Music Subscriptions Passed 100 Million In December. Has The World Changed?

In streaming’s earlier years, when doubts prevailed across the artist, songwriter and label communities, one of the arguments put forward by enthusiasts was that when streaming reached scale everything would make sense. When asked what ‘scale’ meant, the common reply was ‘100 million subscribers’. In December, the streaming market finally hit and passed that milestone, notching up 100.4 million subscribers by the stroke of midnight on the 31st December. It was an impressive end to an impressive year for streaming, but does it mark a change in the music industry, a fundamental change in the way in which streaming works for the music industry’s numerous stakeholders?

Streaming Has Piqued Investors’ Interest

The streaming market was always going to hit the 100 million subscriber mark sometime around now, but by closing out the year with the milestone it was ahead of schedule. This was not however entirely surprising as the previous 12 months had witnessed a succession of achievements and new records. Not least of which was the major labels registering a 10% growth in overall revenue in Q2, driven by a 52% increase in streaming revenue. This, coupled with Spotify and Apple’s continual out doing of each other with subscriber growth figures, Spotify’s impending IPO and Vevo’s $500 million financing round, have triggered a level of interest in the music business from financial institutions not seen in well over a decade. The recorded music business looks like it might finally be starting the long, slow recovery from its generation-long recession.

100-4-million-subs

Spotify Continues To Set The Pace

Spotify has consistently led the streaming charge and despite a continually changing competitive marketplace it has held determinedly onto pole position since it first acquired it. Even more impressively, it has also maintained market share. According to data from MIDiA’s Music Streamer Tracker, in Q2 2015 Spotify’s share of global music subscribers was 42%, H2 15 41%, H1 16 44%, H2 16 43%. Not bad for a service facing its fiercest competitor yet in Apple, a resurgent Deezer and an increasingly significant Amazon. Spotify closed out the year with around 43 million subscribers, Apple with around 21 million and Deezer with nearly 7 million. 2nd place is thus less than half the scale of 1st, while 3rd is a third of 2nd place. Meanwhile Apple and Spotify account for 64% of the entire subscriber base. It is a market with many players but only 2 standout global winners. Amazon could change that in 2017, largely because it is prioritising a different, more mainstream market (as long as it doesn’t get too distracted by Echo-driven Music Unlimited success). Meanwhile YouTube has seen its music streaming market share decline, which means more higher paying audio streams, which means more income for rights holders and creators.

A Brave New World?

So far so good. But does 100 million represent a brave new world? In truth, there was never going to be a sudden step change but instead a steady but clear evolution. That much has indeed transpired. The music market now is a dramatically different one than that which existed 12 months ago when there were 67.5 million subscribers. Revenues are growing, artist and songwriter discontent is on the wane and label business models are changing. But 100 million subscribers does not by any means signify that the model is now fixed and set. Smaller and mid tier artists are still struggling to make streaming cents add up to their lost sales dollars, download sales are in freefall, many smaller indie labels are set to have a streaming-driven cash flow crisis, and subscriber growth, while very strong, is not exceptional. In fact, the global streaming subscriber base has been growing by the same amount for 18 months now: (16.5 million in H2 2016, 16.5 million in H1 2016 and 16.4 million in H2 2016). Also, for some context, video subscriptions passed the 100 million mark in the US alone in Q3 2016. And streaming music had a head start on that market.

At some stage, perhaps in 2017, we will see streaming in many markets hit the glass ceiling of demand that exists for the 9.99 price point. Additionally the streaming-driven download collapse and the impending CD collapses in Germany and Japan all mean that it would be unwise to expect recorded music revenues to register uninterrupted growth over the next 3 to 5 years. But growth will be the dominant narrative and streaming will be the leading voice. 100 million subscribers might not mean the world changes in an instant, but it does reflect a changing world.

Experience Should Be Everything In 2017

 

2017 is going to be a big year for streaming. Spotify will likely IPO, paid subscribers will pass the 100 million mark in Q1, playlists will boom. 2017 will build upon an upbeat 2016 in which the major labels saw streaming drive total revenue growth. This stirred the interest of big financial institutions, companies that had previously avoided the music industry like the plague. These institutions are now seriously assessing whether the market is finally ready to pay attention to. The implication of all of this is that if Spotify’s IPO is successful, expect a flow of investment into a new wave of streaming services. But if these new services are to have any chance of success they will need to rewrite the rules by putting context and experience at the centre of everything they do.

