Major label revenue surged in 2021, but what does that mean?

2021 was an anomalous year for the recorded music market. Two of the majors did an IPO, the pandemic continued to disrupt the marketplace, and major label revenues grew at unprecedented rates. If the fourth quarter majors’ earnings follow similar seasonality patterns to previous years, collective major label recorded music revenue will be up by 29% in 2021, reaching $19.6 billion (a more bearish estimate is $19.3 billion). By way of comparison, 2020 growth was 6%, and 2019 was 10%. To put it another way, major label revenue increased by $787 million in 2020, and in 2021 it was up by $4.4 billion. 2021 was a red-letter year for the major labels, but was it a one-off or an industry pivot point?

To get to the answer, we first need to contextualise major label revenue growth within the wider market. 

Streaming 

Predictably, streaming was the core driver of major label revenue growth in 2021, accounting for 67% of the revenue, and up by 31% to reach $12.8 billion. That level of annual streaming growth has not been seen since 2016. 2020 streaming growth was 18%. But streaming’s leading player, Spotify, did see that kind of growth. Spotify’s full year 2021 revenues look set to hit €9.6 billion (which would be up by 22% from 2020), and if we only consider premium growth (i.e., the part that is not boosted by podcast revenue), then growth was just 19%. And it is not as if Spotify is losing much ground in the global streaming market – its subscriber growth was largely in line with the global market average (excluding China). So, the majors grew streaming faster, somewhere beyond Spotify.

The total market

The major labels’ total revenue growth also follows a different trajectory to other parts of the market, The year-to-date performance of just one of the top four recorded music markets matches the majors’ trend (bear in mind that these four markets were 62% of global label revenues in 2020, so they shape global growth trends):

  • US: 27.1% growth (H1) – RIAA
  • Japan: -1.0% (Jan-Nov) – RIAJ 
  • UK: 8.7% (FY) – ERA
  • Germany: 12.4% (H1) – BVMI

(It will be interesting to see how the IFPI allocates the revenue. There may well be quite a gap between their global total and the sum total of all the individual countries if this is indeed largely attributable to one off payments rather than reflecting organic, country level revenue.)

All of this means that the additional major label growth is likely reflective of factors such as:

  • Large, one-off payments from the likes of ByteDance, Twitch and Facebook
  • Licensing income from the same parties
  • Increased contribution from other markets
  • Market share increase from catalogue acquisitions 
  • Revenue growth from major-distributed independents
  • Organic market share growth

While all of these factors will be at play, it is the first two factors that are likely the most consequential. MIDiA estimates that these new non-DSP streaming income sources accounted for between $0.8 and $1.2 billion in 2021. Even at the lower end of the estimates, that revenue alone would have driven the same amount of growth in 2021 as all major label revenue growth combined in 2020. 

There is a clear narrative that post-digital service provider (DSP) revenue is now becoming a central growth driver for the recorded music business. Clearly a very beneficial narrative to have had during an IPO year, especially if the trend was accentuated by one-off payments and settlements – which would help explain the divergence between major label growth and local market growth. 

There are two key potential scenarios:

  1. Upfront payments for post-DSP streaming partners exceed organic mid-term revenue, resulting in slower growth rates in 2022 and 2023
  2. Post-DSP streaming partners meet / exceed expectations, making 2021 and 2022 look much like the late 2000s and early 2010s did for DSP streaming, with minimum guarantees being more often than not 

So, by 2023 we should be able to tell whether 2021 was a spike or a pivot point. If I was a betting man, I would probably put money on the outlook being closer to 2 than to 1.

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. 

Take Five (The Big Five Stories and Data You Need To Know)

Spotify, price hike: Pricing is streaming’s big problem. With premium revenue growth set to slow and ARPU declining due to family plans, discounts, bundles etc., the business needs another way to drive revenue. Unlike video, where pricing has increased above inflation, music has stayed at $9.99 so has deflated in real terms. On the case, Spotify is reported to be experimenting with increasing family plan pricing by 13% in Nordic markets. An encouraging move, but falls short of what is needed.

