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.

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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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Pandora’s Loss Is Sirius XM’s Gain

Pandora is in trouble, as explained by the consistently excellent Tim Ingham at Music Business Worldwide, after losing a billion dollars over the last four years and monthly active users (MAU) fell to 73.7 million – its lowest point since Q1 2014. Regular readers will know that I’m a long-time advocate of Pandora’s model. Indeed, Pandora’s model is the future of radio. However, it now appears that Pandora may not be the future of Pandora’s model. In fact, with Liberty Media subsidiary Sirius XM waiting in the wings for Pandora’s market cap to fall even lower than its current $1.4 billion (down from $8 billion in Q1 2014), Pandora might not even be the future of Pandora. In fact, Pandora’s struggles could be Sirius XM’s gain, exactly when it needs the help.

Pandora’s three most important metrics have long been:

  1. MAU
  2. Revenue
  3. The share of total radio listening it accounts for

All three are intertwined, but Pandora has managed to sustain strong growth in numbers two and three because it got better at increasing engagement and driving ad revenue from a largely flat MAU base. However, Pandora was only ever going to be able to squeeze so much revenue out of a flat user base. So, it is no surprise that ad revenue for the nine months to September 2017 was up a paltry 2.4% at $777.3m, compared to the same period in 2016 (figure). Pandora’s problem is not monetization. Indeed, it is better at monetizing ad supported streaming than any other player on the planet, having invested heavily in ad sales infrastructure and continuing to innovate ad formats. But even the shiniest car will eventually grind to halt if it has a gaping hole in its fuel tank. And make no mistake, Pandora has a gaping hole.

Spotify Stole Pandora’s Clothes

Long before Spotify was changing the music business, Pandora was virtually single-handedly creating the US streaming market – though subscription service Napster (then Rhapsody) was also making a small contribution. For the best part of a decade Pandora had almost all of the market to itself, but it is now buckling under the impact of on-demand streaming. Pandora was meant to be different to Spotify, and it was, until Spotify started stealing Pandora’s clothes. Pandora grew its user base by delivering a lean back, but personalized listening experience. Radio on its users’ terms. Spotify soon recognized the value of lean back listening, bringing in a vast selection of curated playlists, directly and via partners. Beats Music followed suit and soon became the foundation for Apple Music’s curated streaming proposition.

Pandora’s Reach Metrics Obscure The Real Story

Pandora’s own key metrics have been part of the problem. It fell into the same trap that traditional radio broadcasters did, of convincing itself that its reach metrics were a genuine indicator of its success. But reach means nothing in the digital era. Engagement is everything. MAU is a meaningless metric in today’s always on world. If you have an app on your phone that you only use once a month, you’d hardly consider that active usage. Active usage is measured at the very least in weekly active user (WAU) terms. That’s why at MIDiA we track all digital media apps using this measure to reveal just how active user bases really are.

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On this basis, Pandora has jut 22% WAU penetration in Q3 2017, representing around 57 million users, or 77% of its MAU base. That ‘missing’ 17 million users will be the ones that Pandora will lose next over the coming 12 months. Yet, its WAU base is at risk too. 26% of Pandora’s WAUs – its most engaged users – also use Spotify. Although Pandora has done an admirable job of building its own subscription business – reaching 5.1 million subscribers in Q3 put it at a credible sixth in the global subscriber rankings, it is looking like it’s too little too late. Furthermore, dumping its founder Tim Westergren robbed Pandora of a genuine visionary just when the company needed him most.

Pandora Will Enhance Sirius XM’s User Base

Pandora’s loss will be Sirius XM’s gain. Sirius XM has been feeling the pressure from Spotify and co, just like Pandora, but it has also experienced competitive pressure from Pandora. Sirius XM is another of radio’s potential futures, but it has faced growing pressure from Pandora and also other streaming services. The growing adoption of interactive dashboards in cars has been key (5% of US consumers now have one). Sirius XM’s WAU base fell from 11% of consumers in Q4 2016 to 8% in Q3 2017. That 30 decline is far more dramatic than Pandora’s 6% WAU decline over the same period. The 8% WAU penetration represents around 21 million users which means that its active user rate is even lower than Pandora’s at just 69%. Added to that, more of Sirius XM’s WAUs (30%) use Spotify. It also has a demographic time bomb ticking: just 8% of WAUs are aged under 35 while just 49% are female. This compares to 31% and 57% respectively for Pandora. Sirius XM’s aging user base is old and male. While Pandora’s is young(er) and female. This is Sirius XM’s opportunity.

