YouTube And The Attention Economy

This is the third in the series of posts exploring how the music industry can better leverage the potential of the YouTube economy.  You can see the first post here and the second here.

Short form video is accelerating at a rapid pace, racking up 4.2 trillion views in the first half 2015.  While challengers Facebook, Snapchat and others now account for just over half of that total, few platforms of scale yet provide content creators and owners comparable ability to build engaged audiences and income.  For music the situation is even more pronounced – no other platform is even on the same lap of the race (and I include Vevo as an extension of YouTube). YouTube is the most popular online music destination by far (46% of consumers use it regularly) and its role for Digital Natives cannot be exaggerated – 65% of US under 25’s use YouTube for music regularly.  But the share that regularly watch YouTube as a whole is even higher: 76%.  The added complexity is that most artists and labels do not feel that YouTube is pulling its weight in revenue terms.  Free music streamers – of which YouTube is the largest single component – comprise 92.5% of all music streaming users and just 32% of all streaming revenue.  Yet a whole generation of non-music creators like PewDiePie, Smosh and the Janoskians have via YouTube built audiences and income that most artists could only dream of.  So what’s the secret?

Talk Don’t Shout

One of the key factors is the way in which YouTubers use the platform, releasing 2, 3 or more videos every week.  Contrast this with an artist releasing a music video maybe once every couple of months.  YouTubers treat the platform as place to build relationships with their audiences and to engage them in regular interaction.  The prevailing approach among artists, their managers and labels is to simply view YouTube as a place to promote.  YouTubers use YouTube as an interactive digital platform for engaging in conversations.  The music industry uses it as a broadcast channel, a soap box from which it can shout about its wares.

While clearly it doesn’t make sense for most artists to be creating 3 videos a week there has to be a compelling middle ground between that and one promo video every quarter.  Nearly half of music’s super fans say that music for them is more than just the song, that they want to know the artist’s story.  Music videos, the highly stylized form that they are, are hardly a vehicle for telling the artist’s story.  In fact there are few mediums less suited for the task.  But there is so much around the video that can be harnessed.  Imagine how much extra content could be created by adding half a day to the video shoot to film extras such as goofy outtakes, the band talking about the song, a making of, behind the scene reportage etc.

Think Of It Like DVD Extras That People Actually Want To Watch

And the costs should be modest.  YouTube is DIY.  Part of the authenticity most YouTubers deliver is by not being over produced.  So only a fraction of the crew used for the music video shoot would be needed.  The resulting video extras could then be planned into a release schedule on the artists’ YouTube channel, building up weekly to the main music video and then maintaining interest thereafter.  This is just one illustration of how it is entirely feasible to create lots of added value content with relatively little additional burden on the artist.  Yes, this might feel like creating the extras for the bonus disc on a DVD, and in some ways it is.  But there is a crucial difference.  DVD bonus discs are a means of charging more for a release and usually go unwatched.  Among young YouTube viewers this sort of content is often of comparable – though different – value to the song itself.

Prospering In The Attention Economy

In the sales era fans invested in their favourite artists by buying an album.  That cash investment usually meant a fan would spend time listening to the album again and again.  And that familiarity became the foundations of a long term relationship that would result in buying concert tickets and future albums.  But now as sales dwindle (down by 29% in the last 5 years) music fans are investing in their favourite artists in time and attention rather than money.  We now operate in an attention economy.  YouTubers totally get this, artists and labels less so.

This is all so important to artists because YouTube is not suddenly going to start delivering dramatically better music stream rates, largely because labels and publishers haven’t had the courage to demand the requisite fair share it should pay.  Rights owners’ fears are understandable: one senior label executive recounted a YouTube negotiator saying ‘Don’t push us.  Right now you don’t like us much and we’re your friend.  Imagine what we’d be like if we weren’t your friend.’  Sooner or later bullying tactics need standing up to.  But that will not be a quick process, regardless of the steps currently being taken behind the scenes.

