What Acquiring Beats Could Do For Apple (And Everyone Else)

Stories emerged last night that Apple is in talks to buy Beats, citing well-placed sources. If true – and if it actually goes through – the acquisition has countless potential impacts of seismic proportions, particularly if the deal includes nascent subscription service Beats Music. Apple has always been in the business of selling music for the business of selling hardware, and the potential acquisition must be considered in those terms. With download sales declining and subscriptions gaining traction, Apple has been locked in a process of soul searching, trying to work out what it can do to remain relevant in the digital music business in order to remain relevant in the device business. Beats is a ‘if you can’t beat them, buy them’ solution.

download slow down

There are a number of key considerations and potential impacts:

  • Digital music Plan A has run its course: Despite dynamic growth in Northern European markets, digital music growth nearly shuddered to a halt in 2013, slowing from 11% year-on-year growth in 2012 to just 2% last year, and that is unlikely to be much higher than 4% in 2014. The reason is quite simple: streaming subscriptions are, outside of Northern Europe, predominately converting the most valuable download buyers – who are most often iTunes buyers – into subscribers. Aficionados who bought a few digital albums a month are instead spending 9.99 a month. So instead of bringing up the average spend of music buyers it is bringing down the spending of many – I’ll be publishing some data on this in the coming weeks. Digital music needs a Plan B to reinvigorate growth
  • Apple is paradoxically holding back digital growth: Apple almost singlehandedly created the global digital music in the 2000’s but it is now actually holding back growth in the 2000’s. Streaming has taken off most quickly where Apple never got a foothold (see figure). Where Apple is firmly established streaming is a transition story, of download revenue shifting to streaming. Where it is not, streaming is green field growth. An interesting side effect of this is that because English speaking Apple has prospered most in English speaking markets, it is in these countries – US, UK, Canada, Australia, all of which are top ten music markets – where digital growth is now slowest. Apple has inadvertently passed the digital baton to the non-English language world.
  • Apple’s go-slow streaming strategy is too slow: All this translates into weakening digital relevance for Apple, which infers weakening hardware relevance. Apple has been here before, back in the heyday of Last.FM when Apple was still predominately a computer business, it tried to steal the social music revolution’s clothes with the launch of the now-defunct Ping and the just-about-still-around Genius. Yet Apple came out of that era stronger than ever. Now though, portable devices are the beating heart of Apple’s business, and with the relentless onslaught of Android it cannot afford its next music move to be another Ping. However Apple has had to go slow with streaming. Its user base is more mainstream than ever – as the growing popularity of Now compilations in its store attests – so it has to introduce new features in a way that does not overwhelm its less tech-adventurous customers. iCloud and iTunes Radio are great transition technologies to help introduce streaming to Apple users at a steady pace and to demonstrate clear relevance in the iTunes context. Unfortunately this long-term strategy for its mainstream users has done little to halt the defection of its more sophisticated and, crucially, most valuable, customers. Beats Music could be the defensive strategic option for them.
  • Subscriptions don’t have to be AYCE 9.99: 9.99 AYCE services have done a great job of monetizing the super fans, but with less than 5% penetration in major music markets, there is a clear need for something else for the more mainstream fan in top 10 music markets. Cheap priced subscriptions and telco hard bundles are both solutions to this problem. Apple should not feel compelled to jump on the 9.99 bandwagon. Digital content stores are breaking down the genre walls – as Google’s Play demonstrates so well. Apple gets much more revenue from other content genres – see this figure – so a multi-content genre subscription would be a much cleaner fit for Apple. As would a subscription that gave users a certain amount of credit to use on any iTunes products, sort of a virtual iTunes Gift Card subscription. Pricing would be blissfully simple – e.g. $10, $20, $30 etc. – and would help protect Apple from revenue cannibalization until it makes the full switch to access from ownership. $10 could include ad-free iTunes Radio, $20 and upwards could include unlimited music streaming.
  • Apple could make hard bundling work, and some: If Apple does get Beats Music, it would have an unprecedented opportunity to make bundled subscriptions work. Hardware has always been key to making digital content work, whether that be the Kindle, Xbox, Playstation, iPhone or the new generation of Content Connectors like Chromecast. Subscriptions are working now because Apple opened up a chink in its vertically integrated ecosystem armour by allowing streaming services to exist on its devices. In fact mobile access is responsible for the majority of the 9.99 model’s growth. Retailing an iPhone / Beats headphones subscription bundle would communicate clear value to users, and with the cost largely hidden in the premium price point associated with the bundle, could help consumers get over the hump of committing to monthly spending.
  • Beats would redefine Apple as a CE company: The implications on Apple’s device portfolio are intriguing tool. The simplicity of Apple’s limited product range has always been key to its success. Being able to retail a single phone when competing with the excessively vast portfolios of incumbent smartphone companies was a major differentiation point. Since those first iPhone days though Apple has multiplied its number of product SKUs. Incorporating a range of headphones would take that to another level. Whether Apple has the ability to seamlessly transform from a computer company with a small range of portable computing devices, to a fully-fledged CE company remains an intriguing open question.

