French Music Sales Are In A Tailspin, Get Used To It

france decline2015 was another year of mixed fortunes for the music industry, with Nordic markets showing positive signs (again) while some bigger markets struggle. It is in this context that French music industry trade body SNEP announced that the French recorded music market registered a whopping 7% decline in 2015, which followed hot on the heels of another 7% decline in 2014. The net result is that France’s recorded music market is now 67% smaller than it was in 2000. To give an extra sense of perspective, if the French market had declined by the same €32 million in 2001 that it did in 2015, the market would have reduced by just 2%. Streaming revenues were up an impressive 47% but physical sales fell by 16% and downloads by a staggering 21%.

Streaming is an increasingly important part of the mix but it is still a minority player, increasing its market share from 16% in 2014 to 24% in 2015. Even though the download collapse was seismic, the lost revenue (€12.7 million) was less than half the amount that streaming grew by (€33.2). So however much streaming may be cannibalising downloads (and it is) it is adding more than it is taking, in France anyway. But we are not just experiencing one format transition, the CD is dying off too. So when you add the decline in download sales and physical sales together, the total (€64.3 million) is nearly double what streaming added. The recorded music business is switching from a sales model to an access model but the revenue transition is lagging the behavioural shift.

midia forecastsPerhaps most perplexing though was the fact that ad supported streaming revenue, for both audio and video, declined by 8%. As regular readers will know, I have long advocated that free streaming should move towards a Pandora like model and away from full on demand. Now the revenue story is building to support this case.

Back in October we published our MIDiA Research music forecasts report ‘Global Music Forecasts 2015-2020: Declining Legacy Formats Cancel Out Streaming Growth’ (from which the above chart is taken and which you can buy here). We predicted that the continued decline of legacy formats (i.e. the download and the CD) would undo all the positive growth work of streaming resulting in market stagnation / market decline. As the French experience shows us, this reality is already coming to pass.

Welcome To The 15 Second Song

Music messaging apps have become something of a boom area in recent years with the likes of MSTY, Dubsmash, PingTune, Flipagram and WordUp pursuing a variety of approaches. It is clear that messaging and music sharing both play to the fundamental human need to connect. What has been less clear is the market opportunity in the context of booming growth among pure play messaging apps like LINE and WhatsApp. The global number of monthly active users of messaging apps is now over 5 billion (which compares to just 2.6 billion for social networks). Messaging platforms are the new place digital audiences congregate. Conscious of the need to add to, rather than compete with, the messaging incumbents, music messaging app Musical.ly has taken a different approach. Instead of creating a soundtrack for messages it has focused on an Instagram-meets-Vine use case, with users creating their own videos to accompany a selection of songs served up by the app. It may seem like a relatively subtle difference but it has created an utterly different use case, one that challenges the very essence of what music consumption actually is, and what a song should be.

Peacocking

I’d been aware of Musical.ly for some time (music messaging apps, along with artist subscription apps, is one of the areas of music innovation that I’m currently paying a lot of attention to). But what really woke me up to the power of Musical.ly was seeing my daughter use it. Within seconds she was creating her first video, finding friends and racking up the likes. In a very similar way to Instagram Musical.ly is a perfect fit for the tweens and early teens. It appeals to the peacocking psychology of kids as they explore and define their identities, and as they learn about friendships and social circles.

musicallyJust as with kids in the school yard competing for who’s got the most Instagram followers, Musical.ly taps this somewhat narcissistic drive to outperform the rest. But while selfies and filters are the language of Instagram for kids, on Musical.ly it is music. Users are presented with a curated selection of tracks to chose from against which they create their own videos, whether they be lip synching, sharp dance routines or creative videos. As a slightly over bearing parent I insisted my daughter did not reveal her face on Musical.ly so she set about creating endless streams of stop motion animation, ranging from her Converse walking themselves across the floor to a biscuit disappearing one nibble at a time, all with a song as the soundtrack. This enforced creativity appears to have paid dividends as she quickly amassed followers and requests to collaborate.

The 15 Second Song

All well and good, but the really interesting bit for me was that each of the songs used in the videos was between 15 and 25 seconds long. Yet she plays the videos back again and again, on loop, as do her followers. So she ends up listening to, for example, 15 seconds of Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry’ sound tracking her self-propelled Converse many, many more times than she ever listened to the full song. Musical.ly will doubtlessly pitch this to rights owners as ‘discovery’. But it’s not. It is consumption in its own right, and like we’ve never really seen before. The 15 second hook is the song. The other 3 minutes are unnecessary baggage.

