How the DNA of a hit has changed over 20 years

Recorded music has always evolved to fit the dominant format of the era, from three-minute songs to fit on 7-inch vinyl, through eight-song albums to fit on LPs, through to 16+ song albums to fill CDs. Format-driven change is nothing new, but streaming’s impact on the making of music itself is arguably more revolutionary than that of previous formats because it is both the consumption and discovery format rolled into one.

In the heyday of the album, the focus would be both on what makes a great album and what tracks would work on radio, and later MTV. Now all the considerations are rolled into the song itself, the central currency of the streaming era.

20 years of dna of hits

To illustrate just how significant this change is, we have taken a snapshot of the Billboard Top 10, now and 20 years ago. The caveats here are that this is just that: a snapshot in time, rather than a comprehensive data analysis – and it is a view of just the very top of the pile, the megahits of the day. Nonetheless, it provides some clear illustration of how the DNA of a hit has changed over the course of 20 years:

  • Shorter, snappier songs: The average length of the top 10 hits has fallen by 16% to 221.5 seconds (three minutes and 42 seconds, down from four minutes and 22 seconds). Meanwhile, intros have fallen from 13.1 seconds to 7.4 seconds. In the streaming economy where release schedules are weaponised with increased volume and velocity of releases, there is often just one chance to catch the attention of the listener. With ever fewer younger music fans listening to radio, there is little opportunity for the listener to hear the track again if they skip it in their streaming playlist.
  • Hip Hop’s apogee: The July 2000 top 10 was evenly split between pop, rock and RnB, with the latter two having the edge. In today’s top 10 Hip Hop reigns supreme, accounting for six of the top 10 tracks. Starting with the rise of EDM and now continued with Hip Hop, the hits business has become more focused, doubling down on one leading genre and in turn making it even more dominant.
  • The industrialisation of songwriting: As the buy side of the song equation, record labels are reshaping songwriting by pulling together teams of songwriters to create genetically modified hits. The more top-class songwriters, so the logic goes, the greater the chance of a hit. The average number of songwriters increased from 2.4 per track in 2000 to 4 in 2020. The upside for songwriters is more work, the downside is having to share already small streaming royalties with a larger number of people. Interestingly, the average age of songwriters increased from just under 27 to just over 31. It points to longer careers for songwriters but it does beg the question whether this means songwriters’ life experiences are that little bit more distant from those of young music fans.
  • The rise of the featured artist: Adding super star collaborators onto tracks has become a go-to strategy for streaming-era hits. In the July 2000 top 10, none of the tracks had a featured artist, by July 2020 that share had jumped to 60%.

The dominant theme underpinning these changes in the DNA of hits is reducing risk. More songwriters, more collaborations, shorter songs, shorter intros, fewer genres all point to honing a formula, following a blueprint for success. This evolution will continue to gather pace until the next format shift rewrites the rules. Until then, record labels, songwriters and artists need to ask themselves whether they are striking the right balance between business and creativity. If they are not getting it right, then the inevitability is that (at the hit end of the market) pop will eat itself. And if it does, expect an audience shift away from the increasingly homogenised head, down to the more diverse tail.

Time to stop playing the velocity game

We all know that streaming has transformed consumption and business models alike, but this is not a ‘now-completed’ process. Instead it is one that continues to evolve at pace, and the dynamic of pace is the pivotal variable. Consumer adoption continues to accelerate in terms of both time spent and take up. The streaming services – which are entirely geared to driving and responding to this behaviour – rapidly hone their systems accordingly. Labels, artists, publishers and songwriters are stuck playing catch up, running after the streaming train before it disappears over the horizon. The marketing strategies and royalty systems that worked yesterday struggle to cope today. But this ‘upstream’ side of the music business is inadvertently making it harder for themselves to ever actually catch up. By trying to play by the new rules they are in fact feeding the machine, ceding further control of their own destinies. It is time for a reset.

Streaming’s ‘upstream’ fault lines

There are three major fault lines for the upstream music business:

  1. Volume and velocity: releasing more music than ever before to meet the accelerating turnover of content
  2. The demotion of the artist: once the centrepiece of music consumption the artist is becoming a production facility for playlists
  3. Royalties: royalty payments built for the much more monolithic streaming model of the late 2000s do not reflect the complexities and nuances of streaming consumption in the 2010s 

Each of these are inherent attributes of the current model and favour the ‘downstream’ end of the equation (i.e. streaming services) far more than they do the upstream. Each problem needs fixing.

Volume and velocity

This is the most important and insidious factor, yet it is deceptively innocuous. Labels are releasing an unprecedented volume and velocity of music to try to keep up with streaming – especially the majors. But it is a Sisyphean task, no matter how many times you roll that boulder up the hill, the next one needs rolling up all over again and the hill gets steeper every time. Spotify is adding around 1.4 million tracks a month so, for example, if UMG wanted to release tracks on a market share basis it would have to release 420,000 every month.

