Spotify Earnings: Growth Comes At A Cost

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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.

 

Quick Take: IFPI Revenue Numbers

Today the IFPI published their annual assessment of the global recorded music business. The key theme is the first serious year of growth since Napster kicked off a decade and a half of decline, with streaming doing all the revenue heavy lifting.

The findings won’t come as much of a surprise to regular readers of this blog, as at MIDiA we had already conducted our own market sizing earlier in the year. The IFPI reported just under a billion dollars of revenue growth in 2016 (we peg growth at $1.1 billion) with streaming driving all the growth (60% growth, we estimate 57%). IFPI also reported 112 million paying subscribers (our number is 106.3 million, but the IFPI numbers probably include the Tencent 10 million number as reported, while the actual number is closer to 5 million).

IFPI report physical sales declining by 8% (we have 7%) and downloads down by 21% which is 3 percentage points more decline than the majors reported; this implies the IFPI estimates the indies to have had a much more pronounced decline than the majors. MIDiA is currently working with WIN to create the 2017 update to the global indie market sizing study, so we’ll be able to confirm that trend one way or another in a couple of months’ time.

Overall, the IFPI numbers tell the same good news story we revealed back in February, namely that streaming is finally driving the format replacement cycle that the recorded music business has not had since the heyday of the CD. Without streaming, the recorded music market would have declined in 2016. Streaming is driving revenue growth by both growing the base of users and, crucially, increasing the spend of more casual music spenders, changing them from lower spending download buyers into monthly 9.99 customers.

Also, streaming is unlocking spending in emerging markets (especially Latin America). The old model was based on people being able to afford a CD player and being able to afford to buy albums. The new model monetizes consumption on smartphones (which are becoming ubiquitous in emerging markets). Expect each year from now to see a reallocation of recorded music revenue towards emerging markets. It will be a long process but an irresistible one. Indeed, as Spotify’s Will Page put it:

“Spotify’s success story has expanded beyond established markets, with Brazil and Mexico now making up two of our top four countries worldwide by reach. Back when the industry peaked in 2000, Brazil and Mexico were 7th and 8th biggest markets in the world respectively. A combination of increasing smartphone adoption [reaching far more users than CDs ever did] and Spotify’s success makes the potential for these emerging markets to ‘re-emerge’ and to exceed previous peaks.”

One surprising point is that the IFPI reported a total of $4.5 billion for streaming ($3.9 for freemium and $0.6 billion for YouTube, etc.). However, the major labels alone reported revenues of $3.9 billion (see my previous post for more detail on label revenues). That would give the majors an implied market share of 87% in streaming. Which seems like a big share even accounting for majors including the reveue of the indie labels they distribute in their revenue numbers (eg Orchard distributed indie label revenue appearing in Sony’s numbers). Last year the IFPI appeared to have put Pandora revenues into US performance revenues rather than treat them as ad supported streaming, so that could account for an extra $400 million or so.

Nonetheless, taking the IFPI’s $3.9 billion freemium revenue and the 112 million subs number both at face value for a moment, that would equate to an average monthly label income of $2.90 per subscriber or a combined average monthly income of $1.53 for total freemium users (including free). These numbers are skewed in that they are year end numbers (mid year user numbers would be lower, so ARPU would be higher) but they are still directionally instructive ie there is a big gap between headline 9.99 pricing and what label revenue is actually generated due to factors such as $1 for 3 month trials and telco bundles.

All in all, a great year for recorded music. And despite a slow-ish Q1 2017 for streaming and the impending CD revenue collapse in Japan and Germany, it looks set to be another strong year ahead for streaming and, to a lesser extent, the broader recorded music business.

MIDiA Exclusive: 7digital Acquires Leading Competitor 24-7

7digital logo_0UK music services provider 7digital today announced they are currently considering the acquisition of longstanding competitor 24-7 from German retail giant MediaMarktSaturn (MMS).  24-7 is one of the longest standing companies in the entire digital music space, founded in 2000 (MMS took a majority holding in 2009). In a marketplace where the average life span of a digital music start up is 5.5 years, 24-7 is a veritable veteran and powers one of the very first telco music services: TDC’s Play. 7digital takes full ownership of 24-7’s business and its existing music service customers, including Play and Saturn’s Media Markt.