Breaking Free Of The 3 Minute Straight Jacket

We have the the 3 minute pop song because that’s what radio wanted, not because that is how long a song should naturally be. So now that we are becoming freed of the constraints of radio schedules, 7 inch vinyl and other analogue formats, there is no reason that the 3 minute straight jacket should dominate anymore. There have long been exceptions, such as Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (5.55) and Napalm Death’s ‘You Suffer’ (0.01). And although the pop music average remains firmly nailed to 3 minutes, change is a-coming. For example, Canadian Shawn Mendes, now firmly signed to Universal Music’s Island, found his way to fame by releasing 6 second songs on Vine. Generation Edge (i.e. Millennials aged 16 or under) have more apps, entertainment and technology competing for their attention than any previous generation. It’s not so much that their attention spans are shortening, but that they simply cannot afford to focus on any one thing too long else they miss out on everything else.

The changing structure of pop songs to feature hooks throughout, rather than simply in the chorus, means that in many ways pop songs are already becoming a stitched together collection of mini-songs. They inherently lend themselves to being unbundled. Musical.ly and its model of super-short-form music experiences is by no means the entire future of music consumption and creativity, but it absolutely does represent an entirely new strand of both of those.

The Orchard’s co-founder Scott Cohen started suggesting a few years ago that the future of the song could mean embracing 30 seconds as a creative format. It’s beginning to look like Scott may have called it right.

Music’s Role In Digital Content Is Small And Shrinking

This week I delivered a keynote at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on the future of media. I focused on three key areas of digital content:

  • Digital Music
  • Online Video
  • Mobile Apps

Pulling together these three different strands really shone a light on where music sits in the broader digital economy.  One of the key themes I explored was how the streaming music business relies on pretty much the same model as mobile games like Clash Of Clans, i.e. relying on a tiny share of the total audience to pay. The big difference is that the annual ARPU of a King customer is $290.41 while for Universal Music the annual ARPU of a streaming music subscriber is $29.77.  Universal Music rightly got a lot of attention recently for becoming the first billion Dollar streaming music company. Universal has managed to make streaming revenue scale. However streaming remains a revenue stream that is plagued by free. Only 10% of the total streaming audience (i.e. including YouTube and Soundcloud) is paid, and though this small group generates 71% of Universal’s streaming revenue, the blended ARPU is just $4.15. That’s $4.15 for the entire year of 2015, not per month. You can see my full analysis of how free-to-paid conversion ratios and ARPU compare across big media companies here.

media company arpu

But perhaps most revealing is the relative scale of music compared to everything else. As the graphic below reveals, digital music (at retail values) will be just 10% of digital content revenue by 2020, down from 16% in 2015. So digital music is both small and losing market share. Online video, which is at an earlier stage of its development, is already bigger (at retail value) than the entire recorded music business (at trade value), while mobile app revenue is double that of online video.

forecasts midia

Yet music continually punches above its weight. Its impact on culture and emotions far outweighs that of apps (for now at least) and music artists still have far more dedicated fan bases than actors generally do (again, for now at least). Music’s impact is far beyond its revenue, even in business terms. Just look at all the brands, telcos and device companies that fall over themselves to be associated with music.

Nonetheless, the reality that must be accepted is that sooner or later, recorded music’s diminished revenue footprint is going to catch up with it. Major record labels enjoy a privileged position, because rights are so concentrated in music they each have an effective monopoly power because each of them have the power of veto if they say no. (You try launching a mainstream music service without one of the majors). This can sometimes lead to hubris and over confidence. In video and apps, rights are far more fragmented and consequently no single rights owner has market shaping power. (As an aside it is worth asking whether rights concentration is contributing to digital music losing pace with the digital content economy.) The clear risk is that music rights holders eventually overplay their hand, demanding too much from partners with too little flexibility. I have been hearing for some time from a number of ‘partner’ companies that they are beginning to question whether music is worth the hassle. Meanwhile SVOD services and YouTubers are waiting eagerly in the wings…

Another part of the equation is that recorded music revenue only paints a small part of the global music industry picture (i.e. also including publishing, live and merch). In fact, recorded music has declined from being 60% of all music industry revenue in 2000 to around 30% today.  Most artist managers now view recorded music primarily as a marketing platform to drive live revenue. Unfortunately record labels aren’t in a position to think that way.

Whatever perspective you view this from though, one thing is clear, music’s role in the global digital content marketplace is small and shrinking.

What’s Going On With Free Streaming?

Earlier this week Soundcloud’s financials revealed that the company was haemorrhaging cash (even before it had to start worrying about content license fees). Now news comes that Pandora is working with Morgan Stanley to meet with potential buyers. Back in Q4 2014 free streaming got a stay of execution when the majors decided to put their weight behind freemium after a period of many executives seriously considering canning the model. In 2015 free streaming was the growth story, with YouTube out performing everyone. Now though free streaming looks to be in seriously troubled waters. So what gives?

