What is the value of exposure when exposure is all there is?

There is an existential debate going on at the moment, around whether streaming is paying artists enough. It may feel like a rerun of old debates but it is catalysed by COVID-19 decimating artist income. These are some of the key narratives: here, here and here.

In this piece I lay out the underlying economics of the argument. I also focus wholly on artist income as songwriter income is another topic entirely.

COVID-19 has reset the debate

The latest streaming royalty debate is not an isolated event. It is happening because COVID-19 has decimated live income, leaving many artists worrying about how to make ends meet. Last week, just before this whole debate kicked into gear I wrote:

“Live’s lockdown lag may have the knock-on effect of making artists take a more critical view of their streaming income. When live dominated their income mix, streaming’s context was a meaningful revenue stream that built audiences to drive other forms of income. It was effectively marketing artists got paid for. Now that artists are becoming more dependent on streaming income, the old concerns about whether they are getting paid enough will likely come back to the fore. It is in the interests of both labels and streaming services, that labels use this as an opportunity to revisit their streaming splits with artists. Labels cannot afford to have artists united against the labels’ primary income stream.”

None of this makes the debate any less important, but it explains why it is happening now, and with live revenue potentially set to take years to fully recover, it is a reality that streaming services and labels need to adjust to. It is in the interests of both labels and streaming services that artists feel like they are being treated fairly. But it is crucial that this debate is grounded in a firm understanding of streaming economics and that we do not return to the mudslinging of more than half a decade ago. A debate which, by the way, did not result in any fundamental change to how artist royalties are paid and was eventually followed by labels negotiating smaller revenue shares with Spotify and others.

Where streaming has got us to

Firstly, let’s lay some ground markers:

  • Streaming has driven half a decade of recorded music revenue growth, with the market now 42% bigger than it was in 2014
  • The wider streaming economy has globalised fandom and engagement
  • More people are listening to more music now than before

Streaming has been the change agent that turned around 15 years of decline. But it also completely reframed artist income from recorded music. In the old sales model artists would get a large sum of money in a relatively short period of time. Streaming income is more like an annuity, a longer-term return where the music keeps paying long after release. In the old model artists had smaller but high-spending audiences. With streaming they have larger but lower-value audiences.

For example, a recouped independent artist might expect to earn $4,500 for selling 1,500 copies of an album. That is roughly how much an artist would get from 5,000 people streaming the album 20 times each. The average revenue per user (ARPU) has gone from $3.00 to $0.90 for streaming. The artist has traded ARPU for reach.

This model worked fine when live and merch were booming because more than three times as many monetised fans meant three times more opportunity for selling tickets and t-shirts. This of course is the ‘exposure’ argument streaming services are fond of, which works until it does not. Now that live and merch have collapsed, as the trope goes ‘exposure does not pay the rent’. The previously interconnected, interdependent model has become decoupled.

Put simply, artist streaming economics do not work without live.

midia streaming royalty payments

The question is: what levers can actually be pulled and what effect can they have? In the above chart I have used Spotify’s 2019 premium revenues to illustrate how changes in royalty shares can impact what artists earn. I have used a total per stream rate of $0.06 as the base case, which could look on the high side for some artists, but the purpose is to show the relative change. Whatever amount the base rate is, it will increase by the same percentages.

The tl;dr of the chart is the most radical of the options (label rate returns to 55%, podcast dilution is removed from the royalty pot, a 25% increase in retail price and therefore royalties) results in a very meaningful uplift of 42% in royalties for artists from today’s current state. But, the three problems here are:

  1. Such measures could damage the commercial sustainability of streaming
  2. It does not change the underlying annuity model shift that streaming represents
  3. We are about to enter a recession. Music subscriptions are at risk, increasing the prices right now could accelerate subscriber churn. Meaning a bigger slice of a smaller cake for artists.

Let’s take the first two points in turn.

