Why the Music Industry Needs Bytedance to Disrupt It

Back in September 2018 I suggested that Spotify faced a Tencent risk,with the potential of Tencent launching a competitive offering in markets that Spotify is not yet in. This would effectively divide the world between Spotify in Europe, Americas and some of Asia, and Tencent potentially everywhere else. Since then, Tencent has been distracted by acquiring a 10% stake in Universal Music. The fact it is now reportedly looking for partners to share the investment could point to Tencent getting spooked by slowing streaming growth in the second half of the year, something MIDiA predicted in November last year. Meanwhile, as all this was happening, Bytedance’s TikTok has become a global phenomenon – adding 500 million users in 2019 to reach 1.2 billion in total. On the back of this success, Bytedance has picked up Tencent’s dropped baton and has been working on a subscription service that now looks set for a December launch. The streaming market desperately needs a breath of fresh air; the only question is whether music rights holders feel bold enough to let Bytedance launch something truly market changing.

Change, but remain the same

TikTok has undeniable scale, even though the 1.5 billion figure likely refers to installs rather than active users. While it is certainly bigger than previous music messaging apps, the tech graveyard is full of once-promising, now-dead or near-obsolete ones (Musical.ly, Flipagram, Dubsmash, Ping Tunes, Music Messenger etc). In order to ensure it does not go the way of its predecessors (i.e. burn bright but fast) TikTok must learn how to expand and evolve its content offering but remain true to its users’ core use cases. The smart digital content businesses do this. Facebook and YouTube have both dramatically changed their content mixes since launch, yet fundamentally meet the same underlying use cases they started out with. It is essential for TikTok to ensure it grows with its young audience in the way Instagram has – otherwise it risks following the unwelcome path of its predecessors.

Do first, ask forgiveness later

The three global-scale consumer music apps which are genuinely differentiated from the rest of the streaming pack are YouTube, Soundcloud and TikTok. All three have one thing in common: they did first and asked forgiveness later. Rather than coming to music rightsholders to acquire rights and then building platforms around whatever rights they were able to secure, they built apps, built scale and then entered into serious licensing conversations. Crucially, they did so from a position of strength. The rest managed to secure fundamentally the same sets of rights, resulting in a marketplace of streaming services that lack differentiation. They all have the same catalogue, pricing and device support. They are even competing largely in the same markets. They are forced to differentiate with extras, such as playlists, personalisation and branding. This contrasts sharply with the highly-differentiated streaming video market and is the equivalent of the automotive market telling everyone they have to buy a Lexus but can choose what colour paint they want. Those three disruptors did exactly that: they disrupted, and in doing so fast-forwarded the rate of innovation.

The music market needs Bytedance to do something transformational

This is the context in which Bytedance is building a music subscription service. What the music market really needs is for this to be something that builds on the ethos and use cases of TikTok rather than becoming a cookie-cutter “all you can eat” service. Soundcloud and YouTube both found themselves dumbing down their core propositions in order to launch music subscriptions. Now, with streaming growth slowing, the market needs a disruption more than ever. It needs a Plan B to reinvigorate growth.

It is all too easy to say that rights holders have held back the market, and in some respects they have. But they also have an obligation to protect their rights and core revenue source: streaming. Indeed, there is an argument that YouTube is currently holding back streaming potential by delivering such a compelling free proposition – something that would not have happened if it had licensed first and launched later.

Emerging markets testbed

Music experiences from China, Japan and South Korea look very different from the ones that have come from the West, whether you are looking at Tencent’s music apps or K-pop artists. While there is a temptation to say that these reflect the unique cultural make ups of their respective markets, in all probability much of it will export. Indeed, we already see this happening with the success of BTS and of course TikTok in Western markets. What unifies these experiences is monetising fandom rather than consumption (which is what Western services do). The problem is that it is difficult for music rightsholders to agree with digital service providers (DSPs) on how much of the assets monetised in fandom platforms should bear royalty income, and just how much. This is one of the main stumbling blocks in monetising fandom.

Emerging markets may be the perfect testbed. We have already seen this approach in Brazil, where Deezer launched a prepay carrier-billing-integrated 60% discounted music bundle with local carrier TIM and has enjoyed strong subscriber growth as a result. The fact that Bytedance may launch first in emerging markets such as India, Indonesia and Brazil suggests that this approach may be being followed. If so, there is a chance that we might see something genuinely innovative coming to market.

While this may not yet constitute the Tencent risk model, there nonetheless remains a chance that Bytedance could end up being an emerging market counterweight to the Western market incumbents. The streaming market needs something new to up the innovation ante; let’s hope Bytedance can take on that mantle…

Yonder And Streaming’s Less Travelled Path

Back in 2012, a music service that had raised $174 million in funding closed without yet having launched to consumers. That service was Beyond Oblivion, a company that intended to transform the music market with music bundled into handsets and phone packages at no extra cost to consumers. Five and half years later, Beyond Oblivion’s founder is finally seeing his latest iteration of the bundled music service model gain traction. Yonder, his new(ish) company, has started off 2018 with a million monthly active users (MAUs) under its belt, with the majority of that growth coming in the fourth quarter of 2017. Yet Yonder is not on many people’s radar, in large part because it is building its business in markets that are off streaming’s beaten track.

yonder graphic

Yonder’s main market is Bangladesh, which makes up just over half of its MAU base, followed by Indonesia and Sri Lanka. It even has tens of thousands of users in Nepal and the Maldives and plans to roll out to markets such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Iraq and Ghana in 2018. These are not markets famed as booming digital music markets, and they’re certainly not priority markets for any of the top streaming services. So, in many respects Yonder is competing around, rather than with the likes of Spotify.

Low ARPU markets

But there is more to it than just that. These are markets with mostly large populations and very low GDP per capita and mobile ARPU. In many of these territories mobile ARPU is significantly lower than the cost of a western streaming subscription. For example, total mobile ARPU in Bangladesh is around $4 a month. This makes fitting the economics of a streaming music bundle into a tariff challenging in the extreme. The standard wholesale tariffs record labels provide streaming services in these regions struggle to fit these wafer thin margins. So, making music bundles work needs a very specific and localized approach. The same principle applies to localization, with music programming requiring a much higher degree of local specialization than many other markets.

More than one way to skin a cat

2018 will likely see a slowdown in music subscriber growth in many western markets. In the meantime, majority of the 9.99 price points will be addressed. Ad supported and discounting will be key to sustaining growth in these markets, but the scale of opportunity for digital music lies in emerging markets. 2017 was the year we really started to see Latin American markets begin to make their mark, while China established itself as a major contributor to subscribers, if not revenue. Services like Yonder are important for the music business, not just because they address new markets but also because they represent another approach. The 9.99 AYCE model will remain the core opportunity, but sticking too tightly to it will limit the scope of the wider market.

Yonder’s model is not without challenges – not least the concept of making premium music feel like it’s free to its users – but it represents one of what should hopefully become a wider selection of alternative paths to making streaming pay.