Time to move beyond the song economy

The UK parliament is currently running an inquiry into the streaming music economy, having called for evidence from across the music business. Earlier this week were the first verbal submissions, from a number of UK artists including Tom Gray (Gomez), Guy Garvey (Elbow), Ed O’Brien (Radiohead) and Nadine Shah.MPs heard impassioned but balanced submissions that shone a light on the reality of what it means to be an artist in the streaming era. Mercury Prize-nominated Shah explained that she makes so little money from streaming that she is struggling to pay her rent. Clearly, the demise of live during the pandemic has created a uniquely difficult period for artists, but it has spotlighted that streaming on its own is not working for artists. The fact that policy makers are hearing this viewpoint (albeit later rather than sooner) suggests that change will be coming. But, while the focus is understandably on how to ‘fix’ streaming, it might be that efforts would be better placed building a complementary alternative.

Direct action

In Steve McQueen’s new film Mangrove, there is a intense scene in which Darcus Howe implores café owner and community leader Frank Crichlow that after Frank’s fruitless attempts to fix the problem via the system that direct action is the only way to change things: “self-movement – external forces acting on the organism”.

The equivalent of direct action in the commercial world is innovation – it comes from the ground up. In 2008 Spotify came up with an innovation that made the problem of the time –piracy – effectively redundant. What’s required now are new innovations that make the current streaming model look like an alternative, not the only choice – to enjoy music. 

Now is the time

Now is the right time to be assessing the long-term impact of streaming. It is a mature business model and is the largest revenue driver in most of the world’s leading music markets. Whatever streaming is now, is pretty much how it is going to be. The future of what streaming can be is already here, today. Assessments must be on what the model delivers now, not some future potential. 

Streaming’s current performance can be assessed as follows:

  • Record labels and publishers have experienced strong revenue growth and improving margins. Their businesses have been improved
  • Artists and songwriters have more people listening to their music than ever before and more creators are able to earn income than ever before 

However, beyond the superstars, most do not earn a sustainable income from streaming alone and cannot see a pathway to this ever changing. This is Guy Garvey’s reference to the lack of any new (financially viable) music artists in the future. 

A model for rights holders more than creators

Streaming benefits rights holders more than it does creators. It is far easier to enjoy the benefits of scale if you have scale. Here is a simple illustration: if a label has 100,000 tracks played 10 times each in a month (i.e., a million streams) it will earn around £/$5,000. But a self-released artist with just 100 tracks with 10 plays each (i.e., 1,000 streams) will only earn £/$5. Though this is the product of simple arithmetic, the first amount is the foundation of a small business, the other buys you a cup of coffee.

Record labels and publishers with large catalogues benefit from scale in a way that artists and songwriters do not, unless they have a megahit – and although streaming is great for megahits, they are few and far between. Changes to licensing (and there are many ways to do that) may make things better – but they will not change the underlying dynamic; it is simply how the model is.

We have a model that works for rights holders that is fuelled by artists and songwriters. Now we need an additional, parallel, model that works for artists.

Streaming music services are incentivised to drive consumption. What we need are additional models, incentivised to drive fandom. Streaming is a song economy, and we now need a parallel fan economy

Music used to be all about fandom. It was the way in which people identified and expressed themselves – a badge of honour and a symbol of personality. Streaming has industrialised music, turning it into a convenient utility that acts as a soundtrack to our everyday life. That may be fine, but it has simultaneously supressed those ways to express fandom. It’s not easy to express your fandom on a streaming platform, while on a social platform money must change hands. 

Music fandom hasn’t died, but it just has fewer places to live. 

The fan economy

So, what is a fan economy? A fan economy is one in which the value resides in the artist-fan relationship. Currently this model is pursued actively in Asia (e.g., Tencent Music in China, K-Pop in Korea) but far less so in the West. The fan economy will be defined by diversity but what its constituents will have in common is being built around micro-communities of fans.

Micro-communities that are built around an artist’s 1,000 true fans (or even fewer) allow the artist’s most loyal and dedicated fans to drive revenue that is small to the industry but large to the artist. For example, an artist with 1,000 subscribers paying $5 a month would generate the same $5,000 a month that a million streams would deliver a record label.

