Spotify Earnings: Growth Comes At A Cost

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Spotify has published its much anticipated 2016 revenues. Because the company is under so much analytical scrutiny, there is little that is particularly surprising but there is still plenty we can learn from the results:

  • Growth maintains momentum: Spotify recorded revenues of €2.9 billion in 2016, up 51% from €1.9 billion in 2015. Although that was a lower growth rate in % terms (80% for 14/15), it was a bigger net add in revenue terms (€989 million net new revenue in 2016 compared to €863 million in 2015). Spotify still has some way to go before it challenges Netflix’s $8.2 billion streaming revenue, but it is making clear progress.
  • Spotify is getting ready for public reporting: The 2016 accounts featured heavy restating of previous year figures and many line items from last year’s accounts were no longer reported. All of which points to an organization getting its reporting structures in place for a public listing of some kind.
  • ARPU is a mixed story: Spotify’s total monthly user ARPU increased from €1.82 in 2015 to €1.94, driven by a small increase in ad supported user APRU and, more importantly, a higher share of paid users (38% in 2016 compared to 31% in 2015). However, that increased paid conversion has come at the price of lower paid ARPU, with $1 for 3-month trials etc., pushing down paid ARPU from €5.16 in 2015 to €4.58 which in turn is more than an entire dollar a month less than the €5.85 paid ARPU figure Spotify enjoyed in 2014.
  • Losses are widening again: Spotify reported losses before tax of €539 million against revenues of €2.9 billion (i.e. 18% of revenue). This was up from 12% in 2015 although it had been as high as 17% in 2014. In order to keep up with the market, Spotify is having to spend heavily, and this is all without any major product or territory launch in 2016. You need deep pockets to play at streaming’s top table.
  • Rights costs may be on a positive trajectory: Spotify’s Cost of Sales (previously reported as Royalty Distribution and Other Costs) were €2.5 billion, or 84.6% of revenue, down slightly from 85.5% in 2015. The shrinking share of the loss-making ad supported user base is most likely the key contributor here. Though the new UMG and Merlin deals will help sustain this path.

In Search Of A Margin

So, what do Spotify’s results say about the economics that we didn’t already know. In truth, not much. The market has lots of growth in it yet; competing is expensive, growth has to be incentivized and rights are the main cost component.

As Spotify nears a public listing or an acquisition by Alibaba or Tencent, it remains the benchmark for the health of the streaming economy. With the underlying fundamentals remaining largely unchanged in 2016 despite stellar growth, here are a few thoughts on how the economics of streaming might change:

An often repeated argument from record labels is that streaming services will hit profitability when they reach scale. So, when does that happen? 48 million subscribers can lay a good claim to being ‘scale’, but it isn’t driving profit. While the market establishes itself, streaming services have to overspend on product innovation and marketing (and then, later, on user retention). So, these costs will likely rise in relative terms. Meanwhile, rights are always going to remain largely in line with revenue (though the UMG and Merlin deals reward growth with some discounting, which is a welcome innovation). But even these deals will not change the fact that rights will be large enough to challenge margins and will largely scale with growth. Which means no truly meaningful scale benefits. So here are a few alternative ways in which streaming margins might be improved:

  • Doing a Netflix: Because Netflix owns much of its own content, it is able to use its recommendation algorithms to ensure that content over-indexes, improving margin. It also amortizes costs against those content assets to help it register a profit. Spotify could do the same but is unlikely to do so anytime soon. It cannot afford to antagonize its major label partners, each of whom has a UN Security Council type power of veto (Spotify would falter if any one of them pulled out). Someday, Spotify probably will become a label, though not in the way most people would understand the term. However, it will wait for more scale and confidence before flicking the switch on that strategy.
  • Ecosystems: Apple has long demonstrated the value of competing right across value chains. Now Amazon is following suit (e.g. Amazon Video covers rights, infrastructure and distribution). Exercising control across the value chain gives a company more places to extract margin. Perhaps Alibaba or Tencent (or some other Chinese giant) could buy a major label and a streaming service? Access Industries is already on this path, wholly owning WMG and more than half of Deezer (though there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of dots being joined yet). And then the wildcard is a streaming service becoming so big that it can buy a major or a collection of big indies. Or of course Apple deciding to any of the above. Should this feel like wild conjecture, do not forget that it was not so long ago when an ISP (AOL) bought WMG, and a water and sewage conglomerate (Vivendi) went on a media company acquisition spree and bought UMG.
  • Ancillary revenue streams: The most pragmatic solution though is not a silver bullet, but instead a blended strategy of new revenue streams. These can range from B2B (e.g. Spotify selling its data to live companies like Live Nation and AEG to help them get more cost effective with better targeting), through premium user add-ons to new formats such as limited capacity, pay-per-view artist live streams.