So in the meantime artists and labels need to figure out how to get more out of YouTube in a way that complements the other ways they make money digitally.  Put simply that means making more non-music video content to generate more viewing hours and thus more ad revenue from YouTube. Heck, they might even generate some YouTube subscription revenue some time.  But do it they must, else they’ll forever be leaving chunks of YouTube money on the table.

The irony of it all though is that the biggest reason of all for doing it isn’t even about the money.  Treating YouTube as a fan engagement platform rather than a marketing tool is currently the most sure fire way artists have of creating engaged fan bases at scale in the digital marketplace.

Making YouTube Pay: YouTubers Versus Bands

This is the second in a series of YouTube generation posts. See the first one here.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Generation Edge – the under 16 millennials – and how they are driving an entire new subculture of YouTube stars that throw the traditional fandom rulebook out of the window. One of the intriguing paradoxes (or at least apparent paradoxes) is how a generation of native YouTube stars can create both vast audiences and revenue while for music artists YouTube is simply a place to build awareness and probably lose net revenue due to YouTube streams cannibalizing paid streams. So how can the model both be broken (for music) and yet buoyant for native YouTuber creators?

pewdiepie2 PewDiePie And Taylor Swift

Compare and contrast the biggest earner in music with the biggest earner on YouTube.   Taylor Swift netted $39.7 million in 2014, compared to $7.4 million for PewDiePie. Seems like a slam-dunk for music right? Except when you start digging a little all is not quiet what it seems. Swift’s numbers are gross revenue so include the revenue earned by everyone else (record labels, promoters, ticket agencies, venues etc.). Let’s say she earns a third of that income which would equate to $12 million (and before anyone suggests it should be higher given her relationship with her label Big Machine ¾ of her revenue came from live in 2014). So suddenly the difference doesn’t look quite so big. Then consider that PewDiePie’s $7.4 million refers just to his YouTube ad revenue and doesn’t take into account his live appearances income or his merch revenue. And, perhaps most importantly, the cost of earning that income was negligible. PewDiePie’s audience is right there on YouTube and his videos are home made. The cost of production, distribution and marketing are close to non-existent. The exact opposite is true of breaking a release like Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’. It’s no secret that most big labels lose money on lots of their bigger front line releases, relying upon a few massive successes and the steady income from back catalogue to pay the bills.

10 Billion Views And Counting

PewDiePie just passed 10 billion views three weeks ago and has 39.9 million subscribers – that’s one for every (gross) dollar that Taylor Swift earned in 2014. Anyway you look at it, those numbers are big. Game Of Thrones, which can lay claim to being one of the mainstream media success stories of the moment, has clocked up around 700 million total views globally over the course of 5 series. And while traditional media apologists will argue that you cannot compare a PewDiePie view with a GoT view try telling a PewDiePie subscriber that their viewing is somehow less worthwhile because it is more than weekly and doesn’t come from a traditional TV set.

Taylor Swift of course also has a pretty hefty YouTube / Vevo presence too, with 16.5 million subscribers and 6.3 billion views. But while she has 20 videos available PewDiePie has nearly 2,500. And therein lies one of the key differences. PewDiePie lives on platforms like YouTube and Twitch. His focus is making content regularly for his audience and engaging directly with them. YouTubers typically make multiple videos every week and often multiply that across multiple different channels. Try squeezing that in around touring, recording, writing sessions, media work etc. Swift, unlike many big pop artists, also knows how to do the native YouTube thing too and has had her own, non-Vevo, YouTube channel since 2006, posting 136 videos there to date. But in stark contrast to her Vevo channel Swift has just 1.4 million YouTube channel subscribers. So even one of the most YouTube-centric of pop artists that also happens to be one of the biggest pop acts on the planet right now simply doesn’t have the time, positioning nor content to compete with a shouty gamer from Sweden.

