Making Free Work (Hint Cannibalize Radio Not Sales)

2015 started with freemium fighting for its life. 7 months in and it’s still alive and well but the free debate rages on. It is clear that some form of free experience drives paid subscription uptake but it is also clear that too much free reduces the conversion opportunity. A one month trial is probably too little but a year of free is too much. 3 months is emerging as the free, or close to free, sweet-spot as evidenced by Apple’s 3 month free trial and Spotify’s 3 months for $1 a month. In fact Spotify’s cheap trial strategy underscores the constrained ability of unlimited free to convert to paid. Free is crucial to ensure the acquisition funnel is filled but a new approach is needed, one that is more sophisticated than simply stating it is all free or no free.

COMPETING WITH FREE

One of the biggest concerns about free streaming is that it cannibalises sales. Just for the record, it undeniably does. At least on-demand free does. Free has always been part of the music industry, mainly in the form of radio. But the crucial difference with radio is that listeners do not choose what they are listening to. Free streaming needs to start behaving much more like radio, to follow the Pandora model. Crucially it needs to compete head on with traditional radio. Radio is a $46 billion industry globally yet less than 10% of that flows back to labels and publishers, and then on to artists and songwriters (see figure). By contrast the majority of music sales flow back to rights holders and creators. So the music industry needs to optimise streaming to cannibalise radio more than it does sales. To make the majority of free streaming only partially on demand.

The number one streaming metric that the music industry should be paying attention to is the share of total radio listening time that Pandora accounts for. The more that that increases, the more direct revenue flows into the industry.

free decision tree

But at the same on-demand time free streaming’s role in converting subscribers must be protected, albeit within very strictly defined parameters. Subscribers have two key user journey entry points: 1) a trial 2) free. Streaming services need to make better use of their analytics (which are increasingly sophisticated) to identify which free users to invest time and effort into trying to convert and which to side line. Neither Spotify or Deezer is in the business of free music, they are in the business of subscriptions and simply use free as a marketing tool. So they have no reason to cling doggedly to free users that show no sign of converting. Instead after a sufficient period of free music has been offered users should be pushed to subscriptions or onto a radio tier (see figure). There is no business benefit to the streaming services nor rights holders to have perpetual on demand free users.

The assumption that free music is some sort of internet right is symptomatic of the internet’s growing pains. In terms of market development we’re probably at the adolescence stage of the internet, the stage at which carefree childhood starts to be replaced by responsibility and consequences. We’re seeing this happen right across the internet economy, from privacy, data, free speech, jurisdiction etc. Because music has been free online for so long consumers have learned to accept it as fact. That assumption will not be changed any time soon, and try to force the issue too quickly and illegal services will prosper.

Of course YouTube is, and always has been the elephant in the room, buoyed by the schizophrenic attitude of record labels who simultaneously question its impact on the market while continuing to use it as their number 1 digital promotional channel. While the tide may finally be beginning to turn, don’t expect YouTube to go anywhere any time soon. But should the screws tighten do expect YouTube to stop playing ball. As they have made clear in various rights holder conversations, an onside YouTube, warts n’ all, is far more appealing prospect than a rogue YouTube. But implicit threat or otherwise YouTube must be compelled to play by the same rules as everyone else. As I’ve said before, YouTube needs to look more like Pandora.

Competing against radio needs to become the modus operandi of streaming. Only when free music on the internet evolves to more closely resemble radio will the industry be able to fix the apparent paradox of increased consumption translating into reduced revenue.

Why The Next Few Months Of Apple Music Will Throw Up A Few Surprises

Finally Apple is in the streaming game. Other than to say that it looks like Apple has made a big first step towards making streaming ‘ready for primetime’ and to becoming a music platform I’m not going to add to the list of reviews and first impressions, there are plenty of good one’s like Walt Mossberg’s.   Instead I’m going to run through a few of the likely milestones and unintended consequences that we could see over the coming months.

Expect Impressive Numbers Real Soon

As we revealed on our MIDiA Research report on Apple Music back in March 28% of iOS users stated they were likely to pay for the service. Among downloaders the rate is 39% and for existing subscribers that rate rises to 62%. Consumer surveys of course always over-report so we shouldn’t expect those rates of paid adoption but the relative values are interesting nonetheless. Given that 50% of existing subscribers are iOS users the implications are that a big chunk of Spotify et al’s subscribers will at the very least try out Apple’s 3 month trial, which is plenty enough time to get build a comprehensive library of playlists and to get hooked. But there is also going to be a big wave of downloaders that do not currently subscribe that will try it out. Given how the iOS 8.4 update virtually pushes iTunes Music users into starting the trial on updating, expect pretty widespread uptake of the trial.   Apple reached 11 million users for iTunes radio within 5 days of launch, 21 million within 3 months. Apple Music has had a far bigger build up and is much more deeply integrated into iOS so a fairly safe bet is that those numbers will at the very least be matched.

