This Is What Post-IPO Life Will Look Like For Spotify

With a fair wind, Spotify’s long-anticipated public offering should happen before the end of Q2 2018 (and yes, probably a direct listing rather than an IPO but ‘IPO’ worked better in the title!) . The music industry will be watching with keen interest as it is going to be the bellwether for the streaming music sector. Posting three or four successive quarters of well-received earnings will be key to Spotify’s life as a public company. Note my careful use of words, ‘well-received earnings’, not ‘strong earnings’. Spotify’s currently challenged underlying financials are not going to change in any fundamental sense over the course of nine to 12 months, so it will need to construct a series of narratives and targets that Wall Street will buy into. The only problem is, Wall Street often has very high expectations for growth stage tech stocks, and falling short of those expectations can result in a tumbling stock price, even if the growth trend is actually solid.

When narratives alone will not be enough

I’ve written before about how Spotify will need to construct a number of new narratives for life as a public company. They will need to demonstrate:

  • Sustained strong growth in subscribers, users and revenue
  • Improved profitability metrics
  • Diversification of revenue streams
  • Reduction of risk factors

All except the first could prove contentious, as many of the solutions will be inherently challenging for record label partners. Netflix has set a strong precedent for how to drive net margin with a 70% rights cost case (like Spotify’s) by creating its own content and using accounting technique,  such as amortization of costs, to turn cost into profit on the books. Netflix can get away with this because there are many TV networks so no single one can kill the service by removing its content. For example, Disney recently announced it was pulling its content, but Netflix continues to go from strength-to-strength. Spotify without Universal Music would swiftly wither on the vine. Spotify ‘becoming a label’ will be highly disruptive so it will have to do it slowly and in non-obvious ways. The news today that Spotify has acquired online music and audio recording studio Soundtrap – reportedly for $30 million – fits this thinking. In effect, subtly reversing into becoming a label. Meanwhile, it will need to have other new less disruptive revenue streams to spin narratives around, such as selling data to music industry stakeholders.

The upshot of all this is that during its first year as a public company, those narratives are unlikely to be enough. Instead, investors will be applying forensic scrutiny to Spotify’s user and revenue metrics. More than that, investors will set their own targets and if Spotify misses the consensus of these third-party targets, the share price will go down. Apple tried to distract investors from its slowing core metrics in 2016 by releasing a supplemental information document that focused on new metrics such as revenue per user. But investors refused to have their fixed gaze moved away from iPhone shipments.

spotify netflix users growth and stock price

So, Spotify will live or die by meeting investor-set subscriber growth targets? This means it will have to tread a delicate line between being bullish about its prospects to get investors’ interest piqued, but not so bullish as to raise their expectations too much. What complicates matters further though is the relationship between user growth and stock price. Pandora and Netflix have had very different journeys in the last 24 months, but both have endured ‘4 Quarter Kill Zones’ during which period stock prices struggled:

  • Pandora: Pandora’s post-earnings closing stock price declined at ever-greater rates than its monthly active user (MAU) count did. In Q1 2017 Pandora’s stock price fell by $0.11 for every million MAUs lost. By Q3 2017 this rate was $0.79.
  • Netflix: Between Q4 2015 and Q4 2016, Netflix added 12 million memberships (subscribers and trialists), yet its share price fell from $107.89 to $99.80. Investors, quite simply, expected even stronger growth. The irony is that since that time Netflix has continued to add memberships at a similar rate but its stock price has rocketed to $202.68 in Q3 2017.

Growth at what cost?

The lesson from these two cautionary tales is that it is not so much user metrics that is essential, but meeting user metric expectations. And Spotify will need to be careful about how it meets those targets. Growth stimuli like $1 for three-month super-trials can spike growth but hit profitability, which will be there for all to see in SEC filings. Therefore growth cannot come at any cost. In a similar vein, with market maturity approaching in many major western markets, Spotify will need to rely on a combination emerging markets for subscriber growth, and total free users (everywhere) to drive its user numbers, both of which will dent ARPU and margin. It is yet another balancing act for Spotify to manage and navigate.

