What Acquiring Beats Could Do For Apple (And Everyone Else)

Stories emerged last night that Apple is in talks to buy Beats, citing well-placed sources. If true – and if it actually goes through – the acquisition has countless potential impacts of seismic proportions, particularly if the deal includes nascent subscription service Beats Music. Apple has always been in the business of selling music for the business of selling hardware, and the potential acquisition must be considered in those terms. With download sales declining and subscriptions gaining traction, Apple has been locked in a process of soul searching, trying to work out what it can do to remain relevant in the digital music business in order to remain relevant in the device business. Beats is a ‘if you can’t beat them, buy them’ solution.

download slow down

There are a number of key considerations and potential impacts:

  • Digital music Plan A has run its course: Despite dynamic growth in Northern European markets, digital music growth nearly shuddered to a halt in 2013, slowing from 11% year-on-year growth in 2012 to just 2% last year, and that is unlikely to be much higher than 4% in 2014. The reason is quite simple: streaming subscriptions are, outside of Northern Europe, predominately converting the most valuable download buyers – who are most often iTunes buyers – into subscribers. Aficionados who bought a few digital albums a month are instead spending 9.99 a month. So instead of bringing up the average spend of music buyers it is bringing down the spending of many – I’ll be publishing some data on this in the coming weeks. Digital music needs a Plan B to reinvigorate growth
  • Apple is paradoxically holding back digital growth: Apple almost singlehandedly created the global digital music in the 2000’s but it is now actually holding back growth in the 2000’s. Streaming has taken off most quickly where Apple never got a foothold (see figure). Where Apple is firmly established streaming is a transition story, of download revenue shifting to streaming. Where it is not, streaming is green field growth. An interesting side effect of this is that because English speaking Apple has prospered most in English speaking markets, it is in these countries – US, UK, Canada, Australia, all of which are top ten music markets – where digital growth is now slowest. Apple has inadvertently passed the digital baton to the non-English language world.
  • Apple’s go-slow streaming strategy is too slow: All this translates into weakening digital relevance for Apple, which infers weakening hardware relevance. Apple has been here before, back in the heyday of Last.FM when Apple was still predominately a computer business, it tried to steal the social music revolution’s clothes with the launch of the now-defunct Ping and the just-about-still-around Genius. Yet Apple came out of that era stronger than ever. Now though, portable devices are the beating heart of Apple’s business, and with the relentless onslaught of Android it cannot afford its next music move to be another Ping. However Apple has had to go slow with streaming. Its user base is more mainstream than ever – as the growing popularity of Now compilations in its store attests – so it has to introduce new features in a way that does not overwhelm its less tech-adventurous customers. iCloud and iTunes Radio are great transition technologies to help introduce streaming to Apple users at a steady pace and to demonstrate clear relevance in the iTunes context. Unfortunately this long-term strategy for its mainstream users has done little to halt the defection of its more sophisticated and, crucially, most valuable, customers. Beats Music could be the defensive strategic option for them.
  • Subscriptions don’t have to be AYCE 9.99: 9.99 AYCE services have done a great job of monetizing the super fans, but with less than 5% penetration in major music markets, there is a clear need for something else for the more mainstream fan in top 10 music markets. Cheap priced subscriptions and telco hard bundles are both solutions to this problem. Apple should not feel compelled to jump on the 9.99 bandwagon. Digital content stores are breaking down the genre walls – as Google’s Play demonstrates so well. Apple gets much more revenue from other content genres – see this figure – so a multi-content genre subscription would be a much cleaner fit for Apple. As would a subscription that gave users a certain amount of credit to use on any iTunes products, sort of a virtual iTunes Gift Card subscription. Pricing would be blissfully simple – e.g. $10, $20, $30 etc. – and would help protect Apple from revenue cannibalization until it makes the full switch to access from ownership. $10 could include ad-free iTunes Radio, $20 and upwards could include unlimited music streaming.
  • Apple could make hard bundling work, and some: If Apple does get Beats Music, it would have an unprecedented opportunity to make bundled subscriptions work. Hardware has always been key to making digital content work, whether that be the Kindle, Xbox, Playstation, iPhone or the new generation of Content Connectors like Chromecast. Subscriptions are working now because Apple opened up a chink in its vertically integrated ecosystem armour by allowing streaming services to exist on its devices. In fact mobile access is responsible for the majority of the 9.99 model’s growth. Retailing an iPhone / Beats headphones subscription bundle would communicate clear value to users, and with the cost largely hidden in the premium price point associated with the bundle, could help consumers get over the hump of committing to monthly spending.
  • Beats would redefine Apple as a CE company: The implications on Apple’s device portfolio are intriguing tool. The simplicity of Apple’s limited product range has always been key to its success. Being able to retail a single phone when competing with the excessively vast portfolios of incumbent smartphone companies was a major differentiation point. Since those first iPhone days though Apple has multiplied its number of product SKUs. Incorporating a range of headphones would take that to another level. Whether Apple has the ability to seamlessly transform from a computer company with a small range of portable computing devices, to a fully-fledged CE company remains an intriguing open question.

