What the 2018 Success of the Beatles for UMG Tells Us About Where Streaming is Heading

Universal Music Group recorded an impressive €6 billion in revenue in 2018, bolstering a JP Morgan valuation of $50 billion. No doubt, UMG is enjoying a purple patch, riding and driving the wave of recorded music industry growth. But as with an any industry transition, progress is not linear and the past can have a lingering embrace. In UMG’s earnings report lies a small but crucial detail that point to the fact that the music industry’s path ahead may not be quite as straight as it first appears: the continued success of the Beatles.

The Beatles were UMG’s fourth best seller in 2018 

On page 13 of Vivendi’s year-end financial report, the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ is listed as UMG’s fourth best seller in 2018. It finished ahead of frontline artists including XXXTentacion, Migos and Ariane Grande. Above it were Drake’s ubiquitous ‘Scorpion’, Post Malone’s ‘Beerbongs & Bentleys’ and the soundtrack to ‘A Star is Born’. On the one hand this reflects the continued importance of the Beatles as a revenue driver for UMG. The Beatles, along with Abbey Road, were among the ‘crown jewels’ that UMG gained when it acquired EMI in 2012, so it is encouraging for UMG that the Beatles continue to deliver top tier revenue. However, Beatles revenue is not only a very different thing from Drake revenue, it also highlights the earnings divide between physical sales and streaming.

Streaming’s twin promise

The long-term promise of streaming is the combination of:

  1. Delivering larger audiences
  2. Replacing near-term, large volume revenue for a longer-term, annuity-like income model

Item number two happened very quickly; item number one is still in progress, but moving sufficiently enough to ensure many artists are now able to earn meaningful streaming income. However, we are not yet at our streaming destination, which is illustrated by the prominence of the Beatles in UMG’s 2018 sales. A ranking that owes little to streaming.

The Beatles are not a streaming powerhouse

According to the BPI, music from the 1960s accounted for just 3.6% of catalogue streams in the UK, which represents about 2% of all streams. Let’s assume the Beatles account for 40% of those streams – which is probably a generous assumption, this would mean the Beatles represented 0.8% of the $9.6 billion of streaming revenue in 2018, which translates as $79 million, which in turn equates to 2.7% of UMG’s 2018 streaming revenue. A meaningful amount for sure for a single artist, but not that significant in the greater streaming scheme of things. Therefore, the Beatles did not get to be UMG’s fourth biggest seller through streams. Instead, it did so through physical sales.

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The main release in 2018 was the 50th Anniversary edition of the White Album. This premium physical release includes a $25 edition, right through to a $145 deluxe box set. With such high-unit prices, only small numbers need be sold to generate meaningful revenue.

To illustrate the point, let’s assume UMG collects around $15 of the $25 retail price and $100 of the $145 edition. To generate $7.5 million of label revenue, UMG would need to sell just half a million copies of the $25 edition and only 75,000 of the Boxsets. To generate the same $7.5 million from streaming UMG would need to have 62.5 million people each streaming 15 tracks from the album. $7.5 million is incidentally also roughly the amount a label would earn from selling a million copies of a standard priced album.

Streaming cannot yet match CD-era album revenue metrics

This gets to the heart of the matter of why streaming is creating, alongside a welcome growing body of middle-tier artists, a small handful of megastars. To replicate physical sales success, an artist must have exceptional streaming success. To replicate standout physical success requires as yet ungraspable streaming success.

For example, the number one album in the US in 2000 – NYSNC’s ‘No Strings Attached’ – sold over nine million copies, which would require 600 million people each streaming it all once — roughly 8.5 billion streams — to generate the same income. That is more streams than the entirety of Drake’s 2018 Spotify streams across the entire planet – Drake was Spotify’s most streamed artist. In short, streaming is currently large enough to make record labels grow, but not yet vast enough to create artist-level revenue on the same scale that that the CD peak once did.

Longer-term revenue may, or may not, add up.

The counter argument is that over a number of years the revenue will add up to the equal. But even with that assumption, an album would need to generate around a billion streams a year over eight years to replicate the success of NSYNC’s ‘No Strings Attached’. No easy task when you factor in the dynamics of streaming consumption i.e. playlists replacing albums, new music being pushed over catalogue etc.

None of this is to suggest that streaming is failing, nor that UMG’s revenues are in question. Both are doing well. Instead, it is evidence that we still have much distance to go with streaming before we can start seeing artist-level successes on a par with the peak of the industry. Though of course streaming-level success needs measuring differently than CD-era success, so these comparisons provide context rather than performance targets.

Will there ever be another Beatles’ greatest hits?

