Taylor Swift, Label Services and What Comes Next

universal-music-group-logoTaylor Swift has done it again, striking a deal with UMG that includes a commitment from the world’s largest label group to share proceeds from Spotify stock sales with artists, even if they are not recouped (ie haven’t generated enough revenue to have paid off the balance on their advance so not yet eligible to earn royalty income). This follows Swift’s 2015 move to persuade Apple to pay artists for Apple Music trials. That Swift has influence is clear, though whether she has that much influence is a different question. Let’s just say it served both Apple and Universal well to be seen to be listening to the voice of artists. But it is what appears to be a label services part of the deal that has the most profound long-term implications, with Swift stating that she is retaining ownership of her master recordings.

The rise of label services

The traditional label model of building large banks of copyrights and exploiting them is slowly being replaced, or at the very least complemented, by the rise of label services deals. In the former model the label retains ownership of the master recordings for the life time of the artist plus a period eg 70 years. In label services deals the label has an exclusive period for exploiting the rights, after which they revert to full ownership of the artist. Artist normally cede something in return, such as sharing costs. Companies like Kobalt’s AWAL and BMG Music Rights have led the charge of the label services movement. However, Cooking Vinyl can lay claim to being the ‘ice breaker’ with its pioneering 1993 label services deal with Billy Bragg, negotiated between his manager Pete Jenner and Cooking Vinyl boss Martin Goldschmidt. It may have taken a couple of decades, but the recording industry has finally caught up.

Major labels in on the act

The major labels remain the powerhouses of the recorded music business in part because they have learned to embrace and then supercharge innovation that comes out of the independent sector. Label services is no exception. Each of the major labels has their own label services division, including buying up independent ones. Label services are proving to be a crucial asset for major labels. The likes of AWAL and BMG have been mopping up established artists in the latter stages of their careers, with enough learned knowledge to want more control over their careers. By adding label services divisions the majors now have another set of options to present to artists. This enables them to not only hold onto more artists but also to win new ones – which if of course technically what UMG did with Swift, even though it had previously been Swift’s distributor. As with all new movements, examples are often few and far between but they are there. The UK’s Stormzy is a case in point, signing a label services deal with WMG before upgrading it to a JV deal between WMG’s Atlantic Records and his label #MERKY. For an interesting, if lengthy, take on why Stormzy and WMG took this approach – including the concept of secret ‘Mindie Deals’ that allow more underground artists maintain some major label distance for appearances’ sake, see this piece.

The early follower strategy 

In August 2018UMG’s Sir Lucian Grainge called out the success of UMG’s label services and distribution division Caroline, noting it had doubled its US market share over the previous year. UMG was already not only on the label services deal path but had identified it as a key growth area and wanted the world – including investors – to know. UMG has stayed ahead of the pack by pursuing an early follow strategy of identifying new trends, testing them out and then throwing its weight behind them. Before you think of that as damning with faint praise, the early follower strategy is the one pursued by the world’s most successful companies. Google wasn’t the first search engine, Apple wasn’t the first smartphone maker, Facebook wasn’t the first social network, Amazon wasn’t the first online retailer.

What comes next

The label services component of the UMG deal was actually announced by Taylor Swift herself rather than UMG, writing:

“It’s also incredibly exciting to know that I own all of my master recordings that I make from now on. It’s really important to me to see eye to eye with a label regarding the future of our industry.”

While this might betray which party feels most positive about this component of the deal, the inescapable fact is that other major artists at the peak of their powers will now want similar deals. Label services success stories to date had been older artists such as Rick Astley, Janet Jacksonand Nick Cave as well as upcoming artists like Stormzy. Now we will start to see them becoming far more commonplace in the mainstream.

