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?

 

 

Yonder Music Unlocks The Emerging Market Opportunity

One of the high profile digital music casualties of recent years was the failed ‘next generation’ service provider Beyond Oblivion. There were numerous factors behind Beyond Oblivion’s failure but a key one was the fact the market was not yet ready for its telco bundled music offering. Now 5 years on the digital music and telco content markets are very different propositions, with the number of telco music bundles global totaling 105, up from 43 in 2014.  With the proliferation of data plans and smartphones, mobile carriers are now eagerly seeking out streaming music and video services as a means of driving subscriber uptake, ARPU and market differentiation. The 11.5 million telco bundled music subscribers that now exist globally represent a vibrant marketplace that was almost non-existent back in 2011. So why the potted history? Because, as MIDIA reported back in November 2015 Beyond Oblivion’s founder Adam Kidron is back for another bite of the Apple with a new take on the model with his latest venture Yonder. Now, 7 months after its Malaysian launch Yonder has racked up an number of impressive regional metrics that act as further evidence that the telco market is ripe for music bundles.

Yonder’s partnership with a number of Axiata telcos in multiple markets is off to a flying start. Yonder’s music bundle is available across a range of tariffs including both pre-paid and post paid. With an already sizeable 300,000 strong subscriber base Yonder users are using markedly more data than users of other music services on the same tariffs. But of most interest from a telco perspective is the much lower rates of churn for Axiata’s Yonder users, on both pre-paid and paid. Though these numbers must be caveated by the fact that Yonder is available on tariffs that appeal to Axiata’s most valuable and loyal customers – a caveat that applies to most music telco bundles. But even with that considered, Yonder users have a fraction of the churn even of other same tariff users that do not have Yonder.

Axiata has demonstrated its belief in Yonder by both taking a 25% stake in Yonder and by committing to launching in another 9 emerging market territories, with further markets in the pipeline.

Axiata, Celcom’s parent company, has demonstrated its belief in Yonder by both taking a 25% stake in Yonder and by committing to launching in another 9 emerging market territories, with further markets in the pipeline.

Curation And Pre-Pay Are Key 

Yonder has four key assets that that have driven success so far:

  1. A curated content offering
  2. A telco optimized business model
  3. A focus on emerging markets
  4. An offering for pre-pay customers

Emerging Markets Are The Next Big Streaming Opportunity

Emerging markets are the next big opportunity for digital music. Western markets dominated the 20th century music industry because it was built on buying units of pre-recorded media and thus skewed towards countries with high levels of disposable income. Now though, as we move into the streaming era, it is consumption that is monetized and thus it is the markets with the biggest populations (typically emerging markets) that represent the bigger opportunity. This realignment of the music industry’s world order won’t happen overnight, and the big western markets will still dominate, but a realignment is taking place. The obvious way to capitalize on this is ad supported (which is YouTube’s big play) and indeed that is where the big numbers will come. But it is telco bundles that will drive the meaningful revenue in these markets because:

  1. telcos have the billing relationships (a crucial asset as credit card penetration is typically low)
  2. telcos can shoulder some or all of the cost to drive data plan uptake and make the music feel like free

Crucially, in order to tap this emerging market opportunity, the standard, premium AYCE offering is not enough. Curation and Pay As You Go (PAYG) bundling are the assets needed to unlock this opportunity and right now Yonder and MusicQubed’s MTV Trax are pretty much the only services bringing this combination to market.

2016 is already proving to be a big year for the big streaming services, but with finite remaining growth opportunity remaining in developed markets, the really interesting long term growth lies in PAYG and emerging markets.

