Spotify Takes Aim at Radio, Again

Spotify has launched a radio-like feature set for premium subscribers in the US called Your Daily Drive.Although it is only positioned as a playlist, the content mix includes podcast news content and plays music the listener already likes with a sprinkling of new tracks. This might not sound that special, but this ‘recurrent heavy’, news-anchored programming is Spotify taking the essence of US drive time radio and translating it into a playlist. As we wrote back in early 2018, radio is streaming’s next frontier, and nowhere is that more true than in the US.

streaming playlist usage midia research podcasts

Right now, streaming consumption is fragmented across multiple programming formats with no stand-out use case. Curated playlists are not for music what binge watching is for video. While this is positive in the context of multiple use cases being met within an increasingly diverse user base, if streaming is ever going to seriously challenge the mainstream mass-market audience that is radio, it needs a binge watching equivalent. Streaming needs a simple, easy to understand and access format that translates seamlessly to traditional radio audiences. Your Daily Drive is a very small first step on that journey.

The playlist is now just a delivery vehicle

If we were to rewind just a few years ago, the idea of Spotify delivering drive-optimized playlists interspersed with news may not have sounded totally outlandish but it would nonetheless have only felt a distant possibility. But now that Spotify has extensive podcast capabilities under its belt and a very proven willingness to insert podcasts throughout the music user’s experience, the concept of what constitutes a playlist needs rethinking entirely…largely because that is exactly what Spotify has just done. The industry needs to start thinking about playlists not as a collection of music tracks but instead as a targeted, personalized and programmed delivery vehicle for any combination of content. In old world parlance you might call it a ‘channel’, but that does not do justice to the vast personalization and targeting capabilities that playlists, and Spotify’s playlists in particular, can offer.

In this context, Your Daily Drive is not simply a playlist but instead Spotify’s first foray into next-generation radio broadcasting. There will doubtless be further Spotify playlist announcements over the coming months that leverage podcast content. As with Your Daily Drive, they won’t just be playlists; instead, pay attention to what they are aiming to compete with to understand their true intent.

Making radio work takes more than just making radio work

Radio programming itself will take a long time for Spotify to master – just look how long it is taking Apple. Even when it does, the even bigger challenge is monetisation. Ad-supported revenue simply isn’t growing fast enough, and the Q1 earnings (which recognized the revenue of its new podcast companies) did not indicate that podcasts were going to bring a big bump anytime soon either. To compete with radio in a meaningful way, Spotify will have to invest heavily in ad sales and ad tech to the same extent that Pandora has. That means having people pounding the streets, knocking on the doors of mom and pop stores selling local spot ads, through to competing with Google, Facebook and Amazon to deliver world class ad tech. No small task, but the rewards could be huge.

Playlist Malfeasance Will Create a Streaming Crisis

Streaming economics are facing a potential crisis. The problem does not lie in the market itself; after all, in Q1 2019 streaming revenue became more than half of the recorded music business and Spotify hit 100 million subscribers. Nor does it even lie in the perennial challenge of elusive operating margins. No, this particular looming crisis is both subtler and more insidious. Rather than being an inherent failing of the market, this crisis, if it transpires, will be the unintended consequence of short-sighted attempts to game the system. The root of it all is playlists.

Streaming makes casual listeners ‘more valuable’ than aficionados

Streaming took the most valuable music buyers and turned them into radio listeners. Now, as the market matures, it is taking more casual music consumers and also turning them into radio listeners. Although curated playlist penetration is still low (just 15% of streaming consumers listen regularly to curated playlists, fewer than listen to podcasts), the impact on listening over indexes.

While a lean-forward, engaged music listener may select an album or a handful of tracks to listen to and then move on, casual listeners might put on a 60-track peaceful piano playlist in the background while studying, doing housework etc. The paradox here is that casual fans have the potential to generate more streams than engaged listeners.

With casuals being the next wave of streaming adopters, their impact will increase. But despite being ‘more valuable’ they will also reduce royalties, because more streams per user means revenue gets shared between more tracks, which means lower per-stream rates. The music industry thus has an apparently oxymoronic challenge: it is not in its interest to significantly increase the amount of media consumption time it gets per user, but instead it will be better served by getting a larger number of people listening less! 

Current market trajectory points to more streams per user, which – for subscriptions, where royalties are paid as a share of revenue – means lower per-stream rates.

Playing the game

Against this growing background consumption trend, streaming services, labels, songwriters and artists are all making matters worse by gaming the system whether that be by structuring songs to work on streaming, creating Spotify friendly soundsor simply gaming playlists.

With playlists being so important for both marketing and revenue, it was inevitable that people would seek out ways to attain any possible advantage. Consequently, playlists are becoming gamed, whether that be major labels getting more than their fair share of access to the biggest playlistsor ‘fake artists’filling them out.Most recently, Humble Angel’s Kieron Donoghue identified a cynically constructed playlist called ‘Sleep & Mindfulness Thunderstorms’(all terms optimised for user searches) that contained 330 one-minute songs of “ambient noise of rain and a few thunder storms thrown in for good measure”. The one-minute track length ensures they are long enough to qualify for a royalty share, but short enough to ensure that a typical listening session will generate a vast quantity of streams, thus generating more royalties.