Viacom and CBS, old flames: Back in 1999 Viacom and CBS merged in a deal valued at $35.6 billion. Things didn’t work out and the companies parted ways in 2005. Now, 20 years on, they’re at it again. This time CBS is buying Viacom in an all-stock deal valued at $28 billion that would consolidate 22% of US TV audience share. It is a very different move from 1999, when the deal saw the companies on the offensive. This is a defensive move against digital disruption. As Disney and Fox have shown, media companies need to be really big to take on tech companies. Expect more media company strategic mergers and acquisitions over the coming years.

Twitch, user revolt: Amazon’s games video streaming platform Twitch finds itself in an awkward spat with top Fortnite gamer Ninja. Twitch promoted other channels on Ninja’s channel, including inadvertently promoting porn. Ninja promptly left Twitch, lured by Microsoft’s deep pockets to switch allegiance to Mixer. Ironically, the big-pay-for-smaller-audience move is similar to the Top Gear presenters’ switch from the BBC to Amazon. Now Amazon knows how it feels. Before it happens again, it needs to decide whether streamers own their own channels – or whether it does.

Tencent, bleeding edge: Though the impending 30X EBITDA purchase of 10% of UMG has got the world’s attention right now, music has always been something of a side bet for Tencent. Games are more central to Tencent’s strategy. Still smarting from the Chinese authorities suddenly playing regulatory hardball on its domestic games business, Tencent is finding its stride again, including a partnership with chipmaker Qualcomm to innovate on the ‘bleeding edge’ of (mobile) games.

Nike, sneaker revolution: Who said subscriptions had to be digital? Nike has just launched a trainer / sneaker subscription aimed at kids. Well, it’s actually aimed at the parents of kids, with a monthly fee for quarterly, bimonthly or monthly purchases that results in net savings on trainers. Fast-growing kids constantly need new shoes, and this move reduces the risk of brand churn with cost-conscious parents. Footwear business economics aside, the growing legacy of digital content is familiarising consumers with subscription relationships.

MIDiA Research Predictions 2017: The Year Of The Platform

MRP1611-coverFollowing an 84% success rate for our 2016 Predictions report, we today launch our 2017 predictions report: ‘MIDiA Research Predictions 2017: The Year Of The Platform’. The report is immediately available to all MIDiA subscription clients and can also be purchased for individual download from our report store here.

Here are some highlights:

2016 was the year that video ate the world. 2017 will be the year of the platform, the year in which the tech majors will fight for pre-eminence in the digital economy, competing for consumer attention through formatting and distribution wars. Companies that are already using mobile Operating Systems to achieve global reach will take the next step, creating Mobile Life Ecosystems that both break out of the app silo walls and straddle them. Facebook, Amazon, Tencent, Microsoft, Apple and Google/Alphabet will be the main players. 2015 was about parking tanks on each other’s front lawns, in 2016 shots were fired, 2017 will be all-out war. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and voice assistance will be key battlegrounds and indeed will form the glue of Mobile Life Ecosystems.

Some of MIDiA’s other key predictions for 2017 are:

  • Services are the new black: Maturing ‘phone and tablet markets mean that hardware companies will place a greater focus on digital content and services in 2017. Services are an opportunity to drive strong growth that will compensate for slowing device sales
  • Ad market growing pains: Digital advertising inventory supply will exceed demand in 2017. Audience engagement will grow more quickly than advertisers’ appetite. Consequently, ad rates will decline with the bloating of the market by content farms accentuating the problem. Facebook will not be alone in seeing slowing ad revenues in 2017.
  • A tech major will be hit with the first stage of an anti-trust suit: The incoming US Presidency has made its anti-trust inclinations clear. A likely early target will be the AT&T/Time Warner merger. The global-scale tech companies may be mature companies but their respective sectors are not. Regulation is one of the inevitable growing pains of maturing business sectors. Digital is next.
  • Snapchat’s IPO will be digital’s canary in the mine: App store era unicorns and their attendant Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) will redefine the media and tech landscape. Not only will the success, or failure, of Snapchat’s IPO affect those of Uber and Spotify, poor showings could deflate the VC bubble andput an end to the grow-at-all-costs For the music industry, the stakes are even higher, as an under-achieving Spotify IPO would create a crisis in confidence in the entire streaming market.

Among our music predictions for 2017 are Spotify’s IPO and the subsequent start of a new generation of experiential streaming services, Tidal selling (probably to Apple) while Spotify closes out the year with around 55 million subscribers to Apple Music’s 30 million.