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.

 

Who’s Leading The Streaming Pack?

At MIDiA Research we are currently in the final stages of producing the update to our annual landmark report: The State Of The Streaming Nation, a report which compiles every streaming market data point you could possibly need.

In advance of its release in June we want to give you a sneak peak into a couple of the key areas of focus: streaming app usage and major label streaming revenue.

music apps slide

Subscriber numbers only tell part of the streaming story. They are solid indicators of commercial success, but can often obscure how well a service is doing in terms of engaging its user base. That’s why we track the main music services’ active user bases every quarter. But rather than tracking Monthly Active Users (MAUs), we track Weekly Active Users (WAUs). The MAU metric is past its sell by date. In today’s always on, increasingly mobile digital landscape, doing something just once a month more resembles inactivity rather than activity. The bar needs raising higher. Companies like Snapchat, Facebook and Supercell measure their active user bases in terms of Weekly Active Users (WAUs) and Daily Active Users (DAUs). It is time for streaming services to step up to the plate and employ WAU as the benchmark.

Using this approach, YouTube and Spotify emerge as the leading services with 25.1% and 16.3% WAU penetration respectively. However, at the other end of the spectrum, Deezer swaps its top half of the table subscriber count ranking for the bottom ranking for WAUs with just 2.3%. Google Play Music All Access does not fare much better on 5.5% and even this likely reflects survey respondent over-reporting for what has proven to be a lacklustre effort from the search giant.

Streaming music finally returned recorded music revenue to sizeable growth in 2016, driving the year-on-year growth of 6%, increasing revenues by $0.9 billion. Label streaming revenue was up $1.6 billion, finally offsetting the impact of declining revenue from the legacy formats of the CD and downloads.

label streaming revenues midia

The growth continued in Q1 2017, albeit at a slightly slower rate. Among the major labels, streaming revenue grew by 35% to reach $1.1 billion in Q1 2017, up from $0.8 billion in Q1 2016. The major labels respective share of cumulative revenue in streaming largely reflects that of total revenue. Streaming was the lynchpin of 2016’s growth and will be even more important in 2017.

Streaming represented 33% of major label revenue in 2016. That share rose to 42in Q1 2017. Streaming is now the stand out revenue source, far outstripping physical’s $0.6 billion. Though a degree of seasonality needs to be considered, the streaming trajectory is clear. Record labels are now becoming streaming businesses. The independent label sector experienced strong streaming growth also, powered in part by licensing body Merlin. Merlin paid out $300m to its independent label members over the last 12 months, leading up to April 2017, to an increase of 800% on the $36m it paid out in 2012. The streaming business is no longer simply about the likes of Spotify and Apple Music, it is the future of the labels too.

These findings and data are just a tiny portion of the State Of The Streaming Nation II report that will additionally include data such as: streaming behaviour, YouTube, role of trials and family plans, playlist trends, average tracks streamed, subscriber numbers for all leading music services, service availability, pricing and product availability, revenue forecasts and user forecasts. The report includes data for more than 20 countries across the Americas, Europe and Asia and forecasts to 2025.

To reserve your copy email Stephen@midiaresearch.com

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.

Spotify May Be Buying Soundcloud, But Who Wins?

spotify-pac-manThe Financial Times has reported that Spotify is in advanced talks to buy Soundcloud. Soundcloud has been shopping itself around for some time, while Spotify needs to continue outpacing Apple as it heads towards an IPO. Which is why the deal has been rumoured for some time. But who would do best out of the deal (if indeed it goes ahead)?