Market Consolidation

2016 was a year of consolidation in the white label services space, with Omnifone going into administration and Medianet getting bought by SOCAN. 7digital’s acquisition of 24-7 further concentrates the market. With the growing brand strength of streaming services like Spotify and Tidal, telcos have been increasingly looking to partner with those brands rather than build their own. Which was one of the key drivers of market consolidation. Those companies that have weathered the storm, of which 7digital is clearly one, have done so by diversifying away from telcos. For example, in 2016 7digital powered French retailer Cdiscount’s streaming service Cstream.

Sleeping Giant Retailers

That is not to say that opportunity does not still exist in the telco sector, it does, but a successful white label services provider now has to have a much more diversified client and product portfolio. Retailers will be a big part of that mix going forward. Especially so in markets where CD sales still account for a large portion of music sales. Germany, just and so happens to be the world’s 4th largest recorded music market with 59% of its sales physical in 2015. So powering the music service of the country’s largest CD retailer has clear potential. Add into the mix the fact Media Markt is also the leading consumer electronics retailer with a very large base of online user accounts and the tantalizing prospect of an Amazon Prime / Echo type proposition emerges, should they ever decide to go down that route.

Powering The Next Generation Of Spotifys

Another real area for growth for companies like 7digital is giving pure play services a head start in the streaming race. Bringing a streaming music service to market is no easy task and many a start up finds itself 2 years into its journey wishing it had realised just how complex a business multi-territory music licensing actually is. By bringing licensing, tech knowhow and infrastructure to the table, companies like 7digital should be well placed when a post-Spotify IPO / sale generation of streaming services look to come to market.

7digital is not quite last man standing in the white label services marketplace (there is already a new crop of competitors emerging such as Cylo and General Harmonics) but it is now in the clear position of being the leading player with more than a decade of track record behind it. Do not under estimate the importance of that latter attribute to rights holders and potential partners, both of whom want to have the security of working with a trusted company that is still going to be around next week.

With Spotify, Apple and Amazon all set to follow up their strong 2016 with an ever stronger 2017, there is no doubt that the streaming market is heating up. It will be down to new entrants to ensure that the market does not become too concentrated around too few players. The newly expanded 7digital will be hoping to be a key part of that puzzle.

Four Companies That Could Buy Spotify

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For much of 2016 it looked nailed on that Spotify would IPO in 2017 and that the recorded music industry would move onto its next chapter, for better or for worse. The terms of Spotify’s $1 billion debt raise (which mean that Spotify pays an extra 1% on its 5% annual interest payments every six months beyond its previously agreed IPO date) suggest that Spotify was thinking the same way too. But now, word emerges that Spotify is looking to renegotiate terms with its lenders and there are whispers that Spotify might not even IPO. It would be a major strategic pivot if Spotify was to abort its IPO efforts and it begs the question: what next?

The World Has Changed

When Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon were drawing up the Spotify business plan in the 2000’s, the music and tech worlds were dramatically different from what they are now. The ‘Potential Exits’ powerpoint slide in Ek’s investor pitch deck would have listed companies such as Nokia, Microsoft, Sony and HTC. Over the subsequent decade, those companies have fallen on harder times (though Microsoft is now experiencing a turnaround) and all of them have moved away from digital music, which is why an IPO seemed like a much better option for being able to get a large enough return on investment for Spotify’s investors.

The only problem is that the IPO market has changed too. IPOs were once the best way for tech companies to raise capital but with the current VC bubble (and its recycled cash in the form of exited-founders reinvesting as Angels) equity and debt investment is much easier to come by. In 1997, there were 9,113 public companies in the U.S. At the end of 2016, there were fewer than 6,000. 2016 was the slowest year for IPOs since 2009. And of course, Deezer aborted its IPO in 2015. Snapchat’s forthcoming IPO will be a Spotify bellwether. If it does well it will set up Spotify, but if Facebook’s continued aggressive feature-cloning on Instagram continues, it could underperform, which could change the entire environment for tech IPOs in 2017. The fact that only 15.4% of Snapchat’s stock is being listed may also push its price down. No fault of Spotify of course, but it is Spotify that could pay the price.

$8 Billion Valuation Narrows Options

Because Spotify has had to load itself with so much debt and equity investment it has needed to hike its valuation to ensure investors and founders still have meaningful enough equity for an exit. Spotify’s revenues will be near $3 billion for 2016 but its $8 billion valuation is half the value of the entire recorded music market in 2015 and more than double the value of the entire streaming music market that year. However, benchmarked against comparable companies, the valuation has clearer reference points. For example, Supercell had revenues of $2.1 billion and was bought by Tencent for $8.6 billion in 2016. King had revenues of $2.6 billion and was bought for $5.9 billion by Activision Blizzard, also in 2016.