Pandora’s Problem Is Wall Street

Probably the biggest problem of all that Pandora has is the story it tells Wall Street. Every year Pandora accounts for a little bit more of total US radio listening, builds ad revenue and steadily strengthens its business. But that’s not the sort of story Wall Street expects from a streaming media company. Investors expect dynamic growth. But Pandora is, along with Rhapsody, the granddaddy of streaming and had 10 million users before Spotify was even launched in Sweden, let alone the US. Pandora long since passed its dynamic growth stage in the US and is now a mature business that is going about sensibly building a sustainable business.

The standard thing to do at this stage for streaming companies is to roll out internationally and find new markets where you can start a new dynamic growth story. This is exactly what Netflix is doing now that US subscriber growth has slowed. The approach has also served Spotify well. But the unique compulsory licensing structure in the US the underpins Pandora’s business model does not exist elsewhere. There is no global landscape of SoundExchanges for Pandora to plug into. With the exception of Australia and New Zealand Pandora has not been able to negotiate rates that it launch internationally with.

Actually, Slowing Growth Is A Problem Too 

All of which explains why Pandora has gone down the acquisition route, buying Next Big Sound, Ticket Fly and Rdio in a bid to become a full stack music company. The problem is that Wall Street either does not buy it, or simply does not get it. In fact, Wall Street does not really make much of a distinction between semi-interactive radio or on-demand streaming. The pervasive view among the investor community is that Pandora is being out competed by Spotify, regardless of the fact that there is only partial competitive overlap in terms of value proposition, target audience and business model. The net result is that Pandora’s market capitalization has fallen from $7bn to $1.8bn and to make matters worse it had to raise $500 million in debt, with revenue growth slowing.

Pandora Needs A New Wall Street Narrative

In just the same way Apple needs a new Wall Street narrative, so does Pandora. Even if just to maintain some market value while it finds a buyer. The full stack music strategy should be central to that narrative, even though the real story is that Pandora is the future of radio. Unfortunately that story will take a decade or more to play out and most investors do not have that kind of patience. (Spotify, these are the sorts of problems you’ll be having to worry about this time next year). And, to be precise, it is the Pandora model that is the future of radio, not necessarily Pandora itself.  Though the odds are still on Pandora playing that role, in the US at least.

If Pandora really does not have the stomach for seeing out the long game it should not find it too difficult to find a buyer, if the price is right. Exactly because Pandora is the future of radio, some of those big radio incumbents are likely buyer. Hello iHeart Media.

 

Warner’s Streaming Equity Pay Out Is Commendable But Not Enough

During his latest investor conference call Warner Music’s CEO Stephen Cooper announced that the label will pay artists a portion of any income it earns from equity stakes in services such as Spotify and Soundcloud. With Spotify potentially announcing its IPO next quarter the announcement is more than a token gesture. It is a bold move by Warner and follows on from Sony and Universal both announcing last year that they will pay artists a portion of streaming breakage revenue (the difference between what services pay labels in guarantees and how much royalty revenue they actually generate – WMG has been doing this since 2009). The big labels are waking up to the fact that transparency is key if they are going to keep artists on side. Streaming is where consumer behaviour is going, but currently YouTube is growing quicker than everyone else. The labels need premium and freemium services to make up ground fast. Which is why they cannot afford the Black Keys-Taylor Swift-Adele-Coldplay trickle to turn into a torrent. They need artists to be as vested as they are.

Streaming Hostilities May Have Thawed But Underlying Issues Remain

With the exception of the songwriter class action suits that closed out the year, 2015 was actually a pretty good year for streaming service – artist relations. Artists became a little more accustomed to streaming and many started to see a meaningful in their streaming income. But there is still much distance to go. The crucial issue for the majority of mid ranking and lower artists is how to deal with sizeable up front payments being replaced by a long term flow of micro payments. If you are a sizable label or a big artist you won’t feel the pain too much, but for the rest it normally means a very serious tightening of the belt.

The True Value Of Streaming Doesn’t Lie In Equity Stakes After All

There has, wrongly, long been a suspicion among many that streaming services are some sort of elaborate money making scam for labels, with the real value hidden in the money they will earn from their equity stakes. But as the ever excellent Tim Ingham explains, Warner is likely to only make around $200 million from a successful Spotify floatation. Of course $200 million is no small amount of money, and would represent more than half of Warner’s quarterly digital income. But it represents just 16% of the money Warner has earned from streaming since 2010 and just 2% of all global streaming revenue in 2015 (at retail values). Thus the label equity stakes in Spotify & co. are meaningful but they are far from where the real label value exists. Indeed as Cooper stated: “the main form of compensation we receive from streaming services is revenue based on actual streams”.

So If Artist Equity Income Isn’t Going To Fix Streaming, What Will?

