It’s Windowing Jim, But Not As We Know It

Back in 2009 I wrote a report for Forrester Research entitled ‘Music Release Windows: The Product Innovation That The Music Industry Can’t Do Without’ (you can read the summary blog post here, and the ‘money’ graphic is here).  In the report I proposed that the music industry should adopt three release windows based around a ‘Preview’ window for premium customers, a ‘Mainstream Pay’ window for CDs and downloads and a ‘Free to Air’ window for ad supported streaming.  With all of the brouhaha surrounding the Atoms for Peace withdrawal from Spotify, release windows, and the role of streaming services more widely, are very much back centre stage.  But whereas I strongly believe in the case for release windows, I believe that, as per my 2009 report, that paid subscriptions should be in the first window, not the last.  It is free-to-consumer, ad supported streaming that needs to be pushed to the back of the queue and it is high time that the windowing and streaming debate in general makes a clear distinction between the two very different propositions.

Subscription Service Hold Outs Actually Hit the Best Fans Hardest

Music fans that pay 9.99 for a Rhapsody, Spotify, Deezer or Rdio subscription are among the globe’s most valuable music consumers.  These music fans need treating as such, almost regardless of the business models that may surround their consumption points of choice.  It is not their fault that the music industry and tech sector contrived to construct business models that have propagated doubt and division among many of the industry’s key stakeholders.   This is not to dismiss the absolutely crucial issues of sustainability and equitability, but instead to raise the issue of who is paying most the price of windowing?  The services or the fans?  There isn’t a clear-cut answer, and the decision dynamics are analogous to those of applying economic sanctions on a nation state.

Delay Releases to Free Platforms, Not Paid Ones

But if we for the moment view the issue through the lens of the music fan, then it becomes abundantly clear that if a high value music fan deserves to be treated like a VIP then something analogous to the opposite is true for those consumers that choose not to pay for music.  This is the case for why the ad supported tiers of music subscription services, along with Pandora, the radio and YouTube should all be put into the last release window.  This is already how the movie industry behaves.  Now clearly this proposal is not without controversy.  The music industry’s entire discovery mechanisms revolve around putting the best content on free-to-air platforms first under the remit of promotion. But this proposal does not have to be the death knell for that approach, as long as the potential of digital platforms are properly harnessed:

  • Think of subscription services as ecosystems not silos: There used to be a physical journey between the radio and the music store.  Now in subscription services discovery and consumption are symbiotically joined. This means that the radio promotion approach can be played out in subscription services and in doing so reach the most valuable customers based on their music preferences. Thus when the radio window hits weeks later it will be targeting a largely distinct group of consumers for whom it will still be the first time they have heard the music.  And for those that are subscribers and radio listeners, the few weeks delay may prod them into reengaging with the album they first heard on their subscription service.
  • Window albums not singles: Singles are invaluable tools for promoting albums and tours.  There is less need to apply windows to singles, or rather to the lead singles from the album.  To protect the value of the premium release window though, it is important that only one single hits the free to air channels before the album hits the first window. Else the impression is given of too much content being too widely available elsewhere.
  • Combat scarcity with new products: Of course the biggest challenge to windowing is the lack of scarcity i.e. what’s the point in turning off the tap if its available elsewhere?  There are two answers to this 1) by ensuring content is available first only on the premium platforms, the availability of content on free platforms is markedly reduced (radio and YouTube account for the VAST MAJORITY of music listening, P2P is in decline) 2) more has to be added to the premium music products to make the windowed content act as a complement to a rich, curated product experience not available elsewhere.  Two examples of how to do this are artist subscriptions and D.I.S.C. products.

Holding Back from Paid Subscription Tiers Can Be a Missed Opportunity

It is still too early in the emergence of widespread streaming adoption to draw definitive conclusions about the impact of windowing but there is a growing body of useful evidence.  Spotify’s Will Page this week released a report that brings some invaluable evidence and analysis (you can read the report here). Although Will is obviously on Spotify’s pay roll and Spotify clearly have an agenda to push, Will is a diligently objective economist with an impressive track record at the UK’s PRS for Music, and his work should not be dismissed on the grounds of assumed bias.  In the report Will pulls data from Spotify for streams, GfK for sales and Musicmetric to compare the performance of albums across all three channels for windowed and non-windowed albums.  The broad conclusions on the sample of albums tracked is that non-windowed albums did not appear to lose sales  but that windowed albums had much higher piracy rates.  Significant caution is required when interpreting this type of analysis, principally because it is impossible to definitively identify causal relationships e.g. the marketing strategy of one artist might tend towards piracy activity than another, as might the geographical location of the artist and the global distribution strategy.  But even with these caveats, the report presents some solid directional data. The market needs much more data like this and I will be adding to the data pool later this summer with a white paper that I’ve been working on for some months now.

Windowing Doesn’t Solve the Streaming Debate, But It’s Not Meant Too

Windowing does not address most of the broader issues that currently surround streaming.  It can however be an important part of the equation if, and only if, it is done on the basis of distinguishing between free-to-air streaming and paid streaming.  Though not quite as distinct as an iTunes download is from a Torrent download, the parallel is nonetheless provides useful context.  This is not to discredit the huge value of radio, YouTube and Vevo in driving music discovery, nor the equally strong value of freemium service free tiers in acquiring customers.  This is not a proposal to remove content from free-to-air channels, but instead one to simply not put everything there straight away. As the music discovery journey and consumption destination become ever more entwined, it is time to think long and hard about just how much leg needs to be shown to make a fan fall in love with an artist’s music.

Streaming’s Dirty Dozen

Atoms for Peace’s Thom Yorke and Nigel Goodrich’s much publicized decision to withdraw their music from Spotify added to a small but growing band of streaming hold-outs. Rather than add to the surplus of Atoms commentary, instead here are a dozen of the most pressing issues surrounding streaming.  They are presented in no particular order and are a mix of both positive and negative trends and implications:

  1. Technology has made access models ready for prime time. Downloads (both paid and P2P) made perfect sense in the days of dial-up, slower broadband and GPRS.  But now ubiquitous high-speed connectivity and cached streaming mean consumers don’t need to get as hung up about downloading to own anymore.  Access models are ready for primetime and Apple would be in, driving the market if it wasn’t so terrified about trashing its ability to 32 and 64 GB iPhones and iPads (when everything’s in the cloud who needs local storage capacity?).  Of course being ready for primetime doesn’t mean the world will change tomorrow.  There is always a long ‘flash-to-bang’ for new technology to manifest itself as consumer behavior.  But the inescapable fact is that downloads will eventually become a digital anachronism, an evolutionary dead end.  Though again, not tomorrow, because they remain the perfect route for new converts to digital to switch from the CD and because it remains Apple’s core mode, and Apple is the beating heart of the digital music market.  But the shift will come.  Consumer behavior is moving on and if business models don’t catch up then the illegal sector will fill the vacuum.
  2. Everything has happened before and will happen again. 10 years ago when Apple launched the iTunes Music Store artists were up in arms just as they are now, terrified that it would kill the CD and that it would result in consumers dissecting albums.  To some degree both those came to pass but you will be hard pressed to find an artist now who does not consider iTunes to be one of, often ‘the’, key source of recorded music income.  As the cliché management phrase goes ‘change is difficult’, but it is.  No one ever really knows how things will pan out and if you have a degree of stability the last thing you want is to jeopardize that.  Taking risks is fine when its someone else’s money and company, but not when it is your livelihood. So it is utterly understandable why there is so much fear among artists and songwriters, but there has to be a belief that the market will find an equilibrium.  If the streaming model is unsustainable for any part of the music industry food-chain it will ultimately have to rebalance. Services can’t exist without labels, labels can’t exist without artists, artists can’t exist without songwriters. The concern is whether some artists, services and labels could end up as collateral damage in the process.
  3. Transition not cannibalization.  Streaming will replace downloads, that much is incontrovertibly true.  It won’t happen immediately, but it will happen.  To consider the process as ‘cannibalization’ however misses the bigger picture of an inevitable transition in behavior.  You could argue that the car cannibalized the steam train, but the answer would not have been to ban the production of cars.  The consumer behavior shift is happening, business models will catch up.
  4. Scale might not benefit artists as well as labels and publishers. The holy grail of streaming is ‘scale’.  When it is reached all will be well, so the argument goes.  Clearly the amount of income will be dramatically better with 100 million paying subscribers but scale may be slower to benefit artists and songwriters.  This is because a label and a publisher both have a big pool of catalogue, so a 50% increase across hundreds of thousands of works is going to be measured in millions of dollars while for an artist with a couple of albums it will be measured in hundreds of dollars.
  5. Fuzzy data: Artists have become empowered with their ability to shed light on streaming by publishing their payouts.  But there are so many variables (what sort of deal they are on, whether they are a songwriter, whether they are recouped etc) that even averaging the data out is problematic. There are other problems too.  Many of the artists who pay most attention to the economics of music are later on in their careers, sometime in the sunset of their careers so their overall popularity is on the wane.  But a factor that impacts all artists is the delay between consumption and reporting, i.e. finding out how much they get paid. With labels the delay is typically quarterly, but with collection societies it is often a year.  So much of the data artists are looking at is a year out of date, representative of where the market was 12 months ago but not now.  And with the streaming market changing so quickly, this has big implications.
  6. Windowing might work some of the time.  There is a steady flow of high profile albums that have been held back from streaming services but there is no definitive evidence on how streaming impacts album sales. Coldplay and Adele both held back and had hugely successful album sales. Yet the three artists with the biggest first week album sales in 2013 (Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z and Daft Punk) were all available on streaming services the week of release.  There is a very strong case for holding back new releases from free streaming services (why should free customers get new releases the same time as paying customers?) but the case for paid streaming is less robust.
  7. The journey is becoming the destination too.  Nowhere more so than YouTube. The difference with YouTube is that everyone now accepts it as a crucial marketing vehicle.  The problem though is that for so many people YouTube is not just the discovery journey but also the destination itself, what’s more YouTube is the globe’s most popular digital music destination.  So instead of driving sales it replaces them for many users.  This is particularly true among younger music fans.  So even if YouTube was paying out the same amount as subscription services (which it isn’t) artists have a much, much bigger cannibalization risk in YouTube than they do in Spotify et al.  This is the core of the streaming challenge – the distinction between what constitutes promotion and consumption is blurring to the point of irrelevance.  Right now many of the positioning and commercial mechanics of free streaming services and tiers is that of promotion, even though they are also consumption.
  8. Pricing and product must evolve. Streaming pricing and product sets must evolve.  9.99 is not a mass market price point, however good value it may represent.  In fact it is the entire monthly spend of the top 10% of music buyers.  Much more needs to be done around testing pricing elasticity, else subscriptions will never break out of their aficionado niche.  There are a few interesting experiments, such as MusicQubed and which focus on curating small amounts of content at low price points.  But much more needs to be done on this front, the leap from free to 9.99 is too big. There must also be innovation in the product experience, and Deezer’s, Spotify’s and Soundcloud’s developer platforms all look like great environments for such innovation to occur, but they’re not enough on their own.  Product and pricing need to be used strategically to target services at discreet consumer segments. The 2000’s taught us that one size does not fit all for digital music, the same applies to subscriptions.  One key way the mainstream services can start segmenting their offerings is by providing artist channel subscriptions were a user pays $/£/€1 per month per artist.
  9. Income comparisons are not binary.  A comparison of the amount of money earned (across all rights holders) from a paid stream (c.$0.01) versus that of a paid download (c.$0.70) is always going to look catastrophic.  But these rates are points on a much larger scale, with the download at one end and terrestrial radio at the other.  In the US terrestrial radio does not pay anything to record labels and in Europe rates are far, far smaller than streaming services.  The assumption has always been that radio is so important a discovery channel that paltry rates are tolerable.  But if music sales are diminishing then radio has the same ‘journey as destination’ problem as YouTube.  The challenge for artists and songwriters is to work out where the sweet spot on the scale is for them. Where is right balance between discovery and income generation?
  10. Rethinking the life-time value of a song.  In the past the commercial value of most songs peaked during the course of a few months, tailed off steadily for another few months and then nearly flat-lined thereafter.  For big artists and big hits the tail off would be longer and the flat-line would be replaced with a steady after life.  Streaming changes that in three ways: i) fewer song purchase transactions occur, meaning less money up-front, ii) money is generated direct from listening long after the original release iii) streaming services drive strong consumption of catalogue.  So artists will see a shift from immediate big income to long-term steady income. The question of whether one will equal the other will become clear in the next 2 to 3 years.  See my consumption analysis for a view of where it may get to.
  11. The listener net widens. While it is clear that an album being listened to a dozen times on Spotify is much less valuable to an artist than if it had been bought on iTunes, that comparison assumes it is a case of one or the other.  But what is becoming increasingly clear is that more artists are getting listened to by more people.  The absence of the price barrier means people are eagerly trying out new artists.  And in many cases the listener would never have bought the album anyway.  What’s more, after having streamed it a few times, they may even realise they just don’t like it that much.  In the analogue era that would have just been a disinterested listen to a single on the radio, with streaming it is direct revenue. The artist is thus getting money from a consumer that does not even like them enough to proactively spend money on them.  It may be small revenue, but it is ‘found revenue’ that would not have existed anywhere else.
  12. Things will get much worse unless more change happens.  Digital music revenue is not growing quickly enough, in fact growth is slowing.  Global digital revenues grew more slowly in both absolute and percentage terms in 2012 than they did in 2011. Globally digital is still only 38% of music sales and in Japan, which may become the world’s largest music market this year, 80% of sales are physical and digital has been in decline since 2009.  It is wrong to assume that the market will naturally ‘go digital’.  At the current trajectory it will not.  Experimentation with new models and products is crucial.  We are back in the ‘throw it all at the wall and see what sticks’ phase we were in during 2007-9.  This time though artists and songwriters are part of this, both because they have found their voice and because DIY/Direct-to-Fan services are part of the mix.  The next five years will be the most important phase of change the music business has ever gone through.  The last 10 years has given us a solid foundation of options but it has also created a hornet’s nest of inequities, mistrust, misgivings, threats and disruption.  Labels, publishers, songwriters, artists, music services, tech companies must all learn how to create a sustainable music ecosystem that benefits all parties.  A naïve aspiration?  Perhaps, but the current ‘what’s in it for me?’ ethos will only result in unnecessarily dismembering an industry that is perhaps finally ready to start on the path to recovery.

