The Music Format Bill of Rights

Today I have published the latest Music Industry Blog report:  ‘The Music Format Bill Of Rights: A Manifesto for the Next Generation of Music Products’.  The report is currently available free of charge to Music Industry Blog subscribers.  To subscribe to this blog and to receive a copy of the report simply add your email address to the ‘EMAIL SUBSCRIPTION’ box to left.

Here are a few highlights of the report:

Synopsis

The music industry is in dire need of a genuine successor to the CD, and the download is not it. The current debates over access versus ownership and of streaming services hurting download sales ring true because a stream is a decent like-for-like replacement for a download.  The premium product needs to be much more than a mere download.  It needs dramatically reinventing for the digital age, built around four fundamental and inalienable principles of being Dynamic, Interactive, Social and Curated (D.I.S.C.).  This is nothing less than an entire new music format that will enable the next generation of music products.  Products that will be radically different from their predecessors and that will crucially be artist-specific, not store or service specific.  Rights owners will have to overcome some major licensing and commercial issues, but the stakes are high enough to warrant the effort.  At risk is the entire future of premium music products.

D.I.S.C.: The Music Format Bill Of Rights

The opportunity for the next generation of music format is of the highest order but to fulfil that potential , lessons from the current digital music market must be learned and acted upon to ensure mistakes are not repeated.  The next generation of music format needs to be dictated by the objective of meeting consumer needs, not rights owner business affairs teams’ T&Cs.  It must be defined by consumer experiences not by business models.  This next generation of music format will in fact both increase rights owner revenue (at an unprecedented rate in the digital arena) and will fuel profitable businesses.  But to do so effectively, ‘the cart’ of commercial terms, rights complexities and stakeholder concerns must follow the ‘horse’ of user experience, not lead it. This coming wave of music format must also be grounded in a number of fundamental and inalienable principles.  And so, with no further ado, welcome to the Music Format Bill of Rights (see figure):

  • Dynamic. In the physical era music formats had to be static, it was an inherent characteristic of the model.  But in the digital age in which consumers are perpetually online across a plethora of connected devices there is no such excuse for music format stasis.  The next generation of music format must leverage connectivity to the full, to ensure that relevant new content is dynamically pushed to the consumer, to make the product a living, breathing entity rather than the music experience dead-end that the download currently represents.
  • Interactive. Similarly the uni-directional nature of physical music formats and radio was an unavoidable by-product of the broadcast and physical retail paradigms.  Consumers consumed. In the digital age they participate too.  Not only that, they make content experiences richer because of that participation, whether that be by helping drive recommendations and discovery or by creating cool mash-ups. Music products must place interactivity at their core, empowering the user to fully customize their experience.  We are in the age of Media Mass Customization, the lean-back paradigm of the analogue era has been superseded by the lean-forward mode of the digital age.  If music formats don’t embrace this basic principle they will find that no one embraces them.
  • Social. Music has always been social, from the Neolithic campfire to the mixtape.  In the digital context music becomes massively social.  Spotify and Facebook’s partnering builds on the important foundations laid by the likes of Last.FM and MySpace.  Music services are learning to integrate social functionality, music products must have it in their core DNA.
  • Curated. One of the costs of the digital age is clutter and confusion: there is so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all.  Consumers need guiding through the bewildering array of content, services and features.  High quality, convenient, curated and context aware experiences will be the secret sauce of the next generation of music formats. These quasi-ethereal elements provide the unique value that will differentiate paid from free, premium from ad supported, legal from illegal.  Digital piracy means that all content is available somewhere for free.  That fight is lost, we are inarguably in the post-content scarcity age.  But a music product that creates a uniquely programmed sequence of content, in a uniquely constructed framework of events and contexts will create a uniquely valuable experience that cannot be replicated simply by putting together the free pieces from illegal sources.  The sum will be much greater than its parts.

Table of Contents for the full 20 page report:

Setting The Scene

  • Digital’s Failure To Drive a Format Replacement Cycle

Analysis

  • Setting the Scene
  • (Apparently) The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized
  • The Music Consumption Landscape is Dangerously Out of Balance
  • Tapping the Ownership Opportunity
  • The Music Format Bill Of Rights
  • Applying the Laws of Ecosystems to Music Formats
  • Building the Future of Premium Music Products
  • D.I.S.C. Products Will Be the Top Tier of Mainstream Music Products
  • The Importance of a Multi-Channel Retail Strategy
  • Learning Lessons from the Past and Present
  • We Are In the Per-Person Age, Not the Per-Device Age

Next Steps

Conclusion

Is the Music Industry Going the Way of the Newspaper Industry?

