Just How Well Is Streaming Really Doing?

All of the three major record labels announced strong streaming music revenue growth in the 2nd quarter of 2016. On the surface it is a clear cut success story, but as is so often the case with music industry statistics, all is not quite how it seems.

The Global Streaming Market

First of all, let’s look at the global picture. According to the IFPI’s Recording Industry in Numbers (RIN) 2016 edition record label streaming revenue grew by 45% in 2015 reaching $2.9 billion, up from $1.9 billion in 2014. But even that number requires a little due diligence. The IFPI restates its historical numbers every year to reflect the current year’s exchange rates, which can, and does, overstate things. Indeed, a quick look at the 2015 edition of RIN shows that streaming revenue was reported as $2.2 billion for 2014. So on a non-adjusted basis (i.e. without restating the numbers) streaming revenue actually grew by 31%.

Spotify’s Contribution

31% is still impressive growth but the plot thickens when we factor in Spotify’s contribution to those label revenues. Spotify’s total royalty payments were $1.9 billion in 2015, of which around $1.4bn were label payments, and of those around $1.1 billion were royalty payments (i.e. minus advance payments such as Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs) paid in anticipation of future growth). That $1.1 billion was up 85% from $610 million in 2014. As the IFPI numbers only represent payments in respect of actual royalties (i.e. minus advance payments) the Spotify label royalty payments can be considered as a share of that global total. That share was 39% of all label streaming revenue in 2015, up from 28% in 2014.

This results in 2 interesting points:

  1. Spotify’s share of the global music subscriber total was 35% in 2014 and 37% in 2015. So the label royalty payments over indexed in 2014 and under indexed in 2015. The fact that 2015 was a big year for heavily discounted promotional offers such as $1 for 3 months most probably plays a key role here.
  2. If we remove the Spotify label royalty payments from the equation, label payments from other streaming services grew by just 10% from $1.6 billion in 2014 to $1.8 billion in 2015. Not exactly the most robust of pictures for the wider streaming market place.

major label streaming

So much for 2015, let’s look at where we are now. All three major labels reported strong streaming growth in Q2 2016. Together they reported $918 million, up 51% from $607 in Q2 2015. That growth generated $311 million of new digital revenue. At the same time, and as a direct consequence, download revenue fell by 24% from $925 in Q2 2015 to $705 million. So streaming is now nearly as big as downloads were 12 months ago. The net increase in combined digital music revenue was $91 million, or a combined digital growth rate of 6%. Solid growth, but not far from treading water. This is a transition process, not a transformative growth process.

Universal Is The Big Streaming Winner

Each of the 3 majors had differing streaming experiences. Universal was the big winner, growing its share of major label streaming revenue from 38% in Q2 2015 to 42% in Q2 2016 (boosted more than other majors by ‘embedded’ independent label revenue). UMG’s streaming revenue grew by more than 60% while Sony and Warner grew by an average of 42%. However, it is important to note that UMG’s reported streaming numbers may be skewed more by currency restating than the other majors, so this share increase might be slightly on the high side.

Sony Music meanwhile lost share from 35% to 33% while Warner Music, which was most coy about its streaming revenue in its reporting, also saw a fall from 26% to 25%. Warner’s and Sony’s loss was Universal’s gain. An interesting side note: Sony was the only major that saw growth in physical music sales over the period. Yet more evidence of the Adele effect?

The Role Of Advanced Payments

But perhaps the most important element of the majors’ streaming reports is the difference between royalty payments (i.e. money earned for music streamed) and total streaming revenue (i.e. including advanced payments such as MRGs). Spotify states rights payments are 70% of its revenue though its 2015 accounts show royalty payments as 82% of revenue due in large part to advanced payments. Using this benchmark advanced payments represent around 16% of all label payments. Applying this to the label reported numbers we can extrapolate that $145 million of all major label streaming revenue is advanced payments.

Why does this matter? Because this is the major record label’s streaming reality distortion field. They get streaming revenue regardless of how well the marketplace actually performs. If a streaming service pays an MRG of $30 million but only earns $10 million the label still gets $30 million. So in that scenario the label’s view of that part of the streaming music market is 3 times better than it actually is. If the music service wins, the label wins, if the music service loses, the label still wins. This disconnect between how the market performs and how the label performs is one of the festering wounds of the streaming music market. And its revenue impact is massive. In fact, advanced label streaming payments were 158% of the $91 million that digital music revenue grew by in Q2 2016. Yes, that’s right, advanced streaming payments accounted for all of the digital music growth, and more.

