Sweden Might Just Have Shown Us What the Future of Music Revenues Will Look Like

Earlier this week the IFPI released its Global Music Report – an essential tool for anyone with a serious interest in the global recorded music business. One interesting trend to emerge was the slowdown in Swedish streaming growth and its knock-on effect on overall recorded music revenues. Sweden has long been the leading indicator for where streaming is likely to head, providing a picture of just how vibrant a sophisticated streaming market can be. But now, with the market reaching saturation, it also gives us some clues as to what the long-term revenue outlook for the global music market could be.

sweden growth

According to the IFPI, Swedish streaming revenues reached $141.3 million in 2017, up from $125.7 million in 2016, with subscriptions accounting for 96% of the total. That was an increase of just $9.3 million, or 7% year-on-year growth, down from 10% in 2016 and 23% in 2015. This is a typical trajectory for a market when it has progressed to the top end of the growth curve. With synchronisationand performance revenues collectively growing by just $1.5 million in 2017 and downloads and physical both continuing their long-term decline, streaming is not only the beating heart of Swedish music revenues, it is the only driver of growth. Consequently, overall Swedish recorded music revenues grew by just 4% in 2017, compared to 6% in 2016 and 10% in 2015. As streaming matures, total market growth slows.

So what can we extrapolate from Sweden onto the global market? Firstly, there are a number of unique market characteristics to be considered:

  • Sweden is the home of Spotify, so adoption over indexes
  • Incumbent telco Telia provided a lot of early stage growth for Spotify
  • iTunes never really got going in Sweden, so the legacy download market was a much smaller part of the market than it is globally
  • Physical music sales are further along in their decline (now just 10% of all revenues)

These factors considered imply that Sweden is an indicator of an optimum state streaming market; others may not get there or will not get there so quickly. This could mean that legacy formats decline more quickly in comparison, making total revenue growth slower. However, given that downloads are a bigger chunk of revenues in most markets, these factors should cancel each other out. Therefore, an annual growth of 4% in total music revenues is a decent benchmark for long-term revenue growth.

The question is, what happens to the remnants of declining legacy format revenue? Do those CD and download buyers disappear out of the market, or does some of their revenue switch over to ensure that growth continues further? The likelihood is that Apple will see much of its longer-term growth come from converting higher value iTunes customers into subscribers, but there is a clear case for expanding the market beyond 9.99. The current 10% price hike experiment Spotify is running in Norway is one route. But, a suite of higher tier products is a better solution, as are super-cheap low-end products (e.g. $0.25 a week for Today’s Top Hits) and, of course, boosting ad-supported revenue to steal audience from radio. That latter point is probably the best long-term option for pushing real continual recorded music industry growth.

Why The Music Aficionado Was To Blame For Declining Music Sales In 2014

Music revenues declined by 2.9% in 2014, down from $6.9 billion in 2013 to $6.7 billion across the US, UK, France, Italy, Australian, Sweden and Norway. Much has been made of the fact that revenue fell in the Nordic markets where streaming had previously driven growth. One year’s worth of revenue numbers does not make an industry trend. The one year fall off in strong streaming markets is not proof of a fundamental weakness in the streaming model in just the same way a couple of years of growth was not proof of its strength. We are in the midst of a transition period and there will be further anomalies and blips along the way. They key reason for the volatility is the music industry’s growing dependence on an increasingly small group of consumers: the Music Aficionados. Music Aficionados are consumers that spend above average time and money with music. They represent just 17% of all consumers but a whopping 61% of all recorded music spending. These consumers shape the fortunes of the music business. In the past this did not matter so much because:

  1. So many passive majority music fans were spending strongly
  2. Aficionados were behaving predictably

Now that has all changed. Passives are sating their appetites on YouTube while Aficionados are making major changes to their buying habits. Last year 14% of Aficionados said they were stopping buying CDs while 23% said they were buying fewer albums of any kind and 23% also said they were buying fewer downloads. The 2014 revenue numbers show us just what impact these changes had. aficionado impact If we extrapolate those percentages to Aficionados’ share of spending in those markets in 2014 we see:

  • Aficionados spent $192 million less on CDs, which was 67% of the total $326 million lost CD spend in 2014
  • Aficionados spent $250 million less on downloads, which was 86% of the total $290 million lost CD spend in 2014

In total the Aficionados accounted for 76% of the lost CD and download revenue in 2014. So what’s going on? Why are the super fans jumping ship? Well first of all, they aren’t. This is a transition process. They are shifting their spending towards subscriptions. For some of them this will mean spending less (especially the 23% that stopped buying more than an album a month and are now spending $9.99 instead of $20 or $30). For others it will be an increase in spending. At a macro level though, lost download and CD spending accounted for a $617 million decline while streaming growth accounted for a $351 million gain, which means that there was a net loss of $265 million. Because the music industry has largely stabilized after years of dramatic decline, it only takes relatively minor fluctuations one way or the other to determine whether a market grows or shrinks. This is why both the Aficionado needs more attention now than ever and also why the Passive Massive needs engaging at scale. Aficionados have been taken for granted for too long and are now being migrated away from products without a spend ceiling (albums) to a product with a fixed ARPU cap (9.99 subscriptions). When the Aficionados sneeze the music industry gets a cold. It is time for a cure.

IFPI and RIAA 2013 Music Sales Figures: First Take

The IFPI and RIAA today released their annual music sales numbers.  Though there are positive signs, overall they make for troubling reading 

  • Total sales were down 3.9%.  Based on 2012 numbers the trend suggested that 2013 revenues should have registered a 2% growth, so that is a -6% swing in momentum.
  • Digital grew by 4.3% which was not enough to offset the impact of declining CD sales, which has been the story every year since 2000 except last.
  • Download sales declined by 1%. Continued competition from apps and other entertainment, coupled with subscriptions poaching the most valuable download buyers is finally taking its toll.
  • Subscriptions up by 51%: An impressively strong year for subscriptions but not enough to make the digital increase bigger than the physical decline on a global basis nor in key markets, including the US.

Global numbers of course can be misleading and there is a richly diverse mix of country level stories underneath them, ranging from streaming driven prosperity in the Nordics, through market stagnation in the US to crisis in Japan – where revenues collapsed by 16.8%.  The Nordic renaissance helped push Europe into growth but data from the RIAA, show that total US music revenues were down a fraction – 0.3%.  US download sales were down by 0.9% while subscriptions were up an impressive 57% to $628 million.

On the one hand this shows that Spotify has managed to kick the US subscription market into gear following half a decade or so of stagnation.  But on the other it shows that subscriptions take revenue from the most valuable download buyers.  This backs up the trend I previously noted, that streaming takes hold best in markets where downloads never really got started.  Thus markets like the US with robust download sectors will feel growth slowdown as high spending downloaders transition to streaming, while in markets like Sweden where there was no meaningful download sector to speak of, subscriptions can drive green field digital revenue growth.

The Download Is Not Dead Yet

Though subscriptions now account for 27% of digital revenue, the value trend obscures the consumer behavior trend.  For Spotify’s c.9.5 million paying subscribers (or 6 million last officially reported) Apple’s installed base of iTunes music buyers stands at c.200 million (see figure).  The IFPI report that there are now 28 million subscription customers globally.  In the US and UK this translates into 4 or 5% of consumers. Subscriptions do a fantastic job of monetizing the uber fans, just like deluxe vinyl boxsets and fan funding sites like Pledge do so also.  But they are inherently niche in reach.  This is why downloads remain the music industry’s most important digital tool.  Downloads are the most natural consumer entry point into digital music, and if anyone else had been able to come close to matching Apple’s peerless ability to seamlessly integrate downloads into the device experience, then the sector would be much bigger than it is now.

service bubbles

Do not confuse this with being a luddite view that streaming and subscriptions are not the future, they are, but there is a long, long journey to that destination that we are only just starting upon for most consumers.   And before that there is a far more important issue, namely how to get the remaining CD buyers to go digital.

