MIDiA Research Predictions 2017: The Year Of The Platform

MRP1611-coverFollowing an 84% success rate for our 2016 Predictions report, we today launch our 2017 predictions report: ‘MIDiA Research Predictions 2017: The Year Of The Platform’. The report is immediately available to all MIDiA subscription clients and can also be purchased for individual download from our report store here.

Here are some highlights:

2016 was the year that video ate the world. 2017 will be the year of the platform, the year in which the tech majors will fight for pre-eminence in the digital economy, competing for consumer attention through formatting and distribution wars. Companies that are already using mobile Operating Systems to achieve global reach will take the next step, creating Mobile Life Ecosystems that both break out of the app silo walls and straddle them. Facebook, Amazon, Tencent, Microsoft, Apple and Google/Alphabet will be the main players. 2015 was about parking tanks on each other’s front lawns, in 2016 shots were fired, 2017 will be all-out war. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and voice assistance will be key battlegrounds and indeed will form the glue of Mobile Life Ecosystems.

Some of MIDiA’s other key predictions for 2017 are:

  • Services are the new black: Maturing ‘phone and tablet markets mean that hardware companies will place a greater focus on digital content and services in 2017. Services are an opportunity to drive strong growth that will compensate for slowing device sales
  • Ad market growing pains: Digital advertising inventory supply will exceed demand in 2017. Audience engagement will grow more quickly than advertisers’ appetite. Consequently, ad rates will decline with the bloating of the market by content farms accentuating the problem. Facebook will not be alone in seeing slowing ad revenues in 2017.
  • A tech major will be hit with the first stage of an anti-trust suit: The incoming US Presidency has made its anti-trust inclinations clear. A likely early target will be the AT&T/Time Warner merger. The global-scale tech companies may be mature companies but their respective sectors are not. Regulation is one of the inevitable growing pains of maturing business sectors. Digital is next.
  • Snapchat’s IPO will be digital’s canary in the mine: App store era unicorns and their attendant Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) will redefine the media and tech landscape. Not only will the success, or failure, of Snapchat’s IPO affect those of Uber and Spotify, poor showings could deflate the VC bubble andput an end to the grow-at-all-costs For the music industry, the stakes are even higher, as an under-achieving Spotify IPO would create a crisis in confidence in the entire streaming market.

Among our music predictions for 2017 are Spotify’s IPO and the subsequent start of a new generation of experiential streaming services, Tidal selling (probably to Apple) while Spotify closes out the year with around 55 million subscribers to Apple Music’s 30 million.

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Spotify’s Billion Dollar Challenge

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

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

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

 

The Real Problem With Streaming

Much of the debate around the sustainability of streaming has understandably focused on artist and songwriter income and transparency.  It is a debate that I have contributed to frequently.  But the more fundamental structural issues are whether the business models are commercially sustainable and if they are, what the implications are.  Music consumption is inarguably moving towards access based models so the question is not whether streaming should happen or not, but how to make it work as well as it possibly can for all parties.  As unfair as it might seem, the baseline issues regarding creator income could go unchanged without streaming business models falling apart.  But, as I will explain, if broader commercial sustainability issues are not fixed then many streaming businesses will collapse leaving just a couple of companies standing.  And that scenario would almost certainly be worse for creators than the current one.

The Steve Jobs Revenue Share Legacy

As I revealed in my book ‘Awakening’, when Steve Jobs struck the original iTunes Music Store deal he walked away a happy man despite having given the major labels the big revenue percentages they wanted.  Why?  Because it meant that it was really hard for anyone without ulterior business aims like Apple had, to make money from selling tracks as a standalone business.  The revenue shares negotiated back then set the reference point for all digital deals since.  The fact that streaming services pay out more than 70% of revenues to rights holders can be traced back to that deal.

The Great Role Reversal And The De Facto Label Monopoly

In the digital era the record labels undisputedly hold the whip hand, and some.  In the analogue era the roles were reversed.  Retailers were the dominant partners and they knew it.  Record labels actually paid retailers for placement to promote new releases.  Compare and contrast that with labels contractually compelling services to provide placement.  Both models are wrong and both engender corrosive behaviour.  Because the major labels account for the majority of music sales it is nigh on impossible for a non-niche music service to operate without all three on board.  This gives each label the effective power of veto.  So even though no major label is a monopoly in its own right each has an effective monopoly power in licensing.  These factors give labels them the strength and confidence to demand terms that would not take place in an openly competitive market.  This, for example, is very different to how digital deals are done in the much more fragmented TV rights landscape.

