Apple Music And The Listener-to-Buyer Ratio

The next 6 to 12 months could prove to be some of the most disruptive record labels have ever experienced, and nowhere will this pain be felt more than among smaller independent record labels with strong digital sales.   At the heart of this disruption will be Apple Music and the wider continued ramping up of streaming. If Apple Music is a success over the coming year it will do one or both of the following:

  1. It will convert / cannibalize non-subscribing download buyers
  2. It will convert / cannibalize existing subscribers

The probability is that it will do a bit of both with an emphasis on #1. The market level net impact of #1 will depend on the degree to which Apple converts lower spending iTunes buyers versus higher spending ones i.e. whether it increases or lowers the average spend.   But even if it is the latter the effect for smaller labels could still be net negative over the coming year. If you are a big label with hundreds of thousands or millions of tracks then you have enough catalogue to quickly feel major revenue uplift from 5 or 10 million new subscribers. If you only have a few hundred or a few thousand tracks though then the picture is less rosy.

The Listener-to-Buyer Ratio

At the core is the listener-to-buyer ratio i.e. how many new listeners you get for each ‘lost’ buyer. Let’s say that for every download sale lost due to an iTunes customer becoming an Apple Music subscriber transforms into 10 listens by 3 people within 12 months. So 30 streams instead of one download. The listener-to-buyer ratio here is 3:1. A generous assumption perhaps but let’s work with it. Against a base of $25,000 of download revenue that would translate into $6,250 less download revenue and $2,365 more streaming revenue. So a net loss of $3,885, a 16% decline.

If we reduce the average plays to 5 per user the revenue decline becomes 20%. In order for the revenue impact to be neutral the total new streams would have to be 80, which with a listener-to-buyer ratio of 3:1 would require each person to stream the track 27 times. Or alternatively a 8:1 listener-to-buyer ratio with 10 plays per user would also deliver no change in revenue. A great track could feasibly have an average of 27 plays per user per year, a good track could have 10. But an average track is going to be below both. So realistically, more than an 8:1 ratio is going to be required.

Scale Looks Different Depending On Where You Are Sat

What quickly becomes apparent is that the most viable route to ensuring Apple Music streaming revenue offsets the impact of lost iTunes sales revenue is as big an installed base of streaming users as possible. The more Apple Music users there are, the more likely more of them will find and listen to your music. This is why the scale argument so is so important for streaming and also why small labels feel the effect less quickly. If you have a vast catalogue you don’t need to worry too much about the listener-to-buyer ratio because you have so many tracks that you are a much bigger target to hit. The laws of probability mean that most users are going to listen to some of your catalogue.

Let’s say you are a big major with 1 million tracks out of the 5 million tracks that get played to any meaningful degree in streaming services. That gives you a 20% market share. But if you are an independent with 50,000 tracks that gives you 1%, 20 times less than the major. Which means that you are 20 times less likely to have your music listened to. And that is without even considering the biases that work in favour of the majors such as dominating charts and playlists, and other key discovery points. So in effect the major record label in this example could be 30 to 40 times more likely to have its music listened to. Which is why the listener-to-buyer ratio is unlikely to keep the major label’s exec up at night but could be the difference between sinking or swimming for the independent.

In all probability Apple Music will make streaming revenue a truly meaningful income stream for all record labels but in the near to mid term big record labels are likely to see a very different picture than the smaller independents.

Why The Next Few Months Of Apple Music Will Throw Up A Few Surprises

Finally Apple is in the streaming game. Other than to say that it looks like Apple has made a big first step towards making streaming ‘ready for primetime’ and to becoming a music platform I’m not going to add to the list of reviews and first impressions, there are plenty of good one’s like Walt Mossberg’s.   Instead I’m going to run through a few of the likely milestones and unintended consequences that we could see over the coming months.

Expect Impressive Numbers Real Soon

As we revealed on our MIDiA Research report on Apple Music back in March 28% of iOS users stated they were likely to pay for the service. Among downloaders the rate is 39% and for existing subscribers that rate rises to 62%. Consumer surveys of course always over-report so we shouldn’t expect those rates of paid adoption but the relative values are interesting nonetheless. Given that 50% of existing subscribers are iOS users the implications are that a big chunk of Spotify et al’s subscribers will at the very least try out Apple’s 3 month trial, which is plenty enough time to get build a comprehensive library of playlists and to get hooked. But there is also going to be a big wave of downloaders that do not currently subscribe that will try it out. Given how the iOS 8.4 update virtually pushes iTunes Music users into starting the trial on updating, expect pretty widespread uptake of the trial.   Apple reached 11 million users for iTunes radio within 5 days of launch, 21 million within 3 months. Apple Music has had a far bigger build up and is much more deeply integrated into iOS so a fairly safe bet is that those numbers will at the very least be matched.

