How Apple Music And Tidal Transformed Streaming (And Why Apple May Be Buying Tidal)

 

It is 15 months since the launch of Tidal (which was 2 months after Jay-Z’s Project Panther Bidco bought Aspiro) and it is 12 months since the launch of Apple Music (which was a year after Apple bought Beats Music). The streaming world has changed a lot in that time and both those companies have had a disproportionately large amount on influence on the market’s direction of travel. Their arrivals defined Spotify’s role as incumbent while simultaneously casting Apple and Beats as challengers. They have performed their roles of disruptive entrants well, reshaping the competitive marketplace with a strong focus on brand and artist exclusives. Now reports emerge that Apple is in talks to buy Tidal. First victory in the exclusives war or overspending for market share?

When Is An Exclusive And Exclusive?

In the streaming video world an exclusive means exactly that. If you want to watch ‘House Of Cards’ you need Netflix, if you want to watch ‘Man In The High Castle’ you need Amazon Prime. But in music the rules are far more flexible.

exclusives

Looking at the flagpole exclusives across Apple Music, Tidal and Spotify, most of these are available on other platforms as downloads, while many are available to stream. For example, Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ is only available to stream via Tidal but was available to download on iTunes within 24 hours of release. Understandably, the exclusive albums of each company’s respective godfather are genuinely exclusive. But Rihanna’s ‘Anti’ was given away by Samsung while Spotify’s rock legends exclusives are streaming only.

Apple is beginning to push the envelope though, pitching creative solutions to labels and artists, resulting in output like videos for The Weekend and Drake. At the same time it is beginning to look suspiciously like a record label with the release of Chance The Rapper’s ‘Colouring Book’ mixtape. The net result of all this clamouring to be seen as the ‘home’ of an artist is resounding confusion and frustration for music fans. An avid TV fan may well accept the need to have both a Netflix and Amazon subscription because no video service claims to have all the TV shows and movies on the planet. However, the central proposition of streaming music services is exactly that…or at least it was until Tidal and Apple Music upset the the apple cart (ahem). The irony is that in scoring a quick win against Spotify, Tidal and Apple may have fundamentally undermined the long term positioning of the entire streaming music product.

Exclusives Cannot Recreate The 1990s

Apple Music’s head of original content Larry Jackson has said he wants to make Apple Music to emulate the success of MTV in the 80’s and the 90’s, creating the sense that artists ‘live there’. It is an admirable goal but the music world of the 2010’s is a dramatically different one. In those days there was scarcity (you had to buy music to listen on demand) and there was a finite amount of radio and TV. It was possible to control both the message and the audience. Now we are in the Era of Distributed Audiences where people are simultaneously in multiple digital places, with artists and labels racing after them in all those places. No amount of exclusive windowing is going to change that. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

The Economics Of Exclusives

Where the streaming video and streaming music markets match up is that content budgets are currently being used to drive user acquisition. While streaming services have a long way to go before they reach Netflix’s $6 billion annual content budget, both types of streaming service will overspend to get market share and will reel budgets back in later. So it should be no surprise that the amounts being spent on artists don’t really add up.

For example, Apple is reported to have spent $19 million on Drake and was rumoured to have bid up to $25 million for Harry Styles. If Styles had signed, even if he had racked up the same number of streams as Drake on Spotify in 2015 (1.8 billion, the highest number of any artist) he would still only have generated gross revenue of $18 million and net revenue of revenue of around $14 million, leaving something like an $8 million loss for Apple when Apple Music’s additional retailer margin is factored in. Apple would however have been able to make up the remainder on album sales, but Styles would have needed to have shifted a good number of albums. (Adele’s ‘25’, the biggest selling download album in the US in 2015 drove around $15 million in label revenue.) So for now, it takes selling albums to make the economics of streaming exclusives add up.

apple vs tidal

Jay-Z paid $56 million for Aspiro’s 512,000 subscribers, $110 per subscriber. Assuming he’d want a similar per subscriber price, that would put Tidal’s price tag at around $440 million. That’s no small amount of money for around 5% of the global subscriber market. Or to put it another way, Apple could another 23 Drake exclusives for that money which most likely would have a bigger impact on subscriber growth. Indeed, on all growth measures Apple Music has outperformed Tidal over the last 12 months, adding 12.5 million new subscribers to Tidal’s 3.1 million, growing by an average of 1.4 million subscribers a month compared to 0.3 million for Tidal. Apple even has the edge in % growth terms (352% compared to 328%).

So why is Apple in the market for Tidal (albeit reportedly)? Probably more than anything it is about taking an irritatingly threatening competitor out of the market. Tidal has been stealing Beat’s core customer base from right under its nose. It’s no coincidence that Apple Music’s exclusives strategy has had a strong urban bias. Apple wants its Beats customers back, just like it wants its iTunes customers back from Spotify.