  • Soundcloud has peaked: Throughout the 2010’s Soundcloud’s growth was impressive, growing from 1 million registered users in May 2010 to 150 million by December 2014. But registered user numbers only ever tell part of the story. The most telling statistic is Soundcloud’s Monthly Active User (MAU) number: 175 million. Impressive enough, and 50 million more than Spotify’s 125 million. But Soundcloud hit that number in August 2014 and it hasn’t reported a bigger number since. In fact, it could well be that Soundcloud hasn’t actually issued a new number since, but instead has simply being restating that number. If it had grown, you can be sure we’d have heard about it. If it had fallen, perhaps not. On top of this, in October 2013 CEO Alexander Ljung stated that Soundcloud had hit 250 million MAUs. A number that has not since been repeated. So best case, Soundcloud usage has peaked, worst case it is in decline. DEAL WINNER: Soundcloud
  • Soundcloud users are male super fans: According to MIDiA’s consumer data 7% of consumers are Weekly Active Users (WAU) of Soundcloud, about half the rate of Spotify (again suggesting that Soundcloud’s headline user numbers aren’t all they appear). But crucially 60% of its WAUs are male while Spotify’s are 50/50 male/female. Spotify has spent the last few years diversifying its user base away from this male super fan skew. All that work would be undone if the Soundcloud user base is absorbed. DEAL WINNER: Evens
  • Soundcloud users are a funnel: Spotify’s model relies upon giving new audiences a taste of its offering via its free tier, super trials and telco bundles, before converting to paid. To keep ahead of Apple, Spotify has to keep filling up its funnel. So Soundcloud’s user base will be a welcome boost to Spotify’s user acquisition as it seeks to maintain momentum as it heads towards IPO. DEAL WINNER: Spotify
  • Many Soundcloud users are already subscribers: 28% of Soundcloud users already have a music subscription, with the majority of those already paying for Spotify rather than Soundcloud Go. So many of the low hanging fruit users have already been converted, weakening the value of the audience. DEAL WINNER: Soundcloud
  • Soundcloud has a unique catalogue: A key reason so many Soundcloud users also use Spotify is that so much Soundcloud catalogue can only be found there. This is a rich asset for Spotify but as much of it is not licensed so it could prove to be a licensing quagmire for Spotify. DEAL WINNER: Spotify, if it can sort out the licensing
  • Soundcloud’s valuation is high: Reported valuations for Soundcloud have ranged from $700 million to $2 billion. Even if it comes in at $500 million, unless the deal is heavily skewed towards stock, Spotify will burn through a massive chunk of its latest $1 billion debt round. DEAL WINNER: Soundcloud

There is an additional wild card, that Spotify could use Soundcloud as vehicle for becoming a serious player in ad supported in its own right (which will delight Apple’s Jimmy Iovine, not). The deal of course may not even happen, but if it does, it is far from a guaranteed winner for Spotify. It will help Spotify build a bullish growth story for Wall Street but Spotify will have to IPO before the shine starts to come off if Soundcloud’s user base turns out to be smaller and less valuable pickings than at first appears.

 

Just What Is BandLab Up To With Rolling Stone?

News emerged yesterday that Singapore music creator community and collaboration platform BandLab bought a 49% stake in Rolling Stone. For those unfamiliar with BandLab this might have prompted a ‘What? Who? Why?’ moment. BandLab is the creation of Kuok Meng Ru, the son of one of Singapore’s most wealthy and successful businessmen Kuok Khoon Hong who founded and built the world’s largest Palm Oil business. Unsurprisingly the father has backed the son in his venture and so, yes, Rolling Stone has been bought, albeit indirectly, with Palm Oil money. But the question remains, why?

Kuok Meng Ru has a bold vision and ambition for Bandlab, he sees this as an opportunity to create a full stack music company from the ground up, built around the next generation of creators rather than trying to carve a slice out of the incumbent industry. There is no doubt that the music industries are a complex web of inefficiencies and that if they were being redesigned tomorrow that they would be a far more streamlined, effective and transparent proposition. This on the surface makes the music business ripe for disruption. But unlike fully open markets like the smartphone business, the music industries are interwoven with complications such as de facto monopolies, statutory licensing frameworks and global networks of reciprocal agreements. All of which shelter the business from the full impact of disruption. Change happens slowly in the music business.

BandLab Is Built By Music Super Fans For Music Super Fans

None of this means that change is not happening and that the rate of change will not continue to happen. But the odds are heavily stacked against a single entity aiming to unseat the marketplace with an end-to-end creation-to-marketing-to-distribution solution such as BandLab. Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept of BandLab. As a life long musician and as a music super fan, it is exactly the sort of platform I would probably build i.e. a musician’s platform for musicians. But the harsh reality is that the majority of consumers (67%) are casual fans and less than 5% create music and upload it to the web. BandLab is a platform full of cool creator tools and community features. It nurtures a creative feedback loop between fans and artists. In fact, it adheres neatly to the principles of Agile Music that I laid out in 2011 and it fits in with the zeitgeist of the death of the creative full stop. But a mainstream proposition it is not. At least not in its current guise.