The complication is that both of those companies own the rights to their content, while Spotify merely rents its content. Which means that in a worst case scenario Spotify could find itself as an empty vessel if it had a catastrophic fall out with its rights holder partners. King and Supercell would both still have their games catalogue whatever happened with their partners.

Western Companies Are Not Likely Buyers

So, in the event that Spotify does not IPO, it either needs to raise more capital until it can get to profitability (which could be 3+ years away) or it needs someone to meet its $8 billion asking price. Of the current crop of tech majors, Apple, Google and Amazon are all deeply vested in their own streaming plays (Apple Music, YouTube and Prime) so the odds of one of those becoming a buyer is, while not impossible, unlikely and for what it’s worth, ill advised. Though there could be a case for Apple buying Spotify for accounting purposes as buying a European company would be a way to use some of its offshore domiciled $231.5 billion cash reserves. Reserves that the Trump administration is, at some stage, likely to make efforts to repatriate to the US in one way or another. Facebook is the wild card, but it’s unlikely to want to saddle itself with such a cost-inefficient way of engaging users with music. A distribution partnership with Vevo or launching its own music video offering are much better fits.

Go East: Four Potential Suitors For Spotify

So much for Western companies. Cast your gaze eastwards though and suddenly a whole crop of potential suitors comes into focus:

imgres-2Tencent: With a market cap of more than $200 billion and a bulging roster of consumer propositions (including WeChat) and 3 music services, Tencent is arguably the most viable eastern suitor for Spotify. The fact that the company recently reported inflated subscriber numbers for QQ Music (which were in fact a repetition of the same inflated numbers given to Mashable in July last year) hints at Tencent’s eagerness to court the western media and to be judged on similar terms. A Spotify acquisition, especially an expensive one, would be both a major statement of intent and an immediate entry point into the west. It would also transform Spotify into a truly global player.

imgres-4Alibaba:
Another Chinese giant with a market cap north of $200 billion (although it has lost value in recent years), Alibaba has a strong retail focus but has been diversifying in recent years. Acquisitions include the South China Morning Post, Guangzhou Football Club and the Roewe RX5 ‘internet car’. Spotify would be a less obvious fit for Alibaba but could be a platform for building reach and presence in the west.

imgres-1Dalian Wanda: With assets of over $90 billion, revenue of more than $40 billion, a heavy focus on media and an insatiable appetite for acquisitions, Dalian Wanda is a strong contender. The company has built a global cinema empire in its AMC Theatres division, most recently picking up a Scandinavian cinema chain for a little under a billion dollars late January. Dalian Wanda’s strong US presence and long experience in that market, along with its bold global vision make its fit at least as good as Tencent’s. The fact that it is currently mulling a €6 billion acquisition of the German bank Postbank indicates it can buy big.

imgresBaidu: Baidu’s $10 billion revenues make it a markedly smaller player than Dalian Wanda but its $66 billion market cap and strong music focus (e.g. Baidu Music) make Spotify a good strategic fit. Spotify could help Baidu to both counter the domestic threat of Apple Music and to build out to the west, which could act as a platform for building out Baidu’s other brands.

imgres-3Other runners: A host of telcos could be contenders, including the $78 billion SoftBank and India’s Reliance Communications. However, most telcos will surely realise that emerging markets will soon hit the same music bundle speed bumps that are cropping up in western markets. One other outsider is the $29 billion 21st Century Fox. Perhaps less of a wildcard than it might at first appear, considering that News Corp was a major shareholder in the now defunct Beyond Oblivion. And of course, don’t rule out Liberty Global.

An IPO, albeit a delayed one, still remains the most likely outcome for Spotify, but if it proves unfeasible there is a healthy collection of potential buyers or at the very least, companies that could buy into Spotify to give it enough runway to get towards profitability.

Change Is Afoot In Music Video

Music video’s two power players are both in the news for strategic resets. On the one hand YouTube has announced that it is merging its YouTube Music and Google Play Music teams while on the other hand Vevo has announced it is postponing the launch of its subscription service in favour of prioritising global expansion. These are both important developments in their own rights but together form part of a changing narrative for music video.

Music video is streaming music’s killer app. According to MIDiA’s latest consumer survey, 45% of consumers watch music videos on YouTube or Vevo every month, while 25% of consumers use YouTube for music every week (more than any of the streaming audio services). So what YouTube and Vevo do has real impact.