Streaming Artist Subscriptions: A Product Strategy Proposal

The following post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book: Meltdown

For all of the undoubted positive impact that streaming services continue to have on the digital music market one of the key challenges they pose is the subjugation of the artist brand to that of the music service.  With download services and CD stores the customer buys artist specific products, but with a streaming service the transaction is for all of the music in the world.  The brand of any individual artist is inherently diluted.   Artist apps are thus an artist-level subscription for the most engaged music fans, an opportunity to develop artist brand experiences across digital platforms.  However as more of consumers’ music experiences occur within access based environments, more needs to be done to build artist specific experiences within them. Doing so not only makes good business sense, it makes for better user experiences too: 20+ million tracks is a meaningless consumer proposition without an effective means of getting to the miniscule fraction of that content that any one consumer is interested in.

The solution is the introduction of artist subscriptions within existing streaming services, with users paying a small monthly fee – say $/€1 – for a month’s worth of artist content.   With the cost added directly to a monthly music subscription, users get access to a curated channel of artist content including:

  • Core catalogue: The entire standard catalogue of the artist programmed with editorial such as story of the making of each album and features such as musical influences.
  • Exclusive and rare catalogue: Music that is not available elsewhere on the streaming service, such as unreleased rarities from each album, remixes, specially made tracks for the artist subscription etc. This might require some rarer content being withdrawn from the main service to be held back for the artist subscriptions.
  • Exclusive programming: Non-standard music content such as acoustic sessions, simulcasts of concerts, music video etc.
  • Non-music content: Audio visual content that helps tell the artist story, such as editorial, photo shoots, artwork and video storyboards, artist interviews, back stage footage, live chat sessions with artists etc.

It is crucial that artists streaming subscriptions are not simply a collection of playlists.  Though delivering such a diverse suite of content types will clearly require a user experience above and beyond that of the standard streaming service. It does not however require a fundamental reworking of streaming technology architecture.  Instead these app-like artist experiences – and app-like experiences is exactly what they are – can leverage the app developer platforms most streaming services already have.  Indeed, the success of artist subscriptions depends upon them being immersive, programmed and interactive experiences, telling the artist’s story to new fans and enriching it for existing fans.  The programming effort will of course be significant and the burden will need to fall as much on the labels and as it will the services. Having labels co-run artist subscriptions also makes sense from the business perspective as it gets around issues of charging for streaming apps – TuneWiki’s demise is recent evidence of the problem created by 3rd parties not being able to charge for streaming apps.

To mitigate resourcing concerns, a template-orientated approach will ensure scalability as well as a consistent user experience.  It will also be possible to rotate a majority of the content over periods of 4 to 6 months.  This is because just as music buyers buy an album and listen to it for a time before moving onto a new one, artists subscriptions will be swapped around and changed on a constant basis by users. Most fans will have a few artists they will always want to keep connected to, but will also want to have ability to deep dive into a new selection of artists every month or two.

Artist streaming subscriptions not only create a rich user experience, they also solve multiple streaming business challenges by:

  •  Monetizing the mainstream: For as long as the price of mobile enabled subscription services remain out of the reach of mass market music fans they will struggle to have mainstream appeal.   Pricing experiments will play an essential role in the mainstreaming of music subscriptions but even more flexibility will be needed if they are ever going to match the spending patterns of an audience anywhere near as large and diverse as the current base of download buyers.  Artist subscriptions give consumers the familiarity and flexibility of a la carte spending dynamics but the user experience benefits of subscriptions.  Thus consumers can build their expenditure at a pace and level that matches their appetite.
  • Creating artist specific revenue: Artist subscriptions also help mitigate the threat of streaming services turning download dollars into streaming cents.  They do so by giving consumers the ability to commit spending to the artists they like, and by enabling artists to build rich, immersive channels of content and editorial around their music.  The revenue opportunity for artists can be extended further by tight integration of ancillary revenue retailing, such as exclusive live-streamed sessions, merchandize and concert tickets.
  • Ease free users into paid subscriptions: If artist subscriptions are additionally made available to free tier streaming users they present these users with the opportunity to ease themselves into subscriptions.  Zero to €/$/£9.99 is a big leap, but zero to a few dollars or euros is a far more palatable shift.  To deliver clear value artist subscriptions will need to provide mobile and ad free listening even when paid for by free tier subscribers.  This will additionally help drive free-to-paid conversion by accentuating the usability contrast with the rest of the streaming experience for free tier users. Once they have started enjoying the benefits of ad free mobile listening for a small selection of artists, the chances of migrating them to full subscriptions are much increased.  A careful balance will however need to be struck to ensure that consumers do not swap $/€/£9.99 subscriptions for 3 or 4 artist subscriptions.
  • Giving music fans the music they want: Artist subscriptions give users an alternative, and far more intuitive, way to navigate streaming services.  At the most basic level they can be thought of like smartphone and tablet apps, supercharged bookmarks, gateways to immersive and interactive artist experiences.  At a more sophisticated level they can become the foundations of the programming architecture of streaming subscription services.  Artist channels can be grouped into collections such as genres and decades to cerate music channels, which then can be sold as bundles in the same way a pay TV provider sells bundles of programmes. Instead paying for movies, sports and documentary packages, streaming users could opt for bundles such as ‘alternative rock’, ‘EDM’ and ‘Urban’.  The bundle approach is not without its complexities, such as how much of an artist’s standalone subscription content would get into a genre bundle, and which artists would make it in.  But the clear advantage of the approach is that artist subscriptions, and bundles of them, turn the amorphous mass of streaming services into richly programmed music content networks. The pay TV model translated for music.

Streaming subscriptions still have a long way to go before most doubts will be eased, but streaming artist subscriptions represent an opportunity to accelerate the process by simultaneously addressing concerns of sustainability, user experience and artist pay outs.  Streaming artist subscriptions are not the entire answer, but they can be a big part of the puzzle.

