Have We Reached Peak Tech?

In last week’s Take Five I highlighted a Vox story which reported that over the last year the number of companies using terms like ‘tech’ or technology’ in their documents is down 12%. This is an early indicator of a much more fundamental concept – we may have already reached peak in the tech sector, the business sector that has driven the fourth industrial revolution. While some may quibble whether the internet-era transformation was the predecessor to a new industrial revolution built around AI, big data and automation, the underlying factor is that tech – for better or for worse – has shaped the modern world. More in the developed world than the majority world perhaps, but it has shaped it nonetheless. Now, however, with tech so deeply ingrained in our lives and the services and enterprises that facilitate them, has tech become so ubiquitous as to render it meaningless as a way of defining business?

Tech is the modern world

When Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989 he could have had little inkling of the successive wave of global tech superpowers that it would incubate. As we near the end of the second decade of the 21stcentury it is hard to imagine daily life without it. The pervasive reach of the web and the Internet more broadly is perfectly illustrated by Amazon’s recent launch of twelve new devices, including a connected oven, a smart ring (yes a ring) with two mics and a connected night light for kids. All of which follows Facebook’s connected screen Portal, which for a company that trades on user data, raises the question: ‘Is this your portal to the world, or Facebook’s portal to your world?’ However, regardless of why the world’s biggest tech companies want us to put their hardware into our homes, this is simply the latest new frontier for consumer tech. Now that we carry powerful personal computers with us everywhere we go, we remain instantly connected to our personal collections of connected apps and services. Tech is the modern world.

The rise of tech-washing

With tech now powering so much of what we do, it raises the question whether tech is any longer that useful a term for actually distinguishing or delineating anything. If everything is tech, then what is tech? It is a question that the world’s biggest investors are starting to ask themselves, too. In fact, we have now reached a stage where a) tech is a meaningless concept – everything is tech, and b) there is the realisation that many companies are ‘tech washing’, using the term ‘tech’ to hide the fact that they are in fact anything but tech companies which happen to use technology platforms to manage their operations. In the era when everything is tech enabled, you would be hard pushed to bring a new business to market that does nothave tech at its core. Companies like Uber, WeWork and just-listedPeleton have managed to raise money against billion-dollar-plus valuations in large part because they have positioned themselves as tech companies. In actual fact when the tech veneer is removed, they are respectively a logistics company, a commercial rental business and an exercise equipment company. If they had come to market simply with those tag lines, they would undoubtedly have secured far smaller valuations and many of their tech-focused investors would not have backed them. Investors are beginning to see through the ‘tech-washing’, as evidenced by the instant fall in Peleton’s stock price, WeWork’s crisis mode sell-off and Uber’s continuing struggles.

Pseudo-tech

Calling yourself a tech company has become a get out of jail free card for new companies, an ability to raise funds at inflated valuations, and a means to persuade investors to focus on ‘the story’ and downplay costs and profit in favour of growth, innovation and of course, that hallowed tech company term: disruption. I have been a media and tech analyst since the latter days of the original dot-com boom, and the mantra of the companies of that era was that ‘old world metrics’ such as profitability didn’t apply to them. Of course, as soon as the investment dried up, the ‘old world metrics’ killed most of them off. Today’s ready access to capital, enabled in part by low interest rates, has enabled a whole new generation of companies to spin the same yarn. But whether it is the onset of a global recession or growing investor scepticism, a similar fate will likely face today’s crop of ‘disruptors’. The dot-com crash separated the wheat from the chaff, wiping out the likes of Pets.com but seeing companies like eBay and Amazon survive to thrive.It also took a bunch of promising companies with it too. The imperative now is to strip away pseudo-tech companies from the tech sector so that investors can better segment the market and know who they should really be backing through what will likely be a tumultuous economic cycle. As SoftBank is finding to its cost, building a portfolio around pseudo-tech becomes high risk when the tech-veneer can no longer hide the structural challenges that the underlying businesses face.

Tech is central to the modern global economy and will only increase in importance – at least until the world starts building a post-climate-crisis economy. It is imperative for genuine tech companies and investors alike to start taking a more critical view of what actually constitutes tech. The alternative is that the tech sector will get dragged down by the failings of logistics companies and gym equipment manufacturers.

