What is the value of exposure when exposure is all there is?

There is an existential debate going on at the moment, around whether streaming is paying artists enough. It may feel like a rerun of old debates but it is catalysed by COVID-19 decimating artist income. These are some of the key narratives: here, here and here.

In this piece I lay out the underlying economics of the argument. I also focus wholly on artist income as songwriter income is another topic entirely.

COVID-19 has reset the debate

The latest streaming royalty debate is not an isolated event. It is happening because COVID-19 has decimated live income, leaving many artists worrying about how to make ends meet. Last week, just before this whole debate kicked into gear I wrote:

“Live’s lockdown lag may have the knock-on effect of making artists take a more critical view of their streaming income. When live dominated their income mix, streaming’s context was a meaningful revenue stream that built audiences to drive other forms of income. It was effectively marketing artists got paid for. Now that artists are becoming more dependent on streaming income, the old concerns about whether they are getting paid enough will likely come back to the fore. It is in the interests of both labels and streaming services, that labels use this as an opportunity to revisit their streaming splits with artists. Labels cannot afford to have artists united against the labels’ primary income stream.”

None of this makes the debate any less important, but it explains why it is happening now, and with live revenue potentially set to take years to fully recover, it is a reality that streaming services and labels need to adjust to. It is in the interests of both labels and streaming services that artists feel like they are being treated fairly. But it is crucial that this debate is grounded in a firm understanding of streaming economics and that we do not return to the mudslinging of more than half a decade ago. A debate which, by the way, did not result in any fundamental change to how artist royalties are paid and was eventually followed by labels negotiating smaller revenue shares with Spotify and others.

Where streaming has got us to

Firstly, let’s lay some ground markers:

  • Streaming has driven half a decade of recorded music revenue growth, with the market now 42% bigger than it was in 2014
  • The wider streaming economy has globalised fandom and engagement
  • More people are listening to more music now than before

Streaming has been the change agent that turned around 15 years of decline. But it also completely reframed artist income from recorded music. In the old sales model artists would get a large sum of money in a relatively short period of time. Streaming income is more like an annuity, a longer-term return where the music keeps paying long after release. In the old model artists had smaller but high-spending audiences. With streaming they have larger but lower-value audiences.

For example, a recouped independent artist might expect to earn $4,500 for selling 1,500 copies of an album. That is roughly how much an artist would get from 5,000 people streaming the album 20 times each. The average revenue per user (ARPU) has gone from $3.00 to $0.90 for streaming. The artist has traded ARPU for reach.

This model worked fine when live and merch were booming because more than three times as many monetised fans meant three times more opportunity for selling tickets and t-shirts. This of course is the ‘exposure’ argument streaming services are fond of, which works until it does not. Now that live and merch have collapsed, as the trope goes ‘exposure does not pay the rent’. The previously interconnected, interdependent model has become decoupled.

Put simply, artist streaming economics do not work without live.

midia streaming royalty payments

The question is: what levers can actually be pulled and what effect can they have? In the above chart I have used Spotify’s 2019 premium revenues to illustrate how changes in royalty shares can impact what artists earn. I have used a total per stream rate of $0.06 as the base case, which could look on the high side for some artists, but the purpose is to show the relative change. Whatever amount the base rate is, it will increase by the same percentages.

The tl;dr of the chart is the most radical of the options (label rate returns to 55%, podcast dilution is removed from the royalty pot, a 25% increase in retail price and therefore royalties) results in a very meaningful uplift of 42% in royalties for artists from today’s current state. But, the three problems here are:

  1. Such measures could damage the commercial sustainability of streaming
  2. It does not change the underlying annuity model shift that streaming represents
  3. We are about to enter a recession. Music subscriptions are at risk, increasing the prices right now could accelerate subscriber churn. Meaning a bigger slice of a smaller cake for artists.

Let’s take the first two points in turn.

1) Spotify lost $184 million in 2019. With this royalty model it would have lost more than $1 billion. Spotify would have to reduce its operating costs by a fifth just to get back to losing $184 million. Critics would argue this represents trimming the fat. It might, but it would also likely lead to Spotify:

  1. Cutting back on product development
  2. Cutting back on growing its subscriber base
  3. Finding new ways to charge labels and artists for additional services

None of these are reasons not to pursue the strategy but they are prices that labels and artists have to be willing to take. Spotify revenue growth will slow. Furthermore, it will skew the market towards Apple, Amazon and Google who can afford to make music loss leading. In the mid term this may benefit artists, but in the longer term (i.e. when Spotify is sufficiently squeezed) these tech majors are likely to follow their MO of ‘reducing inefficiencies in the supply chain’. So be careful what you wish for.