In 2016, Sirius XM made an informal offer of $3.4 billion for Pandora. Today, it looks like an amazing deal for Pandora, but Pandora turned it down. Sirius though was not deterred and was able to get close to its goal by investing $480 million in a struggling Pandora in June 2017 and securing three board positions. Now all Sirius has to do is wait for Pandora’s stock to fall further and make its move – perhaps when the market cap gets closer to $750 million. When this happens, Sirius will get a major boost to its user base. More than that though, Sirius will significantly enhance its audience profile. Sirius and Pandora’s user bases are so different in composition that they will slot together like jigsaw pieces. The challenge for Sirius will be how to integrate Pandora in terms of feature sets, user experience, business model and, of course, company organisations. That challenge could prove even bigger than Pandora’s attempted turn around.

The data in this blog post is taken from MIDiA’s forthcoming report: Radio – Streaming’s Next Frontier: How Streaming Will Disrupt Radio Like It Did Retail 

If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to find out how to get access to this report email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Announcing MIDiA’s Streaming Services Market Shares Report

coverAs the streaming music market matures, the bar is continually raised for the quality of data required, both in terms of granularity and accuracy. At MIDiA we have worked hard to earn a reputation for high-quality, reliable datasets that go far beyond what is available elsewhere. This gives our clients a competitive edge. We are now taking this approach a major step forward with the launch of MIDiA’s Streaming Services Market Shares report. This is our most comprehensive streaming dataset yet, and there is, quite simply, nothing else like it out there. Knowing the size of streaming revenues, or the global subscriber counts of music services is useful, but it isn’t enough. Nor even, is knowing country level streaming revenue figures. So, we built a global market shares model that breaks out subscription revenues (trade and retail), subscribers, and subscription market shares for more than 30 music services at country level, across 30 countries and regions. You want to know how much subscription revenue Spotify is generating in Canada? How many subscribers Apple Music has in Germany? How much subscription revenue QQ Music is generating China? This is the report for you. Here are some highlights:

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  • At the end of 2016 there were 132.6 million music subscribers, up from 76.8 million in 2015
  • In Q4 2016 Spotify’s subscriber market share was 35% and it had $2,766 million in retail revenue
  • Apple Music was second with 21 million subscribers at the end of 2016, a 15.6% market share and it had $912 million in retail revenue
  • In 2016 Apple was the largest driver of digital music revenue across Apple Music and iTunes
  • The US is the largest music subscription market, which Spotify leads with 38% subscriber market share
  • The UK is Europe’s largest streaming market, which Spotify also leads
  • China’s subscriber base is the second largest globally, but it ranks just 13th in revenue terms
  • Japan is the world’s third largest subscription market, in which Amazon has the largest subscriber market share
  • Brazil is Latin America’s largest music subscription market

The report contains 23 pages and 13 charts with full country detail as well as audience engagement metrics. The dataset includes four worksheets and a comprehensive methodology statement.

Streaming Services Market Shares is available right now to MIDiA premium subscribers. If you would like to learn more about how to access MIDiA’s analysis and data, email Stephen@midiaresearch.com.

The report and data is also available as a standalone purchase on MIDiA’s report store as part of our ‘Streaming Music Metrics Bundle’. This bundle additionally includes MIDiA’s ‘State of The Streaming Nation 2.1’. This is our mid-year 2017 update to the exhaustive assessment of the streaming music market first published in May. It includes data on revenue, forecasts, consumer attitudes and behaviour, YouTube, app usage and audience trends.

Examples of country graphics (data labels removed in this preview)

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Facebook Is Finally Ready To Become A Media Company

Male Finger is Touching Facebook App on iPhone 6 ScreenFacebook beat estimates with its latest earnings but announced that ad revenues would likely slow in 2017 as the digital ad market feels the pinch of advertiser budgets lagging the shift in user behaviour. Facebook’s stock fell by 7% but it already has Plan B in motion: to become a media company. Facebook delayed this move as long as it possibly could, showing little enthusiasm for getting bogged down with content licenses while it was able to drive audience growth and engagement by piggy backing other people’s content. That strategy has run its course. Facebook is now about to start looking and behaving much more like a media company, but in doing so it will rewrite the rule book on what a media company is.

The Socially Integrated Web

Back in 2011 I published a report ‘The Socially Integrated Web: Facebook’s Content Strategy and the Battle of the Ecosystems’. You can still download the report for free here. In it I argued that Facebook was starting out on a path to become a media company, but not the sort of media company anyone would recognise:

Change is afoot in the Internet.  Facebook’s new Socially Integrated Web strategy is set to make Facebook one of the most important conduits on the web. It is pushing itself further out into content experiences in the outside web while simultaneously pulling more of them into Facebook itself. Facebook is establishing itself as a universal content dashboard – a 21st century cable company for the Internet, a 21st century portal – establishing its own content ecosystem to compete with the likes of Apple and Amazon. While traditional ecosystems are defined by hardware and paid services, Facebook’s is defined by data and user experience.