There are a number of platforms that are making a start, but now is the time for this to become a central music industry focus. Music rightsholders have a model that works well for them, so now they need to ensure that their artists and songwriters have models that work for them too. There is thus an onus on rights holders helping drive the fan economy, but to drive creator income rather than simply be another rights holder income.

A multi-pronged approach

This is the three-pronged approach we propose:

  • Governments, support new, innovative companies building fan economy models and ensure that they provide equitable remuneration for creators
  • Record labels, build teams geared at helping their artists find fan economy income streams (and take a service fee or revenue share)
  • Streaming services, allow artists more real estate to showcase where fans can find other content and experiences

None of this is to say that efforts to make streaming more equitable should not be pursued; they absolutely should. However, it should be done with a clear understanding of the ‘art of the possible’. Even if rates were doubled, the self-released artist with 1,000 streams would still only earn £/$10. For an artist with a million streams a month on a big label it would change monthly income from £/$1,250 a month to £/$2,000, i.e., £/$24,000 a year. Not a sustainable annual income. 

Our case is that streaming should indeed be made more equitable, but alongside proactive investment in a new generation of innovative fan economy apps. This is an opportunity to make UK Plc the innovation driver for the global music business. A unique opportunity that is there for the taking with the right strategy and support, from all vested interests.

The opportunity for the UK streaming inquiry

With the streaming inquiry, the UK government has an unprecedented opportunity to set a global standard for building a vibrant and viable future for music creators, but it is an opportunity that needs seizing now. In partnership with music creators and rightsholders, it can create a structure that supports the innovation and change the industry needs. Now that streaming has come of age, we can see both its strengths and weaknesses. Let’s use the weaknesses as a foundation for building something new, exciting and equitable. It is time to bring ways to allow music fans to express themselves and their support to artists more directly. That will keep music the uniquely valuable product it is, and not just the grease in the wheels. 

Mark Mulligan and Keith Jopling, MIDiA Research 

YouTube at two billion: Still much more music opportunity to be had

YouTube just announced its milestone of reaching two billion music users on the platform. YouTube has long been the largest music service on the planet, and it has just extended that lead. In 2019, its official total user number was two billion. Lockdown has proven to be a growth driver of epic proportions. 

Nicely timed to (accidentally!) coincide with YouTube’s announcement is third edition of MIDiA’s biannual ‘State of the YouTube Music Economy’ report. This report, which provides a detailed analysis of YouTube’s contribution to the music business, put YouTube’s music user number at 1.2 billion for the end of 2019. Of course, all this comes at a time when European legislators are discussing how Article 17 of the European Copyright Directive will be implemented and therefore impact YouTube’s business (potentially a very convenient time to release a stat of this magnitude?). 2020 has proven to be a big year for YouTube – but equally, make no mistake: YouTube and music rightsholders are still not on the same page. 

One of the biggest issues regarding the YouTube music economy is that music, while performing and growing strongly, still underperforms commercially compared to other content genres on the platform. This is because music videos are not as well suited to YouTube’s monetisation mechanics as genres such as games. For example, the videos are too short to have mid-roll video ads and most music channels (Asian and Latin American ones excepted) are artist-centric, so simply do not have enough content to drive channel engagement. While there are constraints on what can be done with a music video, there is nonetheless a lot of scope for innovation and increasing music’s share of YouTube revenue.

Google is now the second largest global payer of music royalties, with $5.2 billion across free and paid as well as masters and publishing. Spotify is comfortably ahead, but the scale of Google’s royalty contribution is pronounced.

In 2019, YouTube generated $15.2 billion in ad revenue with $4 billion of that music related (this figure includes income for labels, publishers and YouTube etc.). While that was an impressive increase of 18% on 2019 it was much slower than the 36% growth in overall ad revenue. Consequently, music’s share fell from 31% to 26%. Music rightsholders might point to this being evidence of YouTube not paying enough for music, but it pays pretty much the same revenue share to all of its creators. So, there is clearly more that music can be doing to ensure that it can grow at a rate closer to that of other content genres. 