Spotify played the starring role in streaming’s biggest year yet and looks well on track to do the same in 2017. But at some stage, the losses need to narrow. The industry needs to help ensure this happens, unless it wants the market to end up being dominated by companies that simply do not have to have streaming turn a profit because they are making money elsewhere.

 

Do Not Assume We Have Arrived At Our Destination

Forbes has released its annual Celebrity 100, its list of the top earning media stars. The healthy share of music artists hints at the continued ability to build highly successful music careers. The presence of younger, streaming era artists like Drake and the Weeknd goes further, hinting at how streaming can now be the foundation for superstar commercial success. However, although the superstars are clearly making very good money from streaming in its own right, the dominant school of thought is that streaming is a conduit for success, helping drive artists’ other income streams, live in particular. The ‘don’t worry about sales, make your money from touring’ argument is an old one, but it is as riddled with risk now as when it first surfaced, perhaps more so.

Here are 2 key quotes from Forbes that encapsulate the way in which many artists are now viewing streaming:

“We live in a world where artists don’t really make the money off the music like we did in the Golden Age…It’s not really coming in until you hit the stage.” The Weeknd

“The reason the Weeknds of the world and the Drakes of the world are exploding is a combination of a global audience that’s consuming them freely at a young age [and that] they just keep dropping music…They’re delivering an ongoing, engaged dialogue with their fan base.” Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino

Both quotes imply that live is the place you’re going to make your money. They also argue that streaming can be used intelligently to engage fans because it is not constrained by old world limits such as shelf space and physical distribution considerations. In the old model, artists could go years between album releases, leaving fans hanging, while touring would often be a loss-leading effort to help sell the album. The roles are now reversed.

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The rise of live music revenue in 2000s mirrored the decline of recorded music, replacing each lost dollar and adding another one on top. In 2000, recorded music represented 53% of the global music industry, that share is now just 38% while live went from 33% to 43%, though recorded music revenue is now growing again, winning back market share. On this basis, the ‘stream to gig’ argument makes a lot of sense. But things are never as simple as they first appear: 

  • Not all live music revenue is created equally: On average, around just 29% of live music revenue makes it back to the artist (after agents, costs etc are factored in) while many artists don’t make any money on live until they’ve reached a certain level of scale. And that’s before considering that the top 1% of live artists (many of whom are aging heritage acts) account for 68% of all live revenue.
  • Streaming has fewer middlemen: With streaming there can be relatively few middlemen (e.g. just TuneCore and the streaming service, though in practice many labels use 3rd party distributors etc). Meanwhile in live there is a multitude of middlemen, many of whom are highly protective of their roles. In streaming, artists have a wealth of data and insights such as Spotify’s artist dashboard and Pandora’s Artist Marketing Programme (AMP). All of which means that artists have to share revenue with more parties in live and they also have less transparency than they do with streaming.
  • Resselling is causing friction: All of this is without even considering the corrosive impact on live of ticket resellers such as ViaGoGo and GetMeIn. These business models are incredibly smart from a VC perspective, meeting huge market demand for a comparatively scarce product. But that doesn’t make them good for fans, the live business nor for artists. Most often, though not always, artists do not see a penny of resell revenue. It is money that is taken from music fans and sucked straight out of the industry. Artists lose out, fans lose out. Ticketing companies gain. All that hard work invested in building fan relationships goes out of the window.

The Tide Is Turning

More than all this though, the tide is turning. The 2016 results of Live Nation (parent company of Ticketmaster and one of the largest live companies) point to an industry that, while it is still growing, has cracks appearing. Revenue grew by 15% from $7.3bn to $8.6bn (more than the entire GDP of Haiti) but increased ticket prices drove much of the growth. Ticket prices were up 5% overall and by 10% in stadiums and other big venues. Revenue growth was also driven by in-venue merch spending (up 9%) and sponsorship and advertising (up 13%). Live Nation’s number of ‘fans’ was up 4% in the US but was flat internationally. To be clear, these are strong results for Live Nation but they also reflect a highly mature industry that is squeezing out every last drop of growth through price increases and additional revenue streams. And it is nothing new: Pollstar reports that average ticket prices increased by 22% between 2006 and 2015. Total live revenues grew by 37% over the same period which means that nearly half of all live revenue growth came from ticket price inflation.