YouTube Is Generation Edge’s Destination Of Choice

So where does all this leave artists and YouTube. Unless bands want to ditch the guitars and start doing Minecraft commentary videos, becoming a full-on native YouTube creator simply isn’t feasible for most artists. But there absolutely is middle ground between the dominant focus on seeing YouTube simply as a marketing channel for music videos, and the native creator route. Part of the solution is seeing YouTube for what it actually is. It is not a video platform, or a marketing platform, it is one of the most important destinations for Millennials of all ages, especially Generation Edge. It is at once a social network, a TV network, a fun place to hang out, a discovery destination, a place where they can simply be themselves and feel connected. YouTube is all of that and more. In fact the breadth and depth of content means that it is everything to all people.

The Value Of An Authentic Voice

Treating YouTube simply as a marketing channel not only underplays its potential but it also completely misses what it means to your target audience. PewDiePie, Zoella, Stampy, Michelle Phan are all so successful because they speak directly with their YouTube audiences in an authentic voice that communicates that it is the here and now that matters. That it is about the moment not simply an attempt to try to get the viewer to go somewhere else to do something else. Authenticity is a priceless commodity and native YouTube creators have it in spades. That is the currency of the YouTube generation.

Ad Supported Is 56% Of US Streaming Revenue

Late 2014 a minor crisis emerged in the music industry, with major record labels at one stage looking like they were going to kill off freemium.  The outcome of the Freemium Wars was actually less dramatic, resulting instead in an effective continuation of the status quo.  The labels had however made it very clear to Spotify who held the whip hand.  Though their tones have softened, major label execs retain an at best sceptical view of free streaming.  The net result is that freemium has almost become the inconvenient streaming truth that no one really talks about.  However free is too big to ignore.  In fact free is much bigger than some would like to admit.

freemium what freemium

According to the IFPI ad supported streaming accounted for just 19% of all US streaming revenues in 2014, down from a high of 30% in 2011.  Which points to the success of subscriptions.  Except that those numbers ignore a major part of the equation: Pandora (and other semi-interactive radio services).  The IFPI has Pandora hidden away with cloud locker services, SiriusXM and a mixture of other revenues in ‘Other Digital’.  Extracting the semi-interactive radio revenues that count as label trade revenues wasn’t the most straight forward of tasks but it was worth the effort.  Once Pandora is added into the mix it emerges that 56% of US streaming revenues are from free, ad supported services.  While that share is down from a high of 66% in 2012 it remained flat in 2013 and 2014.  Which means that however fast subscriptions grew Pandora, Slacker, Rhapsody UnRadio and co grew even faster in order to offset the decline in on demand ad supported income.

us subscriber growth and pandora

Semi-interactive radio revenues grew by 40% in 2014 compared to 35% for subscriptions.  Subscriptions had grown much faster in 2013 (76% compared to 25%) but Pandora and co found their mojo again in 2014.  None of this is to suggest that subscriptions aren’t making great progress but it does show us that free is more than an inconvenient truth, it is both the most widely adopted behaviour and the largest revenue source in the US (which accounts for 48% of global digital revenues).

The music industry is beginning to get its head around the fact that the role of streaming as a retail channel (i.e. subscriptions) is always going to be smaller (in reach terms at least) than its role as a radio channel (i.e. free streaming).  This more accurate view of the US streaming market shows us that free is even more important than many thought.

Free streaming also has much bigger growth potential. The percentage of consumers that have the inclination to pay 9.99 a month for music is inherently limited, thus constraining subscriptions to a niche addressable audience.  Music radio listening by contrast has near ubiquitous reach.  Most significantly Pandora currently only represents about 10% of all US radio listening time.  The addressable market is much bigger and the vast majority of it remains untapped.

The Real Problem With Streaming

Much of the debate around the sustainability of streaming has understandably focused on artist and songwriter income and transparency.  It is a debate that I have contributed to frequently.  But the more fundamental structural issues are whether the business models are commercially sustainable and if they are, what the implications are.  Music consumption is inarguably moving towards access based models so the question is not whether streaming should happen or not, but how to make it work as well as it possibly can for all parties.  As unfair as it might seem, the baseline issues regarding creator income could go unchanged without streaming business models falling apart.  But, as I will explain, if broader commercial sustainability issues are not fixed then many streaming businesses will collapse leaving just a couple of companies standing.  And that scenario would almost certainly be worse for creators than the current one.

