Executive Turntable: Can Classic Label Talent Transition to Digital Formats?

Warner Music Group Grammy Celebration Hosted By InStyle
Lyor Cohen knows all about how to rub elbows with artists like Elvis Costello and Diana Krall, but how will that rub off on YouTube?

Old-school record executives seem to be joining new-school digital music companies in increased intensity.  In the past few years WMG’s Stephen Bryan (Soundcloud), Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine (Apple), UMG’s Amanda Marks (Apple), super-manager Troy Carter (Spotify) have all been wooed to some of the most prestigious companies.  Last week, the big kahuna Lyor Cohen, former CEO of WMG and founder of Def Jam, joined YouTube as head of music for the company. And  it isn’t some honorary title, where he deals with artist and industry relations. He’s running the whole thing!

What’s going on here? Obviously these companies all know they need to beef up their ranks with people who know the ins and outs of the music business. After all, a good relationship with your content supplier is extremely important. But it’s only one factor in building a successful music company. There are other essential skills that being a good label executive doesn’t necessarily provide the appropriate experience.

First let’s get something straight. All these label execs are eminently talented. You don’t get to the top of  label orgs without a herculean work ethic, serious business chops, and massive brain power. But getting to that level doesn’t  necessarily mean you can run other complex companies. After all, CBS Records’ Svengali Walter Yetnikoff might have built the company into a powerhouse, but it doesn’t mean he was qualified to do Russ Solomon’s job at Tower Records.

Record companies do many things; but at its core is scouting, locating, and developing talented artists. It’s a tough job we discount too often. You have to have a great understanding of art and a finely tuned ear to what people will respond to. But digital music companies have different needs: product development, technical acumen, and a keen understanding of what users will find compelling enough to open their pocketbooks. You also must know how to lead tech teams and understand how people use and adopt new products.

While there obviously is some overlap between these two diverse core skills, there’s a lot that doesn’t fit. We’ve seen this manifest when companies try to move into the other’s turf. Labels time and time again have failed at direct to consumer offerings. The efforts have gotten considerably more ham fisted as technology has played a larger role in the  industry. From its inability to secure files on CD and all the way up to the ridiculous Now! subscription service that rolled out just last week, nearly every label’s tech initiative  or direct-to-consumer offering has underperformed or been an outright disaster (Pressplay, anyone?). Likewise, digital music services struggle with artist relations, leading  to wary feelings between artists and digital services, or straight-up hostility.

DNA Mismatch

Both labels and digital services struggle to meld because they’re so different. At their essence, labels are about artists. Everything is built around finding and developing great artists. Talent is also the core talent of most senior execs at labels. Sure, there are probably great dealmakers, technologists, and marketing whizzes working at UMG, but ultimately, it all serves the artist. Meanwhile the digital services are all about the customer. And yes, artists are vital for services, but if push comes to shove, product development, not artist development, wins.

So when labels end up going directly to consumers, they’re on unfamiliar turf. Likewise, when Tim Westergren says something that sounds awfully stilted to the artist community, it’s because he’s not capable of fully serving both sides. Ultimately, he must side with his listener. You can bring in label talent to the music services to help co-mingle the two sides. But it won’t change the DNA of the company.

Free Advice

Look, I’m not telling you that digital music services are the model of how to build the modern company. Spotify isn’t Jack Welch’s GE or even Reed Hastings elite-level Netflix.  There’s a tendency to rely too much on technical solutions and not enough focus on customer problems, which leads to a functional–but not a very warm–product.

So if I were to give advice to say, a new executive at, say, the world’s largest free music listening service, I’d suggest following a few axioms about how to build his or her new team.

  1. Empower Product Leaders
    Too often we end up hiring product development professionals but don’t empower them to make decisions. Product is the core of what these companies do and to fully take advantage of this, you need great product talent in leadership positions. When you don’t own the content, you have to win on product, full stop. And yeah, I’m a product guy, so I’m biased. But I’ve seen what happens when you don’t prioritize the right talent in the right roles, and it’s not pretty.
  2. Practice Design Thinking
    Although tech products are much better today than even five years ago, we have a long way to go in building out thoughtfully designed products. You can tell a massive difference in Spotify versus a company where design is front and center like Airbnb. If you start with design solutions, rather than technology ones, it will resonate a lot more with your users. Cool tech is just that. Cool. Solve problems first and foremost, my friends.
  3. Different Analytics For Different Goals
    Labels have invested in analytics teams in varying levels. Most of these  efforts– including UMG’s exceptional data analytics team and Lyor’s start-up The 300– used data to identify artists that will perform best, which is just an evolution of what labels always have done. Spotify and YouTube have both invested heavily in solutions to solve ‘what to play next.’ While YouTube’s recommendation products are good, they don’t have the sheen of Spotify’s Release Radar, Daily Mix, and Discover Weekly, perhaps the best of all the technology centric recommendations. The lesson here: using data science and machine learning to create superior user experiences is the foundation of any successful digital music product.
  4. Market Like A Retailer
    If there’s been one element missing from most services, it’s figuring out how to sell them to mass audiences. At its core, the pitch seems to be “Hey, you like music. Well we’ve got lots of music. Come get some!” Okay then! The services need to get better. While it’s clear that music services are different than retail, the attention to detail and stronger relevance to the customer’s life would help the services define a) what they are and b) who they are for. Without that kind of definition, mass consumers will continue to pass.