Streaming Is Today, Not Tomorrow, Start Treating It That Way

All this comes with streaming revenue growing by $2.5m in 2016 (in retail terms) and overall recorded revenues growing by nearly a billion. The live music business has strong growth left in it, but that revenue is not evenly distributed, will likely slow in the near-ish future and has an underlying core spending trend that is largely flat. Streaming, on the other hand, is booming and will break the $10bn mark this year.

So why are superstar artists still looking to live to pay the bills. Firstly, it’s easier to make really good live money if you’re a superstar, and secondly, streaming still isn’t big enough yet for really strong streaming revenue. The Weekend’s 5.5bn cumulative streams (including YouTube) will have generated the artist around $4 million while if he’d instead sold 5 million copies of Starboy he’d have netted around $10 million.

Streaming simply needs more monetized users in the pot, especially paid subscribers. That will come but rather than just wait, more needs to be done now to help artists get more income from streaming, such as:

  • Better rates for artists (many only earn 15% of the label share, which is around 70% of the $0.008 blended rate for freemium services)
  • More ways for artists to monetize on streaming services (e.g. artist subscriptions, pay per view live streams and gigs)
  • More artist-centric experiences

Add together all the pieces and you start to create an environment in which artists can see a more immediate direct return from streaming. That is how we get to stop artists simply viewing streaming services as a way to market their wares. It is great that streaming can play that marketing role but sooner or later, labels and artists need to focus more on streaming being the destination not just the journey. With so much market momentum, it is tempting to think of streaming as ‘mission accomplished’. In reality we’re just getting going. To move streaming to that next stage, much more work needs to be done and the time to do that is now, not when the market starts to mature (which will happen some time in 2019). It is not in the interest of streaming services to simply be seen as a tool for getting more bums on seats. Nor is it in the interest of labels as they only participate in a small share of live revenue. Is streaming going to become a bigger revenue stream than live for big artists? No, but it can be a much bigger source than it is right now, but only if the model evolves. If streaming cannot break out from its beachhead of being the discovery journey then it will never reach its destination.

 

Amazon Prime Live Events, More Than Just Gigs For Olds

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Amazon today announced ‘Amazon Prime Live Events’, a series of smaller capacity gigs by largely heritage acts made available exclusively to Amazon Prime members in the UK. The first wave of artists include Blondie, Alison Moyet and Texas. Putting aside for a moment the obvious ‘it’s iTunes Festival for old people’ jibe, there is some sound strategic thinking underpinning the initiative.

The overlap between streaming and live has long been clear to streaming services (45% of live music fans are also streaming music users – check out MIDiA’s latest live entertainment report for more). It also presents a great opportunity to transform loss-leading streaming business into profit generators by monetizing the high value fans through ticket sales. However, no one has yet managed to realize the logical opportunity. Pandora’s full stack play with TicketFly, and Access Industry’s Deezer / Songkick play both represent potential at this stage, while other streaming services have made interesting announcements that soon disappeared from view.

Amazon might just be the one to make it work. It has quietly been building up its ticketing business for some time and because it sits on the same user dataset (and billing relationships) as Prime and Amazon’s 2 music services, it has an unrivalled ability to target and monetize.

Amazon Prime Live Events’ line up might not exactly be the cutting edge of edgy, exciting new music (Katie Melua rounds off the line up) but that is sort of the point. Amazon’s streaming music strategy is so interesting because it isn’t playing by the same rules as everyone else. Amazon is not competing for the same small group of 20/30 something music aficionados that the other streaming services are tearing chunks out of each other over. Instead it has its sights set on older, more mainstream music fans for whom the smartphone-centric music service offering has limited appeal.

This line up of gigs isn’t the end game, but instead the first step of what will likely be an increasingly joined up music strategy across Amazon’s various assets. The fact that 28% of UK live music fans are also Amazon Prime subscribers hints at where Amazon can go with this (overall UK Amazon Prime penetration is 19%). The fact that the gigs will be made available on Amazon Prime Video internationally further points to Amazon’s ability to join the dots across its increasingly diverse assets.