Why User Experience Often Ends Up On The Back Seat

Putting experience first might sound like truism. Of course, everyone puts user experience first right? Wrong. You may be hard pushed to find many companies that do not say that they put user experience first, but finding companies that genuinely walk the talk is a far harder task. Just in the same way that every tech company worth its salt will say they are innovation companies, only a minority do genuine, dial-moving, innovation. Prioritising user experience is one of those semi-ethereal concepts that may be hard to argue against in principle, but that is much more difficult to actually build a company around. Why? Because the real world gets in the way. In the case of music services ‘the real world’ translates into (in no specific order): catering to rights holders’ requirements, investing in rolling out to new territories, paying out 81% of revenue to rights holders on a cash flow basis, spending on marketing etc.

The distinct advantage that the next generation of streaming services will have is that they will sit on the shoulders of the streaming incumbents’ innovation. Instead of having to learn how to fix stream buffering, drive compelling curation, make streaming on mobile work and define rights holder licenses for freemium, they can take the current state of play as the starting point. They are starting the race half way through and with completely fresh legs. They come into the market without the same tech priorities of the incumbents and also without any of their institutional baggage (baggage that, whether they like it or not, shapes world views and competitive vision).

Streaming Music Is Not Keeping Digital Pace

During the last 5 years, users’ digital experiences have transformed, driven by apps like Snapchat, Instagram and Musical.ly. Video has been at the heart of most of the successful apps, as has interactivity. Music services though have struggled, not only with how to make video work, but also with how to give their offerings a less 2 dimensional feel. They have lagged behind in the bigger race. For all of the undoubted innovation in discovery, recommendation, personalization and programming, the underlying streaming experience has changed remarkably little. We are still fundamentally stuck in the music-collection-as-excel-spreadsheet paradigm. Underneath it all is the same static audio file that resided on the CD and the download. Granted, there have been some major improvements in design (such as high resolution artist images, full screen layouts and strong use of white space). Now though, is the time to apply these design ethics to streaming User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX).

Successful (non-music) apps are multidimensional, highly visual and often massively social. These are the UX and UI bars against which streaming services should benchmark themselves, not how other streaming services are doing. Of course, a key challenge is that music in not inherently a lean forward, visual experience. Most people want much of their listening time to be lean back, without interruptions. Nonetheless, Vevo and YouTube have shown us that there is massive appetite, at truly global scale, for lean forward, highly social, visual music experiences.

Fixing A Plane Mid-Flight

The streaming incumbents could all do this, but they will be at distinct disadvantage compared to potentially well-funded new entrants. It is no easy task to refit a plane mid-flight. Also, Spotify, Deezer and Napster are built on tech stacks with origins more than a decade old. All have made massive changes to those original tech stacks (Spotify in particular, shifting from a monolithic structure to a modular one) but in essence, all these companies were first built as desktop software providers in an era when Microsoft and Nokia were still technology leaders. They have adapted to become app companies but that change did not come naturally and took a huge amount of organizational discipline and resource. This next market phase will require exactly the same sort of discipline, but more effort and at a time when competition is fiercer and costs are higher.

Streaming Services Need To Know Who They Are Really Competing With

The streaming services might think that they are competing with each other but in reality they are competing in the digital economy as a whole. Their competitors are Snapchat, Instagram and Buzz Feed. Right now, music listening accounts for 36% of consumers’ digital media time but that share is under real threat. Over the course of the millennium, music has relied increasingly on growth in lean back environments and contexts. The rise of listening on the go via MP3 players and then smartphones created more time slots that music could fill, while media multitasking has been another major driver of listening. All of this works well when whatever else is going on does not require the listener to be using their ears. The rise of video is, paradoxically, creating more competition for the user’s ear. Even though we are seeing the 2nd coming of silent cinema with social video captioning, there are many more calls to action for our eyes and ears. Even a Facebook feed 24 months ago would have been something that could in the large be safely viewed in silence. Now it is full of auto playing videos, willing the user to unmute. As soon as s/he does so the music has to stop. On video-native platforms like Snapchat the view is even starker for music. Killing time in the Starbucks queue is now as likely to involve watching a viral video as it is listening to a song.