A Mixed Bag Of Royalty Implications

Apple Music will also have a series of aftershocks:

  • Apple royalties will be a mixed bag: As the ever insightful David Touve pointed out with iTunes Radio, Apple has proven adept at striking licensing deals that appear to pay above market rates at a headline level but that in practice can work out lower. A key reason for this is the fact iOS users’ existing music collections are integrated into the service and plays from these will generate much lower per stream rates, more in line with licensed locker services. Add into this the fact that semi-interactive radio and broadcast radio are part of the proposition (both of which also have lower per stream rates than on demand) so the blended per stream rate may disappoint. Expect a stream (pun intended) of irate artist CD Baby statements showing their Apple per stream rates.
  • Download sales will suffer: If a streaming service does its job properly users should have no reason to buy downloads any more. Initially there may be a mini surge, a dead cat bounce as first time streamers discover new music and buy downloads out of habit. If this happens expect Apple to make a song and dance about it. But that will be a temporary phase. iTunes downloads will decline thereafter. Artists may have complained about theoretical lost sales from Spotify, they will be actual lost sales from Apple. What everyone will be hoping for is that enough lower and infrequent spending download customers get transformed into 9.99 a month customers. But that will take more time. So expect three, possibly four key stages to Apple (lower case ‘m’) music revenue: 1 – mini revival; 2 – sharpish decline; 3 – steady recovery; 4 – growth?
  • Spotify per stream rates could go up: If enough existing subscribers take up the Apple Music trial but don’t cancel their subscriptions, the royalty pot for Spotify et al will remain the same but play volumes will decrease. This means that the per stream rates for Spotify and co could actually increase for a while because the revenue will be split across a smaller number of plays. So expect artists to see a very pronounced, albeit temporary, difference between what Spotify pays from (paid) streams versus Apple.

So Apple will be for once upsetting everyone else’s streaming apple cart with its long anticipated entrance but there will be a superficially confusing set of mixed messages and metrics. Which means the time to properly measure Apple Music’s progress will be 6 months or so from now. Until then expect to be simultaneously impressed, concerned and confused.

Taylor Swift, Streaming And The Changing Tide

Taylor Swift made big waves over the weekend with her open letter to Apple protesting it should pay for its 3 month free trial.  Her voice was just one more following protests from across the indie community of which Swift and her label are both members. But it turned out that her voice was the loudest and Apple’s Eddy Cue swiftly announced a u-turn on Apple’s free trial pay outs. This is just one more twist in the much bigger streaming story but it does highlight some interesting dynamics, not least of which is how Swift’s worldview differs from many of her contemporaries.

Taylor Swift’s Sales Outlook Is Surprisingly Old School

As paradoxical as it may sound for such a digitally savvy artist as Taylor Swift, she is in fact from the old school when it comes to recorded music.  Swift started her career so early – she signed her first label deal when she was just 14 years old – that she is effectively further into her recording career than most successful 30 something artists.  So she is an album era artist who, with her label Big Machine, managed to build a long-standing successful music sales career.  Streaming, with all of its substitutive impact on sales, does not fit well with the Swift / Big Machine model.   In many respects Swift’s recorded music worldview has more in common with artists of Coldplay’s generation than it does hers.  The contrast with successful contemporary mainstream pop artists is stark. The take of Ed Sheeran (who is just one year younger than Swift) on the role of recorded music is “I’m in the music industry to play live. That’s why I make records” while Calvin Harris (currently romantically linked with Swift) is famously a co-owner of streaming platform TIDAL.  Both of those artists have been supremely successful on Spotify and neither has a decade of platinum selling albums behind them.  For them, streaming is simply how it is and they are learning how to make that work.

Streaming Is Fundamentally Substitutive

None of this is to belittle the hugely disruptive impact of going from a sales model which guaranteed up front revenue to an access model where revenue is fractionalised over many years.  In the sales era a purchased album generated $10 of gross revenue whether it was listened to once or a thousand times.  In a streaming service an album that is listened to once generates $0.10 and only reaches $10 when listened to a hundred times.  If you are a superstar artist you can probably swallow the near term pain because a) your streaming volumes are in the billions so the pennies add up and b) you make the majority of your money from playing live.  If you are a smaller artist the outlook is bleaker for getting through the transition period i.e. until streaming services are big enough to ensure a high tide rises all boats.

Live Is Where The $$ Are For Superstars

Interestingly for Swift, for all her sales success, live is also where she makes her money.  She ranks as the highest earning artist on Billboard’s top earners list with $39 million but $30 million of that came from live.  She explains in her post that “[I] can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows” and that she is raising her voice for “the new artist or band that has just released their first single”.  This may well be the case but she is also very much doing this for her label Big Machine Records (which doesn’t get to benefit in any truly meaningful way from Swift’s live revenue).   Swift’s rise to prominence and continued success is intrinsically linked to that of her label Big Machine Records and it is fully understandable why she has been so perfectly aligned with Big Machine’s stance on streaming.  But it is a position nonetheless.