Spotify Takes Aim at Radio, Again

Spotify has launched a radio-like feature set for premium subscribers in the US called Your Daily Drive.Although it is only positioned as a playlist, the content mix includes podcast news content and plays music the listener already likes with a sprinkling of new tracks. This might not sound that special, but this ‘recurrent heavy’, news-anchored programming is Spotify taking the essence of US drive time radio and translating it into a playlist. As we wrote back in early 2018, radio is streaming’s next frontier, and nowhere is that more true than in the US.

streaming playlist usage midia research podcasts

Right now, streaming consumption is fragmented across multiple programming formats with no stand-out use case. Curated playlists are not for music what binge watching is for video. While this is positive in the context of multiple use cases being met within an increasingly diverse user base, if streaming is ever going to seriously challenge the mainstream mass-market audience that is radio, it needs a binge watching equivalent. Streaming needs a simple, easy to understand and access format that translates seamlessly to traditional radio audiences. Your Daily Drive is a very small first step on that journey.

The playlist is now just a delivery vehicle

If we were to rewind just a few years ago, the idea of Spotify delivering drive-optimized playlists interspersed with news may not have sounded totally outlandish but it would nonetheless have only felt a distant possibility. But now that Spotify has extensive podcast capabilities under its belt and a very proven willingness to insert podcasts throughout the music user’s experience, the concept of what constitutes a playlist needs rethinking entirely…largely because that is exactly what Spotify has just done. The industry needs to start thinking about playlists not as a collection of music tracks but instead as a targeted, personalized and programmed delivery vehicle for any combination of content. In old world parlance you might call it a ‘channel’, but that does not do justice to the vast personalization and targeting capabilities that playlists, and Spotify’s playlists in particular, can offer.

In this context, Your Daily Drive is not simply a playlist but instead Spotify’s first foray into next-generation radio broadcasting. There will doubtless be further Spotify playlist announcements over the coming months that leverage podcast content. As with Your Daily Drive, they won’t just be playlists; instead, pay attention to what they are aiming to compete with to understand their true intent.

Making radio work takes more than just making radio work

Radio programming itself will take a long time for Spotify to master – just look how long it is taking Apple. Even when it does, the even bigger challenge is monetisation. Ad-supported revenue simply isn’t growing fast enough, and the Q1 earnings (which recognized the revenue of its new podcast companies) did not indicate that podcasts were going to bring a big bump anytime soon either. To compete with radio in a meaningful way, Spotify will have to invest heavily in ad sales and ad tech to the same extent that Pandora has. That means having people pounding the streets, knocking on the doors of mom and pop stores selling local spot ads, through to competing with Google, Facebook and Amazon to deliver world class ad tech. No small task, but the rewards could be huge.

Profit Didn’t Disappear, It Just Moved

One of the recurring themes in analysis of tech businesses is the role of profit, and most often, the apparent lack of it – or at the very least, the way in which it plays second fiddle to growth. Amazon, one of the most successful global businesses in today’s global economy, famously sacrificed profit for much of its existence in order to focus on long-term growth and expansion. Similarly, Spotify remains laser-focused on growth and market share, almost apologizing when it generated a net profit for the first time in Q4 2018. The logical way to interpret this worldview is that it points to a lack of sustainability in the underlying business models of such tech companies, and that profit is a scarce commodity in the world of tech business. In actual fact, profit is still being made right across the value chain. It is simply not appearing on the balance sheets of tech companies.

Profit, an ‘old world metric’

Back the early 2000s, at Jupiter Communications in my early days as an internet analyst (back when you could actually have that job title), I used to tire of hearing the same line from dotcom start-ups when asked about profitability: “Profit is an old world metric. We measure ourselves by internet-era metrics.” When the dotcom bubble burst and VCs started pulling their money out of the dotcom space, virtually all of those business quickly learned that profit really did matter when the investment dried up. Most of those companies folded very quickly (Amazon being one of a few strong exceptions to the rule). Fast forward nearly two decades and that ‘new world’ mentality is more in evidence than ever before. So, what gives?

The development of finance is one of the most important 21st century events

One of the most important developments in capitalism in the 21st century has been the development of the financial sector, both in terms of the sophistication of products and services and in terms of the sheer scale of value that flows through it. For tech businesses, this has manifested as unprecedented access to finance at all stages of business. Historically, traditional businesses had some access to start-up capital, though it was often debt-based such as taking a bank loan. Fewer new businesses came to market, but those that did had a stronger profit imperative as they needed to service their start-up debt. Tech start-ups now most often have ready access to equity-based finance (i.e. selling a share of their business in return for investment) long before they go to market, and then have the further ability to raise more investment as they build their businesses. This enables companies to focus on growth, product development and brand building at a much faster rate than if they were relying upon organic revenue growth for funding. We wouldn’t have most of the big successful tech companies we do today without this model. The question still remains, however: when and where does profit fit in?

profit value chain

When looking at the financial reports of many tech businesses, net profit is conspicuous by its absence. For example, Uber has warned that it ‘may never be profitable’. This does not mean that profit is not being made, however – it is just found in different places. Take the example of Spotify. It is generating enough gross margin to be able to invest heavily in its business and to pay salaries that are competitive enough to ensure it can build an A-class team. It also generated enough money at its DPO to ensure its founders, investors and record labels all profited from the sale. Meanwhile, Spotify and other streaming services are driving revenue and profit for rightsholders, delivering nearly $10 billion of record label revenue in 2018 alone. Profit is being made by Spotify; it has simply moved across the value chain.

