Musical.ly Sells For $800 Million But Peaked By Being Too Silicon Valley

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News has just emerged that lip synching app Musical.ly is to be sold for between $800 million and $1 billion to Chinese company Jinri Toutiao, which also bought Musical.ly predecessor Flipagram. I’ve long held the belief that Musical.ly and competitor companies like Dubsmash represent some of the only genuinely needle moving user experience innovation in music of recent years. Musical.ly introduced the concept of the 15-second song and shone a light on how to engage Gen Z with music-led experiences by playing by their rules not the traditional music industry’s rules. In doing so it created a whole generation of Musical.ly stars, such as Baby Ariel with 20 million Musical.ly followers.

But as with all previous lip synching and music messenger apps, Musical.ly has run into its inevitable user base peak and is now starting its equally inevitable decline. According to data from MIDiA’s Quarterly Brand Tracker, weekly active users (WAU) across the US, UK, Canada and Australia and was just 1.4% in Q3 2017, down from a high of 2.1% in Q1. Dubsmash is following a similar trajectory.

So, what’s gone wrong for Musical.ly?

To be clear, Musical.ly is not a failing company but it is beyond its peak. Musical.ly did an amazing job of laser targeting, becoming one of the destinations of choice for teen and tween females. More than four fifths of its user base are female. It recognized that the opportunity for this segment wasn’t full albums, nor even full tracks. It was short clips of music that they could use to express, and identify, themselves. In Musical.ly, music was the tool for Gen Z identity, not consumption. It tapped into Gen Z’s desire to digitally peacock, or to show off and say who they are. The problem for Musical.ly is that Snapchat and Instagram do a great job of this for these consumers too. Musical.ly became a one trick pony that suffered from not being able to use its core functionality as a beachhead for something much bigger. In the 20th century the railroad companies were disrupted by cars because they thought they were railroad companies and didn’t realise they were transportation companies. Similarly, Musical.ly got caught up with being a social music company rather than a social company.

In many respects Musical.ly was a victim of the West Coast VC bubble, following the mantra of obsessing with doing one thing really well. As a result, Silicon Valley has a habit of churning out feature companies rather than product companies. This isn’t a problem for VCs as it is easier for a company to buy and integrate a feature company, than it is a product company. But, it does leave the digital landscape unbalanced.

Jinri Toutiao has every opportunity to build a music messaging powerhouse with its acquired assets but to succeed, it will need to recognize that these are features not products.

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Spotify, Netflix And Instagram Make Gains In Q2 2017

Since Q4 2016 MIDiA Research has been fielding a quarterly tracker survey across the US, UK, Canada and Australia to build a proprietary dataset that provides a unique insight into how digital consumer trends are evolving quarter-upon-quarter. Through the tracker we monitor weekly active usage of apps for streaming music, streaming video, games, social and messaging. We also measure the shifts in key consumer behaviours, such as curated playlist listening, binge watching and subscriptions, in each of these sectors each quarter. We have structured the data so that clients can explore each app and behaviour by demographics, and, crucially, users can examine how much each app overlaps with others and with all the 40 different behaviours we track. We recently published a report for MIDiA’s paid subscribers analysing key trends across the first three quarters of our tracker. Here are some of key insights from the report. To find out more about how to get access to MIDiA’s Quarterly Trends report, email stephen@midiaresearch.com.

The leading apps in each of the categories tracked are largely consistent across all of the countries surveyed and they are also the big names that are familiar to all (see figure above). However, where things get interesting is in a) the variations in penetration across countries and b) how usage has evolved over successive quarters. For example:

quarterly trends midia figure 1

  • Messaging apps on the rise: Weekly Facebook usage was up slightly in the US between Q4 2016 and Q2 2017, but down in the UK. Over the same period WhatsApp was flat in the US but up slightly, along with Instagram, in the UK. WhatsApp penetration stood at just 11% in the US in Q2 2017 but 33% in the UK, while penetration in Australia and Canada laid in the middle of those two points.
  • Netflix growing but not in the UK: YouTube is still the standout video destination in terms of weekly usage across all the markets tracked. However, growth has slowed in these markets, with penetration going down slightly over the three quarters. YouTube’s loss is Netflix’s gain, with the streaming TV platform’s usage increasing each quarter. Though, again, there is an intriguing country level exception: Netflix is growing everywhere except the UK where weekly usage was flat over the period.