All of which then raises the awkward question: if artists getting a Spotify IPO pay out isn’t going to ‘fix’ the model for artists, then what is? There is not really much scope for streaming services to pay out more to rights holders (80% of revenue doesn’t leave much scope for operating profit). While there is certainly scope for increasing ARPU among the super fan subscribers, there is little opportunity to raise prices for the majority of users ($9.99 is already more than most are willing to spend). So the only part of the equation left is how much labels pay artists.

Streaming Is Neither A License Nor A Sale And Its Time Artist Deals Recognise It

Right now the entire recorded music business is trying to figure out whether streaming is replacing radio or sales. The likelihood is that it is doing both and by doing so creating something new in between. That means that labels need to rethink how they pay artists, because currently they typically pay them on either one or the other of those models, and most often on the basis of a stream being a sale. A stream being the equivalent of a sale is completely counterintuitive because streaming is all about consumption not transaction. So why are labels most commonly treating streams as sales? Because the % they have to pay artists is so much lower, often in the 10% to 15% range rather than around 50% for a license. Of course there is as strong an argument to be made for streams not to be considered as a pure license as there is a sale, but there is an even stronger one for a hybrid rate that sits in the middle. Doing so would double the amount of money most artists make from streaming, instantaneously transforming its revenue impact for many. There is some precedent too. In 2012 Universal was successfully sued by FTB Productions over its treatment of Eminem downloads as sales rather than licenses, for which Eminem would have been paid a 50% rate instead of the much smaller sales rate.

Warner Music deserve credit for their commitment to paying artists a portion of equity related income (though no mention of how much of course) but it is just one step on a bigger journey. A wholesale reassessment of artist streaming compensation is required. Increasing artist streaming rates will dent label margins but ultimately the labels need to decide whether they want to build a business that is as sustainable for artists as it is for them.

Postscript: One interesting quote stood out from Cooper: “Although none of these equity stakes have been monetized since we implemented our breakage policy…there are some services from which we receive additional forms of compensation”. Translation(?): Sony used to get paid by the big streaming services on some sort of stock dividend basis and probably still does from some others.

The Handshake Economy

We are in the era of the always-on fan, with artists making themselves ever more available to their fans. It is a transition that comes with no shortage of challenges, not least the extra workload it places on artists and the way it chips away at the magical aura that surrounds them.  There is an inherent tension between increasing an artist’s appeal through increased accessibility and creating it by maintaining distance.  Contrast this with YouTubers like Jenna Marbles, PewDiePie and Phil and Dan who share so much of their lives with their fans.  Platforms like Kickstarter, Paetron and the ever excellent PledgeMusic have given artists the ability to balance artistic credibility with monetizing their super fans. But while such efforts are currently on the fringes there is a country where super fans are at the heart of recorded music revenue. Artistic credibility however is not exactly at the top of the menu.

Merchandise Disguised As Albums

In Japan 78% of music sales are still physical. On the surface, for such a technologically sophisticated country as Japan this looks like a resounding success story for the CD. But all is not as it may at first appear. The Japanese music business long ago mastered the skill of using the CD as a tool for driving ancillary revenue. J-Pop artists used to routinely simultaneously release multiple editions of albums. But while in Western markets special editions typically entail different tracks, artwork and packaging, J-Pop special editions often featured exactly the same tracks and artwork but a different free gift. In practice this was merchandise sales disguised as music sales. This strategy banked on the repeatedly proven theory that super fans would buy every single edition. The practice still continues but looks patently philanthropic compared to the successor strategy of Japanese idol artists.

One Fan, Many Votes

Idol artists are Japan’s reality TV pop stars. Typically tied to a TV show they build the same sort of audience relationship that contestants do on western shows like American Idol and the XFactor. But whereas the western shows most often see competing acts, these shows usually focus on just one. The most successful of these acts so far is AKB48, an all girl troupe featuring 48 members. However the crucial twist to AKB48 is that fans get to vote for their favourite members, the most popular of whom then go on to be the core focus of the band and get all the best appearances and TV slots. While in a western talent show the vote would take place via a premium phone line, votes for AKB48 can only be cast with an official voting slip, which conveniently enough comes inside the band’s latest CD. So fans flock to the shops on release day not because they desperately want to hear the latest AKB48 tunes but to vote. In fact, street bins are often full on release day with discarded CDs, with the voting slips removed.