Streaming Will Continue To Grow, But Haunted By Advanced Payments

So where does all this leave us? The streaming market is without doubt entering a phase of accelerating growth and is doing enough to counter the resulting decline in downloads to contribute to a combined total recorded music revenue growth of 4% for major labels in Q2 2016. But growth is not quite as stellar as the headline numbers would suggest, with the single most important factor being the impact of advanced payments distorting the bigger picture and crippling cash flow for streaming music services. Expect more impressive growth throughout the remainder of 2016 but also expect streaming music economics to continue to be fractured.

The Real Value Of The Independent Sector

Over the course of the last year MIDiA has been working with WIN (the global indie label trade body) on a major study to define the independent sector’s contribution to the global recorded music business. The default accepted wisdom is that the indies account for something like 20% of the global revenue total. However, this study revealed, that figure strongly underestimates the actual share…it is in fact 37.6%. This matters not for bragging rights but because in the digital marketplace, market share shapes the deals that are struck, with more market share translating into better terms. So a more accurate measure of share can help the independent sector compete on fairer terms.

Distribution Versus Ownership

Distribution is the largest single contributor to the variance in market share. The 20% refers to the labels that distribute the music while the 37.6% refers to which labels actually own the music. Indeed, 3rd party distribution is becoming an ever more central element of the independent sector. The growth of streaming services and social media have helped create a burgeoning international opportunity for independent labels across the world. However, because most of these labels do not have the international infrastructure required to tap this global opportunity they often utilise 3rd party partners for distribution and other services. Often these parties are major labels or major label owned distributors. As the music market becomes more global, 3rd party distribution becomes more important for indies. But while this gives the independent sector global scale it also means that much of their revenue ends up being accounted as major label revenue, creating a distorted view of the market.

Most Indies Use International Distributors

In fact, 72% of independent labels use a 3rd party international distributor while 52% use a major label owned one or go direct via a major for distribution. The impact on the global market is huge. Just look at 2 of the biggest independent artist albums recently: Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ on Big Machine but distributed by Universal Music, and Adele’s ‘25’ on XL/Beggars but distributed by Sony in the US and South America. 2 leading independent success stories that now appear as major label success stories in investor decks. There is no questioning the value that majors and major owned distributors bring but just as importantly these are nonetheless indie label artists.

A Diverse Global Picture 

Even using the ownership approach, there is a massively diverse global picture, with indie market share ranging from just 16% in Finland, up to 64% in Japan and 88% in South Korea. In fact, Japan, South Korea and the US (where the distribution methodology has been in place for a few years now) account for 64% of all global indie revenue.

The disparity between ownership and distribution measures will only increase as music’s shift to streaming accelerates. The more that international markets open up, the more that smaller labels need to utilize international partners to reach music fans in those markets.  And the more that happens, the less relevant distribution market share becomes.

You can download the entire report by following this link.

Meanwhile, this graphic highlights some of the key findings.

wintel_infographic-812x1024

The 2 Spotify Charts You Need To See

Tuesday’s media scrum around Spotify’s financials illustrate that whatever ground Apple and Tidal may have made in recent months, Spotify clearly remains the poster child / bellwether for streaming. The stories oscillated between the broken nature of the underlying economics to how streaming is the future of the music business. Both are true. But a closer look at the numbers reveal some even more important findings.

spotify margin per user

Rights costs are Spotify’s Achilles Heel. Rights and associated costs accounted for 83% of Spotify’s 2015 revenue, up from 81% in 2014 and this resulted in a dramatic fall in Spotify’s gross margin per user: down from $4.20 in 2013 to $3.45 in 2015. This is particularly challenging for a model with already wafer thin margins. A number of factors underpin this decline:

  • Discounted promotions: Promos such as the £0.99 for 3 months have supercharged Spotify’s growth for the last 18 months. But as labels only contribute part of the cost this means that Spotify loses more margin with every new promo user
  • Advanced label payments: When Spotify strikes its licensing deals with labels it makes advanced payments and guarantees based on its expected growth. This means that for a growth stage company like Spotify, booked rights costs will always be higher than current booked revenue. This has obvious cash flow implications. Also, should Spotify’s growth slow and it miss those targets, it will still have to pay the monies guaranteed to labels, at which point the rights costs share will rise even further
  • Publisher rates: Over the last couple of years, music publishers have been asserting their role in the digital music value chain, pushing for more equitable rates. The net result is that publishing rights costs can now range up to 15%, depending on the deal, up from a low of 10% in some cases. This upward momentum will continue, and as labels aren’t decreasing their rates, it means less margin for Spotify and other streaming services