Now that the data era has arrived in music, the risk of signing a new artists has been significantly reduced, but at the same time, an artist whose numbers are already trending does not come cheap to sign nor does she come with a guarantee of longevity. Many artists can do enough to have a successful song, but far fewer can make a habit of it. Labels have to decide how willing they are to bet on an artist one song at a time.

It feels impossibly hard not to play the game because everyone else is playing it and the system is geared that way. Feeding the velocity game habit is like feeding a crack cocaine habit. And yet, labels know better than most businesses that by breaking the rules, creative businesses can have more, not less, success.

The demotion of the artist

Western streaming services, unlike many Eastern ones, are built around tracks not artists and consequently consumption is too. Inadvertently, labels are feeding this dynamic because they are so focused on making tracks work that an artist is much less likely to be given the benefit of a long term strategy if her songs do not stream. The problem with chasing streams is that the process for one song might not apply to another. Failing at streams will often be a reason for pulling the plug on an artist, simply because ‘Plan B’ does not have a boiler plate. The more they push tracks the more they help the de-prioritisation of artists.

Fandom should come first, streaming second. A longer-term view is needed, one that puts building the artist’s fanbase first and streaming second. If an artist has a large, engaged fanbase then streams will usually follow. But if an artist gets a lot of streams on a playlist a fanbase does not necessarily follow. Marketing campaigns need to shift emphasis to a longer-term, audience-centric focus. It may be harder to measure the near-term ROI with this approach, but it will deliver better long-term returns.

Royalties

The #brokenrecord debate is not about to go away, especially as it will likely be 2022 before live music is operating at full capacity again and thus delivering artists the income they are currently missing. As I have previously discussed this is a complex problem for which there is no single solution but instead will require coordinated efforts from multiple stakeholders. A reassessment of the entire royalty streaming structure is needed from upstream to downstream.

Downstream, we need to stop thinking that every song is equal. They are not. Listening to 30 minutes of 35-second storm sound ‘songs’ in a mindfulness playlist should not be paying the same royalties as an album listened to its entirety. Also, some form of user-centred licensing solution is needed that rewards fandom, whether that is a user opt in model (‘support favourite artists’) or an actual re-work of the royalty mechanism, or a combination of the two.

Labels also need to work out how they can pay more to artists. Lowering their A&R risk exposure could free up some income. Of course, this is something that many have tried and failed at, but what if labels were to allocate 10% of their marketing budgets to top-of-funnel activity so that they can do even more work than they currently do around identifying talent early. This needs a commercial model that protects their funnel (e.g. first refusal terms for artists) and also needs to play in the creator tools space: the tools creators user to make music is the real ‘top of funnel’ – this is where the first relationships are established.

The holy grail for improving label profits would be for the label to improve the overall success rate for the artists in the portfolio. However, in the history of music, it is safe to say that no label has quite cracked it. Instead they live with it as a reality and a cost of doing business.

Labels do though, have some margin slack to play with. WMG improved its OIBDA from 11.9% in 2018 to 14.0% in 2019 while UMG improved its EBITDA from 16.7% in 2017 to 20.0% in 2019. Clearly, improved profitability is important in its own right and for investors, but the way to see this is a near-term expense to secure long-term profitability. A label without artists is not a label.

Breaking the habit

It takes a brave – some might say foolish – label to stop playing by streaming’s rules of engagement, to risk losing share in those crucial playlists. But label business models are not structured for the economics of single tracks – dance labels excepted. Their P&Ls are built around artists. When streaming behaviour started killing off the album, labels complained but then got used to building campaigns around tracks. However, this is not the destination, it is a stopover on the long-term journey towards a post-artist world. Playing streaming’s velocity game perpetuates an increasingly dysfunctional model. It feeds shortening attention spans, degrades the role of the artist and downgrades music to fodder for playlists. It is time to jump off the merry-go-round.

Music Subscriber Market Shares Q1 2020

WWDC would have been a perfect opportunity for Apple to announce another streaming milestone for Apple Music. It didn’t but the good news is that MIDiA already have a figure for Apple Music, as part of our latest music subscriber market shares. Whether Apple’s lack of announcement was because it didn’t have a good news story to tell or because it is waiting for a bigger number to pull out of the hat at a later date, well, we’ll have to wait and see.

Music Subscriber Market Shares 2020 MIDiA Research June 20

Overall there were 400 million music subscribers in Q1 2020, up 30% from Q1 2019, with 93 million net new subscribers added. This compares to the 77 million added one year earlier. The eagle eyed of you may be struggling to rationalise why streaming revenue growth slowed in 2019 while subscriber growth accelerated. The simple answer is ARPU. The combination of family plans, promotional trials and progressively more global growth coming from lower ARPU, emerging markets means that the long-term outlook for streaming is that subscriber growth will increasingly outpace revenue growth.