None of this stuff is surprising. Let’s just file it under ‘doing the basics really well.’ But the labels, and the people who built their careers with them, still seem like they are steeped in another era. Digital is different, and building an elite team that can navigate this competitive market requires a different skill set. A phenomenal product team is today’s A&R. Invest wisely.

Billboard: Lyor Cohen’s Move to YouTube: Good Or Bad For The Music Industry

Hypebot: Music Industry Uncharacteristically Silent about Lyor Cohen to YouTube

Bobby Owsinski: YouTube Misses The Point With Lyor Cohen Hire

Churn Baby Churn: Why TIDAL’s Losses Only Tell Part Of The Story

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 10.07.52 AM
TIDAL, the Jay-Z led streaming service may have a problem retaining user it has signed up. 

The Wall Street Journal recently published some pretty terrible numbers on the train wreck that is called TIDAL. Naturally, the entire industry started piling on Jay-Z’s music startup, determined to show what a cluster the company finds itself in. But to us music vets, it’s pretty much the same old, same old. Losing lots of money isn’t the problem—it’s actually required these days if you’re running a digital music company; due to the enormous costs of content, and the fight for paying subscribers. It should be pointed out that Spotify’s losses are much greater than TIDAL’s reported numbers.

The bigger problem that TIDAL faces is revenue growth. According to the filings the WSJ reported on, TIDAL lost $28 million on revenues of $43 million in 2015. And while that’s a lot of money to lose, Spotify lost nearly $194 million, and Rhapsody lost $35 in 2015. But the scale of both of those companies is impressive. Spotify nearly doubled its revenue last year, recording of $2 billion. Even Rhapsody logged around $200 million last year.

So what gives? Why is TIDAL’s revenue just a drop in the bucket compared to its competition? I think it has to do with its reliance of exclusives to sign up subscribers. A caveat here: this is speculation based on one report from Sweden, which might not even show the accurate financial picture of the company. A source told the Journal that the filing didn’t include all U.S. revenue, for example. Additionally, it doesn’t account for 2016, when TIDAL rolled out wave after wave of impressive exclusives, from Rihanna to Kanye to Beyoncé. So it doesn’t really account for its power moves.

However, if you just divide the revenues of each company and into each self-reported subscriber count, TIDAL lags well behind in revenue per subscriber. Rhapsody banks $57 per sub per year and Spotify is an impressive $87. TIDAL didn’t announce year end subs, but in March it said it had 3 million, so let’s just say they had 2.5 million at year’s end, for a total of $17 per subscriber. Don’t like that number? Fine. Let’s just go on the TIDAL subscriber number reported on October 1, 2015 of a million subscribers. Based on that, TIDAL is still generating half the revenue per sub of Spotify and a 25 percent less than Rhapsody, a company with a significant base of lower-revenue bundled subscribers.

I know what you’re thinking. How can this be? TIDAL doesn’t have a free offering. It also claims that a huge number of its subs are on the $20 plan for better audio quality, much higher than all streaming services. Shouldn’t TIDAL be generating tons of cash per user? Well, yes. Except for one nagging little problem: churn.

Churn, the amount of subscribers that quit your service every month, is the canary in the coal mine for a subscription business. Low churn means people are happy. High churn is a disaster, as you need to replace all those subscribers just to tread water–let alone to grow. Churn is the one metric subscription companies obsess over. Netflix has famously spent a great deal of effort lowering its churn and is considered the gold standard for an entertainment company.

In the next stage of subscription services, churn will be one of the most important factors in determining health of businesses. There were reports this summer that Apple Music’s churn was significantly higher than Spotify’s, and the company has recently been recruiting talent to deal with its problem. So it’s just not TIDAL that has to worry about it. However, the company is much more suspect to massive churn that its competitors.

My theory is that TIDAL does indeed harvest a lot of credit cards from people who just have to have access to The Life of Pablo or Lemonade. But the minute the exclusive is over, those subscribers leave. In droves.

I would suggest that TIDAL has done a great job at signing people up. And a terrible job at converting them to the service long term. Mostly because TIDAL isn’t marketing the service outside of the only place where you can get exclusives for a short period of time.