But it doesn’t stop there. Voting follows a process Stalin and Saddam Hussein would be proud of. Instead of one-fan-one-vote, AKB48 fans can vote as many times as they like, just so long as they buy more CDs, and boy, do they do just that. As you can see from the graphic, some fans go to extreme lengths to try to influence the outcome of the vote for their favourite members of AKB48 and copycat acts like Nogizaka 46. Some fans literally bankrupt themselves in the process. The bottom left picture in the graphic shows what one fan got for spending $330,000.

idol super fans

The Value Of A Handshake

There are countless other tricks employed by the companies behind these idol acts, such as releasing singles by individual members and watching the fans try to outspend each other to ensure their favourites triumph. But the most intriguing of all is the handshake. Idol acts stage huge handshake events where fans queue up in their thousands to high five or shake the hands of their favourite idol stars. ‘How do you get your pass for a handshake?’ I hear you ask, yep, you go it, by buying a CD. But why stop at just one CD? Many artists will let you upgrade to a hug if you buy 5. You might be getting a little uneasy thinking about where 20 might get you but some acts pretty much do go, ahem, all the way, with actual dates for those fans who buy enough CDs. Though to be fair the dates are entirely platonic and are carefully chaperoned.

PledgeMusic’s Evil Twin

Just when you thought flagrant exploitation of super fans couldn’t get any worse, along came Deep Girl, a rock focused girl band that released their debut single at the end of their TV series. Priced at a hefty $8.38 the single included the song, a karaoke version and one of 7 different covers for each band member. But where the cynicism needle was really ratcheted up was the star system. Each CD included one star which could be redeemed against a menu of benefits, starting with the good old handshake at one star, going up through items such as an hour long phone call for 150 stars, lunch and, ahem, ear cleaning, for 300 stars, right up to a trip to a hot springs together for 2,000 stars. Bear in mind that a fan would have had to spend over $16,000 to get 2,000 stars. Oh, and just to pile the pressure on fans, the powers behind the band made it absolutely clear that if Deep Girl’s single didn’t top the charts they would be forcibly disbanded. No pressure then.

It all feels like an evil twin version of PledgeMusic. And let’s not even mention Happening Girls, the only ‘all year round swimsuit idol group in Japan’ that are all ‘available to marry’ for fans that buy marriage interview sessions.

It’s easy to be critical of this highly cynical practice that is exploitative for both the idols and their fans. (Not to mention the blatant chart rigging aspect). But there is no denying that the approach has successfully generated truly big spending in what is otherwise a rapidly declining recorded music market. Indeed, AKB48 were the first female group to sell over 30 million records. At its heart the idol approach skillfully balances the utterly mass media reach of super stars with intimate and (relatively) scarce access. The bigger the idol the more valuable the intimate access feels. The macro is simultaneously micro.

The Dark Side Of The Idol Model

There are also, not at all surprisingly, dark sides to the idol model. The most disturbing of which was a vicious attack on two AKB48 members at a handshake event with a disgruntled fan attacking them with a 50-centimeter saw. Other, thankfully less dramatic, events include the shattered dreams of super fans spurned by their idols when they try to approach them outside of the official events. One Nogizaka 46 fan had bought 3,000 CDs in support of his favourite act – going into debt in the process – but was curtly snubbed by the idol singer when he approached her after a gig. These setbacks aside though, the idol model looks like it has a lot of life in it yet and of course a host of Western pop acts such as Rihanna and Taylor Swift have long been in the paid meet and greet game.

As music sales dwindle all types of artists need to get more creative about how they generate income from their fans and with ever more passive music fans falling out of the habit of buying, it is the super fans that will matter more and more. The Japanese experience is utterly unpalatable for most artists and probably wouldn’t translate anyway in most Western countries. But the essence of understanding that the fandom itself is just as valuable to fans as the music is the essence of truth that YouTubers have already grasped and that more artists need to do. Welcome to the handshake economy.

The Labels Still Don’t Get YouTube And It’s Costing Them

This is the fifth post in my YouTube economy series. You can read the other posts here, here,here and here

2015 was the year that streaming came of age across global markets (it had already got there in the Nordics and South Korea of course). In the UK and the US stream volumes grew by 85% and 93% respectively in 2015. These markets matter because they are the 1st and 4th largest recorded music markets and between them account for 40% of global revenue. But as strong as a validation of the music streaming model as those numbers might be, the real success story here isn’t Spotify, Deezer or Apple Music…it’s YouTube. In both the US and UK YouTube outgrew audio streaming services. With YouTube delivering so much less back per stream to rights holders than freemium audio services and the whole issue of safe harbour and un-monetized tracks (however good Content ID has gotten) it is little wonder that the record labels are having an identity crisis over YouTube. Indeed, as I wrote last year, the YouTube discovery journey has become the consumption destination. The advert has become the product. But there’s even more to it than this. Not only is YouTube outperforming the audio pure plays, music is being outperformed on YouTube by its growing body of native creators, the new generation of YouTubers.

youtube economy

YouTube started out as a place simply to watch (and upload) videos but has evolved into a sophisticated entertainment platform that supports a multitude of diverse use cases, both in terms of content and audience. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in channel subscriptions. In many respects ‘channel’ isn’t the most appropriate term as they are in effect talent feeds rather than channels in a traditional video / TV sense. Nonetheless, or perhaps because of this, they have become the lifeblood of native YouTube creators as diverse as Michelle Phan, PewDiePie, Zoella, SMOSH, stampylongnose and IISuperwomanII.