Loading The Risk Onto Music Services

Why all this matters for the sustainability of streaming services is because of how it manifests in commercial terms.  Recent contract leaks have revealed to everyone the details of what insiders long knew, that labels and publishers front-load deals.  Services both have to pay large amounts up front and agree to guaranteed payments to rights owners regardless of how well the service performs.  (Some labels proudly state they don’t charge advances but instead charge a ‘set up fee’ for every track in their catalogue. Call it what you like, making a music service pay money up front is an advance payment.)  Even without considering the entirely intentional complexity of details such as minimas, floors and ceilings, the underlying principle is simple: a record label secures a fixed level of revenue regardless, while a music service assumes a fixed level of cost regardless.

Labels call this covering their risk and argue that it ensures that the services that get licensed are committed to being a success.  Which is a sound and reasonable position in principle, except that in practice it often results in the exact opposite by transferring all of the risk to the music service.  Saddling the service with so much up front debt increases the chance it will fail by ensuring large portions (sometimes the majority) of available working capital is spent on rights, not on building great product or marketing to consumers.

Skewing The Market To Big Tech Companies

None of this matters too much if you are a successful service or a big tech company (both of which have lots of working capital).  Both Google and Apple are rumoured to have paid advances in the region of $1 billion.  While the payments are much smaller for most music services, Apple, with its $183 billion in revenues and $194 billion in cash reserves can afford $1 billion a lot more easily than a pre-revenue start up with $1 million in investment can afford $250,000.  Similarly a pre-revenue, pre-product start up is more likely to launch late and miss its targets but will still be on the hook for the minimum revenue guarantees (MRG).

It is abundantly clear that this model skews the market towards big players and to tech companies that simply want to use music as a tool for helping sell their core products.   Record labels complain that they don’t get enough value out of big companies like Google and Samsung, but unless they make the market more accessible to companies that are only in the business of selling music they can have no room for complaint.  The situation is a direct consequence of major label and major publisher licensing strategy.

Short Termism And From Evil To Exceptional

Matters are compounded by an increasingly short term outlook from label licensing divisions, with the focus on internal quarterly revenue targets, or if you are lucky, annual targets.  The fact that much of label and publisher digital revenue comprises guarantees and advance payments means that their view of the digital market is different from how the market is performing.  If our small start up that pays $250,000 in rights payments doesn’t even get its product to market, the rights holders still see that digital revenue even though the marketplace does not.  (One failed music service that didn’t even launch went into bankruptcy owing two major labels $30 million).

This revenue comfort blanket insulates labels and publishers from much of the marketplace pain.  So if/when things go wrong, they feel it later, delaying their response.  There is also a cynicism in much deal making, with rigid templates applied to deals and a willingness to compromise principles if the price is right. The latter point was illustrated by the leaked negotiations between UMG and industry bête noir Kim Dotcom in which former digital head Rob Wells referred to being able to ‘downgrade’ Dotcom from ‘evil to bad’ and then from ‘bad to good and from good to exceptional partner’.  The message is clear, if there is enough money on the table, anyone can be a business partner whatever the implications might be for the rest of the market.

Wafer Thin Margins, Deep Pockets And The Innovation Drain

Current licensing strategy biases the market towards those with deep pockets and fatally compromises profitability.  Once all costs are factored in, a music subscription can theoretically have an operating margin of between 3% and 5%. Though only if it doesn’t invest sufficiently on marketing, customer retention and product innovation. But of course the streaming market is in early growth stage so every service has to spend heavily which means that profitability becomes a hostage to fortune. No wonder Daniel Ek is clear that Spotify is a growth business rather than on a profit crusade.

The market dynamics also create an innovation talent drain.  If you were a would-be start up founder the huge up front costs, non-existent margins, and complex time consuming licensing do not exactly make building a music app a welcome experience.  Building a games app however is an entirely different proposition: you own 100% of the rights, you don’t pay a penny to 3rd party rights holders and consumers actually pay for your product.  Music is already a problematic enough sector as it is without burdening it with a punitive licensing framework.

These are the structural challenges that could yet bring down the entire edifice of the streaming music economy.  The irony is that if Spotify has a successful IPO (sans profit of course) it will trigger a wave of copycat services and investment that will perpetuate the status quo a little further.  But it will only be a temporary delay.  Sometime or another the hard questions must be answered.

Got Milk?

milkPoor Samsung launched their latest punt at digital music success just as Spotify was stealing all the media oxygen with its acquisition of the Echo Nest.  Samsung’s latest venture, curiously called ‘Milk Music’, is another attempt from the smartphone giant to carve out some mindshare and consumer traction in the digital music space.  Like all but one smartphone manufacturer – you know, that one from Cupertino – Samsung does not have the best of track records when it comes to digital music, having recently culled its previous Hub service.  Milk is a Pandora-like mobile radio app and while it certainly suffers from ‘me-too syndrome’ it is not actually a terrible strategic fit.