Throughout the first half of the 2010s Amazon was very much in the shadows of Apple and Google in terms of content strategy. Now not only is it giving them a run for the money in that arena, it is also making them pay close attention in terms of hardware and the home. What makes Amazon potentially the most interesting of the GAAF (Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook) is the way in which it combines customer data, billing relationships, content and services, infrastructure and consumer hardware. The 2000s was Apple’s decade. The 2010s are shaping up to be Amazon’s.

Quick Take: IFPI Revenue Numbers

Today the IFPI published their annual assessment of the global recorded music business. The key theme is the first serious year of growth since Napster kicked off a decade and a half of decline, with streaming doing all the revenue heavy lifting.

The findings won’t come as much of a surprise to regular readers of this blog, as at MIDiA we had already conducted our own market sizing earlier in the year. The IFPI reported just under a billion dollars of revenue growth in 2016 (we peg growth at $1.1 billion) with streaming driving all the growth (60% growth, we estimate 57%). IFPI also reported 112 million paying subscribers (our number is 106.3 million, but the IFPI numbers probably include the Tencent 10 million number as reported, while the actual number is closer to 5 million).

IFPI report physical sales declining by 8% (we have 7%) and downloads down by 21% which is 3 percentage points more decline than the majors reported; this implies the IFPI estimates the indies to have had a much more pronounced decline than the majors. MIDiA is currently working with WIN to create the 2017 update to the global indie market sizing study, so we’ll be able to confirm that trend one way or another in a couple of months’ time.

Overall, the IFPI numbers tell the same good news story we revealed back in February, namely that streaming is finally driving the format replacement cycle that the recorded music business has not had since the heyday of the CD. Without streaming, the recorded music market would have declined in 2016. Streaming is driving revenue growth by both growing the base of users and, crucially, increasing the spend of more casual music spenders, changing them from lower spending download buyers into monthly 9.99 customers.

Also, streaming is unlocking spending in emerging markets (especially Latin America). The old model was based on people being able to afford a CD player and being able to afford to buy albums. The new model monetizes consumption on smartphones (which are becoming ubiquitous in emerging markets). Expect each year from now to see a reallocation of recorded music revenue towards emerging markets. It will be a long process but an irresistible one. Indeed, as Spotify’s Will Page put it:

“Spotify’s success story has expanded beyond established markets, with Brazil and Mexico now making up two of our top four countries worldwide by reach. Back when the industry peaked in 2000, Brazil and Mexico were 7th and 8th biggest markets in the world respectively. A combination of increasing smartphone adoption [reaching far more users than CDs ever did] and Spotify’s success makes the potential for these emerging markets to ‘re-emerge’ and to exceed previous peaks.”

One surprising point is that the IFPI reported a total of $4.5 billion for streaming ($3.9 for freemium and $0.6 billion for YouTube, etc.). However, the major labels alone reported revenues of $3.9 billion (see my previous post for more detail on label revenues). That would give the majors an implied market share of 87% in streaming. Which seems like a big share even accounting for majors including the reveue of the indie labels they distribute in their revenue numbers (eg Orchard distributed indie label revenue appearing in Sony’s numbers). Last year the IFPI appeared to have put Pandora revenues into US performance revenues rather than treat them as ad supported streaming, so that could account for an extra $400 million or so.

Nonetheless, taking the IFPI’s $3.9 billion freemium revenue and the 112 million subs number both at face value for a moment, that would equate to an average monthly label income of $2.90 per subscriber or a combined average monthly income of $1.53 for total freemium users (including free). These numbers are skewed in that they are year end numbers (mid year user numbers would be lower, so ARPU would be higher) but they are still directionally instructive ie there is a big gap between headline 9.99 pricing and what label revenue is actually generated due to factors such as $1 for 3 month trials and telco bundles.

All in all, a great year for recorded music. And despite a slow-ish Q1 2017 for streaming and the impending CD revenue collapse in Japan and Germany, it looks set to be another strong year ahead for streaming and, to a lesser extent, the broader recorded music business.

