After The Download: When Apple Turns Off The iTunes Store

 

When new formats race to the fore it is easy to make the mistake of taking an eye off the legacy formats. This is risky because they usually still account for very large portions of existing revenue. Now that the marketplace has finally accepted that streaming does in fact cannibalize download sales (indeed 27% of subscribers say they have stopped buying downloads) the attention has, understandably, simply shifted to figuring out how quickly streaming revenue will grow. At a macro level this is fine, in fact it even works at a big label and publisher level. But it is far more challenging for smaller labels and publishers, and also for artists and songwriters. Each of these constituencies still depends heavily on download sales. Of course the big labels and publishers do too, but their repertoire portfolios are so large that they can take the macro view. For the rest though, because the average royalty income per album per streaming user is just $0.21, download sales remain crucial to cash flow. So, what happens when the download dies?

The demise of legacy formats normally follows this pattern:

  1. An accelerated initial decline as early adopters abandon the technology in favour of the shiny new thing
  2. A steadier, slower, long term decline as the mainstream migrates away, leaving only the laggards
  3. A sudden death when the sales channel no longer supports the product (think black and white TVs, cassette decks, VHS recorders etc.)

The CD is clearly following this trend but phase 3 will be long in coming because it is so easy for Amazon to continue stocking product, especially super high end box sets etc. Meanwhile discount retailers, petrol stations, convenience stores etc. will continue to find space for super low end cheap catalogue CDs. For downloads though, there is likely to be a near-sudden halt within the next 5 years. Although Amazon has made solid inroads into the music download business, Apple remains by far the dominant player. Thus the music industry is in effect dependent on the strategic whims on one partner for one of its most important revenue streams.

Subscriptions Are Key To Apple’s Services Narrative

Apple has historically been in the music business for one reason, to help sell more devices. That’s why Steve Jobs was happy to accept a 65% label revenue share model that ensured it was nigh on impossible to run a digital music business as a profit making venture i.e. he wanted to lock the market into a commercial model that neutered the competitive marketplace. We’re still feeling the effects of that now, with that 65% benchmark being the reference point against which streaming rates have been set.

No new news there. But what is new, is that Apple is trying to pivot its business towards a services based model. Apple is building a Wall Street narrative around monetizing its existing user base. It needs that narrative because device sales are slowing. Until it gets another hit device that can grow another new-ish marketplace (VR anyone?) Apple needs to focus on driving extra revenue from its base of device users. This has much to do with why Apple chose to enter the streaming market now as did any other factor. While the download business generated solid headline revenue it did not have the benefit of being predictable, on going spend in the way that subscriptions are.

So music is now more important to Apple because it is the entry point for its services based business model. Eventually music will lose importance to video, and potentially games too if Apple can build a subscription business around that. But for now Apple will be looking to migrate as many of its iTunes customers as possible to subscriptions, whatever it might actually be saying to record labels!

download collapse

Turning Off The iTunes Store

And this is where the download collapse comes in. Last year downloads declined by 16% in nominal terms. This year they are tracking to decline by between 25% and 30%. If we trend that forwards there will only be a modest download business of around $600 million by 2019, down from a high of $3.9 billion in 2012. For Apple, if it continues to grow its subscription business at its current rate, hitting 20 million subscribers by end 2016 and around 28 by end 2017 etc, by 2020 its download business would be tracking to be 10 times smaller than streaming revenue but, crucially, streaming revenue would nearly have reached the 2012 iTunes Store download revenue peak. This is the point at which Apple would chose to turn off the iTunes Store. The narrative of services based music business would be complete.

Smaller labels, publishers, artists and songwriters all better have a Plan B in place before this transpires. The download was a fantastic transition product to give the music industry its first steps into the digital era. But as we transition from transactional models to consumption based ones, its role diminishes every passing year. It has served the market well, but the end is now in sight.