Currently, YouTube is becoming more important to music than music is to YouTube. The one billion views club is becoming the de facto Platinum ‘sales’ award for the streaming era, and there are now 208 music videos that have reached the milestone with 74 videos reaching it in 2019/20 alone. YouTube continues to dominate the global music streaming market, with 47% music weekly active user penetration, ahead of Spotify in second place at 29%. Being the most widely used music streaming app across all ages, with weekly active usage highest among 16-19 year olds at 70% penetration, YouTube is simultaneously a key ad-supported, premium, marketing and discovery asset for artists and labels. Against this setting, the debate around rights holder royalty rates continues to rage. 

Are rights holders missing the point with Twitch?

Twitch has apologised to its users for the growing volume of rights holder takedown notices for music used in Twitch videos. Twitch is in an awkward transitionary phase with music rights holders, not dissimilar to where YouTube was when it was acquired by Google. 14 years on from that acquisition, YouTube’s relationship with rights holders is in a better place but short of where it should be. Article 17, weaving its way between the competing lobbying efforts of rights holders and tech platforms, is just the latest mile marker on a long and winding rocky road. Twitch, like YouTube, does not fit the licensing norms of most streaming services, resulting in repeated stand offs. But just like the music industry still hasn’t grasped the full potential of YouTube, it may be making a similar mistake with Twitch.

Firstly, for sake of clarity, MIDiA firmly believes that copyrighted work should be used correctly and remunerated. We are not, in any way, suggesting that a platform should be able to use music without permission. However, the current licensing structures are:

  1. Not flexible and agile enough to truly capitalise on user-generated content (UGC) music (a market which will be worth $4 billion by year end – download our major new FREE report on UGC music here)
  2. YouTube and Twitch represent an opportunity to create new growth drivers, especially for artists, that can help fix the ‘broken record’

A lack of sync in sync

Let’s address the first point, well, first. Platform-native creators on YouTube, Twitch and TikTok create content so frequently they make the music industry’s volume and velocity problem look like child’s play. Usually, creators who want music in their videos have a choice: 1) get sync licenses, 2) get library music, 3) use music without permission and get taken down or demonetised. 

The problem with option one is that sync clearance is a lengthy process that can take weeks and cost a lot. Not a great fit for creators who create and upload videos the same day. Companies like Lickd are trying to fix this with catalogues of pre-cleared music, but the industry as a whole is moving too slowly. For the record, MIDiA’s preferred solution is for platforms securing large ‘sandboxes’ of pre-cleared tracks for creators and developers to work with. An early example of this is the NFL making all of its soundtracks available for creators on a Synchtank powered site.Unless music rights holders want to cede the growth in the music UGC space (which will be worth $5.9 billion by end 2022) to library music companies, they need to put alternative approaches at the core of their licensing strategy, not simply pursue them as interesting ‘edge’ experiments.

Going beyond the stream

However, the biggest music industry opportunity is not licensing music. It is monetising fandom. The #brokenrecord debate has shone a light on how streaming’s scale benefits do not trickle down at a sufficient rate to creators. Artists compete for tiny bits of highly valuable ‘real estate’ – playlists, artist profiles etc – but most often do not get enough to earn a living. While efforts like user-centric licensing and better songwriter rates will help, they will not change the underlying fundamentals of streaming economics. The counter argument is that scale will change everything, but:

  • Average revenue per user (ARPU) is falling. Spotify’s premium ARPU fell 34% between Q1 2016 and Q3 2020, a 34% decline
  • Streaming growth is slowing in developed markets
  • Consumption is slowing – last quarter Spotify reported an increase in consumption hours to pre-COVID levels but as there were 49 million new monthly active users (MAUs) compared to pre-COVID this implies a reduction in hours per user
  • Emerging markets are growing but a) ARPU is lower and b) domestic repertoire will drive most of the long-term consumption – so this means only a small uplift for Western creators

Before live stopped, streaming existed in a mutually beneficial ecosystem, giving artists more fans for concerts and merch. Now that live is out of the equation, streaming isn’t enough. 