There is no doubt that if Apple does buy Beats and Beats Music, that the impact on the competition will be dramatic. Spotify will be rightly worrying about the impact on its impending IPO – though expect words to the effect that this is simply a resounding validation of the model. But the competition should be welcomed. To date most digital music services have been strategically lazy, focusing their efforts on trying to sell new products to already existing digital customers, the majority of whom, in the big markets at least, are Apple customers. Now digital music companies will have to start thinking much more creatively about how they can compete around, rather than with Apple. About how they can create revenue in new consumer segments, not simply trying to extract more revenue from the preexisting ones. Some companies are doing this already but they are in the distinct minority – this should be a good time for them. If Apple does buy Beats, it will bring some much needed momentum to market that was beginning to suffer from hubris.

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Is the UK the Canary in the Mine for Digital Music?

It is beginning to look like we are at one of the most important junctures in the music industry’s history since the dawn of the digital age.  Ever since the rise of Napster the music industry has navigated a number of tricky and outlook-defining decision points, such as: how to tackle piracy, whether to license to music services, whether to go DRM free, whether to support ad-supported, what to do with mobile?  But now there is an even bigger question which straddles all of those sub-factors: Is Plan A working and if not, what is Plan B?

It is easy to get the impression that the music market is moving towards being in a good place, that the corner is slowly being turned.  Indeed US sales, in volume terms at least, showed a modest upturn in 2011.   However when the Adele factor is stripped out of the equation, music sales across most markets, US included, look a lot less rosy.  But even leaving Adele in the mix, the UK – the world’s 4th largest music market – paints a concerning picture.

 

To illustrate the point, let’s compare the situation now compared to 2 years ago.  The view from 2010 (see chart) revealed full year 2009 trends of strong CD sales decline coupled with solid digital growth, but no enough to prevent overall market contraction. However the view from 2012 shows worryingly little progress.  Though CD sales decline did slow, the overall market continued to shrink (also H1 2012 numbers show an acceleration in CD decline once again). Most concerning of all though was digital: growth slowed not just in percentage terms but also in absolute terms, down from £75 million new digital revenue in 2009 to £63 million in 2011.  As a market grows it is expected that % growth slows too, but at this relatively early stage of the market’s development absolute growth should be continuing to grow too.

The UK music market has spent most of the last decade in decline but if the current metrics and dynamics remain in place the UK recorded music market could end up losing a cumulative total of £1.3 billion between 2012 and 2017, more than its entire current value (see figure two).  The good news is that digital will represent more than 70% of revenues, but that will be a larger slice of a much smaller pie.

There are many contributory factors (piracy, the lost music buyer generation etc.) but there are two observed trends which merit particular attention:

  • Digital buyer growth has slowed.  Of the total UK digital music growth between 2008 and 2011, just 31% came from new buyers, the remainder came from increased spend per buyer.  Increasing spend per buyer is of course an important strategic objective, but in these early days of digital music more of the growth should be coming from new customers, not from consolidation around the early adopter niche. With Apple’s iTunes accounting for such a large share of the UK and US digital music markets, it is unsurprising that digital growth is closely aligned with the rates at which Apple acquire new device customers (which, to be clear, is a very different metric from the rate at which they sell new devices) and the rate at which they grow average music spend.
  • Music buyers are disappearing.  Extrapolating from Kantar’s UK music panel (as reported in the BPI Yearbook) approximately 5 million music buyers have disappeared from the UK market since 2008.  Granted many of these buyers were probably low value customers and not all of them are necessarily lost for good, but it is clear that digital services are not doing a good enough job of converting music buyers from physical to digital and certainly nowhere near a good enough job of preventing lapsing CD buyers from disappearing out of the market all-together: against the total 7.9 million CD buyers ‘lost’ between 2008 and 2011, there were just 1.9 million new digital buyers.

What Can Be Learned from the British Experience?

The UK is not the same as the US, Japan, Germany, Sweden or any other music market.  Nor is it a direct predictor of what will happen in each of those markets.  However the overall direction of its market fundamentals are directionally similar – and in some cases functionally similar – to many other markets.  The UK is not a failing music state like Greece or Spain, it is a robust market (by music industry standards) with a mature and established digital sector and – for now – an established high street retail presence.  Over the last few years the UK’s story has been one of ‘steadying the ship’, of the corner slowly being turned.  So the UK trends should be viewed in the context of how quickly a solid market can potentially veer off course.

It is possible that the 2011 UK numbers will be followed by H2 upsurge in CD sales and an acceleration of digital growth, and I for one hope that this proves to be the case, but the safer bet is an evolution of the status quo. Across most key music markets it is clear that the current digital product mix is not delivering enough.  The US has passed the 50% digital mark and in the case of this market it is the sign of robust market fundamentals.  But passing the 50% mark in itself is not necessarily a measure of success.  It is only a commendable achievement if it is not an artefact of a shrinking overall market (as was the case with South Korea when it crossed that point with much fanfare in the mid 2000’s).

The UK’s music market is not about to implode, nor is the global market.  But it would be wise to view the UK as the canary in the mine for global digital music strategy, to assess whether the air is truly safe to breathe, whether Plan A is up to task.