Music market IQ

Spotify has one major advantage and one major disadvantage going into its flotation:

  1. Disadvantage: Since large investors have steered clear of the recorded music business for so long, the level of institutional market IQ is relatively low. The music business is notorious for being highly nuanced. This means that although big investment companies have been busy getting up to speed over the last 18 months, their expertise in music still lags massively behind the other sectors they invest in. Pandora learned the hard way that investors did not have the market IQ to differentiate between its ad supported radio model and Spotify’s subscription Similar things will happen to Spotify.
  2. Advantage: There are very few places truly big investors can put their money. Spotify’s IPO and a potential UMG sale or listing are about it. Big institutions see WMG as too small, and Sony Music as too small a part of Sony Corp. It’s no coincidence perhaps that UMG is reported to have been valued at between $30-$40 billion by Vivendi, conveniently keeping it well north of Spotify’s likely flotation valuation of $15-$20 billion.

So, with institutional investor demand massively exceeding supply, Spotify – and potentially UMG – could be very well placed to benefit. But a strong start can soon falter, as in the case of Snap Inc., which has fallen from an opening $24.48 to $12.56 now. The beauty of being a privately held company is that you can chose what metrics to report, and when. If you’ve had a tough quarter you can keep quiet until you have a good one. When you’re public you have no such luxury. It is warts and all, every quarter. Spotify’s life as a public company will be as much about managing expectations as it will be about driving growth.

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Quick Take: Spotify And Hulu Partner In The US

Spotify just announced it is bundling in the Hulu No Commercials plan into its $4.99 student offering in the US. Given that the Hulu product retails at $7.99 and Spotify at $9.99, this is unmistakably a good value for money deal – even compared to the standard $4.99 student Spotify tariff. In the Spotify blog post announcing the tie up, it is made clear that this is the start of something bigger: “This is the first step the companies are taking to bundle their services together, with offerings targeted at the broader market to follow.”

Putting aside for a moment how the economics of this bundle might work for Spotify, this partnership gives us a clear pointer as to Spotify’s video strategy going forward. The other part of the puzzle is the news that Spotify is hiring former Maker Studios exec, Courtney Holt, to head up its original video and podcast strategy.

Spotify knows that it needs to have a video play of some kind, despite the failure of its previous attempt. Unfortunately, everyone else is thinking the same – with Snap Inc, Facebook and Apple now committing billions to original content, in an already inflated market for video. Hulu will spend $2.25 billion on original content in 2017, matching Amazon’s original content budget for the year. This is the barrier to entry for video, and its simply too high for Spotify to justify.

Instead, it has focused on working with one of the leading streaming video services in the US, and is building complimentary music-orientated video in house. Thus, through this Spotify bundle a user gets their scripted drama hit from Hulu and their music video hit from Spotify.

Spotify’s Hulu partnership is a smart way to get into the video market without getting in over its head. While for Hulu, Spotify gives it clear differentiation from Netflix and Amazon. Which is given extra significance by the announcement that T-Mobile Netflix for free for its premium customers. Whether the economics of this deal add up for either party is another question entirely.

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

 

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

What It Means For Spotify And UMG

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

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

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

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

What It Means For The Wider Market

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

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

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

Getting The Right Kind Of Growth

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

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

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

Why Netflix Can Turn A Profit But Spotify Cannot (Yet)

Having just celebrated its 10th (streaming) birthday, Netflix followed up with a strong earnings release, announcing 5.8 million net new paid subscribers in Q4, sending its share price up by 9%. This wraps up a stellar year for Netflix, one in which it doubled down on original programming and delivered acclaimed hits such as Stranger Things and The OA, shows that don’t fit the traditional TV mould. In fact, Stranger Things was turned down by 15 TV networks before finding a home at Netflix and The OA’s oscillating episode lengths (from 1 hour 11 mins to 31 mins) would have played havoc with a linear TV schedule (not even considering its mind bending plot).

netflix-spotify-midia-figure-1

Netflix closed 2016 with 89.1 million subscribers and the temptation to benchmark against Spotify’s equally strong year is too strong to resist. Spotify (which celebrated its decade in June 2016) closed the year with around 43 million subscribers, 48% the size of Netflix. But a closer look at the numbers tells another growth story.