The twist to this story is that this playlist was created by Sony Music and the artist behind all these tracks appears to be a Sony Music artist. Crucially Sony isn’t the only one doing this, with UMG getting in on the actand Warner Music signing an algorithm.

Playlist deforestation

This sort of activity may make absolute commercial sense but is creatively bankrupt. It certainly makes record complaints about ‘fake artists’ ring less true. Just because you can do something does not mean that you should. This model works until it doesn’t. In fact, there are parallels with deforestation. A logger in the Amazon will likely not be thinking about the destructive impact on the environment he is directly contributing to. In similar manner, it is unlikely that the people creating these playlists realise that they are contributing to a market-level crisis. This is because, the more of these types of playlists that are created, the lower per-stream rates they will generate for everyone.

Well, not ‘everyone’. If overall streaming revenue rises but stream rates decline, then the companies with large catalogues of music, especially those that are also creating arsenals of playlist-filler ammunition, will still feel revenue growth. For individual artists and songwriters, however, royalty payments could actually fall.

Fixing the problem

The casual listening problem will not fix itself. In fact, despite labels worrying about declining ARPUthe only way they can keep ahead of declining streaming rates is by increasing their share of streams. That means more of this sort of playlist gaming activity, which further accentuates the problem.

There is however a simple solution: reduce per-stream rates for lean-back playlist plays.This would ensure the songs people actively seek out get better pay-outs. The demarcations between lean back and lean forward used to be elegantly simple (e.g. Pandora versus Spotify), but now curated playlists and other forms of streaming curation are supporting radio-like behaviour on the same platforms as on-demand. It is time for royalty models to catch up with this new reality.

Spotify, the Decline of Playlists and the Rise of Podcasts

The following is a small excerpt from MIDiA’s forthcoming third edition of its ‘landmark State of the Streaming Nation’ report. For more information about this report email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Most things that Spotify does are scrutinised and cross-examined within an inch of their lives, with vested interests trying to second guess what may be the intended or unintended consequences for them. Most actions are viewed through the disruption lens i.e. how will this hurt or compete with Spotify’s rightsholder partners? The streaming market is of course so much more than just Spotify, but the company acts as a lightning rod for the wider market and most often sets the strategic agenda.

Spotify’s Two Phases of Growth

Two of Spotify’s most significant moves have been playlist curation and podcasts. Spotify is moving into the second major phase of its existence. Phase 1 was about establishing itself as a streaming music powerhouse, Phase 2 is about what it becomes next, extending beyond the streaming music beachhead. This is the typical trajectory of tech companies, establishing themselves in their core competencies and then expanding. This can either be a dramatic expansion – e.g. Amazon moving from eCommerce into video and music – or a more focused value-chain extension – e.g. Netflix moving from simply streaming other’s shows to making its own. For Spotify, playlists were a Phase 1strategy and podcasts are very much part of Phase 2.

midia playlists and podcasts

Podcasts may just have come in the nick of time for Spotify because curated playlists remain much more about potential than they do reality. Just 15% of streaming consumers listen to curated playlists. In fact, of all the key streaming feature activities, curated playlists come lowest. Curated playlists are clearly not to streaming music what binge watching is to streaming video. Instead streaming activity is fragmented across multiple features and just 10% of streaming consumers regularly do all four of the activities listed in the chart above.

‘But wait’ I hear you ask, ‘that doesn’t make sense, look at all these streams we’re getting from playlists’. The key factor here is the difference between the number of playlist users and the number of playlist streams. Playlists over index in terms of contribution to streams. With dozens of tracks per list, lean-back playlist listening can easily generate more streams per user than lean-forward listening. Thus, we have one of the great emerging paradoxes of streaming: passive audiences can generate more streams, and thus rightsholder pay outs, than engaged, aficionados. However, a word of caution, should casual playlist listening become large enough, then the net result will be a dilution of the royalty pool and thus diminishing per stream rates.

Perhaps not the holy grail of promotion

A few years ago, playlists looked like the future of artist marketing, now they are looking a bit like a busted flush. They may be great at generating streams but are not so great at building an artist’s story. The near-obsession with Spotify playlists in label marketing strategy reflects the fact that most record label executives use Spotify and thus often have a Spotify-centric (and therefore playlist-centric) worldview. But labels are now beginning to question the artist ROI of playlists. The growing adoption among casual listeners only compounds matters and means that a playlist ‘hit’ does not necessarily do much to help long-term artist brand building. To put it simply: a playlist is not a shortcut to cultural relevance.

Podcasts could be bigger than streaming

Enter stage left podcasts. With its acquisitions of Gimlet, Anchor and Parcast, Spotify is betting big on podcasts. Already, more streaming users (18%) listen to podcasts than curated playlists while overall consumer podcast penetration is 11%. In Sweden – the early adopter market that gives us a view of where other markets are heading – podcast penetration is 19%, rising to 28% among streamers. Podcasts are a Netflix moment for radio and may even have the potential to be bigger than streaming music (US radio ad revenues alone are $16 billion). Right now, the growth in overall podcast audiences is fairly slow, but engagement is accelerating as are content creation, monetisation and distribution. It is not entirely inconceivable to think that five years from now, podcasts could be a bigger business for Spotify than music. Certainly, creators could be making much more money, even now.

