The Real Problem With Streaming

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

The Steve Jobs Revenue Share Legacy

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

The Great Role Reversal And The De Facto Label Monopoly

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

Loading The Risk Onto Music Services

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

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

Skewing The Market To Big Tech Companies

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

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

Short Termism And From Evil To Exceptional

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

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

Wafer Thin Margins, Deep Pockets And The Innovation Drain

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

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

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

‘Awakening’ Now Available In Paperback

UnknownRegular readers will know that I recently published the Kindle version of my book “Awakening: The Music Industry In The Digital Age”.  Many of you have already bought it (thank you!) but some of you also wanted to know when the paperback edition was going to be available. Well you need wait no longer, you can buy the paperback version of ‘Awakening’ right now by clicking here.

If you are interested in the music industry then this is the book for you. Whether you are a label executive, music publisher, artist, songwriter, entrepreneur or simply interested in what you can learn from the music industry’s experience and want to know what the future holds then this is the book for you.

I wrote this book with three key objectives in mind:

1.    To provide the definitive account of the music industry in the digital era, as an antidote the distorted picture that is painted by the biased and often poorly informed extremes that dominate the industry narrative

2.    To help anyone in the music business better understand how the other parts of the industry work, what they think and what their priorities are

3.    To act as a primer for anyone wanting to build career or business in the music industry, so they know exactly what they’re getting in to, how the business works, the relationships, the conflicts and what’s been tried before.  I want to help people not waste energy making the same mistakes others have, and to also benefit from the insight and experiences of the super smart people I interviewed in the book

The book is full of data, analysis and interviews with more 50 interviews with the CEOs, senior decision makers, artists, managers, start up founders and other decision makers that have shaped the music industry over the last 15 years.  It includes chapters on every key part of the industry (labels, artists, songwriters, start ups, tech companies etc.) and is split into three sections:

  1. How We Got Here
  2. The Digital Era
  3. A Vision For The Future

This really is the only book you need to read on the music industry’s digital transition.  But don’t just take my word for it, check out these 5 Star Reviews:

“I really enjoyed this book. It gives a wide view to music industry, consumption tendencies and much other useful information. Is a must for all of the music industry professionals.”

“Great book on today’s digital music business – how we got here, who did what and most crucially why they did it. There’s no shortage of firmly held opinions and theories about the music industry and how it has navigated its digital transformation and Mulligan’s book is an essential analysis of what’s actually been going on. Insightful, non-judgemental and very well researched and informed, if you want to understand today’s digital music business, read this book.”

And if you’re still not convinced, take a read of the sample chapters on Amazon.  ‘Awakening’ is also available on iTunes and Google Play.

I hope you find the book as interesting to read as I did writing it.

My New Book – Awakening: The Music Industry In the Digital Age

I am very excited to announce the launch of my book ‘Awakening’ which charts the rise of digital music and how it is changing the music industry. ‘Awakening’ is the definitive account of the music industry in the digital era. With exclusive interviews with the people who shaped today’s industry it tells the inside story of how the music business grappled with the emergence of an entirely new digital economy

coverThe music industry is on the brink of an utterly transformative period of change that will result in the creation of an entirely new industry tailor made for the digital era. ‘Awakening’ presents the vision of how and why this change will come, what this future will look like and how the first steps on the journey are already being taken. The book includes interviews with 60 of the music industry’s leading figures, including globally successful artists and more than 20 CEOs (a full list of interviewees can be found at the bottom of the page). Alongside the insight from this unprecedented executive access, ‘Awakening’ uses exclusive consumer data, official market statistics, proprietary models and multiple additional data sources. In doing so it constructs an unparalleled picture of the new global music economy presented across 60 charts and figures.

All good stories start in the beginning. ‘Awakening’ deconstructs the failed state experience of the analogue era music industry with the definitive account of the music industry’s transition from booming $28 billion powerhouse to today’s much humbled $15 billion business. Music fans used to be told what to listen to when, where and how. In the new music industry the balance of power lies with the fans with themselves. The old music industry had the record labels at its centre, the new digital era industry will have the consumer at its core. The change will be generation defining and will transform forever what it means to be an artist and a fan. Livelihoods will be destroyed, others created, millionaires made, culture transformed. The change is already underway. ‘Awakening’ looks at each individual component of the music industry today and looks at each one is dealing with change and preparing for the future. From the superstar artist to the small independent label, from the pirate company CEO to the major label CEO, in the book I explore the incredibly varied picture of confusion and innovation, uncertainty and brilliance, fear and confidence. Most of all it is the story of a rebuilding, an Awakening of the new music industry.

