Here’s How Spotify Can Fix Its Songwriter Woes (Hint: It’s All About Pricing)

Songwriter royalties have always been a pain point for streaming, especially in the US where statutory rates determine much of how songwriters get paid. The current debate over Spotify, Amazon, Pandora and Google challenging the Copyright Royalty Board’s proposed 44% increase illustrates just how deeply feelings run. The fact that the challenge is being portrayed as ‘Spotify suing songwriters’ epitomises the clash of worldviews. The issue is so complex because both sides are right: songwriters need to be paid more, and streaming services need to increase margin. Spotify has only ever once turned a profit, while virtually all other streaming services are loss making. The debate will certainly continue long after this latest ruling, but there is a way to mollify both sides: price increases.

spotify netflix pricing inflation

When Spotify launched in 2008, the industry music standard for subscription pricing was $9.99. So, when its premium tier was launched in May 2009, it was priced at $9.99. Incidentally, Spotify racked up an initial 30,000 subscribers that month – it has come a long way since. But now, nearly exactly ten years on, Spotify’s standard price is still $9.99. Its effective price is even lower due to family plans, trials, telco bundles etc., but we’ll leave the lid on that can of worms for now. Over the same period, global inflation has averaged 2.95% a year. Applying annual inflation to Spotify’s 2009 price point, we end up at $13.36 for 2019. Or to look at it a different way, Spotify’s $9.99 price point is actually the equivalent of $7.40 in today’s prices when inflation is considered. This means an effective real-term price reduction of 26%.

Compare this to Netflix. Since its launch, Netflix has made four major increases to its main tier product, lifting it from $7.99 in 2010 to $12.99 in 2019. Crucially, this 63% price increase is above and beyond inflation. An inflation-adjusted $7.99 would be just $10.34. Throughout that period, Netflix continued to grow subscribers and retain its global market leadership, proving that there is pricing elasticity for its product.

Spotify and other streaming services are locked in a prisoner’s dilemma

So why can’t Spotify do the same as Netflix? In short, it is because it has no meaningful content differentiation from its competitors, whereas Netflix has exclusive content and so has more flexibility to hike prices without fearing users will flock to Amazon. If they did, they’d have to give up their favourite Netflix shows. Moreover, Netflix has to increase prices to help fund its ever-growing roster of original content, creating somewhat circular logic, but that is another can of worms on which I will leave the lid firmly screwed.

If Spotify increases its prices, it fears its competitors will not. Likewise, they fear Spotify will hold its pricing firm if any of them were to increase. It is a classic prisoner’s dilemma.  Neither side dare act, even though they would both benefit. Who can break the impasse? Labels, publishers and the streaming services. If they could have enough collective confidence in the capability of subscriptions over free alternatives, then a market-level price increase could be introduced. Rightsholders are already eager to see pricing go up, while streaming services fear it would slow growth. Between them, there are enough carrots and sticks in the various components of their collective relationships to make this happen.

However – and here’s the crucial part – rightsholders would have to construct a framework where streaming services would get a slightly higher margin rate in the additional subscriber fee. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in exactly the same position we are now, with creators, rightsholders, and streaming services all needing more. When Netflix raises its prices it gets margin benefit, but under current terms, if Spotify raises prices it does not.

The arithmetic of today’s situation is clear: both sides cannot get more out of the same pot of cash. So, the pot has to become bigger, and distribution allocated in a way that not only gives both sides more income, but also allows more margin for streaming services.

Streaming music in 2019 is under-priced compared to 2009. Netflix shows us that it need not be this way. A price increase would benefit all parties but has to be a collective effort. Where there is a will, there is a way.

What’s Next For Playlist Innovation?

This is a guest post from MIDiA Research’s Keith Jopling.

In this era of access to all music and everything about it, I do enjoy reading artist interviews, and pay attention to artists’ views on the modern music industry. What caught me recently were Mark Ronson’s remarks on songwriting in the age of the playlist in The Guardian:

“Everything has to be produced so it sounds competitively as loud as possible coming out of an iPhone or as loud as possible when it comes out of a Spotify hits playlist; you have to make sure the kick drum and the guitar have the same loudness and presence all the way through the whole fucking song or you don’t stand a chance. It’s kind of crazy how you have to think about music now.”

I have heard similar views from artists in recent years and they do have grounds, though you’ll be hard pressed to prove that streaming and playlists have truly altered music per se. After all how would that equate with the huge success of ‘slow music’ playlists, from Peaceful Piano to Esquenta Sertanejo to Your Favourite Coffeehouse?

There has certainly been an industry skew towards ‘streaming hits’ though. More artists are making “Spotify-core” (i.e. music that will do anything to avoid being skipped) and that’s a genre perhaps lacking in subtlety, But can it be accused of crowding out other, subtler types of music?

I would argue that playlists have changed the way we listen more than they have changed music itself. If the first port-of-call for music consumers is to hear songs on playlists, a lot of context around the music is lost. Already, research has shown that listeners are hard pushed to recall song titles, let alone the albums those songs are taken from. Speaking of albums, it strikes me as high time the industry now evaluate just what a ‘post-album’ world will look and sound like. So perhaps somewhere to start is to think about more innovation with the format that in essence, has replaced the album – playlists.  

