Why Streaming Doesn’t Really Matter For Adele

The outstanding success of Adele’s single ‘Hello’ has stoked up the already eager debate around whether Adele’s forthcoming ‘25’ album is going to be a success.  Indeed some are asking whether it is going to ‘save the industry’. One of the aspects that is getting a lot of attention is whether the album is going to be held back from some or all of the streaming services.  The parallels with Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ are clear, especially because both Swift and Adele are strong album artists, which is an increasingly rare commodity these days. But the similarities do not go much further.  In fact the two artists have dramatically different audience profiles which is why streaming plays a very different role for Adele than it does for Swift.

Lapsed Music Buyers Were Key To the Success Of ‘21’

Adele’s ’21’ was a stand out success, selling 30 million copies globally.  Core to ‘21’s commercial success was that the album touched so many people and in doing so pulled lapsed and infrequent music buyers out of the woodwork.  The question is whether the feat can be repeated? In many respects it looks a tall ask.  We’re 4 years on since the launch of ‘21’ and the music world has changed.  Music sales revenue (downloads and CDs) have fallen by a quarter while streaming revenues have tripled.  And the problem with pulling lapsed and infrequent buyers out of the woodwork is that they have receded even further 4 years on.  In fact a chunk of them are gone for good as buyers.

buyer streamer overlap

But beneath the headline numbers the picture is more nuanced (see graphic).  Looking at mid-year 2015 consumer data from the US we can see that music buyers (i.e. CD buyers and download buyers) are still a largely distinct group from free streamers (excluding YouTube).  While this may seem counter intuitive it is in fact evidence of the twin speed music consumer landscape that is emerging.  This is why ‘Hello’ was both a streaming success (the 2nd fastest Vevo video to reach 100m views) and a sales success (the first ever song to sell a million downloads in one week in the US).  These are two largely distinct groups of consumers.

Streaming A Non-Issue?

As a reader of this blog you probably live much or most of your music life digitally, but for vast swathes of the population, including many music buyers, this is simply not the case.  Given that the mainstream audience was so key to ‘21’s success we can make a sensible assumption that many of these will also fall into the 27% of consumers that buy music but do not stream.  The implication is thus that being on streaming really is not that big of a deal for ‘25’ one way or the other.  Whereas Taylor Swift’s audience is young and streams avidly, Adele’s is not.  That is not to say there aren’t young Adele fans, of course there are, but they are a far smaller portion of Adele’s fan base than Swift’s.

60% of 16-24 year olds stream while just 20% buy CDs.  Compare that to 40-50 year olds where 34% stream and 43% buy CDs.  These are dramatically different audiences which require dramatically different strategies.  Audio streaming is unlikely to be a major factor either way for Adele, neither in terms of lost sales nor revenue.  Unless of course she ‘does a Jazy-Z‘ or ‘does a U2’ and takes a big fat cheque from Apple to appear exclusively on Apple Music.  But I’d like to think she’d like to think she’d have the confidence of earning sales the real way.

The Importance Of The Digitally Engaged Super Fan

What unites Swift and Adele is that they are both mass market album artists and as such are something of a historical anomaly.  Swift bucked the trend by making an album targeted at Digital Natives shift more than 8 million units.  Adele will likely also buck the trend.  But paradoxically, considering the above data, in some ways it will be a harder task for Adele.  Swift has a very tightly defined, super engaged fan base that identifies itself with her.  Adele’s fanbase is more amorphous and pragmatic.  You don’t get ‘Adelle-ettes’.  Swift was able to mobilise her fanbase into music buying action like a presidential candidate with a passionate grassroots following and big donors.  The importance of digitally engaged super fans is the secret sauce of success for digital era creators.  It is the exact same dynamic that ensured UK YouTuber Joe Sugg was able to leverage his fanbase to give his debut book ‘Codename Evie’ the biggest 1st week sales for graphic novel EVER in the UK this year.

If Adele and her team do pull off a sales success with ‘25’ they will owe a debt of gratitude to that 27% of consumers.  While the odds are against it being quite as big as ‘21’ (simply because the market is smaller) it still has every chance of being a milestone event that will out perform everything else.  But do not mistake that for this being ‘Adele saves the music industry’.  Album sales are declining.  Success from Taylor Swift and Adele are (welcome) throwbacks and they are most certainly not a glimpse into the future.

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The Problem With Streaming Exclusives

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

There are three main types of exclusives:

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

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

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

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

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

When Is A Label A Label?

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

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

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

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

Windowing, Shake It Off

The removal of all of Taylor Swift’s albums from Spotify and other streaming services is sending minor shockwaves through the music industry. Swift’s label Big Machine has long adhered to a streaming windowing strategy and there is pretty compelling evidence that the approach has paid dividends. Swift’s ‘1989’ is not only on track to be the only million selling US album this year it is also set to have the highest ever first week album sales for a female artist, again in the US. No mean feat considering how much album sales have tanked. While it is impossible to prove the exact degree of causality, it would be fatuous to claim that windowing had done anything less than not hurt those sales. Windowing is an issue that refuses to go away but is a natural effect of the transition phase we are in.

Some artists and labels were just as fearful of iTunes in the 2000’s as they are now of Spotify. Heck, it took the Beatles seven whole years to finally license their catalogue. Right now there is still a very sizeable music sales marketplace. 79% of all recorded music revenue in 2013 came from sales. So it is understandable that some labels want to protect that Golden Goose as long as they can. And it is little compensation for labels that declining music sales are made up by increased live revenues. In even the most label friendly 360 deals music sales are still the core revenue stream.

However the shift to consumption models is an inevitable process. In the short term expect copy cat actions. Labels and artists will see the run away success of ‘1989’ and conclude that windowing played a key role. This may hurt Spotify just as it was beginning to feel good about proving its model. But the long view shows us that licensed streaming music will be ubiquitous five years from now, music sales will not. Even if Taylor Swift is still at the top of her game in 2019 she won’t be selling any 1 million albums anymore.

Spotify though can’t wait five years for Swift to shake off her streaming inhibitions. It can however help itself by accepting that its free tier should be on a different release window from its paid tier. If it doesn’t it makes windowing a binary equation which in turn makes it easier for an entire blanket ban to be conceived.

Of course the biggest irony in all this is that the free streaming services face no such blocks. All of Swift’s videos are still on YouTube and you can find her music all over Soundcloud, let alone Grooveshark. As MIDiA revealed last week, YouTube is one of the largest threats to music revenue. But because the music industry still views it as a marketing channel rather than a consumption channel it is measured by different standards. Thus 10 million YouTube views is a promotional success, whereas 10 million Spotify streams is x thousand lost sales. This hypocritical inconsistency has to end. Spotify premium customers are some of the most valuable music fans there are, most YouTube users are not.

taylor swift youtube

And both YouTube and Soundcloud also fail to crack down on blatant misuse of their platforms. As the screen grab above shows, YouTube makes it easier than easy to access the full ‘1989’ album, which in this instance is fully monetized and has 400,000 views. Meanwhile Soundcloud also has the full album, this time conveniently presented as individual tracks. And even if / when UMG catches up with these infringing files, not only will more pop up, YouTube also has this, a full ‘1989’ playlist, full of non-infringing, Vevo videos.   The simple fact is that too much is given away for free on YouTube. If Big Machine and Taylor Swift are really worried about cannibalizing album sales, they should take a long hard look at their YouTube strategy before pulling their content from Spotify.

UPDATE: UMG caught up with the 400,000 views full album YouTube video of ‘1989’ (that was quick) but the very same user has multiple other instances of the full ‘1989’ album which have hundreds of thousands of views and are still live.