But perhaps now is the time. Catalogue revenues are going to undergo big change in the coming years, as MIDiA identified in our June 2018 report The Outlook for Music Catalogue: Streaming Changes Everything. Deep catalogue is not where the action is anymore. For example, 1960s tracks accounted for just 6.4% of all UK catalogue streams in the UK in 2017, while catalogue from the 2000s accounted for 60.4%, according to the BPI’s invaluable All About the Music report. So, by striking a long-term label services type deal, UMG secures Swift’s signature and can still benefit from the main catalogue opportunity for the first few releases without actually owning the catalogue.

Label services have come a long way since Billy Bragg’s 1993 deal and Taylor Swift has just announced that they are ready for prime time.

Penny for the thoughts of Bill Bragg having paved the way for the queen of pop’s latest deal….

Could Spotify Buy Universal? 

Vivendi is reported to be proposing to its board a plan for spinning out Universal Music. It is certainly the right time for a spin off (always sell before the peak), but a full divestment would leave Vivendi unbalanced and a shell of its former self. Canal+ is facing the same Netflix-inspired cord-cutting pains as other pay-TV operators (and is relying heavily on sub-Saharan Africa for subscriber growth), while other assets such as those in Vivendi Village have failed to deliver. With CEO Vincent Bolloré having invested heavily in Vivendi, he would be devaluing his own wealth. For a man who is not shy of saying that he’s in the game to make money, this scenario simply doesn’t add up. As one investment specialist recently suggested to me, this talk of a spin-off is probably exactly that, talk. Talk aimed at driving up Vivendi’s valuation by association and, at most, potentially resulting in a partial spin-off or partial listing. However, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a big enough offer for Universal would persuade Bolloré to sell. So, let’s for a moment assume that Universal is on the market and have a little fun with who could buy it.

The Chinese option

It is widely rumoured that Alibaba was in advanced discussions with Vivendi to buy some size of stake in Universal. Those conversations derailed when the Chinese government tightened up regulations on Chinese companies buying overseas assets, which is why we now see Tencent buying a growing number of minority stakes in companies rather than outright acquisitions. So, an outright Chinese acquisition is likely off the table. This doesn’t rule out other Asian bidders (Softbank had an $8.5 billion bid rejected in 2013), though perhaps Chinese companies are the only ones with the requisite scale and access to cash that would meet a far, far higher 2018 price point.

The tech major option

The most likely scenario (if Universal were for sale) is that one of the tech majors (Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook) swoops in. Given Google’s long-held antipathy for the traditional copyright regime, Alphabet is not the most likely, while Facebook is too early in its music journey (though check back in 18 months if all goes well). Apple and Amazon are different cases entirely. Both companies are run by teams of older executives whose formative cultural reference points were shaped by traditional media companies. These are companies that, even if they may not state it, see themselves as the natural evolution of media, moving it from the physical era of transactions to the digital era of access. Thus far, Apple and Amazon have focused principally on distribution, although both have invested in rights too. Apple less so, (e.g. Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper) but Amazon much more so (e.g. Man in the High Castle, Manchester by the Sea). Acquiring a major media company is a logical next step for Amazon. A TV studio and, or network would likely be the first move (especially as Netflix will likely buy one first, forcing Amazon’s hand), but a record label wouldn’t be inconceivable. And it would have to be a big label – such as UMG, that would guarantee enough share of ear to generate ROI. Apple though, could well buy a sports league, which would use up its budget.

The Spotify option

While the tech majors are more likely long-term buyers of Universal, Spotify arguably needs it more (and is certainly less distracted by other media formats). Right now, Spotify has a prisoner’s dilemma; it knows it needs to make disruptive changes to its business model if it is going to create the step change investors clearly want (look at what happened to Spotify’s stock price despite an impressive enough set of Q1 results). But it also knows that making such changes too quickly could result in labels pulling content, which would destroy its present in the hope of building a future. Meanwhile, labels are worried Spotify is going to disintermediate them but can’t risk damaging their business by withdrawing content now – hence the prisoner’s dilemma. Neither side dares make the first move.