Thus streaming music has to create a user experience renaissance, not just to keep up with contemporary digital experiences but in order to ensure it does not lose any more share of digital consumers’ consumption time. This is the new problem to fix. The Spotify generation fixed buffering and mobile streaming, the Apple Music generation fixed discovery, the next generation will fix UX. Just as Apple Music and Google Play Music All Access were able to skip the first lap of the race, launching with what Spotify and co took years to develop, so the next generation of streaming services, when they come, will take all of the recent innovation playlists, curation and user data analysis as the blank canvas. Which in turn will force the incumbents to up their game fast. Until then, the streaming incumbents have an opportunity to get ahead else get left behind.

MIDiA Research Predictions 2017: The Year Of The Platform

MRP1611-coverFollowing an 84% success rate for our 2016 Predictions report, we today launch our 2017 predictions report: ‘MIDiA Research Predictions 2017: The Year Of The Platform’. The report is immediately available to all MIDiA subscription clients and can also be purchased for individual download from our report store here.

Here are some highlights:

2016 was the year that video ate the world. 2017 will be the year of the platform, the year in which the tech majors will fight for pre-eminence in the digital economy, competing for consumer attention through formatting and distribution wars. Companies that are already using mobile Operating Systems to achieve global reach will take the next step, creating Mobile Life Ecosystems that both break out of the app silo walls and straddle them. Facebook, Amazon, Tencent, Microsoft, Apple and Google/Alphabet will be the main players. 2015 was about parking tanks on each other’s front lawns, in 2016 shots were fired, 2017 will be all-out war. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and voice assistance will be key battlegrounds and indeed will form the glue of Mobile Life Ecosystems.

Some of MIDiA’s other key predictions for 2017 are:

  • Services are the new black: Maturing ‘phone and tablet markets mean that hardware companies will place a greater focus on digital content and services in 2017. Services are an opportunity to drive strong growth that will compensate for slowing device sales
  • Ad market growing pains: Digital advertising inventory supply will exceed demand in 2017. Audience engagement will grow more quickly than advertisers’ appetite. Consequently, ad rates will decline with the bloating of the market by content farms accentuating the problem. Facebook will not be alone in seeing slowing ad revenues in 2017.
  • A tech major will be hit with the first stage of an anti-trust suit: The incoming US Presidency has made its anti-trust inclinations clear. A likely early target will be the AT&T/Time Warner merger. The global-scale tech companies may be mature companies but their respective sectors are not. Regulation is one of the inevitable growing pains of maturing business sectors. Digital is next.
  • Snapchat’s IPO will be digital’s canary in the mine: App store era unicorns and their attendant Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) will redefine the media and tech landscape. Not only will the success, or failure, of Snapchat’s IPO affect those of Uber and Spotify, poor showings could deflate the VC bubble andput an end to the grow-at-all-costs For the music industry, the stakes are even higher, as an under-achieving Spotify IPO would create a crisis in confidence in the entire streaming market.

Among our music predictions for 2017 are Spotify’s IPO and the subsequent start of a new generation of experiential streaming services, Tidal selling (probably to Apple) while Spotify closes out the year with around 55 million subscribers to Apple Music’s 30 million.

Why The Next Few Months Of Apple Music Will Throw Up A Few Surprises

Finally Apple is in the streaming game. Other than to say that it looks like Apple has made a big first step towards making streaming ‘ready for primetime’ and to becoming a music platform I’m not going to add to the list of reviews and first impressions, there are plenty of good one’s like Walt Mossberg’s.   Instead I’m going to run through a few of the likely milestones and unintended consequences that we could see over the coming months.

Expect Impressive Numbers Real Soon

As we revealed on our MIDiA Research report on Apple Music back in March 28% of iOS users stated they were likely to pay for the service. Among downloaders the rate is 39% and for existing subscribers that rate rises to 62%. Consumer surveys of course always over-report so we shouldn’t expect those rates of paid adoption but the relative values are interesting nonetheless. Given that 50% of existing subscribers are iOS users the implications are that a big chunk of Spotify et al’s subscribers will at the very least try out Apple’s 3 month trial, which is plenty enough time to get build a comprehensive library of playlists and to get hooked. But there is also going to be a big wave of downloaders that do not currently subscribe that will try it out. Given how the iOS 8.4 update virtually pushes iTunes Music users into starting the trial on updating, expect pretty widespread uptake of the trial.   Apple reached 11 million users for iTunes radio within 5 days of launch, 21 million within 3 months. Apple Music has had a far bigger build up and is much more deeply integrated into iOS so a fairly safe bet is that those numbers will at the very least be matched.

