Experience Should Be Everything In 2017

 

2017 is going to be a big year for streaming. Spotify will likely IPO, paid subscribers will pass the 100 million mark in Q1, playlists will boom. 2017 will build upon an upbeat 2016 in which the major labels saw streaming drive total revenue growth. This stirred the interest of big financial institutions, companies that had previously avoided the music industry like the plague. These institutions are now seriously assessing whether the market is finally ready to pay attention to. The implication of all of this is that if Spotify’s IPO is successful, expect a flow of investment into a new wave of streaming services. But if these new services are to have any chance of success they will need to rewrite the rules by putting context and experience at the centre of everything they do.

Why User Experience Often Ends Up On The Back Seat

Putting experience first might sound like truism. Of course, everyone puts user experience first right? Wrong. You may be hard pushed to find many companies that do not say that they put user experience first, but finding companies that genuinely walk the talk is a far harder task. Just in the same way that every tech company worth its salt will say they are innovation companies, only a minority do genuine, dial-moving, innovation. Prioritising user experience is one of those semi-ethereal concepts that may be hard to argue against in principle, but that is much more difficult to actually build a company around. Why? Because the real world gets in the way. In the case of music services ‘the real world’ translates into (in no specific order): catering to rights holders’ requirements, investing in rolling out to new territories, paying out 81% of revenue to rights holders on a cash flow basis, spending on marketing etc.

The distinct advantage that the next generation of streaming services will have is that they will sit on the shoulders of the streaming incumbents’ innovation. Instead of having to learn how to fix stream buffering, drive compelling curation, make streaming on mobile work and define rights holder licenses for freemium, they can take the current state of play as the starting point. They are starting the race half way through and with completely fresh legs. They come into the market without the same tech priorities of the incumbents and also without any of their institutional baggage (baggage that, whether they like it or not, shapes world views and competitive vision).

Streaming Music Is Not Keeping Digital Pace

During the last 5 years, users’ digital experiences have transformed, driven by apps like Snapchat, Instagram and Musical.ly. Video has been at the heart of most of the successful apps, as has interactivity. Music services though have struggled, not only with how to make video work, but also with how to give their offerings a less 2 dimensional feel. They have lagged behind in the bigger race. For all of the undoubted innovation in discovery, recommendation, personalization and programming, the underlying streaming experience has changed remarkably little. We are still fundamentally stuck in the music-collection-as-excel-spreadsheet paradigm. Underneath it all is the same static audio file that resided on the CD and the download. Granted, there have been some major improvements in design (such as high resolution artist images, full screen layouts and strong use of white space). Now though, is the time to apply these design ethics to streaming User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX).

Successful (non-music) apps are multidimensional, highly visual and often massively social. These are the UX and UI bars against which streaming services should benchmark themselves, not how other streaming services are doing. Of course, a key challenge is that music in not inherently a lean forward, visual experience. Most people want much of their listening time to be lean back, without interruptions. Nonetheless, Vevo and YouTube have shown us that there is massive appetite, at truly global scale, for lean forward, highly social, visual music experiences.

Fixing A Plane Mid-Flight

The streaming incumbents could all do this, but they will be at distinct disadvantage compared to potentially well-funded new entrants. It is no easy task to refit a plane mid-flight. Also, Spotify, Deezer and Napster are built on tech stacks with origins more than a decade old. All have made massive changes to those original tech stacks (Spotify in particular, shifting from a monolithic structure to a modular one) but in essence, all these companies were first built as desktop software providers in an era when Microsoft and Nokia were still technology leaders. They have adapted to become app companies but that change did not come naturally and took a huge amount of organizational discipline and resource. This next market phase will require exactly the same sort of discipline, but more effort and at a time when competition is fiercer and costs are higher.