top streaming music apps in q2 2017, spotify, youtube, apple music, soundcloud, amazon, musical.ly

YouTube is the world’s leading streaming music app and this is true of the larger, mature markets. The continual breaking of YouTube music streaming records by the likes of Shakira and Luis Fonsi point to a renaissance in YouTube as a music streaming platform. However, the origin of those artists point to the location of YouTube’s music momentum: Latin America. Meanwhile, across the US, UK, Canada and Australia, weekly usage of YouTube as a music app was flat, and down actually in Australia. Most of the music apps we tracked had a dip in Q1 2017 but in the main held ranking and overall usage. Deezer saw a small rise while Soundcloud fell slightly. Spotify was the big winner, gaining penetration to close the gap on YouTube, and becoming the leading standalone music app. In the UK, Spotify surpassed YouTube for music among 16-19 year olds, hinting at a strong future for Spotify among Gen Z. Talking of Gen Z, lip synching apps Musical.ly and Dubsmash maintained momentum across the period, something other music messaging apps have previously failed to do this late on in their lives. These sort of apps, though niche in scale, point to what Gen Z want from their social music experiences.

These are just some of the very high-level trends, and there is much more in the report itself. If you are a MIDiA subscription client you can access the report and data right away here. If you are not yet a client and would like to learn more about how to get the report and the other benefits of being a MIDiA client email Stephen@midiaresearch.com.

Welcome To The 15 Second Song

Music messaging apps have become something of a boom area in recent years with the likes of MSTY, Dubsmash, PingTune, Flipagram and WordUp pursuing a variety of approaches. It is clear that messaging and music sharing both play to the fundamental human need to connect. What has been less clear is the market opportunity in the context of booming growth among pure play messaging apps like LINE and WhatsApp. The global number of monthly active users of messaging apps is now over 5 billion (which compares to just 2.6 billion for social networks). Messaging platforms are the new place digital audiences congregate. Conscious of the need to add to, rather than compete with, the messaging incumbents, music messaging app Musical.ly has taken a different approach. Instead of creating a soundtrack for messages it has focused on an Instagram-meets-Vine use case, with users creating their own videos to accompany a selection of songs served up by the app. It may seem like a relatively subtle difference but it has created an utterly different use case, one that challenges the very essence of what music consumption actually is, and what a song should be.

Peacocking

I’d been aware of Musical.ly for some time (music messaging apps, along with artist subscription apps, is one of the areas of music innovation that I’m currently paying a lot of attention to). But what really woke me up to the power of Musical.ly was seeing my daughter use it. Within seconds she was creating her first video, finding friends and racking up the likes. In a very similar way to Instagram Musical.ly is a perfect fit for the tweens and early teens. It appeals to the peacocking psychology of kids as they explore and define their identities, and as they learn about friendships and social circles.

musicallyJust as with kids in the school yard competing for who’s got the most Instagram followers, Musical.ly taps this somewhat narcissistic drive to outperform the rest. But while selfies and filters are the language of Instagram for kids, on Musical.ly it is music. Users are presented with a curated selection of tracks to chose from against which they create their own videos, whether they be lip synching, sharp dance routines or creative videos. As a slightly over bearing parent I insisted my daughter did not reveal her face on Musical.ly so she set about creating endless streams of stop motion animation, ranging from her Converse walking themselves across the floor to a biscuit disappearing one nibble at a time, all with a song as the soundtrack. This enforced creativity appears to have paid dividends as she quickly amassed followers and requests to collaborate.

