Ad Supported Is 56% Of US Streaming Revenue

Late 2014 a minor crisis emerged in the music industry, with major record labels at one stage looking like they were going to kill off freemium.  The outcome of the Freemium Wars was actually less dramatic, resulting instead in an effective continuation of the status quo.  The labels had however made it very clear to Spotify who held the whip hand.  Though their tones have softened, major label execs retain an at best sceptical view of free streaming.  The net result is that freemium has almost become the inconvenient streaming truth that no one really talks about.  However free is too big to ignore.  In fact free is much bigger than some would like to admit.

freemium what freemium

According to the IFPI ad supported streaming accounted for just 19% of all US streaming revenues in 2014, down from a high of 30% in 2011.  Which points to the success of subscriptions.  Except that those numbers ignore a major part of the equation: Pandora (and other semi-interactive radio services).  The IFPI has Pandora hidden away with cloud locker services, SiriusXM and a mixture of other revenues in ‘Other Digital’.  Extracting the semi-interactive radio revenues that count as label trade revenues wasn’t the most straight forward of tasks but it was worth the effort.  Once Pandora is added into the mix it emerges that 56% of US streaming revenues are from free, ad supported services.  While that share is down from a high of 66% in 2012 it remained flat in 2013 and 2014.  Which means that however fast subscriptions grew Pandora, Slacker, Rhapsody UnRadio and co grew even faster in order to offset the decline in on demand ad supported income.

us subscriber growth and pandora

Semi-interactive radio revenues grew by 40% in 2014 compared to 35% for subscriptions.  Subscriptions had grown much faster in 2013 (76% compared to 25%) but Pandora and co found their mojo again in 2014.  None of this is to suggest that subscriptions aren’t making great progress but it does show us that free is more than an inconvenient truth, it is both the most widely adopted behaviour and the largest revenue source in the US (which accounts for 48% of global digital revenues).

The music industry is beginning to get its head around the fact that the role of streaming as a retail channel (i.e. subscriptions) is always going to be smaller (in reach terms at least) than its role as a radio channel (i.e. free streaming).  This more accurate view of the US streaming market shows us that free is even more important than many thought.

Free streaming also has much bigger growth potential. The percentage of consumers that have the inclination to pay 9.99 a month for music is inherently limited, thus constraining subscriptions to a niche addressable audience.  Music radio listening by contrast has near ubiquitous reach.  Most significantly Pandora currently only represents about 10% of all US radio listening time.  The addressable market is much bigger and the vast majority of it remains untapped.

Rdio Goes After The Squeezed Middle

Streaming monetization is polarized between premium subscriptions on one end and free streaming on the other. The middle ground that was the scale heartland of the CD and the download is disappearing and taking with it the mainstream consumer.  It is into this environment Rdio just announced a new $3.99 tier.

mind the gap

Mid priced subscription tiers are thin on the ground.  We have a couple in the UK (MTV Trax and O2 Tracks from MusicQubed, Blinkbox Music, now owned by Guevara) and a number of ad free radio offerings from Pandora, Rhapsody and Slacker.  It is a heavily underserved segment as the slide above shows.  The mainstream streaming subscription market is squeezed between premium and nothing.  The average music spend of a consumer is around $3 a month, so $9.99 subscriptions are far out of reach of most consumers.  $3.99 however is far, far closer to a realistic price point for the mass market.

Regular readers will know that I have been a long term advocate of lower priced subscriptions and micro-billing / Pay As You Go pricing models to entice the more mainstream user.  The labels have been super cautious because they are scared of cheaper services cannibalizing the premium tier.  The concern is a valid one but ultimately if a bunch of 9.99 users aren’t getting full value from an unlimited service they are going to bail out eventually anyway.  At least with mid priced subscriptions they have somewhere to land instead of disappearing straight to free streaming.

monetization pyramid

Currently streaming monetization is split between the top and the bottom of the monetization pyramid and this needs to change.  Rdio’s new Select tier gives users ad free radio plus 25 songs of their choice each day. That might not sound like a lot of tracks but for the majority of mass market music listeners that will be more than enough.  In fact in some respects it could almost be too much.  What matters for the mass market listener is less the number of tracks and more how the tracks they like are surfaced to them.  Curation is a much-overused term these days, but expert curation and programming is crucial to engaging the mainstream.  Radio is still so popular because most mainstream consumers are lean back customers that want to be led on a music journey not to have to hack their way through the musical undergrowth themselves.

