Exclusive: Deezer Is Exploring User Centric Licensing

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One of the great, though less heralded, successes of streaming in 2016 was keeping the lid on artist angst. Previous years had been defined by seemingly endless complaints from worried and angry artists and songwriters. Now that torrent has dwindled to a relative trickle. This is largely due to a) a combination of artist outreach efforts from the services, b) so many artists now seeing meaningful streaming income and c) a general increased confidence in the model. Despite this though, the issues that gave creators concern (eg transparency, accountability) remain largely in place. The temptation might be to simply leave things as they are but it is exactly at this sort of time, when stakeholders are seeing eye to eye (relatively speaking at least), that bold change should be made rather than wait for crisis to re-emerge. It is no easy task fixing a plane mid flight. So it is encouraging to hear that Deezer is looking to change one the key anomalies in the streaming model: service centric licensing.

Service Centric Licensing

Currently streaming services license by taking the total pot of revenue generated, dividing that by the total number of tracks streamed and then multiplying that per stream rate by the number of streams per track per artist. Artists effectively get paid on a share of ‘airplay’ basis. This is service centric licensing. It all sounds eminently logical, and it indeed it the logic has been sound enough to enable the streaming market to get to where it is today. But is far from flawless. Imagine a metal fan who only streams metal bands. With the airplay model if Katy Perry accounted for 10% of all streams in a month, the 10% of that metal fan’s subscription fee effectively goes towards Katy Perry and her label and publisher. Other than aggrieved metal fans, this matters because those metal bands are effectively seeing a portion of their listening time contributing to a super star pop artist. To make it clearer still, what if that metal fan only listened to Metallica, yet still 10% of that subscriber’s revenue went to Katy Perry?

User Centric Licensing

The alternative is user centric licensing, where royalties are paid out as a percentage of the subscription fee of the listener. So if a subscriber listens 100% to Metallica, Metallica gets 100% of the royalty revenue generated by that subscriber. It is an intrinsically fairer model that creates a more direct relationship between what a subscriber listens to and who gets paid. This is the model that I can exclusively reveal that Deezer is now exploring with the record labels. It is a bold move from Deezer, which though still the 3rd ranking subscription service globally has seen Spotify and Apple get ever more of the limelight. While Deezer will undoubtedly be hoping to see the PR benefit of driving some thought leadership in the market, the fact it must find new ways to challenge the top 2 means that it can start thinking with more freedom than the leading incumbents. And a good idea done for mixed reasons is still a good idea.

Honing The Model

Deezer has had encouraging if not wildly enthusiastic feedback from labels, not least because this could be an operationally difficult process to implement. The general consensus among labels I have spoken to is cautious optimism and a willingness to run the models and see how things look. When I first wrote about user centric licensing back in July 2015 I got a large volume of back channel feedback. One of the key concerns was that the model could penalize some indie labels as fans of their acts could be more likely be music aficionados and thus listen more diversely and more heavily. This could result in the effective per stream rate for those fans being relatively low. By contrast, a super star pop act might have a large number of light listeners and therefore higher effective per stream rates.

The truth is that there is not a single answer for how user centric licensing will affect artists and labels. Because there are so many variables (especially the distribution of fans and the distribution of plays among them) it is simply not possible to say that a left field noise artist will do worse while a bubble gum pop star will do better. But in some respects, that shouldn’t be the determining factor. This is an intrinsically more transparent way of paying royalties, that is based upon a much more direct relationship between the artist and their fan’s listening. There may well be some unintended consequences but ultimately if you want fairness and equality then you don’t pick and choose which fairness and equality you want.

If Deezer is able to persuade the labels to put user centric licensing in place, it will be another sign of increasingly maturity for the streaming market. Streaming drove $1bn of revenue growth for the recorded music business in 2016, without it the market would have declined by $1bn (due to revenue decline elsewhere). Streaming is now a monumentally important market segment and there is no better time to hone the model than now. User centric licensing could, and should, be just one part of getting streaming ready for another 5 years of growth. Deezer might just have made the first move.

The End Of Freemium For Spotify?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freemim is dead, long live price promos?