Apple Doesn’t Need Any Commercial Bail Outs To Launch Apple Music

None of this though detracts from the core issue at stake here, namely Apple not paying for a 3 month free trial.  Apple is in the business of selling music in order to sell hardware.  Apple’s primary concern is not what % of iTunes sales become substituted by free trials (near term) and subscriptions (long term) but instead how it helps them gain and retain device buyers. Swift, Big Machine and the rest have very good reason for being very cautious with Apple’s streaming strategy.  Apple is the leading source of digital music sales and accounted for approximately $2.8 billion of music sales revenue in 2014, or 40% of all digital music revenue.  If Spotify messes up a free trial the labels risk slowing the rate of new streaming revenue growth.  If Apple messes it up the money that keeps the lights on is at risk.

Apple doesn’t need any financial assistance in launching Apple Music (it does after all have $178 billion in cash reserves) but it does need careful attention from labels and artists alike to ensure it gets the strategy right. Whatever the outcome though the streaming transition is an inevitability and Taylor Swift is no more able to hold it back than King Canute was able to hold back the tide.

Apple, The Indies And The Rise Of The Digital Monopsony

Much of the independent label community have come out in public opposition to Apple’s request for a 3 month free trial that crucially would not involve any royalty payments to labels. Besides the fact this has revealed inconsistency in major label licensing strategy (some services have to pay royalties for their free trials) it also raises questions about Apple’s growing role as a content platform. In the old model (i.e. selling CDs on the high street and mall) retailers held all the power, charging labels for prime placement, priority shelf space and carving out additional commercial benefits such as breakage (whereby they were given a discount on a set assumption of a % of shipments that would break in transit, even if they didn’t). In the old new model (i.e. where we are now) the power shifted to the labels with music stores and services having to pay advances, minimum guarantees etc. in order to sell the labels’ content. Even breakage got reinvented and turned into a commercial benefit for labels (they get paid for under usage of services). Now a new model is emerging where a few big platforms are beginning to exercise the power they have been quietly building for the last half a decade or so.

Apple, Amazon And Google – The Digital Superpowers

Apple, Amazon and Google are all digital content platforms. They each own the customer, control billing, know everything about him/her, control some or all of the hardware and have a diverse portfolio of content assets. Each has also become super important to media company partners. For music labels Apple has become the dominant source of digital retail revenue, Amazon the dominant source of physical retail revenue and Google the dominant digital discovery platform. Each holds the whip hand in their respective area of dominance. Now they all want more. They may each want slightly different things but none are shy of wielding their respective spheres of influence to get to what they want. This is where the indies’ dispute with Apple comes into play. Apple is in the business of music in order to sell hardware and has known for a number of years that streaming is going to be how it transitions that role in a post-download world. It has thus far taken a very responsible approach to its sales role and has been sensitive to the risk of decimating label revenue if it does not time its streaming transition properly. But the first step on that journey has now been taken and the point of no return is fast approaching. Which is why it is crucial that all rights holders have the right agreements in place and which is why the indies are making the noise they are.

The Power Of The Platform

In an echo of Google’s heavy-handed YouTube Music Key negotiations with indies and DIY artists, one independent artist has claimed that Apple has threatened to remove his music from the iTunes Store if he does not allow his music to be used in the free trial. Whether this is true or not (and it may well not be) is almost not the point. What it highlights is Apple’s power as a platform. Artists and labels alike simply cannot do without iTunes revenue. Whether Apple needs to overtly play the card or not, the implication of the veiled threat is clear. And Apple is not exactly alone. Last year Amazon clashed with book publisher Hachette over eBook pricing and during the dispute employed a number of pressure tactics including: refusing to take pre-orders on Hachette titles, placing a 6 week delay on delivery of them and even pointing users to competitor titles when they searched for an Hachette book. All of these were clear misuse, possibly even abuse, of Amazon’s role as distribution platform but no regulatory body even raised an eyelid. Apple will have watched the development with acute interest.

The Rise Of The Digital Monopsony

Apple, Amazon and Google are all unique cases. They have become de facto monopolies for their respective sectors, exercising control over the entire platform of user, supplier and interaction between them. There isn’t really an economic term that properly explains them but monopsony is the closest: a company that is the only effective buyer and seller of a product and can thus dictate terms at both ends of the equation. These digital monopsonies are growing pains of the digital economy. After all, we are still in the very early stages of the digital economy. If this were the industrial revolution Robert Stephenson wouldn’t have developed the steam locomotive yet. Consider this phase market adolescence. This raises challenges for regulation with regulatory bodies largely unable to deal with companies that exercise effective monopoly power but that do not meet the criteria of a pre-digital era economy monopoly. Of course the indie labels cannot afford to wait for that dynamic to change so in the meantime they must seize the initiative in this issue and others like it.