This is where platforms like YouTube and Twitch can come in. They enable creators to build loyal fanbases of which they can monetise the loyal core to build sustainable careers. The idea of ‘1,000 True Fans’ was first put forward years ago by Kevin Kelly but now the dynamics of social platforms have made this a realistic possibility for any creator. Nevertheless, music artists are still way off the pace. 

Micro-communities

Twitch and YouTube enable creators to build (often small) loyal fanbases that can generate them income that far exceeds what artists get from streaming. MIDiA terms this dynamic ‘micro-communities’ and we think it will be one of the trends that will shape the music business in 2021 and beyond. As part of our creator tools research we will be exploring how platforms like Splice and Landr will be able to build their own artist-fan communities that can be as valuable to artists as Bandcamp is to many already. 

Streaming created a superstar economy where even within the non-superstars, superstars exist. For example, Tunecore states it has ‘thousands’ of artists that make more than $100,000 a year. A simple bit of arithmetic shows that this means the remainder make less than $100.

Micro-communities represent an opportunity for artists to fill the income gap that streaming leaves without live in the mix. This probably does not reflect a direct revenue opportunity for rights holders – indeed, that would be missing the point. Instead, they can ensure those platforms are supported to empower artist monetisation without speed bumps. Why? Quite simply, rights holders have a model that works for them (streaming), so now they need to support a model that works for their creators so that they can in turn continue to support the streaming model that works for rights holders. 

If the industry does not support this new virtuous circle ecosystem, then it could bring the streaming model crashing down due to creator discontent. 

Quick Take: Apple One – Recession Buster

Apple officially announced its long anticipated all-in-one content bundle: Apple One. $14.99 gets you Apple Music, Arcade, Apple TV+ and 50GB of iCloud storage. A family plan retails at $19.95 and a premier plan includes 1TB storage, News and Apple’s new Fitness+ service. While the announcement was expected (and you may recall that MIDiA called this back in our December 2019 predictions report) it is important nonetheless. 

As we enter a global recession, the subscriptions market is going to be stressed far more than it was during lockdown. With job losses mounting, and many of those among Millennials – the beating heart of streaming subscriptions – increased subscriber churn is going to be a case of ‘how much’ not ‘if’. In MIDiA’s latest recession research report, we revealed that a quarter of music subscribers would cancel if they had to reduce entertainment spend and a quarter of video subscribers would cancel at least one video subscription.

A $15.99 bundle giving you video, music, games and storage will have strong appeal to cost conscious consumers who are loathe to drop their streaming entertainment but need to cut costs. As with Amazon’s Prime bundle, Apple One is well placed to weather the recession. They may not be recession proof – after all, entertainment is a nice-to-have, however good the deal – but they are certainly recession resilient.

Which may explain why music rights holders have been willing to license the bundle which almost certainly included a royalty haircut for them, to accommodate the other components of the bundle. While rights holders will not have been exactly enthusiastic about further royalty deflation (one for artists and songwriters to keep an eye out for when Apple One starts to gain share) they are also keenly aware of the need to ensure they keep as many music consumers on subscriptions as possible. 

One key learning of the impact of lockdown has been that new behaviours learned during a unique moment in time (eg not commuting to an office, doing more video calls) can result in long term behaviour shifts. Lower music rightsholder ARPU may be a price worth paying for shoring up the long term future of the music subscriber base.

What AWAL’s $100k artists mean for the streaming economy

Kobalt’s AWAL division announced that ‘hundreds of its artists have reached [the] annual streaming revenue threshold [of $100,000]’. Make no mistake, this is major milestone for a record label that has around 1% global market share. It is compelling evidence for how a label built for today’s streaming economy can make that economy work for its artists. So, how does this tally up with all of the growing artist concern in the #brokenrecord debate?

It’s complicated. The short version is that we have a superstar economy in streaming quite unlike the old music business, one in which artists on smaller independent labels have just as much chance of breaking into that exclusive club as those on bigger record labels. Given that AWAL states its cohort of $100k+ artists grew by 40% (assuming they mean annually) while global label streaming revenues grew by 23%, the implication is that AWAL is getting better at doing this than the wider market. And it is the implied growth of the rest of the market where things get really interesting.