 

 

French Music Sales Are In A Tailspin, Get Used To It

france decline2015 was another year of mixed fortunes for the music industry, with Nordic markets showing positive signs (again) while some bigger markets struggle. It is in this context that French music industry trade body SNEP announced that the French recorded music market registered a whopping 7% decline in 2015, which followed hot on the heels of another 7% decline in 2014. The net result is that France’s recorded music market is now 67% smaller than it was in 2000. To give an extra sense of perspective, if the French market had declined by the same €32 million in 2001 that it did in 2015, the market would have reduced by just 2%. Streaming revenues were up an impressive 47% but physical sales fell by 16% and downloads by a staggering 21%.

Streaming is an increasingly important part of the mix but it is still a minority player, increasing its market share from 16% in 2014 to 24% in 2015. Even though the download collapse was seismic, the lost revenue (€12.7 million) was less than half the amount that streaming grew by (€33.2). So however much streaming may be cannibalising downloads (and it is) it is adding more than it is taking, in France anyway. But we are not just experiencing one format transition, the CD is dying off too. So when you add the decline in download sales and physical sales together, the total (€64.3 million) is nearly double what streaming added. The recorded music business is switching from a sales model to an access model but the revenue transition is lagging the behavioural shift.

midia forecastsPerhaps most perplexing though was the fact that ad supported streaming revenue, for both audio and video, declined by 8%. As regular readers will know, I have long advocated that free streaming should move towards a Pandora like model and away from full on demand. Now the revenue story is building to support this case.

Back in October we published our MIDiA Research music forecasts report ‘Global Music Forecasts 2015-2020: Declining Legacy Formats Cancel Out Streaming Growth’ (from which the above chart is taken and which you can buy here). We predicted that the continued decline of legacy formats (i.e. the download and the CD) would undo all the positive growth work of streaming resulting in market stagnation / market decline. As the French experience shows us, this reality is already coming to pass.

The Three Things You Need To Know About The UK Music Sales Figures

As most people expected, the UK recorded music industry returned to growth in 2015. The UK now follows an increasingly familiar European narrative of strong streaming growth helping bring total markets back to growth. Sales revenue increased 3.5% to reach £1.1 billion while total streams increased by 85% to reach 53.7 billion, with audio stream representing 49.9% of that total. There is no doubt that these are welcome figures for the UK music industry but as is always the case, a little digging beneath the surface of the numbers reveals a more complex and nuanced story. Here are the three things you need to know about UK music sales in 2015.

1 – Streaming Growth Accompanied A Download Collapse

Long term readers will know that I’ve long argued the ‘Replacement Theory’, that streaming growth directly reduces download sales. It is a simple and inevitable artefact of the transition process. Indeed a quarter of subscribers state they used to but no longer buy more than one album a month since they started paying for streaming. There have been plenty of opponents to this argument, normally from parties with vested interests. But the market data is now becoming unequivocal. While streams increased by 257% between 2013 and 2015 download sales decreased by 23%. And of course the vast majority of that streaming volume came from free streams, not paid.

bpi 1

2 – The Transition Follows A Clear Defined Path

The download to streaming transition is an inevitability, whatever business models are wrapped around it. It is part of the fundamental shift from ownership to access of which streaming music is but single component. It comprises consumers progressively replacing one behaviour with another. In fact, the evolution is so deliberate and predictable that it manifests in a clear numerical relationship: the Transition Triangle.

The UK music industry trade body the BPI has created a number of additional classifications for music sales and consumption. These include Stream Equivalent Albums (1,000 streams = 1 album) and Track Equivalent Sales (10 track sales = 1 album). Using these classifications and adding in actual album download sales we see a very clear relationship between the growth of streaming and the decline of downloads. The difference in volumes between downloads and streams each year is almost exactly the same as the amount by which downloads decreased the previous year. At this point even the most ardent replacement theory sceptic might start suspecting there’s at least some degree of causality at play.

