What Frank Ocean’s Bombastic Blond Moment Tells Us About The Future Of Artists And Labels

When frank-ocean-blond-compressed-0933daea-f052-40e5-85a4-35e07dac73dfFrank Ocean’s latest album ‘Blond’ dropped, it did so like a nuclear bomb, sending shockwaves throughout the music industry. In one of the audacious release strategies of recent years Ocean and his team at 360 fulfilled the final album contractual commitment to Universal Music by ushering his breaking-the-mold visual album ‘Endless’ onto Apple Music.  Featuring collaborations from the likes of Sampha and James Blake and set as a loose soundtrack to art house visuals, ‘Endless’ looked like the sort of digitally native, creative masterstroke that would win plaudits and awards in equal measure. But no sooner had Universal executives started daydreaming about Grammys then along came what turned out to be the ‘actual’ album ‘Blonde’, self released by Ocean (Universal contractual commitments now of course conveniently fulfilled) and, for now at least, exclusively available on Apple Music. You can just imagine seeing the blood drain from (Universal CEO) Lucian Grainge’s face as the full magnitude of what had just happened came into focus. In truth ‘audacious’ doesn’t even come close to explaining what Ocean pulled off, but where it gets really interesting is what this means for the future of artist careers.

Artist-Label Relationships Are Changing

Quickly sensing the potential implications, Grainge swiftly sent out a memo to Universal staff outlawing streaming exclusives…though voices from within Universal suggest that this diktat had been in the works for some time . A cynic might even argue that it was politically useful for Universal to be seen to be taking a strong stand ahead of the impending Vivendi earnings call. As the ever excellent Tim Ingham points out, in practice Universal could put a streaming exclusives moratorium in place and still have a good number of its front line artists put out streaming exclusives. This is because many of the deals these artists have are not traditional label deals where Universal owns all the rights. And that itself is as telling as Ocean’s bombastic blond moment. Not so much that Universal is probably the major with the highest amount of its revenue accounted for by licensed and distributed works, but that any label’s roster is now a complex and diverse mix of deal types. Artists are more empowered than ever before, and thanks to the innovation of label services companies and next generation music companies like Kobalt, labels have been forced to steal the disruptors’ clothing in order to remain competitive.

Streaming Exclusives Represent Another Option For Artists

Just as labels had started to successfully co-opt the label services marketplace by launching their own – e.g. Universal’s Caroline – or by buying up the competition – e.g. Sony’s acquisition of Essential Music & Marketing – along come streaming services giving artists another non-label route to market. In truth, the threat has remained largely unrealised. Exclusives on Tidal have most often proved to be laced with caveats and get out clauses (e.g. Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ arriving on iTunes 24 hours after landing ‘exclusively’ on Tidal). Chance The Rapper’s (in name only) mixtape ‘Colouring Book’ and Ocean’s ‘Blond’ are exceptions rather than the rule. So all that’s about to change now right? Not necessarily…

Album Releases Require More Time Than Apple Probably Has

As anyone who works in a label will tell you, releasing an album is typically a long, carefully planned process with many moving parts. It’s not something you do in a couple of weeks (Ocean started building the hype and expectation for his latest opus a year ago). If, for example, Apple was going to start doing exclusives routinely, even if it just did 20, that’s still a new exclusive to push every 2 weeks. That might work, at a stretch, for music service retailing promotional pushes but is far short of a fully fledged album release cycle. Which means that even for just 20 exclusives Apple would have an intricate mesh of overlapping release campaigns. This is something that labels do with their eyes closed but would it require new organizational disciplines for Apple. Not impossible, but not wholly likely either.

In practice, exclusives are likely to be limited to being the crown jewels of streaming services, their most valuable players, creative playmakers if you like. Even for Netflix, that pioneering exemplar of the streaming originals strategy, only spends 15% of its $3 billion content budget on originals and probably won’t break 20% even by 2020. What Apple and Netflix have in common is that they are using exclusives as a customer acquisition strategy, achieving their aims by making a big noise about each one. But if you’re releasing exclusives every week or two the shine soon wears off. And suddenly the return on investment diminishes.

Streaming Exclusives Are Unlikely To Turn Into A Flood

None of this means that we won’t see more artists striking streaming exclusives. We will, regardless of what labels may actually want to happen. And most of those will probably be on Apple – the service with bottomless pits masquerading as pockets. But the trickle will not turn into a flood, a fast flowing stream perhaps (see what I did there) but not a torrent.