With 200 stations and a catalogue of 13 million tracks, Milk Music has some muscle but it is hard not to see it as a thinly veiled attempt to ‘do an iTunes Radio’.  However there is not necessarily that much wrong in doing exactly that.  iTunes Radio is a very neat service that is well geared towards the mainstream, less engaged music fan.  That is exactly Samsung’s addressable audience.  Samsung has been at the vanguard of the mainstreaming of smartphone adoption, so much so that many of its devices are smartphones with dumb users.  Milk Music is however limited to the Galaxy range of handsets, which will to some degree filter its audience towards Samsung’s more engaged users.

No smartphone manufacturer has been able to make music work like Apple has.  In fact no smartphone manufacturer has been able to make content and services as a whole work like Apple has.  Apple’s ecosystem is a fascist state compared to Android’s federated democracy, but at least the trains ran on time in Mussolini’s Italy.  That absolute control of the user experience enables Apple to deliver on the single most important part of digital music product strategy: the service-to-device journey.  It just happens, and seamlessly so.  So many other phone companies have failed to understand the importance of this ineffable magic.

Samsung might be able to get it right with Milk Music, but because they are part of the federated states of Android, they will also have to tolerate a bunch of pre-installed incursions from fellow Android states, not least Google’s Play Store.  Apple meanwhile ensures there is just one place for music on its devices.

Samsung desperately wants to make music work and to its credit continues to throw money at trying to fix the problem.  Free radio might just be the best first step.  Especially considering that just 1% of Android consumers state they intend to start paying for a music subscription service and that a quarter of them say they have no need to pay for music because they get so much for free.  Milk Music might be feeding that free music habit, but it could also be the foundation for something bigger and better.  In the meantime, if you can’t beat them…

Lady Gaga, O2 Tracks and the Reinvention of the Pre-Release Sale Cycle

Back in the glory days of music sales, long before the web had done away with scarcity, albums and singles could hit the top of the charts on pre-sales alone.  Those days are long gone, but exclusive pre-release listening initiatives are beginning to reinvent the pre-release sale cycle.  There have been a number of diverse efforts of late including Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ being streamed exclusively on iTunes a week prior to release and Jay-Z’s Samsung ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ hard bundle.   This week sees the arrival of another high profile artist effort: Lady Gaga’s ‘Artpop’ is going to be available one week ahead of release exclusively in the UK on mobile music service O2 Tracks.  Done right, pre-release digital previews could be a crucial shot in the arm for music sales.

The debate around whether streaming cannibalizes downloads is going to run for a few years yet, and we’ll probably only have enough data to draw definitive conclusions when streaming’s ascent and downloading’s descent are irrevocably set.  Until then, the challenge is how best to leverage the capabilities of existing digital platforms to drive sales of both downloads and good old fashioned CDs and LPs.  Previewing on an all your can eat streaming service will always both drive and cannibalize sales, just in the same way that radio has always done so.  But build the preview experience into the structure of a music store and the chances of conversion are much higher.  Daft Punk’s iTunes preview was a run away success because it was in the heart of the globe’s biggest music retailer (though of course the impact of the uber effective marketing campaign cannot be discounted).

Powered by UK music start up MusicQubed, O2 Tracks is far from a download store (it delivers users a small selection of handpicked playlists for £1 a week) but it is nonetheless a proven driver of music sales.  MusicQubed reports that O2 Tracks users frequently click to purchase tracks in the app, with stores such as iTunes providing the fulfillment. Thus O2 Tracks is an opportunity to drive hype (O2 are investing heavily in marketing the preview project) and to drive sales.

Lady Gaga is truly a digital era artist, with music sales that are strong but overshadowed by super high social engagement metrics such as Facebook Likes and YouTube views (see this chart for more). So while Lady Gaga’s management will be most interested in the strong marketing support from O2 and will in part measure success in terms of social footprint, her label Polydor will of course be paying much closer attention to conversions to sales.  O2 Tracks should deliver on both counts.

As more pre-release digital initiatives are run we will get a better sense of what works best, and where.  As that data builds I expect a clear case to emerge of a more structured and consistent approach to pre-release marketing.  A crucial ingredient will be exclusive extra content, not just the album itself (the O2 Tracks ‘Artpop’ preview includes an eight minute interview with Lady Gaga). This is the sort of content that delivers genuine added value to core fans of any given artist and that helps build even more reason for fans to listen to pre-release album previews.  The days of albums regularly topping the charts on pre-sales alone may be a thing of the past, but the pre-release sales cycle is waking up to a whole new lease of life in the digital age.

