Rdio Goes After The Squeezed Middle

Streaming monetization is polarized between premium subscriptions on one end and free streaming on the other. The middle ground that was the scale heartland of the CD and the download is disappearing and taking with it the mainstream consumer.  It is into this environment Rdio just announced a new $3.99 tier.

mind the gap

Mid priced subscription tiers are thin on the ground.  We have a couple in the UK (MTV Trax and O2 Tracks from MusicQubed, Blinkbox Music, now owned by Guevara) and a number of ad free radio offerings from Pandora, Rhapsody and Slacker.  It is a heavily underserved segment as the slide above shows.  The mainstream streaming subscription market is squeezed between premium and nothing.  The average music spend of a consumer is around $3 a month, so $9.99 subscriptions are far out of reach of most consumers.  $3.99 however is far, far closer to a realistic price point for the mass market.

Regular readers will know that I have been a long term advocate of lower priced subscriptions and micro-billing / Pay As You Go pricing models to entice the more mainstream user.  The labels have been super cautious because they are scared of cheaper services cannibalizing the premium tier.  The concern is a valid one but ultimately if a bunch of 9.99 users aren’t getting full value from an unlimited service they are going to bail out eventually anyway.  At least with mid priced subscriptions they have somewhere to land instead of disappearing straight to free streaming.

monetization pyramid

Currently streaming monetization is split between the top and the bottom of the monetization pyramid and this needs to change.  Rdio’s new Select tier gives users ad free radio plus 25 songs of their choice each day. That might not sound like a lot of tracks but for the majority of mass market music listeners that will be more than enough.  In fact in some respects it could almost be too much.  What matters for the mass market listener is less the number of tracks and more how the tracks they like are surfaced to them.  Curation is a much-overused term these days, but expert curation and programming is crucial to engaging the mainstream.  Radio is still so popular because most mainstream consumers are lean back customers that want to be led on a music journey not to have to hack their way through the musical undergrowth themselves.

Monetizing The Revenue No-Man’s Land

The leap from zero to 9.99 is far too big and Rdio Select is an important step towards monetizing the revenue no-man’s land between free and premium.  Of course zero to anything is still a major hurdle but the success of iTunes (250 million global buyers) shows us once you make the first step small enough, consumers will follow.  The simple fact is that the streaming market will not be sustainable without the mainstream engaged as paying customers on the same sort of scale that was achieved with downloads.  An even simpler fact is that 9.99 will not achieve that end.

The Streaming Maturation Effect

What do Netflix and music subscriptions have in common?  They both experienced slowing growth in 2014 in the US.  Subscriptions are the monetization focal point of streaming but there have long been signs that the market opportunity is far short of the mainstream. Reports suggest that Spotify may (finally) be about to launch video, as a means of differentiating in an increasingly competitive marketplace that is about to get a whole lot more competitive on the 9th of June (i.e. when Apple announces its long mooted arrival into the space).  Spotify needs a differentiation point.  It may be the runaway market leader but it doesn’t have the feature badge of identity that many of its competitors do (e.g. Rdio is the social discovery service. TIDAL is the high def service. Beats is the curation service etc.).  However, even with a feature differentiation point, Spotify and all of its subscription peers face a more substantial challenge than competing with each other: they are collectively in danger of banging their heads on the ceiling of demand for music subscriptions.