 

 

Pandora’s Rate Ruling Reveals The Cracks In Streaming Economics

The much anticipated outcome of yesterday’s Copyright Tribunal decision was a 20% increase of Pandora’s ad supported stream rate from $0.0014 per non-interactive stream to $0.0017. The result was roughly equidistant between the two parties’ preferred rate: Pandora wanted $0.0011, SoundExchange (the body that collects the royalties on behalf of the labels) wanted $0.0025. As with any good compromise neither party will be truly happy, though on balance Pandora probably came out slightly better. Both the rate and the whole rate setting process shine a bright light on the economics of streaming, especially when contrasted against on-demand services.

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Pandora’s semi-interactive radio service operates under statutory rates in the US that are set by the Copyright Royalty Board for a few years at a time, with inflation baked in. This means a continual rise in rates (see figure). It also gives Pandora a degree of certainty over its mid term future but prevents record labels from negotiating for better rates (publishers however are able to strike direct deals with Pandora). Spotify, and other on-demand streaming services, negotiates deals directly with multiple record labels, publishers and rights bodies. Deals typically come up for renewal every couple of years, involve large upfront payments and Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs). They also run the risk of core product features being threatened in renegotiations – as we saw with the labels’ dalliance with killing off freemium this time last year.

The most significant difference between the models is how the per stream rate works. For on-demand services a royalty pot as a % of revenue is determined. This is then divided between rights holders based on plays in a given period and allocated on a per stream rate basis. Thus royalty payments remain a comparatively constant share of revenue, assuming of course that the service hits the MRG targets – if it doesn’t the share increases, often above 100% of revenue. This model also implies a clear ceiling to the potential profit an on-demand service can earn. By contrast Pandora pays out on a (largely) pure per stream basis. The direct consequence of this is that Pandora is able to increase it revenue per play faster than its rights cost per play which in turn creates the potential to grow margin (see next figure).

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Between 2009 and 2014 Pandora’s content acquisition costs per listener hour increased by 27% from $17.52 to $22.29. This reflects both the CRB set rate as well as deals with rights bodies and publishers. But over the same period Pandora’s revenue per listener hour increased by 114% from $21.48 to $45.97. Now clearly, an increase in revenue per hour does not inherently mean increased profitability, or even profitability at all. Indeed, Pandora’s continued losses have been a perennial bugbear for investors. But Pandora has chosen to invest its increased revenue to grow its business, building out regional ad sales teams and making acquisitions such as Next Big Sound, Ticket Fly and Rdio. In short, Pandora could have been profitable for some time now if it had so chosen. Instead it is chasing a bigger prize, namely to become the single biggest revenue driver in US radio. To get big it needs to spend big.

Pandora’s Core Strength Is Being Able Increase Profitability Per User

The underlying principle is clear: while on-demand services have little meaningful way of increasing revenue per user with the current model, Pandora has more than doubled revenue per user in 6 years while rights costs have declined in relative terms. Content acquisition costs fell from a high of 82% of revenue in 2009 to 48% in 2014. That rate will increase in 2015 due to direct deals struck with publishers and the $90 million pay out for the pre-1972 works ruling. But it still remains well south of Spotify’s 70%+.

On Demand Services Have Similar Fixed Costs But Tighter Margins Because Of Royalties

While there is a clear case for semi-interactive radio rates being markedly lower than on-demand rates many of the fixed costs of both types of streaming business are the same.  Both have to commit similar amounts to product development and tech, bandwidth, data analysis, reporting marketing, customer care, management. This puts on-demand services at an operational disadvantage compared to webradio services.

If paid-for streaming services are going to become commercially sustainable there is going to need to be pricing and product innovation to both reach more mainstream users (cheaper tiers) and to drive more revenue from high value users (more expensive tiers and bolt ons). Right now there is relatively little commercial incentive for on-demand services to innovate upwards as profitability will remain largely the same. There is an opportunity for labels to offer Spotify and co a Pandora-style pure per-play license structure for all products launched above and beyond the standard 9.99 tier. This would give the services the ability to follow Pandora’s path of growing revenue per user faster than rights costs per user, thus improving commercial sustainability and allowing them to invest more in product innovation.