These are creators who often do everything from writing, filming, production through to front-of-camera. DIY superstars if you like. And they are fast becoming the lifeblood of YouTube. Of the 330 million subscriptions in the top 50 YouTube channels, YouTubers account for 34%. Compare and contrast with the measly 15% music artist and label channels have. And despite all the excitement around the increased subscribers Adele and Justin Bieber have racked up these last few months – they gained 8 million subscribers between them, making them the two fastest gainers across all of YouTube – music artists as a whole lost ground, accounting for just 31% of the top 50 gains during the last 90 days compared to 53% for YouTubers.

Music Is Losing Ground To Native YouTubers

Music does fare better in terms of views with 36% of the 41 billion top 50 views in the last 90 days. However it still plays second fiddle to YouTubers who account for 45%. But it is the direction of travel that reveals the most telling trend. Over the last 90 days 42% of the 50 top 50 growing channel views compared to 39% for music. In itself that may sound like a modest difference, but this is just the latest 90 day chapter in a much longer story. Music used to be the clear focal point of YouTube but that is changing. In terms of all time views music actually outpaces YouTubers with 42% compared to 41%. But at current rates that lead will be wiped out in the next 90 days. And here’s the paradox: music’s hold on YouTube is slipping even though YouTube is outperforming music services.

Part of driving force is out of the hands of the labels: video is eating the world, with more than 5 trillion short form views in 2015 alone. Music is always the first mover in digital content consumption, the trailblazer for other media. Once distribution, bandwidth and consumer sophistication all improve, video moves in.

Time To Stop Using YouTube Like School Kids Use Instragram

But record labels and artists can seize some control of their destiny, by taking a more sophisticated view of YouTube and exploring how to build strategies that work for YouTube in 2016 not for YouTube in 2010.  Right now record labels are using YouTube like school kids use Instagram, obsessing with vanity metrics such as views rather than thinking more deeply about how to build lasting relationships with YouTube audiences. A new generation of music artists is emerging that have created and nurtured audiences on YouTube, often with little or no help from labels. Artist like Dave Days, Tyler Ward, Boyce Avenue and Hannah Trigwell have built their fanbases on YouTube, often starting with covers but also crucially often non-music content such as parodies and vlogs. Raised in YouTube these artists are entirely native to the platform. They understand what audiences want because that’s where they come from.

If the big traditional artists and labels want to start making up some ground on the YouTuber revolution they could do worse than take a few hints from this new breed of YouTube artist.

The Three Things You Need To Know About The UK Music Sales Figures

As most people expected, the UK recorded music industry returned to growth in 2015. The UK now follows an increasingly familiar European narrative of strong streaming growth helping bring total markets back to growth. Sales revenue increased 3.5% to reach £1.1 billion while total streams increased by 85% to reach 53.7 billion, with audio stream representing 49.9% of that total. There is no doubt that these are welcome figures for the UK music industry but as is always the case, a little digging beneath the surface of the numbers reveals a more complex and nuanced story. Here are the three things you need to know about UK music sales in 2015.

1 – Streaming Growth Accompanied A Download Collapse

Long term readers will know that I’ve long argued the ‘Replacement Theory’, that streaming growth directly reduces download sales. It is a simple and inevitable artefact of the transition process. Indeed a quarter of subscribers state they used to but no longer buy more than one album a month since they started paying for streaming. There have been plenty of opponents to this argument, normally from parties with vested interests. But the market data is now becoming unequivocal. While streams increased by 257% between 2013 and 2015 download sales decreased by 23%. And of course the vast majority of that streaming volume came from free streams, not paid.

bpi 1

2 – The Transition Follows A Clear Defined Path

The download to streaming transition is an inevitability, whatever business models are wrapped around it. It is part of the fundamental shift from ownership to access of which streaming music is but single component. It comprises consumers progressively replacing one behaviour with another. In fact, the evolution is so deliberate and predictable that it manifests in a clear numerical relationship: the Transition Triangle.

The UK music industry trade body the BPI has created a number of additional classifications for music sales and consumption. These include Stream Equivalent Albums (1,000 streams = 1 album) and Track Equivalent Sales (10 track sales = 1 album). Using these classifications and adding in actual album download sales we see a very clear relationship between the growth of streaming and the decline of downloads. The difference in volumes between downloads and streams each year is almost exactly the same as the amount by which downloads decreased the previous year. At this point even the most ardent replacement theory sceptic might start suspecting there’s at least some degree of causality at play.