Kuok Meng Ru wants BandLab to do to music what Flickr did to photo sharing and creativity. But there are many, many more people that create and share photos than create and share music. Soundcloud is arguably the single biggest cloud creator platform, yet the vast majority of its growth happened when it cowed to investor pressure and pursued the listener rather than the creator. As I said last month in a Bloomberg article about BandLab, There’s always going to be far bigger audience of listeners than there is of creators. And unfortunately the vast majority of aspiring creators are not good enough, nor ever will be, to amass sizeable audiences. If BandLab decide to start licensing in established repertoire, or acquiring it unofficially (Soundcloud style), then it can build audience at scale.

Where Next For Rolling Stone?

So, back to the title of this post, just what is BandLab up to with Rolling Stone? Rolling Stone and BandLab plan to open a Singapore subsidiary focused on live events and marketing. For Rolling Stone this means diversifying revenue and growing its South East Asia footprint. For BandLab this means leveraging Rolling Stone’s brand as a short cut to credibility and extending the promotional capabilities of its creator platform. Who will do best out of this deal is hard to say. It’s a tough time to be a news publisher and so when big money comes calling it is hard to say no. But whether this is the right deal for Rolling Stone is another question entirely. My money is on Rolling Stone being sold on in reduced circumstances some time within the next 3 years (5 at the outside) when BandLab either gets bought or refocuses its ambitions.

Soundcloud, Amazon, Tidal: Streaming’s Other Runners

Apple, Spotify and YouTube have all been grabbing the streaming headlines of late, albeit for different reasons. While these companies will continue to set the pace over the next couple of years (again, for different reasons) there is much more to the streaming market than these three. Here’s what three of the other main streaming contenders have been up to in recent weeks:

Click here to read the full post on the MIDiA blog

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.

 

Quick Take: Soundcloud Goes Premium

 

SoundCloud_logo.svgFollowing weeks of licensing announcements, Soundcloud has finally launched its premium subscription service, a $9.99 tier ($12.99 on iOS), currently only in the US. The move is both encouraging and disappointing. Soundcloud has a truly unique market footprint and has the potential to be a platform for an entirely new approach to monetizing streaming music. But it is also a poor fit for a cookie cutter $9.99 freemium model.

Soundcloud has a whole set of unique challenges and characteristics that make it so different than the rest of the pack:

  • Artist-first experiences: Unlike its now-direct streaming competitors Spotify and co, Soundcloud is an artist-to-fan platform. Most streaming services are effectively a music-store-meets-HBO hybrid. A place you go to get music. Music as a service, or even a utility. Soundcloud is that as well of course, but it is first and foremost it is a place where artists connect directly with their fans. A $9.99 All You Can Eat (AYCE) is not the right model for a place where fans go to engage with artists rather than looking to turn on the water tap.
  • This is a pivot for Soundcloud: Unlike Spotify and Deezer, whose free tiers have long been geared towards driving subscriptions, for Soundcloud this is not a funnel tweak, it is a pivot. It is a complete change in strategy.
  • Competing against free: The problem with giving something away for free for years is that its really difficult to convince people to start paying for it. It is the same challenge YouTube faces with YouTube Red Which is why instead of simply whacking a pay wall around previously free content, YouTube is investing so much in creating new original content only available on Red. In short, Soundcloud needs to explore how it can deliver new, unique value to paid users rather than simply charging them for what they already get (plus a few convenience features).
  • Non-traditional content: Soundcloud’s strength lies in the music that you just don’t find elsewhere, much of which also happens to be dance music. All of the mash ups, bootlegs, un-authorized remixes, 2 hour long mixes are what make Soundcloud such a valuable component of the music landscape. The only problem is that most of them are not covered in standard major label licenses. In fact, many of them aren’t covered at all. Even Dubset, which is trying to build a business around this type of non-traditional content, hasn’t yet been able to get a full suite of licenses in place. For now, it appears that the majors are willing to turn a blind eye to that content. Which raises an interesting question: who gets paid for the revenue generated by unlicensed tracks?
  • Major labels are shaping an indie platform: Major label content is a massive part of Soundcloud but not the majority. In fact, in dance mixes majors typically account for only 30% of the tracks. Yet it is the major labels that are shaping the future of Soundcloud, forcing it down a road that works well for majors on the AYCE services but could skew Soundcloud against its indie community.