The Steve Jobs Revenue Share Legacy

As I revealed in my book ‘Awakening’, when Steve Jobs struck the original iTunes Music Store deal he walked away a happy man despite having given the major labels the big revenue percentages they wanted.  Why?  Because it meant that it was really hard for anyone without ulterior business aims like Apple had, to make money from selling tracks as a standalone business.  The revenue shares negotiated back then set the reference point for all digital deals since.  The fact that streaming services pay out more than 70% of revenues to rights holders can be traced back to that deal.

The Great Role Reversal And The De Facto Label Monopoly

In the digital era the record labels undisputedly hold the whip hand, and some.  In the analogue era the roles were reversed.  Retailers were the dominant partners and they knew it.  Record labels actually paid retailers for placement to promote new releases.  Compare and contrast that with labels contractually compelling services to provide placement.  Both models are wrong and both engender corrosive behaviour.  Because the major labels account for the majority of music sales it is nigh on impossible for a non-niche music service to operate without all three on board.  This gives each label the effective power of veto.  So even though no major label is a monopoly in its own right each has an effective monopoly power in licensing.  These factors give labels them the strength and confidence to demand terms that would not take place in an openly competitive market.  This, for example, is very different to how digital deals are done in the much more fragmented TV rights landscape.

Loading The Risk Onto Music Services

Why all this matters for the sustainability of streaming services is because of how it manifests in commercial terms.  Recent contract leaks have revealed to everyone the details of what insiders long knew, that labels and publishers front-load deals.  Services both have to pay large amounts up front and agree to guaranteed payments to rights owners regardless of how well the service performs.  (Some labels proudly state they don’t charge advances but instead charge a ‘set up fee’ for every track in their catalogue. Call it what you like, making a music service pay money up front is an advance payment.)  Even without considering the entirely intentional complexity of details such as minimas, floors and ceilings, the underlying principle is simple: a record label secures a fixed level of revenue regardless, while a music service assumes a fixed level of cost regardless.

Labels call this covering their risk and argue that it ensures that the services that get licensed are committed to being a success.  Which is a sound and reasonable position in principle, except that in practice it often results in the exact opposite by transferring all of the risk to the music service.  Saddling the service with so much up front debt increases the chance it will fail by ensuring large portions (sometimes the majority) of available working capital is spent on rights, not on building great product or marketing to consumers.

Skewing The Market To Big Tech Companies

None of this matters too much if you are a successful service or a big tech company (both of which have lots of working capital).  Both Google and Apple are rumoured to have paid advances in the region of $1 billion.  While the payments are much smaller for most music services, Apple, with its $183 billion in revenues and $194 billion in cash reserves can afford $1 billion a lot more easily than a pre-revenue start up with $1 million in investment can afford $250,000.  Similarly a pre-revenue, pre-product start up is more likely to launch late and miss its targets but will still be on the hook for the minimum revenue guarantees (MRG).

It is abundantly clear that this model skews the market towards big players and to tech companies that simply want to use music as a tool for helping sell their core products.   Record labels complain that they don’t get enough value out of big companies like Google and Samsung, but unless they make the market more accessible to companies that are only in the business of selling music they can have no room for complaint.  The situation is a direct consequence of major label and major publisher licensing strategy.

Short Termism And From Evil To Exceptional

Matters are compounded by an increasingly short term outlook from label licensing divisions, with the focus on internal quarterly revenue targets, or if you are lucky, annual targets.  The fact that much of label and publisher digital revenue comprises guarantees and advance payments means that their view of the digital market is different from how the market is performing.  If our small start up that pays $250,000 in rights payments doesn’t even get its product to market, the rights holders still see that digital revenue even though the marketplace does not.  (One failed music service that didn’t even launch went into bankruptcy owing two major labels $30 million).

