Medianet, SOCAN, YouTube And The Kobalt Effect

Since the demise of the long-running-but-never-launched Global Repertoire Database (GRD) there has been a lot of debate over what comes next for digital rights reporting. The songwriter class action suits in the US against Spotify are the natural outcome of more than one and a half decades of failing to deal with the forsaken mess that is compositional rights in the digital era. The music industry needs a solution and now just like busses that never come, two arrive at once: Google’s Open Source Validation Tool for DDEX Standard (doesn’t sound too sexy I know, but bear with me on this one) and Canadian PRO (Performing Rights Organization) SOCAN has acquired Medianet essentially as a digital rights reporting play. So just what is going on in the world of digital rights reporting?

Transparency, Transparency, Transparency

Artist concerns about transparency in streaming services are well founded but it is an eminently fixable problem because virtually all of the necessary data is in place. When a record label or distributor licenses music to a service it literally provides a data file of its music which is then ingested (uploaded) by the service. But when service licenses from a music publisher or PRO there is no such data file, because the recorded works are owned by the labels. Publishers do not even provide a comprehensive list of what works their license covers. So music services instead do a ‘best efforts’ licensing effort, licensing all the key publishers and PROs. This model is though far, far from perfect, because:

  • Songs often have multiple writers, some of whom may be signed to bigger publishers, others not. So a single song could be covered by licenses acquired from three or four publishers and still not be fully licensed
  • Songwriters change publishers and most often publishers do not notify services, so a licensed song can suddenly become an unlicensed song without the service knowing it
  • Many songwriters are only small publishers not licensed to music services

But perhaps the biggest problem of all is the lack of a single database of compositional works against which music services can cross reference their catalogues, even better would be one that matches all compositional works against recorded works. Without them we end up with large swathes of songwriter royalties not being matched against and paid to the songwriter. Depending on who you talk to this can range between 20% and 40% of digital royalty income. Little wonder then that we end up with class action suits from disgruntled songwriters.

The problem is that until there is a market level solution that sort of action won’t go away. This means any music service operating in the US, where there is a statutory damages system, cannot operate with certainty that it will not face another legal suit with potentially vast damages awarded. The nightmare scenario is that streaming services start pulling out of the US, or restricting their catalogue to identified works (which largely means major publishers only) rather than face potentially fatal legal challenges.

SOCAN Wants To Be The Leader In Rights Reporting And Administration

And this is the world into which today’s two announcements are born. Medianet is almost one of the founding fathers of digital music, tracing its origins back to the very early 2000’s when, as MusicNet, it was set up by half of the major labels (the other other half formed press play) as a D2C music service. Both efforts failed miserably but Medianet emerged out the ashes as a white label music services company. It spent the years since quietly building a solid business powering a host of interesting music services including Beats Music and Cur. While powering and licensing services such as these Medianet developed a unique set of technology and rights assets and handled everything from ingestion, through rights reporting and administration and even payments. In short it was an end to end rights tech company. Which is what makes Medianet such an important asset for SOCAN. PROs have become increasingly marginalized in recent years with publishers withdrawing rights and a whole host of disruptive new competitors ranging from Kobalt’s acquisition of AMRA, through Irvin Azoff’s Global Media Rights, to existing alternatives such as Music Reports Inc and Fintage House pivoting into digital rights reporting and administration. These are challenging times as a PRO and the likelihood is that it will result in a fair degree of consolidation with smaller PROs outsourcing more of their work to larger ones. SOCAN has seized the initiative with the Medianet acquisition, setting out its stall as a rights society that puts tech innovation, effective reporting and accountability at the centre of what it does for its members. It has also positioned itself as a contender for global successor the the GRD. Consider this the first major repercussion of the innovation and transparency agenda that Kobalt set in motion.

YouTube Is Building Something Much Bigger

Alongside this, with what one assumes is coincidental timing, comes YouTube’s implementation of Digital Sales Report Flat File Standard (DSRF). Digital supply chain innovation is not always the most dynamic of sectors and this announcement could be mistaken for appearing to be the poor relation of the two today. The opposite is probably true. The digital supply chain is going to become ever more important and companies like Consolidated Independent continue to move the space forward in order to help ensure rights holders get distributed, reported and paid as effectively as possible. YouTube’s DSRF implementation is built upon the DDEX framework of standards and enables reporting of both audio and audio-visual content. DSRF aims to deliver faster, more accurate royalty reporting and distribution. You see now the link with the Medianet acquisition. Both are part of a broader movement across the music industry to bring rights reporting and administration into a state that is fit for streaming’s purpose.

The reason why YouTube’s move could have the bigger long term implications is that this is part of a much bolder and far reaching strategy by Google, one that has the music industry’s analogue inefficiencies firmly in its sights. But more on that next week….

The Kobalt Effect

Walk into any publisher or PRO right now and the odds are Kobalt will feature in the conversation sooner or late, whether in fulsome praise or through gritted teeth. Kobalt has done what all good disruptors do, it has set the agenda and in doing so is having market impact far beyond its actual, and still relatively small, revenue base. Today’s two announcements are part of the wave of digital rights disruption and innovation that Kobalt has helped accelerate. But the story doesn’t stop here, in fact, this is just the start.