Sleepwalking Into a Post-CD Collapse

Last year the IFPI numbers showed a modest globally recovery but despite the widespread optimism that surrounded those numbers I remained cautious and wrote that it was “a long way from mission accomplished.”  My overriding concern then was the same as it is now, namely that the music industry does not have a CD buyer migration strategy and it desperately needs one.  So much so that unless it develops one it will end up sleepwalking into a CD collapse.   In fact I predicted exactly what has happened:

“CD sales decline will likely accelerate.  Among the top 10 largest music markets in the world CD revenue decline will likely accelerate markedly in the next few years.  In France and the UK leading high street retailers are on their last legs while in Germany and Japan the vast majority (more than 70%) of sales are still physical.  So the challenge for digital is can it grow as quickly as the CD in those markets will decline?

The IFPI have stressed the fact that Japan’s dramatic 15% decline was the root cause of the global downturn.  While this is largely true – without Japan included global revenues still declined 0.1% – Japan’s problems are simply the global industry’s problems squared.  In 2012 a staggering 80% of Japanese music sales were physical but despite the digital market actually declining 4 successive years total revenues increased 4%.  As the world’s second biggest market, when Japan sneezes the global industry catches a cold.   But expect Japan to continue to drag down global revenues and also keep an eye on Germany.  Germany saw a modest 1.2% increase in revenues in 2013 but only 22.6% of sales were digital.  The most likely scenario is that Germany will follow the Japanese trend and go into a CD-driven dive in 2014 and / or 2015.

In conclusion, there is still cause for optimism from these numbers.  Subscriptions are going from strength to strength, at least in revenue terms, and the download sector remains robust in buyer number terms.  But unless the CD problem is fixed, the best both those digital revenue streams can hope to do is consolidate the market around a small rump of digital buyers.

A Tale of Two Cities: What Sweden and the US Tell Us About the Outlook for Streaming

Streaming is the digital zeitgeist, that much is clear.  How it will shape the future of the music business, from artists through to labels is less clear and things are not helped by an increasingly confusing and diverse set of data, each suggesting a slightly different outlook.  A look at two very different digital music markets – Sweden and the US – gives some sense of what the next couple of years should hold.

Notes: for sake of readability the term ‘streaming’ is used to refer to subscriptions and ad supported streaming combined. Also all current year figures are 2013, extrapolating half year figures to create full year estimates.

Two Very Different Streaming Stories

se-use1

Sweden is streaming’s heartland, home of Spotify and the stand out good news story for music subscriptions. Streaming now represents a whopping 95% of digital revenue in Sweden and 67% of all recorded music revenue while downloads make up a paltry 4%.  Streaming growth has been equally impressive (see figure one) and has propelled the total Swedish music market into growth for two successive years.  That growth came at the direct expense of downloads (which declined by 15%) and it accompanied a dramatic 51% collapse in CD sales.  But 2013 revenues look set to come in at just a little below 2003 levels, no mean feat.   Although we need to bear in mind that a surge in growth can easily reverse (as the experience of South Korea shows us) it is clear that streaming has been a strong positive force on total Swedish music revenues.

se-us2

The picture is very different in the US however, where streaming has grown less dynamically and only represents 23% of digital and 14% of overall spending.  As I previously noted, the strength of Apple and the download sector have acted as a pronounced brake on streaming growth in the US.  Neither, however are invincible, and some of Spotify’s 2013 growth has come at the direct expense of download spending which looks set to decline by a percentage point in 2013 (see figure two).  Little wonder Apple has launched iTunes Radio, though ironically the app may well spur a resurgence in download sales.  So in the US streaming is becoming an increasingly important part of the market but shows no sign of suddenly acquiring Sweden-like ubiquity.  Which in part explains a 5% decline in total music revenues between 2010 and 2013.

CONCLUSION: streaming can quickly drive strong growth in markets where downloads never got a foothold but takes more time to impact strong download markets.

