Songwriters Aren’t Getting Paid Enough and Here’s Why

Music Business Worldwide recently ran a story on how Apple has proposed a standard streaming rate for songwriters, with Google and Spotify apparently resistant. Of course, Apple can afford to run Apple Music at a loss and has a strategic imperative for making it more difficult for Spotify to be profitable, so do not assume that Apple’s intentions here are wholly altruistic. Nonetheless, it shines a light on what is becoming an open wound for streaming: songwriter discontent. In the earlier days of streaming artists were widely sceptical, but over the years have become much more positive towards the distributive medium. The same has not happened for songwriters for one fundamental reason: they still are not paid enough. This is not simply a case of making streaming services pay out more; rather, this is a complex problem with many moving parts.

Songwriters don’t sell t-shirts

Streaming fundamentally changes how creators earn royalties, shifting from larger, front-loaded payments to something more closely resembling an annuity. In theory, creators should earn just as much money, but over a longer period of time. If you are a larger rightsholder then this is often wholly manageable. If you are a smaller songwriter or artist, then the resulting cash flow shortage can hit hard. Many artists, especially newer ones, have made it work because a) streaming typically only represents a minority of their total income, and b) the increased exposure streaming brings usually boosts their other income streams such as live performances and merchandise. Professional songwriters however – i.e. those that are not also performers – do not sell t-shirts. Royalty income is pretty much it. There is a greater need to fix songwriter streaming income than there was for artists.

The four factors shaping songwriter income

There are four key factors impacting how much songwriters earn from streaming, and most of them can be fixed. To be clear, though, just fixing any single one of them will not move the dial in a meaningful-enough way:

  1. Streaming service royalties: Songwriter-related royalties are typically around 15% of streaming revenues, which represent around 21% of all royalties paid by streaming services – around 3.6 times less than master recordings-related royalties. This is better than it used to be, when the ratio was 4.8. However, there is clearly still a large gap between the two sets of rights. Labels argue that they are the ones who take the risk on artists, invest in them and market them. Therefore, they should have the lion’s share of income. Publishers, on the other hand, argue that they are increasingly taking risks with songwriters too (paying advances) and working hard to make their music a success, e.g. with sync streams. They also argue that everything is about the song itself. Both arguments have credence, but the fact that streaming services have historically negotiated with labels first helps explain why there isn’t much left of the royalty pot when they get to publishers. There is clearly scope for some increase for songwriters, but if there is not an accompanying reduction in label rates – not exactly a strong possibility – then the net result will be reduced margins for streaming services. Given that Spotify has only just started generating a net profit, the likely outcome would be to weaken Spotify’s position and skew the market towards those companies who do not need to see streaming pay – i.e. the tech majors. If the market becomes wholly dependent on companies that thrive on squeezing suppliers… well, good luck with that.
  2. CMO inefficiencies:Many songwriter royalties are collected by collective management organizations (CMOs). These (normally) not-for-profit organisations administer rights, take their deductions and then either pay to songwriters directly or to publishers who then pay songwriters (after taking their own deductions). It gets more complicated than that, however. If a songwriter is played overseas, the local CMO collects, deducts and then sends the remainder to the CMO where the songwriter is based. That CMO takes its deduction and then distributes. It gets more complicated still – some CMOs apply an additional ‘cultural deduction’ on top of their main fee before distributing. So, if a US hip-hop artist gets played in Europe, the local CMO will take its cut, and an administration fee. Then it goes to his local CMO which takes its fee before sending it to Drake’s publisher which then takes its own cut. In practice, this revenue leakage is the same as if the headline streaming royalty was increased from 15% to 20%.

  3. The industrialisation of song writing: With more music being released than ever, songs have to immediately grab the listener. To help ensure every part of the song is a hook and to try to de-risk their artists, bigger labels commission songwriter teams and hold song writing camps, where many song writers get together and write the tracks for albums. This means that the royalties for every song are thus split into small shares across multiple songwriters. Drake’s ‘Nice for What’ has 20 songwriters credited. That means the already small royalties are split 20 ways.
  4. The unbundling of the album: When music was all about selling physical albums, songwriters used to get paid the same mechanical royalty for every song on the album, regardless of whether it was the hit single or filler. Now that listeners and playlists dissect albums, skipping filler for killer, a weak song simply pays less. Tough luck if you only wrote the filler songs on the album. On the one hand, this is free market competition. If you didn’t write a song well, then don’t expect it to pay well. Some songwriters argue that it should go the other way too, though – if they wrote the song that made the artist a hit, then shouldn’t they be paid a larger share? 

Here is an illustration of how these factors combine in practice:

  • A songwriter earns streaming revenue overseas with a headline royalty rate of $0.0012
  • The international PRO applies cultural deduction and admin fees, ~25%
  • The domestic PRO applies admin fees, ~15%
  • The publisher deducts its share, ~25%
  • The songwriter gets a 25% share of the original song royalties

Here’s another way of looking at it. With the above example, this is how many streams the songwriter needs to earn income:

songwriter royalties per stream

While a successful artist could reasonably expect to earn $100,000 from a streamed song, a professional songwriter cannot.