 

New Report: Building the New Business Case for Bundled Music Services

Today MIDiA Consulting is proud to announce the release of a white paper commissioned by Universal Music entitled “Building the New Business Case for Bundled Music Services”.  The report, written by myself and MIDiA Consulting co-founder Keith Jopling, provides an unprecedented analysis of telco music services, taking a critical look at what has and had not worked to date and a series of models and recommendations for the future.  We interviewed a host of telco music executives to get a deep understanding of what telcos need out of music services to make them a success and combined this insight with data from consumer surveys and music service trials as well as case studies and best practices.  We think it is pretty much the definitive piece of work on the topic (!) and we invite you to download it here: Building the New Business Case for Bundled Music Services – FULL REPORT.  You can also download an executive summary version of the report here: Building the New Business Case for Bundled Music Services – EXECUTIVE SUMMARY.

Here are some of the key findings of the report.

The consumer shift from downloads to streaming is the most important digital music market trend since the advent of the iTunes Music Store.  Before streaming services telcos struggled to find a way in which they could compete in a market dominated by Apple, restricted to selling DRM locked downloads that of course would not play on Apple devices.  Subscription services changed all of that, with the leading streaming services all pursuing robust telco partnership strategies as well as a number of download subscription services.  There are now nearly 50 telco music service partnerships live in six regions across the globe.  With 40% of streaming consumers now paying to stream, generating $1.2 billion in trade revenue in 2012 the opportunity is clear.

Music Bundles Across the Globe

However it is clear that many of the hurdles that telcos faced in the last decade continue to pose challenges.  These include music not being a priority for many telcos, internal business casing getting in the way of building compelling services and the wrong success metrics being used.

The new success stories of telco music services are those that make music a strategic priority.  This is not some sop to the record labels, but a reflection of what it takes to make music strategy a success. If a telco just adds music to a long list of Value Added Services (VAS) it will wither on the vine.  But if a telco puts a music service front and centre and positions around it then success is far more likely.  Success stories that have followed this approach include Telia Sonera’s hard bundle with Spotify in Sweden and Cricket Wireless’ Muve Music in the US.

Streaming by the Numbers

The Role of Promotional Offers

For all the obvious synergies of telco music bundles there is a real danger that hard bundles that make music subscriptions free or feel like free to the end user run the risk of devaluing the proposition.  Yet it is also clear that consumers need to be able to ‘suck it and see’ before subscribing so promotional free trials and limited period bundles present a strong balance of value to the consumer, cost effectiveness to the telco and protecting the integral value of music for artists and labels.  The market data for free trial is compelling: half of one month trialists convert to a paid subscription at the end of the promotional offer period.

Customer Satisfaction, the New Music Service Opportunity

An entirely new aspect to music bundling that we dive into in the report is the role of music subscriptions in driving customer satisfaction across a telco’s wider business.  Even the most edgy, cleverly positioned challenger telco is ultimately a provider of important products but not usually a consumer passion point.  Music though has that brand passion secret sauce and partnering with the right music service can enhance the telco’s own brand and customer sentiment.  Smart integration of music into the customer journey and integration with customer satisfaction measurement tools, particularly Net Promoter Score (NPS) can enable telcos to create a customer satisfaction halo effect.  With music converting satisfied music subscription customers into highly vocal net promoters with satisfaction benefits felt across the full range of a telco’s services.

Bundled music services did not get off to the best of starts, but now their time has come, giving telcos the opportunity to assume centre stage in the digital music marketplace.

For more information on the research please feel free to email us at info AT midiaconsulting DOT COM.

About MIDiA Consulting

Midia ConsultingMIDiA Consulting is a boutique, media industry focused consultancy that delivers practical, results-driven outcomes.  MIDiA stands for Media Insights & Decisions in Action. Our mission is to help media and technology companies develop purposeful strategies quickly through market understanding, clarity of vision, and workable innovation.

We help media and technology companies make sense of the changes that digital market forces are bringing about. And we help them make profits from digital content.

http://www.midiaconsulting.com

info@midiaconsulting.com

The Smartphone Innovator’s Dilemma

The recent rumours concerning Amazon’s possible flirtation with launching a smartphone, whether baseless or not, on the eve of Apple’s new product launch, shine an interesting light on a challenge that faces all smartphone manufacturers: where to innovate next?

In the mid 2000’s I oversaw the launch of JupiterResearch’s European mobile research practice and also at Jupiter led countless mobile data and research projects as well as working closely with the leading handset manufacturers.  Throughout that time I saw the early days of the emergence of the smartphone sector up close, and the rate of innovation was both often startling and manifested itself in highly tangible ways. Screen sizes got bigger, handsets got smaller, camera megapixel counts grew, and a whole host of new features arrived including video, email and calendar synching, true tones, 3.5mm headphone sockets, MP3 sideloading, PC-synching etc.