Although they might not realise it yet, Kobalt might find themselves hurting more than the majors from this latest twist in the Exclusives Wars. Kobalt has probably done more than any single other music company to drive change in the traditional music industry in the last 5 years, showing artists and songwriters that there is another way of doing things. But Frank Ocean has just shown that there is now new another option for established artists looking for options at the end of a label deal.

Most importantly of all though, is that streaming exclusives (and indeed label services deals) work best when an artist has already established a brand and an audience. Most often that means after an artist has had a record label recording career. Apple cannot be relied upon to build anything more than a handful of artist brands. One of the founding myths of the web was that it was going to do away with labels and other traditional ‘gatekeepers’. Now, decades later, labels still account for the vast, vast, vast majority of music listening. Make no mistake, a momentous value chain shift is taking place, with more power and autonomy shifting to the creators, but that is a long journey and ‘Blond’ is but one part of this much bigger shift.

The Beatles, Streaming And The End Of The Record Label Business Model

So the Beatles are finally coming to streaming…well much of the Beatles’ catalogue is at least.  Is it a big deal?  Kind of. The Beatles were late to iTunes and they’re now late to streaming.  Fashionably late though. No so soon as to be left standing awkwardly waiting for something to happen and not too late to miss the real action.

The Beatles are unique enough, and important enough to dictate their own terms and set their own timetable. For streaming services the Beatles catalogue is strategically important in the way it was for iTunes in that it helps communicate the value proposition of all the music in the world…well most of it. For the Beatles it represents the opportunity to reach younger audiences that sales are currently missing (which in large part explains why the catalogue is being made available on free tiers too).

It’s All About Targeting

20 years ago everyone pretty much bought the same product, the CD. Now though the music consumer landscape is fragmented and siloed. The fact that Adele’s ‘Hello’ simultaneously delivered stellar performance across audio streaming, video streaming, download sales and radio illustrates that there are many highly distinct groups of consumers that do one but not the other. This what Universal will be banking on with bringing the Beatles to streaming: they’ll be hoping that most of the future prospective buyers of Beatles albums are not streaming. For as long as this elongated transition phase continues, this sort of approach can work.

What Happens When The Bottom Falls Out Of the Catalogue Business?

The business model of record labels has long depended on revenue from back catalogue propping up the loss-leading new artists, on whom labels have to spend heavily to break. That model works as long as back catalogue sales are vibrant. But cracks are now showing in that model. Labels, especially the big ones, are increasingly spending even more heavily on a smaller number of big bets. For major labels many of these are either manufactured or laser targeted pop acts that grow big fast but like genetically modified crops, soak the nutrients out of their fan-base soil and are less likely to have long term careers. This means breaking artists are costing more to break and have less long term revenue potential.

That double whammy in itself would be bad enough, but there is an even more important structural factor at play. Catalogue sales depend on people buying classic albums, reissues and retrospectives. The secret is in the term ‘sales’. The model does not translate the same way to sales. Getting someone to spend $10 on an album for old times’ sake that they might listen to a handful of times but value having in their collection is very different from earning $0.20 or so from the same number of listens. But that is the way the world is heading. Older music buyers (i.e. from late 30’s onwards) are the lifeblood of catalogue sales.

That model works for older consumers that grew up buying music and thus have the habit. But what happens what happens when the first millennials enter their late 30s? Which is exactly what is going to start happening from 2016 onwards. As each new cohort of aging millennials passes 35 a smaller percentage of them will have ever regularly bought music. Thus from 2016 onwards every year will mean an ever smaller number of catalogue buyers coming into the top of the funnel.

The long term implications are clear. While this will not be anything like an instant collapse, the impact will be progressively more painful as each year passes. The old label model of developing a vast bank of copyrights will become less and less relevant.

So Beatles, welcome to streaming, this will be your last new format hurrah.

Why Streaming Doesn’t Really Matter For Adele

The outstanding success of Adele’s single ‘Hello’ has stoked up the already eager debate around whether Adele’s forthcoming ‘25’ album is going to be a success.  Indeed some are asking whether it is going to ‘save the industry’. One of the aspects that is getting a lot of attention is whether the album is going to be held back from some or all of the streaming services.  The parallels with Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ are clear, especially because both Swift and Adele are strong album artists, which is an increasingly rare commodity these days. But the similarities do not go much further.  In fact the two artists have dramatically different audience profiles which is why streaming plays a very different role for Adele than it does for Swift.