YouTube Is Where Google Is Placing Its Music Bets

YouTube’s merging of teams is not a huge surprise. It always appeared overkill having 2 separate teams, especially considering that Play was performing so poorly in the market (its weekly active users are measured in single digit percentages) and that Google’s music priority has always been, and will always be, YouTube. Although nothing will change immediately in terms of user proposition, the strategic direction of travel is clear: YouTube is where Google will place its music bets. Which places even greater importance on rights holders and Google coming to an understanding around royalty payments. YouTube moving to minimum guaranteed per stream rates is untenable (for Google) as is the Value Gap/Grab (for rights holders). Something has to give.

My long-term bet is still on Google creating a parallel music industry around YouTube, one that is entirely opted out of the traditional music industry’s rights frameworks. But a more immediate concern for Google is contingency planning in the event of Vevo upping sticks and becoming the centre piece of a revamped Facebook video play. A combination of no Vevo and disgruntled rights holders would be a recipe for disaster for YouTube’s music strategy.

Facebook And Vevo May Be Courting 

Vevo jumping ship to Facebook is not as far-fetched as it might have seemed when it was first mooted a few years ago. Facebook is now the world’s 2nd biggest online video property and has finally admitted that it is a media company. Slowing ad revenues in 2017 will see Facebook double down on ancillary revenue streams and content will be a key plank of that strategy. Games is the biggest addressable market and it has already made moves in that direction. Growing video is another. While streaming music is a relatively small market opportunity for Facebook, it has wide appeal. Launching an AYCE streaming service would be an ill-advised (and highly unlikely) option for Facebook, but partnering with Vevo would be a higher margin, lower risk way of getting into music. It would also be the perfect vehicle with which to showcase Facebook’s next generation of video UI, which will include features such as curation, channels, recommendations etc. In short, a lot less like Facebook video and lot more like YouTube.

The Rise Of Music Inspired Video

Interestingly, Vevo’s CEO Erik Huggers has announced that Vevo will be increasing its focus on short form, non-music video, such as artist interviews, mini-documentaries, and animated shorts. This snackable, highly shareable content bears closer resemblance to the sort of video that works well in Facebook’s more social-centric video platform than YouTube’s more viewer-centric environment. Vevo’s non-music video approach is smart. As we explained in our report ‘From Music Video To Music Inspired Video’, if rights holders want their share of overall video time to grow, or at least hold their own, then they need to start exploring creating music related video rather than just music videos.

The core consumption format will still be the music video, but the additional content expands reach and time spent. In a Facebook environment (especially if Instagram was incorporated) this sort of content would spread like wildfire. Add into the mix that Huggers also referenced Vevo’s prioritization of building its direct audience via its own apps (ie not via YouTube) and we might just be starting to see the emerging shape of a planning-for-life-after-YouTube strategy. Even if Vevo decided to stick with YouTube (which remains the most likely outcome), it could use all of these moves as leverage for getting a better deal.

Change is afoot in the music video space and we may just be beginning to see the two key players beginning to put competitive space between each other. But perhaps most tellingly, as both companies up their game, they are also both, in different ways distancing themselves from their subscription plays. Music video is the killer streaming app for many reasons. The fact that it is free is reason number one, and Vevo and YouTube both know it.

Streaming Music Pricing: Inelastic Stretching

Pricing has long been an issue for streaming music subscriptions, with the $/€/£ 9.99 price point above what most people spend on music each month. Streaming services have navigated around the issue with a combination of tactics such as telco bundles and aggressive price discounts (e.g. $1 for 3 months). However, these tactics place long term pressure on the 9.99 price point as they create a consumer perception that streaming music should be cheaper than it is. There is no doubt that discounts are doing a great job of converting users and of easing otherwise reluctant consumers into the 9.99 pricing, but the next phase of the streaming market requires a more sustainable approach to pricing strategy, coupled with some serious product innovation.