While it remains more likely that music will be the core of Spotify’s business half a decade from now, all the early indications are that Phase 2 will mean a degree of diversification of user experience, business model and revenue stream, with podcasts at the vanguard. Playlists are not dead, but nor are they the golden child anymore.

10 Trends That Will Reshape the Music Industry

The IFPI has reported that global recorded music revenues have hit $19.1 billion, which means that MIDiA’s own estimates published in March were within 1.6% of the actual results. This revenue growth story is strong and sustained but the market itself is undergoing dramatic change. Here are 10 trends that will reshape the recorded music business over the coming years:

top 10 trends

  1. Streaming is eating radio: Younger audiences are abandoning radio for streaming. Just 39% of 16-19-year olds listen to music radio, while 56% use YouTube instead for music. Gen Z is unlikely to ever ‘grow into radio’; if you are trying to break an artist with a young audience, it is no longer your best friend. To make matters worse, podcasts are looking like a Netflix moment for radio and may start stealing older audiences. This is essentially a demographic pincer movement.
  2. Streaming deflation: Streaming music has allowed itself to be outpaced by inflation. A $9.99 subscription from 2009 is actually $13.36 when inflation is factored in. Contrast this with Netflix, for which theinflation-adjusted price is $10.34 but the actual 2019 price is $12.99. Netflix has stayed ahead of inflation; Spotify and co. have fallen behind. It is easier for Netflix to increase prices as it has exclusive content, but rights holders and streaming services need to figure out a way to bring prices closer to inflation. A market-wide increase to $10.99 would be a sound start, and the fact that so many Spotify subscribers are willing to pay $13 a month via iTunes shows there is pricing tolerance in the market.
  3. Catalogue pressure: Deep catalogue has been the investment fund of labels for years. But with most catalogue streams coming from music made in this century, catalogue values are being turned upside down (in the streaming era, the Spice Girls are worth more than the Beatles!). Labels can still extract high revenue from legacy artists with super premium editions like UMG did with the Beatles in 2018, but a new long-term approach is required for valuing catalogue. Matters are complicated further by the fact that labels are now doing so many label services deals, and therefore not building future catalogue value.
  4. Labels as a service (LAAS): Artists can now create their own virtual label from a vast selection of services such as 23 Capital, Amuse, Splice, Instrumental, and CDBaby. A logical next step is for a 3rdparty to aggregate a selection of these services into a single platform (an opening for Spotify?). Labels need to get ahead of this trend by better communicating the soft skills and assets they bring to the equation, e.g. dedicated personnel, mentoring, and artist and repertoire (A+R) support.
  5. Value chain disruption: LAAS is just part of a wider trend of value chain disruption with multiple stakeholders trying to expand their roles, from streaming services signing artists to labels launching streaming services. Things are only going to get messier, with virtually everyone becoming a frenemy of the other.
  6. Tech major bundling: Amazon set the ball rolling with its Prime bundle, and Apple will likely follow suit with its own take on the tech major bundle. Music is going to become just one part of content offerings from tech majors and it will need to fight for supremacy, especially in the ultra-competitive world of the attention economy.
  7. Global culture: Streaming – YouTube especially – propelled Latin music onto the global stage and soon we may see Spotify and T-Series combining to propel Indian music into a similar position. The standard response by Western labels has been to slap their artists onto collaborations with Latin artists. The bigger issue to understand, however, is that something that looks like a global trend may not be a global trend at all but is simply reflecting the size of a regional fanbase. The old music business saw English-speaking artists as the global superstars. The future will see global fandom fragmented with much more regional diversity. The rise of indigenous rap scenes in Germany, France and the Netherlands illustrates that streaming enables local cultural movements to steal local mainstream success away from global artist brands.
  8. Post-album creativity: Half a decade ago most new artists still wanted to make albums. Now, new streaming-era artists increasingly do not want to be constrained by the album format, but instead want to release steady streams of tracks in order to keep their fan bases engaged. The album is still important for established artists but will diminish in importance for the next generation of musicians.
  9. Post-album economics: Labels will have to accelerate their shift to post-album economics, figuring out how to drive margin with more fragmented revenue despite having to invest similar amounts of money into marketing and building artist profiles.
  10. The search for another format: In 1999 the recorded music business was booming, relying on a long established, successful format that did not have a successor. 20 years on, we are in a similar place with streaming. The days of true format shifts are gone due to the fact we don’t have dedicated format-specific music hardware anymore. However, the case for new commercial models and user experiences is clear. Outside of China, depressingly little has changed in terms of digital music experiences over the last decade. Even playlist innovation has stalled. One potential direction is social music. Streaming has monetized consumption; now we need to monetize fandom.

Preparing for the Post-Album Industry

This is a guest post by Keith Jopling, MIDiA’s Consulting Lead. It is a follow-up piece to What’s Next In Playlist Innovation?

Every week I’m still excited to check out the latest album releases. They are the gift that keeps on giving. But that gift feels different these days, more like receiving flowers or chocolate and less like anything you might say is a keepsake.

It’s becoming very rare these days for me to fall in love with an album the way I used to. I miss it, but there it is. Some of this is a conscious trade-off, since I enjoy compiling and curating playlists. But to some extent, it just feelslike I don’t have the time to give (i.e. invest in repeated listens) in the way albums – good ones – truly deserve.

