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

The Roaring Mouse: Rhapsody Faces Its Future

Mark Mulligan recently commented on an announcement from Rhapsody that trumpeted the Seattle-based granddaddy of streaming music’s impressive growth over the past couple years.

His analysis:

Enter investment firm Columbus Nova who acquired an undisclosed stake in Rhapsody in September 2013. A reorg and a repositioning process followed paving the way for strong subscriber growth. Rhapsody had 1.5 million subscribers one year ago. If it continues to grow at its present rate it should hit 3 million by July this year. And if it sustains that growth into the start of 2016 it could find itself the second biggest subscription service globally. Current number two Deezer appears to be slowing so 2nd place could be a realistic target for next year. Quite a turn around for a service that looked like it was falling by the wayside 5 years ago. 

Surprisingly, Mark’s blog piece was extremely thin on the particulars about Rhapsody’s turnaround. I was surprised as he is one of the sharpest analysts in digital music.

Rhapsody’s growth is impressive. But the seeds of Rhapsody’s recent growth were sown years before Columbus Nova showed up to the party. When the company spun out as a standalone entity from its parent, Real Networks, it was given a few on-air marketing dollars from its other owner, Viacom Networks. Previously Viacom had poured hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising credits to Rhapsody, which it used to advertise the service on MTV, Comedy Central and other on-air properties. The efficacy of those dollars was questionable, as the company had around 800,000 paying subscribers. It was just too early to market on-demand music to a mass audience.

After the spin-out, Rhapsody was left without a sizable marketing budget nor the money to invest in a free tier like Spotify or Pandora. So the company was forced creatively figure out how to attract customers. One of the hardest things streaming services faced then–just like now–is getting consumers to plop down their credit card to pay to them. The president at the time, Jon Irwin. opted to partner with companies who already had access to credit cards—cellular carriers.

Precarious Partners
Before we get into that, here’s a little bit about the economics and goals of partnerships between carriers and music services. These kinds of deals have been seen by the music industry as the answer to building mass audiences of subscribers. Customers might ask themselves why they are paying $10 a month for Rhapsody, but if the charge is included in their cellphone bill, they might never see it. It’s always considered better to tap someone else’s customers than build your own.

Deals like these are extremely difficult to navigate. Labels are terrified of offering discounts for the service, which is a requirement to get carriers to agree to the deal. Carriers are reticent to pay for content that customers may or may not use. And everyone wants someone else to take a margin hit. It’s up to the streaming service to get everyone on board and craft a deal that will be successful.

The best deals are ones where all parties–and the consumer–are happy.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. A couple terrible examples: Deezer has built a massive worldwide audience of paying subscribers, and yet the rate of people who actually use the service is pathetic. Mark Mulligan reported that it could be as low as 20 percent. A low active rate infuriates subscribers and, therefore, carriers. While there will always be some level of inactives in a service, when it becomes huge, you aren’t building a distinct brand and service. Muve Music, which previously was offered through the Cricket pre-paid cellphone service, also had massive inactive users and really awful economics due to licensing deals it signed with music labels.

It’s critically important to build the right offering when selling the service. Music services on carriers come in two varieties: a bundled offering and a bolt-on service. In a bundle the consumer is buying a tiered plan that includes the music service. So for $70 a month, you subscribe to the Cellphone + Music and a bunch of other services. The bolt-on is much simpler and cleaner: add music for $5 or $10 a month. As a product guy, I much prefer the bolt-on. Why? Most of the inactives reside in the bundle and all those people represent a time bomb just waiting to blow up. Customers who quit in droves are expensive for everyone, but it tolls the death knell for the service.

And that’s the weakness with the marketing and distribution partnership through carriers. Specifically:

  • Sure the music service gets the massive benefit of not having to capture the credit card, but it also cedes control of the relationship with the customer.
  • With two parties involved, the company’s already thin margins selling music get deeply eroded, requiring the music service to rely on its own retail customers to prop up the distribution costs.
  • The service is completely reliant on the carrier to market to their customers, and the carrier may not be very motivated to do so.
  • The service can quickly lose brand equity, as the carrier might just call the service ‘Comes With Music’ instead of promoting its brand. If the customer is just subscribing to a generic music service this is a very bad thing, as the carrier could replace it at any time.

So the music services must walk a fine line:

  • Build and hold onto a strong brand presence that will motivate the carrier to do the deal in the first place.
  • Make sure the carrier does the right thing in selling the service and focus on the brand.

Do it wrong, and you end up like Muve Music, which AT&T sold to Deezer at auction prices earlier this year after acquiring what was left of the struggling Cricket Wireless. Do it right, and hockey stick growth follows.

