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

Amazon’s Ad Supported Strategy Goes Way Beyond Music

Amazon is reportedly close to launching an ad supported streaming music offering. Spotify’s stock price took an instant tumble. But the real story here is much bigger than the knee-jerk reactions of Spotify investors. What we are seeing here is Amazon upping the ante on a bold and ambitious ad revenue strategy that is helping to reformat the tech major landscape. The long-term implications of this may be that it is Facebook that should be worrying, not Spotify.

amazon ad strategy

In 2018 Amazon generated $10.1 billion in advertising revenue, which represented 4.3% of Amazon’s total revenue base. While this is still a minor revenue stream for Amazon, it is growing at a fast rate, more than doubling in 2018 while all other Amazon revenue collectively grew by just 29%. Amazon’s ad business is growing faster than the core revenue base, to the extent that advertising accounted for 10% of all of Amazon’s growth in 2018.

Amazon is creating new places to sell advertising

The majority of Amazon’s 2018 ad revenue came from selling inventory on its main platform. This entails having retailers advertise directly to consumers on Amazon, so that Amazon gets to charge its merchants for the privilege of finding consumers to sell to, the final transaction of which it then also takes a cut of. In short, Amazon gets a share of the upside (i.e. the transaction) and of the downside (i.e. ad money spent on consumers who do not buy). This compressed, redefined purchase funnel is part of a wider digital marketing trend and underlines one of MIDiA’s Four Marketing Principles.

But as smart a business segment as that might be to Amazon, it inherently skews towards the transactional end of marketing, and is less focused on big brand marketing, which is where the big ad dollar deals lie. TV and radio are two of the traditional homes of brand marketing and that is where Amazon has its sights set, or rather on digital successors for both:

  • Video: Amazon’s key video property Prime Video is ad free. However, it has been using sports as a vehicle for building out its ad sales capabilities and has so far sold ads against the NFL’s Thursday Night Football. It also appears to be poised to roll this out much further. However, Amazon’s key move was the January launch of an entire ad-supported video platform, IMDb Freedive. Amazon has full intentions to become a major player in the video ad business.
  • Music: Thus far, Amazon’s music business has been built around bundles (Prime Music) and subscriptions (Music Unlimited). Should it go the ad-supported route, Amazon will be replicating its video strategy to create a means for building new audiences and new revenue.

It’s all about the ad revenue

Right now, Amazon is a small player in the global digital ad business, with just 6% of all tech major ad revenue. However, it is growing fast and has Facebook in its sights. Facebook’s $50 billion of ad revenue in 2018 will feel like an eminently achievable target for a company that grew from $2.9 billion to $10.1 billion in just two years.

To get there, Amazon is committing to a bold, multi-platform audience building strategy. Whereas Spotify builds audiences to deliver them music (and then monetise), Amazon is now building audiences in order to sell advertising. That may feel like a subtle nuance, but it is a critical strategic difference. In Spotify’s and Netflix’s content-first models, content strategy rules and business models can flex to support the content and the ecosystems needed to support that content. In an ad-first model, the focus is firmly on the revenue model, with content a means to an end rather than the end. (Of course, Amazon is also pursuing the content-first approach with its premium products.)

Amazon is becoming the company to watch

So, while Spotify investors were right to get twitchy at the Amazon rumours, it is Facebook investors who should be paying the closest attention. Amazon’s intent is much bigger than competing with Spotify. It is to overtake Facebook as the second biggest global ad business. None of this means that Spotify won’t find some of its ad supported business becoming collateral damage in Amazon’s meta strategy – a meta strategy that is fast singling Amazon out as the boldest of the tech majors, while its peers either ape its approach (Apple) or consolidate around core competences (Google and Facebook). Amazon is fast becoming THE company to watch on global digital stage.