This revenue comfort blanket insulates labels and publishers from much of the marketplace pain.  So if/when things go wrong, they feel it later, delaying their response.  There is also a cynicism in much deal making, with rigid templates applied to deals and a willingness to compromise principles if the price is right. The latter point was illustrated by the leaked negotiations between UMG and industry bête noir Kim Dotcom in which former digital head Rob Wells referred to being able to ‘downgrade’ Dotcom from ‘evil to bad’ and then from ‘bad to good and from good to exceptional partner’.  The message is clear, if there is enough money on the table, anyone can be a business partner whatever the implications might be for the rest of the market.

Wafer Thin Margins, Deep Pockets And The Innovation Drain

Current licensing strategy biases the market towards those with deep pockets and fatally compromises profitability.  Once all costs are factored in, a music subscription can theoretically have an operating margin of between 3% and 5%. Though only if it doesn’t invest sufficiently on marketing, customer retention and product innovation. But of course the streaming market is in early growth stage so every service has to spend heavily which means that profitability becomes a hostage to fortune. No wonder Daniel Ek is clear that Spotify is a growth business rather than on a profit crusade.

The market dynamics also create an innovation talent drain.  If you were a would-be start up founder the huge up front costs, non-existent margins, and complex time consuming licensing do not exactly make building a music app a welcome experience.  Building a games app however is an entirely different proposition: you own 100% of the rights, you don’t pay a penny to 3rd party rights holders and consumers actually pay for your product.  Music is already a problematic enough sector as it is without burdening it with a punitive licensing framework.

These are the structural challenges that could yet bring down the entire edifice of the streaming music economy.  The irony is that if Spotify has a successful IPO (sans profit of course) it will trigger a wave of copycat services and investment that will perpetuate the status quo a little further.  But it will only be a temporary delay.  Sometime or another the hard questions must be answered.

Making Free Work (Hint Cannibalize Radio Not Sales)

2015 started with freemium fighting for its life. 7 months in and it’s still alive and well but the free debate rages on. It is clear that some form of free experience drives paid subscription uptake but it is also clear that too much free reduces the conversion opportunity. A one month trial is probably too little but a year of free is too much. 3 months is emerging as the free, or close to free, sweet-spot as evidenced by Apple’s 3 month free trial and Spotify’s 3 months for $1 a month. In fact Spotify’s cheap trial strategy underscores the constrained ability of unlimited free to convert to paid. Free is crucial to ensure the acquisition funnel is filled but a new approach is needed, one that is more sophisticated than simply stating it is all free or no free.


One of the biggest concerns about free streaming is that it cannibalises sales. Just for the record, it undeniably does. At least on-demand free does. Free has always been part of the music industry, mainly in the form of radio. But the crucial difference with radio is that listeners do not choose what they are listening to. Free streaming needs to start behaving much more like radio, to follow the Pandora model. Crucially it needs to compete head on with traditional radio. Radio is a $46 billion industry globally yet less than 10% of that flows back to labels and publishers, and then on to artists and songwriters (see figure). By contrast the majority of music sales flow back to rights holders and creators. So the music industry needs to optimise streaming to cannibalise radio more than it does sales. To make the majority of free streaming only partially on demand.

The number one streaming metric that the music industry should be paying attention to is the share of total radio listening time that Pandora accounts for. The more that that increases, the more direct revenue flows into the industry.

free decision tree

But at the same on-demand time free streaming’s role in converting subscribers must be protected, albeit within very strictly defined parameters. Subscribers have two key user journey entry points: 1) a trial 2) free. Streaming services need to make better use of their analytics (which are increasingly sophisticated) to identify which free users to invest time and effort into trying to convert and which to side line. Neither Spotify or Deezer is in the business of free music, they are in the business of subscriptions and simply use free as a marketing tool. So they have no reason to cling doggedly to free users that show no sign of converting. Instead after a sufficient period of free music has been offered users should be pushed to subscriptions or onto a radio tier (see figure). There is no business benefit to the streaming services nor rights holders to have perpetual on demand free users.

