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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Songwriters don’t sell t-shirts

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

The four factors shaping songwriter income

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

  1. Streaming service royalties: Songwriter-related royalties are typically around 15% of streaming revenues, which represent around 21% of all royalties paid by streaming services – around 3.6 times less than master recordings-related royalties. This is better than it used to be, when the ratio was 4.8. However, there is clearly still a large gap between the two sets of rights. Labels argue that they are the ones who take the risk on artists, invest in them and market them. Therefore, they should have the lion’s share of income. Publishers, on the other hand, argue that they are increasingly taking risks with songwriters too (paying advances) and working hard to make their music a success, e.g. with sync streams. They also argue that everything is about the song itself. Both arguments have credence, but the fact that streaming services have historically negotiated with labels first helps explain why there isn’t much left of the royalty pot when they get to publishers. There is clearly scope for some increase for songwriters, but if there is not an accompanying reduction in label rates – not exactly a strong possibility – then the net result will be reduced margins for streaming services. Given that Spotify has only just started generating a net profit, the likely outcome would be to weaken Spotify’s position and skew the market towards those companies who do not need to see streaming pay – i.e. the tech majors. If the market becomes wholly dependent on companies that thrive on squeezing suppliers… well, good luck with that.
  2. CMO inefficiencies:Many songwriter royalties are collected by collective management organizations (CMOs). These (normally) not-for-profit organisations administer rights, take their deductions and then either pay to songwriters directly or to publishers who then pay songwriters (after taking their own deductions). It gets more complicated than that, however. If a songwriter is played overseas, the local CMO collects, deducts and then sends the remainder to the CMO where the songwriter is based. That CMO takes its deduction and then distributes. It gets more complicated still – some CMOs apply an additional ‘cultural deduction’ on top of their main fee before distributing. So, if a US hip-hop artist gets played in Europe, the local CMO will take its cut, and an administration fee. Then it goes to his local CMO which takes its fee before sending it to Drake’s publisher which then takes its own cut. In practice, this revenue leakage is the same as if the headline streaming royalty was increased from 15% to 20%.

  3. The industrialisation of song writing: With more music being released than ever, songs have to immediately grab the listener. To help ensure every part of the song is a hook and to try to de-risk their artists, bigger labels commission songwriter teams and hold song writing camps, where many song writers get together and write the tracks for albums. This means that the royalties for every song are thus split into small shares across multiple songwriters. Drake’s ‘Nice for What’ has 20 songwriters credited. That means the already small royalties are split 20 ways.
  4. The unbundling of the album: When music was all about selling physical albums, songwriters used to get paid the same mechanical royalty for every song on the album, regardless of whether it was the hit single or filler. Now that listeners and playlists dissect albums, skipping filler for killer, a weak song simply pays less. Tough luck if you only wrote the filler songs on the album. On the one hand, this is free market competition. If you didn’t write a song well, then don’t expect it to pay well. Some songwriters argue that it should go the other way too, though – if they wrote the song that made the artist a hit, then shouldn’t they be paid a larger share? 

Here is an illustration of how these factors combine in practice:

  • A songwriter earns streaming revenue overseas with a headline royalty rate of $0.0012
  • The international PRO applies cultural deduction and admin fees, ~25%
  • The domestic PRO applies admin fees, ~15%
  • The publisher deducts its share, ~25%
  • The songwriter gets a 25% share of the original song royalties

Here’s another way of looking at it. With the above example, this is how many streams the songwriter needs to earn income:

songwriter royalties per stream

While a successful artist could reasonably expect to earn $100,000 from a streamed song, a professional songwriter cannot.

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

Why Spotify and Netflix Need to Worry About a Global Recession

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

Streaming has driven the rise of the contract-free subscriber

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

No contract, no commitment 

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

Music subscriptions could be collateral damage

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

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

Tech majors may bundle their way out of a recession

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

Stuck between contracts and bundles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Independent artists open up new opportunities for streaming services

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

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

Ambiguity will be the shape of things

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

Spotify Takes Aim at Radio, Again

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

streaming playlist usage midia research podcasts

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

The playlist is now just a delivery vehicle

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

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

Making radio work takes more than just making radio work

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

Here’s Why Apple Just Killed Off iTunes

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California, U.S. June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mason Trinca

Apple has announced that it is closing iTunes and replacing it with three new apps:Apple Music, Apple Podcasts and Apple TV Apps. While this doesn’t (yet) mean the end of the iTunes Storeit is a major development for Apple. In fact, in many ways, it reflects the way in which Apple is becoming ever more later a follower. The great unbundling process has been going on across digital services for years, with Apple the tech major to cling closest and longest to a unified app experience. Now, just as Facebook, Google and Amazon have a suite of specialist apps, so does Apple. Unbundling is a natural part of the digital cycle, giving users the ability have dedicated user experiences that serve specific needs well rather than many (at best) no so well, (at worst) poorly. Indeed Apple’s Craig Federighi’s tongue-in-cheek quip”One thing we hear over and over: Can iTunes do even more?” hints at just how bloated and no longer fit for purpose iTunes had become.

