Music Subscriptions Passed 100 Million In December. Has The World Changed?

In streaming’s earlier years, when doubts prevailed across the artist, songwriter and label communities, one of the arguments put forward by enthusiasts was that when streaming reached scale everything would make sense. When asked what ‘scale’ meant, the common reply was ‘100 million subscribers’. In December, the streaming market finally hit and passed that milestone, notching up 100.4 million subscribers by the stroke of midnight on the 31st December. It was an impressive end to an impressive year for streaming, but does it mark a change in the music industry, a fundamental change in the way in which streaming works for the music industry’s numerous stakeholders?

Streaming Has Piqued Investors’ Interest

The streaming market was always going to hit the 100 million subscriber mark sometime around now, but by closing out the year with the milestone it was ahead of schedule. This was not however entirely surprising as the previous 12 months had witnessed a succession of achievements and new records. Not least of which was the major labels registering a 10% growth in overall revenue in Q2, driven by a 52% increase in streaming revenue. This, coupled with Spotify and Apple’s continual out doing of each other with subscriber growth figures, Spotify’s impending IPO and Vevo’s $500 million financing round, have triggered a level of interest in the music business from financial institutions not seen in well over a decade. The recorded music business looks like it might finally be starting the long, slow recovery from its generation-long recession.

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Spotify Continues To Set The Pace

Spotify has consistently led the streaming charge and despite a continually changing competitive marketplace it has held determinedly onto pole position since it first acquired it. Even more impressively, it has also maintained market share. According to data from MIDiA’s Music Streamer Tracker, in Q2 2015 Spotify’s share of global music subscribers was 42%, H2 15 41%, H1 16 44%, H2 16 43%. Not bad for a service facing its fiercest competitor yet in Apple, a resurgent Deezer and an increasingly significant Amazon. Spotify closed out the year with around 43 million subscribers, Apple with around 21 million and Deezer with nearly 7 million. 2nd place is thus less than half the scale of 1st, while 3rd is a third of 2nd place. Meanwhile Apple and Spotify account for 64% of the entire subscriber base. It is a market with many players but only 2 standout global winners. Amazon could change that in 2017, largely because it is prioritising a different, more mainstream market (as long as it doesn’t get too distracted by Echo-driven Music Unlimited success). Meanwhile YouTube has seen its music streaming market share decline, which means more higher paying audio streams, which means more income for rights holders and creators.

A Brave New World?

So far so good. But does 100 million represent a brave new world? In truth, there was never going to be a sudden step change but instead a steady but clear evolution. That much has indeed transpired. The music market now is a dramatically different one than that which existed 12 months ago when there were 67.5 million subscribers. Revenues are growing, artist and songwriter discontent is on the wane and label business models are changing. But 100 million subscribers does not by any means signify that the model is now fixed and set. Smaller and mid tier artists are still struggling to make streaming cents add up to their lost sales dollars, download sales are in freefall, many smaller indie labels are set to have a streaming-driven cash flow crisis, and subscriber growth, while very strong, is not exceptional. In fact, the global streaming subscriber base has been growing by the same amount for 18 months now: (16.5 million in H2 2016, 16.5 million in H1 2016 and 16.4 million in H2 2016). Also, for some context, video subscriptions passed the 100 million mark in the US alone in Q3 2016. And streaming music had a head start on that market.

At some stage, perhaps in 2017, we will see streaming in many markets hit the glass ceiling of demand that exists for the 9.99 price point. Additionally the streaming-driven download collapse and the impending CD collapses in Germany and Japan all mean that it would be unwise to expect recorded music revenues to register uninterrupted growth over the next 3 to 5 years. But growth will be the dominant narrative and streaming will be the leading voice. 100 million subscribers might not mean the world changes in an instant, but it does reflect a changing world.

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Google’s Acquisition Of Songza And ‘Fixing Discovery’

Google yesterday confirmed the much rumoured purchase of curated music service Songza for somewhere between $15 and $39 million. While it is not a vast investment for a company with the recent $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest as a benchmark, it is nonetheless a significant one for a company that already has a couple of streaming music services of its own. It is not a Beats sized deal but then if Google had wanted one of those it would have bought Spotify. So just why did Google splash the cash on Songza?