A Mixed Bag Of Royalty Implications

Apple Music will also have a series of aftershocks:

  • Apple royalties will be a mixed bag: As the ever insightful David Touve pointed out with iTunes Radio, Apple has proven adept at striking licensing deals that appear to pay above market rates at a headline level but that in practice can work out lower. A key reason for this is the fact iOS users’ existing music collections are integrated into the service and plays from these will generate much lower per stream rates, more in line with licensed locker services. Add into this the fact that semi-interactive radio and broadcast radio are part of the proposition (both of which also have lower per stream rates than on demand) so the blended per stream rate may disappoint. Expect a stream (pun intended) of irate artist CD Baby statements showing their Apple per stream rates.
  • Download sales will suffer: If a streaming service does its job properly users should have no reason to buy downloads any more. Initially there may be a mini surge, a dead cat bounce as first time streamers discover new music and buy downloads out of habit. If this happens expect Apple to make a song and dance about it. But that will be a temporary phase. iTunes downloads will decline thereafter. Artists may have complained about theoretical lost sales from Spotify, they will be actual lost sales from Apple. What everyone will be hoping for is that enough lower and infrequent spending download customers get transformed into 9.99 a month customers. But that will take more time. So expect three, possibly four key stages to Apple (lower case ‘m’) music revenue: 1 – mini revival; 2 – sharpish decline; 3 – steady recovery; 4 – growth?
  • Spotify per stream rates could go up: If enough existing subscribers take up the Apple Music trial but don’t cancel their subscriptions, the royalty pot for Spotify et al will remain the same but play volumes will decrease. This means that the per stream rates for Spotify and co could actually increase for a while because the revenue will be split across a smaller number of plays. So expect artists to see a very pronounced, albeit temporary, difference between what Spotify pays from (paid) streams versus Apple.

So Apple will be for once upsetting everyone else’s streaming apple cart with its long anticipated entrance but there will be a superficially confusing set of mixed messages and metrics. Which means the time to properly measure Apple Music’s progress will be 6 months or so from now. Until then expect to be simultaneously impressed, concerned and confused.

My New Book – Awakening: The Music Industry In the Digital Age

I am very excited to announce the launch of my book ‘Awakening’ which charts the rise of digital music and how it is changing the music industry. ‘Awakening’ is the definitive account of the music industry in the digital era. With exclusive interviews with the people who shaped today’s industry it tells the inside story of how the music business grappled with the emergence of an entirely new digital economy

coverThe music industry is on the brink of an utterly transformative period of change that will result in the creation of an entirely new industry tailor made for the digital era. ‘Awakening’ presents the vision of how and why this change will come, what this future will look like and how the first steps on the journey are already being taken. The book includes interviews with 60 of the music industry’s leading figures, including globally successful artists and more than 20 CEOs (a full list of interviewees can be found at the bottom of the page). Alongside the insight from this unprecedented executive access, ‘Awakening’ uses exclusive consumer data, official market statistics, proprietary models and multiple additional data sources. In doing so it constructs an unparalleled picture of the new global music economy presented across 60 charts and figures.

All good stories start in the beginning. ‘Awakening’ deconstructs the failed state experience of the analogue era music industry with the definitive account of the music industry’s transition from booming $28 billion powerhouse to today’s much humbled $15 billion business. Music fans used to be told what to listen to when, where and how. In the new music industry the balance of power lies with the fans with themselves. The old music industry had the record labels at its centre, the new digital era industry will have the consumer at its core. The change will be generation defining and will transform forever what it means to be an artist and a fan. Livelihoods will be destroyed, others created, millionaires made, culture transformed. The change is already underway. ‘Awakening’ looks at each individual component of the music industry today and looks at each one is dealing with change and preparing for the future. From the superstar artist to the small independent label, from the pirate company CEO to the major label CEO, in the book I explore the incredibly varied picture of confusion and innovation, uncertainty and brilliance, fear and confidence. Most of all it is the story of a rebuilding, an Awakening of the new music industry.