Spotify, the Decline of Playlists and the Rise of Podcasts

The following is a small excerpt from MIDiA’s forthcoming third edition of its ‘landmark State of the Streaming Nation’ report. For more information about this report email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Most things that Spotify does are scrutinised and cross-examined within an inch of their lives, with vested interests trying to second guess what may be the intended or unintended consequences for them. Most actions are viewed through the disruption lens i.e. how will this hurt or compete with Spotify’s rightsholder partners? The streaming market is of course so much more than just Spotify, but the company acts as a lightning rod for the wider market and most often sets the strategic agenda.

Spotify’s Two Phases of Growth

Two of Spotify’s most significant moves have been playlist curation and podcasts. Spotify is moving into the second major phase of its existence. Phase 1 was about establishing itself as a streaming music powerhouse, Phase 2 is about what it becomes next, extending beyond the streaming music beachhead. This is the typical trajectory of tech companies, establishing themselves in their core competencies and then expanding. This can either be a dramatic expansion – e.g. Amazon moving from eCommerce into video and music – or a more focused value-chain extension – e.g. Netflix moving from simply streaming other’s shows to making its own. For Spotify, playlists were a Phase 1strategy and podcasts are very much part of Phase 2.

midia playlists and podcasts

Podcasts may just have come in the nick of time for Spotify because curated playlists remain much more about potential than they do reality. Just 15% of streaming consumers listen to curated playlists. In fact, of all the key streaming feature activities, curated playlists come lowest. Curated playlists are clearly not to streaming music what binge watching is to streaming video. Instead streaming activity is fragmented across multiple features and just 10% of streaming consumers regularly do all four of the activities listed in the chart above.

‘But wait’ I hear you ask, ‘that doesn’t make sense, look at all these streams we’re getting from playlists’. The key factor here is the difference between the number of playlist users and the number of playlist streams. Playlists over index in terms of contribution to streams. With dozens of tracks per list, lean-back playlist listening can easily generate more streams per user than lean-forward listening. Thus, we have one of the great emerging paradoxes of streaming: passive audiences can generate more streams, and thus rightsholder pay outs, than engaged, aficionados. However, a word of caution, should casual playlist listening become large enough, then the net result will be a dilution of the royalty pool and thus diminishing per stream rates.

Perhaps not the holy grail of promotion

A few years ago, playlists looked like the future of artist marketing, now they are looking a bit like a busted flush. They may be great at generating streams but are not so great at building an artist’s story. The near-obsession with Spotify playlists in label marketing strategy reflects the fact that most record label executives use Spotify and thus often have a Spotify-centric (and therefore playlist-centric) worldview. But labels are now beginning to question the artist ROI of playlists. The growing adoption among casual listeners only compounds matters and means that a playlist ‘hit’ does not necessarily do much to help long-term artist brand building. To put it simply: a playlist is not a shortcut to cultural relevance.

Podcasts could be bigger than streaming

Enter stage left podcasts. With its acquisitions of Gimlet, Anchor and Parcast, Spotify is betting big on podcasts. Already, more streaming users (18%) listen to podcasts than curated playlists while overall consumer podcast penetration is 11%. In Sweden – the early adopter market that gives us a view of where other markets are heading – podcast penetration is 19%, rising to 28% among streamers. Podcasts are a Netflix moment for radio and may even have the potential to be bigger than streaming music (US radio ad revenues alone are $16 billion). Right now, the growth in overall podcast audiences is fairly slow, but engagement is accelerating as are content creation, monetisation and distribution. It is not entirely inconceivable to think that five years from now, podcasts could be a bigger business for Spotify than music. Certainly, creators could be making much more money, even now.

While it remains more likely that music will be the core of Spotify’s business half a decade from now, all the early indications are that Phase 2 will mean a degree of diversification of user experience, business model and revenue stream, with podcasts at the vanguard. Playlists are not dead, but nor are they the golden child anymore.

