Disney, Netflix and the Squeezed Middle: The Real Story Behind Net Neutrality

Unless you have been hiding under a rock this last couple of weeks you’ll have heard at least something about the build up to the decision over turning net neutrality in the US, a decision that was confirmed yesterday. See Zach Fuller’s post for a great summary of what it means. In highly simplistic terms, the implications are that telcos will be able to prioritize access to their networks, which could mean that any digital service will only be able to guarantee their US users a high quality of service if they broker a deal with each and every telco. As Zach explains, we could see similar moves in Europe and elsewhere. If you are a media company or a digital content provider your world just got turned upside down. But this ruling is in many ways an inevitable result of a fundamental shift in value across digital value chains.

net neutrality value chains

Although the ruling effectively only overturns a 2015 ruling that had previously guaranteeing net neutrality, the world has moved on a lot since then, not least with regards to the emergence of the streaming economy across video, music and games. In short, there is a lot more bandwidth being taken up by streaming services and little or no extra value reverting to the upgraded networks.

Value is shifting from rights to distribution

Although the exact timing with the Disney / Fox deal (see Tim Mulligan’s take here) was coincidental the broad timing was not. The last few years have seen a major shift in value from rights companies (eg Disney, Universal Music, EA Games) through to distribution companies (eg Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify) with the value shift largely bypassing the infrastructure companies (ie the telcos).

The accelerating revenue growth and valuations of the tech majors and the streaming giants have left media companies trailing in their wake. The Disney / Fox deal was two of the world’s biggest media companies realising that consolidation was the only way to even get on the same lap as the tech majors. They needed to do so because those tech majors are all either already or about to become content companies too, using their vast financial fire power to outbid traditional media companies for content.

The value shift has bypassed infrastructure companies

Meanwhile telcos have been left stranded between rock and a hard place. Telcos have long been concerned about becoming relegated to the role of dumb pipes and most had given up any real hope of being content companies themselves (other than the TV companies who also have telco divisions). They see regulatory support for better monetizing their networks by levying access fees to tech companies as their last resort.

In its most basic form, this regulatory decision will allow telcos to throttle the bandwidth available to streaming services either in favour of their favoured partners or until an access fee is paid. The common thought is that telcos are becoming the new gatekeepers. In most instances they are more likely to become toll booths. But in some instances they may well shy away from any semblance of neutrality. For example, Sprint might well decide that it wants to give its part-owned streaming service Tidal a leg up, and throttle access for Spotify and Apple Music for Sprint users. Eventually Spotify and Apple Music users will realise they either need to switch streaming service or mobile provider. Given that one is a need-to-have, contract-based utility and the other is nice-to-have and no contract and is fundamentally the same underlying proposition, a streaming music switch is the more likely option. Similarly, AT&T could opt to throttle access for Netflix in order to give its DirecTV Now service a leg up. Those telcos without strong content plays could find themselves in the market for acquisitions. For example, Verizon could make a bid for Spotify pre-listing, or even post-listing.

The FCC ruling still needs congressional approval and is subject to legal challenges from a bunch of states so it could yet be blocked. If it is not, then the above is how the world will look. Make no mistake, this is the biggest growing pain the streaming economy has yet faced, even if it just ends up with those services having to carve out an extra slice of their wafer-thin margins in order reach their customers.

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Announcing MIDiA’s Streaming Services Market Shares Report

coverAs the streaming music market matures, the bar is continually raised for the quality of data required, both in terms of granularity and accuracy. At MIDiA we have worked hard to earn a reputation for high-quality, reliable datasets that go far beyond what is available elsewhere. This gives our clients a competitive edge. We are now taking this approach a major step forward with the launch of MIDiA’s Streaming Services Market Shares report. This is our most comprehensive streaming dataset yet, and there is, quite simply, nothing else like it out there. Knowing the size of streaming revenues, or the global subscriber counts of music services is useful, but it isn’t enough. Nor even, is knowing country level streaming revenue figures. So, we built a global market shares model that breaks out subscription revenues (trade and retail), subscribers, and subscription market shares for more than 30 music services at country level, across 30 countries and regions. You want to know how much subscription revenue Spotify is generating in Canada? How many subscribers Apple Music has in Germany? How much subscription revenue QQ Music is generating China? This is the report for you. Here are some highlights:

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  • At the end of 2016 there were 132.6 million music subscribers, up from 76.8 million in 2015
  • In Q4 2016 Spotify’s subscriber market share was 35% and it had $2,766 million in retail revenue
  • Apple Music was second with 21 million subscribers at the end of 2016, a 15.6% market share and it had $912 million in retail revenue
  • In 2016 Apple was the largest driver of digital music revenue across Apple Music and iTunes
  • The US is the largest music subscription market, which Spotify leads with 38% subscriber market share
  • The UK is Europe’s largest streaming market, which Spotify also leads
  • China’s subscriber base is the second largest globally, but it ranks just 13th in revenue terms
  • Japan is the world’s third largest subscription market, in which Amazon has the largest subscriber market share
  • Brazil is Latin America’s largest music subscription market

The report contains 23 pages and 13 charts with full country detail as well as audience engagement metrics. The dataset includes four worksheets and a comprehensive methodology statement.

Streaming Services Market Shares is available right now to MIDiA premium subscribers. If you would like to learn more about how to access MIDiA’s analysis and data, email Stephen@midiaresearch.com.

The report and data is also available as a standalone purchase on MIDiA’s report store as part of our ‘Streaming Music Metrics Bundle’. This bundle additionally includes MIDiA’s ‘State of The Streaming Nation 2.1’. This is our mid-year 2017 update to the exhaustive assessment of the streaming music market first published in May. It includes data on revenue, forecasts, consumer attitudes and behaviour, YouTube, app usage and audience trends.

Examples of country graphics (data labels removed in this preview)

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Spotify, Netflix And Instagram Make Gains In Q2 2017

Since Q4 2016 MIDiA Research has been fielding a quarterly tracker survey across the US, UK, Canada and Australia to build a proprietary dataset that provides a unique insight into how digital consumer trends are evolving quarter-upon-quarter. Through the tracker we monitor weekly active usage of apps for streaming music, streaming video, games, social and messaging. We also measure the shifts in key consumer behaviours, such as curated playlist listening, binge watching and subscriptions, in each of these sectors each quarter. We have structured the data so that clients can explore each app and behaviour by demographics, and, crucially, users can examine how much each app overlaps with others and with all the 40 different behaviours we track. We recently published a report for MIDiA’s paid subscribers analysing key trends across the first three quarters of our tracker. Here are some of key insights from the report. To find out more about how to get access to MIDiA’s Quarterly Trends report, email stephen@midiaresearch.com.

The leading apps in each of the categories tracked are largely consistent across all of the countries surveyed and they are also the big names that are familiar to all (see figure above). However, where things get interesting is in a) the variations in penetration across countries and b) how usage has evolved over successive quarters. For example:

quarterly trends midia figure 1

  • Messaging apps on the rise: Weekly Facebook usage was up slightly in the US between Q4 2016 and Q2 2017, but down in the UK. Over the same period WhatsApp was flat in the US but up slightly, along with Instagram, in the UK. WhatsApp penetration stood at just 11% in the US in Q2 2017 but 33% in the UK, while penetration in Australia and Canada laid in the middle of those two points.
  • Netflix growing but not in the UK: YouTube is still the standout video destination in terms of weekly usage across all the markets tracked. However, growth has slowed in these markets, with penetration going down slightly over the three quarters. YouTube’s loss is Netflix’s gain, with the streaming TV platform’s usage increasing each quarter. Though, again, there is an intriguing country level exception: Netflix is growing everywhere except the UK where weekly usage was flat over the period.

top streaming music apps in q2 2017, spotify, youtube, apple music, soundcloud, amazon, musical.ly

YouTube is the world’s leading streaming music app and this is true of the larger, mature markets. The continual breaking of YouTube music streaming records by the likes of Shakira and Luis Fonsi point to a renaissance in YouTube as a music streaming platform. However, the origin of those artists point to the location of YouTube’s music momentum: Latin America. Meanwhile, across the US, UK, Canada and Australia, weekly usage of YouTube as a music app was flat, and down actually in Australia. Most of the music apps we tracked had a dip in Q1 2017 but in the main held ranking and overall usage. Deezer saw a small rise while Soundcloud fell slightly. Spotify was the big winner, gaining penetration to close the gap on YouTube, and becoming the leading standalone music app. In the UK, Spotify surpassed YouTube for music among 16-19 year olds, hinting at a strong future for Spotify among Gen Z. Talking of Gen Z, lip synching apps Musical.ly and Dubsmash maintained momentum across the period, something other music messaging apps have previously failed to do this late on in their lives. These sort of apps, though niche in scale, point to what Gen Z want from their social music experiences.