Lapsed Music Buyers Were Key To the Success Of ‘21’

Adele’s ’21’ was a stand out success, selling 30 million copies globally.  Core to ‘21’s commercial success was that the album touched so many people and in doing so pulled lapsed and infrequent music buyers out of the woodwork.  The question is whether the feat can be repeated? In many respects it looks a tall ask.  We’re 4 years on since the launch of ‘21’ and the music world has changed.  Music sales revenue (downloads and CDs) have fallen by a quarter while streaming revenues have tripled.  And the problem with pulling lapsed and infrequent buyers out of the woodwork is that they have receded even further 4 years on.  In fact a chunk of them are gone for good as buyers.

buyer streamer overlap

But beneath the headline numbers the picture is more nuanced (see graphic).  Looking at mid-year 2015 consumer data from the US we can see that music buyers (i.e. CD buyers and download buyers) are still a largely distinct group from free streamers (excluding YouTube).  While this may seem counter intuitive it is in fact evidence of the twin speed music consumer landscape that is emerging.  This is why ‘Hello’ was both a streaming success (the 2nd fastest Vevo video to reach 100m views) and a sales success (the first ever song to sell a million downloads in one week in the US).  These are two largely distinct groups of consumers.

Streaming A Non-Issue?

As a reader of this blog you probably live much or most of your music life digitally, but for vast swathes of the population, including many music buyers, this is simply not the case.  Given that the mainstream audience was so key to ‘21’s success we can make a sensible assumption that many of these will also fall into the 27% of consumers that buy music but do not stream.  The implication is thus that being on streaming really is not that big of a deal for ‘25’ one way or the other.  Whereas Taylor Swift’s audience is young and streams avidly, Adele’s is not.  That is not to say there aren’t young Adele fans, of course there are, but they are a far smaller portion of Adele’s fan base than Swift’s.

60% of 16-24 year olds stream while just 20% buy CDs.  Compare that to 40-50 year olds where 34% stream and 43% buy CDs.  These are dramatically different audiences which require dramatically different strategies.  Audio streaming is unlikely to be a major factor either way for Adele, neither in terms of lost sales nor revenue.  Unless of course she ‘does a Jazy-Z‘ or ‘does a U2’ and takes a big fat cheque from Apple to appear exclusively on Apple Music.  But I’d like to think she’d like to think she’d have the confidence of earning sales the real way.

The Importance Of The Digitally Engaged Super Fan

What unites Swift and Adele is that they are both mass market album artists and as such are something of a historical anomaly.  Swift bucked the trend by making an album targeted at Digital Natives shift more than 8 million units.  Adele will likely also buck the trend.  But paradoxically, considering the above data, in some ways it will be a harder task for Adele.  Swift has a very tightly defined, super engaged fan base that identifies itself with her.  Adele’s fanbase is more amorphous and pragmatic.  You don’t get ‘Adelle-ettes’.  Swift was able to mobilise her fanbase into music buying action like a presidential candidate with a passionate grassroots following and big donors.  The importance of digitally engaged super fans is the secret sauce of success for digital era creators.  It is the exact same dynamic that ensured UK YouTuber Joe Sugg was able to leverage his fanbase to give his debut book ‘Codename Evie’ the biggest 1st week sales for graphic novel EVER in the UK this year.

If Adele and her team do pull off a sales success with ‘25’ they will owe a debt of gratitude to that 27% of consumers.  While the odds are against it being quite as big as ‘21’ (simply because the market is smaller) it still has every chance of being a milestone event that will out perform everything else.  But do not mistake that for this being ‘Adele saves the music industry’.  Album sales are declining.  Success from Taylor Swift and Adele are (welcome) throwbacks and they are most certainly not a glimpse into the future.