Monetizing The Revenue No-Man’s Land

The leap from zero to 9.99 is far too big and Rdio Select is an important step towards monetizing the revenue no-man’s land between free and premium.  Of course zero to anything is still a major hurdle but the success of iTunes (250 million global buyers) shows us once you make the first step small enough, consumers will follow.  The simple fact is that the streaming market will not be sustainable without the mainstream engaged as paying customers on the same sort of scale that was achieved with downloads.  An even simpler fact is that 9.99 will not achieve that end.

MTV Trax And Fixing The Tyranny Of Choice

The subscription pricing debate is gaining momentum with serious dialogue occurring at high levels across the industry. Every consideration though occurs against the backdrop of fear, fear of disrupting the solid start subscriptions have made so far. It is clear that although the 9.99 price point has significant additional market opportunity, that potential has a finite scope. Once the ceiling of adoption has been reached the market will stagnate unless new price points are introduced.

One option for reducing risk is to tailor services at discreet segments that are not prospects for 9.99 services. By building highly distinct, curated services that deliver users curated, lean back experiences rather than bewildering them with the Tyranny of Choice of 30 million tracks. Music Aficionados are the driving force of current digital music, are less than a fifth of all consumers yet are the core target of every 9.99 subscription service.   By contrast Forgotten Fans – super engaged music fans who don’t yet spend much money on music – are hugely underserved. A handful of companies have been trying to unlock this segment, including Blinkbox Music, Mix Radio (formerly Nokia Mix Radio), Bloom.fm (RIP), Psonar (PAYG streams), MusicQubed (O2 Tracks, Vodafone Tracks), Zvook, as well as ‘Pandora One’, ‘Slacker Radio Plus’ and Rhapsody’s ‘unRadio’. Even Spotify is having a go. Now MusicQubed have upped the ante in the pursuit of the Forgotten Fan powering a new MTV music service: MTV Trax.

MTV: Digital Music’s Sleeping Giant

MTV is something of a sleeping giant in the digital music space. It is the sort of brand the marketplace has been waiting for. Spotify has done a fantastic job at creating a brand from scratch but outside of digital music circles it has minimal brand recognition. What MTV brings is immediate brand equity, the sort of instant familiarity that can help pull mainstream consumers into the digital fold.

Up to now, besides a couple of ill fated early efforts (remember MTV Urge anyone?) MTV has never seriously tried to convert its massive brand and reach. MTV has been biding its time. It is a mainstream brand for the masses so it has been waiting for the market to reach sufficient scale and for the right product for it to enter. MTV knows there is little point in trying to push its youthful, mass market audience towards Aficionado services that they are unlikely to be able to afford or have interest in.

MTV Needs To Put Mobile At The Heart Of Its Channel Strategy

There is an additional reason the time is now right for MTV, whether they realise it or not: their business model is stuck firmly in the confines of old, traditional media i.e. Pay TV. Though Pay TV is hardly in crisis, yet, the first cracks are beginning to appear with disruptive Over The Top (OTT) services like Netflix and Amazon Prime and cord cutting.  Of most concern for MTV is the new generation of ‘cord never’ consumers that may never take a Pay TV subscription, instead relying solely on the likes of Netlix, Hulu and iPlayer for their video needs. MTV is a youth brand yet ironically its current business model is rooted in an older world – the average age of a network TV viewer is 59. MTV needs a new channel for engaging with the next generation of audiences, and that channel is mobile. MTV Trax looks like it may be the first plank of that strategy.

mtv trax

MTV Trax itself is a visually rich mobile only app that delivers 8 curated playlists, branded around genres, charts and MTV shows. An Aficionado would probably find the selection too narrow and mainstream, but that’s entirely point, this isn’t built for them, it’s built for the mainstream. The app is being launched with MTV’s European Music Awards. Now it’s time to sit back and wait to see whether MTV’s brand can unlock the Forgotten Fan and take digital music to the mainstream.