Then in June 2007 Apple came along with the iPhone and transformed the mobile phone market forever.  Apple had characteristically waited until the smartphone market was ready for primetime before launching the iPhone and then pursuing an equally characteristically disruptive strategy.  The last few years of the 2000’s saw successive innovation step changes, with meaningful new marquee features for each new generation of devices. Now though, on the eve of Apple’s next smartphone announcement we are at an unusual place.  There is not that much more that a smartphone can really deliver at its core.  Smartphones were all about disruptive innovation, now they have become sustaining innovation. Thus the new features that are used to distinguish one product from the next are either evolutionary improvements (e.g. better screen resolution, better camera, better battery life), or bleeding edge gimmicks that are not yet ready for primetime (e.g. Siri, Eye Tracking).  The smartphone has hit upon its optimum product construct and thus product changes from here-on-in will predominately be iterative, sustaining innovations rather than disruptive ones.

That in itself is not an inherently bad thing.  Indeed it is typical of a mature market, but it also makes the market right for disruption, and if there is less scope for that disruption to be product focused, it is more likely to be strategy focused.  Hence we have started to see the emergence of strategies such as Mozilla’s Firefox OS devices aimed at driving open web standards and the rumoured Amazon phone strategy aimed at driving e-commerce and digital content revenues. So the established incumbent players face an innovation dilemma for their flagship devices: do they continue to focus their efforts on packaging sustaining innovations with occasional product gimmick, do they try something dramatically different, or do they try the third way of a disruptive strategy instead?

For a company like Samsung with a plethora of product SKUs it is possible to experiment with bleeding edge innovation on niche devices but it is the flagship devices where marketplace impact is measured.   Go too fast on a flagship device and you will alienate your mainstream customers, go too slow and you will be positioned as an innovation laggard.  The irony of course being that it is the less-headline-grabbing sustaining innovations that generally deliver the most discernable user benefits.

A perhaps even greater irony is that it is the software that really delivers the differentiation to most consumers.  With standard smartphone hardware functionality (cameras excepted) being broadly comparable in the eyes and ears of most mainstream consumers, it is what the software enables that people truly notice.  The apps, the content, the features.  Thus iOS 7 will transform how iPhones behave yet Apple will still need a marquee feature to sell the next iPhone, even if that is a bleeding edge gimmick. Against this backdrop the third way of disruptive strategy becomes ever more appealing for smartphone companies.  Hence Apple’s rumoured intensified push towards lower price segment consumers with a scaled down version of the iPhone.

The likelihood is that whatever phone product Apple launches tomorrow it will probably leave many observers disappointed because it will not be seen to be a dramatic innovation step change.  Apple might surprise us and pull a rabbit out of the hat but it is more likely not to because the simple fact is that it is harder than ever to dramatically innovate smartphone products. Though we may not yet have seen the end of the age of disruptive innovation in smartphones, we are certainly in a lull cycle.  Which is why Samsung, and quite possibly Apple, are looking to adjacent markets such as smart watches, as opportunities to innovate aggressively in wild west technology frontiers in order to re-earn their innovation stripes.

The Challenges of Becoming a Subscription Business

Subscriptions are still only a small share of the music market but their time is coming. That time is long over due (I and my former Jupiter colleagues David Card and Aram Sinnreich first started making the case for subscriptions back in 2000) and a slew of big players are getting ready to play ball now that subscription look ready for primetime.  But they will find it far from plain sailing.

Spotify, Deezer, Rhapsody, Muve, Rdio, WiMP etc. have done much get the market moving and although there are still major challenges ahead (e.g. 9.99 not being a mass market price point) a host of new entrants are poised to make their moves.  The much mooted / touted (delete as appropriate) Daisy is one of the more eagerly anticipated ones (see my take here) but focus has recently turned to potential moves from big players like Amazon and Google, while Apple’s arrival in the subscription market is becoming Godot-esque.