A new commercial ecosystem

The Spotify example illustrates how profit has shifted across the value chain in tech businesses, delivering profit for investors, suppliers and founders. In effect a new ecosystem has evolved in which the new profit centres can support the distribution part of value chain indefinitely. With growth valued over profitability by shareholders, the markets provide further sustenance to the ecosystem.

This model works, until it doesn’t. The big risk factor here is availability of credit. My colleague Tim Mulligan argues that the current availability of credit is the result of an abnormal macro credit cycle rather than a new model of economic sustainability, with interest rates at historical lows. As soon as interest rates go up, VC funding will significantly decrease due to institutional money leaving the VC funds for the equity markets. The corporate debt market will then start to dramatically contract, reducing the working capital available to unprofitable public businesses. On top of this, the cost of holding leveraged positions funded through the short-term money markets will start to become too expensive for many of the existing hedge funds to maintain their positions. An interest-rate driven, financial domino effect could happen very quickly.

Every time we have a bubble we are told that this time it’s different, and it never actually is. The financial component of the value chain can only generate profit as long as its primary cost base – i.e. interest rates – remain low. When they stop making profit, the whole ecosystem crumbles. At which point, tech companies will be well placed to consider the old maxim: revenue is vanity, profit is sanity.

Amazon’s Ad Supported Strategy Goes Way Beyond Music

Amazon is reportedly close to launching an ad supported streaming music offering. Spotify’s stock price took an instant tumble. But the real story here is much bigger than the knee-jerk reactions of Spotify investors. What we are seeing here is Amazon upping the ante on a bold and ambitious ad revenue strategy that is helping to reformat the tech major landscape. The long-term implications of this may be that it is Facebook that should be worrying, not Spotify.

amazon ad strategy

In 2018 Amazon generated $10.1 billion in advertising revenue, which represented 4.3% of Amazon’s total revenue base. While this is still a minor revenue stream for Amazon, it is growing at a fast rate, more than doubling in 2018 while all other Amazon revenue collectively grew by just 29%. Amazon’s ad business is growing faster than the core revenue base, to the extent that advertising accounted for 10% of all of Amazon’s growth in 2018.

Amazon is creating new places to sell advertising

The majority of Amazon’s 2018 ad revenue came from selling inventory on its main platform. This entails having retailers advertise directly to consumers on Amazon, so that Amazon gets to charge its merchants for the privilege of finding consumers to sell to, the final transaction of which it then also takes a cut of. In short, Amazon gets a share of the upside (i.e. the transaction) and of the downside (i.e. ad money spent on consumers who do not buy). This compressed, redefined purchase funnel is part of a wider digital marketing trend and underlines one of MIDiA’s Four Marketing Principles.

But as smart a business segment as that might be to Amazon, it inherently skews towards the transactional end of marketing, and is less focused on big brand marketing, which is where the big ad dollar deals lie. TV and radio are two of the traditional homes of brand marketing and that is where Amazon has its sights set, or rather on digital successors for both:

  • Video: Amazon’s key video property Prime Video is ad free. However, it has been using sports as a vehicle for building out its ad sales capabilities and has so far sold ads against the NFL’s Thursday Night Football. It also appears to be poised to roll this out much further. However, Amazon’s key move was the January launch of an entire ad-supported video platform, IMDb Freedive. Amazon has full intentions to become a major player in the video ad business.
  • Music: Thus far, Amazon’s music business has been built around bundles (Prime Music) and subscriptions (Music Unlimited). Should it go the ad-supported route, Amazon will be replicating its video strategy to create a means for building new audiences and new revenue.

It’s all about the ad revenue

Right now, Amazon is a small player in the global digital ad business, with just 6% of all tech major ad revenue. However, it is growing fast and has Facebook in its sights. Facebook’s $50 billion of ad revenue in 2018 will feel like an eminently achievable target for a company that grew from $2.9 billion to $10.1 billion in just two years.

To get there, Amazon is committing to a bold, multi-platform audience building strategy. Whereas Spotify builds audiences to deliver them music (and then monetise), Amazon is now building audiences in order to sell advertising. That may feel like a subtle nuance, but it is a critical strategic difference. In Spotify’s and Netflix’s content-first models, content strategy rules and business models can flex to support the content and the ecosystems needed to support that content. In an ad-first model, the focus is firmly on the revenue model, with content a means to an end rather than the end. (Of course, Amazon is also pursuing the content-first approach with its premium products.)