The newspaper industry has had to grapple with a seismic shift in user behaviour over the last 15 years: people just aren’t buying newspapers in the numbers they used to and crucially newspaper buyers are getting older, to the extent that the long term prognosis is for the bulk of newspaper buyers to die off….literally.  The irony (in a cosmic irony Alanis Morissette-type usage of the word rather than literal irony) is that more people are consuming more news than ever before, and young people too.  But most of that consumption is online and free. What newspapers haven’t yet figured out is how to turn this into a business, and all the while (to mix my clichéd metaphors) watching their cash cow whither on the vine.  The reason for this potted history of the 21st century newspaper industry is that it is looking increasingly the case that the music industry is arriving at a worryingly similar place.

Another year of digital stasis.  With 2011 sales figures beginning to come in, the scale of digital music’s recent underperformance is becoming increasingly clear.  In the UK overall music sales continued to decline with digital some way off yet from being able to pick up the slack.  The UK’s record label trade body the BPI reported that digital growth wasn’t enough to prevent a 5.4% decline in total album sales.  The picture was more positive in the US with Nielsen reporting that album sales actually grew for the first time since 2004, up 1.3% on last year.

But the US and UK numbers aren’t quite all they seem.  Both the BPI’s and Nielsen’s numbers are for unit sales.  One of the consumer benefits of the music industry meltdown has been aggressive discounting, with labels and retailers having to slash prices to persuade us to buy in numbers.  While this is great for music fans it means weaker profits for labels and that revenue sales trends are weaker than volume trends.  And that means that the UK revenue decline will likely be worse than 5.4% and that US revenues may well be down on 2011 despite the positive performance in units terms.  With a decade of digital sales already behind us this is the stage where digital sales growth should be rocketing and lifting the whole market with it.

The continued dominance of the CD. Albums are by far the most valuable component of music sales and despite positive digital growth the album remains largely unaffected by digital.  76% of album sales in UK are CDs and in the US the rate rises to a whopping 82%.  When the CD hurts the music industry hurts.   Nearly half of the growth in US albums sales came from increased CD sales.  Perhaps even more concerning is that three quarters of all US albums sales are offline.   Thus the music industry is depending on non-net-savvy consumers who don’t even buy online for the lion’s share of their income.  And CD buyers aren’t spring chickens either: nearly 40% of them are over 45.  On either count that is not exactly future-proofed revenue.  The echoes of the aging newspaper audience are depressingly obvious.

The CD: the Music Industry’s Heroin (and not in the female hero sense of the word).  Another similarity between the newspapers and record labels is their addiction to their respective dying formats. The direct consequence of poorly performing digital revenue strategies is that physical revenues become all the more important which in turn makes labels and newspapers less willing to pursue ambitious digital strategies that might hurt physical sales.  Which of course results in digital sales underperforming further and the whole thought process starts again.  This circular logic begets strategic paralysis.  Unless the record labels learn how to kick their CD habit they’re going to find themselves presiding over perennial long term decline.

The danger of ‘the Adele Effect’.  Both the UK and US sales numbers were dominated by Adele, with her landmark album ‘21’ topping charts in both markets and selling over 13 million copies (becoming the biggest selling album in a single year in the UK).  Uniquely well-performing albums like ‘21’ have a habit of creating reality distortion fields.  As I explained in a previous post Adele, along with Coldplay, is an increasingly rare breed: an album artist.  Adele and Coldplay both appeal to the older album buyer (which is exactly why Coldplay won’t let ‘Mylo Xyloto’ go on Spotify until sales have peaked).  The strong performance of both these artists’ albums in 2011 has helped boost albums sales, but more importantly they lend a veneer of vitality to the album market that is not accurate.  More typically 21st century artists – the likes of Pitbull, Rihannna, Katy Perry and LMFAO – will be measuring their 2011 success in terms of singles sales, live sales, merchandize revenue, YouTube views and Facebook likes.

Rumours of the CDs’s demise are much exaggerated…perhaps. Of course the album is far from dead – after all, as we have seen, the CD remains the bedrock of music sales – but it is becoming just one, weakening, part of a broader mix of artist revenues.  In some ways artists are better protected from the music industry meltdown than record labels: they – along with their managers – are rapidly acquiring new skillsets and business acumen.  Record labels however are left having to put a positive spin on the album’s apparent longevity.  However the fundamental fact remains that the CD is a dying breed.  It may have a good few years left in it yet, but the long term prognosis is terminal.

Innovate, innovate, innovate! Newspapers and record labels are both at a crucial juncture: physical format revenues will continue to pay the bills for the coming years but paradoxically they must pursue radical format and product innovation strategies that will actually hasten the demise of those same physical revenues. If they don’t, record labels and newspapers will find themselves with the lose-lose scenario of depleted physical revenues and pitiful digital income.

Next week I’ll be publishing a free report that lays out the vision for exactly what that format and product innovation needs to look like.

The Digital Music Year That Was: 2011 in Review and 2012 Predictions

Following the disappointment of 2010, 2011 was always going to need to pack more punch.  In some ways it did, and other ways it continued to underwhelm. On balance though the stage is set for an exciting 2012.

