What Frank Ocean’s Bombastic Blond Moment Tells Us About The Future Of Artists And Labels

When frank-ocean-blond-compressed-0933daea-f052-40e5-85a4-35e07dac73dfFrank Ocean’s latest album ‘Blond’ dropped, it did so like a nuclear bomb, sending shockwaves throughout the music industry. In one of the audacious release strategies of recent years Ocean and his team at 360 fulfilled the final album contractual commitment to Universal Music by ushering his breaking-the-mold visual album ‘Endless’ onto Apple Music.  Featuring collaborations from the likes of Sampha and James Blake and set as a loose soundtrack to art house visuals, ‘Endless’ looked like the sort of digitally native, creative masterstroke that would win plaudits and awards in equal measure. But no sooner had Universal executives started daydreaming about Grammys then along came what turned out to be the ‘actual’ album ‘Blonde’, self released by Ocean (Universal contractual commitments now of course conveniently fulfilled) and, for now at least, exclusively available on Apple Music. You can just imagine seeing the blood drain from (Universal CEO) Lucian Grainge’s face as the full magnitude of what had just happened came into focus. In truth ‘audacious’ doesn’t even come close to explaining what Ocean pulled off, but where it gets really interesting is what this means for the future of artist careers.

Artist-Label Relationships Are Changing

Quickly sensing the potential implications, Grainge swiftly sent out a memo to Universal staff outlawing streaming exclusives…though voices from within Universal suggest that this diktat had been in the works for some time . A cynic might even argue that it was politically useful for Universal to be seen to be taking a strong stand ahead of the impending Vivendi earnings call. As the ever excellent Tim Ingham points out, in practice Universal could put a streaming exclusives moratorium in place and still have a good number of its front line artists put out streaming exclusives. This is because many of the deals these artists have are not traditional label deals where Universal owns all the rights. And that itself is as telling as Ocean’s bombastic blond moment. Not so much that Universal is probably the major with the highest amount of its revenue accounted for by licensed and distributed works, but that any label’s roster is now a complex and diverse mix of deal types. Artists are more empowered than ever before, and thanks to the innovation of label services companies and next generation music companies like Kobalt, labels have been forced to steal the disruptors’ clothing in order to remain competitive.

Streaming Exclusives Represent Another Option For Artists

Just as labels had started to successfully co-opt the label services marketplace by launching their own – e.g. Universal’s Caroline – or by buying up the competition – e.g. Sony’s acquisition of Essential Music & Marketing – along come streaming services giving artists another non-label route to market. In truth, the threat has remained largely unrealised. Exclusives on Tidal have most often proved to be laced with caveats and get out clauses (e.g. Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ arriving on iTunes 24 hours after landing ‘exclusively’ on Tidal). Chance The Rapper’s (in name only) mixtape ‘Colouring Book’ and Ocean’s ‘Blond’ are exceptions rather than the rule. So all that’s about to change now right? Not necessarily…

Album Releases Require More Time Than Apple Probably Has

As anyone who works in a label will tell you, releasing an album is typically a long, carefully planned process with many moving parts. It’s not something you do in a couple of weeks (Ocean started building the hype and expectation for his latest opus a year ago). If, for example, Apple was going to start doing exclusives routinely, even if it just did 20, that’s still a new exclusive to push every 2 weeks. That might work, at a stretch, for music service retailing promotional pushes but is far short of a fully fledged album release cycle. Which means that even for just 20 exclusives Apple would have an intricate mesh of overlapping release campaigns. This is something that labels do with their eyes closed but would it require new organizational disciplines for Apple. Not impossible, but not wholly likely either.

In practice, exclusives are likely to be limited to being the crown jewels of streaming services, their most valuable players, creative playmakers if you like. Even for Netflix, that pioneering exemplar of the streaming originals strategy, only spends 15% of its $3 billion content budget on originals and probably won’t break 20% even by 2020. What Apple and Netflix have in common is that they are using exclusives as a customer acquisition strategy, achieving their aims by making a big noise about each one. But if you’re releasing exclusives every week or two the shine soon wears off. And suddenly the return on investment diminishes.

Streaming Exclusives Are Unlikely To Turn Into A Flood

None of this means that we won’t see more artists striking streaming exclusives. We will, regardless of what labels may actually want to happen. And most of those will probably be on Apple – the service with bottomless pits masquerading as pockets. But the trickle will not turn into a flood, a fast flowing stream perhaps (see what I did there) but not a torrent.