Spotify remains the standout leader in terms of subscribers with 32% market share. Spotify’s market share has remained between 32% and 34% every quarter since 2015. This is some achievement given how much more competitive the market has become in that time, and the stellar growth of Amazon. Spotify’s growth is both an extension of the wider market and a driver of it.

Despite Apple Music’s strong showing in second with 18%, this market share is down from 21% in Q1 2019 and contrasts with Amazon Music which finished Q1 2020 with 14% share, up from 13% one year earlier. Apple Music is making ground in absolute terms, Amazon is making ground in both absolute and relative terms.

Tencent Music Entertainment takes fourth spot with 11%, all the more impressive given that this number almost entirely refers to China and that it is accelerating growth, adding 14 million subscribers by Q2 2020 compared to 6 million on the year earlier.

Google is fifth with a more modest 6% but this represents a turnaround, with YouTube Music finally making Google a genuine contender in the subscription space. In Q1 2018, Google’s market share was just 3%. Google is outperforming the overall market.

What is particularly interesting about the state of the global market now compared to a couple of years ago is that we are starting to see some genuine segmentation taking place, which is a real achievement given that most of the services have to operate with the same catalogue and pricing:

  • YouTube Music is resonating with Gen Z and younger Millennials
  • Amazon Music is bringing older audiences to subscriptions
  • Spotify and Apple Music are the mainstream options
  • Deezer is enjoying success in emerging markets – Brazil especially – with pre-pay mobile bundles

The global subscriber market is in rude health in Q1 2020, significantly more so than the revenue and ARPU side of the equation.

These figures are the very top level findings from MIDiA’s Subscriber Market Shares model which includes quarterly data for 25 music services across 36 markets. This year we have added splits for MENA, Russia and Ireland. As well as a whole new dataset: Ad supported market shares, with splits for Sub-Saharan Africa. This data will be available for MIDiA clients in the coming weeks. If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about this dataset, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Artists are Learning How it Feels to be a Songwriter

The ‘broken record’ streaming debate that continues to rage on is a natural consequence of the instantaneous collapse of live music revenue following lockdown. As soon as it was clear that live was going to be gone for some time, MIDiA predicted that the artist backlash against streaming royalties would be a natural, unintended consequence.

With many artists used to live comprising more than half of their income and streaming by contrast a sizeable minority, it was easy for them focus less on whether streaming paid enough and more on how many extra fans it was bringing to their concerts.

In the absence of live, all eyes are on streaming. As I’ve written previously, there isn’t a silver bullet solution to what is a complex, multi-layered problem. But there is a really important issue that artists’ lockdown plight shines a light on: the long-term plight of songwriters. Here’s why.

Streaming did not grow in a vacuum

The streaming economy did not grow in a vacuum. It rose in the context of a thriving wider music industry where artists were earning good money from live, merch and (for some) sponsorship. Nor did streaming ever consider its relationship to live as being neutral. Spotify in fact is vocal in its belief that it  ‘supports and extends the value of live’.

This matters because it encourages artists to think about streaming delivering a wider set of concrete income benefits than the royalty cheque alone. The streaming case is that without it, artists would be playing to smaller crowds and selling less merch. A high tide raises all boats.

Without the halo effect benefits though, artists would have found it much more difficult to adjust to the shift of paradigms from a series of large one-off income events (i.e. selling albums) to a longer-term, more modest monthly income, namely trading up front payments for an annuity. Artists would have found it as difficult as…well…as they are now. This is how it feels not to have live music and merch paying the bills. This is how it feels to be a songwriter.

Songwriters only have the song

Professional songwriters (i.e. not those that are also performing artists) may have many income streams (performance, sync, mechanicals, streaming) but they all depend on the song. The songwriter lives in a song economy. The artist lives in a performance/ recordings/ clothing/ collectibles/ brands economy. Songwriters do not tour or sell t-shirts. As a consequence, they have been paying closer attention to streaming royalties over recent years than artists have. Now that artists are also unable to tour or sell shirts (at least in the same volumes) streaming royalties suddenly gained a new importance to them also.

The good news for artists is that live will recover (though it will take until late 2021 to be fully back in the saddle). The bad news for songwriters is that there is no easy or quick fix and things will get worse before they get better. One of the key imbalances is in streaming. Music publisher revenue is around 2.8 times smaller than label revenues but streaming royalties are four times smaller. As streaming becomes a progressively larger part of the wider music economy, if the current royalty mix remains, songwriters will earn a progressively smaller share of the total.

A generation of whom much is asked

Artists are fighting an important fight now, but when live picks up post-lockdown, songwriters will still be fighting their fight. This is not to in any way diminish the importance of artists getting a fairer share from streaming services and record labels, but it is to say that much of their pain will ease when their other income streams come back online.

Be in no doubt. Songwriters have a long and windy road ahead of them.

Songwriter’s streaming era plight reminds me of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 quote:

“To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected.”