(A model with more than 50 lines of calculations was required to build this analysis so I am going to walk through some of the key steps so you can see how we get there. Bear with me, it will be worth it I promise you!)

Finding the third data point

To do this analysis I am going to share one of MIDiA’s secrets with you: finding the third data point. Companies, understandably, like to share the numbers that make them look good and hold back those that do not help their story. Often though, you can get at what that third number is by triangulating the numbers they do report. A really simple example is if a company reports its revenues and subscribers but not its average revenue per user (ARPU), you can get to an idea of what the ARPU is by dividing revenue by subscribers (and if you have a churn number to work with, even better).

In this instance, Spotify gives us the ‘second’ dataset to go with AWAL’s ‘first’ dataset. In early August, Spotify reported that 43,000 artists generated 90% of its streams, up 43% from one year earlier – you’ll note how similar that 43% growth is to AWAL’s 40% growth. Combining Spotify’s data with AWAL’s, we now have what we need to create the picture of the global artist market.

Superstars within superstars

Spotify generated 73 billion hours of streams in 2019, which equates to around 1.3 trillion streams. Interestingly, taking its roughly $7.6 billion of revenue, this implies that its global per-stream royalty rate (masters and publishing, across free and paid) stood at $0.00425 – which is a long way from a penny per stream. This highlights how promotions, multi-user plans, free tiers and emerging markets are driving royalty deflation. But that’s a discussion for another day…

For the purposes of this work let’s assume that the average artist royalty rate (across standard major, indie and distribution deals) is 35%. Spotify’s 90% of streaming label royalties in 2019 was $3.9 billion, which translates to an average artist royalty income of $29,221 for each of those 43,000 artists. That is obviously south of AWAL’s $100k cohort, which illustrates that those AWAL artists are not just superstars but an upper tier of superstars.

$66,796 is good, as long as you don’t have to split it

But how does this look outside of Spotify? Firstly, the top 90% of global streaming label revenues was $10.8 billion in 2019. We then scale up Spotify’s 43,000 top-tier artists to the global market and deduplicate overlaps across services and we end up with a global base of around 56,000 top-tier artists earning an average of $66,796 per year from streaming (audio and video).

$66,796 is a decent amount of annual income but it looks a lot better if you are a solo artist than, say, a four-piece band splitting that revenue into $16,699 slices. Interestingly, AWAL seems to skew towards solo artists (94% of AWAL’s featured artists are solo acts) so the $66,796 goes a lot further for them than an average indie label rock band.

And then there’s the remaining 99% of artists…

But of course, this is how things look for the most successful artists. What about the remainder that have to share the remaining 10% of streaming revenue? That remaining label revenue is $1.2 billion of which $0.7 billion (i.e. 57%) is Artists Direct. That means the entire global base of label-signed artists that are not in the top tier have to share 4% of global streaming revenues. This translates to an average annual streaming income of $425. Artists Direct meanwhile earn an average of $176 (only 59% less than those non-superstar label artists).

The 90/1 rule

The key takeaway then is that streaming is levelling the playing field for success. Consistently breaking into the top bracket is now achievable for artists on major and indie labels alike and, if anything, independents are enjoying progressively more success. But this is a very different thing from all artists doing well. Music has always been a hits business. Streaming is widening the distribution but with less than 1% of artists generating 90% of income, the spoils are far from evenly shared. Music streaming has taken Pareto’s 80/20 principle and turned it into a 90/1 rule.

Streaming’s remuneration model cannot be ‘fixed’

The #brokenrecord debate continues to build momentum and new models such as user-centric are getting increased attention, including at governmental level in the UK. But as Mat Dryhurst correctly observes, there is a risk of the market falling into streaming fatalism; that the obsession with trying to fix a model that might not be fixable distracts us from focusing on trying to build alternative futures.

