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.

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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.

Digital Ascendency: The Future Music Forum Keynote

I recently keynoted the annual Future Music Forum in Barcelona.  These are some highlights of the keynote.  If you would like the full slide deck please email me at mark AT midia research DOT COM.

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Streaming is turning years of music business accepted wisdom on its head but did not arrive unannounced, it is just one chapter in the evolution of digital music. Each of the four phases of digital music have been shaped by technologies that solved problems. Now we are entering the fourth phase, bringing meaning to the 30 million tracks Spotify et al gave us access to. This might look like a simple honing of the model but it is every bit as important as the previous three stages. 30 million tracks is a meaningless quantity of music. It would take three lifetimes to listen to every track once. There is so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all. This is the Tyranny of Choice.

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But the for all the evolution, today’s digital music marketplace is an unbalanced one. We have more than 500 music services across the globe but too many of them are chasing after the same customers with weakly differentiated offerings. This wouldn’t matter so much is if the competition was focused on where the consumer scale is, but this is anything but the case. The majority of paid music services are targeting the engaged, high spending Music Aficionados who represent just 17% of all consumers.

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The consequences of the imbalance in digital music strategy are also easy to see in total revenues. The last decade has been one of persistent decline in recorded music revenue and by 2018 the most likely scenario is one of stabilization rather than growth. This is because of a) the CD and b) the download.

No one has taken the demise of the CD seriously enough. It still accounts for more than half of global revenue and more than three quarters of revenue in two of the world’s biggest music markets. Yet far too many CD buyers are being left to simply stop buying entirely because they see no natural entry point into the digital services market. No one appears to be putting up a serious fight for them. Meanwhile the streaming services that have been chasing those same aficionados that Apple engaged are now busy turning that download spending into streaming spending, which ends up being, at best, revenue transition rather than growth. Consequently CDs and downloads will end up declining at almost the same rate over the next five years.

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Nonetheless the imbalance remains. Part of the reason we got into this state of affairs is the music industry’s obsession with revenue metrics: chart positions, market share and ARPU. Compare and contrast with the TV industry’s focus on audiences. It is time for the music industry to start thinking in audience terms too.

When we do so we see a very different picture. Here we have the US digital music market plotted by revenue and by audience size. Subscriptions pack a big revenue punch but reach only a tiny segment of the market while YouTube has vast reach but delivers remarkably little in terms of direct revenue. Meanwhile downloads, for all their doomed future, are still by far the best combination of scale and revenue.

The issue of free services stealing the oxygen from paid ones is a perennial one and is effectively a digital rerun of the never-to-be-resolved radio driving or reducing music sales debate. But it has far more impact in digital. With services like YouTube and Pandora the discovery journey is indistinguishable from the consumption destination. When they don’t lead to sales can they really be called discovery anymore?

Free is of course the language of the web. The contagion of free is legion. And free is where the audience growth is. This is the circle the music industry must square.

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For 15+ years the music industry has been running to catch up, never quite able to get ahead of the game, an unavoidable feature of the process of digital disruption.   But although the consumer behaviour shift is inevitable the future direction of the music business is not and it will be shaped most by three key factors:

  1. The continued evolution of consumer behaviour
  2. Technology company strategy
  3. Income distribution

Consumer behaviour. The most important consumer behaviour trends are not the steady transition of the Aficionados or even the Forgotten Fans but of the next generation of music consumers, the Digital Natives. Free and mobile are the two defining elements of their music behaviour. Of course younger people always have less disposable income, but there is a very real chance that we are beginning to see demographic trends locking in as cohort trends that will stay with these consumers as they age. For a generation weaned on free, the more free you give them, the more they will crave it. Whatever course is plotted, success will depend upon deeply understanding the needs of Digital Natives and not simply trying to shoe horn them into the products we have now that are built for the older transition generation.

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Technology companies: Apple, Amazon and Google each in their own ways dominate digital music. But most importantly they all want very different things from it. For each of them music is a means to an end. All are willing to some degree to loss lead on music to achieve ulterior business objectives. All of which is great for labels and publishers as they get their royalties, advances and equity stakes. But for the pure play start up it means competing on an uneven footing with giant companies who don’t even need music to generate a revenue return for them.

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Revenue distribution: Artists and songwriters found their voices in recent years. Partly because of the rise in social media but also because so many are now paying much more attention to the business side of their careers. The fact they are watching download dollars being replaced by streaming cents only intensifies matters, as does the fact that the top 1% of creators get a disproportionately large share of revenue. It has always been thus but the signs are that the disparity is becoming even more pronounced in the streaming age, with the effects felt all the more keenly because unless you have vast scale streaming can too easily look like chicken feed to an artist compared to download income.