There were certainly lots of twists and turns in 2011, including: disquiet among the artist community regarding digital pay-outs, the passing of Steve Jobs, Nokia’s return to digital music,  EMI’s API play, and of course Universal Music’s acquisition of EMI.  Here are some of the 2011 developments that have most far reaching implications:

  • The year of the ecosystems. With the launch of Facebook’s content dashboard, Android Music, the Amazon Fire (a name not designed to win over eco-warriors),  Apple’s iTunes Match and Spotify’s developer platform there was a surge in the number of competing ecosystem plays in the digital music arena.  Despite the risk of consumer confusion, some of these are exciting foundations for a new generation of music experiences.
  • Cash for cache.  The ownership versus access debate raged fully in 2011, spurred by the rise of streaming services.  Although we are in an unprecedented period of transition, ownership and access will coexist for many years yet, and tactics such as charging users for cached-streams blur the lines between streams and downloads, and in turn between rental and ownership. (The analogy becomes less like renting a movie and more like renting a flat.)
  • Subscriptions finally hit momentum.  Though the likes of rdio and MOG haven’t yet generated big user numbers Spotify certainly has, and Rhapsody’s acquisition of Napster saw the two grandaddys of the space consolidate.  Spotify hit 2.5 million paying users, Rhapsody 800,000 and Sony Music Unlimited 800,000.
  • New services started coming to market.  After a year or so of relative inactivity in the digital music service space, 2011 saw the arrival of a raft of new players including Blackberry’s BBM Music, Android Music, Muve Music , and Rara.  The momentum looks set to continue in 2012 with further new entrants such as Beyond Oblivion and psonar.
  • Total revenues still shrank.  By the end of 2011 the European and North American music markets will have shrunk by 7.8% to $13.5bn, with digital growing by 8% to reach $5 billion.  The mirror image growth rates illustrate the persistent problem of CD sales tanking too quickly to allow digital to pick up the slack.  Things will get a little better in 2012, with the total market contracting by just 4% and digital growing by 7% to hit $5.4 billion, and 41% of total revenues.

Now let’s take a look at what 2011 was like for three of digital music’s key players (Facebook, Spotify and Pandora) and what 2012 holds for them:

Facebook
2011.  Arguably the biggest winner in digital music in 2011, Facebook played a strategic masterstroke with the launch of its Digital Content Dashboard at the f8 conference.  Subtly brilliant, Facebook’s music strategy is underestimated at the observer’s peril.  Without investing a cent in music licenses, Facebook has put itself at the heart of access-based digital music experiences.   It even persuaded Spotify – the current darling of the music industry – to give it control of the login credentials of Spotify’s entire user base. Facebook’s Socially Integrated Web Strategy places Facebook at the heart of our digital lives.  And it’s not just Facebook that is benefiting: Spotify attributed much of its 500,00 new paying subs gained in October and November to the Facebook partnership.

2012. Facebook is quietly collecting unprecedentedly deep user data from the world’s leading streaming music services.  By mid-2012 Facebook should be in a position to take this to the record labels (along with artist profile page data) in the form of a series of product propositions.  Expect whatever is agreed upon to blend artist level content with music service content to create a 360 user experience.  But crucially one that does not require Facebook to pay a penny to the labels.

VERDICT: The sleeping giant of digital music finally stepped up to the plate in 2011 and will spend 2012 consolidating its new role as one of the (perhaps even *the*) most important conduit(s) in digital music history.

Spotify.
2011.
 It would be puerile not to give Spotify credit for a fantastic year.  Doubts about the economics of the service and long term viability remain, but nonetheless 2011 was a great year for the Swedish streaming service.  It finally got its long-fought-for US launch and also became Facebook’s VIP music service partner. Spotify started the year with 840,000 paying subscribers and hit 2.5 million in November.  It should finish the year with around 200,000 more.  Its total active user base is now at 10 million. But perhaps the most significant development was Spotify’s Developer platform announcement,paving the way for the creation of a music experience ecosystem.  Spotify took an invaluable step towards making Music the API.

2012: Expect Spotify’s growth trajectory to remain strong in 2012.  It should break the 3 million pay subscribers mark in February and should finish the year with close to 5 million.  And it will need those numbers because the funnel of free users will grow even more dramatically, spurred by the Facebook integration.  But again it will be the developer platform that will be of greatest and most disruptive significance.  By the end of 2012 Spotify will have a catalogue of music apps that will only be rivalled by Apple’s App Store.  But even Apple won’t be able to come close to the number of Apps with unlimited music at their core.  More and more start ups will find themselves opting to develop within Spotify rather than getting bogged down with record label license negotiations.  Some will find the platform a natural extension of their strategy (e.g. Share My Playlists) but others will feel competitive threat (e.g. Turntable FM).  If Spotify can harness its current buzz and momentum to create the irresistible force of critical mass within the developer community, it will create a virtuous circle of momentum with Apps driving user uptake and vice versa.  And with such a great catalogue of Apps, who would bet against Spotify opening an App Store in 2012?