Now with ad revenues set to slow, Facebook is flicking the switch on phase 2 of this strategy. Think of it as the Socially Integrated Web 2.0.

Wall Street Doesn’t Like Mature Growth Stories In Tech

As Apple, Pandora and others have found to their cost, Wall Street likes its tech stocks to be dynamic growth stories. It doesn’t like mature growth stories – that’s what traditional company stocks are for. So what can a tech company with a mature customer base do? The answer is to switch on new user monetization strategy, with content and services the lynchpin. Apple’s new supplemental investor materials outlining iOS users’ services spend is a case in point. Monetizing audiences is the new black. This is the game Facebook is now starting to play.

How Facebook Will Become A Next Gen Media Company

Moving from curating to licensing is a subtle but crucial shift in Facebook’s role as a content distribution platform. Here are the pieces that Facebook will stitch together as it begins its transition towards become a next generation media company:

  • Games: In August Facebook announced its gaming platform Facebook Gameroom, a Steam for casual games. It followed that with the announcement it will bring Instant Games to Messenger – an extension of its messaging bot strategy. Games is a logical place for Facebook to start carving out its media company role as it has become the default home of casual PC gaming. It also wants to own a slice of the hugely lucrative mobile gaming market.
  • Filters: Snapchat and Line have created global marketplaces for stickers and filters. Facebook is set to follow suit and is now experimenting with Snapchat-like filters. Filters may not look like media assets in the traditional sense, but the whole point about next generation media businesses is that they contain next generation content assets. Filters are an early indication of how the definition of content will change over the next decade and Facebook now has a horse in that race.
  • Video: Despite the embarrassment of having over reported some of its video metrics, Facebook has quickly become a major player in the online video space, accounting for 29% of short form video views. The next step for Facebook is to start building a discovery and curation layer. When it does, expect video consumption to boom. This will be a major step towards its media company future. It will however have to build a lot of tech for rights holders and content creators. Right now, its aversion of getting tied up with policing rights means that many rights holders don’t even post content there. YouTube has a massive head start with its highly sophisticated Content ID stack. Facebook will need to follow YouTube’s lead.
  • Live Stream: Facebook has been doubling down on its live streaming, expanding its focus from user and celeb streams towards more traditional media content such as Steven Colbert’s Showtime Monologue, partnering with 50 media outlets for presidential election coverage, and eSports. eSports could be as lucrative as traditional sports within the next 10 years and the shift has already begun – Twitch accounted for more streaming video bandwidth than the Olympics.
  • Next generation TV operator: One of the most disruptive moves Facebook can make, at least from the perspective of traditional media, is to stitch together its video assets and combine them with video subscription apps like Netflix and TV channel apps like iPlayer and HBO Go to create an all-in-one video destination straddling, UGC, short form, live streaming and TV content. The rise of video apps has created a bewilderingly fragmented video landscape. Facebook can stitch it all together to become a next generation TV operator. It will face direct competition from Apple, Amazon and Alphabet if/when it does.
  • Editorial: Facebook took a lot of flak for its decision to censor, on grounds of nudity, a famous Vietnam photo showing the effects of a napalm attack on Vietnamese children. The photo had been posted by Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten and its editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen wrote “Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor”. Facebook eventually bowed to public pressure and reinstated the photo. While Facebook may have been wrong to censor the photo it revealed that Facebook is already a ‘master editor’ whether Facebook or traditional media like it or not. Facebook hosts such a vast amount of content that the master editor role is inescapable. Aftenposten might have editorial credibility but what about a white supremacist publication? Facebook is already an editor in chief, in short it is already a media company.
  • Music: Facebook’s recent ad for a music licensing executive got music business types all excited. But music is the content vertical Facebook probably has least to gain from switching from host to licensed service. Streaming music is a notoriously difficult business to make money in (Spotify’s gross operating margin is around 17%). Facebook needs to grow margin, not just revenue, and with all its other content options it doesn’t make sense for Facebook to loss lead with an AYCE music service when it can get a bigger return on that investment elsewhere. IF Facebook does do something in music either expect it to be a more radio-like experience for its mainstream audiences (Pandora had a gross operating margin of around 40% in 2015) or – and this is more likely – something for younger users that has music at its core but that is not a streaming service. Think something along the lines of lip synching app Musical.ly.

Facebook is a past master at business model transformation. Its co-opting of younger audience focussed messaging platforms in the face of ageing social network audiences was a best-in-class example of a company disrupting itself before someone else did. Now Facebook is set to make another major change in its strategy before it finds its core business disrupted. Media companies beware, there’s a new player in town and its betting big, real big.

