Why the Music Industry Should be Watching Twitter’s Stock Price

This is the chart that the music industry needs to be paying close attention to over the coming weeks and months (it’s Twitter’s stock price).  How well Twitter fares will be a bellwether for digital consumer service investments. Two of the music industry’s biggest bets (outside of the big tech trio of Apple, Amazon and Google) are Spotify and Deezer.  Both of whom are performing strongly (Deezer just hit 5 million paying subscribers and Spotify could be edging towards 10 – see my prediction from last year).  But both have also taken very significant amounts of investment resulting in valuations that markedly narrow the pool of potential buyers.  For Spotify in particular a flotation looks like the best route of realizing a strong return for its investors, particularly the later stage ones.

Facebook’s flotation rattled a lot of the investment community.  Although it eventually recovered and is now trading solidly, it sowed fear and uncertainty about the ability of digital consumer companies to translate business plan valuations into actual market trading value.  Those of a certain age recalled painful memories of the dotcom bubble bursting and the near instantaneous disappearance of billions of dollars worth of dotcom company valuations.

If Twitter’s stock price falters over the next 6 weeks or so then it will make an IPO all the more challenging to sell to the market.  But if Twitter does well, some of those lingering doubts and concerns will be assuaged, paving the way – in a best case scenario – for a new dawn of digital consumer company IPOs.

The stock market is a fickle beast and though underpinned by some of the most sophisticated financial modeling on the planet, is easily swayed by investor sentiment, which in turn is driven by that equally ineffable of qualities: momentum.  If Spotify can report 10 million paying subscribers some time over the coming months it will have a clear momentum story to tell.  If Twitter’s stock price holds up into the start of 2014 Spotify will be able to translate its momentum into market sentiment and build towards an IPO.

There is of course no guarantee Spotify, or Deezer, will IPO, but the option looks like a strong commercial and strategic fit given the direction of travel of the digital music market and the companies’ current valuations. If one or both companies successfully IPO or successfully exit via a trade sale or some other route then the music industry will be able to breathe a huge sigh relief and brace itself for a resurgence in digital music investment.

Right now digital music is not a great investment proposition for professional investors, especially VCs.  They see sizeable chunks of their investment disappearing straight onto the bottom line of record labels in the form of advances and guaranteed payments; a congested market that still remains predominately niche in reach; and the CD still lingering as the world’s largest music sales revenue source.  But get a couple of high profile exits under the belt and the music industry will appear a far more compelling investment proposition, with investors more willing to tolerate the costs of doing business in music.  First though, Twitter needs to deliver the goods. Keep watching that chart!

Making Freemium Add Up

Today at MIDiA Consulting we have released a new report on the digital content sector entitled ‘Making Freemium Add Up’.

The report combines an unprecedented appraisal of key freemium service metrics with market analysis and recommendations to create a definitive assessment of the freemium marketplace.  In the report we analyse an intentionally diverse selection of consumer web services, looking at the distribution and scale of their user bases and the relationship of these with their business models.  Services tracked range from music services like Slacker, through utility services like Skype to social services like Google+.  It also includes long term data trend analysis of Spotify, Deezer and Pandora.

The report is available for free to all subscribers to Music Industry Blog (to subscribe just add your email address in the Email Subscription box to the right of this post.  If you are already a subscriber but have not yet received a copy of the report by email please email mark AT midiaconsulting DOT COM).

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

  • Inactive users: inactive user rates range from 13% to 77%.  Social services have the highest rates (77% for Instagram and 66% for Twitter).  Inactive users are a key characteristic of all registration based services with free-to-consumer tiers, but the registered-to-active rate is below average for all freemium services However freemium inactive users are also often highly interested customers who simply need hooking up with the right pricing and product. In short, freemium inactive user bases are priceless qualified marketing lead databases.  The challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff, to differentiate between disinterested freeloaders and potentially valuable paying customers.
  • Paid users: paid user rates range from less than 1% to 90%.  But both ends of the scale are outliers.  At the low end Soundcloud’s premium tiers are aimed at the smaller audience of creators that are just a small subset of its 180 million active users. While at the other end Valve’s gaming platform steam is more digital retail store than pure freemium destination.   The risk for all freemium services is ensuring the free tier isn’t too good, unless free users are your key revenue source (cf Hulu and Pandora). Spotify and Deezer appear to have hit a conversion sweet spot, a solid balance between compelling free tiers and better enough paid tiers.
  • Scarcity counts: a music service user risks little by churning because he can still easily get all the same music elsewhere if he cancels his Spotify subscription.  But if you stop playing Angry Birds you’ll find few other places where you can hurl bad tempered feathered missiles at egg-stealing green pigs.  Similarly churning out of a social network carries a high ‘churn risk’ for consumers as they will weaken their ability to connect with extended social circles online
  • The free-to-paid divide needs narrowing: the gap from free to paid is high, a significant leap of faith is required from the user.  Whereas the gap from zero to $0.99 for Angry Birds free to paid is a modest step, from zero to $9.99 for Spotify or Deezer portable is a much more sizeable hurdle.  Thus converting to paid for music subscription services is a more sizeable achievement than for low priced gaming apps. More needs to be done to bridge the divide.  This can be achieved in through bundles and innovative pricing. Though this must be set against the risk of cannibalizing full price tiers.