It is incumbent on all of the stakeholders in the streaming music business to collectively work towards making earning truly meaningful income from streaming a realistic objective for songwriters. No single tactic will move the dial. Increasing the streaming service pay-out from 15% to 20%, for example, would still see the above-illustrated songwriter only earn 25% of that. All levers need pulling. Until they are, songwriters will feel short-changed and will remain the open wound that prevents streaming from fulfilling its creator potential. Ball in your court, music industry.

Playlist Malfeasance Will Create a Streaming Crisis

Streaming economics are facing a potential crisis. The problem does not lie in the market itself; after all, in Q1 2019 streaming revenue became more than half of the recorded music business and Spotify hit 100 million subscribers. Nor does it even lie in the perennial challenge of elusive operating margins. No, this particular looming crisis is both subtler and more insidious. Rather than being an inherent failing of the market, this crisis, if it transpires, will be the unintended consequence of short-sighted attempts to game the system. The root of it all is playlists.

Streaming makes casual listeners ‘more valuable’ than aficionados

Streaming took the most valuable music buyers and turned them into radio listeners. Now, as the market matures, it is taking more casual music consumers and also turning them into radio listeners. Although curated playlist penetration is still low (just 15% of streaming consumers listen regularly to curated playlists, fewer than listen to podcasts), the impact on listening over indexes.

While a lean-forward, engaged music listener may select an album or a handful of tracks to listen to and then move on, casual listeners might put on a 60-track peaceful piano playlist in the background while studying, doing housework etc. The paradox here is that casual fans have the potential to generate more streams than engaged listeners.

With casuals being the next wave of streaming adopters, their impact will increase. But despite being ‘more valuable’ they will also reduce royalties, because more streams per user means revenue gets shared between more tracks, which means lower per-stream rates. The music industry thus has an apparently oxymoronic challenge: it is not in its interest to significantly increase the amount of media consumption time it gets per user, but instead it will be better served by getting a larger number of people listening less! 

Current market trajectory points to more streams per user, which – for subscriptions, where royalties are paid as a share of revenue – means lower per-stream rates.

Playing the game

Against this growing background consumption trend, streaming services, labels, songwriters and artists are all making matters worse by gaming the system whether that be by structuring songs to work on streaming, creating Spotify friendly soundsor simply gaming playlists.

With playlists being so important for both marketing and revenue, it was inevitable that people would seek out ways to attain any possible advantage. Consequently, playlists are becoming gamed, whether that be major labels getting more than their fair share of access to the biggest playlistsor ‘fake artists’filling them out.Most recently, Humble Angel’s Kieron Donoghue identified a cynically constructed playlist called ‘Sleep & Mindfulness Thunderstorms’(all terms optimised for user searches) that contained 330 one-minute songs of “ambient noise of rain and a few thunder storms thrown in for good measure”. The one-minute track length ensures they are long enough to qualify for a royalty share, but short enough to ensure that a typical listening session will generate a vast quantity of streams, thus generating more royalties.

The twist to this story is that this playlist was created by Sony Music and the artist behind all these tracks appears to be a Sony Music artist. Crucially Sony isn’t the only one doing this, with UMG getting in on the actand Warner Music signing an algorithm.

Playlist deforestation

This sort of activity may make absolute commercial sense but is creatively bankrupt. It certainly makes record complaints about ‘fake artists’ ring less true. Just because you can do something does not mean that you should. This model works until it doesn’t. In fact, there are parallels with deforestation. A logger in the Amazon will likely not be thinking about the destructive impact on the environment he is directly contributing to. In similar manner, it is unlikely that the people creating these playlists realise that they are contributing to a market-level crisis. This is because, the more of these types of playlists that are created, the lower per-stream rates they will generate for everyone.

Well, not ‘everyone’. If overall streaming revenue rises but stream rates decline, then the companies with large catalogues of music, especially those that are also creating arsenals of playlist-filler ammunition, will still feel revenue growth. For individual artists and songwriters, however, royalty payments could actually fall.

Fixing the problem

The casual listening problem will not fix itself. In fact, despite labels worrying about declining ARPUthe only way they can keep ahead of declining streaming rates is by increasing their share of streams. That means more of this sort of playlist gaming activity, which further accentuates the problem.

There is however a simple solution: reduce per-stream rates for lean-back playlist plays.This would ensure the songs people actively seek out get better pay-outs. The demarcations between lean back and lean forward used to be elegantly simple (e.g. Pandora versus Spotify), but now curated playlists and other forms of streaming curation are supporting radio-like behaviour on the same platforms as on-demand. It is time for royalty models to catch up with this new reality.

Spotify, the Decline of Playlists and the Rise of Podcasts

The following is a small excerpt from MIDiA’s forthcoming third edition of its ‘landmark State of the Streaming Nation’ report. For more information about this report email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Most things that Spotify does are scrutinised and cross-examined within an inch of their lives, with vested interests trying to second guess what may be the intended or unintended consequences for them. Most actions are viewed through the disruption lens i.e. how will this hurt or compete with Spotify’s rightsholder partners? The streaming market is of course so much more than just Spotify, but the company acts as a lightning rod for the wider market and most often sets the strategic agenda.