To explore this issue in detail, MIDiA has published its latest music report: Streaming Music Pricing: Inelastic StretchingIn it we use proprietary MIDiA data to assess how much of the 9.99 opportunity has been tapped, how much further opportunity exists and what level of demand exists for different price points.

midia music subscriber projections

These are some of the key takeaways from the report:

  • 2017 will be a stellar streaming year: A combination of enough growth being left in the market and the continued success of pricing discounts should see subscriber numbers grow at a slightly faster rate in 2017 than they did in 2016, hitting 146.6 million. This is up 44.3 million from the 106.3 million hit in 2016. (That 2016 figure is 5.9 million more than our provisional estimate published back in the start of January, as the result of receiving a couple of slightly stronger than expected numbers. However, the increase is not due to the very high subscriber numbers reported elsewhere for some Chinese services. We consider these numbers to be high and we place our estimate closer to half of those.) By 2018, subscriber growth will begin to lessen and by 2019 we’ll be in market maturation phase. Around 2/3 of the readily addressable opportunity for 9.99 has already been tapped and this remainder is what will drive the 2017 growth. New tactics will be required for the rest of the cycle.
  • Beyond 9.99: Emerging markets, new partnerships and discounts will all be important growth tactics, but pricing will also be key. Many readers will be familiar with my longstanding enthusiasm for mid tier streaming pricing. Unfortunately, mid-tier pricing by stealth (e.g. price discounts, student offers) coupled with an overly resplendent free marketplace (YouTube, Vevo, Spotify free, etc.) have combined to suck most of the oxygen out of the mid tier sector. Nonetheless, there is a major need for something to cater for the lower end of the market. One of the key sections in the report reveals that streaming pricing is inelastic and the change in demand is smaller than the change in pricing. Even dropping the main price to $6.99 would only result in reducing the size of the streaming market.
  • Unbundling: So how do we square the circle? By using super low prices (e.g. 2.99; 3.99) to launch laser focused niche apps aimed at specific demographics and genres. This can be done both by standalone specialists (e.g. the Overflow, FreqsTV) and by the big incumbents taking a leaf out of Facebook’s app strategy and creating standalone, unbundled apps. In order for them to work, they cannot simply look like a thin slice of Spotify or Apple Music. They have to be as different from their parent apps as Instagram and Whatsapp are from Facebook. That means new user experiences, new functionality, different approaches to programming/ curation and standalone branding. To work, mid tier products have to look like something unique, not a compromised, watered down version of the full fat product. Mid tier services risk looking like low-fat, gluten-free, sugar-free, organic, diet, hand knitted soya milk. While there is a market for it, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the market is in fact tiny.

So, a good 2017 looks on the cards for streaming, one which will confirm the maturity of the streaming sector as a whole. But the next stage of the market will require product and pricing innovation, at both the high end and the low end. Now is the time to start putting the pieces in place for 2018 and beyond.

The report from which this insight is taken (Streaming Music Pricing: Inelastic Stretching) is immediately available to MIDiA report subscribers. To find out how to become a MIDiA subscriber email info@midiaresearch.com.  If you just want to buy the report and the supporting data then visit our report store here.

Music Subscriptions Passed 100 Million In December. Has The World Changed?

In streaming’s earlier years, when doubts prevailed across the artist, songwriter and label communities, one of the arguments put forward by enthusiasts was that when streaming reached scale everything would make sense. When asked what ‘scale’ meant, the common reply was ‘100 million subscribers’. In December, the streaming market finally hit and passed that milestone, notching up 100.4 million subscribers by the stroke of midnight on the 31st December. It was an impressive end to an impressive year for streaming, but does it mark a change in the music industry, a fundamental change in the way in which streaming works for the music industry’s numerous stakeholders?

Streaming Has Piqued Investors’ Interest

The streaming market was always going to hit the 100 million subscriber mark sometime around now, but by closing out the year with the milestone it was ahead of schedule. This was not however entirely surprising as the previous 12 months had witnessed a succession of achievements and new records. Not least of which was the major labels registering a 10% growth in overall revenue in Q2, driven by a 52% increase in streaming revenue. This, coupled with Spotify and Apple’s continual out doing of each other with subscriber growth figures, Spotify’s impending IPO and Vevo’s $500 million financing round, have triggered a level of interest in the music business from financial institutions not seen in well over a decade. The recorded music business looks like it might finally be starting the long, slow recovery from its generation-long recession.