As Spotify edges towards an IPO it is doing everything within its power to get its house in order. It is investing in video to show Wall Street it is attempting to lessen its dependence on the labels and it is improving is cost ratios virtually everywhere else in its business, other than rights. Between 2013 and 2015, the Average Cost Per User (ACPU) for Research and Development fell from $2.12 to $1.61 and for Marketing it fell from $3.23 to $2.77. But Rights ACPU grew from $17.59 to $18.35. In fact, even in terms of costs as a % of revenues, every single expense Spotify reported fell except Rights (and Depreciation and Amortization which increased slightly). It is rising rights costs that are keeping Spotify from commercial sustainability.

spotify average pricing

There is another really important part of Spotify’s growth story: subscriber ARPU has fallen from $79.09 in 2013 to $62.30 in 2015. This is a result of multiple efforts to drive growth, including the price promos, telco bundles and student discounts. All of which are viable tactics but the fact they are necessary to drive Spotify’s growth underscore a point I have been making for years: 9.99 is not a mass market price point, and Spotify’s subscribers agree. By transforming the ARPU into an effective monthly retail price, Spotify’s average price point is now just $6.49, down from $8.24. It is about time that the music industry stopped pretending that this isn’t the reality of the market and instead starts pursuing proper pricing innovation rather than by stealth via discounting, which only serves to confuse consumers about long term value.

The music industry is in a transition phase. In such periods, the old and new worlds co-exist and collide. There are statistics that both sides of any argument can hold up in their defence, in fact they can often hold up the very same numbers to support opposite perspectives. Similarly, the comparisons you chose to benchmark with, can paint entirely different pictures. Such is the nature of transitions of human and business behaviour. For example, 83% of Spotify’s gross revenue going to rights is clearly too high and unsustainable, yet $0.00098 per song going to artists is also clearly too low and unsustainable. Something needs to give, for both ends of the value chain.

Maybe if/when Spotify gets to 50 million subscribers it will feel it has enough clout to compel rights holders to rethink licensing economics. Perhaps it will take Spotify getting to a 100 million to make that happen. Perhaps it will never happen. But if it doesn’t, the economics of streaming will remain so broken that only companies with ulterior business objectives will remain viable players, enter stage left streaming’s Triple A: Apple, Amazon and Alphabet (Google). The labels need to ask themselves whether that is the streaming future they want…

Warner’s Streaming Equity Pay Out Is Commendable But Not Enough

During his latest investor conference call Warner Music’s CEO Stephen Cooper announced that the label will pay artists a portion of any income it earns from equity stakes in services such as Spotify and Soundcloud. With Spotify potentially announcing its IPO next quarter the announcement is more than a token gesture. It is a bold move by Warner and follows on from Sony and Universal both announcing last year that they will pay artists a portion of streaming breakage revenue (the difference between what services pay labels in guarantees and how much royalty revenue they actually generate – WMG has been doing this since 2009). The big labels are waking up to the fact that transparency is key if they are going to keep artists on side. Streaming is where consumer behaviour is going, but currently YouTube is growing quicker than everyone else. The labels need premium and freemium services to make up ground fast. Which is why they cannot afford the Black Keys-Taylor Swift-Adele-Coldplay trickle to turn into a torrent. They need artists to be as vested as they are.

Streaming Hostilities May Have Thawed But Underlying Issues Remain

With the exception of the songwriter class action suits that closed out the year, 2015 was actually a pretty good year for streaming service – artist relations. Artists became a little more accustomed to streaming and many started to see a meaningful in their streaming income. But there is still much distance to go. The crucial issue for the majority of mid ranking and lower artists is how to deal with sizeable up front payments being replaced by a long term flow of micro payments. If you are a sizable label or a big artist you won’t feel the pain too much, but for the rest it normally means a very serious tightening of the belt.

The True Value Of Streaming Doesn’t Lie In Equity Stakes After All

There has, wrongly, long been a suspicion among many that streaming services are some sort of elaborate money making scam for labels, with the real value hidden in the money they will earn from their equity stakes. But as the ever excellent Tim Ingham explains, Warner is likely to only make around $200 million from a successful Spotify floatation. Of course $200 million is no small amount of money, and would represent more than half of Warner’s quarterly digital income. But it represents just 16% of the money Warner has earned from streaming since 2010 and just 2% of all global streaming revenue in 2015 (at retail values). Thus the label equity stakes in Spotify & co. are meaningful but they are far from where the real label value exists. Indeed as Cooper stated: “the main form of compensation we receive from streaming services is revenue based on actual streams”.

So If Artist Equity Income Isn’t Going To Fix Streaming, What Will?

All of which then raises the awkward question: if artists getting a Spotify IPO pay out isn’t going to ‘fix’ the model for artists, then what is? There is not really much scope for streaming services to pay out more to rights holders (80% of revenue doesn’t leave much scope for operating profit). While there is certainly scope for increasing ARPU among the super fan subscribers, there is little opportunity to raise prices for the majority of users ($9.99 is already more than most are willing to spend). So the only part of the equation left is how much labels pay artists.