Read the full post on the MIDiA blog by clicking here.

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.

What Frank Ocean’s Bombastic Blond Moment Tells Us About The Future Of Artists And Labels

When frank-ocean-blond-compressed-0933daea-f052-40e5-85a4-35e07dac73dfFrank Ocean’s latest album ‘Blond’ dropped, it did so like a nuclear bomb, sending shockwaves throughout the music industry. In one of the audacious release strategies of recent years Ocean and his team at 360 fulfilled the final album contractual commitment to Universal Music by ushering his breaking-the-mold visual album ‘Endless’ onto Apple Music.  Featuring collaborations from the likes of Sampha and James Blake and set as a loose soundtrack to art house visuals, ‘Endless’ looked like the sort of digitally native, creative masterstroke that would win plaudits and awards in equal measure. But no sooner had Universal executives started daydreaming about Grammys then along came what turned out to be the ‘actual’ album ‘Blonde’, self released by Ocean (Universal contractual commitments now of course conveniently fulfilled) and, for now at least, exclusively available on Apple Music. You can just imagine seeing the blood drain from (Universal CEO) Lucian Grainge’s face as the full magnitude of what had just happened came into focus. In truth ‘audacious’ doesn’t even come close to explaining what Ocean pulled off, but where it gets really interesting is what this means for the future of artist careers.

Artist-Label Relationships Are Changing

Quickly sensing the potential implications, Grainge swiftly sent out a memo to Universal staff outlawing streaming exclusives…though voices from within Universal suggest that this diktat had been in the works for some time . A cynic might even argue that it was politically useful for Universal to be seen to be taking a strong stand ahead of the impending Vivendi earnings call. As the ever excellent Tim Ingham points out, in practice Universal could put a streaming exclusives moratorium in place and still have a good number of its front line artists put out streaming exclusives. This is because many of the deals these artists have are not traditional label deals where Universal owns all the rights. And that itself is as telling as Ocean’s bombastic blond moment. Not so much that Universal is probably the major with the highest amount of its revenue accounted for by licensed and distributed works, but that any label’s roster is now a complex and diverse mix of deal types. Artists are more empowered than ever before, and thanks to the innovation of label services companies and next generation music companies like Kobalt, labels have been forced to steal the disruptors’ clothing in order to remain competitive.

Streaming Exclusives Represent Another Option For Artists

Just as labels had started to successfully co-opt the label services marketplace by launching their own – e.g. Universal’s Caroline – or by buying up the competition – e.g. Sony’s acquisition of Essential Music & Marketing – along come streaming services giving artists another non-label route to market. In truth, the threat has remained largely unrealised. Exclusives on Tidal have most often proved to be laced with caveats and get out clauses (e.g. Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ arriving on iTunes 24 hours after landing ‘exclusively’ on Tidal). Chance The Rapper’s (in name only) mixtape ‘Colouring Book’ and Ocean’s ‘Blond’ are exceptions rather than the rule. So all that’s about to change now right? Not necessarily…

Album Releases Require More Time Than Apple Probably Has

As anyone who works in a label will tell you, releasing an album is typically a long, carefully planned process with many moving parts. It’s not something you do in a couple of weeks (Ocean started building the hype and expectation for his latest opus a year ago). If, for example, Apple was going to start doing exclusives routinely, even if it just did 20, that’s still a new exclusive to push every 2 weeks. That might work, at a stretch, for music service retailing promotional pushes but is far short of a fully fledged album release cycle. Which means that even for just 20 exclusives Apple would have an intricate mesh of overlapping release campaigns. This is something that labels do with their eyes closed but would it require new organizational disciplines for Apple. Not impossible, but not wholly likely either.