Exclusive: Deezer Is Exploring User Centric Licensing

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

Service Centric Licensing

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

User Centric Licensing

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

Honing The Model

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

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

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

Universal And Spotify’s Deal Is An Even Bigger Deal Than It Looks

 

Universal Music and Spotify have finally agreed on terms for the streaming service’s new licensing deal which reportedly includes better rates tied to growth targets and premium windowing. Check out Tim Ingham’s piece for detail on the deal. Although the big focus across the industry so far is, understandably, on what this means for Spotify, it is also part of a bigger story, namely that of the maturation of the streaming market and its associated business models.

What It Means For Spotify And UMG

Firstly, what it means for Spotify. As I have written previously, Spotify needs to create a strong narrative for Wall Street if it is going to IPO successfully. Within that narrative it needs to demonstrate that it is embarking on a journey of change even if the destination is some way off yet. Its relationship with the labels is central to that. Paying out more than 80% of revenue for ‘royalty distribution and other costs’ on a cash flow basis is not something potential investors exactly look upon with unbound enthusiasm. In pure commercial terms Spotify actually pays out round about the same amount (c70%) of revenues to rights holders as Netflix does, but because Netflix owns so much of its own rights it can amortize the costs of them to help generate a net profit while Spotify cannot.

The 2 ways of fixing that are 1) owning copyrights, 2) reducing rates to rights holders (which really means labels as publishers are pushing for higher rates). It is probably too early to flick the switch on the ‘Spotify as a label’ strategy as that would antagonize labels at exactly the wrong time. So reducing rates is the main lever left to pull.

However, the labels feel the rates are fair value, in fact many think the rates undervalue their content assets. So Spotify was never going to achieve a dramatic change in rates at this stage. Also, labels are wary of granting better terms to Spotify because Apple and co will immediately demand the same. Hence UMG has tied Spotify’s lower rates to growth targets, which you can rest assured will be ambitious. Why? Firstly the labels need continued big growth. The global music business grew by around 1 billion dollars last year, with streaming growing by 2 billion dollars. Thus without streaming’s growth the music business would have declined by 1 billion dollars instead of growing by that much. The labels cannot afford for streaming growth to be smaller than the amount by which legacy formats decline.

Secondly, Spotify needs better deals more than many of its competitors, so is more willing to agree to ambitious growth targets. Apple and Amazon (who both make their money elsewhere and aren’t prepping for an IPO) are less concerned about better rates and are less likely to be willing to be tied to strong growth targets. So UMG has a win win here. It gets Spotify tied into ambitious growth without a major risk of having to also give lower rates to Apple and Amazon.

What It Means For The Wider Market

With $5.8 billion in revenue in 2016, streaming has more than come of age, it is the beating heart of the recorded music business. But just as young companies have to transition from scrappy start ups to mature companies, this is the stage at which the streaming market as a whole needs to move from a cool emerging technology to a more nuanced and complex marketplace. It needs to develop the sort of sophistication that $5.8 billion market merits. Adding the ability to window new release albums is part of this process. And to be clear, the windowing does not mean that UMG’s new music is suddenly going to disappear off Spotify’s free tier. Instead UMG has the ability to choose to put selected albums behind the pay wall for 2 weeks as Daniel Ek’s press release quote makes clear:

“[This is a] new flexible release policy. Starting today, Universal artists can choose to release new albums on premium only for two weeks, offering subscribers an earlier chance to explore the complete creative work.”

While there is a risk that windowing may give piracy a little boost, those consumers that choose to Torrent rather than upgrade or simply wait 2 weeks were never realistic targets for the 9.99 tier anyway. What we may well see is a spike in uptake of free trials and the ‘$1 for 3 months’ super trials.

Getting The Right Kind Of Growth

The UMG – Spotify deal is more than just an agreement between 2 parties. It is the start of the next chapter in relationships between streaming services and labels. A deepening and strengthening of links. It is of course a unique product of its time (ie Spotify needing to get its house in order ahead of the IPO) but market defining precedents are often born out of such circumstances. Such as the time when AOL Time Warner wanted to ‘get smart with music’ following its recent merger and promptly sent off Warner Music’s CEO Roger Ames with Paul Vidich to carve out the iTunes deal with Steve Jobs.

Back then Apple was focused on trying to jump start iPod sales. Now though the labels need Spotify to start building a sustainable business. It is not enough for Spotify to simply clear the IPO hurdle, it needs to land on its feet and maintain speed. So while it’s great to see that UMG and Spotify have hit upon a framework for delivering better rates in return for better growth, Spotify must be careful to ensure that it grows sustainably and not pursue growth at any cost.