Although they might not realise it yet, Kobalt might find themselves hurting more than the majors from this latest twist in the Exclusives Wars. Kobalt has probably done more than any single other music company to drive change in the traditional music industry in the last 5 years, showing artists and songwriters that there is another way of doing things. But Frank Ocean has just shown that there is now new another option for established artists looking for options at the end of a label deal.

Most importantly of all though, is that streaming exclusives (and indeed label services deals) work best when an artist has already established a brand and an audience. Most often that means after an artist has had a record label recording career. Apple cannot be relied upon to build anything more than a handful of artist brands. One of the founding myths of the web was that it was going to do away with labels and other traditional ‘gatekeepers’. Now, decades later, labels still account for the vast, vast, vast majority of music listening. Make no mistake, a momentous value chain shift is taking place, with more power and autonomy shifting to the creators, but that is a long journey and ‘Blond’ is but one part of this much bigger shift.

Understanding ’15’: How Record Labels And Artists Can Fix Their YouTube Woes

The artist-and-labels-versus-YouTube crisis is going to run and run, even if some form of settlement is actually reached…the divisions and ill feeling run too deep to be fixed solely by a commercial deal. What’s more, a deal with better rates won’t even fix the underlying commercial problems. Music videos under perform on YouTube because they don’t fit YouTube in 2016 in the way they did YouTube in 2010. The 4 minute pop video was a product of the MTV broadcast era and still worked well enough when online video was all about short clips. But the world has moved on, as has short form video (in its new homes Snapchat, Musical.ly and Vine). Short videos are no longer the beating heart of YouTube viewing and quite simply they don’t make the money anymore. This is why music videos represent 30% of YouTube plays but just 12% of YouTube time. If record labels, publishers, performers and songwriters want to make YouTube pay, they need to learn how to play by the new rules. And to do that they need work out what to do with ‘15’.

youtube monetization

There Is A Lot More To YouTube Revenue Than Some Would Have You Think

The recorded music industry gets radio, and it is beginning to get streaming. Both are all about plays. Each play has, or should have, an intrinsic value. They are models with some degree of predictability. But YouTube does not work that way, which is why the whole per stream comparison thing just does not add up. In MIDiA’s latest report ‘The State Of The YouTube Music Economy’ we revealed that YouTube’s effective per stream rates (that is rights holder revenue divided by streams) halved from $0.0020 in 2014 to $0.0010 in 2015.

Sounds terrible right? And make no mistake, there is no way to spin it into a good news story. However, it didn’t fall because of some nefarious Google ploy. It fell because of many complex reasons (all of which we explore in the report) but the 2 biggest macro causes were:

  • YouTube pays out as a share of ad revenue (55%) not on a per stream basis. So when the value of its ad inventory goes down (due to factors such as more views coming from emerging markets with weaker ad markets) the revenue per stream goes down too. This is something the labels can do little about, though an increased revenue share will soften the blow as YouTube globalizes.
  • YouTube serves its in-stream video ads (the most value ad format) on a time-spent basis, not on a per-video basis. Our research found that the average number of video ads per hour of viewing comes out at about 4. That means if you have 15 minute videos (like many YouTubers do) you will get a video ad every play. But if you have 3 or 4 minute pop videos you may only get 1 video ad for every 4 or 5 plays. Which means 4 or 5 times less video ad revenue. In fact, our research revealed that just 26% of music video views have video ads. This is the underlying issue the industry needs to address, and unlike global ad market dynamics, this is something it can indeed fix.

The 15 Scale

This is where the magic number 15 comes in. Right now music video sits in the same 3-4 minute slot it has done so ever since MTV said it wanted videos that length. Yet video consumption is now polarized between the 15 second clip on lip synch apps like Musical.ly and Dubsmash and 15 minute YouTuber clips. Falling in between these two ends is revenue no-mans land. As I have written about before, labels and publishers need to figure out how to harness the 15 second clip as an entirely new creative construct and shake off any old world concepts that this is actually anything about marketing and discovery. It is consumption, plain and simple…it just happens to look unlike anything we’ve seen before.