The Complexity Coefficient: ‘Listen Services’ and the Tyranny of Choice

Despite commendable progress the digital music market is still way behind where it should be.  It is an easy mistake to view the global music market through the Anglo-American lens but if you strip out the UK and US from the statistics the result is that three quarters of global ‘rest of world’ music sales are physical.  Thus ten years since the launch of the iTunes Store digital is still only a quarter of non-US and UK revenues.  The role of Apple is, as ever, key: Apple knew how to make an elegantly simple user experience that just worked.  Thus where Apple was strongest (US and UK) digital music sales prospered.  But most consumers do not have Apple devices so the music industry needs more music services to be as elegantly simple as iTunes if it is going to push the needle on that 25%.  The problem is that most of the services on which industry hopes are being pinned are anything but.

Innovating for the Elite?

Streaming subscription services are undoubtedly at the leading edge of music technology sophistication and recent innovations from Spotify in particular are setting the bar high for immersive digital music experiences.  But paradoxically this is part of the problem.  At the end of 2012 subscription and ad supported services accounted for just one fifth of global digital music revenues.  Though that number will grow markedly in 2013 – and already over indexes in the digital sophisticate Nordic and Dutch markets – it will not overtake downloads anytime soon.  There are of course many factors, including the key issue of pricing – 9.99 is not a mass market price point, but there is a more fundamental one: streaming subscription services are just too sophisticated for mainstream users.

The reality is that mainstream music consumers are not heavily engaged with music and like programmed, curated music experiences.  For all the music industry turmoil of the last decade radio listening has remained relatively steady, even growing in many markets, and it also remains the number one music discovery source – still far ahead of YouTube.  Radio’s enduring popularity stems from its simplicity.  A common product strategy error is the assumption that more features = better quality product.  But more often than not, less = more.  The extra discovery features in subscription services are fantastic tools for the niche audience of engaged music aficionados that use these services but they also make them less accessible for mainstream users.  This is what I term the Complexity Coefficient. 

The Complexity Coefficient is a simple way of understanding a complex problem and can be calculated as follows:

Feature Benefits – Feature Sophistication = Complexity Coefficient

In short, the more sophisticated the features of a service, the less the benefits will be felt by the user.  When this is applied to less sophisticated users a multiplier needs to be applied: a heavily featured sophisticated music service will already have barriers to use for an aficionado but will be entirely inaccessible for a mainstream user.  The Complexity Coefficient manifests itself in another way also: the more complex a service, the longer the music journey is.  For music aficionados that can be a good thing, but for radio-centric mainstream users it is a barrier rather than a benefit.

The COmplexity Coeffecient

The Tyranny of Choice

When we apply this thinking to the digital music landscape something really interesting emerges (see graphic).  The on demand subscriptions that monetize access – ‘Access Services’ – sit at the top right, highly sophisticated, but therefore also complex, with the longest music journey.  These services provide access to a vast, vast catalogue of music.  A catalogue that is growing rapidly every single day.  Last week 7Digital’s Ben Drury reported that his company now has 27 million tracks in its catalogue and is growing at a rate of 100,000 a week.

Choice is fantastic but too much begets choice paralysis.  There becomes so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all.  This is the Tyranny of Choice. 27 million tracks is an unwieldy vastness of music that would take 205 years to listen to.  What matters about music catalogue is the music that truly matters not the total size.  Of those 27 million perhaps 3 to 6 million are ‘core’ catalogue.  Of those how many really matter to any given listener? Perhaps 10,000 at the most?  Even that would be 2 months of listening for someone who listens 10 hours a week and doesn’t listen to the same song more than once.

With the growth in catalogue each ‘Access Service’ must get 100,000 tracks worth of being better at its discovery job just to stay as good as it was last week.  And despite the vast progress that is being made, few would argue that there is a long way to go yet before we can come close to arguing that the discovery problem has been fixed.  So the odds are against a worsening status quo not an improving one.