The book has three sections:

  • How We Got Here: A detailed history of the years up until the launch of the iTunes Music Store, exploring how Napster changed the music industry forever and how the industry responded, or rather didn’t
  • The Digital Era: This section has 7 chapters, one for each of the key stakeholders (labels, artists, songwriters, pirates etc) and explores what the current market means to each of them
  • A Vision For The Future: A vision for what the next music industry will look like and what needs to happen to enable this to take place

I was extremely fortunate to interview many of the most important figures in the music industry of the last 15 years, including CEOs of major record labels, CEOs of all the major streaming services and platinum selling artists. I’ve managed to get the inside track on exactly what was happening behind the scenes.  I personally learned a huge amount while writing this book and I am confident virtually every reader will do so too.

In short, once you have read this book you will know practically everything that there is to know about the digital music market and where it is heading!

For anyone interested in the music industry and the lessons it provides for all media and technology businesses in the digital era, this is the only book you will ever need.

The book is available now on Amazon and iTunes and Google Play.

Also 10% of net profits will go to the music therapy charity the Nordoff Robins trust.

If you are a journalist and would like a review copy please email me at mark AT midiaresearch DOT COM

People interviewed for this book

Adam Kidron             Founder and CEO, Beyond Oblivion
Alexander Ljung         Founder and CEO, Soundcloud
Alexander Ross        Partner, Wiggin
Alison Wenham        CEO, AIM
Axel Dauchez           CEO, Deezer
Barney Wragg          SVP Universal Music eLabs / Global Head of Digital, EMI
Ben Drury                 Founder and CEO, 7 Digital
Benji Rogers             Founder and CEO, PledgeMusic
Brian Message          Manager, Radiohead, Nick Cave / Chairman MMF
Cary Sherman          CEO, RIAA
Chris Gorman           Founder and CEO, MusicQubed
Cliff Fluet                   Partner, Lewis Silkin / Director 11
Daniel Ek                   Founder and CEO, Spotify
David Boyle              SVP Insight, EMI
David Byrne              Solo artist / Talking Heads
David Isrealite           CEO, MPAA
David Lowery           Camper van Beethoven / The Trichordist
Edgar Berger            President & CEO International, Sony Music Entertainment
Elio Leoni Sceti         CEO, EMI
Erik Nielsen               Manager, Marillion
Geoff Taylor              CEO, BPI
Gregor Pryor             Partner, Reed Smith
Helienne Lindvall       Award winning songwriter
Ian Hogarth                Founder and CEO, Songkick
Ian Rogers                 CEO, Beats Music / CEO TopSpin
Jack Horner               Founder Frukt
Jay Samit                   SVP, EMI / EVP & GM, Sony Corp America
Jeremy Silver            VP New Media EMI / Chairman musicmetric
Jim Griffin                   CTO Geffen Records / CEO, Cherry Lane Digital
Jon Irwin                    President, Rhapsody
Jonathan Grant          Above and Beyond / Founder, Anjunabeats Records
Justin Morey              Senior Lecturer Music Production, Leeds Beckett University
Keith Harris                Manager, Stevie Wonder / GM, Motown
Keith Thomas            Grammy Award Winning Producer and Songwriter
Ken Park                    Chief Content Officer, Spotify
Larry Miller                 COO, a2b Music / President Reciprocal
Liz Schimel                VP Music, Nokia
Lohan Presencer       CEO of Ministry of Sound Group
Mark Kelly                 Marillion / CEO, FAC
Mark Knight               Founder and Chief Architect, Omnifone
Martin Goldschmidt   Founder and MD, Cooking Vinyl
Martin Mills                Founder and Chairman, Beggars Group
Michael Robertson   Founder and CEO, MP3.com
Nenad Marovac        Partner, DN Capital
Oleg Fomenko          CEO, Bloom.fm
Paul Hitchman          Founder and Director Playlouder/ MD Kobalt
Paul Vidich                EVP, WMG / Director, Reverbnation
Peter Jenner             Manager Pink Floyd, Billy Bragg / MD Sincere
Peter Sunde              Founder, The Pirate Bay
Phil Sant                    Founder and Chief Engineer, Omnifone
Ralph Simon             EVP Capitol & Blue Note / Founder Yourmobile
Robert Ashcroft        SVP Network Services Europe / CEO PRS for Music
Roger Faxon             CEO, EMI
Scott Cohen              Founder, The Orchard
Simon Wheeler         Director of Strategy, Beggars Group
Sumit Bothra             Manager, The Boxer Rebellion, PJ Harvey
Tim Westergren        Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, Pandora
Tom Frederikse        Partner, Clintons
Tony Wadsworth      Chairman & CEO, EMI Music UK & Ireland/Chairman BPI
Wayne Rosso           President, Grokster
Will Page                  Chief Economist, Spotify

Note: positions either refer to current position held by interviewee or key position held during the narrative of this book.

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