Broader listening trends confirm that this applies to people in general. The penetration of adults that claim to listen to whole albums monthly, stands at just 16% (Q4 ‘18 data from MIDiA, a drop from 22% in the previous quarter), compared with say, 35% listening to music on the phone.

This is self-reported of course. Behavioural data on actual album listening is a patchwork of proxy measures, such as ‘listens (to individual album tracks) from the artist’s album page’ on Spotify. To be fair, we never ever really knew how consumers who bought albums actually listened to them. Survey data I saw a long time ago, before the streaming era kicked-in suggested that some purchased albums were played on average, just over once.

Competing in the attention economy

As the management consultants say, what can’t be measured won’t get done, and so in a world of real-time statistical feedback, why make an album if you cannot know who is listening and how? There is already a creative conversation in the industry about “skip-rate reduction” and one way to achieve this is to front load albums with the catchiest tracks, but where does that leave the art of album sequencing and story-telling?

The album’s competitive pressures go wider than music. In the attention economy, albums compete with Netflix, Fortnite, TikTok and Instagam. In music’s own attention economy, albums compete with singles, playlists, games, podcasts and box sets. And those latter two categories are literally stealing the show. This is unsurprising in the streaming world – a better way of coping with the content waterfall is a ‘consume-once-only’ approach. The idea of spending the same 45 minutes over & over to build up familiarity with a record seems taxing.

Albums are no longer water cooler moments

What seems particularly telling for music, is that ‘Netflix and shows’ is the water cooler conversation now. Pop culture talk is all about what you’ve watched, are watching or should watch, and any similar conversation about listening is conspicuous by its absence. The ‘event album’ seems to be over. Is it just me or do artists seem to want to drop albums with less fuss now anyway? Perhaps the element of surprise (Bowie’s legacy yet again) is smarter than facing the “aftermath of promotion”. But it’s also not without risk given the tonnage of new music flowing through. Coupled with this, some artists are either eschewing the format or at the very least questioning it. If we take the world’s biggest artist right now, Ariana Grande – what role did her album play in the scheme of things?

What choices does this leave labels and artists?

When the CD began to give way to streaming, it’s fair to say the labels embraced it. In some ways, the CDs decline was ushered in rather than managed out. Back around 2012 I was in the room when one label boss took hold of a CD and flung it across the room smashing it into shards. I was impressed if surprised. But are labels taking the same level of aggressive-progressive when it comes to succeeding the album?

I’ve already argued previously that the main format to succeed the album is the playlist, and that there is further innovation to go (also acknowledging Apple’s release regarding a more creative approach top playlist cover art). Meanwhile there is no doubt that the EP has made a comeback, and has become a useful vehicle for new artists to drop a collection of songs as a showcase of their repertoire.

But let’s take a look at some other options:

  • (Bring back) Album Exclusives:With some services so favouring the single track, could the labels divide & rule with full album licensing fenced off to other album focused services? Now I know we’ve been there before, and ‘nobody’ liked it much, but things are different now, and platform differentiation is a strategy both labels and platforms need when it comes to content. If some services stepped up in full support of the album, it stands a better chance longer term. A more radical option? Sell full albums exclusively on label-owned streaming services.
  • Physical Exclusives (through vinyl):Favouring both the true fan and the artist, perhaps vinyl should become the exclusive way to hear the whole collected work. With traditional vinyl at capacity one innovation I am keeping an eye on is Virylsteam-based manufacture. For artists looking to do something truly different, this is an option. Pre-order, custom versions, pre-sale and merch during tours, and pop-ups, as well as sell-through Amazon, Bandcamp and brick & mortar, the product sale potential is larger than it looks.
  • More visual outputs:Universal has doubled-down on video. Apple has doubled-down on video. Video remains huge, and continues to grow in short-form, and now long-form too. TV and theatrical productions are hunting very actively on music’s turf. It’s fascinating but by definition, not the same ubiquity potential of audio formats. Music films can do wonders for song catalogues however, Bohemian Rhapsdoy has proven that.
  • Experiment with entirely new formats:Easy to say, harder to do. New platforms such as voice and the car provide options without a doubt. Of course, an option for the producer sector is to do nothing much – simply wait for the technology sector to stumble on the next scaleable format. They are certainly trying, from Spotify’s Canvas moving images, to Pandora’s new Stories format, to Apple’s continued video format innovations such as Up Next. The platforms pitch these formats to artists as much as labels. One problem for labels is keeping up with the tail wagging the dog. Without knowing if the format will last, should they invest and convince artists to make stuff the platforms want? For example, should they make vertical videos just because Spotify wants vertical videos that month, or podcasts because it’s now all about podcasts, until it isn’t?
  • Expand into the live sector: Not easy. Wider representation of artists got a bad rap with the ‘360’ degree deals, but yet again, times have changed and a re-evaluation is due. With money coming in from streaming as well as outside investment, labels could buy smaller live promoters and venues.

What does this mean to the artist proposition and label economics?

Okay, so now we are down to the rub. The album is still the format that drives industry economics as a whole. The conversation around the artist proposition (and therefore the deal) has been changing for some years, but still essentially centres on the album as the economic unit. This must surely see more rapid change, to be replaced by agreed song numbers, or simply a time period covering numerous ‘artist projects’. We’ve already seen the first ‘lifetime’ deal between Elton John and Universal.

