The Attention Economy Has Peaked. Now What?

Regular followers of MIDiA will know that we’ve been writing about the attention economy for a number of years now. Throughout 2019 we have been building the concept that we have arrived at peak in the attention economy – that all of the addressable free time has been addressed. In 2017, Netflix’s Reed Hastings said sleep was his biggest enemy. By 2019 he claimed Netflix was competing more with Fortnite than HBO (it wasn’t really, but the concept of competing in adjacent markets is valid). In the old world, media was nicely siloed by dedicated formats and hardware (print newspapers, books, DVDs, CDs, radio sets). Now, though, we access through devices where everything is separated by nothing more than a finger swipe. Attention saturation was always going to be an inevitability, not a possibility. The important question is not why this happening, but what will come next and what the right strategies are for surviving and thriving in this post-peak world.

A mine full of canaries?

What got MIDiA first thinking about peak attention was seeing the mobile gaming audience declining every quarter in our quarterly tracker surveys. Mobile games were the canary in the mine for peak attention. When we first got mobile phones, we didn’t have a huge amount to do with them. We couldn’t watch our favourite shows, and we couldn’t easily (legally) listen to new music. So many consumers filled their ‘dead time’ by playing games, as they were de rigueurin the early days of the app stores. Before long casual gamers were the core audience of titles like Angry Birds and Clash of Clans, while your middle-aged aunt was spamming you with Facebook invitations to play Candy Crush Saga. Once Netflix, Spotify and others had got traction, however, those casual gamers started reverting to consuming the content they actually liked the most. The result was a long steady decline in the mobile gaming audience. Now, music looks like it may be following suit.

another canary

Across the US, UK, Australia and Canada, the share of people that listen to the radio declined steadily between Q1 2018 and Q2 2019. Meanwhile, those streaming audio for free remained relatively flat. The net result is that the combined audio audience declined. So many lapsing radio listeners exited the audio market as a whole (though a share shifted to podcasts, which is not considered in the above chart). The ‘share of ear’ battle is looking a lot like a minor theatre of conflict in a much larger conflagration. Amazon will continue to do a good job of shifting older, high-net-worth consumers to streaming, but that is not enough to stem the tide – especially as Amazon’s global footprint is unevenly distributed.

This is what happens in the era of attention saturation.

Social video is eating the world

Four years ago, MIDiA argued that video was eating the world. Now social video is eating the world. Video is becoming the omnipotent format through which we communicate, consume and share. Social video is eating everything. Captioning looked like it was heralding a new era of silent cinema, but it was in fact a trojan horse – a means of enabling us to fit extra video consumption into our wider consumption patterns. Over time, though, sound has become more important and with the increased tolerance of video we are now far more willing to unmute. Nowhere is this better seen than Instagram and TikTok. Audio is the victim in that equation. Not only are there are many other scenarios where audio is slipping, there are even more scenarios where other media formats are losing out. For example, Epic Games’ decision to allow Fortnite players to watch live video of the Fortnite World Cup while gaming hints at how games companies understand that there is a delicate balance between video extending brand reach and competing directly for gaming time.

Looking back gives us a feel for what comes next

Understanding what comes next in a saturated attention world requires looking back at previous markets that have peaked. The mobile phone and PC markets give us some pointers, butthe industrial revolution’s impact on the labour market is an even more useful analogue. Attention is like labour. It is a product of human behaviour and it is scarce. Digital content is analogous to the labour market, and content supply is now beginning to exceed attention output. This is already translating into increased customer acquisition and retention costs.

This is exactly the wrong time for bringing more content to market, but that is exactly what is happening. Nowhere is this better seen that the video subscriptions space with a blizzard-like flurry of new services from Disney, Warner, Apple, Discovery and NBC.

The net result of an over-supply of content is that attention saturation will become an attention deficit for many players, Netflix included. The marketplace needs a new currency for measuring success and monetising audiences.

The MIDiA Attention Economy Event

This is where I am going to cut to credits, leaving you on a cliff edge. For those of you in London next Wednesday (November 20th), come along to our free-to-attend attention economy event, where you can hear my colleague Karol Severin present our attention saturationresearch and our take on what will be the next audience currency that content providers will need to compete for. For those of you not in London there will also be a live stream, which you will be able to find here at 7pm GMT. Also, check back in next week when I will post the next chapter in this story.