These are just some of the very high-level trends, and there is much more in the report itself. If you are a MIDiA subscription client you can access the report and data right away here. If you are not yet a client and would like to learn more about how to get the report and the other benefits of being a MIDiA client email Stephen@midiaresearch.com.

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.

Quick Take: Spotify And Hulu Partner In The US

Spotify just announced it is bundling in the Hulu No Commercials plan into its $4.99 student offering in the US. Given that the Hulu product retails at $7.99 and Spotify at $9.99, this is unmistakably a good value for money deal – even compared to the standard $4.99 student Spotify tariff. In the Spotify blog post announcing the tie up, it is made clear that this is the start of something bigger: “This is the first step the companies are taking to bundle their services together, with offerings targeted at the broader market to follow.”

Putting aside for a moment how the economics of this bundle might work for Spotify, this partnership gives us a clear pointer as to Spotify’s video strategy going forward. The other part of the puzzle is the news that Spotify is hiring former Maker Studios exec, Courtney Holt, to head up its original video and podcast strategy.

Spotify knows that it needs to have a video play of some kind, despite the failure of its previous attempt. Unfortunately, everyone else is thinking the same – with Snap Inc, Facebook and Apple now committing billions to original content, in an already inflated market for video. Hulu will spend $2.25 billion on original content in 2017, matching Amazon’s original content budget for the year. This is the barrier to entry for video, and its simply too high for Spotify to justify.

Instead, it has focused on working with one of the leading streaming video services in the US, and is building complimentary music-orientated video in house. Thus, through this Spotify bundle a user gets their scripted drama hit from Hulu and their music video hit from Spotify.

Spotify’s Hulu partnership is a smart way to get into the video market without getting in over its head. While for Hulu, Spotify gives it clear differentiation from Netflix and Amazon. Which is given extra significance by the announcement that T-Mobile Netflix for free for its premium customers. Whether the economics of this deal add up for either party is another question entirely.

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.

 

 

Amazon Prime Live Events, More Than Just Gigs For Olds

Blondie-General Image 2-Alexander Thompson

Amazon today announced ‘Amazon Prime Live Events’, a series of smaller capacity gigs by largely heritage acts made available exclusively to Amazon Prime members in the UK. The first wave of artists include Blondie, Alison Moyet and Texas. Putting aside for a moment the obvious ‘it’s iTunes Festival for old people’ jibe, there is some sound strategic thinking underpinning the initiative.

The overlap between streaming and live has long been clear to streaming services (45% of live music fans are also streaming music users – check out MIDiA’s latest live entertainment report for more). It also presents a great opportunity to transform loss-leading streaming business into profit generators by monetizing the high value fans through ticket sales. However, no one has yet managed to realize the logical opportunity. Pandora’s full stack play with TicketFly, and Access Industry’s Deezer / Songkick play both represent potential at this stage, while other streaming services have made interesting announcements that soon disappeared from view.

Amazon might just be the one to make it work. It has quietly been building up its ticketing business for some time and because it sits on the same user dataset (and billing relationships) as Prime and Amazon’s 2 music services, it has an unrivalled ability to target and monetize.

Amazon Prime Live Events’ line up might not exactly be the cutting edge of edgy, exciting new music (Katie Melua rounds off the line up) but that is sort of the point. Amazon’s streaming music strategy is so interesting because it isn’t playing by the same rules as everyone else. Amazon is not competing for the same small group of 20/30 something music aficionados that the other streaming services are tearing chunks out of each other over. Instead it has its sights set on older, more mainstream music fans for whom the smartphone-centric music service offering has limited appeal.

This line up of gigs isn’t the end game, but instead the first step of what will likely be an increasingly joined up music strategy across Amazon’s various assets. The fact that 28% of UK live music fans are also Amazon Prime subscribers hints at where Amazon can go with this (overall UK Amazon Prime penetration is 19%). The fact that the gigs will be made available on Amazon Prime Video internationally further points to Amazon’s ability to join the dots across its increasingly diverse assets.

Throughout the first half of the 2010s Amazon was very much in the shadows of Apple and Google in terms of content strategy. Now not only is it giving them a run for the money in that arena, it is also making them pay close attention in terms of hardware and the home. What makes Amazon potentially the most interesting of the GAAF (Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook) is the way in which it combines customer data, billing relationships, content and services, infrastructure and consumer hardware. The 2000s was Apple’s decade. The 2010s are shaping up to be Amazon’s.