I have previously explored what those new growth drivers might be, but now I want to explain the unfixable problems with the current streaming system for creators and smaller labels. Streaming’s remuneration model cannot be ‘fixed’, but that is mainly because of its inherent structure. Tweaking the model will bring improvements but not the change artist and songwriters need. Instead of exploring sustaining innovations for streaming, it is time to explore new disruptive market innovations

Product remuneration versus project remuneration

Smaller independent artists and labels are outgrowing the majors and bigger indies on streaming, so why are we having the #brokenrecord debate? Why isn’t it adding up? The answer lies in how artists and songwriters are remunerated. In all other media industries other than music and books, creators are primarily remunerated on a project basis. An actor will be paid an appearance fee for a film or TV show; a games developer will be paid for their time on a project; a sports star paid a salary; a journalist paid for a story. In many of those cases the creator will sometimes have the opportunity to negotiate a share of profit too, an ability to benefit in the upside of success. But, crucially, the media company has assumed all of the risk. Also, of course, the media company owns the copyright.

Artists and songwriters might get an advance, but that is a loan against future earnings, not a project fee. Artists and songwriters, like authors, are remunerated via product performance. They shoulder the risk, and most of the time they do not even own the copyright. Actors and sports stars do not have to worry about slicing up a royalty pot; they have been paid for their creativity whatever the outcome of the project. Any royalty splits are an upside, an ability to benefit from success rather than a dependency for income.

The consumption hierarchy has become compressed

Music used to be split into a neat hierarchy, with radio and social being about passive enjoyment and generating usually small royalties, while albums were about active fandom that generated large income. Streaming fused those two together into one place and created a royalty structure that, in artist income terms, resembles radio more than it does album sales. The problem does not lie with how much streaming services pay (c.70% of income is a hefty share to pay out), but instead:

  1. how those royalties are divided up
  2. the way they monetise consumption
  3. the fact royalty rates are determined by how much streaming services charge

Streaming rates are going down because users are listening to more music and streaming services are charging less per user due to promotions, trials, multiple-user plans, telco bundles, student plans etc. Even before you start thinking about how the royalty pie is sliced, it is getting ever smaller in relation to consumption – and there is no onus on streaming services to protect against rates deflation because they pay as a share of income rather than a fixed per-stream rate (for subscriptions).

Monetising fandom

Music fans care about artists and songwriters, and given the opportunity and the right context many fans will support them. But that context is often artificial and happens outside of the normal consumption experience; for example, a music fan listening to a band on Spotify then going to Bandcamp to buy an album. It requires a conscious decision for the fan to say ‘I want to support this artist’. No such decision is necessary for a sports fan or movie fan because the remuneration system already ensures the talent has been adequately remunerated. On top of this, most music consumers are not passionate fans of most artists, so most will not make that step.

There are two natural paths that follow:

  1. Build fandom monetisation into the streaming platforms, e.g. virtual artist fan packs, virtual gifting, premium performances, creator support etc. I have written at length about how Chinese streaming services do well at monetising fandom, but there it is the platform that benefits most, not the artists. Western streaming services have an opportunity to monetise fandom for the creators, not for the platforms.
  2. Create new models where consumers pay for artist-centric experiences. These will always be more niche and have the challenge of building new audiences rather than tapping into existing streaming audiences, but the decision does not need to be ‘either/or’.

The third way

There is additionally a less obvious third path, that would reframe the entire basis of artist/label/publisher/songwriter/streaming service relationships: direct licensing for creators. No streaming service is going to want to do this (they already prefer to negotiate with aggregators rather than small labels) and labels and publishers are unlikely to want to cede such power. But a pragmatic compromise could be a new generation of artist and songwriter contracts that provide for the creators to set stipulations for royalty floors to ensure that they do not pay for streaming services cutting their prices via promotions and multi-user plans. This would also require rightsholders to ensure that streaming services set a royalty floor which in turn would compel streaming services to start pushing up the average revenue per user and perhaps even introduce metered access for users.

Options 1 and 3 are not exactly easy to do and they would require seismic industry change with wide-reaching impact. But if the industry wants a significant change in creator remuneration, then it needs to embrace truly disruptive innovation rather than spend its time tweaking a model that simply cannot change in the way many want it to.