2016 was inarguably a great year for both streaming and the labels. This deal has the potential to lay the foundations for an even better 2017 and beyond.

Why Drake’s More Life Is The New Normal In Streaming

This is a guest post from MIDiA’s Zach Fuller

Released over the weekend after much delay, Drake’s More Life project is setting records across the board on streaming platforms. The Canadian artist described More Life as ‘a body of work bridging the gap between major releases’ and positioned the release as neither a mixtape nor an album, but rather ‘a playlist’. This, however, did not stop the release claiming Ed Sheeran broke the record for the best one day streams for any artist: 76,355,041, compared with Sheeran’s total of 68,695,172 following the release of Divide.

It would be interesting to know just what Drake defines as a ‘gap’. He has released no less than four singles a year as well as four albums and three mixtapes since his breakthrough in 2009. Two of these mixtapes were in 2015 alone, followed in 2016 by his latest album, Views. The traditional album release cycle does not  seem to exist in Drake’s universe. In the era of the always-on fan who can access an artist at any time – his endless releases consistently keep him in the public consciousness.

Drake is many things in More Life. He is simultaneously the artist, the producer and the curator. He does not appear on all the release’s tracks, and More Life’s contents are a 20-song sprawl of genres encompassing Hip-Hop, Trap, R&B, Grime, Gospel, Dancehall, Tropical House and Afrobeat. The work can, therefore, exist under the Drake name –arguably the most powerful globally on streaming services – whilst promoting the work of other artists.

More Life is another part of the process in which streaming is rewriting the rules:

  • The rise of the playlist: One theory why Drake has positioned the More Life as a playlist, is that the release acts as an acknowledgement of where mainstream music consumption patterns are heading. MIDiA Research surveys indicate that 54% of music consumers agreed with the statement that ‘playlists are replacing albums for me’. Additionally, 40% have said they are using curated playlists through Spotify and Apple Music more than they did six months ago. By working around these patterns, Drake is not fighting the tide but simply considering what it means to release music in this context. In the modern streaming context, the album not only exists as a playlist in itself but also emerges within the playlists of aficionados of these disparate genres.
  • Recorded music products have emerged because of their surroundings: The 3-minute pop-song was created because it best fit with the emerging radio formats, and long songs would therefore often gain less exposure through this promotional channel. The album originally was conceived as a way of bundling singles into a more expensive product for music fans, before artists in the 60s began to use the format as a canvas for wider artistic expression. How artists best make use of streaming is an open question and releases such as More Life continue to challenge these notions of what a music product can be.
  • Compilation: More Life could fit under a crew album, given the features of friends (Skepta, Giggs) and his label’s (OVO Sound) artists. This has a long history in Hip-Hop. Kanye West (Cruel Summer), Jay-Z (The Dynasty: Roc la Familia) and Eminem (Eminem presents: The Re-Up) have all released similar albums. However, More Life’s genre-hopping premise feels like a different beast to this lineage.
  • Playlist as a A/B Testing: Drake’s decision not to window the project in the same way he did with Views for Apple Music (alongside Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper) is interesting. No doubt, services would have been keen on having the project as an exclusive. That streams can be viewed as higher paying radio plays opposed to cheaper sales could means More Life is profitable. In a sales era, More Life could potentially have been maligned as a rush-release, yet in the streaming context – such a project makes far more sense.

More Life will therefore deliver data to Drake’s team on:

  • What tracks are most popular
  • Where these tracks are popular
  • Which tracks are most often adopted into fan’s playlists
  • How and when these tracks are listened to

Given the eclectic mix of genres, More Life could therefore act as a testing ground for future artistic directions Drake might take on his next more conventional release.

More Life is, therefore, many things. On one hand, it is a streaming era marketing tool, filling the release schedule gap for the always-on fan. A parallel could be therefore drawn to the latest Star Wars series, with More Life acting as the Rogue One to View’s Force Awakens. On the other hand, whilst much of the content itself is not a radical departure from Drake’s previous work and will no doubt keep Drake fans happy, the format is an experimental statement from one of music’s biggest players. It elaborates on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo in its amorphous concept as a unique music product. Given Drake’s influence on music and judging from the project’s immediate success on streaming services, we could be witnessing the first of the new ‘normal’ in music releases.