The ‘Listen’ Services

But at the opposite end of the Complexity Coefficient scale a very different picture emerges. Here we have services like Pandora, MusicQubed’s O2 Tracks and Nokia’s Mix Radio delivering highly programmed, lean-back music experiences for the mainstream users, where the music journey is shortest.  Whereas Access services give the user access to all the music in the world, Listen service take the user straight to the music that matters.  One leads the user up the garden path, the other just opens the front door.

But there is an overriding monetization issue at the lower end of the Complexity Coefficient: most of these services predominately generate revenue via advertising.  The majority of Nokia Mix Radio’s and Pandora’s users are on free tiers.  O2 Tracks is the exception, with users paying for all tiers of access (other than a free trial).

In many ways the Access services are taking a TV broadcaster approach to discovery: they are trying to encourage users to discover as much new content as possible, to send the user on a rich journey of serendipitous discovery.  The Listen services however are focused squarely on delivering a smaller selection of music the user is most likely to like, and keeping firmly within those parameters. To an aficionado the Listen service approach may feel restrictive and limited, but to a mainstream music consumer it fits their exact needs.  But what is clear is that music services at the lower end of the Complexity Coefficient scale are going to be crucial for pushing digital music towards the mainstream.  Welcome to the age of the ‘Listen’ service?

Making Freemium Add Up

Today at MIDiA Consulting we have released a new report on the digital content sector entitled ‘Making Freemium Add Up’.

The report combines an unprecedented appraisal of key freemium service metrics with market analysis and recommendations to create a definitive assessment of the freemium marketplace.  In the report we analyse an intentionally diverse selection of consumer web services, looking at the distribution and scale of their user bases and the relationship of these with their business models.  Services tracked range from music services like Slacker, through utility services like Skype to social services like Google+.  It also includes long term data trend analysis of Spotify, Deezer and Pandora.

The report is available for free to all subscribers to Music Industry Blog (to subscribe just add your email address in the Email Subscription box to the right of this post.  If you are already a subscriber but have not yet received a copy of the report by email please email mark AT midiaconsulting DOT COM).

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

  • Inactive users: inactive user rates range from 13% to 77%.  Social services have the highest rates (77% for Instagram and 66% for Twitter).  Inactive users are a key characteristic of all registration based services with free-to-consumer tiers, but the registered-to-active rate is below average for all freemium services However freemium inactive users are also often highly interested customers who simply need hooking up with the right pricing and product. In short, freemium inactive user bases are priceless qualified marketing lead databases.  The challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff, to differentiate between disinterested freeloaders and potentially valuable paying customers.
  • Paid users: paid user rates range from less than 1% to 90%.  But both ends of the scale are outliers.  At the low end Soundcloud’s premium tiers are aimed at the smaller audience of creators that are just a small subset of its 180 million active users. While at the other end Valve’s gaming platform steam is more digital retail store than pure freemium destination.   The risk for all freemium services is ensuring the free tier isn’t too good, unless free users are your key revenue source (cf Hulu and Pandora). Spotify and Deezer appear to have hit a conversion sweet spot, a solid balance between compelling free tiers and better enough paid tiers.
  • Scarcity counts: a music service user risks little by churning because he can still easily get all the same music elsewhere if he cancels his Spotify subscription.  But if you stop playing Angry Birds you’ll find few other places where you can hurl bad tempered feathered missiles at egg-stealing green pigs.  Similarly churning out of a social network carries a high ‘churn risk’ for consumers as they will weaken their ability to connect with extended social circles online
  • The free-to-paid divide needs narrowing: the gap from free to paid is high, a significant leap of faith is required from the user.  Whereas the gap from zero to $0.99 for Angry Birds free to paid is a modest step, from zero to $9.99 for Spotify or Deezer portable is a much more sizeable hurdle.  Thus converting to paid for music subscription services is a more sizeable achievement than for low priced gaming apps. More needs to be done to bridge the divide.  This can be achieved in through bundles and innovative pricing. Though this must be set against the risk of cannibalizing full price tiers.

making freemium add up