A Mixed Bag Of Royalty Implications

Apple Music will also have a series of aftershocks:

  • Apple royalties will be a mixed bag: As the ever insightful David Touve pointed out with iTunes Radio, Apple has proven adept at striking licensing deals that appear to pay above market rates at a headline level but that in practice can work out lower. A key reason for this is the fact iOS users’ existing music collections are integrated into the service and plays from these will generate much lower per stream rates, more in line with licensed locker services. Add into this the fact that semi-interactive radio and broadcast radio are part of the proposition (both of which also have lower per stream rates than on demand) so the blended per stream rate may disappoint. Expect a stream (pun intended) of irate artist CD Baby statements showing their Apple per stream rates.
  • Download sales will suffer: If a streaming service does its job properly users should have no reason to buy downloads any more. Initially there may be a mini surge, a dead cat bounce as first time streamers discover new music and buy downloads out of habit. If this happens expect Apple to make a song and dance about it. But that will be a temporary phase. iTunes downloads will decline thereafter. Artists may have complained about theoretical lost sales from Spotify, they will be actual lost sales from Apple. What everyone will be hoping for is that enough lower and infrequent spending download customers get transformed into 9.99 a month customers. But that will take more time. So expect three, possibly four key stages to Apple (lower case ‘m’) music revenue: 1 – mini revival; 2 – sharpish decline; 3 – steady recovery; 4 – growth?
  • Spotify per stream rates could go up: If enough existing subscribers take up the Apple Music trial but don’t cancel their subscriptions, the royalty pot for Spotify et al will remain the same but play volumes will decrease. This means that the per stream rates for Spotify and co could actually increase for a while because the revenue will be split across a smaller number of plays. So expect artists to see a very pronounced, albeit temporary, difference between what Spotify pays from (paid) streams versus Apple.

So Apple will be for once upsetting everyone else’s streaming apple cart with its long anticipated entrance but there will be a superficially confusing set of mixed messages and metrics. Which means the time to properly measure Apple Music’s progress will be 6 months or so from now. Until then expect to be simultaneously impressed, concerned and confused.

‘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.

The Streaming Maturation Effect

What do Netflix and music subscriptions have in common?  They both experienced slowing growth in 2014 in the US.  Subscriptions are the monetization focal point of streaming but there have long been signs that the market opportunity is far short of the mainstream. Reports suggest that Spotify may (finally) be about to launch video, as a means of differentiating in an increasingly competitive marketplace that is about to get a whole lot more competitive on the 9th of June (i.e. when Apple announces its long mooted arrival into the space).  Spotify needs a differentiation point.  It may be the runaway market leader but it doesn’t have the feature badge of identity that many of its competitors do (e.g. Rdio is the social discovery service. TIDAL is the high def service. Beats is the curation service etc.).  However, even with a feature differentiation point, Spotify and all of its subscription peers face a more substantial challenge than competing with each other: they are collectively in danger of banging their heads on the ceiling of demand for music subscriptions.

Behaviours Will Change, But Slowly

The world is unequivocally moving from ownership to access and streaming will be a central component of this new consumption and distribution paradigm.  9.99 subscriptions however have no such mainstream inevitability.  They are too expensive for most consumers but most crucially they require consumers to pay for music every month when most people instead spend when one of their favourite artists is in cycle with a new album, single or tour.  Over time (a half generation or so) some consumers will have their behaviours modified, but the majority will not.  In some sophisticated markets (such as South Korea, the Nordics and, to some degree, the Netherlands) subscriptions are showing some sign of edging towards a wider audience (though still far short of mainstream).  In most major music markets though, they remain firmly locked in single digital percentage adoption ranges. They are niche services for the high spending aficionados.

maturation effect

But this isn’t solely a music subscription problem.  It is a dynamic of digital subscriptions more broadly.  Take a look at the US. In 2014 net new subscribers (i.e. the amount of subscribers by which the market grew) fell to 1.5 million, down from 2.8 million in 2013 – which translated to a 46% decline in net adds.  And that was in one of the highest profile years yet for subscriptions.  Over the same time period, Netflix’s net new US subscriber growth fell from 6.4 million to 5.7 million, which was a more modest 11% decline in net adds.

