After The Download: When Apple Turns Off The iTunes Store

 

When new formats race to the fore it is easy to make the mistake of taking an eye off the legacy formats. This is risky because they usually still account for very large portions of existing revenue. Now that the marketplace has finally accepted that streaming does in fact cannibalize download sales (indeed 27% of subscribers say they have stopped buying downloads) the attention has, understandably, simply shifted to figuring out how quickly streaming revenue will grow. At a macro level this is fine, in fact it even works at a big label and publisher level. But it is far more challenging for smaller labels and publishers, and also for artists and songwriters. Each of these constituencies still depends heavily on download sales. Of course the big labels and publishers do too, but their repertoire portfolios are so large that they can take the macro view. For the rest though, because the average royalty income per album per streaming user is just $0.21, download sales remain crucial to cash flow. So, what happens when the download dies?

The demise of legacy formats normally follows this pattern:

  1. An accelerated initial decline as early adopters abandon the technology in favour of the shiny new thing
  2. A steadier, slower, long term decline as the mainstream migrates away, leaving only the laggards
  3. A sudden death when the sales channel no longer supports the product (think black and white TVs, cassette decks, VHS recorders etc.)

The CD is clearly following this trend but phase 3 will be long in coming because it is so easy for Amazon to continue stocking product, especially super high end box sets etc. Meanwhile discount retailers, petrol stations, convenience stores etc. will continue to find space for super low end cheap catalogue CDs. For downloads though, there is likely to be a near-sudden halt within the next 5 years. Although Amazon has made solid inroads into the music download business, Apple remains by far the dominant player. Thus the music industry is in effect dependent on the strategic whims on one partner for one of its most important revenue streams.

Subscriptions Are Key To Apple’s Services Narrative

Apple has historically been in the music business for one reason, to help sell more devices. That’s why Steve Jobs was happy to accept a 65% label revenue share model that ensured it was nigh on impossible to run a digital music business as a profit making venture i.e. he wanted to lock the market into a commercial model that neutered the competitive marketplace. We’re still feeling the effects of that now, with that 65% benchmark being the reference point against which streaming rates have been set.

No new news there. But what is new, is that Apple is trying to pivot its business towards a services based model. Apple is building a Wall Street narrative around monetizing its existing user base. It needs that narrative because device sales are slowing. Until it gets another hit device that can grow another new-ish marketplace (VR anyone?) Apple needs to focus on driving extra revenue from its base of device users. This has much to do with why Apple chose to enter the streaming market now as did any other factor. While the download business generated solid headline revenue it did not have the benefit of being predictable, on going spend in the way that subscriptions are.

So music is now more important to Apple because it is the entry point for its services based business model. Eventually music will lose importance to video, and potentially games too if Apple can build a subscription business around that. But for now Apple will be looking to migrate as many of its iTunes customers as possible to subscriptions, whatever it might actually be saying to record labels!

download collapse

Turning Off The iTunes Store

And this is where the download collapse comes in. Last year downloads declined by 16% in nominal terms. This year they are tracking to decline by between 25% and 30%. If we trend that forwards there will only be a modest download business of around $600 million by 2019, down from a high of $3.9 billion in 2012. For Apple, if it continues to grow its subscription business at its current rate, hitting 20 million subscribers by end 2016 and around 28 by end 2017 etc, by 2020 its download business would be tracking to be 10 times smaller than streaming revenue but, crucially, streaming revenue would nearly have reached the 2012 iTunes Store download revenue peak. This is the point at which Apple would chose to turn off the iTunes Store. The narrative of services based music business would be complete.

Smaller labels, publishers, artists and songwriters all better have a Plan B in place before this transpires. The download was a fantastic transition product to give the music industry its first steps into the digital era. But as we transition from transactional models to consumption based ones, its role diminishes every passing year. It has served the market well, but the end is now in sight.

 

 

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The Three Things You Need To Know About The UK Music Sales Figures

As most people expected, the UK recorded music industry returned to growth in 2015. The UK now follows an increasingly familiar European narrative of strong streaming growth helping bring total markets back to growth. Sales revenue increased 3.5% to reach £1.1 billion while total streams increased by 85% to reach 53.7 billion, with audio stream representing 49.9% of that total. There is no doubt that these are welcome figures for the UK music industry but as is always the case, a little digging beneath the surface of the numbers reveals a more complex and nuanced story. Here are the three things you need to know about UK music sales in 2015.

