Why Niche Is The Next Streaming Frontier

If 2014 was the year of fear, uncertainty and doubt for streaming then 2015 is shaping up to be the year in which streaming starts to deliver.  In fact so far streaming has helped drive revenue growth in the first half of 2015 for markets as diverse as Italy, Spain and Japan as well as of course in the streaming Nordic heartlands of Sweden, Denmark and Norway.  All this despite an accompanying average decline in download revenue of 7%.  But as I have long said, there is only so far that 9.99 AYCE (All You Can Eat) subscriptions can go.  This value proposition and price point combination constrains appeal to the aficionados and the upper end of the mainstream.  Pricing will be key to unlocking new users (as Spotify’s focus on the $1 a month for 3 months promo shows). However some highly influential elements within major labels are more resistant to pricing innovation now than they were this time last year.  So don’t hold your breath for the long overdue pricing overhaul.  The other side of the 9.99 AYCE equation though is just as important, namely choice, or rather, less choice. In fact, done right, cut down, niche music offerings should be able to fix the pricing conundrum too.

Too Much Content Is No Value At All
catalogue anatomy

Most people are not interested in all the music in the world and most people are not interested in spending $9.99 (or the local market equivalent) a month for music.   All the music in the world is a compelling proposition for super fans, but it is both a daunting prospect and more than is required for casual fans.  In fact the supposed benefit becomes a problem, the excess of choice begets the Tyranny Of Choice.  Indeed, just 5% of streaming catalogues is regularly frequented.  Most of the rest is irrelevant for most consumers.

Cord Nevers Are A Music Industry Problem Too

Most music fans like one or more kinds of music most.  While super fans are happy to pay for the ability to get everything, mainstreamers are not.  This is exactly the dynamic we are seeing in the video space, with consumers increasingly turning to smaller, cheaper services such as Netflix and Amazon rather than paying through the nose for an excess of cable channels.   The TV industry calls these consumers cord cutters (i.e. those that cancelled their TV subscriptions) and cord nevers (i.e. those that never paid for cable).  Now the music industry is facing its own cord never challenge: consumers who have never taken up a music subscription and have no intention of doing so.  In the past they would have spent some money on downloads, now they’re just watching more music videos YouTube.  The music industry quite simply does not have a Netflix for its cord nevers to go to instead of the full priced subscription option.

The Case For Niche Playlist Services

But give those more casual music fans a music app just built around their tastes and for a fraction of the price and the equation changes from zero sum.  Imagine genre specific playlist apps for $3 or $4 month.  A dozen curated playlists, a handful of featured albums and a couple of radio stations, all just of your favourite style of music and all streamed into a dedicated app.  Not only does this proposition deliver clear value, it also gives the industry an opportunity to open up new users that have thus far not been swayed by the broader utility play of AYCE services.

Imagine a Country app, a Classic Rock app, a Hip-Hop app, a Metal app, an EDM app, a Jazz app…. Each of these would create clear appeal within the mainstream elements of genre fan bases.  And while there is some risk of cannibalizing $9.99 services, this should be small if they are 100% curated (i.e. no on demand element) because they would be unlikely to appeal to aficionados and the super-mainstream.  These niche music apps could be delivered by standalone curated playlist service providers like MusicQubed, white label providers like Medianet and Omnifone, or even by AYCE services like Spotify ‘doing-a-Facebook’ by spinning out standalone apps.

The Marketplace Needs Niche Services Right Now

Niche services are not however a nice-to-have, an optional extra for the industry.  They will be crucial to unlocking the scale end of the subscription market and they will be needed sooner rather than later. Organic subscription growth (i.e. not including the temporary adrenaline shot of Spotify’s limited time price promotions) is not growing fast enough.  Apple Music looks set to add a significant amount of new users before year-end but many of those will come at the direct expense of the incumbents.  All the while YouTube is leaving everyone else for dust: the amount of net new video streams (i.e. free YouTube views) in H1 2015 was more than double that of net new audio streams.

The 9.99 AYCE model still has a lot of life in it yet, but just as the mobile phone market has far more choice than high end devices, so the subscription market desperately needs the diversity that niche services would bring.

