Why Niche Is The Next Streaming Frontier

If 2014 was the year of fear, uncertainty and doubt for streaming then 2015 is shaping up to be the year in which streaming starts to deliver.  In fact so far streaming has helped drive revenue growth in the first half of 2015 for markets as diverse as Italy, Spain and Japan as well as of course in the streaming Nordic heartlands of Sweden, Denmark and Norway.  All this despite an accompanying average decline in download revenue of 7%.  But as I have long said, there is only so far that 9.99 AYCE (All You Can Eat) subscriptions can go.  This value proposition and price point combination constrains appeal to the aficionados and the upper end of the mainstream.  Pricing will be key to unlocking new users (as Spotify’s focus on the $1 a month for 3 months promo shows). However some highly influential elements within major labels are more resistant to pricing innovation now than they were this time last year.  So don’t hold your breath for the long overdue pricing overhaul.  The other side of the 9.99 AYCE equation though is just as important, namely choice, or rather, less choice. In fact, done right, cut down, niche music offerings should be able to fix the pricing conundrum too.

Too Much Content Is No Value At All
catalogue anatomy

Most people are not interested in all the music in the world and most people are not interested in spending $9.99 (or the local market equivalent) a month for music.   All the music in the world is a compelling proposition for super fans, but it is both a daunting prospect and more than is required for casual fans.  In fact the supposed benefit becomes a problem, the excess of choice begets the Tyranny Of Choice.  Indeed, just 5% of streaming catalogues is regularly frequented.  Most of the rest is irrelevant for most consumers.

Cord Nevers Are A Music Industry Problem Too

Most music fans like one or more kinds of music most.  While super fans are happy to pay for the ability to get everything, mainstreamers are not.  This is exactly the dynamic we are seeing in the video space, with consumers increasingly turning to smaller, cheaper services such as Netflix and Amazon rather than paying through the nose for an excess of cable channels.   The TV industry calls these consumers cord cutters (i.e. those that cancelled their TV subscriptions) and cord nevers (i.e. those that never paid for cable).  Now the music industry is facing its own cord never challenge: consumers who have never taken up a music subscription and have no intention of doing so.  In the past they would have spent some money on downloads, now they’re just watching more music videos YouTube.  The music industry quite simply does not have a Netflix for its cord nevers to go to instead of the full priced subscription option.

The Case For Niche Playlist Services

But give those more casual music fans a music app just built around their tastes and for a fraction of the price and the equation changes from zero sum.  Imagine genre specific playlist apps for $3 or $4 month.  A dozen curated playlists, a handful of featured albums and a couple of radio stations, all just of your favourite style of music and all streamed into a dedicated app.  Not only does this proposition deliver clear value, it also gives the industry an opportunity to open up new users that have thus far not been swayed by the broader utility play of AYCE services.

Imagine a Country app, a Classic Rock app, a Hip-Hop app, a Metal app, an EDM app, a Jazz app…. Each of these would create clear appeal within the mainstream elements of genre fan bases.  And while there is some risk of cannibalizing $9.99 services, this should be small if they are 100% curated (i.e. no on demand element) because they would be unlikely to appeal to aficionados and the super-mainstream.  These niche music apps could be delivered by standalone curated playlist service providers like MusicQubed, white label providers like Medianet and Omnifone, or even by AYCE services like Spotify ‘doing-a-Facebook’ by spinning out standalone apps.

The Marketplace Needs Niche Services Right Now

Niche services are not however a nice-to-have, an optional extra for the industry.  They will be crucial to unlocking the scale end of the subscription market and they will be needed sooner rather than later. Organic subscription growth (i.e. not including the temporary adrenaline shot of Spotify’s limited time price promotions) is not growing fast enough.  Apple Music looks set to add a significant amount of new users before year-end but many of those will come at the direct expense of the incumbents.  All the while YouTube is leaving everyone else for dust: the amount of net new video streams (i.e. free YouTube views) in H1 2015 was more than double that of net new audio streams.

The 9.99 AYCE model still has a lot of life in it yet, but just as the mobile phone market has far more choice than high end devices, so the subscription market desperately needs the diversity that niche services would bring.