How Spotify Can Become A Next Generation “Label”

Spotify on iPhoneOne of the themes my MIDiA colleague Tim Mulligan (the name’s no coincidence, he’s my brother too!) has been developing over in our online video research is that of next generation TV operators. With the traditional pay-TV model buckling under the pressure of countless streaming subscriptions services like Netflix (there are more than 50 services in the US alone) pay-TV companies have responded with countless apps of their own such as HBO Go and CBS All Access. The result for the consumer is utter confusion with a bewildering choice of apps needed to get all the good shows and sports. This creates an opportunity for the G.A.A.F. (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook) to stitch all these apps together and in doing so become next generation TV operators. Though the G.A.A.F. are a major force in music too, the situation is also very different. Nonetheless there is an opportunity for companies such as these to create a joined up music experience that delivers an end-to-end platform for artists and music fans alike. Right now, Spotify is best placed to fulfil this role and in doing so it could become a next generation “label”. I added the quote marks around the word “label” because the term is becoming progressively less useful, but it at least helps people contextualise the concept.

Creating The Right Wall Street Narrative

When news emerged that Spotify was in negotiations to buy Soundcloud I highlighted a number of potential benefits and risks. One thing I didn’t explore was how useful Soundcloud could be in helping Spotify build out its role as a music platform (more on that below). As I have noted before, as Spotify progresses towards an IPO it needs to construct a series of convincing narratives for Wall Street. The investor community generally looks upon the music business with, at best, extreme caution, and at worst, disdain. To put it simply, they don’t like the look of low-to-negative margin businesses that have little control over their own destinies and that are trying to sell a product that most people don’t want to buy. This is why Spotify needs to demonstrate to potential investors that it is working towards a future in which it has more control, and a path to profitability. The major label dominated, 17% gross operating margin (and –9% loss) 9.99 AYCE model does not tick any of those boxes. Spotify is not going to change any of those fundamentals significantly before it IPOs, but it can demonstrate it is working to change things.

The Role Of Labels Is As Important As Ever

At the moment Spotify is a retail channel with bells and whistles. But it is acquiring so much user data and music programming expertise that it be so much more than that. The role of record labels is always going to be needed, even if the current model is struggling to keep up. The things that record labels do best is:

  1. Discover, invest in and nurture talent
  2. Market artists

Someone is always going to play that role, and while the distribution platforms such as Spotify could, in theory at least, play that role in a wider sense, existing labels (big and small) are going to remain at the centre of the equation for the meaningful future. Although some will most likely fall by the wayside or sell up over the next few years. (Sony’s acquisition of Ministry Of Sound is an early move rather than an exception.) But what Spotify can do that incumbent labels cannot, is understand the artist and music fan story right from discovery through to consumption. More than that, it can help shape both of those in a way labels on their own cannot. Until not so recently Spotify found itself under continual criticism from artists and songwriters. Although this has not disappeared entirely it is becoming less prevalent as a) creators see progressively bigger cheques, and b) more new artists start their career in the streaming era and learn how to make careers work within it, often seeing streaming services more as audience acquisition tools rather than revenue generators.

The Balance Of Power Is Shifting Away From Recorded Music

Concert crowd.In 2000 record music represented 60% of the entire music industry, now it is less than 30%. Live is the part that has gained most, and the streaming era artist viewpoint is best encapsulated by Ed Sheeran who cites Spotify as a key driver for his successful live career, saying “[Spotify] helps me do what I want to do.” Spotify’s opportunity is to go the next step, and empower artists with the tools and connections to build all of the parts of their career from Spotify. This is what a next generation “label” will be, a platform that combines data, discovery, promotion (and revenue) with tools to help artists with live, merchandise and other parts of their career.

How Spotify Can Buy Its Way To Platform Success

To jump start its shift towards being a next-generation “label” Spotify could use its current debt raise – and post-IPO, its stock – to buy companies that it can plug into its platform. In some respects, this is the full stack music concept that Access Industries, Liberty Global and Pandora have been pursuing. Here are a few companies that could help Spotify on this path:

  • Soundcloud: arguably the biggest artist-to-fan platform on the planet, Soundcloud could form a talent discovery function for Spotify. Spotify could use its Echo Nest intelligence to identify which acts are most likely to break through and use its curated playlists to break them on Spotify. Also artist platforms like BandPage and BandLab could play a similar role.
  • Indie labels: Many indie labels will struggle with cash flow due to streaming replacing sales, which means many will be looking to sell. My money is on Spotify buying a number of decent sized indies. This will demonstrate its ability to extend its value chain footprint, and therefore margins (which is important for Wall Street). It could also ‘do a Netflix’ and use its algorithms to ensure that its owned-repertoire over performs, which helps margins even further. But more importantly, indie labels would give Spotify a vehicle for building the careers of artists discovered on Soundcloud. Also the A&R assets would be a crucial complement to its algorithms.
  • Tidal: Spotify could buy Tidal, taking advantage of Apple’s position of waiting until Tidal is effectively a distressed asset before it swoops. Though Tidal is most likely to want too much money, its roster of exclusives and its artist-centric ethos would be a valuable part of an artist-first platform strategy for Spotify.
  • Songkick: In reality Songkick is going to form part of Access’ Deezer focused full stack play. But a data-led, live music focused company (especially if ticketing and booking can play a role) would be central to Spotify driving higher margin revenues and being able to offer a 360 degree proposition to artists.
  • Musical.ly: Arguably the most exciting music innovation of the decade, Musical.ly would give Spotify the ability to appeal to the next generation of music fans. The average age of a Musical.ly user is 20, for Spotify it is 27. Spotify has to be really careful not to age with its audience and music messaging apps are a great way to tap the next generation in the same way Facebook did (average age 35) did by buying up and growing messaging apps. (e.g. Instagram’s average age is 26).
  • Pandora: A long shot perhaps, but Pandora would be a shortcut to full stack, having already acquired Ticket Fly, Next Big Sound and Rdio. If Pandora’s stock continues to tank (the last few days of recovery notwithstanding) then who knows.

In conclusion, Spotify’s future is going to be much more than being the future of music retail. With or without any of the above acquisitions, expect Spotify to lay the foundations for a bold platform strategy that has the potential to change the face of the recorded music business as we know it.

For more information on the analysis and statistics in this post check out MIDiA Research and sign up to our free weekly research digest.

Pandora Plus And The Mid Tier Opportunity

Pandora continued its steady path towards subscriptions today with the announcement of a revamp of its premium radio offering Pandora One and confirmation of a forthcoming 9.99 tier. These of course have been in the works since its acquisition of Rdio’s assets back in November 2015. In the update Pandora One becomes Pandora Plus and gets new features including: ‘predictive offline playback’ for when signal drops, unlimited skips and unlimited replays. Pandora Plus may have a mid tier price point ($4.99) but it is not a mid priced subscription service, instead it is a premium priced radio service. This is not a revival of Rdio’s $3.99 Select offering nor is it a shot across Spotify and Apple’s bows. Nonetheless it is the start of a bolder streaming strategy for Pandora and it does raise the perennial issue of the case for mid priced subscriptions. Premium radio offerings like Pandora One Plus represent around 5 million subscribers in the US and are an important part of the market. But they are only the tip of the opportunity.

The case for mid priced subscriptions is clear: $9.99 is not a mainstream price point. It is fantastic value for music super fans, but more than mainstream fans are willing to pay. 9.99 subscriptions will continue to grow solidly for the next few years as the remaining untapped super fans are converted. But once that base is saturated the market needs something more, that’s where mid priced subscriptions come into play, helping unlock the next layer of consumers. Mid priced subscriptions can represent the best of both worlds, delivering large scale and premium revenue.

Mid Price Is No Easy Sell

However, the mid priced market is not without challenges, indeed, of the original wave of mid priced subscription services that came to market Blinkbox is gone, Cur Media is gone, Guvera is all but gone while Psonar and MusicQubed are still in market. The key challenges this market faces are:

  • It is not easy selling to mainstream consumers: mainstream consumers have less disposable income, are less engaged with music than super fans and are harder to convert
  • It is hard to compete against free: while there are on demand free services in the market (YouTube, Vevo, Spotify free) it is hard for mid priced products to compete in value terms. These free services steal much of the oxygen out of the market. $1 for 3 month trials from Spotify and co only compounds this issue
  • It is hard to differentiate: Label licensing constraints mean that the mid priced products deliver far less value than full priced products due to the restrictions imposed on them. Pandora’s INSERT gives the users 100 on demand tracks a month. That is 0.0003% of the 30 million on Spotify for 40% of the price of Spotify, or 1197% of the price of Spotify’s $1 for 3 months trial

Mid Tier Needs To Be Given More Substance

In short, the mid priced segment needs empowering with proper functionality. Mid tier products need more tracks and more on demand playback. Of course this has to be within clear bounds, else the risk of cannibalizing 9.99 tiers is to strong. But there are many other ways to do this rather than creating a painfully restrictive limit on the number tracks that can be played on demand. Here are some examples of how to differentiate mid tier while maintaining genuine user value by delivering more content and more choice in return:

  • Windowed content only (e.g. a 4 week window on new releases)
  • Limit on number of tracks that can be added to a playlist
  • Genre specific subscriptions
  • Strong focus on pushed playlists
  • Cheaper pricing ($2.99 or $3.99 to reflect the changed marketplace)

For mid tier to work, the music industry needs to have the confidence that the $9.99 product is good enough to keep its core customer base, that these users will not jump ship for a product squarely aimed at the mainstream.