NOTE: I shamelessly sat on the shoulders of giants in this post – these ideas were collectively crafted by the entire, amazingly talented MIDiA team.

Spotify Podcasts Q3 2019: Solid Start

Word count is always a useful guide for how important something is to a company’s ambitions. It is therefore no small detail that Spotify’s Q3 2019 earnings release mentioned the word ‘podcast’ thirteen times. Spotify has bet big on podcasts – spending $340 million on Gimlet and Anchor – and they now form a central component of Spotify’s strategy for five main reasons:

  1. They are Spotify’s most realistic mid-term means of creating original content at scale
  2. They represent Spotify’s (current) biggest long-term revenue bet outside of music
  3. They are crucial to helping Spotify fulfil its ambition of enabling a million creators to earn a living from their art
  4. They help Spotify diversify its content offering
  5. They represent an opportunity to improve margins

Podcasts also enable Spotify to compete on a bigger stage: radio. The commercial radio market is a bigger pond to fish in than the recorded music market and represents an opportunity to drive the continued growth investors so crave should subscriber growth slow.

spotify podcasts metrics midia research q3 2019Spotify announced in its Q3 2019 earnings that 14% of its monthly average users (MAUs) streamed podcasts on the platform during the quarter, representing 33.7 million users and generating $15.9 million.* With total podcast hours up 39% on Q2, there is clearly momentum too – though this growth will be boosted by new podcast users shifting more of their podcast time to Spotify. Spotify has established itself as an important player in the global podcast marketplace but is far from a dominant player yet (it will likely hit 5.5% of global podcast revenue market share by year end 2019). Also, podcasts are still a tiny part of Spotify’s business (just 0.8% of Spotify’s total Q3 2019 revenue).

Competing for share of ear

Spotify’s podcast moves however are motivated not just by growth ambition but also as a defensive strategy for maintaining its audience’s attention.Prior to adopting its bold podcast strategy, Spotify’s users were already active podcast users – the problem was that they were going elsewhere to listen. So, podcasts for Spotify are as much about competing for share of ear as they are driving ad revenue. As of Q3 2019, just under 14% of Spotify’s user base streamed podcasts on the platform. MIDiA’s consumer data indicates that 32% of Spotify’s weekly active users (WAUs) listen to podcasts monthly, 27% weekly and 19% daily. Spotify’s reported numbers are on a quarterly basis so a comparison with the monthly figure is generous to Spotify, but even on that basis more than half of Spotify’s user base is still listening to podcasts elsewhere. This is clearly both challenge and opportunity for Spotify and points to why it is taking originals so seriously.

Spotify’s clear strategic focus suggests that there is plenty more to come and with nearly half of current podcast listeners also Spotify users, the moves it makes will have profound implications for all other companies in the podcast marketplace.

NOTE: This blog is based on an excerpt from MIDiA’s forthcoming report ‘­­­Spotify Podcast Strategy: Strong Start but a Long Way to Go’. If you are not already a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about how to get access to this report and MIDiA’s other podcast research email stephen@midiaresearch.com

*Spotify stated podcast revenues were ‘less than 10%’ of all ad revenues in its Q3 19 earnings release. As the results are SEC regulated we will assume that Spotify was not being intentionally misleading with this figure and that it does not also mean less than 5%. For this estimate we have taken the midpoint of 7.5% of all ad revenue.

Take Five (the big five stories and data you need to know) October 14th 2019

Take5 (1)Fortnite black hole: In what may be the most audacious global games marketing stunt ever, Epic Games killed off Fortnite in Sunday’s end-of-season event, which one million people viewed live on Twitch. The game got sucked into a black hole, with Epic deleting 12,000 Fortnite tweets and all information on its website. Has Fortnite really gone for good? Did Elon Musk delete it? The likelihood is it will be back for chapter two sometime this week.

CDbaby, independent artist boom: Independent artist distributor CDbaby is now collecting $1million a day in revenue for its 750,000 independent artists. Earlier this year, ambitious publishing group Downtown acquired CDbaby’sparent AVL meaning the publisher is also now a top player in the independent artists space. Publishers are reversing into recordings.

Analytics curve ball:Little Big League baseball team Minnesota Twins isusing analytics to revamp its pitching staff, including figuring out which players should be throwing what types of balls. Sports has long been ahead of the performance analytics curve. Lots of lessons for media companies here.