View From the Top: 10 Streaming CEOs on 2012 and 2013

A special feature for the end of what has a been a big and often controversial year for streaming.  Here are the views of 10 CEO’s of of the top streaming services and of the leading multi-room streaming system, on the following two questions:

1 – What was the most important thing to happen to the streaming market in 2012

2 – What is the most important issue that the streaming market must address in 2013

daniel-ekDaniel Ek, CEO and Founder – Spotify

2012: Growth – both in terms of the number of people who are now paying for music again and the growth in payments back to artists as a result. 2012 was the year when people realised the future growth in the music industry is coming from streaming services.

2013: The abundance of choice. How do you make sense out of 20 million songs?

axel-dauchezAxel Dauchez, CEO – Deezer

2012: The streaming market continues to progress at breathtaking speed and we’ve seen some incredibly positive developments in 2012. Most exciting for us, is the fact that targeted online content has developed into something much, much more sophisticated than just algorithm-generated recommendations.  We’re seeing the focus now shift towards personalised music curation. At Deezer we’ve gone a step further, developing really bold new product innovations that are designed to put integration with apps, social media and digital services at the forefront of our new user experience. Our aim is to help music fans discover and share music and promote new artists.  That’s why our local editorial teams work hard to create suggested playlists and recommendations to give music fans a more personal and individual service.

2013: Getting as many people as possible to find out about services such as ours! We’re convinced that the future of digital music will rely on music discovery and re-establishing the emotional connection between music and people. Our mantra is to help people rediscover music, through recommendations by real people all over the world. Our locally-based editorial teams share new music from upcoming local artists, not just in their own countries, but with the other editorial guys around the world – another example of Deezer taking music even further regardless of boundaries. Now our biggest challenge is to get people everywhere to find out how intuitive – and fun! – it is to use Deezer, and we hope to make great strides on this in 2013.

jon-irwinJon Irwin, CEO – Rhapsody

2012: Looking back, 2012 was the year that streaming became mainstream. We’ve seen a rapid evolution since streaming music was freed from the PC and became a constant companion via smartphones, to this year, when streaming made its way into the living room and into cars—the two places where people listen to the most music. Streaming services are everywhere! This heightened awareness has resulted in more consumers embracing the model and eschewing their old beliefs around the need to own their media; which has given rise to more investment in the sector, innovation around business models and M&A activity. After spending the past 10 years forging the path and taking those proverbial arrows, we are finally seeing the realization of streaming music’s promise.

2013: The most important issue of the mainstreaming of streaming is that artists are paying more attention to how they’re being paid on the various streaming services. Artists are seeing a lot of streams, but are not seeing a lot of cash for them. This makes them justifiably nervous that streaming services are getting popular at the expense of digital sales–and in some cases withholding their music from streaming–a detriment to the growth of these services, just as they become popular. The solution of the problem is twofold. First, we need to do a much better job at education about how artists are compensated and creating transparency around where streaming revenues flow. Streaming services have a responsibility to innovate around artist compensation to get more money into artists’ pockets and help them understand how their music is being consumed. I think there is a lot more that we can—and should—do to ensure that artists are fairly compensated for their music and are extracting maximum value from streaming services.

steve-purdhamSteve Purdham, CEO and Founder Investor – We7

2012: Two things, in the UK, the silent landmark in 2012 was the launch of the BBC iPlayer Radio app this has the potential in 2013 to be the catalyst for mainstream adoption of streaming, without the need to know its streaming and secondly the driving momentum of smart phone and tablet adoption reaching what I believe was a tipping point in 2012.

2013: In 2013 the dream would be easier licensing, more flexible pricing plans removing the artificial technical and commercial barriers with  the ability to demonstrate clear ROI’s but in reality for any of the models to work they need the true internet scale that is possible and to achieve that we need to find the means to enable mass market adoption. This is the elusive jewel in the crown that we all should be really seeking to solve.

ben-druryBen Drury, CEO and Founder – 7 Digital

2012: Streaming cloud locker services from Google and Amazon

2013: Globalised rights



drew-larnerDrew Larner, CEO – Rdio

2012: Social media has had a profound impact on the way music is shared, which is something we anticipated when we first built Rdio. 2012 also saw the entry of services into global markets (with our own service expanding to 17 countries). The continued growth of mobile around the world with faster speeds and better phones also contributed to the rise of music streaming in 2012.

2013: Awareness is still a key factor moving into 2013. We’ve seen a big shift in 2012 with more services opening up globally, but we aren’t truly mainstream yet. Innovating on discovery is a key focus as well. With all the songs in the world at your fingertips, creating fun ways to decide what to play next is a challenge. We built Rdio with human powered music discovery at the heart of the experience and we’ll continue to enhance discovery across platforms moving into 2013. Another key issue moving into the new year is the our responsibility to the artist community. We’ve started to address this through the recently launched Artist Program and will continue to work closely with artists to help them create new revenue streams and tap into new opportunities generated by the streaming music model.

nick-masseyNick Massey, CEO – Rara

2012: The introduction of frictionless music sharing across social networks has led to a massive increase in the adoption of music streaming in 2012.  62.6 million tracks were played 22 billion times across Facebook in the first 12 months of open graph coming to the network.  In the UK UMG reported that 7.5bn tracks had been streamed in 2012 to mid November; a 700% increase on the 1.1bn tracks streamed in 2011.

2013:  Despite the huge rise in popularity of streaming, there’s a lot more work to do before the mass market transitions from music ownership to the access based streaming music services.  Increasing adoption of tablet computing is making it easier for people to consume digital entertainment content while high speed broadband and 4G mobile networks deliver more data to us faster.  However it will be the ways in which streaming services enable simple but engaging access to music through recommendations, sharing and curation which will be key to driving wider consumer uptake in 2013.

mike-bebelMike Bebel, Head of Music – Nokia

2012: 2012 was a year when many of the mainstream music service providers realized that the typical mobile music consumer is seeking more effortless and delightful entertainment. This is something we had already understood and rolled out to over 20 markets around the globe with Nokia Music, the most satisfying and compelling mobile music experience to date.

2013: In 2013, we expect others will follow our lead and work hard to remove barriers to usage and some have already announced that they also need to solve the consumer issues that we identified long ago. Rest assured that Nokia Music will continue to innovate and deliver the music that people love in the most satisfying and intriguing mobile experiences. We welcome all to discover and enjoy it.

espen-lautizenEspen Lauritzen, CEO – WiMP

2012:  The beginning of consolidation in the industry, which I believe we will see more of in the coming year.

2013: The big discussion on sustainability of the business model throughout the value chain.


john-macfarlaneJohn MacFarlane, Founder and CEO – Sonos 

2012:  In 2012 we’ve seen streaming services go mainstream. With the proliferation of innovative services such as Spotify, RDIO, Pandora, Rhapsody and QQ, we now have access to more music than ever before. At Sonos we’re dedicated to providing music lovers with the simplest way to enjoy all the music on earth in every room and our partnership with such popular music services has ultimately seen our customers consume twice as much music.