1) Spotify lost $184 million in 2019. With this royalty model it would have lost more than $1 billion. Spotify would have to reduce its operating costs by a fifth just to get back to losing $184 million. Critics would argue this represents trimming the fat. It might, but it would also likely lead to Spotify:

  1. Cutting back on product development
  2. Cutting back on growing its subscriber base
  3. Finding new ways to charge labels and artists for additional services

None of these are reasons not to pursue the strategy but they are prices that labels and artists have to be willing to take. Spotify revenue growth will slow. Furthermore, it will skew the market towards Apple, Amazon and Google who can afford to make music loss leading. In the mid term this may benefit artists, but in the longer term (i.e. when Spotify is sufficiently squeezed) these tech majors are likely to follow their MO of ‘reducing inefficiencies in the supply chain’. So be careful what you wish for.

2) Taking an artist straw person, with 20% of her total income coming from streaming, if live and merch only gets to 25% of its previous level, the 41% increase in streaming income would still see her total annual income fall by 40%.

No streaming lever can be pulled hard enough to offset the decline in live revenue.

So, let’s pull together all the pieces:

  1. Streaming royalties can be increased meaningfully if prices are increased and rates revisited but it may slow the streaming market
  2. Now is probably not the best time to be increasing streaming prices for consumers
  3. Even a big increase is not going to offset the fall in live income

There is not a simple, single answer to fixing the current crisis in artist income. A blended, pragmatic solution would be:

  1. Increase royalties at a middle option rate (do not increase prices until after the recession)
  2. Artists push their fans to buy their music at destinations like Bandcamp
  3. Professionalise and commercialise the livestreaming sector, with a strong focus on charging for events in order to create some live income
  4. Innovate virtual fandom products to drive new, additional income streams

It is not going to be easy for artists for some time yet. The hard truth is that income levels will not return to full strength until live does, and that is a way off yet. Streaming is more important now than ever so any solution must balance maintaining its momentum and scale with sustaining artist careers.

Independents Grew Fastest on Spotify in 2019, But There’s a Twist

Tomorrow (Wednesday 29th April) Spotify announces its Q1 2020 results, at which point we will find out whether it had a COVID-bounce like Netflix did (adding 15.8 million subscribers in Q1) or whether growth slowed. But before that, there is one little detail from Spotify’s 2019 Annual Report which warrants a closer look. Hidden away in the commentary there is this innocuous looking line:

“For the year ended December 31, 2019 [Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, and Merlin] accounted for approximately 82% of music streams.”

The same line is in Spotify’s 2018 Annual Report with the figure at 85%. So, the majors and Merlin indies saw their share of Spotify streams decline by three percentage points in 2019. That in itself is interesting and builds on the narrative of the streaming tail getting longer and fatter, with the superstars losing share. But with a little creative thinking we can do a lot more with this three percentage points shift.

Using MIDiA’s label market shares data for FY 2019 we can do a full breakdown of Spotify’s streaming revenue. Applying shares for streaming volumes to streaming revenue, and shares for the total streaming market to Spotify is not methodologically pure and has margins of error, but it is a broadly sound approach and lets us do the following:

  • First we apply the percentage share to Spotify’s annual revenue
  • Next, we take the majors’ share of streaming revenues for 2019 and apply them to Spotify’s streaming revenue
  • We can then deduct the majors from the majors + Merlin total to leave us with Merlin’s revenue
  • Then we apply the independent artists streaming share to the Spotify revenue which leaves us with one remaining segment: ‘other independent labels’

spotify streaming griowth by label type

What emerges is a hierarchy of dramatically different growth rates, ranging from just 11% for Merlin labels through to a dramatic 48% for independent artists and an even more impressive 58% for ‘other independent labels’. This provides further evidence of the way in which (much of) the independent sector continues to thrive during streaming’s continuing ascendancy.

spotify streaming growth by label type

Most intriguing is the 58% growth for ‘other independent labels’. I am using the quote marks because this is essentially an ‘all others’ bucket and so captures music entities that don’t fit the traditional classification of ‘label’. This includes AI generative music and of course library music companies like Epidemic Sound.

It is of course important to consider that growth rates are not absolute growth – the majors still added much more new Spotify revenue in 2019 (€1 billion) than all of the rest put together. Nonetheless, the difference in growth rates is stark and only Spotify will be able to answer questions about how much of this is organic versus how much of this is driven by the way that it engineers its recommendations and programming.

Whatever the causes, the effect is clear: streaming benefits everyone but it benefits some more than others.

