How Soundcloud Could Transform Deezer’s Market Narrative

deezer soundcloud

News has emerged of Deezer being a potential buyer of troubled Soundcloud. This follows on from Spotify’s prolonged but ultimately abortive courting last year. Soundcloud was once a streaming powerhouse, with 175 million Monthly Active Users reported in October 2014. Though that number is still widely cited whenever Soundcloud is mentioned in the media, in truth its user base is now much smaller. Spotify, which now has around 150 million MAUs has a Weekly Active User penetration rate of 16% while Soundcloud’s WAU rate is just 6%. With the caveat that multiple additional variables impact WAU vs MAU rates, this would imply that Soundcloud’s MAU number is now closer to 70 million. Despite this shift in its public narrative, Soundcloud remains a uniquely valuable asset in the streaming landscape, one that would give another streaming service a distinct competitive advantage. Here’s why.

A Streaming Service Unlike Any Other (Except YouTube That Is)

Soundcloud first rose to prominence as a platform for artists before it rocketed into the stratosphere as a consumer destination with its new VC-powered mission statement ‘to be the YouTube of audio’. The legacy of its unique starting point is that Soundcloud:

  • Has a catalogue unlike any other streaming service, except YouTube (and to a lesser extent, Mixcloud)
  • Gives artists a direct connection with fans unlike standard streaming services
  • Gives up and coming artists a global platform for reaching fans with no intermediary

That unique combination of assets makes Soundcloud a highly valuable commodity despite its diminished user base and similarly reduced valuation (now said to be around $250 million from a high of $1 billion). Soundcloud has two crucial attributes that will enrich any streaming service:

  • A service tailor-made for Gen Z (ie those consumers currently aged 19 or under)
  • A crowd sourced platform for artist discovery

Soundcloud Is Built For The Era Of Mass Customization

As DJ Spooky put it:

“Artists no longer work in the bub­ble of a record­ing stu­dio. The stu­dio is the net­work.” … “The 20th cen­tury was the era of mass pro­duc­tion. The 21st cen­tury is the era of mass cus­tomiza­tion…”

Artist creativity is no longer a creative full stop, we are now in a phase of Agile Music. Even though the number of people that upload music is small (7% of consumers upload music to Soundcloud or YouTube, of which half upload their own music) their impact on the broader market is multiplied many times over as they provide the music others listen to. But even more importantly, the blurring of the line between audience and creator is the fuel in the engine of Gen Z experiences such as Snapchat and Instagram. Other than lip syncing apps like Musical.ly and Dubsmash, Soundcloud and YouTube are pretty much all the music business has in this space. That, coupled with a highly shareable, highly social UI makes Soundcloud tailor-made for Gen Z. The importance to the segment is clear: among 16-19 year olds, Soundcloud penetration is higher than Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music, Tidal and Deezer, with only Spotify boasting higher penetration for audio services.

Crowd Sourced Discovery

The other key asset Soundcloud brings is the bridge it provides between fans and artists. A host of diverse services like Tunecore, BandLab, Bandcamp and Reverb Nation provide an unprecedented range of tools to up-and-coming artists. But Soundcloud (along with YouTube) is still the only place where artists can reach such a large audience directly, without an intermediary. Layer on its massively social functionality and discovery algorithms and you have an unrivalled audio platform for new artist discovery.

Soundcloud Needs An Ecosystem

Unfortunately for Soundcloud, it has found it impossible to effectively monetize these assets (and aping Spotify’s freemium model has done little to move the dial). What Soundcloud needs is an ecosystem into which it can slot, bringing all of the great functionality but relying on another part of the ecosystem to do the monetization. Slotting Soundcloud into Deezer, Spotify or even Apple Music would create an entirely new layer in each of those propositions and would massively enhance market positioning.

It would also enable the service to start behaving more like a label, identifying and testing artists before moving them up into the main service. If done by Spotify or Apple Music, this would look highly disruptive to labels as it really would be a precursor to becoming a next-gen label. But for Deezer, the story is a little different. As part of the Access Industry potfolio, Deezer sits alongside talent management agency First Access Entertainment, live discovery platform Songkick and, last but most certainly not least, Warner Music. By acquiring Soundcloud, Access Industries would be rounding out the most complete Full Stack Music Company in the business.