1 – Streaming Growth Accompanied A Download Collapse

Long term readers will know that I’ve long argued the ‘Replacement Theory’, that streaming growth directly reduces download sales. It is a simple and inevitable artefact of the transition process. Indeed a quarter of subscribers state they used to but no longer buy more than one album a month since they started paying for streaming. There have been plenty of opponents to this argument, normally from parties with vested interests. But the market data is now becoming unequivocal. While streams increased by 257% between 2013 and 2015 download sales decreased by 23%. And of course the vast majority of that streaming volume came from free streams, not paid.

bpi 1

2 – The Transition Follows A Clear Defined Path

The download to streaming transition is an inevitability, whatever business models are wrapped around it. It is part of the fundamental shift from ownership to access of which streaming music is but single component. It comprises consumers progressively replacing one behaviour with another. In fact, the evolution is so deliberate and predictable that it manifests in a clear numerical relationship: the Transition Triangle.

The UK music industry trade body the BPI has created a number of additional classifications for music sales and consumption. These include Stream Equivalent Albums (1,000 streams = 1 album) and Track Equivalent Sales (10 track sales = 1 album). Using these classifications and adding in actual album download sales we see a very clear relationship between the growth of streaming and the decline of downloads. The difference in volumes between downloads and streams each year is almost exactly the same as the amount by which downloads decreased the previous year. At this point even the most ardent replacement theory sceptic might start suspecting there’s at least some degree of causality at play.

BPI 2

3 – Thanks Are Due To Adele, Again

Back when Adele’s ‘21’ was setting sales records, music markets across the globe owed her a debt of gratitude for helping slow the incessant decline in sales. Global revenue decline fell to less than 1% and US revenue actually grew by 2.9% (falling back down the following year). Now she’s done it again with ’25’, giving album sales enough of a boost to ensure that the growth in streaming revenue lifted the entire market. For although album sales actually declined in 2015 and streaming volumes had grown more strongly in 2014, it was the combined impact of slowed album decline and streaming growth in 2015 that enabled the total market to grow so strongly.

Adele generated around £25 million of retail sales revenue in 2015, which was equivalent to 70% of the £36 million by which UK music sales revenue increased that year. While of course a portion of that £25 million would have been spent on other repertoire if ‘25’ had not been released, the majority would not. With ‘21’ and now with ‘25’ Adele has been able to pull casual music consumers out of the woodwork and persuade them to buy one of the only albums they’ll buy all year, often the only one.

Without that £25 million UK music sales would have increased by just 1%.  So in effect streaming services have Adele to thank for ensuring their growth lifted the whole market even though she famously held ‘25’ back from each and every one of them. Sweet irony indeed.

BPI 3

As a final postscript, the role of YouTube, while underplayed in the official figures, is crucial. While audio streams grew by an impressive 81% in 2015, video streams grew by 88%. So however good a job the streaming services might be doing of growing their market, YouTube is doing an even better one.

What Is Really Cannibalising Download Sales

As 2013 music sales figures come in, the picture of streaming growing while download sales slow is coming sharply into focus. It is one of a clear phase  of transition/cannibalization (delete as appropriate depending on your point of view) taking place because the majority of paying music subscribers were already download buyers.  But that is not the whole picture.  There is an even fiercer form of competition for spend that, as far as the music industry is concerned, is inarguably driving cannibalization.

The iTunes Store accounts for the majority of the global music download market and has done so since its inception eleven years ago.  Back when it launched, the iTunes Music Store helped transform the iPod from a modestly performing device into a global hit.  Music was the killer app, music was what Apple used to sell the device and music is what iTunes customers spent all of their money on.  But all of that changed.  As Apple’s devices have done progressively more, Apple has introduced new content types into its store that better show off the capabilities of its devices.  When Apple launches a new iPad it doesn’t have a label exec holding up the new device playing a song with static artwork displayed…that simply would not showcase the device’s capabilities.  Instead an EA Games exec gets up on stage with a new game that fully leverages the capabilities of the iPad’s graphics accelerator, the accelerometer, the multi touch screen etc.

Music may still be the single most popular entertainment activity conducted on iDevices but it is no longer the app that fully harnesses the devices’ capabilities.  In fact because music products and services remain stuck in the rut of delivering static audio files – YouTube notably excepted – it is increasingly failing to compete at the top table in terms of connected device experiences.  Crucially, this is not just a behavioral trend, it is directly impacting spending too (see figure).

itunes spending shift

Back in 2003 music accounted for 100% of iTunes Store revenue because that was all that was available.  Over the years Apple introduced countless new content types, each of which progressively competed for the iTunes buyer’s wallet share.  The step change though occurred in 2008 with the launch of the App Store.  The impact was instant and by mid 2009 music already accounted for less than 50% of iTunes revenue.   By the end of 2003 the transformation was complete with Apps accounting for 62% of spending and music less than a quarter.  Quite a fall from grace for what was once the undisputed king of the iTunes castle.