2) Taking an artist straw person, with 20% of her total income coming from streaming, if live and merch only gets to 25% of its previous level, the 41% increase in streaming income would still see her total annual income fall by 40%.

No streaming lever can be pulled hard enough to offset the decline in live revenue.

So, let’s pull together all the pieces:

  1. Streaming royalties can be increased meaningfully if prices are increased and rates revisited but it may slow the streaming market
  2. Now is probably not the best time to be increasing streaming prices for consumers
  3. Even a big increase is not going to offset the fall in live income

There is not a simple, single answer to fixing the current crisis in artist income. A blended, pragmatic solution would be:

  1. Increase royalties at a middle option rate (do not increase prices until after the recession)
  2. Artists push their fans to buy their music at destinations like Bandcamp
  3. Professionalise and commercialise the livestreaming sector, with a strong focus on charging for events in order to create some live income
  4. Innovate virtual fandom products to drive new, additional income streams

It is not going to be easy for artists for some time yet. The hard truth is that income levels will not return to full strength until live does, and that is a way off yet. Streaming is more important now than ever so any solution must balance maintaining its momentum and scale with sustaining artist careers.

The IFPI Confirms 2019 was the Independents’ Year for Streaming

UPDATE: this post has been updated to correct an erroneous data point. Previously it stated that independent market share was 41%. It has been corrected to 29%

Recently I wrote about how a little-known Spotify statistic revealed that independents (labels and artists) outperformed the majors on its platform in 2019. The IFPI’s latest global revenue estimates provide further evidence of 2019 being a stellar streaming year for independents. As we have two sets of fixed reported figures (major label reports, and the artists direct sector reported by MIDiA) we can simply deduct these figures from the IFPI’s streaming figures to reveal what the IFPI estimates independent label revenues to be. The tl;dr: Independents grew by 39% while majors grew by 22%, which means that the independents’ global share of streaming revenue increased by two whole points from 27% to 29%.

ifpi midia 2020 streaming

The IFPI reported global streaming revenues of $11.2 billion, however these figures include YouTube but not Pandora ad supported revenues. So, to match up the IFPI’s definition with how the record labels report the revenue we need to add in Pandora ad revenue which takes us to $11.9 billion which is almost exactly what MIDiA reported two months ago.

Although independent labels and artists grew fastest in relative terms in 2019, the majors grew most in absolute terms, adding nearly twice as much net new revenue ($1.5 billion compared to $0.8 billion). The majors remain the powerhouse of the streaming economy but independents are rapidly making this space their own. If they were to add another four or five points of share across 2020 and in 2021, then independents would be represent a third of the entire streaming market. But a crucial consideration is that these figures are on a distribution basis, so the major revenue includes independents they distribute. According to the last WIN study, the independent market share went up another c12%. On that basis, by 2021, the independent label share of streaming could be approaching 50%. That would be a genuine paradigm shift, the clear announcement of a newly aligned music business.

Soon we’ll be writing on how the majors can turn this around. Watch this space.

Independents Grew Fastest on Spotify in 2019, But There’s a Twist

Tomorrow (Wednesday 29th April) Spotify announces its Q1 2020 results, at which point we will find out whether it had a COVID-bounce like Netflix did (adding 15.8 million subscribers in Q1) or whether growth slowed. But before that, there is one little detail from Spotify’s 2019 Annual Report which warrants a closer look. Hidden away in the commentary there is this innocuous looking line:

“For the year ended December 31, 2019 [Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, and Merlin] accounted for approximately 82% of music streams.”

The same line is in Spotify’s 2018 Annual Report with the figure at 85%. So, the majors and Merlin indies saw their share of Spotify streams decline by three percentage points in 2019. That in itself is interesting and builds on the narrative of the streaming tail getting longer and fatter, with the superstars losing share. But with a little creative thinking we can do a lot more with this three percentage points shift.