VERDICT: Not yet the coming of age year, but 2011 was nonetheless a pivotal year paving the way for potentially making 2012 the year in which Spotify lays the foundations for long term sustainability.

Pandora
2011.
 Though 2011 wasn’t quite the coming of age year for Spotify it most certainly was for Pandora.  In June Pandora’s IPO saw 1st day trading trends reminiscent of the dot.com boom years.    By July it had added more than 20 million registered users since the start of the year to hit 100 million in total and an active user base of 36 million, representing 3.6% of entire US radio listening hours.  But Pandora also felt the downs of being a publically listed company, with flippant traders demonstrating their fear that Spotify’s US launch would hurt Pandora.

2012: And those investors do have something of a point:  whatever founder Tim Westergren may say, Spotify will hurt Pandora.  A portion of Pandora’s users used Pandora because it was the best available (legal) free music service.  Those users will jump ship to Spotify.  This will mean that Pandora’s total registered user number will not get too much bigger than 100 million in 2012 and the active number will likely decline by mid-year.  After that though, expect things to pick up for Pandora and active user numbers to grow again.  The long term outlook is very strong.  Pandora is the future of radio.  It, and services like it, will get an increasingly large share of radio listening hours with every month that passes in 2012, and with it a bigger share of radio ad revenues.  Pandora will be better off without the Spotify-converts, leaving it with its core user base of true radio fans. Spotify’s new radio play will obviously be a concern for Pandora  but this is Pandora’s core competency, and only a side show for Spotify.  Expect Pandora to up their game.

VERDICT: Since launching in November 2005 Pandora have fought a long, dogged battle to establish themselves as part of the music establishment, and 2011 was finally the year they achieved that.  There will be choppy waters in 2012 but Pandora will come out of it stronger than it went in.

The 360 Degree Music Service Assessment

Launching a digital music service is no easy task.  Too often one key element of strategy will get neglected because their simply aren’t enough resources to apply equal focus to everything simultaneously.  Also it is often difficult to see the wood for the trees and to be objective when you have been head-down developing a service for months.  It is all too easy to end up going to market without being fully prepared, and to have all of those months of careful work undone by a small oversight.

This is why I’ve put together a new unique methodology called the 360 Degree Music Service Assessment. The 360 Music Service Assessment is a holistic expert review tool that assesses all of the key elements of a music service, deploying a user needs based approach to address:

  • Usability and user experience
  • Ability to support multiple use cases
  • Feature sets and functionality
  • Market positioning
  • Competitive strengths
  • Branding
  • Go-to-market and partner strategy
  • Pricing
  • Business model validity

Working with key stakeholders across different parts of your organization the 360 Degree Music Service Assessment assesses your music services strategy from consumer value proposition through to competitive integrity.  Using a structured methodology and process (see figure) it identifies strengths and weaknesses, competitive opportunity gaps and helps you prioritize next steps.

The 360 Degree Music Service Assessment  has been developed leveraging my decade+ of digital music expertise and has already been used successfully with a number of digital music services. The 360 Degree Music Service Assessment  can be employed either pre or post launch.

If you are interested in finding out more about the 360 Degree Music Service Assessment and how it could be used for your music service.  Whether you are operating a download store, subscription service, mobile app or social tool, or something else, find out how the 360 Degree Music Service Assessment  can work for you!

Take a look at this powerpoint presentation below for an overview and if you want to learn more, email me at musicindustryblog AT gmail DOT COM

360 Degree Service Assessment Powerpoint Overview

Rara and the Bid for the Mass Market

Today Omnifone made the move from B2B2C music service provider to consumer facing brand with the launch of their streaming music service Rara, which is being operated as an entirely separate company utilising Omnifone’s technology infrastructure.  The knee jerk reaction would be that this is bandwagon jumping in an increasingly cluttered streaming market, joining the likes of Spotify, Deezer, We7 and Juke.  But the folks at Omnifone have been in this business long enough to not simply pursue a me-too strategy.  Indeed differentiation is at the heart of the Rara strategy.

Targeting the mass market

Regular readers of this blog will know I have long argued that the paid digital music market is stagnating because it hasn’t got the tools to reach beyond the tech savvy music aficionado base it has addressed so far (mainly through iTunes).  Spotify’s recent US-and-Facebook -spurred growth has been encouraging but we are still talking about single millions of premium subscribers globally, most of whom are the same aficionado segment all other services have been chasing for the last 10+ years.  If digital music is ever going to break out of the confines of the few per cent of consumers per market that will pay for those services a new go-to-market strategy is required, as is a new series of music products.

This is where Rara come in.  They’re not bringing the new product (it will be years before anyone gets the licenses for the required next generation products from the record labels) but they are bringing a new approach to customer acquisition and a new approach to user experience.

