Growing Concerns: Does Music Subscriber Growth Cripple Profitability?

I recently wrote about how Rhapsody is facing issues as it expands to a worldwide audience and partners with cellphone carriers in Europe, Latin America and the United States. Part of my analysis centered on shrinking margins from signing up new customers on services and how difficult it becomes to manage the business when you don’t control the customer base. I also pointed out how relying on other companies to do your marketing erodes your brand, leading to a limited retail funnel.

Disclosure: I worked for Rhapsody for nine years before leaving in September 2013.

Rhapsody’s 2014 results were recently released in a RealNetworks’ regulatory filing and there are two conclusions that are easy to draw from the report. (Note: RealNetworks owns 43 percent of Rhapsody and includes the company’s financials in its own 10K SEC filing.)

  1. The growth strategy is working. Outside of the reported two million worldwide customers Rhapsody recently trumpeted, the company also increased revenues by 23 percent in 2014 over the previous year. Rhapsody’s revenues are at $173 million a year, which are rumored to be much larger than those of Deezer, the France-based music service.
  2. The growth is coming at a cost to Rhapsody. The company lost $21.3 million in 2014, up from 14.6 million in 2013. And it’s just not overall losses that are mounting. Rhapsody losses are continuing even when factoring in subscriber growth. Based on its 2014 losses and its reported subscribers, Rhapsody lost $8.53 per subscriber last year, although the company has cut its loss per customer in the past two years.

Growth and Losses

Rhapsody’s losses are a drop in the bucket when compared to Spotify. In 2013 the company reported operating losses of $128 million. While the company didn’t report subscribers, it has been suggested the company had around nine million paying subscribers at the end of 2013, leading to a $14 loss per sub in that year.

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 12.38.58 PMIt should be pointed out that Spotify’s paying subs are supporting all the free users who generate very small amounts of money for the company through adverting sales. Spotify says that its average active user (a combination of paid and free) generates $41 per year in 2013, while Rhapsody generated $93 per sub for the same year.

To grow, Rhapsody not only saw losses per sub drift slightly upwards, it also had to eat into its margin. In 2014 revenue per sub sunk to $69. And Rhapsody’s growth isn’t coming anywhere near Spotify. In fact, the Stockholm based streaming giant’s growth is outpacing every company in the industry by a wide margin. It now has over 15 million paying subs and 60 million worldwide users. Spotify picked up six million paying subs to Rhapsody’s one million in 2014.

So what does all this mean? A few conclusions.

  1. Brand Matters: In the excellent MusicREDEF newsletter, my friend Matty Karas recently mused, why when people talk about streaming music, they only refer to Spotify. There are scores of companies with offerings, many of them in business for a long time. But Spotify has broken through and is on-demand streaming’s only household name. Its brand has fueled incredible subscriber and free user growth for the company.
  2. The Model Matters: What makes this so intriguing is the three distinct approaches these companies have taken for on-demand streaming.Rhapsody traditionally focused on all paid customers, utilizing their own retail channel, before pivoting to distribution partners for growth. It has achieved modest growth, but at a significant operational cost.Deezer only operated in territories with carrier partners. The results? Deezer had significant subscriber growth, but the revenues are below Rhapsody. So to the outside world, Deezer looks like a much bigger deal than within the industry. Deezer also is facing competition for carrier deals. In a shift of its model, Deezer launched a high-bitrate service in the US for $20 a month, although the company has not been strongly marketing the product. Despite the massive amount of money raised and worldwide operations, could Deezer be the first huge causality in on-demand streaming?Spotify built its own customer funnel by giving away expensive free music and has found a way to significantly grow free users, paying customers and revenues. The costs have been astronomical, but Spotify is dominating streaming music, dwarfing all its direct competitors and–maybe even more importantly–reaching mass consumer appeal.
  3. Distribution Eats Margin: My last piece on Rhapsody suggested the company’s margins face significant downward pressure because of its cellphone distribution scheme. And now we see the numbers showing that erosion. Rhapsody will have to hope that a) it can sustain or even amplify its growth rate through partners and b) retain its own higher margin customer funnel. If not, Rhapsody’s revenue per sub will continue downward.
  4. The Economics Are The Economics: Regardless of approach or business model, on-demand streaming music is an expensive business to launch and operate. There’s no way around losing millions of dollars just to be one of few who survive. All left standing will require a huge war chest, access to raise even more money and the intestinal fortitude spend a fortune in content, distribution and marketing costs.
  5. More Pain Coming: Apple and YouTube are expected to roll out on-demand music services in 2015. The pressure to grow–and raise more money to pay for the growth–will increase on every company in the market. As the old adage goes: let the beatings continue until the morale improves.

More Growing Problems

Geekwire Filing Reveals $21M Loss for Rhapsody, Despite Jump in Revenue and Subscribers

NY Times As Music Streaming Grows, Spotify Reports Rising Revenue and a Loss

Bloomberg Spotify Hits 10 Million Paid Users. Now Can It Make Money?

