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:
- An accelerated initial decline as early adopters abandon the technology in favour of the shiny new thing
- A steadier, slower, long term decline as the mainstream migrates away, leaving only the laggards
- 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!
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.