Two key differences in approach

Rara’s target is unashamedly the mass market, the consumers the digital music bandwagon is increasingly leaving behind.  Rara uses two key tactics to reach these customers:

  • Changing the funnel.  Spotify (with whom most people will rightly or wrongly benchmark Rara) use their free ad supported tier as their customer acquisition funnel.  The losses associated with supporting free Spotify users is their customer acquisition cost.   Rara’s funnel though is a combination of traditional marketing tactics (which will be backed by substantial marketing spend) and an innovative pricing strategy.  Taking a leaf out of some magazine subscription models, Rara gives consumers an introductory 3 month price of 99p / 99c which automatically switches to the full rate at the end of the period.  If this approach works, it will enable Rara to separate the wheat from the chaff, with prospective valuable customers self-selecting by submitting their payment details to get access to the heavily discounted rate.  The conversion rate for these consumers should be much higher than for ad supported free users (many of whom sign up simply to get free music).
  • Changing the experience.  Digital music services and players are notorious for looking more like accountancy software than they do music software.  The ‘music collection as excel spreadsheet’ is a paradigm we have all grown used to.  But there in lies the rub.  Most of you reading this will be savvy users who have grown to tolerate a series of  inherently poor user experiences.  For the digital hold outs this just serves as another reason not to go digital.  Rara takes a different approach, giving users a highly visual experience, with colourful graphics and mood-based playlists at the core of the service.  Of course you can still dive into the excel spreadsheets but you can quite easily never need to.

Rara’s approach is not a radical departure, rather a series of welcome innovations on the current model.  Critics will argue that it is ‘just another streaming service’.  But streaming is the delivery vehicle for the experience rather than the product itself.  Think of streaming like cable TV infrastructure, and services like Rara, Spotify and Deezer as the cable companies that package channels over them.

Rara isn’t *the* answer to the music industry’s woes.  No single service is.  But with a fair wind, it could well become an important part of the answer.  The music industry desperately needs the mass market brought into the digital fold.  It needs more fresh thinking like Rara’s to help achieve that.

 

Why The Access Versus Ownership Debate Isn’t Going to Resolve Itself Anytime Soon

Earlier this week I was at 7 Digital’s Annual Media and Partners Meeting.  At the start of the year 7 Digital hit their 7 Year mark, which in Internet Years is probably equivalent middle age.  7 Digital now have 3 million registered paying customers (of which 30% are active) but what is most interesting is the impact of mobile downloads on their business.    Since launching direct-to-mobile paid downloads the segment has become 7 Digital’s most dynamic growth area: in November 2010 mobile device sales accounted for just 1% of total sales, 1 year on and that share has rocketed to 44%.   (Online sales also grew, so this is a case of strong growth in both relative and absolute terms).

Ownership isn’t dead

7 Digital’s CEO Ben Drury used the data shows that ownership isn’t dead.  He has a point.  In these days of cloud and streaming dominated debates it is easy to be led to believe that ownership is an outdated legacy of the analogue era.  Of course in many ways it is, but the unavoidable fact is that we are in a transition phase in which both ownership and access matter and it is a stage which has many years to yet to run.

In simplistic terms there are two key dynamics which determine the pace of the shift from ownership to access:

  • Technology-led change
  • Generational-led change


Generational-led change

The generational changes are slowest moving, almost glacial in pace.  Yet they give the impression of being quicker than they actually are, because such a small subset of the total population is currently active in digital music.  These 10-20% of consumers (of which I and probably you are part) are not representative of the total consumer base.  But even among us there are discreet groups.  I am of the age group that grew up with CDs.  I am part of the transition generation that has enthusiastically adopted digital but still understands the value of physical media and ownership. The Digital Natives however (i.e. those consumers who have grown up in the digital age without ever having learned the habit of buying physical media) have entirely different concepts of ownership.  These are the true vanguard of the shift towards access based models.  But they are young, so time rich as they might be they are also currently cash poor.  Thus they are opting for free alternatives, such as YouTube, Pandora, Spotify Free.  Only when they start to acquire increased spending power will they start to be the dynamic force in adoption of paid access based services.

Meanwhile, the digital hold outs – i.e. the majority of the total population – are being left behind as the digital music bandwagon rolls on.  Out of habit some of them still buy CDs (some of them even buy a lot of CDs) but most are just falling out of the habit of buying music.  Their sense of ownership however remains unchanged.  In their world view you either buy music and own it, or you listen to it on the radio or TV.  Their worldview remains wholly un-muddied by cloud and streaming services.

Technology-led change

If Generational-led Change is the slow moving backdrop to the access / ownership debate, then Technology-led Change is the fast moving current, the rip tide.  It is technological change which underpins Spotify’s conversion of 2.5 million paying customers (Napster and Rhapsody both offered portable rentals years earlier, but not cached streams).  It is technological change which Pandora has to thank for its 100 million users (adoption only truly lifted off with the launch of the Pandora iPhone App).  Better technology and better connectivity are making the constraints of access based services less visible.