Spotify’s Two Phases of Growth

Two of Spotify’s most significant moves have been playlist curation and podcasts. Spotify is moving into the second major phase of its existence. Phase 1 was about establishing itself as a streaming music powerhouse, Phase 2 is about what it becomes next, extending beyond the streaming music beachhead. This is the typical trajectory of tech companies, establishing themselves in their core competencies and then expanding. This can either be a dramatic expansion – e.g. Amazon moving from eCommerce into video and music – or a more focused value-chain extension – e.g. Netflix moving from simply streaming other’s shows to making its own. For Spotify, playlists were a Phase 1strategy and podcasts are very much part of Phase 2.

midia playlists and podcasts

Podcasts may just have come in the nick of time for Spotify because curated playlists remain much more about potential than they do reality. Just 15% of streaming consumers listen to curated playlists. In fact, of all the key streaming feature activities, curated playlists come lowest. Curated playlists are clearly not to streaming music what binge watching is to streaming video. Instead streaming activity is fragmented across multiple features and just 10% of streaming consumers regularly do all four of the activities listed in the chart above.

‘But wait’ I hear you ask, ‘that doesn’t make sense, look at all these streams we’re getting from playlists’. The key factor here is the difference between the number of playlist users and the number of playlist streams. Playlists over index in terms of contribution to streams. With dozens of tracks per list, lean-back playlist listening can easily generate more streams per user than lean-forward listening. Thus, we have one of the great emerging paradoxes of streaming: passive audiences can generate more streams, and thus rightsholder pay outs, than engaged, aficionados. However, a word of caution, should casual playlist listening become large enough, then the net result will be a dilution of the royalty pool and thus diminishing per stream rates.

Perhaps not the holy grail of promotion

A few years ago, playlists looked like the future of artist marketing, now they are looking a bit like a busted flush. They may be great at generating streams but are not so great at building an artist’s story. The near-obsession with Spotify playlists in label marketing strategy reflects the fact that most record label executives use Spotify and thus often have a Spotify-centric (and therefore playlist-centric) worldview. But labels are now beginning to question the artist ROI of playlists. The growing adoption among casual listeners only compounds matters and means that a playlist ‘hit’ does not necessarily do much to help long-term artist brand building. To put it simply: a playlist is not a shortcut to cultural relevance.

Podcasts could be bigger than streaming

Enter stage left podcasts. With its acquisitions of Gimlet, Anchor and Parcast, Spotify is betting big on podcasts. Already, more streaming users (18%) listen to podcasts than curated playlists while overall consumer podcast penetration is 11%. In Sweden – the early adopter market that gives us a view of where other markets are heading – podcast penetration is 19%, rising to 28% among streamers. Podcasts are a Netflix moment for radio and may even have the potential to be bigger than streaming music (US radio ad revenues alone are $16 billion). Right now, the growth in overall podcast audiences is fairly slow, but engagement is accelerating as are content creation, monetisation and distribution. It is not entirely inconceivable to think that five years from now, podcasts could be a bigger business for Spotify than music. Certainly, creators could be making much more money, even now.

While it remains more likely that music will be the core of Spotify’s business half a decade from now, all the early indications are that Phase 2 will mean a degree of diversification of user experience, business model and revenue stream, with podcasts at the vanguard. Playlists are not dead, but nor are they the golden child anymore.

New MIDiA Latin American Streaming Report, in English, Spanish and Portuguese

MIDiA Latin America Streaming reportMIDiA has just published its latest report on the Latin American streaming music market, and we have versions available in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

MIDiA has been tracking the Latin American music market for over five years, including annual consumer data and market metrics.

Our latest report ‘Latin America Streaming Music Market: YouTube and Spotify Take Hold’is written by our long term Latin American music analyst Leo Morel and features data on Mexico, Brazil and the region as a whole.

 

 

The report includes analysis and data on:

  • Consumer adoption of YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer and other streaming services
  • Playlist penetration
  • Wider consumer music behaviour eg downloads, CDs
  • Streaming revenues (subscriptions, ad supported music ad supported video)
  • Streaming users (subscriptions, ad supported music ad supported video)

Companies and brands mentioned in the report: Apple, Deezer, Google, iPhone, iTunes, Movistar, Spotify, TIM, Virgin Mobile, Vevo, Vivo, YouTube

The reports are immediately available to our clients, while you can purchase the individual reports here:

The reports each come with PDF, Slides, Excel and infographic.

For any questions please email info@midiaresearch.com

Preparing for the Post-Album Industry

This is a guest post by Keith Jopling, MIDiA’s Consulting Lead. It is a follow-up piece to What’s Next In Playlist Innovation?

Every week I’m still excited to check out the latest album releases. They are the gift that keeps on giving. But that gift feels different these days, more like receiving flowers or chocolate and less like anything you might say is a keepsake.

It’s becoming very rare these days for me to fall in love with an album the way I used to. I miss it, but there it is. Some of this is a conscious trade-off, since I enjoy compiling and curating playlists. But to some extent, it just feelslike I don’t have the time to give (i.e. invest in repeated listens) in the way albums – good ones – truly deserve.

Broader listening trends confirm that this applies to people in general. The penetration of adults that claim to listen to whole albums monthly, stands at just 16% (Q4 ‘18 data from MIDiA, a drop from 22% in the previous quarter), compared with say, 35% listening to music on the phone.