One of the measures of performance for companies I track is App Annie data on downloads for iOS in the U.S. It doesn’t tell the whole story, but it does suggest popularity of an app. More downloads: more new customers. One would expect small changes from time to time, but steady, consistent demand. Kind of like Spotify’s iOS downlaods:

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-4-06-02-pm

In comparison to the TIDAL’s downloads over the past year:

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-4-10-17-pm

That’s one bumpy ride.

You’ll also note that the scale between Spotify and TIDAL is significantly different. Spotify never dropped out of the top 30 apps, whereas TIDAL has bumped between 1 and 1,250 since churning out the exclusives.

TIDAL in June announced it has 4.2 million subscribers after signing up 1.2 million fans during Lemonade alone. But let’s not pay attention to how many subscribers TIDAL adds. It’s all about how many it retains.

One last caveat: maybe I’m wrong. Maybe TIDAL is signing up tons of people and they’re sticking around. But if that is the case, the company should have lots of cash on hand to pay its bills in the form of operating income. The fact that seems to be short of cash and it isn’t able to turn its exclusives into a consistent funnel of customers leads me to believe that something isn’t working with exclusives.

WSJ: Jay Z’s Music Streaming Service Tidal Posts Huge Loss in 2015

Recode: Spotify is adding more subscribers and is losing its chief revenue officer

Billboard: Rhapsody Nears 3.5 Million Global Subscribers

 

                                                                                                   

 

Unboxing Pandora

Why The New Royalty Rate Matters Little For The Digital Radio Giant

Yesterday, the Copyright Royalty Board–the three-judge panel that sets the rates that non-interactive radio services pay –set the new rate for the coming year 21 percent higher than the previous year. Services like Pandora were seeking a lower rate. SoundExchange, which represents rights holders, requested a higher rate. The CRB playing a wise Solomon, split it almost right down the middle, settling at .0017 per song played.

And then the industry yawned.

As a refresher, in the United States, music companies can offer playback by taking advantage of a compulsory license set forth in the Digital Millennial Copyright Act. All you need to do is follow the rules for non-interactive digital streaming and pay SoundExchange for all the plays within 45 days. This rate does not affect directly licensed services, like Spotify, Apple Music, or Deezer.

Disclosure: I work at 8tracks, which offers non-interactive radio in the US and Canada. These opinions are mine and don’t represent the company. See 8tracks CEO David Porter’s opinions on the subject here.

Moving On
The CRB rate seems like it’s already an antique of past days. Call it the iPhone 1 era. Remember way back in 2005 when you’d fire up Pandora, pick an artist and sit back and listen to an awesome radio station?

The world has moved on from those olden days. Thanks to YouTube, Spotify and Soundcloud, a whole new generation of listeners have grown up being able to play whatever she or he wants at any time. Also, listeners can skip as much as they want and save tracks to their phones with a premium account; all functionality that requires agreements with labels .

In terms of growth, relying the compulsory license has hemmed in Pandora. Spotify has been able to grow leaps and bounds by launching in country after country. Meanwhile poor Pandora is only available in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia as only a few countries offer compulsory licenses. Its growth has slowed dramatically compared to Spotify.

Directing the Action
Pandora understands that if it wants to offer some flavor of on-demand features and do it around the world, it’ll have to sign direct deals with labels. The company has already signed similar deals with all the major publishing groups to pay songwriters.

So the days of Pandora relying on the CRB rate are numbered. Of course the rate is still important as it sets the floor from which all parties will negotiate, but it really doesn’t truly matter as much as it once had.

The CRB seems like it would like to get out of the business of setting the rate. The rates in the following four years will be based on the increase of yearly inflation, which might be the template in the future.

A Pound of Flesh
While Pandora said it was pleased with the rate, it’s not all smooth sailing for the company. Up next will be sitting down with major labels to hammer out agreements for sound recordings. After years of deep discontent with Pandora, I would bet that labels will be licking their chops to dictate onerous terms. And if the company wants to offer the ability to download tracks to a phone or up the skip limits, its gonna cost an arm and a leg.

But still, there is a path forward. Pandora recently purchased some of the assets of the much admired yet failing Rdio streaming service in preparation for an on-demand world. After months of uncertainty, Pandora’s stock perked up, rising about 13 percent the day after the announcement.

Beginnings and Endings
The CRB also simplified the rates down to a single one from three. iHeart Media, the terrestrial giant also saw its fortunes improve. Its rates dropped 22 percent when the CRB eliminated the blended rate that companies who offered more than just non-interactive radio used. On the opposite side, the elimination of the small webcaster rate means that tiny services are facing the end of days, as the new rate means their costs have now gone through the roof.

Digital musics’s chorus doesn’t really change much. Let the beatings continue until the morale improves.

 

The Bundle Deal: The Miracle of Spotify’s Paid Subscription Numbers

We all knew it was coming.