Yet almost paradoxically Technology (in both its advances and limitations) is simultaneously building the case of access and extending the life span of ownership (see figure):

  • Pay once. Whether subscription fees are hidden or premium, users know that access to content ends when the subscription does.  Paying individually for a la carte downloads and CDs might be intrusive and clunky, but the fact remains that consumers know they then have guaranteed lifetime of product ownership.  Consumers still ‘get’ ownership and paying (or indeed downloading for free) once and owning for ever is an exceptionally easy concept to communicate. Score: Ownership 1, Access 0
  • Play on anything. Subscription services have made great strides in device ubiquity, primarily via smartphone apps, but non-smartphone users are left out in the cold, as are non-paying streaming users. MP3 is the common currency of digital music.  MP3 files play on virtually every connected device consumers have.  Ownership gives the greatest chance of device ubiquity.  Score: Ownership 2, Access 0
  • Play anywhere.  Consumers can take their MP3 playing devices with them most places and not have to worry about network connectivity.  However memory size restraints often mean they can only take a portion of their music with them.  Smart use of local device stream caching is freeing subscription services of the chain of the PC but network connectivity remains core to their value proposition and we are far away yet from the ephemeral promise of ubiquitous connectivity.  Score: Ownership 3, Access 0
  • Play everything.  Download stores and CD stores have great catalogue, but access is as metered as it gets.  To fill your iPod with paid downloads costs tens of thousands of dollars.  To fill it with subscription music costs less than $10 a month.  It is in the context of unlimited access to vast catalogues of music that streaming services come alive, leaving ownership casting covetous glances from afar. Score: Ownership 3, Access 1
  • Share with everyone.  Music has always been an inherently social experience (from the earliest prehistoric musicians playing around the fire through to mix tapes).  But in the digital age music is massively social.  Or at least it is for streaming services.  Sharing owned music means making or lending individual copies.  For streaming services, playlists, APIs and Facebook  place social connectivity at the core of the streaming experience.    Score: Ownership 3, Access 2

So it looks like a narrow victory for ownership, but I’d argue that a tie is a more accurate assessment, because ‘Play everything’ and ‘Share with everyone’ are so important that they carry extra weight.  These factors are core to what makes music different in the digital age.  They are foundations stones for building new pillars of value around music in the post-physical era.

Ownership and Access will co-exist for years to come

And so we have a situation where the case for Access is building all the time, driven by advances in technology (especially mobile), but those same advances also bring limits which extend the case for Ownership.  Mobile is becoming core to the digital music experience, and will only become more so over the coming years.  Right now it is simultaneously encouraging people to buy downloads to guarantee portable access to their music as well as allowing subscription users to take their streaming experience with them on the go.

There is no doubt that Access based models are the future of music, but there are many, many years yet in which Ownership based models will continue to play a pivotal role.  Ownership and Access better learn to get along together, because they are going to be roommates for a long time yet.

Spotify Takes A Step Towards Making Music The API

So somewhat expectedly Spotify announced their app platform.  Spotify’s announcement didn’t happen in isolation though.  We are moving to the next stage of the evolution of the Internet, the age of the App-enabled web.  That doesn’t mean apps are replacing browsers, rather that Apps are complementing and enhancing web experiences.  Sometimes this means instead of the browser, more often it means in the context of.  Once software was something you bought in a box and loaded onto your PC on a disk.  Now that software has been freed of the straightjacket of physical retail it is supercharging our digital lives, creating previously impossible experiences and functions.

This is the context into which Spotify’s App announcement was made.  To date Apple, Android and Facebook (each in different ways) have been at the forefront of the App revolution.  It is Facebook’s strategy though that has widest reaching implications.  In a previous post I wrote about Facebook’s Socially Optimized Web strategy, which aims to create a device-agnostic content ecosystem which embraces our entire digital lives.  This is what Spotify are plugging into via their Facebook integration and are also trying to do themselves with their app announcement.  Daniel Ek is trying to implement his own version of Mark Zuckerberg’s increasingly successful platform strategy.  Facebook are creating their digital content dashboard, now Spotify are creating their own music-specific one.  But more than just a me-too strategy, this music specific strategy is crucially important for the future of digital music.  It also matters because it is part of a wider process towards the next generation of music experiences.  Let me explain….

Turning music licensing from the town planner into the builders’ merchant

The challenges of services negotiating legal and commercial terms with rights holders are (overly) well documented. What needs to happen now is to remove that stumbling block, to make music the basic ingredient around which a new generation of services can be built.  Think of launching a music service like building a house.  Where we are now is that the small time builders aren’t able to afford the expensive planning process, and the big building companies are only getting the planning permission to build the same house design again and again. What needs to happen is for music licensing to move from being the ‘planning permission’ stage to becoming a ‘builders’ merchant’ where services simply go and stock up on the equipment they need to go and build their houses.