Netflix Italy deal: Netflix has agreed a co-production deal with Italian media giant Mediaset. Under the deal the two companies will co finance seven movies that first will be distributed globally by Netflix then broadcast free-to-air in Italy one year later. Netflix needs to deepen its international content but can’t afford to do it by itself anymore.

Spotify/Apple – regulation storm brewing: It is a case of when, not if, tech majors (Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook) are going to be regulated. The effect could be like when the EU compelled Microsoft to unbundle Windows Media Player in the 2000s, instigating its long-term decline. Spotify’s complaint against Apple is building momentum with US law makers and could be the first step.

Take Five (the big five stories and data you need to know) – September 16th 2019

Spotify – small step, big step: Spotify has announced that it is acquiring musician marketplace company Soundbetter. Back in July, Spotify halted its artist direct offering. Some quarters viewed that as the end of Spotify’s disruptive label-competitor strategy. We thought differently, and this acquisition confirms it. Being a next-gen label means being so much more than what labels used to do. Spotify is building it from the ground up, starting with artist collaboration.

Apple, half-bundle: While launching new hardware, Apple announced it will be bundling a year of Apple TV+ with new device sales.This feels like it is more about Apple not feeling that it has enough value to expect standalone subscribers yet, and that it expects to be in a stronger place 12-18 months from now. Nevertheless, Apple’s future is bundling. Two to three years from now, expect an all-in-one bundle of everything Apple has to offer, fully integrated into its devices. That’s how to drive up device average revenue per user (ARPU) in a saturated market with slowing replacement cycles.

Apple, SKU skew: Lots of announcements from Apple – including Arcade. The very fact that there were so many (e.g. three iPhones) points to one of Apple’s most important post-Jobs transformations: fragmentation. In the 2000s Apple had a far more concise product line-up than its traditional Consumer Electronic (CE) competitors. Now it has dozens of products and services and looks every bit the traditional CE company. Gone are the days of the simplicity of one iPhone, replaced by a suite of segmented, highly-targeted product SKUs (Stock Keeping Units). Clarity of single purpose is a luxury no longer afforded.

 

Peak tech, sort of: The title of Vox’s peak tech piece turned out to be much more promising than the piece itself(which focuses on what terms companies are using to describe themselves). But there is a bigger story here: we have now reached a stage where a) tech is a meaningless concept – everything is tech, and b) there is the realisation that companies that use tech to maintain networks of services and customers (Uber, WeWork etc.) are highly vulnerable with little in the way of actual assets. If the tech bubble bursts, investors will need somewhere else to put their money.

Space lift – yes, space lift: Years ago, sci-fi author Arthur C Clarke wrote of a tower that would act as an elevator for spacecraft to launch directly from the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere, thus saving the huge thrust energy required to leave the earth’s orbit. It turns out that no known materials would support such a vast structure. Now two astronomers have proposed an alternative – a 225,00 mile long,pencil-thin, zip wire hanging down from the surface of the moon…you couldn’t make it up.

 

Songwriters Aren’t Getting Paid Enough and Here’s Why

Music Business Worldwide recently ran a story on how Apple has proposed a standard streaming rate for songwriters, with Google and Spotify apparently resistant. Of course, Apple can afford to run Apple Music at a loss and has a strategic imperative for making it more difficult for Spotify to be profitable, so do not assume that Apple’s intentions here are wholly altruistic. Nonetheless, it shines a light on what is becoming an open wound for streaming: songwriter discontent. In the earlier days of streaming artists were widely sceptical, but over the years have become much more positive towards the distributive medium. The same has not happened for songwriters for one fundamental reason: they still are not paid enough. This is not simply a case of making streaming services pay out more; rather, this is a complex problem with many moving parts.

Songwriters don’t sell t-shirts

Streaming fundamentally changes how creators earn royalties, shifting from larger, front-loaded payments to something more closely resembling an annuity. In theory, creators should earn just as much money, but over a longer period of time. If you are a larger rightsholder then this is often wholly manageable. If you are a smaller songwriter or artist, then the resulting cash flow shortage can hit hard. Many artists, especially newer ones, have made it work because a) streaming typically only represents a minority of their total income, and b) the increased exposure streaming brings usually boosts their other income streams such as live performances and merchandise. Professional songwriters however – i.e. those that are not also performers – do not sell t-shirts. Royalty income is pretty much it. There is a greater need to fix songwriter streaming income than there was for artists.