The 15 Second Song

All well and good, but the really interesting bit for me was that each of the songs used in the videos was between 15 and 25 seconds long. Yet she plays the videos back again and again, on loop, as do her followers. So she ends up listening to, for example, 15 seconds of Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry’ sound tracking her self-propelled Converse many, many more times than she ever listened to the full song. Musical.ly will doubtlessly pitch this to rights owners as ‘discovery’. But it’s not. It is consumption in its own right, and like we’ve never really seen before. The 15 second hook is the song. The other 3 minutes are unnecessary baggage.

Breaking Free Of The 3 Minute Straight Jacket

We have the the 3 minute pop song because that’s what radio wanted, not because that is how long a song should naturally be. So now that we are becoming freed of the constraints of radio schedules, 7 inch vinyl and other analogue formats, there is no reason that the 3 minute straight jacket should dominate anymore. There have long been exceptions, such as Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (5.55) and Napalm Death’s ‘You Suffer’ (0.01). And although the pop music average remains firmly nailed to 3 minutes, change is a-coming. For example, Canadian Shawn Mendes, now firmly signed to Universal Music’s Island, found his way to fame by releasing 6 second songs on Vine. Generation Edge (i.e. Millennials aged 16 or under) have more apps, entertainment and technology competing for their attention than any previous generation. It’s not so much that their attention spans are shortening, but that they simply cannot afford to focus on any one thing too long else they miss out on everything else.

The changing structure of pop songs to feature hooks throughout, rather than simply in the chorus, means that in many ways pop songs are already becoming a stitched together collection of mini-songs. They inherently lend themselves to being unbundled. Musical.ly and its model of super-short-form music experiences is by no means the entire future of music consumption and creativity, but it absolutely does represent an entirely new strand of both of those.

The Orchard’s co-founder Scott Cohen started suggesting a few years ago that the future of the song could mean embracing 30 seconds as a creative format. It’s beginning to look like Scott may have called it right.

Spotify Just Parked Its Tanks On YouTube’s Lawn

Today’s Spotify announcement was always going to be about Daniel Ek attempting to regain control of the streaming narrative in advance of Apple’s grand entry in a couple of weeks.  But if you were expecting this to be the launch of a bunch of new music features then you were in for a little bit of a shock.  Though there were some new music features outlined (such as swipe to listen, behaviour-learning programming and fitness features) the core of this event was positioning Spotify’s transition from a pure play music service into an entertainment destination with video taking centre stage.  YouTube has been competing (on uneven terms) with Spotify for years as a music service.  Now Spotify is fighting back by going after YouTube’s heartland.

Moving Beyond The Soundtrack

Spotify’s hook line for the event was ‘Soundtracking Your Day’ but in actual fact Spotify want to do much more than that (after all that’s what they already do), now they want to also be a visual part of your day too.  Spotify announced a host of new video partners including native online video producers, next gen video creators like Vice News and traditional brands like Comedy Central.  Spotify is creating a catalogue of video shorts that are designed to fit into your day.  This is unashamedly YouTube, Vessel and Buzz Feed territory.

Lessening The Music Dependence

While music consumption is booming (25 billion hours of music has been streamed on Spotify so far) Ek and co are spreading their bets.  The last 6 months have been tough for Spotify with the major labels casting doubt on its freemium model due to thinly veiled pressure from Apple.  Spotify will quite rightly feel aggrieved with this shift in attitude considering the fact it now accounts for half of global streaming revenue and is doing a better job of driving subscription uptake than anyone has ever come close to doing.  Running a music service can be a high effort, low reward and frustrating experience at times.  So Spotify can be forgiven for wanting to weaken its utter dependence on the whims of a few big labels.