How Ed Sheeran Broke The Charts

Unknown.jpegUnless you have been hiding under a stone on Mars this last few weeks you will have struggled not to hear or see some clip of Ed Sheeran one way or another. Atlantic Record’s carpet bombing market campaign has tipped Sheeran into global ubiquity. At the centre of this approach is a ‘be everywhere’ streaming strategy which saw Sheeran clock up over 68 million Spotify streams in 1 day (a record for any single artist). Though, the 1 billion views he clocked up for ‘Divide’ on YouTube shows where the real streaming audience of scale resides. But what makes Sheeran’s ‘Divide’ campaign stand out is what it has done to the charts. Or rather, the weaknesses in the charts that ‘Divide’ shines a light on.

What Role Should Streaming Era Charts Play?

As of March 13th, Ed Sheeran’s ‘Divide’ album accounts for 9 of the UK top 10 singles, while all of the 16 tracks on the album are in the top 20. If there was ever a sign that streaming is breaking the charts then this is it.

The writing has been on the wall for charts ever since the recorded music business decided to incorporate streams into them. Doing so was a perfectly understandable move but it is one that has incapacitated the charts. As we predicted back in 2014, incorporating streams into charts would fall over because the charts were being forced into trying to simultaneously measure sales trends and airplay. As I wrote 3 years ago: “try simultaneously [measuring airplay] with measuring sales and you end up with a diluted mish mash that does not do either job properly.”

Underpinning all of this is an existential industry debate over whether streaming is replacing retail or radio. In truth, of course it is replacing both, but which is it doing more? The answer to that determines the role charts should be trying to play. However, the answer looks very different depending on where you sit. If you are a record label you see streaming growing by 57% in 2016 to reach $5.4 billion. Streaming is indeed becoming the future of retail. But it is also how you break artists and releases now, therefore it is a bit of both. Go over to the artist side of the equation and streaming becomes a crucial tool for driving exposure and helping sell concert tickets. As Ed Sheeran himself said during his last album promo cycle, for him it is all about live. Indeed, for most successful artists, recorded music revenue is just a small part of the revenue mix. So at its most extreme, streaming is a marketing campaign that pays you instead of you paying for it.

Reach Or Engagement?

In the old charts model an Ed Sheeran super fan buying ‘Divide’ and playing it a hundred times in the first week would only show as one sale, and an album sale at that. There would be no impact on the singles chart. But in the current UK streaming charts, not only does that fan’s album listening now get counted in the singles charts (instead of just the album charts), the resulting 1,600 streams (16 tracks*100) become 160 chart placings (100 streams = 1 sale for singles charts). Consequently, the charts are conflating audience reach with audience engagement. It is the equivalent of Facebook merging Monthly Active Users and Daily Video Views into a single metric. It wouldn’t work for Facebook and it just doesn’t work for music.

A Fiendishly Difficult Problem To Fix

There is no doubt that ‘Divide’ is a fantastically successful and popular album, the problem is that because the charts are conflating sales with consumption we simply don’t know just how successful it really is. And that does a disservice to both Sheeran and his fans. Don’t get me wrong, I truly feel for the various charts organizations across the globe. This is a fiendishly difficult problem to fix, but the current solution just isn’t working. In all likelihood, a dynamic solution is going to be needed, one that has the flexibility to evolve as the streaming market and its industry role changes.

The Time May Have Come For A Separation Into 2 Charts

Ultimately the recorded music business needs to decide what it wants the charts to measure. In old parlance: sales versus airplay, in contemporary terms: reach versus engagement. One near term fix would be to only consider cached streams towards the charts (perhaps with a smaller deflator than the current 100). This would have the advantage of making the measure more reach focused rather than engagement led. It would also have the effect of reducing the impact on ‘push’ curated playlists, which depending on where you sit, can be either an entirely good thing or an entirely bad thing.

If such an approach was taken then some sort of purer engagement chart would need creating to sit alongside the main chart, one that weighted total streams alongside traditional radio. The argument for a streaming-led airplay chart is even stronger than revising the sales chart. With playlists now accounting for 58% of all streams (see MIDiA’s Streaming Music Healthcheck report for more) and curated playlists a third of those, streaming is becoming less about on-demand and more about lean back, radio-like experiences. Streaming is seemingly making radio programmers of the entire recorded music business. It is time for a chart that reflects this change.

