Exclusive: Deezer Is Exploring User Centric Licensing

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One of the great, though less heralded, successes of streaming in 2016 was keeping the lid on artist angst. Previous years had been defined by seemingly endless complaints from worried and angry artists and songwriters. Now that torrent has dwindled to a relative trickle. This is largely due to a) a combination of artist outreach efforts from the services, b) so many artists now seeing meaningful streaming income and c) a general increased confidence in the model. Despite this though, the issues that gave creators concern (eg transparency, accountability) remain largely in place. The temptation might be to simply leave things as they are but it is exactly at this sort of time, when stakeholders are seeing eye to eye (relatively speaking at least), that bold change should be made rather than wait for crisis to re-emerge. It is no easy task fixing a plane mid flight. So it is encouraging to hear that Deezer is looking to change one the key anomalies in the streaming model: service centric licensing.

Service Centric Licensing

Currently streaming services license by taking the total pot of revenue generated, dividing that by the total number of tracks streamed and then multiplying that per stream rate by the number of streams per track per artist. Artists effectively get paid on a share of ‘airplay’ basis. This is service centric licensing. It all sounds eminently logical, and it indeed it the logic has been sound enough to enable the streaming market to get to where it is today. But is far from flawless. Imagine a metal fan who only streams metal bands. With the airplay model if Katy Perry accounted for 10% of all streams in a month, the 10% of that metal fan’s subscription fee effectively goes towards Katy Perry and her label and publisher. Other than aggrieved metal fans, this matters because those metal bands are effectively seeing a portion of their listening time contributing to a super star pop artist. To make it clearer still, what if that metal fan only listened to Metallica, yet still 10% of that subscriber’s revenue went to Katy Perry?

User Centric Licensing

The alternative is user centric licensing, where royalties are paid out as a percentage of the subscription fee of the listener. So if a subscriber listens 100% to Metallica, Metallica gets 100% of the royalty revenue generated by that subscriber. It is an intrinsically fairer model that creates a more direct relationship between what a subscriber listens to and who gets paid. This is the model that I can exclusively reveal that Deezer is now exploring with the record labels. It is a bold move from Deezer, which though still the 3rd ranking subscription service globally has seen Spotify and Apple get ever more of the limelight. While Deezer will undoubtedly be hoping to see the PR benefit of driving some thought leadership in the market, the fact it must find new ways to challenge the top 2 means that it can start thinking with more freedom than the leading incumbents. And a good idea done for mixed reasons is still a good idea.

Honing The Model

Deezer has had encouraging if not wildly enthusiastic feedback from labels, not least because this could be an operationally difficult process to implement. The general consensus among labels I have spoken to is cautious optimism and a willingness to run the models and see how things look. When I first wrote about user centric licensing back in July 2015 I got a large volume of back channel feedback. One of the key concerns was that the model could penalize some indie labels as fans of their acts could be more likely be music aficionados and thus listen more diversely and more heavily. This could result in the effective per stream rate for those fans being relatively low. By contrast, a super star pop act might have a large number of light listeners and therefore higher effective per stream rates.

The truth is that there is not a single answer for how user centric licensing will affect artists and labels. Because there are so many variables (especially the distribution of fans and the distribution of plays among them) it is simply not possible to say that a left field noise artist will do worse while a bubble gum pop star will do better. But in some respects, that shouldn’t be the determining factor. This is an intrinsically more transparent way of paying royalties, that is based upon a much more direct relationship between the artist and their fan’s listening. There may well be some unintended consequences but ultimately if you want fairness and equality then you don’t pick and choose which fairness and equality you want.

If Deezer is able to persuade the labels to put user centric licensing in place, it will be another sign of increasingly maturity for the streaming market. Streaming drove $1bn of revenue growth for the recorded music business in 2016, without it the market would have declined by $1bn (due to revenue decline elsewhere). Streaming is now a monumentally important market segment and there is no better time to hone the model than now. User centric licensing could, and should, be just one part of getting streaming ready for another 5 years of growth. Deezer might just have made the first move.

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Universal And Spotify’s Deal Is An Even Bigger Deal Than It Looks

 

Universal Music and Spotify have finally agreed on terms for the streaming service’s new licensing deal which reportedly includes better rates tied to growth targets and premium windowing. Check out Tim Ingham’s piece for detail on the deal. Although the big focus across the industry so far is, understandably, on what this means for Spotify, it is also part of a bigger story, namely that of the maturation of the streaming market and its associated business models.