Of course Spotify was going to answer back the big ballyhoo of Apple Music’s underwhelming unveiling. It came today as Spotify announced 1) that it now had 20 million premium users 2) that it was paying more than ever for content ($300 million in the first three months of 2015!) and once again, tried to clear up the misconception of free music. As we all know, Spotify has been in the woodshed for months on end because of its free music scheme to sign up paid users. What brilliant strategy did our Swedish friends cook up this time? Well, when you are facing tough problems, do what everyone turns to: animation!

After watching this extremely informational and entertaining clip, I felt so much better.

Since Spotify has been announcing numbers, it’s mentioned the same conversion rate. Twenty five percent of their entire base is paid. This hasn’t changed in any announcement, year after year. The remarkable consistency of Spotify’s conversion, regardless of the different markets it launches with different consumers and behaviors and competitive pressures, truly boggles the mind. It actually twist credulity.

After word of this came out this morning, a friend who’s a longtime digital music veteran texted:

“36 percent of the users are paid? C’mon! Now that’s insane conversion. Has to be cooked with some underwater bundle deals. I am disgusted.”

It got me thinking about what a paid customer is, and how do we judge one.

The prevailing winds in the industry bends towards thinking that a paid user is good, and all free users suck. Well, maybe not all paid users are the same. You have customer who use mobile and pays $10 a month. You have customer who only has web access and pay $5 a month. And then you have my disgusted friend’s bundled users.

The Bundled Wars

It’s an open secret that there has been a battle between services to bundle on-demand services with cell phone companies. Spotify, Beats, Deezer and Rhapsody have been trading body blows to sign these deals. They are considered the crown jewels of the services because:

  • It provides a huge base of users that you don’t need to worry about billing, since the fee is bundled into the monthly cell phone bill.
  • The cell company will do the heavy lifting of marketing.
  • Cell companies just bake the service in for everyone in a tier. So if someone signs up for the All You Can Play plan, you get paid, regardless if someone uses your service or not!

But these customers also have drawbacks. The service only sees a fraction of the revenue per user than it does for the retail customer. As I have written about before, these deals are complicated because you have more than one party involved. On one side, you have the supplier–the content owner, in this case, labels. On the other side you have your distributor–cell companies. In the middle you have ‘lil ole digital music services, who have to convince these two big bad boys to take a discount to make the deal work.

In theory it all works. Customers get music at a discount. Labels get access to revenue they’d never get. Cell companies get premium services that leads to more loyal customers. And the digital services get lots of users, even if they’re only making a buck a month instead of three a month. Except for one, small issue.

Competition.

These deals have become extremely competitive over the past couple years. All the music services are working hard to land carrier deals and take further discounts off already paltry margins. There have been rumors that Spotify has been the most aggressive of all the companies to close, or at least disrupt, deals. So my disgusted friend wonders how many millions that Spotify loses money every month on, just to say it has more paying users. It’s an excellent question.

Drain The Swamp

There’s an old saying in politics that to get rid of mosquitos (or alligators), you’ve got to drain the swamp. The concept is that once you get rid of the cause of your issues, all your annoyances go away. It could be that Spotify is trying to get rid of its competition by taking a loss on bundled customers to get the deals (the swamp in this instance). Additionally, it doesn’t hurt the PR cause to say you have more subs, because, you know, paid subs are GOOD!!!!

As we get smarter about subscription music, we’ll figure out better questions to ask. My contention is that these bundle deals will need to come under increasing scrutiny as services start to mature. Many in the industry believe the bundle is the answer to all of our problems. But the baggage the bundle contains might make it not worth the trouble.

Grow Fast And Burn Cash

By all accounts, the music service Rhapsody has been on a roll. Subscriber numbers continue to grow. The company announced an innovative use of a trial based on plays that makes it appear like free music on Twitter. It recently acqi-hired a team of developers who built a social sharing application named Reveal.

Disclosure: I dirtied Rhapsody’s white boards when I worked there from 2004 until 2013. 

More revealing, however, is the cost of growth. Real Networks is compelled to disclose Rhapsody’s financials in its 10-K reports, and the most recent results are brutal. Rhapsody lost $8.9 million in the first quarter of 2015. The Seattle-based company lost $1.6 million in the same quarter in 2014. Rhapsody had to borrow $10 million in cash from Real Networks and its other owner–the private equity firm Columbus Nova.

Do You Know ARPU?

So how can the company grow subscribers, but losses continue to escalate? It’s pretty simple. The company’s average revenue per user (ARPU) is slipping. Badly.

Most, if not all, of Rhapsody’s growth has come from their cellular carrier partnerships, like T-Mobile in the United States, Telefonica in Latin America and Vodaphone and SFR in Europe. These deals are awesome for distribution. But the deals provides just a fraction of the revenue a retail customer in the US provides the company. So instead of making, say, $5 bucks a month for each retail customer who signs up directly, Rhapsody might make $0.50 on per each user month of Brazil’s Vivo Musica, if not even less.