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Rdio Goes After The Squeezed Middle

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

mind the gap

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

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

monetization pyramid

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

Monetizing The Revenue No-Man’s Land

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

It Is Time To Think Beyond The Monthly Subscription

Apple’s entry into the subscription market later this year will fire a broadside across the freemium model.  But there are not many companies that can do what Apple can.  Every product and service needs to acquire customers and usually that entails advertising and marketing.  If what you are selling is a relatively nuanced proposition, and music subscriptions are exactly that, then you are going to need to spend a lot of time and money building the awareness and understanding of the product.  That typically either means a big ad budget or having a captive audience to talk to directly without the marketing middleman. For freemium services that is the free tier.  For Apple that is the installed base of device owners.  It is all well and good for Apple to crusade against free in its entirety because that also happens to make it increasingly difficult for anyone else to make the subscription model work.  As I argued in my previous post there is a need for a rethink of free, to ensure that it acts as an acquisition funnel for subscriptions not as a replacement for them.  But there is another part of the puzzle that needs solving too: the subscription model itself. If freemium is on borrowed time, a solution is needed that the entire market can work with, not just Apple.  Pay As You Go (PAYG) is part of the answer.

Music Subscriptions Cap ARPU

Currently the music industry is trying to migrate all of its paying customers to subscriptions.  The theory is that this should increase the Average Spend Per User (ARPU) to 9.99 but as MIDiA’s research revealed, thus far it appears to be doing a better job of reducing the ARPU of the most valuable. Thus we have a worst of both worlds scenario in which the ARPU of the most valuable customers is capped (something no other media industry does) and the lower value customers aren’t offered enough options to get on the spending ladder.

When I wrote back in October that it was time for a pricing reset I pointed to three things that need to happen:

  1. More price tier differentiation
  2. Reduce the main $9.99 price point to $7.99
  3. Introduce PAYG / Top Ups

The good news is that we’re beginning to see some movement on all three counts, including Apple poised to tick off the second item later this year when it launches its subscription offering.

The Return Of The Day Pass

Last week Pandora announced that it was introducing a $0.99 day pass to its ad free subscription offering.  The idea isn’t new, Spotify had a day pass in its earlier days, but the timing is now right for a reassessment of the tactic.   Most people are not in the habit of paying for music on a monthly basis and most do not spend anything close to 9.99 a month.  Little surprise then that only 10% of consumers are interested in a 9.99 subscription.  But PAYG pricing interest, while still relatively modest, is the clearly the pricing that has strongest appeal (see figure).  PAYG pricing allows consumers to ‘suck it and see’ to try out.  It is what the mobile phone business needed to kick start cellular subscriptions and it is what the music industry needs too.  And done right PAYG can even uncap ARPU by allowing customers to spend more than they would on a monthly plan, something that happens frequently among pre-pay mobile phone customers.

payg pricing

Currently there is only a handful of companies pioneering this approach, including the MusicQubed powered MTV Trax’s ‘Play As You Go’ model and Psonar’s ‘Pay Per Play’ offering.  It should only be a matter of time before the big streaming services start experimenting with a la carte pricing but they will have to tread carefully to ensure they do not cannibalize the spending of their 9.99 customers.  At an industry level though the case is clear and it is one that other media industries are already heeding.  In the TV industry services like Netflix are empowering cable and satellite TV subscribers to cancel or reduce their subscriptions.  Consequently TV companies are busy experimenting with unbundling their subscription offerings to meet the needs of their newly empowered customers.  The most interesting example for the music industry is Sky’s Now TV in the UK which offers its core programming with no monthly contract and enables users to simply add on extra content such as and ‘entertainment pass’ or a ‘sports pass’ as one off payments.

The future of music consumption is clearly going to be on demand but 9.99 subscriptions are just one part of the mix. PAYG pricing will be crucial to ensuring that streaming can break out of its early adopter beachhead.

MTV Trax And Fixing The Tyranny Of Choice

The subscription pricing debate is gaining momentum with serious dialogue occurring at high levels across the industry. Every consideration though occurs against the backdrop of fear, fear of disrupting the solid start subscriptions have made so far. It is clear that although the 9.99 price point has significant additional market opportunity, that potential has a finite scope. Once the ceiling of adoption has been reached the market will stagnate unless new price points are introduced.

One option for reducing risk is to tailor services at discreet segments that are not prospects for 9.99 services. By building highly distinct, curated services that deliver users curated, lean back experiences rather than bewildering them with the Tyranny of Choice of 30 million tracks. Music Aficionados are the driving force of current digital music, are less than a fifth of all consumers yet are the core target of every 9.99 subscription service.   By contrast Forgotten Fans – super engaged music fans who don’t yet spend much money on music – are hugely underserved. A handful of companies have been trying to unlock this segment, including Blinkbox Music, Mix Radio (formerly Nokia Mix Radio), Bloom.fm (RIP), Psonar (PAYG streams), MusicQubed (O2 Tracks, Vodafone Tracks), Zvook, as well as ‘Pandora One’, ‘Slacker Radio Plus’ and Rhapsody’s ‘unRadio’. Even Spotify is having a go. Now MusicQubed have upped the ante in the pursuit of the Forgotten Fan powering a new MTV music service: MTV Trax.