The telco music market statistics quoted in this report are featured in the MIDiA report ‘Telco Music Strategy: Ironing Out The Strategic Kinks As Objectives Evolve’ which is available to MIDiA subscribers and can also be bought individually on the MIDiA report store herebought individually on the MIDiA report store here

This post was amended on June 28th

Soundcloud, Amazon, Tidal: Streaming’s Other Runners

Apple, Spotify and YouTube have all been grabbing the streaming headlines of late, albeit for different reasons. While these companies will continue to set the pace over the next couple of years (again, for different reasons) there is much more to the streaming market than these three. Here’s what three of the other main streaming contenders have been up to in recent weeks:

Click here to read the full post on the MIDiA blog

Why Apple Music Matters So Much To Apple

Apple today announced a much anticipated refresh to Apple Music at its WWDC event. Apple Music has found itself at the centre of long running criticism from many parts due to its perceived product weaknesses. This is the bar against which Apple is measured. It has spent years building a well earned reputation for high quality products so its users understandably measure its services by the same standards. Apple Music was a highly ambitious version 1.0 that has since been iterated to iron out user journey kinks. Now today’s feature announcements look set to move Apple Music onto its next stage.

Being An Early Follower Requires Super High Standards

As an early follower rather than a leader Apple always sets itself the challenge of being measured against incumbents that have had years to refine their product offerings. With hardware, Apple normally meets and exceeds those standards. With Apple Music it launched a product that was light years ahead of where most of the incumbents were at launch, but that didn’t compare as favourably against their current offerings. Google Music Play All Access faced a similar challenge. The streaming music market has evolved so much since Spotify and Deezer’s inceptions that a music service cannot now afford to simply launch with the basics. It must do so much more.

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Image courtesy of the Verge

The revamped Apple Music includes a new simplified white interface, lyrics integration and better interaction with cloud libraries (a long running bug bear). These are not exactly step change innovations but they are a significant move forward in what is proving to be a process of continual change. Ultimately this update is about making Apple Music more intuitive and for it to make more sense to mainstream users. Is all this enough to blow Spotify and Tidal out of the water? No, but add in Apple’s bottomless pockets for exclusives and marketing, and you have a potent mix.apple music wwdc

Apple also announced a subscriber milestone, hitting 15 million subscribers. The number suggest that Apple’s growth is beginning to outpace that of its key challenger Spotify. Last year I suggested Apple would reach 20 million subscribers by the end of 2016. These numbers show it is well on track. Apple could yet be the leading music service by the end of 2017 if it starts to fully leverage all its ‘unfair advantages’.

Other metrics that Apple announced included:

  • 130 billion App Store downloads
  • 2 million apps available
  • $50 billion paid out to developers
  • 60 million Apple News users

10 Years On, Music Matters To Apple Once Again

Apple Music matters to Apple not because it will generate large profits (it won’t) but because it is the pace setter for Apple’s strategic shift towards being a services company. Apple is building a new narrative for Wall Street that focuses on the revenue it generates from its existing customer base (in order to distract attention from slowing device sales). Apple Music is the proof of concept. If it gets Apple Music right it will demonstrate its ability to deliver on best-in-class digital services. And because Apple still hasn’t been able to launch its TV subscription (it instead launched a partnership integration with Sling TV) it needs to get Music right until it is able to get the requisite TV deals in place.

This why the stakes are so high for Apple Music. Get it right, Apple re-establishes its market leadership role. Get it wrong, Apple’s own rescue plan goes down the pan. Music was so important to Apple in the mid 2000’s because it helped sell the iPod which in turn became the platform for growth that Apple trades upon today. Now 10 years on music has just reassumed its importance, this time to help sell Apple itself not just its hardware.

The 2 Spotify Charts You Need To See

Tuesday’s media scrum around Spotify’s financials illustrate that whatever ground Apple and Tidal may have made in recent months, Spotify clearly remains the poster child / bellwether for streaming. The stories oscillated between the broken nature of the underlying economics to how streaming is the future of the music business. Both are true. But a closer look at the numbers reveal some even more important findings.

spotify margin per user

Rights costs are Spotify’s Achilles Heel. Rights and associated costs accounted for 83% of Spotify’s 2015 revenue, up from 81% in 2014 and this resulted in a dramatic fall in Spotify’s gross margin per user: down from $4.20 in 2013 to $3.45 in 2015. This is particularly challenging for a model with already wafer thin margins. A number of factors underpin this decline:

  • Discounted promotions: Promos such as the £0.99 for 3 months have supercharged Spotify’s growth for the last 18 months. But as labels only contribute part of the cost this means that Spotify loses more margin with every new promo user
  • Advanced label payments: When Spotify strikes its licensing deals with labels it makes advanced payments and guarantees based on its expected growth. This means that for a growth stage company like Spotify, booked rights costs will always be higher than current booked revenue. This has obvious cash flow implications. Also, should Spotify’s growth slow and it miss those targets, it will still have to pay the monies guaranteed to labels, at which point the rights costs share will rise even further
  • Publisher rates: Over the last couple of years, music publishers have been asserting their role in the digital music value chain, pushing for more equitable rates. The net result is that publishing rights costs can now range up to 15%, depending on the deal, up from a low of 10% in some cases. This upward momentum will continue, and as labels aren’t decreasing their rates, it means less margin for Spotify and other streaming services

As Spotify edges towards an IPO it is doing everything within its power to get its house in order. It is investing in video to show Wall Street it is attempting to lessen its dependence on the labels and it is improving is cost ratios virtually everywhere else in its business, other than rights. Between 2013 and 2015, the Average Cost Per User (ACPU) for Research and Development fell from $2.12 to $1.61 and for Marketing it fell from $3.23 to $2.77. But Rights ACPU grew from $17.59 to $18.35. In fact, even in terms of costs as a % of revenues, every single expense Spotify reported fell except Rights (and Depreciation and Amortization which increased slightly). It is rising rights costs that are keeping Spotify from commercial sustainability.

spotify average pricing

There is another really important part of Spotify’s growth story: subscriber ARPU has fallen from $79.09 in 2013 to $62.30 in 2015. This is a result of multiple efforts to drive growth, including the price promos, telco bundles and student discounts. All of which are viable tactics but the fact they are necessary to drive Spotify’s growth underscore a point I have been making for years: 9.99 is not a mass market price point, and Spotify’s subscribers agree. By transforming the ARPU into an effective monthly retail price, Spotify’s average price point is now just $6.49, down from $8.24. It is about time that the music industry stopped pretending that this isn’t the reality of the market and instead starts pursuing proper pricing innovation rather than by stealth via discounting, which only serves to confuse consumers about long term value.

The music industry is in a transition phase. In such periods, the old and new worlds co-exist and collide. There are statistics that both sides of any argument can hold up in their defence, in fact they can often hold up the very same numbers to support opposite perspectives. Similarly, the comparisons you chose to benchmark with, can paint entirely different pictures. Such is the nature of transitions of human and business behaviour. For example, 83% of Spotify’s gross revenue going to rights is clearly too high and unsustainable, yet $0.00098 per song going to artists is also clearly too low and unsustainable. Something needs to give, for both ends of the value chain.

Maybe if/when Spotify gets to 50 million subscribers it will feel it has enough clout to compel rights holders to rethink licensing economics. Perhaps it will take Spotify getting to a 100 million to make that happen. Perhaps it will never happen. But if it doesn’t, the economics of streaming will remain so broken that only companies with ulterior business objectives will remain viable players, enter stage left streaming’s Triple A: Apple, Amazon and Alphabet (Google). The labels need to ask themselves whether that is the streaming future they want…

After The Album: How Playlists Are Re-Defining Listening

Later this week we’ll be publish a new report in the MIDiA Research Music report and data service: ‘After The Album: How Playlists Are Re-Defining Listening’.  In it we explore the changing role of streaming playlists and in particular how they are impact albums both as a consumption format and as a revenue model. The full 18 page report includes half a dozen graphics and a couple of sheets of excel, including a detailed revenue model.  I want to share with you here one of the key themes we explore in the report…

Playlists Are The Lingua Franca Of Streaming

Streaming hit a host of milestones in 2015, reaching 67.5 million subscribers and driving $2.9 billion of trade revenue, up 31% on 2014. While the competitive marketplace upped the ante, music services wielded curation to drive differentiation. Playlists have always been the core currency of streaming, but now more than ever they are becoming the beating heart, the fuel which drives both discovery and consumption. In doing so they are helping drive hit singles into the ascendancy and albums to the side lines.