BPI 2

3 – Thanks Are Due To Adele, Again

Back when Adele’s ‘21’ was setting sales records, music markets across the globe owed her a debt of gratitude for helping slow the incessant decline in sales. Global revenue decline fell to less than 1% and US revenue actually grew by 2.9% (falling back down the following year). Now she’s done it again with ’25’, giving album sales enough of a boost to ensure that the growth in streaming revenue lifted the entire market. For although album sales actually declined in 2015 and streaming volumes had grown more strongly in 2014, it was the combined impact of slowed album decline and streaming growth in 2015 that enabled the total market to grow so strongly.

Adele generated around £25 million of retail sales revenue in 2015, which was equivalent to 70% of the £36 million by which UK music sales revenue increased that year. While of course a portion of that £25 million would have been spent on other repertoire if ‘25’ had not been released, the majority would not. With ‘21’ and now with ‘25’ Adele has been able to pull casual music consumers out of the woodwork and persuade them to buy one of the only albums they’ll buy all year, often the only one.

Without that £25 million UK music sales would have increased by just 1%.  So in effect streaming services have Adele to thank for ensuring their growth lifted the whole market even though she famously held ‘25’ back from each and every one of them. Sweet irony indeed.

BPI 3

As a final postscript, the role of YouTube, while underplayed in the official figures, is crucial. While audio streams grew by an impressive 81% in 2015, video streams grew by 88%. So however good a job the streaming services might be doing of growing their market, YouTube is doing an even better one.

Why Streaming Doesn’t Really Matter For Adele

The outstanding success of Adele’s single ‘Hello’ has stoked up the already eager debate around whether Adele’s forthcoming ‘25’ album is going to be a success.  Indeed some are asking whether it is going to ‘save the industry’. One of the aspects that is getting a lot of attention is whether the album is going to be held back from some or all of the streaming services.  The parallels with Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ are clear, especially because both Swift and Adele are strong album artists, which is an increasingly rare commodity these days. But the similarities do not go much further.  In fact the two artists have dramatically different audience profiles which is why streaming plays a very different role for Adele than it does for Swift.

Lapsed Music Buyers Were Key To the Success Of ‘21’

Adele’s ’21’ was a stand out success, selling 30 million copies globally.  Core to ‘21’s commercial success was that the album touched so many people and in doing so pulled lapsed and infrequent music buyers out of the woodwork.  The question is whether the feat can be repeated? In many respects it looks a tall ask.  We’re 4 years on since the launch of ‘21’ and the music world has changed.  Music sales revenue (downloads and CDs) have fallen by a quarter while streaming revenues have tripled.  And the problem with pulling lapsed and infrequent buyers out of the woodwork is that they have receded even further 4 years on.  In fact a chunk of them are gone for good as buyers.

buyer streamer overlap

But beneath the headline numbers the picture is more nuanced (see graphic).  Looking at mid-year 2015 consumer data from the US we can see that music buyers (i.e. CD buyers and download buyers) are still a largely distinct group from free streamers (excluding YouTube).  While this may seem counter intuitive it is in fact evidence of the twin speed music consumer landscape that is emerging.  This is why ‘Hello’ was both a streaming success (the 2nd fastest Vevo video to reach 100m views) and a sales success (the first ever song to sell a million downloads in one week in the US).  These are two largely distinct groups of consumers.

Streaming A Non-Issue?

As a reader of this blog you probably live much or most of your music life digitally, but for vast swathes of the population, including many music buyers, this is simply not the case.  Given that the mainstream audience was so key to ‘21’s success we can make a sensible assumption that many of these will also fall into the 27% of consumers that buy music but do not stream.  The implication is thus that being on streaming really is not that big of a deal for ‘25’ one way or the other.  Whereas Taylor Swift’s audience is young and streams avidly, Adele’s is not.  That is not to say there aren’t young Adele fans, of course there are, but they are a far smaller portion of Adele’s fan base than Swift’s.

60% of 16-24 year olds stream while just 20% buy CDs.  Compare that to 40-50 year olds where 34% stream and 43% buy CDs.  These are dramatically different audiences which require dramatically different strategies.  Audio streaming is unlikely to be a major factor either way for Adele, neither in terms of lost sales nor revenue.  Unless of course she ‘does a Jazy-Z‘ or ‘does a U2’ and takes a big fat cheque from Apple to appear exclusively on Apple Music.  But I’d like to think she’d like to think she’d have the confidence of earning sales the real way.