Access to all the music in thee world can be overwhelming, with so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all. This is the Tyranny of Choice. For all the efforts and intent of music services to ‘fix’ discovery no one has yet nailed it. Listen Services like Nokia Mix Radio, O2 Tracks and Pandora present one solution: effectively removing the burden of excessive choice by delivering a curated stream of music that requires little or no effort from the user. But this approach does not translate well to All You Can Eat (AYCE) services like Spotify and Googles’ Play Music All Access. These services are built on the foundations of giving access to everything, the exact opposite of what Listen Services are about. Which is why AYCE services are doubling down on enhancing their internal curation and recommendation capabilities. Spotify moved first with its acquisition of the EchoNest, Rdio followed by acquiring TastemakerX and now this move from Google. Beats Music took a different route entirely, building its service on the foundations of programming rather than superimposing it.

Google should be able to extract great value from Songza but as with all of these technologies it is just part of the solution. Human programming, as resource intensive as it might be, remains a pivotally important part of the equation, and though all the AYCE services have teams of curators, only Beats so far has done it at large scale.

First, Show People How To Find What They Have Already Found

And still the discovery problem is not fixed. Progress has been made in the last few years, but in many respects it is a case running before learning to walk. Recommendations, discovery and programming are just one part of the music consumption journey i.e. discovering new music. Arguably the most important aspect of the journey is the one that is most neglected: navigating the music people have already discovered. As counter intuitive as it may sound, people first of all need to be shown how to find what they have already found…their pre-existing music collections but also the music they have listened to in a service. Creating playlists and tags of songs is an often burdensome task that requires no small amount of discipline. Which means that newly discovered gems can all too quickly disappear back into bottomless pit of 30 million songs, rendering a discovery journey wasted.

Smart of use of data can provide the foundations for the solution, ensuring that people’s streaming ‘collections’ are dynamically created and programmed. But data alone is not enough. What is needed is an entire new paradigm in music navigation. For all the faults of CDs they were visual reference points. A consumer might not remember the name of an artist or an album but would know roughly where the CD was on a shelf or what colour the cover was. (I remember as a DJ often identifying a record I was about to play only by the colour of the label on the centre of the vinyl).

Digital music lacks such visual reference points. iTunes transformed our music collections into featureless spreadsheets, with playlists emerging as simply another means of sorting the data. New visually rich interfaces in music services help enhance the user experience but most often simply try to shoe horn in the old album art approach into a digital context. This new navigation paradigm must start with a blank sheet and think in terms of multimedia, interactive, dynamic experiences. It will need to leverage rich visuals, touch, dynamic context aware programming, sound, voice control and Shazam, to create an immersive whole that gives the consumer clear, immediate results in a way that engages multiple senses. Only once we have fixed this first step of the music consumption journey can we really start thinking about ‘fixing discovery’.

Google Hits Play On Subscriptions

As expected Google just announced their music subscription service: Google Play Music All Access.  To cut a not-so-long story even shorter, it’s another $9.99 streaming subscription service.  To be fair it looks like a solid offering with clean, mobile optimized flat design aesthetics and some nice features, including:

  • ‘radio without rules’: fully editable auto-programmed radio based on tracks your listening to
  • blended algorithmic and curated programming
  • 30 days free trial
  • seamless integration with the cloud locker service

The locker service integration is a great move and transforms a relatively isolated product concept into a natural extension of the music experience.  Of course locker services are a transition product aimed at helping consumers migrate from the ownership mindset to remote access, so the life cycle of the product is inherently limited.

The ‘uniquely Google’ recommendations and discovery are designed to ‘know exactly what you want’.  The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, but there is a risk of creating an ever shrinking filter bubble where the range of recommendations narrows the more the service learns about you.

A Great v1.0 But….

Make no mistake, it looks like a great version 1.0, streets ahead of where its peers were at 1.0.  But is it enough?  There are many things that Google could have done to stand out, including innovative pricing, Google+ and YouTube integration, a Motorola device bundle etc.  But of course Google never needed to push the envelope on this one.