For the vast majority of artists, revenues are now following a pareto curve, with their ‘top songs’ (between five and ten say) making up a fraction of their catalogue but the large majority of their streaming income. When an established active artist releases a new album, the impact is often on those jewels in the crown more than the new collection, and if one or two songs make it into the crown, then bingo! The project pays off. The goal of any artist project is to get another jewel in the crown, but is an album the critical vessel to achieve that goal?

Perhaps the golden rule here is that the one size fits all model is becoming unfit for purpose. We’re already seeing some innovation, especially from Hip Hop artists like Migos, Drake and Kanye, but this trickle needs to turn into a flood. We’re getting to the time for ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’.

The last days of All Killer No Filler?

I still use my primary source of the past 20 years to find new records, The Guardian G2 and Pitchfork. I can’t find any new albums via Spotify’s personalised feeds, because that’s mostly now just ‘for me’, or singles. Apple Music does a better job of presenting new release albums, and I guess both the streaming rivals are serving their own listener base appropriately.

Despite everything you read above, I feel the album will endure. The digital streaming age is a challenge to artists to make better albums, the ‘all killer no filler’ approach. The album as a canvas still feels relevant for some artists, but only some.

The album is already a niche in consumption terms, unmeasurable in streaming terms, but still the essential deliverable in the deal. That’s out of step, and those labels and artists with one eye on the mid-term future will already be planning for what the game looks like going forward. It’s what Reed Hastings calls “constantly worrying about what’s next” and it’s worked for him so far.

We don’t just write it. For a ‘post album world’ conversation with Keith & Mark contact us at MIDiA. We’ve already been helping labels, artists and managers rethink the album, drop us a line at info@midiaresearch.comto see how we could work with you.

 

What’s Next For Playlist Innovation?

This is a guest post from MIDiA Research’s Keith Jopling.

In this era of access to all music and everything about it, I do enjoy reading artist interviews, and pay attention to artists’ views on the modern music industry. What caught me recently were Mark Ronson’s remarks on songwriting in the age of the playlist in The Guardian:

“Everything has to be produced so it sounds competitively as loud as possible coming out of an iPhone or as loud as possible when it comes out of a Spotify hits playlist; you have to make sure the kick drum and the guitar have the same loudness and presence all the way through the whole fucking song or you don’t stand a chance. It’s kind of crazy how you have to think about music now.”

I have heard similar views from artists in recent years and they do have grounds, though you’ll be hard pressed to prove that streaming and playlists have truly altered music per se. After all how would that equate with the huge success of ‘slow music’ playlists, from Peaceful Piano to Esquenta Sertanejo to Your Favourite Coffeehouse?

There has certainly been an industry skew towards ‘streaming hits’ though. More artists are making “Spotify-core” (i.e. music that will do anything to avoid being skipped) and that’s a genre perhaps lacking in subtlety, But can it be accused of crowding out other, subtler types of music?

I would argue that playlists have changed the way we listen more than they have changed music itself. If the first port-of-call for music consumers is to hear songs on playlists, a lot of context around the music is lost. Already, research has shown that listeners are hard pushed to recall song titles, let alone the albums those songs are taken from. Speaking of albums, it strikes me as high time the industry now evaluate just what a ‘post-album’ world will look and sound like. So perhaps somewhere to start is to think about more innovation with the format that in essence, has replaced the album – playlists.  

Are playlists now set in stone as 30-50 tracks that are forever subject to optimisation tools and analytics? I very much doubt it. Despite playlists becoming valuable commercial music real estate in their current form (at least on Spotify) it seems to me that there is plenty of scope for further creative development of the format. We are far from ‘peak playlist’. A glance at the latest MIDiA global consumer data for Q4 2018 would back this up, with just 17% of music streamers claiming to listen to playlists regularly. though that number nearly doubles for Spotify subscribers to 31%. Critical mass for Spotify but hardly mass behaviour for the market overall.

That said, playlists do greatly reflect the way consumers interact with music: compiling or selecting, listening and sharing, sometimes adding context along the way. The opportunities these behaviours offer as a vehicle for promoting and monetizing artists are immense and perhaps still largely untapped, especially with regard to contextualization of new talent, as well as the creative resurfacing of songs from within music catalogues too.

A slowdown in playlist innovation

Spotify came to be the platform that really owns the playlist format, and it achieved this through a breakneck period of innovation between July 2015 and September 2016, with curated playlists brands like Rap Caviar and Today’s Top Hits augmented with the personalised “made for you” power triangle of Discovery Weekly, Release Radar and Daily Mix.

But since then, in over two years there has been little of that same calibre, other than somewhat lighter initiatives such as “Your Time Capsule”. More recently, Spotify has begun to fuse some curated playlists together with algorithmic suggestions (‘algotorial’). The strategy to personalise more playlists not only makes it harder for its competitors to copy, but introduces many more song slots for direct or independent artists to fill. The strategy is smart but perhaps lacks imagination.

Playlist Innovation Timeline: There has been a slowdown following 18 months of blistering innovation led by Spotify between July ‘15 and September ‘16.