Amazon is becoming the company to watch

So, while Spotify investors were right to get twitchy at the Amazon rumours, it is Facebook investors who should be paying the closest attention. Amazon’s intent is much bigger than competing with Spotify. It is to overtake Facebook as the second biggest global ad business. None of this means that Spotify won’t find some of its ad supported business becoming collateral damage in Amazon’s meta strategy – a meta strategy that is fast singling Amazon out as the boldest of the tech majors, while its peers either ape its approach (Apple) or consolidate around core competences (Google and Facebook). Amazon is fast becoming THE company to watch on global digital stage.

10 Trends That Will Reshape the Music Industry

The IFPI has reported that global recorded music revenues have hit $19.1 billion, which means that MIDiA’s own estimates published in March were within 1.6% of the actual results. This revenue growth story is strong and sustained but the market itself is undergoing dramatic change. Here are 10 trends that will reshape the recorded music business over the coming years:

top 10 trends

  1. Streaming is eating radio: Younger audiences are abandoning radio for streaming. Just 39% of 16-19-year olds listen to music radio, while 56% use YouTube instead for music. Gen Z is unlikely to ever ‘grow into radio’; if you are trying to break an artist with a young audience, it is no longer your best friend. To make matters worse, podcasts are looking like a Netflix moment for radio and may start stealing older audiences. This is essentially a demographic pincer movement.
  2. Streaming deflation: Streaming music has allowed itself to be outpaced by inflation. A $9.99 subscription from 2009 is actually $13.36 when inflation is factored in. Contrast this with Netflix, for which theinflation-adjusted price is $10.34 but the actual 2019 price is $12.99. Netflix has stayed ahead of inflation; Spotify and co. have fallen behind. It is easier for Netflix to increase prices as it has exclusive content, but rights holders and streaming services need to figure out a way to bring prices closer to inflation. A market-wide increase to $10.99 would be a sound start, and the fact that so many Spotify subscribers are willing to pay $13 a month via iTunes shows there is pricing tolerance in the market.
  3. Catalogue pressure: Deep catalogue has been the investment fund of labels for years. But with most catalogue streams coming from music made in this century, catalogue values are being turned upside down (in the streaming era, the Spice Girls are worth more than the Beatles!). Labels can still extract high revenue from legacy artists with super premium editions like UMG did with the Beatles in 2018, but a new long-term approach is required for valuing catalogue. Matters are complicated further by the fact that labels are now doing so many label services deals, and therefore not building future catalogue value.
  4. Labels as a service (LAAS): Artists can now create their own virtual label from a vast selection of services such as 23 Capital, Amuse, Splice, Instrumental, and CDBaby. A logical next step is for a 3rdparty to aggregate a selection of these services into a single platform (an opening for Spotify?). Labels need to get ahead of this trend by better communicating the soft skills and assets they bring to the equation, e.g. dedicated personnel, mentoring, and artist and repertoire (A+R) support.
  5. Value chain disruption: LAAS is just part of a wider trend of value chain disruption with multiple stakeholders trying to expand their roles, from streaming services signing artists to labels launching streaming services. Things are only going to get messier, with virtually everyone becoming a frenemy of the other.
  6. Tech major bundling: Amazon set the ball rolling with its Prime bundle, and Apple will likely follow suit with its own take on the tech major bundle. Music is going to become just one part of content offerings from tech majors and it will need to fight for supremacy, especially in the ultra-competitive world of the attention economy.
  7. Global culture: Streaming – YouTube especially – propelled Latin music onto the global stage and soon we may see Spotify and T-Series combining to propel Indian music into a similar position. The standard response by Western labels has been to slap their artists onto collaborations with Latin artists. The bigger issue to understand, however, is that something that looks like a global trend may not be a global trend at all but is simply reflecting the size of a regional fanbase. The old music business saw English-speaking artists as the global superstars. The future will see global fandom fragmented with much more regional diversity. The rise of indigenous rap scenes in Germany, France and the Netherlands illustrates that streaming enables local cultural movements to steal local mainstream success away from global artist brands.
  8. Post-album creativity: Half a decade ago most new artists still wanted to make albums. Now, new streaming-era artists increasingly do not want to be constrained by the album format, but instead want to release steady streams of tracks in order to keep their fan bases engaged. The album is still important for established artists but will diminish in importance for the next generation of musicians.
  9. Post-album economics: Labels will have to accelerate their shift to post-album economics, figuring out how to drive margin with more fragmented revenue despite having to invest similar amounts of money into marketing and building artist profiles.
  10. The search for another format: In 1999 the recorded music business was booming, relying on a long established, successful format that did not have a successor. 20 years on, we are in a similar place with streaming. The days of true format shifts are gone due to the fact we don’t have dedicated format-specific music hardware anymore. However, the case for new commercial models and user experiences is clear. Outside of China, depressingly little has changed in terms of digital music experiences over the last decade. Even playlist innovation has stalled. One potential direction is social music. Streaming has monetized consumption; now we need to monetize fandom.

