Has the streaming slowdown arrived?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music subscriber market shares 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Amazon Music is primed for success

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

A dark horse no longer

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

Prime Music has come a long way

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

A segment-based approach

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

Competing around everyone else

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

Another super power

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

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

MIDiA music forecasts: the new era of growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bull or bear?

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

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

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

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

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

Churn in the era of dynamic retention

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

Digital subscriptions are different

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

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

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

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

Churn is built into the model

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

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

Music subscriber market shares Q2 2021

MIDiA’s annual music subscriber market shares report is now available here (see below for more details of the report). Here are some of the key findings.

The global base of music subscribers continues to grow strongly with 523.9 million music subscribers at the end of Q2 2021, which was up by 109.5 million (26.4%) from one year earlier. Crucially, this was faster growth than the prior year. There is a difference between revenue and subscribers – with ARPU deflators, such as the rise of multi-user plans and the growth of lower-spending emerging markets – but growth in monetised users represents the foundation stone of the digital service provider (DSP) streaming market. So, accelerating growth at this relatively late stage of the streaming market’s evolution is clearly positive.

Spotify remains the DSP with the highest market share (31%), but this was down from 33% in Q2 2020 and 34% in Q2 2019. With Apple Music being a distant second with 15% market share, and Spotify adding more subscribers in the 12 months leading up to Q2 2021 than any other single DSP, there is no risk of Spotify losing its leading position anytime soon – but the erosion of its share is steady and persistent. Amazon Music once again out-performed Spotify in terms of growth (25% compared to 20%), but the standout success story among Western DSPs was YouTube Music, for the second successive year. Google was once the laggard of the space, but the launch of YouTube Music has transformed its fortunes, growing by more than 50% in the 12 months leading up to Q2 2021. YouTube Music was the only Western DSP to increase global market share during this the period. YouTube Music particularly resonates among Gen Z and younger Millennials, which should have alarm bells ringing for Spotify, as their core base of Millennial subscribers from the 2010s in the West are now beginning to age.

But the biggest subscriber growth came from emerging markets. Between them, Tencent Music Entertainment (TME) and NetEase Cloud Music added 35.7 million subscribers in the 12 months leading up to Q2 2021. Together, they accounted for 18% of global market shares, despite being available only in China. Yandex, in Russia, was the other big gainer, doubling its subscriber base to reach 2% of global market share.

Combined, Yandex, TME and NetEase account for 20% of subscriber market share, but they drive 37% of all subscriber growth in the 12 months leading up to Q2 2021.

The strong growth in subscribers holds an extra meaning going into 2022. The surge in non-DSP streaming in 2021 means that the streaming market is no longer dependent on the revenue contribution of maturing Western subscriber markets (nor indeed ARPU-diluting emerging markets). With non-DSP streaming revenue looking set to have contributed between a quarter and a third of streaming revenue increase in 2021, streaming revenues look set for strong growth, even if subscriber growth lessens. That is what you call a diversified market.

A little more detail on the subscriber market shares report:

The report has 23 pages and 13 figures featuring country level subscriber numbers, revenues and demographics by DSP. The accompanying data set has quarterly subscriber numbers and annual revenue figures from Q4 2015 to Q2 2016 by DSP by country, with 33 markets and 27 DSPs. The report and dataset is available to MIDiA subscribers hereand also available for individual purchase via the same link.

Email stephen@midiaresearch.com for more details.

Global music subscriber market shares Q1 2021

The music industry’s growing obsession with declining ARPU will continue to colour the outlook for the global streaming market in revenue terms, but the positive driver of this equation is the rapid growth of music subscribers. There were 100 million new music subscribers in 2020, taking the total to 467 million. (In 2019 there were just 83 million net new subscribers). A further 19.5 million new subscribers in Q1 2021 pushed the number up to 487 million. While the failure of subscription revenues to keep up with the pace resulted in ARPU falling by 9% in 2020, this lens detracts from the huge momentum in paid user adoption. Subscription revenue might not be increasing as fast as some would like, but the global music subscriber base is not just growing – it is growing faster than ever.