The four factors shaping songwriter income

There are four key factors impacting how much songwriters earn from streaming, and most of them can be fixed. To be clear, though, just fixing any single one of them will not move the dial in a meaningful-enough way:

  1. Streaming service royalties: Songwriter-related royalties are typically around 15% of streaming revenues, which represent around 21% of all royalties paid by streaming services – around 3.6 times less than master recordings-related royalties. This is better than it used to be, when the ratio was 4.8. However, there is clearly still a large gap between the two sets of rights. Labels argue that they are the ones who take the risk on artists, invest in them and market them. Therefore, they should have the lion’s share of income. Publishers, on the other hand, argue that they are increasingly taking risks with songwriters too (paying advances) and working hard to make their music a success, e.g. with sync streams. They also argue that everything is about the song itself. Both arguments have credence, but the fact that streaming services have historically negotiated with labels first helps explain why there isn’t much left of the royalty pot when they get to publishers. There is clearly scope for some increase for songwriters, but if there is not an accompanying reduction in label rates – not exactly a strong possibility – then the net result will be reduced margins for streaming services. Given that Spotify has only just started generating a net profit, the likely outcome would be to weaken Spotify’s position and skew the market towards those companies who do not need to see streaming pay – i.e. the tech majors. If the market becomes wholly dependent on companies that thrive on squeezing suppliers… well, good luck with that.
  2. CMOs: Many songwriter royalties are collected by collective management organizations (CMOs). These (normally) not-for-profit organisations administer rights, take their deductions and then either pay to songwriters directly or to publishers who then pay songwriters (after taking their own deductions). It gets more complicated than that, however. If a songwriter is played overseas, the local CMO collects, deducts and then sends the remainder to the CMO where the songwriter is based (however there are a good number of exceptions to this with a number of CMOs not deducting for overseas collections). That CMO takes its deduction and then distributes. It gets more complicated still – some CMOs apply an additional ‘cultural deduction’ on top of their main fee before distributing. So, if a US hip-hop artist gets played in Europe, the local CMO will take its cut, and an administration fee. Then it goes to his local CMO which takes its fee before sending it to the publisher which then takes its own cut (typically just 25%) which however is much better than label shares.
  3. The industrialisation of song writing: With more music being released than ever, songs have to immediately grab the listener. To help ensure every part of the song is a hook and to try to de-risk their artists, bigger labels commission songwriter teams and hold song writing camps, where many song writers get together and write the tracks for albums. This means that the royalties for every song are thus split into small shares across multiple songwriters. Drake’s ‘Nice for What’ has 20 songwriters credited. That means the already small royalties are split 20 ways.
  4. The unbundling of the album: When music was all about selling physical albums, songwriters used to get paid the same mechanical royalty for every song on the album, regardless of whether it was the hit single or filler. Now that listeners and playlists dissect albums, skipping filler for killer, a weak song simply pays less. Tough luck if you only wrote the filler songs on the album. On the one hand, this is free market competition. If you didn’t write a song well, then don’t expect it to pay well. Some songwriters argue that it should go the other way too, though – if they wrote the song that made the artist a hit, then shouldn’t they be paid a larger share? 

Here’s another way of looking at it. With the above analysis, this is how many streams the songwriter needs to earn income based assuming the songwriter is equally sharing income four ways with three additional songwriters:

songwriter streaam income

It is incumbent on all of the stakeholders in the streaming music business to collectively work towards making earning truly meaningful income from streaming a realistic objective for songwriters. No single tactic will move the dial. Increasing the streaming service pay-out from 15% to 20%, for example, would still see the above-illustrated songwriter only earn 25% of that. All levers need pulling. Until they are, songwriters will feel short-changed and will remain the open wound that prevents streaming from fulfilling its creator potential. Ball in your court, music industry.

Note – since originally publishing this post I have had useful feedback from a number of rights associations and publishers. My assumptions actually translated (unintentionally) into a worst case scenario that was not representative of usual practise. The post has been updated to show a more typical revenue flow. The underlying arguments of the piece remain unchanged.

Why Spotify and Netflix Need to Worry About a Global Recession

A growing body of economists is becoming increasingly convinced that a global recession is edging closer. The last time we experienced a global economic downturn was the 2008 credit crunch. Although the coming recession will likely be a bigger shock to the global economy, it nonetheless gives us a baseline for what happens to consumer spending habits. When consumer income declines or is at risk, discretionary spend is hit first and often hardest. Crucially, entertainment falls firmly into discretionary spend so, as in 2008, it will be a canary in the mine for recessionary impact. However, streaming is the crucial difference between 2008 and 2019, and is one that could prove to be like throwing petrol on a fire.