What Other Technology Sector Thinks That It Has Arrived At Its Destination?

The internet, smartphones, app stores, open source software, all have accelerated innovation at a rate that makes Moore’s law look positively pedestrian. What defines digital technology markets is disruptive innovation, the constant challenging of accepted wisdoms and of established practices. Nothing stays still long enough to give stakeholders the luxury of feeling complacent and to fall back on slower moving sustaining innovations. These are the the realities of consumer technology, unless you happen to be in the digital music business, in which case the prevailing attitude is ‘we have reached our destination’, we have identified the model that is our future and we’re sticking with it. That approach worked fine in the old days of innovation, when Consumer Electronics (CE) companies used to spend years hashing out market standards and then competing in a gentlemanly fashion on implementation. That approach brought us VHS, CDs, DVDs Compact Cassettes etc. Everyone got a bite of the cherry and technologies stuck around for decades. Now they stick around for years, at best. So why is the music industry trying to insist on the $9.99 subscription being the new CD, a 20th century approach to standards in the dramatically different 21st century? And more crucially, why is it able to?

Consumers Are Predictable Creatures

Consumers adopt technology in highly predictable ways. First come the early adopters, the tech aficionados who are always the first to try out new apps, services and devices, next come the early followers who supercharge growth, then the mainstream who bring scale of adoption and finally the laggards who adopt at a more measured pace and slow growth. The result is an ‘S-Curve’ of adoption, with slow growth followed by fast growth, followed by slow growth again at the top of the curve. Music services are no exception, usually starting slowly before accelerating and then slowing again when they have saturated their addressable audience. Exactly where growth peaks varies by service and is determined by the type of service, but the same shape of adoption curve plays out nonetheless, most of the time.

music service adoption

Spotify’s 30 Million Might Just Be The Start Of Maturation

Spotify yesterday announced it had it 30 million paying subscribers. A true digital music landmark. But in the context of its long term growth curve it looks like it might be the start of the end of rapid growth. (It is worth noting that the accelerated growth of the last 16 months has been supercharged by the $1-for-3-months promos so the maturation point may have otherwise been reached earlier or it may have happened at the same time but with a lower number). This isn’t however, some failing of Spotify, rather an illustration that the $9.99 stand alone subscription model is nearing maturity. And this is where the scarcity of innovation comes into play. The major record labels, some more than others, have become increasingly unwilling to threaten the $9.99 status quo. Services that don’t fit the mould either find it impossible to get licenses for new models or they are forced to adhere to the $9.99 cookie cutter subscription model (Soundcloud anyone?).

Video Sets The Standard For Streaming Innovation

Compare and contrast with the streaming video subscription market. Alongside the mainstream Netlfix, Amazon and Hulu Plus services (the Spotify and Deezer equivalents) there is a growing body of targeted niche services with diverse pricing. These include: Hayu (a reality TV, $5.99), MUBI (cult movies, $4.99), Disney Life (Disney shows and movies, £9.99), Twitch (live streamed gaming, $4.99), YouTube Red (YouTuber originals, $10), Vessel (short form originals, $3) Comic-Con HQ (Comic Con content, pricing tbd).

Of course music is drastically different from TV and it is far easier to have a video service with just one slice of all available content than it is for music. Nonetheless, in the video sector there is no prevailing attitude of not wanting to disrupt the dominant $7.99 broad catalogue model. TV and video industry stakeholders are not only willing to tolerate disruptive innovation (online at least!), they understand it is crucial to drive the market forwards. So why don’t labels take a similar view? A key reason is rights concentration. Because three labels account for the majority of music rights, each has de facto veto power. Most companies that are dominant in their markets pursue smaller, sustaining innovations that improve the product but that do not threaten their businesses. So it is fully understandable that major labels have not empowered disruptive innovations that could risk turning their digital businesses upside down. It would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. And yet the growth trajectory of most leading music services shows that by sticking with sustaining innovations they are unwittingly curtailing the scale of their future growth.

Again, compare and contrast with TV where rights are far more fragmented and are becoming even more so. No single TV network or studio has the ability to stop a service in its tracks. The result is a far greater rate of innovation.

Music Subscription Services Are Compelled To Behave Like CE Companies

Thus music subscription services are forced to behave like the old CE companies, competing on the implementation of fundamentally the same product. TIDAL do exclusives and high definition, Spotify do playlist innovation and video, Apple does curation and exclusives. But when it comes down to it they are selling the same $9.99, 30 million tracks, on demand, mobile caching product to largely the same group of consumers.

Postscript: The Unusual Case Of Apple

The keen eyed among you will have noted that Apple Music’s growth curve does not fit the S-Curve model, or at least not what we can see of it yet. It certainly appears that Apple is set for a very different adoption path. There are mitigating factors. The streaming market is far more mature now than when Spotify and Deezer launched. Additionally, Apple has a unique platform and ecosystem advantage that enables it to short cut adoption rates. It can sell straight to its user base of Apple-super-fans. Selling additional products and services to its installed base of 850 million iTunes customers will be key to the next stage of Apple’s story and music will play its role in that. (Amazon is potentially another exceptional case given its ability to sell directly into its customer ecosystem and also with its focus on a more mainstream audience.)