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Why Zane Lowe Could Do More For Discovery At Apple Than Echonest’s $25.6 Million Does For Spotify

BBC Radio One DJ Zane Lowe just announced a shock move to Apple. For the non-Brits and non-Anglophiles Zane Lowe is arguably the most influential radio DJ in the UK and is renowned for being a tastemaker with an eclectic pallet. His left of centre focus and his commitment to supporting and breaking new acts has allowed Radio One the freedom to be unashamedly mainstream in much of its other output. So why does this all matter for Apple? While it is not yet clear what sort of role Lowe will assume at Cupertino it is a move bristling with significance and a clear statement of intent from Apple.

Fixing the Tryanny Of Choice

The Tyranny of Choice remains one of the biggest challenges for streaming services, namely how to make sense of 35 million songs. It has been challenge enough for the Aficionados at the vanguard of the first wave of subscription service adoption. It is a problem of far greater proportions for the next wave of subscribers, the later adopters who do not have the expertise nor intent to invest great effort into discovering new music. It is not as simple as ‘lean forward’ versus ‘lean back’. But instead gradations between the two. Beyond Apple’s inevitable Spotify-subscriber win back efforts, these early followers will be at the core of Apple’s streaming strategy.

The 6th Of March: Man Versus Machine

Spotify showed its own music discovery statement of intent when it acquired the Echo Nest on the 6th of March 2014. Zane Lowe’s final Radio One show will broadcast on the 5th of March 2015, leaving him free to join Apple on the 6th of March 2015, yes, 1 year to the day after the Echo Nest. Coincidence? Perhaps. Either way, the symmetry of Spotify making its bet on algorithmic curation and Apple making its bet on human curation is unavoidable. It is man versus machine, with Apple for once coming down on the side of flesh and blood over technology.

However expensive Lowe’s salary might be, it will be far short of the millions Spotify paid for the Echo Nest, which had burned through $25.6 million of investment to get to that point. Yet there is every chance that Lowe, used properly, could deliver more value to Apple’s music discovery than the Echo Nest can to Spotify. Don’t get me wrong, the Echo Nest is a fantastic outfit with some of the smartest music analytics people going. Along with Pandora’s Music Genome Project the Echo Nest is as good as it gets for music discovery algorithms. In fact when it comes to implementation and cool data driven projects, the Echo Nest leads the way. But there is a limit to how far algorithms can fix the problems posed by the Tyranny of Choice.

Filter Bubbles

As Eli Pariser identified in his excellent Ted Talk ‘Beware Of Filter Bubbles’ there is a risk that recommendation algorithms actually narrow our choice and limit discovery. That by continually refining recommendations based on previous taste and choice they make our world views increasingly narrow and ultimately boring. Music discovery is not simply about finding music that sounds like other music we already like. It is also about serendipitous moments of wonder when something comes at us from the left field and leaves us breathless. That is the antithesis of ‘here are three other bands like this you might like’.

Of course it would be unfair to suggest that the Echo Nest is not sophisticated enough to engineer serendipity and surprise into its discovery system. (And Spotify is beginning to double down on human curation too). But the ability of a stack of code to perform this task versus an expert tastemaker is significantly less. And, another ‘of course’, it is impossible to definitively prove this one way or the other because ultimately the results are subjective and not properly measureable. Because one person’s awesome discovery is another’s sonic tripe. But that is entirely the point of the whole debate.

People Don’t Want Discovery, Well They Don’t Think They Do

There is a fundamental problem with algorithmic discovery: people don’t want it. In numerous consumer surveys I have fielded for numerous clients, respondents show little or no interest in discovery or recommendation features. Yet in the same surveys the vast majority of them state that they regularly listen to music radio, which is of course recommendation and discovery. The big difference is that it doesn’t feel like it. Instead it is an inherent part of the DNA radio. It is not an awkward artificial appendage that most people just don’t get.

Earned Trust

During his Monday – Thursday 2 hour show Lowe will play 20 to 30 or so tracks. Listeners know and understand that these are the tiny tip of the iceberg he has sifted through that week, that these are the songs he has decided are the ones that need to be heard. And when he announces his ‘hottest record in the world’ they know it is probably going to be something pretty special, even if they might not actually like it. His audience appreciates him that way because he earned their trust over weeks, months and years. That is the asset Apple are buying. Even if he has to earn that trust all over again with a new audience, that is the model.