This is self-reported of course. Behavioural data on actual album listening is a patchwork of proxy measures, such as ‘listens (to individual album tracks) from the artist’s album page’ on Spotify. To be fair, we never ever really knew how consumers who bought albums actually listened to them. Survey data I saw a long time ago, before the streaming era kicked-in suggested that some purchased albums were played on average, just over once.

Competing in the attention economy

As the management consultants say, what can’t be measured won’t get done, and so in a world of real-time statistical feedback, why make an album if you cannot know who is listening and how? There is already a creative conversation in the industry about “skip-rate reduction” and one way to achieve this is to front load albums with the catchiest tracks, but where does that leave the art of album sequencing and story-telling?

The album’s competitive pressures go wider than music. In the attention economy, albums compete with Netflix, Fortnite, TikTok and Instagam. In music’s own attention economy, albums compete with singles, playlists, games, podcasts and box sets. And those latter two categories are literally stealing the show. This is unsurprising in the streaming world – a better way of coping with the content waterfall is a ‘consume-once-only’ approach. The idea of spending the same 45 minutes over & over to build up familiarity with a record seems taxing.

Albums are no longer water cooler moments

What seems particularly telling for music, is that ‘Netflix and shows’ is the water cooler conversation now. Pop culture talk is all about what you’ve watched, are watching or should watch, and any similar conversation about listening is conspicuous by its absence. The ‘event album’ seems to be over. Is it just me or do artists seem to want to drop albums with less fuss now anyway? Perhaps the element of surprise (Bowie’s legacy yet again) is smarter than facing the “aftermath of promotion”. But it’s also not without risk given the tonnage of new music flowing through. Coupled with this, some artists are either eschewing the format or at the very least questioning it. If we take the world’s biggest artist right now, Ariana Grande – what role did her album play in the scheme of things?

What choices does this leave labels and artists?

When the CD began to give way to streaming, it’s fair to say the labels embraced it. In some ways, the CDs decline was ushered in rather than managed out. Back around 2012 I was in the room when one label boss took hold of a CD and flung it across the room smashing it into shards. I was impressed if surprised. But are labels taking the same level of aggressive-progressive when it comes to succeeding the album?

I’ve already argued previously that the main format to succeed the album is the playlist, and that there is further innovation to go (also acknowledging Apple’s release regarding a more creative approach top playlist cover art). Meanwhile there is no doubt that the EP has made a comeback, and has become a useful vehicle for new artists to drop a collection of songs as a showcase of their repertoire.

But let’s take a look at some other options:

  • (Bring back) Album Exclusives:With some services so favouring the single track, could the labels divide & rule with full album licensing fenced off to other album focused services? Now I know we’ve been there before, and ‘nobody’ liked it much, but things are different now, and platform differentiation is a strategy both labels and platforms need when it comes to content. If some services stepped up in full support of the album, it stands a better chance longer term. A more radical option? Sell full albums exclusively on label-owned streaming services.
  • Physical Exclusives (through vinyl):Favouring both the true fan and the artist, perhaps vinyl should become the exclusive way to hear the whole collected work. With traditional vinyl at capacity one innovation I am keeping an eye on is Virylsteam-based manufacture. For artists looking to do something truly different, this is an option. Pre-order, custom versions, pre-sale and merch during tours, and pop-ups, as well as sell-through Amazon, Bandcamp and brick & mortar, the product sale potential is larger than it looks.
  • More visual outputs:Universal has doubled-down on video. Apple has doubled-down on video. Video remains huge, and continues to grow in short-form, and now long-form too. TV and theatrical productions are hunting very actively on music’s turf. It’s fascinating but by definition, not the same ubiquity potential of audio formats. Music films can do wonders for song catalogues however, Bohemian Rhapsdoy has proven that.
  • Experiment with entirely new formats:Easy to say, harder to do. New platforms such as voice and the car provide options without a doubt. Of course, an option for the producer sector is to do nothing much – simply wait for the technology sector to stumble on the next scaleable format. They are certainly trying, from Spotify’s Canvas moving images, to Pandora’s new Stories format, to Apple’s continued video format innovations such as Up Next. The platforms pitch these formats to artists as much as labels. One problem for labels is keeping up with the tail wagging the dog. Without knowing if the format will last, should they invest and convince artists to make stuff the platforms want? For example, should they make vertical videos just because Spotify wants vertical videos that month, or podcasts because it’s now all about podcasts, until it isn’t?
  • Expand into the live sector: Not easy. Wider representation of artists got a bad rap with the ‘360’ degree deals, but yet again, times have changed and a re-evaluation is due. With money coming in from streaming as well as outside investment, labels could buy smaller live promoters and venues.

What does this mean to the artist proposition and label economics?

Okay, so now we are down to the rub. The album is still the format that drives industry economics as a whole. The conversation around the artist proposition (and therefore the deal) has been changing for some years, but still essentially centres on the album as the economic unit. This must surely see more rapid change, to be replaced by agreed song numbers, or simply a time period covering numerous ‘artist projects’. We’ve already seen the first ‘lifetime’ deal between Elton John and Universal.

For the vast majority of artists, revenues are now following a pareto curve, with their ‘top songs’ (between five and ten say) making up a fraction of their catalogue but the large majority of their streaming income. When an established active artist releases a new album, the impact is often on those jewels in the crown more than the new collection, and if one or two songs make it into the crown, then bingo! The project pays off. The goal of any artist project is to get another jewel in the crown, but is an album the critical vessel to achieve that goal?