All of these companies bring fantastic assets to the subscription market –scale being the most important – but they will all find the subscription transition difficult.  However good their technology assets, however big their marketing spend, however big their customer base, none of these companies have subscriptions running through the DNA of their products nor, most importantly, their customers.  Here are the key challenges each will face:

  • Apple: Apple was the music industry’s digital beachhead but now Apple has a problem.  Downloads were a transition strategy with one foot in the digital future and one foot in the analogue past.  Apple has built a paid content customer base founded on ownership, a la carte transactions and downloads.  Meanwhile it tiers its hardware pricing by hard-drive capacity.  In some ways this latter point matters most: in the streaming era consumers download less which means there is less need for higher capacity devices, which in turn means that demand for the higher priced, higher capacity devices tails off.  Apple can use subscriptions to address this issue by creating bundles e.g. iPad Gold, a $200 price premium with device-lifetime access to an iTunes music, video and Apps subscription.   This sort of tactic will be crucial for Apple because the concept of digital content subscriptions is alien to the vast majority of its 400 million iTunes customers.  If anyone can make subscriptions work, it is Apple – and I believe they will – but currently its customer base, hardware pricing and content offerings (iMatch and movie rentals excepted) are simply not the right foundations for building a subscription service on.  A lot needs to change before Apple and its customers are ready for subscriptions.
  • Amazon: Amazon’s content-device strategy is the mirror opposite of Apple’s: Amazon is selling devices to help sell content. Amazon needs to be a key player in the music and video business because these low price point items are the bottom rung on the purchase ladder that Amazon hooks new customers in with.  Subscriptions though, are high consideration items.  Amazon is hoping it can nudge customers up to monthly subscriptions in the same way it can nudge customers from a CD to a laptop.  But it isn’t the same transition.  Most Amazon customers have a lot of one-night stands with the retailer rather than a relationship: it is where they go to get stuff, not to immerse themselves in experiences.  Of course Amazon is trying to change that – particularly with video – but it requires a fundamental change in the relationship with its customers.  As with Apple, a device / subscription bundle strategy will deliver best near-term results.
  • Google: Google has the most diverse set of assets at its disposal. In YouTube it has the most successful streaming music service on the planet and in Google Play it has, well, not the most successful digital content store on the planet.  Launching a subscription service on YouTube is an obvious option and the sheer scale of YouTube means that even with highly modest conversion rate it can easily become a major player very quickly.  But the fact that YouTube is free is core to why it is so popular, so the vast majority of its users have little interest in paying fees.  Thus Google will have to ‘think different’ to make subscriptions work on YouTube.  But where Google could really make the subscription play work is, well, on Play.  Not Play by itself though but instead as a tightly integrated subscription – device ecosystem with Motorola.  A while ago I wrote that Google ‘needs to do an Apple with Motorola’. It still does, but it should do so in a manner fit for the cloud era by hard bundling a Play subscription service into Motorola handsets. (You should be spotting the theme by now).
  • Samsung / HTC / Nokia et al. By this stage any readers from a non-Apple and non-Motorola handset business might be beginning to wonder how on earth their companies are going able to squeeze themselves into the subscription equation.  It is a very good question.  Most mobile handset companies are at a crucial juncture, they now face the same problem as ISPs did in the mid-2000’s: unless something changes mobile handset companies are going to become ‘dumb devices’ just as ISPs ‘became dumb pipes’.  Nokia recognized this earlier than most but got the solution wrong – or at least the implementation – with Ovi and is slowly clawing its way back.  But all of them have a huge task ahead them if they are to avoid becoming helpless observers as other companies build robust digital businesses on the back of their hardware. If they can harness the carrier billing relationship then they have a truly unique asset for building a music subscription market, but that is much, much easier said then done (remember Comes With Music?).

All of these business have the potential to be successful subscription businesses but none of them will find it an easy transition and none of them are guaranteed success.  Not only will they have to transform their products, pricing and customer bases, but they will also have to develop entirely new business practices.  To some degree or another, all of these companies have to make the transition from being retail businesses to being subscription businesses.  Being in the subscription business is all about managing churn.  It doesn’t matter how good a job you do of acquiring customers if you can’t keep hold of them.  These are the skillsets that Rhapsody has been quietly perfecting for years and that Spotify is quickly learning.  A successful subscription business can appear like a duck, slow moving above the water line, but feet moving furiously fast below.

The Churn Killer: Device Subscription Bundles

Any business that is new to subscriptions – whatever they may say to the contrary and whatever talent they might hire in – is going to be learning the ropes.  Which is another reason why hard-bundling subscriptions with hardware makes so much sense for these new entrants. Besides the consumer benefits of turning an ethereal subscription into a tangible product, they allow the providers to plan for 12 to 24 months worth of customer life time value rather than worrying about subscribers churning out after just a month or two.

Even though downloads and CDs will still dominate global music revenues by the end of 2013, it is going to be a big year for subscriptions. Whether the new entrants can help turn that into a big decade remains to be seen.

