The Real Value Of The Independent Sector

Over the course of the last year MIDiA has been working with WIN (the global indie label trade body) on a major study to define the independent sector’s contribution to the global recorded music business. The default accepted wisdom is that the indies account for something like 20% of the global revenue total. However, this study revealed, that figure strongly underestimates the actual share…it is in fact 37.6%. This matters not for bragging rights but because in the digital marketplace, market share shapes the deals that are struck, with more market share translating into better terms. So a more accurate measure of share can help the independent sector compete on fairer terms.

Distribution Versus Ownership

Distribution is the largest single contributor to the variance in market share. The 20% refers to the labels that distribute the music while the 37.6% refers to which labels actually own the music. Indeed, 3rd party distribution is becoming an ever more central element of the independent sector. The growth of streaming services and social media have helped create a burgeoning international opportunity for independent labels across the world. However, because most of these labels do not have the international infrastructure required to tap this global opportunity they often utilise 3rd party partners for distribution and other services. Often these parties are major labels or major label owned distributors. As the music market becomes more global, 3rd party distribution becomes more important for indies. But while this gives the independent sector global scale it also means that much of their revenue ends up being accounted as major label revenue, creating a distorted view of the market.

Most Indies Use International Distributors

In fact, 72% of independent labels use a 3rd party international distributor while 52% use a major label owned one or go direct via a major for distribution. The impact on the global market is huge. Just look at 2 of the biggest independent artist albums recently: Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ on Big Machine but distributed by Universal Music, and Adele’s ‘25’ on XL/Beggars but distributed by Sony in the US and South America. 2 leading independent success stories that now appear as major label success stories in investor decks. There is no questioning the value that majors and major owned distributors bring but just as importantly these are nonetheless indie label artists.

A Diverse Global Picture 

Even using the ownership approach, there is a massively diverse global picture, with indie market share ranging from just 16% in Finland, up to 64% in Japan and 88% in South Korea. In fact, Japan, South Korea and the US (where the distribution methodology has been in place for a few years now) account for 64% of all global indie revenue.

The disparity between ownership and distribution measures will only increase as music’s shift to streaming accelerates. The more that international markets open up, the more that smaller labels need to utilize international partners to reach music fans in those markets.  And the more that happens, the less relevant distribution market share becomes.

You can download the entire report by following this link.

Meanwhile, this graphic highlights some of the key findings.

wintel_infographic-812x1024

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.