The Importance Of The Digitally Engaged Super Fan

What unites Swift and Adele is that they are both mass market album artists and as such are something of a historical anomaly.  Swift bucked the trend by making an album targeted at Digital Natives shift more than 8 million units.  Adele will likely also buck the trend.  But paradoxically, considering the above data, in some ways it will be a harder task for Adele.  Swift has a very tightly defined, super engaged fan base that identifies itself with her.  Adele’s fanbase is more amorphous and pragmatic.  You don’t get ‘Adelle-ettes’.  Swift was able to mobilise her fanbase into music buying action like a presidential candidate with a passionate grassroots following and big donors.  The importance of digitally engaged super fans is the secret sauce of success for digital era creators.  It is the exact same dynamic that ensured UK YouTuber Joe Sugg was able to leverage his fanbase to give his debut book ‘Codename Evie’ the biggest 1st week sales for graphic novel EVER in the UK this year.

If Adele and her team do pull off a sales success with ‘25’ they will owe a debt of gratitude to that 27% of consumers.  While the odds are against it being quite as big as ‘21’ (simply because the market is smaller) it still has every chance of being a milestone event that will out perform everything else.  But do not mistake that for this being ‘Adele saves the music industry’.  Album sales are declining.  Success from Taylor Swift and Adele are (welcome) throwbacks and they are most certainly not a glimpse into the future.

Apple Music And The Listener-to-Buyer Ratio

The next 6 to 12 months could prove to be some of the most disruptive record labels have ever experienced, and nowhere will this pain be felt more than among smaller independent record labels with strong digital sales.   At the heart of this disruption will be Apple Music and the wider continued ramping up of streaming. If Apple Music is a success over the coming year it will do one or both of the following:

  1. It will convert / cannibalize non-subscribing download buyers
  2. It will convert / cannibalize existing subscribers

The probability is that it will do a bit of both with an emphasis on #1. The market level net impact of #1 will depend on the degree to which Apple converts lower spending iTunes buyers versus higher spending ones i.e. whether it increases or lowers the average spend.   But even if it is the latter the effect for smaller labels could still be net negative over the coming year. If you are a big label with hundreds of thousands or millions of tracks then you have enough catalogue to quickly feel major revenue uplift from 5 or 10 million new subscribers. If you only have a few hundred or a few thousand tracks though then the picture is less rosy.

The Listener-to-Buyer Ratio

At the core is the listener-to-buyer ratio i.e. how many new listeners you get for each ‘lost’ buyer. Let’s say that for every download sale lost due to an iTunes customer becoming an Apple Music subscriber transforms into 10 listens by 3 people within 12 months. So 30 streams instead of one download. The listener-to-buyer ratio here is 3:1. A generous assumption perhaps but let’s work with it. Against a base of $25,000 of download revenue that would translate into $6,250 less download revenue and $2,365 more streaming revenue. So a net loss of $3,885, a 16% decline.

If we reduce the average plays to 5 per user the revenue decline becomes 20%. In order for the revenue impact to be neutral the total new streams would have to be 80, which with a listener-to-buyer ratio of 3:1 would require each person to stream the track 27 times. Or alternatively a 8:1 listener-to-buyer ratio with 10 plays per user would also deliver no change in revenue. A great track could feasibly have an average of 27 plays per user per year, a good track could have 10. But an average track is going to be below both. So realistically, more than an 8:1 ratio is going to be required.

Scale Looks Different Depending On Where You Are Sat

What quickly becomes apparent is that the most viable route to ensuring Apple Music streaming revenue offsets the impact of lost iTunes sales revenue is as big an installed base of streaming users as possible. The more Apple Music users there are, the more likely more of them will find and listen to your music. This is why the scale argument so is so important for streaming and also why small labels feel the effect less quickly. If you have a vast catalogue you don’t need to worry too much about the listener-to-buyer ratio because you have so many tracks that you are a much bigger target to hit. The laws of probability mean that most users are going to listen to some of your catalogue.

