Sonos @ 15

Sonos_2015-LogoSonos, granddaddy of the connected home audio marketplace, is now 15 years old. Sonos was a pioneer that was so far ahead of its time, it inadvertently found itself as one of the key early drivers of streaming subscriptions. Visionary founders John MacFarlane and Tom Cullen had some long-term inkling that streaming would eventually be a major force for them, but their near-term vision was built on getting music downloads piped around the home. Now, 15 years on, Sonos has effectively achieved two missions: deploying iTunes around the home, as well as Spotify and co around the home. But now, the outlook is less clear. Sonos’s marketplace is complex and competitive more than ever. Furthermore, the departure of MacFarlane, a round of lay-offs and having ‘missed voice’, may have left Sonos looking less vibrant than it once did. So, where next for Sonos?

These are some of the key challenges Sonos faces:

  • Battle of the apps: Sonos hardware reflects the company’s obsession with elegance and attention to detail. But, as with so many hardware companies (in fact the majority of them), Sonos’s weak point is software. Apple makes seamless software-hardware integration look deceptively easy – it is, in fact, nigh on impossible to do well. The Sonos app works well enough, certainly much better than it used to, and the networking of devices is usually relatively pain free. But in the app economy, consumers expect apps to work perfectly, not ‘well enough’. They expect high-quality user experiences, not functional experiences with lots of clicks and swipes, which is what Sonos can feel like when doing activities like building playlists. In spite of this, the biggest software threat for Sonos is the very fact that it is a standalone app. A Spotify user does not want to have one app to use on the train, or in the car, and a different one to use in the home. This is what Sonos effectively does right now. Sonos’s new CEO, Patrick Spence, knows this needs fixing but the question is whether Sonos can make the fix before Spotify and co come up with their own fix.
  • Just play: Traditional home audio just works. You press play and there’s music. Sonos stood out way ahead of the pack – an admittedly poor quality pack – for out-of-the-box simplicity, though even now it remains a marker of good practice. However, the convenience benchmark for connected home audio still falls far short of traditional home audio. Sonos works most of the time, emphasis on most of the time. Every so often there’s a network problem; sometimes this is due to a firmware issue, other times it is the network itself. The network glitches of course aren’t Sonos’s fault but that doesn’t matter to the user experience. A CD player works every time, Wi-Fi or not. That is the convenience benchmark Sonos and all other connected audio players must meet. But even without Wi-Fi issues, pressing play is not always so straight forward because Sonos’s app experience is not on a par with its hardware experience.
  • Sonos…sonos….sonos…: Ok, that was meant to be an Echo. Yes, Amazon’s Alexa vehicle has totally shaken up the connected home audio space. And with Amazon Music integration, it sets a standard for what an integrated hardware-software service experience should be. One voice command pulls up a song in an instant, no having to select which music source to choose. Yet Echo is far from the end game. In fact, voice is not an ideal interface for music. It’s fine for when you know exactly what you want to play, it’s also pretty good for when you want to select a lean back experience e.g. ‘play me music to work out’ – but it struggles with the more nuanced use cases that lie in between. Voice is another thing that Spence knows needs fixing.
  • Good enough: And of course, the Echo is not a super high-quality audio experience. It’s a decent audio experience. Sonos might grumble at otherwise sophisticated users tolerating modest audio playback, but ever since the advent of MP3s and iPod earbuds, convenience trumps quality for most when it comes to music. Even Sonos is guilty of playing the convenience game. Though its speaker quality has improved, Sonos speakers are still a long way off the audio specs audiophiles seek. And yet, even this isn’t the biggest challenge for Sonos. The core problem Sonos faces is that the likes of Amazon, Google and even Apple are not focused on winning the home audio race, instead they view smart speakers as a beachhead for controlling the smart home. That is the war, home audio is the first battle. Just as Apple used the iPod as the first step towards winning the personal digital life war, smart speakers are being used in the same way in the home.

Under attack from all sides

There are countless other challenges too. Sonos’s mission of filling rooms with audio might not actually be what most people want. A smart speaker in the kitchen and a sound bar under the TV might be enough for most, and those may be best served via a native hardware / software / content ecosystem like Amazon’s Prime. At the bottom end of the market, cheap Bluetooth speakers are flooding the market, while for those consumers who do value audio quality over convenience, incumbent audio companies like Bose, Panasonic and Sony are all upping their games. (In virtually all markets MIDiA tracks, Bose wireless speakers are more widely adopted than Sonos.)

Foundations for success

Sonos is also upping its game and tweaking its strategy. The recently launched PlayBase shows both high-quality product design and a recognition that TV is the next big battle Sonos needs to fight, having already made good ground with its PlayBar. Sonos needs all the strategic nous and product excellence it can get. It has the low-end and high-end squeezing it in a pincer movement, while the big tech companies carpet bomb its heartland simply to gain a foothold in the smart home. Five years ago, Sonos was the golden child of its market. Now it is a company with a very strong brand in need of some laser focussed positioning in a remarkably competitive field. Sonos has enviable foundations, it now needs to build a new house.

