Time to stop playing the velocity game

We all know that streaming has transformed consumption and business models alike, but this is not a ‘now-completed’ process. Instead it is one that continues to evolve at pace, and the dynamic of pace is the pivotal variable. Consumer adoption continues to accelerate in terms of both time spent and take up. The streaming services – which are entirely geared to driving and responding to this behaviour – rapidly hone their systems accordingly. Labels, artists, publishers and songwriters are stuck playing catch up, running after the streaming train before it disappears over the horizon. The marketing strategies and royalty systems that worked yesterday struggle to cope today. But this ‘upstream’ side of the music business is inadvertently making it harder for themselves to ever actually catch up. By trying to play by the new rules they are in fact feeding the machine, ceding further control of their own destinies. It is time for a reset.

Streaming’s ‘upstream’ fault lines

There are three major fault lines for the upstream music business:

  1. Volume and velocity: releasing more music than ever before to meet the accelerating turnover of content
  2. The demotion of the artist: once the centrepiece of music consumption the artist is becoming a production facility for playlists
  3. Royalties: royalty payments built for the much more monolithic streaming model of the late 2000s do not reflect the complexities and nuances of streaming consumption in the 2010s 

Each of these are inherent attributes of the current model and favour the ‘downstream’ end of the equation (i.e. streaming services) far more than they do the upstream. Each problem needs fixing.

Volume and velocity

This is the most important and insidious factor, yet it is deceptively innocuous. Labels are releasing an unprecedented volume and velocity of music to try to keep up with streaming – especially the majors. But it is a Sisyphean task, no matter how many times you roll that boulder up the hill, the next one needs rolling up all over again and the hill gets steeper every time. Spotify is adding around 1.4 million tracks a month so, for example, if UMG wanted to release tracks on a market share basis it would have to release 420,000 every month.

Now that the data era has arrived in music, the risk of signing a new artists has been significantly reduced, but at the same time, an artist whose numbers are already trending does not come cheap to sign nor does she come with a guarantee of longevity. Many artists can do enough to have a successful song, but far fewer can make a habit of it. Labels have to decide how willing they are to bet on an artist one song at a time.

It feels impossibly hard not to play the game because everyone else is playing it and the system is geared that way. Feeding the velocity game habit is like feeding a crack cocaine habit. And yet, labels know better than most businesses that by breaking the rules, creative businesses can have more, not less, success.

The demotion of the artist

Western streaming services, unlike many Eastern ones, are built around tracks not artists and consequently consumption is too. Inadvertently, labels are feeding this dynamic because they are so focused on making tracks work that an artist is much less likely to be given the benefit of a long term strategy if her songs do not stream. The problem with chasing streams is that the process for one song might not apply to another. Failing at streams will often be a reason for pulling the plug on an artist, simply because ‘Plan B’ does not have a boiler plate. The more they push tracks the more they help the de-prioritisation of artists.

Fandom should come first, streaming second. A longer-term view is needed, one that puts building the artist’s fanbase first and streaming second. If an artist has a large, engaged fanbase then streams will usually follow. But if an artist gets a lot of streams on a playlist a fanbase does not necessarily follow. Marketing campaigns need to shift emphasis to a longer-term, audience-centric focus. It may be harder to measure the near-term ROI with this approach, but it will deliver better long-term returns.

Royalties

The #brokenrecord debate is not about to go away, especially as it will likely be 2022 before live music is operating at full capacity again and thus delivering artists the income they are currently missing. As I have previously discussed this is a complex problem for which there is no single solution but instead will require coordinated efforts from multiple stakeholders. A reassessment of the entire royalty streaming structure is needed from upstream to downstream.

Downstream, we need to stop thinking that every song is equal. They are not. Listening to 30 minutes of 35-second storm sound ‘songs’ in a mindfulness playlist should not be paying the same royalties as an album listened to its entirety. Also, some form of user-centred licensing solution is needed that rewards fandom, whether that is a user opt in model (‘support favourite artists’) or an actual re-work of the royalty mechanism, or a combination of the two.