But artist and songwriter discontent alone is not going to change the world. Their voices are just not powerful enough, nor do most fans care enough. Also labels and publishers remain the most viable route to market for most artists. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that artists who demand an audit of their accounts to work out where their streaming revenue has gone swiftly accept their label’s hefty silence payment and the accompanying NDA. Artist discontent while not decisive in impact is beginning to apply important pressure to the supply end of the music business.

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So those are the three big challenges, now here are three sets of solutions. And I should warn you in advance that I am going to use the P word. Yes, ‘Product’.

I get why product sounds like an ugly word. It’s a term you use for baked beans, for fridges for phones. Not a cultural creation like music right? True enough, when we’re talking about the song itself, or the performance of it, product is irrelevant. But as soon as we’re talking about trying to make money out of it as a CD, download, stream or however, then we’re firmly in the territory of product. It is both naïve and archaic to think otherwise. When artists got megabucks advances and never had to worry about the sustainability of their careers and everything revolved around the simplicity of CD sales you could perhaps be forgiven for turning a blind eye. But now there is no excuse.

So with that little diatribe out of the way, on to the first solution.

Music product: The harsh reality is that music as a product has hardly evolved in the digital realm. A lot has been done around retailer and business model innovation, but the underlying product is the same static audio file that we found in the CD. Meanwhile the devices we are spending every growing shares of our media consumption have high definition touch screens, graphics accelerators, accelerometers…audio hardly scratches the surface of what tablets and smartphones do.

Music is always going to be about the song, but it is also about the artist and their story. That’s what a quarter of consumers think, and 45% of aficionados and a third of digital natives. Video, lyrics, photos, reviews, interviews, acoustic sets, art, these are all ways in which the artist can tell their story and they all need to be part of the product. Most of this stuff is already created by labels, artists and managers but it is labelled marketing. Putting this together into a curated, context aware whole is what will constitute a 21st century music product.

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Fans: Artists and fans are closer than ever but this journey is only getting going and artists need to get smarter about how to monetize their fan bases. Artists need to find their popcorn. What do I mean by this? Well when the cinema industry started out it was a loss making business. To try to fix this cinemas started by experimenting with the product, putting on double bills but that wasn’t enough. Then came innovation in the format by adding sound. Then the experience itself by co-opting the new technology of air conditioning from the meat packing industry. Still no profit. Finally cinemas found the solution: popcorn. With a 97% operating margin, popcorn along with soda and sweets quickly became how cinemas become profitable entities. Artists need to find their popcorn. To find out what other value they can deliver their fans to subsidize releasing music. It’s what newspapers are doing with wine clubs and travel clubs, and in some instances even with Spotify bundles!

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Labels: Finally we have agencies or what you might call labels, but I’m going to call them agencies, because that is what they need to become. The label model is already going under dramatic transformation with the advent of label services companies like Kobalt and Essential and of fan funding platforms like Pledge and Kick Starter. All of these are parts of the story of the 21st century label, where the relationship between label and artist is progressively transformed from contracted employee to that of an agency-client model.   Labels that follow this model will be the success stories. And these labels will also have to stop thinking within the old world constraints of what constitutes the work of a label versus a publisher versus a creative agency versus a dev company. In the multimedia digital era a 21st century labels needs to do all of this and be able to work in partnership with the creator to exploit all those rights by having them together under one roof.

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And finally, the grand unifying concept to pull all this together: experience. Experience is the product. The internet did away with content scarcity. Now the challenge that must be met is to create scarce, sought after experiences that give people reasons to spend money on the artists and music they love.

What U2’s Apple Deal Says About The Future Of The Album

If you somehow missed it, Apple just gave 500 million iTunes users U2’s latest album for free.

Album sales are declining, both because people are buying less music and because fewer people are engaging with albums.  The music industry has gone full circle. In the 50’s and the 60’s it was all about singles.  The 80’s and the 90’s were the glory years for the album but ever since the rise of the Internet music fans have been moving progressively away from albums to single tracks again.  We are living in the age of the playlist, not the album.  So for a band like U2, who already are way beyond their music sales peak, selling an album was always more about getting bums on seats at concerts, where they make more money than ever.  Their last album sold poorly so they won’t have been expecting much from this one.  Suddenly Apple transformed it into a global hit and everyone’s a winner.  Sure Apple will have had to pay a heft chunk of cash but they got a nice TV ad out of it too.  Considered as a marketing expenditure this is genius.  It instantly creates the most widely distributed album in history and in doing so creates equally instant headlines.