But just as streaming does not exist in isolation, nor do songwriters. They are the foundations of the entire industry. There is a well-used saying that ‘everything starts with the song’. It doesn’t. Everything starts with the songwriter.

Quick reminder: if you are an artist and you haven’t yet taken our artists survey, then there is still time! We are keeping the survey live for a few more days. All individual responses are 100% confidential. All artists get a full copy of the summary survey data so you can benchmark yourself against your peers, including how they are dealing with the impact of COVID-19. The survey questionnaire is here.

What is the value of exposure when exposure is all there is?

There is an existential debate going on at the moment, around whether streaming is paying artists enough. It may feel like a rerun of old debates but it is catalysed by COVID-19 decimating artist income. These are some of the key narratives: here, here and here.

In this piece I lay out the underlying economics of the argument. I also focus wholly on artist income as songwriter income is another topic entirely.

COVID-19 has reset the debate

The latest streaming royalty debate is not an isolated event. It is happening because COVID-19 has decimated live income, leaving many artists worrying about how to make ends meet. Last week, just before this whole debate kicked into gear I wrote:

“Live’s lockdown lag may have the knock-on effect of making artists take a more critical view of their streaming income. When live dominated their income mix, streaming’s context was a meaningful revenue stream that built audiences to drive other forms of income. It was effectively marketing artists got paid for. Now that artists are becoming more dependent on streaming income, the old concerns about whether they are getting paid enough will likely come back to the fore. It is in the interests of both labels and streaming services, that labels use this as an opportunity to revisit their streaming splits with artists. Labels cannot afford to have artists united against the labels’ primary income stream.”

None of this makes the debate any less important, but it explains why it is happening now, and with live revenue potentially set to take years to fully recover, it is a reality that streaming services and labels need to adjust to. It is in the interests of both labels and streaming services that artists feel like they are being treated fairly. But it is crucial that this debate is grounded in a firm understanding of streaming economics and that we do not return to the mudslinging of more than half a decade ago. A debate which, by the way, did not result in any fundamental change to how artist royalties are paid and was eventually followed by labels negotiating smaller revenue shares with Spotify and others.

Where streaming has got us to

Firstly, let’s lay some ground markers:

  • Streaming has driven half a decade of recorded music revenue growth, with the market now 42% bigger than it was in 2014
  • The wider streaming economy has globalised fandom and engagement
  • More people are listening to more music now than before

Streaming has been the change agent that turned around 15 years of decline. But it also completely reframed artist income from recorded music. In the old sales model artists would get a large sum of money in a relatively short period of time. Streaming income is more like an annuity, a longer-term return where the music keeps paying long after release. In the old model artists had smaller but high-spending audiences. With streaming they have larger but lower-value audiences.

For example, a recouped independent artist might expect to earn $4,500 for selling 1,500 copies of an album. That is roughly how much an artist would get from 5,000 people streaming the album 20 times each. The average revenue per user (ARPU) has gone from $3.00 to $0.90 for streaming. The artist has traded ARPU for reach.

This model worked fine when live and merch were booming because more than three times as many monetised fans meant three times more opportunity for selling tickets and t-shirts. This of course is the ‘exposure’ argument streaming services are fond of, which works until it does not. Now that live and merch have collapsed, as the trope goes ‘exposure does not pay the rent’. The previously interconnected, interdependent model has become decoupled.

Put simply, artist streaming economics do not work without live.

midia streaming royalty payments

The question is: what levers can actually be pulled and what effect can they have? In the above chart I have used Spotify’s 2019 premium revenues to illustrate how changes in royalty shares can impact what artists earn. I have used a total per stream rate of $0.06 as the base case, which could look on the high side for some artists, but the purpose is to show the relative change. Whatever amount the base rate is, it will increase by the same percentages.

The tl;dr of the chart is the most radical of the options (label rate returns to 55%, podcast dilution is removed from the royalty pot, a 25% increase in retail price and therefore royalties) results in a very meaningful uplift of 42% in royalties for artists from today’s current state. But, the three problems here are:

  1. Such measures could damage the commercial sustainability of streaming
  2. It does not change the underlying annuity model shift that streaming represents
  3. We are about to enter a recession. Music subscriptions are at risk, increasing the prices right now could accelerate subscriber churn. Meaning a bigger slice of a smaller cake for artists.

Let’s take the first two points in turn.

1) Spotify lost $184 million in 2019. With this royalty model it would have lost more than $1 billion. Spotify would have to reduce its operating costs by a fifth just to get back to losing $184 million. Critics would argue this represents trimming the fat. It might, but it would also likely lead to Spotify:

  1. Cutting back on product development
  2. Cutting back on growing its subscriber base
  3. Finding new ways to charge labels and artists for additional services

None of these are reasons not to pursue the strategy but they are prices that labels and artists have to be willing to take. Spotify revenue growth will slow. Furthermore, it will skew the market towards Apple, Amazon and Google who can afford to make music loss leading. In the mid term this may benefit artists, but in the longer term (i.e. when Spotify is sufficiently squeezed) these tech majors are likely to follow their MO of ‘reducing inefficiencies in the supply chain’. So be careful what you wish for.