Labels also need to work out how they can pay more to artists. Lowering their A&R risk exposure could free up some income. Of course, this is something that many have tried and failed at, but what if labels were to allocate 10% of their marketing budgets to top-of-funnel activity so that they can do even more work than they currently do around identifying talent early. This needs a commercial model that protects their funnel (e.g. first refusal terms for artists) and also needs to play in the creator tools space: the tools creators user to make music is the real ‘top of funnel’ – this is where the first relationships are established.

The holy grail for improving label profits would be for the label to improve the overall success rate for the artists in the portfolio. However, in the history of music, it is safe to say that no label has quite cracked it. Instead they live with it as a reality and a cost of doing business.

Labels do though, have some margin slack to play with. WMG improved its OIBDA from 11.9% in 2018 to 14.0% in 2019 while UMG improved its EBITDA from 16.7% in 2017 to 20.0% in 2019. Clearly, improved profitability is important in its own right and for investors, but the way to see this is a near-term expense to secure long-term profitability. A label without artists is not a label.

Breaking the habit

It takes a brave – some might say foolish – label to stop playing by streaming’s rules of engagement, to risk losing share in those crucial playlists. But label business models are not structured for the economics of single tracks – dance labels excepted. Their P&Ls are built around artists. When streaming behaviour started killing off the album, labels complained but then got used to building campaigns around tracks. However, this is not the destination, it is a stopover on the long-term journey towards a post-artist world. Playing streaming’s velocity game perpetuates an increasingly dysfunctional model. It feeds shortening attention spans, degrades the role of the artist and downgrades music to fodder for playlists. It is time to jump off the merry-go-round.

Ellie Goulding and Billie Eilish Are Streaming’s New Normal

Less than a week into the new decade and we already have the first indications that the streaming rulebook continues to be rewritten faster than the ink can dry on its last entry. Three separate articles, on the surface unrelated, when stitched together create the outline of a new streaming narrative that while firmly rooted in recent developments represents an entirely new chapter for the music industry:

  1. Ellie Goulding’s ‘River’ was the UK Christmas number one despite being an Amazon exclusive
  2. Jimmy Iovine claims Drake and Billie Eilish each have more streams than the entirety of the 1980s
  3. UK streaming revenue growth slowed, adding £191 million in 2019 compared to £210 million in 2019

Fusing consumption and retail

Streaming’s impact is both commercial and cultural, in large part because it fuses what used to be retail and radio. Like some kind of musical nuclear fusion, it smashes discovery and consumption together to create a chain reaction with explosive implications. In the old world, repeated radio spins drove awareness and then sales. In streaming environments, lean-back streams are simultaneously radio-like listens and sales. The distinction does not matter for streaming services – they are focused on user acquisition, engagement and retention, but for labels it challenges the very premise of what marketing campaigns are meant to achieve. It is in this environment that today’s streaming stars are made.

‘More of more’

With streaming services lacking any meaningful way to differentiate, they are forced to compete on who can deliver their users’ the most new music to drive the most listening. This strategic imperative of ‘more of more’ is at direct odds with the objective of any label campaign, which is inherently about ‘more of less’, i.e. listen to this song more instead of more songs. The net result is vast amounts of streams spread widely, but also an environment in which hits become megahits. The songs that get traction experience a domino effect of successive algorithmic decisions, rapidly pushing songs with buzz to a progressively wider number of playlists and users. In the old world this would have been radio airplay success; now it is just volume of streams.