The Album Is No Longer The Market

Perhaps the biggest problem with streaming’s dissolution of the album is that the wider industry is still catching up with the concept. Artists still consider the album as their core creative construct, their novel. Similarly, labels still build P&Ls, marketing campaigns and their core business models around albums and album release schedules. There will long remain a market for albums, especially among core fan bases, as TIDAL’s exclusive album campaigns for Kanye West and Beyoncé reveal. But it is just that: a market, not the market anymore.

Income Per Streaming User

The most effective way to measure the value of streaming is to measure the value per user. For record labels at a macro level this equated to $2.80 annual revenue per subscriber and $0.37 per free streamer globally in 2015. But even that measure is too blunt to allow label campaign teams, artists and their managers to understand the value to them because that value is wrapped up with all the music in the world. For these stakeholders a more meaningful measure is the average amount they earn per album per streaming user.

Income Per Album Per Streaming User

Music subscribers in the US and UK streamed an average of 3,447 streams each in 2015, averaging 66 streams a week. But the average number of complete unique albums streamed was just 47 for the whole year. The average across free and paid streaming users was 11. Less than one new album per year. In the old model that average would have been just fine, pulling in more than $100 in retail revenue per user but in the streaming model that equate to a combined total of $0.73 in rights holder revenue.

promo slide

Even that measure though, is only partially useful for an artist, manager, songwriter or label campaign manager. What matters for them is how much they earn per streaming user, not the music industry in general. The average royalty income per album per streaming user is $0.21, with $0.03 flowing to the artist and $0.02 flowing to the songwriter. For subscribers the average income is $0.44 with $0.05 flowing to the artist and $0.04 flowing to the songwriter. While for free users it is $0.13 and $0.01 for artists and $0.01 for songwriters.

What It All Means

Albums are not the currency of streaming.  Everyone needs to rethink what long form, artist led content consumption looks like on streaming. Music fans still want artist led experiences. Drake’s 46 million Spotify listeners is more than double all the Filtr, Digster, Topsify and Todays’ Top Hits followers put together. As I have suggested before, multimedia artist subscription bundles for $1.50 on top of standard streaming fees feel like the right fit and would also help start pushing up streaming ARPU.

The power of music discovery used to lie in the hands of the radio DJ, now it lies in the hands of the playlist curator. And because streaming has melded discovery and consumption into a single whole, that means their power is becoming absolute. Albums are not quite an afterthought in the curated playlist world, but they are certainly an awkward relative that doesn’t quite fit in at the party.

None of this to say that the album is dead, but it can no longer be considered the main way most people listen to music. Of course some would argue that with radio it has ever been thus…

To find out more about the report and how to access MIDiA reports and data either visit our website or email us on info AT midiaresearch DOT COM

IFPI First Take: Declining Legacy Formats Continue To Hold Back Growth

 

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This post has been updated following a conversation with the IFPI

The IFPI today announced its annual assessment of the size of the global recorded music business.  For the first time in a long time the music industry has been able to announce a significant growth in revenue: 3% up on 2014 to reach $15 billion. Except that the growth isn’t quite what it first appears to be. In fact, the IFPI reported $15 billion last year for 2014, and for 2013 too. So on the surface that appears to actually be three years of no growth.

The IFPI has done this before. For example, it had previously announced a small 0.2% growth in 2013 (which was the big headline of the numbers that year). But it then downgraded that to a small decline the following year before then upgrading it to a small growth again in 2015.

The IFPI explained that they have retrospectively downgraded their 2014 number to $14.5 billion to reflect some changes in the way they report performance royalties (a minor revenue impact) and, more importantly, to create ‘constant currency’ numbers i.e. to try to remove the impact of currency exchange fluctuations. That approach works well for company reports but less well for the macro picture. The IFPI have to report this way as they are essentially summing up company reports, however when we are talking about global macro markets we run into difficulties, for example looking at music revenue as a % of GDP etc.