Streaming has driven the rise of the contract-free subscriber

The growth of streaming music and video has been a narrative of the new replacing the old; of flexibility replacing rigidity. Crucial in this has been the role of contracts. Traditional media and telco subscriptions are contract-based, legally binding consumers into long-term relationships that typically need to paid off in order to be cancelled. Digital subscriptions, however, are predominately contract-free. For video this has created the phenomenon of the savvy switcher – consumers that subscribe and unsubscribe to different streaming services to watch their favourite shows. For music, because all the services have pretty much the same music, there has been negligible impact. In a recession, however, all of this could change.

No contract, no commitment 

Faced with having to cut spending, the average streaming subscriber would most likely look to cut traditional subscriptions first. For example, a Netflix subscriber with a cable subscription may want to cut the cable subscription and keep hold of Netflix because a) it is cheaper, and b) it is a better match for their content consumption. However, that consumer would quickly learn that cancelling a cable subscription mid-contract actually costs a lot of money. So, they would end up having to cancel Netflix instead, because there is no contractual commitment. The irony of the situation is that a consumer is having to cut the thing they least want to cut, simply because that is all they can do.

Music subscriptions could be collateral damage

The same consumer may also find themselves having to cancel their Spotify subscription, because cancelling Netflix did not save anywhere near as much money as cancelling cable would have done. On top of this, they probably would not feel the impact of cancelling Spotify anywhere near as much as cancelling Netflix. When Netflix goes, it just stops. Spotify on the other hand has a pretty good free tier, and that’s without even considering YouTube, Soundcloud, Pandora and a whole host of other places consumers can get streaming music for free. Streaming music is essentially recession-proof, but in a way that works for consumers, not for services.

If we do enter a global recession and it is strong enough to dent entertainment spend, then a probable scenario is that traditional distribution companies will be the key beneficiaries through the simple fact that that have their subscribers locked into contracts. This could even give these incumbents breathing space to prepare for a second attempt at combatting the threat posed by streaming insurgents. It would almost be like winding back the clock.

Tech majors may bundle their way out of a recession

Some companies could use this as an opportunity to aggressively gain market share. Amazon’s bundled approach could prove to be a recession-buster proposition, giving consumers ‘free’ access to a range of content as part of the Prime package. Similarly, Apple could decide to take its suite of subscription services (including Apple Music and Apple TV+) and bundle them into the cost of iPhones. This would enable it to help drive premium-priced device sales in a recession by positioning them as value-for-money options.

Stuck between contracts and bundles

For Spotify, Netflix and other streaming pure-plays, a recession could see them squeezed between traditional distribution companies and ambitious tech majors with contracts on one side and bundles on the other. Streaming services have been the disruptors for the last decade. A recession may well role-switch them into the disrupted.

Take Five (The Big Five Stories and Data You Need To Know)

Spotify, price hike: Pricing is streaming’s big problem. With premium revenue growth set to slow and ARPU declining due to family plans, discounts, bundles etc., the business needs another way to drive revenue. Unlike video, where pricing has increased above inflation, music has stayed at $9.99 so has deflated in real terms. On the case, Spotify is reported to be experimenting with increasing family plan pricing by 13% in Nordic markets. An encouraging move, but falls short of what is needed.

Viacom and CBS, old flames: Back in 1999 Viacom and CBS merged in a deal valued at $35.6 billion. Things didn’t work out and the companies parted ways in 2005. Now, 20 years on, they’re at it again. This time CBS is buying Viacom in an all-stock deal valued at $28 billion that would consolidate 22% of US TV audience share. It is a very different move from 1999, when the deal saw the companies on the offensive. This is a defensive move against digital disruption. As Disney and Fox have shown, media companies need to be really big to take on tech companies. Expect more media company strategic mergers and acquisitions over the coming years.

Twitch, user revolt: Amazon’s games video streaming platform Twitch finds itself in an awkward spat with top Fortnite gamer Ninja. Twitch promoted other channels on Ninja’s channel, including inadvertently promoting porn. Ninja promptly left Twitch, lured by Microsoft’s deep pockets to switch allegiance to Mixer. Ironically, the big-pay-for-smaller-audience move is similar to the Top Gear presenters’ switch from the BBC to Amazon. Now Amazon knows how it feels. Before it happens again, it needs to decide whether streamers own their own channels – or whether it does.