The importance of ubiquitous access

Music needs to become the API. This is where Spotify come in.  Spotify is making a play for being the ubiquitous music service, the base line music access around which everything else can be built.  They’re hoping establishing an ecosystem of App developers and users will help make them an indispensable part of the music industry. Of course they’re a long long way from being ubiquitous (10 million users is impressive but not exactly universal).  The bigger Spotify gets, the more reach their platform will have, but the industry needs more than just Spotify to take this approach.  EMI’s Open EMI announcement was a great step in this direction.  Spotify takes this approach to another level.

When music becomes the API, digital music will really step up to the next level.  Spotify won’t be able to do all of that by themselves, but they’ve set the lead for others to follow.

Is Digital Music the Next Eurozone Crisis Waiting To Happen?

Much of the contemporary debate about digital music’s financials centres around perceived inequities in artist pay outs, particularly from streaming services.  These are very valid concerns and I continue to argue for an honest and transparent debate.  However there are two equally worrying issues: the sustainability of the stores and services themselves and the class divide that has grown between the US and European digital music markets.

The Trans-Atlantic Digital Divide

It has been clear for a number of years now that the US digital market has been massively outperforming its European peers.  A number of factors contribute to this, including:

  • The stronger footprint of Apple in the US
  • That the US is a more unified and more easily addressable consumer market
  • The fragmented rights landscape in Europe
  • European online consumer behaviour lags that of the US

Those factors alone would be enough to stifle European prospects, but paradoxically Europe has developed a much larger number of digital services than the US, both in relative and absolute terms.  According to the IFPI et al’s Pro-Music website, pre-accession Western Europe has 465 services compared to just 24 for the entire US.  In relative terms that translates to 1 service for every 600 thousand European Internet Users compared to 1 for every 10 million US Internet Users.

Music’s Digital Double Whammy

So in effect we have a ‘digital double whammy’: Europe has too many services chasing too few customers.  When we look at the per-service revenue picture the picture becomes even more concerning (see figure).  In the chart we are looking at the Average Margin Per Service (AMPS).  This assumes an operating margin of approximately 20% per service following deductions for recording rights, publishing rights and payments.  20% may sound like a healthy margin but bear in mind that this pot has to pay for a wide range of costs, including Marketing, Technology, Fulfilment, Customer Care, Staff etc.  (In fact scale is crucial and even Apple can only make downloads an ‘on average break even’ business.)  Of course the exact margins vary according to the precise business model, label terms etc but the 20% assumption gives us a good working measure to gauge regional trends.

The first thing that jumps out is the massive disparity in US AMPS ($26.03m) compared to Europe ($0.61m).  In effect the over-supply of European services acts as an accelerator on the disparity between the regions. At a country level there is further diversity, with the UK and France standing out as the strongest – or rather least weak – margin markets.

Scrapping over Apple’s left-overs

But of course the digital music market is not an equally distributed one.  Apple’s iTunes store accounts for the vast majority of the download market, hence the second metric in the chart: AMPS post-Apple.  This shows the average margin per service based upon what is left of the market after Apple’s share has been removed.  (To do this a 70% share assumption was applied to the paid download segment of each digital market.  In some markets this will underrepresent, in others over-represent, but it nonetheless gives us a good comparative directional guide).  Looking at AMPS post-Apple the situation is starker, with the average margin per service in Italy dropping to less than a quarter of a million dollars.

Too many services are chasing too few customers

Back in 2006 at JupiterResearch I wrote a report that made a case for the lack of sustainability in the digital music value chain in Europe and the risk it posed for services.  5 1/2 years on and the situation is unfortunately beginning to come to fruition.  The reason we haven’t had a market implosion yet is because so many of the owners of these services – such as ISPs and mobile operators – continue to show appetite to run them at a loss because of perceived benefits to their core businesses.  But the simple fact is that there are too many services.  In the pre-digital age most markets had but a small handful of national music retailers.  So why in the digital age should that become dozens, particularly when the recorded music market is half its peak size? (The UK alone has 74 services).

When choice doesn’t = choice at all 

And it is not as if these 465 services are bringing extensive choice to European consumers.  The majority of them offer the same catalogue, at the same price with the same device support.  All that this over supply of me-too services does is muddy the water.  There is so much choice that there is no choice at all.  If digital music is ever going to get out of its current impasse, the music industry must fix the over-supply issue. Until it does so, any progress in discussions on artist pay-outs is going to be constrained by the growing concerns posed by an underperforming digital market.

Why Facebook Is The Real Winner With Google’s Mediocre Music Strategy

The digital music market is not in a great place right now and is in need of some major change: CD sales are still shrinking more quickly than digital revenues are growing; doubts are growing over the freemium model; overall consumer adoption remains niche.  So what do Google do? They launch another download store.  Come on Google, you are one of the Internet’s giants.  You thrive upon disrupting markets, and all you do is launch a me-too download store with an unlicensed locker feature?!