YouTube Is Not For Sale But Soundcloud Is

YouTube might do most of what Soundcloud does, and at much larger scale, but Soundcloud is up for sale and YouTube is not. Right now, Soundcloud represents the best opportunity in the marketplace for an audio streaming service to make up the ground in user experience innovation that the streaming market lost over the last few years in comparison to Gen Z apps. And with Deezer at the front of the queue, the French streaming service could be about to transform its market narrative in an instant.

 

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How Spotify Can Become A Next Generation “Label”

Spotify on iPhoneOne of the themes my MIDiA colleague Tim Mulligan (the name’s no coincidence, he’s my brother too!) has been developing over in our online video research is that of next generation TV operators. With the traditional pay-TV model buckling under the pressure of countless streaming subscriptions services like Netflix (there are more than 50 services in the US alone) pay-TV companies have responded with countless apps of their own such as HBO Go and CBS All Access. The result for the consumer is utter confusion with a bewildering choice of apps needed to get all the good shows and sports. This creates an opportunity for the G.A.A.F. (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook) to stitch all these apps together and in doing so become next generation TV operators. Though the G.A.A.F. are a major force in music too, the situation is also very different. Nonetheless there is an opportunity for companies such as these to create a joined up music experience that delivers an end-to-end platform for artists and music fans alike. Right now, Spotify is best placed to fulfil this role and in doing so it could become a next generation “label”. I added the quote marks around the word “label” because the term is becoming progressively less useful, but it at least helps people contextualise the concept.

Creating The Right Wall Street Narrative

When news emerged that Spotify was in negotiations to buy Soundcloud I highlighted a number of potential benefits and risks. One thing I didn’t explore was how useful Soundcloud could be in helping Spotify build out its role as a music platform (more on that below). As I have noted before, as Spotify progresses towards an IPO it needs to construct a series of convincing narratives for Wall Street. The investor community generally looks upon the music business with, at best, extreme caution, and at worst, disdain. To put it simply, they don’t like the look of low-to-negative margin businesses that have little control over their own destinies and that are trying to sell a product that most people don’t want to buy. This is why Spotify needs to demonstrate to potential investors that it is working towards a future in which it has more control, and a path to profitability. The major label dominated, 17% gross operating margin (and –9% loss) 9.99 AYCE model does not tick any of those boxes. Spotify is not going to change any of those fundamentals significantly before it IPOs, but it can demonstrate it is working to change things.

The Role Of Labels Is As Important As Ever

At the moment Spotify is a retail channel with bells and whistles. But it is acquiring so much user data and music programming expertise that it be so much more than that. The role of record labels is always going to be needed, even if the current model is struggling to keep up. The things that record labels do best is:

  1. Discover, invest in and nurture talent
  2. Market artists

Someone is always going to play that role, and while the distribution platforms such as Spotify could, in theory at least, play that role in a wider sense, existing labels (big and small) are going to remain at the centre of the equation for the meaningful future. Although some will most likely fall by the wayside or sell up over the next few years. (Sony’s acquisition of Ministry Of Sound is an early move rather than an exception.) But what Spotify can do that incumbent labels cannot, is understand the artist and music fan story right from discovery through to consumption. More than that, it can help shape both of those in a way labels on their own cannot. Until not so recently Spotify found itself under continual criticism from artists and songwriters. Although this has not disappeared entirely it is becoming less prevalent as a) creators see progressively bigger cheques, and b) more new artists start their career in the streaming era and learn how to make careers work within it, often seeing streaming services more as audience acquisition tools rather than revenue generators.