The COVID Bounce: How COVID-19 is Reshaping Entertainment Demand

The economic disruption and social dislocation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is not evenly distributed. Some business face catastrophe, while others thrive. Across the entertainment industries the same is true, ranging from a temporary collapse of the live business through to a surge in gaming activity. As we explain in our free-to-download COVID-19 Impact report, the extra time people have as a result of self-isolation has boosted some forms of entertainment more than others – with games, video and news the biggest winners so far.

midia research - the covid bounceTo further illustrate these trends, MIDiA compiled selected Google search term data across the main entertainment categories. The chart below maps the change in popularity of these search terms between the start of January 2020 up to March 27th. Google Trends data does not show the absolute number of searches but instead an index of popularity. These are the key findings:

  • Video streaming: All leading video subscription services saw a strong COVID-19-driven spike, especially Disney+ which managed to coincide its UK launch with the first day of national home schooling.
  • Music streaming: Little more than a modest uptick for the leading music services, following a long steady fall – reflecting a mature market sector unlike video, which has been catalysed by major new service launches.
  • Video demand: With the mid- to long-term prospect of a lot more time on their hands, consumers have been strongly increasing searches for TV shows, movies and games to watch and play. The fact that ‘shows for kids to watch’ is following a later but steeper curve reflects the growing realisation by locked-down families that they have to stop the kids going stir crazy while they try to work from home.
  • Music demand: Demand for music has been much more mixed, including a pronounced downturn in streams in Italy. Part of the reason is that music is something people can already do at any time in any place. So, the initial instinct of consumers was to fill their newfound time with entertainment they couldn’t otherwise do at work/school. As the abnormal normalises music streaming will pick up, as the recent increase in searches for music and playlist terms suggests. Podcasts, however, look like they will take longer to get a COVID bounce.
  • Games: Games activity and revenues have already benefited strongly from the new behaviour patterns, as illustrated by the fast and strong increase in search terms. However, the recent slowdown in search growth suggests that the increase in gaming demand may slow.
  • News: The increased searches correlate strongly with the growth of the pandemic, but the clear dip at the end provides the first evidence of crisis-fatigue.
  • Sports: The closure of all major sports leagues and events has left a gaping hole in TV schedules and the lives of sports fans. The sudden drop in search terms shows that sports fans have quickly filled their lives with other entertainment and have little interest in keeping up with news of sports closures.
  • Leaders: Finally, Boris Johnson has seen his search popularity grow steadily with the pandemic, while Donald Trump’s has dipped.

Spotify Q4 2019: First Signs of the New Spotify

Spotify’s Q4 2019 results reflect another strong quarter and a good year for Spotify. Look a bit deeper, however, and there are the first signs of the new company that Spotify is building – and they point to a very different and much bolder future.

First, here are the headline metrics:

  • 124 million subscribers (exactly in line with MIDiA’s forecast built earlier in the year. In fact, we’ve been pretty good with our quarterly subscriber forecasts throughout the year – see the chart at the bottom of this post).
  • Six million inactive subscribers (flat from Q3 2019).
  • 271 million monthly average users (MAUs) and 153 million ad-supported MAUs, which is a paid conversion rate of 45.8%, down a little from Q3 2019 and Q4 2018 with Rest of World the fastest-growing ad-supported region. This fits with early-stage growth for Spotify in new markets. Unlike markets in Europe and the Americas, Spotify will likely see ad supported remaining a much larger share of the user base long term in markets like India, with less ability to monetise via ad revenue. Spotify needs some big telco deals, especially in India.
  • Subscriber churn was down to 4.8% from 5.2% one year earlier. This is slow but steady progress that helps stabilise Spotify’s business and helps net adds grow faster.
  • Subscriber average revenue per user (ARPU) was €4.65, down 5% on Q4 2018. Spotify stated that much of this decline was down to “the extension of the free trial period across our entire product suite in the quarter”.
  • Total revenue was €6.8 billion, up 29% from 2018 with ad supported just 10% of that.