But even Apple will eventually reach the saturation for the $9.99 product within its user base. In fact, one reading of Apple’s adoption curve is that it skipped the first stage of slow growth, has had a brief period of mid period strong growth and is now settling down for a long gradual arc of adoption that looks like an amalgamation of the final 2 stages of the S-Curve model. Whatever the path, let’s just hope that long before Apple Music hits maturity, the record labels will have woken up to the need to support an unprecedented phase of experimentation and innovation to identify all the other opportunities for premium music that exist outside of the super fan beachhead. Remember its 2016 not 1986.

What I Want To See Next From Apple

With Apple Music barely a few hours old it might seem a little perverse to focus on what Apple needs to do next but Apple’s potential remains more latent than realized. Apple has an opportunity to launch the sort of music platform the industry has been waiting for during the entire digital era but has not yet seen. It hasn’t done it yet but it now has the right materials with which to build it.

If Apple is going to make a meaningful long term impact on the streaming market it will need to play the innovation card.  Apple music products have been something of the poor relation in innovation terms over the last half decade or so, looking on wistfully from their music downloads backwater while Apple’s devices undergo an innovation and design revolution.

If Apple can seamlessly integrate all its assets (radio, podcasts, downloads, on demand streaming, apps etc.) then it could create the most comprehensive and engaging music experience in the marketplace. Imagine listening to a Zane Lowe show on demand, but tracks are played in sequence.  You like one of the tracks so you click ‘more by this artist’ and start listening to the latest album.  After a few tracks you pull back into the show, listen a bit more and then see a link to an Artist Connect video of an interview by Zane with the last artist you listened to. You jump to listen to that then jump back into the show, decide you want to hear the first couple of tracks and what Zane had to say about them again and jump back to there.

In that scenario the user has jumped from semi-interactive radio, into on demand, back into semi interactive radio, non-music content, back into semi-interactive radio, then into fully interactive radio. Of course there are multiple business models at play with multiple rights frameworks but if a user was able to top up on Apple Music credit to use across the entire platform then s/he need never know when boundaries are crossed and the credit would simply get auto deducted from the balance.

Implementation wouldn’t be simple (especially form a licensing perspective) but that is the sort of innovation bar that Apple should now be aspiring to. Apple has a unique opportunity to become a true music platform. The first step has been taken (and some of the Artist Connect functionality may prove to be super cool) but now it is time for the real innovation fun to begin.

Streaming, Change, And The Right State Of Mind

Disruptive technology and the change it brings can be overwhelming, particularly when it threatens to change forever all that we have known. Streaming clearly fits this bill. But the impact of change is as much in the eye of the beholder as the disruption itself. While it would be bland and disingenuous to say that change is merely a state of mind, a positive outlook that is focused on the opportunities can make the world of difference.

To illustrate the point, here are three examples from the last century of how vested interests have viewed revolutionary new media technology.

1-ebwhiteThis first quote is from the American author and essayist EB White writing in 1933 on the impact of radio. Here new technology is eloquently portrayed with an almost magical profundity.

2-sarnoffThis quote is from David Sarnoff, the Belorussian-American radio and TV pioneer who oversaw the birth of RCA and NBC. Here he is in 1939 talking about the advent of a TV broadcast network against the backdrop of the globe teetering on the brink of world war.

And then fast forward 70 odd years to the emergence of streaming music, and we get this….3-yorkeSomething certainly appears to have happened to the eloquence of observation over the decades. While I’m perhaps being a little unfair to our esteemed Mr Yorke his quote illustrates the stark contrast in how one can view impending change.

There is an inevitability about the shift in consumer behaviour of which streaming is merely a manifestation. We are moving from the distribution era when everything was about linearly programmed channels and selling units of stuff to the consumption era when consumers value access over ownership. Resisting fundamental shifts in consumer behaviour is a futile task. It’s what happened when the labels fought Napster tooth and nail and it took the best part of a decade for the music industry to recover from that mistake.

None of this is to say that the shift to streaming is going to be easy, but it is going to happen anyway. Artists, labels, managers, publishers all need to decide whether to work with streaming now, and have some control over the process, or wait until they have no choice at all.

The Smartphone Innovator’s Dilemma

The recent rumours concerning Amazon’s possible flirtation with launching a smartphone, whether baseless or not, on the eve of Apple’s new product launch, shine an interesting light on a challenge that faces all smartphone manufacturers: where to innovate next?

In the mid 2000’s I oversaw the launch of JupiterResearch’s European mobile research practice and also at Jupiter led countless mobile data and research projects as well as working closely with the leading handset manufacturers.  Throughout that time I saw the early days of the emergence of the smartphone sector up close, and the rate of innovation was both often startling and manifested itself in highly tangible ways. Screen sizes got bigger, handsets got smaller, camera megapixel counts grew, and a whole host of new features arrived including video, email and calendar synching, true tones, 3.5mm headphone sockets, MP3 sideloading, PC-synching etc.