Perhaps the golden rule here is that the one size fits all model is becoming unfit for purpose. We’re already seeing some innovation, especially from Hip Hop artists like Migos, Drake and Kanye, but this trickle needs to turn into a flood. We’re getting to the time for ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’.

The last days of All Killer No Filler?

I still use my primary source of the past 20 years to find new records, The Guardian G2 and Pitchfork. I can’t find any new albums via Spotify’s personalised feeds, because that’s mostly now just ‘for me’, or singles. Apple Music does a better job of presenting new release albums, and I guess both the streaming rivals are serving their own listener base appropriately.

Despite everything you read above, I feel the album will endure. The digital streaming age is a challenge to artists to make better albums, the ‘all killer no filler’ approach. The album as a canvas still feels relevant for some artists, but only some.

The album is already a niche in consumption terms, unmeasurable in streaming terms, but still the essential deliverable in the deal. That’s out of step, and those labels and artists with one eye on the mid-term future will already be planning for what the game looks like going forward. It’s what Reed Hastings calls “constantly worrying about what’s next” and it’s worked for him so far.

We don’t just write it. For a ‘post album world’ conversation with Keith & Mark contact us at MIDiA. We’ve already been helping labels, artists and managers rethink the album, drop us a line at info@midiaresearch.comto see how we could work with you.

 

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

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

spotify netflix pricing inflation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kobalt is a Major Label Waiting to Happen

Disclaimer: Kobalt is a label, a publisher as well as a Performing Rights Organisation (PRO). This post focuses on its label business, but does not presume to overlook its other aspects.

Lauv Kobalt

News has emerged of Kobalt potentially looking to raise an additional $100 million of investment, following a 2017 round of $89 million and a 2015 $60-million round led by Google Ventures. Kobalt has been the poster child for the changing of the guard in the music business, helping set the industry agenda by pursuing a creators-first strategy while

building an impressive roster of songwriters and artists at a scale that would have most indies salivating. But it does not have its sights set on being the leading player of the indie sector, instead playing for the big game: Kobalt is the next major label waiting to happen.

So, what makes Kobalt so different? In some respects, nothing. Most of what Kobalt is doing has been done before, and there are others plotting a similar path right now (e.g. BMG, United Masters, Hitco). What matters is how it is executing, how well backed it is and the scale of its ambitions:

  • Moving beyond masters: In the old model, artists signed away their rights in perpetuity to record labels, with nine out of ten of them permanently in debt to the label not yet having paid off their advances. The new model (i.e. label services) pursued by the likes of Kobalt, reframes the artist-label relationship, turning it one more akin to that of agency-client. In this rebalanced model artists retain long-term ownership of their copyrights and in return share responsibility of costs with their label. This approach, coupled with transparent royalty reporting, lower admin costs and continual tech innovation has enabled Kobalt to build a next-generation label business.
  • Laser focus on frontline: In a label services business the entire focus is on frontline, as there isn’t any catalogue. An artist signed to such a label therefore knows that they have undivided attention. That’s the upside; the downside is that the label does not have the benefit of a highly-profitable bank of catalogue to act as the investment fund for frontline. This means that a label like Kobalt often cannot afford the same scale of marketing as a major one, which helps explain why Kobalt is looking for another $100 million. However, there is a crucial benefit of being compelled to spend carefully.
  • Superstar niches: In the old model, labels would (and often still do) carpet-bomb TV, radio, print and digital with massive campaigns designed to create global, superstar brands. Now, labels can target more precisely and be selective about what channels they use. Kobalt’s business is based around making its roster superstars within their respective niches, finding a tightly-defined audience and the artists they engage with. The traditional superstar model sees an artist like a Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran or a Taylor Swift being a mass media brand with recognition across geographies and demographics. The new superstar can fly under the radar while simultaneously being hugely successful. Take the example of Kobalt’s Lauv, an artist tailor-made for the ‘Spotify-core’ generation that hardly registers as a global brand, yet has two billion audio streams, half a billion YouTube views and 26 million monthly listeners on Spotify. By contrast, heavily-backed Stormzy has just three million monthly Spotify listeners.
  • Deep tech connections: The recent WMG / Spotify spat illustrates the tensions that can exist between labels and tech companies. Kobalt has long focused on building close relationships with tech companies, including but not limited to streaming services. This positioning comes easier to a company that arguably owes more to its technology roots than it does its music roots. The early backing of Google Ventures plays a role too, though with some negative connotations; some rights holders fear that this in fact reflects Google using Kobalt as a proxy for a broader ambition of disrupting the traditional copyright regime.
  • A highly structured organisation: One of the key differences between many independent labels and the majors is that the latter have a much more structured organizational set up, with large teams of deep specialisation. This is the benefit of having large-scale revenues, but it is also a manifestation of ideology. Most independents focus their teams around the creative end of the equation, putting the music first and business second. Major labels, while still having music at their core, are publicly-traded companies first, with corporate structures and a legal obligation on management to maximise shareholder value. Kobalt has undoubtedly created an organisational structure to rival that of the majors.