Catalogue Darwinism

Because of the focus on new, streaming-era artists end up with far bigger streaming volumes than older artists that were ‘bigger’ in their respective eras, but an afterthought in the streaming era. Hence, Drake and Billie Eilish being bigger than the entirety of the 1980s. Back in mid-2018 MIDiA published a report predicting that music catalogue was going to decline. We faced a lot of opposition then but now we are beginning to see that catalogue is indeed undergoing a fundamental change. For deep, legacy catalogue, streaming dynamics are stripping out the long tail and boiling down entire decades to a handful of tracks. Think of it this way: if 10% of the artists released in the 1980s were ‘successful’ at the time, and 10% of those were successful enough for their music to still be listened to now, and that the songs that are still listened to are 10% of these artists’ entire 1980s output, then you end up with 0.1% of the music from the 1980s being streamed at any meaningful scale now. Added to that, new music gets pushed to more lean-back playlists so is listened to more times. The multiplier effect for new music acts as a divider for older music. As an illustration, 40 music videos on YouTube have more than one billion views but in October 2019 Guns ‘n Roses ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ was the only one from the 1980s that had a billion views.

If you own the rights to those catalogue gems then the value of that asset is arguably higher now than ever before, because it has won the Darwinian game of catalogue evolution. But the rest fall by the wayside.

Ellie Goulding: niche mainstream

So, the current dynamics of streaming programming favour new versus old. It may not always be so, but this is where we are right now. These same dynamics can then be used to create hits – demand creation, if you like. This is where Ellie Goulding comes in. Goulding’s Joni Mitchell cover ‘River’ was an Amazon exclusive yet became the overall UK number one in large part because Amazon ensured it was on just about every holiday-themed playlist. Every time someone asked Alexa to play Christmas music, ‘River’ soon found its way there. Because Echo listening skews so heavily lean-back, ‘River’ simply became part of the sonic festive wallpaper, much in the same way ‘All I Want for Christmas’ did on radio. Just like with radio, lean-back listeners are unlikely to stop whatever else they are doing in order to change the track. Because streaming economics do not differentiate with lean-back and lean-forward listening, passive listening is just as valuable as active listening. Radio has become as valuable as retail but is much easier to manipulate.

The other crucial aspect of this is that Amazon has shown that you only need to find and activate a small slice of the mainstream to have a mainstream hit. As MIDiA first said last year, niche is the new mainstream.

At the start of this post I stated that streaming’s effects are both cultural and commercial. The commercial backdrop to all of these consumption and programming shifts is that the rate of revenue growth is beginning to slow (not just in percentage terms – that is a natural effect of markets getting bigger) but also in absolute terms. Early last year we predicted that streaming growth would start to slow towards the end of 2019 in developed markets and the ERA figures for the UK are the first evidence of this shift. Globally, growth will be sustained by emerging and mid-tier markets, but in markets like the UK and US, growth is peaking. The significance is that the conflation of radio and retail does not matter so much when everything is growing. When growth slows, however, quirks of the market can become business challenges. The ROI of throwing money at campaigns to cut through the audio clutter becomes problematic when the promise of the pie getting ever bigger begins to wane.

All of these things are of course simply part of a maturing and changing market. Nevertheless, the marketing strategies currently employed have been developed in an environment of growth abundance. The challenge for streaming’s next chapter is finding the new rules that are more ROI focused but can still play to streaming’s consumption strengths. Delineating different rates for lean-forward and lean-back streams feels like a logical place to start, but more evolution will need to follow – each iteration of which will trigger its own waves of unintended consequences. Exciting times.

Abbey Road 50 Years On: The Two Worlds of Music Listening

Half a century after it first after it first topped the charts, the Beatles’ Abbey Road is back at the summit of the UK charts. With the anniversary editions retailing for between $20 and $100, the impact on Universal Music’s revenue will be even more pronounced than the chart position, as we saw with the deluxe editions of the White Album (which had editions priced up to $145) helping the Beatles become the fourth-biggest UMG artist in revenue terms in 2018. The continued success of the Beatles tells us three main things:

  1. The band has enduring appeal in a way few bands have so long after their demise
  2. Universal is doing a fantastic job of managing the legacy of the Beatles with smart and effective catalogue marketing and product strategy
  3. Older, physical-focused music fans remain the quickest route to high-value, large-scale revenue

It is this last point that is going to be explored here.