Then in June 2007 Apple came along with the iPhone and transformed the mobile phone market forever.  Apple had characteristically waited until the smartphone market was ready for primetime before launching the iPhone and then pursuing an equally characteristically disruptive strategy.  The last few years of the 2000’s saw successive innovation step changes, with meaningful new marquee features for each new generation of devices. Now though, on the eve of Apple’s next smartphone announcement we are at an unusual place.  There is not that much more that a smartphone can really deliver at its core.  Smartphones were all about disruptive innovation, now they have become sustaining innovation. Thus the new features that are used to distinguish one product from the next are either evolutionary improvements (e.g. better screen resolution, better camera, better battery life), or bleeding edge gimmicks that are not yet ready for primetime (e.g. Siri, Eye Tracking).  The smartphone has hit upon its optimum product construct and thus product changes from here-on-in will predominately be iterative, sustaining innovations rather than disruptive ones.

That in itself is not an inherently bad thing.  Indeed it is typical of a mature market, but it also makes the market right for disruption, and if there is less scope for that disruption to be product focused, it is more likely to be strategy focused.  Hence we have started to see the emergence of strategies such as Mozilla’s Firefox OS devices aimed at driving open web standards and the rumoured Amazon phone strategy aimed at driving e-commerce and digital content revenues. So the established incumbent players face an innovation dilemma for their flagship devices: do they continue to focus their efforts on packaging sustaining innovations with occasional product gimmick, do they try something dramatically different, or do they try the third way of a disruptive strategy instead?

For a company like Samsung with a plethora of product SKUs it is possible to experiment with bleeding edge innovation on niche devices but it is the flagship devices where marketplace impact is measured.   Go too fast on a flagship device and you will alienate your mainstream customers, go too slow and you will be positioned as an innovation laggard.  The irony of course being that it is the less-headline-grabbing sustaining innovations that generally deliver the most discernable user benefits.

A perhaps even greater irony is that it is the software that really delivers the differentiation to most consumers.  With standard smartphone hardware functionality (cameras excepted) being broadly comparable in the eyes and ears of most mainstream consumers, it is what the software enables that people truly notice.  The apps, the content, the features.  Thus iOS 7 will transform how iPhones behave yet Apple will still need a marquee feature to sell the next iPhone, even if that is a bleeding edge gimmick. Against this backdrop the third way of disruptive strategy becomes ever more appealing for smartphone companies.  Hence Apple’s rumoured intensified push towards lower price segment consumers with a scaled down version of the iPhone.

The likelihood is that whatever phone product Apple launches tomorrow it will probably leave many observers disappointed because it will not be seen to be a dramatic innovation step change.  Apple might surprise us and pull a rabbit out of the hat but it is more likely not to because the simple fact is that it is harder than ever to dramatically innovate smartphone products. Though we may not yet have seen the end of the age of disruptive innovation in smartphones, we are certainly in a lull cycle.  Which is why Samsung, and quite possibly Apple, are looking to adjacent markets such as smart watches, as opportunities to innovate aggressively in wild west technology frontiers in order to re-earn their innovation stripes.

Kim Dotcom’s Just Getting Started

Self-styled digital Robin Hood Kim Dotcom’s highly effective PR machine successfully secured him vast media coverage this week for the launch of his new locker service Mega, which as the Register’s Andrew Orlowski correctly points out, isn’t actually anything particularly new or innovative.  But in some ways that doesn’t even matter. Kim Dotcom matters most to media companies now because he is a focal point of anti-media-establishment sentiment.  He’s the plucky start up taking on the fat cats of the media industry.  Except of course that he’s done a pretty impressive job of establishing himself as an fat cat too as this and this reveal. Ironically Kim Dotcom has made his money using the same assets as the media fat cats: i.e. music, movies and TV shows.  The difference being that Kim Dotcom doesn’t finance the creation of the content. But Dotcom’s supporters are willing to turn a blind eye to his play boy ways because it is all done while sticking a proverbial finger up at the old guard

But all this is old news and obscures why the media industries should actually be afraid of Kim Dotcom, very afraid.  Dotcom has the vision for a differentiated consumer experience that no other ‘piracy’ innovator has yet had.  Prior to his much publicized FBI raid and the closure of Megaupload.com, Dotcom was on the verge of launching a new, interactive, multimedia content service called Megabox.  It didn’t happen, but – judicial wrangles permitting – it will, and will likely be built upon the foundations of the newly launched Mega.

Piracy Cold War

To date file sharing (by which I mean all forms of unlicensed content downloading and uploading, not just P2P) has been in a secrecy arms race with the media industries.  Every time the media industries have caught up with file sharing, the networks and services have devised new means of evading policing and enforcement.  Although media companies have always inherently been trapped in reactive mode, unable to set the terms of engagement, this strategy has nonetheless been highly effective at keeping file sharing services on the back foot.  As with the cold war two super powers have expended vast resources staying still, investing heavily in being armed to the teeth.  The net result is that piracy has continued to grow but hasn’t been through any transformational innovation in years.  Also the sites and services have become progressively more complex and sophisticated to use and navigate. Pushing them slightly further away from the mainstream.