Jonmaples.com The Roaring Mouse: Rhapsody Faces Its Future

Please Release Me: The Industry, Music Release Day and Listeners

There’s been a brewing controversy in the industry recently about the music release day. What, you might ask in this age of you YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, radio, leaks, and Soundcloud, is a release day?

I’m glad you asked. One day every week, new music is released to retail outlets and streaming services. But here’s where it gets tricky. It’s a different day in many countries. In the US new music day is Tuesday. But in the UK it’s Monday. Japan, Wednesday. Germany and France, Friday.

Why is it different? The release day has been driven by music charts. In the US, the Billboard and Soundscan charts run from Tuesday to Monday to match up with the release day. Though the origins of why we ended up with Tuesday in US is not clear, some state it also had to do with physical distribution of LPs, cassettes and CDs.

But with the a global market building and physical retail fading, there’s been clamor for standardizing the day, so that consumers in the UK don’t get a huge global release from an important band a day before consumers in the US or Japan.

After polling the industry and doing market research, this week the IFPI, the global recorded music trade organization, recently suggested Friday is the top contender to become the global music release date.

Once word got out all hell broke loose.

US retail industry, who pushed for either the world changing to Tuesday or even perhaps Monday, strongly objected to Friday. Target actually suggested it would stop selling CDs if the date changed to Friday.

Martin Mills, chairman of the powerful Beggars Group of indie labels had this to say at a conference in the UK:

“Whilst I acknowledge the needs of a digital world for co-ordination, it seems to me to be crazy to throw away one of the trading week’s two peaks, and the ability to restock and rectify errors before the week’s second peak. It astounds me that the major labels are not listening to their customers, their interface with their artists’ fans. I fear their consultation has been a charade, and the market leaders were always going to push this through. I fear this move will also lead to a market in which the mainstream dominates, and the niche, which can be tomorrow’s mainstream, is further marginalised. I fear it will further cement the dominance of the few – and that that is exactly what it is intended to do.”

Music release day matters quite a bit for the industry and Martin is right: the bigger the act, the more important a single release date will become. You can see with global tools like Twitter, Facebook and worldwide(ish) services like Spotify, it’s hard to have a consistent marketing message. After all “Hey, my new record dropped. Check it out Monday in London, Tuesday in New York, Wednesday in Tokyo and Friday in Berlin” won’t really fit in a Tweet.

There’s also other elements to consider: distribution of products, promotional plans, radio appearances and a myriad of other now worldwide tasks that the industry must do to get music–and the word—out to the public.

But that’s really not a music fan problem. It’s an industry problem. So why are we making it a fan problem?

Look, I get it. A single global release day makes sense. And we should be doing everything possible to assist in supporting–if not expanding–retail channels. It’s still, for now anyways, the best way for the industry to make big revenues. A single release day would help.

But it also seems like we’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Why are we focused on these old models? Meanwhile the new way fans listen, streaming music, is held captive by the old models. Based on the amount of customer feedback and market research I did while at a streaming service, it’s clear that a massive number of listeners don’t even know which day is ‘new release day.’ Sure those superfans who raced to Tower Records to pick up Viva Hate at 10 am on Tuesday, March 22, 1988, yeah, they know.

It’s my belief that the average music consumer doesn’t know–or care–which day new music is in the stores or goes live on streaming. And the fact is that streaming services have new material go live every day of the week. So do streaming services need to a ‘new release day?’

Well, if your plan is to prime the publicity pump so you can get a number one record on the charts, sure. But what if your job is to make the music fan happy seven days a week? Not particularly.

In terms of music services, we’re in this awkward stage of development. Sure, services have proven popular with music fans. Yet we haven’t fully transitioned into a different world.

A perfect example of this is the industry’s attempt to determine how many streams equal a track or album sale. Billboard now says a thousand streams equal a track sale. How did Billboard settle on 1,000 plays? It’s not because of revenue generated by the services, because that info is unavailable and disputed. It’s not how many times a listener plays it before purchasing a track. A 1,000 plays seems like a random number that sounds like a lot. Why not 500 plays? Or 5,000? Or 50,000?

While equating plays for a sale does serve those people who are supporting the old model, it’s utterly empty of any value to streaming companies. I wrote in depth about some of these issues in Junk Food Data.

Streaming services are facing significant issues with customer acquisition and retention. Each company needs to be laser focused on what it takes to make customers happier to retain the paltry number who have signed up. Streaming must influence the industry and make it understand its success factors if we have a prayer at replacing the lost retail revenue with paid subscriptions.

And if we continue to pay attention to the past? Then, I’ll take a deck chair with a nice view of that iceberg.

More On Old Models

Billboard Why Are Albums Released on Tuesday (For Now) in the U.S.?

Musicweek IFPI Confirms Friday Global Release Day

Wall Street Journal Record Labels, Retailers Can’t Agree on Which Day of the Week to Release New Music

Jonmaples.com The Value of Nothing: Don’t Except Junk Food Streaming Data