In practice, exclusives are likely to be limited to being the crown jewels of streaming services, their most valuable players, creative playmakers if you like. Even for Netflix, that pioneering exemplar of the streaming originals strategy, only spends 15% of its $3 billion content budget on originals and probably won’t break 20% even by 2020. What Apple and Netflix have in common is that they are using exclusives as a customer acquisition strategy, achieving their aims by making a big noise about each one. But if you’re releasing exclusives every week or two the shine soon wears off. And suddenly the return on investment diminishes.

Streaming Exclusives Are Unlikely To Turn Into A Flood

None of this means that we won’t see more artists striking streaming exclusives. We will, regardless of what labels may actually want to happen. And most of those will probably be on Apple – the service with bottomless pits masquerading as pockets. But the trickle will not turn into a flood, a fast flowing stream perhaps (see what I did there) but not a torrent.

Although they might not realise it yet, Kobalt might find themselves hurting more than the majors from this latest twist in the Exclusives Wars. Kobalt has probably done more than any single other music company to drive change in the traditional music industry in the last 5 years, showing artists and songwriters that there is another way of doing things. But Frank Ocean has just shown that there is now new another option for established artists looking for options at the end of a label deal.

Most importantly of all though, is that streaming exclusives (and indeed label services deals) work best when an artist has already established a brand and an audience. Most often that means after an artist has had a record label recording career. Apple cannot be relied upon to build anything more than a handful of artist brands. One of the founding myths of the web was that it was going to do away with labels and other traditional ‘gatekeepers’. Now, decades later, labels still account for the vast, vast, vast majority of music listening. Make no mistake, a momentous value chain shift is taking place, with more power and autonomy shifting to the creators, but that is a long journey and ‘Blond’ is but one part of this much bigger shift.

How Apple Music And Tidal Transformed Streaming (And Why Apple May Be Buying Tidal)

 

It is 15 months since the launch of Tidal (which was 2 months after Jay-Z’s Project Panther Bidco bought Aspiro) and it is 12 months since the launch of Apple Music (which was a year after Apple bought Beats Music). The streaming world has changed a lot in that time and both those companies have had a disproportionately large amount on influence on the market’s direction of travel. Their arrivals defined Spotify’s role as incumbent while simultaneously casting Apple and Beats as challengers. They have performed their roles of disruptive entrants well, reshaping the competitive marketplace with a strong focus on brand and artist exclusives. Now reports emerge that Apple is in talks to buy Tidal. First victory in the exclusives war or overspending for market share?

When Is An Exclusive And Exclusive?

In the streaming video world an exclusive means exactly that. If you want to watch ‘House Of Cards’ you need Netflix, if you want to watch ‘Man In The High Castle’ you need Amazon Prime. But in music the rules are far more flexible.

exclusives

Looking at the flagpole exclusives across Apple Music, Tidal and Spotify, most of these are available on other platforms as downloads, while many are available to stream. For example, Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ is only available to stream via Tidal but was available to download on iTunes within 24 hours of release. Understandably, the exclusive albums of each company’s respective godfather are genuinely exclusive. But Rihanna’s ‘Anti’ was given away by Samsung while Spotify’s rock legends exclusives are streaming only.

Apple is beginning to push the envelope though, pitching creative solutions to labels and artists, resulting in output like videos for The Weekend and Drake. At the same time it is beginning to look suspiciously like a record label with the release of Chance The Rapper’s ‘Colouring Book’ mixtape. The net result of all this clamouring to be seen as the ‘home’ of an artist is resounding confusion and frustration for music fans. An avid TV fan may well accept the need to have both a Netflix and Amazon subscription because no video service claims to have all the TV shows and movies on the planet. However, the central proposition of streaming music services is exactly that…or at least it was until Tidal and Apple Music upset the the apple cart (ahem). The irony is that in scoring a quick win against Spotify, Tidal and Apple may have fundamentally undermined the long term positioning of the entire streaming music product.