Let’s say you are a big major with 1 million tracks out of the 5 million tracks that get played to any meaningful degree in streaming services. That gives you a 20% market share. But if you are an independent with 50,000 tracks that gives you 1%, 20 times less than the major. Which means that you are 20 times less likely to have your music listened to. And that is without even considering the biases that work in favour of the majors such as dominating charts and playlists, and other key discovery points. So in effect the major record label in this example could be 30 to 40 times more likely to have its music listened to. Which is why the listener-to-buyer ratio is unlikely to keep the major label’s exec up at night but could be the difference between sinking or swimming for the independent.

In all probability Apple Music will make streaming revenue a truly meaningful income stream for all record labels but in the near to mid term big record labels are likely to see a very different picture than the smaller independents.

‘Awakening’ Now Available In Paperback

UnknownRegular readers will know that I recently published the Kindle version of my book “Awakening: The Music Industry In The Digital Age”.  Many of you have already bought it (thank you!) but some of you also wanted to know when the paperback edition was going to be available. Well you need wait no longer, you can buy the paperback version of ‘Awakening’ right now by clicking here.

If you are interested in the music industry then this is the book for you. Whether you are a label executive, music publisher, artist, songwriter, entrepreneur or simply interested in what you can learn from the music industry’s experience and want to know what the future holds then this is the book for you.

I wrote this book with three key objectives in mind:

1.    To provide the definitive account of the music industry in the digital era, as an antidote the distorted picture that is painted by the biased and often poorly informed extremes that dominate the industry narrative

2.    To help anyone in the music business better understand how the other parts of the industry work, what they think and what their priorities are

3.    To act as a primer for anyone wanting to build career or business in the music industry, so they know exactly what they’re getting in to, how the business works, the relationships, the conflicts and what’s been tried before.  I want to help people not waste energy making the same mistakes others have, and to also benefit from the insight and experiences of the super smart people I interviewed in the book

The book is full of data, analysis and interviews with more 50 interviews with the CEOs, senior decision makers, artists, managers, start up founders and other decision makers that have shaped the music industry over the last 15 years.  It includes chapters on every key part of the industry (labels, artists, songwriters, start ups, tech companies etc.) and is split into three sections:

  1. How We Got Here
  2. The Digital Era
  3. A Vision For The Future

This really is the only book you need to read on the music industry’s digital transition.  But don’t just take my word for it, check out these 5 Star Reviews:

“I really enjoyed this book. It gives a wide view to music industry, consumption tendencies and much other useful information. Is a must for all of the music industry professionals.”

“Great book on today’s digital music business – how we got here, who did what and most crucially why they did it. There’s no shortage of firmly held opinions and theories about the music industry and how it has navigated its digital transformation and Mulligan’s book is an essential analysis of what’s actually been going on. Insightful, non-judgemental and very well researched and informed, if you want to understand today’s digital music business, read this book.”

And if you’re still not convinced, take a read of the sample chapters on Amazon.  ‘Awakening’ is also available on iTunes and Google Play.

I hope you find the book as interesting to read as I did writing it.

Why The Music Aficionado Was To Blame For Declining Music Sales In 2014

Music revenues declined by 2.9% in 2014, down from $6.9 billion in 2013 to $6.7 billion across the US, UK, France, Italy, Australian, Sweden and Norway. Much has been made of the fact that revenue fell in the Nordic markets where streaming had previously driven growth. One year’s worth of revenue numbers does not make an industry trend. The one year fall off in strong streaming markets is not proof of a fundamental weakness in the streaming model in just the same way a couple of years of growth was not proof of its strength. We are in the midst of a transition period and there will be further anomalies and blips along the way. They key reason for the volatility is the music industry’s growing dependence on an increasingly small group of consumers: the Music Aficionados. Music Aficionados are consumers that spend above average time and money with music. They represent just 17% of all consumers but a whopping 61% of all recorded music spending. These consumers shape the fortunes of the music business. In the past this did not matter so much because:

  1. So many passive majority music fans were spending strongly
  2. Aficionados were behaving predictably

Now that has all changed. Passives are sating their appetites on YouTube while Aficionados are making major changes to their buying habits. Last year 14% of Aficionados said they were stopping buying CDs while 23% said they were buying fewer albums of any kind and 23% also said they were buying fewer downloads. The 2014 revenue numbers show us just what impact these changes had. aficionado impact If we extrapolate those percentages to Aficionados’ share of spending in those markets in 2014 we see:

  • Aficionados spent $192 million less on CDs, which was 67% of the total $326 million lost CD spend in 2014
  • Aficionados spent $250 million less on downloads, which was 86% of the total $290 million lost CD spend in 2014

In total the Aficionados accounted for 76% of the lost CD and download revenue in 2014. So what’s going on? Why are the super fans jumping ship? Well first of all, they aren’t. This is a transition process. They are shifting their spending towards subscriptions. For some of them this will mean spending less (especially the 23% that stopped buying more than an album a month and are now spending $9.99 instead of $20 or $30). For others it will be an increase in spending. At a macro level though, lost download and CD spending accounted for a $617 million decline while streaming growth accounted for a $351 million gain, which means that there was a net loss of $265 million. Because the music industry has largely stabilized after years of dramatic decline, it only takes relatively minor fluctuations one way or the other to determine whether a market grows or shrinks. This is why both the Aficionado needs more attention now than ever and also why the Passive Massive needs engaging at scale. Aficionados have been taken for granted for too long and are now being migrated away from products without a spend ceiling (albums) to a product with a fixed ARPU cap (9.99 subscriptions). When the Aficionados sneeze the music industry gets a cold. It is time for a cure.

Streaming Report Card 2014

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

Growth – 8/10

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

Transparency – 2/10

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

Platform – 5/10

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

Pricing – 3/10

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

Global expansion – 6/10

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

Sustainability – 4/10

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

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

What Future For The Album In The On-Demand Age?

Recently BBC Radio 1’s head of music George Ergatoudis stirred up something of a storm with his claim that “albums are edging closer to extinction”. Nonetheless there is a growing body of evidence that the album does indeed seem to be losing its relevance in today’s track and playlist led world. And the implications stretch much further than the confines of the recorded music business. (Hint: live music industry, you need to be watching your back too.)

The Advent Of Grazing

When Napster emerged 15 years ago it kick started an irreversible transformation in music consumption. The music business had spent the previous three decades turning the singles dominated market of the 1950’s into the albums led market of the 1990’s, but with Napster consumers suddenly did not have to take the whole album package anymore. The labels had their own fair share of blame. When the vinyl LP had been the dominant format albums typically had 8 tracks, but with the CD labels felt compelled to fill every one of its 74 minutes’ capacity, resulting in a preponderance of filler tracks over killer tracks. Couple this with album price hyperinflation and you had the perfect recipe for consumer revolt. Little wonder that music fans cherry picked tracks, skipping the filler for the killer. Grazing replaced immersion.

Ironically the issue became even more pronounced with the advent of the iTunes Music Store. Whereas with file sharing many users downloaded entire albums – and as bandwidth and storage improved, entire discographies – listening still skewed towards the stand out tracks. Indeed the hoarding mentality of these digital immigrants was one borne out of being children of the age of scarcity, with a ‘fill up quick while you still can’ mentality. With iTunes, price was a limiting factor and so people focused on acquiring single tracks rather than albums. Labels and artists had been scared iTunes would cannibalise album sales, they were right.