Now it is clear that the app economy is a bubble that is likely to undergo some form of recalibration process soon (80%+ of revenues are in app, 90%+ of those are games, and the lion’s share of those revenues are concentrated in a handful of companies) but the damage has already been done to music spending.

If music industry concerns about download cannibalization should be addressed anywhere it is first and foremost at apps.  At least with streaming services consumer spending remains within music rather than seeping out to games.  Though the bulk of the app revenue is ‘found’ incremental revenue, apps are additionally competing for the share of the iTunes’ customers wallet i.e. growth is coming both from green field spend and at the expense of other content types.

So what can the music industry do?  It would be as foolish as it would be futile to try to hold back the tide. Instead, music product strategy needs to do more to embrace the app economy.  That means, among other things:

  • More fully leverage in-app payments (and that means labels will have to take some of the hit on the 30% app store tax)
  • Learn to harness the dynamics of games (that does not mean ‘gamify’ music products necessarily – though it can mean that too – but to understand what makes casual app games resonate)
  • Develop digital era, multimedia products (see this report for some pointers on where music product strategy should go)

Though we are nowhere close to talking about the death of music downloads, apps have turned the tide for music spending.  The music industry can either sit back and feel sorry for itself, or seize the app opportunity by the scruff of the neck.

Staggered Advances: A Proposal for Better Streaming Income for Artists

I was at a rather good concert last night and while pondering what share of the few thousand in the room had actually bought the artist’s latest album I came up with the germ of an idea for how artists can be better compensated from streaming.  This is the proposal…

The overriding artist streaming concern is that streaming will cannibalize album sales and result in lower income.  Many labels and others counter that streaming will deliver at least as much revenue but over a longer period of time.  Because labels have big catalogues of music they benefit from ‘scale’ more quickly than artists how have much smaller catalogues. A label may measure the increased income from a million more subscribers in hundreds of thousands of dollars, but an artist may measure it in 100’s of dollars.

So is there then not a case for labels changing their income distribution models with artists?  Namely increasing advances by a factor of X and then instead of paying that in one lump sum, distributing it to the artist say every quarter for 3 years?  Let’s call this the Staggered Advance. This would effectively give the artist a salary from the label and take the worries about income per stream out of the equation.  The down side is that many more artists may never see actual royalty income than do so now, as it will be harder for them to recoup.

The challenge is what ‘X’ should equal.  To address that question, see the workings below. This hypothetical artist income model assumes the following:

  • 100% of an artist’s fan base are now paying subscribers
  • The artist is a performer and songwriter
  • An artist earns $2.00 from a CD
  • The artist receives 50% of a $0.01 per stream pay out
  • A typical album is bought by only 60% of an artist’s fans and that the remainder, if they were on subscription services, would stream the album
  • Streamers would also listen to some back catalogue

Hypothetical Artist Income Model – Music Industry Blog artist streaming income model

The net result of this model is that an artist can expect to earn from his/her fans about half what s/he would have earned from selling an album.  Which means that a Staggered Advance needs to pay out twice the amount to the artist than is currently paid for standard advances.

Bear in mind that ‘at scale’ streaming services should expand that base of listeners further with streams from casual listeners, and new additional income from core fans when the album is re-listened to as a catalogue album in the future.  So the total income (i.e. not just from fans) will be higher.

Also a crucial assumption here is that the artist’s core fans will listen to the album an average of ten times.  But that is predicated upon the album being good enough to make fans want to listen to the album that many times.  This means that if an artist releases a duff album that fans only listen to twice on average then the income difference will be 80% less than from album sales.  So there is a clear implication here: a poor album will earn an artist a lot less on streaming compared to albums sales, but the difference will be a lot less for a good album.  This is the democratization of music spend.

There are of course multiple additional variables and extenuating factors but the point of this exercise is to create a strawman for directional comparisons (you can download the excel model to test yourself by clicking on the link below).  This proposal also comes at a time when labels are moving away from bigger up front advances, but it may be that this is the only truly viable tool the labels have at their disposal to be able to soften the impact of the transition to streaming for artists.  Labels and streaming services alike need artists onboard and artists need streaming to make commercial sense for them.

Is this a step in the right direction?  Download the model, play around it, stress test the assumptions and let me know.  Hypothetical Artist Income Model – Music Industry Blog.