The approach also has the effect of generating very different growth rates. For example, if we assume that the top 10 music markets each grew at 3% in local currency terms in 2015, using the exchange rates the years took place (i.e. 2014 USD to local currency and 2015 USD to local currency) there would only have been 0.48% growth in US dollar terms. If, however, we take the constant currency approach we see 3.2% growth. When we are talking about individual companies there is a lot of value in reporting at constant currency rates as those companies are dealing with repatriating and recording revenue from across the world into their local reporting HQs. But when we are talking about global markets comprised of many local companies (e.g. the vast majority of South Korean and Japanese revenues stay in local companies so are not directly shaped by currency fluctuations) the methodology is less useful. The cracks really begin to show when you take the long view. For example if we went back 5 years with constant currency rates the value of the music business as a % of the global economy would be over stated.

So, with all that said, for the purposes of this analysis I am going to use as my baseline for comparison the IFPI’s previously reported 2014 numbers stated in its ‘Recording Industry In Numbers, 2015 Edition’.  Here are some of the key takeaways (further charts at the end of this post):

  • Revenue was flat: Despite all of the dynamic growth in streaming declining legacy formats (CDs and downloads) offset their impact, keeping revenues flat. Also, once performance and synchronization revenues are removed from the mix, revenue fell slightly. This highlights the industry’s transition from a pure sales business into a multi-revenue stream model. It also emphasises the fact that we are still some way from a recovery in consumer spending on music
  • Downloads and physical still both falling: Download revenue was down 16% while physical was down 4.5%. The physical decline was lower than the 8% decline registered in 2014 and played a major role in helping total revenues grow. If physical revenue had fallen at the same rate as 2014 there would have been $0.25 billion less revenue which in turn would have brought total revenues down into decline. The Adele factor can once again be credited for helping the industry out of a sticky patch. The download decline was more than double than in 2014 (6.6%) and that drop is accelerating in 2016, with Apple Music playing a major role in the cannibalization / transition trend (delete as appropriate depending on your world view). What is clear is that downloads and subscription growth do not co-exist. Though it is worth noting that the move away form purchase and ownership is a bigger trend that long preceded Spotify et al.
  • Streaming growth accelerating, just: Total streaming revenue was up 31% in 2015, growing by $0.69 billion compared to 39% / $0.62 billion in 2014. This is undeniably positive news for subscriptions and a clear achievement for the market’s key players. However, it is worth noting that over the same period the number of subscribers by 63%, up from 41.4 million to 68 million (for the record MIDiA first reported the 67.5 million subscribers tally last week based on our latest research). So what’s going on? Well a big part of the issue is the extensive discounting that Spotify has been using to drive sales ($1 for 3 months) coupled with 50% discounts for students from both Spotify and Deezer and finally the surge in telco bundles (which are also discounted).  The number of telco partnerships live globally more than doubled in 2015 to 105, up from 43 the prior year. But even more significant was…
  • Ad supported revenue fell: Ad supported streaming revenue was just $0.634 billion in 2015, down very slightly from $0.641 billion in 2014. YouTube obviously plays a role, and that was a key part of the IFPI’s positioning around these numbers. You’ll need to have been on Mars to notice the coordinated industry briefings against YouTube of late, and these numbers are used to build that narrative.  But YouTube is far form the only ad supported game in town, with Soundcloud, Deezer and Spotify accounting for well over a quarter of a billion free users between them. Also, the IFPI doesn’t count Pandora as ad supported, one of the most successful ad supported models. Then there are an additional quarter of a billion free users across services like Radionomy, iHeart and Slacker. So the music industry doesn’t just have a YouTube problem, it has an ad supported music problem.
  • Streaming ARPU is up but subscription ARPU is down: The net effect of streaming users growing faster than revenue is that subscriber Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) fell to $2.80, from $3.16 in 2014, and $3.36 in 2013. Ad supported ARPU was down from $0.10 to $0.08 while subscription ARPU was down. The fall in subscriber ARPU is down to a number of factors including 1) discounting, 2) bundles, 3) churn, 4) growth of emerging markets services such as QQ Music (monthly retail price point $1.84) and Spinlet (monthly retail price point $1.76). For a full list of emerging markets music service price points check out the MIDiA ‘State Of The Streaming Nation’ report. The irony is that the major record labels are increasingly sceptical of mid tier price points yet they have inadvertently created mid tier price points via discounted pricing efforts. Total blended monthly streaming ARPU for record labels was $0.37 in 2015. And if you’re wondering how ad supported and subscription ARPU can both be down but total ARPU up, that is because subscriptions are now a larger share of total streaming revenue (up to 78% compared to 71% in 2014).