Streaming is not yet everything, by a long stretch

While streaming is well established, it is still a minority activity (i.e. less than half of the population streams – the rate is even lower when you factor in emerging market regions such as sub-Saharan Africa). Most of you reading this will have been streaming for many years now, so this may sound a bit crazy, but we all live in our own filter bubbles, surrounded by people with similar world views and behaviours. The reality is that we are still in a transition period where the old and the new coexist. This dual-reality paradigm underpins the Beatles’ continued success.

MIDiA Index - Top Streamed and Top Listened to Artists - the Beatles 

Looking at data from MIDiA’s forthcoming artist insight platform Index, we can see that the top 15 biggest audiences ranked by overall listening is significantly different from the top 15 streaming audiences. The differences become far more pronounced as we work our way down the rankings. Mass market linear media (especially TV and radio) used to be the only way in which record labels turned artists into mainstream brands. The biggest artists of today (in fact all of the artists in both of the top 15 rankings) built their fanbases sitting on the shoulders of big, traditional media. Big media of course still plays a crucial role – as illustrated by the fact that the top five most-listened to artists have all recently been in major movies. In fact, movies are emerging as the mass medium that can still create globally relevant cultural moments in the way that radio and TV used to.

Niche is the new mainstream

Now though, newer artists are building their fanbases outside of traditional media, using digital marketing channels to laser-target specific audiences rather than the traditional carpet-bombing approach. As a consequence, when we look at the top 15 most-streamed artists based on those audiences that actually know the artist we see a totally different picture with artists like Post Malone, Martin Garrix and Bille Eilish among the top performing. These are still-big artists; artists that have found global niches with genuine scale, but niches nonetheless. This is the era of fragmented fandom. Niche is the new mainstream.

The first global pop band, perhaps

The Beatles were arguably the first big, global pop band – I say ‘arguably’ because there are many other claimants to that title, but whether they were first, or among the first, they helped create the template for artist success that shaped the modern recorded music industry. Now, as part of our cultural history they have an additional emphasis. The film ‘Yesterday’ will have introduced new audiences to the Beatles’ music, as will the hype around the return of Abbey Road. However, the majority of Beatles fans are old (59% are aged over 45) with an average age of 46. This aligns with average age of consumers that still buy CDs and that still listen to albums.

This does not mean that young people are not listening to the Beatles also (and on streaming they skew younger), also even with an average age of 45 this means that a large portion of the core fanbase are not from the Beatles’ original generation.

However, it is a very different demographic from Spotify users (average age 34) and, for example, Billie Eilish fans (29). Beatles fans skew towards older consumers that are more likely to buy and listen to physical albums.

For all the chart modifications, actual album sales still have key impact

 With all of the reformatting of charts to recognise streams, album sales still carry much more weight, because:

  1. A lot of streams are needed to be equivalent to an album (1,500 in the UK, 1,250 paid streams or 3,750 ad-supported streams in the US)
  2. Newer, streaming-centric artists tend to be track artists rather than album artists, and tend to have a larger share of ad-supported listeners, so it is harder for them to top album charts

When a once in a generation event like Abbey Road at 50 comes along, and the older, CD and vinyl buying audience comes out in force, you do not need too many of them to create a chart-topping album. As I illustrated in my post on the White Album, 75,000 sales of a $100 deluxe edition can generate the same label income as more than 60 million streams – though how much Universal actually retains of that due to its commercial relationships with the band and its estates is another issue entirely.

The key takeaway from Abbey Road at 50 is that we still have a long, long way to go on the streaming journey. In fact, you might say it is ‘the long and winding road’.

Five Trends Changing Music Marketing

This is a guest post from MIDiA Research analyst Keith Jopling

Marketing music has never been straightforward. That’s why back in the day, label executives would use the single as the shortcut to finding an audience on which to propel the artist, and even more importantly, their latest album. Meanwhile, radio stations were largely in lockstep, since they would rather play the ‘catchiest’ hits as well as help build familiarity for those hits (those that got through dreaded call-out research). Still, neither side really knew which songs audiences would take to their hearts. The signal was foggy, at least until the record reached the shops. Even then, it was hard to know whether people liked the music, or just didn’t know about it. Hence the market was a constant flow of ‘push and pray’.