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Spotify Continues To Set The Pace

Spotify has consistently led the streaming charge and despite a continually changing competitive marketplace it has held determinedly onto pole position since it first acquired it. Even more impressively, it has also maintained market share. According to data from MIDiA’s Music Streamer Tracker, in Q2 2015 Spotify’s share of global music subscribers was 42%, H2 15 41%, H1 16 44%, H2 16 43%. Not bad for a service facing its fiercest competitor yet in Apple, a resurgent Deezer and an increasingly significant Amazon. Spotify closed out the year with around 43 million subscribers, Apple with around 21 million and Deezer with nearly 7 million. 2nd place is thus less than half the scale of 1st, while 3rd is a third of 2nd place. Meanwhile Apple and Spotify account for 64% of the entire subscriber base. It is a market with many players but only 2 standout global winners. Amazon could change that in 2017, largely because it is prioritising a different, more mainstream market (as long as it doesn’t get too distracted by Echo-driven Music Unlimited success). Meanwhile YouTube has seen its music streaming market share decline, which means more higher paying audio streams, which means more income for rights holders and creators.

A Brave New World?

So far so good. But does 100 million represent a brave new world? In truth, there was never going to be a sudden step change but instead a steady but clear evolution. That much has indeed transpired. The music market now is a dramatically different one than that which existed 12 months ago when there were 67.5 million subscribers. Revenues are growing, artist and songwriter discontent is on the wane and label business models are changing. But 100 million subscribers does not by any means signify that the model is now fixed and set. Smaller and mid tier artists are still struggling to make streaming cents add up to their lost sales dollars, download sales are in freefall, many smaller indie labels are set to have a streaming-driven cash flow crisis, and subscriber growth, while very strong, is not exceptional. In fact, the global streaming subscriber base has been growing by the same amount for 18 months now: (16.5 million in H2 2016, 16.5 million in H1 2016 and 16.4 million in H2 2016). Also, for some context, video subscriptions passed the 100 million mark in the US alone in Q3 2016. And streaming music had a head start on that market.

At some stage, perhaps in 2017, we will see streaming in many markets hit the glass ceiling of demand that exists for the 9.99 price point. Additionally the streaming-driven download collapse and the impending CD collapses in Germany and Japan all mean that it would be unwise to expect recorded music revenues to register uninterrupted growth over the next 3 to 5 years. But growth will be the dominant narrative and streaming will be the leading voice. 100 million subscribers might not mean the world changes in an instant, but it does reflect a changing world.

Experience Should Be Everything In 2017

 

2017 is going to be a big year for streaming. Spotify will likely IPO, paid subscribers will pass the 100 million mark in Q1, playlists will boom. 2017 will build upon an upbeat 2016 in which the major labels saw streaming drive total revenue growth. This stirred the interest of big financial institutions, companies that had previously avoided the music industry like the plague. These institutions are now seriously assessing whether the market is finally ready to pay attention to. The implication of all of this is that if Spotify’s IPO is successful, expect a flow of investment into a new wave of streaming services. But if these new services are to have any chance of success they will need to rewrite the rules by putting context and experience at the centre of everything they do.

Why User Experience Often Ends Up On The Back Seat

Putting experience first might sound like truism. Of course, everyone puts user experience first right? Wrong. You may be hard pushed to find many companies that do not say that they put user experience first, but finding companies that genuinely walk the talk is a far harder task. Just in the same way that every tech company worth its salt will say they are innovation companies, only a minority do genuine, dial-moving, innovation. Prioritising user experience is one of those semi-ethereal concepts that may be hard to argue against in principle, but that is much more difficult to actually build a company around. Why? Because the real world gets in the way. In the case of music services ‘the real world’ translates into (in no specific order): catering to rights holders’ requirements, investing in rolling out to new territories, paying out 81% of revenue to rights holders on a cash flow basis, spending on marketing etc.

The distinct advantage that the next generation of streaming services will have is that they will sit on the shoulders of the streaming incumbents’ innovation. Instead of having to learn how to fix stream buffering, drive compelling curation, make streaming on mobile work and define rights holder licenses for freemium, they can take the current state of play as the starting point. They are starting the race half way through and with completely fresh legs. They come into the market without the same tech priorities of the incumbents and also without any of their institutional baggage (baggage that, whether they like it or not, shapes world views and competitive vision).

Streaming Music Is Not Keeping Digital Pace

During the last 5 years, users’ digital experiences have transformed, driven by apps like Snapchat, Instagram and Musical.ly. Video has been at the heart of most of the successful apps, as has interactivity. Music services though have struggled, not only with how to make video work, but also with how to give their offerings a less 2 dimensional feel. They have lagged behind in the bigger race. For all of the undoubted innovation in discovery, recommendation, personalization and programming, the underlying streaming experience has changed remarkably little. We are still fundamentally stuck in the music-collection-as-excel-spreadsheet paradigm. Underneath it all is the same static audio file that resided on the CD and the download. Granted, there have been some major improvements in design (such as high resolution artist images, full screen layouts and strong use of white space). Now though, is the time to apply these design ethics to streaming User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX).