Exclusives Cannot Recreate The 1990s

Apple Music’s head of original content Larry Jackson has said he wants to make Apple Music to emulate the success of MTV in the 80’s and the 90’s, creating the sense that artists ‘live there’. It is an admirable goal but the music world of the 2010’s is a dramatically different one. In those days there was scarcity (you had to buy music to listen on demand) and there was a finite amount of radio and TV. It was possible to control both the message and the audience. Now we are in the Era of Distributed Audiences where people are simultaneously in multiple digital places, with artists and labels racing after them in all those places. No amount of exclusive windowing is going to change that. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

The Economics Of Exclusives

Where the streaming video and streaming music markets match up is that content budgets are currently being used to drive user acquisition. While streaming services have a long way to go before they reach Netflix’s $6 billion annual content budget, both types of streaming service will overspend to get market share and will reel budgets back in later. So it should be no surprise that the amounts being spent on artists don’t really add up.

For example, Apple is reported to have spent $19 million on Drake and was rumoured to have bid up to $25 million for Harry Styles. If Styles had signed, even if he had racked up the same number of streams as Drake on Spotify in 2015 (1.8 billion, the highest number of any artist) he would still only have generated gross revenue of $18 million and net revenue of revenue of around $14 million, leaving something like an $8 million loss for Apple when Apple Music’s additional retailer margin is factored in. Apple would however have been able to make up the remainder on album sales, but Styles would have needed to have shifted a good number of albums. (Adele’s ‘25’, the biggest selling download album in the US in 2015 drove around $15 million in label revenue.) So for now, it takes selling albums to make the economics of streaming exclusives add up.

apple vs tidal

Jay-Z paid $56 million for Aspiro’s 512,000 subscribers, $110 per subscriber. Assuming he’d want a similar per subscriber price, that would put Tidal’s price tag at around $440 million. That’s no small amount of money for around 5% of the global subscriber market. Or to put it another way, Apple could another 23 Drake exclusives for that money which most likely would have a bigger impact on subscriber growth. Indeed, on all growth measures Apple Music has outperformed Tidal over the last 12 months, adding 12.5 million new subscribers to Tidal’s 3.1 million, growing by an average of 1.4 million subscribers a month compared to 0.3 million for Tidal. Apple even has the edge in % growth terms (352% compared to 328%).

So why is Apple in the market for Tidal (albeit reportedly)? Probably more than anything it is about taking an irritatingly threatening competitor out of the market. Tidal has been stealing Beat’s core customer base from right under its nose. It’s no coincidence that Apple Music’s exclusives strategy has had a strong urban bias. Apple wants its Beats customers back, just like it wants its iTunes customers back from Spotify.

Even if Apple does buy Tidal, don’t expect the exclusives wars to go away. Indeed, Spotify just acquired its own exclusives supremo in the shape of Troy Carter, and Apple clearly has its mind set on continuing to spend heavily. So the next few years of streaming will be  defined by streaming services getting closer to artists (with Connect becoming much more important for Apple) which in turn will see the distinctions between what constitutes a streaming service and a record label blur all the more.

As science fiction write William Gibson wrote: the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet…

 

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.

The Streaming Maturation Effect

What do Netflix and music subscriptions have in common?  They both experienced slowing growth in 2014 in the US.  Subscriptions are the monetization focal point of streaming but there have long been signs that the market opportunity is far short of the mainstream. Reports suggest that Spotify may (finally) be about to launch video, as a means of differentiating in an increasingly competitive marketplace that is about to get a whole lot more competitive on the 9th of June (i.e. when Apple announces its long mooted arrival into the space).  Spotify needs a differentiation point.  It may be the runaway market leader but it doesn’t have the feature badge of identity that many of its competitors do (e.g. Rdio is the social discovery service. TIDAL is the high def service. Beats is the curation service etc.).  However, even with a feature differentiation point, Spotify and all of its subscription peers face a more substantial challenge than competing with each other: they are collectively in danger of banging their heads on the ceiling of demand for music subscriptions.