Streaming Services Need To Know Who They Are Really Competing With

The streaming services might think that they are competing with each other but in reality they are competing in the digital economy as a whole. Their competitors are Snapchat, Instagram and Buzz Feed. Right now, music listening accounts for 36% of consumers’ digital media time but that share is under real threat. Over the course of the millennium, music has relied increasingly on growth in lean back environments and contexts. The rise of listening on the go via MP3 players and then smartphones created more time slots that music could fill, while media multitasking has been another major driver of listening. All of this works well when whatever else is going on does not require the listener to be using their ears. The rise of video is, paradoxically, creating more competition for the user’s ear. Even though we are seeing the 2nd coming of silent cinema with social video captioning, there are many more calls to action for our eyes and ears. Even a Facebook feed 24 months ago would have been something that could in the large be safely viewed in silence. Now it is full of auto playing videos, willing the user to unmute. As soon as s/he does so the music has to stop. On video-native platforms like Snapchat the view is even starker for music. Killing time in the Starbucks queue is now as likely to involve watching a viral video as it is listening to a song.

Thus streaming music has to create a user experience renaissance, not just to keep up with contemporary digital experiences but in order to ensure it does not lose any more share of digital consumers’ consumption time. This is the new problem to fix. The Spotify generation fixed buffering and mobile streaming, the Apple Music generation fixed discovery, the next generation will fix UX. Just as Apple Music and Google Play Music All Access were able to skip the first lap of the race, launching with what Spotify and co took years to develop, so the next generation of streaming services, when they come, will take all of the recent innovation playlists, curation and user data analysis as the blank canvas. Which in turn will force the incumbents to up their game fast. Until then, the streaming incumbents have an opportunity to get ahead else get left behind.

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Facebook Is Finally Ready To Become A Media Company

Male Finger is Touching Facebook App on iPhone 6 ScreenFacebook beat estimates with its latest earnings but announced that ad revenues would likely slow in 2017 as the digital ad market feels the pinch of advertiser budgets lagging the shift in user behaviour. Facebook’s stock fell by 7% but it already has Plan B in motion: to become a media company. Facebook delayed this move as long as it possibly could, showing little enthusiasm for getting bogged down with content licenses while it was able to drive audience growth and engagement by piggy backing other people’s content. That strategy has run its course. Facebook is now about to start looking and behaving much more like a media company, but in doing so it will rewrite the rule book on what a media company is.

The Socially Integrated Web

Back in 2011 I published a report ‘The Socially Integrated Web: Facebook’s Content Strategy and the Battle of the Ecosystems’. You can still download the report for free here. In it I argued that Facebook was starting out on a path to become a media company, but not the sort of media company anyone would recognise:

Change is afoot in the Internet.  Facebook’s new Socially Integrated Web strategy is set to make Facebook one of the most important conduits on the web. It is pushing itself further out into content experiences in the outside web while simultaneously pulling more of them into Facebook itself. Facebook is establishing itself as a universal content dashboard – a 21st century cable company for the Internet, a 21st century portal – establishing its own content ecosystem to compete with the likes of Apple and Amazon. While traditional ecosystems are defined by hardware and paid services, Facebook’s is defined by data and user experience.

Now with ad revenues set to slow, Facebook is flicking the switch on phase 2 of this strategy. Think of it as the Socially Integrated Web 2.0.

Wall Street Doesn’t Like Mature Growth Stories In Tech

As Apple, Pandora and others have found to their cost, Wall Street likes its tech stocks to be dynamic growth stories. It doesn’t like mature growth stories – that’s what traditional company stocks are for. So what can a tech company with a mature customer base do? The answer is to switch on new user monetization strategy, with content and services the lynchpin. Apple’s new supplemental investor materials outlining iOS users’ services spend is a case in point. Monetizing audiences is the new black. This is the game Facebook is now starting to play.

