What’s Going On With Free Streaming?

Earlier this week Soundcloud’s financials revealed that the company was haemorrhaging cash (even before it had to start worrying about content license fees). Now news comes that Pandora is working with Morgan Stanley to meet with potential buyers. Back in Q4 2014 free streaming got a stay of execution when the majors decided to put their weight behind freemium after a period of many executives seriously considering canning the model. In 2015 free streaming was the growth story, with YouTube out performing everyone. Now though free streaming looks to be in seriously troubled waters. So what gives?

Pandora’s Problem Is Wall Street

Probably the biggest problem of all that Pandora has is the story it tells Wall Street. Every year Pandora accounts for a little bit more of total US radio listening, builds ad revenue and steadily strengthens its business. But that’s not the sort of story Wall Street expects from a streaming media company. Investors expect dynamic growth. But Pandora is, along with Rhapsody, the granddaddy of streaming and had 10 million users before Spotify was even launched in Sweden, let alone the US. Pandora long since passed its dynamic growth stage in the US and is now a mature business that is going about sensibly building a sustainable business.

The standard thing to do at this stage for streaming companies is to roll out internationally and find new markets where you can start a new dynamic growth story. This is exactly what Netflix is doing now that US subscriber growth has slowed. The approach has also served Spotify well. But the unique compulsory licensing structure in the US the underpins Pandora’s business model does not exist elsewhere. There is no global landscape of SoundExchanges for Pandora to plug into. With the exception of Australia and New Zealand Pandora has not been able to negotiate rates that it launch internationally with.

Actually, Slowing Growth Is A Problem Too 

All of which explains why Pandora has gone down the acquisition route, buying Next Big Sound, Ticket Fly and Rdio in a bid to become a full stack music company. The problem is that Wall Street either does not buy it, or simply does not get it. In fact, Wall Street does not really make much of a distinction between semi-interactive radio or on-demand streaming. The pervasive view among the investor community is that Pandora is being out competed by Spotify, regardless of the fact that there is only partial competitive overlap in terms of value proposition, target audience and business model. The net result is that Pandora’s market capitalization has fallen from $7bn to $1.8bn and to make matters worse it had to raise $500 million in debt, with revenue growth slowing.

Pandora Needs A New Wall Street Narrative

In just the same way Apple needs a new Wall Street narrative, so does Pandora. Even if just to maintain some market value while it finds a buyer. The full stack music strategy should be central to that narrative, even though the real story is that Pandora is the future of radio. Unfortunately that story will take a decade or more to play out and most investors do not have that kind of patience. (Spotify, these are the sorts of problems you’ll be having to worry about this time next year). And, to be precise, it is the Pandora model that is the future of radio, not necessarily Pandora itself.  Though the odds are still on Pandora playing that role, in the US at least.

If Pandora really does not have the stomach for seeing out the long game it should not find it too difficult to find a buyer, if the price is right. Exactly because Pandora is the future of radio, some of those big radio incumbents are likely buyer. Hello iHeart Media.

 

Pandora Buys Rdio To Become A Global Streaming Powerhouse

 

pandora rdioPandora today announced that it was acquiring the assets of now failed subscription service Rdio.  While the whispers about Rdio’s future had been building for some time, the deal is more interesting for what it says about Pandora’s plans than what it says about the state of the subscription business.

 

Rdio Battled Bravely And Set Innovation Standards But Fell Short

For what Rdio lacked in subscriber numbers it made up for in innovation.  It continually set product and feature precedents that Spotify and others subsequently aped, and its $75 million dollar ad inventory deal with US radio giant Cumulus sets a business model blueprint that other streaming services will follow. But for all its efforts and extensive marketing efforts Rdio was simply not able to get to the same sort of level as Spotify’s 2nd tier competitors, let alone to seriously challenge Spotify itself.  The music subscription business is not a winner-takes-all market.  But it is one in which some degree of meaningful scale is required to trigger the telco partnerships and brand advertiser deals that are necessary to achieve sustainability.  Eventually a company transitions from ‘bright new hope with potential’ to an ‘also ran that isn’t ever going to make it’.  Once that imperceptible line of market perception has been crossed it is only a matter of time before the end comes.

Pandora Will Use Rdio’s Assets To Go Global

Crucially Pandora is not acquiring Rdio as a going concern but only its assets, which won’t include licenses (as they have to be renegotiated when a music service changes corporate hands).  What those assets represent, or at least the bits that matter to Pandora, are teams, product and tech, licensing know how and an international footprint.  That last bit is particularly pertinent.  Rdio’s 100 markets contrasts sharply with Pandora’s 3 (US, Australia and New Zealand).  Indeed Pandora CEO Brian McAndrews stated “We seek to be the definitive music source for music discovery and enjoyment globally”.  While 100 markets is probably a step too far for Pandora, expect a healthy selection of top tier and emerging markets to feature in Pandora’s roadmap.  And if you’re eager to identify which ones, just take a look at the bigger radio markets globally (Japan possibly excepted).

