A Tale of Two Cities: What Sweden and the US Tell Us About the Outlook for Streaming

Streaming is the digital zeitgeist, that much is clear.  How it will shape the future of the music business, from artists through to labels is less clear and things are not helped by an increasingly confusing and diverse set of data, each suggesting a slightly different outlook.  A look at two very different digital music markets – Sweden and the US – gives some sense of what the next couple of years should hold.

Notes: for sake of readability the term ‘streaming’ is used to refer to subscriptions and ad supported streaming combined. Also all current year figures are 2013, extrapolating half year figures to create full year estimates.

Two Very Different Streaming Stories

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Sweden is streaming’s heartland, home of Spotify and the stand out good news story for music subscriptions. Streaming now represents a whopping 95% of digital revenue in Sweden and 67% of all recorded music revenue while downloads make up a paltry 4%.  Streaming growth has been equally impressive (see figure one) and has propelled the total Swedish music market into growth for two successive years.  That growth came at the direct expense of downloads (which declined by 15%) and it accompanied a dramatic 51% collapse in CD sales.  But 2013 revenues look set to come in at just a little below 2003 levels, no mean feat.   Although we need to bear in mind that a surge in growth can easily reverse (as the experience of South Korea shows us) it is clear that streaming has been a strong positive force on total Swedish music revenues.

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The picture is very different in the US however, where streaming has grown less dynamically and only represents 23% of digital and 14% of overall spending.  As I previously noted, the strength of Apple and the download sector have acted as a pronounced brake on streaming growth in the US.  Neither, however are invincible, and some of Spotify’s 2013 growth has come at the direct expense of download spending which looks set to decline by a percentage point in 2013 (see figure two).  Little wonder Apple has launched iTunes Radio, though ironically the app may well spur a resurgence in download sales.  So in the US streaming is becoming an increasingly important part of the market but shows no sign of suddenly acquiring Sweden-like ubiquity.  Which in part explains a 5% decline in total music revenues between 2010 and 2013.

CONCLUSION: streaming can quickly drive strong growth in markets where downloads never got a foothold but takes more time to impact strong download markets.

The Impact on Total Digital Revenue

Streaming’s impact on the total digital market and indeed on total music sales is of course what counts most, and it is here we see a really interesting divergence between Sweden and the US. Over the last 6 years streaming drove a comparable rate of overall digital growth in Sweden that downloads powered in the US in the mid 2000’s.

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But when we plot the growth of digital as a percentage of total music sales in the US between 2005 and 2010 against the same data for Sweden between 2008 and 2013 a stark contrast is immediately apparent (see figure three). Whereas digital share growth remained strong throughout the 6 years in Sweden it slowed markedly in the US.  Though growth returned later it didn’t ever replicate those pre-2008 levels.  The number one slowdown factor was the end of iPod sales growth (see this figure to see just how strong the effect was).  Interestingly digital share growth looks likely to slow moderately for both Sweden and the US in 2013.  In Sweden some level of slowdown is to be expected (there isn’t much physical market left to transition!) but there is still a lot of CD ground to be made up in the US.

CONCLUSION: streaming has driven market growth in Sweden and accelerated transition away from the CD and the download. While in the US the CD and the download both still hold much greater sway, culminating in something of a worst of both worlds, with streaming apparently eating into downloads but not having enough headway to transform the market.

The Artist Conundrum

But what does all this mean for artists?  It often feels that something doesn’t quite seem to add up when artist income is brought into the equation. For all the growth in streaming income, a vocal minority of artists and songwriters feel that streaming is damaging, destroying even, their ability to earn a living from music sales.  As I have argued before, a rounded understanding of streaming income for artists must both put streaming in a revenue continuum (i.e. compare it to radio not just downloads) and consider the life time value of a song (i.e. think of the income it will generate over a period of years instead of the revenue full stop a download represents).  In this context streaming is still worth less than a download, but nearer to 5.5 times less valuable rather than 280 times (see my Consumption Analysis piece for more on this).

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There is however an added complexity, namely the amount of artists that get revenue from streaming versus downloads and streaming (see figure four).  If we take Spotify’s reported US metrics from 2012 as a benchmark and assume that the average subscriber listens to a modest 5 different artists a month then this is equal to 60 different artists per year per subscriber.  Working with an average total royalty pay out of $0.01 per stream this translates into an average royalty per artist per subscriber of $0.72 in the US.  When applied to the 3 million reported US Spotify subscribers this would equal an average annual royalty of $2.17 per artist.  (Though it is crucial to note that this refers to the total royalty payment made to rights holders and not to whatever share is eventually shared with the creators themselves). Also, there is of course no such thing as an average artist, and in practice a comparatively small number of artists would earn much more than that and most much less (there are after all 27 million tracks’ worth of artists so the tail is super long).

For downloads, extrapolating from Nielsen mid year numbers, the average downloader buys 2 albums and 27 single tracks.  If we assume each of these is for a different artist then we end up with 26 artists per downloader and an average royalty of $1.22 per artist per downloader (using a 70% royalty assumption).  This isn’t actually that much higher than streaming, but things change when it is applied to the total number of download buyers (which at 63 million far outstrips paying subscribers) and results in an average royalty per artist of $76.34 (again total royalty before distribution to creators).

In Sweden though, where there are more subscribers than downloaders the picture is very different.  Applying the same Spotify metrics to an assumed subscriber base of 2 million in Sweden (which feels about right based on survey data and IFPI numbers) we see an average royalty per artist of $1.44 compared to $1.22 for downloads.  (The average royalty per buyer is higher in Sweden because a smaller number of people are buying a smaller number of downloads resulting in the revenue being split fewer ways).