iTunes never did really shake off its origins

iTunes actually started off as a tool for ripping and burning CDs. In fact, its original marketing slogan was ‘Rip Mix Burn’. It evolved into a tool for managing and playing music and supporting the iPod. Over time it layered in videos, books, apps, Apple Music etc etc. But one thing iTunes never excelled on, even before it suffered from feature bloat, was being a great music player. It was if it could never quite shake off its origins. Apple Music has of course picked up the player baton and run with it for Apple. Now that iTunes has splintered into three apps, we should start to see the evolution of three distinct sets of user experiences. Apple hasn’t pushed the boat out yet because it has a fundamentally conservative user base that has to have change implemented at a steady rate in order not to alienate it.

Unbundling and beyond

With hardware sales are unlikely to drive strong growth again for Apple until it finds its next big device hit, and although Watch and TV could still both rise to the challenge, it is more likely to be a new form factor. Until then, Apple needs its content and services business to pick up the slack. Right now, the App Store generates the lion’s share of Apple’s content and services revenue and there is clearly an imperative for Apple to ensure that it is driving more revenue from its own products rather than simply extracting a tenancy fee from those of others’. With its new suite of subscription services (Apple Arcade, TV+, News+) Apple is now poised to go deep across a wide range of content offerings. Unbundling its apps and subscriptions gives it the agility to build sector specific user experiences and marketing campaigns. Separating out podcasts is particularly interesting, as Apple is making the call that they do not belong with music. A stark contrast to Spotify’s approach. Indeed, Spotify may just be approaching its own iTunes moment, with an app that is trying to do too many things for too many different use cases. iTunes just committedhara-kirito enable Apple to compete better in the digital content marketplace. Spotify may need to do something similar soon.

Extra little thought: does Apple Music the subscription service now become Apple Music+ in order to differentiate itself from the Apple Music app?

Profit Didn’t Disappear, It Just Moved

One of the recurring themes in analysis of tech businesses is the role of profit, and most often, the apparent lack of it – or at the very least, the way in which it plays second fiddle to growth. Amazon, one of the most successful global businesses in today’s global economy, famously sacrificed profit for much of its existence in order to focus on long-term growth and expansion. Similarly, Spotify remains laser-focused on growth and market share, almost apologizing when it generated a net profit for the first time in Q4 2018. The logical way to interpret this worldview is that it points to a lack of sustainability in the underlying business models of such tech companies, and that profit is a scarce commodity in the world of tech business. In actual fact, profit is still being made right across the value chain. It is simply not appearing on the balance sheets of tech companies.

Profit, an ‘old world metric’

Back the early 2000s, at Jupiter Communications in my early days as an internet analyst (back when you could actually have that job title), I used to tire of hearing the same line from dotcom start-ups when asked about profitability: “Profit is an old world metric. We measure ourselves by internet-era metrics.” When the dotcom bubble burst and VCs started pulling their money out of the dotcom space, virtually all of those business quickly learned that profit really did matter when the investment dried up. Most of those companies folded very quickly (Amazon being one of a few strong exceptions to the rule). Fast forward nearly two decades and that ‘new world’ mentality is more in evidence than ever before. So, what gives?

The development of finance is one of the most important 21st century events

One of the most important developments in capitalism in the 21st century has been the development of the financial sector, both in terms of the sophistication of products and services and in terms of the sheer scale of value that flows through it. For tech businesses, this has manifested as unprecedented access to finance at all stages of business. Historically, traditional businesses had some access to start-up capital, though it was often debt-based such as taking a bank loan. Fewer new businesses came to market, but those that did had a stronger profit imperative as they needed to service their start-up debt. Tech start-ups now most often have ready access to equity-based finance (i.e. selling a share of their business in return for investment) long before they go to market, and then have the further ability to raise more investment as they build their businesses. This enables companies to focus on growth, product development and brand building at a much faster rate than if they were relying upon organic revenue growth for funding. We wouldn’t have most of the big successful tech companies we do today without this model. The question still remains, however: when and where does profit fit in?

profit value chain

When looking at the financial reports of many tech businesses, net profit is conspicuous by its absence. For example, Uber has warned that it ‘may never be profitable’. This does not mean that profit is not being made, however – it is just found in different places. Take the example of Spotify. It is generating enough gross margin to be able to invest heavily in its business and to pay salaries that are competitive enough to ensure it can build an A-class team. It also generated enough money at its DPO to ensure its founders, investors and record labels all profited from the sale. Meanwhile, Spotify and other streaming services are driving revenue and profit for rightsholders, delivering nearly $10 billion of record label revenue in 2018 alone. Profit is being made by Spotify; it has simply moved across the value chain.

A new commercial ecosystem

The Spotify example illustrates how profit has shifted across the value chain in tech businesses, delivering profit for investors, suppliers and founders. In effect a new ecosystem has evolved in which the new profit centres can support the distribution part of value chain indefinitely. With growth valued over profitability by shareholders, the markets provide further sustenance to the ecosystem.