The labels and Google must both shoulder blame for the underwhelming outcome

Of course some of the blame has to be laid at the feet of the labels for restricting what services can aspire to with their current licensing structures.  But Google must equally shoulder the blame for not pushing harder and for not offering the labels more in return (and I’m not talking cash).  I’m told that Google had planned to go to market with something much more ambitious but couldn’t get the licenses (or perhaps at the prices they were willing to pay).  Google is arguably the most important digital conduit in the world.  If Google is unable to bring that influence to bear in negotiations then what hope is there for start-ups?  Google really should have pushed harder, until they got something truly amazing to work with.

But even that isn’t an excuse that Google can really hide behind either.  Take a look at what Facebook achieved without having to sign a single licensing deal.  To use the clichéd management consultant saying, Facebook thought ‘out of the box’.  Google meanwhile didn’t so much as think within in it as let the labels tape them into it.

Facebook is gatecrashing the Triple A party

A while ago I wrote a piece talking about the Triple A of digital music (Apple, Android, Amazon) and the increasing consolidation of the market around them.  Those three players are the ones who bring the scale and stability that the major record labels so keenly crave and those are the three that the licensed service space is increasingly consolidating around.  And yet Facebook’s subtly brilliant strategy of becoming the universal content dashboard looks increasingly like being the smartest play on the board.  While everyone outside the Triple A falls over themselves to become a part of Facebook’s coalition of unaligned powers, Facebook quietly becomes arguably the single most important force in digital music by:

  • collecting all of this fantastic music consumption data from a diverse range of music services
  • subverting the brands of those services to Facebook’s own brand
  • making logging in via Facebook and experiencing music within Facebook so convenient it becomes the mode of choice

So while Amazon and Google run around trying to beat Apple at the download game (which by the way, without closed device ecosystems they’ll always come second) Facebook avoids having to deal with labels, brings something new to the digital music equation and quietly builds the data foundations of something potentially transformational to launch further down the line.

Google forgot it was a 21st Century Portal

Facebook can do all this because it is has such massive reach and scale, because as one of the two doorways into our online lives, it is one of the two true 21st Century Portals, that knows and shapes our activity.  The other 21stCentury Portal?  Google.  (See chart).  Google could have done so much more, with or without licences (and I mean legitimately by the way).  Indeed the music industry needs Google to do so much more. Of course the store will be a success. They have such a massive addressable audience they’d really have to screw up not to make it some sort of success.  But Google needs to think whether it wants its digital music success to be measured in terms of download store market share, or something much bigger, something transformational.  The simple question is, do they want to be Apple or do they want to be Facebook?

Just How Important Do You Think iTunes Actually Is?….

I’ll let the chart do most of the talking.

The key takeaway  is that two of the oldest models in the digital marketplace (radio and retail) dominate in terms of users.  Persistence certainly pays off for Pandora and Apple.

The iTunes Store is of course more important than Pandora for music industry revenue as its core function is to sell music.  More than eight years after launch the iTunes Store remains by far the biggest success story in digital music sales, which given Apple’s relative lack of interest in innovating iTunes compared to their hardware, says as much about the competition as it does Apple.

There used to be a line of argument that Apple was a unique case because in its base of iPod owners it had converted the majority of the engaged, tech-savvy music aficionados that there were to be had.  That Apple had already grabbed the addressable market for competitor services.   Prior to the launch of the iPhone that base represented 88 million iPods sold.  Since then though Apple has sold 0.4 billion more devices.  The old argument just doesn’t hold water.  Apple is doing something right – or rather many things right – that can turn (relatively) mass market consumers into savvy and engaged consumers.  Something that the competition is patently not managing to do when it comes to digital music.  And as much as it may be that Apple’s largely closed ecosystem is core to converting this behaviour into paid content behaviour, it is clear that the rest of the competitive marketplace needs to start learning how to better compete with Apple if the balance of power is ever to be altered.


Some methodological notes:

  • YouTube is not included because although it is by far the largest online music destination it is not a pure music service.
  • There is a mixture of paid and total users numbers in here.  This chart is intended to give a sense of relative scale of service adoption across a diverse range of user experiences and business models.
  • The list is illustrative, not exhaustive.  So there are major players such as Amazon, MelOn and smaller players like Sony Music Unlimited, rDio, MOG, 7 Digital, MusicLoad, We7 etc who are not on here.
  • The estimate for Apple’s total regular music buyers is based upon an assumption of 40% of the unique owner installed base of iPods, iPhones and iPads.  That is to say that installed base numbers have been created for each device using replacement and new sales assumptions, and that then a unique installed base number was created using assumptions about multiple device ownership etc.  The assumptions were cross referenced and checked in multiple ways including calculating the average number of downloads per buyer, cross referencing against total market level statistics for buyer penetration and digital download sales.  The number is an informed directional estimate not a definitive measure.