Using MIDiA’s label market shares data for FY 2019 we can do a full breakdown of Spotify’s streaming revenue. Applying shares for streaming volumes to streaming revenue, and shares for the total streaming market to Spotify is not methodologically pure and has margins of error, but it is a broadly sound approach and lets us do the following:

  • First we apply the percentage share to Spotify’s annual revenue
  • Next, we take the majors’ share of streaming revenues for 2019 and apply them to Spotify’s streaming revenue
  • We can then deduct the majors from the majors + Merlin total to leave us with Merlin’s revenue
  • Then we apply the independent artists streaming share to the Spotify revenue which leaves us with one remaining segment: ‘other independent labels’

spotify streaming griowth by label type

What emerges is a hierarchy of dramatically different growth rates, ranging from just 11% for Merlin labels through to a dramatic 48% for independent artists and an even more impressive 58% for ‘other independent labels’. This provides further evidence of the way in which (much of) the independent sector continues to thrive during streaming’s continuing ascendancy.

spotify streaming growth by label type

Most intriguing is the 58% growth for ‘other independent labels’. I am using the quote marks because this is essentially an ‘all others’ bucket and so captures music entities that don’t fit the traditional classification of ‘label’. This includes AI generative music and of course library music companies like Epidemic Sound.

It is of course important to consider that growth rates are not absolute growth – the majors still added much more new Spotify revenue in 2019 (€1 billion) than all of the rest put together. Nonetheless, the difference in growth rates is stark and only Spotify will be able to answer questions about how much of this is organic versus how much of this is driven by the way that it engineers its recommendations and programming.

Whatever the causes, the effect is clear: streaming benefits everyone but it benefits some more than others.

Streaming Services Are Going to Have to Change Their MO

New music is the fuel in the streaming engine, creating a virtuous circle of increased label and artist output to meet DSP-stimulated user demand. Now though, with COVID-19 disrupting the production of music, everything is set to change. The streaming services haven’t realised it yet, but their underlying modus operandi (MO) is going to need to change, too.

charles-deluvio-6k4HkET8dPM-unsplash

When new music is all you have to position around

Disney launched Disney+ into a crowded video subscription marketplace and hit 50 million subscribers after just five months. This could not have happened in the music streaming market for the simple reason that all music services carry pretty much the same catalogue. There is no Mandalorian effect possible for music. Content differentiation is a non-starter. Worse still, music streaming services all look the same, so differentiating on user experience is out of the picture too. They also all cost the same and largely work on the same devices. Consequently, they have to differentiate on how they deliver music via algorithms and curation. This in turn has led to the weaponisation of new music discovery. The MO is simple: our value to you, the user, is delivering relevant new music at high volume and velocity. Record labels fed the beast, increasing the amount of new releases. Then came COVID-19. Suddenly studios closed down, releases got pushed back, projects put on hold. How do you continue to position and differentiate around the quantity of new music you deliver if that quantity is going to lessen?

Music’s lockdown ‘feelgood’ factor

Streaming services – and labels – are going to be able to offset some of the impact of reduced output by promoting older music. In fact, this is exactly what consumers want right now. In MIDiA’s latest COVID-19 Impact survey, more than a third of consumers stated that they are listening to music that makes them feel more positive. Meanwhile they are listening less to new music and instead more to songs the already know. Although new releases have every chance of making you feel positive, familiar music with positive memories guarantees the feelgood factor in a way that unfamiliar music cannot. Consumers are turning to radio because they value the connection with the presenters during lockdown. In these troubled, isolated times, music plays an invaluable role and in turn streaming services do also.

Preparing for a recession

The problem is not with streaming services per se. Instead it is the question of what streaming services stand for in a mini-era of catalogue renaissance after years of expensively building brand values centred on new music. Fixing the curation and the programming is the (relatively) easy part. But if lockdown measures persist into the latter part of the year – which could easily happen, despite the hopes of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsanaro – then new music will be an ever-smaller part of the streaming offering. And if lockdown measures do persist for that long, then we will likely be feeling the impacts of a recession by then. MIDiA’s March Recession Impact report revealed that around a fifth of consumers would consider cancelling their music subscription if they had to cut entertainment spending. This may seem like a subtle nuance, but if by then streaming users have become accustomed to listening to old, familiar tunes then as they are faced with the difficult decision of where to cut spending, they will know that streaming is not delivering on its original new music promise. Add into the mix that being able to listen to music on the go is a crucial subscription value add, but in lockdown phone listening is losing ground to smart device listening as mobility is discouraged.