Earned fandom

Kobalt is a next-generation label and it is plotting a course to becoming a next generation-major. That success will not be reflected in having the rosters of household names that characterise the traditional major model, but instead an ever-changing portfolio of niche superstars. The question is whether the current majors can respond effectively; they have already made big changes, including label services, JV deals, higher royalty rates, etc.

Perhaps the most fundamental move they need to make, however, is to understand what a superstar artist looks like in the era of fragmented fandom. The way in which streaming services deliver music based on use behaviours and preferences inherently means that artists have narrower reach because they are not being pushed to audiences that are relevant. This shifts us from the era of macro hits to micro hits ie songs that feel like number one hits to the individual listener because they so closely match their tastes. This is what hits mean when delivered on an engagement basis rather than a reach basis. Quality over quantity.

Majors can still make their artists look huge on traditional platforms, which still command large, if rapidly aging audiences. But what matters most is engagement, not reach. It is a choice between bought fandom and earned fandom. In the old model you could build a career on bought fandom. Now if you do not earn your fandom, your career will burn bright but fast, and then be gone.

What’s Next For Playlist Innovation?

This is a guest post from MIDiA Research’s Keith Jopling.

In this era of access to all music and everything about it, I do enjoy reading artist interviews, and pay attention to artists’ views on the modern music industry. What caught me recently were Mark Ronson’s remarks on songwriting in the age of the playlist in The Guardian:

“Everything has to be produced so it sounds competitively as loud as possible coming out of an iPhone or as loud as possible when it comes out of a Spotify hits playlist; you have to make sure the kick drum and the guitar have the same loudness and presence all the way through the whole fucking song or you don’t stand a chance. It’s kind of crazy how you have to think about music now.”

I have heard similar views from artists in recent years and they do have grounds, though you’ll be hard pressed to prove that streaming and playlists have truly altered music per se. After all how would that equate with the huge success of ‘slow music’ playlists, from Peaceful Piano to Esquenta Sertanejo to Your Favourite Coffeehouse?

There has certainly been an industry skew towards ‘streaming hits’ though. More artists are making “Spotify-core” (i.e. music that will do anything to avoid being skipped) and that’s a genre perhaps lacking in subtlety, But can it be accused of crowding out other, subtler types of music?

I would argue that playlists have changed the way we listen more than they have changed music itself. If the first port-of-call for music consumers is to hear songs on playlists, a lot of context around the music is lost. Already, research has shown that listeners are hard pushed to recall song titles, let alone the albums those songs are taken from. Speaking of albums, it strikes me as high time the industry now evaluate just what a ‘post-album’ world will look and sound like. So perhaps somewhere to start is to think about more innovation with the format that in essence, has replaced the album – playlists.  

Are playlists now set in stone as 30-50 tracks that are forever subject to optimisation tools and analytics? I very much doubt it. Despite playlists becoming valuable commercial music real estate in their current form (at least on Spotify) it seems to me that there is plenty of scope for further creative development of the format. We are far from ‘peak playlist’. A glance at the latest MIDiA global consumer data for Q4 2018 would back this up, with just 17% of music streamers claiming to listen to playlists regularly. though that number nearly doubles for Spotify subscribers to 31%. Critical mass for Spotify but hardly mass behaviour for the market overall.

That said, playlists do greatly reflect the way consumers interact with music: compiling or selecting, listening and sharing, sometimes adding context along the way. The opportunities these behaviours offer as a vehicle for promoting and monetizing artists are immense and perhaps still largely untapped, especially with regard to contextualization of new talent, as well as the creative resurfacing of songs from within music catalogues too.

A slowdown in playlist innovation

Spotify came to be the platform that really owns the playlist format, and it achieved this through a breakneck period of innovation between July 2015 and September 2016, with curated playlists brands like Rap Caviar and Today’s Top Hits augmented with the personalised “made for you” power triangle of Discovery Weekly, Release Radar and Daily Mix.

But since then, in over two years there has been little of that same calibre, other than somewhat lighter initiatives such as “Your Time Capsule”. More recently, Spotify has begun to fuse some curated playlists together with algorithmic suggestions (‘algotorial’). The strategy to personalise more playlists not only makes it harder for its competitors to copy, but introduces many more song slots for direct or independent artists to fill. The strategy is smart but perhaps lacks imagination.

Playlist Innovation Timeline: There has been a slowdown following 18 months of blistering innovation led by Spotify between July ‘15 and September ‘16.

Playlist-Timeline

Despite this, remarkably none of the major streaming competitors have made moves to innovate in the playlist space either, which seems a shame when streaming services are desperate for differentiation strategies. Instead, Amazon, Apple and Deezer seem to have largely played a game of follow the leader, with similar playlists themes, visual presentation and even ever blander names. In recent days Pandora has launched something called Stories, a mesh of podcast + playlist, which seems not only to lack imagination but to be muddled. Isn’t that just a tweak on radio?

Many artists and labels are concerned about the power that services have with regard to playlisting. While getting tracks on to the current raft of major playlist properties represents a challenge for A&R and marketers the music industry, the more accessible platform-hosted independent curated playlist have been around since Napster.