Pandora’s Success Is Built On Lean Back Not Lean Forward

Pandora’s success is firmly rooted in delivering a high quality, lean back experiences to largely mainstream audiences.  That’s how it reaches 78 million monthly listeners, more than a quarter of US adults.  That positioning has served Pandora well and made it one of the few success stories of digital music.  In fact, other than Beatport and Last.FM, it is one of the very few music start ups that had an exist that considered to be a true financial success. Crucial to that success has been the fact Pandora has operated under statutory licenses for semi-interactive radio, which leaves it with dramatically higher (potential) operating margins than on demand services.  Which begs the question, just why is Pandora getting into the subscription business?

This Is The Latest Part Of A Major Strategic Pivot

The answer is that it forms part of a much bigger, much bolder plan.  Pandora has spent the last couple of years quietly amassing the assets that will transform it into a music platform super power.  In 2015 it acquired music data company Next Big Sound (c.$50 million), then came ticketing company Ticketfly in October ($450 million) and now Rdio ($75 million).  The combined $0.6 billion is a truly sizeable investment in a streaming-centred business model by anyone’s standards.  It also accompanies a concerted and costly investment in Pandora’s regional ad sales teams across the US to compete on a level footing with traditional radio’s sales teams.  Couple all that with November announcements to become the exclusive streaming outlet for popular podcast series ‘Serial’ and the landmark direct deal with Sony/ATV Publishing and a picture of something truly ambitious starts to emerge.

Pandora was fortunate to be able to IPO at a time when public offerings were still a highly viable option for digital start ups.  Spotify and Deezer (which just cancelled its IPO) will look on with no little jealousy at the power that a market capitalisation of nearly $3 billion gives you.  Now it is using this financial firepower to take the next step on its streaming journey.  Whatever that will prove to be, expect it to be a platform in its truest sense, rather than simply a streaming service with a few loosely attached ‘alternative revenue’ models, which is a mistake some of the subscription incumbents have made thus far.

Discovery Doesn’t Lead Anywhere Anymore, At Least Not To Sales

Pandora may aspire to be the definitive source of ‘music discovery’ but streaming discovery is becoming streaming consumption.  i.e. it is increasingly not leading to sales.  Live music sales is one alternative way to make money from ‘discovery’ but if ‘free music to sell tickets’ is Pandora’s end game then some difficult conversations with songwriters (who of course often don’t play live) will need to be had.

Pandora has just thrown its hat into the ring as a top tier player in the global streaming business.  By some measures you could say it is poised to become the biggest.  McAndrews left no room for doubt by stating “We plan to substantially broaden our subscription business.”  But in doing so Pandora will have to look itself in the mirror and ask itself “what am I now?”.

 

 

 

Spotify Passes the Transparency Baton to Artists

Transparency of reporting to artists, or lack thereof, has contributed to a poor signal-to-noise ratio in the streaming debate.  Instead of a clear picture of what streaming brings to artists and songwriters we have been left with a dizzying array of conflicting statistics that in turn has resulted in a bewilderingly diverse set of artist opinions.  Spotify today announced the first move towards remedying this situation with artist self-serve analytics, as well as stating its exact range of payments per stream (which for the record are between $0.006 and $0.0084).  The impact of these moves may be slow to be felt but they will be of truly seismic proportions, and here’s why.

In the digital era, with such an increase in both the volume and granularity of data from digital services, the issue of transparency should have lessened but has paradoxically become more intense than ever.  This is because the greater the depth of data that artists get from other sources (web site and Facebook analytics, CD Baby reports etc) often contrasts strongly with how much detail artists get from record label accounting.  Assumptions and allegations about accounting procedures and commercial agreements that affect how much artists and songwriters get paid have always been just that, assumptions and allegations.  In addition to contractual and accounting issues that blight some artist relationship, many labels – and not just majors – can pay as little as 15% royalties to some artists for streaming.  But without clear and transparent accounting, no one quite knows exactly what goes where nor at what rate.

Now that Spotify has introduced self-serve analytics, artists will be able to start to create a robust understanding of just how many plays they have received and to then compare this with what is reported back to them by rights owners.  And if it doesn’t match up with what the labels pay them then artists will be able to use discrepancies as a basis for requesting sales audits from their labels.  Expect a building wave of account audits with the onus on the labels to use this as the catalyst for striking a new generation of improved, more transparent streaming deals for artists.  Normally the ‘anomalies’ that come out of audits are swept under the carpet with artists securing pay outs in return for signing NDAs.  That cycle needs to be broken for streaming related audits.  Hopefully labels will choose to change the systems rather than expend non-scalable audit effort on a surge of streaming-driven audit activity. Ultimately it is in the interests of labels to have artists on board with streaming.  It is much easier to persuade artists to become part of the solution if their earnings are not hidden behind obscure accounting.

Spotify was getting tired of being painted as the bad guy in the transparency debate with its hands tied by confidentiality deals with the labels.  Now Spotify are extricating themselves from the debate, giving artists the tools with which they can engage in direct conversations with labels.  If artists genuinely feel that they are part of a community, then there is as much onus on them as there is on the labels, to sacrifice individually beneficial audit settlements that commit them to omertà in favour of pouring data into an open debate.  Otherwise all that will happen is that artists will perpetuate the lack of transparency, banking a nice cheque to buy their silence once they discover the skeletons in the closet.  Over to you artists…