So much for the old, now in with the new…

Spotify’s uphill journey towards profitability is well documented (net margin fell into negative territory again in Q4 2019, to -€77 million). The circa-70% rights costs base is the core issue here, and rights holders have little (no) desire to go any lower – in fact, publishers want increases. Spotify has had to explore where else it can grow its business with cost bases that are less than 70%. Podcasts, marketing and creator tools are the three publicly stated places where Spotify has placed its bets, and the Q4 results show small and early – but nonetheless crucially important – movements in each:

  • Podcasts: As MIDiA reported last month, Spotify has been growing its audience very quickly and is now the second-most widely used podcast platform. 44.8 million Spotify users now listen to Spotify podcasts, with total usage up 200% year-on-year (YoY). Though podcast revenue is still only around 1% of Spotify’s total revenues, this reflects Spotify’s overall relative underperformance in ad revenue. This needs to be fixed – at least in a few of the bigger digital ad markets – but podcasts have the additional benefit for Spotify of diluting the royalty pot and thus improving gross margin. Current license agreements have a strict cap on how much the pot can be diluted (and labels have no intention of increasing that cap). But by MIDiA’s estimates, even within the current deals, Spotify could potentially shave off up to seven points of music royalty payments. Little wonder, then, that Spotify said this in its earnings report: “Any decision to accelerate our investment in podcast and technology spend should be viewed as an indication of our belief that our strategy is having tangible results. We have gained even more confidence in the data, particularly around the benefits from podcasts, and as a result, 2020 will be an investment year.”

  • Marketing: Spotify launched its paid ad tools for labels and artists in beta in Q4 2019. Early results are positive: +30% click-through and listener conversion rates, and on the sponsored recommendations side, Caroline Music’s Trippie Redd’s fourth album was helped to #1 with sponsored recommendations. Though there has been some pushback from labels feeling that they shouldn’t have to pay to reach their own audiences, Spotify is not doing anything particularly unusual here. The strategy is directly comparable to what Facebook and YouTube do. In fact, record labels spend about a third of what they earn from YouTube on YouTube advertising. The impact of that sort of revenue exchange on Spotify’s commercial model cannot be understated.
  • Creators: 2020 is going to be a massive year for creators. Our early estimates are that artists direct generated around $820 million in 2019, growing more than twice as fast as the overall market. 2019 was another big year for the top of the funnel, but we think the even more interesting space is one step earlier: creator tools. Creator tools are the new top of the funnel, before music even makes it onto streaming services. In fact, we think this might be the music industry’s next big growth area – and Spotify is already betting big, with acquisitions like online collaboration tool Soundtrap and artist marketplace SoundBetter. The music industry was, understandably, preoccupied with Spotify competing with it by signing artists and ‘becoming a label’. Spotify backed off from this strategy, but by focusing its efforts on the creator end of the spectrum it is building the foundations for what a record label of the future will look like. Spotify may just be competing with the labels’ future business before they have even realised it. Spotify’s quote says it all (at least to those who are listening for it): “We will continue to grow and expand the marketplace strategy, including with services such as Soundtrap and Soundbetter.As an example, while still early days, Soundtrap doubled its paying subscriber base in Q4. Expect more innovation of products over the coming years.”

 The margin impact of these three business areas is already being felt: “The largest driver of outperformance stemmed from slight improvement in the non-royalty component of Gross Margin, including payment fees, streaming delivery costs, and other miscellaneous variances.” 

Picks and Shovels

These are the three pillars of the new Spotify – one that will continue to be powered by music, but with profit coming from ancillary services. In the California Gold Rush in the 19th century, the first person to make a million dollars was a man called Samuel Brannan. But he wasn’t a miner; he sold mining equipment. If there is a gold rush, you want to be selling picks and shovels. Spotify has found its picks and shovels.

spotify subscribers by quarter 2019

Amazon Music: From Dark Horse to Thoroughbred

Neatly ahead of Spotify’s Q4 earnings, Amazon has taken the rare step of announcing subscriber metrics for Amazon Music (inclusive of Prime Music and Music Unlimited). Amazon Music closed 2019 with 55 million ‘customers’ across free and paid. Based on our Q2 2019 numbers for Amazon and the fact that Amazon’s free tier was only rolled out in late 2019 across a few markets, MIDiA estimates Amazon Music’s actual subscriber number to be 50 million. This implies a subscriber growth of 16 million on 2018. Make no mistake, this is a really strong performance. From a bit-part player in 2015 and 2016, Amazon Music is now firmly established in streaming’s leading pack and looks set to overtake Apple Music in 2020. What’s more, unlike Apple and Spotify, Amazon’s wider business is not a top-tier player in dozens of countries, so Amazon Music’s geographic footprint is uneven – making its global figure even more impressive. Indeed, underneath this headline figure Amazon is the number two player in some of the world’s biggest music markets. Amazon is now in the big league.