making freemium add up

Why Twitter #music Should Only Be Considered a Small First Step

So finally Twitter leveraged its We Are Hunted acquisition and today launched the much expected, if not necessarily much anticipated, Twitter #music.  I say ‘not necessarily much anticipated’ not so much because Twitter isn’t a big deal in the digital music ecosystem (it is) but more because few expected Twitter to do anything particularly groundbreaking here.

Making Twitter’s Music Experience 3 Dimensional

Twitter #music is a neat integration of Twitter music content, such as artists’ Twitter accounts and tweets, integrated with iTunes previews streams and (for Rdio and Spotify users) full audio playback.  All of which undoubtedly brings genuine additional value and turns the Twitter music experience from something pretty superficial and two dimensional into a three dimensional music experience.  But in doing so (some nice UI and discovery algorithms aside) Twitter is essentially just doing a Facebook.  It is leveraging its audience’s behavior as a navigational front end for existing music services.

This is of course a good thing, pulling together the disparate social, graphic and audio elements of the digital music landscape into a cohesive whole.  But it is also so much less than what Twitter, Facebook and Google+ could and should do.

What Twitter, Facebook and Google+ Could and Should Do

Between them Twitter, Facebook and Google+ have a cumulative 2 billion registered users and 1.5 billion cumulative active users.  In short, just about every online and mobile music fan.  These three social powerhouses between them also provide homes to the majority of artists online. This sort of power, influence and reach is staggering. And yet so far all that the three have seen fit to do is plug into other music services.

Now that might be the most sensible core plank of their respective digital music strategies, but there is also so much more that they could do that would complement, and add to the core digital music services currently in market.

For example:

  • Google+ could create a standard ‘plug and play’ portfolio of creative tools such as remix, karaoke and live jamming apps that artists and fans could plug into hangouts and profiles
  • Twitter could allow fans to follow the journey of a song from its original tweet right through to how it got to them
  • Facebook could create a virtual jukebox app that would use Gracenote database look-ups to create service-agnostic playlist and digital collection data from users streamed music that would auto-port to any other music service via Facebook

These are all of course tactics, not strategies, but collectively they add up to something much bigger.  The strategy of the social powerhouses has to be: bring new, unique value that genuinely moves the needle.  Simply creating another suite of discovery tools is not enough. Twitter #music adds audio to the visual music discovery journey and in doing do runs the risk of making much of the discovery journey the destination.  Which is great from a user perspective, but much less so for artists and labels unless some robust additional commercial models are added.  The harsh reality is that if you give a social user too much value in the social context, the opportunity for converting engagement into transaction is reduced.

The digital music market needs social’s big three to start ramping up their respective music games. Twitter #music is a cute first step, but not the end game.

What Happens When Facebook Hits 1 Billion Users?

In the four short years since Facebook passed 100 million global active users back in August 2008, social networking has gone mainstream and Facebook’s own active user base now numbers in excess of 955 million. Facebook had many predecessors (MySpace, Hyves, Friendster, Orkut to name but a few) but it achieved what none of them did: it created a service that mainstream consumers adopted in their droves.  Yet despite this success, and as Facebook nears the 1 billion user mark, there remains a niggling worry which stubbornly refuses to go away: has Facebook actually taken social networking mainstream or has it just taken Facebook mainstream?

Facebook Has Created a Two-Speed Social Network Landscape

Facebook’ dominance of social networking is clear and its 955+ million user count stands head and shoulders above the rest (see figure).  Twitter is the closest challenger with less than a fifth of Facebook’s active user count, and Google+, despite bold early moves remains approximately a tenth of Facebook’s scale with 100 million active users.  Beyond those key players the social network long tail rapidly fragments into niche sites and also-rans.  What is becoming apparent is that a two-speed social network landscape is emerging with Facebook effectively a lap ahead of the best-of-the-rest.  In short, Facebook has won the race for the mainstream consumer.

The Importance of Network-Effect Scale

There are many reasons for Facebook’s success, but being all things to all people is centre stage, and in the mass-market scale game there is currently only space for one winner, with success intimately tied to ubiquity.  Facebook has the benefit of a crucially important asset: network -effect- scale. Because the majority of people’s contacts are on Facebook it is the network they opt into, thus increasing the number of other people’s contacts, and so on in a continual virtuous circle.  And as mainstream consumers don’t want the hassle of maintaining multiple social networks, a winner-takes-all scenario emerges.