Successful (non-music) apps are multidimensional, highly visual and often massively social. These are the UX and UI bars against which streaming services should benchmark themselves, not how other streaming services are doing. Of course, a key challenge is that music in not inherently a lean forward, visual experience. Most people want much of their listening time to be lean back, without interruptions. Nonetheless, Vevo and YouTube have shown us that there is massive appetite, at truly global scale, for lean forward, highly social, visual music experiences.

Fixing A Plane Mid-Flight

The streaming incumbents could all do this, but they will be at distinct disadvantage compared to potentially well-funded new entrants. It is no easy task to refit a plane mid-flight. Also, Spotify, Deezer and Napster are built on tech stacks with origins more than a decade old. All have made massive changes to those original tech stacks (Spotify in particular, shifting from a monolithic structure to a modular one) but in essence, all these companies were first built as desktop software providers in an era when Microsoft and Nokia were still technology leaders. They have adapted to become app companies but that change did not come naturally and took a huge amount of organizational discipline and resource. This next market phase will require exactly the same sort of discipline, but more effort and at a time when competition is fiercer and costs are higher.

Streaming Services Need To Know Who They Are Really Competing With

The streaming services might think that they are competing with each other but in reality they are competing in the digital economy as a whole. Their competitors are Snapchat, Instagram and Buzz Feed. Right now, music listening accounts for 36% of consumers’ digital media time but that share is under real threat. Over the course of the millennium, music has relied increasingly on growth in lean back environments and contexts. The rise of listening on the go via MP3 players and then smartphones created more time slots that music could fill, while media multitasking has been another major driver of listening. All of this works well when whatever else is going on does not require the listener to be using their ears. The rise of video is, paradoxically, creating more competition for the user’s ear. Even though we are seeing the 2nd coming of silent cinema with social video captioning, there are many more calls to action for our eyes and ears. Even a Facebook feed 24 months ago would have been something that could in the large be safely viewed in silence. Now it is full of auto playing videos, willing the user to unmute. As soon as s/he does so the music has to stop. On video-native platforms like Snapchat the view is even starker for music. Killing time in the Starbucks queue is now as likely to involve watching a viral video as it is listening to a song.

Thus streaming music has to create a user experience renaissance, not just to keep up with contemporary digital experiences but in order to ensure it does not lose any more share of digital consumers’ consumption time. This is the new problem to fix. The Spotify generation fixed buffering and mobile streaming, the Apple Music generation fixed discovery, the next generation will fix UX. Just as Apple Music and Google Play Music All Access were able to skip the first lap of the race, launching with what Spotify and co took years to develop, so the next generation of streaming services, when they come, will take all of the recent innovation playlists, curation and user data analysis as the blank canvas. Which in turn will force the incumbents to up their game fast. Until then, the streaming incumbents have an opportunity to get ahead else get left behind.

MIDiA’s 2016 Predictions – Here’s How We Did

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Part of our job at MIDiA Research is to help our clients ‘look round the corner’ and see what disruptions and innovations are likely to impact their businesses. In short, our job is to help understand what the future holds. This is why in 2015 we published our ‘2016 Predictions’ report in which we made a number of big calls on the coming year in digital content. Here’s how we did:

Macro Trends

  1. Mobile messaging apps will surpass 6 billion. VERDICT: Correct. (There are now more than 6.5 billion)
  2. Video will eat the world. Whatever media business you are in, in 2016 you will be a video company too. VERDICT: Correct. (2016 was the year video took centre stage)
  3. Some or all of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google will start to aggregate TV channel apps and SVOD apps to join the digital TV dots. VERDICT: Correct. (Amazon and Apple both made their first TV app aggregation moves in 2016)

Music

  1. Digital will finally be more than 50% of revenue. VERDICT: Correct. (Q2 major label results showed digital as 54% of recorded music revenue)
  2. Streaming holdouts will trickle not flood. VERDICT: Correct. (Indeed, remarkably few artists held back albums. Exclusives became the new black instead)
  3. Spotify will still be the leading subscription service. VERDICT: Correct. (At the end of September Spotify had 40 million subscribers compared to just under 18 million for Apple Music)