After a couple of years in the wilderness it looks like the marketplace is beginning to warm to mid tier once again. In addition to Pandora’s moves, Sony Music and Universal Music quietly launched the £5.99 Now Music app into the UK market earlier this year while MusicQubed’s MTV Trax has been getting large scale TV advertising support from Viacom. Meanwhile QQ Music and Apple Music are both driving scale in China with a price point equivalent to around $2.

$9.99 was always a blunt instrument, a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Now though, while $9.99 adoption is still growing, is the time to have a far more sophisticated approach to pricing. The safe option would be to wait until $9.99 growth slows. But by then it would be too late.

Watch Out Access, Liberty Media Is Building A Full Stack Music Company

liberty-full-stackAccess Industries’ full stack music company has, ahem, company: Liberty Media. With a combined market market cap of $37 billion John Malone’s Liberty group of companies is by anyone’s standards is a serious player. In the world of media and telecoms it is one of the biggest. Liberty grabbed the headlines this week with its $2.7 billion acquisition of a 15% stake in Formula One, with an option to acquire the entire company, possibly by year’s end. It is a typically bold move for a company that makes a habit of acquiring companies and consolidating markets. Over the past 11 years Liberty Media and Liberty Global have spent around $50 billion on acquiring companies such as UK TV operator Virgin Media, Dutch cable company Ziggo and (indirectly via a holding company) major league baseball team Atlanta Braves. So far so good, but where’s the music angle I hear you ask. Well, just a few weeks ago Liberty made a bid for a certain Pandora Media to add to its already extensive collection of music assets.

Read the full post on the MIDiA Blog here.

Streaming Hits 67.5 Million Subscribers But Identity Crisis Looms

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For our recently published MIDiA report ‘State of the Streaming Nation’ we conducted an exhaustive programme of research to assess the global streaming music market, from each of the consumer, market and service perspectives. In pulling together subscriber numbers for each of the music services (there’s a full table in the report) we found that there were 67.5 million subscribers globally in 2015. That was 24 million more subscribers compared to 2014 (also nearly double the number of new subscribers in 2014). It is clear that global subscriptions are gathering pace. However, all is not as it may at first appear:

  • Zombies still walk the streaming streets: Back in 2013 I ruffled a few feathers highlighting the issue of zombie subscribers, music subscribers that are recorded in the headline numbers but that are actually inactive, normally because they are on telco bundles. Fast forward to 2016 and the issue is more firmly in the public domain due to Deezer’s IPO filings. Zombies coupled with overstating by music services accounted for around 12 million subscribers in 2015 so the active ‘actual’ subscriber number was nearer 55 million.
  • Emerging markets are gaining share: Emerging markets will play a key role for streaming over the next few years. They are already driving growth for Apple and Spotify and they will collectively bring the most dynamic growth with western markets nearing saturation for the 9.99 price point. Much of the growth though will come from indigenous companies, such QQ Music (China), KKBOX (Taiwan), MelOn (South Korea) and Saavn (India).
  • Free still dominates: For all the scale of of subscriptions, free still leads the way with free streaming services accounted for nearly 600 million unique users (1.3 billion cumulative users if you add together the user counts of all the services). Free thus outweighed paid by a factor of 10-to-1.

Streaming’s Identity Crisis

Streaming must overcome its identity crisis. Depending on where you sit in the music industry, streaming is either the future of retail or the future of radio. It can be both, but there is increasing pressure for it to be retail only. That would see only a fraction of the opportunity realised. Throughout its history, a small share of people have accounted for the majority of spending. Casual buyers and radio accounted for the rest.

17% of music buyers account for 61% of spending. These are the people who are either already subscribers or that will become subscribers over the next couple of years. Which leaves us with the remaining 83% of consumers. The majority of these listen to radio while a growing minority use free streaming (mainly YouTube). The question the music industry must now answer is how seriously does it want to treat the opportunity represented by these consumers? Does it want to only serve its super fans or does it also want to be global culture? Radio enabled music to be global culture in the 20th century, free streaming will enable it to be in the 21st.

The Free Streaming Debate Is As Complex As It Is Nuanced

This is why the free streaming debate is important but also so complex. Yes, too much free music will curtail the opportunity for paid subscriptions, but too little could consign music culture to the margins. With streaming there is an opportunity to monetize a bigger audience at higher rates than radio ever enabled. At the moment free streaming bears the burden of being all about driving sales (either subscriptions or music purchases) but that misses the far bigger opportunity for free in the streaming era: mass monetization.