Digital Natives Set A New Pace

In the subsequent decade new digital behavior patterns have become more clearly defined, particularly among the digital natives. Playlists and individual tracks have become the dominant consumption paradigm. Even music piracy has moved away from the album to smaller numbers of tracks, with free music downloader mobile apps and YouTube rippers now more widespread than P2P. This is the piracy behavior of the digital natives who have no need to hoard vast music collections because they know they can always find the music they want on YouTube or Soundcloud if they want it.

playlists versus albums

The behavior shift is clearly evidenced in revenue numbers. Since 2008 alone US album sales (CD and digital) have declined by 22% (IFPI), while digital track sales outpace digital album sales by a factor of 10 to 1. The top 10 selling albums in the US shifted 56.4 million units in 2000.  In 2013 the number was 14.7 million (Nielsen SoundScan). Even more stark is the contrast between playlists and albums on streaming service. Spotify has 1.5 billion playlists but just 1.4 million albums (see figure). While the comparison is not exactly apples-to-apples (album count is a catalogue count and playlist count is a hybrid catalogue / consumption count) it is nonetheless a useful illustration of the disparity of scale. (In fact the 1.4 million album assumption is probably high due to a) duplicates b) singles and EPs c) compilations.)

Even the much heralded success of Ed Sheeran’s album ‘X’ does not exactly paint a robust argument for the album. ‘X’ set the record for first week global plays of an album on Spotify with 23.8 million streams. But that represents just 0.27% of weekly Spotify listening (based on Spotify’s reported 40 million active users, 110 minutes daily listening and an average song length of 3.5 minutes).

The Album As A Mainstream Consumption Paradigm Was A Historical Anomaly

This is the consumer behavior backdrop for the demise of the album.  Creatively the album still represents the zenith of an artist’s creativity and many albums are still most often best appreciated as a creative whole. Core fans and music aficionados will still listen to albums but the majority of consumers will not. The album as the mainstream consumption paradigm was a historical anomaly of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. In the 50’s and the 60’s the single was the way the majority interacted with music, and now in the early 21st century it is once again. There has always been space for vast diversity of artists along the niche to mainstream spectrum but as a consumption format the album is closer to the Steve Reich end than it is the Katy Perry end.

Artists And Labels Need To Catch Up With Consumer Behaviour

The majority of artists will still make albums and labels will indulge them because their organizations and business models are built around the format. But therein lies the problem: the more that consumer behavior evolves, the more distant the gap between artists’ recorded output and their fans’ demand becomes.

There is more music released now than ever before and most likely more music listened to than ever before. But the amount of music listeners in the world’s top 10 music markets – which account for 91% of revenue – has not increased at anything like the same rate. People are spending less time with individual artists and albums. In the on-demand age with effectively limitless supply they flit from here to there, consuming more individual artists in a single playlist than an average music fan would have bought albums by in an entire year in the CD era. Fewer fans develop deep relationships with individual artists. Right now this translates into fewer album sales. In 10 years’ time it will manifest as a collapse in arena and stadium sized heritage live acts. In fact we are already witnessing the impact, after all what are festivals and DJ sets if not the playlist translated into a live experience?

As painful as it may be for many to accept, the tide has already turned against the album. The challenge to which artists and labels must now rise is to reinvent creativity in ways that meet the realities of the on-demand world.* If they do not, artists will eventually find the chasm between their wants and their audiences’ needs quite simply too wide to traverse.

*For those interested I wrote a couple of reports on this very topic a few years ago:

The Music Format Bill of Rights: A Manifesto For The Next Generation Of Music Products

Agile Music: Music Formats and Artist Creativity In The Age of Mass Customisation

IFPI and RIAA 2013 Music Sales Figures: First Take

The IFPI and RIAA today released their annual music sales numbers.  Though there are positive signs, overall they make for troubling reading 

  • Total sales were down 3.9%.  Based on 2012 numbers the trend suggested that 2013 revenues should have registered a 2% growth, so that is a -6% swing in momentum.
  • Digital grew by 4.3% which was not enough to offset the impact of declining CD sales, which has been the story every year since 2000 except last.
  • Download sales declined by 1%. Continued competition from apps and other entertainment, coupled with subscriptions poaching the most valuable download buyers is finally taking its toll.
  • Subscriptions up by 51%: An impressively strong year for subscriptions but not enough to make the digital increase bigger than the physical decline on a global basis nor in key markets, including the US.