At the opposite end of the 15 scale labels and artists need to start thinking about what 15 minute formats they can make. Think of this as a blank canvas – the possibilities are limitless. For example:

  • 3 track ‘EP’ videos interspersed with artist narrative and reportage coverage
  • Live sessions (recorded by, and uploaded by labels so they get revenue as well as publishers)
  • Mini-documentaries such as ‘the making of’s
  • On-the-road features

15 Minutes Does Not Have To Break The Bank

And before you cry out ‘but this stuff will cost so much more to make’, it doesn’t have to if more is made out of current assets and processes. For example, ensure that one of the support crew has a handheld camera to film some shoulder footage for reportage. The whole thing about YouTube is that it doesn’t have to be super high production quality, in fact the stuff that does best patently isn’t. YouTube videos that work best are those that are an antidote to the old world of inaccessible glamour. If you really want to do things on the cheap, simply splice three music videos together into a single long form video (e.g. tag 2 older tracks onto the new single). Doing so will nearly treble the video ad income.

And before you think this isn’t what audiences want, ask Apple about ‘The 1989 World Tour LIVE’ and Tidal about ‘Lemonade’.

And (yes another ‘and’) if you can’t get your head around the inescapable need for a completely new music video construct, just think about it this way: 15 minute videos will make you 5 times more video ad revenue. This really is a ‘no brainer’.

Back To The Future

As a final piece of evidence (not that it is needed), cast your mind all the way back to 1982, to Michael Jackson’s landmark video ‘Thriller’. A 13:42 video that is widely recognized as one of the all time music video greats that has also racked up 330 million views on Vevo. So you could say the case for 15 minute video was already made a quarter of a century ago (thanks to MIDiA’s Paid Content Analyst Zach Fuller for pointing that one out).

The 4 minute music video is dead, long live the 15 minute music video.

For more detail on our ‘State Of The YouTube Music Economy’ report check out our blog.

You can also buy the 25 page report with 8 page data set here.

The End Of Freemium For Spotify?

‘Leaked’ Spotify numbers emerged today indicating that the streaming service has just hit 37 million subscribers, which puts more clear water between it and and second placed Apple Music, despite the latter’s recent growth. It also means that Spotify is now nearly 10 times bigger than Tidal and probably Deezer (which hasn’t reported numbers since its France Telecom bundle partnership ended). It is beginning to look suspiciously like a 2 horse race. But there is a more important story here: Spotify’s accelerated growth in Q2 2016 was driven by widespread use of its $0.99 for 3 months promotional offer. Which itself comes on the back of similar offers having supercharged Spotify’s subscriber growth for the last 18 months or so. In short, 9.99 needs to stop being 9.99 in order to appeal to consumers. Which is another way of saying that 9.99 just isn’t a mainstream price point.

spotify june 1

As the IFPI’s 2015 numbers revealed, the average label revenue per music subscriber fell globally from $3.16 in 2014 to $2.80 in 2015, with price discounting a key factor. According to Music Business Worldwide, 4 million of Spotify’s newly acquired 7 million subscribers were on promotional offers and around 1.5 million of those are expected to churn out when their promotional period ends. That might sound high but it actually represents a 79% conversion ratio, which is a stellar rate by anyone’s standards. Meanwhile Spotify’s total user base is 100 million which means the free-to-paid ratio is 37%. So price promos are converting at more than double the rate of freemium. Does this mean the end of freemium?

spotify june 2

Freemium proved highly valuable to Spotify in its earlier years and continues to be an important entry strategy for new markets. But last year record label execs started to observe that free just wasn’t converting at the same rate it once did in mature markets like the US. This was because most of the likely subscribers had already been converted and so the majority remaining were freeloaders who were never going to pay, and warm prospects who just couldn’t bring themselves to pay 9.99. This is where price promos come into play. They deliver the impact of mid priced subscriptions, which is enough to to hook those wavering free users. Once they get used to paying the majority tend to stick around when the price goes back up.

Mid Priced Subscriptions Will Drive The Market, Even If By Stealth

I have long argued that mid priced subscriptions are crucial to driving the streaming market, and the burgeoning success of Spotify’s mid-priced-subscriptions-by-stealth strategy provides a bulging corpus of supporting evidence. In fact, the average spend of Spotify’s 7 million net new subscribers in Q2 2016 was $3.09 a month.  The tantalizing question is whether that 1.5 million promo users that are expected to churn out would take a $3.99 product if it was available?

As the streaming market becomes increasingly sophisticated, the leading players will have to rely ever more heavily on differentiation strategies. For Tidal and Apple that means urban focused exclusives, for Spotify (for now at least) that means algorithmic, personalized curation and aggressive price discounting. And in Q2 2016 it is Spotify’s strategy that is winning out, resulting in 2.3 million net new subscribers each month compared to 1.4 million for Apple Music and 0.3 million for Tidal.

Freemim is dead, long live price promos?