An Opportunity To Change The Narrative

Right now though the indies have an opportunity to use this case to genuinely move the needle. Apple has pushed them out of their comfort zone. Instead of just digging in their heels they can decided to push Apple out of its comfort zone and request something similarly game changing of Apple in return. In short, turn a defensive move into an offensive one and help set the agenda rather than being stuck in the familiar rut of responding to the one set by the major labels and Apple. Apple Music may have underwhelmed at launch but the company still has the most important music monetization platform on the planet. Most indie labels and majors alike would all but collapse if iTunes revenue disappeared overnight.

Right now Apple still wants to play the role of good partner, albeit one that negotiates hard. So the labels still have a chance to help shape what the next chapter in Apple’s music story can look like. That may not always be the case, especially if Artist Connect has developed into a label like service layer 3 years from now, which I suspect will be the case. Apple is no Google, it still wants first and foremost to sell music rather than give it away. That may not always hold true.   Similarly the power of the digital monopsonies will likely strengthen over the coming half decade or so. So right now the indies are probably in the strongest position they will be in for some time, even if it might not feel like it to them. They need to seize this moment.

Spotify Plays The Big Numbers Game

Hot on the heels of Apple’s less-than-dazzling entrance into the streaming market Spotify made two big announcements: a further $526 million in funding and 20 million paying subscribers with 55 million free users. Not a bad retort.

spotify 20 million

Subscriber Growth Outpaced Free User Growth, Depending On Which Metric You Use

Between December 2014 and June 2015 added an average of 2 million free users a month and 1 million paid users a month. Although this meant Spotify’s free user base added twice as many users (10 million compared to 5 million) paid users grew faster in percentage terms, increasing by 33% compared to 22% for free.   These numbers can, and will, be taken to support both sides of the freemium argument and things are complicated by the fact that Spotify’s free user base is probably higher than 55 million. However the key takeaway is that based on the publically available numbers subscriber growth was faster than free growth in the first half of 2015.

Spotify Is Now Worth More Than Half Of the Entire Global Recorded Music Industry

Spotify was already the most heavily financed music service in history and it has nearly doubled its total investment in one single round, taking the total to more than $1.1 billion with a valuation of $8.5 billion. That translates to $55 of investment per subscriber. Or on a valuation basis $425 per subscriber which would take 3 and half years of continual subscription per subscriber to recoup in headline revenue terms. However as Spotify only gets 30% of revenue it would actually need 12 years of subscription per subscriber to generate $8.5 billion.

Of course VC funded company valuations are more about potential than they are realised value so the comparisons are slightly unfair. But given that $8.5 billion represents 57% of the entire global recorded music industry revenue in 2014 there are some pretty big assumptions being made.

Apple Music Is Still Likely To Prove A Fierce Adversary Even If It Is No Killer App Yet 

Make no mistake, Spotify has established itself as the global leader in its space and has good reason to feel confident. However Apple has so many structural advantages (owning the platform and billing relationships, massive addressable base etc.) that it is still likely to become the global streaming leader 3 years or so from now. (Assuming of course it ups its game from its entry product.) But that does not mean Spotify cannot be a success too.

Apple entered the download market when none of the existing stores had any meaningful customer base. Even with that supreme head start Apple still only managed around a 65% global market share of the download business. Granted most of the competitors were bit part players but in the streaming arena it is entering an established market with proven customer bases. This will not be a winner takes all market and I fully expect Spotify to be closer to Apple than Deezer (the current #2) is now to Spotify.

These are big numbers from Spotify that prior to Apple’s announcement it probably thought it would need even more than proved to be the case. Regardless, both sets of figures show that Spotify is geared up for a fight for supremacy. Game on!

My New Book – Awakening: The Music Industry In the Digital Age

I am very excited to announce the launch of my book ‘Awakening’ which charts the rise of digital music and how it is changing the music industry. ‘Awakening’ is the definitive account of the music industry in the digital era. With exclusive interviews with the people who shaped today’s industry it tells the inside story of how the music business grappled with the emergence of an entirely new digital economy

coverThe music industry is on the brink of an utterly transformative period of change that will result in the creation of an entirely new industry tailor made for the digital era. ‘Awakening’ presents the vision of how and why this change will come, what this future will look like and how the first steps on the journey are already being taken. The book includes interviews with 60 of the music industry’s leading figures, including globally successful artists and more than 20 CEOs (a full list of interviewees can be found at the bottom of the page). Alongside the insight from this unprecedented executive access, ‘Awakening’ uses exclusive consumer data, official market statistics, proprietary models and multiple additional data sources. In doing so it constructs an unparalleled picture of the new global music economy presented across 60 charts and figures.