What It Means For Spotify And UMG

Firstly, what it means for Spotify. As I have written previously, Spotify needs to create a strong narrative for Wall Street if it is going to IPO successfully. Within that narrative it needs to demonstrate that it is embarking on a journey of change even if the destination is some way off yet. Its relationship with the labels is central to that. Paying out more than 80% of revenue for ‘royalty distribution and other costs’ on a cash flow basis is not something potential investors exactly look upon with unbound enthusiasm. In pure commercial terms Spotify actually pays out round about the same amount (c70%) of revenues to rights holders as Netflix does, but because Netflix owns so much of its own rights it can amortize the costs of them to help generate a net profit while Spotify cannot.

The 2 ways of fixing that are 1) owning copyrights, 2) reducing rates to rights holders (which really means labels as publishers are pushing for higher rates). It is probably too early to flick the switch on the ‘Spotify as a label’ strategy as that would antagonize labels at exactly the wrong time. So reducing rates is the main lever left to pull.

However, the labels feel the rates are fair value, in fact many think the rates undervalue their content assets. So Spotify was never going to achieve a dramatic change in rates at this stage. Also, labels are wary of granting better terms to Spotify because Apple and co will immediately demand the same. Hence UMG has tied Spotify’s lower rates to growth targets, which you can rest assured will be ambitious. Why? Firstly the labels need continued big growth. The global music business grew by around 1 billion dollars last year, with streaming growing by 2 billion dollars. Thus without streaming’s growth the music business would have declined by 1 billion dollars instead of growing by that much. The labels cannot afford for streaming growth to be smaller than the amount by which legacy formats decline.

Secondly, Spotify needs better deals more than many of its competitors, so is more willing to agree to ambitious growth targets. Apple and Amazon (who both make their money elsewhere and aren’t prepping for an IPO) are less concerned about better rates and are less likely to be willing to be tied to strong growth targets. So UMG has a win win here. It gets Spotify tied into ambitious growth without a major risk of having to also give lower rates to Apple and Amazon.

What It Means For The Wider Market

With $5.8 billion in revenue in 2016, streaming has more than come of age, it is the beating heart of the recorded music business. But just as young companies have to transition from scrappy start ups to mature companies, this is the stage at which the streaming market as a whole needs to move from a cool emerging technology to a more nuanced and complex marketplace. It needs to develop the sort of sophistication that $5.8 billion market merits. Adding the ability to window new release albums is part of this process. And to be clear, the windowing does not mean that UMG’s new music is suddenly going to disappear off Spotify’s free tier. Instead UMG has the ability to choose to put selected albums behind the pay wall for 2 weeks as Daniel Ek’s press release quote makes clear:

“[This is a] new flexible release policy. Starting today, Universal artists can choose to release new albums on premium only for two weeks, offering subscribers an earlier chance to explore the complete creative work.”

While there is a risk that windowing may give piracy a little boost, those consumers that choose to Torrent rather than upgrade or simply wait 2 weeks were never realistic targets for the 9.99 tier anyway. What we may well see is a spike in uptake of free trials and the ‘$1 for 3 months’ super trials.

Getting The Right Kind Of Growth

The UMG – Spotify deal is more than just an agreement between 2 parties. It is the start of the next chapter in relationships between streaming services and labels. A deepening and strengthening of links. It is of course a unique product of its time (ie Spotify needing to get its house in order ahead of the IPO) but market defining precedents are often born out of such circumstances. Such as the time when AOL Time Warner wanted to ‘get smart with music’ following its recent merger and promptly sent off Warner Music’s CEO Roger Ames with Paul Vidich to carve out the iTunes deal with Steve Jobs.

Back then Apple was focused on trying to jump start iPod sales. Now though the labels need Spotify to start building a sustainable business. It is not enough for Spotify to simply clear the IPO hurdle, it needs to land on its feet and maintain speed. So while it’s great to see that UMG and Spotify have hit upon a framework for delivering better rates in return for better growth, Spotify must be careful to ensure that it grows sustainably and not pursue growth at any cost.

2016 was inarguably a great year for both streaming and the labels. This deal has the potential to lay the foundations for an even better 2017 and beyond.