Behaviours Will Change, But Slowly

The world is unequivocally moving from ownership to access and streaming will be a central component of this new consumption and distribution paradigm.  9.99 subscriptions however have no such mainstream inevitability.  They are too expensive for most consumers but most crucially they require consumers to pay for music every month when most people instead spend when one of their favourite artists is in cycle with a new album, single or tour.  Over time (a half generation or so) some consumers will have their behaviours modified, but the majority will not.  In some sophisticated markets (such as South Korea, the Nordics and, to some degree, the Netherlands) subscriptions are showing some sign of edging towards a wider audience (though still far short of mainstream).  In most major music markets though, they remain firmly locked in single digital percentage adoption ranges. They are niche services for the high spending aficionados.

maturation effect

But this isn’t solely a music subscription problem.  It is a dynamic of digital subscriptions more broadly.  Take a look at the US. In 2014 net new subscribers (i.e. the amount of subscribers by which the market grew) fell to 1.5 million, down from 2.8 million in 2013 – which translated to a 46% decline in net adds.  And that was in one of the highest profile years yet for subscriptions.  Over the same time period, Netflix’s net new US subscriber growth fell from 6.4 million to 5.7 million, which was a more modest 11% decline in net adds.

This is not to say either business model has run its course – far from it, and of course both sectors still gee in 2014 – but instead that premium subscriptions are not mass market value propositions. And once you have mopped up your early adopters and early followers growth inherently slows.  The music industry may be locked in an identity crisis over how it deals with freemium services, but it needs to have a realistic understanding of just how far subscription services can go without lower price tiers and more ability for users to easily dip in and out and, ideally, pay as they go rather than being tied to monthly commitments.

The incessant success of YouTube and Soundcloud show us that mainstream consumers want on-demand music experiences but the slow down of subscriber growth in the US shows us that the incumbent model only has a certain amount of potential. Sure, Apple will doubtlessly unlock a further tier of early followers to meaningfully grow the market, but it will only be a matter of time before it hits the same speed bumps.

Access based models are the mainstream future, subscriptions can be too, premium subscriptions though are not.

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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How TIDAL Can Deliver On Its Promises

The continued media feeding frenzy around Jay-Z’s TIDAL demonstrates just how valuable star power is for cutting through the clutter.  What has helped sustain interest is Jay-Z’s vision for delivering better value to artists and better experiences for music fans.  It is a tall order given that TIDAL has to operate under the same basic licensing framework as all other streaming services, the nub of which is paying c. 70% of all revenues to rights holders and having no control over how much of that gets paid back to artists and songwriters.  Working within the constraints of the standard subscription model TIDAL will quite simply not be able to deliver on its aspirations.  But if TIDAL is willing to create a new model to layer on top of it, then it can do something truly transformational.  Here’s how.

The Problem With Streaming

First we need to look at the issue TIDAL has to fix.  The problem with streaming services is that they inadvertently weaken music fans relationships with musical works.  In the pre-streaming, music sales model consumers paid for an album or single and matched their cash investment with an investment of time in listening to it.  The alternative was to listen to their older music collection or the radio.  So even duff albums not only got money spent on them, they got listened to a few times by their buyers.  And even if they didn’t get listened to even once the artist still got paid.   So a portion of music sales revenue had no relationship to the quality of the music.  Streaming changed that, effectively making the music itself more accountable to its audience.

With streaming, music fans don’t need to waste time listening to music they don’t like upon first listen.  They can bypass the duff.  They also tend to listen less to any single piece of music in general because they have so much other music to choose from at no additional cost.  Artists earning a 150th per stream of what they earn from a download is thus only part of the problem.  Most of the time their mainstream fans (and by that I mean not their top 10% of super fans) aren’t listening to them enough.

Scale Will Come, But It Will Take Time

The theory is that this will be fixed by scale, that a massive installed base of users will result in bigger listening volumes.  But it’s not that easy.  To illustrated, let’s assume people listen to albums an average of 5 times each then you need 30 times as many people to listen to generate the same income as a sale.  So until we get much bigger scale from streaming (e.g. 150m+ subscribers globally) we need to look at how to encourage music fans to concentrate their listening more on the artists they really like.  This is where TIDAL can come into play:

  • Artist channels: Earlier this year I laid out a vision for artist subscriptions.  In this model subscribers pay an additional fee (say $1 or $2) to their standard streaming subscription to get access exclusive programming, content and other experiences from an artist. Subscribers choose from a selection of artist channels and subscribe individually or pay for a bundle.  Think of it like adding sports or movies to your Pay TV subscription.
  • Additional content: Because subscriptions already give you access to all the music in the world (well most of it) subscribers will not be paying their extra $1 or $2 to get to the artist’s music. (Taking the music out of the core subscription and locking it into premium channels is a bad idea and doesn’t fix the artist income issue as we’ll see in a moment).  Instead fans will be paying for a mixture of additional content (live streams, interviews, acoustic sessions, photos, videos, games, curated playlists, mobile content, handwritten lyrics etc.) that will be delivered as a curated, programmed whole.  These channels will need to ascribe to the D.I.S.C. principles i.e. they music be Dynamic, Interactive, Social, Curated.  Sure each of the individual components could probably be found somewhere on the web but the real value is the entirety of the experience.
  • Artist revenue share: Where this model gets really interesting is how artists get paid. If all the additional content that is delivered is outside of the standard label catalogue then TIDAL could, after some basic costs are accounted for, split the entire additional $1 or $2 subscription fee 50/50 with the artist.  Or if TIDAL is that serious about making things better for artists, they could give all of the net profits to the artist. (Label 360 deals might complicate things a bit for some artists but they will not account for large percentages). Just how songwriters would benefit is a bit more complex as many artists have multiple songwriters etc. but TIDAL could set aside a songwriter pot to be distributed based on plays of the artist’s core music.

Right now TIDAL is a music service pretty much like the others but with bold ambitions.  This is one way that TIDAL can turn worthy words into meaningful actions. There aren’t too many other ways it can do so.  And of course any of the other streaming incumbents could do this too.  The difference is that that they have had a lot of time to do it and have not done so, yet at least.

So TIDAL, come show us how it is done.  Over to you Jay-Z.

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.

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.

Why Zane Lowe Could Do More For Discovery At Apple Than Echonest’s $25.6 Million Does For Spotify

BBC Radio One DJ Zane Lowe just announced a shock move to Apple. For the non-Brits and non-Anglophiles Zane Lowe is arguably the most influential radio DJ in the UK and is renowned for being a tastemaker with an eclectic pallet. His left of centre focus and his commitment to supporting and breaking new acts has allowed Radio One the freedom to be unashamedly mainstream in much of its other output. So why does this all matter for Apple? While it is not yet clear what sort of role Lowe will assume at Cupertino it is a move bristling with significance and a clear statement of intent from Apple.

Fixing the Tryanny Of Choice

The Tyranny of Choice remains one of the biggest challenges for streaming services, namely how to make sense of 35 million songs. It has been challenge enough for the Aficionados at the vanguard of the first wave of subscription service adoption. It is a problem of far greater proportions for the next wave of subscribers, the later adopters who do not have the expertise nor intent to invest great effort into discovering new music. It is not as simple as ‘lean forward’ versus ‘lean back’. But instead gradations between the two. Beyond Apple’s inevitable Spotify-subscriber win back efforts, these early followers will be at the core of Apple’s streaming strategy.

The 6th Of March: Man Versus Machine

Spotify showed its own music discovery statement of intent when it acquired the Echo Nest on the 6th of March 2014. Zane Lowe’s final Radio One show will broadcast on the 5th of March 2015, leaving him free to join Apple on the 6th of March 2015, yes, 1 year to the day after the Echo Nest. Coincidence? Perhaps. Either way, the symmetry of Spotify making its bet on algorithmic curation and Apple making its bet on human curation is unavoidable. It is man versus machine, with Apple for once coming down on the side of flesh and blood over technology.