BPI 2

3 – Thanks Are Due To Adele, Again

Back when Adele’s ‘21’ was setting sales records, music markets across the globe owed her a debt of gratitude for helping slow the incessant decline in sales. Global revenue decline fell to less than 1% and US revenue actually grew by 2.9% (falling back down the following year). Now she’s done it again with ’25’, giving album sales enough of a boost to ensure that the growth in streaming revenue lifted the entire market. For although album sales actually declined in 2015 and streaming volumes had grown more strongly in 2014, it was the combined impact of slowed album decline and streaming growth in 2015 that enabled the total market to grow so strongly.

Adele generated around £25 million of retail sales revenue in 2015, which was equivalent to 70% of the £36 million by which UK music sales revenue increased that year. While of course a portion of that £25 million would have been spent on other repertoire if ‘25’ had not been released, the majority would not. With ‘21’ and now with ‘25’ Adele has been able to pull casual music consumers out of the woodwork and persuade them to buy one of the only albums they’ll buy all year, often the only one.

Without that £25 million UK music sales would have increased by just 1%.  So in effect streaming services have Adele to thank for ensuring their growth lifted the whole market even though she famously held ‘25’ back from each and every one of them. Sweet irony indeed.

BPI 3

As a final postscript, the role of YouTube, while underplayed in the official figures, is crucial. While audio streams grew by an impressive 81% in 2015, video streams grew by 88%. So however good a job the streaming services might be doing of growing their market, YouTube is doing an even better one.

The Beatles, Streaming And The End Of The Record Label Business Model

So the Beatles are finally coming to streaming…well much of the Beatles’ catalogue is at least.  Is it a big deal?  Kind of. The Beatles were late to iTunes and they’re now late to streaming.  Fashionably late though. No so soon as to be left standing awkwardly waiting for something to happen and not too late to miss the real action.

The Beatles are unique enough, and important enough to dictate their own terms and set their own timetable. For streaming services the Beatles catalogue is strategically important in the way it was for iTunes in that it helps communicate the value proposition of all the music in the world…well most of it. For the Beatles it represents the opportunity to reach younger audiences that sales are currently missing (which in large part explains why the catalogue is being made available on free tiers too).

It’s All About Targeting

20 years ago everyone pretty much bought the same product, the CD. Now though the music consumer landscape is fragmented and siloed. The fact that Adele’s ‘Hello’ simultaneously delivered stellar performance across audio streaming, video streaming, download sales and radio illustrates that there are many highly distinct groups of consumers that do one but not the other. This what Universal will be banking on with bringing the Beatles to streaming: they’ll be hoping that most of the future prospective buyers of Beatles albums are not streaming. For as long as this elongated transition phase continues, this sort of approach can work.

What Happens When The Bottom Falls Out Of the Catalogue Business?

The business model of record labels has long depended on revenue from back catalogue propping up the loss-leading new artists, on whom labels have to spend heavily to break. That model works as long as back catalogue sales are vibrant. But cracks are now showing in that model. Labels, especially the big ones, are increasingly spending even more heavily on a smaller number of big bets. For major labels many of these are either manufactured or laser targeted pop acts that grow big fast but like genetically modified crops, soak the nutrients out of their fan-base soil and are less likely to have long term careers. This means breaking artists are costing more to break and have less long term revenue potential.

That double whammy in itself would be bad enough, but there is an even more important structural factor at play. Catalogue sales depend on people buying classic albums, reissues and retrospectives. The secret is in the term ‘sales’. The model does not translate the same way to sales. Getting someone to spend $10 on an album for old times’ sake that they might listen to a handful of times but value having in their collection is very different from earning $0.20 or so from the same number of listens. But that is the way the world is heading. Older music buyers (i.e. from late 30’s onwards) are the lifeblood of catalogue sales.

That model works for older consumers that grew up buying music and thus have the habit. But what happens what happens when the first millennials enter their late 30s? Which is exactly what is going to start happening from 2016 onwards. As each new cohort of aging millennials passes 35 a smaller percentage of them will have ever regularly bought music. Thus from 2016 onwards every year will mean an ever smaller number of catalogue buyers coming into the top of the funnel.

The long term implications are clear. While this will not be anything like an instant collapse, the impact will be progressively more painful as each year passes. The old label model of developing a vast bank of copyrights will become less and less relevant.

So Beatles, welcome to streaming, this will be your last new format hurrah.