All good stories start in the beginning. ‘Awakening’ deconstructs the failed state experience of the analogue era music industry with the definitive account of the music industry’s transition from booming $28 billion powerhouse to today’s much humbled $15 billion business. Music fans used to be told what to listen to when, where and how. In the new music industry the balance of power lies with the fans with themselves. The old music industry had the record labels at its centre, the new digital era industry will have the consumer at its core. The change will be generation defining and will transform forever what it means to be an artist and a fan. Livelihoods will be destroyed, others created, millionaires made, culture transformed. The change is already underway. ‘Awakening’ looks at each individual component of the music industry today and looks at each one is dealing with change and preparing for the future. From the superstar artist to the small independent label, from the pirate company CEO to the major label CEO, in the book I explore the incredibly varied picture of confusion and innovation, uncertainty and brilliance, fear and confidence. Most of all it is the story of a rebuilding, an Awakening of the new music industry.

The book has three sections:

  • How We Got Here: A detailed history of the years up until the launch of the iTunes Music Store, exploring how Napster changed the music industry forever and how the industry responded, or rather didn’t
  • The Digital Era: This section has 7 chapters, one for each of the key stakeholders (labels, artists, songwriters, pirates etc) and explores what the current market means to each of them
  • A Vision For The Future: A vision for what the next music industry will look like and what needs to happen to enable this to take place

I was extremely fortunate to interview many of the most important figures in the music industry of the last 15 years, including CEOs of major record labels, CEOs of all the major streaming services and platinum selling artists. I’ve managed to get the inside track on exactly what was happening behind the scenes.  I personally learned a huge amount while writing this book and I am confident virtually every reader will do so too.

In short, once you have read this book you will know practically everything that there is to know about the digital music market and where it is heading!

For anyone interested in the music industry and the lessons it provides for all media and technology businesses in the digital era, this is the only book you will ever need.

The book is available now on Amazon and iTunes and Google Play.

Also 10% of net profits will go to the music therapy charity the Nordoff Robins trust.

If you are a journalist and would like a review copy please email me at mark AT midiaresearch DOT COM

People interviewed for this book

Adam Kidron             Founder and CEO, Beyond Oblivion
Alexander Ljung         Founder and CEO, Soundcloud
Alexander Ross        Partner, Wiggin
Alison Wenham        CEO, AIM
Axel Dauchez           CEO, Deezer
Barney Wragg          SVP Universal Music eLabs / Global Head of Digital, EMI
Ben Drury                 Founder and CEO, 7 Digital
Benji Rogers             Founder and CEO, PledgeMusic
Brian Message          Manager, Radiohead, Nick Cave / Chairman MMF
Cary Sherman          CEO, RIAA
Chris Gorman           Founder and CEO, MusicQubed
Cliff Fluet                   Partner, Lewis Silkin / Director 11
Daniel Ek                   Founder and CEO, Spotify
David Boyle              SVP Insight, EMI
David Byrne              Solo artist / Talking Heads
David Isrealite           CEO, MPAA
David Lowery           Camper van Beethoven / The Trichordist
Edgar Berger            President & CEO International, Sony Music Entertainment
Elio Leoni Sceti         CEO, EMI
Erik Nielsen               Manager, Marillion
Geoff Taylor              CEO, BPI
Gregor Pryor             Partner, Reed Smith
Helienne Lindvall       Award winning songwriter
Ian Hogarth                Founder and CEO, Songkick
Ian Rogers                 CEO, Beats Music / CEO TopSpin
Jack Horner               Founder Frukt
Jay Samit                   SVP, EMI / EVP & GM, Sony Corp America
Jeremy Silver            VP New Media EMI / Chairman musicmetric
Jim Griffin                   CTO Geffen Records / CEO, Cherry Lane Digital
Jon Irwin                    President, Rhapsody
Jonathan Grant          Above and Beyond / Founder, Anjunabeats Records
Justin Morey              Senior Lecturer Music Production, Leeds Beckett University
Keith Harris                Manager, Stevie Wonder / GM, Motown
Keith Thomas            Grammy Award Winning Producer and Songwriter
Ken Park                    Chief Content Officer, Spotify
Larry Miller                 COO, a2b Music / President Reciprocal
Liz Schimel                VP Music, Nokia
Lohan Presencer       CEO of Ministry of Sound Group
Mark Kelly                 Marillion / CEO, FAC
Mark Knight               Founder and Chief Architect, Omnifone
Martin Goldschmidt   Founder and MD, Cooking Vinyl
Martin Mills                Founder and Chairman, Beggars Group
Michael Robertson   Founder and CEO, MP3.com
Nenad Marovac        Partner, DN Capital
Oleg Fomenko          CEO, Bloom.fm
Paul Hitchman          Founder and Director Playlouder/ MD Kobalt
Paul Vidich                EVP, WMG / Director, Reverbnation
Peter Jenner             Manager Pink Floyd, Billy Bragg / MD Sincere
Peter Sunde              Founder, The Pirate Bay
Phil Sant                    Founder and Chief Engineer, Omnifone
Ralph Simon             EVP Capitol & Blue Note / Founder Yourmobile
Robert Ashcroft        SVP Network Services Europe / CEO PRS for Music
Roger Faxon             CEO, EMI
Scott Cohen              Founder, The Orchard
Simon Wheeler         Director of Strategy, Beggars Group
Sumit Bothra             Manager, The Boxer Rebellion, PJ Harvey
Tim Westergren        Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, Pandora
Tom Frederikse        Partner, Clintons
Tony Wadsworth      Chairman & CEO, EMI Music UK & Ireland/Chairman BPI
Wayne Rosso           President, Grokster
Will Page                  Chief Economist, Spotify

Note: positions either refer to current position held by interviewee or key position held during the narrative of this book.