The assumption that free music is some sort of internet right is symptomatic of the internet’s growing pains. In terms of market development we’re probably at the adolescence stage of the internet, the stage at which carefree childhood starts to be replaced by responsibility and consequences. We’re seeing this happen right across the internet economy, from privacy, data, free speech, jurisdiction etc. Because music has been free online for so long consumers have learned to accept it as fact. That assumption will not be changed any time soon, and try to force the issue too quickly and illegal services will prosper.

Of course YouTube is, and always has been the elephant in the room, buoyed by the schizophrenic attitude of record labels who simultaneously question its impact on the market while continuing to use it as their number 1 digital promotional channel. While the tide may finally be beginning to turn, don’t expect YouTube to go anywhere any time soon. But should the screws tighten do expect YouTube to stop playing ball. As they have made clear in various rights holder conversations, an onside YouTube, warts n’ all, is far more appealing prospect than a rogue YouTube. But implicit threat or otherwise YouTube must be compelled to play by the same rules as everyone else. As I’ve said before, YouTube needs to look more like Pandora.

Competing against radio needs to become the modus operandi of streaming. Only when free music on the internet evolves to more closely resemble radio will the industry be able to fix the apparent paradox of increased consumption translating into reduced revenue.

Spotify Plays The Big Numbers Game

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

spotify 20 million

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rdio Goes After The Squeezed Middle

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

mind the gap

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

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

monetization pyramid

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

Monetizing The Revenue No-Man’s Land

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

The Streaming Maturation Effect

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

Behaviours Will Change, But Slowly

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

maturation effect

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

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

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

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

The Music Industry’s 6:1 Ratio

One of the many things that the digital revolution has done to the music industry is to create and accentuate a number of imbalances. Imbalances that will either change, become the foundations of the next era of the music business, or both. In fact there are three key areas where, coincidentally, the lesser party is 6 times smaller than the other: 6 to 1

  • Digital music revenue share: A common refrain from songwriters and the bodies that represent them (music publishers, collection societies etc.) is that everything starts with the song. And of course it does. However it is the recorded version of the song that most people interact with most of the time, whether that be on the radio, on a CD, a download, a stream or a music video. This has helped ensure that record labels – usually the owners of the recorded work – hold the whip hand in licensing negotiations with digital music services. Labels have consequently ended up with an average of 68% of total on-demand streaming revenue and publishers / collection societies just 12%. The labels’ share is 6 times bigger. Publishers are now actively trying to rebalance the equation, often referred to as ‘seeking out a fair share’. For semi-interactive radio services like Pandora the ratio is roughly 10:1.
  • Artist income: While music sales declined over the last 10 yeas, live boomed. And although there are signs the live boom may be slowing, a successful artist can now typically expect to earn as little as 9% of their total income from recorded music, compared to 57% from live. Again, a factor of 6:1. There are many complexities to the revenue split, such as the respective deals an artist is on, fixed costs etc. but these splits tend to recur. Ironically just as everything starts with the song for digital music, everything starts with the recorded work (and the song) for the live artist. The majority of an artist’s fan base will spend most of their time interacting with the recorded work of the artist rather than live. The recorded work has become the advert for live. In fact the average concert ticket of a successful frontline artist costs on average 8 times more than buying their entire back catalogue. Thus for fans the ratio is even more pronounced at 8:1.
  • Free music users: The freemium wars are dominating the contemporary music industry debate. Spotify and other services that have on demand free tiers are under intense scrutiny over how these tiers may be cannibalising music sales. However YouTube’s regular free music user base is about 350 million compared to approximately 60 million free freemium service users across all freemium services. Again a ratio of 6:1. Whatever the impact freemium users may be having, it is 6 times less than YouTube.

The music industry has never been a meritocracy nor will it ever be one. So it would be fatuous to suggest equality is suddenly going to break out. However there will be something of a righting process in some areas, especially in the digital music revenue share equation. Most significantly though, these ratios are becoming the foundational dynamics of the new music industry. These are the reference points that artists, rights holders, and all other music industry stakeholders need in order to understand what their future will look like and how they can help shape it.