Why Profit Doesn’t Come Into It For Apple Music

Apple has only ever been in the music business in order to sell more devices.  Apple does not need to make money from music nor has it ever needed to.  That doesn’t stop it being a crucially important music industry partner (in fact Apple is still pretty much the single most important partner on a global basis).  Nor does that mean that Apple doesn’t care about music or that it doesn’t take its role in the marketplace seriously.  But Apple is not in this game to make money.  Apple routinely ran the iTunes Store at ‘an about break-even basis’ which is financial report code for ‘at a slight loss’.  (Or in fact probably at a big loss if half of the costs of the combined iTunes / iPod ads had been factored in.)  Now Apple is spending big again on marketing its music product, but this time the ads are only for Apple Music so costs can’t be attributed to other parts of the business. Why this all matters is because it shows us just how seriously Apple is taking Apple Music and also its appetite for running it a loss leader.

Why Doesn’t Apple Just Buy Spotify?

One of the recurring questions around Apple’s streaming strategy is ‘why doesn’t it just buy Spotify?’.  Besides the fact it had already acquired Beats Music as part of the much bigger Beats purchase, Apple is not in the business of running other companies’ services.  Apple runs Apple services. This is because Apple is first and foremost a hardware business and its software and services are an extension of this – part of the device value proposition.  If Apple was a software and services business it would build Mac OS, iLife, iWork etc for other platforms.  Apple even made music production software Logic Mac only after buying it from eMagic.  iTunes is one of the stand out exceptions for this strategy but it is a legacy of when iPod was a PC / Mac centric device, where not being on Windows would have stymied iPod growth. (There is of course talk of Apple Apple Music becoming available on Android but if it does so it will only be because Apple wants to win back iTunes customers from Spotify.)

A Tunnel Vision Commitment To User Experience

The hardware-first / Apple-only strategy means that when Apple does buy other services it usually either assimilates them wholesale (remember LaLa?) or it strips them down to the bare bones and rebuilds them entirely (Beats Music).  This is all because Apple needs to own the customer relationship and customer experience in its entirety.  Apple’s tunnel vision commitment to user experience is the ideology that underpins this entire approach.  Which is why Apple didn’t buy Spotify.

Apple Could Make Most Streaming Margin By Promoting Spotify

apple music margin calcs

In fact Apple could make a LOT more money if it simply decided to spend money marketing Spotify to iOS customers.

For argument’s sake let’s assume Spotify has somewhere in the region of 6 million US subscribers, that 60% of those are on iOS and that 60% of those iOS users pay via iTunes, Apple thus generates $8.4 million a month in subscription revenue from Spotify.  To generate the same amount of US subscription margin from Apple Music, Apple would need 16.9 million US Apple Music subscribers (assuming an operating margin of 5%).  In fact, in practice Apple will be in heavy negative margins with Apple Music due to its extensive marketing efforts.

So if Apple was in the business of music for making money it wouldn’t even buy Spotify, it would simply spend money marketing it to the Apple customer base.  But that has never been the Apple way and is patently unlikely to become the Apple way. Thus Apple will continue on its mission to own every ounce of the streaming subscriber’s user journey.  Unfortunately the rest of the marketplace has to try to figure out how to compete while at the same time vainly searching for a profit.

Apple, The Indies And The Rise Of The Digital Monopsony

Much of the independent label community have come out in public opposition to Apple’s request for a 3 month free trial that crucially would not involve any royalty payments to labels. Besides the fact this has revealed inconsistency in major label licensing strategy (some services have to pay royalties for their free trials) it also raises questions about Apple’s growing role as a content platform. In the old model (i.e. selling CDs on the high street and mall) retailers held all the power, charging labels for prime placement, priority shelf space and carving out additional commercial benefits such as breakage (whereby they were given a discount on a set assumption of a % of shipments that would break in transit, even if they didn’t). In the old new model (i.e. where we are now) the power shifted to the labels with music stores and services having to pay advances, minimum guarantees etc. in order to sell the labels’ content. Even breakage got reinvented and turned into a commercial benefit for labels (they get paid for under usage of services). Now a new model is emerging where a few big platforms are beginning to exercise the power they have been quietly building for the last half a decade or so.

Apple, Amazon And Google – The Digital Superpowers

Apple, Amazon and Google are all digital content platforms. They each own the customer, control billing, know everything about him/her, control some or all of the hardware and have a diverse portfolio of content assets. Each has also become super important to media company partners. For music labels Apple has become the dominant source of digital retail revenue, Amazon the dominant source of physical retail revenue and Google the dominant digital discovery platform. Each holds the whip hand in their respective area of dominance. Now they all want more. They may each want slightly different things but none are shy of wielding their respective spheres of influence to get to what they want. This is where the indies’ dispute with Apple comes into play. Apple is in the business of music in order to sell hardware and has known for a number of years that streaming is going to be how it transitions that role in a post-download world. It has thus far taken a very responsible approach to its sales role and has been sensitive to the risk of decimating label revenue if it does not time its streaming transition properly. But the first step on that journey has now been taken and the point of no return is fast approaching. Which is why it is crucial that all rights holders have the right agreements in place and which is why the indies are making the noise they are.