One intriguing post-script to all of this is that with download revenue falling by 15% in 2018, and physical by 7%, the days of large-scale album sales are long gone. When this is considered alongside the Beatles’ under-representation on streaming, the elephant in the room is whether UMG would ever risk releasing a Beatles greatest hits album for fear of underwhelming sales numbers damaging the Fab Four’s legacy. The last greatest hits was ‘1’ back in 2000 during the EMI years. Might it just be that UMG bought the Beatles too late ever to release their last ever greatest hits?

The Beatles, Streaming And The End Of The Record Label Business Model

So the Beatles are finally coming to streaming…well much of the Beatles’ catalogue is at least.  Is it a big deal?  Kind of. The Beatles were late to iTunes and they’re now late to streaming.  Fashionably late though. No so soon as to be left standing awkwardly waiting for something to happen and not too late to miss the real action.

The Beatles are unique enough, and important enough to dictate their own terms and set their own timetable. For streaming services the Beatles catalogue is strategically important in the way it was for iTunes in that it helps communicate the value proposition of all the music in the world…well most of it. For the Beatles it represents the opportunity to reach younger audiences that sales are currently missing (which in large part explains why the catalogue is being made available on free tiers too).

It’s All About Targeting

20 years ago everyone pretty much bought the same product, the CD. Now though the music consumer landscape is fragmented and siloed. The fact that Adele’s ‘Hello’ simultaneously delivered stellar performance across audio streaming, video streaming, download sales and radio illustrates that there are many highly distinct groups of consumers that do one but not the other. This what Universal will be banking on with bringing the Beatles to streaming: they’ll be hoping that most of the future prospective buyers of Beatles albums are not streaming. For as long as this elongated transition phase continues, this sort of approach can work.

What Happens When The Bottom Falls Out Of the Catalogue Business?

The business model of record labels has long depended on revenue from back catalogue propping up the loss-leading new artists, on whom labels have to spend heavily to break. That model works as long as back catalogue sales are vibrant. But cracks are now showing in that model. Labels, especially the big ones, are increasingly spending even more heavily on a smaller number of big bets. For major labels many of these are either manufactured or laser targeted pop acts that grow big fast but like genetically modified crops, soak the nutrients out of their fan-base soil and are less likely to have long term careers. This means breaking artists are costing more to break and have less long term revenue potential.

That double whammy in itself would be bad enough, but there is an even more important structural factor at play. Catalogue sales depend on people buying classic albums, reissues and retrospectives. The secret is in the term ‘sales’. The model does not translate the same way to sales. Getting someone to spend $10 on an album for old times’ sake that they might listen to a handful of times but value having in their collection is very different from earning $0.20 or so from the same number of listens. But that is the way the world is heading. Older music buyers (i.e. from late 30’s onwards) are the lifeblood of catalogue sales.

That model works for older consumers that grew up buying music and thus have the habit. But what happens what happens when the first millennials enter their late 30s? Which is exactly what is going to start happening from 2016 onwards. As each new cohort of aging millennials passes 35 a smaller percentage of them will have ever regularly bought music. Thus from 2016 onwards every year will mean an ever smaller number of catalogue buyers coming into the top of the funnel.

The long term implications are clear. While this will not be anything like an instant collapse, the impact will be progressively more painful as each year passes. The old label model of developing a vast bank of copyrights will become less and less relevant.

So Beatles, welcome to streaming, this will be your last new format hurrah.

Why Full Albums Need to Go from YouTube Right Away

YouTube has long been the digital music anomaly: hugely successful, almost free of criticism but with a pitifully small pay-per-stream rate (below half that of Spotify, who does get criticism, and some).  YouTube is now on the verge of launching a subscription product and this will hopefully go some way of addressing the fact it has made the marketing journey the consumption destination.  But the music industry should keep its aspirations in check, not just about the potential impact of the service, but also – and perhaps most importantly – because of YouTube’s intent.

Google is a rights frenemy.  Rights frenemies strike a careful balance between maintaining good relations with rights holders on one side of their business but testing the limits on the other side. They pursue a do first, ask forgiveness later strategy.  Thus all the while Google is launching two music subscription services (Google Play Music All Access and the forthcoming YouTube offering) it is also lobbying for copyright reform and posting a link to chillingeffects.org for every successful copyright takedown.  In other words Google talks the talk but only reluctantly so and it does the absolute minimum of walking the walk.

Nowhere is this approach more apparent in YouTube and the presence of user uploaded ‘full albums’.   A coherent argument can be made that 383 million views of Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ Vevo video delivered clear benefits to the artist and her team (both though direct Vevo advertising and the vast exposure).  Full length albums ripped into YouTube by users have no such benefit.  In fact labels in the main do what they can to remove them using YouTube’s takedown process.  If Google was a rights ally rather than a rights frenemy it wouldn’t solely wait to be told to take stuff down, at least for the really obvious and high profile stuff, but it doesn’t.