But what happens when someone finally decides to innovate the file sharing user experience?  When someone scales down the combat zone investment and focuses instead of delivering a great user experience in the way that licensed services do.  That is when media companies need to start worrying.  As I wrote back in February last year:

The nightmare scenario for media companies is that the pirates turn their attentions to developing great user experiences rather than just secure means of acquiring content.  What if, for example, a series of open source APIs were built on top of some of the more popular file sharing protocols so that developers can create highly interactive, massively social, rich media apps which transform the purely utilitarian practice of file sharing into something fun and engaging?  If you though the paid content market was struggling now imagine how it would fare in the face of that sort of competition.

Kim Dotcom has the requisite combination of vision and balls to take piracy through a user experience revolution.  If he does then piracy will become a vastly more worrying adversary for media companies than it currently is.

Apple’s $1bn Settlement: a New Innovator’s Dilemma

Apple’s $1 billion patent infringement victory against Samsung raises a number of increasingly pressing issues about innovation in the consumer technology space. There is no doubt that Apple has done more than any other single company to shape the smartphone marketplace. It is also clear that the average smartphone form-factor and feature set look dramatically different post-iPhone than they did pre-iPhone.  And there is an argument to be had that those same form factors and feature sets bear more than passing resemblance to the iPhone. But this raises the issue of where the ‘a high tide raises all boats’ market evolution argument stops and the patent infringement one starts.

Samsung is the Buffer State in Apple’s Proxy War with Google

Apple’s case against Samsung was in effect a proxy war against Android.  Samsung became the target because it was doing a better job of making Android compete against Apple than anyone else.   While competitors like Nokia and HTC have laundry lists of product names and numbers, Apple’s elegantly simple iPhone brand cuts through the smartphone name clutter like the proverbial knife through warm butter.  Among numerous other factors Samsung recognized the supreme value of establishing such clear brands (such as the Galaxy) and pivoting their portfolio around them.  Samsung became competitor #1, the Android success story, racking up a 50% share of the smartphone market in Q2012 according to IDC, which compares to just 17% for Apple.

The final impact of the ruling is yet to be seen, with countless potential challenges and subsequent actions likely to come.  There are also interesting geopolitical issues at stake, not least of which is the degree to which a Californian jury and judge will be perceived on the international stage as having the requisite impartiality to rule upon competition between a South Korean and a Californian based company.  But leaving aside the legal permutations for a moment, let’s instead take a look at the known unknowns and their likely impact on the marketplace:

  • Competitive patent strategy. Over the last couple of years we have seen an acceleration of the use of patents in the consumer technology and Internet arenas.  Patents have quickly become established as an extra part of competition strategy among big technology firms.  Now, instead of just relying on product development, marketing, pricing and positioning technology, companies can use patent claims to help strengthen their position at the direct expense of the competition.
  • Patent arms race. With the rise of patent trolls (companies’ whose sole objective is to acquire patents and then try to sue established companies for patent infringement) the big established companies themselves have started to acquire patent arsenals.  For example, earlier this year Microsoft paid AOL $1.1bn for 925 patents, 650 of which it promptly sold to Facebook for $550m.  Before that, in 2011, Microsoft teamed up with long-time rival Apple as well as with just about anyone whose anyone in the smartphone business who isn’t Android (RIM, Sony, Ericsson et) to spend $4.5 bn on 6,000+ patents from bankrupt Canadian teleco equipment maker Nortel.  Google had been on the other side of the bidding war and lost out with what was seen by some as a whimsical bidding strategy.  Google promptly went onto to buy fading handset manufacturer Motorola for $12.5bn, a company that just happened to have c.17,000 patents in its archives.  There are uncanny echoes of the Cold War with both sides stockpiling nuclear weapons.  The difference here is that the arsenals are being thrown straight into battle rather than being held back for fear of Mutually Assured Destruction.
  • Patents no longer fit for purpose? Patents raise as many questions as they provide answers for in the software and technology spaces.  Not only are they subject to legal challenge, the language used in them is often  inadequate.  What gives a piece of technology competitive edge is not having rounded corners, but the digital mechanics underneath the hood. It is the code inside a piece of software that gives it edge, not the broad user behaviour it supports.  That’s why we have market leaders in software and product categories that are crowded with lesser competitors that support the same basic user behaviour. And yet patents focus on the exact opposite of this equation.  Patents are typically vaguely worded affairs that talk about broad behaviours such as “a system for controlled distribution of user profiles over a network” (taken directly from a patent which forms the basis of Yahoo’s case against Facebook). Even the more detailed patents – such as Apple’s recent Haptics filing – have a procedural focus.  And of course they have to. Patent applications are exactly that: applications.  There is no guarantee they will be granted and so a filing company is going to be as secretive as they possibly can rather than give its competition edge.  But even if there was a guarantee there is no way in which a technology company is going to publish its source code on a publically accessible document.

And therein lies the problem, if a company is not ever going to include the secret sauce which gives its product the real edge, then what is a technology patent really going to be able to definitively cover?  If it inherently comes down to a discussion about supporting usage behaviours then we end up with an unusual and potentially restrictive lens placed upon innovation and invention.  The history of innovation and invention is that when something comes along that is good enough, it permeates through the entire market.   Sometimes this involves licensing of patents, more often than not it happens through creating similar but different inventions. Think about any consumer electronics purchase, whether that be a digital camera, a laptop or a TV: the products all have pretty much the same mix of features and form factor in their respective price tiers.  This is what has happened to date with smartphones.