Mobile

  1. Android app revenue will surpass iOS. VERDICT: Wrong. (Apple’s App Store still has almost twice the revenue of Play Store. In our defence on this one this was as a result of Android under performing and Apple over performing. Android increased OS market share but still did not overtake app store revenue which means that Play ARPU reduced while Apple App Store ARPU increased.)
  2. Adblocker disruption will accelerate for publishers. VERDICT: Correct. (Adblock plus now grew big enough to open it’s own adexchange, and publishers can do little but get on board)
  3. Big freemium games will lose steam. VERDICT: Correct. (Fewer apps in the top free and top grossing app charts now compared to January)

Video

  1. More unbundled SVOD services will launch. VERDICT: Correct. (2016 saw a succession of new video services)
  2. Mobile video will blur at the edges. VERDICT: Correct. (Messaging apps have made video central to the user experience with the Snapchat illustrative stories feature now being replicated on Instagram)
  3. Interactive ads will gain traction on TV channel apps. VERDICT: Wrong. (Although still be tested on selected Fox Networks authenticated channel apps, they have not moved into the mainstream…yet )

We’ll be publishing our 2017 Predictions report in the next few weeks. To learn how to get a copy of the report and of our 2017 Predictions report and also our 2016 Predictions report email us at info AT midiaresearch DOT COM.

Streaming Music Health Check Deep Dive: Trial Hopping

At MIDiA we have just published our latest streaming report: ‘Streaming Music Health Check: Streaming’s Watershed Moment’. In it we combine the latest streaming revenue data, subscriber numbers and consumer data to create the definitive assessment of where the streaming music market is now at. The report and accompanying dataset is available to MIDiA Research clients here. For more on how to become a MIDiA client to get access to this report email us at info AT midiaresearch DOT COM

The full details of the report and key findings are listed below, but here’s a small excerpt from the report exploring the issue of trial hopping.

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Free trials are a crucial means of converting streaming users to paid subscriptions, especially when deployed with auto opt-in billing. Although often close to half of these opted in users cancel after their first payment (ie immediately after they realize they have been billed), trials are a proven conversion tactic. That is, until users game the system by hopping from one free trial to another by simply signing up with multiple different email accounts. In the case of Apple Music (which has a 3-month free trial), this means that a user can get a full year’s worth of music by simply changing email address (and iTunes account) three times.

Although this phenomenon is fairly niche across the total population, more than a quarter of respondents that identify themselves as music subscribers do this according to MIDiA’s latest consumer survey data (fielded in September). This means that in a worst-case scenario, between a fifth and a quarter of music subscribers are in fact freeloading trialists hopping from one trial to another.

Nearly a fifth of subscribers also use free trials to get access to exclusive albums. Combine this with email hopping, and Apple and Tidal may find their exclusives strategies are less effective at winning over Spotify subscribers than they had hoped.

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Key Findings (data points have been removed from this preview but are included in the full report):

  • By September 2016, Spotify had X million subscribers while Apple had X million
  • Competition is hotting up with announcements from Amazon, Pandora and Vevo
  • Each of the three major labels experienced strong streaming year-on-year revenue growth in Q2 2016: Sony (X%), Universal (X%) and Warner (X%)
  • In Q2 2016, major label download revenue fell by $X million quarter-on-quarter
  • Subscribers rose from X million in Q2 2015 to X million in Q2 2016 with Spotify and Apple driving the growth
  • X% of all streams were mobile, rising to X% for Napster
  • X% of all streams come from playlists, however, just X% come from push playlists
  • X% of UK subscribers say that playlists are replacing albums, while X% are using curated playlists more than 6 months ago
  • Just X% of Swedes spend more than $10 on music, reflecting that subscriptions have capped spending of super fans
  • X% of subscribers have changed subscription service, falling to just X% in Sweden thanks to Spotify loyalists
  • X% of UK subscribers sign up to multiple streaming trials with different email addresses, while X% use free trials to get access to exclusive albums

Companies mentioned in this report: Alphabet, Amazon, Anghami, Apple, Beatport, Deezer, Google, iHeart, KKBox, Last.FM, MelOn, MP3.com, Napster, Orange, Pandora, QQ Music, Rdio, Sony Music, SoundCloud, Spotify, Tidal, Universal Music, Vevo, Warner Music, YouTube

Report Details

Pages: 16
Words: 3,985
Figures: 8

For more on how to become a MIDiA client to get access to this report email us at info AT midiaresearch DOT COM