2013: 2013 must bring a healthy debate on the value chain of artist to consumer within streaming, and it’s essential that this is resolved to ensure the artist gets paid and the consumer gets a great experience. We are just beginning this dialogue but it absolutely needs to be continued in earnest over the next year.

My take

2012: It was streaming’s big year.  Finally the confluence of ubiquitous connectivity, and smartphones and tablets going mainstream has created the necessary market conditions for streaming to step up to the plate.  It is still very early days and streaming revenues are dwarfed by download and CD revenue, but finally there is the glimmer of a ‘digital plan B’. The artist streaming debate was a useful coming of age for artists, but too much data has too often been misinterpreted, creating a confused marketplace.

2013: 9.99 is not a mass market price point, somehow (bundling, discounts, pricing innovation, partnerships etc) that price must come down to drive wider adoption.  Also the value chain must work out a transparency solution that can work within the restrictions set by commercial relationships.  Artists may never get the full picture, but it is in the interest of all parties that they get as much of it as is possible to help them make informed opinions. Finally, the elephant in the room remains YouTube.  More catalogue than any of the other services, video (of course), great functionality, on every smartphone and tablet, and all for absolutely nothing.  That creates a playing field that is anything but level for the rest.

Rara Sets Sights on the Global Streaming Opportunity

Today UK-headquartered streaming service Rara issued a slew of announcements (squeezed in just ahead of Apple’ iPad mini launch) including expanding from 20 to 27 markets, increasing their catalogue to 18 million tracks, iOS and Windows apps and a deal with Lenovo.  Rara have been in the market for some time now but have largely slipped under the radar.  Now though they appear to be ready for taking a shot at the big time.

There is of course no shortage of streaming music services (Spotify, Deezer, Rhapsody, Wimp, Simfy, Sony Music Unlimited etc etc) but there is also a massive amount of opportunity.  Streaming will become increasingly pervasive as the music world continues its steady switch from the distribution age of selling-units-of-stuff to the consumption era of access-trumping-ownership.  In fact streaming will become so ubiquitous that it will become anachronistic to talk of ‘streaming services’.  Streaming is merely the technology that enables on-demand, consumption based music experiences.   So when the leading on-demand services only number their total users in the low tens of millions and paying users in single digit millions, while Apple touts 450 million credit card iTunes accounts, the scale of the untapped opportunity is abundantly clear.

The challenge is how to sell streaming to the masses.  Personalized radio is one approach: Pandora have made a lot of progress, with more than 150 million registered users and 7Digital just announced a $10 million finance raise to (among other things) pursue their own personalized radio play.  Rara’s strategic ambition though, is to take on-demand streaming to the masses.  Rara has built its user experience and market strategy around targeting the mass market consumer, opting for moods and a visual navigation approach over the traditional list-based navigation.  But an inherent difficulty with selling premium subscriptions to the mass market (Rara do not have a free tier) is that those very consumers are the ones who are going to find renting streaming music an unfamiliar concept.

Rara have built a service designed to demystify streaming. The partnership with Lenovo (Rara will be pre-installed on laptops and tablets) will help.  But a new stealth competitor will be present on those devices, in the shape of Microsoft’s subsidized xBox Music on all Windows 8 devices.  When you consider the challenge of persuading a new laptop owner to pay for a music service when the device comes with a free music service embedded in the OS you realize just how disruptive Microsoft’s new music play is.  As I have said before, I’ll be very interested to see what the European Commission make of xBox Music’ Windows 8 bundle, considering that years ago they compelled Microsoft to unbundle Windows Media Player from Windows for being anti-competitive.

The xBox challenge is of course a hurdle all music service will have to navigate, but Rara will be hoping that being pre-installed on the devices of one of the world’s biggest PC manufacturers will give them an advantage over the rest.

Deezer, Spotify and the Streaming Gold Rush

The music streaming world is one full of contrasts and inconsistencies.  At one end We7 and MOG sell for peanuts;  in the middle Rhapsody, Sony, Rdio, Wimp, Rara and others continue to steadily build a market; and at the other end Deezer and Spotify are sucking in investment with the force of a black hole. Spotify’s investment is well documented, but this week Deezer confirmed their seat on the fast train with a $100m investment from Access Industries, which also just happen to own Warner Music.

Leaving aside for a moment the intriguing fact that the two streaming global super powers are European, Deezer has managed to slip beneath the radar of the often US-skewed digital music world view by pointedly deciding to ignore the US market (for now).  Like a canny general who decides to march around a heavily fortified stronghold and thus effectively leave it stranded behind enemy lines, so Deezer expects the streaming war to waged on different shores.  They are both right and wrong.

The US is Saturated and Yet Potential Remains Untapped

There is no doubt that the US paid streaming market is overly catered for at present, and that Deezer would struggle to get any foothold.  Also there is clearly a much bigger scale opportunity in the remainder of the globe.  However, and somewhat paradoxically, the US market should also have much much more space, plenty enough for Deezer, Spotify and the rest to flourish in.  The problem is that the $9.99 streaming monthly subscription is not a mass market value proposition and it is not about to suddenly become one. We have had the product in market for over a decade, if it was going to hit hockey stick growth we’d have seen it by now.

To be clear, this is not to say streaming music is not a mainstream proposition, but that the $9.99 streaming subscription is not.  And that is a problem, because it is clear that for the economics of streaming to add up (for artists, services and labels alike) scale is key.  Pandora’s Tim Westergren has made the case for lower statutory streaming rates to drive scale, it is probably time to start a parallel dialogue for on-demand streaming.

But lower wholesale rates alone won’t fix the problem.  The market still desperately needs more mobile carriers, ISPs and device companies to start hiding in their core products some or all of the cost of subscriptions to consumers.  Cricket Wireless, Telia Sonera, France Telecom and of course TDC have all made solid starts but more, much more, is needed.

Price Is the Biggest Barrier to Streaming Going Mainstream

If streaming is to go mainstream the price point (for streaming with full mobile device support) has got to get towards $5, through a combination of bundling and rate discounting. Until then Spotify’s and Deezer’s gold rush millions will achieve little more than saturate the high end aficionados that the $9.99 price point appeals to.  Currently both companies look remarkably similar in terms of user metrics (see figure) but while they pursue somewhat distinct geographic priorities they will continue to find those few per cent of aficionados in each market.  Things will get really interesting when they reach $9.99’s adoption glass ceiling.

Apple: the Elephant in the Room

And of course there is an elephant in the room: Apple.  Apple have played their hand cautiously to date, conscious of their hugely influential role in the digital market and indeed in the music industry more broadly.  If they get their streaming play wrong (and there will be an Apple streaming play eventually) the results could be catastrophic for the music industry.  Apple’s 400 million credit card linked iTunes accounts dwarves Spotify and Deezer so it is understandable that the they each want to make hay while they can.  But the streaming pricing problem still needs fixing, and soon.