Tencent, bleeding edge: Though the impending 30X EBITDA purchase of 10% of UMG has got the world’s attention right now, music has always been something of a side bet for Tencent. Games are more central to Tencent’s strategy. Still smarting from the Chinese authorities suddenly playing regulatory hardball on its domestic games business, Tencent is finding its stride again, including a partnership with chipmaker Qualcomm to innovate on the ‘bleeding edge’ of (mobile) games.

Nike, sneaker revolution: Who said subscriptions had to be digital? Nike has just launched a trainer / sneaker subscription aimed at kids. Well, it’s actually aimed at the parents of kids, with a monthly fee for quarterly, bimonthly or monthly purchases that results in net savings on trainers. Fast-growing kids constantly need new shoes, and this move reduces the risk of brand churn with cost-conscious parents. Footwear business economics aside, the growing legacy of digital content is familiarising consumers with subscription relationships.

Take Five (the big five stories and data you need to know) August 5th 2019

Spotify – steady sailing, for now: Spotify hit 108 million subscribers in Q2 2019 – which is exactly what we predicted. Spotify continues to grow in line with the wider market, maintaining market share. Subscriber growth isn’t the problem though, revenue is. As mature markets slow, emerging markets will keep subscriber growth up but with lower APRU will bring less revenue. Spotify needs a revenue plan B. If podcast revenue is it, then it needs to start delivering, fast.

Fortnite World Cup: It can be hard to appreciate the scale of transformative change while it is still happening. A few years from now we’ll probably look back at the late 2010s as when e-sports started to emerge as a global-scale sport in its own right. Epic Games’ inaugural Fortnite World Cup pulled in 2.3 million viewers on YouTube and Twitch, was played in the Arthur Ashe Stadium and the singles winner picked up more prize money ($3 million) than Tiger Woods at the Masters and Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon.

Facebook trying to do an Apple, and an Amazon: With 140 million daily users of its Watch video service, Facebook is positioning to become the video powerhouse it always looked like it could be. Now it is trying to follow in Apple and Amazon’s footsteps and make itself a video device company too. Currently in talks with all its key video competitors, Facebook wants to add streaming to its forthcoming video calling device. That would leave Alphabet as the only tech major without a serious video household device play (unless you count Android TV).

Ticking time bomb?: Having recently hit 120 million users in India, TikTok clearly has scale, but it also has a rights problem, calling in the UK Copyright Tribunal to resolve a dispute with digital licensing body ICE, which characterised TikTok as being ‘unlicensed’. This feels a lot like the days when YouTube was first carving out licenses. Sooner or later TikTok is going to need a licensing framework that rights holders will sign off on. Matters just took a twist with TikTok poaching ICE’s Head of Rights and Repertoire. It’ll take more than that though to fix this structural challenge. 

We’re competing with Fornite: Yes, more Fortnite….fresh from World Cup success and on the eve of the Ashes, the English Cricket Board said ‘There’s 200 million players of Fortnite…that is who we are competing against.’ Do not mistake this for a uniquely cricket problem, nor even a uniquely sports problem. In the attention economy everyone is competing against everyone. And while Fornite might be the go-to for middle-aged execs bemoaning attention competition (yes that means you Reed Hastings) the trend is bigger than Fortnite alone, way bigger.

The Frank Ocean Days May Be Gone, but Streaming Disintermediation Is Just Getting Going

Aaron_Smith
At the start of this month Apple struck a deal with French rap duo PNL. PNL are part of a growing breed of top-tier frontline artists that have opted to retain ownership of their masters. In our just-published Independent Artists report (MIDiA clients can read the full report here)we have sized out the label services marketplace, and when it is coupled with artists direct (i.e. DIY) the independent artist sector was worth 8% of the entire recorded music business in 2018.

While that number may sound relatively modest, it is growing fast and represents the future. Traditional label deals are not disappearing, but they are becoming just one component of an increasingly complex recorded music revenue mix. This is the industry context that enables initiatives such as Apple’s PNL deal and both Spotify and Apple backing Aaron Smith, who incidentally is signed to artist accelerator Platoon, which is a company that Apple acquired in December 2018.