That’s the problem with the ‘do a Netflix’ argument: do it too fast and the whole edifice comes tumbling down. Moreover, original content will not be the same silver bullet for Spotify as it was for Netflix. This is mainly because there is a far smaller catalogue of TV content than music, so a dollar spent on original video goes a lot further than a dollar spent on original music. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Spotify will get to a tipping point, where the labels see a shiny-toothed wolf lurking under the lamb’s wool, and with its cover blown it will be forced to go nuclear. If this happened, buying a major label would become an option. And, as with the tech majors, it would have to be a major label to deliver enough share of ear.

But that scenario is a long, long way off. First, Spotify has to prove it can be successful and generate enough revenue and market cap to put itself in a position where it could buy a major. And that is still far from a clear path. For now, Spotify’s focus is on being a partner to the labels, not a parent company.

All of this talk might sound outlandish but it was not so long ago that an internet company (AOL) co-owned Warner Music and a drinks company (Seagram) owned Universal Music, before selling it to a water utilities company (Vivendi), and, long before that, EMI was owned by a light bulb company (Thorn Electrical Industries). We have got used to this current period of corporate stability for the major record labels, but this situation is a reflection of the recorded music business being in such a poor state that there was little M&A interest. Nonetheless it is all changing, potentially heralding a return to the past. Everything has happened before and will happen again.

What’s In A Number: Can Streaming Really Be Worth $28 Billion?

Goldman Sachs just made some headlines with its assessment that Universal Music is worth $23.5 billion and that the paid streaming market will be worth $28 billion in 2030 (up from $3.5 billion in 2016 and close to double the size of the entire recorded music business in 2016). For a little bit of perspective, the entire recorded music business generated $27.4 billion at its peak in 1996. Goldman Sachs’ numbers provide us with a salutary reminder of the risk that comes with taking a short-sighted view when building forecasts, or, to put it another way, predicting tomorrow based on what happened today.

Regular readers will know that I have been a music industry analyst since the end of the 1990s, witnessing enough industry cycles and getting close enough to business to build a deep understanding of the industry and its potential. As anyone involved in the business knows, the recorded music industry is more complex and more idiosyncratic than most other industries. Predicting its future is complicated by three factors:

  • Market concentration: Three companies (UMG, SME and WMG) control the majority of revenues, and four companies (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Spotify) control the majority of the streaming market. Such concentration of power makes for an unpredictable market that can be reshaped by the decision of one company. For example, if HBO decided it was going to move out of streaming for good, Netflix would still be a viable business. Spotify though, would not if Universal made the same decision.
  • Scarcity is gone: When Napster launched in May 1999 it threw scarcity out of the window. Until then, music had been a scarce commodity. Scarcity was the foundation upon which the glory days of the business was built. Unless you bought a CD, you had no other way of getting a high quality copy of the music. Nearly 20 years on from Napster, P2P may have faded but YouTube and Soundcloud have met the now-permanent demand for free music. Even if Safe Harbour legislation gets tightened up and YouTube scaled down, on demand free music will remain. The illegal sector will sprout a YouTube replacement in an instant. $27.4 billion in 1996 was a scarcity high-water mark.
  • $9.99 is not a mass market price point: 9.99 is more than most people spend on music. In fact, it is what the top 10% of music buyers spend in the US and in the UK. Once the first two waves of adopters (early adopters and early followers) have been converted to subscriptions, growth will slow unless pricing changes. We are already seeing this happening in mature markets. More than 90% of the opportunity has been tapped in Sweden, while across the US, UK, Canada and Australia paid streaming growth has slowed over the last three quarters. So much of the subscriber growth Apple and Spotify have been reporting is coming from other, often emerging, markets. Eventually the 9.99 (or local currency and purchasing power parity equivalent) opportunity will be tapped there too. In 2016, 106 million subscribers drove $3.5 billion of growth, which translated into an annual ARPU of $32.79. Taking this as our anchor point (and ignore the fact streaming ARPU has actually been declining) then Goldman Sachs’ $28 billion would require 853 million paid subscribers. If we factor in emerging markets having much lower ARPU and driving much of the growth, the figure would be closer to one billion paid subscribers. Even with the most radical price point innovation it takes quite a leap of faith to support one billion subscribers.
  • The world changes: It is very easy to think of tomorrow as being a bigger, shinier version of today. But things change, fast. Streaming is the driver now, but if it still is by 2030 then that will be a serious failure of innovation. When I first saw the Goldman Sachs numbers they reminded me of a similar report put out back in 1999 by another financial institution when the music business was last in vogue among that sector. It was a 130 page report called the Music and The Internet: A Celestial Jukebox and it predicted that online CD sales and downloads would be the future of the music market, because that was what the emerging market was then. It too had uber bullish predictions, claiming that the European music business alone would be worth $12 billion by 2010. It in fact reached $7.7 billion and in 2016 was $6.9 billion. With no little irony, the company that wrote the report was—Lehman Brothers. Look where they are now.