Pandora’s Rate Ruling Reveals The Cracks In Streaming Economics

The much anticipated outcome of yesterday’s Copyright Tribunal decision was a 20% increase of Pandora’s ad supported stream rate from $0.0014 per non-interactive stream to $0.0017. The result was roughly equidistant between the two parties’ preferred rate: Pandora wanted $0.0011, SoundExchange (the body that collects the royalties on behalf of the labels) wanted $0.0025. As with any good compromise neither party will be truly happy, though on balance Pandora probably came out slightly better. Both the rate and the whole rate setting process shine a bright light on the economics of streaming, especially when contrasted against on-demand services.

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Pandora’s semi-interactive radio service operates under statutory rates in the US that are set by the Copyright Royalty Board for a few years at a time, with inflation baked in. This means a continual rise in rates (see figure). It also gives Pandora a degree of certainty over its mid term future but prevents record labels from negotiating for better rates (publishers however are able to strike direct deals with Pandora). Spotify, and other on-demand streaming services, negotiates deals directly with multiple record labels, publishers and rights bodies. Deals typically come up for renewal every couple of years, involve large upfront payments and Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs). They also run the risk of core product features being threatened in renegotiations – as we saw with the labels’ dalliance with killing off freemium this time last year.

The most significant difference between the models is how the per stream rate works. For on-demand services a royalty pot as a % of revenue is determined. This is then divided between rights holders based on plays in a given period and allocated on a per stream rate basis. Thus royalty payments remain a comparatively constant share of revenue, assuming of course that the service hits the MRG targets – if it doesn’t the share increases, often above 100% of revenue. This model also implies a clear ceiling to the potential profit an on-demand service can earn. By contrast Pandora pays out on a (largely) pure per stream basis. The direct consequence of this is that Pandora is able to increase it revenue per play faster than its rights cost per play which in turn creates the potential to grow margin (see next figure).

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Between 2009 and 2014 Pandora’s content acquisition costs per listener hour increased by 27% from $17.52 to $22.29. This reflects both the CRB set rate as well as deals with rights bodies and publishers. But over the same period Pandora’s revenue per listener hour increased by 114% from $21.48 to $45.97. Now clearly, an increase in revenue per hour does not inherently mean increased profitability, or even profitability at all. Indeed, Pandora’s continued losses have been a perennial bugbear for investors. But Pandora has chosen to invest its increased revenue to grow its business, building out regional ad sales teams and making acquisitions such as Next Big Sound, Ticket Fly and Rdio. In short, Pandora could have been profitable for some time now if it had so chosen. Instead it is chasing a bigger prize, namely to become the single biggest revenue driver in US radio. To get big it needs to spend big.

Pandora’s Core Strength Is Being Able Increase Profitability Per User

The underlying principle is clear: while on-demand services have little meaningful way of increasing revenue per user with the current model, Pandora has more than doubled revenue per user in 6 years while rights costs have declined in relative terms. Content acquisition costs fell from a high of 82% of revenue in 2009 to 48% in 2014. That rate will increase in 2015 due to direct deals struck with publishers and the $90 million pay out for the pre-1972 works ruling. But it still remains well south of Spotify’s 70%+.

On Demand Services Have Similar Fixed Costs But Tighter Margins Because Of Royalties

While there is a clear case for semi-interactive radio rates being markedly lower than on-demand rates many of the fixed costs of both types of streaming business are the same.  Both have to commit similar amounts to product development and tech, bandwidth, data analysis, reporting marketing, customer care, management. This puts on-demand services at an operational disadvantage compared to webradio services.

If paid-for streaming services are going to become commercially sustainable there is going to need to be pricing and product innovation to both reach more mainstream users (cheaper tiers) and to drive more revenue from high value users (more expensive tiers and bolt ons). Right now there is relatively little commercial incentive for on-demand services to innovate upwards as profitability will remain largely the same. There is an opportunity for labels to offer Spotify and co a Pandora-style pure per-play license structure for all products launched above and beyond the standard 9.99 tier. This would give the services the ability to follow Pandora’s path of growing revenue per user faster than rights costs per user, thus improving commercial sustainability and allowing them to invest more in product innovation.

Rights Frameworks Need To Engender Commercial Sustainability

Pandora is one of the few stand out, independent success stories of the entire history of digital music. It has become one of the world’s biggest music services despite being largely constrained to the US, it has built a commercially viable model and it has delivered a big return for investors via its IPO. Only Last.FM, Beatport and Beats Music can genuinely lay claim to having delivered big returns for their investors. There are many mitigating factors, but the unique licensing structure Pandora operates under is the single most important one. Do songwriters and labels feel that they’re getting short changed? Absolutely. But it is in the interest of every music industry stakeholder that the economics of digital music are structured in a way that enables standalone companies like Pandora, Spotify and Deezer to thrive. Otherwise there can be no complaints when the only options left on the table are companies like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google whose interest in music all stems from trying to sell something else. That’s when artists and songwriters are really at risk.