The Impact on Total Digital Revenue

Streaming’s impact on the total digital market and indeed on total music sales is of course what counts most, and it is here we see a really interesting divergence between Sweden and the US. Over the last 6 years streaming drove a comparable rate of overall digital growth in Sweden that downloads powered in the US in the mid 2000’s.

se-us3

But when we plot the growth of digital as a percentage of total music sales in the US between 2005 and 2010 against the same data for Sweden between 2008 and 2013 a stark contrast is immediately apparent (see figure three). Whereas digital share growth remained strong throughout the 6 years in Sweden it slowed markedly in the US.  Though growth returned later it didn’t ever replicate those pre-2008 levels.  The number one slowdown factor was the end of iPod sales growth (see this figure to see just how strong the effect was).  Interestingly digital share growth looks likely to slow moderately for both Sweden and the US in 2013.  In Sweden some level of slowdown is to be expected (there isn’t much physical market left to transition!) but there is still a lot of CD ground to be made up in the US.

CONCLUSION: streaming has driven market growth in Sweden and accelerated transition away from the CD and the download. While in the US the CD and the download both still hold much greater sway, culminating in something of a worst of both worlds, with streaming apparently eating into downloads but not having enough headway to transform the market.

The Artist Conundrum

But what does all this mean for artists?  It often feels that something doesn’t quite seem to add up when artist income is brought into the equation. For all the growth in streaming income, a vocal minority of artists and songwriters feel that streaming is damaging, destroying even, their ability to earn a living from music sales.  As I have argued before, a rounded understanding of streaming income for artists must both put streaming in a revenue continuum (i.e. compare it to radio not just downloads) and consider the life time value of a song (i.e. think of the income it will generate over a period of years instead of the revenue full stop a download represents).  In this context streaming is still worth less than a download, but nearer to 5.5 times less valuable rather than 280 times (see my Consumption Analysis piece for more on this).

us-se-4

There is however an added complexity, namely the amount of artists that get revenue from streaming versus downloads and streaming (see figure four).  If we take Spotify’s reported US metrics from 2012 as a benchmark and assume that the average subscriber listens to a modest 5 different artists a month then this is equal to 60 different artists per year per subscriber.  Working with an average total royalty pay out of $0.01 per stream this translates into an average royalty per artist per subscriber of $0.72 in the US.  When applied to the 3 million reported US Spotify subscribers this would equal an average annual royalty of $2.17 per artist.  (Though it is crucial to note that this refers to the total royalty payment made to rights holders and not to whatever share is eventually shared with the creators themselves). Also, there is of course no such thing as an average artist, and in practice a comparatively small number of artists would earn much more than that and most much less (there are after all 27 million tracks’ worth of artists so the tail is super long).

For downloads, extrapolating from Nielsen mid year numbers, the average downloader buys 2 albums and 27 single tracks.  If we assume each of these is for a different artist then we end up with 26 artists per downloader and an average royalty of $1.22 per artist per downloader (using a 70% royalty assumption).  This isn’t actually that much higher than streaming, but things change when it is applied to the total number of download buyers (which at 63 million far outstrips paying subscribers) and results in an average royalty per artist of $76.34 (again total royalty before distribution to creators).

In Sweden though, where there are more subscribers than downloaders the picture is very different.  Applying the same Spotify metrics to an assumed subscriber base of 2 million in Sweden (which feels about right based on survey data and IFPI numbers) we see an average royalty per artist of $1.44 compared to $1.22 for downloads.  (The average royalty per buyer is higher in Sweden because a smaller number of people are buying a smaller number of downloads resulting in the revenue being split fewer ways).

CONCLUSION: streaming can generate meaningful revenue at scale but will still be lower than downloads because of the above mentioned life time value factor and because revenue is split more ways across a wider selection of artists.

The Cost of Democratization of Artist Income

Thus artists are effectively paying the price for the democratization of music: more artists are getting listened to more regularly and as a consequence the pie gets cut into smaller slices. Which raises the interesting dilemma of whether artists speaking out against streaming are also indirectly speaking out against a more equitable distribution of income among artists?!  The core question though is whether the pie can get large enough for those slices to represent anything more than an apetizer for the average professional artist.