The single biggest change brought by streaming is the clarity of the signal. It has improved. It is clearer now which songs people really like. The art of marketing is to seed the song into the right places and wait to see what pops where. The challenge for label marketers isn’t so much to grasp this new world – they do. Their challenge is to have enough direct levers they can pull to make the new world order tip in their artists’ favour. The cause of many a migraine for marketers, however, is that they have very few direct levers and are at the mercy of gatekeepers, influencers and other layers that sit between their songs and the audience.

The problems for music marketers are manifold. We’ve listed just some of them here, each with a kernel of a solution. Whether music marketers have it in their power to fashion the solutions into actionable marketing tactics is a different story. But, given that global marketing is one of the core competencies of a modern record label (and a modern artist manager), the broader solution is for marketers to push their agenda higher up the chain, and for more corporate-level innovation and investment to get the marketing engines changed up and fit for purpose. We argue as well that to succeed in doing this, marketers should change behaviours and start marketing for the environment now, not yesterday.

In this short report (download for free on the MIDiA webpages), Consulting Director Keith Jopling examines five problematical trends changing the way music is marketed, and points to potential solutions.

Problem (and solution) 1: Managing linear decline

The steady decline of linear radio and TV audiences is eroding these platforms’ contribution to music marketing effectiveness. The industry seems to live in hope that this will find a self-cure. A label’s power to get an artist’s song on the radio is seen by the artist as second fiddle to streaming, so the solution is obvious – either work with radio to improve its relevance or -get better at playlist pitching and see radio as a bi-product or bonus, not an essential. With playlist pitching getting harder, perhaps the former option is actually the better one.

Currently, radio is the only large-scale media that labels have for reaching national audiences at a shared time and place. But radio’s rolling playlist slots are too low in volume. One simple change would be for labels/publishers/managers to convince radio brands to expand their playlists to accommodate many more slots for new music (preferably with much better analytics to measure this, as audiences continue to migrate from broadcast to on-demand). For one thing, it would help radio’s issues in competing with streaming platforms if they could increase their capacity for song discovery by trading off new songs with catalogue plays or heavy rotation hits – ‘track of the hour’ rather than ‘track of the day’. Radio could argue that it is a better discovery platform than streaming, given it can add powerful context (daypart, presenters, artist stories) that streaming currently does not. Radio provides a sense of community. Streaming platforms are frozen wastelands in comparison. Radio can only make this argument however, if it can go further to compete with streaming on volume.

The plethora of branded radio apps now on the market is hardly a joined-up force to take on streaming, but if the market continues to evolve this way, then radio providers must use their brand equity and identity to serve super-niches, and serve them better – be it genre, demographic, a particular scene, theme or location. The most successful will begin to stem the loss in audience reach, but also fill the gaps left by streaming services to hold onto those audiences in terms of engagement and emotional attachment. For all the rhetoric of streaming platforms, one of those gaps is music discovery.

Download our free report to read the following further problems & solutions:

  • Managing streaming economics and higher song volumes
  • Managing post-album creativity
  • Managing global-local culture
  • Managing music value

Fan upsell is the money left on the table

In the mainstream pop world, the upsell potential to super-fans remains a gaping hole in the potential growth for the industry. Labels have acquired merchandise companies for incremental revenue but have so far stayed clear of the one sector in which the artists’ ‘product’ remains a scarce premium – live performance. Yet, real estate and demand can be created outside of the main live sector dominated by Live Nation and AEG. Companies like Dice and Sofar Sounds and even City Winery in the USA have proved this.

Some horizontal thinking is required on the subject of music’s value problem – whether it be that previous ‘promotional’ channels be abandoned unless there is directly attributable consumption as a result, or that labels can create more live real estate (through monetising showcases or converting tour support funding into direct ticketed appearances). Artists remain super-valuable brands. Average revenue per artist must go one way – up. Artists must use this as the benchmark for choosing their preferred means of representation, not just the size of their streaming numbers.