There are few, if any, limits to the potential reach of these playlists, and their value is determined in part by how creative they are, and in part how shareable they are. The recording industry’s earlier efforts to build playlists or influence playlists have fallen short though lack of imagination, global thinking, context and shareability, but that just means that the industry is free to work more creatively with the wider playlist community. It surprises me that Spotify, which plays host to independent curators still (and hopefully will continue to) doesn’t do more to tend to the community. But this perhaps creates room for others to do so.

Personally, I can see new exciting playlist platform tools like Soundsgood helping global playlist curators reach audiences more easily, providing many more opportunities for artists, labels and creators in the process. Other platforms like Stationhead and Lost are doing interesting things too with curators and tracks, but perhaps could get more traction if they switched focus to playlists?

Bringing back context

I like playlists as much as the next music fan, but like Mark Ronson and many other artists and music fans, I also feel they have commodified music somewhat. One thing I would like to see much more of for playlists is context. Why can’t we have sleeve notes for playlists about how they were put together (let alone by whom and why?). It looks to me like there is an opportunity to bring some context and personality back into playlisting. Mixtapes from the cassette age were lovingly compiled, often with handwritten notes and homemade cover art.

I’ve played with some of these ideas with my own playlist site the Song Sommelier. The Song Sommelier was created as a passion project to bring mixtape and vinyl values back to playlisting. Each playlist is accompanied by bespoke artwork by ‘resident’ artist Mick Clarke, and a reader or ‘digital sleeve notes’ by the playlist curator. For this project we chose to use the Soundsgood player to allow users of any streaming service access the playlists, doing away with those widgets that direct the music fan to either Spotify or Apple. It’s still more than a two horse race after all.

My hope is that with the artwork, sleeve notes and more original themes for the playlists, will make fans and listeners listen to playlists more like they used to with albums – paying more attention and hopefully connecting with the song collection on a deeper level. At least that might make Mark Ronson cheer up a bit (though his new “Club Heartbreak” playlist on Apple Music suggests it might be a while).

Perhaps a key question is how important is context to the music itself? It depends on your point of view, but context may be the thing that divides the passionate music fan from the casual one. Really, who wants to listen to a collection called “Get Home Happy” or “Prime Chill”, whether it’s curated or personalised? Except I guess some people do. Mostly, I would welcome some more creative thinking and innovation that can take playlists to another level.

Spotify Q4 2018: Solid Growth With a Hint of Profitability But Longer Term Questions

Spotify finished 2018 strongly, overperforming in both subscriber and ad supported MAU additions. This was accompanied by Spotify’s first ever profitable quarter and two major podcast acquisitions early in 2019 hinting at a positive year ahead. However, at the same time premium ARPU continues a long term decline – the price Spotify is paying for maintaining global subscriber market share.

spotify 2018 earnings midia research

Spotify hit just over 96 million subscribers which was an increase of 36% from 71 million in Q4 17. The addition of nine million net new subscribers in Q4 18 was the same amount of subscribers added one year previously. However, while the Q4 17 increase represented 15% growth in Q4 18 the rate was 10%. Relative growth is slowing as the market matures.

Spotify is growing its subscriber base markedly more quickly than it is growing its premium revenue, resulting in declining ARPU. Although subscribers hit 96 million at the end of 2018, premium ARPU declined from €6.20 in 2016 to €4.81 in 2018, a fall of 22%. Over the same period ad supported ARPU followed a mirror opposite trend, growing +22% from €0.96 to €1.17. Spotify routinely explains in its earnings that trials and family plan adoption are driving down ARPU. However, this is not a secular trend but instead a Spotify trend. In retail terms, global music subscriber ARPU actually grew 3.5%. Spotify slightly increased its global subscriber market share in 2018, up to 36.2% from 35.8% in 2017, but it is clearly having to aggressively discount pricing to do so.

Subscriber ARPU continues a downward trend

While ad supported ARPU was up, ad supported revenue grew more slowly in 2018 than 2017 so the increased ARPU is in part a result of users growing more slowly than monetisation. While this is the right balance commercially, Spotify also needs to grow ad revenue more strongly. 

Takeaway: Spotify is maintaining subscriber market share through price discounts while ad ARPU growth owes more to slower ad supported user growth than it does monetisation.

Churn up on an annual basis

Following a peak of 5.8% in Q2 18, Spotify brought quarterly churn rates down, first to 5.6% in Q3 18 and then 5.3% in Q4 18. However, the cumulative impact of churn throughout the year was an annual churn rate of 19.8%, up from 18.1% in 2017. This in part reflects the effectiveness of promotional trials. These trials open the funnel to new subscribers and have strong conversion rates, but because paid trialists are counted in Spotify’s subscriber numbers, any that do not convert become churned subscribers.

Takeaway: Spotify is having to spread its net wider to maintain subscriber growth. 

Profitability has arrived but investment is needed for long term growth

Spotify closed off 2018 in style, adding higher than expected numbers of both subscribers and ad supported users. Also, profitability is on the horizon – Spotify generated a quarterly net operating profit of €94 million in Q4 18 compared to a quarterly loss of €87 one year previously. Spotify is demonstrating that its business can operate profitably even without flicking the switch on new revenue streams, albeit at a modest level. 