amazon music 55 million users 50 millionn subscribers midia research

Since Q4 2016, Spotify has averaged 34.8% global music subscriber market share, meaning that despite fierce competition it has managed to stay ahead of the pack, actually increasing share slightly from 34.2% to 35.3%. Amazon’s success is in some respects even more impressive. In Q4 2015 Amazon Music’s subscriber base was just 18% of Spotify’s. By Q4 2019 (assuming Spotify hit the 124 million that MIDiA predicted for Q4 2019) Amazon’s 55 million subscribers represented 40% of Spotify’s – more than doubling its relative scale.

However, the DSP that should be paying most attention is Apple Music. Over the same period Amazon Music went from 49% of Apple’s subscriber base to 82%. At this rate Amazon could trump Apple for second place in 2020. It has already done so in a number of major music markets, including Germany, the UK and Japan – three of the world’s top four recorded music markets.

Extending the market

Amazon is often competing around, rather than with, Spotify and Apple. The combination of Prime Music and Echo / Alexa means that Amazon is extending the addressable market for streaming by unlocking older, higher-income households that do not fit the young, mobile-first demographic mold that the streaming market generally trades upon. Ellie Goulding’s Amazon exclusive ‘River’ claiming the UK Christmas number one spot illustrates that this under-served segment is far from a niche. Of course, Amazon is now also competing for the younger, mobile-centric consumer – Music Unlimited grew by more than 50% in 2019 – but, along with its new ad-supported and HD tiers, Amazon is pursuing a segmented strategy that is pushing beyond its older Prime Music beachhead.

Amazon Music’s success trades heavily on Amazon’s overall brand reach and existing customer relationships, so its global brand reach will always be less evenly distributed than Apple and Spotify’s. However, throughout 2018 and 2019 Amazon has been assertively building its reach in non-core markets through music and video. Traditionally Amazon has been a retailer first and a content brand second. Now, in newer markets across the globe, Amazon is building a reputation as a digital content provider first and retailer second. Though Amazon is clearly going to remain a retailer first globally, streaming is proving to be a powerful tool for establishing the company in markets that would have previously taken years and hundreds of millions of dollars to set up as fully functioning e-commerce markets.

While rightsholders will have well-grounded concerns about Amazon’s corporate objectives of using content to help sell consumer products, what is now undeniable is that Amazon Music and Video are both top-tier content services. Back in 2017 we suggested that the dark horse of Amazon was emerging from the shadows; now it is clear to see it is a thoroughbred in its own right.

Music Subscriber Market Shares H1 2019

Music Subscriber Market Shares 2019 MIDiA Research

The global streaming market continues to grow at pace. At the end of June 2019 there were 304.9 million music subscribers globally. That was up 34 million on the end of 2018, while the June 2018 to June 2019 growth was 69 million – exactly the same rate of additions as one year earlier.

Spotify remained the clear market leader with 108 million subscribers, giving it a global market share of 35.6%, EXACTLY the same share it had at the end of 2018 AND at the end of 2017. In what is becoming an increasingly competitive market, Spotify has continued to grow at the same rate as the overall market.

Meanwhile both Apple and Amazon have grown market share, though Apple is showing signs of slowing. At the end of 2017 Amazon (across all of its subscription tiers) had 11.4% global market share, pushing that up to 12.6% by end June 2019 with 38.3 million subscribers. Apple went from 17.3% to 18% over the same period – hitting 54.7 million subscribers, but while Amazon added share every quarter, Apple peaked at 18.2% in Q1 2019 before dropping slightly back to 18% in Q2 2019. Though at the same time, Apple increased market share in its priority market – the US, going from 31% in Q4 2018 to 31.7% in Q2 2019 with 28.9 million subscribers.