Twitter and LinkedIn owe their success to not competing with Facebook for the mass market consumer: they deliver value to their users as a complement to Facebook rather than as an alternative (at least in most cases).  Long term success for generalist social networks such as Google+ though depends explicitly on taking users and user hours away from Facebook.  The challenge for Google+ is that those entrenched mainstream Facebook users are not going to be wowed by features or functionality.  If they will ever shift from Facebook it will be because of the same reason they went there in the first place: they will go where their friends and family are.

Facebook’s Velvet Handcuffs

Thus the network-effect acts as velvet handcuffs for mainstream Facebook fans.  What Google+ is banking on is that enough of the more sophisticated users get swayed by features and functionality, in turn starting the crank wheel of the network effect.  Which is exactly why Facebook is so actively integrating content partners such as Spotify into its platform: the more content experiences Facebook can funnel through its platform, the more reason there is for sophisticated users to remain loyal.  If friends and family are the velvet handcuffs for the mainstream user, then content plays the same role for the sophisticated user. (For more on Facebook’s Socially Integrated Web Strategy see this free Music Industry Blog report).

As things stand, when Facebook does hit 1 billion users it will say more about its own success than it will about the overall health of the social network landscape.  The catalyst for Facebook’s network-effect was the foundational principle of connecting people, and the human need to connect is the behavioural glue that ties Facebook together.  Mainstream consumer inertia is the most powerful force in the social network marketplace today, not innovation. This is not to say that social networking will remain defined by a mass market monopoly in perpetuity, but it will until (or if) mainstream consumers acquire the tolerance – or need – for more than one social network.  Until then, social networking will remain a two-speed marketplace.

I will be building upon these ideas and others in a forthcoming Giga Om Pro report ‘Facebook and the Two Speed Evolution of Social Networking’ Watch this space for more details.


Spotify: Why It’s Been So Successful and What it Needs to do Next

I first spoke to the guys at Spotify a good few months ago and I have to confess to thinking at the time that they were just another digital music start-up. In fact, it was worse than that, I thought they were potentially another doomed digital music start-up if they didn’t revise their strategy.

On the face of it Spotify doesn’t actually have that much to offer. The discovery, programming and community features are next to non-existent in comparison to the feature rich functionality that the current next-wave of digital music services such as imeem, Pandora, Last.FM and Comes With Music are offering. Added to that the core of the business model seemed to be a 9.99 monthly subscription for non-portable streaming music rentals (with an ad supported layer that appeared to be a customer acquisition tool). In short, it was the increasingly defunct premium subscription model that Napster, Yahoo and Rhapsody have all failed to push out of a niche. To give a sense of the degree of failure, the share of European Internet users that paid for music subscriptions in 2008 was approximately 0.1 percent.

And yet despite all of that, Spotify is proving to be a roaring success, rapidly become the darling of the digerati (it certainly seems to have replaced Blip.FM as the service of choice for European Twitterers). Why? There are three key factors behind Spotify’s success:

  1. The actual lack of sophisticated functionality has actually proven to be an asset: the simplicity of the proposition has made it equally popular among tweens as it has pensioners.
  2. Spotify used smart viral marketing tactics, launching in an invite-only mode, but giving each user a large number of invites. This created apparent (though not actual) scarcity which drove demand, making those invites hot-tickets and giving whoever had them kudos. It was essentially a pyramid selling scheme, but it worked, and some.
  3. The single most important factor though is the fact the ad-supported tier offers completely free access to very comprehensive catalogue.

In short, Spotify gives you most of the music you could want for free without hassles or complications. My Forrester colleague James McQuivey has developed a methodology called the Convenience Quotient that measures products and services based upon the benefits to consumers and the barriers to adoption. Spotify would get a strong CQ score because it makes it easy to get strong benefits.

So what next for Spotify?

Spotify, by accident or intent, now has the potential to become a mass market free music offering. They need to build up their audience sufficiently to attract big advertisers to generate enough revenue to enable them to ditch any business plan reliance on the premium tiers. Founder and CEO Daniel Ek is talking up strong new features for premium subscribers, some sort of mobile play and even downloads. I hope they don’t spend too much time focusing on the premium offering. They’ll struggle to get anything as near as compelling user experience as Rhapsody which even with market leading UI failed to break out of niche.  I’d also steer clear of ad supported downloads. That would require messy DRM implementation which will muddy the service’s current simplicity.

Mobile though could be a hugely important move. Pandora’s iPhone app has demonstrated how well implemented mobile can turn a PC-centric service into a truly portable one. If you have a compelling portable streaming element, the need for downloads becomes much less important.

So interesting times ahead for Spotify. They succeeded so far by smart adherence to the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid.   If they stick those ideals they stand every chance of stepping up to the next level.