Why Music and Video are Crucial to Apple’s Future

Apple’s downgraded earnings guidance represents its first profit warning in 10 years. This is clearly a big deal, and probably not as much to do with a weakening Chinese economy if Alibaba’s 2018 Singles’ Day annual growth of 23% is anything to go by. But it does not indicate Apple is about to do a Nokia and quickly become an also-ran in the smartphone business. Nokia’s downfall was triggered by a corporate rigidity, with the company unwilling to embrace — among many other things — touchscreens. Apple’s touchscreen approach, coupled with a superior user experience and its ability to deliver a vibrant, fully integrated App Store, saw it quickly become the leader in a nascent market. Apple’s disruptive early follower strategy is well documented across all its product lines and the iPhone was a masterclass in this approach. But the smartphone market is now mature and in mature markets, market fluctuations need only be small to have dramatic impact. That is where Apple is now, and music and video will be a big part of how Apple squares the circle.

Apple started its shift towards being a services-led business back in Q1 2016, issuing a set of supplemental investor information with detail on its services business and revenue. Fast forward to Q3 2018 and Apple reported quarterly services revenues of $10 billion—16% of its total quarterly revenue of $62.9 billion. So, services are already a big part of Apple’s business but the high-margin App Store is the lion’s share of that. App Store revenues will continue to grow, even in a saturated smartphone market, as users shift more of their spending to mobile. But it will not grow fast enough to offset slowing iPhone sales. Added to that, key content services are moving away from iTunes billing to avoid the 15% iTunes transaction fee. Netflix, the App Store’s top grossing app in 2018, recently announced it is phasing out iTunes billing, which is estimated to deliver Apple around a quarter of a billion dollars a year. That may only be c.1% of Apple’s services revenue but it is a sizeable dent. So Apple has to look elsewhere for services revenue. This is where music and video come in.

Streaming will drive revenue but not margin

Streaming is booming across both music and video. Apple has benefited doubly by ‘taxing’ third-party services like Spotify and Netflix, while enjoying success with Apple Music. With third-party apps driving external billing, Apple needs its own streaming revenue to grow. A video service should finally launch this year to drive the charge. However, the problem with both music and video streaming is that neither is a high-margin business. Apple’s residual investor value lies in being a premium, high-margin business. So it has a quandary: grow streaming revenues to boost services revenue but at a lower margin. This means Apple cannot simply build its streaming business as a standalone entity, but instead must integrate it into its core devices business.

Nokia might just have drawn Apple’s next blueprint

During its race to the bottom, Nokia launched the first 100% bundled music handset proposition Comes With Music (CWM). It was way ahead of its time, and now might be the time for Apple to execute another early (well, sort of early) follower move. CWM was built in the download era but the concept of device lifetime, unlimited music included in the price of the phone works even better in a streaming context. I first suggested Apple should do this in 2014. Back then Apple didn’t need to do it. Now it does. But rather than music alone, it would make sense for Apple to execute a multi-content play with music, video, newsand perhaps even monthly App Store credits. Think of it as Apple’s answer to Amazon Prime. To be clear, the reason for this is not so much to drive streaming revenue but to drive iPhone and iPad margins and in doing so, not saddle its balance sheet with low streaming margins. Here’s how it would work.

Streaming as a margin driver for hardware

Apple weathered much of the smartphone slowdown in 2018 by selling higher priced devices such as the iPhone X. This revenue over volume approach proved its worth. The latest earnings guidance shows that even more is needed. Apple could retail super premium editions of iPhones and iPads with lifetime content bundles included. By factoring in these bundled content costs into iPhone and iPad profits and losses, Apple can transform low margin streaming revenue into margin contributors for hardware. Done right, Apple can increase both hardware and services revenue without having a major margin hit. Add in Apple potentially flicking the switch on the currently mothballed strategy of becoming mobile operator, and the strategy goes one step further.

Free streaming without the ads

If reports that Apple is buying a stake in iHeart Media are true, then it will have another plank in the strategy. Radio is an advertising business, but Tim Cook hates ads so the likelihood is that any streaming radio content would be ad free. Given that consumers are unlikely to want to pay for a linear radio offering, Apple would need to wrap the content costs into hardware margins. This could either be part of the core content bundle, or could even be a lower priced content bundle, with Apple Music being available as a bolt-on, or as part of a higher priced bundle or, more likely, both. Ad-supported streaming becoming ad free would of course scare the hell out of Spotify.

Music to the rescue, again

2019 will probably be too soon for this strategy to finds its way into market, but do expect the first elements of it coming into place. Music saved Apple’s business once already thanks to the iTunes Music Store boosting flagging iPod sales. This paved the way for the greatest ever period in Apple’s history. Now we are approaching a similar junction and music, along with video and maybe games, are poised to do the same once again.

