Quick Take: UK Recorded Music Industry Grew By 5.1% in 2016

The recorded music industry’s run of good news stories continues with the BPI’s announcement that UK revenues grew by 5.1% in 2016. As in other markets, streaming is the fuel in the engine. Revenues hit £925.8 million in 2016, up from £881.3 million with streaming accounting for 30% of the total. Streaming grew by 61% (slightly above the global average of 57%) with subscriptions accounting for 87% of the streaming total. Downloads continued their death spiral, falling by 27% however the £56 million in lost download revenue was more than offset by the £97 million that streaming grew by. Physical revenues fell by just 2% (most of the CD buyers that were going to switch have now done so).

Throughout the 2000s the narrative was one of waiting for new formats to grow faster than legacy formats declined. That eagerly sought format replacement effect never happened with downloads, but streaming resoundingly hit that point in 2016. Although streaming doesn’t appear to have started quite as strongly as it finished 2016, the odds are still on 2017 being another year of strong streaming growth.

That is not to say that the next 3 years or so are going to be uninterrupted growth across the globe (there will be some speed bumps along the way). Nor are we likely to see the global business recover to its pre-Napster levels. But these certainly look like the foundations of a new, leaner recorded music business. Think of it as a successor state. One with different rules, in which artists have more choice, where routes to market are numerous and technology-led change is the norm. Numerous challenges remain (eg accountability and transparency, commercial sustainability, growing power of the platforms) but it is easier to fix problems when everyone isn’t spending their entire time simply struggling to keep their heads above water.

Here’s Why Vinyl Isn’t About To Save The Music Business And Why Albums Need Rethinking

The BPI announced that ‘album equivalent sales’ were up by 1.6% in volume terms in 2016, with vinyl and streaming identified as the key drivers. Many people retain a nostalgic soft spot for vinyl, so an apparently vinyl led revival is always going to get people’s attention. But not only is vinyl not the future (it was just 2.6% of sales in 2016), the big differences between the most popular vinyl, streaming, singles and album artists reveal just how fragmented the music business has become.

Each of the top 10 charts (album sales, singles, top streaming artists, vinyl sales) almost reads as a standalone group of artists with remarkably little cross over. In fact, only 2 artists (the ubiquitous Drake and Justin Bieber) appear across streaming, singles and albums. None appear across all four charts.

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The fragmentation adds complexity to an already sophisticated and nuanced landscape:

  • Two tribes: Only one of the top single artists of 2016 (Justin Bieber) was also a top album artist. This is why the album vs playlist album argument will continue way beyond 2017. Both realities co-exist with one catering more towards older audiences and the other to younger ones. The top 10 albums list is like browsing through a high street music store CD rack circa 2005: Elvis Presley, David Bowie (twice), Coldplay, Michael Ball. Of course, there is some overlap with streaming, an inescapable overlap considering that streams are now (for all the wrong reasons) counted towards album sales. Thus, we see contemporary artists Little Mix, Drake and Jess Glyn fill the 7,8 and 9 slots, while Justin Bieber is at #4. But first and foremost this is a tale of 2 tribes, 2 groups of music fans whose tastes and consumption patterns rarely overlap.
  • Old format, old bands: Vinyl sales may have hit their highest level in the UK since 1991 but this is hardly a sign of what is to come. Indeed, a quick look through the top 10 vinyl albums of 2016 reveals that all but one of the artists were releasing music back in 1991! The exception is Amy Winehouse and she’s dead. The majority of the volume of vinyl sales is driven by nostalgic older music fans. Of course, younger people do buy vinyl too, but interestingly they generally do so as either a form of merch or as a way of supporting their favourite artist. In fact, many under 30’s vinyl buyers don’t even have turntables.

The really important takeaway from all this though, is what it means for driving sales and marketing artists in 2017. One size stopped fitting all long ago, but now there are clearly two broad groups of music audiences which must be addressed in entirely different ways, across different channels and with different tactics. At the most base level this is a case of youth versus grey, of digital native versus digital immigrant, of playlist versus album, of sales versus consumption. But it is also more complex and nuanced than that. There are overlaps and cross pollination. They may be relatively thin on the ground right now, but like some long-lost treasure map, they may point to how bridges can be built across these two worlds. If no such links can be made then ultimately this will be a story of one world hurtling to oblivion while the other booms. That is of course the more likely scenario, highlighted by the fact that (in volume terms) UK CD sales fell by 12% and download sales by 26% in 2016 while streams were up 67%.

As large volumes of older consumers switch to streaming (and Amazon should play a key role here) there will be more opportunity to join the dots. But do not mistake this simply as an opportunity to try to revive yesterday’s formats in today’s platforms. The album is clearly fading. According to MIDiA Research survey data, 68% of subscribers state that playlists are replacing albums for them. It is time to start investing though and effort in rethinking what album experiences should be in the digital era. And that conversation should have no bounds, everything should be on the table (number of tracks, street date vs continual updates, interactivity, changing content etc.).