MTV: Digital Music’s Sleeping Giant

MTV is something of a sleeping giant in the digital music space. It is the sort of brand the marketplace has been waiting for. Spotify has done a fantastic job at creating a brand from scratch but outside of digital music circles it has minimal brand recognition. What MTV brings is immediate brand equity, the sort of instant familiarity that can help pull mainstream consumers into the digital fold.

Up to now, besides a couple of ill fated early efforts (remember MTV Urge anyone?) MTV has never seriously tried to convert its massive brand and reach. MTV has been biding its time. It is a mainstream brand for the masses so it has been waiting for the market to reach sufficient scale and for the right product for it to enter. MTV knows there is little point in trying to push its youthful, mass market audience towards Aficionado services that they are unlikely to be able to afford or have interest in.

MTV Needs To Put Mobile At The Heart Of Its Channel Strategy

There is an additional reason the time is now right for MTV, whether they realise it or not: their business model is stuck firmly in the confines of old, traditional media i.e. Pay TV. Though Pay TV is hardly in crisis, yet, the first cracks are beginning to appear with disruptive Over The Top (OTT) services like Netflix and Amazon Prime and cord cutting.  Of most concern for MTV is the new generation of ‘cord never’ consumers that may never take a Pay TV subscription, instead relying solely on the likes of Netlix, Hulu and iPlayer for their video needs. MTV is a youth brand yet ironically its current business model is rooted in an older world – the average age of a network TV viewer is 59. MTV needs a new channel for engaging with the next generation of audiences, and that channel is mobile. MTV Trax looks like it may be the first plank of that strategy.

mtv trax

MTV Trax itself is a visually rich mobile only app that delivers 8 curated playlists, branded around genres, charts and MTV shows. An Aficionado would probably find the selection too narrow and mainstream, but that’s entirely point, this isn’t built for them, it’s built for the mainstream. The app is being launched with MTV’s European Music Awards. Now it’s time to sit back and wait to see whether MTV’s brand can unlock the Forgotten Fan and take digital music to the mainstream.

Spotify And (Fixing) The Tyranny Of Choice

Tyranny of choice

Regular readers will be familiar with my concept of the ‘Tyranny of Choice’ namely that there is so much music choice now as to be counter productive. 30 million tracks (and counting) is a meaningless quantity of music. It would take three lifetimes to listen to every track once. There is so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all.

A host of music discovery services and apps tried to fix the problem a few years ago but most of them failed and went out of business. A new generation of music services such as Songza, Beats Music, MusicQubed and blinkbox Music are now all trying again with heavily curated approaches, delivering music fans the tracks that matter.

It looks like the Tyranny of Choice isn’t just an issue for the mainstream fan. Look at this quote from the Spotify Insights blog that discusses the rise of Mr Probz in the US:

“What’s clear is that the ‘lean back’ mechanism of curated playlists (as opposed to the ‘lean forward’ method of search which drove European streams) led to the early success of Mr Probz in the US”

Even in Spotify, the global home of the engaged music aficionado, curated lean-back experiences are coming to the fore. The access services are stealing some of the clothes of listen services. This is no bad thing but it does highlight the importance of this 4th phase of the digital music market, the ‘Curation Era’. Spotify gave consumers access to all the music in the world, now it – and others – is trying to help make sense of it all.

Digital Ascendency: The Future Music Forum Keynote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MusicQubed Puts the Rise of Listen Services Into Numbers

Back in October I wrote about the emergence of a new wave of music services: ‘Listen Services’. Namely music services that sit at the opposite end of the sophistication spectrum to ‘Access Services’ like Spotify and Deezer.  While the on-demand Access Services are focused on immersive discovery experiences for the engaged music aficionado, Listen Services are aimed at the mainstream music fan that does not have the time nor appetite for searching out what to play from a catalogue of 30 million tracks.  Listen Services, and their addressable audience, are a key priority for the music industry as it is becoming increasingly clear that Access Services, while fantastic at monetizing the top tier of fans, are not the right fit for the mainstream. To date the main focus for this segment has been ad supported personalized radio from the likes of Pandora and Slacker.  New entrants have started trying to drive digital spending from these consumers with cheap subscriptions, players like MusicQubed, Bloom.fm, Blinkbox Music and Nokia Mix Radio (interestingly there is a distinctly European company bias in this sector). MusicQubed has released some figures to illustrate how this emerging segment is developing.