A former colleague thought the relationship between the powerful carriers and little music services reminded him of a blend between Aesop’s fable about the lion and the mouse and the Roald Dahl story about the crocodile and the dentist mouse. In my colleague’s telling of it, the powerful and hungry lion wants to eat the mouse, but to do so will ruin his only hope for repairing the tooth. So the mouse has to convince the lion to not eat him before he can fix the tooth. I’m sure you can imagine who is the lion and who is the mouse.

Dialing Up Deals
After months of negotiations, Rhapsody announced its first partnership with the pre-paid carrier MetroPCS in 2011. In the next few years the company announced deals with European carriers, followed by a global deal with Telefonica and then T-Mobile’s offering.

So far, so good. Solid growth. But it’s an open secret that Rhapsody’s brand has been fading for quite some time now. And the partnership strategy isn’t helping develop a strong brand identity. In their thirst to make the deal, the company is making their brand look more like a quilt than something unified. The service is known as Rhapsody on MetroPCS, Unradio on T-Mobile, MTV in Germany, Napster in Greece, Spain, Sonora in Latin America.

It’s an open question if it will be able to maintain its presence with Spotify taking up all the oxygen in the room with customers while YouTube Music Key and Apple’s iStreaming launches. The company has faced issues before and has been written off time and time again. It remains to be seen if it can grow, in particular in the U.S.

As the partnerships ramp, expect the company to face downward margin pressure. Those thin margins will start to eat into the overall revenue of the company. Growth is fantastic, but it could also harm the company’s bottom line.

Maybe even more important, the company needs to answer the hard question about what position it seeks to occupy in the marketplace. There probably is room for a white label music service that works well with big distribution partners like carriers and cable companies. But without a solid brand and a strong direct retail subscriber base, the company could start to see more pressure to deliver meaningful value. It’s far from clear if a mousy little Rhapsody can roar in a den full of lions.

Disclosure: I worked at Rhapsody for nine long rewarding, frustrating, awesome and ridiculous years before last year’s layoff.

More Rhapsodizing

Music Industry Blog: How Rhapsody Became A Top Tier Player Again

Music Ally Rhapsody’s Napster expands across Europe and plots ‘laddered’ pricing strategy

Billboard Why Streaming (Done Right) Will Save The Music Industry

GeekWire Rhapsody Tops 2.5M Subscribers, Up 60% From Last Year

The Price Is Wrong

Mark Mulligan posted a very perceptive blog post on what a price drop has done for Spotify’s premium numbers in the last quarter. The company featured three different initiatives: a family plan and student plan that cut the monthly cost in half, and a special that offered three months of service for a buck a month.

Price has always been a big issue for streaming services. When the first mobile apps were introduced, my company did consumer research about price for an on-demand streaming music service.  The takeaway: $5 a month was considered ideal, $8 a month was considered pricey, but still attractive and $10 a month and above was far too much to be considered by a majority of potential customers.

Instead of creating a huge pool of potential customers, full catalog on-demand streaming services have become services that only the most ardent music fans would consider. Labels have attempted to keep the premium tier at $10 to protect their current revenue, but unfortunately it has limited its mass appeal. The upshot: very few people subscribe to services. Even Spotify’s 15 million premium subs could be considered disappointing in comparison to other subscription companies like Netflix or Sirius XM.

But with Spotify showing significant growth in subs with lower prices and Apple pressuring labels to cut prices, expect 2015 to be the year that we have a significant shuffling in premium pricing.

Music Industry Blog: What Spotify’s December Growth Tells Us About Pricing

RockonomicWhy music service prices are falling and can’t get back up

Can Spotify Keep Growing?

Spotify today announced it had reached 15 million paying subscribers and 60 million total users. It continues to feed the same narrative that the company has been pitching to the industry recently:

  • The company is growing like a weed
  • The ratio of paid subscribers to free users remains stead at 25%
  • It provides enormous amounts of money to the industry that should be flowing to artists

Spotify’s growth is impressive. Outside of the year the company failed to update us on their sub numbers, the company is averaging 18.5 percent increase in both subs and users quarter over quarter. I’m assuming the company didn’t announce for a year as it appears the growth had slowed. But it has picked up again.

If the company can continue the momentum, it will hit its self-proclaimed goal of 30 million paid and around 120 million free users sometime early in 2016.

It is not clear how much Spotify’s growth is because of inroads in each market and how much is due to launching in new countries. The company recently expanded into Canada, which has been fairly barren when it comes to on-demand music services. The service is now available in 61 countries and their territories (hello unlimited free music Guam).

If the company is finding success launching new countries, it’s good news. There’s plenty more expansion to go if the company is to deliver on its promise in becoming a worldwide platform of music listening.  Unfortunately, the easy countries are out of the way.

Now comes the hard part.