Apple’s $1bn Settlement: a New Innovator’s Dilemma

Apple’s $1 billion patent infringement victory against Samsung raises a number of increasingly pressing issues about innovation in the consumer technology space. There is no doubt that Apple has done more than any other single company to shape the smartphone marketplace. It is also clear that the average smartphone form-factor and feature set look dramatically different post-iPhone than they did pre-iPhone.  And there is an argument to be had that those same form factors and feature sets bear more than passing resemblance to the iPhone. But this raises the issue of where the ‘a high tide raises all boats’ market evolution argument stops and the patent infringement one starts.

Samsung is the Buffer State in Apple’s Proxy War with Google

Apple’s case against Samsung was in effect a proxy war against Android.  Samsung became the target because it was doing a better job of making Android compete against Apple than anyone else.   While competitors like Nokia and HTC have laundry lists of product names and numbers, Apple’s elegantly simple iPhone brand cuts through the smartphone name clutter like the proverbial knife through warm butter.  Among numerous other factors Samsung recognized the supreme value of establishing such clear brands (such as the Galaxy) and pivoting their portfolio around them.  Samsung became competitor #1, the Android success story, racking up a 50% share of the smartphone market in Q2012 according to IDC, which compares to just 17% for Apple.

The final impact of the ruling is yet to be seen, with countless potential challenges and subsequent actions likely to come.  There are also interesting geopolitical issues at stake, not least of which is the degree to which a Californian jury and judge will be perceived on the international stage as having the requisite impartiality to rule upon competition between a South Korean and a Californian based company.  But leaving aside the legal permutations for a moment, let’s instead take a look at the known unknowns and their likely impact on the marketplace:

  • Competitive patent strategy. Over the last couple of years we have seen an acceleration of the use of patents in the consumer technology and Internet arenas.  Patents have quickly become established as an extra part of competition strategy among big technology firms.  Now, instead of just relying on product development, marketing, pricing and positioning technology, companies can use patent claims to help strengthen their position at the direct expense of the competition.
  • Patent arms race. With the rise of patent trolls (companies’ whose sole objective is to acquire patents and then try to sue established companies for patent infringement) the big established companies themselves have started to acquire patent arsenals.  For example, earlier this year Microsoft paid AOL $1.1bn for 925 patents, 650 of which it promptly sold to Facebook for $550m.  Before that, in 2011, Microsoft teamed up with long-time rival Apple as well as with just about anyone whose anyone in the smartphone business who isn’t Android (RIM, Sony, Ericsson et) to spend $4.5 bn on 6,000+ patents from bankrupt Canadian teleco equipment maker Nortel.  Google had been on the other side of the bidding war and lost out with what was seen by some as a whimsical bidding strategy.  Google promptly went onto to buy fading handset manufacturer Motorola for $12.5bn, a company that just happened to have c.17,000 patents in its archives.  There are uncanny echoes of the Cold War with both sides stockpiling nuclear weapons.  The difference here is that the arsenals are being thrown straight into battle rather than being held back for fear of Mutually Assured Destruction.
  • Patents no longer fit for purpose? Patents raise as many questions as they provide answers for in the software and technology spaces.  Not only are they subject to legal challenge, the language used in them is often  inadequate.  What gives a piece of technology competitive edge is not having rounded corners, but the digital mechanics underneath the hood. It is the code inside a piece of software that gives it edge, not the broad user behaviour it supports.  That’s why we have market leaders in software and product categories that are crowded with lesser competitors that support the same basic user behaviour. And yet patents focus on the exact opposite of this equation.  Patents are typically vaguely worded affairs that talk about broad behaviours such as “a system for controlled distribution of user profiles over a network” (taken directly from a patent which forms the basis of Yahoo’s case against Facebook). Even the more detailed patents – such as Apple’s recent Haptics filing – have a procedural focus.  And of course they have to. Patent applications are exactly that: applications.  There is no guarantee they will be granted and so a filing company is going to be as secretive as they possibly can rather than give its competition edge.  But even if there was a guarantee there is no way in which a technology company is going to publish its source code on a publically accessible document.

And therein lies the problem, if a company is not ever going to include the secret sauce which gives its product the real edge, then what is a technology patent really going to be able to definitively cover?  If it inherently comes down to a discussion about supporting usage behaviours then we end up with an unusual and potentially restrictive lens placed upon innovation and invention.  The history of innovation and invention is that when something comes along that is good enough, it permeates through the entire market.   Sometimes this involves licensing of patents, more often than not it happens through creating similar but different inventions. Think about any consumer electronics purchase, whether that be a digital camera, a laptop or a TV: the products all have pretty much the same mix of features and form factor in their respective price tiers.  This is what has happened to date with smartphones.