The Power Of The Platform

In an echo of Google’s heavy-handed YouTube Music Key negotiations with indies and DIY artists, one independent artist has claimed that Apple has threatened to remove his music from the iTunes Store if he does not allow his music to be used in the free trial. Whether this is true or not (and it may well not be) is almost not the point. What it highlights is Apple’s power as a platform. Artists and labels alike simply cannot do without iTunes revenue. Whether Apple needs to overtly play the card or not, the implication of the veiled threat is clear. And Apple is not exactly alone. Last year Amazon clashed with book publisher Hachette over eBook pricing and during the dispute employed a number of pressure tactics including: refusing to take pre-orders on Hachette titles, placing a 6 week delay on delivery of them and even pointing users to competitor titles when they searched for an Hachette book. All of these were clear misuse, possibly even abuse, of Amazon’s role as distribution platform but no regulatory body even raised an eyelid. Apple will have watched the development with acute interest.

The Rise Of The Digital Monopsony

Apple, Amazon and Google are all unique cases. They have become de facto monopolies for their respective sectors, exercising control over the entire platform of user, supplier and interaction between them. There isn’t really an economic term that properly explains them but monopsony is the closest: a company that is the only effective buyer and seller of a product and can thus dictate terms at both ends of the equation. These digital monopsonies are growing pains of the digital economy. After all, we are still in the very early stages of the digital economy. If this were the industrial revolution Robert Stephenson wouldn’t have developed the steam locomotive yet. Consider this phase market adolescence. This raises challenges for regulation with regulatory bodies largely unable to deal with companies that exercise effective monopoly power but that do not meet the criteria of a pre-digital era economy monopoly. Of course the indie labels cannot afford to wait for that dynamic to change so in the meantime they must seize the initiative in this issue and others like it.

An Opportunity To Change The Narrative

Right now though the indies have an opportunity to use this case to genuinely move the needle. Apple has pushed them out of their comfort zone. Instead of just digging in their heels they can decided to push Apple out of its comfort zone and request something similarly game changing of Apple in return. In short, turn a defensive move into an offensive one and help set the agenda rather than being stuck in the familiar rut of responding to the one set by the major labels and Apple. Apple Music may have underwhelmed at launch but the company still has the most important music monetization platform on the planet. Most indie labels and majors alike would all but collapse if iTunes revenue disappeared overnight.

Right now Apple still wants to play the role of good partner, albeit one that negotiates hard. So the labels still have a chance to help shape what the next chapter in Apple’s music story can look like. That may not always be the case, especially if Artist Connect has developed into a label like service layer 3 years from now, which I suspect will be the case. Apple is no Google, it still wants first and foremost to sell music rather than give it away. That may not always hold true.   Similarly the power of the digital monopsonies will likely strengthen over the coming half decade or so. So right now the indies are probably in the strongest position they will be in for some time, even if it might not feel like it to them. They need to seize this moment.

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.

Apple Music: A Platform Play With Hidden Nuance

Today Apple finally announced its long, long anticipated entry into the streaming music space with Apple Music. Apple has spent the last few years as the sleeping giant of streaming music watching Spotify et al seize the innovation mantle and dominate both consumer behaviour and the industry narrative. With all the anticipation expectations were understandably high, too high perhaps. Thus in many respects Apple Music underwhelmed (a 9.99 on demand service;  a 24/7 live broadcast radio offering Beats1; a fan / artist engagement platform Artist Connect). But there is also more than first meets the eye, there is a nuanced strategy at play.

Radio Takes Centre Stage

Placing radio centre stage is smart, as that’s how Apple will engage the early follower consumer, who will be Apple’s core target (other than winning back some existing Spotify users). Remember, Apple’s core priority is delivering the best possible music experience to as many of its device owners as possible. A 9.99 subscription service that works for 10% of them is much less interesting than a free radio service that works for 500 million of them.