We Are At a Turning Point for Social Music

In recent days we have seen three major developments that, collectively, are a potential pivot point for social music:

  1. TikTok close to a US-entity buyout by Microsoft to avoid potential sanctions, following hot on the heels of an India blackout
  2. Facebook launched a (US-only) YouTube competitor for music videos
  3. Snap Inc signed a licensing deal with WMG and others, also for music videos

As cracks begin to appear in the audio streaming market, there is a growing sense in the music industry of the need for a plan B. This has been driven by growing discontent among the creator community, and a slowdown in revenue growth (UMG streaming revenues actually fell in Q2 as did Sony Music’s); the tail wagging the artist-and-revenue (A&R) dog. The search for new growth drivers is on, and social music – for so long a promise unfulfilled in the West – is one of the bets. TikTok was meant to be a major part of that bet. But with the US future of the app so at risk that a Microsoft US-entity buyout may be the only option, and the continued impact of COVID-19 on core revenue streams, the future is beginning to look a little more troublesome. Perhaps now more than ever, the music industry needs social music to start delivering.

There are three key issues at stake here:

  1. How consumers discover music
  2. How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music
  3. Competing with YouTube

How consumers discover music

Among the under-aged 35 demographic, YouTube is the primary music discovery channel, followed by music streaming, then radio, and only then by social. Streaming discovery is heavily skewed towards tracks and playlists, and away from artists and release projects, which is fine for streaming platforms but impedes building sustainable artist careers. Radio is losing share of ear and YouTube… well, YouTube is YouTube (more on that below), so the music business needs a new discovery growth driver. Social has the potential to be just that. But spammy artist pages on Facebook and more-than-perfect Instagram photos are not it. TikTok, for all its amazing momentum, actually has a really uneven impact on discovery. Some tracks blow up out of nowhere while most do little, and rarely is it because of a smart label marketing strategy but instead because certain tracks just work on the platform and the community leaps on them. For now, TikTok is too unpredictable to plan around. Facebook (Instagram especially) and Snap Inc have a fantastic opportunity to do something special here. They have the audience and the social know-how. Whether they can deliver is a different matter entirely.

How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music

What TikTok lacks in consistent marketing contribution it makes up in consumption. Following on from Musical.ly’s start, TikTok has reimagined how music can be part of social experiences for young audiences. It has made music a highly relevant and integral part of self-expression, something that CD collections and music dress codes used to do in the pre-digital world but that soulless, ephemeral playlists wiped out. While labels pin hopes on TikTok successes to drive wider consumption, the discovery journey is also the destination for most TikTok users – they hear the track in a video and swipe onto the next one. That is no bad thing. This is a new form of consumption, and if TikTok were to disappear or fade then someone else needs to pick up the baton. Whether Facebook and Snap Inc can do so is, again, an open question.

Competing with YouTube

Now we get to the heart of the Facebook and Snap Inc deals. As important as the previous two points are, they were not the overriding priorities of the commercial teams driving these deals. Instead they were focused on expanding the revenue mix and part of that is creating more competition for the notoriously low-paying YouTube. Well, maybe not that low paying after all.

spotify youtube arpu

The internet is full of statements from trade associations, rightsholders and creators about how much less YouTube pays than Spotify. YouTube does pay less, because it manages to escape paying minimum per-stream rates for ad-supported videos – but it is a more nuanced picture than lobbyists would have you believe. Firstly, in terms of its Premium business, Google is entirely on par with Spotify. But then, that is the part that is licensed in the same way as the rest of the market.

Ad-supported is a mixed story. In North America, where there is a mature digital ad market, YouTube’s ad-supported average revenue per user (ARPU) is entirely on par with Spotify’s. However, on a global basis, ad-supported ARPU is dragged down by its large user base in emerging markets where digital ad markets are nascent. Spotify’s ARPU is 66% higher, in part because it has to pay minimum per-stream rates, i.e. it pays a fixed rate per stream regardless of whether it has sold any ad inventory against the track. This boosts ad-supported ARPU but it risks making the model unstainable, to the extent that Spotify reported -7% gross margin for ad-supported in Q1 2020 (and note, that’s gross margin, not net margin).

