The Three Things You Need To Know About The UK Music Sales Figures

As most people expected, the UK recorded music industry returned to growth in 2015. The UK now follows an increasingly familiar European narrative of strong streaming growth helping bring total markets back to growth. Sales revenue increased 3.5% to reach £1.1 billion while total streams increased by 85% to reach 53.7 billion, with audio stream representing 49.9% of that total. There is no doubt that these are welcome figures for the UK music industry but as is always the case, a little digging beneath the surface of the numbers reveals a more complex and nuanced story. Here are the three things you need to know about UK music sales in 2015.

1 – Streaming Growth Accompanied A Download Collapse

Long term readers will know that I’ve long argued the ‘Replacement Theory’, that streaming growth directly reduces download sales. It is a simple and inevitable artefact of the transition process. Indeed a quarter of subscribers state they used to but no longer buy more than one album a month since they started paying for streaming. There have been plenty of opponents to this argument, normally from parties with vested interests. But the market data is now becoming unequivocal. While streams increased by 257% between 2013 and 2015 download sales decreased by 23%. And of course the vast majority of that streaming volume came from free streams, not paid.

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2 – The Transition Follows A Clear Defined Path

The download to streaming transition is an inevitability, whatever business models are wrapped around it. It is part of the fundamental shift from ownership to access of which streaming music is but single component. It comprises consumers progressively replacing one behaviour with another. In fact, the evolution is so deliberate and predictable that it manifests in a clear numerical relationship: the Transition Triangle.

The UK music industry trade body the BPI has created a number of additional classifications for music sales and consumption. These include Stream Equivalent Albums (1,000 streams = 1 album) and Track Equivalent Sales (10 track sales = 1 album). Using these classifications and adding in actual album download sales we see a very clear relationship between the growth of streaming and the decline of downloads. The difference in volumes between downloads and streams each year is almost exactly the same as the amount by which downloads decreased the previous year. At this point even the most ardent replacement theory sceptic might start suspecting there’s at least some degree of causality at play.

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3 – Thanks Are Due To Adele, Again

Back when Adele’s ‘21’ was setting sales records, music markets across the globe owed her a debt of gratitude for helping slow the incessant decline in sales. Global revenue decline fell to less than 1% and US revenue actually grew by 2.9% (falling back down the following year). Now she’s done it again with ’25’, giving album sales enough of a boost to ensure that the growth in streaming revenue lifted the entire market. For although album sales actually declined in 2015 and streaming volumes had grown more strongly in 2014, it was the combined impact of slowed album decline and streaming growth in 2015 that enabled the total market to grow so strongly.

Adele generated around £25 million of retail sales revenue in 2015, which was equivalent to 70% of the £36 million by which UK music sales revenue increased that year. While of course a portion of that £25 million would have been spent on other repertoire if ‘25’ had not been released, the majority would not. With ‘21’ and now with ‘25’ Adele has been able to pull casual music consumers out of the woodwork and persuade them to buy one of the only albums they’ll buy all year, often the only one.

Without that £25 million UK music sales would have increased by just 1%.  So in effect streaming services have Adele to thank for ensuring their growth lifted the whole market even though she famously held ‘25’ back from each and every one of them. Sweet irony indeed.

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As a final postscript, the role of YouTube, while underplayed in the official figures, is crucial. While audio streams grew by an impressive 81% in 2015, video streams grew by 88%. So however good a job the streaming services might be doing of growing their market, YouTube is doing an even better one.

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What Is Really Cannibalising Download Sales

As 2013 music sales figures come in, the picture of streaming growing while download sales slow is coming sharply into focus. It is one of a clear phase  of transition/cannibalization (delete as appropriate depending on your point of view) taking place because the majority of paying music subscribers were already download buyers.  But that is not the whole picture.  There is an even fiercer form of competition for spend that, as far as the music industry is concerned, is inarguably driving cannibalization.

The iTunes Store accounts for the majority of the global music download market and has done so since its inception eleven years ago.  Back when it launched, the iTunes Music Store helped transform the iPod from a modestly performing device into a global hit.  Music was the killer app, music was what Apple used to sell the device and music is what iTunes customers spent all of their money on.  But all of that changed.  As Apple’s devices have done progressively more, Apple has introduced new content types into its store that better show off the capabilities of its devices.  When Apple launches a new iPad it doesn’t have a label exec holding up the new device playing a song with static artwork displayed…that simply would not showcase the device’s capabilities.  Instead an EA Games exec gets up on stage with a new game that fully leverages the capabilities of the iPad’s graphics accelerator, the accelerometer, the multi touch screen etc.

Music may still be the single most popular entertainment activity conducted on iDevices but it is no longer the app that fully harnesses the devices’ capabilities.  In fact because music products and services remain stuck in the rut of delivering static audio files – YouTube notably excepted – it is increasingly failing to compete at the top table in terms of connected device experiences.  Crucially, this is not just a behavioral trend, it is directly impacting spending too (see figure).

itunes spending shift

Back in 2003 music accounted for 100% of iTunes Store revenue because that was all that was available.  Over the years Apple introduced countless new content types, each of which progressively competed for the iTunes buyer’s wallet share.  The step change though occurred in 2008 with the launch of the App Store.  The impact was instant and by mid 2009 music already accounted for less than 50% of iTunes revenue.   By the end of 2003 the transformation was complete with Apps accounting for 62% of spending and music less than a quarter.  Quite a fall from grace for what was once the undisputed king of the iTunes castle.

Now it is clear that the app economy is a bubble that is likely to undergo some form of recalibration process soon (80%+ of revenues are in app, 90%+ of those are games, and the lion’s share of those revenues are concentrated in a handful of companies) but the damage has already been done to music spending.

If music industry concerns about download cannibalization should be addressed anywhere it is first and foremost at apps.  At least with streaming services consumer spending remains within music rather than seeping out to games.  Though the bulk of the app revenue is ‘found’ incremental revenue, apps are additionally competing for the share of the iTunes’ customers wallet i.e. growth is coming both from green field spend and at the expense of other content types.

So what can the music industry do?  It would be as foolish as it would be futile to try to hold back the tide. Instead, music product strategy needs to do more to embrace the app economy.  That means, among other things:

  • More fully leverage in-app payments (and that means labels will have to take some of the hit on the 30% app store tax)
  • Learn to harness the dynamics of games (that does not mean ‘gamify’ music products necessarily – though it can mean that too – but to understand what makes casual app games resonate)
  • Develop digital era, multimedia products (see this report for some pointers on where music product strategy should go)

Though we are nowhere close to talking about the death of music downloads, apps have turned the tide for music spending.  The music industry can either sit back and feel sorry for itself, or seize the app opportunity by the scruff of the neck.