Behaviours Will Change, But Slowly

The world is unequivocally moving from ownership to access and streaming will be a central component of this new consumption and distribution paradigm.  9.99 subscriptions however have no such mainstream inevitability.  They are too expensive for most consumers but most crucially they require consumers to pay for music every month when most people instead spend when one of their favourite artists is in cycle with a new album, single or tour.  Over time (a half generation or so) some consumers will have their behaviours modified, but the majority will not.  In some sophisticated markets (such as South Korea, the Nordics and, to some degree, the Netherlands) subscriptions are showing some sign of edging towards a wider audience (though still far short of mainstream).  In most major music markets though, they remain firmly locked in single digital percentage adoption ranges. They are niche services for the high spending aficionados.

maturation effect

But this isn’t solely a music subscription problem.  It is a dynamic of digital subscriptions more broadly.  Take a look at the US. In 2014 net new subscribers (i.e. the amount of subscribers by which the market grew) fell to 1.5 million, down from 2.8 million in 2013 – which translated to a 46% decline in net adds.  And that was in one of the highest profile years yet for subscriptions.  Over the same time period, Netflix’s net new US subscriber growth fell from 6.4 million to 5.7 million, which was a more modest 11% decline in net adds.

This is not to say either business model has run its course – far from it, and of course both sectors still gee in 2014 – but instead that premium subscriptions are not mass market value propositions. And once you have mopped up your early adopters and early followers growth inherently slows.  The music industry may be locked in an identity crisis over how it deals with freemium services, but it needs to have a realistic understanding of just how far subscription services can go without lower price tiers and more ability for users to easily dip in and out and, ideally, pay as they go rather than being tied to monthly commitments.

The incessant success of YouTube and Soundcloud show us that mainstream consumers want on-demand music experiences but the slow down of subscriber growth in the US shows us that the incumbent model only has a certain amount of potential. Sure, Apple will doubtlessly unlock a further tier of early followers to meaningfully grow the market, but it will only be a matter of time before it hits the same speed bumps.

Access based models are the mainstream future, subscriptions can be too, premium subscriptions though are not.

The Problem With Streaming Exclusives

Jay-Z’s ambitions for TIDAL has triggered a lot of discussion about how streaming models can evolve.  One focus has been exclusives with a number of references to TIDAL ‘doing a Netflix’ by commissioning exclusives.  Netflix can attribute much of its growth over the last couple of years to its flagship ‘Netflix Originals’ such as ‘House Of Cards’ and ‘Orange Is the New Black’.  It is an appealing model but the Netflix Originals approach cannot so easily be transferred to music.

There are three main types of exclusives:

1.    Service Window: album is released exclusively to a single music service for a fixed period of time e.g. only on TIDAL for 1 month

2.    Tier Window: album is released across one type of music service tier before others e.g. only on paid subscription tiers for 3 months

3.    Service Exclusive: music service acquires exclusive rights to an album so that it will never appear anywhere else unless the service decides to let it

The first two will become increasingly common components of the streaming landscape over the next couple of years.  Daniel Ek and Spotify fought a brave rear guard action against Taylor Swift and Big Machine to ensure the Tier Window model did not carve out a beachhead with ‘1989’ but it is an inevitability.  If free tiers are to have a long term role alongside paid tiers they have to be more clearly differentiated.

TIDAL and Apple look set to become the heavyweight players in the Service Window, duking it out for the biggest releases.  TIDAL will argue it pays out more to rights holders (75% compared to 70%) while Apple will argue that it can directly drive download sales (which is where everyone still makes their real sales revenue).  Apple will have to play that card carefully though as it stands just as much chance of accelerating download cannibalization as it does driving new sales.

When Is A Label A Label?