If Lowe was simply to push 20 to 30 songs a day to Apple users (whether that be on a radio show on iTunes Radio, as an iTunes podcast or as an iTunes playlist, or all of the above) the odds are in favour of some or most of those resonating with a large swathe of the target audience. Even if just one track blows away just a quarter of the audience each day, the impact of one fantastic discovery will have more impact than a torrent of ‘sounds a bit like’ recommendations.

30% Not 80%

An Amazon Prime executive recently said that when commissioning shows he didn’t want hits that 80% of his audience quite liked, he wanted shows that 30% of his audience loved. That is what discovery is all about. Not being content most of the time, but being blown away some of the time.   Zane Lowe is not going to solve Apple’s discovery problem all by himself, but the hire shows that Apple is putting its money on moments of human magic being the nitrous oxide in its music discovery engine.

MTV Trax And Fixing The Tyranny Of Choice

The subscription pricing debate is gaining momentum with serious dialogue occurring at high levels across the industry. Every consideration though occurs against the backdrop of fear, fear of disrupting the solid start subscriptions have made so far. It is clear that although the 9.99 price point has significant additional market opportunity, that potential has a finite scope. Once the ceiling of adoption has been reached the market will stagnate unless new price points are introduced.

One option for reducing risk is to tailor services at discreet segments that are not prospects for 9.99 services. By building highly distinct, curated services that deliver users curated, lean back experiences rather than bewildering them with the Tyranny of Choice of 30 million tracks. Music Aficionados are the driving force of current digital music, are less than a fifth of all consumers yet are the core target of every 9.99 subscription service.   By contrast Forgotten Fans – super engaged music fans who don’t yet spend much money on music – are hugely underserved. A handful of companies have been trying to unlock this segment, including Blinkbox Music, Mix Radio (formerly Nokia Mix Radio), Bloom.fm (RIP), Psonar (PAYG streams), MusicQubed (O2 Tracks, Vodafone Tracks), Zvook, as well as ‘Pandora One’, ‘Slacker Radio Plus’ and Rhapsody’s ‘unRadio’. Even Spotify is having a go. Now MusicQubed have upped the ante in the pursuit of the Forgotten Fan powering a new MTV music service: MTV Trax.

MTV: Digital Music’s Sleeping Giant

MTV is something of a sleeping giant in the digital music space. It is the sort of brand the marketplace has been waiting for. Spotify has done a fantastic job at creating a brand from scratch but outside of digital music circles it has minimal brand recognition. What MTV brings is immediate brand equity, the sort of instant familiarity that can help pull mainstream consumers into the digital fold.

Up to now, besides a couple of ill fated early efforts (remember MTV Urge anyone?) MTV has never seriously tried to convert its massive brand and reach. MTV has been biding its time. It is a mainstream brand for the masses so it has been waiting for the market to reach sufficient scale and for the right product for it to enter. MTV knows there is little point in trying to push its youthful, mass market audience towards Aficionado services that they are unlikely to be able to afford or have interest in.

MTV Needs To Put Mobile At The Heart Of Its Channel Strategy

There is an additional reason the time is now right for MTV, whether they realise it or not: their business model is stuck firmly in the confines of old, traditional media i.e. Pay TV. Though Pay TV is hardly in crisis, yet, the first cracks are beginning to appear with disruptive Over The Top (OTT) services like Netflix and Amazon Prime and cord cutting.  Of most concern for MTV is the new generation of ‘cord never’ consumers that may never take a Pay TV subscription, instead relying solely on the likes of Netlix, Hulu and iPlayer for their video needs. MTV is a youth brand yet ironically its current business model is rooted in an older world – the average age of a network TV viewer is 59. MTV needs a new channel for engaging with the next generation of audiences, and that channel is mobile. MTV Trax looks like it may be the first plank of that strategy.

mtv trax

MTV Trax itself is a visually rich mobile only app that delivers 8 curated playlists, branded around genres, charts and MTV shows. An Aficionado would probably find the selection too narrow and mainstream, but that’s entirely point, this isn’t built for them, it’s built for the mainstream. The app is being launched with MTV’s European Music Awards. Now it’s time to sit back and wait to see whether MTV’s brand can unlock the Forgotten Fan and take digital music to the mainstream.