Even if Apple does buy Tidal, don’t expect the exclusives wars to go away. Indeed, Spotify just acquired its own exclusives supremo in the shape of Troy Carter, and Apple clearly has its mind set on continuing to spend heavily. So the next few years of streaming will be  defined by streaming services getting closer to artists (with Connect becoming much more important for Apple) which in turn will see the distinctions between what constitutes a streaming service and a record label blur all the more.

As science fiction write William Gibson wrote: the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet…

 

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Jay-Z, Becoming An HBO For Streaming, And Digital Music Bling

Jay-Z just made his much hyped entrance into streaming official with his star studded but awkward signing ceremony for TIDAL. Once having navigated a few objections from minor shareholders, Jay-Z’s first major act after successfully buying the not-very-appropriately-named-for-a-hip-hop-superstar WiMP was to rebrand it to TIDAL, the name that WiMP’s high quality service had been operating under. Jay-Z is unashamedly bringing his superstar power to bear to make as big a splash as possible, but once the tidal wave of hype has subsided will there be enough to transform the market?

On the surface Jay-Z did not get too much for his $56m WiMP TIDAL acquisition: a streaming provider that actually lost 11% of its subscribers last year, of whom 77% are tied up in telco bundles and that has a total global subscriber market share of about 1%. The much vaunted TIDAL part of the company as just 17,000 subscribers.

But of course the deal was never about what WiMP has done to date, it was an instant entry point into the streaming music landscape. It is the streaming equivalent of buying a plot of land that has already been granted planning permission, with the slight convenience of the previous owner already having started building a little edifice in the corner of the plot. Now Jay-Z is clearing the site and laying the foundations for a construction of far greater ambition.

One of the problems with streaming music services to date is that they have generally lacked personality. This is a combination of being technology led, having to be all things to all people and having to keep the big labels happy. Jay-Z is shovelling bucket loads of stardust on TIDAL, leaning on his superstar contacts help get the launch off to a star studded bang and even making them shareholders. But it will require much more than the support of a few music biz a-listers to make TIDAL a success:

  • TIDAL is creating an aspirational, premium streaming brand: In many respects TIDAL is filling the aspirational music brand space that Beats vacated when it was acquired by Apple. High quality audio and video editorial (powered by the RADR division of TIDAL) are a natural fit with this positioning. Most consumers do not actually care that much about high quality audio (only a fifth consider it an important part of a music services) and even can actually tell the difference. But that’s not the point. This is about aspiration. Just in the same way that most Beats customers buy the headphones because they represent quality rather than because of their frequency response ranges. $19.99 is not meant to be a mass market price point. It is streaming bling for those who want people to know they have the best.
  • TIDAL wants to be the HBO of streaming music: One key differentiation point for TIDAL is an exclusive first streaming release window for artists. What they’ll get in return is unclear, and it certainly won’t halt the decline of sales, but it nonetheless creates a clear perception of value to artists and to subscribers. It helps solidify TIDAL’s positioning as a premium brand, the streaming music equivalent of HBO.
  • Even TIDAL can’t fix the underlying problem with royalties: One of the big issues surrounding streaming is the fact artists and songwriters do not feel they are earning enough. Yet with 80% of subscription fees heading back to rights owners there is clearly not much scope for increasing the payouts. Even doubling the subscription price (on the $19.99 tier) only means artists are getting paid (at best) in double cent increments rather than single cents. The underlying dynamics remain the same i.e. you need a lot more people streaming an album to make the same money you would from selling it. In fact, you would require roughly 15 as many people, listening an average of 5 times each.
  • A next generation label: Somewhere down the line TIDAL might follow Netflix’s lead and start creating TIDAL Originals, signing artists directly. Doing this would present a whole set of ways in which TIDAL could start to experiment with generating more value for artists. But it would also put TIDAL in a difficult position. Right now TV broadcasters are starting to reassess their relationship with Netflix because now it is competing directly with them for shows and talent. Netflix has bought itself some time by dint of being such a valuable revenue stream for TV companies, but the more it pushes its own content, the more TV companies want to clip its wings. Expect the same scenario to play out for TIDAL if goes this route.

TIDAL is a welcome addition to the streaming space and brings some much needed star quality. But the path ahead is far from clear. Jay-Z will need all the luck and superstar support he can get to make waves with TIDAL.