The album is not dead as a creative construct, far from it.  But as a product it is in a death spiral.  It needs reinventing if the album loyalists are going to be prevented from jumping ship.  They can’t be taken for granted for ever.  What should that reinvention look like?  Well it should include video, lyrics, dynamically updated content, exclusive content, live streams, artist chat…in short everything the 21st century artist has got to give, all in one place.  Artists like the storytelling capabilities of the album.  Imagine how much more storytelling you could do with the addition of visuals, interactivity and text.  Bjork got it.  Even Lady Gaga got it.  Now it’s time for the industry to get it, unless it wants the album to be consigned to a long term future as an Apple freebie.

The Problem With Audiences (A Letter To Daniel Ek)

Dear Daniel

I enjoy our occasional Twitter exchanges and last night’s about MIDiA Research’s new music forecasts was no exception. For the record, I believe you deserve great credit for engaging as much as you do on Twitter. But as valuable a platform as Twitter is, it is not the best environment for discussing more complex and nuanced issues so I wanted to take this opportunity to build out from our conversation.

Your comments revolved around MIDiA’s estimate of the global ad supported music audience, which you think is lower than it should be at 202 million. I am really pleased you have picked up on this audience number. Part of what we are trying to do at MIDiA is educate the music industry to think less about Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) and more about how many people are actually engaging with digital music services. The audience-first approach has served the TV industry well and there are many lessons the music industry would do well to heed.

When Active Is In Fact Anything But

The accepted standard for measuring audiences of digital B2C companies is to look at regular users, typically considered as ‘at least one activity during the last 30 days’. If you are a marketer looking to understand the reach of different platforms then this is a perfectly adequate measure. It is similarly useful if you are a company trying to communicate value to advertisers or if you are a start up looking to demonstrate success to potential investors.   However it is the motives of the latter two groups that can lead to problems, especially in the ad supported music space.

For example most people take it as read that Pandora’s c.80 million regular users are monthly users. However Pandora’s imaginative definition for active users is: “…distinct registered users that have requested audio from our servers within the trailing 30 days to the end of the final calendar month of the period.” Which means that for quarterly accounting that can refer to up to a 120 day period, or for monthly accounting up to 60 days. Thus a user that plays just 30 seconds of one song in a two months period would be classified as a ‘monthly’ active user. That might serve Pandora’s purposes well but it is far from a useful measure for objective observers and vested interests such as songwriters and publishers. (Spotify of course defines active users using a straightforward 30 days measure). Another problematic trend is music services that classify active users as those that open the app rather than playing a song.

Why ‘Real’ Regular Usage Is So Important For Understanding YouTube

When we were building the MIDiA forecasts we were particularly concerned about YouTube. Music is crucially important to YouTube but it is not a music service. So, not only is a regular YouTube user not necessarily a music user, an occasional-but-monthly YouTube music user is not necessarily a music consumer in the way an occasional-but-monthly Spotify user is. Somebody who downloads Spotify does so because they want to listen to music, end of. Someone who, for example, watches a ‘Gangnam Style’ video that appears in their Facebook timeline is by no means guaranteed to be an engaged music fan. The highly diverse nature of YouTube’s content means that music can be a very small part of the 6 hours average monthly viewing of a YouTube user. Especially when you consider non-music videos from the likes of PewDiePie and SkyDoesMinecraft each average over 20 minutes. In short, the occasional-but-monthly YouTube user is less likely to be an engaged music fan than an occasional-but-monthly Spotify user.

So we decided to define regular users for YouTube as those who watch 20 or more music videos a month, which translates to about 5 a week and less than a fifth of the average YouTube user’s total monthly YouTube time. We did this because we want to provide the music industry with metrics that have actionable value. YouTube’s total music video audience is probably somewhere in the region of half a billion but less than half are regular users. Apple’s iTunes audience is c850 million only but only 200 million or so are music buyers.  Big numbers look great on Powerpoint slides but they don’t help make good business decisions if they are not truly instructive. 

Not All Active Users Are Created Equal

Of course, the ideal starting point for measuring different audiences is to apply a standard definition, but as we have just seen, this is not always best route to take. Particularly if you are trying to demonstrate where the value in digital music lies for each part of the value chain. For example, a regular download buyer, when defined as those who buy at least monthly, spends around $2 a month. As an artist, if one of those tracks was yours you might get $0.15 from that 1 infrequent regular user, while if that song was streamed 20 times by a infrequent regular Spotify user you might get $0.03, and if it was viewed 20 times by what would have to be a frequent regular YouTube user you would probably get around $0.01. An infrequent regular iTunes customer in this scenario is thus 15 times more valuable to an artist than a frequent regular YouTube user.