Are playlists now set in stone as 30-50 tracks that are forever subject to optimisation tools and analytics? I very much doubt it. Despite playlists becoming valuable commercial music real estate in their current form (at least on Spotify) it seems to me that there is plenty of scope for further creative development of the format. We are far from ‘peak playlist’. A glance at the latest MIDiA global consumer data for Q4 2018 would back this up, with just 17% of music streamers claiming to listen to playlists regularly. though that number nearly doubles for Spotify subscribers to 31%. Critical mass for Spotify but hardly mass behaviour for the market overall.

That said, playlists do greatly reflect the way consumers interact with music: compiling or selecting, listening and sharing, sometimes adding context along the way. The opportunities these behaviours offer as a vehicle for promoting and monetizing artists are immense and perhaps still largely untapped, especially with regard to contextualization of new talent, as well as the creative resurfacing of songs from within music catalogues too.

A slowdown in playlist innovation

Spotify came to be the platform that really owns the playlist format, and it achieved this through a breakneck period of innovation between July 2015 and September 2016, with curated playlists brands like Rap Caviar and Today’s Top Hits augmented with the personalised “made for you” power triangle of Discovery Weekly, Release Radar and Daily Mix.

But since then, in over two years there has been little of that same calibre, other than somewhat lighter initiatives such as “Your Time Capsule”. More recently, Spotify has begun to fuse some curated playlists together with algorithmic suggestions (‘algotorial’). The strategy to personalise more playlists not only makes it harder for its competitors to copy, but introduces many more song slots for direct or independent artists to fill. The strategy is smart but perhaps lacks imagination.

Playlist Innovation Timeline: There has been a slowdown following 18 months of blistering innovation led by Spotify between July ‘15 and September ‘16.

Playlist-Timeline

Despite this, remarkably none of the major streaming competitors have made moves to innovate in the playlist space either, which seems a shame when streaming services are desperate for differentiation strategies. Instead, Amazon, Apple and Deezer seem to have largely played a game of follow the leader, with similar playlists themes, visual presentation and even ever blander names. In recent days Pandora has launched something called Stories, a mesh of podcast + playlist, which seems not only to lack imagination but to be muddled. Isn’t that just a tweak on radio?

Many artists and labels are concerned about the power that services have with regard to playlisting. While getting tracks on to the current raft of major playlist properties represents a challenge for A&R and marketers the music industry, the more accessible platform-hosted independent curated playlist have been around since Napster.

There are few, if any, limits to the potential reach of these playlists, and their value is determined in part by how creative they are, and in part how shareable they are. The recording industry’s earlier efforts to build playlists or influence playlists have fallen short though lack of imagination, global thinking, context and shareability, but that just means that the industry is free to work more creatively with the wider playlist community. It surprises me that Spotify, which plays host to independent curators still (and hopefully will continue to) doesn’t do more to tend to the community. But this perhaps creates room for others to do so.

Personally, I can see new exciting playlist platform tools like Soundsgood helping global playlist curators reach audiences more easily, providing many more opportunities for artists, labels and creators in the process. Other platforms like Stationhead and Lost are doing interesting things too with curators and tracks, but perhaps could get more traction if they switched focus to playlists?

Bringing back context

I like playlists as much as the next music fan, but like Mark Ronson and many other artists and music fans, I also feel they have commodified music somewhat. One thing I would like to see much more of for playlists is context. Why can’t we have sleeve notes for playlists about how they were put together (let alone by whom and why?). It looks to me like there is an opportunity to bring some context and personality back into playlisting. Mixtapes from the cassette age were lovingly compiled, often with handwritten notes and homemade cover art.

I’ve played with some of these ideas with my own playlist site the Song Sommelier. The Song Sommelier was created as a passion project to bring mixtape and vinyl values back to playlisting. Each playlist is accompanied by bespoke artwork by ‘resident’ artist Mick Clarke, and a reader or ‘digital sleeve notes’ by the playlist curator. For this project we chose to use the Soundsgood player to allow users of any streaming service access the playlists, doing away with those widgets that direct the music fan to either Spotify or Apple. It’s still more than a two horse race after all.

My hope is that with the artwork, sleeve notes and more original themes for the playlists, will make fans and listeners listen to playlists more like they used to with albums – paying more attention and hopefully connecting with the song collection on a deeper level. At least that might make Mark Ronson cheer up a bit (though his new “Club Heartbreak” playlist on Apple Music suggests it might be a while).

Perhaps a key question is how important is context to the music itself? It depends on your point of view, but context may be the thing that divides the passionate music fan from the casual one. Really, who wants to listen to a collection called “Get Home Happy” or “Prime Chill”, whether it’s curated or personalised? Except I guess some people do. Mostly, I would welcome some more creative thinking and innovation that can take playlists to another level.

Why India Matters to Spotify, and Why it May Not Deliver

Warner Music and Spotify have been involved in a rather unseemly and very public spat this week over Spotify’s India launch. I’ll leave for someone else, the discussions of the potential implications of a blanket license for songwriter rights in India for an on-demand streaming service. Suffice to say, the words ‘can of worms’ come to mind. Instead, I am going to focus on why India matters so much to Spotify.

The next one billion, perhaps…

Spotify’s Daniel Ek has made much of addressing the next one billion internet users as part of Spotify’s long-term opportunity. Given the fact that China is effectively off the table for now and that sub-Saharan Africa is probably a generation away from being a major streaming market, India is the key component of that next one billion.

