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.

Release Windows, the Cure for the Access vs Ownership Debate?

Back in early 2009 when I was at Forrester Research I wrote a report proposing that the Music Industry should adopt release windows.  It seemed to many something of an anachronistic concept, written just at the time with the Movie Industry – that bastion of release windows – was deeply engaged in a dialogue about compressing windows.  But now, with the growing debate over whether streaming services are cannibalizing CD and download sales, the idea is beginning to look highly relevant.  Because the simple fact is that a structured release window strategy for the music industry would do away with much of the access versus ownership debate once and for all.

Music products and services need segmenting into distinct windows

The basic structure of my release window argument was that music products and services should be segmented into tiers of priority and then each of those tiers be allocated a release window.  The tiering would work something like this:

  • Window 1, week 1: CDs, downloads and premium subscriptions
  • Window 2, week 3: Radio (excluding web-only radio)
  • Window 3, week 4: Subsidized subscriptions and web radio
  • Window 4, week 5: Ad supported streaming services

 

All of the new releases would go straight to Window 1 and be available there, and there alone, for a 2 week period, with terrestrial and digital radio coming after that.  This is a contentious point as radio is of course intended to act as a discovery and marketing tool but the time has come for the top tier of the music product pyramid to be held up as exactly that.  After all, why should passive music fans who don’t pay for music get to hear new songs as soon as those who pay 9.99 a month or buy downloads or CDs?  Users of free ad supported streaming services would have to wait a full 4 weeks before they get to hear the latest new music.

 

The problem with differentiating a free stream from a paid download is that there simply isn’t that much difference.  Release windows however, put clear blue water between the download and the free stream.

Coldplay is already pioneering the window strategy

Coldplay’s decision to keep ‘Mylo Xyloto’ off Spotify until album sales have peaked is effectively artist level windowing in practice.  The alternative strategy of just putting the odd track on there – such as Adele’s ‘Rolling In The Deep – treats streaming as a radio-like promo vehicle but if all artists did that then its promotional value would soon disappear as people would stop using streaming services.  A structured, industry level windowing strategy however would bring consistency and effective results.

 

Of course the windowing approach isn’t free of problems.  For example pushing radio to the second window will require a new approach to marketing music and a revision of assumptions of sales cycles.  However both of those things are already in effect happening, forced along by the current streaming status-quo, and of course unlicensed free music.  Windowing is an opportunity for record labels to take control of the situation and simultaneously protect music sales and define a long term, complementary role for streaming services.  The alternative is a prolonged and unproductive debate about cannibalization that will cause deep fault lines across the music industry and may ultimately kill off streaming all together.