Communicating new brand values

Streaming music, and recorded music more generally, is in a really good place right now. It is bringing much-needed light into the locked-down homes of hundreds of millions. Moreover, it is actually better placed to deal with the disruption to content production than the streaming video space because listening to older music is central to music consumption, while watching reruns of old TV shows is something you do when there is nothing better to watch. So, the coming catalogue shift is not an existential challenge for streaming. Rather than a product or programming problem, it is about brand positioning and communicating core values. Nonetheless, these soft tools are crucial and unless the groundwork is laid now, a serious problem could manifest in six months or so if the economy enters a recession. Time for those marketing and branding teams to earn their crust.

Note: If you were wondering why I haven’t discussed how all this might affect independent artists – that’s next week’s post!

The COVID Bounce: How COVID-19 is Reshaping Entertainment Demand

The economic disruption and social dislocation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is not evenly distributed. Some business face catastrophe, while others thrive. Across the entertainment industries the same is true, ranging from a temporary collapse of the live business through to a surge in gaming activity. As we explain in our free-to-download COVID-19 Impact report, the extra time people have as a result of self-isolation has boosted some forms of entertainment more than others – with games, video and news the biggest winners so far.

midia research - the covid bounceTo further illustrate these trends, MIDiA compiled selected Google search term data across the main entertainment categories. The chart below maps the change in popularity of these search terms between the start of January 2020 up to March 27th. Google Trends data does not show the absolute number of searches but instead an index of popularity. These are the key findings:

  • Video streaming: All leading video subscription services saw a strong COVID-19-driven spike, especially Disney+ which managed to coincide its UK launch with the first day of national home schooling.
  • Music streaming: Little more than a modest uptick for the leading music services, following a long steady fall – reflecting a mature market sector unlike video, which has been catalysed by major new service launches.
  • Video demand: With the mid- to long-term prospect of a lot more time on their hands, consumers have been strongly increasing searches for TV shows, movies and games to watch and play. The fact that ‘shows for kids to watch’ is following a later but steeper curve reflects the growing realisation by locked-down families that they have to stop the kids going stir crazy while they try to work from home.
  • Music demand: Demand for music has been much more mixed, including a pronounced downturn in streams in Italy. Part of the reason is that music is something people can already do at any time in any place. So, the initial instinct of consumers was to fill their newfound time with entertainment they couldn’t otherwise do at work/school. As the abnormal normalises music streaming will pick up, as the recent increase in searches for music and playlist terms suggests. Podcasts, however, look like they will take longer to get a COVID bounce.
  • Games: Games activity and revenues have already benefited strongly from the new behaviour patterns, as illustrated by the fast and strong increase in search terms. However, the recent slowdown in search growth suggests that the increase in gaming demand may slow.
  • News: The increased searches correlate strongly with the growth of the pandemic, but the clear dip at the end provides the first evidence of crisis-fatigue.
  • Sports: The closure of all major sports leagues and events has left a gaping hole in TV schedules and the lives of sports fans. The sudden drop in search terms shows that sports fans have quickly filled their lives with other entertainment and have little interest in keeping up with news of sports closures.
  • Leaders: Finally, Boris Johnson has seen his search popularity grow steadily with the pandemic, while Donald Trump’s has dipped.

COVID-19’s Impact on Streaming: It’s Complicated

One of the logical conclusions to draw about the impact of COVID-19 (also known as the coronavirus) is that the extra time people are spending at home will result in a boom for home entertainment. There are already strong signals that this is happening, with TV ratings up, TV news viewing up and Netflix doing so well that it has had to agree to reduce streams in Europe from HD to SD to reduce strain on the broadband networks. So, the natural assumption would be that music streaming would see a bump too. The consensus is that there isn’t a consensus (see here, here and here). The data is mixed. There are signs of uplift, and there are signs of decline.

What is going on? The answer lies in how you view the trends. This is not a dynamic that can be understood properly by observing macro trends; instead it requires micro-trend analysis. It turns out that COVID-19 is creating different entertainment responses not just across different countries, but among different segments of consumers within countries.

Cultural impact

The first factor to consider is the work and entertainment culture of a country. Take the example of Italy, which has seen a fall in streams. Italy is a very formal work culture, which means that listening to music in many workplaces is a big no-no. The commute was therefore the one part of the workday that workers got to stream. The commute has, of course, disappeared with COVID-19. You might think that freed from the constraints of a strict workplace, work-from-home (WFH) workers would listen to music during the day. Some might – but there are other factors at play:

  • Streaming is still relatively nascent in Italy, so behavior patterns are not well established. It is just not as natural for people to stream at home as it is in markets where people have been streaming for longer. Many still have home stereos they use at home.
  • Italy has a big linear TV culture, so WFH workers are more likely to have the TV on in the background than in many other countries.
  • People want to keep in touch with the latest news developments so are likely to have radio or TV news on in the background.

