What Spotify Can Learn From The Roman Slave Trade

OK, you’re going to have to bear with me on this one, but let me take you back to 2nd century Rome….

Roman Slaves

Roman Slaves

The Roman Empire was at the peak of its powers. Its borders stretched from Scotland down to Syria and across to Armenia, and across its dominions Rome spread its culture, language, administration and of course, military prowess. It brought innovations such as under floor heating, running water, astronomy and brain surgery but the consensus among many modern day historians is that the Roman Empire could have been much more. Rome was fundamentally a military, expansionist state. Its endless conquests produced a steady flow of captured people that fuelled Rome’s most important economic interest: the slave trade. By the mid 2nd century around 1 in 4 Romans were slaves. It was common for wealthy citizens to have 40 or more household slaves while the super-rich had hundreds.

The Importance Of Economic Surplus

The problem was that the over-supply of labour meant that wages were horrifically low for the masses while the rich over spent on slaves to keep up with the neighbours. The net result is that the Roman Empire was not able to create an economic surplus across its population, which meant that there was insufficient investment in learning, science and culture. If that surplus had been created, Rome would have spawned a generation of innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs that should have created an industrial revolution. This raises the tantalizing possibility of steam power and steel emerging before the middle ages, which in turn could have meant that today’s technology revolution might have happened hundreds of years ago by now.

Instead, the Roman Empire eventually crumbled with Europe forgetting most of Rome’s innovations, paved roads weeding over, aqueducts running dry and heated floors crumbling. We had to wait until the second half of the 18th century for the Industrial Revolution for the change, which crucially followed and overlapped with the Age of Enlightenment, a period of learning unprecedented since the Renaissance (when everyone busied themselves relearning Rome’s lost secrets) which was fuelled by Europe’s economies have developed sufficiently to create enough surplus for more than just the aristocracy to learn, invent and create. 

So, Rome inadvertently held back human progress by half a millennium because of its obsession with slaves. But what does that mean for Spotify? The key lesson from the Roman experience is that being saddled with too large a cost base may not prevent you from becoming big but it will hold you back from fulfilling your potential and from building something truly lasting. You can probably tell now where I am heading with this. Spotify’s 70% rights cost base is Rome’s 1 in 4 are slaves.

Product Innovation Where Are You?

Spotify has made immense progress but it and the overall market have done too little to innovate product and user experience.  There’s been business and commercial innovation for sure but looking back at the streaming market as a whole over the last 5 years, other than making playlists better through smart use of data and curation teams, where is the dial-moving innovation? Where are the new products and features that can change the entire focus of the market. Compare and contrast how much the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon have changed their businesses and product offerings over that period. Streaming just got better playlists. Musical.ly shouldn’t have been a standalone company, it should have been a feature coming out of Spotify’s Stockholm engineering team. But instead of being able to think about streaming simply as an engine, Spotify has had to marshal its modest operating margins around ‘sustaining’ product development and marketing / customer acquisition.

Post-Listing Scrutiny

Spotify will likely go public sometime next year as a consequence. But once public it will need to be delivering demonstrable progress towards profit with each and every quarterly SEC filing. Growth alone won’t cut it. Just ask Snap Inc. Spotify does not have a silver bullet but it does have a number of different switches it can flick that will each contribute percentages to net margin and that collectively can help Spotify become commercially viable and in turn enable it to invest in the product and experience innovation that the streaming sector so crucially lacks.  Spotify hasn’t done these yet because most will antagonize rights partners but it will be left with little option.

spotify full stack midia

Spotify The Music Company

To say that Spotify will become a label is too narrow a definition of what Spotify would become. Instead it would be a next generation music company, encompassing master rights, publishing, A+R, discovery, promotion, fan engagement and data, lots of data. If Spotify can get a couple of good quarters under its belt post-listing, and maintain a high stock price then it could go on an acquisition spree, acquiring assets for a combination of cash and stock. And the bigger and bolder the acquisition the more the stock price will rise, giving Spotify yet more ability to acquire. This is the model Yahoo used in the 2000s, with apparently over-priced acquisitions being so big as to impress Wall Street enough to ensure that the increase in market cap (ie the value of its shares) was greater than the purchase price. Spotify could use this tactic to acquire, for example, Kobalt, Believe Digital and Soundcloud to create an end-to-end, data-driven discovery, consumption and rights exploitation music power house.

What other ‘label’ could offer artists the end-to-end ability to be discovered, have your audience brought to you, promoted on the best playlists, given control of your rights and be provided with the most comprehensive data toolkit available in music? And of course, by acquiring a portion of the rights of its creators though not all (that’s where Kobalt / AWAL comes in) Spotify will be able to amortize some of its content costs like Netflix does, thus adding crucial percentages to its net margin. It will also be able to do Netflix’s other trick, namely using its algorithms to over index its own content, again adding crucial percentages to its margin.