Longer term revenue growth will be dependent on a two pronged approach of accelerating subscriber growth in big music markets that are later entrants to streaming – Germany and Japan – while continuing growth in large mid-tier markets like Brazil and Mexico. It also needs to continue its investment in ad infrastructure. Ad revenue is not growing fast enough, nor is Average Advertising Revenue Per User (AARPU), up just $0.15 in Q4 18 compared to Q4 17. This is an increase of just 3% compared to the 26% growth in ad supported MAUs. Spotify understands the importance of building its ad supported business and is investing heavily in ad technology and sales infrastructure. This needs to continue. But it will look to big radio markets  (e.g. the US, Australia and the UK) to drive mid-term growth, not emerging markets as those territories do not have strong enough digital ad markets. So expect AARPU to be hit as free user bases grow in emerging markets.

Takeaway: All in all, a solid quarter for Spotify but with enough softening metrics to suggest that 2019 growth will require more effort than in 2018.

NOTE: these findings form a small portion of MIDiA Spotify Q4 Earnings Report which will be available to MIDiA subscribers next week

Podcasts: a Netflix Moment for Radio But Perhaps not the Future of Spotify

spotify gimlet anchor podcasts midiaWednesday was a busy day for Spotify: it reported above-expected subscriber growthto hit 96 million paid subscribers, strong total user growth to hit 207 million MAUs, improved margins and its first ever profitable quarter, registering an operating profit of €94 million. And the news didn’t stop there, Spotify also announced the acquisition of two podcasting companies, Gimlet and Anchor.Spotify unsurprisingly referenced podcasts in its earnings note, pointing to 185,000 podcast titles available, ‘rapidly’ growing consumption and 14 exclusives to including the 2nd season of Crimetown, The Rewind with Guy Raz, and the Dissect Mini Series hosted by Lauryn Hill. Podcasts is clearly becoming a big part of Spotify’s plans and the rationale is simple: more owned content, and more cheaply licensed content means higher margins than can be generated by record label content. But for all its commitment to the format, Spotify may find the podcast battle harder to win than expected.

An opportunity with many intertwined layers

After many years stuck on the side lines, podcasts are now becoming sought after by everyone from radio companies, streaming services, newspaper publishers to TV companies and many, many more. Media brands of all forms see podcasts as a part of their future, a way to increase and diversify listening time (streaming services); fight back against streaming (radio); reach new audiences (news); and extend audience engagement (TV). To some degree podcasts can probably deliver on all those expectations, and while the creative possibilities are clear, the path ahead is not so straight forward:

  • A Netflix moment for radio: Netflix transformed the TV market not just by giving consumers a cheap, value-for-money way of getting great TV, but by changing forever the way in which TV is made. No longer shackled by the constraints of linear schedules and needing to keep everyone on the sofa happy at the same time, studios and networks started smashing the boundaries of what could be made and what a TV show looks like. We are now in the golden age of TV. Podcasts do the same for radio, allowing every niche topic under the sun to be explored in huge detail and without any constraints on number or length of episodes. Podcasts create even more of a blank canvass for what was once only radio content than Netflix did for what was once only TV content.
  • Apple iTunes stranglehold: Apple is the powerhouse of podcast distribution. In what is otherwise a highly fragmented podcast distribution landscape, Apple is as close as it gets to a unified podcast platform – which is also integrated into Apple Music. During podcasting’s wilderness years, Apple quietly built up a loyal base of podcast users. Given that more than half of Spotify’s subscribers are iOS users, those that are podcast users are most likely also Apple podcast users. Spotify will have to bank on converting those users while simultaneously flicking the ‘market creation’ switch by converting new users to podcasts. A double challenge.
  • Radio:As MIDiA identified early last year, radio is streaming’s next frontier. Spotify has built a sizeable ad supported audience – 11 million as of Q4 2018 – but it has not yet built a viable ad model – ad user ARPU is just $0.28 which is just one cent up on Q4 2017. To persuade radio’s big advertisers to switch, it needs to woo more of radio’s core audience but it currently lacks the content assets (news, weather, sports etc). Podcasts are a step in that direction but radio companies will feel they have a better chance of owning this space than Spotify, and many are currently investing heavily in podcasts. As Apple has been learning with Beats 1, just because you want to do something does not mean you necessarily can, even if you hire many of the industry’s power players.
  • Programmatic ad buying:Spotify is doubling down on its programmatic ad buying and this will be crucial to monetizing podcasts. Spotify reported in its Q4 earnings that programmatic is growing fast and, along with self-serve, now accounts for 25% of all ad sales – though as ad ARPU is flat (up just $0.15 y-o-y), it is not growing fast enough.
  • Use cases:Lastly, but most importantly, the underlying use cases for podcasts potentially limit the market opportunity for podcasts. The addressable audience for podcasts is not all the time spent listening to audio. Listening to music is a lean back experience that we can do while doing other things like work and study. Podcasts tend to require more of our attention and thus the use cases for podcasts are more limited. Also, unlike TV shows, users are less likely to have a large number of podcasts on the go at the same time. Spotify will hope that it will be able to generate appointment-to-listen behaviour, with users tuning in for their favourite podcasts on a specific day. But that necessitates users re-learning how they use Spotify.

The podcast opportunity is undoubtedly strong but there will be many competing to be the owner of podcasting’s future and radio may well do a better job of winning this battle than it has retaining its music listeners. Spotify is betting big on podcasts being part of the future of streaming, but the future of podcasts may lie elsewhere.