constitutes a music service and what defines a record label.  If, for example, TIDAL was to buy out the rights of the next Beyonce album or sign a deal for the next two Calvin Harris albums TIDAL would effectively become the record label for those releases.

The irony is that this ‘ownership of the masters model’ by streaming services is emerging just as the next generation labels are distancing themselves from it.  A new breed of ‘labels’ such as Kobalt’s AWAL and Cooking Vinyl’s Essential Music are focussing on providing label services without taking ownership of the masters and in turn putting the label and artist relationship on a more equitable agency / client basis.  But there are far more impactful challenges to the Service Exclusive model for music than simply being out of step with where the label model is heading:

  • Scarcity: ‘House Of Cards’ is only available on Netflix (and some download to own stores such as iTunes). It is a scarce asset, which is not something that can be said about any piece of recorded music.  As TIDAL found with the near instantaneous Beyonce YouTube leak, music scarcity is ephemeral in the YouTube age.  As long as YouTube is allowed to hide behind its perverse interpretation of ‘Fair Use’ and ‘Safe Harbour’ there will be no music scarcity.  (Of course true scarcity is gone for good, but if that can be made to only mean P2P then the problem is manageable, as it is for TV content).
  • Consumer expectations: Consumers have learned to expect their video experiences to be fragmented across different platforms and services, to not find everything in one place.  For music consumers however the understanding is that catalogues are either near-complete or useless.  So if all music services suddenly started having high profile gaps then subscribers would be more likely to unsubscribe entirely than they would be to take up multiple subscriptions.  Ironically the net result could be a return to download sales at the expense of subscriptions.  Talk about going full circle….
  • Industry relationships: Netflix started out as a pure licensee, paying TV companies for their shows.  Now it competes with them directly when commissioning new shows.  It has become a frenemy for TV companies and is finding many of its relationships less favourable than before.  And this is in an industry that is built up the frenemy hybrid licensee-licensor model.  The music industry does not behave this way, so any service that took up the Service Exclusive model could reasonably expect itself to find itself developing tense relations with labels.  Which could manifest in those labels giving competitor services preferential treatment for their own exclusives.  Labels have long feared the disintermediation threat posed by the web.  It is unlikely to materialize any time soon but they are not exactly going to encourage retail partners to kick-start the process.
  • Appetite for risk: Buying up the rights to the latest release of an established superstar is the easy part, and we already have some precedents though neither were exactly run away successes (Jay-Z’s ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ with Samsung and U2’s ‘Songs Of Innocence’ with Apple).  But being a label, at least a good one, isn’t simply about signing proven quantities, it is about taking risks on new emerging talent.  And that doesn’t simply mean having a DIY platform on a streaming service – though that can act as a great talent identification tool.  If streaming services want to start playing at the label game they need to also start nurturing and marketing talent.
  • Limited horizons: Stream is still only a small fraction of recorded music revenue.  There are few non-Nordic artists that rely on streaming for the majority of their sales income.  That will change but not for a few years yet.  So a release that only exists on streaming, let along a single streaming service, is only going to deliver on a fraction of its potential.  TIDAL and Apple especially could easily choose to loss-lead and pay over the odds for Service Exclusives to ensure artists aren’t left out of pocket.  But that only fixes part of the problem.  An artist locked into one single streaming service will see his or her brand diminish.  ‘House Of Cards’ may be one of Kevin Spacey’s most assured performances yet only a few tens of millions of people globally have ever seen it.  If it had been on network TV the audience would have been hundreds of millions.  With touring becoming the main way many artists make money the album is the marketing vehicle and if that album is locked behind the pay wall of one single music service the marketing potential is neutered.

Streaming music services will find themselves locked in total war over the coming years and while Apple’s cash reserves will likely make that warfare appear asymmetrical at times, exclusives of some kind or another will be utilised by most of the services.  Just don’t expect them to deliver them Netflix-like success because that’s not going to happen.