Omnifone and the Bundled Music Opportunity

I spent this morning listening to Omnifone’s CEO Jeff Hughes and CFO Matthew Bagley rounding up what has been a good year for the white label music service provider.  Omnifone have been in the game for a lot of years and have seen their fair share of ups and downs.  Now 10 years on from being founded they have turned their first annual operating profit, from a record full year revenue of £29.5 million.

When Omnifone first came to market it had no shortage of direct competitors. But as the first wave of digital music services, powered by Omnifone competitors such as OD2 and MusicNet, smashed against the rocks of the new upstart iTunes Music Store, the marketplace soon consolidated.  Omnifone wasn’t quite the last man standing, but it certainly had a lot more competitive leg room.  Over the intervening years it has managed to establish a solid reputation for providing the back end infrastructure for music services for global brands such as Sony, Blackberry and Vodafone.

Over the last year or two though, Omifone has been quietly repositioning around the streaming zeitgeist.  The most visible ouput of this strategy to date has been the formation of the direct to consumer streaming service Rara, which has since been spun out of the company.  Hughes says of streaming music that Omnifone has “built a racetrack and now we want to put horses on it”.   This, he adds, will not just mean working with big global companies but also starting to work with a select number of ‘interesting’ start-ups, up to 5 a year.

Hughes points to bullish streaming and cloud music revenue forecasts by the likes of Strategy Analytics and ABI Research as an indicator of the market opportunity.  Although these forecasts are optimistic (to put it mildly) there is clearly a pronounced pivoting towards streaming consumption.  As regular readers will know, I have little faith in 9.99 ever being established a mass market consumer price point and it will certainly never drive the numbers some people are forecasting.  But work with a hardware company to absorb some or all of the cost of the music into a device or car (or even a home as Hughes suggested) then you start to have the ability to drive mass market adoption.

Four years ago I proposed the creation of digital music box for the living room, to halt the steady demise of the home hi-fi.  Back then the economics of the proposition had to be engineered around pre-installed downloads, making it nigh on impossible to make the concept work at mass market price points without dramatic license rate discounting.  Streaming changes all of that.  Now the concept of a $/€/£250 hi-fi unit with a year’s worth of fully integrated unlimited music is a genuine opportunity (and one that some one should address with urgency).  Omnifone is exactly the sort of company who could make it happen with the right device brand.

Of course Omnifone no longer has as much competitive leg room as it once did, with the likes of 24/7, 7 Digital and Aspiro all contributing to an increasing competitive marketplace.  But as streaming continues to help drag digital music out of doldrums, Omnifone could yet play a key role in the future of digital music. Though the ISP bundle opportunity appears to be diminishing with every month that passes, mobile carriers (e.g. Cricket Wireless) and handset manufacturers (e.g. HTC) are showing growing enthusiasm for bundled music strategy.  Once the dust settles on Spotify’s stellar year, and it is clear just how much all the other streaming service ‘boats’ have been risen by Spotify’s ‘high tide’, I expect we’ll see an even stronger case for the bundled music service, and in turn more demand for the services of Omnifone et al.

We Need To Talk About Streaming (again)

Last night I participated in a Music Tank seminar on streaming music.  It was a vibrant and valuable debate with a healthy diversity of opinion.  Below are brief highlights of my opening keynote, including some exclusive data from record labels and from Spotify.

Streaming isn’t the paradigm shift, increased convenience of music access is

Streaming is no new thing.  Napster, Rhapsody, YouTube have been with us for many years.  What changed is that Spotify made it work with elegant simplicity, wrapped up in a consumer-friendly value proposition.  Of course Spotify had timing on its side too, coming to market once most of us already had broadband and at a time when a rapidly growing share of us were getting smartphones with data plans.  And of course timing is everything in business.

Timing aside though, we should be careful not to get hung up on the idea of streaming as an alternative format to the download.  It is not.  It is simply a different delivery mechanism for digital music, and when you factor in cached streams the distinction blurs further.  Streaming versus downloading is tech speak.  All music fans are interested in is being able to listen to the music they want, when they want, where they want.

Rebooting the conversation

Streaming music, and Spotify in particular, has been cause of much controversy and debate of late.  I’ll come on to some of the causes later but it is first worth taking stock of what we actually do and don’t know about streaming.

  • What we know. Streaming is proving popular with consumers at a time when download growth is slowing. But many artists are not fully comfortable with the model and feel that they don’t get a fair enough deal.  A dynamic which is complicated by the fact there are many different types of artist deals.  Scale is key to streaming being successful (you don’t make money off dozens or hundreds of streams).
  • What we don’t know.  We don’t know yet whether streaming cannibalizes sales.  Whatever data you see on either side of the argument we are simply too early in the evolution of streaming to draw conclusions.  There simply isn’t enough empirical data.  We need a few more years yet and even then separating cause from effect is challenging at best.
  • What we suspect.  It is looking like streaming does help reduce the amount people use file sharing.  Again, the evidence isn’t definitive and there certainly isn’t sufficient evidence to suggest that the number of people using P2P etc is declining due to streaming, but intensity of usage perhaps.  Smaller artists don’t seem to do that well out of streaming.


Access based services are the first post-transition technology products

Any new technology looks more like what came before than what will come next.  After all we only have the past and present as our reference points. Thus when a new set of technologies emerge they begin with transition technologies.  The first car was a steam powered horse-less carriage (see figure 2).  It was a transition to the first internal combustion engine vehicle and it wasn’t until the 1950’s that we really started to see automobile form factors that had fully thrown off the horse drawn carriage heritage.  Digital music is no different.  The download was the steam powered horse-less carriage, a really useful transition tool to help us bridge the gap between analogue and digital, but just that.  Access based services are the first steps towards the internal combustion engine, services that leverage some of the unique capabilities digital presents, rather than just using the web as a delivery mechanism.  But it is still very early days, we are not even at the Model-T yet.