How Facebook Will Become A Next Gen Media Company

Moving from curating to licensing is a subtle but crucial shift in Facebook’s role as a content distribution platform. Here are the pieces that Facebook will stitch together as it begins its transition towards become a next generation media company:

  • Games: In August Facebook announced its gaming platform Facebook Gameroom, a Steam for casual games. It followed that with the announcement it will bring Instant Games to Messenger – an extension of its messaging bot strategy. Games is a logical place for Facebook to start carving out its media company role as it has become the default home of casual PC gaming. It also wants to own a slice of the hugely lucrative mobile gaming market.
  • Filters: Snapchat and Line have created global marketplaces for stickers and filters. Facebook is set to follow suit and is now experimenting with Snapchat-like filters. Filters may not look like media assets in the traditional sense, but the whole point about next generation media businesses is that they contain next generation content assets. Filters are an early indication of how the definition of content will change over the next decade and Facebook now has a horse in that race.
  • Video: Despite the embarrassment of having over reported some of its video metrics, Facebook has quickly become a major player in the online video space, accounting for 29% of short form video views. The next step for Facebook is to start building a discovery and curation layer. When it does, expect video consumption to boom. This will be a major step towards its media company future. It will however have to build a lot of tech for rights holders and content creators. Right now, its aversion of getting tied up with policing rights means that many rights holders don’t even post content there. YouTube has a massive head start with its highly sophisticated Content ID stack. Facebook will need to follow YouTube’s lead.
  • Live Stream: Facebook has been doubling down on its live streaming, expanding its focus from user and celeb streams towards more traditional media content such as Steven Colbert’s Showtime Monologue, partnering with 50 media outlets for presidential election coverage, and eSports. eSports could be as lucrative as traditional sports within the next 10 years and the shift has already begun – Twitch accounted for more streaming video bandwidth than the Olympics.
  • Next generation TV operator: One of the most disruptive moves Facebook can make, at least from the perspective of traditional media, is to stitch together its video assets and combine them with video subscription apps like Netflix and TV channel apps like iPlayer and HBO Go to create an all-in-one video destination straddling, UGC, short form, live streaming and TV content. The rise of video apps has created a bewilderingly fragmented video landscape. Facebook can stitch it all together to become a next generation TV operator. It will face direct competition from Apple, Amazon and Alphabet if/when it does.
  • Editorial: Facebook took a lot of flak for its decision to censor, on grounds of nudity, a famous Vietnam photo showing the effects of a napalm attack on Vietnamese children. The photo had been posted by Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten and its editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen wrote “Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor”. Facebook eventually bowed to public pressure and reinstated the photo. While Facebook may have been wrong to censor the photo it revealed that Facebook is already a ‘master editor’ whether Facebook or traditional media like it or not. Facebook hosts such a vast amount of content that the master editor role is inescapable. Aftenposten might have editorial credibility but what about a white supremacist publication? Facebook is already an editor in chief, in short it is already a media company.
  • Music: Facebook’s recent ad for a music licensing executive got music business types all excited. But music is the content vertical Facebook probably has least to gain from switching from host to licensed service. Streaming music is a notoriously difficult business to make money in (Spotify’s gross operating margin is around 17%). Facebook needs to grow margin, not just revenue, and with all its other content options it doesn’t make sense for Facebook to loss lead with an AYCE music service when it can get a bigger return on that investment elsewhere. IF Facebook does do something in music either expect it to be a more radio-like experience for its mainstream audiences (Pandora had a gross operating margin of around 40% in 2015) or – and this is more likely – something for younger users that has music at its core but that is not a streaming service. Think something along the lines of lip synching app Musical.ly.

Facebook is a past master at business model transformation. Its co-opting of younger audience focussed messaging platforms in the face of ageing social network audiences was a best-in-class example of a company disrupting itself before someone else did. Now Facebook is set to make another major change in its strategy before it finds its core business disrupted. Media companies beware, there’s a new player in town and its betting big, real big.