So the end of term report card is: an ok year, with the years of successive decline behind us, but long term questions remain about sustainability and the longer term impact of incentivized growth tactics.

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ifpi midia 3

Spotify’s Billion Dollar Challenge

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Spotify just changed the rules of the game, raising an unprecedented $1 billion in convertible debt. I’ll leave the financial analysts to pore over the financial permutations (and there are plenty) but there are a few key strategic implications:

  • This is an IPO war chest: Spotify is effectively priced out of trade sales for two reasons 1) it has received so much funding that its valuation is astronomic (somewhere close to $10 billion) and 2) the competitive market has changed so much that most companies that were potential buyers 3 years ago no longer are. Samsung neither has the growth story nor the music focus any longer, Microsoft is almost out of the game, Sony is out of the game, Apple couldn’t admit defeat so soon, Amazon is focused on the mass market and Google is focused on YouTube. So an IPO is the only realistic option and for that….
  • Spotify needs a growth story: To achieve an IPO valuation as high as Spotify needs, it is not enough to just be the leading player, it needs to be seen to be growing at a healthy clip, especially with Apple constantly making up ground and still odds on to be the long term market leader. Wall Street needs growth stories. Just look at what has happened to Pandora, a company with stronger fundamentals and a more secure licensing base. Yet Pandora has lost billions of market cap because Wall Street hasn’t warmed to the long term mature company story.
  • Growth will come from three key areas: The $9.99 model only has finite opportunity. The top 10% of music buyers only spend $10 a month on music. So to grow beyond that beachhead Spotify has to grow where the market isn’t yet mature (emerging markets), make the offering feel like free (telco deals) and make the offering feel super cheap ($1 for 3 months promos). All, in different ways, cost, which is where much of this money will be spent, along with hefty marketing efforts.
  • Some of it will be spent on strategic acquisitions: Small music services around the globe will be hastily editing their investor decks, pitching for an acquisition or hoping Spotify will come calling uninvited. But there aren’t too many realistic targets. Soundcloud would probably cost most of the raise, and Spotify would have the same problem Soundcloud now has of trying to force a 9.99 model on a user base it doesn’t fit. TIDAL wouldn’t be cheap either and besides a bunch of exclusive rights for some super star artists, would only add 10% to Spotify’s user base, less after all those users who came in for ‘Life of Pablo’ churn out. A more realistic bet would be for Spotify to target a portfolio of niche services that would add little to its user base but would communicate to the street that it is set up for super serving niches to grow its user base.
  • All bets are on Spotify: For the last 2 years the recorded music industry, the majors in particular, has been holding its collective breath. If Spotify has a successful IPO it will likely spur an inflow of much needed investment to the space. If it doesn’t then it is back to the drawing board. In many respective that should happen anyway. The 9.99 subscription model is incredibly difficult (perhaps impossible) to run profitably at scale.

The next 6 months will be ones of hyper activity for streaming, and don’t expect Apple to take this lying down. Await the battle of the gargantuan marketing budgets. Even if no one else does well out of this, the ad agencies will make hay.

 

What Other Technology Sector Thinks That It Has Arrived At Its Destination?

The internet, smartphones, app stores, open source software, all have accelerated innovation at a rate that makes Moore’s law look positively pedestrian. What defines digital technology markets is disruptive innovation, the constant challenging of accepted wisdoms and of established practices. Nothing stays still long enough to give stakeholders the luxury of feeling complacent and to fall back on slower moving sustaining innovations. These are the the realities of consumer technology, unless you happen to be in the digital music business, in which case the prevailing attitude is ‘we have reached our destination’, we have identified the model that is our future and we’re sticking with it. That approach worked fine in the old days of innovation, when Consumer Electronics (CE) companies used to spend years hashing out market standards and then competing in a gentlemanly fashion on implementation. That approach brought us VHS, CDs, DVDs Compact Cassettes etc. Everyone got a bite of the cherry and technologies stuck around for decades. Now they stick around for years, at best. So why is the music industry trying to insist on the $9.99 subscription being the new CD, a 20th century approach to standards in the dramatically different 21st century? And more crucially, why is it able to?