Spotify And (Fixing) The Tyranny Of Choice

Tyranny of choice

Regular readers will be familiar with my concept of the ‘Tyranny of Choice’ namely that there is so much music choice now as to be counter productive. 30 million tracks (and counting) is a meaningless quantity of music. It would take three lifetimes to listen to every track once. There is so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all.

A host of music discovery services and apps tried to fix the problem a few years ago but most of them failed and went out of business. A new generation of music services such as Songza, Beats Music, MusicQubed and blinkbox Music are now all trying again with heavily curated approaches, delivering music fans the tracks that matter.

It looks like the Tyranny of Choice isn’t just an issue for the mainstream fan. Look at this quote from the Spotify Insights blog that discusses the rise of Mr Probz in the US:

“What’s clear is that the ‘lean back’ mechanism of curated playlists (as opposed to the ‘lean forward’ method of search which drove European streams) led to the early success of Mr Probz in the US”

Even in Spotify, the global home of the engaged music aficionado, curated lean-back experiences are coming to the fore. The access services are stealing some of the clothes of listen services. This is no bad thing but it does highlight the importance of this 4th phase of the digital music market, the ‘Curation Era’. Spotify gave consumers access to all the music in the world, now it – and others – is trying to help make sense of it all.

MusicQubed Puts the Rise of Listen Services Into Numbers

Back in October I wrote about the emergence of a new wave of music services: ‘Listen Services’. Namely music services that sit at the opposite end of the sophistication spectrum to ‘Access Services’ like Spotify and Deezer.  While the on-demand Access Services are focused on immersive discovery experiences for the engaged music aficionado, Listen Services are aimed at the mainstream music fan that does not have the time nor appetite for searching out what to play from a catalogue of 30 million tracks.  Listen Services, and their addressable audience, are a key priority for the music industry as it is becoming increasingly clear that Access Services, while fantastic at monetizing the top tier of fans, are not the right fit for the mainstream. To date the main focus for this segment has been ad supported personalized radio from the likes of Pandora and Slacker.  New entrants have started trying to drive digital spending from these consumers with cheap subscriptions, players like MusicQubed, Bloom.fm, Blinkbox Music and Nokia Mix Radio (interestingly there is a distinctly European company bias in this sector). MusicQubed has released some figures to illustrate how this emerging segment is developing.

To celebrate the first anniversary of its launch into market, MusicQubed last week released a combination of performance metrics for its services and some related statistics:

  • 85% of UK radio play comes from the top 120 tracks
  • The Forgotten Fan (above average listening but below average spend) accounts for 30% of consumers
  • Daily listening time of MusicQubed users = 30 minutes
  • 30% of all active users are subscribers
  • 1.5 million consumers have used MusicQubed services to date
  • O2 Tracks (O2’s UK music service powered by MusicQubed) has 60% female users and an average lifetime value of £33, while 20% buy at least one download a month after having discovered it in the service

While MusicQubed is a long way yet from challenging Spotify in terms of total users and paying subscribers, the numbers do hint at a validation of this too easily neglected consumer segment. Of course everything starts small and it is worth remembering that a year after launch (i.e. by end August 2009) Spotify only had in the region of 100,000 paying subscribers.

Will Listen Services Define the Next Phase of Digital Music?

The history of digital music has evolved in roughly 5 year chapters, each defined by a key service and the problem it solved:

  • Phase 1: Napster gave consumers frictionless access to all the music in the world
  • Phase 2: iTunes made the paid download make sense
  • Phase 3: Spotify fixed buffering and gave frictionless (legal) access to all the music in the world (well most of it anyway)
  • Phase 4: Beats, Blinkbox, Bloom.FM, MusicQubed are all candidates for defining the next phase. Spotify gave access to 25 million songs and now these services are each doing at least one of a) trying to make sense of that 25 million via curation and b) making music subscriptions affordable for the mainstream

4th phase

Once we have another 12 months or so of market activity we should be in a position to make a more definitive conclusion on which service, or services, will emerge as the defining reference point for the next era of digital music.