There is no doubt that if Apple does buy Beats and Beats Music, that the impact on the competition will be dramatic. Spotify will be rightly worrying about the impact on its impending IPO – though expect words to the effect that this is simply a resounding validation of the model. But the competition should be welcomed. To date most digital music services have been strategically lazy, focusing their efforts on trying to sell new products to already existing digital customers, the majority of whom, in the big markets at least, are Apple customers. Now digital music companies will have to start thinking much more creatively about how they can compete around, rather than with Apple. About how they can create revenue in new consumer segments, not simply trying to extract more revenue from the preexisting ones. Some companies are doing this already but they are in the distinct minority – this should be a good time for them. If Apple does buy Beats, it will bring some much needed momentum to market that was beginning to suffer from hubris.

What Beats Music Needs to Do to Be a Success

Next week Beats Music will finally launch, after arguably the most hyped music service launch in the history of digital music.  CEO Ian Rogers published a blog post over the weekend that dives into some of the thinking behind the service and some of its functionality.  Early signs are that it is a well designed and programmed service, but that alone will not be enough to make it a success.

Rogers cheekily labelled competitor services as ‘servers’ rather than services and there is no doubt that Beats Music has put addressing the Tyranny of Choice right at the heart of its strategic mission.  Beats Music has invested heavily in a host of cool features and top quality editorial and deserves great credit for doing so, but it still won’t be enough.  Beats Music is another 9.99 subscription service and 9.99 is still not, nor ever will be, a mass market consumer price point….at least not until years of inflation have taken effect. Just 5% of consumers currently pay for subscriptions in the US and the UK and the lion’s share of that is down to Spotify.

It is a massive – i.e. currently impossible – challenge for Beats or any of its soon-to-be competitor AYCE subscription services to get the headline pricing down – that is instead the domain of a new breed of innovative services such as MusicQubed, Bloom.fm and Psonar. But where Beats does have the ability to at least make their offering feel cheaper is with bundling.  On this front a lot has been made of Beats’ partnership with AT&T.  Though it is great to have such a high profile partner pushing subscriptions into the US it feels like a missed opportunity.

AT&T is a Missed Opportunity

Instead of being a long term bundle, the AT&T deal is in fact a promotional partnership, with three months free before reverting to a full priced $15 p/m deal.  As we recommended in our Telco Bundling White Paper last year, the best practice is to transition to a subsidized bundle with the end user paying either nothing or a discounted rate (much preferable to labels).  While a three month free trial is a fantastic way to deliver value and get users hooked, the leap from zero to $15 p/m is just too big.

Granted the deal is an innovative ‘Family Plan’ but I am not convinced consumers will see the value.  Core to the value proposition is being able to access the service across 5 people and 10 devices, which compared to other subscription services is strongly differentiated.  But multi-device value is actually the value of the label licenses not consumer value.  Apple and Samsung customers do not pay a premium for every additional device they want to play music downloads they purchased from the iTunes and Play Stores.  iTunes accounts are already inherently family plans in many households with no price premium.   As I have been saying for years: we are in the per-person age, not the per device age.  Consumers should not pay a premium for multiple device support. Labels need to accept the realities of the modern day multi device consumer and not try to slice the proverbial baloney.

Artists and Songwriters Will Feel the Family Plan Pinch

Also the Family Plan also raises the tricky issue of whether the fact that this would translate into $3 per head per month effectively means three times less rights pay out per track.  Big labels and publishers won’t feel the pinch so much as they’ll still be getting their 10%/20%/30% shares of revenue.  In fact they’ll be 50% better off as it will be a share of $15 not $10.  But artists and songwriters only have small catalogues of music so they’ll feel the impact of track play revenue being a share of $3 not $9.99.  And given that a family is likely to have diverse tastes, especially between parents and kids, artists are unlikely to get plays across all of the family members, where of course a label with a diverse portfolio of artists will.

It’s the Headphones, Stupid

But enough of the hurdles, I did promise with this blog entry’s title a solution. Despite all of the hype I do genuinely believe Beats Music could be a game changer if it is willing to properly leverage all of the assets at its disposal.  Beats has a hugely valuable brand and route to market in its core headphone business.  And although Beats is now facing fierce competition, it remains the stand out youth headphone brand, for now.   As great a partner as AT&T may be, they’ll still most likely only reach the same high value, data plan power user, music aficionado that all the other subscription services have been super serving.  And as such Beats Music will get far less bang for its buck than it should.

Instead Beats Music should focus on hard bundling into Beats headphones with a 3 month free trial followed by a subsidized $5 12 month commitment subscription. It really is that simple. ..well the commercials aren’t but the proposition is.

Among Beats’ headphone customer base are hundreds of thousands of young, brand conscious music consumers that value high quality music experiences and are not yet subscription converts.  If Beats fully embraces its new family member and puts it at the heart of its core product range then Beats Music might just reach a whole swathe of new consumers that the incumbent subscription services have not yet managed to.  If instead it treats Beats Music as an awkward digital appendage then it will wither on the vine.  Here’s hoping Beats opts for the former.