Apple’s Subscription Pivot

On Tuesday Apple announced its arrival on the world stage as a media company, using the lion’s share of its product keynote as the platform for a succession of super star actors, directors and other personalities to tell the story of their respective Apple original TV shows. Breaking with a longstanding tradition of using these keynotes to announce new hardware, Apple used this one to showcase content and its creators. While services revenue is still but a small minority of Apple’s business (11% in Q4 2018), there is no doubt that Apple is placing a far greater priority on content – a strategic pivot made necessary by slowing device sales in a saturated global smartphone market. Apple has already made itself a power player in music, but has the potential to turn the entire digital content marketplace upside down should it so decide.

four phases of media formats midia

Apple’s ramping up of its content strategy is best understood by looking at its place in the four stages of media formats:

  1. Phase 1 – physical media formats:In the old world, consumer electronics companies came together to agree on standards and then competed in a gentlemanly fashion on execution. This approach underpinned the eras of the CD and DVD.
  2. Phase 2 – walled garden ecosystems: In the internet era companies competed fiercely, building proprietary formats into impenetrable walls that locked consumers in. This resulted in the rise of walled gardens such as iTunes and Xbox.
  3. Phase 3 – post-ecosystem: App stores became the chink in the armour for walled garden models, allowing a generation of specialist standalone apps such as Spotify and Netflix.
  4. Phase 4 – aggregation: Walled garden players had inadvertently created global platforms for specialist competitors, so are now figuring out how to avoid going the route of telcos and becoming dumb pipes. The likes of Xbox, Amazon and Apple have started to embrace some of their standalone competitors, adding curatorial layers on top via hardware and software. This is how we have Amazon channels, Fortnite’s marketplace within Xbox and, soon, Apple channels.

Apple just prepped its content portfolio for a subscription pivot

Apple built its modern-day business firmly on the back of content. The iPod was the foundation stone for its current device business and simply would not have existed without music. While its current device portfolio meets a much wider set of user needs, content remains the use case glue that holds its device strategy together. On Tuesday Apple announced new subscriptions for news (News+), games (Arcade) and video (TV+). Interestingly, in an entire keynote focused on media, Apple Music did not even get a mention, despite Zane Lowe’s Beats One show providing the background music prior to the presentations. Perhaps Apple felt Apple Music is so well established that it did not merit a mention, but the lack of an update felt like more than an oversight, intentional or otherwise.

That aside, Apple now has prepped its content proposition for a subscription pivot. Prior to these new announcements, Apple’s content offering (Apple Music excepted) was firmly rooted in the increasingly archaic world of downloads. Shifting from downloads to streaming is no easy task, and Apple will have to tread a cautious path so as not to risk alienating less adventurous download customers. It is the exact same shift that Amazon is navigating. But now Apple has the subscriptions toolset to start that journey in earnest. It has decided that subscriptions are ready for primetime.

This primetime strategy underpins Apple’s early follower strategy across its entire product and services portfolio. As its customer base has gotten older and more mainstream, it has had to progressively stretch out launches, to such an extent that at times it looks at risk of being too late. Apple Music looked too late when it launched, but still made it to a clear number two position. TV+ was even later to market, but don’t count against it plotting a similar path to Apple Music.

What Apple needs from content

Watch and TV could both be long-term contenders for Apple’s revenue growth until it launches a product category to drive new, iPhone-scale hardware growth, but the odds are not yet in their favour. Services look like the best midterm bet. But Apple has some tough decisions to make about what role it wants content to play in its business. This is because subscriptions pose two challenges for Apple:

  • Margin could be a real problem:Apple’s high profile spat with Spotify over its App Store levy hides a bigger commercial issue. With margins in streaming as low as they are, Apple most likely makes more margin on its Spotify App Store levy than it does selling its own Apple Music subscriptions. The amount of money it has invested in its lineup of TV+ originals is also unlikely to do its services margins any favours.
  • Subscriptions have to get really big: Standalone subscriptions will not only be low (perhaps negative) net margin contributors, but will not deliver enough revenue. It would take more than one billion Apple customers paying for two $9.99 subscriptions every month of the year to generate the same amount of revenue it currently makes from hardware. The App Store is Apple’s current services cash cow, and Apple’s new slate of subscriptions are preparing for a post-App Store world. Yet it would take a hundred million $9.99 subscriptions every month of the year to get Apple’s services revenue to where it is now. That number is eminently achievable but generates revenue stagnation, not growth.