The Balance Of Power Is Shifting Away From Recorded Music

Concert crowd.In 2000 record music represented 60% of the entire music industry, now it is less than 30%. Live is the part that has gained most, and the streaming era artist viewpoint is best encapsulated by Ed Sheeran who cites Spotify as a key driver for his successful live career, saying “[Spotify] helps me do what I want to do.” Spotify’s opportunity is to go the next step, and empower artists with the tools and connections to build all of the parts of their career from Spotify. This is what a next generation “label” will be, a platform that combines data, discovery, promotion (and revenue) with tools to help artists with live, merchandise and other parts of their career.

How Spotify Can Buy Its Way To Platform Success

To jump start its shift towards being a next-generation “label” Spotify could use its current debt raise – and post-IPO, its stock – to buy companies that it can plug into its platform. In some respects, this is the full stack music concept that Access Industries, Liberty Global and Pandora have been pursuing. Here are a few companies that could help Spotify on this path:

  • Soundcloud: arguably the biggest artist-to-fan platform on the planet, Soundcloud could form a talent discovery function for Spotify. Spotify could use its Echo Nest intelligence to identify which acts are most likely to break through and use its curated playlists to break them on Spotify. Also artist platforms like BandPage and BandLab could play a similar role.
  • Indie labels: Many indie labels will struggle with cash flow due to streaming replacing sales, which means many will be looking to sell. My money is on Spotify buying a number of decent sized indies. This will demonstrate its ability to extend its value chain footprint, and therefore margins (which is important for Wall Street). It could also ‘do a Netflix’ and use its algorithms to ensure that its owned-repertoire over performs, which helps margins even further. But more importantly, indie labels would give Spotify a vehicle for building the careers of artists discovered on Soundcloud. Also the A&R assets would be a crucial complement to its algorithms.
  • Tidal: Spotify could buy Tidal, taking advantage of Apple’s position of waiting until Tidal is effectively a distressed asset before it swoops. Though Tidal is most likely to want too much money, its roster of exclusives and its artist-centric ethos would be a valuable part of an artist-first platform strategy for Spotify.
  • Songkick: In reality Songkick is going to form part of Access’ Deezer focused full stack play. But a data-led, live music focused company (especially if ticketing and booking can play a role) would be central to Spotify driving higher margin revenues and being able to offer a 360 degree proposition to artists.
  • Musical.ly: Arguably the most exciting music innovation of the decade, Musical.ly would give Spotify the ability to appeal to the next generation of music fans. The average age of a Musical.ly user is 20, for Spotify it is 27. Spotify has to be really careful not to age with its audience and music messaging apps are a great way to tap the next generation in the same way Facebook did (average age 35) did by buying up and growing messaging apps. (e.g. Instagram’s average age is 26).
  • Pandora: A long shot perhaps, but Pandora would be a shortcut to full stack, having already acquired Ticket Fly, Next Big Sound and Rdio. If Pandora’s stock continues to tank (the last few days of recovery notwithstanding) then who knows.

In conclusion, Spotify’s future is going to be much more than being the future of music retail. With or without any of the above acquisitions, expect Spotify to lay the foundations for a bold platform strategy that has the potential to change the face of the recorded music business as we know it.

For more information on the analysis and statistics in this post check out MIDiA Research and sign up to our free weekly research digest.

Songkick Detour And The Middle Class Musician

 Songkick today announced the official launch of Detour, which it has been successfully trialing in a small invite-only beta until now.  At risk of over simplifying, the basic concept of Detour is enabling fans to help artists decide where to gig by pledging in advance for concert tickets, much in the same way PledgeMusic works but for live. In the trial 1,000 fans made 10 concerts happen in London (you can read Songkick’s Ian Hogarth’s blog here).

I am a big fan of Songkick and the company is one of a relatively small number of digital music start ups that are genuinely changing some of the fundamentals of the music industry.  With Detour, Songkick is harnessing the power of its highly engaged music fan audience and using it to deliver real value back into the business. 

Obviously it is still early days and Detour is still currently focused on London, but crowd funding of concerts is an area with growing momentum with specialist sites like Gigfunder and Queremos! all growing this emerging marketplace.  Crowd funding concerts is a very natural next step from crowd funding albums and EPs.  For middle ranking artists who aren’t big enough to be on a big label but are bigger than the amateur and semi-pro tiers of artists, tools like Songkick Detour and PledgeMusic are increasingly important.  They empower artists to build sustainable careers, making the most of scarce resources and squeezing out every last drop of their potential.