 

 

How Apple Music And Tidal Transformed Streaming (And Why Apple May Be Buying Tidal)

 

It is 15 months since the launch of Tidal (which was 2 months after Jay-Z’s Project Panther Bidco bought Aspiro) and it is 12 months since the launch of Apple Music (which was a year after Apple bought Beats Music). The streaming world has changed a lot in that time and both those companies have had a disproportionately large amount on influence on the market’s direction of travel. Their arrivals defined Spotify’s role as incumbent while simultaneously casting Apple and Beats as challengers. They have performed their roles of disruptive entrants well, reshaping the competitive marketplace with a strong focus on brand and artist exclusives. Now reports emerge that Apple is in talks to buy Tidal. First victory in the exclusives war or overspending for market share?

When Is An Exclusive And Exclusive?

In the streaming video world an exclusive means exactly that. If you want to watch ‘House Of Cards’ you need Netflix, if you want to watch ‘Man In The High Castle’ you need Amazon Prime. But in music the rules are far more flexible.

exclusives

Looking at the flagpole exclusives across Apple Music, Tidal and Spotify, most of these are available on other platforms as downloads, while many are available to stream. For example, Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ is only available to stream via Tidal but was available to download on iTunes within 24 hours of release. Understandably, the exclusive albums of each company’s respective godfather are genuinely exclusive. But Rihanna’s ‘Anti’ was given away by Samsung while Spotify’s rock legends exclusives are streaming only.

Apple is beginning to push the envelope though, pitching creative solutions to labels and artists, resulting in output like videos for The Weekend and Drake. At the same time it is beginning to look suspiciously like a record label with the release of Chance The Rapper’s ‘Colouring Book’ mixtape. The net result of all this clamouring to be seen as the ‘home’ of an artist is resounding confusion and frustration for music fans. An avid TV fan may well accept the need to have both a Netflix and Amazon subscription because no video service claims to have all the TV shows and movies on the planet. However, the central proposition of streaming music services is exactly that…or at least it was until Tidal and Apple Music upset the the apple cart (ahem). The irony is that in scoring a quick win against Spotify, Tidal and Apple may have fundamentally undermined the long term positioning of the entire streaming music product.

Exclusives Cannot Recreate The 1990s

Apple Music’s head of original content Larry Jackson has said he wants to make Apple Music to emulate the success of MTV in the 80’s and the 90’s, creating the sense that artists ‘live there’. It is an admirable goal but the music world of the 2010’s is a dramatically different one. In those days there was scarcity (you had to buy music to listen on demand) and there was a finite amount of radio and TV. It was possible to control both the message and the audience. Now we are in the Era of Distributed Audiences where people are simultaneously in multiple digital places, with artists and labels racing after them in all those places. No amount of exclusive windowing is going to change that. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

The Economics Of Exclusives

Where the streaming video and streaming music markets match up is that content budgets are currently being used to drive user acquisition. While streaming services have a long way to go before they reach Netflix’s $6 billion annual content budget, both types of streaming service will overspend to get market share and will reel budgets back in later. So it should be no surprise that the amounts being spent on artists don’t really add up.

For example, Apple is reported to have spent $19 million on Drake and was rumoured to have bid up to $25 million for Harry Styles. If Styles had signed, even if he had racked up the same number of streams as Drake on Spotify in 2015 (1.8 billion, the highest number of any artist) he would still only have generated gross revenue of $18 million and net revenue of revenue of around $14 million, leaving something like an $8 million loss for Apple when Apple Music’s additional retailer margin is factored in. Apple would however have been able to make up the remainder on album sales, but Styles would have needed to have shifted a good number of albums. (Adele’s ‘25’, the biggest selling download album in the US in 2015 drove around $15 million in label revenue.) So for now, it takes selling albums to make the economics of streaming exclusives add up.

apple vs tidal

Jay-Z paid $56 million for Aspiro’s 512,000 subscribers, $110 per subscriber. Assuming he’d want a similar per subscriber price, that would put Tidal’s price tag at around $440 million. That’s no small amount of money for around 5% of the global subscriber market. Or to put it another way, Apple could another 23 Drake exclusives for that money which most likely would have a bigger impact on subscriber growth. Indeed, on all growth measures Apple Music has outperformed Tidal over the last 12 months, adding 12.5 million new subscribers to Tidal’s 3.1 million, growing by an average of 1.4 million subscribers a month compared to 0.3 million for Tidal. Apple even has the edge in % growth terms (352% compared to 328%).