Doing an Amazon

So how does Apple square the circle? Probably through a combination of standalone subscriptions, bundles and a single Apple bundle plan. And yes, once again, this is exactly what Amazon has been doing for years now. In fact, you could say Apple is doing an Amazon. The Prime-like bundle could be the most disruptive move of the lot. Imagine if Apple, alongside the full-fat subscriptions, deployed a lite version of Music, Games and TV+ available for a single annual fee and / or as part of a device price (like Amazon Music Unlimited vs Amazon Prime Music). This option would mean that Apple would be simultaneously doing free without ads and subscription with fees. The implications for pure subscription and ad supported businesses are clear.

Whatever options Apple pursues, the permutations will be felt by all in the digital content marketplace.

Making Free Pay

2018 was a big year for subscriptions, across music (Spotify on target to hit 92 million subscribers), video (global subscriptions passed half a billion), games (98 million Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus subscribers) and news (New York Times 2.5 million digital subscribers). The age of digital subscriptions is inarguably upon us, but subscriptions are part of the equation not the whole answer. They have grown strongly to date, will continue to do so for some time and are clearly most appealing to rights holders. However, subscriptions only have a finite amount of opportunity—higher in some industries than others, but finite nonetheless. The majority of consumers consume content for free, especially so in digital environments. Although the free skew of the web is being rebalanced, most consumers still will not pay. This means ad-supported strategies are going to play a growing role in the digital economy. But set against the backdrop of growing consumer privacy concerns, we will see data become a new battle ground.

Industry fault lines are emerging

Three quotes from leading digital executives illustrate well the fault lines which are emerging in the digital content marketplace:

“[Ad supported] It allows us to reach much, much deeper into the market,” Gustav Söderström, Spotify

“To me it’s creepy when I look at something and all of a sudden it’s chasing me all the way across the web. I don’t like that,” Tim Cook, Apple

“It’s up to us to take [subscribers’] money and turn it into great content for their viewing benefit,”Reed Hastings, Netflix

None of those quotes are any more right or wrong than the other. Instead they reflect the different assets each company has, and thus where they need to seek revenue. Spotify has 200 million users but only half of them pay.  Spotify cannot afford to simply write off the half that won’t subscribe as an expensively maintained marketing list. It needs to monetise them through ads too. Apple is a hardware company pivoting further into services because it needs to increase device margins, so it can afford to snub ad supported models and position around being a trusted keeper of its users’ data. Netflix is a business that has focused solely on subscriptions and so can afford to take pot shots at competitors like Hulu which serve ads. However, Netflix can only hike its prices so many timesbefore it has to start looking elsewhere for more revenue; so ads may be on their way, whatever Reed Hastings may say in public.

The three currencies of digital content

Consumers have three basic currencies with which the can pay:

  1. Attention
  2. Data
  3. Money

Money is the cleanest transaction and usually, but not always, comes with a few strings attached. Data is at the other end of the spectrum, a resource that is harvested with our technical permission but rarely granted by us fully willingly, as the choice is often a trade-off between not sharing data and not getting access to content and services. The weaponisation of consumer data by the likes of Cambridge Analytica only intensifies the mistrust. Finally, attention, the currency that we all expend whether behind paywalls or on ad supported destinations. With the Attention Economy now at peak, attention is becoming fought for with ever fiercer intensity. Paywalls and closed ecosystems are among the best tools for locking in users’ attention. As we enter the next phase of the digital content business, data will become ever more important assets for many content companies, while those who can afford to focus on premium revenue alone (e.g. Apple) will differentiate on not exploiting data.

Privacy as a product

So, expect the next few years to be defined as a tale of two markets, with data protectors on one side and data exploiters on the other. Apple has set out its stall as the defender of consumer privacy as a counter weight to Facebook and Google, whose businesses depend upon selling their consumers’ data to advertisers. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the start rather than the end. Companies that can — i.e. those that do not depend upon ad revenue — will start to position user privacy as a product differentiator. Amazon is the interesting one as it has a burgeoning ad business but not so big that it could opt to start putting user privacy first. The alternative would be to let Apple be the only tech major to differentiate on privacy, an advantage Amazon may not be willing to grant.