CONCLUSION: streaming can generate meaningful revenue at scale but will still be lower than downloads because of the above mentioned life time value factor and because revenue is split more ways across a wider selection of artists.

The Cost of Democratization of Artist Income

Thus artists are effectively paying the price for the democratization of music: more artists are getting listened to more regularly and as a consequence the pie gets cut into smaller slices. Which raises the interesting dilemma of whether artists speaking out against streaming are also indirectly speaking out against a more equitable distribution of income among artists?!  The core question though is whether the pie can get large enough for those slices to represent anything more than an apetizer for the average professional artist.

All of this extra data may appear to add as much fuddle as it does clarity to the debate, but it is crucial that debate is based upon reasoned understanding of the most complete grounding of data available.    The next couple of years will see streaming go from strength to strength but its impact on global music revenue will be less dramatic than it has been in Sweden, if perhaps more vibrant than it has in the US.

Why the LSE’s Piracy Arguments Just Don’t Hold Water

The renowned LSE this week published a paper arguing against implementation of the UK’s Digital Economy Act and calling for policy makers to recognize that piracy is not hurting the music industry but is in fact helping parts of it grow.  To these academic researchers the findings probably feel like some dazzling new insight but to anyone with more than a passing understanding of the music industry they are as if somebody just time travelled back to 1999.  The piracy-helps-grow-the-pie / help-makes-the-sky-not-fall / actually-helps-the-industry arguments were common currency throughout most of the first decade of the digital music market.  In more recent years though, following perpetual revenue decline and the growing plight of struggling ‘middle-class’ artists and songwriters, most neutral observers recognize that the piracy=prosperity argument just doesn’t hold water anymore.  Though of course that won’t stop the pro-piracy lobby fawning over this ‘research’ as more ‘evidence’ for their case.

Why Live Is NOT Saving the Music Industry

One of the key arguments the LSE paper makes is that the total music industry is in fact growing or is at least stable, primarily due to the impact of growing live income.  The ‘artists can sell tickets and merchandize to make up for shrinking music sales’ argument is frequently wheeled out by the pro-piracy lobby but it is one riddled with problems (and of course doesn’t apply at all to songwriters):

  • Live revenues are over reported: as impressive as global live revenues may look, they are not accurate.  Most often they include reseller revenue, which is income that does not go anywhere near the artists or any other part of the actual music industry.  A scalper reselling tickets at extortionately high prices on eBay doesn’t benefit an artist in any way but at a macro level can look like booming revenue.
  • Price hikes drive revenue: Much of the live revenue growth is actually from increased ticket prices, both from venues and resellers.  The average ticket price has increased by 34% in the last 10 years.  Only a portion of this increase gets passed back to artists and their managers.
  • Live income is unevenly distributed: Live simply isn’t working for many artists, those that do best are those are heritage acts.  According to Deloitte 60% of the 20 top-grossing US live acts are aged 60 or over.  This is where promoters and venues focus their efforts and it leaves little oxygen for the emerging acts.
  • The live boom will suffer: The likes of Bon Jovi and the Rolling Stones sell out massive arenas because they sold so many albums in the glory days of the recorded music industry.  What will happen when the generation of artists that do not sell millions get to the age where they hope live will pay the bills? The likelihood is that there will not be another era of heritage live acts such as we are seeing today.

A dependence on live income for building the case for piracy is thus fraught with difficulty and misunderstood assumptions.

The Right to Not Earn a Living?

Any discussion of the music industry makes an assumption about what actually constitutes ‘the music industry’. There is no single right or wrong answer other than the bits that really matter are the artists and the songwriters.  Therefore any proposal or framework for ‘saving the industry’ needs to ensure they can thrive.  Diminishing music sales and the various above-stated issues surrounding live mean that for most ‘middle class’ artists who didn’t make it big in the glory days of the CD are finding it harder to thrive.

Another tired argument that the LSE paper rehashes is the idea that artists should just want to make music for music’s sake.  That because of platforms like Soundcloud they can just make music without expecting or wanting to earn a living.  Of course every single one of us could do the same for our job too. A call centre operative could offer to forgo their salary, a bus driver could drive for free, a doctor could refuse her pay. All of which sound ridiculous of course, so why doesn’t it when applied to an artist?  Well actually it does, and that’s the point. The idea that somehow because music is creative that artists should not pollute this with seeking to earn a living is an utterly insidious concept.  If the LSE scholars truly believe this then I recommend that they henceforth refuse their stipends and insist on lecturing for free for the rest of their careers. And if they start finding the bills stacking up maybe they can start selling t-shirts or something?

When I spoke to Marillion’s Mark Kelly for my forthcoming book he made devastatingly simple comment on the impact of free and alternative business models on artists: “Artists have choice, a choice of what? To not earn a living?”  Piracy is having a hugely tangible and real impact on artists and songwriters, and guess what, it is not a positive one for most.

Does the music industry still need to undergo dramatic change? Of course it does.  Do many record label practices still need changing? Of course they do?  Do Artists need to get even better at making alternative revenue streams work? Of course they do.  Should change be happening more quickly?  Yes, of course it should. But crucial progress is being made on all fronts and what matters most is that all responsible parties and stakeholders (and that includes government) do what they can to ensure that a fair and level playing field is created.  Not for the sake of an ethereal macro economic concept of ‘the music industry’ but for the the struggling indie label boss, the small gigging artist, the part time manager and the aspiring songwriter.  Ask them what they think about piracy and how it is impacting the music world.  That’s where you will heae the answer most grounded in earthy reality, not in an academic reworking of obsolete, half baked piracy lobby arguments from yesteryear.