Rights Frameworks Need To Engender Commercial Sustainability

Pandora is one of the few stand out, independent success stories of the entire history of digital music. It has become one of the world’s biggest music services despite being largely constrained to the US, it has built a commercially viable model and it has delivered a big return for investors via its IPO. Only Last.FM, Beatport and Beats Music can genuinely lay claim to having delivered big returns for their investors. There are many mitigating factors, but the unique licensing structure Pandora operates under is the single most important one. Do songwriters and labels feel that they’re getting short changed? Absolutely. But it is in the interest of every music industry stakeholder that the economics of digital music are structured in a way that enables standalone companies like Pandora, Spotify and Deezer to thrive. Otherwise there can be no complaints when the only options left on the table are companies like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google whose interest in music all stems from trying to sell something else. That’s when artists and songwriters are really at risk.

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.

IFPI and RIAA 2013 Music Sales Figures: First Take

The IFPI and RIAA today released their annual music sales numbers.  Though there are positive signs, overall they make for troubling reading 

  • Total sales were down 3.9%.  Based on 2012 numbers the trend suggested that 2013 revenues should have registered a 2% growth, so that is a -6% swing in momentum.
  • Digital grew by 4.3% which was not enough to offset the impact of declining CD sales, which has been the story every year since 2000 except last.
  • Download sales declined by 1%. Continued competition from apps and other entertainment, coupled with subscriptions poaching the most valuable download buyers is finally taking its toll.
  • Subscriptions up by 51%: An impressively strong year for subscriptions but not enough to make the digital increase bigger than the physical decline on a global basis nor in key markets, including the US.

Global numbers of course can be misleading and there is a richly diverse mix of country level stories underneath them, ranging from streaming driven prosperity in the Nordics, through market stagnation in the US to crisis in Japan – where revenues collapsed by 16.8%.  The Nordic renaissance helped push Europe into growth but data from the RIAA, show that total US music revenues were down a fraction – 0.3%.  US download sales were down by 0.9% while subscriptions were up an impressive 57% to $628 million.

On the one hand this shows that Spotify has managed to kick the US subscription market into gear following half a decade or so of stagnation.  But on the other it shows that subscriptions take revenue from the most valuable download buyers.  This backs up the trend I previously noted, that streaming takes hold best in markets where downloads never really got started.  Thus markets like the US with robust download sectors will feel growth slowdown as high spending downloaders transition to streaming, while in markets like Sweden where there was no meaningful download sector to speak of, subscriptions can drive green field digital revenue growth.

The Download Is Not Dead Yet

Though subscriptions now account for 27% of digital revenue, the value trend obscures the consumer behavior trend.  For Spotify’s c.9.5 million paying subscribers (or 6 million last officially reported) Apple’s installed base of iTunes music buyers stands at c.200 million (see figure).  The IFPI report that there are now 28 million subscription customers globally.  In the US and UK this translates into 4 or 5% of consumers. Subscriptions do a fantastic job of monetizing the uber fans, just like deluxe vinyl boxsets and fan funding sites like Pledge do so also.  But they are inherently niche in reach.  This is why downloads remain the music industry’s most important digital tool.  Downloads are the most natural consumer entry point into digital music, and if anyone else had been able to come close to matching Apple’s peerless ability to seamlessly integrate downloads into the device experience, then the sector would be much bigger than it is now.

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Do not confuse this with being a luddite view that streaming and subscriptions are not the future, they are, but there is a long, long journey to that destination that we are only just starting upon for most consumers.   And before that there is a far more important issue, namely how to get the remaining CD buyers to go digital.

Sleepwalking Into a Post-CD Collapse

Last year the IFPI numbers showed a modest globally recovery but despite the widespread optimism that surrounded those numbers I remained cautious and wrote that it was “a long way from mission accomplished.”  My overriding concern then was the same as it is now, namely that the music industry does not have a CD buyer migration strategy and it desperately needs one.  So much so that unless it develops one it will end up sleepwalking into a CD collapse.   In fact I predicted exactly what has happened:

“CD sales decline will likely accelerate.  Among the top 10 largest music markets in the world CD revenue decline will likely accelerate markedly in the next few years.  In France and the UK leading high street retailers are on their last legs while in Germany and Japan the vast majority (more than 70%) of sales are still physical.  So the challenge for digital is can it grow as quickly as the CD in those markets will decline?