The Real Problem With Streaming

Much of the debate around the sustainability of streaming has understandably focused on artist and songwriter income and transparency.  It is a debate that I have contributed to frequently.  But the more fundamental structural issues are whether the business models are commercially sustainable and if they are, what the implications are.  Music consumption is inarguably moving towards access based models so the question is not whether streaming should happen or not, but how to make it work as well as it possibly can for all parties.  As unfair as it might seem, the baseline issues regarding creator income could go unchanged without streaming business models falling apart.  But, as I will explain, if broader commercial sustainability issues are not fixed then many streaming businesses will collapse leaving just a couple of companies standing.  And that scenario would almost certainly be worse for creators than the current one.

The Steve Jobs Revenue Share Legacy

As I revealed in my book ‘Awakening’, when Steve Jobs struck the original iTunes Music Store deal he walked away a happy man despite having given the major labels the big revenue percentages they wanted.  Why?  Because it meant that it was really hard for anyone without ulterior business aims like Apple had, to make money from selling tracks as a standalone business.  The revenue shares negotiated back then set the reference point for all digital deals since.  The fact that streaming services pay out more than 70% of revenues to rights holders can be traced back to that deal.

The Great Role Reversal And The De Facto Label Monopoly

In the digital era the record labels undisputedly hold the whip hand, and some.  In the analogue era the roles were reversed.  Retailers were the dominant partners and they knew it.  Record labels actually paid retailers for placement to promote new releases.  Compare and contrast that with labels contractually compelling services to provide placement.  Both models are wrong and both engender corrosive behaviour.  Because the major labels account for the majority of music sales it is nigh on impossible for a non-niche music service to operate without all three on board.  This gives each label the effective power of veto.  So even though no major label is a monopoly in its own right each has an effective monopoly power in licensing.  These factors give labels them the strength and confidence to demand terms that would not take place in an openly competitive market.  This, for example, is very different to how digital deals are done in the much more fragmented TV rights landscape.

Loading The Risk Onto Music Services

Why all this matters for the sustainability of streaming services is because of how it manifests in commercial terms.  Recent contract leaks have revealed to everyone the details of what insiders long knew, that labels and publishers front-load deals.  Services both have to pay large amounts up front and agree to guaranteed payments to rights owners regardless of how well the service performs.  (Some labels proudly state they don’t charge advances but instead charge a ‘set up fee’ for every track in their catalogue. Call it what you like, making a music service pay money up front is an advance payment.)  Even without considering the entirely intentional complexity of details such as minimas, floors and ceilings, the underlying principle is simple: a record label secures a fixed level of revenue regardless, while a music service assumes a fixed level of cost regardless.

Labels call this covering their risk and argue that it ensures that the services that get licensed are committed to being a success.  Which is a sound and reasonable position in principle, except that in practice it often results in the exact opposite by transferring all of the risk to the music service.  Saddling the service with so much up front debt increases the chance it will fail by ensuring large portions (sometimes the majority) of available working capital is spent on rights, not on building great product or marketing to consumers.

Skewing The Market To Big Tech Companies

None of this matters too much if you are a successful service or a big tech company (both of which have lots of working capital).  Both Google and Apple are rumoured to have paid advances in the region of $1 billion.  While the payments are much smaller for most music services, Apple, with its $183 billion in revenues and $194 billion in cash reserves can afford $1 billion a lot more easily than a pre-revenue start up with $1 million in investment can afford $250,000.  Similarly a pre-revenue, pre-product start up is more likely to launch late and miss its targets but will still be on the hook for the minimum revenue guarantees (MRG).

It is abundantly clear that this model skews the market towards big players and to tech companies that simply want to use music as a tool for helping sell their core products.   Record labels complain that they don’t get enough value out of big companies like Google and Samsung, but unless they make the market more accessible to companies that are only in the business of selling music they can have no room for complaint.  The situation is a direct consequence of major label and major publisher licensing strategy.

Short Termism And From Evil To Exceptional

Matters are compounded by an increasingly short term outlook from label licensing divisions, with the focus on internal quarterly revenue targets, or if you are lucky, annual targets.  The fact that much of label and publisher digital revenue comprises guarantees and advance payments means that their view of the digital market is different from how the market is performing.  If our small start up that pays $250,000 in rights payments doesn’t even get its product to market, the rights holders still see that digital revenue even though the marketplace does not.  (One failed music service that didn’t even launch went into bankruptcy owing two major labels $30 million).