What Netflix’s Missing $9 Billion Tells Us About Spotify’s Business Model

On Monday (July 16th), Netflix’s quarterly earnings missed targets, resulting in $9.1 billion being wiped off its market capitalisation due to twitchy investors jumping ship. To be clear, Netflix had a strong quarter, continuing to grow strongly in both the US – a much more saturated market for video subscriptions than for music – and internationally. Netflix also registered a net operating profit. What it failed to do was meet the ambitious expectations it had set. The lessons for Spotify are clear. With Spotify’s Q2 earnings due later this month, it will be bracing itself for another potential drop in stock value if its performanceis good but not good enough to keep ambitious investors happy. Such is the life of a publicly traded tech company.

But perhaps the most telling part of Netflix’s stock performance was that the $9.1 billion of market cap it lost is more than a quarter of Spotify’s entire market cap ($33.3 billion on Tuesday). Netflix of course plays in a much bigger market than Spotify: the US video subscription market will be worth $17.3 billion in 2018—the same amount that the IFPI estimates the entire global recorded music business generated in 2017. But, the perspective is crucial. Lots of institutional investment has flowed into Spotify since it went public – and indeed prior to that, but music is a tiny part of those investors’ portfolio. Netflix’s loss in market cap shows that even the golden child of streaming does not deliver enough promise for many of those investors, but investors have plenty of other TV industry bets to make if they abandon Netflix. For music, institutional investors basically have Spotify or Vivendi. So, while Netflix struggling is a problem for Netflix, a struggling Spotify would be a problem for the entire recorded music business.

Savvy switchers – Netflix’s churn problem

Netflix’s earnings also present some positive signs for the strength of Spotify’s business model compared to Netflix’s, such as its growing quarterly churn rate: around 8% in Q2 2018, up from 6% the prior quarter. This reflects what my colleague Tim Mulligan refers to as ‘savvy switchers’– video subscribers who churn in and out of services when there’s a new show to watch. This is a dynamic unique to video, created by the walled garden approach of exclusives. No such problem faces Spotify, for now at least, because all of its competitors have largely the same catalogue.

Content spend: uncapped versus fixed

Most relevant though, is Netflix’s content spend. One of the much-used arguments against Spotify in favour of Netflix is that Spotify has fixed content costs, hindering its ability to increase profits, because costs will always scale with revenue. However, Spotify’s advantage is in fact that content costs are fixed, there is a cap on how much it will spend on rights. Netflix has no such safeguard, which means that the more competitive its marketplace gets, the more it has to spend on content.

This is why Netflix has had to take on successive amounts of debt – accruing to $9.7 billion since 2013. Servicing this debt cost Netflix $318.8 million for the 12 months to Q2 2018, one year earlier the cost was $181.4 million. For the 12 months to Q2 2018, Netflix’s streaming content liabilities were $10.8 billion, representing 80% of streaming revenues, which compares favourably with Spotify’s 78%. One year earlier, those liabilities for Netflix were $9.6 billion, representing a whopping 99% of streaming revenues. The reason Netflix can do this and generate a net margin is that it amortises the costs of its originals (essentially offsetting some of its tax bill). For the 12 months to Q2 2018 Netflix amortised 64% of its content liabilities, one year earlier that share was 57%, reflecting originals being a larger share of content spend during 12 months to Q2 2018. The more originals Netflix makes, the more it can increase its margin. Which creates the intriguing dynamic of the US Treasury subsidising Netflix’s business model. Welcome to the next generation of state funded broadcaster!

Q2 will tell

Spotify spending billions on original content is some way off yet – assuming it engineers a way to do so without antagonising its label partners, but until then it can rest assured that while Netflix faces growing content costs, it has its exposure capped, allowing it to focus on growing its customer base and enhancing its product. The reaction to the forthcoming Q2 earnings will show us whether investors see it that way too.

Despacito Is About To Hit 4 Billion YouTube Views

­­In January Despacito became the second fastest music video in YouTube history to hit one billion views, taking just 97 days to do so. Now it is on track to hit four billion. In January Despacito was part of a succession of new music video consumption records that YouTube and Vevo are setting. YouTube music video views are on the rise, dramatically so, driven both by more users (YouTube announced 1.5 billion signed in active users) and deeper engagement. This is YouTube’s music renaissance and the record labels (their marketing divisions at least) are loving the increased exposure their artists are receiving. At first glance this might not appear to make much sense, given that: a) video streaming growth is outpaced by audio streaming in key markets such as the US and UK, and b) that the whole value gap-grab debate is as far from a resolution as it has ever been. Then, along comes Despacito to drive yet another bulldozer through everything, breaking all the rules again.