The book has three sections:

  • How We Got Here: A detailed history of the years up until the launch of the iTunes Music Store, exploring how Napster changed the music industry forever and how the industry responded, or rather didn’t
  • The Digital Era: This section has 7 chapters, one for each of the key stakeholders (labels, artists, songwriters, pirates etc) and explores what the current market means to each of them
  • A Vision For The Future: A vision for what the next music industry will look like and what needs to happen to enable this to take place

I was extremely fortunate to interview many of the most important figures in the music industry of the last 15 years, including CEOs of major record labels, CEOs of all the major streaming services and platinum selling artists. I’ve managed to get the inside track on exactly what was happening behind the scenes.  I personally learned a huge amount while writing this book and I am confident virtually every reader will do so too.

In short, once you have read this book you will know practically everything that there is to know about the digital music market and where it is heading!

For anyone interested in the music industry and the lessons it provides for all media and technology businesses in the digital era, this is the only book you will ever need.

The book is available now on Amazon and iTunes and Google Play.

Also 10% of net profits will go to the music therapy charity the Nordoff Robins trust.

If you are a journalist and would like a review copy please email me at mark AT midiaresearch DOT COM

People interviewed for this book

Adam Kidron             Founder and CEO, Beyond Oblivion
Alexander Ljung         Founder and CEO, Soundcloud
Alexander Ross        Partner, Wiggin
Alison Wenham        CEO, AIM
Axel Dauchez           CEO, Deezer
Barney Wragg          SVP Universal Music eLabs / Global Head of Digital, EMI
Ben Drury                 Founder and CEO, 7 Digital
Benji Rogers             Founder and CEO, PledgeMusic
Brian Message          Manager, Radiohead, Nick Cave / Chairman MMF
Cary Sherman          CEO, RIAA
Chris Gorman           Founder and CEO, MusicQubed
Cliff Fluet                   Partner, Lewis Silkin / Director 11
Daniel Ek                   Founder and CEO, Spotify
David Boyle              SVP Insight, EMI
David Byrne              Solo artist / Talking Heads
David Isrealite           CEO, MPAA
David Lowery           Camper van Beethoven / The Trichordist
Edgar Berger            President & CEO International, Sony Music Entertainment
Elio Leoni Sceti         CEO, EMI
Erik Nielsen               Manager, Marillion
Geoff Taylor              CEO, BPI
Gregor Pryor             Partner, Reed Smith
Helienne Lindvall       Award winning songwriter
Ian Hogarth                Founder and CEO, Songkick
Ian Rogers                 CEO, Beats Music / CEO TopSpin
Jack Horner               Founder Frukt
Jay Samit                   SVP, EMI / EVP & GM, Sony Corp America
Jeremy Silver            VP New Media EMI / Chairman musicmetric
Jim Griffin                   CTO Geffen Records / CEO, Cherry Lane Digital
Jon Irwin                    President, Rhapsody
Jonathan Grant          Above and Beyond / Founder, Anjunabeats Records
Justin Morey              Senior Lecturer Music Production, Leeds Beckett University
Keith Harris                Manager, Stevie Wonder / GM, Motown
Keith Thomas            Grammy Award Winning Producer and Songwriter
Ken Park                    Chief Content Officer, Spotify
Larry Miller                 COO, a2b Music / President Reciprocal
Liz Schimel                VP Music, Nokia
Lohan Presencer       CEO of Ministry of Sound Group
Mark Kelly                 Marillion / CEO, FAC
Mark Knight               Founder and Chief Architect, Omnifone
Martin Goldschmidt   Founder and MD, Cooking Vinyl
Martin Mills                Founder and Chairman, Beggars Group
Michael Robertson   Founder and CEO, MP3.com
Nenad Marovac        Partner, DN Capital
Oleg Fomenko          CEO, Bloom.fm
Paul Hitchman          Founder and Director Playlouder/ MD Kobalt
Paul Vidich                EVP, WMG / Director, Reverbnation
Peter Jenner             Manager Pink Floyd, Billy Bragg / MD Sincere
Peter Sunde              Founder, The Pirate Bay
Phil Sant                    Founder and Chief Engineer, Omnifone
Ralph Simon             EVP Capitol & Blue Note / Founder Yourmobile
Robert Ashcroft        SVP Network Services Europe / CEO PRS for Music
Roger Faxon             CEO, EMI
Scott Cohen              Founder, The Orchard
Simon Wheeler         Director of Strategy, Beggars Group
Sumit Bothra             Manager, The Boxer Rebellion, PJ Harvey
Tim Westergren        Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, Pandora
Tom Frederikse        Partner, Clintons
Tony Wadsworth      Chairman & CEO, EMI Music UK & Ireland/Chairman BPI
Wayne Rosso           President, Grokster
Will Page                  Chief Economist, Spotify

