The Three Eras Of Paid Streaming

Streaming has driven such a revenue renaissance within the major record labels that the financial markets are now falling over themselves to work out where they can invest in the market, and indeed whether they should. For large financial institutions, there are not many companies that are big enough to be worth investing in. Vivendi is pretty much it. Some have positions in Sony, but as the music division is a smaller part of Sony’s overall business than it is for Vivendi, a position in Sony is only an indirect position in the music business.

The other bet of course is Spotify. With demand exceeding supply these look like good times to be on the sell side of music stocks, though it is worth noting that some hedge funds are also exploring betting against both Vivendi and Spotify. Nonetheless, the likely outcome is that there will be a flurry of activity around big music company stocks, with streaming as the fuel in the engine. With this in mind it is worth contextualizing where streaming is right now and where it fits within the longer term evolution of the market.

the 3 eras of streaming

The evolution of paid streaming can be segmented into three key phases:

  1. Market Entry: This is when streaming was getting going and desktop is still a big part of the streaming experience. Only a small minority of users paid and those that did were tech savvy, music aficionados. As such they skewed young-ish male and very much towards music super fans. These were people who liked to dive deep into music discovery, investing time and effort to search out cool new music, and whose tastes typically skewed towards indie artists. It meant that both indie artists and back catalogue over indexed in the early days of streaming. Because so many of these early adopters had previously been high spending music buyers, streaming revenue growth being smaller than the decline of legacy formats emerged as the dominant trend. $40 a month consumers were becoming $9.99 a month consumers.
  2. Surge: This is the ongoing and present phase. This is the inflection point on the s-curve, where more numerous early followers adopt. The rapid revenue and subscriber growth will continue for the remainder of 2017 and much of 2018. The demographics are shifting, with gender distribution roughly even, but there is a very strong focus on 25-35 year olds who value paid streaming for the ability to listen to music on their phone whenever and wherever they are. Curation and playlists have become more important in order to help serve the needs of these more mainstream users—still strong music fans— but not quite the train spotter obsessives that drive phase one. A growing number of these users are increasing their monthly spend up to $9.99, helping ensure streaming drives market level growth.
  3. Maturation: As with all technology trends, the phases overlap. We are already part way into phase three: the maturing of the market. With saturation among the 25-35 year-old music super fans on the horizon in many western markets, the next wave of adoption will be driven by widening out the base either side of the 25-35 year-old heartland. This means converting the fast growing adoption among Gen Z with new products such as unbundled playlists. At the other end of the age equation, it means converting older consumers— audiences for whom listening to music on the go on smartphones is only part (or even none) of their music listening behaviour. Car technologies such as interactive dashboards and home technologies such as Amazon’s echo will be key to unlocking these consumers. Lean back experiences will become even more important than they are now with voice and AI (personalizing with context of time, place and personal habits) becoming key.

It has been a great 18 months for streaming and strong growth lies ahead in the near term that will require little more effort than ‘more of the same’. But beyond that, for western markets, new, more nuanced approaches will be required. In some markets such as Sweden, where more than 90% of the paid opportunity has already been tapped, we need this phase three approach right now. Alongside all this, many emerging markets are only just edging towards phase 2. What is crucial for rights holders and streaming services alike is not to slacken on the necessary western market innovation if growth from emerging markets starts delivering major scale. Simplicity of product offering got us to where we are but a more sophisticated approach is needed for the next era of paid streaming.

NOTE: I’m going on summer vacation so this will be the last post from me for a couple of weeks.

 

 

How Soundcloud Could Transform Deezer’s Market Narrative

deezer soundcloud

News has emerged of Deezer being a potential buyer of troubled Soundcloud. This follows on from Spotify’s prolonged but ultimately abortive courting last year. Soundcloud was once a streaming powerhouse, with 175 million Monthly Active Users reported in October 2014. Though that number is still widely cited whenever Soundcloud is mentioned in the media, in truth its user base is now much smaller. Spotify, which now has around 150 million MAUs has a Weekly Active User penetration rate of 16% while Soundcloud’s WAU rate is just 6%. With the caveat that multiple additional variables impact WAU vs MAU rates, this would imply that Soundcloud’s MAU number is now closer to 70 million. Despite this shift in its public narrative, Soundcloud remains a uniquely valuable asset in the streaming landscape, one that would give another streaming service a distinct competitive advantage. Here’s why.