Conflicts of Interest

There is one final important factor to consider regarding both Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs. In fact, it is probably the most important thing of all: conflicts of interest.

Lehman Brothers made money from buying and selling shares in the companies they wrote about. Goldman Sachs is the same. On its disclosures page there are no fewer than six items listed by Goldman Sachs’  for UMG’s parent company Vivendi. These include owning a substantial volume of Vivendi shares and providing investment banking services to the company. So, if Vivendi’s share price goes up as a result of Goldman Sachs’ report, Goldman Sachs’ Vivendi investment gains value. If Vivendi sells a stake in UMG at a price influenced by Goldman Sachs new valuation, Goldman Sachs will earn a bigger transaction fee if it provides the banking services. A Goldman Sachs hedge fund also has shares in Spotify while another division is helping Spotify prepare for its IPO. So, if Spotify’s IPO/direct listing is boosted by Goldman Sachs’ report, Goldman Sachs’ Spotify investment gains value and it earns a bigger fee for the listing.

No financial institution with a vested interest (unless its interest is betting against a company – which also happens­) is going to provide a cautious or skeptical view of the streaming market. It would go against its own interests to do so. But everyone likes big numbers, so big numbers do the rounds.

For the sake of utter transparency, MIDiA Research has among its research subscription client base both UMG and Spotify, along with the other majors, indies, the other streaming services, tech companies and telcos. In fact, anyone and virtually everyone of note in the streaming business is a MIDiA subscription client. But, unlike an investment bank, they pay to access our research because we tell them what they need to hear not what they want to hear. That can make the client-analyst relationship uncomfortable and tricky to navigate at times but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Nineteen years ago, I wouldn’t have put my name to research like Lehman Brothers’— nor would I do so today.

The Three Eras Of Paid Streaming

Streaming has driven such a revenue renaissance within the major record labels that the financial markets are now falling over themselves to work out where they can invest in the market, and indeed whether they should. For large financial institutions, there are not many companies that are big enough to be worth investing in. Vivendi is pretty much it. Some have positions in Sony, but as the music division is a smaller part of Sony’s overall business than it is for Vivendi, a position in Sony is only an indirect position in the music business.

The other bet of course is Spotify. With demand exceeding supply these look like good times to be on the sell side of music stocks, though it is worth noting that some hedge funds are also exploring betting against both Vivendi and Spotify. Nonetheless, the likely outcome is that there will be a flurry of activity around big music company stocks, with streaming as the fuel in the engine. With this in mind it is worth contextualizing where streaming is right now and where it fits within the longer term evolution of the market.

the 3 eras of streaming

The evolution of paid streaming can be segmented into three key phases:

  1. Market Entry: This is when streaming was getting going and desktop is still a big part of the streaming experience. Only a small minority of users paid and those that did were tech savvy, music aficionados. As such they skewed young-ish male and very much towards music super fans. These were people who liked to dive deep into music discovery, investing time and effort to search out cool new music, and whose tastes typically skewed towards indie artists. It meant that both indie artists and back catalogue over indexed in the early days of streaming. Because so many of these early adopters had previously been high spending music buyers, streaming revenue growth being smaller than the decline of legacy formats emerged as the dominant trend. $40 a month consumers were becoming $9.99 a month consumers.
  2. Surge: This is the ongoing and present phase. This is the inflection point on the s-curve, where more numerous early followers adopt. The rapid revenue and subscriber growth will continue for the remainder of 2017 and much of 2018. The demographics are shifting, with gender distribution roughly even, but there is a very strong focus on 25-35 year olds who value paid streaming for the ability to listen to music on their phone whenever and wherever they are. Curation and playlists have become more important in order to help serve the needs of these more mainstream users—still strong music fans— but not quite the train spotter obsessives that drive phase one. A growing number of these users are increasing their monthly spend up to $9.99, helping ensure streaming drives market level growth.
  3. Maturation: As with all technology trends, the phases overlap. We are already part way into phase three: the maturing of the market. With saturation among the 25-35 year-old music super fans on the horizon in many western markets, the next wave of adoption will be driven by widening out the base either side of the 25-35 year-old heartland. This means converting the fast growing adoption among Gen Z with new products such as unbundled playlists. At the other end of the age equation, it means converting older consumers— audiences for whom listening to music on the go on smartphones is only part (or even none) of their music listening behaviour. Car technologies such as interactive dashboards and home technologies such as Amazon’s echo will be key to unlocking these consumers. Lean back experiences will become even more important than they are now with voice and AI (personalizing with context of time, place and personal habits) becoming key.

It has been a great 18 months for streaming and strong growth lies ahead in the near term that will require little more effort than ‘more of the same’. But beyond that, for western markets, new, more nuanced approaches will be required. In some markets such as Sweden, where more than 90% of the paid opportunity has already been tapped, we need this phase three approach right now. Alongside all this, many emerging markets are only just edging towards phase 2. What is crucial for rights holders and streaming services alike is not to slacken on the necessary western market innovation if growth from emerging markets starts delivering major scale. Simplicity of product offering got us to where we are but a more sophisticated approach is needed for the next era of paid streaming.

NOTE: I’m going on summer vacation so this will be the last post from me for a couple of weeks.

 

 

What Frank Ocean’s Bombastic Blond Moment Tells Us About The Future Of Artists And Labels

When frank-ocean-blond-compressed-0933daea-f052-40e5-85a4-35e07dac73dfFrank Ocean’s latest album ‘Blond’ dropped, it did so like a nuclear bomb, sending shockwaves throughout the music industry. In one of the audacious release strategies of recent years Ocean and his team at 360 fulfilled the final album contractual commitment to Universal Music by ushering his breaking-the-mold visual album ‘Endless’ onto Apple Music.  Featuring collaborations from the likes of Sampha and James Blake and set as a loose soundtrack to art house visuals, ‘Endless’ looked like the sort of digitally native, creative masterstroke that would win plaudits and awards in equal measure. But no sooner had Universal executives started daydreaming about Grammys then along came what turned out to be the ‘actual’ album ‘Blonde’, self released by Ocean (Universal contractual commitments now of course conveniently fulfilled) and, for now at least, exclusively available on Apple Music. You can just imagine seeing the blood drain from (Universal CEO) Lucian Grainge’s face as the full magnitude of what had just happened came into focus. In truth ‘audacious’ doesn’t even come close to explaining what Ocean pulled off, but where it gets really interesting is what this means for the future of artist careers.