Playlist-Timeline

Despite this, remarkably none of the major streaming competitors have made moves to innovate in the playlist space either, which seems a shame when streaming services are desperate for differentiation strategies. Instead, Amazon, Apple and Deezer seem to have largely played a game of follow the leader, with similar playlists themes, visual presentation and even ever blander names. In recent days Pandora has launched something called Stories, a mesh of podcast + playlist, which seems not only to lack imagination but to be muddled. Isn’t that just a tweak on radio?

Many artists and labels are concerned about the power that services have with regard to playlisting. While getting tracks on to the current raft of major playlist properties represents a challenge for A&R and marketers the music industry, the more accessible platform-hosted independent curated playlist have been around since Napster.

There are few, if any, limits to the potential reach of these playlists, and their value is determined in part by how creative they are, and in part how shareable they are. The recording industry’s earlier efforts to build playlists or influence playlists have fallen short though lack of imagination, global thinking, context and shareability, but that just means that the industry is free to work more creatively with the wider playlist community. It surprises me that Spotify, which plays host to independent curators still (and hopefully will continue to) doesn’t do more to tend to the community. But this perhaps creates room for others to do so.

Personally, I can see new exciting playlist platform tools like Soundsgood helping global playlist curators reach audiences more easily, providing many more opportunities for artists, labels and creators in the process. Other platforms like Stationhead and Lost are doing interesting things too with curators and tracks, but perhaps could get more traction if they switched focus to playlists?

Bringing back context

I like playlists as much as the next music fan, but like Mark Ronson and many other artists and music fans, I also feel they have commodified music somewhat. One thing I would like to see much more of for playlists is context. Why can’t we have sleeve notes for playlists about how they were put together (let alone by whom and why?). It looks to me like there is an opportunity to bring some context and personality back into playlisting. Mixtapes from the cassette age were lovingly compiled, often with handwritten notes and homemade cover art.

I’ve played with some of these ideas with my own playlist site the Song Sommelier. The Song Sommelier was created as a passion project to bring mixtape and vinyl values back to playlisting. Each playlist is accompanied by bespoke artwork by ‘resident’ artist Mick Clarke, and a reader or ‘digital sleeve notes’ by the playlist curator. For this project we chose to use the Soundsgood player to allow users of any streaming service access the playlists, doing away with those widgets that direct the music fan to either Spotify or Apple. It’s still more than a two horse race after all.

My hope is that with the artwork, sleeve notes and more original themes for the playlists, will make fans and listeners listen to playlists more like they used to with albums – paying more attention and hopefully connecting with the song collection on a deeper level. At least that might make Mark Ronson cheer up a bit (though his new “Club Heartbreak” playlist on Apple Music suggests it might be a while).

Perhaps a key question is how important is context to the music itself? It depends on your point of view, but context may be the thing that divides the passionate music fan from the casual one. Really, who wants to listen to a collection called “Get Home Happy” or “Prime Chill”, whether it’s curated or personalised? Except I guess some people do. Mostly, I would welcome some more creative thinking and innovation that can take playlists to another level.

Why Drake’s More Life Is The New Normal In Streaming

This is a guest post from MIDiA’s Zach Fuller

Released over the weekend after much delay, Drake’s More Life project is setting records across the board on streaming platforms. The Canadian artist described More Life as ‘a body of work bridging the gap between major releases’ and positioned the release as neither a mixtape nor an album, but rather ‘a playlist’. This, however, did not stop the release claiming Ed Sheeran broke the record for the best one day streams for any artist: 76,355,041, compared with Sheeran’s total of 68,695,172 following the release of Divide.

It would be interesting to know just what Drake defines as a ‘gap’. He has released no less than four singles a year as well as four albums and three mixtapes since his breakthrough in 2009. Two of these mixtapes were in 2015 alone, followed in 2016 by his latest album, Views. The traditional album release cycle does not  seem to exist in Drake’s universe. In the era of the always-on fan who can access an artist at any time – his endless releases consistently keep him in the public consciousness.

Drake is many things in More Life. He is simultaneously the artist, the producer and the curator. He does not appear on all the release’s tracks, and More Life’s contents are a 20-song sprawl of genres encompassing Hip-Hop, Trap, R&B, Grime, Gospel, Dancehall, Tropical House and Afrobeat. The work can, therefore, exist under the Drake name –arguably the most powerful globally on streaming services – whilst promoting the work of other artists.

More Life is another part of the process in which streaming is rewriting the rules:

  • The rise of the playlist: One theory why Drake has positioned the More Life as a playlist, is that the release acts as an acknowledgement of where mainstream music consumption patterns are heading. MIDiA Research surveys indicate that 54% of music consumers agreed with the statement that ‘playlists are replacing albums for me’. Additionally, 40% have said they are using curated playlists through Spotify and Apple Music more than they did six months ago. By working around these patterns, Drake is not fighting the tide but simply considering what it means to release music in this context. In the modern streaming context, the album not only exists as a playlist in itself but also emerges within the playlists of aficionados of these disparate genres.
  • Recorded music products have emerged because of their surroundings: The 3-minute pop-song was created because it best fit with the emerging radio formats, and long songs would therefore often gain less exposure through this promotional channel. The album originally was conceived as a way of bundling singles into a more expensive product for music fans, before artists in the 60s began to use the format as a canvas for wider artistic expression. How artists best make use of streaming is an open question and releases such as More Life continue to challenge these notions of what a music product can be.
  • Compilation: More Life could fit under a crew album, given the features of friends (Skepta, Giggs) and his label’s (OVO Sound) artists. This has a long history in Hip-Hop. Kanye West (Cruel Summer), Jay-Z (The Dynasty: Roc la Familia) and Eminem (Eminem presents: The Re-Up) have all released similar albums. However, More Life’s genre-hopping premise feels like a different beast to this lineage.
  • Playlist as a A/B Testing: Drake’s decision not to window the project in the same way he did with Views for Apple Music (alongside Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper) is interesting. No doubt, services would have been keen on having the project as an exclusive. That streams can be viewed as higher paying radio plays opposed to cheaper sales could means More Life is profitable. In a sales era, More Life could potentially have been maligned as a rush-release, yet in the streaming context – such a project makes far more sense.