‘Divide’ is an exceptional album in terms of commercial performance and audience reach, as is its impact on the charts. But in the latter respect, it is simply a trail blazer for the way in which big albums are going to play out on streaming. ‘Divide’ might not be the hair that breaks the camel’s back but it has certainly fractured it.

Global Recorded Music Revenues Grew By $1.1 Billion In 2016

Following on from the global market share numbers we released on Sunday, here are our findings regarding the growth of the overall market.

Throughout 2016 as the major label earnings were coming in there was a growing awareness that 2016 was going to be a landmark year for the recorded music business. It finally looked like streaming was going to push the industry into growth. Now with full year numbers in, the picture is even more positive than it first appeared. The recorded music market grew by 7% in 2016, adding $1.1 billion, reaching $16.1 billion, by far the largest growth the recorded music business has experienced since Napster and co pushed revenues into free fall.

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While it is too early to state that the corner has been turned, this is clearly a turning point of some form for the business. Underpinning the growth was streaming which grew by 57% in 2016 to reach $5.4 billion, up from $3.5 billion in 2015. Spotify has been key to this growth, accounting for 43% of the 106.3 million subscribers at the end of 2016. 2017 should see further strong streaming growth with another 40.3 million subscribers added, more than the 38.8 added in 2016. Apple Music and Deezer also both contributed strongly to growth and market share. Additionally, Amazon upped its game in 2016 and the introduction of the $3.99 Amazon Prime Music Unlimited Echo bundle could open up swathes of new, more mainstream users.mrm1703-fig0-5

Based strictly upon the recorded music revenue that is reported in financial accounts by the major record labels and / or their parent companies combined with trade association and collection society data, the 3 majors labels collectively generated $11 billion of gross revenue in 2016. Universal Music generated the most with $4.6 billion representing 28.9% of the market total. Sony followed with $3.6 billion (22.4%) and Warner with $2.8 billion (17.4%). These numbers do not include any corrections for any independent revenues that are recognised by major labels because they are distributed by majors or major owned distributors. Thus the ‘actual’ independent share will be higher but can only be accurately measured with a separate survey, so watch out for WIN’s forthcoming indie market share study that will do exactly this.

Volatile currency markets played a role in shaping the 2016 picture, with Sony’s revenues at the original Yen values increasing by just 0.9% but 13% in US dollar terms. In original currency terms, Warner Music was the standout success of 2016, with revenues increasing 11%.

To be utterly clear, these numbers represent the recorded music revenue that each of these companies report to their shareholders and to the financial markets. This is market share based purely on publically stated, financially regulated and audited filings. No more, no less. In this specific context record label recorded market share is simple arithmetic: the record label’s reported recorded music revenue divided by total global recorded music.

Conclusions

The recorded music industry changed gear in 2016 and the outlook is positive also with revenue looks set to be on an upward trajectory over the next few years. However, successive quarterly growth is not guaranteed. Streaming will have to work extra hard to offset the impact of continued legacy format declines as the 18% download revenue decline in 2016 illustrates. Thus, the midterm outlook is as much about legacy format transition as it is streaming growth. If streaming can outrun tumbling download and CD revenues as those walls come crashing down, then good times are indeed here.

Why Netflix Can Turn A Profit But Spotify Cannot (Yet)

Having just celebrated its 10th (streaming) birthday, Netflix followed up with a strong earnings release, announcing 5.8 million net new paid subscribers in Q4, sending its share price up by 9%. This wraps up a stellar year for Netflix, one in which it doubled down on original programming and delivered acclaimed hits such as Stranger Things and The OA, shows that don’t fit the traditional TV mould. In fact, Stranger Things was turned down by 15 TV networks before finding a home at Netflix and The OA’s oscillating episode lengths (from 1 hour 11 mins to 31 mins) would have played havoc with a linear TV schedule (not even considering its mind bending plot).

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Netflix closed 2016 with 89.1 million subscribers and the temptation to benchmark against Spotify’s equally strong year is too strong to resist. Spotify (which celebrated its decade in June 2016) closed the year with around 43 million subscribers, 48% the size of Netflix. But a closer look at the numbers tells another growth story.

Read the full post on the MIDiA blog by clicking here.