Streaming Is The Engine Not The Vehicle

The way to think about Spotify right now, and indeed streaming as a whole, is that we have built a great engine. But that’s it. We do not have the car. Streaming is not a product, it is a technology for getting music onto our devices and it is a proto-business model. While rights holders can point to areas where Spotify is arguably over spending, fixing those will not be enough on their own, they need to accompany bolder change. Once that change comes Spotify can start to fulfil its potential, to become the butterfly that is currently locked in its cocoon. While rights holders we be understandably anxious and may even cry foul, they have to shoulder much of the blame. Spotify simply doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Unless of course it wants to end up like Rome did….overrun by barbarians, or whatever the music industry equivalent is…

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How Soundcloud Could Transform Deezer’s Market Narrative

deezer soundcloud

News has emerged of Deezer being a potential buyer of troubled Soundcloud. This follows on from Spotify’s prolonged but ultimately abortive courting last year. Soundcloud was once a streaming powerhouse, with 175 million Monthly Active Users reported in October 2014. Though that number is still widely cited whenever Soundcloud is mentioned in the media, in truth its user base is now much smaller. Spotify, which now has around 150 million MAUs has a Weekly Active User penetration rate of 16% while Soundcloud’s WAU rate is just 6%. With the caveat that multiple additional variables impact WAU vs MAU rates, this would imply that Soundcloud’s MAU number is now closer to 70 million. Despite this shift in its public narrative, Soundcloud remains a uniquely valuable asset in the streaming landscape, one that would give another streaming service a distinct competitive advantage. Here’s why.

A Streaming Service Unlike Any Other (Except YouTube That Is)

Soundcloud first rose to prominence as a platform for artists before it rocketed into the stratosphere as a consumer destination with its new VC-powered mission statement ‘to be the YouTube of audio’. The legacy of its unique starting point is that Soundcloud:

  • Has a catalogue unlike any other streaming service, except YouTube (and to a lesser extent, Mixcloud)
  • Gives artists a direct connection with fans unlike standard streaming services
  • Gives up and coming artists a global platform for reaching fans with no intermediary

That unique combination of assets makes Soundcloud a highly valuable commodity despite its diminished user base and similarly reduced valuation (now said to be around $250 million from a high of $1 billion). Soundcloud has two crucial attributes that will enrich any streaming service:

  • A service tailor-made for Gen Z (ie those consumers currently aged 19 or under)
  • A crowd sourced platform for artist discovery

Soundcloud Is Built For The Era Of Mass Customization

As DJ Spooky put it:

“Artists no longer work in the bub­ble of a record­ing stu­dio. The stu­dio is the net­work.” … “The 20th cen­tury was the era of mass pro­duc­tion. The 21st cen­tury is the era of mass cus­tomiza­tion…”

Artist creativity is no longer a creative full stop, we are now in a phase of Agile Music. Even though the number of people that upload music is small (7% of consumers upload music to Soundcloud or YouTube, of which half upload their own music) their impact on the broader market is multiplied many times over as they provide the music others listen to. But even more importantly, the blurring of the line between audience and creator is the fuel in the engine of Gen Z experiences such as Snapchat and Instagram. Other than lip syncing apps like Musical.ly and Dubsmash, Soundcloud and YouTube are pretty much all the music business has in this space. That, coupled with a highly shareable, highly social UI makes Soundcloud tailor-made for Gen Z. The importance to the segment is clear: among 16-19 year olds, Soundcloud penetration is higher than Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music, Tidal and Deezer, with only Spotify boasting higher penetration for audio services.

Crowd Sourced Discovery

The other key asset Soundcloud brings is the bridge it provides between fans and artists. A host of diverse services like Tunecore, BandLab, Bandcamp and Reverb Nation provide an unprecedented range of tools to up-and-coming artists. But Soundcloud (along with YouTube) is still the only place where artists can reach such a large audience directly, without an intermediary. Layer on its massively social functionality and discovery algorithms and you have an unrivalled audio platform for new artist discovery.

Soundcloud Needs An Ecosystem

Unfortunately for Soundcloud, it has found it impossible to effectively monetize these assets (and aping Spotify’s freemium model has done little to move the dial). What Soundcloud needs is an ecosystem into which it can slot, bringing all of the great functionality but relying on another part of the ecosystem to do the monetization. Slotting Soundcloud into Deezer, Spotify or even Apple Music would create an entirely new layer in each of those propositions and would massively enhance market positioning.

It would also enable the service to start behaving more like a label, identifying and testing artists before moving them up into the main service. If done by Spotify or Apple Music, this would look highly disruptive to labels as it really would be a precursor to becoming a next-gen label. But for Deezer, the story is a little different. As part of the Access Industry potfolio, Deezer sits alongside talent management agency First Access Entertainment, live discovery platform Songkick and, last but most certainly not least, Warner Music. By acquiring Soundcloud, Access Industries would be rounding out the most complete Full Stack Music Company in the business.

YouTube Is Not For Sale But Soundcloud Is

YouTube might do most of what Soundcloud does, and at much larger scale, but Soundcloud is up for sale and YouTube is not. Right now, Soundcloud represents the best opportunity in the marketplace for an audio streaming service to make up the ground in user experience innovation that the streaming market lost over the last few years in comparison to Gen Z apps. And with Deezer at the front of the queue, the French streaming service could be about to transform its market narrative in an instant.