How Streaming is Changing the Shape of Music Itself [Part I]

[This is the first of two thought pieces on how streaming is reshaping music from creation to consumption] 

The streaming era has arrived in the music business, but the music business has not yet fully arrived in the streaming era. Labels, publishers, artists, songwriters and managers are all feeling – to differing degrees – the revenue impact of a booming streaming sector. However, few of these streaming migrants are fundamentally reinventing their approach to meet the demands of the new world. A new rule book is needed, and for that we need to know which of today’s trends are the markers for the future. This sort of future gazing requires us to avoid the temptation of looking at the player with the ball, but instead look for who the ball is going to be passed to.

Where we are now

These are changes that represent the start of the long-term fundamental shifts that will ultimately evolve into the future of the music business:

  • A+R strategy: Record labels are chasing the numbers, building A+R and marketing strategies geared for streaming. The bug in the machine is the ‘known unknown’ of the impact of lean-back listening, people listening to a song because it is in a pushed playlist rather than seeking it out themselves. Are labels signing the artists that music fans or that data thinks they want?
  • Composition:Songwriters are chasing the numbers too. The fear of not getting beyond the 30 second skip sees songs overloaded with hooks and familiar references. The industrialisation of song writing among writing teams and camps creates songs that resemble a loosely stitched succession of different hooks. Chasing specific playlists and trying to ‘sound like Spotify’delivers results but at the expense of the art.
  • Genre commodification:The race for the sonic centre ground is driving a commodification of genres. The pop music centre ground bleeding ever further outwards, with shameless cultural appropriating par for the course. Genres were once a badge of cultural identity, now they are simply playlist titles.
  • Decline of the album:iTunes kicked off the dismembering of the album, allowing users to cherry pick the killer tracks and skip the filler. The rise of the playlist has accentuated the shift. Over half of consumers aged 16–34 are listening to albums less in favour of playlists. The playlist juggernaut does not care for carefully constructed album narratives, nor, increasingly, do music listeners.
  • Restructuring label economics:Achieving cut though for a single takes pretty much the same effort as for an album. So, it is understandable that label economics still gravitate around the album. But streaming is rapidly falsifying the ROI assumption for many genres, with it being the tracks, not the albums that deliver the returns in these genres.
  • Decline of catalogue:Streaming’s fetishisation of the new, coupled with Gen Z’s surplus of content tailored for them, deprioritises the desire to look back. Catalogue – especially deep catalogue, will have to fight a fierce rear-guard action to retain relevance in the data-driven world of streaming.
  • Audience fragmentation: Hyper targeting is reshaping marketing and music is no different. While the mainstream of A+R chases the centre ground, indies, DIY artists and others chase niches are becoming increasingly fragmented. Yet, most often, this is not a genuine fragmentation of scenes, but an unintended manifestation of hyper- focused targeting and positioning.
  • End of the breakthrough artist:Fewer artists are breaking through to global success. None of the top ten selling US albums in 2017 were debut albums, just one was in the UK. Just 30% of Spotify’s most streamed artists in 2017 released their first album in the prior five years. Streaming’s superstars – Drake, Sheeran etc. – pre-date streaming’s peak. Who will be selling out the stadium tours five years from now?
  • Massively social artists:Artists have long known the value of getting close to their audiences. Social media is central to media consumption and discovery, and its metrics are success currency. Little wonder that a certain breed of artist may appear more concerned with keeping their social audiences happy than driving streams.
  • Value chain conflict:BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti once said “content may still be king but distribution is the queen and she wears the trousers”. Labels fear Spotify is out to eat their lunch, Spotify fears labels want to trim its wings. Such tensions will persist as the music industry value chain reshapes to reflect the shifts in where value and power reside.

Next week: where these trends will go.

To paraphrase Roy Amara:“It is easy to overestimate the near-term impact of technology and underestimate the long-term impact.”

Spotify Just Parked Its Tanks On YouTube’s Lawn

Today’s Spotify announcement was always going to be about Daniel Ek attempting to regain control of the streaming narrative in advance of Apple’s grand entry in a couple of weeks.  But if you were expecting this to be the launch of a bunch of new music features then you were in for a little bit of a shock.  Though there were some new music features outlined (such as swipe to listen, behaviour-learning programming and fitness features) the core of this event was positioning Spotify’s transition from a pure play music service into an entertainment destination with video taking centre stage.  YouTube has been competing (on uneven terms) with Spotify for years as a music service.  Now Spotify is fighting back by going after YouTube’s heartland.

Moving Beyond The Soundtrack

Spotify’s hook line for the event was ‘Soundtracking Your Day’ but in actual fact Spotify want to do much more than that (after all that’s what they already do), now they want to also be a visual part of your day too.  Spotify announced a host of new video partners including native online video producers, next gen video creators like Vice News and traditional brands like Comedy Central.  Spotify is creating a catalogue of video shorts that are designed to fit into your day.  This is unashamedly YouTube, Vessel and Buzz Feed territory.

Lessening The Music Dependence

While music consumption is booming (25 billion hours of music has been streamed on Spotify so far) Ek and co are spreading their bets.  The last 6 months have been tough for Spotify with the major labels casting doubt on its freemium model due to thinly veiled pressure from Apple.  Spotify will quite rightly feel aggrieved with this shift in attitude considering the fact it now accounts for half of global streaming revenue and is doing a better job of driving subscription uptake than anyone has ever come close to doing.  Running a music service can be a high effort, low reward and frustrating experience at times.  So Spotify can be forgiven for wanting to weaken its utter dependence on the whims of a few big labels.

Reversing Into YouTube Territory

Reversing into YouTube and Buzz Feed’s front lawns though will be easier said than done though.  The nature of the mobile consumption landscape is a diverse mix of content capsules, whether they be apps, mobile bookmarks or notification feeds.  Users have learned to consume mobile content in bite-sized chunks.  Facebook has done what it can to re-aggregate content via timeline but has found that asset more useful for sorting users personal content and shared content snippets.  Messaging platforms are now looking like the place where content audiences are best aggregated.  In fact the history of content audience aggregation can be summarised as:

1 – websites

2 – portals (e.g. Yahoo, AOL)

3 – social networks

4 – messaging platforms

Which is why Facebook is disrupting itself with WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, it knows where things are heading.  This is the environment in which Spotify will be competing, with Snapchat and Line as much as it is with YouTube and Vice.  In Spotify’s favour is the fact that many of the digital first content destinations, Buzz Feed especially, are entirely willing to envisage a future in which their content could exist entirely on third party platforms.

Return Of The Portal?

In a lot of ways Spotify’s video mini-pivot feels like a back-to-the-future spin on the 20th century portal model but there is clearly an opportunity to re-aggregate our fragmented digital entertainment lives.  Whether Spotify can do that or not is another question and even if it can, it will be a long-term play rather than some short term hit.  Ek might have said he wants to ‘soundtrack our day’ but his product strategy actions show us that he feels Spotify has outgrown being the soundtrack alone.