However if the Apple ruling survives all challenges and is then extended it could have the effect of a forced and artificial split in innovation evolution. Instead of the touchscreen smartphone becoming another step on the innovation path it could become the sole domain of Apple and force the competition to pursue entirely different evolution paths.  Now there are obviously both positive and negative connotations of that.  But whatever your view point, it will be dramatically different from how other consumer electronics product categories have evolved.

With its origins in early 18th century England, there is an increasingly strong case for a major review of the global patent system and whether it is the right tool to strike an appropriate balance between protecting intellectual property and fostering innovation in the 21st century consumer technology marketplace.

Who’s Competing with Who?

An interesting post-script to the Apple-Samsung case is looking at who else will potentially benefit other than Apple.  Right now there will be a host of handset manufacturers who will be hurriedly looking for a Mobile OS Plan B.  An uncertain Android future doesn’t leave them many places to turn to other than Microsoft’s Windows 8. Historically no friend of Apple but these days of course part of Apple’s Patent Pact. How long that alliance will remain intact remains to be seen, though a cynic might argue that Apple would leave it in place just long enough for Microsoft to get enough of a foothold to fragment the OS marketplace before it renews hostilities between Cupertino and Redmond. By which stage Apple could have billions worth of patent settlement dollars to wage war with…

Waiting For Facebook

As the market collectively holds its breath in anticipation of Facebook’s much (over?) hyped music service launch this coming Thursday, it is instructive to take stock of where we are at the moment to better understand the eager expectation.

Digital music is stuck in a rut

At the start of the year I made a speech at Midem, positing that digital music was at an impasse.  Now, with the best part of a year gone, it still is. Granted we’ve had some important and encouraging developments (Spotify’s US launch and 1 million+ paying subs and Pandora’s IPO among them) but the fundamentals remain unchanged (see figure):

 

  • Paid downloads are an Apple micro-economy not a marketplace. Despite valiant efforts from the likes of 7 Digital and Amazon, the 99 cent download just isn’t translating well outside of the iTunes ecosystem.  Why?  Because the tail is wagging the dog.  iTunes downloads are an extension of i-devices not vice versa.   The iTunes 99 cent download is effectively monetized CRM.  Deep, elegant device integration is crucial for any digital music experience, especially so paid downloads. 7 Digital’s Music Hub build for Samsung’s Galaxy Tab is the sort of implementation needed, but both 7 Digital and the market as a whole need a much wider addressable base than Galaxies alone (retail embargoes notwithstanding).
  • Premium rentals are an evolutionary dead-end. Despite Spotify doing a most admirable job of breaking the 1 million premium subscribers mark – which all other services had spent years failing to do the fact remains that 9.99 rented music is a high-end aficionado market.  Spotify have done a great job of building on the fantastic pioneering work of Rhapsody but in doing so they have developed the ‘faster horse’ that Henry Ford said his customers would have requested instead of the Model T if he’d asked them what they wanted.  Rdio and Mog both have great user experiences but have struggled to make headway because the basic value proposition of 9.99 a month for rented music just doesn’t appeal to most consumers.  Heck, 9.99 a month for owned music doesn’t even appeal anymore to most consumers anymore.  Mass market consumers may be willing to pay much more than 9.99 a month on TV, broadband, mobile etc. but they won’t for music. It may not be pretty but this is the harsh reality that must be accepted. As far as music is concerned the contagion of free is legion and the best way to fight free is with free itself (or at least something that feels like free – see my previous post on subsidized subscriptions for more).
  • Digital music is cluttered and complex. There is so much choice of catalogue and services that paradoxically there is no choice at all for consumers, unless you’re a savvy aficionado willing to wade your way through the clutter. Mass market consumers need the digital dots joining.  Back in my days at Forrester I wrote about the need for 360 Degree Music Experiences, where the disparate parts of the digital music journey get pulled together by an interconnected ecosystem.  The case for this is even stronger now.

Music: Facebook’s user lock-in

And this is where Facebook comes in.   As I wrote earlier this year, it doesn’t make any sense for Facebook to try to ‘do a MySpace’ or for that matter to ‘do a Spotify’ or ‘do an iTunes’.  Facebook is becoming a launch pad for our online lives just as Google is.   But whereas Google largely gets us to places we don’t yet know, Facebook is what (and who) we do know.  And in that lies a massive asset for digital music and an even larger platform for Facebook’s future growth.

I expect Facebook to join music’s digital dots and become a social dashboard for digital music activity.  By plugging our music activity into our social graph Facebook can both enrich those services and tap into the tastes of our friends.  The net result will be a richer digital music experience across multiple services and – most crucially for Mark Zuckerberg – one more reason why we’ll want to stick with Facebook when the Facebook-Killer finally raises its long overdue head.