Free-to-Attend Event: Monetising Fandom

monetisingfandomspeakers2x2Join us on Wednesday 17thJuly in central London for MIDiA’s next free-to-attend event: Monetising Fandom in a Fragmented Content Landscape. Regular attendees of our events will know that they combine great new data and analysis with insightful panels and a mix of attendees not quite like at any other event, with representation from across multiple industries.

Next week is a big one. We will be showcasing a brand-new stream of data for MIDiA: audience fandom. With audiences fragmenting across so many different platforms, formats and content genres, the attention economy not only puts pressure on every form of content, it also necessitates a complete rethink of how we measure success. Pre-streaming, success was much easier to understand: album sales and TV ratings were nice, simple-to-measure metrics. Now though, audiences are spread across a host of different platforms, sometimes consuming, sometimes simply engaging with social or promotional content. It all contributes to the artists’ brand impact, and in the era of the attention economy, extended brand reach is more important than it has ever been.

In this event we are going to showcase our latest audience insight data on music artists and TV shows, and we will present our case for an entire new way of measuring and understanding success.

The event itself will include a keynote presentation from Mark Mulligan, followed by a panel discussion featuring representatives from TikTok, ATC, Kobalt and Spirit Media.

Follow this link to sign up (fully-refundable deposit required).

For those of you who are not in London, a live stream will be made available on our Facebook page at 18.30 BST.

Niche is the New Mainstream

Fandom is fragmenting. Streaming personalization and falling radio audiences are combining to rewrite the music marketing rulebook, ushering in a whole new marketing paradigm. Hits used to be cultural moments; artist brands built by traditional mass media. However, this fire-hydrant approach to marketing lacked both accountability and effective targeting. Now, hyper targeting, both in marketing campaigns and streaming recommendations, is creating a new type of hit and a new type of artist. Global fanbases are being built via the accumulation of local niches, while a few big hits for everyone are being replaced by many, smaller hits for individuals. Niche is the new mainstream.

The marketing rulebook is being re-written

Three trends have reshaped how music marketing works:

  1. Digital targeting: The rise of social media provided label marketing teams with masses of data and unparalleled targeting
  2. Linear decline:The steady decline of linear radio and TV audiences is eroding these platforms’ contribution to music marketing effectiveness
  3. Streaming curation:Streaming algorithms and curation teams are overriding label marketing efforts, delivering users what the streaming services want to deliver rather than what labels want to

fragmented fandom midia research - niche is the new maiostream

Artist marketing used to be about building exposure and brands across mass market analogue platforms. With radio, TV and print all in decline – especially among the crucial younger audience segments – that approach is being replaced with targeted digital campaigns which in turn are fragmenting fandom and transforming what global fanbases look like:

  • The marketing transition:Marketing of media brands is locked in a transition phase, moving from the old model of one-to-many messaging to targeted digital campaigns. As in all transitions, the old and new models will co-exist for some time. For music marketers though, there is a greater need for emphasis on digital because this is where the younger music fans are that are so crucial to the success of so many frontline acts.
  • Democratization of access:In the old model, mainstream linear media (TV and radio especially) was the power tool of big record labels. Access to these finite schedules is inherently scarce and bigger record labels have an inbuilt advantage due to their scale and influence. In on-demand environments access is democratized, with anyone able to run their own self-serve campaigns on platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube and Google search. The result is that labels and artists of all sizes can reach their global audiences.
  • From cultural moments to cultural movements:Linear schedules have the unrivalled ability to create simultaneous audiences at scale around a specific piece of content. Creating these cultural moments remains the crucial asset that TV and radio bring. But the weakness of this approach is that much of the impact is diluted. It is carpet bombing compared to the laser-guided missile of digital marketing, resulting in a lot of wasted exposure and effort. Mass reach is progressively less useful for driving fandom. Against this, the hyper-targeting of digital creates super-engaged fanbases that can often thrive under the mainstream radar. Kobalt artists such as Lauv (2.5+ billion streams) and Rex Orange County (0.8+ billion streams) are examples of this new paradigm, creating global-scale cultural movements rather than linear cultural moments. Niches thrive in this world of fragmented fandom, but niche no longer inherently means small. Indeed, the cumulative effect of many local niches is global-scale fanbases. Niche is the new mainstream.