Consumers Are Predictable Creatures

Consumers adopt technology in highly predictable ways. First come the early adopters, the tech aficionados who are always the first to try out new apps, services and devices, next come the early followers who supercharge growth, then the mainstream who bring scale of adoption and finally the laggards who adopt at a more measured pace and slow growth. The result is an ‘S-Curve’ of adoption, with slow growth followed by fast growth, followed by slow growth again at the top of the curve. Music services are no exception, usually starting slowly before accelerating and then slowing again when they have saturated their addressable audience. Exactly where growth peaks varies by service and is determined by the type of service, but the same shape of adoption curve plays out nonetheless, most of the time.

music service adoption

Spotify’s 30 Million Might Just Be The Start Of Maturation

Spotify yesterday announced it had it 30 million paying subscribers. A true digital music landmark. But in the context of its long term growth curve it looks like it might be the start of the end of rapid growth. (It is worth noting that the accelerated growth of the last 16 months has been supercharged by the $1-for-3-months promos so the maturation point may have otherwise been reached earlier or it may have happened at the same time but with a lower number). This isn’t however, some failing of Spotify, rather an illustration that the $9.99 stand alone subscription model is nearing maturity. And this is where the scarcity of innovation comes into play. The major record labels, some more than others, have become increasingly unwilling to threaten the $9.99 status quo. Services that don’t fit the mould either find it impossible to get licenses for new models or they are forced to adhere to the $9.99 cookie cutter subscription model (Soundcloud anyone?).

Video Sets The Standard For Streaming Innovation

Compare and contrast with the streaming video subscription market. Alongside the mainstream Netlfix, Amazon and Hulu Plus services (the Spotify and Deezer equivalents) there is a growing body of targeted niche services with diverse pricing. These include: Hayu (a reality TV, $5.99), MUBI (cult movies, $4.99), Disney Life (Disney shows and movies, £9.99), Twitch (live streamed gaming, $4.99), YouTube Red (YouTuber originals, $10), Vessel (short form originals, $3) Comic-Con HQ (Comic Con content, pricing tbd).

Of course music is drastically different from TV and it is far easier to have a video service with just one slice of all available content than it is for music. Nonetheless, in the video sector there is no prevailing attitude of not wanting to disrupt the dominant $7.99 broad catalogue model. TV and video industry stakeholders are not only willing to tolerate disruptive innovation (online at least!), they understand it is crucial to drive the market forwards. So why don’t labels take a similar view? A key reason is rights concentration. Because three labels account for the majority of music rights, each has de facto veto power. Most companies that are dominant in their markets pursue smaller, sustaining innovations that improve the product but that do not threaten their businesses. So it is fully understandable that major labels have not empowered disruptive innovations that could risk turning their digital businesses upside down. It would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. And yet the growth trajectory of most leading music services shows that by sticking with sustaining innovations they are unwittingly curtailing the scale of their future growth.

Again, compare and contrast with TV where rights are far more fragmented and are becoming even more so. No single TV network or studio has the ability to stop a service in its tracks. The result is a far greater rate of innovation.

Music Subscription Services Are Compelled To Behave Like CE Companies

Thus music subscription services are forced to behave like the old CE companies, competing on the implementation of fundamentally the same product. TIDAL do exclusives and high definition, Spotify do playlist innovation and video, Apple does curation and exclusives. But when it comes down to it they are selling the same $9.99, 30 million tracks, on demand, mobile caching product to largely the same group of consumers.

