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.

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How Downloads Will Determine the Future of Streaming

There is no doubt that streaming subscriptions will play a major role in the future of digital music, but their impact is going to be far from immediate. There also needs to be great caution applied to interpreting the encouraging early signs of the advanced streaming markets and the potential impact on total music sales.

Norway and Sweden both experienced an upturn in music sales in the first half of 2013 thanks largely to the impact of streaming subscriptions, while most of the rest of the global music market continued in its struggle to return to growth after more than a decade of decline.  The easy conclusion to draw is that when streaming subscriptions take hold across the globe, music revenue grow.  While there is some truth in the argument, it is too simplistic.

streaming 1

An analysis of the leading streaming markets (Sweden, Norway, France, Netherlands) and the leading download markets (US, UK, Germany, Japan) – see figure one – reveals that streaming took hold in markets where downloads had not.  The markets where downloads represented the lowest share of total music sales in 2010 (before streaming really kicked off) are those that in 2013 had the rates of streaming as a share of digital music revenue.  In markets where downloads were making the biggest contribution to total music income (not just digital) streaming did not get much of a look in in 2013.  In the US and UK streaming subscriptions were in market long before Spotify and Deezer, but most digital music consumers opted for downloads and have been unwilling to switch allegiances since.  It will happen over time, but right now downloads have a firm grip and that is largely because of Apple.

streaming 2

When we look at the same countries plotted by streaming share against Apple device penetration we see an even more pronounced trend – see figure two.  Here the relationship is clear: streaming has taken hold where Apple has not.  In short, there was no established mainstream digital music service and streaming subscriptions filled the void.  But of greatest significance is the impact on total music revenue.  These strong streaming markets contribute just 10% to global digital revenue, even though France and the Netherlands are two of the world’s top 10 music markets.  Meanwhile the UK and US alone count for 54%.  If you factor in Japan and Germany too you have 71% of all digital music income, and within these four countries (the four biggest music markets) streaming accounted for just 10% of digital revenue.

On the other side of the equation, streaming has brought unparalleled growth in its core markets: across Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands digital revenue grew by an average of 213% between 2010 and 2013, compared to an average of just 40% across the big four markets (though Japan’s declining digital sector pulls that average down).  And of course the Swedish and Norwegian music markets both grew in 2012 and 2013 while the rest did not.

While there is not a clear cut ‘answer’ to streaming’s likely long term impact we can however draw a few important conclusions:

  • Streaming will grow more slowly in markets where Apple and the download market are strong (which helps explain why growth of Spotify et al appears to have slowed in markets like the US and UK).
  • Streaming can make a digital market grow more quickly than downloads can (though it does so normally at the direct expense of downloads – download sales shrank in both Sweden and Norway in 2012 and 2013)
  • ‘Home turf’ counts.  Most of the big streaming markets have their own local heroes (Sweden – Spotify, Norway – WiMP, France – Deezer) – all of whom also benefited from hard bundles and marketing support from their incumbent telcos. Meanwhile Apple of course prospers on its home turf and that of the English speaking UK.
  • Consumer behavior and technology are all edging towards a more access based world and it is inevitable that the download will become less important.  So although these brakes on streaming adoption exist in many markets, they will slow rather than halt the transition. Streaming will near 50% of global digital revenues by 2018.

Streaming remains bedeviled by countless issues – not least artist payments – but what is clear is that it has the ability to transform the shape of the digital music market.  And while that change may be slower to come than the Swedish and Norwegian experiences might suggest, come it will.