Google has been another big gainer, particularly in recent quarters following the launch of YouTube Music, going from just 3% in Q4 2017 to 5.3% in Q2 2019. Google had a well-earned reputation for being an under-performer in the music subscriptions market, a company that did not appear to actually want to succeed. Now, however, Google appears to be far more committed to subscriptions, pushing both YouTube Premium and YouTube Music hard, with a total of 16.9 music subscriptions in Q2 2019, compared to just 5.9 million at the end of 2017.

With the big four all gaining market share, the simple arithmetic is that smaller players have lost it. The share accounted for by all other services fell from 32.8% end-2017 to 28.4% mid-2019. This of course does not mean that all of these services lost subscribers; indeed, most grew, just not by as much as the bigger players. Of the other services, most are large single-market players such as Tencent (31 million – China), Pandora (7.1 million – US) MelOn (5.3 million – South Korea) with Deezer now the only other global player of scale (8.5 million).

In summary, 2019 was a year of growth and consolidation, with the global picture dominated by the big four players and Spotify retaining market share despite all three of its main competitors making up ground. 2020 is likely to be a similar year, though with a few key differences:

  • Key western markets like the US and UK will likely slow from Q4 2019 through to 2020. Meanwhile, emerging markets will pick up pace
  • This could shift market share to some regional players. For example, in Q3 Tencent’s subscriber growth accelerated at an unprecedented rate to hit 35.4 million subscribers. Tencent could be entering the hockey stick growth phase, and at just 2.6% paid penetration there is a LOT of potential growth ahead of it
  • Bytedance could create a new emerging market dynamic with its forthcoming streaming service. Currently constrained to India and Indonesia, Western rights holders may remain cautious about licensing it into Western markets. The unintended consequence is that the staid western streaming market could by end 2020 be looking enviously upon a more diverse and innovative Asian streaming market

These figures and findings are taken from MIDiA’s forthcoming Music Subscriber Market Shares, which includes quarterly data from Q4 2015 to Q2 2019 for 23 streaming services across 30 different markets. The data will be available on MIDiA’s Fuse platform later this week and the report will follow shortly thereafter.

If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to know how to get access to this report and dataset, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Take Five (the big five stories and data you need to know) November 25th 2019

Take5 (3)Disney tidies its streaming stats: Disney is tidying up its streaming subscriber numbers in preparation for reporting the performance so far of Disney+. In the shake-up, ESPN falls from 3.4 million to three million while Hulu goes from a 28.5 million to 29 million. All figures Q3 2019. Headline: Disney is already a streaming powerhouse and is about to become even bigger.

Spotify awards: Spotify is moving into the music awards space. The only surprise is that Spotify didn’t do this sooner; this is the equivalent of MTV moving into the awards space in the 2010s. Spotify will be hoping, probably with good reason, that it will be able to make its awards a bigger deal than YouTube has its YouTube Music Awards.

Tecent’s global gaming empire: Tencent has invested in 40% of Fortnite owner Epic Games and 11.5% in competitor PUBG. By using access to the Chinese market as leverage for getting equity stakes in western games publishers, Tencent is building a global games business. It may even be en route to becoming a global tech major. It has a long way to go, through.

YouTube creators can take a break, perhaps: YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki claims her company’s analytics can take a break from making content and come back with bigger metrics. The data is likely skewed by a) under-performing channels taking a break, and b) the novelty factor of a returning creator. The underlying truth, however, is that YouTube’s monetisation system skews strongly towards high-volume output. The system needs changing if creators are to genuinely be able to take breaks.

Throw ladders down: Meghan Rapinoe’s acceptance speech for her Woman of the Year award presents a new vision for how those with influence should use their platform for others’ voices, by ‘throwing down ladders’ for others to climb up. She tackles inequality in many forms in her speech and sounds more like an accomplished activist politician than a sports personality. If only all sports people (and politicians) could make contributions like this. Go watch the video.