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The Three Eras Of Paid Streaming

Streaming has driven such a revenue renaissance within the major record labels that the financial markets are now falling over themselves to work out where they can invest in the market, and indeed whether they should. For large financial institutions, there are not many companies that are big enough to be worth investing in. Vivendi is pretty much it. Some have positions in Sony, but as the music division is a smaller part of Sony’s overall business than it is for Vivendi, a position in Sony is only an indirect position in the music business.

The other bet of course is Spotify. With demand exceeding supply these look like good times to be on the sell side of music stocks, though it is worth noting that some hedge funds are also exploring betting against both Vivendi and Spotify. Nonetheless, the likely outcome is that there will be a flurry of activity around big music company stocks, with streaming as the fuel in the engine. With this in mind it is worth contextualizing where streaming is right now and where it fits within the longer term evolution of the market.

the 3 eras of streaming

The evolution of paid streaming can be segmented into three key phases:

  1. Market Entry: This is when streaming was getting going and desktop is still a big part of the streaming experience. Only a small minority of users paid and those that did were tech savvy, music aficionados. As such they skewed young-ish male and very much towards music super fans. These were people who liked to dive deep into music discovery, investing time and effort to search out cool new music, and whose tastes typically skewed towards indie artists. It meant that both indie artists and back catalogue over indexed in the early days of streaming. Because so many of these early adopters had previously been high spending music buyers, streaming revenue growth being smaller than the decline of legacy formats emerged as the dominant trend. $40 a month consumers were becoming $9.99 a month consumers.
  2. Surge: This is the ongoing and present phase. This is the inflection point on the s-curve, where more numerous early followers adopt. The rapid revenue and subscriber growth will continue for the remainder of 2017 and much of 2018. The demographics are shifting, with gender distribution roughly even, but there is a very strong focus on 25-35 year olds who value paid streaming for the ability to listen to music on their phone whenever and wherever they are. Curation and playlists have become more important in order to help serve the needs of these more mainstream users—still strong music fans— but not quite the train spotter obsessives that drive phase one. A growing number of these users are increasing their monthly spend up to $9.99, helping ensure streaming drives market level growth.
  3. Maturation: As with all technology trends, the phases overlap. We are already part way into phase three: the maturing of the market. With saturation among the 25-35 year-old music super fans on the horizon in many western markets, the next wave of adoption will be driven by widening out the base either side of the 25-35 year-old heartland. This means converting the fast growing adoption among Gen Z with new products such as unbundled playlists. At the other end of the age equation, it means converting older consumers— audiences for whom listening to music on the go on smartphones is only part (or even none) of their music listening behaviour. Car technologies such as interactive dashboards and home technologies such as Amazon’s echo will be key to unlocking these consumers. Lean back experiences will become even more important than they are now with voice and AI (personalizing with context of time, place and personal habits) becoming key.

It has been a great 18 months for streaming and strong growth lies ahead in the near term that will require little more effort than ‘more of the same’. But beyond that, for western markets, new, more nuanced approaches will be required. In some markets such as Sweden, where more than 90% of the paid opportunity has already been tapped, we need this phase three approach right now. Alongside all this, many emerging markets are only just edging towards phase 2. What is crucial for rights holders and streaming services alike is not to slacken on the necessary western market innovation if growth from emerging markets starts delivering major scale. Simplicity of product offering got us to where we are but a more sophisticated approach is needed for the next era of paid streaming.

NOTE: I’m going on summer vacation so this will be the last post from me for a couple of weeks.

 

 

Quick Take: Amazon Music Unlimited Comes To The UK

AmazonMusicUnlimited_UK_Devices_Image

Amazon announced the anticipated launch of Amazon Music Unlimited in the UK today. For my full take on Amazon Music Unlimited see my previous post here.

Make no mistake, Amazon are taking this launch seriously, with a coordinated PR campaign and press release quotes not only from Amazon’s head of streaming music Steve Boom but also from Jeff Bezos himself. So why the big deal? Music is a low revenue, low margin business for Amazon, just as it is for Google and Apple. But that’s not the point. Music always plays a special role for tech companies, sometimes because the CEO is passionate about music, but normally because it is the service off which other things can be hung. Amazon, like Apple, is starting the transition towards becoming a services company. While Amazon has made much more progress on video than Apple has, it has made much less progress than Netflix has. Music is the wide appeal proposition that can be used to get people onto the first rung of the services ladder. Just like the CD got people onto the first rung of Amazon’s ladder back in the 90’s.

