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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IFPI and RIAA 2013 Music Sales Figures: First Take

The IFPI and RIAA today released their annual music sales numbers.  Though there are positive signs, overall they make for troubling reading 

  • Total sales were down 3.9%.  Based on 2012 numbers the trend suggested that 2013 revenues should have registered a 2% growth, so that is a -6% swing in momentum.
  • Digital grew by 4.3% which was not enough to offset the impact of declining CD sales, which has been the story every year since 2000 except last.
  • Download sales declined by 1%. Continued competition from apps and other entertainment, coupled with subscriptions poaching the most valuable download buyers is finally taking its toll.
  • Subscriptions up by 51%: An impressively strong year for subscriptions but not enough to make the digital increase bigger than the physical decline on a global basis nor in key markets, including the US.

Global numbers of course can be misleading and there is a richly diverse mix of country level stories underneath them, ranging from streaming driven prosperity in the Nordics, through market stagnation in the US to crisis in Japan – where revenues collapsed by 16.8%.  The Nordic renaissance helped push Europe into growth but data from the RIAA, show that total US music revenues were down a fraction – 0.3%.  US download sales were down by 0.9% while subscriptions were up an impressive 57% to $628 million.

On the one hand this shows that Spotify has managed to kick the US subscription market into gear following half a decade or so of stagnation.  But on the other it shows that subscriptions take revenue from the most valuable download buyers.  This backs up the trend I previously noted, that streaming takes hold best in markets where downloads never really got started.  Thus markets like the US with robust download sectors will feel growth slowdown as high spending downloaders transition to streaming, while in markets like Sweden where there was no meaningful download sector to speak of, subscriptions can drive green field digital revenue growth.

The Download Is Not Dead Yet

Though subscriptions now account for 27% of digital revenue, the value trend obscures the consumer behavior trend.  For Spotify’s c.9.5 million paying subscribers (or 6 million last officially reported) Apple’s installed base of iTunes music buyers stands at c.200 million (see figure).  The IFPI report that there are now 28 million subscription customers globally.  In the US and UK this translates into 4 or 5% of consumers. Subscriptions do a fantastic job of monetizing the uber fans, just like deluxe vinyl boxsets and fan funding sites like Pledge do so also.  But they are inherently niche in reach.  This is why downloads remain the music industry’s most important digital tool.  Downloads are the most natural consumer entry point into digital music, and if anyone else had been able to come close to matching Apple’s peerless ability to seamlessly integrate downloads into the device experience, then the sector would be much bigger than it is now.

service bubbles

Do not confuse this with being a luddite view that streaming and subscriptions are not the future, they are, but there is a long, long journey to that destination that we are only just starting upon for most consumers.   And before that there is a far more important issue, namely how to get the remaining CD buyers to go digital.

Sleepwalking Into a Post-CD Collapse

Last year the IFPI numbers showed a modest globally recovery but despite the widespread optimism that surrounded those numbers I remained cautious and wrote that it was “a long way from mission accomplished.”  My overriding concern then was the same as it is now, namely that the music industry does not have a CD buyer migration strategy and it desperately needs one.  So much so that unless it develops one it will end up sleepwalking into a CD collapse.   In fact I predicted exactly what has happened:

“CD sales decline will likely accelerate.  Among the top 10 largest music markets in the world CD revenue decline will likely accelerate markedly in the next few years.  In France and the UK leading high street retailers are on their last legs while in Germany and Japan the vast majority (more than 70%) of sales are still physical.  So the challenge for digital is can it grow as quickly as the CD in those markets will decline?

The IFPI have stressed the fact that Japan’s dramatic 15% decline was the root cause of the global downturn.  While this is largely true – without Japan included global revenues still declined 0.1% – Japan’s problems are simply the global industry’s problems squared.  In 2012 a staggering 80% of Japanese music sales were physical but despite the digital market actually declining 4 successive years total revenues increased 4%.  As the world’s second biggest market, when Japan sneezes the global industry catches a cold.   But expect Japan to continue to drag down global revenues and also keep an eye on Germany.  Germany saw a modest 1.2% increase in revenues in 2013 but only 22.6% of sales were digital.  The most likely scenario is that Germany will follow the Japanese trend and go into a CD-driven dive in 2014 and / or 2015.

In conclusion, there is still cause for optimism from these numbers.  Subscriptions are going from strength to strength, at least in revenue terms, and the download sector remains robust in buyer number terms.  But unless the CD problem is fixed, the best both those digital revenue streams can hope to do is consolidate the market around a small rump of digital buyers.