Postscript: The Unusual Case Of Apple

The keen eyed among you will have noted that Apple Music’s growth curve does not fit the S-Curve model, or at least not what we can see of it yet. It certainly appears that Apple is set for a very different adoption path. There are mitigating factors. The streaming market is far more mature now than when Spotify and Deezer launched. Additionally, Apple has a unique platform and ecosystem advantage that enables it to short cut adoption rates. It can sell straight to its user base of Apple-super-fans. Selling additional products and services to its installed base of 850 million iTunes customers will be key to the next stage of Apple’s story and music will play its role in that. (Amazon is potentially another exceptional case given its ability to sell directly into its customer ecosystem and also with its focus on a more mainstream audience.)

But even Apple will eventually reach the saturation for the $9.99 product within its user base. In fact, one reading of Apple’s adoption curve is that it skipped the first stage of slow growth, has had a brief period of mid period strong growth and is now settling down for a long gradual arc of adoption that looks like an amalgamation of the final 2 stages of the S-Curve model. Whatever the path, let’s just hope that long before Apple Music hits maturity, the record labels will have woken up to the need to support an unprecedented phase of experimentation and innovation to identify all the other opportunities for premium music that exist outside of the super fan beachhead. Remember its 2016 not 1986.

Students, Cross-Border Pollination And Streaming Growth

Streaming’s big challenge for the next couple of years is how to reach new audiences as it nears saturation of the hard core music aficionados in key markets. Telco bundles, emerging markets and mid price subscriptions are all tools that will be used. But one of the most important segments is the student population. Students comprise some of the most ardent music fans, living and breathing music. However, they also happen to spend most of their time skint. Though students are generally better off now than they were a couple of decades ago, $/£/€10 a month is still a stretch too far for many, competing with PAYG phone credits, a shared household Netflix subscription and, most importantly, beer money. The good news, for streaming services, and students, is that rights holders understand the importance of flexibility in reaching students and have enabled the likes of Spotify and Deezer to launch half priced subscriptions for them. In effect making the AYCE proposition a mid tier product for the student population. The initiatives have proven highly successful. But there is more to student streamers than simply a mid price success story, they also help drive adoption in markets that are approaching scale.

We were fortunate enough to have Spotify share some German streaming data with us that helps illustrate just how important the student segment is and also how a diverse mix of local factors can impact streaming adoption.

SpotifyDE_2015_infographic_Heatmap

The Power Of Student Ambassadors

Subscription revenue represented just 5% of German recorded music revenue in 2014. In a market dominated by CD sales (70% – including vinyl) streaming was struggling to make much of a dent in the market. Fast forward to 2015 and subscriptions nearly tripled their share to 14%, helping the total market grow by 3.9% – though interestingly physical lost less than 1% of market share.

There were many factors underpinning that subscription growth and one of them was the German student population. As in many markets, Spotify recruited a network of student ambassadors to spread the word on campuses across the country. As the graphic shows, 10 out of 12 of the cities with student ambassadors went onto become half of the German cities with highest streaming penetration, while one of them – Giessen – was the fastest growing. While it would be inaccurate to suggest that students were the only factor in driving growth in these cities, they played a significant role in pushing German streaming penetration to the next level.

Cross Border Pollination

There are also a couple of other interesting insights that emerge from the Spotify data.  The first of which is the that the economic disparity in Germany is illustrated by the significantly lower adoption in east German cities compared to western German cities. But the most interesting of all is the northern town of Flensburg, which emerged as both the earliest adopting and fastest growing town or city for Spotify in Germany. Flensburg probably doesn’t feature in many people’s list of ‘important music towns’. So why the stand out streaming adoption? It transpires that Flensburg’s music fans routinely hop across the border to see gigs in Denmark and Danish acts come over to play in Flensburg. So what took place was cross-border-pollination of streaming. The fusing of the music cultures across the border exposed Flensburg’s music fans not just to Danish music but also to Spotify. A Viking raid of culture and technology.

If there’s one big take away from the Spotify data, it is that streaming adoption is a multi faceted beast with countless anomalies and hyper-local market factors that combine to create macro trends. Streaming’s success is thus the accumulation of a multitude of micro events.

Thanks go to Will Page and Paulus Yezbek at Spotify for having compiled the Spotify data in this post.