But perhaps most importantly of all these tools strengthen the bond between fans and artists.  Something that is inherently less easy for a superstar artist to do.  Sure the likes of Lady Gaga do a fantastic job of making their global fan bases feel close, but that proximity can never be as genuine as a band whose just come to London to play a gig off the back of 80 dedicated fans pledging their support and hard earned cash. So the long-term outlook becomes one of increasing divergence between the aristocracy of the superstar artists and the middle class of hard working, hard gigging artists.  Think of it as a democratization of music, with the intimacy of the artist-fan relationship the currency of success and authenticity.

Detour has got a long way to go, but that is only because it has so much potential.  Now the fun really starts.

Here’s What Daisy Could, and Should, Look Like

Beats’ codenamed Daisy subscription service has been getting a puzzlingly large amount of coverage for a service that isn’t even launched yet. Beats’ Jimmy Iovine has somewhat smartly positioned Daisy as a challenger in what he has portrayed as a dysfunctional market in which the incumbents are flailing around, unable to even understand what the big issues are, let alone try to solve them.  Discovery, transparency, reporting, these are all great issues that do need addressing but they are also the exact issues Spotify et al are all busy trying to fix right now. The fact they haven’t points to the complexity and scale of the problems, and also the limitations of what any one music service can achieve on its own.

But rather than get distracted by the grandstanding and hyperbole (from all sides) it is worth taking a look at the what the next generation of music subscription service could look like, building upon some of the challenges that are faced today. These could be done by any streaming service, but they are also all natural extensions of Daisy’s already unique set of assets and DNA. These features are:

  • Artist Led Discovery: one of the big issues with streaming services is that they subjugate the artist brand.  In the single or album model (physical or digital) the fan is seeking out an artist specific experience.  With streaming services the value proposition is all the music in the world so the artist brand and relationship is inherently diluted.  So the next generation of music subscription service will be a confederation of artist sub-sites, combining the benefits of vast catalogue with mainstaining artists’ profile.  Back in the day, MySpace understood the value of unifying disparate artist specific communities with portal-like navigation.  So in the next-generation service you will still be able to use traditional tools like searching by genre, but you will also follow individual artists. This, combined with Spotify-artist app-like experiences would give Daisy a genuinely unique take on streaming discovery and navigation.
  • Artist Communities: again taking a lead from MySpace, the natural next step of artist-led discovery is to let users gravitate around their favourite artists.  To follow them, join communities, join discussions, chat with the artist, get virtual-VIP access.  Currently this sort of fan engagement happens one step removed from the music on Facebook and artist pages. Bring it all together and you turn a disjointed discovery-to-engagement-to-consumption/purchase journey into a seamlessly integrated experience, where each of those previously discreet activities becomes an indistinguishable part of a new whole.
  • Empower the Artist: and a further logical next step would be to then allow artists to plug directly into this platform and engage with their fans here just like they do on Facebook. This would not mean giving them full exposure to how often their tracks are getting played or how much they’re getting paid (labels deals just don’t permit this) but it would translate into self-serve analytics dashboards and powerful CRM functionality.
  • Merchandize and live: and if you’ve got your fans engaging with your music then of course you are going to want the ability to sell them other stuff like vinyl, box sets, merchandize and tickets for gigs. This is where Ian C Rogers’ expertise and the TopSpin hook up will become core assets for Daisy. Expect full eCommerce integration. Also don’t be surprised to see full Songkick integration either.

So what emerges is a picture of a MySpace / Spotify / TopSpin / SongKick / Facebook mashup, as 360 degree music experience platform, joining the dots in a fragmented digital landscape.  If Daisy, or anyone else, pulls this off, we will have a true next generation music subscription service.  One that recognizes that streaming is not a business model, but instead simply a technology means of getting music to people on the devices of their choice. A service that understands streaming is the foundation stone upon which rich, immersive music experiences can be built, but not the product itself.