So why is Apple in the market for Tidal (albeit reportedly)? Probably more than anything it is about taking an irritatingly threatening competitor out of the market. Tidal has been stealing Beat’s core customer base from right under its nose. It’s no coincidence that Apple Music’s exclusives strategy has had a strong urban bias. Apple wants its Beats customers back, just like it wants its iTunes customers back from Spotify.

Even if Apple does buy Tidal, don’t expect the exclusives wars to go away. Indeed, Spotify just acquired its own exclusives supremo in the shape of Troy Carter, and Apple clearly has its mind set on continuing to spend heavily. So the next few years of streaming will be  defined by streaming services getting closer to artists (with Connect becoming much more important for Apple) which in turn will see the distinctions between what constitutes a streaming service and a record label blur all the more.

As science fiction write William Gibson wrote: the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet…

 

Soundcloud, Amazon, Tidal: Streaming’s Other Runners

Apple, Spotify and YouTube have all been grabbing the streaming headlines of late, albeit for different reasons. While these companies will continue to set the pace over the next couple of years (again, for different reasons) there is much more to the streaming market than these three. Here’s what three of the other main streaming contenders have been up to in recent weeks:

Click here to read the full post on the MIDiA blog

Why Apple Music Matters So Much To Apple

Apple today announced a much anticipated refresh to Apple Music at its WWDC event. Apple Music has found itself at the centre of long running criticism from many parts due to its perceived product weaknesses. This is the bar against which Apple is measured. It has spent years building a well earned reputation for high quality products so its users understandably measure its services by the same standards. Apple Music was a highly ambitious version 1.0 that has since been iterated to iron out user journey kinks. Now today’s feature announcements look set to move Apple Music onto its next stage.

Being An Early Follower Requires Super High Standards

As an early follower rather than a leader Apple always sets itself the challenge of being measured against incumbents that have had years to refine their product offerings. With hardware, Apple normally meets and exceeds those standards. With Apple Music it launched a product that was light years ahead of where most of the incumbents were at launch, but that didn’t compare as favourably against their current offerings. Google Music Play All Access faced a similar challenge. The streaming music market has evolved so much since Spotify and Deezer’s inceptions that a music service cannot now afford to simply launch with the basics. It must do so much more.

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Image courtesy of the Verge

The revamped Apple Music includes a new simplified white interface, lyrics integration and better interaction with cloud libraries (a long running bug bear). These are not exactly step change innovations but they are a significant move forward in what is proving to be a process of continual change. Ultimately this update is about making Apple Music more intuitive and for it to make more sense to mainstream users. Is all this enough to blow Spotify and Tidal out of the water? No, but add in Apple’s bottomless pockets for exclusives and marketing, and you have a potent mix.apple music wwdc

Apple also announced a subscriber milestone, hitting 15 million subscribers. The number suggest that Apple’s growth is beginning to outpace that of its key challenger Spotify. Last year I suggested Apple would reach 20 million subscribers by the end of 2016. These numbers show it is well on track. Apple could yet be the leading music service by the end of 2017 if it starts to fully leverage all its ‘unfair advantages’.

Other metrics that Apple announced included:

  • 130 billion App Store downloads
  • 2 million apps available
  • $50 billion paid out to developers
  • 60 million Apple News users

10 Years On, Music Matters To Apple Once Again

Apple Music matters to Apple not because it will generate large profits (it won’t) but because it is the pace setter for Apple’s strategic shift towards being a services company. Apple is building a new narrative for Wall Street that focuses on the revenue it generates from its existing customer base (in order to distract attention from slowing device sales). Apple Music is the proof of concept. If it gets Apple Music right it will demonstrate its ability to deliver on best-in-class digital services. And because Apple still hasn’t been able to launch its TV subscription (it instead launched a partnership integration with Sling TV) it needs to get Music right until it is able to get the requisite TV deals in place.

This why the stakes are so high for Apple Music. Get it right, Apple re-establishes its market leadership role. Get it wrong, Apple’s own rescue plan goes down the pan. Music was so important to Apple in the mid 2000’s because it helped sell the iPod which in turn became the platform for growth that Apple trades upon today. Now 10 years on music has just reassumed its importance, this time to help sell Apple itself not just its hardware.