Spotify continues its global dominance, adding 27 million net subscribers between Q1 2020 and Q1 2021, more than any other single service. However, it lost two points of market share over the period because its percentage growth rate trailed that of its leading competitors. Google was the fastest-growing music streaming service in 2020, growing by 60%, with Tencent second on 40%. Amazon continued its steady trajectory, up 27%, while Apple grew by just 12%.

Google’s YouTube Music has been the standout story of the music subscriber market for the last couple of years, resonating both in many emerging markets and with younger audiences across the globe. The early signs are that YouTube Music is becoming to Gen Z what Spotify was to Millennials half a decade ago.

Emerging markets are now central to the music subscriber market, with Latin America, Asia Pacific and Rest of World accounting for 60% of all 2020 subscriber growth. This is of course, also a key reason why global ARPU declined. Nonetheless, a number of emerging markets services now boast large subscriber bases. Beyond Tencent’s 61 million, China’s NetEase hit 18 million subscribers in Q1 2020 and Russia’s Yandex hit 8 million. (For more on streaming in emerging markets check out MIDiA’s latest free report: Local Sounds, Global Cultures.)

MIDiA will be publishing its country-level music subscriber numbers as part of the global music forecast report and dataset which will be available to clients Monday 12th July. If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to know how to get access to the data, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immersive audio storytelling 

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

Spotify pushes prices up, but do not expect dramatic effects

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotify Q3 2020: What price growth?

Spotify reported another strong quarter in Q3 2020, with subscriber growth up 27% year-on-year (YoY) and ad-supported user growth up 21%. Spotify continues to set the pace for the global streaming market and has demonstrated that streaming has proven resilient to lockdown. (Spotify finished the quarter with 144 million subscribers, just above MIDiA’s 143 million forecast – we maintain our end of year forecast for 154 million.) Further evidence of Spotify’s lockdown resilience is that global consumption hours surpassed pre-COVID levels and that churn levels fell. However, Spotify’s premium revenue growth continues to trail subscriber increases, which raises the question: what price is growth coming at for rightsholders and creators?

Spotify’s Q3 2020 premium revenue was €1,790 million, up 15% YoY – notably lower than the 27% subscriber growth. This is a long-term trend for Spotify, resulting in a steady erosion of premium average revenue per user (ARPU). Q3 2020 ARPU fell to €4.19, down from €4.67 in Q3 2019 and €5.76 back in Q3 2016.

There are multiple factors underpinning this shift:

Growth of emerging markets where ARPU is lower

Growth of family and duo plans

Use of promotional offers

Growth of low-priced tiers (telco bundles, student plans)

Spotify emphasised that ‘product mix’ was the core driver of lower ARPU in Q3 2020 and pointed to price increases for family plans across four Latin American markets, Australia, Belgium and Switzerland. Rightsholders and creators will be hoping that this is the start of a wider strategy. 

‘Measure us on growth’

Spotify continues to tell the markets to measure it on growth and market share rather than margin or ARPU. That serves Spotify better than rightsholders and creators. However, this may be about to change. Spotify’s big growth bet is podcasts, which it is monetising via advertising. Although Spotify had a decent quarter for ad revenue (after many weak ones) it is still just 9% of total revenue. Podcasts have the potential to be bigger than music for Spotify but it is going to take a long time to realise the potential, especially as the coming recession will likely dent the global ad market. 

A new growth story

Why this matters for music stakeholders is that Spotify may find it hard to convince investors to start backing yet another ‘measure us on growth’ story when it already has one. As streaming starts to mature in Western markets, Spotify may now be on a path to shift its music subscriptions narrative to one of turning around the ARPU decline, focusing on increasing “lifetime value”, reducing churn and improving margins. It can then make podcasts the ‘growth story’ and music the ‘margin and ARPU story’.

Music rights holders may be concerned that podcasts threaten their share of Spotify revenue, but they may also end up thanking Spotify’s podcasts strategy for indirectly resulting in a stronger focus of improving music monetisation. This in turn will mean higher per-stream rates – something that artists and songwriters in particular will appreciate.