2) Taking an artist straw person, with 20% of her total income coming from streaming, if live and merch only gets to 25% of its previous level, the 41% increase in streaming income would still see her total annual income fall by 40%.

No streaming lever can be pulled hard enough to offset the decline in live revenue.

So, let’s pull together all the pieces:

  1. Streaming royalties can be increased meaningfully if prices are increased and rates revisited but it may slow the streaming market
  2. Now is probably not the best time to be increasing streaming prices for consumers
  3. Even a big increase is not going to offset the fall in live income

There is not a simple, single answer to fixing the current crisis in artist income. A blended, pragmatic solution would be:

  1. Increase royalties at a middle option rate (do not increase prices until after the recession)
  2. Artists push their fans to buy their music at destinations like Bandcamp
  3. Professionalise and commercialise the livestreaming sector, with a strong focus on charging for events in order to create some live income
  4. Innovate virtual fandom products to drive new, additional income streams

It is not going to be easy for artists for some time yet. The hard truth is that income levels will not return to full strength until live does, and that is a way off yet. Streaming is more important now than ever so any solution must balance maintaining its momentum and scale with sustaining artist careers.

Independents Grew Fastest on Spotify in 2019, But There’s a Twist

Tomorrow (Wednesday 29th April) Spotify announces its Q1 2020 results, at which point we will find out whether it had a COVID-bounce like Netflix did (adding 15.8 million subscribers in Q1) or whether growth slowed. But before that, there is one little detail from Spotify’s 2019 Annual Report which warrants a closer look. Hidden away in the commentary there is this innocuous looking line:

“For the year ended December 31, 2019 [Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, and Merlin] accounted for approximately 82% of music streams.”

The same line is in Spotify’s 2018 Annual Report with the figure at 85%. So, the majors and Merlin indies saw their share of Spotify streams decline by three percentage points in 2019. That in itself is interesting and builds on the narrative of the streaming tail getting longer and fatter, with the superstars losing share. But with a little creative thinking we can do a lot more with this three percentage points shift.

Using MIDiA’s label market shares data for FY 2019 we can do a full breakdown of Spotify’s streaming revenue. Applying shares for streaming volumes to streaming revenue, and shares for the total streaming market to Spotify is not methodologically pure and has margins of error, but it is a broadly sound approach and lets us do the following:

  • First we apply the percentage share to Spotify’s annual revenue
  • Next, we take the majors’ share of streaming revenues for 2019 and apply them to Spotify’s streaming revenue
  • We can then deduct the majors from the majors + Merlin total to leave us with Merlin’s revenue
  • Then we apply the independent artists streaming share to the Spotify revenue which leaves us with one remaining segment: ‘other independent labels’

spotify streaming griowth by label type

What emerges is a hierarchy of dramatically different growth rates, ranging from just 11% for Merlin labels through to a dramatic 48% for independent artists and an even more impressive 58% for ‘other independent labels’. This provides further evidence of the way in which (much of) the independent sector continues to thrive during streaming’s continuing ascendancy.

spotify streaming growth by label type

Most intriguing is the 58% growth for ‘other independent labels’. I am using the quote marks because this is essentially an ‘all others’ bucket and so captures music entities that don’t fit the traditional classification of ‘label’. This includes AI generative music and of course library music companies like Epidemic Sound.

It is of course important to consider that growth rates are not absolute growth – the majors still added much more new Spotify revenue in 2019 (€1 billion) than all of the rest put together. Nonetheless, the difference in growth rates is stark and only Spotify will be able to answer questions about how much of this is organic versus how much of this is driven by the way that it engineers its recommendations and programming.

Whatever the causes, the effect is clear: streaming benefits everyone but it benefits some more than others.

The COVID Bounce: How COVID-19 is Reshaping Entertainment Demand

The economic disruption and social dislocation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is not evenly distributed. Some business face catastrophe, while others thrive. Across the entertainment industries the same is true, ranging from a temporary collapse of the live business through to a surge in gaming activity. As we explain in our free-to-download COVID-19 Impact report, the extra time people have as a result of self-isolation has boosted some forms of entertainment more than others – with games, video and news the biggest winners so far.

midia research - the covid bounceTo further illustrate these trends, MIDiA compiled selected Google search term data across the main entertainment categories. The chart below maps the change in popularity of these search terms between the start of January 2020 up to March 27th. Google Trends data does not show the absolute number of searches but instead an index of popularity. These are the key findings:

  • Video streaming: All leading video subscription services saw a strong COVID-19-driven spike, especially Disney+ which managed to coincide its UK launch with the first day of national home schooling.
  • Music streaming: Little more than a modest uptick for the leading music services, following a long steady fall – reflecting a mature market sector unlike video, which has been catalysed by major new service launches.
  • Video demand: With the mid- to long-term prospect of a lot more time on their hands, consumers have been strongly increasing searches for TV shows, movies and games to watch and play. The fact that ‘shows for kids to watch’ is following a later but steeper curve reflects the growing realisation by locked-down families that they have to stop the kids going stir crazy while they try to work from home.
  • Music demand: Demand for music has been much more mixed, including a pronounced downturn in streams in Italy. Part of the reason is that music is something people can already do at any time in any place. So, the initial instinct of consumers was to fill their newfound time with entertainment they couldn’t otherwise do at work/school. As the abnormal normalises music streaming will pick up, as the recent increase in searches for music and playlist terms suggests. Podcasts, however, look like they will take longer to get a COVID bounce.
  • Games: Games activity and revenues have already benefited strongly from the new behaviour patterns, as illustrated by the fast and strong increase in search terms. However, the recent slowdown in search growth suggests that the increase in gaming demand may slow.
  • News: The increased searches correlate strongly with the growth of the pandemic, but the clear dip at the end provides the first evidence of crisis-fatigue.
  • Sports: The closure of all major sports leagues and events has left a gaping hole in TV schedules and the lives of sports fans. The sudden drop in search terms shows that sports fans have quickly filled their lives with other entertainment and have little interest in keeping up with news of sports closures.
  • Leaders: Finally, Boris Johnson has seen his search popularity grow steadily with the pandemic, while Donald Trump’s has dipped.

Spotify Q4 2019: First Signs of the New Spotify

Spotify’s Q4 2019 results reflect another strong quarter and a good year for Spotify. Look a bit deeper, however, and there are the first signs of the new company that Spotify is building – and they point to a very different and much bolder future.

First, here are the headline metrics:

  • 124 million subscribers (exactly in line with MIDiA’s forecast built earlier in the year. In fact, we’ve been pretty good with our quarterly subscriber forecasts throughout the year – see the chart at the bottom of this post).
  • Six million inactive subscribers (flat from Q3 2019).
  • 271 million monthly average users (MAUs) and 153 million ad-supported MAUs, which is a paid conversion rate of 45.8%, down a little from Q3 2019 and Q4 2018 with Rest of World the fastest-growing ad-supported region. This fits with early-stage growth for Spotify in new markets. Unlike markets in Europe and the Americas, Spotify will likely see ad supported remaining a much larger share of the user base long term in markets like India, with less ability to monetise via ad revenue. Spotify needs some big telco deals, especially in India.
  • Subscriber churn was down to 4.8% from 5.2% one year earlier. This is slow but steady progress that helps stabilise Spotify’s business and helps net adds grow faster.
  • Subscriber average revenue per user (ARPU) was €4.65, down 5% on Q4 2018. Spotify stated that much of this decline was down to “the extension of the free trial period across our entire product suite in the quarter”.
  • Total revenue was €6.8 billion, up 29% from 2018 with ad supported just 10% of that.

So much for the old, now in with the new…

Spotify’s uphill journey towards profitability is well documented (net margin fell into negative territory again in Q4 2019, to -€77 million). The circa-70% rights costs base is the core issue here, and rights holders have little (no) desire to go any lower – in fact, publishers want increases. Spotify has had to explore where else it can grow its business with cost bases that are less than 70%. Podcasts, marketing and creator tools are the three publicly stated places where Spotify has placed its bets, and the Q4 results show small and early – but nonetheless crucially important – movements in each:

  • Podcasts: As MIDiA reported last month, Spotify has been growing its audience very quickly and is now the second-most widely used podcast platform. 44.8 million Spotify users now listen to Spotify podcasts, with total usage up 200% year-on-year (YoY). Though podcast revenue is still only around 1% of Spotify’s total revenues, this reflects Spotify’s overall relative underperformance in ad revenue. This needs to be fixed – at least in a few of the bigger digital ad markets – but podcasts have the additional benefit for Spotify of diluting the royalty pot and thus improving gross margin. Current license agreements have a strict cap on how much the pot can be diluted (and labels have no intention of increasing that cap). But by MIDiA’s estimates, even within the current deals, Spotify could potentially shave off up to seven points of music royalty payments. Little wonder, then, that Spotify said this in its earnings report: “Any decision to accelerate our investment in podcast and technology spend should be viewed as an indication of our belief that our strategy is having tangible results. We have gained even more confidence in the data, particularly around the benefits from podcasts, and as a result, 2020 will be an investment year.”