Listen Services, affordable subscriptions and curation-centred services are only just getting going, but they will be key to long term sustainability.  As subscriptions eat into the spending of the most valuable download buyers, it is clear that a ‘digital plan B’ is required.  This new generation of services are part of that plan.

The Death of the Long Tail

Long Tail CoverToday MIDiA Consulting is proud to announce the publication of an important new report: The Death of the Long Tail: The Superstar Music Economy.  The report is available free of charge to Music Industry Blog subscribers.  (If you are not yet a subscriber to this blog simply enter your email address in the box on the right hand column of the home page.)

The 21st century decline in recorded music revenues continues to send shockwaves throughout the music industry and although there are encouraging signs of digital-driven growth, the impact on artists is less straightforward.  Total global artist income from recorded music in 2013 was $2.8 billion, down from $3.8 billion in 2000 but up slightly on 2012.  Meanwhile artists’ share of total income grew from 14% in 2000 to 17% in 2013.  But the story is far from uniform across the artist community.

The Superstar Artist Economy

The music industry is a Superstar economy, that is to say a very small share of the total artists and works account for a disproportionately large share of all revenues.  This is not a Pareto’s Law type 80/20 distribution but something much more dramatic: the top 1% account for 77% of all artist recorded music income (see figure).

fig4

The concept of the long tail seemed like a useful way of understanding how consumers interact with content in digital contexts, and for a while looked like the roadmap for an exciting era of digital content.  Intuitively the democratization of access to music – both on the supply and demand sides – coupled with vastness of digital music catalogues should have translated into a dilution of the Superstar economy effect.  Instead the marketplace has shown us that humans are just as much wandering sheep in need of herding online as they are offline.

In fact digital music services have actually intensified the Superstar concentration, not lessened it (see figure).  The top 1% account for 75% of CD revenues but 79% of subscription revenue.  This counter intuitive trend is driven by two key factors: a) smaller amount of ‘front end’ display for digital services – especially on mobile devices – and b) by consumers being overwhelmed by a Tyranny of Choice in which excessive choice actual hinders discovery.

fig5

Ultimately it is the relatively niche group of engaged music aficionados that have most interest in discovering as diverse a range of music as possible.  Most mainstream consumers want leading by the hand to the very top slither of music catalogue.  This is why radio has held its own for so long and why curated and programmed music services are so important for engaging the masses with digital.

Music has always been a Superstar economy and there will always be winners and losers in music sales, with the big winners winning really big.  Over time the improved discovery and programming in digital music services should push the needle for the remainder artist tier but a) it will not happen over night and b) it will still have a finite amount of impact.

The Catalogue Size Arms Race

Matters are worsened by the music services’ catalogue arms race which has become entirely detrimental to consumers’ digital music experiences.  Action needs taking urgently to make sense of 25 million songs, not just through discovery and editorial, but also by taking the brave decision to keep certain types of content, such as sound-alikes, outside of music services’ main functionality.

Until labels, distributors and artists come to together to fix the issue of digital catalogue pollution – sound alikes and karaoke especially – the Tyranny of Choice will reign supreme, hiding 99% of artists under a pervasive shroud of obscurity and giving the Superstars another free lap of the track.

The Complexity Coefficient: ‘Listen Services’ and the Tyranny of Choice

Despite commendable progress the digital music market is still way behind where it should be.  It is an easy mistake to view the global music market through the Anglo-American lens but if you strip out the UK and US from the statistics the result is that three quarters of global ‘rest of world’ music sales are physical.  Thus ten years since the launch of the iTunes Store digital is still only a quarter of non-US and UK revenues.  The role of Apple is, as ever, key: Apple knew how to make an elegantly simple user experience that just worked.  Thus where Apple was strongest (US and UK) digital music sales prospered.  But most consumers do not have Apple devices so the music industry needs more music services to be as elegantly simple as iTunes if it is going to push the needle on that 25%.  The problem is that most of the services on which industry hopes are being pinned are anything but.

Innovating for the Elite?