No doubt, Soundcloud had to get licenses in place. It had traded on label good will for long enough. But the current model will not maximise Soundcloud’s vast potential. Instead of Spotify-like 15-20% conversion rates instead expect King and Supercell-like 1.5-5% rates. Let’s hope this is simply a hygiene release, preparing the way for a set of products that fit Soundcloud like a glove rather than odd boots. What could a next iteration look like? Well for a start it could be artist focused and secondly it could be cheaper. Imagine a $4 a month, 5 artist subscription that gives you everything by your favourite artists, including premium-only exclusives. Every month you can swap any number of those artists for different ones for the next month. That is the sort of thinking that needs to be applied to Soundcloud’s subscription business if it is going to live up to its capabilities. The alternative is being condemned to being a freemium also-ran.

What’s Going On With Free Streaming?

Earlier this week Soundcloud’s financials revealed that the company was haemorrhaging cash (even before it had to start worrying about content license fees). Now news comes that Pandora is working with Morgan Stanley to meet with potential buyers. Back in Q4 2014 free streaming got a stay of execution when the majors decided to put their weight behind freemium after a period of many executives seriously considering canning the model. In 2015 free streaming was the growth story, with YouTube out performing everyone. Now though free streaming looks to be in seriously troubled waters. So what gives?

Pandora’s Problem Is Wall Street

Probably the biggest problem of all that Pandora has is the story it tells Wall Street. Every year Pandora accounts for a little bit more of total US radio listening, builds ad revenue and steadily strengthens its business. But that’s not the sort of story Wall Street expects from a streaming media company. Investors expect dynamic growth. But Pandora is, along with Rhapsody, the granddaddy of streaming and had 10 million users before Spotify was even launched in Sweden, let alone the US. Pandora long since passed its dynamic growth stage in the US and is now a mature business that is going about sensibly building a sustainable business.

The standard thing to do at this stage for streaming companies is to roll out internationally and find new markets where you can start a new dynamic growth story. This is exactly what Netflix is doing now that US subscriber growth has slowed. The approach has also served Spotify well. But the unique compulsory licensing structure in the US the underpins Pandora’s business model does not exist elsewhere. There is no global landscape of SoundExchanges for Pandora to plug into. With the exception of Australia and New Zealand Pandora has not been able to negotiate rates that it launch internationally with.

Actually, Slowing Growth Is A Problem Too 

All of which explains why Pandora has gone down the acquisition route, buying Next Big Sound, Ticket Fly and Rdio in a bid to become a full stack music company. The problem is that Wall Street either does not buy it, or simply does not get it. In fact, Wall Street does not really make much of a distinction between semi-interactive radio or on-demand streaming. The pervasive view among the investor community is that Pandora is being out competed by Spotify, regardless of the fact that there is only partial competitive overlap in terms of value proposition, target audience and business model. The net result is that Pandora’s market capitalization has fallen from $7bn to $1.8bn and to make matters worse it had to raise $500 million in debt, with revenue growth slowing.

Pandora Needs A New Wall Street Narrative

In just the same way Apple needs a new Wall Street narrative, so does Pandora. Even if just to maintain some market value while it finds a buyer. The full stack music strategy should be central to that narrative, even though the real story is that Pandora is the future of radio. Unfortunately that story will take a decade or more to play out and most investors do not have that kind of patience. (Spotify, these are the sorts of problems you’ll be having to worry about this time next year). And, to be precise, it is the Pandora model that is the future of radio, not necessarily Pandora itself.  Though the odds are still on Pandora playing that role, in the US at least.

If Pandora really does not have the stomach for seeing out the long game it should not find it too difficult to find a buyer, if the price is right. Exactly because Pandora is the future of radio, some of those big radio incumbents are likely buyer. Hello iHeart Media.