How TIDAL Can Deliver On Its Promises

The continued media feeding frenzy around Jay-Z’s TIDAL demonstrates just how valuable star power is for cutting through the clutter.  What has helped sustain interest is Jay-Z’s vision for delivering better value to artists and better experiences for music fans.  It is a tall order given that TIDAL has to operate under the same basic licensing framework as all other streaming services, the nub of which is paying c. 70% of all revenues to rights holders and having no control over how much of that gets paid back to artists and songwriters.  Working within the constraints of the standard subscription model TIDAL will quite simply not be able to deliver on its aspirations.  But if TIDAL is willing to create a new model to layer on top of it, then it can do something truly transformational.  Here’s how.

The Problem With Streaming

First we need to look at the issue TIDAL has to fix.  The problem with streaming services is that they inadvertently weaken music fans relationships with musical works.  In the pre-streaming, music sales model consumers paid for an album or single and matched their cash investment with an investment of time in listening to it.  The alternative was to listen to their older music collection or the radio.  So even duff albums not only got money spent on them, they got listened to a few times by their buyers.  And even if they didn’t get listened to even once the artist still got paid.   So a portion of music sales revenue had no relationship to the quality of the music.  Streaming changed that, effectively making the music itself more accountable to its audience.

With streaming, music fans don’t need to waste time listening to music they don’t like upon first listen.  They can bypass the duff.  They also tend to listen less to any single piece of music in general because they have so much other music to choose from at no additional cost.  Artists earning a 150th per stream of what they earn from a download is thus only part of the problem.  Most of the time their mainstream fans (and by that I mean not their top 10% of super fans) aren’t listening to them enough.

Scale Will Come, But It Will Take Time

The theory is that this will be fixed by scale, that a massive installed base of users will result in bigger listening volumes.  But it’s not that easy.  To illustrated, let’s assume people listen to albums an average of 5 times each then you need 30 times as many people to listen to generate the same income as a sale.  So until we get much bigger scale from streaming (e.g. 150m+ subscribers globally) we need to look at how to encourage music fans to concentrate their listening more on the artists they really like.  This is where TIDAL can come into play:

  • Artist channels: Earlier this year I laid out a vision for artist subscriptions.  In this model subscribers pay an additional fee (say $1 or $2) to their standard streaming subscription to get access exclusive programming, content and other experiences from an artist. Subscribers choose from a selection of artist channels and subscribe individually or pay for a bundle.  Think of it like adding sports or movies to your Pay TV subscription.
  • Additional content: Because subscriptions already give you access to all the music in the world (well most of it) subscribers will not be paying their extra $1 or $2 to get to the artist’s music. (Taking the music out of the core subscription and locking it into premium channels is a bad idea and doesn’t fix the artist income issue as we’ll see in a moment).  Instead fans will be paying for a mixture of additional content (live streams, interviews, acoustic sessions, photos, videos, games, curated playlists, mobile content, handwritten lyrics etc.) that will be delivered as a curated, programmed whole.  These channels will need to ascribe to the D.I.S.C. principles i.e. they music be Dynamic, Interactive, Social, Curated.  Sure each of the individual components could probably be found somewhere on the web but the real value is the entirety of the experience.
  • Artist revenue share: Where this model gets really interesting is how artists get paid. If all the additional content that is delivered is outside of the standard label catalogue then TIDAL could, after some basic costs are accounted for, split the entire additional $1 or $2 subscription fee 50/50 with the artist.  Or if TIDAL is that serious about making things better for artists, they could give all of the net profits to the artist. (Label 360 deals might complicate things a bit for some artists but they will not account for large percentages). Just how songwriters would benefit is a bit more complex as many artists have multiple songwriters etc. but TIDAL could set aside a songwriter pot to be distributed based on plays of the artist’s core music.

Right now TIDAL is a music service pretty much like the others but with bold ambitions.  This is one way that TIDAL can turn worthy words into meaningful actions. There aren’t too many other ways it can do so.  And of course any of the other streaming incumbents could do this too.  The difference is that that they have had a lot of time to do it and have not done so, yet at least.

So TIDAL, come show us how it is done.  Over to you Jay-Z.