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Jay-Z, Becoming An HBO For Streaming, And Digital Music Bling

Jay-Z just made his much hyped entrance into streaming official with his star studded but awkward signing ceremony for TIDAL. Once having navigated a few objections from minor shareholders, Jay-Z’s first major act after successfully buying the not-very-appropriately-named-for-a-hip-hop-superstar WiMP was to rebrand it to TIDAL, the name that WiMP’s high quality service had been operating under. Jay-Z is unashamedly bringing his superstar power to bear to make as big a splash as possible, but once the tidal wave of hype has subsided will there be enough to transform the market?

On the surface Jay-Z did not get too much for his $56m WiMP TIDAL acquisition: a streaming provider that actually lost 11% of its subscribers last year, of whom 77% are tied up in telco bundles and that has a total global subscriber market share of about 1%. The much vaunted TIDAL part of the company as just 17,000 subscribers.

But of course the deal was never about what WiMP has done to date, it was an instant entry point into the streaming music landscape. It is the streaming equivalent of buying a plot of land that has already been granted planning permission, with the slight convenience of the previous owner already having started building a little edifice in the corner of the plot. Now Jay-Z is clearing the site and laying the foundations for a construction of far greater ambition.

One of the problems with streaming music services to date is that they have generally lacked personality. This is a combination of being technology led, having to be all things to all people and having to keep the big labels happy. Jay-Z is shovelling bucket loads of stardust on TIDAL, leaning on his superstar contacts help get the launch off to a star studded bang and even making them shareholders. But it will require much more than the support of a few music biz a-listers to make TIDAL a success:

  • TIDAL is creating an aspirational, premium streaming brand: In many respects TIDAL is filling the aspirational music brand space that Beats vacated when it was acquired by Apple. High quality audio and video editorial (powered by the RADR division of TIDAL) are a natural fit with this positioning. Most consumers do not actually care that much about high quality audio (only a fifth consider it an important part of a music services) and even can actually tell the difference. But that’s not the point. This is about aspiration. Just in the same way that most Beats customers buy the headphones because they represent quality rather than because of their frequency response ranges. $19.99 is not meant to be a mass market price point. It is streaming bling for those who want people to know they have the best.
  • TIDAL wants to be the HBO of streaming music: One key differentiation point for TIDAL is an exclusive first streaming release window for artists. What they’ll get in return is unclear, and it certainly won’t halt the decline of sales, but it nonetheless creates a clear perception of value to artists and to subscribers. It helps solidify TIDAL’s positioning as a premium brand, the streaming music equivalent of HBO.
  • Even TIDAL can’t fix the underlying problem with royalties: One of the big issues surrounding streaming is the fact artists and songwriters do not feel they are earning enough. Yet with 80% of subscription fees heading back to rights owners there is clearly not much scope for increasing the payouts. Even doubling the subscription price (on the $19.99 tier) only means artists are getting paid (at best) in double cent increments rather than single cents. The underlying dynamics remain the same i.e. you need a lot more people streaming an album to make the same money you would from selling it. In fact, you would require roughly 15 as many people, listening an average of 5 times each.
  • A next generation label: Somewhere down the line TIDAL might follow Netflix’s lead and start creating TIDAL Originals, signing artists directly. Doing this would present a whole set of ways in which TIDAL could start to experiment with generating more value for artists. But it would also put TIDAL in a difficult position. Right now TV broadcasters are starting to reassess their relationship with Netflix because now it is competing directly with them for shows and talent. Netflix has bought itself some time by dint of being such a valuable revenue stream for TV companies, but the more it pushes its own content, the more TV companies want to clip its wings. Expect the same scenario to play out for TIDAL if goes this route.

TIDAL is a welcome addition to the streaming space and brings some much needed star quality. But the path ahead is far from clear. Jay-Z will need all the luck and superstar support he can get to make waves with TIDAL.