MIDiA Research Predictions 2017: The Year Of The Platform

MRP1611-coverFollowing an 84% success rate for our 2016 Predictions report, we today launch our 2017 predictions report: ‘MIDiA Research Predictions 2017: The Year Of The Platform’. The report is immediately available to all MIDiA subscription clients and can also be purchased for individual download from our report store here.

Here are some highlights:

2016 was the year that video ate the world. 2017 will be the year of the platform, the year in which the tech majors will fight for pre-eminence in the digital economy, competing for consumer attention through formatting and distribution wars. Companies that are already using mobile Operating Systems to achieve global reach will take the next step, creating Mobile Life Ecosystems that both break out of the app silo walls and straddle them. Facebook, Amazon, Tencent, Microsoft, Apple and Google/Alphabet will be the main players. 2015 was about parking tanks on each other’s front lawns, in 2016 shots were fired, 2017 will be all-out war. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and voice assistance will be key battlegrounds and indeed will form the glue of Mobile Life Ecosystems.

Some of MIDiA’s other key predictions for 2017 are:

  • Services are the new black: Maturing ‘phone and tablet markets mean that hardware companies will place a greater focus on digital content and services in 2017. Services are an opportunity to drive strong growth that will compensate for slowing device sales
  • Ad market growing pains: Digital advertising inventory supply will exceed demand in 2017. Audience engagement will grow more quickly than advertisers’ appetite. Consequently, ad rates will decline with the bloating of the market by content farms accentuating the problem. Facebook will not be alone in seeing slowing ad revenues in 2017.
  • A tech major will be hit with the first stage of an anti-trust suit: The incoming US Presidency has made its anti-trust inclinations clear. A likely early target will be the AT&T/Time Warner merger. The global-scale tech companies may be mature companies but their respective sectors are not. Regulation is one of the inevitable growing pains of maturing business sectors. Digital is next.
  • Snapchat’s IPO will be digital’s canary in the mine: App store era unicorns and their attendant Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) will redefine the media and tech landscape. Not only will the success, or failure, of Snapchat’s IPO affect those of Uber and Spotify, poor showings could deflate the VC bubble andput an end to the grow-at-all-costs For the music industry, the stakes are even higher, as an under-achieving Spotify IPO would create a crisis in confidence in the entire streaming market.

Among our music predictions for 2017 are Spotify’s IPO and the subsequent start of a new generation of experiential streaming services, Tidal selling (probably to Apple) while Spotify closes out the year with around 55 million subscribers to Apple Music’s 30 million.

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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How Spotify Can Become A Next Generation “Label”

Spotify on iPhoneOne of the themes my MIDiA colleague Tim Mulligan (the name’s no coincidence, he’s my brother too!) has been developing over in our online video research is that of next generation TV operators. With the traditional pay-TV model buckling under the pressure of countless streaming subscriptions services like Netflix (there are more than 50 services in the US alone) pay-TV companies have responded with countless apps of their own such as HBO Go and CBS All Access. The result for the consumer is utter confusion with a bewildering choice of apps needed to get all the good shows and sports. This creates an opportunity for the G.A.A.F. (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook) to stitch all these apps together and in doing so become next generation TV operators. Though the G.A.A.F. are a major force in music too, the situation is also very different. Nonetheless there is an opportunity for companies such as these to create a joined up music experience that delivers an end-to-end platform for artists and music fans alike. Right now, Spotify is best placed to fulfil this role and in doing so it could become a next generation “label”. I added the quote marks around the word “label” because the term is becoming progressively less useful, but it at least helps people contextualise the concept.

Creating The Right Wall Street Narrative

When news emerged that Spotify was in negotiations to buy Soundcloud I highlighted a number of potential benefits and risks. One thing I didn’t explore was how useful Soundcloud could be in helping Spotify build out its role as a music platform (more on that below). As I have noted before, as Spotify progresses towards an IPO it needs to construct a series of convincing narratives for Wall Street. The investor community generally looks upon the music business with, at best, extreme caution, and at worst, disdain. To put it simply, they don’t like the look of low-to-negative margin businesses that have little control over their own destinies and that are trying to sell a product that most people don’t want to buy. This is why Spotify needs to demonstrate to potential investors that it is working towards a future in which it has more control, and a path to profitability. The major label dominated, 17% gross operating margin (and –9% loss) 9.99 AYCE model does not tick any of those boxes. Spotify is not going to change any of those fundamentals significantly before it IPOs, but it can demonstrate it is working to change things.