All of this extra data may appear to add as much fuddle as it does clarity to the debate, but it is crucial that debate is based upon reasoned understanding of the most complete grounding of data available.    The next couple of years will see streaming go from strength to strength but its impact on global music revenue will be less dramatic than it has been in Sweden, if perhaps more vibrant than it has in the US.

How Downloads Will Determine the Future of Streaming

There is no doubt that streaming subscriptions will play a major role in the future of digital music, but their impact is going to be far from immediate. There also needs to be great caution applied to interpreting the encouraging early signs of the advanced streaming markets and the potential impact on total music sales.

Norway and Sweden both experienced an upturn in music sales in the first half of 2013 thanks largely to the impact of streaming subscriptions, while most of the rest of the global music market continued in its struggle to return to growth after more than a decade of decline.  The easy conclusion to draw is that when streaming subscriptions take hold across the globe, music revenue grow.  While there is some truth in the argument, it is too simplistic.

streaming 1

An analysis of the leading streaming markets (Sweden, Norway, France, Netherlands) and the leading download markets (US, UK, Germany, Japan) – see figure one – reveals that streaming took hold in markets where downloads had not.  The markets where downloads represented the lowest share of total music sales in 2010 (before streaming really kicked off) are those that in 2013 had the rates of streaming as a share of digital music revenue.  In markets where downloads were making the biggest contribution to total music income (not just digital) streaming did not get much of a look in in 2013.  In the US and UK streaming subscriptions were in market long before Spotify and Deezer, but most digital music consumers opted for downloads and have been unwilling to switch allegiances since.  It will happen over time, but right now downloads have a firm grip and that is largely because of Apple.

streaming 2

When we look at the same countries plotted by streaming share against Apple device penetration we see an even more pronounced trend – see figure two.  Here the relationship is clear: streaming has taken hold where Apple has not.  In short, there was no established mainstream digital music service and streaming subscriptions filled the void.  But of greatest significance is the impact on total music revenue.  These strong streaming markets contribute just 10% to global digital revenue, even though France and the Netherlands are two of the world’s top 10 music markets.  Meanwhile the UK and US alone count for 54%.  If you factor in Japan and Germany too you have 71% of all digital music income, and within these four countries (the four biggest music markets) streaming accounted for just 10% of digital revenue.

On the other side of the equation, streaming has brought unparalleled growth in its core markets: across Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands digital revenue grew by an average of 213% between 2010 and 2013, compared to an average of just 40% across the big four markets (though Japan’s declining digital sector pulls that average down).  And of course the Swedish and Norwegian music markets both grew in 2012 and 2013 while the rest did not.

While there is not a clear cut ‘answer’ to streaming’s likely long term impact we can however draw a few important conclusions:

  • Streaming will grow more slowly in markets where Apple and the download market are strong (which helps explain why growth of Spotify et al appears to have slowed in markets like the US and UK).
  • Streaming can make a digital market grow more quickly than downloads can (though it does so normally at the direct expense of downloads – download sales shrank in both Sweden and Norway in 2012 and 2013)
  • ‘Home turf’ counts.  Most of the big streaming markets have their own local heroes (Sweden – Spotify, Norway – WiMP, France – Deezer) – all of whom also benefited from hard bundles and marketing support from their incumbent telcos. Meanwhile Apple of course prospers on its home turf and that of the English speaking UK.
  • Consumer behavior and technology are all edging towards a more access based world and it is inevitable that the download will become less important.  So although these brakes on streaming adoption exist in many markets, they will slow rather than halt the transition. Streaming will near 50% of global digital revenues by 2018.

Streaming remains bedeviled by countless issues – not least artist payments – but what is clear is that it has the ability to transform the shape of the digital music market.  And while that change may be slower to come than the Swedish and Norwegian experiences might suggest, come it will.