A Streaming Service Unlike Any Other (Except YouTube That Is)

Soundcloud first rose to prominence as a platform for artists before it rocketed into the stratosphere as a consumer destination with its new VC-powered mission statement ‘to be the YouTube of audio’. The legacy of its unique starting point is that Soundcloud:

  • Has a catalogue unlike any other streaming service, except YouTube (and to a lesser extent, Mixcloud)
  • Gives artists a direct connection with fans unlike standard streaming services
  • Gives up and coming artists a global platform for reaching fans with no intermediary

That unique combination of assets makes Soundcloud a highly valuable commodity despite its diminished user base and similarly reduced valuation (now said to be around $250 million from a high of $1 billion). Soundcloud has two crucial attributes that will enrich any streaming service:

  • A service tailor-made for Gen Z (ie those consumers currently aged 19 or under)
  • A crowd sourced platform for artist discovery

Soundcloud Is Built For The Era Of Mass Customization

As DJ Spooky put it:

“Artists no longer work in the bub­ble of a record­ing stu­dio. The stu­dio is the net­work.” … “The 20th cen­tury was the era of mass pro­duc­tion. The 21st cen­tury is the era of mass cus­tomiza­tion…”

Artist creativity is no longer a creative full stop, we are now in a phase of Agile Music. Even though the number of people that upload music is small (7% of consumers upload music to Soundcloud or YouTube, of which half upload their own music) their impact on the broader market is multiplied many times over as they provide the music others listen to. But even more importantly, the blurring of the line between audience and creator is the fuel in the engine of Gen Z experiences such as Snapchat and Instagram. Other than lip syncing apps like Musical.ly and Dubsmash, Soundcloud and YouTube are pretty much all the music business has in this space. That, coupled with a highly shareable, highly social UI makes Soundcloud tailor-made for Gen Z. The importance to the segment is clear: among 16-19 year olds, Soundcloud penetration is higher than Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music, Tidal and Deezer, with only Spotify boasting higher penetration for audio services.

Crowd Sourced Discovery

The other key asset Soundcloud brings is the bridge it provides between fans and artists. A host of diverse services like Tunecore, BandLab, Bandcamp and Reverb Nation provide an unprecedented range of tools to up-and-coming artists. But Soundcloud (along with YouTube) is still the only place where artists can reach such a large audience directly, without an intermediary. Layer on its massively social functionality and discovery algorithms and you have an unrivalled audio platform for new artist discovery.

Soundcloud Needs An Ecosystem

Unfortunately for Soundcloud, it has found it impossible to effectively monetize these assets (and aping Spotify’s freemium model has done little to move the dial). What Soundcloud needs is an ecosystem into which it can slot, bringing all of the great functionality but relying on another part of the ecosystem to do the monetization. Slotting Soundcloud into Deezer, Spotify or even Apple Music would create an entirely new layer in each of those propositions and would massively enhance market positioning.

It would also enable the service to start behaving more like a label, identifying and testing artists before moving them up into the main service. If done by Spotify or Apple Music, this would look highly disruptive to labels as it really would be a precursor to becoming a next-gen label. But for Deezer, the story is a little different. As part of the Access Industry potfolio, Deezer sits alongside talent management agency First Access Entertainment, live discovery platform Songkick and, last but most certainly not least, Warner Music. By acquiring Soundcloud, Access Industries would be rounding out the most complete Full Stack Music Company in the business.

YouTube Is Not For Sale But Soundcloud Is

YouTube might do most of what Soundcloud does, and at much larger scale, but Soundcloud is up for sale and YouTube is not. Right now, Soundcloud represents the best opportunity in the marketplace for an audio streaming service to make up the ground in user experience innovation that the streaming market lost over the last few years in comparison to Gen Z apps. And with Deezer at the front of the queue, the French streaming service could be about to transform its market narrative in an instant.