Scale Matters If You Do Not Have It

All of this might sound a little esoteric but it does matter, especially to artists, songwriters and smaller indie labels. If you are a big label, or indeed a music service, it is the total revenue that matters as you are effectively guaranteed a meaningful share of it. But if you are an artist, songwriter or small indie, your plays will be just a tiny share of the regular audience’s behaviour making it far harder to make meaningful money out of those users than it is from infrequent download buyers. While its great to see Calvin Harris and Avicii each clock up 1 billion Spotify streams, this feels more like a confirmation of my ‘long tail is dead’ theory rather than signs of a ‘high tide rises all boats’. If you are a big artist or label you have scale and you benefit from the scale of even infrequent audiences. For the rest, an infrequent user audience has little import, particularly as those users also skew towards the big hits. 

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Audiences Really Do Matter

Like I said, I am really glad you’re focusing on the size of digital music audiences – I wish more people would take the same interest. Indeed if you look the chart above – which shows the audience of each type of music service mapped against the revenue – you can see that there is currently a huge imbalance between revenue and audience. This is exactly why I want the industry to focus on audience first and revenue second. In fact if we were to take the looser (bigger) measurement of YouTube’s audience it would make my point even more firmly.

So thank you once again Daniel for helping highlight the importance of audiences and hopefully I’ve gone some way to explaining why MIDiA decided to measure YouTube in the way we did. Though I have to say I am intrigued as to why you showed so much interest in the ad supported audience over all others? I do hope this doesn’t hint at a stronger focus on ad supported to come for Spotify. You have done a fantastic job at kick starting the subscription market and I know it is hard work, but if anyone can make premium subscriptions work at scale it is you. Though I totally get that you also need to highlight how much oxygen YouTube is sucking out of the marketplace – something I think you and I are in violent agreement on.

 

Yours,

 

Mark 

Why Digital Music Services Always Steal Each Other’s Customers

The next five years will be one of the music industry’s most dramatic periods of change. The last ten years might have been disruptive but the change that is coming will be even more transformative. By 2019 70% of all digital revenue globally will be from on-demand services, representing 40% of total music revenues. It will be a shift from the old world and the ‘old new world’ to a brave new one. The CD and the download will decline at almost the same rates: physical revenue will be 43% smaller while downloads will be 40% smaller. In some ways the CD has less to worry about than the download. The CD has the protection of a vast installed base of players across the globe and growing niches such as deluxe box sets. The download though depends massively upon Apple’s devices, and the tide over at Cupertino is turning.

One of the concerns of the shift to streaming has been revenue cannibalization. It is no new phenomenon. The paid digital music market has still not truly broken out to the mainstream. While the likes of YouTube and Pandora clearly have mass market reach, music download stores and subscription services do not. Each at their respective times have appealed to the same higher spending and tech savvy end of the music buyer spectrum.

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In the 1990’s and early 2000’s Amazon’s online CD store was the home of the globe’s most tech savvy music aficionados. Then Apple came along and poached its iTunes customers directly from Amazon because those same CD buyers were also buying iPods. Then Spotify came along and started poaching Apple’s most valuable customers via Apple’s App Store – the chink in the armour of Apple’s otherwise closed ecosystem.

Now Apple and Amazon are both setting out on their own cloud strategy journeys and each will be hoping to win back a chunk of their lost customers. Apple’s recent elevation of Beats Music to one of the family of ‘Apps Made By Apple’ gives the first hint of what the company can do to ‘encourage’ its users away from other streaming services.

The next three years or so will be a fiercely contested battle for the hearts and minds of the digital music aficionado that will illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the technology ecosystems of Apple, Amazon and Google. Yet while they all fight to win or win back customers, the attention once again remains firmly on the top end of the market. For as long as music services focus their efforts on the most valuable music customers, the mainstream will continue to be catered by low ARPU ad supported services. And for as long as that happens the evolution of digital music will continue to be one of the latest generation of services stealing the customers of the last.

How The iPhone 6 May Be The Start Of Apple’s ‘Back To Music’ Strategy

With the launch of its new iPhones just round the corner Apple could be forgiven for feeling rather more positive about its smartphone outlook than it has for a while. The sheen has worn off its number one competitor Samsung, with cheap Chinese and Indian competitors seriously eating into its market share and the investor community realising that the smartphone business is actually a lot like the music business: you are only as good as your last hit. But if Samsung is a major label, measured solely on market share and sales, then Apple has managed to partially maintain the role of big indie, where the quality of its output is just as important. Apple’s Eddie Cue believes that Apple are on the cusp of product strategy renaissance. Crucially, Apple’s CE product portfolio has become wide enough now, especially with the acquisition of Beats, to allow Apple some innovation freedom. I think this could translate into an iTunes phone before the end of 2015.