This is not to say either business model has run its course – far from it, and of course both sectors still gee in 2014 – but instead that premium subscriptions are not mass market value propositions. And once you have mopped up your early adopters and early followers growth inherently slows.  The music industry may be locked in an identity crisis over how it deals with freemium services, but it needs to have a realistic understanding of just how far subscription services can go without lower price tiers and more ability for users to easily dip in and out and, ideally, pay as they go rather than being tied to monthly commitments.

The incessant success of YouTube and Soundcloud show us that mainstream consumers want on-demand music experiences but the slow down of subscriber growth in the US shows us that the incumbent model only has a certain amount of potential. Sure, Apple will doubtlessly unlock a further tier of early followers to meaningfully grow the market, but it will only be a matter of time before it hits the same speed bumps.

Access based models are the mainstream future, subscriptions can be too, premium subscriptions though are not.

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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The Music Industry’s 6:1 Ratio

One of the many things that the digital revolution has done to the music industry is to create and accentuate a number of imbalances. Imbalances that will either change, become the foundations of the next era of the music business, or both. In fact there are three key areas where, coincidentally, the lesser party is 6 times smaller than the other: 6 to 1

  • Digital music revenue share: A common refrain from songwriters and the bodies that represent them (music publishers, collection societies etc.) is that everything starts with the song. And of course it does. However it is the recorded version of the song that most people interact with most of the time, whether that be on the radio, on a CD, a download, a stream or a music video. This has helped ensure that record labels – usually the owners of the recorded work – hold the whip hand in licensing negotiations with digital music services. Labels have consequently ended up with an average of 68% of total on-demand streaming revenue and publishers / collection societies just 12%. The labels’ share is 6 times bigger. Publishers are now actively trying to rebalance the equation, often referred to as ‘seeking out a fair share’. For semi-interactive radio services like Pandora the ratio is roughly 10:1.
  • Artist income: While music sales declined over the last 10 yeas, live boomed. And although there are signs the live boom may be slowing, a successful artist can now typically expect to earn as little as 9% of their total income from recorded music, compared to 57% from live. Again, a factor of 6:1. There are many complexities to the revenue split, such as the respective deals an artist is on, fixed costs etc. but these splits tend to recur. Ironically just as everything starts with the song for digital music, everything starts with the recorded work (and the song) for the live artist. The majority of an artist’s fan base will spend most of their time interacting with the recorded work of the artist rather than live. The recorded work has become the advert for live. In fact the average concert ticket of a successful frontline artist costs on average 8 times more than buying their entire back catalogue. Thus for fans the ratio is even more pronounced at 8:1.
  • Free music users: The freemium wars are dominating the contemporary music industry debate. Spotify and other services that have on demand free tiers are under intense scrutiny over how these tiers may be cannibalising music sales. However YouTube’s regular free music user base is about 350 million compared to approximately 60 million free freemium service users across all freemium services. Again a ratio of 6:1. Whatever the impact freemium users may be having, it is 6 times less than YouTube.

The music industry has never been a meritocracy nor will it ever be one. So it would be fatuous to suggest equality is suddenly going to break out. However there will be something of a righting process in some areas, especially in the digital music revenue share equation. Most significantly though, these ratios are becoming the foundational dynamics of the new music industry. These are the reference points that artists, rights holders, and all other music industry stakeholders need in order to understand what their future will look like and how they can help shape it.

NOTE: This post was updated to reflect that the songwriter ratio is actually 10:1 for semi-interactive radio.  The 2:1 ratio applies to label revenue versus collection society revenue, which includes revenue for performers who are often but not always also the songwriter.

The Case For A Freemium Reset

Ministry Of Sound’s Lohan Presencer stirred up a hornets’ nest with his impassioned critique of the freemium model at a recent MWC panel. This is one of those rare panel discussions that is worth watching all the way through but the fireworks really start about 16 minutes in. For a good synopsis of the panel see MusicBusiness Worldwide’s write up, for the full transcript see MusicAlly. I’m going to focus on one key element: free competing with free.

Free Isn’t The Problem, On Demand Free Is

Free music is a crucial part of the music market and always has been thanks to radio. The big difference is that radio is not on demand. Even the Pandora model, which quite simply IS the future of radio, is not on demand. The on demand part is crucial. Although labels have a conflicted view about radio there is near universal agreement that the model works because it is a promotional vehicle, it helps drive core revenues. But turn free into an on-demand model and the business foundations collapse. The discovery journey becomes the consumption destination. To paraphrase an old quote from a label exec ‘if you are playing what I want you to play that is promotion, if you are playing what you want to play that is business’.