The Music Industry’s 6:1 Ratio

One of the many things that the digital revolution has done to the music industry is to create and accentuate a number of imbalances. Imbalances that will either change, become the foundations of the next era of the music business, or both. In fact there are three key areas where, coincidentally, the lesser party is 6 times smaller than the other: 6 to 1

  • Digital music revenue share: A common refrain from songwriters and the bodies that represent them (music publishers, collection societies etc.) is that everything starts with the song. And of course it does. However it is the recorded version of the song that most people interact with most of the time, whether that be on the radio, on a CD, a download, a stream or a music video. This has helped ensure that record labels – usually the owners of the recorded work – hold the whip hand in licensing negotiations with digital music services. Labels have consequently ended up with an average of 68% of total on-demand streaming revenue and publishers / collection societies just 12%. The labels’ share is 6 times bigger. Publishers are now actively trying to rebalance the equation, often referred to as ‘seeking out a fair share’. For semi-interactive radio services like Pandora the ratio is roughly 10:1.
  • Artist income: While music sales declined over the last 10 yeas, live boomed. And although there are signs the live boom may be slowing, a successful artist can now typically expect to earn as little as 9% of their total income from recorded music, compared to 57% from live. Again, a factor of 6:1. There are many complexities to the revenue split, such as the respective deals an artist is on, fixed costs etc. but these splits tend to recur. Ironically just as everything starts with the song for digital music, everything starts with the recorded work (and the song) for the live artist. The majority of an artist’s fan base will spend most of their time interacting with the recorded work of the artist rather than live. The recorded work has become the advert for live. In fact the average concert ticket of a successful frontline artist costs on average 8 times more than buying their entire back catalogue. Thus for fans the ratio is even more pronounced at 8:1.
  • Free music users: The freemium wars are dominating the contemporary music industry debate. Spotify and other services that have on demand free tiers are under intense scrutiny over how these tiers may be cannibalising music sales. However YouTube’s regular free music user base is about 350 million compared to approximately 60 million free freemium service users across all freemium services. Again a ratio of 6:1. Whatever the impact freemium users may be having, it is 6 times less than YouTube.

The music industry has never been a meritocracy nor will it ever be one. So it would be fatuous to suggest equality is suddenly going to break out. However there will be something of a righting process in some areas, especially in the digital music revenue share equation. Most significantly though, these ratios are becoming the foundational dynamics of the new music industry. These are the reference points that artists, rights holders, and all other music industry stakeholders need in order to understand what their future will look like and how they can help shape it.

NOTE: This post was updated to reflect that the songwriter ratio is actually 10:1 for semi-interactive radio.  The 2:1 ratio applies to label revenue versus collection society revenue, which includes revenue for performers who are often but not always also the songwriter.

The Case For A Freemium Reset

Ministry Of Sound’s Lohan Presencer stirred up a hornets’ nest with his impassioned critique of the freemium model at a recent MWC panel. This is one of those rare panel discussions that is worth watching all the way through but the fireworks really start about 16 minutes in. For a good synopsis of the panel see MusicBusiness Worldwide’s write up, for the full transcript see MusicAlly. I’m going to focus on one key element: free competing with free.

Free Isn’t The Problem, On Demand Free Is

Free music is a crucial part of the music market and always has been thanks to radio. The big difference is that radio is not on demand. Even the Pandora model, which quite simply IS the future of radio, is not on demand. The on demand part is crucial. Although labels have a conflicted view about radio there is near universal agreement that the model works because it is a promotional vehicle, it helps drive core revenues. But turn free into an on-demand model and the business foundations collapse. The discovery journey becomes the consumption destination. To paraphrase an old quote from a label exec ‘if you are playing what I want you to play that is promotion, if you are playing what you want to play that is business’.

P2P Is In A Natural Decline, Regardless Of Freemium

The argument most widely used by streaming services in favour of the freemium model is that it reduces piracy. There is some truth in this but the case is over stated. P2P was the piracy technology of the download era. Its relevance is decreasing rapidly for music in the streaming era. In fact mobile music piracy apps (free music downloaders, stream rippers etc.) are now more than twice as widespread as P2P. So the decline in P2P can only partially be attributed to streaming music services as it is in a trajectory of natural decline as a music piracy platform.

Freemium Isn’t Killing Piracy, It Is Coexisting

But even more importantly free streamers are using those new, next-generation piracy apps to turn their freemium experiences into the effective equivalent of paid ones, by creating local device caches for ad free on demand play back. In fact free streamers are 65% more likely to use a stream ripper app than other consumers. They are also 64% more likely to use P2P and 57% more likely to use free music downloader apps. While it is always challenging to accurately separate cause and effect what we can say with confidence is that whatever impact freemium may have had on piracy, freemium users are still c.60% more likely to be music pirates also. (If you are a MIDiA Research subscriber and would like to see the full dataset these data points are taken from email info AT midiaresearch DOT COM)

Monetizing The Revenue No-Man’s Land Between Free and 9.99

So more needs to ensure the path from free to paid is a well travelled one. It might be that the accelerating shift to mobile consumption of streaming music may help recalibrate the equation. Mobile versions of free streaming tiers in principle may not be fully on demand but they often stretch definitions to the limit and some are simply too good to be free. Being able to create a playlist from a single album and then listening to it all in shuffle mode simply is on-demand in all but name. If we can get mobile versions of free tiers to look more like Pandora and less like Spotify premium, or YouTube for that matter, then we have a useful tool in the kitbag. And if users want more but aren’t ready to pay a full 9.99 yet, let them unlock playlists, or day passes for small in app payments. Lohan made the case for PAYG pricing to monetize the user that sits somewhere between free and 9.99 and it is an argument I have advocated for a long time now.