However expensive Lowe’s salary might be, it will be far short of the millions Spotify paid for the Echo Nest, which had burned through $25.6 million of investment to get to that point. Yet there is every chance that Lowe, used properly, could deliver more value to Apple’s music discovery than the Echo Nest can to Spotify. Don’t get me wrong, the Echo Nest is a fantastic outfit with some of the smartest music analytics people going. Along with Pandora’s Music Genome Project the Echo Nest is as good as it gets for music discovery algorithms. In fact when it comes to implementation and cool data driven projects, the Echo Nest leads the way. But there is a limit to how far algorithms can fix the problems posed by the Tyranny of Choice.

Filter Bubbles

As Eli Pariser identified in his excellent Ted Talk ‘Beware Of Filter Bubbles’ there is a risk that recommendation algorithms actually narrow our choice and limit discovery. That by continually refining recommendations based on previous taste and choice they make our world views increasingly narrow and ultimately boring. Music discovery is not simply about finding music that sounds like other music we already like. It is also about serendipitous moments of wonder when something comes at us from the left field and leaves us breathless. That is the antithesis of ‘here are three other bands like this you might like’.

Of course it would be unfair to suggest that the Echo Nest is not sophisticated enough to engineer serendipity and surprise into its discovery system. (And Spotify is beginning to double down on human curation too). But the ability of a stack of code to perform this task versus an expert tastemaker is significantly less. And, another ‘of course’, it is impossible to definitively prove this one way or the other because ultimately the results are subjective and not properly measureable. Because one person’s awesome discovery is another’s sonic tripe. But that is entirely the point of the whole debate.

People Don’t Want Discovery, Well They Don’t Think They Do

There is a fundamental problem with algorithmic discovery: people don’t want it. In numerous consumer surveys I have fielded for numerous clients, respondents show little or no interest in discovery or recommendation features. Yet in the same surveys the vast majority of them state that they regularly listen to music radio, which is of course recommendation and discovery. The big difference is that it doesn’t feel like it. Instead it is an inherent part of the DNA radio. It is not an awkward artificial appendage that most people just don’t get.

Earned Trust

During his Monday – Thursday 2 hour show Lowe will play 20 to 30 or so tracks. Listeners know and understand that these are the tiny tip of the iceberg he has sifted through that week, that these are the songs he has decided are the ones that need to be heard. And when he announces his ‘hottest record in the world’ they know it is probably going to be something pretty special, even if they might not actually like it. His audience appreciates him that way because he earned their trust over weeks, months and years. That is the asset Apple are buying. Even if he has to earn that trust all over again with a new audience, that is the model.

If Lowe was simply to push 20 to 30 songs a day to Apple users (whether that be on a radio show on iTunes Radio, as an iTunes podcast or as an iTunes playlist, or all of the above) the odds are in favour of some or most of those resonating with a large swathe of the target audience. Even if just one track blows away just a quarter of the audience each day, the impact of one fantastic discovery will have more impact than a torrent of ‘sounds a bit like’ recommendations.

30% Not 80%

An Amazon Prime executive recently said that when commissioning shows he didn’t want hits that 80% of his audience quite liked, he wanted shows that 30% of his audience loved. That is what discovery is all about. Not being content most of the time, but being blown away some of the time.   Zane Lowe is not going to solve Apple’s discovery problem all by himself, but the hire shows that Apple is putting its money on moments of human magic being the nitrous oxide in its music discovery engine.

How Rhapsody Became A Top Tier Player Again

Rhapsody today announced reaching 2.5 million total subscribers across their unlimited and UnRadio offerings. While not in the same scale as Spotify’s 15 million, it nonetheless places Rhapsody as the fourth largest subscriber base globally and approximately 10% of the global total.

Rhapsody spent most of the second part of the 2000’s treading water, never really able to break out of a solid niche of between 750,000 and 880,000 subscribers. Rhapsody was doing its best to run a sustainable business but because it wasn’t blowing vast amounts of cash on customer acquisition (either via marketing or having a free tier) it was seeing most of its new user growth cancelled out by churn. But even with this measured approach such is the nature of digital music margins that it still lost money, lots of it.