 

Spotify Earnings: Growth Comes At A Cost

spotify metrics

Spotify has published its much anticipated 2016 revenues. Because the company is under so much analytical scrutiny, there is little that is particularly surprising but there is still plenty we can learn from the results:

  • Growth maintains momentum: Spotify recorded revenues of €2.9 billion in 2016, up 51% from €1.9 billion in 2015. Although that was a lower growth rate in % terms (80% for 14/15), it was a bigger net add in revenue terms (€989 million net new revenue in 2016 compared to €863 million in 2015). Spotify still has some way to go before it challenges Netflix’s $8.2 billion streaming revenue, but it is making clear progress.
  • Spotify is getting ready for public reporting: The 2016 accounts featured heavy restating of previous year figures and many line items from last year’s accounts were no longer reported. All of which points to an organization getting its reporting structures in place for a public listing of some kind.
  • ARPU is a mixed story: Spotify’s total monthly user ARPU increased from €1.82 in 2015 to €1.94, driven by a small increase in ad supported user APRU and, more importantly, a higher share of paid users (38% in 2016 compared to 31% in 2015). However, that increased paid conversion has come at the price of lower paid ARPU, with $1 for 3-month trials etc., pushing down paid ARPU from €5.16 in 2015 to €4.58 which in turn is more than an entire dollar a month less than the €5.85 paid ARPU figure Spotify enjoyed in 2014.
  • Losses are widening again: Spotify reported losses before tax of €539 million against revenues of €2.9 billion (i.e. 18% of revenue). This was up from 12% in 2015 although it had been as high as 17% in 2014. In order to keep up with the market, Spotify is having to spend heavily, and this is all without any major product or territory launch in 2016. You need deep pockets to play at streaming’s top table.
  • Rights costs may be on a positive trajectory: Spotify’s Cost of Sales (previously reported as Royalty Distribution and Other Costs) were €2.5 billion, or 84.6% of revenue, down slightly from 85.5% in 2015. The shrinking share of the loss-making ad supported user base is most likely the key contributor here. Though the new UMG and Merlin deals will help sustain this path.

In Search Of A Margin

So, what do Spotify’s results say about the economics that we didn’t already know. In truth, not much. The market has lots of growth in it yet; competing is expensive, growth has to be incentivized and rights are the main cost component.

As Spotify nears a public listing or an acquisition by Alibaba or Tencent, it remains the benchmark for the health of the streaming economy. With the underlying fundamentals remaining largely unchanged in 2016 despite stellar growth, here are a few thoughts on how the economics of streaming might change:

An often repeated argument from record labels is that streaming services will hit profitability when they reach scale. So, when does that happen? 48 million subscribers can lay a good claim to being ‘scale’, but it isn’t driving profit. While the market establishes itself, streaming services have to overspend on product innovation and marketing (and then, later, on user retention). So, these costs will likely rise in relative terms. Meanwhile, rights are always going to remain largely in line with revenue (though the UMG and Merlin deals reward growth with some discounting, which is a welcome innovation). But even these deals will not change the fact that rights will be large enough to challenge margins and will largely scale with growth. Which means no truly meaningful scale benefits. So here are a few alternative ways in which streaming margins might be improved:

  • Doing a Netflix: Because Netflix owns much of its own content, it is able to use its recommendation algorithms to ensure that content over-indexes, improving margin. It also amortizes costs against those content assets to help it register a profit. Spotify could do the same but is unlikely to do so anytime soon. It cannot afford to antagonize its major label partners, each of whom has a UN Security Council type power of veto (Spotify would falter if any one of them pulled out). Someday, Spotify probably will become a label, though not in the way most people would understand the term. However, it will wait for more scale and confidence before flicking the switch on that strategy.
  • Ecosystems: Apple has long demonstrated the value of competing right across value chains. Now Amazon is following suit (e.g. Amazon Video covers rights, infrastructure and distribution). Exercising control across the value chain gives a company more places to extract margin. Perhaps Alibaba or Tencent (or some other Chinese giant) could buy a major label and a streaming service? Access Industries is already on this path, wholly owning WMG and more than half of Deezer (though there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of dots being joined yet). And then the wildcard is a streaming service becoming so big that it can buy a major or a collection of big indies. Or of course Apple deciding to any of the above. Should this feel like wild conjecture, do not forget that it was not so long ago when an ISP (AOL) bought WMG, and a water and sewage conglomerate (Vivendi) went on a media company acquisition spree and bought UMG.
  • Ancillary revenue streams: The most pragmatic solution though is not a silver bullet, but instead a blended strategy of new revenue streams. These can range from B2B (e.g. Spotify selling its data to live companies like Live Nation and AEG to help them get more cost effective with better targeting), through premium user add-ons to new formats such as limited capacity, pay-per-view artist live streams.

Spotify played the starring role in streaming’s biggest year yet and looks well on track to do the same in 2017. But at some stage, the losses need to narrow. The industry needs to help ensure this happens, unless it wants the market to end up being dominated by companies that simply do not have to have streaming turn a profit because they are making money elsewhere.