 

Warner’s Streaming Equity Pay Out Is Commendable But Not Enough

During his latest investor conference call Warner Music’s CEO Stephen Cooper announced that the label will pay artists a portion of any income it earns from equity stakes in services such as Spotify and Soundcloud. With Spotify potentially announcing its IPO next quarter the announcement is more than a token gesture. It is a bold move by Warner and follows on from Sony and Universal both announcing last year that they will pay artists a portion of streaming breakage revenue (the difference between what services pay labels in guarantees and how much royalty revenue they actually generate – WMG has been doing this since 2009). The big labels are waking up to the fact that transparency is key if they are going to keep artists on side. Streaming is where consumer behaviour is going, but currently YouTube is growing quicker than everyone else. The labels need premium and freemium services to make up ground fast. Which is why they cannot afford the Black Keys-Taylor Swift-Adele-Coldplay trickle to turn into a torrent. They need artists to be as vested as they are.

Streaming Hostilities May Have Thawed But Underlying Issues Remain

With the exception of the songwriter class action suits that closed out the year, 2015 was actually a pretty good year for streaming service – artist relations. Artists became a little more accustomed to streaming and many started to see a meaningful in their streaming income. But there is still much distance to go. The crucial issue for the majority of mid ranking and lower artists is how to deal with sizeable up front payments being replaced by a long term flow of micro payments. If you are a sizable label or a big artist you won’t feel the pain too much, but for the rest it normally means a very serious tightening of the belt.

The True Value Of Streaming Doesn’t Lie In Equity Stakes After All

There has, wrongly, long been a suspicion among many that streaming services are some sort of elaborate money making scam for labels, with the real value hidden in the money they will earn from their equity stakes. But as the ever excellent Tim Ingham explains, Warner is likely to only make around $200 million from a successful Spotify floatation. Of course $200 million is no small amount of money, and would represent more than half of Warner’s quarterly digital income. But it represents just 16% of the money Warner has earned from streaming since 2010 and just 2% of all global streaming revenue in 2015 (at retail values). Thus the label equity stakes in Spotify & co. are meaningful but they are far from where the real label value exists. Indeed as Cooper stated: “the main form of compensation we receive from streaming services is revenue based on actual streams”.

So If Artist Equity Income Isn’t Going To Fix Streaming, What Will?

All of which then raises the awkward question: if artists getting a Spotify IPO pay out isn’t going to ‘fix’ the model for artists, then what is? There is not really much scope for streaming services to pay out more to rights holders (80% of revenue doesn’t leave much scope for operating profit). While there is certainly scope for increasing ARPU among the super fan subscribers, there is little opportunity to raise prices for the majority of users ($9.99 is already more than most are willing to spend). So the only part of the equation left is how much labels pay artists.

Streaming Is Neither A License Nor A Sale And Its Time Artist Deals Recognise It

Right now the entire recorded music business is trying to figure out whether streaming is replacing radio or sales. The likelihood is that it is doing both and by doing so creating something new in between. That means that labels need to rethink how they pay artists, because currently they typically pay them on either one or the other of those models, and most often on the basis of a stream being a sale. A stream being the equivalent of a sale is completely counterintuitive because streaming is all about consumption not transaction. So why are labels most commonly treating streams as sales? Because the % they have to pay artists is so much lower, often in the 10% to 15% range rather than around 50% for a license. Of course there is as strong an argument to be made for streams not to be considered as a pure license as there is a sale, but there is an even stronger one for a hybrid rate that sits in the middle. Doing so would double the amount of money most artists make from streaming, instantaneously transforming its revenue impact for many. There is some precedent too. In 2012 Universal was successfully sued by FTB Productions over its treatment of Eminem downloads as sales rather than licenses, for which Eminem would have been paid a 50% rate instead of the much smaller sales rate.

Warner Music deserve credit for their commitment to paying artists a portion of equity related income (though no mention of how much of course) but it is just one step on a bigger journey. A wholesale reassessment of artist streaming compensation is required. Increasing artist streaming rates will dent label margins but ultimately the labels need to decide whether they want to build a business that is as sustainable for artists as it is for them.

Postscript: One interesting quote stood out from Cooper: “Although none of these equity stakes have been monetized since we implemented our breakage policy…there are some services from which we receive additional forms of compensation”. Translation(?): Sony used to get paid by the big streaming services on some sort of stock dividend basis and probably still does from some others.