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Amazon: Reverse Pricing, And The Rise Of Zero UI

Amazon’s announcement of its AYCE streaming service Amazon Music Unlimited should not come as a surprise to anyone whose been keeping even half an eye on the digital music market. Amazon are the sleeping giant / dark horse (select your preferred descriptive cliché) of digital music. With 60 million Prime Memberships it has a bigger addressable base of subscribers than Spotify, and its 300 million credit card linked customer accounts surpasses most but falls well short of Apple’s 800 million. Nonetheless, Amazon is the last major force to play its streaming hand. However, what the two really interesting things about Amazon Music Unlimited are its ‘reverse pricing’ strategy and the move towards Zero UI music experiences.

Sleeping Or Coma?

Being the sleeping giant of a space can work both ways. It normally implies major resources, a large legacy audience waiting to be tapped, and years of brand equity and trust. Amazon certainly ticks all those boxes, and some. But it can also mean that you’ve left it too late, allowing new entrants steal away your customers with new product offerings. HMV, Tower Records and Fnac were all sleeping giants but they all moved too late and too cautiously to be able to prevent Amazon, and then Apple, and then Spotify from stealing their customers. Things should though, be different for Amazon and streaming. Although streaming is growing fast we are still short of 100 million subscribers globally and in most markets subscriber penetration is below 10%. Even more importantly, the majority of adoption is being driven by music aficionados (those consumers that spend above average time and money with music). The next opportunity is the engaged end of the mainstream. This is where Amazon plays best.

Targeting The Mainstream Music Fan  

Amazon’s streaming strategy to date has revolved around a limited catalogue, curated streaming service bundled into Amazon Prime. Although it has struggled for visibility by being 3rd in the Prime pecking order (behind free shipping and video) it nonetheless deserves much credit for genuinely trying to do something different in the increasingly homogenous streaming marketplace. It is a lean back, curated experience for the music fan that is neither passive nor aficionado. This group is nearly double the size of the high spender group (see our MIDiA subscriber reports on music segmentation for much more detail). What makes this group even more interesting is that none of the other big streaming services are going after it. Why? Because they spend less than $10 a month.

So on the surface Amazon’s new $7.99 is a smart move, pushing a price point into the market that unlocks the next tier of users. The move is less radical than it first appears though, as this price is only available for Amazon Prime subscribers (all others have to pay $9.99). Also Spotify and Deezer’s aggressive price discounting ($1 for 3 months) have both created effective price deflation. That aside, there is however no doubt that Amazon’s $7.99 price point will have a major impact on consumer perceptions of pricing and will in the longer run help bring the main $9.99 price point down to $7.99 (something Apple tried and failed to do when it launched Apple Music).

Amazon’s Reverse Pricing Strategy

But Amazon’s pricing strategy is way smarter than just that, here’s why. Note the name of the service: Amazon Music Unlimited. Not Amazon Music. It echoes Google’s Google Play Music All Access. Each service’s naming convention ensures that it does not give the impression of being the core music offering for each company. In Amazon’s case this is its music sales business (CDs and downloads) and its pre-existing Prime bundled streaming service. The great thing about having a $7.99 / $9.99 product in the market is that it suddenly creates very clear perceived monetary value for its Prime-bundled service. How could consumers understand the value of something that didn’t have a price point anywhere? Now it is abundantly clear that it is $7.99 / $9.99 worth of value. This is Amazon’s Reverse Pricing Strategy: price a decoy product high to make a core product appeal more valuable. Now, a seasoned music exec might argue, ‘ah, yes, but it’s not unlimited on demand, so it’s not worth that’. But if an Amazon user gets full satisfaction from a curated, limited catalogue streaming service then the AYCE distinction doesn’t matter. It’s like telling some one that unless they eat until they are sick at an all you can eat buffet that they are not getting their money’s worth. Let’s just hope that Amazon’s reverse pricing strategy is not accidental…

Music’s Zero UI Era

Finally, onto Alexa and Amazon Echo. For just $3.99 a month Echo owners can get the full Amazon Music Unlimited service, controlling the entire experience via the Alexa voice controlled assistant. Although initially it will prove challenging to do anything other than the more rudimentary elements of using the service with the Echo, voice control is going to come of age over the next five years. Three of the big four tech companies have a voice play (Apple has Siri, Alphabet has Google Assistant and Amazon has Alexa). Also Microsoft has Cortana. Voice will play an increasingly important role in our digital lives and will help move smartphones towards post-app experiences, with app functionality increasingly built into the OS of devices and called upon via voice.

Amazon has pushed the dial for music and voice, it might even have got a little ahead of itself. But more and more of music consumption will be voice and gesture driven and Amazon is setting the pace for the voice side of the ‘Zero UI’ equation. To be clear, Zero UI does not mean Zero functionality nor Zero UX. In fact, functionality has to be even better in a Zero UI context, as it has to be able to deliver user benefits without visual reference points. But what it does mean, is that there is less friction between the listener and the music. The music becomes the experience.

Regardless of whether this ‘sleeping giant’ has timed its entry into the AYCE market right or not, its lasting legacy could well be making the first truly bold step towards music’s Zero UI era.