What we have now is a dysfunctional system. Freemium services have licensing minimas (the minimum that must be paid per stream) that effectively prevent them from building profitable ad supported businesses, while YouTube has licenses unlike any other but is the industry’s bête noire. Only Pandora has a model that is both (largely) acceptable to the industry and (theoretically) profitable. I say, ‘theoretically’ because Pandora could get towards a 20% margin if it wasn’t investing so heavily in ad sales infrastructure and other companies.

Out of those three disparate models an effective middle ground can and should be found so that the streaming debate becomes one of free AND paid rather than free VERSUS paid. Then we will have the foundations for creating a market that enables subscriptions to thrive within their niche and for global audiences to be monetized like never before.

Spotify’s Billion Dollar Challenge

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Spotify just changed the rules of the game, raising an unprecedented $1 billion in convertible debt. I’ll leave the financial analysts to pore over the financial permutations (and there are plenty) but there are a few key strategic implications:

  • This is an IPO war chest: Spotify is effectively priced out of trade sales for two reasons 1) it has received so much funding that its valuation is astronomic (somewhere close to $10 billion) and 2) the competitive market has changed so much that most companies that were potential buyers 3 years ago no longer are. Samsung neither has the growth story nor the music focus any longer, Microsoft is almost out of the game, Sony is out of the game, Apple couldn’t admit defeat so soon, Amazon is focused on the mass market and Google is focused on YouTube. So an IPO is the only realistic option and for that….
  • Spotify needs a growth story: To achieve an IPO valuation as high as Spotify needs, it is not enough to just be the leading player, it needs to be seen to be growing at a healthy clip, especially with Apple constantly making up ground and still odds on to be the long term market leader. Wall Street needs growth stories. Just look at what has happened to Pandora, a company with stronger fundamentals and a more secure licensing base. Yet Pandora has lost billions of market cap because Wall Street hasn’t warmed to the long term mature company story.
  • Growth will come from three key areas: The $9.99 model only has finite opportunity. The top 10% of music buyers only spend $10 a month on music. So to grow beyond that beachhead Spotify has to grow where the market isn’t yet mature (emerging markets), make the offering feel like free (telco deals) and make the offering feel super cheap ($1 for 3 months promos). All, in different ways, cost, which is where much of this money will be spent, along with hefty marketing efforts.
  • Some of it will be spent on strategic acquisitions: Small music services around the globe will be hastily editing their investor decks, pitching for an acquisition or hoping Spotify will come calling uninvited. But there aren’t too many realistic targets. Soundcloud would probably cost most of the raise, and Spotify would have the same problem Soundcloud now has of trying to force a 9.99 model on a user base it doesn’t fit. TIDAL wouldn’t be cheap either and besides a bunch of exclusive rights for some super star artists, would only add 10% to Spotify’s user base, less after all those users who came in for ‘Life of Pablo’ churn out. A more realistic bet would be for Spotify to target a portfolio of niche services that would add little to its user base but would communicate to the street that it is set up for super serving niches to grow its user base.
  • All bets are on Spotify: For the last 2 years the recorded music industry, the majors in particular, has been holding its collective breath. If Spotify has a successful IPO it will likely spur an inflow of much needed investment to the space. If it doesn’t then it is back to the drawing board. In many respective that should happen anyway. The 9.99 subscription model is incredibly difficult (perhaps impossible) to run profitably at scale.

The next 6 months will be ones of hyper activity for streaming, and don’t expect Apple to take this lying down. Await the battle of the gargantuan marketing budgets. Even if no one else does well out of this, the ad agencies will make hay.

 

What Other Technology Sector Thinks That It Has Arrived At Its Destination?

The internet, smartphones, app stores, open source software, all have accelerated innovation at a rate that makes Moore’s law look positively pedestrian. What defines digital technology markets is disruptive innovation, the constant challenging of accepted wisdoms and of established practices. Nothing stays still long enough to give stakeholders the luxury of feeling complacent and to fall back on slower moving sustaining innovations. These are the the realities of consumer technology, unless you happen to be in the digital music business, in which case the prevailing attitude is ‘we have reached our destination’, we have identified the model that is our future and we’re sticking with it. That approach worked fine in the old days of innovation, when Consumer Electronics (CE) companies used to spend years hashing out market standards and then competing in a gentlemanly fashion on implementation. That approach brought us VHS, CDs, DVDs Compact Cassettes etc. Everyone got a bite of the cherry and technologies stuck around for decades. Now they stick around for years, at best. So why is the music industry trying to insist on the $9.99 subscription being the new CD, a 20th century approach to standards in the dramatically different 21st century? And more crucially, why is it able to?