NOTE: This post was updated to reflect that the songwriter ratio is actually 10:1 for semi-interactive radio.  The 2:1 ratio applies to label revenue versus collection society revenue, which includes revenue for performers who are often but not always also the songwriter.

It Is Time To Think Beyond The Monthly Subscription

Apple’s entry into the subscription market later this year will fire a broadside across the freemium model.  But there are not many companies that can do what Apple can.  Every product and service needs to acquire customers and usually that entails advertising and marketing.  If what you are selling is a relatively nuanced proposition, and music subscriptions are exactly that, then you are going to need to spend a lot of time and money building the awareness and understanding of the product.  That typically either means a big ad budget or having a captive audience to talk to directly without the marketing middleman. For freemium services that is the free tier.  For Apple that is the installed base of device owners.  It is all well and good for Apple to crusade against free in its entirety because that also happens to make it increasingly difficult for anyone else to make the subscription model work.  As I argued in my previous post there is a need for a rethink of free, to ensure that it acts as an acquisition funnel for subscriptions not as a replacement for them.  But there is another part of the puzzle that needs solving too: the subscription model itself. If freemium is on borrowed time, a solution is needed that the entire market can work with, not just Apple.  Pay As You Go (PAYG) is part of the answer.

Music Subscriptions Cap ARPU

Currently the music industry is trying to migrate all of its paying customers to subscriptions.  The theory is that this should increase the Average Spend Per User (ARPU) to 9.99 but as MIDiA’s research revealed, thus far it appears to be doing a better job of reducing the ARPU of the most valuable. Thus we have a worst of both worlds scenario in which the ARPU of the most valuable customers is capped (something no other media industry does) and the lower value customers aren’t offered enough options to get on the spending ladder.

When I wrote back in October that it was time for a pricing reset I pointed to three things that need to happen:

  1. More price tier differentiation
  2. Reduce the main $9.99 price point to $7.99
  3. Introduce PAYG / Top Ups

The good news is that we’re beginning to see some movement on all three counts, including Apple poised to tick off the second item later this year when it launches its subscription offering.

The Return Of The Day Pass

Last week Pandora announced that it was introducing a $0.99 day pass to its ad free subscription offering.  The idea isn’t new, Spotify had a day pass in its earlier days, but the timing is now right for a reassessment of the tactic.   Most people are not in the habit of paying for music on a monthly basis and most do not spend anything close to 9.99 a month.  Little surprise then that only 10% of consumers are interested in a 9.99 subscription.  But PAYG pricing interest, while still relatively modest, is the clearly the pricing that has strongest appeal (see figure).  PAYG pricing allows consumers to ‘suck it and see’ to try out.  It is what the mobile phone business needed to kick start cellular subscriptions and it is what the music industry needs too.  And done right PAYG can even uncap ARPU by allowing customers to spend more than they would on a monthly plan, something that happens frequently among pre-pay mobile phone customers.

payg pricing

Currently there is only a handful of companies pioneering this approach, including the MusicQubed powered MTV Trax’s ‘Play As You Go’ model and Psonar’s ‘Pay Per Play’ offering.  It should only be a matter of time before the big streaming services start experimenting with a la carte pricing but they will have to tread carefully to ensure they do not cannibalize the spending of their 9.99 customers.  At an industry level though the case is clear and it is one that other media industries are already heeding.  In the TV industry services like Netflix are empowering cable and satellite TV subscribers to cancel or reduce their subscriptions.  Consequently TV companies are busy experimenting with unbundling their subscription offerings to meet the needs of their newly empowered customers.  The most interesting example for the music industry is Sky’s Now TV in the UK which offers its core programming with no monthly contract and enables users to simply add on extra content such as and ‘entertainment pass’ or a ‘sports pass’ as one off payments.

The future of music consumption is clearly going to be on demand but 9.99 subscriptions are just one part of the mix. PAYG pricing will be crucial to ensuring that streaming can break out of its early adopter beachhead.