What $500 Million And Jay-Z Say About the State Of Streaming In 2015

2014 was a big year for streaming, 2015 will be bigger. Apple entering the fray is the catalyst. Apple enters a market when it is ready for primetime. Apple lets the pioneers establish the market, prove the model and create consumer mindshare before it comes in and most often assumes a leadership role. Apple is certainly leaving it later than normal with subscriptions but it is still the same classic follower model, and the marketplace knows it. Hence Jay-Z’s reported €50 million interest in Norwegian streaming service WiMP and Spotify’s reported pursuit of a further $500 million. The first move is ‘let’s get in a market Apple is about to make huge’ and the second is an Apple war chest

Spotify’s 2014 growth was little short of spectacular, especially its December surge. But it is still not enough to IPO on. Not because 15 million subscribers in itself is not a huge achievement – it is – but because the market place is holding its breath, waiting to see what Apple does. Apple remains the world’s largest digital music company and is on the verge of becoming the world’s leading shipper of smartphones. But most crucially Apple has the iTunes ecosystem and a deep, deep understanding of the world’s most valuable content consumers. If anyone can take subscriptions to the mainstream Apple can. And in the process it will likely take back a chunk of the iTunes Music buyers that Spotify ‘stole’. Which is not to say that Spotify will not be able to continue to grow, but instead that rapid growth will be harder when Apple is snapping at its heels.

Pricing will be key, as will the role of free. If Apple succeeds in bringing the standard price point down to 7.99 (and perhaps a subsidised price point of 4.99) then a whole new swathe of users will be brought into the marketplace. Still not the mainstream, but certainly getting towards the higher end of the mainstream that Netflix competes in. And certainly a bigger marketplace than the current one. If Spotify finds its free tier heavily capped then it will lose much of its customer acquisition strength, which may force it to spend more heavily on traditional acquisition tactics like app marketing and TV ad spots.

In this expanded marketplace a $500 million war chest would give Spotify the ability expand into new territories, double down on churn management and market in core markets. The intent will most likely be to weather the Apple storm and to be in solid enough shape the other end to IPO. As we have seen in the smartphone and tablet business, Apple can be leader but still leave plenty enough space for a vibrant and competitive marketplace. That is the scenario Spotify, Deezer, Rdio, Rhapsody and Jay-Z’s new plaything-to-be WiMP will be hoping for.

Omnifone and the Bundled Music Opportunity

I spent this morning listening to Omnifone’s CEO Jeff Hughes and CFO Matthew Bagley rounding up what has been a good year for the white label music service provider.  Omnifone have been in the game for a lot of years and have seen their fair share of ups and downs.  Now 10 years on from being founded they have turned their first annual operating profit, from a record full year revenue of £29.5 million.

When Omnifone first came to market it had no shortage of direct competitors. But as the first wave of digital music services, powered by Omnifone competitors such as OD2 and MusicNet, smashed against the rocks of the new upstart iTunes Music Store, the marketplace soon consolidated.  Omnifone wasn’t quite the last man standing, but it certainly had a lot more competitive leg room.  Over the intervening years it has managed to establish a solid reputation for providing the back end infrastructure for music services for global brands such as Sony, Blackberry and Vodafone.

Over the last year or two though, Omifone has been quietly repositioning around the streaming zeitgeist.  The most visible ouput of this strategy to date has been the formation of the direct to consumer streaming service Rara, which has since been spun out of the company.  Hughes says of streaming music that Omnifone has “built a racetrack and now we want to put horses on it”.   This, he adds, will not just mean working with big global companies but also starting to work with a select number of ‘interesting’ start-ups, up to 5 a year.

Hughes points to bullish streaming and cloud music revenue forecasts by the likes of Strategy Analytics and ABI Research as an indicator of the market opportunity.  Although these forecasts are optimistic (to put it mildly) there is clearly a pronounced pivoting towards streaming consumption.  As regular readers will know, I have little faith in 9.99 ever being established a mass market consumer price point and it will certainly never drive the numbers some people are forecasting.  But work with a hardware company to absorb some or all of the cost of the music into a device or car (or even a home as Hughes suggested) then you start to have the ability to drive mass market adoption.

Four years ago I proposed the creation of digital music box for the living room, to halt the steady demise of the home hi-fi.  Back then the economics of the proposition had to be engineered around pre-installed downloads, making it nigh on impossible to make the concept work at mass market price points without dramatic license rate discounting.  Streaming changes all of that.  Now the concept of a $/€/£250 hi-fi unit with a year’s worth of fully integrated unlimited music is a genuine opportunity (and one that some one should address with urgency).  Omnifone is exactly the sort of company who could make it happen with the right device brand.

Of course Omnifone no longer has as much competitive leg room as it once did, with the likes of 24/7, 7 Digital and Aspiro all contributing to an increasing competitive marketplace.  But as streaming continues to help drag digital music out of doldrums, Omnifone could yet play a key role in the future of digital music. Though the ISP bundle opportunity appears to be diminishing with every month that passes, mobile carriers (e.g. Cricket Wireless) and handset manufacturers (e.g. HTC) are showing growing enthusiasm for bundled music strategy.  Once the dust settles on Spotify’s stellar year, and it is clear just how much all the other streaming service ‘boats’ have been risen by Spotify’s ‘high tide’, I expect we’ll see an even stronger case for the bundled music service, and in turn more demand for the services of Omnifone et al.