The 2 Spotify Charts You Need To See

Tuesday’s media scrum around Spotify’s financials illustrate that whatever ground Apple and Tidal may have made in recent months, Spotify clearly remains the poster child / bellwether for streaming. The stories oscillated between the broken nature of the underlying economics to how streaming is the future of the music business. Both are true. But a closer look at the numbers reveal some even more important findings.

spotify margin per user

Rights costs are Spotify’s Achilles Heel. Rights and associated costs accounted for 83% of Spotify’s 2015 revenue, up from 81% in 2014 and this resulted in a dramatic fall in Spotify’s gross margin per user: down from $4.20 in 2013 to $3.45 in 2015. This is particularly challenging for a model with already wafer thin margins. A number of factors underpin this decline:

  • Discounted promotions: Promos such as the £0.99 for 3 months have supercharged Spotify’s growth for the last 18 months. But as labels only contribute part of the cost this means that Spotify loses more margin with every new promo user
  • Advanced label payments: When Spotify strikes its licensing deals with labels it makes advanced payments and guarantees based on its expected growth. This means that for a growth stage company like Spotify, booked rights costs will always be higher than current booked revenue. This has obvious cash flow implications. Also, should Spotify’s growth slow and it miss those targets, it will still have to pay the monies guaranteed to labels, at which point the rights costs share will rise even further
  • Publisher rates: Over the last couple of years, music publishers have been asserting their role in the digital music value chain, pushing for more equitable rates. The net result is that publishing rights costs can now range up to 15%, depending on the deal, up from a low of 10% in some cases. This upward momentum will continue, and as labels aren’t decreasing their rates, it means less margin for Spotify and other streaming services

As Spotify edges towards an IPO it is doing everything within its power to get its house in order. It is investing in video to show Wall Street it is attempting to lessen its dependence on the labels and it is improving is cost ratios virtually everywhere else in its business, other than rights. Between 2013 and 2015, the Average Cost Per User (ACPU) for Research and Development fell from $2.12 to $1.61 and for Marketing it fell from $3.23 to $2.77. But Rights ACPU grew from $17.59 to $18.35. In fact, even in terms of costs as a % of revenues, every single expense Spotify reported fell except Rights (and Depreciation and Amortization which increased slightly). It is rising rights costs that are keeping Spotify from commercial sustainability.

spotify average pricing

There is another really important part of Spotify’s growth story: subscriber ARPU has fallen from $79.09 in 2013 to $62.30 in 2015. This is a result of multiple efforts to drive growth, including the price promos, telco bundles and student discounts. All of which are viable tactics but the fact they are necessary to drive Spotify’s growth underscore a point I have been making for years: 9.99 is not a mass market price point, and Spotify’s subscribers agree. By transforming the ARPU into an effective monthly retail price, Spotify’s average price point is now just $6.49, down from $8.24. It is about time that the music industry stopped pretending that this isn’t the reality of the market and instead starts pursuing proper pricing innovation rather than by stealth via discounting, which only serves to confuse consumers about long term value.

The music industry is in a transition phase. In such periods, the old and new worlds co-exist and collide. There are statistics that both sides of any argument can hold up in their defence, in fact they can often hold up the very same numbers to support opposite perspectives. Similarly, the comparisons you chose to benchmark with, can paint entirely different pictures. Such is the nature of transitions of human and business behaviour. For example, 83% of Spotify’s gross revenue going to rights is clearly too high and unsustainable, yet $0.00098 per song going to artists is also clearly too low and unsustainable. Something needs to give, for both ends of the value chain.

Maybe if/when Spotify gets to 50 million subscribers it will feel it has enough clout to compel rights holders to rethink licensing economics. Perhaps it will take Spotify getting to a 100 million to make that happen. Perhaps it will never happen. But if it doesn’t, the economics of streaming will remain so broken that only companies with ulterior business objectives will remain viable players, enter stage left streaming’s Triple A: Apple, Amazon and Alphabet (Google). The labels need to ask themselves whether that is the streaming future they want…

Streaming Hits 67.5 Million Subscribers But Identity Crisis Looms

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For our recently published MIDiA report ‘State of the Streaming Nation’ we conducted an exhaustive programme of research to assess the global streaming music market, from each of the consumer, market and service perspectives. In pulling together subscriber numbers for each of the music services (there’s a full table in the report) we found that there were 67.5 million subscribers globally in 2015. That was 24 million more subscribers compared to 2014 (also nearly double the number of new subscribers in 2014). It is clear that global subscriptions are gathering pace. However, all is not as it may at first appear:

  • Zombies still walk the streaming streets: Back in 2013 I ruffled a few feathers highlighting the issue of zombie subscribers, music subscribers that are recorded in the headline numbers but that are actually inactive, normally because they are on telco bundles. Fast forward to 2016 and the issue is more firmly in the public domain due to Deezer’s IPO filings. Zombies coupled with overstating by music services accounted for around 12 million subscribers in 2015 so the active ‘actual’ subscriber number was nearer 55 million.
  • Emerging markets are gaining share: Emerging markets will play a key role for streaming over the next few years. They are already driving growth for Apple and Spotify and they will collectively bring the most dynamic growth with western markets nearing saturation for the 9.99 price point. Much of the growth though will come from indigenous companies, such QQ Music (China), KKBOX (Taiwan), MelOn (South Korea) and Saavn (India).
  • Free still dominates: For all the scale of of subscriptions, free still leads the way with free streaming services accounted for nearly 600 million unique users (1.3 billion cumulative users if you add together the user counts of all the services). Free thus outweighed paid by a factor of 10-to-1.

Streaming’s Identity Crisis

Streaming must overcome its identity crisis. Depending on where you sit in the music industry, streaming is either the future of retail or the future of radio. It can be both, but there is increasing pressure for it to be retail only. That would see only a fraction of the opportunity realised. Throughout its history, a small share of people have accounted for the majority of spending. Casual buyers and radio accounted for the rest.

17% of music buyers account for 61% of spending. These are the people who are either already subscribers or that will become subscribers over the next couple of years. Which leaves us with the remaining 83% of consumers. The majority of these listen to radio while a growing minority use free streaming (mainly YouTube). The question the music industry must now answer is how seriously does it want to treat the opportunity represented by these consumers? Does it want to only serve its super fans or does it also want to be global culture? Radio enabled music to be global culture in the 20th century, free streaming will enable it to be in the 21st.

The Free Streaming Debate Is As Complex As It Is Nuanced

This is why the free streaming debate is important but also so complex. Yes, too much free music will curtail the opportunity for paid subscriptions, but too little could consign music culture to the margins. With streaming there is an opportunity to monetize a bigger audience at higher rates than radio ever enabled. At the moment free streaming bears the burden of being all about driving sales (either subscriptions or music purchases) but that misses the far bigger opportunity for free in the streaming era: mass monetization.

What we have now is a dysfunctional system. Freemium services have licensing minimas (the minimum that must be paid per stream) that effectively prevent them from building profitable ad supported businesses, while YouTube has licenses unlike any other but is the industry’s bête noire. Only Pandora has a model that is both (largely) acceptable to the industry and (theoretically) profitable. I say, ‘theoretically’ because Pandora could get towards a 20% margin if it wasn’t investing so heavily in ad sales infrastructure and other companies.

Out of those three disparate models an effective middle ground can and should be found so that the streaming debate becomes one of free AND paid rather than free VERSUS paid. Then we will have the foundations for creating a market that enables subscriptions to thrive within their niche and for global audiences to be monetized like never before.

Spotify’s Billion Dollar Challenge

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Spotify just changed the rules of the game, raising an unprecedented $1 billion in convertible debt. I’ll leave the financial analysts to pore over the financial permutations (and there are plenty) but there are a few key strategic implications:

  • This is an IPO war chest: Spotify is effectively priced out of trade sales for two reasons 1) it has received so much funding that its valuation is astronomic (somewhere close to $10 billion) and 2) the competitive market has changed so much that most companies that were potential buyers 3 years ago no longer are. Samsung neither has the growth story nor the music focus any longer, Microsoft is almost out of the game, Sony is out of the game, Apple couldn’t admit defeat so soon, Amazon is focused on the mass market and Google is focused on YouTube. So an IPO is the only realistic option and for that….
  • Spotify needs a growth story: To achieve an IPO valuation as high as Spotify needs, it is not enough to just be the leading player, it needs to be seen to be growing at a healthy clip, especially with Apple constantly making up ground and still odds on to be the long term market leader. Wall Street needs growth stories. Just look at what has happened to Pandora, a company with stronger fundamentals and a more secure licensing base. Yet Pandora has lost billions of market cap because Wall Street hasn’t warmed to the long term mature company story.
  • Growth will come from three key areas: The $9.99 model only has finite opportunity. The top 10% of music buyers only spend $10 a month on music. So to grow beyond that beachhead Spotify has to grow where the market isn’t yet mature (emerging markets), make the offering feel like free (telco deals) and make the offering feel super cheap ($1 for 3 months promos). All, in different ways, cost, which is where much of this money will be spent, along with hefty marketing efforts.
  • Some of it will be spent on strategic acquisitions: Small music services around the globe will be hastily editing their investor decks, pitching for an acquisition or hoping Spotify will come calling uninvited. But there aren’t too many realistic targets. Soundcloud would probably cost most of the raise, and Spotify would have the same problem Soundcloud now has of trying to force a 9.99 model on a user base it doesn’t fit. TIDAL wouldn’t be cheap either and besides a bunch of exclusive rights for some super star artists, would only add 10% to Spotify’s user base, less after all those users who came in for ‘Life of Pablo’ churn out. A more realistic bet would be for Spotify to target a portfolio of niche services that would add little to its user base but would communicate to the street that it is set up for super serving niches to grow its user base.
  • All bets are on Spotify: For the last 2 years the recorded music industry, the majors in particular, has been holding its collective breath. If Spotify has a successful IPO it will likely spur an inflow of much needed investment to the space. If it doesn’t then it is back to the drawing board. In many respective that should happen anyway. The 9.99 subscription model is incredibly difficult (perhaps impossible) to run profitably at scale.