More Life will therefore deliver data to Drake’s team on:

  • What tracks are most popular
  • Where these tracks are popular
  • Which tracks are most often adopted into fan’s playlists
  • How and when these tracks are listened to

Given the eclectic mix of genres, More Life could therefore act as a testing ground for future artistic directions Drake might take on his next more conventional release.

More Life is, therefore, many things. On one hand, it is a streaming era marketing tool, filling the release schedule gap for the always-on fan. A parallel could be therefore drawn to the latest Star Wars series, with More Life acting as the Rogue One to View’s Force Awakens. On the other hand, whilst much of the content itself is not a radical departure from Drake’s previous work and will no doubt keep Drake fans happy, the format is an experimental statement from one of music’s biggest players. It elaborates on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo in its amorphous concept as a unique music product. Given Drake’s influence on music and judging from the project’s immediate success on streaming services, we could be witnessing the first of the new ‘normal’ in music releases.

After The Album: How Playlists Are Re-Defining Listening

Later this week we’ll be publish a new report in the MIDiA Research Music report and data service: ‘After The Album: How Playlists Are Re-Defining Listening’.  In it we explore the changing role of streaming playlists and in particular how they are impact albums both as a consumption format and as a revenue model. The full 18 page report includes half a dozen graphics and a couple of sheets of excel, including a detailed revenue model.  I want to share with you here one of the key themes we explore in the report…

Playlists Are The Lingua Franca Of Streaming

Streaming hit a host of milestones in 2015, reaching 67.5 million subscribers and driving $2.9 billion of trade revenue, up 31% on 2014. While the competitive marketplace upped the ante, music services wielded curation to drive differentiation. Playlists have always been the core currency of streaming, but now more than ever they are becoming the beating heart, the fuel which drives both discovery and consumption. In doing so they are helping drive hit singles into the ascendancy and albums to the side lines.

The Album Is No Longer The Market

Perhaps the biggest problem with streaming’s dissolution of the album is that the wider industry is still catching up with the concept. Artists still consider the album as their core creative construct, their novel. Similarly, labels still build P&Ls, marketing campaigns and their core business models around albums and album release schedules. There will long remain a market for albums, especially among core fan bases, as TIDAL’s exclusive album campaigns for Kanye West and Beyoncé reveal. But it is just that: a market, not the market anymore.

Income Per Streaming User

The most effective way to measure the value of streaming is to measure the value per user. For record labels at a macro level this equated to $2.80 annual revenue per subscriber and $0.37 per free streamer globally in 2015. But even that measure is too blunt to allow label campaign teams, artists and their managers to understand the value to them because that value is wrapped up with all the music in the world. For these stakeholders a more meaningful measure is the average amount they earn per album per streaming user.

Income Per Album Per Streaming User

Music subscribers in the US and UK streamed an average of 3,447 streams each in 2015, averaging 66 streams a week. But the average number of complete unique albums streamed was just 47 for the whole year. The average across free and paid streaming users was 11. Less than one new album per year. In the old model that average would have been just fine, pulling in more than $100 in retail revenue per user but in the streaming model that equate to a combined total of $0.73 in rights holder revenue.

promo slide

Even that measure though, is only partially useful for an artist, manager, songwriter or label campaign manager. What matters for them is how much they earn per streaming user, not the music industry in general. The average royalty income per album per streaming user is $0.21, with $0.03 flowing to the artist and $0.02 flowing to the songwriter. For subscribers the average income is $0.44 with $0.05 flowing to the artist and $0.04 flowing to the songwriter. While for free users it is $0.13 and $0.01 for artists and $0.01 for songwriters.

What It All Means

Albums are not the currency of streaming.  Everyone needs to rethink what long form, artist led content consumption looks like on streaming. Music fans still want artist led experiences. Drake’s 46 million Spotify listeners is more than double all the Filtr, Digster, Topsify and Todays’ Top Hits followers put together. As I have suggested before, multimedia artist subscription bundles for $1.50 on top of standard streaming fees feel like the right fit and would also help start pushing up streaming ARPU.

The power of music discovery used to lie in the hands of the radio DJ, now it lies in the hands of the playlist curator. And because streaming has melded discovery and consumption into a single whole, that means their power is becoming absolute. Albums are not quite an afterthought in the curated playlist world, but they are certainly an awkward relative that doesn’t quite fit in at the party.

None of this to say that the album is dead, but it can no longer be considered the main way most people listen to music. Of course some would argue that with radio it has ever been thus…

To find out more about the report and how to access MIDiA reports and data either visit our website or email us on info AT midiaresearch DOT COM

What Future For The Album In The On-Demand Age?