Europe and North America accounted for 69% of Spotify’s subscriber growth in 2018. While this was hugely positive for those regions and delivered high-value subscribers – declining ARPU notwithstanding, growth in those regions will slow down towards the end of this year. Next tier markets – Brazil, Mexico, Germany and ideally, though probably not, Japan – will pick up much of the slack. But to sustain the growth rates its shareholders require, Spotify needs other large markets to start building real momentum by 2020/2021. India and the Middle East represent the best options. However, the Middle East already has a strong incumbent – Anghami – and a potentially resurgent Deezer, newly empowered by its exclusive deal with leading local label Rotana. So, India is effectively the last bet on the table.

India is a very competitive but problematic market

India, however, is a problematic market. It has a host of well-backed incumbents – Jio Music, Saavn, and Tencent-backed Gaana – as well as solid performances from Apple and Google. Yet despite all this robust supply, the market heavily underperforms, registering only 1.7 million subscribers in 2018 with a monthly label ARPU of just $0.74. 1.7 million may sound like a solid enough base, but it represents just 0.1% of the total Indian population. There are two key reasons for such weak uptake to date:

  1. Music plays a different role in India:Bollywood and devotional are two of the most widely listened to music genres, neither of which are mainstays of subscription services, nor streaming music consumption in general.
  2. Income levels are low:the average per capita income is $553 a month, with the luxury of a music subscription far out of reach for most Indians, other than urban elites. Spotify’s $1.80 price point in India may sound cheap, but relative to average income, it is 9.3 times more expensive than $9.99 is in the US. So, Spotify would need to be priced at $0.19 to be the same relative affordability as in the US, which coincidentally is the price for its day pass.

The ARPU challenge

The realistic ambition for Spotify should be to drive five to 10 million subscribers over the next five years or so, primarily pulling from urban elites (essentially a re-run of what has been happening in Latin America). While more credible, this falls way short of denting the ‘next one billion’ opportunity. To unlock the scale opportunity, streaming has to look beyond subscriptions, and also beyond ad supported (India’s 270 million free streamers only generated a monthly ARPU of $0.006 in 2018). The scale opportunity is telco bundles. Reliance Communications’s prioritisation of Jio Music makes it the most likely player to capitalise on this in the mid-term.

Spotify needs to find a similar scale partner and somehow convince label partners to accept an ARPU of say $0.08, which would be roughly in line with US telco bundle ARPU on a Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) basis. This would unlock scale without having to tolerate the catastrophically lower ad-supported ARPU rates. But the odds of that happening anytime soon are miniscule. When, and it is a case of when, not if, that time does come, the scale of adoption could be transformative for the global market. In fact, this is exactly where MIDiA thinks the market is heading. In our just published music forecasts, we predict that by 2026 India will have the fourth largest installed base of music subscribers, anywhere in the world.

What matters most, revenue or scale?

The question is whether Spotify can be a major part of the ‘Indian adoption’. Even if it can, the ARPU will be so small that all the current concerns about Spotify’s falling ARPU will look like a storm in a teacup when compared.

Have no doubt, India can, and perhaps will, become a major player in the global streaming market, even helping reshape global music culture. It can also play a major role in Spotify’s future, but the rules of engagement will need to change to unlock that growth, and in doing so Spotify will be sacrificing ARPU. All of this means, Spotify’s investors and partners need to ask themselves, what do they want Spotify to deliver most: strong revenue growth or strong subscriber growth, because India cannot deliver both.

Spotify Q4 2018: Solid Growth With a Hint of Profitability But Longer Term Questions

Spotify finished 2018 strongly, overperforming in both subscriber and ad supported MAU additions. This was accompanied by Spotify’s first ever profitable quarter and two major podcast acquisitions early in 2019 hinting at a positive year ahead. However, at the same time premium ARPU continues a long term decline – the price Spotify is paying for maintaining global subscriber market share.

spotify 2018 earnings midia research

Spotify hit just over 96 million subscribers which was an increase of 36% from 71 million in Q4 17. The addition of nine million net new subscribers in Q4 18 was the same amount of subscribers added one year previously. However, while the Q4 17 increase represented 15% growth in Q4 18 the rate was 10%. Relative growth is slowing as the market matures.

Spotify is growing its subscriber base markedly more quickly than it is growing its premium revenue, resulting in declining ARPU. Although subscribers hit 96 million at the end of 2018, premium ARPU declined from €6.20 in 2016 to €4.81 in 2018, a fall of 22%. Over the same period ad supported ARPU followed a mirror opposite trend, growing +22% from €0.96 to €1.17. Spotify routinely explains in its earnings that trials and family plan adoption are driving down ARPU. However, this is not a secular trend but instead a Spotify trend. In retail terms, global music subscriber ARPU actually grew 3.5%. Spotify slightly increased its global subscriber market share in 2018, up to 36.2% from 35.8% in 2017, but it is clearly having to aggressively discount pricing to do so.

Subscriber ARPU continues a downward trend

While ad supported ARPU was up, ad supported revenue grew more slowly in 2018 than 2017 so the increased ARPU is in part a result of users growing more slowly than monetisation. While this is the right balance commercially, Spotify also needs to grow ad revenue more strongly. 

Takeaway: Spotify is maintaining subscriber market share through price discounts while ad ARPU growth owes more to slower ad supported user growth than it does monetisation.