To celebrate the first anniversary of its launch into market, MusicQubed last week released a combination of performance metrics for its services and some related statistics:

  • 85% of UK radio play comes from the top 120 tracks
  • The Forgotten Fan (above average listening but below average spend) accounts for 30% of consumers
  • Daily listening time of MusicQubed users = 30 minutes
  • 30% of all active users are subscribers
  • 1.5 million consumers have used MusicQubed services to date
  • O2 Tracks (O2’s UK music service powered by MusicQubed) has 60% female users and an average lifetime value of £33, while 20% buy at least one download a month after having discovered it in the service

While MusicQubed is a long way yet from challenging Spotify in terms of total users and paying subscribers, the numbers do hint at a validation of this too easily neglected consumer segment. Of course everything starts small and it is worth remembering that a year after launch (i.e. by end August 2009) Spotify only had in the region of 100,000 paying subscribers.

Will Listen Services Define the Next Phase of Digital Music?

The history of digital music has evolved in roughly 5 year chapters, each defined by a key service and the problem it solved:

  • Phase 1: Napster gave consumers frictionless access to all the music in the world
  • Phase 2: iTunes made the paid download make sense
  • Phase 3: Spotify fixed buffering and gave frictionless (legal) access to all the music in the world (well most of it anyway)
  • Phase 4: Beats, Blinkbox, Bloom.FM, MusicQubed are all candidates for defining the next phase. Spotify gave access to 25 million songs and now these services are each doing at least one of a) trying to make sense of that 25 million via curation and b) making music subscriptions affordable for the mainstream

4th phase

Once we have another 12 months or so of market activity we should be in a position to make a more definitive conclusion on which service, or services, will emerge as the defining reference point for the next era of digital music.

Listen Services, affordable subscriptions and curation-centred services are only just getting going, but they will be key to long term sustainability.  As subscriptions eat into the spending of the most valuable download buyers, it is clear that a ‘digital plan B’ is required.  This new generation of services are part of that plan.

Music Industry Predictions and Aspirations for 2014

2013 was a year of digital music milestones: 15 years since the arrival of Napster, 10 years since the launch of the iTunes Store and 5 years since the birth of Spotify.  Which begs the question, what will we looking back at in 5 years as the success stories of the ‘class of 2013’?   There have been some interesting arrivals with promise, such as WholeWorldBand, Soundwave, O2 Tracks, Bloom.fm, Google Play Music All Access (ahem)…. As is the nature of start ups many of the dozens that started in 2013 simply won’t go the distance.  Indeed many of Spotify’s ‘class of ‘08’ have fallen by the wayside: MXP4, MusiqueMax, Beyond Oblivion, Songbird etc.   If the ‘class of ‘13’ want to emulate collective success then it is the ‘class of ‘07’ they should look at: a bumper crop of success stories that included Songkick, Topspin, Deezer, Songza and Soundcloud (though Spiral Frog and Comes With Music were notable flops).

So what can the ‘class of ‘13’ and the rest of the music industry expect in 2014?  Well here are a few of my predictions and aspirations:

  • Label services will grow and grow (prediction): following the lead of the likes of Cooking Vinyl and Kobalt every label and his dog appears to be getting in on the act.  Which is no bad thing.  The choice used to be binary: DIY or label.  Now labels are borrowing some of the clothes of DIY and in turn transforming the artist relationship from one of employee to client.  Expect many established frontline artists coming to the end of their label deals in 2014 being persuaded to opt for a label services deal with their label rather than jumping ship.
  • Downloads will be flat globally (prediction): the download is still the dominant digital product globally but in the markets where streaming has got a strong foothold it is eating into downloads.  A key reason is that the majority of paid subscribers are also download buyers and their behavior is transitioning.  But in most of the big markets, and in most of the non-Northern European markets, downloads are the mainstay of digital and will grow further in 2014, cancelling out declines in the US and elsewhere.
  • Latin America and Africa will both grow in importance (prediction): these are two regions with hugely diverse national economies but both also contain a number of markets that are ripe for digital lift off, particularly in Latin America.  However the standard solutions for the western markets will only have limited success.  Expect innovative newcomers to do well here.
  • The streaming debate will NOT resolve (prediction): expect strong continued growth in streaming.  Spotify should hit 10 million paying subscribers soon – the free mobile offering may even push it to 100 million users.  Deezer should clock up another milestone soon too.  And Beats Music could get really serious scale if it does indeed bundle with headphone sales.  But the nature of the debate means the bigger streaming gets the more artists will perceive they are being short changed, because individual artists will feel the impact of scale more slowly than the market.  Expect things to really hot up if Spotify goes public, does well and the majors do not distribute meaningful portions of their earnings to artists.
  • Spotify, Deezer and Beats Music have a good year (aspiration): to be clear, this isn’t me breaking with years of tradition and suddenly jettisoning impartiality and objectivity.  Instead the reason for the inclusion is that the future of investment in digital music will be shaped by how well this streaming trio fare.  Between them they accounted for 70% of the music invested in music services between 2011 and 2013.  These big bets may not be leaving a lot of oxygen for other start ups, but if they do not succeed expect digital music service funding to get a whole lot more difficult than it is now.
  • Subscription pricing innovation accelerates (aspiration): regular readers will know that I have long advocated experimentation with pricing so that portable subscriptions can break out of the 9.99 niche.  In addition to more being done with cheaply priced subscriptions we need to see the introduction of Pay As You Go subscription pricing in 2014.  Pre-paid is what the mobile industry needed to kick start mobile subscriptions, now is the time for the music industry to follow suit.
  • More innovation around multimedia music products (aspiration): one of the most exciting things about Beyonce’s album last week was the fact it put video at its heart.  Since I wrote the Music Product Manifesto in 2009 depressingly little has happened with music product strategy.  Of course not every artist can afford to make an album’s worth of flashy videos, but hey, they don’t need to all be flashy.   Here’s hoping that a few more labels follow Sony’s lead and start really pushing the envelope for what music products should look like in the digital era.  Here’s a clue: it is not a static audio file.

P.S. If you’re wondering why I am so harsh on Google Play Music All Access it is because they can and should do so much better.  The market needs innovation from Google, not a ‘me too’ strategy.  Come on Google, up your game in 2014.

Listen Services Raise Their Game While Access Services Raise More Capital

Regular readers will recall my classification of the digital music market into Access services and Listen services, located at opposite ends of the Complexity Axis. Late last week two of those Listen services upped their respective games, with MusicQubed launching a new service with Vodafone New Zealand and Nokia Mix Radio introducing a host of new features.

Both services are focused squarely on delivering elegantly simple music experiences for as little effort as possible from the listener.  All you can eat Access services have done a great job of engaging the higher end aficionado and will continue to be the most appropriate business model and value proposition for the more engaged, higher spending music fan.  They do little for the lower spending mass market consumer however, which is where Listen services come in.

Interestingly MusicQubed and Nokia’s announcements came in the exact same week that news began to surface of Spotify securing an extra $250 million in finance, taking Spotify’s total investment tally to over half a billion.  In fact Deezer and Spotify alone account for approximately two thirds of all of the investment in digital music services in the last three years, amassing $0.6 billion between them from 2011 to 2013 alone.  Both companies have reported impressive subscriber counts and have made subscriptions work at scale in a way that the stalwart incumbents Rhapsody and Napster never did.  But building the Access business is clearly one that requires a large and steady influx of working capital.  The industry has got to hope that the investment to date helps build the foundations of long term sustainability and not simply supercharge a few services for a quick sale without an eye fixed firmly on the long game.

Concerns aside, it is great to see more investment pouring into the space, even if it is too concentrated at the moment. It is even more encouraging though to see more companies recognising the need to engage the less hip, but much larger installed base of mass market fans who are currently getting left behind by the digital music bandwagon.  It is to be hoped that these are the foundational signs of a more mature digital marketplace that can take the digital transition onto the next stage.

The Complexity Coefficient: ‘Listen Services’ and the Tyranny of Choice

Despite commendable progress the digital music market is still way behind where it should be.  It is an easy mistake to view the global music market through the Anglo-American lens but if you strip out the UK and US from the statistics the result is that three quarters of global ‘rest of world’ music sales are physical.  Thus ten years since the launch of the iTunes Store digital is still only a quarter of non-US and UK revenues.  The role of Apple is, as ever, key: Apple knew how to make an elegantly simple user experience that just worked.  Thus where Apple was strongest (US and UK) digital music sales prospered.  But most consumers do not have Apple devices so the music industry needs more music services to be as elegantly simple as iTunes if it is going to push the needle on that 25%.  The problem is that most of the services on which industry hopes are being pinned are anything but.