Note: positions either refer to current position held by interviewee or key position held during the narrative of this book.

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How Rhapsody Became A Top Tier Player Again

Rhapsody today announced reaching 2.5 million total subscribers across their unlimited and UnRadio offerings. While not in the same scale as Spotify’s 15 million, it nonetheless places Rhapsody as the fourth largest subscriber base globally and approximately 10% of the global total.

Rhapsody spent most of the second part of the 2000’s treading water, never really able to break out of a solid niche of between 750,000 and 880,000 subscribers. Rhapsody was doing its best to run a sustainable business but because it wasn’t blowing vast amounts of cash on customer acquisition (either via marketing or having a free tier) it was seeing most of its new user growth cancelled out by churn. But even with this measured approach such is the nature of digital music margins that it still lost money, lots of it.

Enter investment firm Columbus Nova who acquired an undisclosed stake in Rhapsody in September 2013. A reorg and a repositioning process followed paving the way for strong subscriber growth. Rhapsody had 1.5 million subscribers one year ago. If it continues to grow at its present rate it should hit 3 million by July this year. And if it sustains that growth into the start of 2016 it could find itself the second biggest subscription service globally. Current number two Deezer appears to be slowing so 2nd place could be a realistic target for next year. Quite a turn around for a service that looked like it was falling by the wayside 5 years ago.

Rhapsody created the streaming subscription marketplace. I remember back in the early and mid 2000’s when I was a Jupiter analyst, forever trumpeting the subscription model. In fact, along with my fellow Jupiter music analysts David Card and Aram Sinnreich, we took a lot of flak for our forecasts that predicted subscriptions would be the future of digital music. Granted we made our bet the best part of a decade before the market transpired but Rhapsody was there in market doing pretty much what subscription services are doing today. It deserves credit for having created a market and now once again for a newly found relevancy in the contemporary marketplace.

Postscript: Intrigued I decided to look up one of my old Jupiter music forecasts to see how wrong I was and I had a nice surprise. In the 2007 Jupiter European Music Model I had European subscription revenue at €484.2 million by 2012. The actual number was €420.2 million. That sound you can hear is me patting myself on the back.

Streaming, Change, And The Right State Of Mind

Disruptive technology and the change it brings can be overwhelming, particularly when it threatens to change forever all that we have known. Streaming clearly fits this bill. But the impact of change is as much in the eye of the beholder as the disruption itself. While it would be bland and disingenuous to say that change is merely a state of mind, a positive outlook that is focused on the opportunities can make the world of difference.

To illustrate the point, here are three examples from the last century of how vested interests have viewed revolutionary new media technology.

1-ebwhiteThis first quote is from the American author and essayist EB White writing in 1933 on the impact of radio. Here new technology is eloquently portrayed with an almost magical profundity.

2-sarnoffThis quote is from David Sarnoff, the Belorussian-American radio and TV pioneer who oversaw the birth of RCA and NBC. Here he is in 1939 talking about the advent of a TV broadcast network against the backdrop of the globe teetering on the brink of world war.

And then fast forward 70 odd years to the emergence of streaming music, and we get this….3-yorkeSomething certainly appears to have happened to the eloquence of observation over the decades. While I’m perhaps being a little unfair to our esteemed Mr Yorke his quote illustrates the stark contrast in how one can view impending change.

There is an inevitability about the shift in consumer behaviour of which streaming is merely a manifestation. We are moving from the distribution era when everything was about linearly programmed channels and selling units of stuff to the consumption era when consumers value access over ownership. Resisting fundamental shifts in consumer behaviour is a futile task. It’s what happened when the labels fought Napster tooth and nail and it took the best part of a decade for the music industry to recover from that mistake.