As I posted earlier, Rhapsody’s cellphone carrier strategy is a sound one, if the company can do two things: make up the loss of ARPU by dramatically increasing the volume of partner subscribers and bolster its brand to sign up a number of high ARPU customers the company has traditionally attracted in the US.

Rhapsody, just like everyone in digital music, is probably feeling the pressure of Spotify’s successful year. The company continues to sign up tons of high-value premium customers as it expands around the world. There’s some evidence that Spotify is taking the oxygen out of the market. Spotify’s premium users grew the equivalent of Rhapsody’s entire subscriber base in two months at the end of last year. The company grossed over a billion dollars in revenue last year.

And Rhapsody’s losses are a drop in the bucket compared to Spotify. The Swedish-based digital music juggernaut lost $184 million in 2014, according to recent reports. Based on how the company continues to harvest the private markets for more and more cash, Daniel Ek’s company makes Rhapsody’s losses look good in comparison. Rhapsody appears to be more like a rock-ribbed conservative banker compared to Spotify’s sailor-on-shore-leave approach to spending. We are clearly still in a Grow Fast or Die Slow stage of development, and Rhapsody has playing the best hand it has available.

The digital music market has long valued growth at any costs over rational business planning. That may be changing as Universal Music Group is starting to question the value of free music. There’s been many reports that Apple is pushing UMG to have Spotify limit or end its unending stream of free music as a way to sign up paying customers.

UMG CEO Lucian Grainge may see Apple as the best of both worlds: a 100 percent paid service that has access to hundreds of millions of credit cards. If Apple is the White Knight that will save the music business from itself, or just another Trojan Horse is an open question.

7 Points I Wish Team Tidal Made

Tidal talked about its new music service, but didn't give many details. I added a few myself.
Tidal talked about its new music service, but didn’t give many details about plans or product. I added a few myself.

For those not living under a rock, Jay-Z presented Tidal, the industry’s first artist-owned music service on Monday at a press conference that has been widely mocked for being heavy on lip service and platitudes and extremely wanting in details. Jay spent a reported $56 million to buy Tidal from its Norwegian corporate parent Aspiro AB and there’s been a lot of speculation about what Tidal could be up to.

It’s premature to call it a failure (though the tech press didn’t have any qualms doing so) as we don’t know what Tidal is going to do. But without details, I was really wishing for more from 16 of the biggest names in the music business Monday. The fact is that an artist-run streaming service should have a different outlook at how a music service should function, from its relationship to listeners to how artists are compensated. Here’s a few suggestions for what Jay and team could have said.

  1. “First and foremost, Tidal is going to complete the fan experience. Too often we’re asking our fans to do too much work and it hasn’t gotten easier in streaming. It’s gotten harder! I believe first and foremost that if we’re asking fans to pay for music, then we better be delivering a lot more value than just access to music. To that end, Tidal is going to focus on shortening that distance from the music fan and us, the artists.”
  2. “Sharing music is a great way for our fans to show their love for our music. We’re going to make it extremely easy for fans to share music and enable playback of tracks in a limited way, regardless if someone is a Rdio, Pandora, iTunes or Spotify listener. Our project is called EasyShare and it requires all the services to cooperate so that it’s easier for our fans to share their love of music. It also supports all the services, since, let’s face it, people are using a little bit of everything these days.”
  3. “Okay, we’re superstars. But it’s not easy for artists these days in all genres and levels of their career. We believe in fairness for all artists. We’re going to make sure that the way artists get paid in our streaming service works for everyone, from the superstar to the struggling artist. Right now it seems like payments for streaming seem like a ‘winner take all’ proposition. So we’ve asked leading economists to look at the pro-rata share of determining compensation to investigate if it really is the best way to pay artists.”
  4. We’ve informed the major labels that we want to renegotiate our contracts with them. Our number one priority is to make sure that more money from our service goes into the pockets of artists. So we’re going to add what we’re calling a ‘Transparency Clause’ into the contract that will require labels to quantify how much money they’ve received from us, and what percentage goes to artists. We believe this number will help artists understand the moneyflow and make sure that the billions streaming services are paying labels don’t turn into fractions of pennies for artists.”
  5. We also won’t sign non-disclosure clauses with any label and we will post the details of all of our deals so that the artist community knows exactly how much money is going into the coffers of labels for their content.”
  6. “We believe in artists. And that’s just not performers, but also songwriters. So we’re going to help solve the problem of getting songwriters paid. Right now, music services like Tidal can only pay 70 percent of royalties because we just can’t identify who should get paid. We’ve earmarked $5 million that we’ll give to SoundExchange to develop a Global Rights Database. The database will endeavor to identify the publishing rights for every song in the world with the end goal of getting every single rightsholder paid for every play. We have calls later today with Daniel Ek, Doug Morris, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook and Lucian Grainge urging them to contribute to this extremely important endeavor.”
  7. “We’re going to support artists by investing in causes that are important to them. Therefore, we’re going to contribute the money that Tidal paid us for exclusives to MusicCares, which helps artists who are in need of economic support often for medical problems. We’re asking our subscribers to join us in supporting this vital non-profit service.”