However if the Apple ruling survives all challenges and is then extended it could have the effect of a forced and artificial split in innovation evolution. Instead of the touchscreen smartphone becoming another step on the innovation path it could become the sole domain of Apple and force the competition to pursue entirely different evolution paths.  Now there are obviously both positive and negative connotations of that.  But whatever your view point, it will be dramatically different from how other consumer electronics product categories have evolved.

With its origins in early 18th century England, there is an increasingly strong case for a major review of the global patent system and whether it is the right tool to strike an appropriate balance between protecting intellectual property and fostering innovation in the 21st century consumer technology marketplace.

Who’s Competing with Who?

An interesting post-script to the Apple-Samsung case is looking at who else will potentially benefit other than Apple.  Right now there will be a host of handset manufacturers who will be hurriedly looking for a Mobile OS Plan B.  An uncertain Android future doesn’t leave them many places to turn to other than Microsoft’s Windows 8. Historically no friend of Apple but these days of course part of Apple’s Patent Pact. How long that alliance will remain intact remains to be seen, though a cynic might argue that Apple would leave it in place just long enough for Microsoft to get enough of a foothold to fragment the OS marketplace before it renews hostilities between Cupertino and Redmond. By which stage Apple could have billions worth of patent settlement dollars to wage war with…

Music Start-Up Strategy 2.0

The music industry needs innovation more than most industries and yet the last two years has seen a slowdown in the number of new licensed music services coming to market and greater consolidation around the Triple A of Apple, Android and Amazon.  In this brave new world music start-ups need an entirely new modus operandi.

There are many reasons for the slowdown in new licensed music services, but a key one is the establishment of the license-advance business model in which record labels issue licenses only upon payment of sizeable, non-repayable advances in anticipation of forecasted income.  Depending on the scale of the risk to the labels presented by the licensed service these payments can range from relatively modest to downright gargantuan (Beyond Oblivion went to the wall owing $100m to Sony and Warner Music even though not a single consumer ever saw the service).  With so few services managing to make a dent on Apple’s market share investors have grown wary of investing in music start-ups that require licenses, some have effectively stopped investing in them all together.  The labels’ focus on partners with scale (and effectively using advances as means of sorting the financially robust wheat from the chaff) may deliver near-term security for the labels but it increases their long term risk by slowing music service innovation.  Hungry young start-ups are often more likely to create transformational innovation than heavily resourced R&D divisions of billion dollar companies.  Thinking ‘out of the box’ is always a lot easier when you’re not actually in the box in the first place.

Music Start-Up Strategy 2.0 Requires A New Set of Relationships

The status quo is a lose-lose for all parties, each of whom find themselves stuck in a Catch 22: labels need new services but also the safety net of advances, services need licenses but can’t pay for the advances and investors want to invest in music services but won’t do so when advances are required.  It is time to change the model, for this cycle of insufficient innovation and market contraction to be broken.

So just how can this circle be squared? The starting point is accepting the position of each of the three constituencies and then building from there:

  • Labels want market innovation but with their market contracting they need to mitigate risk
  • Services want to innovate but can’t afford to have advances as their core early stage expense
  • Investors want to invest in music innovation but want to put as much as possible of that investment in technology and people

Music start-up strategy 2.0 requires each party to think and behave differently, to accept the fundamentals of the new digital music economy.  And this requires a willingness to both embrace some new ideas and to help forge a few others:

Record labels – become investment partners: Record labels – majors and independents alike – deserve great credit for transforming their business in the last few years, but they cannot change the market alone.  Labels need to harness open innovation, leveraging the developer ecosystem.  OpenEMI is an early model of best practice but to fulfil its massive potential the approach needs underpinning with a more equitable alignment of label-developer relationships.  Start-ups are going to help solve record labels’ problem and labels need to not just tap that expertise but accelerate it.  To do that record labels need to apply A&R rules to technology start-ups. On the artist front labels already behave like Venture Capital firms, now they need to translate this appetite for risk to their commercial strategy.  To take the same sort of risks on start-ups as they do on artists. This of course means that labels will routinely require equity stakes – and sizeable ones, but instead of just being a licensing requirement, these will be in return for a new relationship in which labels establish nurturing partnerships with young start-ups, just like those they have with artists.

When a start-up is at pre-launch stage it is probably going to be more appropriate to take a good chunk of equity for licenses than it is an advance that the start-up can ill afford.  Of course it will still be appropriate for advances to be part of the mix in some circumstances – sometimes even the majority of the mix – but the balance of the relationship should be investing to become a business partner.  This means becoming active stakeholders, sitting on boards, working with the entrepreneurs to help make them successes.  In short, the relationship should change from licensee-licensor to investment partners with shared vision and motives for success.