The Mainstreaming of Apple’s Customer Base

Apple’s customer base has changed from the vanguard of the tech savvy early adopters to a much broader group including large swathes of early followers, later adopters and even mass market laggards. The iPhone was primarily responsible for the transformation and while it has brought undoubted success has also caused Apple problems. As a company with a small product number of products in its portfolio, especially within the mobile category, Apple has never been able to play the ‘Hero Phone’ strategy of phone specialists like HTC and Samsung. So while those companies have been able to sway those all-important investors with small selling but super-specced uber phones, Apple has, until the launch of the 5C, had roll its entry and hero devices into one single new product. But even the combined strategy of the 5C and of targeting lower end consumers with older models still leaves Apple little room to be truly adventurous with its product strategy, for fear of alienating its mainstream users.

As I wrote about previously, the acquisition of Beats presents Apple with the opportunity to innovate with more freedom in the Beats product ranges and then take the innovations that work best there back into the Apple product portfolio. Even if Apple more tightly harmonizes its two divisions’ product ranges, Apple will still be left with a larger and more segmented product portfolio, giving it more ability to super-serve important niches. This is where Apple’s music device strategy renaissance can come into play.

 

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Music Changed Apple

When Apple launched the iPod in 2001 it was the start of a musical journey for Apple. I remember attending Apple analyst briefing sessions in those early iPod days and being the only one there interested in this small little side project. Of course over the following years the iPod, with music at the core, took Apple’s product strategy in an entirely new direction. You might say that music changed Apple. But even by 2004 the winds of change were stirring: the launch of the iPod Photo with its colour screen was the first tentative step towards turning Apple’s portable device strategy from music to something much bigger. The iPhone and iPad are the current culmination of that shift, multimedia devices that do many things for many groups of people. Not one thing for one group of people in the way the iPod did.

The strategy has been inarguably successful but just as music stopped looking like it mattered so much, it started biting Apple in the behind. Spotify and other streaming subscription services started stealing Apple’s best iTunes music customers, turning them from downloaders into streamers. That in itself should have been an irritation rather than a problem. But these most valuable of customers now have much less reason to stay with Apple when the buy their next phone because their Spotify playlists will work just as well on Android as they will on iPhones.

Apple’s New Music Strategy

Apple needs a stand out music value proposition to win them back. A subscription service built around Beats Music and iTunes Radio will be the fuel in the engine but will not do enough on its own quickly enough. While Beats Music may have different features from Spotify the fundamentals are essentially the same (millions of songs, c $10 a month). So iPhone owning Spotify customers are unlikely to switch straight away just because it’s there.

Apple needs more. That ‘more’ can be delivered in two ways:

1. Price
2. Device

Apple has always been in the business of loss leading with music to sell hardware. Once that was a growth strategy now it assumes the urgency of defence strategy. That should persuade Apple to heavily subsidize the price of a subscription. In the near term this could be 3 month Beats Music trial plus a discounted $5 subscription offer at the end of the trial free with one of the forthcoming iPhone 6 models. Longer term it should translate into something much more ambitious.

 

The iTunes Phone or The Beats Phone?

Before the end of 2015 I expect Apple to launch a music specialist phone. Whether that is branded as an iTunes Phone or a Beats Phone will depend on who wins the internal branding wars at Apple, but expect it to be one of those labels. The device will be squarely targeted at the music aficionado and will crucially combine the music subscription and device into a single purchase by hard bundling a music subscription into the device cost. It will likely also be squarely focused on pushing Beats hardware sales so it may be both bundled with a Beats Bluetooth headphones and also be the first iPhone without a 3.5mm stereo jack, instead offering Bluetooth only.

The broad feature set could look something like this:

• Hard bundled Beats Music subscription
• Unlimited iCloud access
• Ad free iTunes Radio
• Top level UI music apps
• Bundled Beats Headphones
• Bluetooth only headphone support

This strategy is Apple’s best shot at reclaiming its wavering aficionado fan base but be in no doubt, it would also be a game changer for the digital music space by once again tying the importance of music experiences to device not just app.

What Future For The Album In The On-Demand Age?

Recently BBC Radio 1’s head of music George Ergatoudis stirred up something of a storm with his claim that “albums are edging closer to extinction”. Nonetheless there is a growing body of evidence that the album does indeed seem to be losing its relevance in today’s track and playlist led world. And the implications stretch much further than the confines of the recorded music business. (Hint: live music industry, you need to be watching your back too.)

The Advent Of Grazing

When Napster emerged 15 years ago it kick started an irreversible transformation in music consumption. The music business had spent the previous three decades turning the singles dominated market of the 1950’s into the albums led market of the 1990’s, but with Napster consumers suddenly did not have to take the whole album package anymore. The labels had their own fair share of blame. When the vinyl LP had been the dominant format albums typically had 8 tracks, but with the CD labels felt compelled to fill every one of its 74 minutes’ capacity, resulting in a preponderance of filler tracks over killer tracks. Couple this with album price hyperinflation and you had the perfect recipe for consumer revolt. Little wonder that music fans cherry picked tracks, skipping the filler for the killer. Grazing replaced immersion.