2014: Music Services Lost Subscribers…And That’s A Good Thing

Last year was a banner year for music subscription in the US. The RIAA reported big time growth, primarily driven by Spotify’s gains in paying subscribers.

But at the same time, the market stalled a bit in terms of actual subscribers. The RIAA in its midyear report had paid subscribers at 7.8 million, but by the time we got to the end of the year, it was only 7.7, a loss of 100k subs. So what gives?

Well, we had another year of consolidation. Two big players came off the market. The biggest driver of losses is Muve Music, which at its peak, reportedly had two million subscribers. Granted those subs weren’t generating much in revenue for the industry, but it was a big number. AT&T acquired Muve’s parent Cricket Wireless and then treated it like a redheaded stepchild.

Conventional wisdom is that Muve delivered a big number of subs, but it was primarily a sleeper service, where most of the users were inactive. There was a ton of media flaunting how great Muve was for the industry, which in retrospect, now seems absurd. AT&T shuttled off Muve’s subscribers to Deezer in January. However, these kinds of deals generally mean retaining 50 percent of subscribers at best. I’ve seen acquisitions deliver less than 30 percent of subscribers to the new service.

After a big marketing blitz, Beats turned off their acquisition channels once Apple purchased the company, which adversely affected its numbers.

Just totaling up subscribers isn’t the best way to judge success of subscriber. The key number to get the total picture is revenue plus subs. In the first half of this year, streaming subs increased to $371.4 million, and increased even more in the second half to total $799 million for the year.

Perhaps the old adage about lies, damn lies and statistics applies here. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing provocative headlines based on precursory numbers. But it requires digging a level deeper to understand what the numbers actually mean. Spotify had a great year in 2014. In some respects the company, along with the massive increase of internet radio revenue, kept the industry afloat through another transition.

There’s no need to bemoan the loss of garbage subscribers. We need to focus on revenue and subscribers to get a true sense of what streaming subscribers is delivering to the industry—and where the real growth will come from.

More Reading

RIAA: 2014 Industry Shipment and Revenue Report

CNETCricket’s Deezer Music Partnership Rises From The Ashes of Muve Music

Fierce WirelessCricket’s Muve Music’s Fate Is Up In Air Following AT&T Deal

Billboard: Muve Music Surpasses 2 Million Subscriber In US

Accordion Games: Why Spotify’s Free Service Should Constantly Grow And Contract

Here we go again.

Spotify is running into trouble with someone else in music. This time it’s the behemoth Universal Music Group. UMG’s CEO Lucian Grande woke up one day and figured out that Spotify was giving away too much music and it was impacting digital sales, which have slumped considerably. The company controls a considerable amount of popular music throughout the world. In some markets it’s as much as 40 percent of all music sales, so when it doesn’t like something, you can be assured that something’s gonna change. Outside of the absurdity of all this, there is a point here. And it comes down to the funnel.

You see Spotify uses free music as a customer acquisition funnel. By getting the largest number of people possible playing music, Spotify believes that it can convert a significant number of them into the paid products. Spotify has pushed to create the biggest funnel possible by giving unlimited free music on the desktop, and allowing shuffle play listening for free on mobile phones.

All information has shown that Spotify has had a great year. Its growth numbers in free and paid listeners has grown tremendously. Early data signals are showing that Spotify ate into other free services, like YouTube. And while the company wheels out data points that claims it hasn’t eaten into iTunes sales, it bends credulity to believe that Spotify hasn’t eaten into track sales.

Think Accordion, Not Funnel

The main point of Spotify’s troubles  comes down to how it considers free playback. The company would have much more success in identifying those who would pay by considering free as an accordion that expands and contracts from time to time. Instead of 100 percent free plays all the time, the company could limit free playback occasionally, or better yet, carve up its user base into intelligent cohorts based on their playback behavior and value to the company.

So if listener creates awesome playlists that gets tons of followers, that person gets as much free music they want. If someone shares more playlists than most, free music. If one has more active friends, give ’em free. The company could even create scores based on user’s future possibility that they might subscribe and keep them around. Others should see a wall when they get to a certain number of plays. And when Spotify’s funnel starts to collapse, open it up again. Free music for everyone.

It has been my contention that sooner or later, Spotify will have to have a system like this in place. Right now, the content costs are crushing to the company, and eventually, playtime will be over. Time to get the books right. But right now in its run-up to an initial public offering the company is 100 percent focused on growth. Therefore, it must keep the funnel as big as possible.

And finally, it’s absurd to think that the major labels are going to do anything to jeopardize Spotify’s IPO. All the labels own a chunk in Spotify and will benefit from the IPO. It could be big money. Just last year UMG made hundreds of millions on Beat Electronics sale to Apple. So free music might be more limited sooner or later. But let’s not pretend free music is going anywhere before Spotify makes labels millions.