Start-ups – understand what labels need: Though record labels are becoming increasingly confident of their own innovation capabilities, no media company is an innovation agency while technology start-ups have innovation imperatives at their core.  Unfortunately they often get the conversations with labels wrong.  Instead of going to labels with the “we’re going to save your industry” pitch, start-ups should better understand what label priorities are and then propose working with them to help them achieve those objectives, as partners. (This is something that Spotify did incredibly well right from the start).  Just as it is best practice to engage with an investor long before they actually need money, start-ups should apply the same approach to record labels.

However this change of relationship is probably going to take some time to realize, so in the more immediate term start-ups should look at ways to deliver their experiences without licenses.  No I’m not advocating the Groove Shark approach, but instead leveraging the content licenses of digital music services that are pursuing ambitious API strategies.  Music start-ups should think hard about whether they really need to own music licenses themselves to deliver a great user experience, or at least whether they need to right away.  Building, for example, a product within the Spotify ecosystem is a great way to deliver a real-world proof-of-concept, test consumer receptivity and have immediate access to millions of potential customers.  License conversations are a lot easier with proven consumer demand on the table.  (Though start-ups need to be careful with music API strategy, indeed they should treat music service APIs like mobile OS.  Don’t put all of your eggs in one API basket.)

Investors – work with labels as partners and embrace the API economy. Investors might have some reservations about working with record labels at start-up board level but they shouldn’t fear losing influence.  The odds are investors will still make the same scale of Seed and Series A investments, it is just that their money will be working smarter, helping build great technology and hiring better people at those crucial early stages of a company’s life.  Investors and labels often find themselves on opposite sides of the argument.  There is no inherent reason the relationship should be adversarial.

Investors should also think about how well their investment strategy harnesses the capabilities of the API Economy. Of course it is always preferable to invest in a business that owns all of the fuel that powers its engine.  But in the era of integrated music API’s it is no longer crucial for a music service to have its own licenses.  An investor wouldn’t expect a mobile app developer to own Android, iOS or Windows Mobile so they need not expect a music service to own music licenses.

Laying the Groundwork for Transformational Innovation

Some of these changes are already beginning to happen, others are a long way off from being realized.  But this change is needed to enable to next wave of transformational innovation that the music industry so desperately needs.  Freeing up precious and scarce early stage resources leaves start-ups able to focus on developing great, innovative technology.  Which in turn will mean better products, better user experiences and more revenue for everyone.

I first discussed some of the themes covered in this blog post in the Giga Om Pro report ‘Monetizing Music in the Post-Scarcity Age’ which can be found here

 

OpenEMI, an Innovation Files Case Study

Following on from Part 1 of the ‘Innovation Files’ series, this post looks at EMI’s OpenEMI initiative and how it could drive transformational innovation within the major record label and publisher.

EMI today announced an interesting developer initiative that aims to revolutionize the way in which developers work with EMI.  Securing licenses from record labels is a notoriously resource intensive and time consuming process that can leave some apps still born: many smaller developers – especially the one man outfits – often simply can’t spare the resources, time (and money) that can be required.

EMI have inserted themselves into the developer value chain

To streamline the process EMI have inserted themselves directly into the developer value chain. They have partnered with the Echo Nest to build a ‘sandbox’ where developers can access a repository of continually updated EMI content including music, videos and artwork. Developers need only sign up to EMI’s API to start working with the assets.

Developers can either proactively develop their own ideas or respond to briefs and requests sent from EMI, who will funnel combined requests from artists, managers and labels.  Developers however do not get to simply build Apps using EMI’s content and then go take them to market.  Instead every app requires EMI approval, and EMI hopes to encourage best practice of developers submitting requests as early in the process as possible.

Clearly not all apps will get approved and there is certainly potential for log jams.  However the process will most likely streamline organically – assuming all partners have the right attitude and willingness to be sufficiently agile.   It will also be a great platform for all the extra content that 360 artist deals now deliver and that major labels too often just aren’t utilizing well enough.

Open EMI can, and should, go way beyond artist apps

Although initially this set up will principally act as an innovative alternative vehicle for sourcing artist apps – with developers playing around with EMI’s APIs replacing the traditional tender and quote process – it has much bigger longer term potential.  The name EMI has given this initiative speaks volumes: OpenEM.  It is a statement of intent.  Even though what we will see in this initial phase is relatively modest, it takes huge amount for an organization like EMI to take what is for them such a radical approach to their content.  More importantly I expect this to be an opening salvo in a broader strategic move.

An API for EMI’s own innovation

EMI have not just built an API framework for developers, they have built an API for their own future innovation.  The challenge for EMI is the degree to which they can fully harness this new innovation toolset and respond to the new approaches and mindsets it will require.

These are the three things I would like to see EMI use OpenEMI to deliver:

  • Learn from the OpenEMI developer community to help start building the next generation of music product, not just Artist Apps
  • Seed the culture and mindset of the OpenEMI community throughout EMI
  • Learn and implement innovation best practices throughout the entire EMI organization

OpenEMI is a brave step that has the necessary senior executive support to be a success. To help ensure success, OpenEMI’s champions will need to win support across all levels of the organization, and to do that they will need to demonstrate clear benefits to the most sceptical of opponents.