The old living side by side with the new

As when every new paradigm shift occurs, the old and the new will live side by side. There will still be plenty of artists that appeal to younger audiences that become household names too across mainstream media – look no further than Billie Eilish. But make no mistake, the shift is happening. More and more global artist success stories will happen outside the mainstream. These fan bases will be increasingly passionate and loyal, acting as strong platforms for building impactful artist stories. Success will be built around audiences that want a piece of everything that artist has to offer, from streaming to merch to tickets. This is how independent artists and many independent label artists have been building careers for years. They no longer have the exclusive, however.

Fragmented fandom is an asset, not a challenge

Artists that once would have been household names – mass media brands with large but often passive fanbases – are now rising as under-the-radar superstars. It has never been more important for this to happen. With streaming pushing more listeners towards tracks and away from artists and albums, building passionate clusters of fans is not just key to success, it is the very thing that success will be built on. Fandom is fragmenting but it may be the best thing that has ever happened to it.

This blog post pulls insight from a forthcoming MIDiA report Music Marketing: Niche is the New Mainstream that will be published in MIDiA’s new Marketing and Brands service. To find out more about how to get access to this research practice – a must have for anyone involved in marketing of media brands – email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Spotify, the Decline of Playlists and the Rise of Podcasts

The following is a small excerpt from MIDiA’s forthcoming third edition of its ‘landmark State of the Streaming Nation’ report. For more information about this report email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Most things that Spotify does are scrutinised and cross-examined within an inch of their lives, with vested interests trying to second guess what may be the intended or unintended consequences for them. Most actions are viewed through the disruption lens i.e. how will this hurt or compete with Spotify’s rightsholder partners? The streaming market is of course so much more than just Spotify, but the company acts as a lightning rod for the wider market and most often sets the strategic agenda.

Spotify’s Two Phases of Growth

Two of Spotify’s most significant moves have been playlist curation and podcasts. Spotify is moving into the second major phase of its existence. Phase 1 was about establishing itself as a streaming music powerhouse, Phase 2 is about what it becomes next, extending beyond the streaming music beachhead. This is the typical trajectory of tech companies, establishing themselves in their core competencies and then expanding. This can either be a dramatic expansion – e.g. Amazon moving from eCommerce into video and music – or a more focused value-chain extension – e.g. Netflix moving from simply streaming other’s shows to making its own. For Spotify, playlists were a Phase 1strategy and podcasts are very much part of Phase 2.

midia playlists and podcasts

Podcasts may just have come in the nick of time for Spotify because curated playlists remain much more about potential than they do reality. Just 15% of streaming consumers listen to curated playlists. In fact, of all the key streaming feature activities, curated playlists come lowest. Curated playlists are clearly not to streaming music what binge watching is to streaming video. Instead streaming activity is fragmented across multiple features and just 10% of streaming consumers regularly do all four of the activities listed in the chart above.

‘But wait’ I hear you ask, ‘that doesn’t make sense, look at all these streams we’re getting from playlists’. The key factor here is the difference between the number of playlist users and the number of playlist streams. Playlists over index in terms of contribution to streams. With dozens of tracks per list, lean-back playlist listening can easily generate more streams per user than lean-forward listening. Thus, we have one of the great emerging paradoxes of streaming: passive audiences can generate more streams, and thus rightsholder pay outs, than engaged, aficionados. However, a word of caution, should casual playlist listening become large enough, then the net result will be a dilution of the royalty pool and thus diminishing per stream rates.