The topics covered in MIDiA’s March 27 event ‘Making Free Pay’.The event will be in central London and is free-to-attend (£20 refundable deposit required). We will be presenting our latest data on streaming ad revenue as well as diving deep into the most important challenges of ad supported business models with a panel featuring executives from Vevo, UK TV and Essence Global. Sign up now as places are going fast. For any more information on the event and for sponsorship opportunities, email dara@midiaresearch.com 

Why Music and Video are Crucial to Apple’s Future

Apple’s downgraded earnings guidance represents its first profit warning in 10 years. This is clearly a big deal, and probably not as much to do with a weakening Chinese economy if Alibaba’s 2018 Singles’ Day annual growth of 23% is anything to go by. But it does not indicate Apple is about to do a Nokia and quickly become an also-ran in the smartphone business. Nokia’s downfall was triggered by a corporate rigidity, with the company unwilling to embrace — among many other things — touchscreens. Apple’s touchscreen approach, coupled with a superior user experience and its ability to deliver a vibrant, fully integrated App Store, saw it quickly become the leader in a nascent market. Apple’s disruptive early follower strategy is well documented across all its product lines and the iPhone was a masterclass in this approach. But the smartphone market is now mature and in mature markets, market fluctuations need only be small to have dramatic impact. That is where Apple is now, and music and video will be a big part of how Apple squares the circle.

Apple started its shift towards being a services-led business back in Q1 2016, issuing a set of supplemental investor information with detail on its services business and revenue. Fast forward to Q3 2018 and Apple reported quarterly services revenues of $10 billion—16% of its total quarterly revenue of $62.9 billion. So, services are already a big part of Apple’s business but the high-margin App Store is the lion’s share of that. App Store revenues will continue to grow, even in a saturated smartphone market, as users shift more of their spending to mobile. But it will not grow fast enough to offset slowing iPhone sales. Added to that, key content services are moving away from iTunes billing to avoid the 15% iTunes transaction fee. Netflix, the App Store’s top grossing app in 2018, recently announced it is phasing out iTunes billing, which is estimated to deliver Apple around a quarter of a billion dollars a year. That may only be c.1% of Apple’s services revenue but it is a sizeable dent. So Apple has to look elsewhere for services revenue. This is where music and video come in.

Streaming will drive revenue but not margin

Streaming is booming across both music and video. Apple has benefited doubly by ‘taxing’ third-party services like Spotify and Netflix, while enjoying success with Apple Music. With third-party apps driving external billing, Apple needs its own streaming revenue to grow. A video service should finally launch this year to drive the charge. However, the problem with both music and video streaming is that neither is a high-margin business. Apple’s residual investor value lies in being a premium, high-margin business. So it has a quandary: grow streaming revenues to boost services revenue but at a lower margin. This means Apple cannot simply build its streaming business as a standalone entity, but instead must integrate it into its core devices business.

Nokia might just have drawn Apple’s next blueprint

During its race to the bottom, Nokia launched the first 100% bundled music handset proposition Comes With Music (CWM). It was way ahead of its time, and now might be the time for Apple to execute another early (well, sort of early) follower move. CWM was built in the download era but the concept of device lifetime, unlimited music included in the price of the phone works even better in a streaming context. I first suggested Apple should do this in 2014. Back then Apple didn’t need to do it. Now it does. But rather than music alone, it would make sense for Apple to execute a multi-content play with music, video, newsand perhaps even monthly App Store credits. Think of it as Apple’s answer to Amazon Prime. To be clear, the reason for this is not so much to drive streaming revenue but to drive iPhone and iPad margins and in doing so, not saddle its balance sheet with low streaming margins. Here’s how it would work.

Streaming as a margin driver for hardware

Apple weathered much of the smartphone slowdown in 2018 by selling higher priced devices such as the iPhone X. This revenue over volume approach proved its worth. The latest earnings guidance shows that even more is needed. Apple could retail super premium editions of iPhones and iPads with lifetime content bundles included. By factoring in these bundled content costs into iPhone and iPad profits and losses, Apple can transform low margin streaming revenue into margin contributors for hardware. Done right, Apple can increase both hardware and services revenue without having a major margin hit. Add in Apple potentially flicking the switch on the currently mothballed strategy of becoming mobile operator, and the strategy goes one step further.

Free streaming without the ads

If reports that Apple is buying a stake in iHeart Media are true, then it will have another plank in the strategy. Radio is an advertising business, but Tim Cook hates ads so the likelihood is that any streaming radio content would be ad free. Given that consumers are unlikely to want to pay for a linear radio offering, Apple would need to wrap the content costs into hardware margins. This could either be part of the core content bundle, or could even be a lower priced content bundle, with Apple Music being available as a bolt-on, or as part of a higher priced bundle or, more likely, both. Ad-supported streaming becoming ad free would of course scare the hell out of Spotify.