The really interesting, and potentially most disruptive, exclusive is the Service Exclusive.  This model would start blurring the distinction between what constitutes a music service and what defines a record label.  If, for example, TIDAL was to buy out the rights of the next Beyonce album or sign a deal for the next two Calvin Harris albums TIDAL would effectively become the record label for those releases.

The irony is that this ‘ownership of the masters model’ by streaming services is emerging just as the next generation labels are distancing themselves from it.  A new breed of ‘labels’ such as Kobalt’s AWAL and Cooking Vinyl’s Essential Music are focussing on providing label services without taking ownership of the masters and in turn putting the label and artist relationship on a more equitable agency / client basis.  But there are far more impactful challenges to the Service Exclusive model for music than simply being out of step with where the label model is heading:

  • Scarcity: ‘House Of Cards’ is only available on Netflix (and some download to own stores such as iTunes). It is a scarce asset, which is not something that can be said about any piece of recorded music.  As TIDAL found with the near instantaneous Beyonce YouTube leak, music scarcity is ephemeral in the YouTube age.  As long as YouTube is allowed to hide behind its perverse interpretation of ‘Fair Use’ and ‘Safe Harbour’ there will be no music scarcity.  (Of course true scarcity is gone for good, but if that can be made to only mean P2P then the problem is manageable, as it is for TV content).
  • Consumer expectations: Consumers have learned to expect their video experiences to be fragmented across different platforms and services, to not find everything in one place.  For music consumers however the understanding is that catalogues are either near-complete or useless.  So if all music services suddenly started having high profile gaps then subscribers would be more likely to unsubscribe entirely than they would be to take up multiple subscriptions.  Ironically the net result could be a return to download sales at the expense of subscriptions.  Talk about going full circle….
  • Industry relationships: Netflix started out as a pure licensee, paying TV companies for their shows.  Now it competes with them directly when commissioning new shows.  It has become a frenemy for TV companies and is finding many of its relationships less favourable than before.  And this is in an industry that is built up the frenemy hybrid licensee-licensor model.  The music industry does not behave this way, so any service that took up the Service Exclusive model could reasonably expect itself to find itself developing tense relations with labels.  Which could manifest in those labels giving competitor services preferential treatment for their own exclusives.  Labels have long feared the disintermediation threat posed by the web.  It is unlikely to materialize any time soon but they are not exactly going to encourage retail partners to kick-start the process.
  • Appetite for risk: Buying up the rights to the latest release of an established superstar is the easy part, and we already have some precedents though neither were exactly run away successes (Jay-Z’s ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ with Samsung and U2’s ‘Songs Of Innocence’ with Apple).  But being a label, at least a good one, isn’t simply about signing proven quantities, it is about taking risks on new emerging talent.  And that doesn’t simply mean having a DIY platform on a streaming service – though that can act as a great talent identification tool.  If streaming services want to start playing at the label game they need to also start nurturing and marketing talent.
  • Limited horizons: Stream is still only a small fraction of recorded music revenue.  There are few non-Nordic artists that rely on streaming for the majority of their sales income.  That will change but not for a few years yet.  So a release that only exists on streaming, let along a single streaming service, is only going to deliver on a fraction of its potential.  TIDAL and Apple especially could easily choose to loss-lead and pay over the odds for Service Exclusives to ensure artists aren’t left out of pocket.  But that only fixes part of the problem.  An artist locked into one single streaming service will see his or her brand diminish.  ‘House Of Cards’ may be one of Kevin Spacey’s most assured performances yet only a few tens of millions of people globally have ever seen it.  If it had been on network TV the audience would have been hundreds of millions.  With touring becoming the main way many artists make money the album is the marketing vehicle and if that album is locked behind the pay wall of one single music service the marketing potential is neutered.

Streaming music services will find themselves locked in total war over the coming years and while Apple’s cash reserves will likely make that warfare appear asymmetrical at times, exclusives of some kind or another will be utilised by most of the services.  Just don’t expect them to deliver them Netflix-like success because that’s not going to happen.