Enter investment firm Columbus Nova who acquired an undisclosed stake in Rhapsody in September 2013. A reorg and a repositioning process followed paving the way for strong subscriber growth. Rhapsody had 1.5 million subscribers one year ago. If it continues to grow at its present rate it should hit 3 million by July this year. And if it sustains that growth into the start of 2016 it could find itself the second biggest subscription service globally. Current number two Deezer appears to be slowing so 2nd place could be a realistic target for next year. Quite a turn around for a service that looked like it was falling by the wayside 5 years ago.

Rhapsody created the streaming subscription marketplace. I remember back in the early and mid 2000’s when I was a Jupiter analyst, forever trumpeting the subscription model. In fact, along with my fellow Jupiter music analysts David Card and Aram Sinnreich, we took a lot of flak for our forecasts that predicted subscriptions would be the future of digital music. Granted we made our bet the best part of a decade before the market transpired but Rhapsody was there in market doing pretty much what subscription services are doing today. It deserves credit for having created a market and now once again for a newly found relevancy in the contemporary marketplace.

Postscript: Intrigued I decided to look up one of my old Jupiter music forecasts to see how wrong I was and I had a nice surprise. In the 2007 Jupiter European Music Model I had European subscription revenue at €484.2 million by 2012. The actual number was €420.2 million. That sound you can hear is me patting myself on the back.

Why The Music Aficionado Was To Blame For Declining Music Sales In 2014

Music revenues declined by 2.9% in 2014, down from $6.9 billion in 2013 to $6.7 billion across the US, UK, France, Italy, Australian, Sweden and Norway. Much has been made of the fact that revenue fell in the Nordic markets where streaming had previously driven growth. One year’s worth of revenue numbers does not make an industry trend. The one year fall off in strong streaming markets is not proof of a fundamental weakness in the streaming model in just the same way a couple of years of growth was not proof of its strength. We are in the midst of a transition period and there will be further anomalies and blips along the way. They key reason for the volatility is the music industry’s growing dependence on an increasingly small group of consumers: the Music Aficionados. Music Aficionados are consumers that spend above average time and money with music. They represent just 17% of all consumers but a whopping 61% of all recorded music spending. These consumers shape the fortunes of the music business. In the past this did not matter so much because:

  1. So many passive majority music fans were spending strongly
  2. Aficionados were behaving predictably

Now that has all changed. Passives are sating their appetites on YouTube while Aficionados are making major changes to their buying habits. Last year 14% of Aficionados said they were stopping buying CDs while 23% said they were buying fewer albums of any kind and 23% also said they were buying fewer downloads. The 2014 revenue numbers show us just what impact these changes had. aficionado impact If we extrapolate those percentages to Aficionados’ share of spending in those markets in 2014 we see:

  • Aficionados spent $192 million less on CDs, which was 67% of the total $326 million lost CD spend in 2014
  • Aficionados spent $250 million less on downloads, which was 86% of the total $290 million lost CD spend in 2014

In total the Aficionados accounted for 76% of the lost CD and download revenue in 2014. So what’s going on? Why are the super fans jumping ship? Well first of all, they aren’t. This is a transition process. They are shifting their spending towards subscriptions. For some of them this will mean spending less (especially the 23% that stopped buying more than an album a month and are now spending $9.99 instead of $20 or $30). For others it will be an increase in spending. At a macro level though, lost download and CD spending accounted for a $617 million decline while streaming growth accounted for a $351 million gain, which means that there was a net loss of $265 million. Because the music industry has largely stabilized after years of dramatic decline, it only takes relatively minor fluctuations one way or the other to determine whether a market grows or shrinks. This is why both the Aficionado needs more attention now than ever and also why the Passive Massive needs engaging at scale. Aficionados have been taken for granted for too long and are now being migrated away from products without a spend ceiling (albums) to a product with a fixed ARPU cap (9.99 subscriptions). When the Aficionados sneeze the music industry gets a cold. It is time for a cure.