Innovating for the Elite?

Streaming subscription services are undoubtedly at the leading edge of music technology sophistication and recent innovations from Spotify in particular are setting the bar high for immersive digital music experiences.  But paradoxically this is part of the problem.  At the end of 2012 subscription and ad supported services accounted for just one fifth of global digital music revenues.  Though that number will grow markedly in 2013 – and already over indexes in the digital sophisticate Nordic and Dutch markets – it will not overtake downloads anytime soon.  There are of course many factors, including the key issue of pricing – 9.99 is not a mass market price point, but there is a more fundamental one: streaming subscription services are just too sophisticated for mainstream users.

The reality is that mainstream music consumers are not heavily engaged with music and like programmed, curated music experiences.  For all the music industry turmoil of the last decade radio listening has remained relatively steady, even growing in many markets, and it also remains the number one music discovery source – still far ahead of YouTube.  Radio’s enduring popularity stems from its simplicity.  A common product strategy error is the assumption that more features = better quality product.  But more often than not, less = more.  The extra discovery features in subscription services are fantastic tools for the niche audience of engaged music aficionados that use these services but they also make them less accessible for mainstream users.  This is what I term the Complexity Coefficient. 

The Complexity Coefficient is a simple way of understanding a complex problem and can be calculated as follows:

Feature Benefits – Feature Sophistication = Complexity Coefficient

In short, the more sophisticated the features of a service, the less the benefits will be felt by the user.  When this is applied to less sophisticated users a multiplier needs to be applied: a heavily featured sophisticated music service will already have barriers to use for an aficionado but will be entirely inaccessible for a mainstream user.  The Complexity Coefficient manifests itself in another way also: the more complex a service, the longer the music journey is.  For music aficionados that can be a good thing, but for radio-centric mainstream users it is a barrier rather than a benefit.

The COmplexity Coeffecient

The Tyranny of Choice

When we apply this thinking to the digital music landscape something really interesting emerges (see graphic).  The on demand subscriptions that monetize access – ‘Access Services’ – sit at the top right, highly sophisticated, but therefore also complex, with the longest music journey.  These services provide access to a vast, vast catalogue of music.  A catalogue that is growing rapidly every single day.  Last week 7Digital’s Ben Drury reported that his company now has 27 million tracks in its catalogue and is growing at a rate of 100,000 a week.

Choice is fantastic but too much begets choice paralysis.  There becomes so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all.  This is the Tyranny of Choice. 27 million tracks is an unwieldy vastness of music that would take 205 years to listen to.  What matters about music catalogue is the music that truly matters not the total size.  Of those 27 million perhaps 3 to 6 million are ‘core’ catalogue.  Of those how many really matter to any given listener? Perhaps 10,000 at the most?  Even that would be 2 months of listening for someone who listens 10 hours a week and doesn’t listen to the same song more than once.

With the growth in catalogue each ‘Access Service’ must get 100,000 tracks worth of being better at its discovery job just to stay as good as it was last week.  And despite the vast progress that is being made, few would argue that there is a long way to go yet before we can come close to arguing that the discovery problem has been fixed.  So the odds are against a worsening status quo not an improving one.

The ‘Listen’ Services

But at the opposite end of the Complexity Coefficient scale a very different picture emerges. Here we have services like Pandora, MusicQubed’s O2 Tracks and Nokia’s Mix Radio delivering highly programmed, lean-back music experiences for the mainstream users, where the music journey is shortest.  Whereas Access services give the user access to all the music in the world, Listen service take the user straight to the music that matters.  One leads the user up the garden path, the other just opens the front door.

But there is an overriding monetization issue at the lower end of the Complexity Coefficient: most of these services predominately generate revenue via advertising.  The majority of Nokia Mix Radio’s and Pandora’s users are on free tiers.  O2 Tracks is the exception, with users paying for all tiers of access (other than a free trial).

In many ways the Access services are taking a TV broadcaster approach to discovery: they are trying to encourage users to discover as much new content as possible, to send the user on a rich journey of serendipitous discovery.  The Listen services however are focused squarely on delivering a smaller selection of music the user is most likely to like, and keeping firmly within those parameters. To an aficionado the Listen service approach may feel restrictive and limited, but to a mainstream music consumer it fits their exact needs.  But what is clear is that music services at the lower end of the Complexity Coefficient scale are going to be crucial for pushing digital music towards the mainstream.  Welcome to the age of the ‘Listen’ service?