Ironically the issue became even more pronounced with the advent of the iTunes Music Store. Whereas with file sharing many users downloaded entire albums – and as bandwidth and storage improved, entire discographies – listening still skewed towards the stand out tracks. Indeed the hoarding mentality of these digital immigrants was one borne out of being children of the age of scarcity, with a ‘fill up quick while you still can’ mentality. With iTunes, price was a limiting factor and so people focused on acquiring single tracks rather than albums. Labels and artists had been scared iTunes would cannibalise album sales, they were right.

Digital Natives Set A New Pace

In the subsequent decade new digital behavior patterns have become more clearly defined, particularly among the digital natives. Playlists and individual tracks have become the dominant consumption paradigm. Even music piracy has moved away from the album to smaller numbers of tracks, with free music downloader mobile apps and YouTube rippers now more widespread than P2P. This is the piracy behavior of the digital natives who have no need to hoard vast music collections because they know they can always find the music they want on YouTube or Soundcloud if they want it.

playlists versus albums

The behavior shift is clearly evidenced in revenue numbers. Since 2008 alone US album sales (CD and digital) have declined by 22% (IFPI), while digital track sales outpace digital album sales by a factor of 10 to 1. The top 10 selling albums in the US shifted 56.4 million units in 2000.  In 2013 the number was 14.7 million (Nielsen SoundScan). Even more stark is the contrast between playlists and albums on streaming service. Spotify has 1.5 billion playlists but just 1.4 million albums (see figure). While the comparison is not exactly apples-to-apples (album count is a catalogue count and playlist count is a hybrid catalogue / consumption count) it is nonetheless a useful illustration of the disparity of scale. (In fact the 1.4 million album assumption is probably high due to a) duplicates b) singles and EPs c) compilations.)

Even the much heralded success of Ed Sheeran’s album ‘X’ does not exactly paint a robust argument for the album. ‘X’ set the record for first week global plays of an album on Spotify with 23.8 million streams. But that represents just 0.27% of weekly Spotify listening (based on Spotify’s reported 40 million active users, 110 minutes daily listening and an average song length of 3.5 minutes).

The Album As A Mainstream Consumption Paradigm Was A Historical Anomaly

This is the consumer behavior backdrop for the demise of the album.  Creatively the album still represents the zenith of an artist’s creativity and many albums are still most often best appreciated as a creative whole. Core fans and music aficionados will still listen to albums but the majority of consumers will not. The album as the mainstream consumption paradigm was a historical anomaly of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. In the 50’s and the 60’s the single was the way the majority interacted with music, and now in the early 21st century it is once again. There has always been space for vast diversity of artists along the niche to mainstream spectrum but as a consumption format the album is closer to the Steve Reich end than it is the Katy Perry end.

Artists And Labels Need To Catch Up With Consumer Behaviour

The majority of artists will still make albums and labels will indulge them because their organizations and business models are built around the format. But therein lies the problem: the more that consumer behavior evolves, the more distant the gap between artists’ recorded output and their fans’ demand becomes.

There is more music released now than ever before and most likely more music listened to than ever before. But the amount of music listeners in the world’s top 10 music markets – which account for 91% of revenue – has not increased at anything like the same rate. People are spending less time with individual artists and albums. In the on-demand age with effectively limitless supply they flit from here to there, consuming more individual artists in a single playlist than an average music fan would have bought albums by in an entire year in the CD era. Fewer fans develop deep relationships with individual artists. Right now this translates into fewer album sales. In 10 years’ time it will manifest as a collapse in arena and stadium sized heritage live acts. In fact we are already witnessing the impact, after all what are festivals and DJ sets if not the playlist translated into a live experience?

As painful as it may be for many to accept, the tide has already turned against the album. The challenge to which artists and labels must now rise is to reinvent creativity in ways that meet the realities of the on-demand world.* If they do not, artists will eventually find the chasm between their wants and their audiences’ needs quite simply too wide to traverse.