The next 6 months will be ones of hyper activity for streaming, and don’t expect Apple to take this lying down. Await the battle of the gargantuan marketing budgets. Even if no one else does well out of this, the ad agencies will make hay.

 

Quick Take: Soundcloud Goes Premium

 

SoundCloud_logo.svgFollowing weeks of licensing announcements, Soundcloud has finally launched its premium subscription service, a $9.99 tier ($12.99 on iOS), currently only in the US. The move is both encouraging and disappointing. Soundcloud has a truly unique market footprint and has the potential to be a platform for an entirely new approach to monetizing streaming music. But it is also a poor fit for a cookie cutter $9.99 freemium model.

Soundcloud has a whole set of unique challenges and characteristics that make it so different than the rest of the pack:

  • Artist-first experiences: Unlike its now-direct streaming competitors Spotify and co, Soundcloud is an artist-to-fan platform. Most streaming services are effectively a music-store-meets-HBO hybrid. A place you go to get music. Music as a service, or even a utility. Soundcloud is that as well of course, but it is first and foremost it is a place where artists connect directly with their fans. A $9.99 All You Can Eat (AYCE) is not the right model for a place where fans go to engage with artists rather than looking to turn on the water tap.
  • This is a pivot for Soundcloud: Unlike Spotify and Deezer, whose free tiers have long been geared towards driving subscriptions, for Soundcloud this is not a funnel tweak, it is a pivot. It is a complete change in strategy.
  • Competing against free: The problem with giving something away for free for years is that its really difficult to convince people to start paying for it. It is the same challenge YouTube faces with YouTube Red Which is why instead of simply whacking a pay wall around previously free content, YouTube is investing so much in creating new original content only available on Red. In short, Soundcloud needs to explore how it can deliver new, unique value to paid users rather than simply charging them for what they already get (plus a few convenience features).
  • Non-traditional content: Soundcloud’s strength lies in the music that you just don’t find elsewhere, much of which also happens to be dance music. All of the mash ups, bootlegs, un-authorized remixes, 2 hour long mixes are what make Soundcloud such a valuable component of the music landscape. The only problem is that most of them are not covered in standard major label licenses. In fact, many of them aren’t covered at all. Even Dubset, which is trying to build a business around this type of non-traditional content, hasn’t yet been able to get a full suite of licenses in place. For now, it appears that the majors are willing to turn a blind eye to that content. Which raises an interesting question: who gets paid for the revenue generated by unlicensed tracks?
  • Major labels are shaping an indie platform: Major label content is a massive part of Soundcloud but not the majority. In fact, in dance mixes majors typically account for only 30% of the tracks. Yet it is the major labels that are shaping the future of Soundcloud, forcing it down a road that works well for majors on the AYCE services but could skew Soundcloud against its indie community.

No doubt, Soundcloud had to get licenses in place. It had traded on label good will for long enough. But the current model will not maximise Soundcloud’s vast potential. Instead of Spotify-like 15-20% conversion rates instead expect King and Supercell-like 1.5-5% rates. Let’s hope this is simply a hygiene release, preparing the way for a set of products that fit Soundcloud like a glove rather than odd boots. What could a next iteration look like? Well for a start it could be artist focused and secondly it could be cheaper. Imagine a $4 a month, 5 artist subscription that gives you everything by your favourite artists, including premium-only exclusives. Every month you can swap any number of those artists for different ones for the next month. That is the sort of thinking that needs to be applied to Soundcloud’s subscription business if it is going to live up to its capabilities. The alternative is being condemned to being a freemium also-ran.