  • Marketing: Spotify launched its paid ad tools for labels and artists in beta in Q4 2019. Early results are positive: +30% click-through and listener conversion rates, and on the sponsored recommendations side, Caroline Music’s Trippie Redd’s fourth album was helped to #1 with sponsored recommendations. Though there has been some pushback from labels feeling that they shouldn’t have to pay to reach their own audiences, Spotify is not doing anything particularly unusual here. The strategy is directly comparable to what Facebook and YouTube do. In fact, record labels spend about a third of what they earn from YouTube on YouTube advertising. The impact of that sort of revenue exchange on Spotify’s commercial model cannot be understated.
  • Creators: 2020 is going to be a massive year for creators. Our early estimates are that artists direct generated around $820 million in 2019, growing more than twice as fast as the overall market. 2019 was another big year for the top of the funnel, but we think the even more interesting space is one step earlier: creator tools. Creator tools are the new top of the funnel, before music even makes it onto streaming services. In fact, we think this might be the music industry’s next big growth area – and Spotify is already betting big, with acquisitions like online collaboration tool Soundtrap and artist marketplace SoundBetter. The music industry was, understandably, preoccupied with Spotify competing with it by signing artists and ‘becoming a label’. Spotify backed off from this strategy, but by focusing its efforts on the creator end of the spectrum it is building the foundations for what a record label of the future will look like. Spotify may just be competing with the labels’ future business before they have even realised it. Spotify’s quote says it all (at least to those who are listening for it): “We will continue to grow and expand the marketplace strategy, including with services such as Soundtrap and Soundbetter.As an example, while still early days, Soundtrap doubled its paying subscriber base in Q4. Expect more innovation of products over the coming years.”

 The margin impact of these three business areas is already being felt: “The largest driver of outperformance stemmed from slight improvement in the non-royalty component of Gross Margin, including payment fees, streaming delivery costs, and other miscellaneous variances.” 

Picks and Shovels

These are the three pillars of the new Spotify – one that will continue to be powered by music, but with profit coming from ancillary services. In the California Gold Rush in the 19th century, the first person to make a million dollars was a man called Samuel Brannan. But he wasn’t a miner; he sold mining equipment. If there is a gold rush, you want to be selling picks and shovels. Spotify has found its picks and shovels.

spotify subscribers by quarter 2019

The Song Economy

The following is a guest post from MIDiA’s Consulting Director Keith Jopling

When Journey’s song Don’t Stop Believin’ was originally released as the second single from the album Escape in 1981, it was a modest US chart hit (Billboard Hot 100 no. 9). Fast forward 28 years, in 2009 the track had two very prominent syncs: The Sopranos finale and Glee (the song featured in six episodes). From there, the song’s ascendance into global popular culture (and commerce) is well known. In 2009 it re-entered the Billboard Hot 100, this time peaking at no. 4, and finally became a UK top 10 hit following several renditions on The X Factor. However, it is on streaming platforms where the song truly thrives, steadily working its way into the ‘one billion club’ (at 757 million just now, but clearly in it for the long game).

Sony Music understands this success very well indeed. Don’t Stop Believin’ is an evergreen streaming success for the label. It is revered. Sony Music also has similar success with another 1981 song, Toto’s Africa (actually a 1982 release chosen as the third single from Toto IV). Africa was a much bigger hit on first release than Don’t Stop Believin’ and has had continual success on radio. And again, Africa has seen a meteoric rise on streaming – sitting at 711 million. Both these early eighties tracks are millennial sensations, and both are mini-industries in their own right.

My third example just happens to be another Sony Music track, though this post is not about Sony as such. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that SME has been instrumental in the calculated success of Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas. This 1994 release was in fact the number-one streamed song in Germany for all of 2019.  Consistently a top 10 streaming catalogue hit for the label since the dawn of the streaming era, 2019 (thanks to a finely-tuned and bigger marketing campaign) amounted to a new peak for the track – the year in which it finally made the holy grail some 15 years after release: Billboard no. 1.

As I said, to even out the copy a bit – every label and publisher with known catalogue – Queen, Elton John, Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, R.E.M. to name just a few, is operating at full-tilt utilisation of song assets – even if that means investment in other media assets. It’s movies, documentaries, new videos, re-masters, re-issues and myriad of strategies to generate more and more streams. No wonder Def Leppard, Peter Gabriel and other long-term streaming hold-outs finally succumbed only last year. They saw the future clearly but took their time to realise they will just have to learn to love it or lump it.

The three songs illustrate the development of the song economy. The Song Economy is the new music industry’s growth engine. It’s why publishing and songwriter catalogues are being acquired at multiples of between 10-20 of annual royalty revenues. It’s why playlists are the most valuable real estate on streaming platforms. It’s why labels and publishers are staffing up their sync teams around the world. It’s why some publishers – the administrators of the music business – are investing in creative and marketing talent and signing artists with great songs before their record label counterparts. And it’s why those publishers and labels are being pulled together under one leadership, from Downtown to Sony Music.

The Song Economy is critical for new songs just as it is for old ones. Hit songs are more important than they have ever been. That’s why, according to New York-based Hit Songs Deconstructed (which does indeed deconstruct the elements that make a major hit song, so that others can do their best to emulate that success) has been reporting a steady rise in the number of songwriters per hit (in 2018-19 a quarter of Billboard top 10 hits had no less than four songwriters) as well as producers (two per hit is more usual than just a single producer).