The Role Of Labels Is As Important As Ever

At the moment Spotify is a retail channel with bells and whistles. But it is acquiring so much user data and music programming expertise that it be so much more than that. The role of record labels is always going to be needed, even if the current model is struggling to keep up. The things that record labels do best is:

  1. Discover, invest in and nurture talent
  2. Market artists

Someone is always going to play that role, and while the distribution platforms such as Spotify could, in theory at least, play that role in a wider sense, existing labels (big and small) are going to remain at the centre of the equation for the meaningful future. Although some will most likely fall by the wayside or sell up over the next few years. (Sony’s acquisition of Ministry Of Sound is an early move rather than an exception.) But what Spotify can do that incumbent labels cannot, is understand the artist and music fan story right from discovery through to consumption. More than that, it can help shape both of those in a way labels on their own cannot. Until not so recently Spotify found itself under continual criticism from artists and songwriters. Although this has not disappeared entirely it is becoming less prevalent as a) creators see progressively bigger cheques, and b) more new artists start their career in the streaming era and learn how to make careers work within it, often seeing streaming services more as audience acquisition tools rather than revenue generators.

The Balance Of Power Is Shifting Away From Recorded Music

Concert crowd.In 2000 record music represented 60% of the entire music industry, now it is less than 30%. Live is the part that has gained most, and the streaming era artist viewpoint is best encapsulated by Ed Sheeran who cites Spotify as a key driver for his successful live career, saying “[Spotify] helps me do what I want to do.” Spotify’s opportunity is to go the next step, and empower artists with the tools and connections to build all of the parts of their career from Spotify. This is what a next generation “label” will be, a platform that combines data, discovery, promotion (and revenue) with tools to help artists with live, merchandise and other parts of their career.

How Spotify Can Buy Its Way To Platform Success

To jump start its shift towards being a next-generation “label” Spotify could use its current debt raise – and post-IPO, its stock – to buy companies that it can plug into its platform. In some respects, this is the full stack music concept that Access Industries, Liberty Global and Pandora have been pursuing. Here are a few companies that could help Spotify on this path:

  • Soundcloud: arguably the biggest artist-to-fan platform on the planet, Soundcloud could form a talent discovery function for Spotify. Spotify could use its Echo Nest intelligence to identify which acts are most likely to break through and use its curated playlists to break them on Spotify. Also artist platforms like BandPage and BandLab could play a similar role.
  • Indie labels: Many indie labels will struggle with cash flow due to streaming replacing sales, which means many will be looking to sell. My money is on Spotify buying a number of decent sized indies. This will demonstrate its ability to extend its value chain footprint, and therefore margins (which is important for Wall Street). It could also ‘do a Netflix’ and use its algorithms to ensure that its owned-repertoire over performs, which helps margins even further. But more importantly, indie labels would give Spotify a vehicle for building the careers of artists discovered on Soundcloud. Also the A&R assets would be a crucial complement to its algorithms.
  • Tidal: Spotify could buy Tidal, taking advantage of Apple’s position of waiting until Tidal is effectively a distressed asset before it swoops. Though Tidal is most likely to want too much money, its roster of exclusives and its artist-centric ethos would be a valuable part of an artist-first platform strategy for Spotify.
  • Songkick: In reality Songkick is going to form part of Access’ Deezer focused full stack play. But a data-led, live music focused company (especially if ticketing and booking can play a role) would be central to Spotify driving higher margin revenues and being able to offer a 360 degree proposition to artists.
  • Musical.ly: Arguably the most exciting music innovation of the decade, Musical.ly would give Spotify the ability to appeal to the next generation of music fans. The average age of a Musical.ly user is 20, for Spotify it is 27. Spotify has to be really careful not to age with its audience and music messaging apps are a great way to tap the next generation in the same way Facebook did (average age 35) did by buying up and growing messaging apps. (e.g. Instagram’s average age is 26).
  • Pandora: A long shot perhaps, but Pandora would be a shortcut to full stack, having already acquired Ticket Fly, Next Big Sound and Rdio. If Pandora’s stock continues to tank (the last few days of recovery notwithstanding) then who knows.

In conclusion, Spotify’s future is going to be much more than being the future of music retail. With or without any of the above acquisitions, expect Spotify to lay the foundations for a bold platform strategy that has the potential to change the face of the recorded music business as we know it.

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