Artist-Label Relationships Are Changing

Quickly sensing the potential implications, Grainge swiftly sent out a memo to Universal staff outlawing streaming exclusives…though voices from within Universal suggest that this diktat had been in the works for some time . A cynic might even argue that it was politically useful for Universal to be seen to be taking a strong stand ahead of the impending Vivendi earnings call. As the ever excellent Tim Ingham points out, in practice Universal could put a streaming exclusives moratorium in place and still have a good number of its front line artists put out streaming exclusives. This is because many of the deals these artists have are not traditional label deals where Universal owns all the rights. And that itself is as telling as Ocean’s bombastic blond moment. Not so much that Universal is probably the major with the highest amount of its revenue accounted for by licensed and distributed works, but that any label’s roster is now a complex and diverse mix of deal types. Artists are more empowered than ever before, and thanks to the innovation of label services companies and next generation music companies like Kobalt, labels have been forced to steal the disruptors’ clothing in order to remain competitive.

Streaming Exclusives Represent Another Option For Artists

Just as labels had started to successfully co-opt the label services marketplace by launching their own – e.g. Universal’s Caroline – or by buying up the competition – e.g. Sony’s acquisition of Essential Music & Marketing – along come streaming services giving artists another non-label route to market. In truth, the threat has remained largely unrealised. Exclusives on Tidal have most often proved to be laced with caveats and get out clauses (e.g. Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ arriving on iTunes 24 hours after landing ‘exclusively’ on Tidal). Chance The Rapper’s (in name only) mixtape ‘Colouring Book’ and Ocean’s ‘Blond’ are exceptions rather than the rule. So all that’s about to change now right? Not necessarily…

Album Releases Require More Time Than Apple Probably Has

As anyone who works in a label will tell you, releasing an album is typically a long, carefully planned process with many moving parts. It’s not something you do in a couple of weeks (Ocean started building the hype and expectation for his latest opus a year ago). If, for example, Apple was going to start doing exclusives routinely, even if it just did 20, that’s still a new exclusive to push every 2 weeks. That might work, at a stretch, for music service retailing promotional pushes but is far short of a fully fledged album release cycle. Which means that even for just 20 exclusives Apple would have an intricate mesh of overlapping release campaigns. This is something that labels do with their eyes closed but would it require new organizational disciplines for Apple. Not impossible, but not wholly likely either.

In practice, exclusives are likely to be limited to being the crown jewels of streaming services, their most valuable players, creative playmakers if you like. Even for Netflix, that pioneering exemplar of the streaming originals strategy, only spends 15% of its $3 billion content budget on originals and probably won’t break 20% even by 2020. What Apple and Netflix have in common is that they are using exclusives as a customer acquisition strategy, achieving their aims by making a big noise about each one. But if you’re releasing exclusives every week or two the shine soon wears off. And suddenly the return on investment diminishes.

Streaming Exclusives Are Unlikely To Turn Into A Flood

None of this means that we won’t see more artists striking streaming exclusives. We will, regardless of what labels may actually want to happen. And most of those will probably be on Apple – the service with bottomless pits masquerading as pockets. But the trickle will not turn into a flood, a fast flowing stream perhaps (see what I did there) but not a torrent.

Although they might not realise it yet, Kobalt might find themselves hurting more than the majors from this latest twist in the Exclusives Wars. Kobalt has probably done more than any single other music company to drive change in the traditional music industry in the last 5 years, showing artists and songwriters that there is another way of doing things. But Frank Ocean has just shown that there is now new another option for established artists looking for options at the end of a label deal.

Most importantly of all though, is that streaming exclusives (and indeed label services deals) work best when an artist has already established a brand and an audience. Most often that means after an artist has had a record label recording career. Apple cannot be relied upon to build anything more than a handful of artist brands. One of the founding myths of the web was that it was going to do away with labels and other traditional ‘gatekeepers’. Now, decades later, labels still account for the vast, vast, vast majority of music listening. Make no mistake, a momentous value chain shift is taking place, with more power and autonomy shifting to the creators, but that is a long journey and ‘Blond’ is but one part of this much bigger shift.