Recently BBC Radio 1’s head of music George Ergatoudis stirred up something of a storm with his claim that “albums are edging closer to extinction”. Nonetheless there is a growing body of evidence that the album does indeed seem to be losing its relevance in today’s track and playlist led world. And the implications stretch much further than the confines of the recorded music business. (Hint: live music industry, you need to be watching your back too.)

The Advent Of Grazing

When Napster emerged 15 years ago it kick started an irreversible transformation in music consumption. The music business had spent the previous three decades turning the singles dominated market of the 1950’s into the albums led market of the 1990’s, but with Napster consumers suddenly did not have to take the whole album package anymore. The labels had their own fair share of blame. When the vinyl LP had been the dominant format albums typically had 8 tracks, but with the CD labels felt compelled to fill every one of its 74 minutes’ capacity, resulting in a preponderance of filler tracks over killer tracks. Couple this with album price hyperinflation and you had the perfect recipe for consumer revolt. Little wonder that music fans cherry picked tracks, skipping the filler for the killer. Grazing replaced immersion.

Ironically the issue became even more pronounced with the advent of the iTunes Music Store. Whereas with file sharing many users downloaded entire albums – and as bandwidth and storage improved, entire discographies – listening still skewed towards the stand out tracks. Indeed the hoarding mentality of these digital immigrants was one borne out of being children of the age of scarcity, with a ‘fill up quick while you still can’ mentality. With iTunes, price was a limiting factor and so people focused on acquiring single tracks rather than albums. Labels and artists had been scared iTunes would cannibalise album sales, they were right.

Digital Natives Set A New Pace

In the subsequent decade new digital behavior patterns have become more clearly defined, particularly among the digital natives. Playlists and individual tracks have become the dominant consumption paradigm. Even music piracy has moved away from the album to smaller numbers of tracks, with free music downloader mobile apps and YouTube rippers now more widespread than P2P. This is the piracy behavior of the digital natives who have no need to hoard vast music collections because they know they can always find the music they want on YouTube or Soundcloud if they want it.

playlists versus albums

The behavior shift is clearly evidenced in revenue numbers. Since 2008 alone US album sales (CD and digital) have declined by 22% (IFPI), while digital track sales outpace digital album sales by a factor of 10 to 1. The top 10 selling albums in the US shifted 56.4 million units in 2000.  In 2013 the number was 14.7 million (Nielsen SoundScan). Even more stark is the contrast between playlists and albums on streaming service. Spotify has 1.5 billion playlists but just 1.4 million albums (see figure). While the comparison is not exactly apples-to-apples (album count is a catalogue count and playlist count is a hybrid catalogue / consumption count) it is nonetheless a useful illustration of the disparity of scale. (In fact the 1.4 million album assumption is probably high due to a) duplicates b) singles and EPs c) compilations.)

Even the much heralded success of Ed Sheeran’s album ‘X’ does not exactly paint a robust argument for the album. ‘X’ set the record for first week global plays of an album on Spotify with 23.8 million streams. But that represents just 0.27% of weekly Spotify listening (based on Spotify’s reported 40 million active users, 110 minutes daily listening and an average song length of 3.5 minutes).

The Album As A Mainstream Consumption Paradigm Was A Historical Anomaly

This is the consumer behavior backdrop for the demise of the album.  Creatively the album still represents the zenith of an artist’s creativity and many albums are still most often best appreciated as a creative whole. Core fans and music aficionados will still listen to albums but the majority of consumers will not. The album as the mainstream consumption paradigm was a historical anomaly of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. In the 50’s and the 60’s the single was the way the majority interacted with music, and now in the early 21st century it is once again. There has always been space for vast diversity of artists along the niche to mainstream spectrum but as a consumption format the album is closer to the Steve Reich end than it is the Katy Perry end.

Artists And Labels Need To Catch Up With Consumer Behaviour

The majority of artists will still make albums and labels will indulge them because their organizations and business models are built around the format. But therein lies the problem: the more that consumer behavior evolves, the more distant the gap between artists’ recorded output and their fans’ demand becomes.

There is more music released now than ever before and most likely more music listened to than ever before. But the amount of music listeners in the world’s top 10 music markets – which account for 91% of revenue – has not increased at anything like the same rate. People are spending less time with individual artists and albums. In the on-demand age with effectively limitless supply they flit from here to there, consuming more individual artists in a single playlist than an average music fan would have bought albums by in an entire year in the CD era. Fewer fans develop deep relationships with individual artists. Right now this translates into fewer album sales. In 10 years’ time it will manifest as a collapse in arena and stadium sized heritage live acts. In fact we are already witnessing the impact, after all what are festivals and DJ sets if not the playlist translated into a live experience?

As painful as it may be for many to accept, the tide has already turned against the album. The challenge to which artists and labels must now rise is to reinvent creativity in ways that meet the realities of the on-demand world.* If they do not, artists will eventually find the chasm between their wants and their audiences’ needs quite simply too wide to traverse.

*For those interested I wrote a couple of reports on this very topic a few years ago:

The Music Format Bill of Rights: A Manifesto For The Next Generation Of Music Products

Agile Music: Music Formats and Artist Creativity In The Age of Mass Customisation