*For those interested I wrote a couple of reports on this very topic a few years ago:

The Music Format Bill of Rights: A Manifesto For The Next Generation Of Music Products

Agile Music: Music Formats and Artist Creativity In The Age of Mass Customisation

Apple, Beats and Streaming’s Mutual Fear Factor

Although the Apple-Beats deal is about far more than just streaming music, it is nonetheless an important part of the puzzle.  Apple has been going slow with streaming, introducing cloud experiences (iCloud, iTunes Match, iTunes Radio, Video rentals) slowly so as not to alienate its less tech-adventurous mainstream user base.  That strategy remains valid and will continue, but it has failed to protect the defection of its core, high value, early adopters.  This is why Apple has to get serious about streaming fast: it is scared of losing its best customers.  It is also why all other streaming companies, whatever they may admit publically, are getting ready to run scared.  This is streaming music’s mutual fear factor:

  • Velvet handcuffs: Music downloads are monetized CRM for Apple, a means of enhancing the device experience.  Purchased tracks and an iTunes managed library act as velvet handcuffs for Apple device owners.  But for those consumers that use a streaming subscription app, the playlists and music collection can exist on any device.  Suddenly the handcuffs slip off.  This is why Apple has to get streaming right in short order.  It simply cannot afford to lose swathes of its most valuable device customers at the next handset replacement cycle.
  • Chinks in the iTunes armour: Until the launch of the App Store, 3rd party music services had no way of breaking into the iTunes ecosystem and were, in the main, doomed to the role of also rans.  The App Store was the chink in the otherwise impregnable iTunes armour that allowed those 3rd parties to not just launch punitive raids but to set up camp in Apple’s heartlands. It was the price Apple had to pay to enter the next phase of its business, but now it is ready to shore up its defences once more.
  • Eating from Apple’s table: The vast majority of streaming music subscribers were already digital download buyers first, and of those the majority were either current or past iTunes Store customers when they became subscribers.  On a global scale, subscriptions have first and foremost been about transitioning existing spending rather than creating new digital customers. The picture is very different in Nordics, the Netherlands and South Korea but those markets contribute far less to global scale than the markets (US, UK, Australia etc.) where this trend dominates.  Apple has provided the core addressable market for streaming services for the last five years.  Now those companies worry over where will they be able to get new subscribers if Apple start taking subscriptions seriously.
  • Apple will not have to play fair: Although Apple knows it is under the watchful eye of various regulatory authorities following the eBook price fixing episode, there is still plenty it can do to make life hard for 3rd party streaming services.  Just take a look at what Amazon is reportedly getting away with in its book pricing dispute with Hachette: delaying shipments of the publisher’s books to customers, removing buy buttons from pre-ordered books, even pointing Amazon customers to competitive titles when searching for Hachette books.  Fair play or foul, the power of the retailer is huge.  Whether Apple simply ensures Spotify et al don’t appear in search results, or that they are never quite able to integrate seamlessly with iOS anymore for no specific reason that anyone can quite put their finger on….But even without resorting to such behavior, simply by deeply integrating an Apple (or Beats) branded subscription service natively into its devices and ecosystem, Apple will have the upper hand and 3rd parties will find it a whole lot harder to fish in Apple’s waters.

None of this is necessarily bad for the market either.  In fact it could be just what the subscriptions business needs.  To finally focus on green field opportunity beyond the confines of the Apple elite.  Nor should Apple even limit its subscription focus to streaming or to music.  The rise of the Content Connectors points to Apple, Amazon and Google pursuing digital content strategies in the round, that do not get bogged down with super serving any individual content type at the expense of the rest.  Apple’s best mid-term subscription play may yet simply prove to be a monthly allowance of iTunes credit across all content types, bundled into the cost of the device.  Put that on top of iCloud, iTunes Radio, Beats Music and suddenly you have a very compelling multi-content offering.  Something far out of the reaches of the current product roadmaps of any of the stand alone music services.

Can Apple afford to loss lead with music subscriptions to pursue such a strategy?  Well, remember Apple’s entire digital music business has been built on loss leading.  Whatever the final outcome, the mutual fear factor balance looks set to tip in Apple’s favour for a while.

What Acquiring Beats Could Do For Apple (And Everyone Else)

Stories emerged last night that Apple is in talks to buy Beats, citing well-placed sources. If true – and if it actually goes through – the acquisition has countless potential impacts of seismic proportions, particularly if the deal includes nascent subscription service Beats Music. Apple has always been in the business of selling music for the business of selling hardware, and the potential acquisition must be considered in those terms. With download sales declining and subscriptions gaining traction, Apple has been locked in a process of soul searching, trying to work out what it can do to remain relevant in the digital music business in order to remain relevant in the device business. Beats is a ‘if you can’t beat them, buy them’ solution.

download slow down

There are a number of key considerations and potential impacts:

  • Digital music Plan A has run its course: Despite dynamic growth in Northern European markets, digital music growth nearly shuddered to a halt in 2013, slowing from 11% year-on-year growth in 2012 to just 2% last year, and that is unlikely to be much higher than 4% in 2014. The reason is quite simple: streaming subscriptions are, outside of Northern Europe, predominately converting the most valuable download buyers – who are most often iTunes buyers – into subscribers. Aficionados who bought a few digital albums a month are instead spending 9.99 a month. So instead of bringing up the average spend of music buyers it is bringing down the spending of many – I’ll be publishing some data on this in the coming weeks. Digital music needs a Plan B to reinvigorate growth
  • Apple is paradoxically holding back digital growth: Apple almost singlehandedly created the global digital music in the 2000’s but it is now actually holding back growth in the 2000’s. Streaming has taken off most quickly where Apple never got a foothold (see figure). Where Apple is firmly established streaming is a transition story, of download revenue shifting to streaming. Where it is not, streaming is green field growth. An interesting side effect of this is that because English speaking Apple has prospered most in English speaking markets, it is in these countries – US, UK, Canada, Australia, all of which are top ten music markets – where digital growth is now slowest. Apple has inadvertently passed the digital baton to the non-English language world.
  • Apple’s go-slow streaming strategy is too slow: All this translates into weakening digital relevance for Apple, which infers weakening hardware relevance. Apple has been here before, back in the heyday of Last.FM when Apple was still predominately a computer business, it tried to steal the social music revolution’s clothes with the launch of the now-defunct Ping and the just-about-still-around Genius. Yet Apple came out of that era stronger than ever. Now though, portable devices are the beating heart of Apple’s business, and with the relentless onslaught of Android it cannot afford its next music move to be another Ping. However Apple has had to go slow with streaming. Its user base is more mainstream than ever – as the growing popularity of Now compilations in its store attests – so it has to introduce new features in a way that does not overwhelm its less tech-adventurous customers. iCloud and iTunes Radio are great transition technologies to help introduce streaming to Apple users at a steady pace and to demonstrate clear relevance in the iTunes context. Unfortunately this long-term strategy for its mainstream users has done little to halt the defection of its more sophisticated and, crucially, most valuable, customers. Beats Music could be the defensive strategic option for them.
  • Subscriptions don’t have to be AYCE 9.99: 9.99 AYCE services have done a great job of monetizing the super fans, but with less than 5% penetration in major music markets, there is a clear need for something else for the more mainstream fan in top 10 music markets. Cheap priced subscriptions and telco hard bundles are both solutions to this problem. Apple should not feel compelled to jump on the 9.99 bandwagon. Digital content stores are breaking down the genre walls – as Google’s Play demonstrates so well. Apple gets much more revenue from other content genres – see this figure – so a multi-content genre subscription would be a much cleaner fit for Apple. As would a subscription that gave users a certain amount of credit to use on any iTunes products, sort of a virtual iTunes Gift Card subscription. Pricing would be blissfully simple – e.g. $10, $20, $30 etc. – and would help protect Apple from revenue cannibalization until it makes the full switch to access from ownership. $10 could include ad-free iTunes Radio, $20 and upwards could include unlimited music streaming.
  • Apple could make hard bundling work, and some: If Apple does get Beats Music, it would have an unprecedented opportunity to make bundled subscriptions work. Hardware has always been key to making digital content work, whether that be the Kindle, Xbox, Playstation, iPhone or the new generation of Content Connectors like Chromecast. Subscriptions are working now because Apple opened up a chink in its vertically integrated ecosystem armour by allowing streaming services to exist on its devices. In fact mobile access is responsible for the majority of the 9.99 model’s growth. Retailing an iPhone / Beats headphones subscription bundle would communicate clear value to users, and with the cost largely hidden in the premium price point associated with the bundle, could help consumers get over the hump of committing to monthly spending.
  • Beats would redefine Apple as a CE company: The implications on Apple’s device portfolio are intriguing tool. The simplicity of Apple’s limited product range has always been key to its success. Being able to retail a single phone when competing with the excessively vast portfolios of incumbent smartphone companies was a major differentiation point. Since those first iPhone days though Apple has multiplied its number of product SKUs. Incorporating a range of headphones would take that to another level. Whether Apple has the ability to seamlessly transform from a computer company with a small range of portable computing devices, to a fully-fledged CE company remains an intriguing open question.

There is no doubt that if Apple does buy Beats and Beats Music, that the impact on the competition will be dramatic. Spotify will be rightly worrying about the impact on its impending IPO – though expect words to the effect that this is simply a resounding validation of the model. But the competition should be welcomed. To date most digital music services have been strategically lazy, focusing their efforts on trying to sell new products to already existing digital customers, the majority of whom, in the big markets at least, are Apple customers. Now digital music companies will have to start thinking much more creatively about how they can compete around, rather than with Apple. About how they can create revenue in new consumer segments, not simply trying to extract more revenue from the preexisting ones. Some companies are doing this already but they are in the distinct minority – this should be a good time for them. If Apple does buy Beats, it will bring some much needed momentum to market that was beginning to suffer from hubris.