Medianet, SOCAN, YouTube And The Kobalt Effect

Since the demise of the long-running-but-never-launched Global Repertoire Database (GRD) there has been a lot of debate over what comes next for digital rights reporting. The songwriter class action suits in the US against Spotify are the natural outcome of more than one and a half decades of failing to deal with the forsaken mess that is compositional rights in the digital era. The music industry needs a solution and now just like busses that never come, two arrive at once: Google’s Open Source Validation Tool for DDEX Standard (doesn’t sound too sexy I know, but bear with me on this one) and Canadian PRO (Performing Rights Organization) SOCAN has acquired Medianet essentially as a digital rights reporting play. So just what is going on in the world of digital rights reporting?

Transparency, Transparency, Transparency

Artist concerns about transparency in streaming services are well founded but it is an eminently fixable problem because virtually all of the necessary data is in place. When a record label or distributor licenses music to a service it literally provides a data file of its music which is then ingested (uploaded) by the service. But when service licenses from a music publisher or PRO there is no such data file, because the recorded works are owned by the labels. Publishers do not even provide a comprehensive list of what works their license covers. So music services instead do a ‘best efforts’ licensing effort, licensing all the key publishers and PROs. This model is though far, far from perfect, because:

  • Songs often have multiple writers, some of whom may be signed to bigger publishers, others not. So a single song could be covered by licenses acquired from three or four publishers and still not be fully licensed
  • Songwriters change publishers and most often publishers do not notify services, so a licensed song can suddenly become an unlicensed song without the service knowing it
  • Many songwriters are only small publishers not licensed to music services

But perhaps the biggest problem of all is the lack of a single database of compositional works against which music services can cross reference their catalogues, even better would be one that matches all compositional works against recorded works. Without them we end up with large swathes of songwriter royalties not being matched against and paid to the songwriter. Depending on who you talk to this can range between 20% and 40% of digital royalty income. Little wonder then that we end up with class action suits from disgruntled songwriters.

The problem is that until there is a market level solution that sort of action won’t go away. This means any music service operating in the US, where there is a statutory damages system, cannot operate with certainty that it will not face another legal suit with potentially vast damages awarded. The nightmare scenario is that streaming services start pulling out of the US, or restricting their catalogue to identified works (which largely means major publishers only) rather than face potentially fatal legal challenges.

SOCAN Wants To Be The Leader In Rights Reporting And Administration

And this is the world into which today’s two announcements are born. Medianet is almost one of the founding fathers of digital music, tracing its origins back to the very early 2000’s when, as MusicNet, it was set up by half of the major labels (the other other half formed press play) as a D2C music service. Both efforts failed miserably but Medianet emerged out the ashes as a white label music services company. It spent the years since quietly building a solid business powering a host of interesting music services including Beats Music and Cur. While powering and licensing services such as these Medianet developed a unique set of technology and rights assets and handled everything from ingestion, through rights reporting and administration and even payments. In short it was an end to end rights tech company. Which is what makes Medianet such an important asset for SOCAN. PROs have become increasingly marginalized in recent years with publishers withdrawing rights and a whole host of disruptive new competitors ranging from Kobalt’s acquisition of AMRA, through Irvin Azoff’s Global Media Rights, to existing alternatives such as Music Reports Inc and Fintage House pivoting into digital rights reporting and administration. These are challenging times as a PRO and the likelihood is that it will result in a fair degree of consolidation with smaller PROs outsourcing more of their work to larger ones. SOCAN has seized the initiative with the Medianet acquisition, setting out its stall as a rights society that puts tech innovation, effective reporting and accountability at the centre of what it does for its members. It has also positioned itself as a contender for global successor the the GRD. Consider this the first major repercussion of the innovation and transparency agenda that Kobalt set in motion.