Churn up on an annual basis

Following a peak of 5.8% in Q2 18, Spotify brought quarterly churn rates down, first to 5.6% in Q3 18 and then 5.3% in Q4 18. However, the cumulative impact of churn throughout the year was an annual churn rate of 19.8%, up from 18.1% in 2017. This in part reflects the effectiveness of promotional trials. These trials open the funnel to new subscribers and have strong conversion rates, but because paid trialists are counted in Spotify’s subscriber numbers, any that do not convert become churned subscribers.

Takeaway: Spotify is having to spread its net wider to maintain subscriber growth. 

Profitability has arrived but investment is needed for long term growth

Spotify closed off 2018 in style, adding higher than expected numbers of both subscribers and ad supported users. Also, profitability is on the horizon – Spotify generated a quarterly net operating profit of €94 million in Q4 18 compared to a quarterly loss of €87 one year previously. Spotify is demonstrating that its business can operate profitably even without flicking the switch on new revenue streams, albeit at a modest level. 

Longer term revenue growth will be dependent on a two pronged approach of accelerating subscriber growth in big music markets that are later entrants to streaming – Germany and Japan – while continuing growth in large mid-tier markets like Brazil and Mexico. It also needs to continue its investment in ad infrastructure. Ad revenue is not growing fast enough, nor is Average Advertising Revenue Per User (AARPU), up just $0.15 in Q4 18 compared to Q4 17. This is an increase of just 3% compared to the 26% growth in ad supported MAUs. Spotify understands the importance of building its ad supported business and is investing heavily in ad technology and sales infrastructure. This needs to continue. But it will look to big radio markets  (e.g. the US, Australia and the UK) to drive mid-term growth, not emerging markets as those territories do not have strong enough digital ad markets. So expect AARPU to be hit as free user bases grow in emerging markets.

Takeaway: All in all, a solid quarter for Spotify but with enough softening metrics to suggest that 2019 growth will require more effort than in 2018.

NOTE: these findings form a small portion of MIDiA Spotify Q4 Earnings Report which will be available to MIDiA subscribers next week

Podcasts: a Netflix Moment for Radio But Perhaps not the Future of Spotify

spotify gimlet anchor podcasts midiaWednesday was a busy day for Spotify: it reported above-expected subscriber growthto hit 96 million paid subscribers, strong total user growth to hit 207 million MAUs, improved margins and its first ever profitable quarter, registering an operating profit of €94 million. And the news didn’t stop there, Spotify also announced the acquisition of two podcasting companies, Gimlet and Anchor.Spotify unsurprisingly referenced podcasts in its earnings note, pointing to 185,000 podcast titles available, ‘rapidly’ growing consumption and 14 exclusives to including the 2nd season of Crimetown, The Rewind with Guy Raz, and the Dissect Mini Series hosted by Lauryn Hill. Podcasts is clearly becoming a big part of Spotify’s plans and the rationale is simple: more owned content, and more cheaply licensed content means higher margins than can be generated by record label content. But for all its commitment to the format, Spotify may find the podcast battle harder to win than expected.

An opportunity with many intertwined layers

After many years stuck on the side lines, podcasts are now becoming sought after by everyone from radio companies, streaming services, newspaper publishers to TV companies and many, many more. Media brands of all forms see podcasts as a part of their future, a way to increase and diversify listening time (streaming services); fight back against streaming (radio); reach new audiences (news); and extend audience engagement (TV). To some degree podcasts can probably deliver on all those expectations, and while the creative possibilities are clear, the path ahead is not so straight forward:

  • A Netflix moment for radio: Netflix transformed the TV market not just by giving consumers a cheap, value-for-money way of getting great TV, but by changing forever the way in which TV is made. No longer shackled by the constraints of linear schedules and needing to keep everyone on the sofa happy at the same time, studios and networks started smashing the boundaries of what could be made and what a TV show looks like. We are now in the golden age of TV. Podcasts do the same for radio, allowing every niche topic under the sun to be explored in huge detail and without any constraints on number or length of episodes. Podcasts create even more of a blank canvass for what was once only radio content than Netflix did for what was once only TV content.
  • Apple iTunes stranglehold: Apple is the powerhouse of podcast distribution. In what is otherwise a highly fragmented podcast distribution landscape, Apple is as close as it gets to a unified podcast platform – which is also integrated into Apple Music. During podcasting’s wilderness years, Apple quietly built up a loyal base of podcast users. Given that more than half of Spotify’s subscribers are iOS users, those that are podcast users are most likely also Apple podcast users. Spotify will have to bank on converting those users while simultaneously flicking the ‘market creation’ switch by converting new users to podcasts. A double challenge.
  • Radio:As MIDiA identified early last year, radio is streaming’s next frontier. Spotify has built a sizeable ad supported audience – 11 million as of Q4 2018 – but it has not yet built a viable ad model – ad user ARPU is just $0.28 which is just one cent up on Q4 2017. To persuade radio’s big advertisers to switch, it needs to woo more of radio’s core audience but it currently lacks the content assets (news, weather, sports etc). Podcasts are a step in that direction but radio companies will feel they have a better chance of owning this space than Spotify, and many are currently investing heavily in podcasts. As Apple has been learning with Beats 1, just because you want to do something does not mean you necessarily can, even if you hire many of the industry’s power players.
  • Programmatic ad buying:Spotify is doubling down on its programmatic ad buying and this will be crucial to monetizing podcasts. Spotify reported in its Q4 earnings that programmatic is growing fast and, along with self-serve, now accounts for 25% of all ad sales – though as ad ARPU is flat (up just $0.15 y-o-y), it is not growing fast enough.
  • Use cases:Lastly, but most importantly, the underlying use cases for podcasts potentially limit the market opportunity for podcasts. The addressable audience for podcasts is not all the time spent listening to audio. Listening to music is a lean back experience that we can do while doing other things like work and study. Podcasts tend to require more of our attention and thus the use cases for podcasts are more limited. Also, unlike TV shows, users are less likely to have a large number of podcasts on the go at the same time. Spotify will hope that it will be able to generate appointment-to-listen behaviour, with users tuning in for their favourite podcasts on a specific day. But that necessitates users re-learning how they use Spotify.