The streaming market is only just getting going with 20 million global paying subscribers in 2012 paling compared to Apple’s half a billion iTunes accounts.  Streaming and subscription accounted for just 20% of global digital revenues in 2012 and only 8% of US digital revenues.  So Google’s view, correctly, is that this is a market waiting to happen, so focus on refining the model rather than reinventing the wheel.  That’s exactly what Apple did in 2003 when it launched the iTunes Music Store.  The market was pretty crowded with download stores back then, but how many people remember any of them now?

But that’s not to say though that Google is going to do for streaming what Apple did for downloads.  In fact it faces a number of key challenges:

  • Don’t pay won’t pay? Google’s consumer base is predominately built around ad-funded free access and associate Google with free. Even though it will not be offering a free tier, Google still face the freemium challenge of convincing swathes of free users that they should pay for something.  By contrast Apple has the largest single addressable audience of paid content consumers in the globe.
  • Paid subscriptions don’t drive ad revenue: for all of Google’s desire to diversify its business and revenue streams, advertising pays the bills. Whereas initiatives like Android, Google+ and YouTube all help drive advertising, premium subscriptions do not. And given that premium subscriptions are a low margin business, the profit rate Google earns from subscription services will be less than it gets from ad supported consumers, even if total ARPU is higher.  So there seems little reason for All Access to become a strategic priority for Google.
  • $9.99 is not a mass market price point: Google’s biggest asset for the labels is its unrivalled scale and reach, the potential to take digital music to the mainstream. But 9.99 is not a mainstream proposition, it is in fact what the top 10% of music buyers spend in the UK.  Spotify et al have done a great job of engaging the higher spending music aficionados, but there is a finite pool of them, especially in the increasingly crowded US market.  Unless Google plans on stealing everyone else’s subscribers it is going to find mid term growth potential limited (though expect some near term surge from pent-up demand among Google aficionados).
  • Balkanized organizational siloes: on paper Google has the most fantastic combination of music service assets (Play, YouTube, Google+, Motorola, Android etc.).  Tie all of those assets together into a 360 degree music service and you have a world beater on your hands.  But Google can’t. It can’t because these business units operate so autonomously and because each one has business conflicts and commercial constraints that prevent them from being fully unified.  For example, ‘doing an Apple’ with Motorola and turning it into a closed Google Play ecosystem would alienate Android partners.  While YouTube’s music licenses are wholly different and distinct from Google Play licenses. 

 What’s In A Name?

Let’s assume that Google has got an ambitious roadmap for All Access that will include innovation on price, product and channel, perhaps even rolling version 2.0 within 6 to 9 months.  Even then, all of the above still apply, and it is the organizational challenge that clips Google’s wings the most.  Even the elongated name hints at the organizational quagmire: Google Play Music All Access. Doesn’t roll off the tongue in the way Spotify, Deezer, Rhapsody or Rdio do does it?  ‘All Access’ is the service, ‘Music’ is the division and ‘Play’ is the strategic overlay and of course ‘Google’ is the company.  Just to get to where it has, All Access has had to coalesce numerous internal Google fiefdoms.

Google is Becoming Microsoft

Google is beginning to look for music what Microsoft did 10 years ago.  Up to and beyond the launch of the iTunes Store everyone expected Microsoft to be the dominant player.  It held most of the cards in the deck, including the industry standard media player and DRM system.  Then along came Apple with the aces.  Try as Microsoft might to compete, it simply couldn’t get over itself.  It couldn’t pull together the disparate business units that needed to cooperate and it was scared of harming other revenue streams and relationships. Microsoft feared that if it pushed too hard with its own service it would alienate the business partners that relied on WDRM for their music services.  All this begat strategic paralysis.  Much the same is happening to Google.  Fear of alienating Android partners precludes them from doing-an-Apple with Motorola (which I suggested they should do).  Also, pulling together YouTube, Google+ and Android into the All Access mix appears to be a step too far.

Google is at a similar stage of its corporate evolution as Microsoft was ten years ago.  It is a big company that is still learning how to actually be a big company.  Before Google can fulfill its vast digital music potential it needs to learn how to get the best out of its organizational structure first.

Here’s looking forward to version 2.0.