YouTube Is Building Something Much Bigger

Alongside this, with what one assumes is coincidental timing, comes YouTube’s implementation of Digital Sales Report Flat File Standard (DSRF). Digital supply chain innovation is not always the most dynamic of sectors and this announcement could be mistaken for appearing to be the poor relation of the two today. The opposite is probably true. The digital supply chain is going to become ever more important and companies like Consolidated Independent continue to move the space forward in order to help ensure rights holders get distributed, reported and paid as effectively as possible. YouTube’s DSRF implementation is built upon the DDEX framework of standards and enables reporting of both audio and audio-visual content. DSRF aims to deliver faster, more accurate royalty reporting and distribution. You see now the link with the Medianet acquisition. Both are part of a broader movement across the music industry to bring rights reporting and administration into a state that is fit for streaming’s purpose.

The reason why YouTube’s move could have the bigger long term implications is that this is part of a much bolder and far reaching strategy by Google, one that has the music industry’s analogue inefficiencies firmly in its sights. But more on that next week….

The Kobalt Effect

Walk into any publisher or PRO right now and the odds are Kobalt will feature in the conversation sooner or late, whether in fulsome praise or through gritted teeth. Kobalt has done what all good disruptors do, it has set the agenda and in doing so is having market impact far beyond its actual, and still relatively small, revenue base. Today’s two announcements are part of the wave of digital rights disruption and innovation that Kobalt has helped accelerate. But the story doesn’t stop here, in fact, this is just the start.

Apple, The Indies And The Rise Of The Digital Monopsony

Much of the independent label community have come out in public opposition to Apple’s request for a 3 month free trial that crucially would not involve any royalty payments to labels. Besides the fact this has revealed inconsistency in major label licensing strategy (some services have to pay royalties for their free trials) it also raises questions about Apple’s growing role as a content platform. In the old model (i.e. selling CDs on the high street and mall) retailers held all the power, charging labels for prime placement, priority shelf space and carving out additional commercial benefits such as breakage (whereby they were given a discount on a set assumption of a % of shipments that would break in transit, even if they didn’t). In the old new model (i.e. where we are now) the power shifted to the labels with music stores and services having to pay advances, minimum guarantees etc. in order to sell the labels’ content. Even breakage got reinvented and turned into a commercial benefit for labels (they get paid for under usage of services). Now a new model is emerging where a few big platforms are beginning to exercise the power they have been quietly building for the last half a decade or so.

Apple, Amazon And Google – The Digital Superpowers

Apple, Amazon and Google are all digital content platforms. They each own the customer, control billing, know everything about him/her, control some or all of the hardware and have a diverse portfolio of content assets. Each has also become super important to media company partners. For music labels Apple has become the dominant source of digital retail revenue, Amazon the dominant source of physical retail revenue and Google the dominant digital discovery platform. Each holds the whip hand in their respective area of dominance. Now they all want more. They may each want slightly different things but none are shy of wielding their respective spheres of influence to get to what they want. This is where the indies’ dispute with Apple comes into play. Apple is in the business of music in order to sell hardware and has known for a number of years that streaming is going to be how it transitions that role in a post-download world. It has thus far taken a very responsible approach to its sales role and has been sensitive to the risk of decimating label revenue if it does not time its streaming transition properly. But the first step on that journey has now been taken and the point of no return is fast approaching. Which is why it is crucial that all rights holders have the right agreements in place and which is why the indies are making the noise they are.

The Power Of The Platform

In an echo of Google’s heavy-handed YouTube Music Key negotiations with indies and DIY artists, one independent artist has claimed that Apple has threatened to remove his music from the iTunes Store if he does not allow his music to be used in the free trial. Whether this is true or not (and it may well not be) is almost not the point. What it highlights is Apple’s power as a platform. Artists and labels alike simply cannot do without iTunes revenue. Whether Apple needs to overtly play the card or not, the implication of the veiled threat is clear. And Apple is not exactly alone. Last year Amazon clashed with book publisher Hachette over eBook pricing and during the dispute employed a number of pressure tactics including: refusing to take pre-orders on Hachette titles, placing a 6 week delay on delivery of them and even pointing users to competitor titles when they searched for an Hachette book. All of these were clear misuse, possibly even abuse, of Amazon’s role as distribution platform but no regulatory body even raised an eyelid. Apple will have watched the development with acute interest.