Freemium Is Not Broken, But It Does Need Re-Tuning

Freemium absolutely can work as a model and it has achieved a huge amount already, but it needs recalibrating to ensure it delivers the next stage of market growth in a way that minimizes the risk to the rest of the business. None of this though can happen until YouTube is compelled to play by the same rules as everyone else. Otherwise all that we end up doing is hindering all music services except YouTube and Apple (which won’t have a free tier). Google and Apple are not exactly in need of an unfair market advantage. So a joined-up market level strategy is required, and right now.

A Manifesto For The Future Of Free Music

In the thankfully long gone days of DRM downloads it could be fairly said that ‘music was born free yet everywhere it is in chains’. Now it is free of DRM and, for most consumers, of price also. Of course the majority of consumers have always spent most of their time listening to music for free via TV or radio. But the internet transformed free into something that was every bit as good as the paid for product. So yes, most people have always listened to music for free most of the time, but they listened to what broadcasters decided they would listen to. In the old model free music was something that would sate the appetite of the passive fan but was not be enough for the dedicated fan. Free music thus very clearly played a ‘discovery’ role for the core music fans. On demand free though has changed the equation entirely. For many consumers the free stream is the destination not the discovery journey. So 50 million YouTube views is no longer a marketing success but instead x million lost sales or paid streams.

For younger consumers the picture is particularly stark. 56% stream for free, 65% listen to music radio and 76% watch YouTube music videos. Compare and contrast to over 25s where the rates are 35%, 47% and 76%.   In short, free is more likely to be something that drives spending among over 25s because it is predominately programmed while among under 25’s it is less likely to do so because it is on demand.

Free needs recalibrating. Here are a set of objectives to help fix free, a Manifesto for the Future of Free Music:

  • Set the objectives: One of the problems with free is there is too little clarity around what purpose it is meant to serve. And this is because it is simultaneously serving multiple purposes: to monetize the masses (ad supported), to drive sales (discovery), to drive subscriptions (freemium). All three are worthy goals but unchecked each one also competes with the other. A consistent industry vision is needed.
  • Programme more: Free has a massive role to play in digital music, but it needs to better targeted. A super engaged music fan should not be able to sate their on demand appetite on free. In short, free music needs to be less on demand and more programmed. That is not to say YouTube or Soundcloud need to become Pandora, but they do need to explore meeting somewhere midway.
  • Use data to segment: It is not enough to simply say users can choose between different services, they services need to better use their data to determine who gets what experience within them. Someone who watches 20 YouTube music videos a day is clearly a target for a Music Key subscription. That person should not just be marketed Music Key, s/he should also have their free experience progressively dialled down to push them towards it.
  • Fix the models: Pandora is a highly viable ad business that happens to have a radio service built on it. There is a world of difference between Pandora’s ad business and Spotify’s. Spotify’s deals with the rights holders essentially preclude it from making free a viable business, which is fair enough. But it does create the unfortunate vicious circle of there never being a case for Spotify investing enough in ad sales infrastructure to drive up CPMs enough to boost ad supported revenue. Labels and publishers need to think hard about what tweaks may need to be made to business models if they want freemium services to be strong enough financially to drive a vibrant subscription market. Not fixing the models will only skew the market to the companies with ulterior business models who can afford to perpetually lose money on free.
  • Don’t give up on free fans: A generation weaned on free music will grow up craving more free music. Just because free dominates younger consumers’ digital lexicon now does not mean that it will inherently always do so. Don’t give up on the lost generation of music consumers with the default position of free.
  • Strike the right balance: This is simultaneously the most important and most difficult part to get right. YouTube, Soundcloud and Spotify’s free tier are legal alternatives to piracy. Turn back the dial too much on the legal sources and illegal ones will flourish again. However the fact that more than a third of free streamers use stream ripper apps to turn streams into downloads means that the distinction between licensed and pirated has long since blurred. Nonetheless the balance needs to be better struck, probably somewhere equidistant between YouTube and Pandora. Ultimately it will require lots of real time honing and perfecting to get the right mix.

Free music will always be part of the equation and it has become a key part of the music industry’s armoury. But there is a difference between a controlled burn and an out of control forest fire. The freemium wars have already accounted for some high profile scalps and more controversy will follow. Free will remain a crucial part of the landscape but it is time for a reassessment of its role and that must encompass all elements of on demand free, not just Spotify.