Streaming subscription services are undoubtedly at the leading edge of music technology sophistication and recent innovations from Spotify in particular are setting the bar high for immersive digital music experiences.  But paradoxically this is part of the problem.  At the end of 2012 subscription and ad supported services accounted for just one fifth of global digital music revenues.  Though that number will grow markedly in 2013 – and already over indexes in the digital sophisticate Nordic and Dutch markets – it will not overtake downloads anytime soon.  There are of course many factors, including the key issue of pricing – 9.99 is not a mass market price point, but there is a more fundamental one: streaming subscription services are just too sophisticated for mainstream users.

The reality is that mainstream music consumers are not heavily engaged with music and like programmed, curated music experiences.  For all the music industry turmoil of the last decade radio listening has remained relatively steady, even growing in many markets, and it also remains the number one music discovery source – still far ahead of YouTube.  Radio’s enduring popularity stems from its simplicity.  A common product strategy error is the assumption that more features = better quality product.  But more often than not, less = more.  The extra discovery features in subscription services are fantastic tools for the niche audience of engaged music aficionados that use these services but they also make them less accessible for mainstream users.  This is what I term the Complexity Coefficient. 

The Complexity Coefficient is a simple way of understanding a complex problem and can be calculated as follows:

Feature Benefits – Feature Sophistication = Complexity Coefficient

In short, the more sophisticated the features of a service, the less the benefits will be felt by the user.  When this is applied to less sophisticated users a multiplier needs to be applied: a heavily featured sophisticated music service will already have barriers to use for an aficionado but will be entirely inaccessible for a mainstream user.  The Complexity Coefficient manifests itself in another way also: the more complex a service, the longer the music journey is.  For music aficionados that can be a good thing, but for radio-centric mainstream users it is a barrier rather than a benefit.

The COmplexity Coeffecient

The Tyranny of Choice

When we apply this thinking to the digital music landscape something really interesting emerges (see graphic).  The on demand subscriptions that monetize access – ‘Access Services’ – sit at the top right, highly sophisticated, but therefore also complex, with the longest music journey.  These services provide access to a vast, vast catalogue of music.  A catalogue that is growing rapidly every single day.  Last week 7Digital’s Ben Drury reported that his company now has 27 million tracks in its catalogue and is growing at a rate of 100,000 a week.

Choice is fantastic but too much begets choice paralysis.  There becomes so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all.  This is the Tyranny of Choice. 27 million tracks is an unwieldy vastness of music that would take 205 years to listen to.  What matters about music catalogue is the music that truly matters not the total size.  Of those 27 million perhaps 3 to 6 million are ‘core’ catalogue.  Of those how many really matter to any given listener? Perhaps 10,000 at the most?  Even that would be 2 months of listening for someone who listens 10 hours a week and doesn’t listen to the same song more than once.

With the growth in catalogue each ‘Access Service’ must get 100,000 tracks worth of being better at its discovery job just to stay as good as it was last week.  And despite the vast progress that is being made, few would argue that there is a long way to go yet before we can come close to arguing that the discovery problem has been fixed.  So the odds are against a worsening status quo not an improving one.

The ‘Listen’ Services

But at the opposite end of the Complexity Coefficient scale a very different picture emerges. Here we have services like Pandora, MusicQubed’s O2 Tracks and Nokia’s Mix Radio delivering highly programmed, lean-back music experiences for the mainstream users, where the music journey is shortest.  Whereas Access services give the user access to all the music in the world, Listen service take the user straight to the music that matters.  One leads the user up the garden path, the other just opens the front door.

But there is an overriding monetization issue at the lower end of the Complexity Coefficient: most of these services predominately generate revenue via advertising.  The majority of Nokia Mix Radio’s and Pandora’s users are on free tiers.  O2 Tracks is the exception, with users paying for all tiers of access (other than a free trial).

In many ways the Access services are taking a TV broadcaster approach to discovery: they are trying to encourage users to discover as much new content as possible, to send the user on a rich journey of serendipitous discovery.  The Listen services however are focused squarely on delivering a smaller selection of music the user is most likely to like, and keeping firmly within those parameters. To an aficionado the Listen service approach may feel restrictive and limited, but to a mainstream music consumer it fits their exact needs.  But what is clear is that music services at the lower end of the Complexity Coefficient scale are going to be crucial for pushing digital music towards the mainstream.  Welcome to the age of the ‘Listen’ service?