This model works, until it doesn’t. The big risk factor here is availability of credit. My colleague Tim Mulligan argues that the current availability of credit is the result of an abnormal macro credit cycle rather than a new model of economic sustainability, with interest rates at historical lows. As soon as interest rates go up, VC funding will significantly decrease due to institutional money leaving the VC funds for the equity markets. The corporate debt market will then start to dramatically contract, reducing the working capital available to unprofitable public businesses. On top of this, the cost of holding leveraged positions funded through the short-term money markets will start to become too expensive for many of the existing hedge funds to maintain their positions. An interest-rate driven, financial domino effect could happen very quickly.

Every time we have a bubble we are told that this time it’s different, and it never actually is. The financial component of the value chain can only generate profit as long as its primary cost base – i.e. interest rates – remain low. When they stop making profit, the whole ecosystem crumbles. At which point, tech companies will be well placed to consider the old maxim: revenue is vanity, profit is sanity.

Creator Support: A New Take on User Centric Licensing

User-centric licensing (i.e. stream pay-outs based on sharing the royalty income of an individual user split across the music they listen to) has stimulated a lot of debate. I first explored the concept of user-centric licensing back in 2015and stirred up a hornet nest, with a lot of very mixed feedback. The big issue then, as now, was that it is a very complex concept to implement which may well only have modest impact on a macro level but may also have the unintended consequence of worsening income for smaller artists. Fans of smaller artists tend to be more engaged listeners who generate a larger number of streams spread across a larger number of artists. The net result could be lower average income for smaller indie artists, and higher income for mainstream pop acts who have listeners with lower average streams spread across a smaller number of artists. Since then, Deezer has actively explored the concept and it continues to generate industry discussion. It is unlikely there will ever be consensus on how user-centric licensing should work, but the underlying principle of helping artists earn from their fans remains a valid one. So, here is an alternative approach that is both pragmatic and far simpler to implement: creator support. A new way to solve an old problem.

Creator support is gaining traction across the digital content world

In the on-demand world, monthly streaming income for creators can be both modest and unpredictable. Amuse’s Fast Forward,YouTube’s channel memberships and Patreon are illustrations of how the market is developing solutions to give content creators (especially artists, podcast creators, YouTubers and Twitch streamers) an effective way to supplement income. But it is Epic Game’s ‘Support-A-Creator’ model that provides the best example of an alternative to user-centric licensing. Epic Games enables Fortnite players to choose a favourite creator to support (which typically means YouTube and Twitch Fortnite players). Epic Games then contributes the equivalent of around 5% of all in-app purchases that the gamer makes to that creator.

How creator support can work for music streaming

Using Spotify and a selection of artists as an illustration, here is how a creator support approach could work for streaming music:

  • All Spotify subscribers get given the option to ‘support’ up to two of their favourite artists
  • For each artist that a subscriber supports, 1% of the record label royalties derived from that subscriber’s subscription fee goes directly to the artist, regardless of how many streams that user generates
  • The label of each artist then pays 100% of this ‘support’ income

creator support midia streaming model

To illustrate how creator support can work, we created a model using Spotify and a selection of diverse artists. We assumed that 75% of Spotify subscribers support an average of 1.5 artists. In the above chart we took five contemporary frontline artists across major labels and label services, and we assumed that 10% of their monthly Spotify listeners support them. Factoring the different types of deals and royalty rates these artists have, as well as the ratios between average monthly streams and monthly listeners, there is an intriguing range of revenue impact that creator support delivers. For Taylor Swift (on a major deal, but one in which she held the negotiating whip hand), Lauv and Rex Orange Country (both on Kobalt label services deals) the creator support income is between 18% and 22% of their existing streaming royalties from Spotify. For Billie Eilish and Circa Waves, both on their first major label deals, creator support income would represent a much larger 78% and 65% of streaming royalties. The rate is higher for Billie Eilish as she has a higher streams-to-listeners ratio.

Artists get paid more with minimal impact on the wider royalty pot

Putting aside the irony that this approach would help put many major label artists more on par with what label services and independent artists earn from streaming, the clear takeaway is that creator support can be an effective way of fans ensuring that some of their streaming spending directly benefits their favourite artists. Because we have structured the model to be just 1% per artist (rather than Fortnite’s 5%) the net impact on the total label royalty pot is minimal. Applying the above assumptions to Spotify’s 2018 label payments, the royalty pot (and therefore per-stream rates) would reduce by just 1.13%, meaning that non-supported artists would feel negligible impact.

We think the creator-approach model enables labels and streaming services to deliver on the ambition of user-centric licensing without the complexities and unintended inequities. But perhaps most importantly, it helps put artists and fans closer together, bringing the pledging model to the mainstream.

Let us know what you think. Also, we’ve added the excel model to this post for you to download and test your own assumptions against it.

MIDiA Research Streaming Creator Support Model 4 – 19