There’s no little irony that Apple triggered an industry knee jerk reaction against free music only to go and put free music at the core of its streaming play. Of course the crucial difference here is that the free music is not on demand. Apple is using radio, real time broadcast and high profile DJs as a way of bringing context and meaning to internet radio for the Apple mainstream (which of course is slightly different from the broader mainstream). Whether Beats1 is enough on its own for that purpose is another question.  Beats2 and 3 to follow shortly?

Taking The First Step Towards A Platform Play?

Apple continues to be ridiculed for its failed Ping! music social network. While it was no killer app it nonetheless represented an attempt to turn iTunes into a music platform. Now that same strategy has been rekindled with the launch of Artist Connect. This is Apple’s attempt to turn itself into an artist-fan engagement platform. Artist-fan engagement is the gold dust of the digital era music business. It’s the scarce, invaluable commodity that music fans crave in a post-scarcity music world. The non-music content is also interesting. Artists can push photos, videos and works in progress to their fans. This combines elements of the D.I.S.C. music format I wrote about here and also the Agile Music concept I wrote about in 2011. There is no reason why music should be a creative full stop in the digital era nor why the static audio file should be the be all and end all. Music fans want more than just the song.

There’s no shortage of competition in this space but while DIY sites of various guises are niche, Apple presents the opportunity to reach more than a hundred million of the world’s most valuable (i.e. highest spending) music fans. Sure some of them now pay for Spotify but they’re still iTunes users also.  If Apple’s featureset for artist is strong enough, expect strong uptake, especially from the bigger labels and artists.

Apple Is Making A Play For A Bigger Role Than Ever In Music

The long term implications are intriguing. If Apple establishes itself as one of the key engagement platforms it will change some of the core dynamics of music marketing. All the while strengthening its hand and establishing an indispensable role for itself if it doesn’t make meaningful inroads into the subscription market. Consider it a back up plan. But even more interestingly, if it succeeds at both subscriptions and marketing then it suddenly has more power than it ever did in the hey day of the iTunes Store. Apple could emerge with the power to break and then make an artist. Once it gets there record labels will rightly start casting nervous glances over their shoulders.

Rdio Goes After The Squeezed Middle

Streaming monetization is polarized between premium subscriptions on one end and free streaming on the other. The middle ground that was the scale heartland of the CD and the download is disappearing and taking with it the mainstream consumer.  It is into this environment Rdio just announced a new $3.99 tier.

mind the gap

Mid priced subscription tiers are thin on the ground.  We have a couple in the UK (MTV Trax and O2 Tracks from MusicQubed, Blinkbox Music, now owned by Guevara) and a number of ad free radio offerings from Pandora, Rhapsody and Slacker.  It is a heavily underserved segment as the slide above shows.  The mainstream streaming subscription market is squeezed between premium and nothing.  The average music spend of a consumer is around $3 a month, so $9.99 subscriptions are far out of reach of most consumers.  $3.99 however is far, far closer to a realistic price point for the mass market.

Regular readers will know that I have been a long term advocate of lower priced subscriptions and micro-billing / Pay As You Go pricing models to entice the more mainstream user.  The labels have been super cautious because they are scared of cheaper services cannibalizing the premium tier.  The concern is a valid one but ultimately if a bunch of 9.99 users aren’t getting full value from an unlimited service they are going to bail out eventually anyway.  At least with mid priced subscriptions they have somewhere to land instead of disappearing straight to free streaming.

monetization pyramid

Currently streaming monetization is split between the top and the bottom of the monetization pyramid and this needs to change.  Rdio’s new Select tier gives users ad free radio plus 25 songs of their choice each day. That might not sound like a lot of tracks but for the majority of mass market music listeners that will be more than enough.  In fact in some respects it could almost be too much.  What matters for the mass market listener is less the number of tracks and more how the tracks they like are surfaced to them.  Curation is a much-overused term these days, but expert curation and programming is crucial to engaging the mainstream.  Radio is still so popular because most mainstream consumers are lean back customers that want to be led on a music journey not to have to hack their way through the musical undergrowth themselves.

Monetizing The Revenue No-Man’s Land

The leap from zero to 9.99 is far too big and Rdio Select is an important step towards monetizing the revenue no-man’s land between free and premium.  Of course zero to anything is still a major hurdle but the success of iTunes (250 million global buyers) shows us once you make the first step small enough, consumers will follow.  The simple fact is that the streaming market will not be sustainable without the mainstream engaged as paying customers on the same sort of scale that was achieved with downloads.  An even simpler fact is that 9.99 will not achieve that end.