Global numbers of course can be misleading and there is a richly diverse mix of country level stories underneath them, ranging from streaming driven prosperity in the Nordics, through market stagnation in the US to crisis in Japan – where revenues collapsed by 16.8%.  The Nordic renaissance helped push Europe into growth but data from the RIAA, show that total US music revenues were down a fraction – 0.3%.  US download sales were down by 0.9% while subscriptions were up an impressive 57% to $628 million.

On the one hand this shows that Spotify has managed to kick the US subscription market into gear following half a decade or so of stagnation.  But on the other it shows that subscriptions take revenue from the most valuable download buyers.  This backs up the trend I previously noted, that streaming takes hold best in markets where downloads never really got started.  Thus markets like the US with robust download sectors will feel growth slowdown as high spending downloaders transition to streaming, while in markets like Sweden where there was no meaningful download sector to speak of, subscriptions can drive green field digital revenue growth.

The Download Is Not Dead Yet

Though subscriptions now account for 27% of digital revenue, the value trend obscures the consumer behavior trend.  For Spotify’s c.9.5 million paying subscribers (or 6 million last officially reported) Apple’s installed base of iTunes music buyers stands at c.200 million (see figure).  The IFPI report that there are now 28 million subscription customers globally.  In the US and UK this translates into 4 or 5% of consumers. Subscriptions do a fantastic job of monetizing the uber fans, just like deluxe vinyl boxsets and fan funding sites like Pledge do so also.  But they are inherently niche in reach.  This is why downloads remain the music industry’s most important digital tool.  Downloads are the most natural consumer entry point into digital music, and if anyone else had been able to come close to matching Apple’s peerless ability to seamlessly integrate downloads into the device experience, then the sector would be much bigger than it is now.

service bubbles

Do not confuse this with being a luddite view that streaming and subscriptions are not the future, they are, but there is a long, long journey to that destination that we are only just starting upon for most consumers.   And before that there is a far more important issue, namely how to get the remaining CD buyers to go digital.

Sleepwalking Into a Post-CD Collapse

Last year the IFPI numbers showed a modest globally recovery but despite the widespread optimism that surrounded those numbers I remained cautious and wrote that it was “a long way from mission accomplished.”  My overriding concern then was the same as it is now, namely that the music industry does not have a CD buyer migration strategy and it desperately needs one.  So much so that unless it develops one it will end up sleepwalking into a CD collapse.   In fact I predicted exactly what has happened:

“CD sales decline will likely accelerate.  Among the top 10 largest music markets in the world CD revenue decline will likely accelerate markedly in the next few years.  In France and the UK leading high street retailers are on their last legs while in Germany and Japan the vast majority (more than 70%) of sales are still physical.  So the challenge for digital is can it grow as quickly as the CD in those markets will decline?

The IFPI have stressed the fact that Japan’s dramatic 15% decline was the root cause of the global downturn.  While this is largely true – without Japan included global revenues still declined 0.1% – Japan’s problems are simply the global industry’s problems squared.  In 2012 a staggering 80% of Japanese music sales were physical but despite the digital market actually declining 4 successive years total revenues increased 4%.  As the world’s second biggest market, when Japan sneezes the global industry catches a cold.   But expect Japan to continue to drag down global revenues and also keep an eye on Germany.  Germany saw a modest 1.2% increase in revenues in 2013 but only 22.6% of sales were digital.  The most likely scenario is that Germany will follow the Japanese trend and go into a CD-driven dive in 2014 and / or 2015.

In conclusion, there is still cause for optimism from these numbers.  Subscriptions are going from strength to strength, at least in revenue terms, and the download sector remains robust in buyer number terms.  But unless the CD problem is fixed, the best both those digital revenue streams can hope to do is consolidate the market around a small rump of digital buyers.