Reversing Into YouTube Territory

Reversing into YouTube and Buzz Feed’s front lawns though will be easier said than done though.  The nature of the mobile consumption landscape is a diverse mix of content capsules, whether they be apps, mobile bookmarks or notification feeds.  Users have learned to consume mobile content in bite-sized chunks.  Facebook has done what it can to re-aggregate content via timeline but has found that asset more useful for sorting users personal content and shared content snippets.  Messaging platforms are now looking like the place where content audiences are best aggregated.  In fact the history of content audience aggregation can be summarised as:

1 – websites

2 – portals (e.g. Yahoo, AOL)

3 – social networks

4 – messaging platforms

Which is why Facebook is disrupting itself with WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, it knows where things are heading.  This is the environment in which Spotify will be competing, with Snapchat and Line as much as it is with YouTube and Vice.  In Spotify’s favour is the fact that many of the digital first content destinations, Buzz Feed especially, are entirely willing to envisage a future in which their content could exist entirely on third party platforms.

Return Of The Portal?

In a lot of ways Spotify’s video mini-pivot feels like a back-to-the-future spin on the 20th century portal model but there is clearly an opportunity to re-aggregate our fragmented digital entertainment lives.  Whether Spotify can do that or not is another question and even if it can, it will be a long-term play rather than some short term hit.  Ek might have said he wants to ‘soundtrack our day’ but his product strategy actions show us that he feels Spotify has outgrown being the soundtrack alone.

Making Freemium Add Up

Today at MIDiA Consulting we have released a new report on the digital content sector entitled ‘Making Freemium Add Up’.

The report combines an unprecedented appraisal of key freemium service metrics with market analysis and recommendations to create a definitive assessment of the freemium marketplace.  In the report we analyse an intentionally diverse selection of consumer web services, looking at the distribution and scale of their user bases and the relationship of these with their business models.  Services tracked range from music services like Slacker, through utility services like Skype to social services like Google+.  It also includes long term data trend analysis of Spotify, Deezer and Pandora.

The report is available for free to all subscribers to Music Industry Blog (to subscribe just add your email address in the Email Subscription box to the right of this post.  If you are already a subscriber but have not yet received a copy of the report by email please email mark AT midiaconsulting DOT COM).

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

  • Inactive users: inactive user rates range from 13% to 77%.  Social services have the highest rates (77% for Instagram and 66% for Twitter).  Inactive users are a key characteristic of all registration based services with free-to-consumer tiers, but the registered-to-active rate is below average for all freemium services However freemium inactive users are also often highly interested customers who simply need hooking up with the right pricing and product. In short, freemium inactive user bases are priceless qualified marketing lead databases.  The challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff, to differentiate between disinterested freeloaders and potentially valuable paying customers.
  • Paid users: paid user rates range from less than 1% to 90%.  But both ends of the scale are outliers.  At the low end Soundcloud’s premium tiers are aimed at the smaller audience of creators that are just a small subset of its 180 million active users. While at the other end Valve’s gaming platform steam is more digital retail store than pure freemium destination.   The risk for all freemium services is ensuring the free tier isn’t too good, unless free users are your key revenue source (cf Hulu and Pandora). Spotify and Deezer appear to have hit a conversion sweet spot, a solid balance between compelling free tiers and better enough paid tiers.
  • Scarcity counts: a music service user risks little by churning because he can still easily get all the same music elsewhere if he cancels his Spotify subscription.  But if you stop playing Angry Birds you’ll find few other places where you can hurl bad tempered feathered missiles at egg-stealing green pigs.  Similarly churning out of a social network carries a high ‘churn risk’ for consumers as they will weaken their ability to connect with extended social circles online
  • The free-to-paid divide needs narrowing: the gap from free to paid is high, a significant leap of faith is required from the user.  Whereas the gap from zero to $0.99 for Angry Birds free to paid is a modest step, from zero to $9.99 for Spotify or Deezer portable is a much more sizeable hurdle.  Thus converting to paid for music subscription services is a more sizeable achievement than for low priced gaming apps. More needs to be done to bridge the divide.  This can be achieved in through bundles and innovative pricing. Though this must be set against the risk of cannibalizing full price tiers.

making freemium add up