Music to the rescue, again

2019 will probably be too soon for this strategy to finds its way into market, but do expect the first elements of it coming into place. Music saved Apple’s business once already thanks to the iTunes Music Store boosting flagging iPod sales. This paved the way for the greatest ever period in Apple’s history. Now we are approaching a similar junction and music, along with video and maybe games, are poised to do the same once again.

The Meta Trends that Will Shape 2019

MIDiA has just published its annual predictions report. Here are a few highlights.

2018 was another year of change, disruption and transformation across media and technology. Although hyped technologies – VR, blockchain, AI music – failed to meet inflated expectations, concepts such as privacy, voice, emerging markets and peak in the attention economy shaped the evolution of digital content businesses, in a year that was one to remember for subscriptions across all content types. These are some of the meta trends that we think will shape media, brands and tech in 2019 (see the rest of the report for industry specific predictions):

  • Privacy as a product: Apple has set out its stall as the defender of consumer privacy as a counter weight to Facebook and Google, whose businesses depend upon selling their consumers’ data to advertisers. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the start rather than the end. Companies that can – i.e. those that do not depend upon ad revenue – will start to position user privacy as a product differentiator.
  • Green as a product: Alphabet could potentially position around environmental issues as it does not depend as centrally on physical distribution or hardware manufacture for its revenue. For all of Apple’s genuinely good green intentions, it fundamentally makes products that require lots of energy to produce, uses often scarce and toxic materials and consumes a lot of energy in everyday use. Meanwhile, Amazon uses excessive packaging and single delivery infrastructure, creating a large carbon footprint. So, we could see fault lines emerge with Alphabet and Facebook positioning around the environment as a counter to Apple and potentially Amazon positioning around privacy.
  • The politicisation of brands: Nike’s Colin Kaepernick advert might have been down to cold calculation of its customer base as much as ideology, but what it illustrated was that in today’s increasingly bipartisan world, not taking a position is in itself taking a position. Expect 2019 to see more brands take the step to align themselves with issues that resonate with their user bases.
  • The validation of collective experience: The second decade of the millennium has seen the growing success of mobile-centric experiences across social, music, video, games and more. But this has inherently created a world of siloed, personal experiences, of which being locked away in VR headsets was but a natural conclusion. The continued success of live music alongside the rise of esports, pop-up events and meet ups hints at the emotional vacuum that digital experiences can create. Expect 2019 to see the rise of both offline and digital events (e.g. live streaming) that explicitly look to connect people in shared experiences, and to give them the validation of the collective experience – the knowledge that what they experienced truly was something special but equally fleeting.
  • Tech major content portfolios: All of the tech majors have been building their content portfolios, each with a different focus. 2019 will be another year of content revenue growth for all four tech majors, but Apple may be the first to take the next step and start productising multi-content subscriptions, even if it starts doing so in baby steps by making Apple original TV shows available as part of an Apple Music subscription.
  • Rights disruption: Across all content genres, 2019 will see digital-first companies stretch the boundaries and challenge accepted wisdoms. Whether that be Spotify signing music artists, DAZN securing top tier sports rights, or Facebook acquiring a TV network. These are all very different moves, but they reflect a changing of the guard, with technology companies being able to bring global reach and big budgets to the negotiating table. Expect also more transparency, better reporting and more agile business terms.
  • GDPR sacrificial lamb: In 2018 companies thought they got their houses in order for GDPR compliance. Most consumers certainly thought they had, given how many opt in notifications they received in their inboxes.
    However, many companies skirted around the edges of compliance, especially US companies. In 2019 we will see European authorities start to police compliance more sternly. Expect some big sacrificial lambs in 2019 to scare the rest of the marketplace into compliance. They will also aim to educate the world that this is not a European problem, so expect some of those companies to be American. Watch your back Facebook.
  • Big data backlash: By now companies have more data, data scientists and data dashboards than they know what to do with. 2019 will see some of the smarter companies start to realise that just because you can track it does not mean that you need to track it. Many companies are beginning to experience data paralysis, confounded by the deluge of data, with management teams unable to decipher the relevance of the analysis put together by their data scientists and BI teams. A simplified, streamlined approach is needed and 2019 will see the start of this.
  • Voice, AI, machine learning (and maybe AR) all continue on their path: These otherwise disparate trends are pulled together for the simple reason that they are long-term structural trends that helped shape the digital economy in 2018 and will continue to do so in 2019. Rather than try to over simplify into some single event, we instead back each of these four trends to continue to accelerate in importance and influence. 

For music, video, media, brands and games specific predictions, MIDiA clients can check out our report here. If you are not a client and would like to get access to the report please email arevinth@midiaresearch.com.