Why Zane Lowe Could Do More For Discovery At Apple Than Echonest’s $25.6 Million Does For Spotify

BBC Radio One DJ Zane Lowe just announced a shock move to Apple. For the non-Brits and non-Anglophiles Zane Lowe is arguably the most influential radio DJ in the UK and is renowned for being a tastemaker with an eclectic pallet. His left of centre focus and his commitment to supporting and breaking new acts has allowed Radio One the freedom to be unashamedly mainstream in much of its other output. So why does this all matter for Apple? While it is not yet clear what sort of role Lowe will assume at Cupertino it is a move bristling with significance and a clear statement of intent from Apple.

Fixing the Tryanny Of Choice

The Tyranny of Choice remains one of the biggest challenges for streaming services, namely how to make sense of 35 million songs. It has been challenge enough for the Aficionados at the vanguard of the first wave of subscription service adoption. It is a problem of far greater proportions for the next wave of subscribers, the later adopters who do not have the expertise nor intent to invest great effort into discovering new music. It is not as simple as ‘lean forward’ versus ‘lean back’. But instead gradations between the two. Beyond Apple’s inevitable Spotify-subscriber win back efforts, these early followers will be at the core of Apple’s streaming strategy.

The 6th Of March: Man Versus Machine

Spotify showed its own music discovery statement of intent when it acquired the Echo Nest on the 6th of March 2014. Zane Lowe’s final Radio One show will broadcast on the 5th of March 2015, leaving him free to join Apple on the 6th of March 2015, yes, 1 year to the day after the Echo Nest. Coincidence? Perhaps. Either way, the symmetry of Spotify making its bet on algorithmic curation and Apple making its bet on human curation is unavoidable. It is man versus machine, with Apple for once coming down on the side of flesh and blood over technology.

However expensive Lowe’s salary might be, it will be far short of the millions Spotify paid for the Echo Nest, which had burned through $25.6 million of investment to get to that point. Yet there is every chance that Lowe, used properly, could deliver more value to Apple’s music discovery than the Echo Nest can to Spotify. Don’t get me wrong, the Echo Nest is a fantastic outfit with some of the smartest music analytics people going. Along with Pandora’s Music Genome Project the Echo Nest is as good as it gets for music discovery algorithms. In fact when it comes to implementation and cool data driven projects, the Echo Nest leads the way. But there is a limit to how far algorithms can fix the problems posed by the Tyranny of Choice.

Filter Bubbles

As Eli Pariser identified in his excellent Ted Talk ‘Beware Of Filter Bubbles’ there is a risk that recommendation algorithms actually narrow our choice and limit discovery. That by continually refining recommendations based on previous taste and choice they make our world views increasingly narrow and ultimately boring. Music discovery is not simply about finding music that sounds like other music we already like. It is also about serendipitous moments of wonder when something comes at us from the left field and leaves us breathless. That is the antithesis of ‘here are three other bands like this you might like’.

Of course it would be unfair to suggest that the Echo Nest is not sophisticated enough to engineer serendipity and surprise into its discovery system. (And Spotify is beginning to double down on human curation too). But the ability of a stack of code to perform this task versus an expert tastemaker is significantly less. And, another ‘of course’, it is impossible to definitively prove this one way or the other because ultimately the results are subjective and not properly measureable. Because one person’s awesome discovery is another’s sonic tripe. But that is entirely the point of the whole debate.

People Don’t Want Discovery, Well They Don’t Think They Do

There is a fundamental problem with algorithmic discovery: people don’t want it. In numerous consumer surveys I have fielded for numerous clients, respondents show little or no interest in discovery or recommendation features. Yet in the same surveys the vast majority of them state that they regularly listen to music radio, which is of course recommendation and discovery. The big difference is that it doesn’t feel like it. Instead it is an inherent part of the DNA radio. It is not an awkward artificial appendage that most people just don’t get.