Driving Transformational Innovation

Transformational innovation is never easy to implement because its path is littered with the corpses of the products, processes and jobs associated with the old ways of doing things.  But it is exactly this difficult path that all media companies must take if they are to emerge intact out of this unprecedented period of disruption.  The Terra Firma debacle was an unfortunate distraction for EMI at exactly the time they didn’t need it, leaving them at distinct market disadvantage. They need an unfair advantage to start re-levelling the playing field.  Driving transformational innovation through the entire organization, commercial partner relationships, artist relationships and product strategy  is the fuel for that advantage. If harnessed to its full potential OpenEMI can be the first step on that tricky path.

The Innovation Files. Part 1: Rates Of Innovation

[The Innovation FilesThis is the first in a series of posts addressing innovation within the music industry.]

Innovation is a much overused and often misused term, yet when considered in its truest sense it is arguably the single most important issue that the music industry must address if it is ever going to rediscover long term, sustainable revenue growth.

Of course the modern day music industry is a complex and diverse collection of entities with equally disparate innovation trends, not however starting from a base of zero, despite what some may think.

Indeed, we all do innovation.  Even the least innovative of companies do some form of innovation, at some level, at some pace.

The three metrics which determine whether a company is in balance innovative or not are:

  1. Degree of innovation pursued
  2. Culture of innovation supported
  3. Rate of innovation achieved

Performing strongly on all three of these Innovation Performance Indicators (IPI) IPIs will not guarantee a company success (external factors such as consumer demand, marketing, finance will all help determine that).  But excelling at all three IPI’s will ensure that a company has the frameworks for creating product strategies that have the agility and adaptability necessary for success.

The major record labels have been much maligned for not having performed strongly enough across all three IPIs but in recent years they have upped their respective games markedly.  However innovation comes less naturally to some companies than others.  Record labels are like most media businesses in that they have traditionally relied upon channel partners to drive transformational innovation.  The compact cassette, the DVD, BluRay, HDTV, PVRs, Ring Tones, Games Consoles etc. all transformed media business models for ever, but they were shaped by technology companies not media companies.

Apple’s sub-par rate of music service innovation

And this is where the elephant in the room raises its hand.er…trunk: Apple’s sub-par rate of music service innovation is probably the single most important reason why digital music growth has slowed in the last couple of years.   Before you begin thinking I’m losing my mind, let’s be clear, I am not questioning Apple’s innovation credentials, indeed they are the marketplace exemplar, instead, and specifically, their music service innovation performance.  In fact it is exactly the exceptionally high bar set by Apple’s rate of device innovation which throws their rate of music service innovation into stark contrast (see figure).

Rates of Innovation

In this chart each product innovation (or set of product innovations) has been given a score using the scale described in the key.  What is abundantly clear is that Apple’s rate of device innovation has consistently far outpaced its rate of music service innovation, which in turn has also significantly lagged the total market rate of music service innovation.  Apple’s overall rate of innovation has accelerated in recent years driven by the launch of the iPhone and iPad, but interestingly, also by a upturn in music service innovation with new products such as Genius and Ping.

Because Apple is the majority of the online digital music market, the impacts of its rate of music service innovation are felt market, and indeed industry, wide.  When Apple shifted its attentions from music to video and apps – which better demonstrate the capabilities of their devices than audio files – digital music growth began its now established slowdown.  Apple didn’t fall into this position accidentally, it was a series of orchestrated strategic decisions.

Dominant as it may be, market share is not the measure of success for Apple’s music innovation 

As I explained in a previous post, Apple is in the business of selling hardware, not music.   The ROI of music service innovation for Apple is not measured in digital music ARPU, but instead in sales of i-devices.  Dominant market share is a nice-to-have symptom of success, not the measure of it.  So Apple innovates music experiences only as much as it needs to, namely as much as is required to help sell its core innovations.  Apple’s recent mini-flurry of music service innovation happened only because its music innovation rate had fallen so far below the market average that the Apple i-device music experience was beginning to look sub-par.  i.e. there was a risk that i-device sales might suffer without music service innovation.

The music industry needs Apple to start taking music service innovation seriously again because Apple has as its customers the majority of the digital music market’s most valuable customers.  The music industry needs iCloud to be one of a series of near-term music service innovations that are transformational in collective impact, rather than it being a solitary sustaining-innovation that does just enough to keep the i-device music experience sufficiently strong to continue to help drive sales.  And the rest of the market also needs Apple to start playing a more active role because Apple’s innovations drive entire markets, dragging the competition along by the scruff of the neck.  As they say, a high tide rises all boats.

Innovation must engage the untapped market not just re-engage the aficionados

And speaking of competition, the music industry also needs the other two members of Digital Music’s Triple A – i.e. Amazon and Android (Apple makes the third) – to up the innovation ante and play their role – as part of the uber-financed-trinity  – to start pulling new customers into the digital market rather than competing for the same early adopter aficionados.

The rate of consumer device innovation is outpacing that of music services, and that will always be the case but that gap needs narrowing, fast.  That quickness depends upon Apple narrowing the gap between its respective rates of innovation, and the record labels are going to need to give Apple incentive to do so.  They have not always been the most accommodating of innovation partners for Apple (remember when they licensed MP3 downloads to anyone who wasn’t called Apple?) but unless that approach changes they cannot expect Apple’s rate of music service innovation to change either.