This revenue comfort blanket insulates labels and publishers from much of the marketplace pain.  So if/when things go wrong, they feel it later, delaying their response.  There is also a cynicism in much deal making, with rigid templates applied to deals and a willingness to compromise principles if the price is right. The latter point was illustrated by the leaked negotiations between UMG and industry bête noir Kim Dotcom in which former digital head Rob Wells referred to being able to ‘downgrade’ Dotcom from ‘evil to bad’ and then from ‘bad to good and from good to exceptional partner’.  The message is clear, if there is enough money on the table, anyone can be a business partner whatever the implications might be for the rest of the market.

Wafer Thin Margins, Deep Pockets And The Innovation Drain

Current licensing strategy biases the market towards those with deep pockets and fatally compromises profitability.  Once all costs are factored in, a music subscription can theoretically have an operating margin of between 3% and 5%. Though only if it doesn’t invest sufficiently on marketing, customer retention and product innovation. But of course the streaming market is in early growth stage so every service has to spend heavily which means that profitability becomes a hostage to fortune. No wonder Daniel Ek is clear that Spotify is a growth business rather than on a profit crusade.

The market dynamics also create an innovation talent drain.  If you were a would-be start up founder the huge up front costs, non-existent margins, and complex time consuming licensing do not exactly make building a music app a welcome experience.  Building a games app however is an entirely different proposition: you own 100% of the rights, you don’t pay a penny to 3rd party rights holders and consumers actually pay for your product.  Music is already a problematic enough sector as it is without burdening it with a punitive licensing framework.

These are the structural challenges that could yet bring down the entire edifice of the streaming music economy.  The irony is that if Spotify has a successful IPO (sans profit of course) it will trigger a wave of copycat services and investment that will perpetuate the status quo a little further.  But it will only be a temporary delay.  Sometime or another the hard questions must be answered.

User Centric Licensing: Making Streaming Work For Everyone

Artist income is one of the most pronounced growing pains of the streaming era.  While there are many contributory factors, such as transparency and non-distributable label payments, the most significant element by far is how much artists get paid.  There are many moving parts to the equation, not least of which is how much labels themselves choose to pay artists, but even if labels doubled their payments to artists (which would be a good starting point for artists on 15% deals) the underlying dynamic would remain unchanged.  Namely that consumers are switching from buying music (which generates large upfront payments) to accessing it (which generates smaller payments spread over a longer period that as things stand look like they could still add up to smaller amounts even in the longer run).  If you’re a big super star artist or a major label this doesn’t affect you much as you get such a large chunk of the headline revenue.  But a new approach is needed for the rest.  Enter stage left the case for user centric licensing.

Under the current licensing model artists get paid on an ‘airplay’ basis i.e. what share of the total plays across the entire service the artist accounts for.  This model can skew the revenue balance to the superstars who will get played by a very large share of the user base of a service.  Under a user centric model an artist would get paid based on the share of an individual’s listening.  So if a user spends half their time listening to an underground techno producer, half of the royalties go to that producer.  In the existing model that producer would only get a tiny fraction of the royalties generated by that user.

user centric licensing

Let’s take a look at how this could work (see figure).  If a subscriber listens to Artist B 55% of the time but that artist only accounts for 0.5% of total listening, only 0.5% of the available royalties for that subscriber make it back to the artist.  Whereas Artist A who the user didn’t listen to at all gets 10% of the royalty income.  But in a user centric licensing model the artist would get 55%.  The revenue changes from a paltry $0.004 to a more meaningful $0.49 (assuming a 15% royalty share from the label).  And Artist A gets a fairer zero income for zero listening from that user.

Make no mistake, this model will be very difficult to license and the vested interests would likely resist it.  But until we get to scale with subscriptions, we need to explore all ways of ensuring revenues are distributed on as equitable a basis as possible.  This approach won’t fix all the artist-income ills of streaming but it will help smooth the transition.

I’m not going to pretend to take credit for this concept, it’s been quietly gaining momentum for some time now and the Trichordist has been building the case too.  But now is the time to really start giving this approach some serious consideration.  And if the incumbent streaming services are unable to implement user centric licensing because they are too close to the superpowers, then this is an opportunity for a new streaming service to seize the initiative and start to make some meaningful change.

I’m attaching the excel of this model so please go and stress test it yourself. Let me know your thoughts below.

MIDiA Research – User Centric Licensing Model

Digital Licensing Revenue To Change Future Of European Music Industry

Forrester today announced its latest European Digital Music forecasts.  As part of these, and for what I think is an industry first, we’ve forecasted digital licensing revenue, split by social music and subsidized services.

I’ve posted about the report and forecasts over on the Forrester Consumer Product Strategy blog here