All these factors interplay and affect different people differently, but the combined effect in Italy is to have caused a streaming dip. Once crisis-fatigue kicks in people will consume news less and, if the outbreak persists long enough, TV broadcasters will start stuffing the schedules with re-runs because the supply of new shows will dry up due to the disruptions to filming and production. Italy may be down now, but it will pick up – though maybe not fully until everyone is commuting to work again.

Passion points

In other, more established streaming markets, labels we have been speaking to have seen an uplift in streams. Even in these markets, however, the macro picture obscures a much more complex micro picture. The key factor at play is passion points. We all have things that we love doing and, given more time in the day, we will fill it doing those things. If you are a music subscriber who is also a gaming aficionado then you are more likely to spend your newfound commute time on your console or gaming PC. This could actually mean a reduction in streaming if you were already listening to music in the workplace.

If the COVID-19 pandemic persists for months, then the other challenge labels will face is gaps in their frontline release schedules due to studios being closed down. It may well pay to shift some of the frontline marketing budget into catalogue marketing – not just for the classic gems, but also to boost still-popular two-to-five year old tracks that may technically be catalogue by industry definitions, but to consumers are just tracks they still like. Meanwhile, if COVID-19 causes long-term economic dislocation, streaming services will start having to fight churn rates as consumers trim their spending. Some bold thinking will need to be done around retention tactics, such as a three-month payment holiday for subscribers that try to cancel. Whether labels would be willing to fund such promotions is another issue entirely, but the key question is how much are those billing relationships worth?

The MIDiA team has been busy working on recession impact research for six months now, so we already have a library of data and reports to help our clients plan their way through these unprecedented times. In addition, during this period we will be creating regular COVID-19 reports. We will be publishing a major 5,000 word report on COVID-19’s impact on all media industries to our clients later today. In addition, we want to support the wider business and creative communities in their efforts to get through what is an unnerving and uncertain time in so many ways. Hence, we will also be creating a free-to-access version of the report to be released this coming Monday. Watch this space for more details on how to get it.

Stay well and healthy.

How Coronavirus Will Affect the Entertainment Industries

The coronavirus is a global pandemic. Regardless of what its actual infection and mortality rates might be, it is already having seismic impacts on stock markets and consumer behaviour – the result of which might be to tip the global economy into recession. It is also creating the largest home working experiment in history. Even if coronavirus doesn’t tip us into recession, the next few months will see major disruption of consumer behaviour patterns with major implications for the entertainment industries. However, to introduce an element of calm into the hysteria, coronavirus appears to be following the s-curve (scroll down to chart). So although the data we are currently looking at is two weeks out of date (ie factoring in the incubation period) the early signs are that it tops out as a small minority of the population).

In Q4 2019 MIDiA fielded questions to consumers about how they would change their leisure and entertainment spending if a recession took place and they had to reduce their overall expenditure. The full findings of this exclusive research will soon be published in a MIDiA report: Recession Impact | Cocooning Will Protect Entertainment Spend (the latest in our series of Recession Impact reports). Here are a few highlights and how they relate to the current coronavirus spread.

In the last economic downturn, consumers cocooned, opting to stay in more in order to save money. The signs are that this pattern will be replicated if another recession comes, particularly so because of public concerns about health risks in public places. When we asked consumers which three types of leisure and entertainment spend they expected to cut back on most, going out and eating out were by the far the two most widely-cited options. Live music was also widely cited among concert goers but less so than going out and eating out, with around two thirds of concert goers not planning to stop going to gigs – cancellations allowing. The difference between now and the last economic downturn is that digital content services have boomed, so consumers now have much better home entertainment options than they used to. Cocooning is therefore an even more appealing prospect. Indeed, there are probably already many people looking forward to binge watching themselves through a few virtual boxsets.

Crucially, streaming looks to be relatively well placed. Just over a fifth of consumers expect to have to cancel a video subscription and the same goes for music. However, the impact on music would be more pronounced due to the majority of music subscribers only having one music subscription. So, a consumer cancelling a music subscription means a lost subscriber. But with more than half of video subscribers having more than one video subscription, a cancelled video subscription would most often simply mean one less subscription in the market rather than a lost subscriber.