The IFPI have stressed the fact that Japan’s dramatic 15% decline was the root cause of the global downturn.  While this is largely true – without Japan included global revenues still declined 0.1% – Japan’s problems are simply the global industry’s problems squared.  In 2012 a staggering 80% of Japanese music sales were physical but despite the digital market actually declining 4 successive years total revenues increased 4%.  As the world’s second biggest market, when Japan sneezes the global industry catches a cold.   But expect Japan to continue to drag down global revenues and also keep an eye on Germany.  Germany saw a modest 1.2% increase in revenues in 2013 but only 22.6% of sales were digital.  The most likely scenario is that Germany will follow the Japanese trend and go into a CD-driven dive in 2014 and / or 2015.

In conclusion, there is still cause for optimism from these numbers.  Subscriptions are going from strength to strength, at least in revenue terms, and the download sector remains robust in buyer number terms.  But unless the CD problem is fixed, the best both those digital revenue streams can hope to do is consolidate the market around a small rump of digital buyers.

How Downloads Will Determine the Future of Streaming

There is no doubt that streaming subscriptions will play a major role in the future of digital music, but their impact is going to be far from immediate. There also needs to be great caution applied to interpreting the encouraging early signs of the advanced streaming markets and the potential impact on total music sales.

Norway and Sweden both experienced an upturn in music sales in the first half of 2013 thanks largely to the impact of streaming subscriptions, while most of the rest of the global music market continued in its struggle to return to growth after more than a decade of decline.  The easy conclusion to draw is that when streaming subscriptions take hold across the globe, music revenue grow.  While there is some truth in the argument, it is too simplistic.

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An analysis of the leading streaming markets (Sweden, Norway, France, Netherlands) and the leading download markets (US, UK, Germany, Japan) – see figure one – reveals that streaming took hold in markets where downloads had not.  The markets where downloads represented the lowest share of total music sales in 2010 (before streaming really kicked off) are those that in 2013 had the rates of streaming as a share of digital music revenue.  In markets where downloads were making the biggest contribution to total music income (not just digital) streaming did not get much of a look in in 2013.  In the US and UK streaming subscriptions were in market long before Spotify and Deezer, but most digital music consumers opted for downloads and have been unwilling to switch allegiances since.  It will happen over time, but right now downloads have a firm grip and that is largely because of Apple.

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When we look at the same countries plotted by streaming share against Apple device penetration we see an even more pronounced trend – see figure two.  Here the relationship is clear: streaming has taken hold where Apple has not.  In short, there was no established mainstream digital music service and streaming subscriptions filled the void.  But of greatest significance is the impact on total music revenue.  These strong streaming markets contribute just 10% to global digital revenue, even though France and the Netherlands are two of the world’s top 10 music markets.  Meanwhile the UK and US alone count for 54%.  If you factor in Japan and Germany too you have 71% of all digital music income, and within these four countries (the four biggest music markets) streaming accounted for just 10% of digital revenue.

On the other side of the equation, streaming has brought unparalleled growth in its core markets: across Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands digital revenue grew by an average of 213% between 2010 and 2013, compared to an average of just 40% across the big four markets (though Japan’s declining digital sector pulls that average down).  And of course the Swedish and Norwegian music markets both grew in 2012 and 2013 while the rest did not.

While there is not a clear cut ‘answer’ to streaming’s likely long term impact we can however draw a few important conclusions:

  • Streaming will grow more slowly in markets where Apple and the download market are strong (which helps explain why growth of Spotify et al appears to have slowed in markets like the US and UK).
  • Streaming can make a digital market grow more quickly than downloads can (though it does so normally at the direct expense of downloads – download sales shrank in both Sweden and Norway in 2012 and 2013)
  • ‘Home turf’ counts.  Most of the big streaming markets have their own local heroes (Sweden – Spotify, Norway – WiMP, France – Deezer) – all of whom also benefited from hard bundles and marketing support from their incumbent telcos. Meanwhile Apple of course prospers on its home turf and that of the English speaking UK.
  • Consumer behavior and technology are all edging towards a more access based world and it is inevitable that the download will become less important.  So although these brakes on streaming adoption exist in many markets, they will slow rather than halt the transition. Streaming will near 50% of global digital revenues by 2018.

Streaming remains bedeviled by countless issues – not least artist payments – but what is clear is that it has the ability to transform the shape of the digital music market.  And while that change may be slower to come than the Swedish and Norwegian experiences might suggest, come it will.