The podcast opportunity is undoubtedly strong but there will be many competing to be the owner of podcasting’s future and radio may well do a better job of winning this battle than it has retaining its music listeners. Spotify is betting big on podcasts being part of the future of streaming, but the future of podcasts may lie elsewhere.

Making Free Pay

2018 was a big year for subscriptions, across music (Spotify on target to hit 92 million subscribers), video (global subscriptions passed half a billion), games (98 million Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus subscribers) and news (New York Times 2.5 million digital subscribers). The age of digital subscriptions is inarguably upon us, but subscriptions are part of the equation not the whole answer. They have grown strongly to date, will continue to do so for some time and are clearly most appealing to rights holders. However, subscriptions only have a finite amount of opportunity—higher in some industries than others, but finite nonetheless. The majority of consumers consume content for free, especially so in digital environments. Although the free skew of the web is being rebalanced, most consumers still will not pay. This means ad-supported strategies are going to play a growing role in the digital economy. But set against the backdrop of growing consumer privacy concerns, we will see data become a new battle ground.

Industry fault lines are emerging

Three quotes from leading digital executives illustrate well the fault lines which are emerging in the digital content marketplace:

“[Ad supported] It allows us to reach much, much deeper into the market,” Gustav Söderström, Spotify

“To me it’s creepy when I look at something and all of a sudden it’s chasing me all the way across the web. I don’t like that,” Tim Cook, Apple

“It’s up to us to take [subscribers’] money and turn it into great content for their viewing benefit,”Reed Hastings, Netflix

None of those quotes are any more right or wrong than the other. Instead they reflect the different assets each company has, and thus where they need to seek revenue. Spotify has 200 million users but only half of them pay.  Spotify cannot afford to simply write off the half that won’t subscribe as an expensively maintained marketing list. It needs to monetise them through ads too. Apple is a hardware company pivoting further into services because it needs to increase device margins, so it can afford to snub ad supported models and position around being a trusted keeper of its users’ data. Netflix is a business that has focused solely on subscriptions and so can afford to take pot shots at competitors like Hulu which serve ads. However, Netflix can only hike its prices so many timesbefore it has to start looking elsewhere for more revenue; so ads may be on their way, whatever Reed Hastings may say in public.

The three currencies of digital content

Consumers have three basic currencies with which the can pay:

  1. Attention
  2. Data
  3. Money

Money is the cleanest transaction and usually, but not always, comes with a few strings attached. Data is at the other end of the spectrum, a resource that is harvested with our technical permission but rarely granted by us fully willingly, as the choice is often a trade-off between not sharing data and not getting access to content and services. The weaponisation of consumer data by the likes of Cambridge Analytica only intensifies the mistrust. Finally, attention, the currency that we all expend whether behind paywalls or on ad supported destinations. With the Attention Economy now at peak, attention is becoming fought for with ever fiercer intensity. Paywalls and closed ecosystems are among the best tools for locking in users’ attention. As we enter the next phase of the digital content business, data will become ever more important assets for many content companies, while those who can afford to focus on premium revenue alone (e.g. Apple) will differentiate on not exploiting data.

Privacy as a product

So, expect the next few years to be defined as a tale of two markets, with data protectors on one side and data exploiters on the other. Apple has set out its stall as the defender of consumer privacy as a counter weight to Facebook and Google, whose businesses depend upon selling their consumers’ data to advertisers. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the start rather than the end. Companies that can — i.e. those that do not depend upon ad revenue — will start to position user privacy as a product differentiator. Amazon is the interesting one as it has a burgeoning ad business but not so big that it could opt to start putting user privacy first. The alternative would be to let Apple be the only tech major to differentiate on privacy, an advantage Amazon may not be willing to grant.

The topics covered in MIDiA’s March 27 event ‘Making Free Pay’.The event will be in central London and is free-to-attend (£20 refundable deposit required). We will be presenting our latest data on streaming ad revenue as well as diving deep into the most important challenges of ad supported business models with a panel featuring executives from Vevo, UK TV and Essence Global. Sign up now as places are going fast. For any more information on the event and for sponsorship opportunities, email dara@midiaresearch.com 

Why Music and Video are Crucial to Apple’s Future

Apple’s downgraded earnings guidance represents its first profit warning in 10 years. This is clearly a big deal, and probably not as much to do with a weakening Chinese economy if Alibaba’s 2018 Singles’ Day annual growth of 23% is anything to go by. But it does not indicate Apple is about to do a Nokia and quickly become an also-ran in the smartphone business. Nokia’s downfall was triggered by a corporate rigidity, with the company unwilling to embrace — among many other things — touchscreens. Apple’s touchscreen approach, coupled with a superior user experience and its ability to deliver a vibrant, fully integrated App Store, saw it quickly become the leader in a nascent market. Apple’s disruptive early follower strategy is well documented across all its product lines and the iPhone was a masterclass in this approach. But the smartphone market is now mature and in mature markets, market fluctuations need only be small to have dramatic impact. That is where Apple is now, and music and video will be a big part of how Apple squares the circle.