Of course, when push comes to shove, consumers may find themselves cutting back more dramatically, with streaming music particularly vulnerable because:

  1. Younger people are normally the first to lose their jobs and millennials make up the lion’s share of music subscribers
  2. Downgrading to a free tier still leaves the consumer with a decent music experience, and that’s without even considering the role of YouTube

Across both music and video, a long-term recession – if it happens – would see a growing role for ad-supported. YouTube looks best placed to prosper, not least because Spotify has not had the best of times growing its ad business. Pandora may also benefit, as may the likes of Peacock in video.

In short, whether it be subscriptions or ad-supported, coronavirus may actually benefit streaming business models, especially video. If a recession comes then entertainment spend will be hit, but significantly less so than leisure. These are worrying times, but at least we’ll be able to binge watch our way through them.

Recorded Music Revenues Hit $21.5 Billion in 2019

With IPOs from Warner Music and Universal Music pending and continued institutional investment into music catalogues, the music business is firmly in the sights of big money. The performance of the recorded music business in 2019 is going to heat up interest even further. The global recorded music industry continued its resurgence in 2019 with a fifth successive year of growth. Global revenues grew by 11.4% in 2019 to reach $21.5 billion, an increase of $2.2 billion on 2018. That growth was bigger than 2018 in both absolute and relative terms. Whichever way you look at it, growth accelerated, and – crucially – this growth was achieved even though streaming revenue growth slowed.

recorded market shares infographic

These are the key trends that underpinned growth:

  • Independence is on the rise: The major record labels retained the lion’s share of the overall market in 2019, accounting for 67.5% of the total – down half a point from 68.0% in 2018. The remaining 32.5% accounted for by independent labels and artists combined was up 0.5 points from 2017 and 4.6 points from 2015. Artists direct – i.e. artists without record labels – was again the fastest-growing segment of the market, growing by 32.1% in 2019 to reach $873 million, representing 4.1% of the total market, up from 1.7% in 2015.
  • Big year for Universal: Universal Music Group was the big winner among the majors, growing both faster than the other two majors and the total market to reach 30% market share. Universal also added more revenue in 2019 ($729 million) than Warner Music and Sony Music combined ($650 million).
  • Race for 2nd heats up: In 2015 Warner Music’s recorded music revenue was just 67% of Sony Music’s, and at the end of 2019 that share had increased to 93%. Just $279 million separated Warner and Sony at the end of 2019. Based on 2019 growth rates, Warner would be level with Sony by the end of 2022.
  • Still stream powered: Streaming was again the key source of growth, up 24% year-on-year to reach $11.9 billion, representing 56% of all label revenues. But growth is slowing; streaming revenue grew by $2.3 billion, which was $64 million less than in 2018. The reason that the total market was able to grow as fast as it did in spite of this is because downloads and physical fell by $0.4 billion less than in 2018. So, ironically, it was the improved performance of legacy formats that enabled streaming’s performance to be good enough to drive 11.4% growth. 

Despite the inevitable slowdown in streaming revenue growth, the recorded music market managed to not only consolidate on its strong 2018 performance but improve upon it in 2019. The continued boom in recorded music revenues is accompanied by a growing complexity to the underlying business, with increased diversification of business models and artist/label relationships. Over the next few years continued revenue growth will be both accompanied and driven by business model innovation and disruption.

Spotify Q4 2019: First Signs of the New Spotify

Spotify’s Q4 2019 results reflect another strong quarter and a good year for Spotify. Look a bit deeper, however, and there are the first signs of the new company that Spotify is building – and they point to a very different and much bolder future.

First, here are the headline metrics:

  • 124 million subscribers (exactly in line with MIDiA’s forecast built earlier in the year. In fact, we’ve been pretty good with our quarterly subscriber forecasts throughout the year – see the chart at the bottom of this post).
  • Six million inactive subscribers (flat from Q3 2019).
  • 271 million monthly average users (MAUs) and 153 million ad-supported MAUs, which is a paid conversion rate of 45.8%, down a little from Q3 2019 and Q4 2018 with Rest of World the fastest-growing ad-supported region. This fits with early-stage growth for Spotify in new markets. Unlike markets in Europe and the Americas, Spotify will likely see ad supported remaining a much larger share of the user base long term in markets like India, with less ability to monetise via ad revenue. Spotify needs some big telco deals, especially in India.
  • Subscriber churn was down to 4.8% from 5.2% one year earlier. This is slow but steady progress that helps stabilise Spotify’s business and helps net adds grow faster.
  • Subscriber average revenue per user (ARPU) was €4.65, down 5% on Q4 2018. Spotify stated that much of this decline was down to “the extension of the free trial period across our entire product suite in the quarter”.
  • Total revenue was €6.8 billion, up 29% from 2018 with ad supported just 10% of that.