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Take a look at these top search results for Adele, U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beatles (see figure 1).  The full album results are high lighted in red, many of which have hundreds of thousands of views each, in the case of Adele’s ‘21’ it is more than 1 million, and some have been live for more than a year.  In the case of the Beatles all of the top results are full albums.  I doubt that the Beatles spent the best part of a decade not licensing to iTunes in order to suddenly throw it all straight up on YouTube.

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There are also endless ripped live DVDs and recorded TV broadcasts of live concerts (see figure 2). It’s pretty hard to see why somebody would want to buy a live DVD of a U2 show when they can get the entire show in 1080p HD on YouTube.  And of course because it is a continual 2 hours and 22 minutes of video the viewing experience will be virtually ad free, save for a 30 second pre-roll and the odd pop up which can easily be clicked off.  The only winner here in business terms is YouTube.

Not all the blame can be laid at Google’s feet though: these examples were found immediately, with no effort, so it is inconceivable that someone somewhere in each of the respective labels doesn’t also know about this.  Thus someone has taken the decision in some of these instances to take the benefit of the ‘exposure’ in return for cannibalizing sales of the exact same music the exposure is supposed to drive sales of.  It is this conflicted view of YouTube (i.e. ‘we couldn’t sell as much music without it even though we lose sales because of it) that needs to be fixed.  Google can hardly be blamed for having a schizophrenic approach to the music industry if the industry does exactly the same back.

But relationship issues notwithstanding, full albums need to disappear from YouTube right now. They need to do so if for no other reason than to level the playing field for those music services that pay back at higher rates to rights owners and that actually try to get consumers to pay for music.  Labels and Google, bang your respective heads together!

For Those About to Download….

This week Apple and Colombia announced the arrival of another big digital holdout to the iTunes Store: AC/DC.  Having grown up listening to AC/DC and playing Angus Young riffs such as the seminal ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ in my high school heavy metal band, my level of interest in this announcement is perhaps a little biased.  But there are a couple of important factors here:

  • The digital hold outs are being won over by downloads. When Apple first launched the iTunes Music Store there were plenty of high profile holdouts, the most significant of which being the Beatles.  Over the subsequent years most of those holdouts have come on board.  iTunes is no longer the scary unknown quantity it once was.  iTunes is now the establishment. Its FUD Factor (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) has largely diminished.
  • But streaming is still a step too far. By contrast streaming services such as Spotify are at a much earlier stage of their evolution and their FUD Factor is high.  Thus Spotify has a sizeable body of holdouts, including AC/DC. The same fear of the unknown that once afflicted iTunes now tars Spotify, Deezer, Rdio et al.  The paid download might feel like the embodiment of security and safeness now, but back in the early noughties it struck terror into the hearts of many music industry executives who, rightly as it transpired, feared that it would result in consumers hacking away at albums to skip to the singles.  Streaming will ultimately hone its model and win over the doubters but it will be a slow and steady process.  After all it took a decade for AC/DC to be won over by iTunes.

The Importance of Not Getting too Hung Up on Yesterday’s Stars

Back when the Beatles were finally licensed to the iTunes Store I went on record as saying it wasn’t actually a big deal for the digital music market.  I found myself the subject of torrents of abuse from Beatles fans (for entertainment’s sake you can see the comments here). The point I was making was that the Beatles, as important as they are both creatively and commercially, are part of the past.  They are not what matters to the generation of young music fans that the music industry really needs to win over with (paid) digital services.  The Digital Natives who currently just aren’t spending money on music.  The Beatles were a big coup but they mattered much more to Steve Job’s generation than to tweens and teenagers.  For sake of impartiality I have to apply the same rule to AC/DC, who matter much more to my generation than to the Digital Natives.  AC/DC finally being won over to the iTunes Store is important progress, but much more important will be more digital services which get young music fans on the music spending ladder.  BBM Music is a rare and under-appreciated foray into this market.

Defusing the Demographic Timebomb

A Demographic Timebomb is ticking: unless the Digital Natives start spending meaningful amounts of money on music soon (either directly or indirectly) the gaping hole they will leave in music spending as they get older (and thus have more music to spend) will make the current decline in music revenues look like a mere blip.  In fact this is a warning I first made 7 years ago, and we are already feeling the first effects, but there is still time to address the issue.

A lot is made of the importance of iTunes in tapping the young, pre-credit card market, by dint of teenagers using their parents’ iTunes accounts to buy music. It is certainly an important factor but the scale is far below where it needs to be to have a meaningful impact on the pre-credit card youth and it is unfair to expect Apple to bear all of that burden. Although it is worth considering that as the iPod transitions towards being a youth product that Apple may yet be the key link in the youth chain.

So welcome to the digital age AC/DC, and congratulations to Apple for getting them on board the digital bandwagon, but I hope your arrival does not distract from the even more important task of winning over the Digital Natives.