Apple started its shift towards being a services-led business back in Q1 2016, issuing a set of supplemental investor information with detail on its services business and revenue. Fast forward to Q3 2018 and Apple reported quarterly services revenues of $10 billion—16% of its total quarterly revenue of $62.9 billion. So, services are already a big part of Apple’s business but the high-margin App Store is the lion’s share of that. App Store revenues will continue to grow, even in a saturated smartphone market, as users shift more of their spending to mobile. But it will not grow fast enough to offset slowing iPhone sales. Added to that, key content services are moving away from iTunes billing to avoid the 15% iTunes transaction fee. Netflix, the App Store’s top grossing app in 2018, recently announced it is phasing out iTunes billing, which is estimated to deliver Apple around a quarter of a billion dollars a year. That may only be c.1% of Apple’s services revenue but it is a sizeable dent. So Apple has to look elsewhere for services revenue. This is where music and video come in.

Streaming will drive revenue but not margin

Streaming is booming across both music and video. Apple has benefited doubly by ‘taxing’ third-party services like Spotify and Netflix, while enjoying success with Apple Music. With third-party apps driving external billing, Apple needs its own streaming revenue to grow. A video service should finally launch this year to drive the charge. However, the problem with both music and video streaming is that neither is a high-margin business. Apple’s residual investor value lies in being a premium, high-margin business. So it has a quandary: grow streaming revenues to boost services revenue but at a lower margin. This means Apple cannot simply build its streaming business as a standalone entity, but instead must integrate it into its core devices business.

Nokia might just have drawn Apple’s next blueprint

During its race to the bottom, Nokia launched the first 100% bundled music handset proposition Comes With Music (CWM). It was way ahead of its time, and now might be the time for Apple to execute another early (well, sort of early) follower move. CWM was built in the download era but the concept of device lifetime, unlimited music included in the price of the phone works even better in a streaming context. I first suggested Apple should do this in 2014. Back then Apple didn’t need to do it. Now it does. But rather than music alone, it would make sense for Apple to execute a multi-content play with music, video, newsand perhaps even monthly App Store credits. Think of it as Apple’s answer to Amazon Prime. To be clear, the reason for this is not so much to drive streaming revenue but to drive iPhone and iPad margins and in doing so, not saddle its balance sheet with low streaming margins. Here’s how it would work.

Streaming as a margin driver for hardware

Apple weathered much of the smartphone slowdown in 2018 by selling higher priced devices such as the iPhone X. This revenue over volume approach proved its worth. The latest earnings guidance shows that even more is needed. Apple could retail super premium editions of iPhones and iPads with lifetime content bundles included. By factoring in these bundled content costs into iPhone and iPad profits and losses, Apple can transform low margin streaming revenue into margin contributors for hardware. Done right, Apple can increase both hardware and services revenue without having a major margin hit. Add in Apple potentially flicking the switch on the currently mothballed strategy of becoming mobile operator, and the strategy goes one step further.

Free streaming without the ads

If reports that Apple is buying a stake in iHeart Media are true, then it will have another plank in the strategy. Radio is an advertising business, but Tim Cook hates ads so the likelihood is that any streaming radio content would be ad free. Given that consumers are unlikely to want to pay for a linear radio offering, Apple would need to wrap the content costs into hardware margins. This could either be part of the core content bundle, or could even be a lower priced content bundle, with Apple Music being available as a bolt-on, or as part of a higher priced bundle or, more likely, both. Ad-supported streaming becoming ad free would of course scare the hell out of Spotify.

Music to the rescue, again

2019 will probably be too soon for this strategy to finds its way into market, but do expect the first elements of it coming into place. Music saved Apple’s business once already thanks to the iTunes Music Store boosting flagging iPod sales. This paved the way for the greatest ever period in Apple’s history. Now we are approaching a similar junction and music, along with video and maybe games, are poised to do the same once again.

How YouTube’s Domination of Streaming Clips the Market’s Wings

Firstly, happy new year to you all. Now on to the first post of 2019.

The Article 13 debate that shaped so much of the latter part of 2018 will continue to play an important role throughout 2019 while European and then national legislators deliberate on the provision and the wider Digital Copyright Directive of which it forms a part. Regular readers will know that MIDiA first highlighted the risk of unintended consequences of Article 13. Today we present the case for the impact YouTube has on the broader streaming market, driven by the advantages of its unique licensing position. (This is a complex and nuanced topic with compelling evidence on both sides of the debate).

To illustrate YouTube’s impact on the streaming market this post highlights a few of the findings from a new MIDiA report: Music Consumer Behaviour Q3 2018: YouTube Leads the Way But At What Cost?

midia youtube penetration

YouTube is the dominant music streaming platform, with 55% of consumers regularly watching music videos on YouTube, compared to a combined 37% for all free audio streaming services. YouTube usage skews young, peaking at nearly three quarters of consumers under 25. Although YouTube leads audio streaming in all markets — even Spotify’s native Sweden — there are some strong regional variations. For example, emerging streaming markets Brazil and Mexico see much higher YouTube penetration, peaking at close to double the level of even traditional music radio in Mexico. Indeed, radio is feeling the YouTube pinch as much as audio streaming. 68% of those under 45 watch YouTube music videos compared to 41% that listen to music radio. The difference increases with younger audiences and the more emerging the market. For example, in Mexico YouTube music penetration is 84% for 20–24 year olds, compared to 37% for music radio. Streaming may be the future of radio, but right now that streaming future is YouTube.