Streaming Is Neither A License Nor A Sale And Its Time Artist Deals Recognise It

Right now the entire recorded music business is trying to figure out whether streaming is replacing radio or sales. The likelihood is that it is doing both and by doing so creating something new in between. That means that labels need to rethink how they pay artists, because currently they typically pay them on either one or the other of those models, and most often on the basis of a stream being a sale. A stream being the equivalent of a sale is completely counterintuitive because streaming is all about consumption not transaction. So why are labels most commonly treating streams as sales? Because the % they have to pay artists is so much lower, often in the 10% to 15% range rather than around 50% for a license. Of course there is as strong an argument to be made for streams not to be considered as a pure license as there is a sale, but there is an even stronger one for a hybrid rate that sits in the middle. Doing so would double the amount of money most artists make from streaming, instantaneously transforming its revenue impact for many. There is some precedent too. In 2012 Universal was successfully sued by FTB Productions over its treatment of Eminem downloads as sales rather than licenses, for which Eminem would have been paid a 50% rate instead of the much smaller sales rate.

Warner Music deserve credit for their commitment to paying artists a portion of equity related income (though no mention of how much of course) but it is just one step on a bigger journey. A wholesale reassessment of artist streaming compensation is required. Increasing artist streaming rates will dent label margins but ultimately the labels need to decide whether they want to build a business that is as sustainable for artists as it is for them.

Postscript: One interesting quote stood out from Cooper: “Although none of these equity stakes have been monetized since we implemented our breakage policy…there are some services from which we receive additional forms of compensation”. Translation(?): Sony used to get paid by the big streaming services on some sort of stock dividend basis and probably still does from some others.

Ad Supported Is 56% Of US Streaming Revenue

Late 2014 a minor crisis emerged in the music industry, with major record labels at one stage looking like they were going to kill off freemium.  The outcome of the Freemium Wars was actually less dramatic, resulting instead in an effective continuation of the status quo.  The labels had however made it very clear to Spotify who held the whip hand.  Though their tones have softened, major label execs retain an at best sceptical view of free streaming.  The net result is that freemium has almost become the inconvenient streaming truth that no one really talks about.  However free is too big to ignore.  In fact free is much bigger than some would like to admit.

freemium what freemium

According to the IFPI ad supported streaming accounted for just 19% of all US streaming revenues in 2014, down from a high of 30% in 2011.  Which points to the success of subscriptions.  Except that those numbers ignore a major part of the equation: Pandora (and other semi-interactive radio services).  The IFPI has Pandora hidden away with cloud locker services, SiriusXM and a mixture of other revenues in ‘Other Digital’.  Extracting the semi-interactive radio revenues that count as label trade revenues wasn’t the most straight forward of tasks but it was worth the effort.  Once Pandora is added into the mix it emerges that 56% of US streaming revenues are from free, ad supported services.  While that share is down from a high of 66% in 2012 it remained flat in 2013 and 2014.  Which means that however fast subscriptions grew Pandora, Slacker, Rhapsody UnRadio and co grew even faster in order to offset the decline in on demand ad supported income.

us subscriber growth and pandora

Semi-interactive radio revenues grew by 40% in 2014 compared to 35% for subscriptions.  Subscriptions had grown much faster in 2013 (76% compared to 25%) but Pandora and co found their mojo again in 2014.  None of this is to suggest that subscriptions aren’t making great progress but it does show us that free is more than an inconvenient truth, it is both the most widely adopted behaviour and the largest revenue source in the US (which accounts for 48% of global digital revenues).

The music industry is beginning to get its head around the fact that the role of streaming as a retail channel (i.e. subscriptions) is always going to be smaller (in reach terms at least) than its role as a radio channel (i.e. free streaming).  This more accurate view of the US streaming market shows us that free is even more important than many thought.

Free streaming also has much bigger growth potential. The percentage of consumers that have the inclination to pay 9.99 a month for music is inherently limited, thus constraining subscriptions to a niche addressable audience.  Music radio listening by contrast has near ubiquitous reach.  Most significantly Pandora currently only represents about 10% of all US radio listening time.  The addressable market is much bigger and the vast majority of it remains untapped.

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

Music Start-Up Strategy 2.0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laying the Groundwork for Transformational Innovation

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

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

 

OpenEMI, an Innovation Files Case Study

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

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

EMI have inserted themselves into the developer value chain

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

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

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

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

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

An API for EMI’s own innovation

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

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

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

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

Driving Transformational Innovation

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