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The days of one billion streams being considered exceptional are fast disappearing. Despacito added one billion streams in July alone. Just as Spotify spent 2015 and 2016 continually rewriting the rules each quarter, now YouTube is doing the same in 2017. Spotify, of course, is also having a spectacular year but it has established a steadier pace of change, especially in developed markets. Spotify is the new normal (until it’s not again). YouTube had its ‘normal’ but now the acceleration of usage, particularly from Latin America, is making the previously accepted reference points irrelevant.

Moreover, Latin American driven streams might actually intensify the value gap-grab debate. In 2016 YouTube delivered a monthly average revenue per user (ARPU) of $0.07 to the labels. In contrast, Spotify delivered a monthly ad supported user ARPU of $0.34. On paper YouTube has a lot of ground to make up, but things are a little more complex than that. YouTube pays out a share of ad revenue to rights holders. So, if revenues go down the amount it pays goes down by the same rate. Spotify (at risk of simplifying excessively) pays out on a per stream basis. So, if revenues go down, Spotify still pays a certain amount.

This is where Latin America comes in. The local video advertising markets throughout Latin America are much less developed than in the US and, additionally, there is much less advertiser demand. Compared to the US, there are fewer advertisers with less money to spend on consumers, who also spend less money. This means that advertiser demand massively outstrips supply, which suggests that ad prices are lower. So, as Latin American YouTube music consumption grows, effective per stream rates will decline. In our MIDiA’s 2017 Predictions Report, 2016, we predicted that this would happen.

“In 2017, audience behaviour will continue to grow faster than advertiser budgets, meaning that CPMs (and in the case of YouTube, effective per stream rates for music) will fall.”

YouTube and the music industry are unlikely to truly see eye to eye, but value gap or no value gap, we are now at a decision point. The accelerating role of Latin America and other emerging markets in YouTube consumption will see more and more records broken, with bigger and bigger hits made, but the gap between consumption and revenue will widen. So the music industry needs to decide what it really wants YouTube to be for the next few years: promotion or revenue. Trying to make it do both well will most likely result in YouTube doing neither of them properly.

Quick Take: Spotify And Hulu Partner In The US

Spotify just announced it is bundling in the Hulu No Commercials plan into its $4.99 student offering in the US. Given that the Hulu product retails at $7.99 and Spotify at $9.99, this is unmistakably a good value for money deal – even compared to the standard $4.99 student Spotify tariff. In the Spotify blog post announcing the tie up, it is made clear that this is the start of something bigger: “This is the first step the companies are taking to bundle their services together, with offerings targeted at the broader market to follow.”

Putting aside for a moment how the economics of this bundle might work for Spotify, this partnership gives us a clear pointer as to Spotify’s video strategy going forward. The other part of the puzzle is the news that Spotify is hiring former Maker Studios exec, Courtney Holt, to head up its original video and podcast strategy.

Spotify knows that it needs to have a video play of some kind, despite the failure of its previous attempt. Unfortunately, everyone else is thinking the same – with Snap Inc, Facebook and Apple now committing billions to original content, in an already inflated market for video. Hulu will spend $2.25 billion on original content in 2017, matching Amazon’s original content budget for the year. This is the barrier to entry for video, and its simply too high for Spotify to justify.

Instead, it has focused on working with one of the leading streaming video services in the US, and is building complimentary music-orientated video in house. Thus, through this Spotify bundle a user gets their scripted drama hit from Hulu and their music video hit from Spotify.

Spotify’s Hulu partnership is a smart way to get into the video market without getting in over its head. While for Hulu, Spotify gives it clear differentiation from Netflix and Amazon. Which is given extra significance by the announcement that T-Mobile Netflix for free for its premium customers. Whether the economics of this deal add up for either party is another question entirely.

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.

Introducing The New MIDiA Research

Regular readers of this blog will probably have noticed that my posting has become a little less regular than usual over the last couple of months…well there’s good reason…we’ve been building some great new product features, research and data over at MIDiA Research and we launched them today.  That’s what’s been keeping me busy!

midia site front pageAs many of you will know I formed MIDiA Research back in July last year because I wanted to provide a depth of analysis, data and research rigour for the music industry that most technology sectors benefit from. During the last year we have been fortunate enough to grow quickly and acquire a client base that is a who’s who of the music industry, from record labels to music services to big tech companies.

We quickly realised that our model was working so well for music that there were other media verticals that would benefit from the same approach. So today we are proud to announce the launch of two new research services:

  • Online Video
  • Mobile Content

Click here if you are interested in finding out more about our new site and research.

We also launched today a weekly newsletter that gives you a round up of analysis, research and data on digital music, online video and mobile content. We like to think of it as the definitive take on the digital content marketplace.

To sign up head over to the MIDiA blog and enter your email address in the field on the right of the page.  All subscribers get a free 28 page MIDiA report ‘The State Of Digital Music’.

Normal service will now resume on this blog!