Here’s How Spotify Can Fix Its Songwriter Woes (Hint: It’s All About Pricing)

Songwriter royalties have always been a pain point for streaming, especially in the US where statutory rates determine much of how songwriters get paid. The current debate over Spotify, Amazon, Pandora and Google challenging the Copyright Royalty Board’s proposed 44% increase illustrates just how deeply feelings run. The fact that the challenge is being portrayed as ‘Spotify suing songwriters’ epitomises the clash of worldviews. The issue is so complex because both sides are right: songwriters need to be paid more, and streaming services need to increase margin. Spotify has only ever once turned a profit, while virtually all other streaming services are loss making. The debate will certainly continue long after this latest ruling, but there is a way to mollify both sides: price increases.

spotify netflix pricing inflation

When Spotify launched in 2008, the industry music standard for subscription pricing was $9.99. So, when its premium tier was launched in May 2009, it was priced at $9.99. Incidentally, Spotify racked up an initial 30,000 subscribers that month – it has come a long way since. But now, nearly exactly ten years on, Spotify’s standard price is still $9.99. Its effective price is even lower due to family plans, trials, telco bundles etc., but we’ll leave the lid on that can of worms for now. Over the same period, global inflation has averaged 2.95% a year. Applying annual inflation to Spotify’s 2009 price point, we end up at $13.36 for 2019. Or to look at it a different way, Spotify’s $9.99 price point is actually the equivalent of $7.40 in today’s prices when inflation is considered. This means an effective real-term price reduction of 26%.

Compare this to Netflix. Since its launch, Netflix has made four major increases to its main tier product, lifting it from $7.99 in 2010 to $12.99 in 2019. Crucially, this 63% price increase is above and beyond inflation. An inflation-adjusted $7.99 would be just $10.34. Throughout that period, Netflix continued to grow subscribers and retain its global market leadership, proving that there is pricing elasticity for its product.

Spotify and other streaming services are locked in a prisoner’s dilemma

So why can’t Spotify do the same as Netflix? In short, it is because it has no meaningful content differentiation from its competitors, whereas Netflix has exclusive content and so has more flexibility to hike prices without fearing users will flock to Amazon. If they did, they’d have to give up their favourite Netflix shows. Moreover, Netflix has to increase prices to help fund its ever-growing roster of original content, creating somewhat circular logic, but that is another can of worms on which I will leave the lid firmly screwed.

If Spotify increases its prices, it fears its competitors will not. Likewise, they fear Spotify will hold its pricing firm if any of them were to increase. It is a classic prisoner’s dilemma.  Neither side dare act, even though they would both benefit. Who can break the impasse? Labels, publishers and the streaming services. If they could have enough collective confidence in the capability of subscriptions over free alternatives, then a market-level price increase could be introduced. Rightsholders are already eager to see pricing go up, while streaming services fear it would slow growth. Between them, there are enough carrots and sticks in the various components of their collective relationships to make this happen.

However – and here’s the crucial part – rightsholders would have to construct a framework where streaming services would get a slightly higher margin rate in the additional subscriber fee. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in exactly the same position we are now, with creators, rightsholders, and streaming services all needing more. When Netflix raises its prices it gets margin benefit, but under current terms, if Spotify raises prices it does not.

The arithmetic of today’s situation is clear: both sides cannot get more out of the same pot of cash. So, the pot has to become bigger, and distribution allocated in a way that not only gives both sides more income, but also allows more margin for streaming services.

Streaming music in 2019 is under-priced compared to 2009. Netflix shows us that it need not be this way. A price increase would benefit all parties but has to be a collective effort. Where there is a will, there is a way.

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.