10 Trends That Will Reshape the Music Industry

The IFPI has reported that global recorded music revenues have hit $19.1 billion, which means that MIDiA’s own estimates published in March were within 1.6% of the actual results. This revenue growth story is strong and sustained but the market itself is undergoing dramatic change. Here are 10 trends that will reshape the recorded music business over the coming years:

top 10 trends

  1. Streaming is eating radio: Younger audiences are abandoning radio for streaming. Just 39% of 16-19-year olds listen to music radio, while 56% use YouTube instead for music. Gen Z is unlikely to ever ‘grow into radio’; if you are trying to break an artist with a young audience, it is no longer your best friend. To make matters worse, podcasts are looking like a Netflix moment for radio and may start stealing older audiences. This is essentially a demographic pincer movement.
  2. Streaming deflation: Streaming music has allowed itself to be outpaced by inflation. A $9.99 subscription from 2009 is actually $13.36 when inflation is factored in. Contrast this with Netflix, for which theinflation-adjusted price is $10.34 but the actual 2019 price is $12.99. Netflix has stayed ahead of inflation; Spotify and co. have fallen behind. It is easier for Netflix to increase prices as it has exclusive content, but rights holders and streaming services need to figure out a way to bring prices closer to inflation. A market-wide increase to $10.99 would be a sound start, and the fact that so many Spotify subscribers are willing to pay $13 a month via iTunes shows there is pricing tolerance in the market.
  3. Catalogue pressure: Deep catalogue has been the investment fund of labels for years. But with most catalogue streams coming from music made in this century, catalogue values are being turned upside down (in the streaming era, the Spice Girls are worth more than the Beatles!). Labels can still extract high revenue from legacy artists with super premium editions like UMG did with the Beatles in 2018, but a new long-term approach is required for valuing catalogue. Matters are complicated further by the fact that labels are now doing so many label services deals, and therefore not building future catalogue value.
  4. Labels as a service (LAAS): Artists can now create their own virtual label from a vast selection of services such as 23 Capital, Amuse, Splice, Instrumental, and CDBaby. A logical next step is for a 3rdparty to aggregate a selection of these services into a single platform (an opening for Spotify?). Labels need to get ahead of this trend by better communicating the soft skills and assets they bring to the equation, e.g. dedicated personnel, mentoring, and artist and repertoire (A+R) support.
  5. Value chain disruption: LAAS is just part of a wider trend of value chain disruption with multiple stakeholders trying to expand their roles, from streaming services signing artists to labels launching streaming services. Things are only going to get messier, with virtually everyone becoming a frenemy of the other.
  6. Tech major bundling: Amazon set the ball rolling with its Prime bundle, and Apple will likely follow suit with its own take on the tech major bundle. Music is going to become just one part of content offerings from tech majors and it will need to fight for supremacy, especially in the ultra-competitive world of the attention economy.
  7. Global culture: Streaming – YouTube especially – propelled Latin music onto the global stage and soon we may see Spotify and T-Series combining to propel Indian music into a similar position. The standard response by Western labels has been to slap their artists onto collaborations with Latin artists. The bigger issue to understand, however, is that something that looks like a global trend may not be a global trend at all but is simply reflecting the size of a regional fanbase. The old music business saw English-speaking artists as the global superstars. The future will see global fandom fragmented with much more regional diversity. The rise of indigenous rap scenes in Germany, France and the Netherlands illustrates that streaming enables local cultural movements to steal local mainstream success away from global artist brands.
  8. Post-album creativity: Half a decade ago most new artists still wanted to make albums. Now, new streaming-era artists increasingly do not want to be constrained by the album format, but instead want to release steady streams of tracks in order to keep their fan bases engaged. The album is still important for established artists but will diminish in importance for the next generation of musicians.
  9. Post-album economics: Labels will have to accelerate their shift to post-album economics, figuring out how to drive margin with more fragmented revenue despite having to invest similar amounts of money into marketing and building artist profiles.
  10. The search for another format: In 1999 the recorded music business was booming, relying on a long established, successful format that did not have a successor. 20 years on, we are in a similar place with streaming. The days of true format shifts are gone due to the fact we don’t have dedicated format-specific music hardware anymore. However, the case for new commercial models and user experiences is clear. Outside of China, depressingly little has changed in terms of digital music experiences over the last decade. Even playlist innovation has stalled. One potential direction is social music. Streaming has monetized consumption; now we need to monetize fandom.

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.