Jonmaples.com: Major Label Are Truly Home of the Free (Music)

FT: Universal Takes On Spotify’s Free Model

Free Expansion: Rhapsody Joins Spotify in Giving Away Music

Wiz on Rhapsody on Twitter
Can Wiz Khalifa help deliver his Twitter followers to Rhapsody.

Today Rhapsody announced that it is launching free playback through an integration with Twitter’s audio cards. It works this way: if you are a subscriber and share a song, album or playlist on Twitter, anyone following you can play it for free in the Twitter mobile app.

It’s a pretty smart integration that solves a few problems for the service:

  • It encourages Rhapsody’s users to share music with all their friends. This is something that Spotify has done very successfully with its social tools baked into the app.
  • It gives artists an opportunity to drive potential customers to Rhapsody from their social channels, which could create an additional revenue stream for artists.
  • It is focused on mobile plays, which is where a majority of listening has migrated to and where Rhapsody’s potential customers hang out.
  • It limits the amount of free music by pegging the free playback to someone with an account and followers on Twitter. You can only listen on Twitter, which is very different than the all-free, all-the-time Spotify offerings.
  • It gets Rhapsody in the news, as you can see by all the press the company has generated by announcing the integration at SXSW today.

Social Mores

Chief Financial Officer Ethan Rudin says that the project is an experiment in the US. He had a couple press quotes that seemed a bit off target.

“It’s going to be a huge experiment in how we make music social again,” Rudin told Geekwire’s Todd Bishop.

“Music has been a bit of red-headed stepchild” on social, Rudin told CNET’s Joan Solsman.

I think he forgot to add the phrase ‘on Rhapsody’ to both of those points.

One could argue that Spotify’s ability fuel enormous grow is because of its very slick social functions coupled with the a mass number of users. Meanwhile, Rhapsody’s loyal and active customers listen to tons of music in the service, but without sharing of that playback it’s locked in a vacuum. It’s been a weakness that the service has yet to address in its decade plus existence.

The integration looks nice. But it still requires Rhapsody user to do the work to help the company mine Twitter for customers. What has made Spotify so damn sticky is that its social features are automatic and on by default. On its service, you have to opt out to not share. Meanwhile Rhapsody requires that you tweet your heart out about your favorite songs to let everyone know what you’re listening to.

About Face

I must point out that Rhapsody has been extremely critical of free music over the years. As Spotify has grown enormously over the past couple of years Rhapsody has ratcheted up the attacks on free music.

When the Taylor Swift vs Spotify controversy was at its peak, Rhapsody Board of Directors Co-Chairmen Rob Glaser and Jason Epstein authored an opinion piece in Billboard that called free music “throwing out the baby with the bath water.” Ethan Rudin last summer told Buzzfeed that free streaming services send the wrong message to potential customers. “If you continually offer somebody the perpetually free model, they’re always going to opt not to pay for it,” is the way Rudin put it.

It should also be noted that today you cannot play on-demand tracks for free on Spotify’s mobile app, but you can play anything on the Rhapsody catalog for free on Twitter. So what happened to aligning around 100 percent paid music?

Look, I get it. A company can change its mind. Business conditions always change and if you don’t adapt, you have a good chance at being swept away. But what is equally important is that we believe in what you say. Consistency is extremely important in the music business, as it has a checkered past.

Scoring points on your competitors for giving away music while planning your own free music offering does smack a bit of talking out of both sides of ones mouth. To say the least.

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

More Free Advice

Billboard: Why Streaming (Done Right) Will Save the Music Business

Buzzfeed: Rhapsody CFO: Taylor Swift Is Right — Free Streaming Is Bad For Music

CNET: Twitter rocks! Rhapsody kicks off free songs through tweets

Geekwire: Rhapsody launches music sharing on Twitter: Full-track playback without subscription

Major Labels Are Truly Home of the Free (Music)

Lucian Grainge, the CEO of Universal Music, has recently been talking about getting tough with companies that offer free music. First, a couple of lieutenants who shepherded digital deals, Rob Wells and David Ring, departed. Some in the industry considered it a sign that Lucian had cooled on ad-supported companies like Spotify.

And recently a video of Lucian’s comments at Re-code’s Media conference surfaced. In the video, Lucian consistently questions the long-term viability of ad-supported offerings. Lucian, apparently, just recognized that these services are giving away free music.

I find this hard to believe. After all Lucian approved of, and personally benefitted from, deals for Spotify, Deezer and Rdio, all who have free offerings. It’s almost like he’s like he’s channelling Captain Louis Renault from the classic film Casablanca, who is shocked, just shocked to find gambling taking place at Rick’s Café Americain. Meanwhile he happens to be winning at the tables!