P2P Is In A Natural Decline, Regardless Of Freemium

The argument most widely used by streaming services in favour of the freemium model is that it reduces piracy. There is some truth in this but the case is over stated. P2P was the piracy technology of the download era. Its relevance is decreasing rapidly for music in the streaming era. In fact mobile music piracy apps (free music downloaders, stream rippers etc.) are now more than twice as widespread as P2P. So the decline in P2P can only partially be attributed to streaming music services as it is in a trajectory of natural decline as a music piracy platform.

Freemium Isn’t Killing Piracy, It Is Coexisting

But even more importantly free streamers are using those new, next-generation piracy apps to turn their freemium experiences into the effective equivalent of paid ones, by creating local device caches for ad free on demand play back. In fact free streamers are 65% more likely to use a stream ripper app than other consumers. They are also 64% more likely to use P2P and 57% more likely to use free music downloader apps. While it is always challenging to accurately separate cause and effect what we can say with confidence is that whatever impact freemium may have had on piracy, freemium users are still c.60% more likely to be music pirates also. (If you are a MIDiA Research subscriber and would like to see the full dataset these data points are taken from email info AT midiaresearch DOT COM)

Monetizing The Revenue No-Man’s Land Between Free and 9.99

So more needs to ensure the path from free to paid is a well travelled one. It might be that the accelerating shift to mobile consumption of streaming music may help recalibrate the equation. Mobile versions of free streaming tiers in principle may not be fully on demand but they often stretch definitions to the limit and some are simply too good to be free. Being able to create a playlist from a single album and then listening to it all in shuffle mode simply is on-demand in all but name. If we can get mobile versions of free tiers to look more like Pandora and less like Spotify premium, or YouTube for that matter, then we have a useful tool in the kitbag. And if users want more but aren’t ready to pay a full 9.99 yet, let them unlock playlists, or day passes for small in app payments. Lohan made the case for PAYG pricing to monetize the user that sits somewhere between free and 9.99 and it is an argument I have advocated for a long time now.

Freemium Is Not Broken, But It Does Need Re-Tuning

Freemium absolutely can work as a model and it has achieved a huge amount already, but it needs recalibrating to ensure it delivers the next stage of market growth in a way that minimizes the risk to the rest of the business. None of this though can happen until YouTube is compelled to play by the same rules as everyone else. Otherwise all that we end up doing is hindering all music services except YouTube and Apple (which won’t have a free tier). Google and Apple are not exactly in need of an unfair market advantage. So a joined-up market level strategy is required, and right now.

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.

What Spotify’s December Growth Tells Us About Pricing

Spotify just announced the addition of 2.5 million paying since mid November to reach 15 million total subscribers. This is unprecedented growth not just for Spotify but for the subscription market as a whole. It also comes at a time when Spotify needs the best possible numbers to keep labels on board during its crucial renegotiations. But what is most interesting is what the growth tells us about pricing.

spotify 15 million

Long term readers will know that I firmly believe there is a watertight case for reducing the price of subscriptions. Only about 10% of music buyers spend $10 or more a month on music (across all recorded music formats) and most of those have already been converted to subscriptions. While there is absolutely a case that some consumers can be ‘educated’ to spend more on music, in just the same way cell phones educated them to spend more on telephony, many simply will not because there are such compelling free alternatives.

Spotify Made 9.99 Feel Close To Free 

There are two short term and two long term drivers of Spotify’s December growth:

  • Long Term 1: Student plans – effective discount: 50%
  • Long Term 2: Family plans- effective discount: 50%
  • Short Term 3: Holiday gifting – effective discount: 100%
  • Short Term 4: Holiday 0.99 promotion – effective discount: 90%

Of all of those the 0.99 for 3 months holiday promotion had the biggest impact. There is an argument that customers acquired this way are effectively monetized trialists and it is highly likely a large share, perhaps even the majority, will not continue to pay after the promotion is ended. But that almost misses the point. What the surge in adoption at lower price points shows us is a purer measure of the demand curve for on demand subscriptions, without the distortion of the 9.99 price point. Of course 0.99 is not a feasible long term price point but 4.99 is, or perhaps more realistically for now, 7.99 is.

Some of those trialists will unsubscribe after 3 months, some will forget to unsubscribe and some will decide that 9.99 is actually pretty good value. The net effect for Spotify will be more subscribers than it would have had without the campaign.