Independent artists open up new opportunities for streaming services

When Apple did its exclusive with Frank Ocean back in 2016it caused such an industry backlash that UMG head Lucian Grainge banned his labels from doing exclusive deals and the movement seemed dead in the water. If there was any doubt, Spotify kicked up so much label ill will when it launched its Direct Artists platform that it officially shuttered the initiative in July. However, now we are seeing that there many more ways to skin the proverbial cat. It is perfectly possible to disintermediate labels without having to actually disintermediate them. Doing an exclusive with an independent artist or giving him / her priority promotion is doubly effective for streaming services as:

  1. Record labels have no right to complain because independent artists have just the same right of access to audiences as label artists
  2. The more exposure independent artists get, the more their market share will grow, which will lessen record labels’ market share, which makes it harder for them to resist and easier for the streaming services to start making bolder moves down the line

Ambiguity will be the shape of things

Even this structure plays into the traditional view of labels versus the rest. The new truth is much more nuanced. For example, when Stormzy was duetting with Ed Sheeran at the Brits, signed on a label services deal to WMG’s ADA, was he a Warner artist or an independent artist? He was, of course, both. The evolution of the market will be defined by progressively more of this ambiguity, which will give streaming services equally more ability to not only play to these market dynamics but to stress-test the boundaries. The simple fact is that streaming services will become ever-agnostic with regards to artists’ commercial partnerships and in turn they will become a more important component of the value chain. Apple Music did the PNL deal because they had much more commercial flexibility dealing with an independent artist than dealing with a label artist. At some stage, labels will have to decide whether they want to revisit the exclusives model. Without doing so, they may not get a seat at the new table.

Spotify Takes Aim at Radio, Again

Spotify has launched a radio-like feature set for premium subscribers in the US called Your Daily Drive.Although it is only positioned as a playlist, the content mix includes podcast news content and plays music the listener already likes with a sprinkling of new tracks. This might not sound that special, but this ‘recurrent heavy’, news-anchored programming is Spotify taking the essence of US drive time radio and translating it into a playlist. As we wrote back in early 2018, radio is streaming’s next frontier, and nowhere is that more true than in the US.

streaming playlist usage midia research podcasts

Right now, streaming consumption is fragmented across multiple programming formats with no stand-out use case. Curated playlists are not for music what binge watching is for video. While this is positive in the context of multiple use cases being met within an increasingly diverse user base, if streaming is ever going to seriously challenge the mainstream mass-market audience that is radio, it needs a binge watching equivalent. Streaming needs a simple, easy to understand and access format that translates seamlessly to traditional radio audiences. Your Daily Drive is a very small first step on that journey.

The playlist is now just a delivery vehicle

If we were to rewind just a few years ago, the idea of Spotify delivering drive-optimized playlists interspersed with news may not have sounded totally outlandish but it would nonetheless have only felt a distant possibility. But now that Spotify has extensive podcast capabilities under its belt and a very proven willingness to insert podcasts throughout the music user’s experience, the concept of what constitutes a playlist needs rethinking entirely…largely because that is exactly what Spotify has just done. The industry needs to start thinking about playlists not as a collection of music tracks but instead as a targeted, personalized and programmed delivery vehicle for any combination of content. In old world parlance you might call it a ‘channel’, but that does not do justice to the vast personalization and targeting capabilities that playlists, and Spotify’s playlists in particular, can offer.

In this context, Your Daily Drive is not simply a playlist but instead Spotify’s first foray into next-generation radio broadcasting. There will doubtless be further Spotify playlist announcements over the coming months that leverage podcast content. As with Your Daily Drive, they won’t just be playlists; instead, pay attention to what they are aiming to compete with to understand their true intent.

Making radio work takes more than just making radio work

Radio programming itself will take a long time for Spotify to master – just look how long it is taking Apple. Even when it does, the even bigger challenge is monetisation. Ad-supported revenue simply isn’t growing fast enough, and the Q1 earnings (which recognized the revenue of its new podcast companies) did not indicate that podcasts were going to bring a big bump anytime soon either. To compete with radio in a meaningful way, Spotify will have to invest heavily in ad sales and ad tech to the same extent that Pandora has. That means having people pounding the streets, knocking on the doors of mom and pop stores selling local spot ads, through to competing with Google, Facebook and Amazon to deliver world class ad tech. No small task, but the rewards could be huge.