Earned Trust

During his Monday – Thursday 2 hour show Lowe will play 20 to 30 or so tracks. Listeners know and understand that these are the tiny tip of the iceberg he has sifted through that week, that these are the songs he has decided are the ones that need to be heard. And when he announces his ‘hottest record in the world’ they know it is probably going to be something pretty special, even if they might not actually like it. His audience appreciates him that way because he earned their trust over weeks, months and years. That is the asset Apple are buying. Even if he has to earn that trust all over again with a new audience, that is the model.

If Lowe was simply to push 20 to 30 songs a day to Apple users (whether that be on a radio show on iTunes Radio, as an iTunes podcast or as an iTunes playlist, or all of the above) the odds are in favour of some or most of those resonating with a large swathe of the target audience. Even if just one track blows away just a quarter of the audience each day, the impact of one fantastic discovery will have more impact than a torrent of ‘sounds a bit like’ recommendations.

30% Not 80%

An Amazon Prime executive recently said that when commissioning shows he didn’t want hits that 80% of his audience quite liked, he wanted shows that 30% of his audience loved. That is what discovery is all about. Not being content most of the time, but being blown away some of the time.   Zane Lowe is not going to solve Apple’s discovery problem all by himself, but the hire shows that Apple is putting its money on moments of human magic being the nitrous oxide in its music discovery engine.

Windowing, Shake It Off

The removal of all of Taylor Swift’s albums from Spotify and other streaming services is sending minor shockwaves through the music industry. Swift’s label Big Machine has long adhered to a streaming windowing strategy and there is pretty compelling evidence that the approach has paid dividends. Swift’s ‘1989’ is not only on track to be the only million selling US album this year it is also set to have the highest ever first week album sales for a female artist, again in the US. No mean feat considering how much album sales have tanked. While it is impossible to prove the exact degree of causality, it would be fatuous to claim that windowing had done anything less than not hurt those sales. Windowing is an issue that refuses to go away but is a natural effect of the transition phase we are in.

Some artists and labels were just as fearful of iTunes in the 2000’s as they are now of Spotify. Heck, it took the Beatles seven whole years to finally license their catalogue. Right now there is still a very sizeable music sales marketplace. 79% of all recorded music revenue in 2013 came from sales. So it is understandable that some labels want to protect that Golden Goose as long as they can. And it is little compensation for labels that declining music sales are made up by increased live revenues. In even the most label friendly 360 deals music sales are still the core revenue stream.

However the shift to consumption models is an inevitable process. In the short term expect copy cat actions. Labels and artists will see the run away success of ‘1989’ and conclude that windowing played a key role. This may hurt Spotify just as it was beginning to feel good about proving its model. But the long view shows us that licensed streaming music will be ubiquitous five years from now, music sales will not. Even if Taylor Swift is still at the top of her game in 2019 she won’t be selling any 1 million albums anymore.

Spotify though can’t wait five years for Swift to shake off her streaming inhibitions. It can however help itself by accepting that its free tier should be on a different release window from its paid tier. If it doesn’t it makes windowing a binary equation which in turn makes it easier for an entire blanket ban to be conceived.

Of course the biggest irony in all this is that the free streaming services face no such blocks. All of Swift’s videos are still on YouTube and you can find her music all over Soundcloud, let alone Grooveshark. As MIDiA revealed last week, YouTube is one of the largest threats to music revenue. But because the music industry still views it as a marketing channel rather than a consumption channel it is measured by different standards. Thus 10 million YouTube views is a promotional success, whereas 10 million Spotify streams is x thousand lost sales. This hypocritical inconsistency has to end. Spotify premium customers are some of the most valuable music fans there are, most YouTube users are not.

taylor swift youtube

And both YouTube and Soundcloud also fail to crack down on blatant misuse of their platforms. As the screen grab above shows, YouTube makes it easier than easy to access the full ‘1989’ album, which in this instance is fully monetized and has 400,000 views. Meanwhile Soundcloud also has the full album, this time conveniently presented as individual tracks. And even if / when UMG catches up with these infringing files, not only will more pop up, YouTube also has this, a full ‘1989’ playlist, full of non-infringing, Vevo videos.   The simple fact is that too much is given away for free on YouTube. If Big Machine and Taylor Swift are really worried about cannibalizing album sales, they should take a long hard look at their YouTube strategy before pulling their content from Spotify.

UPDATE: UMG caught up with the 400,000 views full album YouTube video of ‘1989’ (that was quick) but the very same user has multiple other instances of the full ‘1989’ album which have hundreds of thousands of views and are still live.