Taylor Swift, Labels and Investors

The stellar growth is also intended to catch the eyes of various other vested interests. For investors ahead of a potential IPO these numbers help show that Spotify may have its best days ahead of it. For labels this, ‘conveniently’, creates the best possible numbers for them to consider during contract negotiations. And for Taylor Swift it shows that for all her windowing antics Spotify grew faster than ever. In fact, the wall-to-wall media coverage of the ‘Swiftify’ debacle actually boosted Spotify’s profile and may even have modestly helped the numbers.

2015 will be a huge year for Spotify with the super heavyweights Apple and Google both playing their subscription hands and with growing label concerns about the freemium model. It would be naïve to suggest Spotify will not feel the pressure of those factors alongside the continued growth of competitors such as Rhpasody, Rdio and Deezer. But starting the year with 2.5 million new holiday season subscribers is about as good a start as Spotify could possibly have hoped for.

Streaming Report Card 2014

2014 was the year streaming broke through to mainstream consciousness, not because of the marketing prowess of Spotify but because Taylor Swift decided to withdraw her content from the Swedish streaming heavyweight and other freemium services. It was a mixed year of momentous achievement and intensifying controversy, which makes it an opportune moment for an end of term report card.

Growth – 8/10

No complaints here. Impressive growth for both paid and free streaming with a likely combined annual growth of about 50% and total subscribers getting to about 35 million. Although there are some signs of slowdown this is to be expected as much of the addressable audience for the 9.99 price point is reached. In fact the growth slowdown was less pronounced than expected in some markets. If it hadn’t been for the fact that download sales for the year will be down about 10% this would have been a 9/10.

Transparency – 2/10

Two years ago I asked the CEOs of 10 leading streaming companies what the coming years would hold. Unfortunately for 5 of them it meant looking for a new job. One thing most were in agreement on however was the need to introduce far greater transparency for artists. Two years on and the issue is every bit as problematic. For the most part the discontent has been voiced by smaller artists or those later in their careers, but not by frontline artists in their prime. Until last week that is, when Ed Sheeran told the BBC that it is ‘fact’ that labels are holding money back from artists. Some time soon, some time very soon, labels are going to have to get on top of this if they want the model to work.

Platform – 5/10

I had high hopes for Spotify’s app platform, it looked like it was heralding the dawn of the ‘music platform’ that the digital market has needed, well, forever. Unfortunately label wrangling ensured that Spotify was not able to get the deals to allow app developers to monetize their apps so the venture was effectively still born, save for the highly credible efforts of some traditional media brands, such as the BBC, Now! And Deutsche Grammophon who didn’t have to worry about making money from the apps. Luckily the streaming companies haven’t given up on the ‘streaming as a platform’ vision and a host of integrations with the likes of Bandpage and PledgeMusic have the potential to help artists transform streaming cents into digital dollars.

Pricing – 3/10

I’ve been banging the pricing drum for so long the stick has broken. Unfortunately there was pitifully little progress in 2014, with label fears of cannibalising 9.99 dominating thoughts. On the plus side there is a huge amount of negotiating activity taking place right now and that should bear fruit in 2015. Expect Apple to try to get to market with the same 7.99 that YouTube’s Music Key is currently in market with (and expect that short term promotion for YouTube to eventually become permanent). And if 7.99 is the new 9.99 then prices will have to cascade. 4.99 will be the new 3.99, 3.99 will become 2.99 and so forth. And there remains the super urgent need for PAYG pricing leveraging in app payments. I predicted pricing innovation in 2012 and 2013 and it didn’t happen. Here’s to third time lucky.

Global expansion – 6/10

Deezer had already set a great precedent for rolling out into a vast number of global territories and Spotify played an admirable game of catch up in 2013 which continued with another five new countries in 2014. Rdio’s acquisition of Indian streaming service Dhingana was another interesting move.  Meaningful revenue is yet to follow in these Rest of World markets though – the US and Europe accounted for more than four fifths of global streaming revenue in 2014.  But the foundations have been laid and that in itself is an important step worthy of credit.

Sustainability – 4/10

The ripple effects of Taylor Swift’s windowing antics will be felt throughout 2015 with countless other big artists and their managers already making it very clear to labels that they want to do the same. The sooner Spotify can agree to having the free tier treated as a distinct window the sooner the streaming space can start rebuilding.   The whole ‘changing download dollars into streaming cents’ issue continues to haunt streaming though. And with streaming services struggling to see a route to operational profitability the perennial issue of sustainability remains a festering wound. The emerging generation of artists such as Avicii and Ed Sheeran who have never known a life of platinum album sales will learn how to prosper in the streaming era. The rest will have to learn to reinvent themselves, fast, really fast.

Overall Streaming gets a 6/10 for a year that saw huge progress but also the persistence of perennial problems that must be fixed for the sector to succeed.