Why the Music Industry Needs Bytedance to Disrupt It

Back in September 2018 I suggested that Spotify faced a Tencent risk,with the potential of Tencent launching a competitive offering in markets that Spotify is not yet in. This would effectively divide the world between Spotify in Europe, Americas and some of Asia, and Tencent potentially everywhere else. Since then, Tencent has been distracted by acquiring a 10% stake in Universal Music. The fact it is now reportedly looking for partners to share the investment could point to Tencent getting spooked by slowing streaming growth in the second half of the year, something MIDiA predicted in November last year. Meanwhile, as all this was happening, Bytedance’s TikTok has become a global phenomenon – adding 500 million users in 2019 to reach 1.2 billion in total. On the back of this success, Bytedance has picked up Tencent’s dropped baton and has been working on a subscription service that now looks set for a December launch. The streaming market desperately needs a breath of fresh air; the only question is whether music rights holders feel bold enough to let Bytedance launch something truly market changing.

Change, but remain the same

TikTok has undeniable scale, even though the 1.5 billion figure likely refers to installs rather than active users. While it is certainly bigger than previous music messaging apps, the tech graveyard is full of once-promising, now-dead or near-obsolete ones (Musical.ly, Flipagram, Dubsmash, Ping Tunes, Music Messenger etc). In order to ensure it does not go the way of its predecessors (i.e. burn bright but fast) TikTok must learn how to expand and evolve its content offering but remain true to its users’ core use cases. The smart digital content businesses do this. Facebook and YouTube have both dramatically changed their content mixes since launch, yet fundamentally meet the same underlying use cases they started out with. It is essential for TikTok to ensure it grows with its young audience in the way Instagram has – otherwise it risks following the unwelcome path of its predecessors.

Do first, ask forgiveness later

The three global-scale consumer music apps which are genuinely differentiated from the rest of the streaming pack are YouTube, Soundcloud and TikTok. All three have one thing in common: they did first and asked forgiveness later. Rather than coming to music rightsholders to acquire rights and then building platforms around whatever rights they were able to secure, they built apps, built scale and then entered into serious licensing conversations. Crucially, they did so from a position of strength. The rest managed to secure fundamentally the same sets of rights, resulting in a marketplace of streaming services that lack differentiation. They all have the same catalogue, pricing and device support. They are even competing largely in the same markets. They are forced to differentiate with extras, such as playlists, personalisation and branding. This contrasts sharply with the highly-differentiated streaming video market and is the equivalent of the automotive market telling everyone they have to buy a Lexus but can choose what colour paint they want. Those three disruptors did exactly that: they disrupted, and in doing so fast-forwarded the rate of innovation.

The music market needs Bytedance to do something transformational

This is the context in which Bytedance is building a music subscription service. What the music market really needs is for this to be something that builds on the ethos and use cases of TikTok rather than becoming a cookie-cutter “all you can eat” service. Soundcloud and YouTube both found themselves dumbing down their core propositions in order to launch music subscriptions. Now, with streaming growth slowing, the market needs a disruption more than ever. It needs a Plan B to reinvigorate growth.

It is all too easy to say that rights holders have held back the market, and in some respects they have. But they also have an obligation to protect their rights and core revenue source: streaming. Indeed, there is an argument that YouTube is currently holding back streaming potential by delivering such a compelling free proposition – something that would not have happened if it had licensed first and launched later.

Emerging markets testbed

Music experiences from China, Japan and South Korea look very different from the ones that have come from the West, whether you are looking at Tencent’s music apps or K-pop artists. While there is a temptation to say that these reflect the unique cultural make ups of their respective markets, in all probability much of it will export. Indeed, we already see this happening with the success of BTS and of course TikTok in Western markets. What unifies these experiences is monetising fandom rather than consumption (which is what Western services do). The problem is that it is difficult for music rightsholders to agree with digital service providers (DSPs) on how much of the assets monetised in fandom platforms should bear royalty income, and just how much. This is one of the main stumbling blocks in monetising fandom.

Emerging markets may be the perfect testbed. We have already seen this approach in Brazil, where Deezer launched a prepay carrier-billing-integrated 60% discounted music bundle with local carrier TIM and has enjoyed strong subscriber growth as a result. The fact that Bytedance may launch first in emerging markets such as India, Indonesia and Brazil suggests that this approach may be being followed. If so, there is a chance that we might see something genuinely innovative coming to market.

While this may not yet constitute the Tencent risk model, there nonetheless remains a chance that Bytedance could end up being an emerging market counterweight to the Western market incumbents. The streaming market needs something new to up the innovation ante; let’s hope Bytedance can take on that mantle…

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.