In all of our future-gazing industry work at MIDiA, we often look at what will drive the next big growth curve for music (indeed, we report on that very thing here), expecting that to be a new tech platform or a brand new music format. However, the real driver perhaps for the next few years at least, will be the micro-growth driven by individual songs – those big enough to qualify as mini industries. 

Sure – streaming has made it much more competitive for songs, composers, artists and their representatives. But those songs that break through into millennial streaming culture (or blow-up in Gen Z streaming culture as memes and TikTok sensations) will be pinching share of ear from the rest. At the same time, songs in popular culture are helping to keep music up there in the attention economy – competing with TV, games, books, spoken word and sports. Indeed, it is only those mini-industry songs that can claim a spot across every slice of media, through sync to podcasts to multiple forms of video. Those are the songs we want to know all about and hear over and over again.

Those songs have always been pots of gold to the industry, but in the global streaming economy they have become something quite different. They can be revived and multiplied. They can be hits over and over again. They are, in fact, industries in themselves. Welcome to The Song Economy. Don’t Stop Believin’!

Keith Jopling is MIDiA’s Consulting Director – contact him on keith@midiaresearch.com. He also helps drive The Song Economy via the discovery & playlist venture https://www.songsommelier.com/

Amazon Music: From Dark Horse to Thoroughbred

Neatly ahead of Spotify’s Q4 earnings, Amazon has taken the rare step of announcing subscriber metrics for Amazon Music (inclusive of Prime Music and Music Unlimited). Amazon Music closed 2019 with 55 million ‘customers’ across free and paid. Based on our Q2 2019 numbers for Amazon and the fact that Amazon’s free tier was only rolled out in late 2019 across a few markets, MIDiA estimates Amazon Music’s actual subscriber number to be 50 million. This implies a subscriber growth of 16 million on 2018. Make no mistake, this is a really strong performance. From a bit-part player in 2015 and 2016, Amazon Music is now firmly established in streaming’s leading pack and looks set to overtake Apple Music in 2020. What’s more, unlike Apple and Spotify, Amazon’s wider business is not a top-tier player in dozens of countries, so Amazon Music’s geographic footprint is uneven – making its global figure even more impressive. Indeed, underneath this headline figure Amazon is the number two player in some of the world’s biggest music markets. Amazon is now in the big league.

amazon music 55 million users 50 millionn subscribers midia research

Since Q4 2016, Spotify has averaged 34.8% global music subscriber market share, meaning that despite fierce competition it has managed to stay ahead of the pack, actually increasing share slightly from 34.2% to 35.3%. Amazon’s success is in some respects even more impressive. In Q4 2015 Amazon Music’s subscriber base was just 18% of Spotify’s. By Q4 2019 (assuming Spotify hit the 124 million that MIDiA predicted for Q4 2019) Amazon’s 55 million subscribers represented 40% of Spotify’s – more than doubling its relative scale.

However, the DSP that should be paying most attention is Apple Music. Over the same period Amazon Music went from 49% of Apple’s subscriber base to 82%. At this rate Amazon could trump Apple for second place in 2020. It has already done so in a number of major music markets, including Germany, the UK and Japan – three of the world’s top four recorded music markets.

Extending the market

Amazon is often competing around, rather than with, Spotify and Apple. The combination of Prime Music and Echo / Alexa means that Amazon is extending the addressable market for streaming by unlocking older, higher-income households that do not fit the young, mobile-first demographic mold that the streaming market generally trades upon. Ellie Goulding’s Amazon exclusive ‘River’ claiming the UK Christmas number one spot illustrates that this under-served segment is far from a niche. Of course, Amazon is now also competing for the younger, mobile-centric consumer – Music Unlimited grew by more than 50% in 2019 – but, along with its new ad-supported and HD tiers, Amazon is pursuing a segmented strategy that is pushing beyond its older Prime Music beachhead.

Amazon Music’s success trades heavily on Amazon’s overall brand reach and existing customer relationships, so its global brand reach will always be less evenly distributed than Apple and Spotify’s. However, throughout 2018 and 2019 Amazon has been assertively building its reach in non-core markets through music and video. Traditionally Amazon has been a retailer first and a content brand second. Now, in newer markets across the globe, Amazon is building a reputation as a digital content provider first and retailer second. Though Amazon is clearly going to remain a retailer first globally, streaming is proving to be a powerful tool for establishing the company in markets that would have previously taken years and hundreds of millions of dollars to set up as fully functioning e-commerce markets.

While rightsholders will have well-grounded concerns about Amazon’s corporate objectives of using content to help sell consumer products, what is now undeniable is that Amazon Music and Video are both top-tier content services. Back in 2017 we suggested that the dark horse of Amazon was emerging from the shadows; now it is clear to see it is a thoroughbred in its own right.