Putting streaming income into context

A number of record labels provided Music Tank with data illustrating the level of income across various platforms which can see here at aggregate level (see figure 3). This chart uses the income from a download as a base of 1 and then income from other sources as a multiple thereof, shown for labels and for artists.  Note that the artist data is 3rd party licensing income only and does not reflect songwriter income etc.   The data suggests that an artist requires 80 streams to match the income from one download.  However data from artists suggests it is more than 200 streams.  And this rate varies massively depending on the nature of the deal an artist has struck with their label (e.g. whether they are paid on a share of net income basis or on points) and what share intermediaries such as distributors take.  It is also impacted by what deal the label has struck with a service.   One smaller label claims, somewhat dubiously, that the rate for them is closer to 2,000 times.  Whatever the exact rate (and there isn’t just one) you have to  stream a lot of music to get the same income as a download, but much, much less than a web radio stream or radio listens.  It take more than 5,500 national BBC radio listeners to generate the same income as one download in the UK

The labels’ take on streaming

Some record labels also provided Music Tank with some of their views on streaming and how they see it in the bigger revenue picture. Quickly summarized these are:

  • Markets with a strong streaming sector also often have stronger overall digital growth
  • Streaming is now growing more quickly than downloads
  • Streaming can be 50% of an artist’s digital revenue in some markets
  • Streaming consumers and download buyers do not strongly overlap
  • Streaming subscriber ARPU is often higher than download buyer ARPU

Spotify’s take on streaming

Spotify also put some data on the table (see figure 4) showing how a major global artist’s catalogue fared following the release of their album the same day to stores as to streaming.  Obviously this data is positioned in the context of the cannibalization and ‘windowing’ debates (which I’ve contributed to here). The data doesn’t prove anything either way in terms of cannibalization (i.e. it could be interpreted as streaming activity does well when an album does well or it could also be viewed as lost buyer activity).  However it does make a compelling case for the degree to which an artist’s back catalogue can be significantly boosted on streaming following an album release. There are some well voiced concerns that streaming favours big name artists, the head rather than the long tail, but if it does then it appears to do a good job of mining the long tail of the head!

The potential of Spotify’s Developer API strategy: an API for Music?

In the last 6 months digital music has two developments of potentially seismic proportions that through their subtle brilliance many haven’t yet appreciated their actual importance.  One was Facebook’s content dashboard strategy.  The other was Spotify’s Developer API.  Of course APIs are no new thing, but if Spotify can reach a hundred million plus total users then its API has the potential of becoming a de facto API for music.   Allowing developers to skip seeking licenses from rights owners and using Spotify’s instead.  It is a crucially well timed move, coming just as investors are turning away from investing in services that require licenses (you may have noticed by now that impecable timing is one of Spotify’s strengths).  Investors have tired of funding license advances for services that often, as in the case of Beyond Oblivion, don’t even make it to market.  The labels still get their digital income but investors are left with a debt write off.  Index’s highly influential Saul Klein went as far as stating that he won’t even invest in  start-ups that require rights owner licenses.

Making the right comparisons

Crucial to the streaming debate is making the right comparisons.

  • Streaming does not = a download
  • Streaming does not = radio
  • But Streaming does = (download + radio) ÷ ??

The exact balance is in flux but the conversation must recognize that a direct comparison with either is off the mark.  What we don’t yet know, and won’t for a couple of years, is whether streaming is pulling its users from green field and thus growing the market in a truly additive manner, or whether it is instead catalysing the organic digital transition, converting those consumers who would have gone digital anyway.  If it is the latter then questions about the income from streaming users compared to other digital customers becomes a more pressing one.  If it is the former then it frees us up to look at the scale picture with fewer reservations.  If these customers simply weren’t ever going to adopt a different digital service then we can start to discuss how low we can bring pricing to drive even great numbers.  The elephant in the room is that £/$10 is just too much for mainstream consumers.  It needs to be close to £/$5 to really break into the mainstream.  And you can only make that business case with genuine scale.


  • It is too early to make conclusive judgements about streaming affecting sales or piracy in the near-to-mid term
  • Long-term, music consumption will shift from ownership to access
  • The streaming debate is clouded by conflicting artist statistics and concerns
  • More artists need to be better sold the story by labels and by the services themselves, and some deals may even need revisiting.  Greater transparency is key and record labels have a big role to play here – there’s only so much services can do themselves
  • Streaming is neither a radio replacement or a download replacement, it has some of the best of both

As for the legacy of streaming?  Streaming will help make Facebook the most important player in the digital music market by 2013.

The Digital Music Year That Was: 2011 in Review and 2012 Predictions

Following the disappointment of 2010, 2011 was always going to need to pack more punch.  In some ways it did, and other ways it continued to underwhelm. On balance though the stage is set for an exciting 2012.

There were certainly lots of twists and turns in 2011, including: disquiet among the artist community regarding digital pay-outs, the passing of Steve Jobs, Nokia’s return to digital music,  EMI’s API play, and of course Universal Music’s acquisition of EMI.  Here are some of the 2011 developments that have most far reaching implications:

  • The year of the ecosystems. With the launch of Facebook’s content dashboard, Android Music, the Amazon Fire (a name not designed to win over eco-warriors),  Apple’s iTunes Match and Spotify’s developer platform there was a surge in the number of competing ecosystem plays in the digital music arena.  Despite the risk of consumer confusion, some of these are exciting foundations for a new generation of music experiences.
  • Cash for cache.  The ownership versus access debate raged fully in 2011, spurred by the rise of streaming services.  Although we are in an unprecedented period of transition, ownership and access will coexist for many years yet, and tactics such as charging users for cached-streams blur the lines between streams and downloads, and in turn between rental and ownership. (The analogy becomes less like renting a movie and more like renting a flat.)
  • Subscriptions finally hit momentum.  Though the likes of rdio and MOG haven’t yet generated big user numbers Spotify certainly has, and Rhapsody’s acquisition of Napster saw the two grandaddys of the space consolidate.  Spotify hit 2.5 million paying users, Rhapsody 800,000 and Sony Music Unlimited 800,000.
  • New services started coming to market.  After a year or so of relative inactivity in the digital music service space, 2011 saw the arrival of a raft of new players including Blackberry’s BBM Music, Android Music, Muve Music , and Rara.  The momentum looks set to continue in 2012 with further new entrants such as Beyond Oblivion and psonar.
  • Total revenues still shrank.  By the end of 2011 the European and North American music markets will have shrunk by 7.8% to $13.5bn, with digital growing by 8% to reach $5 billion.  The mirror image growth rates illustrate the persistent problem of CD sales tanking too quickly to allow digital to pick up the slack.  Things will get a little better in 2012, with the total market contracting by just 4% and digital growing by 7% to hit $5.4 billion, and 41% of total revenues.

Now let’s take a look at what 2011 was like for three of digital music’s key players (Facebook, Spotify and Pandora) and what 2012 holds for them:

2011.  Arguably the biggest winner in digital music in 2011, Facebook played a strategic masterstroke with the launch of its Digital Content Dashboard at the f8 conference.  Subtly brilliant, Facebook’s music strategy is underestimated at the observer’s peril.  Without investing a cent in music licenses, Facebook has put itself at the heart of access-based digital music experiences.   It even persuaded Spotify – the current darling of the music industry – to give it control of the login credentials of Spotify’s entire user base. Facebook’s Socially Integrated Web Strategy places Facebook at the heart of our digital lives.  And it’s not just Facebook that is benefiting: Spotify attributed much of its 500,00 new paying subs gained in October and November to the Facebook partnership.

2012. Facebook is quietly collecting unprecedentedly deep user data from the world’s leading streaming music services.  By mid-2012 Facebook should be in a position to take this to the record labels (along with artist profile page data) in the form of a series of product propositions.  Expect whatever is agreed upon to blend artist level content with music service content to create a 360 user experience.  But crucially one that does not require Facebook to pay a penny to the labels.