The 2016 sales figures show us that the album in its traditional format still has a very solid, albeit quickly declining, audience. But if it is to outlive that dwindling customer base it must be rethought for the streaming era.

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.

Is the UK the Canary in the Mine for Digital Music?

It is beginning to look like we are at one of the most important junctures in the music industry’s history since the dawn of the digital age.  Ever since the rise of Napster the music industry has navigated a number of tricky and outlook-defining decision points, such as: how to tackle piracy, whether to license to music services, whether to go DRM free, whether to support ad-supported, what to do with mobile?  But now there is an even bigger question which straddles all of those sub-factors: Is Plan A working and if not, what is Plan B?

It is easy to get the impression that the music market is moving towards being in a good place, that the corner is slowly being turned.  Indeed US sales, in volume terms at least, showed a modest upturn in 2011.   However when the Adele factor is stripped out of the equation, music sales across most markets, US included, look a lot less rosy.  But even leaving Adele in the mix, the UK – the world’s 4th largest music market – paints a concerning picture.

 

To illustrate the point, let’s compare the situation now compared to 2 years ago.  The view from 2010 (see chart) revealed full year 2009 trends of strong CD sales decline coupled with solid digital growth, but no enough to prevent overall market contraction. However the view from 2012 shows worryingly little progress.  Though CD sales decline did slow, the overall market continued to shrink (also H1 2012 numbers show an acceleration in CD decline once again). Most concerning of all though was digital: growth slowed not just in percentage terms but also in absolute terms, down from £75 million new digital revenue in 2009 to £63 million in 2011.  As a market grows it is expected that % growth slows too, but at this relatively early stage of the market’s development absolute growth should be continuing to grow too.

The UK music market has spent most of the last decade in decline but if the current metrics and dynamics remain in place the UK recorded music market could end up losing a cumulative total of £1.3 billion between 2012 and 2017, more than its entire current value (see figure two).  The good news is that digital will represent more than 70% of revenues, but that will be a larger slice of a much smaller pie.

There are many contributory factors (piracy, the lost music buyer generation etc.) but there are two observed trends which merit particular attention:

  • Digital buyer growth has slowed.  Of the total UK digital music growth between 2008 and 2011, just 31% came from new buyers, the remainder came from increased spend per buyer.  Increasing spend per buyer is of course an important strategic objective, but in these early days of digital music more of the growth should be coming from new customers, not from consolidation around the early adopter niche. With Apple’s iTunes accounting for such a large share of the UK and US digital music markets, it is unsurprising that digital growth is closely aligned with the rates at which Apple acquire new device customers (which, to be clear, is a very different metric from the rate at which they sell new devices) and the rate at which they grow average music spend.
  • Music buyers are disappearing.  Extrapolating from Kantar’s UK music panel (as reported in the BPI Yearbook) approximately 5 million music buyers have disappeared from the UK market since 2008.  Granted many of these buyers were probably low value customers and not all of them are necessarily lost for good, but it is clear that digital services are not doing a good enough job of converting music buyers from physical to digital and certainly nowhere near a good enough job of preventing lapsing CD buyers from disappearing out of the market all-together: against the total 7.9 million CD buyers ‘lost’ between 2008 and 2011, there were just 1.9 million new digital buyers.

What Can Be Learned from the British Experience?

The UK is not the same as the US, Japan, Germany, Sweden or any other music market.  Nor is it a direct predictor of what will happen in each of those markets.  However the overall direction of its market fundamentals are directionally similar – and in some cases functionally similar – to many other markets.  The UK is not a failing music state like Greece or Spain, it is a robust market (by music industry standards) with a mature and established digital sector and – for now – an established high street retail presence.  Over the last few years the UK’s story has been one of ‘steadying the ship’, of the corner slowly being turned.  So the UK trends should be viewed in the context of how quickly a solid market can potentially veer off course.

It is possible that the 2011 UK numbers will be followed by H2 upsurge in CD sales and an acceleration of digital growth, and I for one hope that this proves to be the case, but the safer bet is an evolution of the status quo. Across most key music markets it is clear that the current digital product mix is not delivering enough.  The US has passed the 50% digital mark and in the case of this market it is the sign of robust market fundamentals.  But passing the 50% mark in itself is not necessarily a measure of success.  It is only a commendable achievement if it is not an artefact of a shrinking overall market (as was the case with South Korea when it crossed that point with much fanfare in the mid 2000’s).

The UK’s music market is not about to implode, nor is the global market.  But it would be wise to view the UK as the canary in the mine for global digital music strategy, to assess whether the air is truly safe to breathe, whether Plan A is up to task.