Back in 2011 there was significant label resistance to granting Spotify a freemium license. Daniel Ek has mentioned that it took years to get over objections to granting the license in the richest music market in the world. Sure, Spotify had proven streaming worked in Scandinavia. But in America? No way!

At least until Spotify wrote a big check to labels guaranteeing revenue as well as a stake in the Swedish based startup. Rumors had the number marked at $200 million, although all figures and deal terms are confidential. Once Spotify wrote the check, then all was hunky dory.

And then it wasn’t.

Excuse me if I don’t completely believe Lucian. You see, it is my contention that major labels are addicted to free services and they are not going anywhere anytime soon. Labels just have too much at stake to pull back now. UMG, Sony and Warner all have sizable stakes in Spotify, as well as other companies. Jean-Rene Fourtou, CEO of UMG’s parent company, Vivendi, stated that it held a five percent stake in Spotify. That will be a sizable payday for UMG if Spotify goes public, which it surely will attempt in the near future.

And remember those label deals for the freemium service that Spotify signed when first launching in the United States in 2011? Those deals are up for renewal and are being negotiated right now. So is it any surprise that the CEO of the biggest recorded music company in the world is suddenly getting cold feet about freemium. Can someone say gamesmanship?

Apparently Lucian’s strategy is working. The NY Post is reporting that Spotify is offering to sweeten the pot by guaranteeing UMG $1bn over the next two years based on its growth projections. The Post also claims that Spotify projects the $1bn to be 39% of UMG’s pretax earnings, an enormous piece of their revenue pie.

The loss of recorded music revenue is real. And it is just common sense that streaming services are partially to blame. Why buy music when you can stream as much as you like? Vivendi recently released earnings that showed UMG’s revenues slumping 3.8 percent last year after excluding costs for selling the Parlophone Label Group, which it acquired in the EMI deal. Digital sales were flat, but transitioned from track sales to streaming revenues. Meanwhile, physical sales continue to slump, as they have for the past 10 years.

Let’s face it: subscription streaming has yet to prove itself the savior of the music business that many have trumpeted. Just replacing digital track sales is not good enough. This industry has shrunk for too long and needs to grow revenue and, more importantly, consumers. But so far, streaming hasn’t been the answer. There are many reasons for this and we need to spread the blame around. Here’s a few reasons:

  • While they will license anyone who can write a check, major labels advantage those players who can raise the most cash, which of course they’ll get a lion’s share of through license agreements.
  • Startups have yet to convince majors of new models that work for the customer. And when a new idea gets licensed, it is extremely hamstrung economics, or the feature set is so limited that it fails to catch on with consumers.
  • Label promotion staffs want to utilize the channels that can deliver the biggest promotional pop, regardless of the revenue model or impact on the market. Seriously, would any major artist drop a record without a YouTube promotion strategy?
  • Major labels see a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow from an IPO or an acquisition. UMG made $433 million on its Beats Electronics stake, for example.
  • The freaking price for on-demand streaming is still too high to drive mass adoption, and companies have yet to convince the industry that $9.99 a month just doesn’t work. Even Apple apparently failed.
  • Consumers don’t want to pay for music, period. Access to products like YouTube, P2P, Pandora and the likes have conditioned a new generation of potential customers to think the cost of music is zero.

So what is the way forward? The answer isn’t to roll back free music as some have suggested. Can we limit access to free? Absolutely, but it comes with risk, especially in subscription services. Spotify has said that 80 percent of subs come from the free tier, and drying up that pipeline will have an impact on its growth potential. So that will need to be closely monitored and managed. Apple, with its 100 percent paid product, won’t be able to pick up the slack. The industry needs Spotify, Google, Apple, YouTube, Deezer and Rhapsody all to contribute premium subscribers.

The industry also desperately needs to embrace new models. Mark Mulligan recently suggested that day passes could be a way that subscription companies could grow incrementally grow revenue and not be wedded to the ‘all-or-nothing’ approach of premium subs. And companies launching these new models need to have flexibility to try offerings without going belly-up immediately. In the startup world, pivoting model and offerings is often a legitimate way to find value. We should be following that model.

And finally, the industry needs to embrace a multi-variate pricing structure for premium subscription. Not everyone needs access to 30 million tracks all the time. Could a $5 mobile price point that smartly gives customers access to a certain number of tracks work? Are there markets that might do better at $7.99, $3.99 or $2.99? The industry really should be attempting to grow as many paying listeners as possible and not obsessing over average revenue per user until the market matures.

More Shocking News

Re/codeLucian Grainge Wants You to Pay Up

Music Ally: What Happened When Ministry of Sound CEO Shared A Stage With Deezer and Rdio

BuzzFeedUniversal Has A Big Stake In Beats That’s Worth Nearly $500 Million

Vivendi: 2014 Annual Results

Jonmaples.com: Fake Fight: As Apple Preps Streaming, Labels Sing The Same Song