YouTube’s advantage

While cause and effect are difficult to untangle, the implied causality here is that YouTube’s unique value proposition steals much of the oxygen from the wider streaming market. Due to its unique licensing position – which Article 13 would likely change, YouTube has more catalogue and fully-on-demand free streaming, not to mention standout product features such as complete music video catalogue and social features such as song comments, likes / dislikes. Services that do not use safe harbour protection (i.e. the vast majority of audio streaming services) do not have these assets and so are at a distinct market disadvantage to YouTube. If you are a consumer in the market for a free streaming service, you have the choice between everything that you want, with complete control or constraints and restrictions, with fewer features. It’s not hard to see why consumers from Mexico through to Sweden make the choice they do. With a free proposition this good (especially when you factor in stream ripper apps and ad blockers), who needs a subscription?

A new value gap emerging?

Against this though, must be set two crucial factors:

  1. Audio streaming services would fare better if they had more of the features YouTube and Vevo have
  2. YouTube and Vevo are still the best ad monetisation players in the global market (i.e. discounting Pandora as it is US only). What’s more, (annual) audio ad supported ARPU declined in 2018 to $1.23, while video ad supported ARPU rose to $1.08. Ad-supported users grew faster than revenue while the opposite was true of video. There is a real risk here of an audio ad-supported value gap emerging. Spotify needs to get better at selling ads, fast.

Fully committed to subscriptions?

The final part of the YouTube impact equation is premium conversion. Since appointing Lyor Cohen, YouTube has taken a much more proactive approach to subscriptions, heavily touting its, actually-really-quite-good, YouTube Music premium product. Whether Alphabet’s board is equally exuberant about subscriptions, and whether YouTube Music’s launch lining up with the Article 13 legislative process was coincidental, are both open questions…

But politics and intent aside, YouTube is always going to be far poorer at converting to paid subscriptions because a) its user base is vast, and b) that user base is there for free stuff. So, while 58% of Spotify’s weekly active users (WAUs) are paid, the rate for YouTube Music weekly active usership is in single digit percentage points. That dynamic is not going to change in any meaningful way. In fact, YouTube has a commercial disincentive for pushing subscriptions too hard. It makes its money from advertising, and advertisers pay to reach the best possible consumers. Subscription paywalls lock away your best users, out of the reach of ads, which in turn reduces the value of your inventory to advertisers, which leads to declining revenues. YouTube is not about to swap a large-scale high-margin business for a small-scale low-margin one. Moreover, this issue of advertisers trying to reach paywalled consumers is going become a multi-industry issue in 2019. See my colleague Georgia Meyer’s excellent ‘Marketing to Streaming Subscribers’report for a deep dive on the topic.

Article 13 as a platform for innovation?

The overarching dynamic here is of a leading service that constrains the opportunity for services that are not able to play by the same rules. A levelling of the playing field is needed, but this should not just be legislation (and of course should be careful not to kill music’s ad supported Golden Goose). It should also see labels and publishers finding some common ground between the Spotify and YouTube models, and making those terms available to all parties. Because if YouTube does one thing really well, it shows us how good the streaming music user proposition can be when it is not too tightly constrained by rights holders. Let’s use Article 13 to raise the lowest common denominator, not to bring YouTube down to it.

Streaming music services need a user experience quantum leap in 2019; wouldn’t it be great if Article 13 could be the springboard for transformation and innovation?

Soon to be the Biggest Ever YouTube Channel, T-Series May Also Be About to Reshape Global Culture

pewdiepie tseries

Some time over the next month or so a YouTube landmark will be passed: T-Series will pass PewDiePie as the most subscribed YouTube channel on the planet. As of time of writing T-Series had 75.4 million subscribers compared to PewDiePie’s 76.4 million. (PewDiePie’s lead was narrower but he has mobilised his fan base to delay the inevitable.) But do not mistake this milestone to be a narrow measure of the shifting sands of the YouTube economy. Indeed, it tells us more about the future of streaming as a whole (both music and video) than it does the current status of sweary Swedish gamers.

For those of you who somehow do not yet know who T-Seriesis, it is a leading Indian music label and movie studio – it in fact claims to be ‘the biggest – that is the world’s largest YouTube music channel and before long it will likely be able to drop the ‘music’ qualifier from that title. It is also the label that Spotify just struck a deal with as it preps its protracted launch into India.

A streaming market of contradictions

India is a problematic market for streaming monetization. It has 1.4 billion consumers but just 330 million of those have smartphones. There were 215 million free streaming users in 2018 but just 1 million paid subscribers despite leading indigenous players like Hungama and Saavn having been in market for years. Total streaming revenue was just $130 million in 2017 generating a combined annual ARPU of $0.27. And that number is heavily boosted by unrecouped Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs) due to local streaming services continually failing to meet their projected subscriber numbers (though according to local accounts, perfectly happy to continue to effectively overpay for their streaming royalties). The video side of streaming is more robust with eight million subscribers generating more than three times more revenue than music streaming does. Even still, eight million subscribers is scant return against a base of 330 million smartphone users.