Consumers Are Predictable Creatures

Consumers adopt technology in highly predictable ways. First come the early adopters, the tech aficionados who are always the first to try out new apps, services and devices, next come the early followers who supercharge growth, then the mainstream who bring scale of adoption and finally the laggards who adopt at a more measured pace and slow growth. The result is an ‘S-Curve’ of adoption, with slow growth followed by fast growth, followed by slow growth again at the top of the curve. Music services are no exception, usually starting slowly before accelerating and then slowing again when they have saturated their addressable audience. Exactly where growth peaks varies by service and is determined by the type of service, but the same shape of adoption curve plays out nonetheless, most of the time.

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Spotify’s 30 Million Might Just Be The Start Of Maturation

Spotify yesterday announced it had it 30 million paying subscribers. A true digital music landmark. But in the context of its long term growth curve it looks like it might be the start of the end of rapid growth. (It is worth noting that the accelerated growth of the last 16 months has been supercharged by the $1-for-3-months promos so the maturation point may have otherwise been reached earlier or it may have happened at the same time but with a lower number). This isn’t however, some failing of Spotify, rather an illustration that the $9.99 stand alone subscription model is nearing maturity. And this is where the scarcity of innovation comes into play. The major record labels, some more than others, have become increasingly unwilling to threaten the $9.99 status quo. Services that don’t fit the mould either find it impossible to get licenses for new models or they are forced to adhere to the $9.99 cookie cutter subscription model (Soundcloud anyone?).

Video Sets The Standard For Streaming Innovation

Compare and contrast with the streaming video subscription market. Alongside the mainstream Netlfix, Amazon and Hulu Plus services (the Spotify and Deezer equivalents) there is a growing body of targeted niche services with diverse pricing. These include: Hayu (a reality TV, $5.99), MUBI (cult movies, $4.99), Disney Life (Disney shows and movies, £9.99), Twitch (live streamed gaming, $4.99), YouTube Red (YouTuber originals, $10), Vessel (short form originals, $3) Comic-Con HQ (Comic Con content, pricing tbd).

Of course music is drastically different from TV and it is far easier to have a video service with just one slice of all available content than it is for music. Nonetheless, in the video sector there is no prevailing attitude of not wanting to disrupt the dominant $7.99 broad catalogue model. TV and video industry stakeholders are not only willing to tolerate disruptive innovation (online at least!), they understand it is crucial to drive the market forwards. So why don’t labels take a similar view? A key reason is rights concentration. Because three labels account for the majority of music rights, each has de facto veto power. Most companies that are dominant in their markets pursue smaller, sustaining innovations that improve the product but that do not threaten their businesses. So it is fully understandable that major labels have not empowered disruptive innovations that could risk turning their digital businesses upside down. It would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. And yet the growth trajectory of most leading music services shows that by sticking with sustaining innovations they are unwittingly curtailing the scale of their future growth.

Again, compare and contrast with TV where rights are far more fragmented and are becoming even more so. No single TV network or studio has the ability to stop a service in its tracks. The result is a far greater rate of innovation.

Music Subscription Services Are Compelled To Behave Like CE Companies

Thus music subscription services are forced to behave like the old CE companies, competing on the implementation of fundamentally the same product. TIDAL do exclusives and high definition, Spotify do playlist innovation and video, Apple does curation and exclusives. But when it comes down to it they are selling the same $9.99, 30 million tracks, on demand, mobile caching product to largely the same group of consumers.

Postscript: The Unusual Case Of Apple

The keen eyed among you will have noted that Apple Music’s growth curve does not fit the S-Curve model, or at least not what we can see of it yet. It certainly appears that Apple is set for a very different adoption path. There are mitigating factors. The streaming market is far more mature now than when Spotify and Deezer launched. Additionally, Apple has a unique platform and ecosystem advantage that enables it to short cut adoption rates. It can sell straight to its user base of Apple-super-fans. Selling additional products and services to its installed base of 850 million iTunes customers will be key to the next stage of Apple’s story and music will play its role in that. (Amazon is potentially another exceptional case given its ability to sell directly into its customer ecosystem and also with its focus on a more mainstream audience.)

But even Apple will eventually reach the saturation for the $9.99 product within its user base. In fact, one reading of Apple’s adoption curve is that it skipped the first stage of slow growth, has had a brief period of mid period strong growth and is now settling down for a long gradual arc of adoption that looks like an amalgamation of the final 2 stages of the S-Curve model. Whatever the path, let’s just hope that long before Apple Music hits maturity, the record labels will have woken up to the need to support an unprecedented phase of experimentation and innovation to identify all the other opportunities for premium music that exist outside of the super fan beachhead. Remember its 2016 not 1986.