VERDICT: The sleeping giant of digital music finally stepped up to the plate in 2011 and will spend 2012 consolidating its new role as one of the (perhaps even *the*) most important conduit(s) in digital music history.

 It would be puerile not to give Spotify credit for a fantastic year.  Doubts about the economics of the service and long term viability remain, but nonetheless 2011 was a great year for the Swedish streaming service.  It finally got its long-fought-for US launch and also became Facebook’s VIP music service partner. Spotify started the year with 840,000 paying subscribers and hit 2.5 million in November.  It should finish the year with around 200,000 more.  Its total active user base is now at 10 million. But perhaps the most significant development was Spotify’s Developer platform announcement,paving the way for the creation of a music experience ecosystem.  Spotify took an invaluable step towards making Music the API.

2012: Expect Spotify’s growth trajectory to remain strong in 2012.  It should break the 3 million pay subscribers mark in February and should finish the year with close to 5 million.  And it will need those numbers because the funnel of free users will grow even more dramatically, spurred by the Facebook integration.  But again it will be the developer platform that will be of greatest and most disruptive significance.  By the end of 2012 Spotify will have a catalogue of music apps that will only be rivalled by Apple’s App Store.  But even Apple won’t be able to come close to the number of Apps with unlimited music at their core.  More and more start ups will find themselves opting to develop within Spotify rather than getting bogged down with record label license negotiations.  Some will find the platform a natural extension of their strategy (e.g. Share My Playlists) but others will feel competitive threat (e.g. Turntable FM).  If Spotify can harness its current buzz and momentum to create the irresistible force of critical mass within the developer community, it will create a virtuous circle of momentum with Apps driving user uptake and vice versa.  And with such a great catalogue of Apps, who would bet against Spotify opening an App Store in 2012?

VERDICT: Not yet the coming of age year, but 2011 was nonetheless a pivotal year paving the way for potentially making 2012 the year in which Spotify lays the foundations for long term sustainability.

 Though 2011 wasn’t quite the coming of age year for Spotify it most certainly was for Pandora.  In June Pandora’s IPO saw 1st day trading trends reminiscent of the boom years.    By July it had added more than 20 million registered users since the start of the year to hit 100 million in total and an active user base of 36 million, representing 3.6% of entire US radio listening hours.  But Pandora also felt the downs of being a publically listed company, with flippant traders demonstrating their fear that Spotify’s US launch would hurt Pandora.

2012: And those investors do have something of a point:  whatever founder Tim Westergren may say, Spotify will hurt Pandora.  A portion of Pandora’s users used Pandora because it was the best available (legal) free music service.  Those users will jump ship to Spotify.  This will mean that Pandora’s total registered user number will not get too much bigger than 100 million in 2012 and the active number will likely decline by mid-year.  After that though, expect things to pick up for Pandora and active user numbers to grow again.  The long term outlook is very strong.  Pandora is the future of radio.  It, and services like it, will get an increasingly large share of radio listening hours with every month that passes in 2012, and with it a bigger share of radio ad revenues.  Pandora will be better off without the Spotify-converts, leaving it with its core user base of true radio fans. Spotify’s new radio play will obviously be a concern for Pandora  but this is Pandora’s core competency, and only a side show for Spotify.  Expect Pandora to up their game.

VERDICT: Since launching in November 2005 Pandora have fought a long, dogged battle to establish themselves as part of the music establishment, and 2011 was finally the year they achieved that.  There will be choppy waters in 2012 but Pandora will come out of it stronger than it went in.

Rara and the Bid for the Mass Market

Today Omnifone made the move from B2B2C music service provider to consumer facing brand with the launch of their streaming music service Rara, which is being operated as an entirely separate company utilising Omnifone’s technology infrastructure.  The knee jerk reaction would be that this is bandwagon jumping in an increasingly cluttered streaming market, joining the likes of Spotify, Deezer, We7 and Juke.  But the folks at Omnifone have been in this business long enough to not simply pursue a me-too strategy.  Indeed differentiation is at the heart of the Rara strategy.

Targeting the mass market

Regular readers of this blog will know I have long argued that the paid digital music market is stagnating because it hasn’t got the tools to reach beyond the tech savvy music aficionado base it has addressed so far (mainly through iTunes).  Spotify’s recent US-and-Facebook -spurred growth has been encouraging but we are still talking about single millions of premium subscribers globally, most of whom are the same aficionado segment all other services have been chasing for the last 10+ years.  If digital music is ever going to break out of the confines of the few per cent of consumers per market that will pay for those services a new go-to-market strategy is required, as is a new series of music products.

This is where Rara come in.  They’re not bringing the new product (it will be years before anyone gets the licenses for the required next generation products from the record labels) but they are bringing a new approach to customer acquisition and a new approach to user experience.

Two key differences in approach

Rara’s target is unashamedly the mass market, the consumers the digital music bandwagon is increasingly leaving behind.  Rara uses two key tactics to reach these customers:

  • Changing the funnel.  Spotify (with whom most people will rightly or wrongly benchmark Rara) use their free ad supported tier as their customer acquisition funnel.  The losses associated with supporting free Spotify users is their customer acquisition cost.   Rara’s funnel though is a combination of traditional marketing tactics (which will be backed by substantial marketing spend) and an innovative pricing strategy.  Taking a leaf out of some magazine subscription models, Rara gives consumers an introductory 3 month price of 99p / 99c which automatically switches to the full rate at the end of the period.  If this approach works, it will enable Rara to separate the wheat from the chaff, with prospective valuable customers self-selecting by submitting their payment details to get access to the heavily discounted rate.  The conversion rate for these consumers should be much higher than for ad supported free users (many of whom sign up simply to get free music).
  • Changing the experience.  Digital music services and players are notorious for looking more like accountancy software than they do music software.  The ‘music collection as excel spreadsheet’ is a paradigm we have all grown used to.  But there in lies the rub.  Most of you reading this will be savvy users who have grown to tolerate a series of  inherently poor user experiences.  For the digital hold outs this just serves as another reason not to go digital.  Rara takes a different approach, giving users a highly visual experience, with colourful graphics and mood-based playlists at the core of the service.  Of course you can still dive into the excel spreadsheets but you can quite easily never need to.

Rara’s approach is not a radical departure, rather a series of welcome innovations on the current model.  Critics will argue that it is ‘just another streaming service’.  But streaming is the delivery vehicle for the experience rather than the product itself.  Think of streaming like cable TV infrastructure, and services like Rara, Spotify and Deezer as the cable companies that package channels over them.

Rara isn’t *the* answer to the music industry’s woes.  No single service is.  But with a fair wind, it could well become an important part of the answer.  The music industry desperately needs the mass market brought into the digital fold.  It needs more fresh thinking like Rara’s to help achieve that.