So much for the old, now in with the new…

Spotify’s uphill journey towards profitability is well documented (net margin fell into negative territory again in Q4 2019, to -€77 million). The circa-70% rights costs base is the core issue here, and rights holders have little (no) desire to go any lower – in fact, publishers want increases. Spotify has had to explore where else it can grow its business with cost bases that are less than 70%. Podcasts, marketing and creator tools are the three publicly stated places where Spotify has placed its bets, and the Q4 results show small and early – but nonetheless crucially important – movements in each:

  • Podcasts: As MIDiA reported last month, Spotify has been growing its audience very quickly and is now the second-most widely used podcast platform. 44.8 million Spotify users now listen to Spotify podcasts, with total usage up 200% year-on-year (YoY). Though podcast revenue is still only around 1% of Spotify’s total revenues, this reflects Spotify’s overall relative underperformance in ad revenue. This needs to be fixed – at least in a few of the bigger digital ad markets – but podcasts have the additional benefit for Spotify of diluting the royalty pot and thus improving gross margin. Current license agreements have a strict cap on how much the pot can be diluted (and labels have no intention of increasing that cap). But by MIDiA’s estimates, even within the current deals, Spotify could potentially shave off up to seven points of music royalty payments. Little wonder, then, that Spotify said this in its earnings report: “Any decision to accelerate our investment in podcast and technology spend should be viewed as an indication of our belief that our strategy is having tangible results. We have gained even more confidence in the data, particularly around the benefits from podcasts, and as a result, 2020 will be an investment year.”

  • Marketing: Spotify launched its paid ad tools for labels and artists in beta in Q4 2019. Early results are positive: +30% click-through and listener conversion rates, and on the sponsored recommendations side, Caroline Music’s Trippie Redd’s fourth album was helped to #1 with sponsored recommendations. Though there has been some pushback from labels feeling that they shouldn’t have to pay to reach their own audiences, Spotify is not doing anything particularly unusual here. The strategy is directly comparable to what Facebook and YouTube do. In fact, record labels spend about a third of what they earn from YouTube on YouTube advertising. The impact of that sort of revenue exchange on Spotify’s commercial model cannot be understated.
  • Creators: 2020 is going to be a massive year for creators. Our early estimates are that artists direct generated around $820 million in 2019, growing more than twice as fast as the overall market. 2019 was another big year for the top of the funnel, but we think the even more interesting space is one step earlier: creator tools. Creator tools are the new top of the funnel, before music even makes it onto streaming services. In fact, we think this might be the music industry’s next big growth area – and Spotify is already betting big, with acquisitions like online collaboration tool Soundtrap and artist marketplace SoundBetter. The music industry was, understandably, preoccupied with Spotify competing with it by signing artists and ‘becoming a label’. Spotify backed off from this strategy, but by focusing its efforts on the creator end of the spectrum it is building the foundations for what a record label of the future will look like. Spotify may just be competing with the labels’ future business before they have even realised it. Spotify’s quote says it all (at least to those who are listening for it): “We will continue to grow and expand the marketplace strategy, including with services such as Soundtrap and Soundbetter.As an example, while still early days, Soundtrap doubled its paying subscriber base in Q4. Expect more innovation of products over the coming years.”

 The margin impact of these three business areas is already being felt: “The largest driver of outperformance stemmed from slight improvement in the non-royalty component of Gross Margin, including payment fees, streaming delivery costs, and other miscellaneous variances.” 