The Rise Of The Digital Monopsony

Apple, Amazon and Google are all unique cases. They have become de facto monopolies for their respective sectors, exercising control over the entire platform of user, supplier and interaction between them. There isn’t really an economic term that properly explains them but monopsony is the closest: a company that is the only effective buyer and seller of a product and can thus dictate terms at both ends of the equation. These digital monopsonies are growing pains of the digital economy. After all, we are still in the very early stages of the digital economy. If this were the industrial revolution Robert Stephenson wouldn’t have developed the steam locomotive yet. Consider this phase market adolescence. This raises challenges for regulation with regulatory bodies largely unable to deal with companies that exercise effective monopoly power but that do not meet the criteria of a pre-digital era economy monopoly. Of course the indie labels cannot afford to wait for that dynamic to change so in the meantime they must seize the initiative in this issue and others like it.

An Opportunity To Change The Narrative

Right now though the indies have an opportunity to use this case to genuinely move the needle. Apple has pushed them out of their comfort zone. Instead of just digging in their heels they can decided to push Apple out of its comfort zone and request something similarly game changing of Apple in return. In short, turn a defensive move into an offensive one and help set the agenda rather than being stuck in the familiar rut of responding to the one set by the major labels and Apple. Apple Music may have underwhelmed at launch but the company still has the most important music monetization platform on the planet. Most indie labels and majors alike would all but collapse if iTunes revenue disappeared overnight.

Right now Apple still wants to play the role of good partner, albeit one that negotiates hard. So the labels still have a chance to help shape what the next chapter in Apple’s music story can look like. That may not always be the case, especially if Artist Connect has developed into a label like service layer 3 years from now, which I suspect will be the case. Apple is no Google, it still wants first and foremost to sell music rather than give it away. That may not always hold true.   Similarly the power of the digital monopsonies will likely strengthen over the coming half decade or so. So right now the indies are probably in the strongest position they will be in for some time, even if it might not feel like it to them. They need to seize this moment.

Streaming, Change, And The Right State Of Mind

Disruptive technology and the change it brings can be overwhelming, particularly when it threatens to change forever all that we have known. Streaming clearly fits this bill. But the impact of change is as much in the eye of the beholder as the disruption itself. While it would be bland and disingenuous to say that change is merely a state of mind, a positive outlook that is focused on the opportunities can make the world of difference.

To illustrate the point, here are three examples from the last century of how vested interests have viewed revolutionary new media technology.

1-ebwhiteThis first quote is from the American author and essayist EB White writing in 1933 on the impact of radio. Here new technology is eloquently portrayed with an almost magical profundity.

2-sarnoffThis quote is from David Sarnoff, the Belorussian-American radio and TV pioneer who oversaw the birth of RCA and NBC. Here he is in 1939 talking about the advent of a TV broadcast network against the backdrop of the globe teetering on the brink of world war.

And then fast forward 70 odd years to the emergence of streaming music, and we get this….3-yorkeSomething certainly appears to have happened to the eloquence of observation over the decades. While I’m perhaps being a little unfair to our esteemed Mr Yorke his quote illustrates the stark contrast in how one can view impending change.

There is an inevitability about the shift in consumer behaviour of which streaming is merely a manifestation. We are moving from the distribution era when everything was about linearly programmed channels and selling units of stuff to the consumption era when consumers value access over ownership. Resisting fundamental shifts in consumer behaviour is a futile task. It’s what happened when the labels fought Napster tooth and nail and it took the best part of a decade for the music industry to recover from that mistake.

None of this is to say that the shift to streaming is going to be easy, but it is going to happen anyway. Artists, labels, managers, publishers all need to decide whether to work with streaming now, and have some control over the process, or wait until they have no choice at all.