Streaming unlocks the potential of emerging markets

India is exactly the sort of market that streaming business models have the potential to unlock. The old world was defined by commerce, by people paying to own music or for hefty household TV subscriptions that inherently meant owning a TV set. As a direct consequence, the traditional music and TV markets skewed towards western markets with higher levels of disposable income. This was a massive missed opportunity and one that can now be fixed. As Mexico and Brazil are currently in the process of showing us, populations with strong cultural heritage and large, but lower income, populations can have massive impact. Like or loathe Reggaeton, its ability to permeate the global music marketplace is testament to the power of Latin American music fans and the artists they support, as is Colombian J Balvin’s current status as the most streamed artist on Spotify.

The growing influence of second tier markets

Streaming can monetize scale in a way the old model simply could not. What we will see over the coming decades is a steady realignment of the balance of power across the global music and video markets. Western markets – and a handful of others such as Japan – will continue dominate revenues due to a combination of higher subscription penetration and higher subscriber ARPU. But large population, 2ndtier markets will have a growing influence. The BRIC markets (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are obvious candidates but also Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria, Egypt, Turkey and Thailand all have similar potential.

Large, engaged local audiences can shape global trends

One of the key reasons Latin American artists have become part of the global cultural zeitgeist is that Spotify has a big regional user base – 42 million MAUs as of Q3 18. Because record labels over-prioritise Spotify in terms of marketing and trend spotting, when Latin American artists started blowing up, European and North American labels started paying extra close attention and building up their own rosters of Latin American artists. Latin American users represent 22% of global Spotify MAUs but their influence is amplified by the fact that they stream a lot and they tend to stream individual tracks repeatedly. So, when they put their support behind something it blows up, edging into the global charts which then triggers a whole bunch of actions that see that track being fed into non-Latin playlists and user recommendations, which can then trigger a further escalation of playlist strategy. And so forth. This was Luis Fonsi’s path to global stardom.

Could India ‘do a Mexico’?

So the obvious question is, if T-Series had enjoyed the same sort of success on Spotify that it did on YouTube, would Guru Randhawa be topping Spotify’s global artists instead of J Balvin? Would we be finding Bhangra in every sonic nook and cranny instead of Reggaeton? The answer is – as certain as a counter factual claim can ever be – almost certainly yes. Whereas Latin American emigres are a major demographic in the US, they are less so elsewhere. Also, Latin American culture is divided between Spanish and Portuguese. The Indian diaspora however, is far more global, with large populations in the US, Canada and UK. What is more, though India has many indigenous languages, English is spoken nationally, with many artists releasing in English. Similarly, a growing number of Bollywood movies are being made in English with an eye on the global market.

So when Spotify finally launches in India, expect a series of global cultural aftershocks. Spotify is unlikely to covert that many premium subscribers – except via telco bundles – but it is likely to build a big free user base. And when that happens expect T-Series to take centre stage with Guru Randhawato be the most streamed artist globally by 2020…?

Can Spotify Ever Meet Investors’ Expectations?

Spotify just posted another solid set of results, adding four million subscribers and beating profit and revenue estimates, yet its share price fell. What’s going on? Spotify is on track for where it should be, slightly below, but on track. Before Spotify went public MIDiA laid out three growth scenarios (low, mid, high). Our mid forecast put Spotify at 87.8 million subscribers for Q3 2018, it reported 87 million. So, Spotify is pretty much exactly where it should be. It’s not exceeding expectations, nor missing them, but is plotting a strong, solid course, all the while improving operational metrics such as churn and profitability. Yet still, this is not enough for investors. The reason is simple: misaligned expectations.

Investors want more

Spotify has pretty much had this problem all year, delivering good, steady growth that is good enough for the music industry, but isn’t good enough for investors. Record labels measured Spotify’s success relative to the performance of their revenues, which were coming out of a tailspin. Investors have a higher bar for success. They want faster growth, profitability (never really a label priority – it was Spotify’s problem to fix) and market disruption. Spotify is building its business at a decent rate that meets / exceeds music industry expectations, but not investor expectations. It is also laying the foundations for future self-sufficiency (artists direct, podcast etc.) but investors want more, now.

Tech stocks are the benchmark

The problem with going public as music company is that your investors are not music specialists; most aren’t even media specialists. Consequently, they don’t have the same situational industry expertise that music industry specialists have. They don’t get bogged down with the minutiae of collection society reciprocal agreements, mechanical rights, label marketing strategies, publisher concerns or artist contracts. They can’t. Music is too small a part of an institutional investor’s portfolio to commit the time required to truly understand what is a very complex industry. So instead they look at the big picture and benchmark against Netflix and other tech stocks.

I remember a comment Pandora’s founder Tim Westergren made to me on a panel last year, to the effect that Spotify better be careful what it wished for by going public. Tim learned first-hand that investors didn’t have the appetite to understand the nuances that shaped his business and eventually he paid the ultimate price, foisted out of his own company.

Game changer or industry ally?

In music industry terms Spotify is doing a great job, in tech stock terms, less so. Either it has to start performing even more strongly – no easy task in a maturing market – or it has to start talking up the disruption angle. Tech investors like backing game changers, betting big on something that is going to change the world. In the way that Facebook, Google, Netflix, Amazon (and for a while, Snapchat) did. Thus far Daniel Ek has trodden a difficult middle ground, remaining the firm ally of the music industry but also promising disruptive change. If the stock continues to underperform, he and his exec team might just be forced to start talking up disruption. At that stage it will be gamble time, because Spotify will be swapping allegiances that could make or break the business.