Perhaps not the holy grail of promotion

A few years ago, playlists looked like the future of artist marketing, now they are looking a bit like a busted flush. They may be great at generating streams but are not so great at building an artist’s story. The near-obsession with Spotify playlists in label marketing strategy reflects the fact that most record label executives use Spotify and thus often have a Spotify-centric (and therefore playlist-centric) worldview. But labels are now beginning to question the artist ROI of playlists. The growing adoption among casual listeners only compounds matters and means that a playlist ‘hit’ does not necessarily do much to help long-term artist brand building. To put it simply: a playlist is not a shortcut to cultural relevance.

Podcasts could be bigger than streaming

Enter stage left podcasts. With its acquisitions of Gimlet, Anchor and Parcast, Spotify is betting big on podcasts. Already, more streaming users (18%) listen to podcasts than curated playlists while overall consumer podcast penetration is 11%. In Sweden – the early adopter market that gives us a view of where other markets are heading – podcast penetration is 19%, rising to 28% among streamers. Podcasts are a Netflix moment for radio and may even have the potential to be bigger than streaming music (US radio ad revenues alone are $16 billion). Right now, the growth in overall podcast audiences is fairly slow, but engagement is accelerating as are content creation, monetisation and distribution. It is not entirely inconceivable to think that five years from now, podcasts could be a bigger business for Spotify than music. Certainly, creators could be making much more money, even now.

While it remains more likely that music will be the core of Spotify’s business half a decade from now, all the early indications are that Phase 2 will mean a degree of diversification of user experience, business model and revenue stream, with podcasts at the vanguard. Playlists are not dead, but nor are they the golden child anymore.

Soundcloud Edges Towards Making YouTube The Odd One Out

Soundcloud took another step away from being an ‘under licensed’ service to a ‘fully licensed’ one with its deal today with indie licensing body Merlin. This follows on the footsteps of deals with Warner and the National Music Publishers Association. Soundcloud is a long way yet from being out of the licensing woods but momentum is clearly building. Most importantly though, Soundcloud is inadvertently playing the role of ice breaker in the new wave of deals for sites that traded as promotional sites in the download era and are having to, willingly or not, accept a new role that looks and feels a lot more like a straight forward streaming service.

Merlin’s CEO Charles Caldas nailed it in this quote from an interview with Music Ally:

As the value of the streaming market grows, people are starting to realise that consumption is the new sales. Anywhere that people are listening to music is actually the end-game now. This notion that everything is promotional: that way that people used to talk about YouTube as a ‘promotional channel’. When that becomes the destination for music fans, it needs to compete in the marketplace with all the platforms that are monetised,” said Caldas.

Soundcloud always had a lot of goodwill within the indie community and indeed even within the marketing and A&R departments of majors because of its roots as a platform for helping labels, artists (and more recently) fans interact more effectively. The labels’ commercial affairs teams however have been far less enamoured, instead asking why Soundcloud should be able let people listen for free, on demand, without licenses when others can’t.

The role of standalone promotional streaming services made sense when everyone was still buying music, but with download sales and CD sales both on the slide globally the model is less obvious. The discovery journey has also become the consumption journey but the change is happening so fast that it is easy to confuse the two. This is why we have the paradoxical situation where 10 million streams on Spotify is considered to be x amount of lost sales while 10 million YouTube views is considered a marketing success. Right now a large chunk of digital marketing activity that is driving streams on YouTube and Soundcloud is tactic without purpose. It is marketing for marketing’s sake without a clear enough sense of what the end goal is.

This is why Soundcloud needs to get these deals in place. It will completely transform the commercial dynamics of Soundcloud, and there will undoubtedly be disgruntled artists and fans, but the music world has changed and it needed to also. All of which leaves YouTube the odd one out without a chair to sit on when the music stops.

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An honourable mention goes to Songkick who today announced a merger with Crowdsurge and a combined raise of $16m. Congrats to Songkick and Crowdsurge co-CEO Ian Hogarth who is one of the smartest minds in the music industry.