Rightsholders will be hoping for Facebook and Snap Inc to bring a similar level of competition to music video as exists in streaming audio, which in turn may give them a path to higher global ad-supported ARPU rates and a healthier marketplace. However, what will determine that objective is not business strategy but product strategy. The key question is what can they both do with music videos that YouTube cannot? YouTube has years of experience and user data around music videos, Snap Inc and Facebook do not. They will be playing catch-up with a weaker portfolio of content assets: Snap Inc is only partially licensed and both it and Facebook have only licensed official music videos. Unofficial videos (mash ups, covers, lyrics, TV show appearances etc.) account for 25% of the views of the top 30 biggest YouTube music videos. Those videos are crucial in that they provide the lean-forward element for viewers; they are crucial to making YouTube music social rather than just a viewing platform.

YouTube has dominated the music video globally for more than a decade. This might just be the time that this position starts to be challenged. But if Facebook and Snap Inc are going to do that, they will have to bring their product strategy A-game to the field. If they can, then the we may indeed witness a social music turnaround in the West.

Why Spotify needs Russia

Spotify’s delayed Russia launch finally happened this week. While it did not drive a stock price growth like the Josh Rogan deal did (the stock closed just 1 cent higher than the previous day’s close) it will actually prove much more important in the medium term.

Podcasts are Spotify’s long-term bet, the moon shot that keeps investors excited and that points to a future where Spotify is better able to plot its own destiny without being constrained by record labels. But that future destination does not mean anything if Spotify is unable to maintain strong growth in its core business in the interim. Which is where Russia comes in.

Spotify has an Apple-like problem but chose a very non-Apple solution

Global streaming revenue growth was 22% in 2019 and growth will slow significantly in the COVID-19 impacted 2020. Growth rates however were already slowing due to the maturation of developed western markets, while subscriber numbers were growing faster than revenues, pushing down ARPU. Spotify has the same challenge as Apple.

Apple is the market leader in smartphones but does not own the majority of the market and the overall smartphone market is slowing, which means that iPhone sales have slowed. Apple could have decided to go ‘down market’ and created cheaper devices for less affluent consumers and emerging markets. It decided not to, and instead to start pushing its top-end devices even higher up the market with higher price points. Spotify has taken the opposite approach. Rather than increase prices in high-value markets, it is prioritising lower ARPU emerging markets. Spotify has done so because a) it does not have a diversified product like Apple so is less able to risk slowing sales, and b) its product is not sufficiently differentiated from other streaming services to prevent churn if prices went up.

Betting big on emerging markets

Instead of focusing on maximising revenue growth among existing subscribers, Spotify is rolling the dice on subscriber growth. It keeps telling investors to measure it on growth and market share, and that is exactly the game Spotify has chosen to play. Which is where Russia comes in.

Emerging markets are where the subscriber growth lies: Asia Pacific, Latin America and Rest of World combined will drive 71% of global music subscriber growth between 2019 and 2027. Spotify is already committed to this strategy and is already seeing results. In its Q1 2020 earnings, Latin America and Rest of World were the workhorses of Spotify’s growth during the quarter, accounting for 73% of all new subscribers; one year previously the share was just 30%.

But emerging markets take time to convert, users need to get familiar with the service via ad supported and extended trials before slowly converting to paid, though always at lower rates than in developed markets due to lower spending power. So, Spotify needs to keep expanding the user acquisition funnel which means launching in populous new markets such as Russia.

Russia’s contribution to the global picture is what matters for Spotify

The question many are asking is, has Spotify left it too late for Russia? There is no doubt that 2019 was a big year for streaming in Russia, with revenues growing at 79% to reach $249 million in retail terms, which makes it a sizeable, but not (yet) a large market. By way of comparison, Brazil’s streaming revenues are comfortably more than double that. As of Q1 2020 there were 7.4 million subscribers with Vkontakte and Yandex commanding a combined market share of 80%, so Spotify is entering an established market with well-established indigenous players.

This is not Spotify’s modus operandi and the last time it took this approach was India, which is yet to deliver results. So Russia is unlikely to be a runaway success for Spotify, but it is entirely reasonable for it to expect to pick up three million subscribers there over the next three years, which in turn will help sustain Spotify’s global subscriber growth. This is not about winning in Russia but instead winning globally. Or put another way, Spotify needs Russia more than Russia needs Spotify.

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.