None of this is to say that the shift to streaming is going to be easy, but it is going to happen anyway. Artists, labels, managers, publishers all need to decide whether to work with streaming now, and have some control over the process, or wait until they have no choice at all.

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

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

The Advent Of Grazing

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

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

Digital Natives Set A New Pace

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

playlists versus albums

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

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

The Album As A Mainstream Consumption Paradigm Was A Historical Anomaly

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

Artists And Labels Need To Catch Up With Consumer Behaviour

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple, Beats and Streaming’s Mutual Fear Factor

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

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

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

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

Streaming’s First Steps into 2014

2013 was a big year for streaming, with the IFPI reporting total trade revenues of $1.1 billion and a total of 28 million subscribers globally.  2014 will be a crucial year and today Rhapsody revealed its contribution to the growing global picture.

As of April 2014 there are 1.7 million global subscribers to Napster and Rhapsody, up from a little over 1 million in April 2013.  Those numbers were boosted in part by the transition of Sonora customers in Latin America from Rhapsody’s October deal with Telefonica in which the Spanish telco reported would amount to the transition of ‘hundreds of thousands of existing customers’. 

Digital Colonialism

Latin America is undergoing something of a digital gold rush with European and US companies seeking to ‘colonize’ the digital market like modern day conquistadors.  It is a real pity that more is not being done by indigenous services. ‘Digital colonialism’ aside, Rhapsody’s Lat Am focus is part of a wider recognition of the importance of emerging markets to the longer term viability of the digital market.  How these markets adopt digital will play an increasingly influential role in shaping global strategy.  In some markets the download will have a long term transition technology role, acting as the digital stepping stone between the CD and access based models.  In others, there will be a technology leapfrog effect with consumers going straight to access based models, in a similar way that many consumers in emerging markets skipped the PC web entirely and went straight to the mobile web.

Super Cheap Flat Rate Access

What is clear though, is that the available spending power of emerging market consumers is far lower than in US, Europe and especially than in the prosperous Nordics.  So the 9.99 model simply doesn’t apply.  Labels are already heavily discounting wholesale rates for emerging markets but the likelihood is that the majority of customers will be monetized with hard bundles, with the consumer paying nothing.  This is a different model from telco bundles in western markets where telcos invest heavily as strategic marketing efforts (and typically lose money).  Instead, emerging market bundles will be long term offers, a permanent feature of mobile packages.  Telcos pay far less to labels but get much bigger scale.  The risk of heavily devaluing music is moot, as in the territories this model works in, music already has zero value to consumers as a monetary proposition.

Scale Does Not Impact Everyone in the Same Way

Back over in the western world, where the vast majority of streaming revenues currently are  (c. 90% to be precise), some of the initial sheen is beginning to fade.  Beggars Group have long been positive exponents of the streaming model and have rightly earned plaudits for paying artists 50/50 net receipt deals. However last night Beggars’ head of strategy Simon Wheeler intimated that those rates may not be sustainable.  The main reason is that streaming is such a key part of digital revenues now that the 50/50 share damages under-pressure margins.  But it is also because of the operational costs of streaming for a label (vast quantities of data to account – ‘billions of lines of data’, bandwidth costs etc.).  This highlights an issue I have been talking about for a while, namely that the great bright hope of scale (i.e. ‘when we reach scale, streaming will make commercial sense to everyone’) does not apply equally across the digital music value chain.  If you are a big label or publisher with a big catalogue of repertoire you will measure the impact of a million new subscribers in terms of millions of new dollars each month.  Scale benefits you well.  But if you are a single artist with just a few albums you will measure the impact of that same 1 million new subscribers in terms of hundreds of dollars a month.  Beggars Group sits somewhere in the middle of that scale-impact continuum.

The counter balancing of good news story / bad news story is nothing new to streaming, and it will continue to characterize the evolution of the market in 2014.  The shift from distribution models to consumption models is arguably the most dramatic transition the recorded music industry has ever been through, and consequently the change will have seismic repercussions.  Streaming revenue will come of age in 2014, but as it does so expect more speed bumps along the way.