Picks and Shovels

These are the three pillars of the new Spotify – one that will continue to be powered by music, but with profit coming from ancillary services. In the California Gold Rush in the 19th century, the first person to make a million dollars was a man called Samuel Brannan. But he wasn’t a miner; he sold mining equipment. If there is a gold rush, you want to be selling picks and shovels. Spotify has found its picks and shovels.

spotify subscribers by quarter 2019

The Song Economy

The following is a guest post from MIDiA’s Consulting Director Keith Jopling

When Journey’s song Don’t Stop Believin’ was originally released as the second single from the album Escape in 1981, it was a modest US chart hit (Billboard Hot 100 no. 9). Fast forward 28 years, in 2009 the track had two very prominent syncs: The Sopranos finale and Glee (the song featured in six episodes). From there, the song’s ascendance into global popular culture (and commerce) is well known. In 2009 it re-entered the Billboard Hot 100, this time peaking at no. 4, and finally became a UK top 10 hit following several renditions on The X Factor. However, it is on streaming platforms where the song truly thrives, steadily working its way into the ‘one billion club’ (at 757 million just now, but clearly in it for the long game).

Sony Music understands this success very well indeed. Don’t Stop Believin’ is an evergreen streaming success for the label. It is revered. Sony Music also has similar success with another 1981 song, Toto’s Africa (actually a 1982 release chosen as the third single from Toto IV). Africa was a much bigger hit on first release than Don’t Stop Believin’ and has had continual success on radio. And again, Africa has seen a meteoric rise on streaming – sitting at 711 million. Both these early eighties tracks are millennial sensations, and both are mini-industries in their own right.

My third example just happens to be another Sony Music track, though this post is not about Sony as such. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that SME has been instrumental in the calculated success of Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas. This 1994 release was in fact the number-one streamed song in Germany for all of 2019.  Consistently a top 10 streaming catalogue hit for the label since the dawn of the streaming era, 2019 (thanks to a finely-tuned and bigger marketing campaign) amounted to a new peak for the track – the year in which it finally made the holy grail some 15 years after release: Billboard no. 1.

As I said, to even out the copy a bit – every label and publisher with known catalogue – Queen, Elton John, Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, R.E.M. to name just a few, is operating at full-tilt utilisation of song assets – even if that means investment in other media assets. It’s movies, documentaries, new videos, re-masters, re-issues and myriad of strategies to generate more and more streams. No wonder Def Leppard, Peter Gabriel and other long-term streaming hold-outs finally succumbed only last year. They saw the future clearly but took their time to realise they will just have to learn to love it or lump it.

The three songs illustrate the development of the song economy. The Song Economy is the new music industry’s growth engine. It’s why publishing and songwriter catalogues are being acquired at multiples of between 10-20 of annual royalty revenues. It’s why playlists are the most valuable real estate on streaming platforms. It’s why labels and publishers are staffing up their sync teams around the world. It’s why some publishers – the administrators of the music business – are investing in creative and marketing talent and signing artists with great songs before their record label counterparts. And it’s why those publishers and labels are being pulled together under one leadership, from Downtown to Sony Music.

The Song Economy is critical for new songs just as it is for old ones. Hit songs are more important than they have ever been. That’s why, according to New York-based Hit Songs Deconstructed (which does indeed deconstruct the elements that make a major hit song, so that others can do their best to emulate that success) has been reporting a steady rise in the number of songwriters per hit (in 2018-19 a quarter of Billboard top 10 hits had no less than four songwriters) as well as producers (two per hit is more usual than just a single producer).

In all of our future-gazing industry work at MIDiA, we often look at what will drive the next big growth curve for music (indeed, we report on that very thing here), expecting that to be a new tech platform or a brand new music format. However, the real driver perhaps for the next few years at least, will be the micro-growth driven by individual songs – those big enough to qualify as mini industries. 

Sure – streaming has made it much more competitive for songs, composers, artists and their representatives. But those songs that break through into millennial streaming culture (or blow-up in Gen Z streaming culture as memes and TikTok sensations) will be pinching share of ear from the rest. At the same time, songs in popular culture are helping to keep music up there in the attention economy – competing with TV, games, books, spoken word and sports. Indeed, it is only those mini-industry songs that can claim a spot across every slice of media, through sync to podcasts to multiple forms of video. Those are the songs we want to know all about and hear over and over again.

Those songs have always been pots of gold to the industry, but in the global streaming economy they have become something quite different. They can be revived and multiplied. They can be hits over and over again. They are, in fact, industries in themselves. Welcome to The Song Economy. Don’t Stop Believin’!

Keith Jopling is MIDiA’s Consulting Director – contact him on keith@midiaresearch.com. He also helps drive The Song Economy via the discovery & playlist venture https://www.songsommelier.com/