Spotify will have to roll out in countries that might not want the competition (India or China), have yet to fully embrace digital (Japan), might not be able to afford the pricing model (most of Africa) or have a combination of all these factors and Vladimir Putin as president, ahem. How Spotify navigates these thorny issues, along with staving off new competitors like Apple and YouTube, will go a long ways toward determining its success.

Meanwhile, I’m sure these numbers mean Spotify’s IPO apparatus will start to crank up. Based on how hot the market is right now, I would expect the company to go out as soon as it can–before the bubble bursts.

2015 Digital Music Predictions

The past year was a doozy for digital music. We saw Beats Music come and go with a rush, Spotify grow significantly and digital track sales hit the skids as streaming continued to grow in popularity.

And for everything that happened, 2014 probably will be remembered as a transitional year. Big players like Apple and YouTube have yet to really show their cards. The impact of Spotify as a worldwide music platform has yet to really take hold. Many existing services still continue to solider on, despite significant changes that have impacted the marketplace.

The next 12 months will see a significant reshuffling of the deck of existing companies and new entries. We might also start to see the outlines of the future as the next generation of music companies start to debut. Because one thing that remains constant: there’s always someone who will invest in digital music, regardless of the financial results or past performance.

My picks for the top stories for 2015:

Say Goodbye: At Least Two Services Will Consolidate

We are moving quickly from a startup world into one where the big boys are playing. Apple and YouTube will join Amazon and Google Music Play All Access as the giants. While I have grave misgivings if their product offerings will be very good, it might not matter. With access to their digital stores, consumers might just activate the AppleStream or Music Key apps just because it’s simple.

Other companies will find themselves at risk, especially those who are forced to market their services directly to consumers. Rdio, Deezer, Wimp (Tidal in the US), Rhapsody, Slacker and a host of others will come under pressure to find alternative ways to market to customers, band together or go the way of other failed services.

YouTube Music Key Will Deliver A Flat Note

YouTube has the biggest opportunity to grow paid streaming products. YouTube has a massive audience, which is great. But their audience has been conditioned to consider the service free. There are signs that Spotify has already cannibalized YouTube’s consumers who want to pay for music, which might make it even more difficult for the company to get people to pay.

Because of this, YouTube’s paid subscribers will disappoint the industry during 2014. It might take a year or two for the company to perfect the product and find those who really want to pay for the service.

Apple’s streaming service will be a mess, and it won’t matter

The Cupertino geniuses do many things well. Streaming music has not been one of them. While it has the team from Beats Music to rely on, the company is known to ignore new talent acquired and turn it over to their internal team.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see their streaming service follow the iTunes Radio, which was supposed to be a Pandora killer, but just attracted those who use it because it’s already installed on their device. The company will get it right eventually, but streaming services are a completely different beast than anything it has tried. So expect some serious growing pains.

But because the service will be pre-installed on so many phones, it will sign up loads of customers through in-app purchase. Apple is also pressuring labels to lower the monthly cost of streaming, which could lead to solid growth.

Spotify Will IPO and More Artists Will Window

It is really difficult to judge how the public market operates and many things could happen that could affect Daniel Ek’s IPO prospects. We could see a downturn in the economy. Tech stocks could hit the skids again. The market might not like the prospects of the company’s future when it starts releasing business performance and data. But if Spotify overcomes all these hurdles, it will get its IPO out.

And regardless the stock price, a successful IPO will make many of its employees and early investors a lot of money. Expect to see a backlash from artists after this event, with more and more holding back new music on the service to give retail channels first shot at making money.

Pandora Will Become Musicians’ Most Hated Digital Service

Of all the companies in digital music today, none shows the most contempt for musicians and songwriters as Pandora. While the company has had some outreach, it also has tried to bend itself into a broadcast service to get a lower rate, decided to not pay a single dime for any song released before 1972 (as did XM Sirius), and then had the balls to countersue the ‘60s era group Turtles for violating its first amendment rights.

Pandora is already facing a firestorm for its exceptionally low payments to songwriters, but continues to aggressively lower royalty costs, regardless of how it affects its relationship with artists. While much of the money Pandora is trying to save goes to big corporate conglomerates, it’s the independent artists that always come to the forefront in these stories. Expect the hate to expand in 2015.

Amazon Will Continue To Play Its Game

Seattle’s commerce behemoth will focus on what it always does: keeping its customers buying more stuff. Many expected Amazon to offer a premium service in 2014, but instead the company created a back-catalog offering that kept customers in its Prime service longer.

The company had a rough 2014 with its failed Fire phone launch. While its nose is bloody from that setback, don’t expect that Jeff Bezos’ company will change its game plan. Focus on the customer buying: regardless if it’s a digital download, diapers or dishrags.

2014 In Review: Some of the best stories from the past year.

The Elephant In The Room: Another Cultural Landslide’s very complex and very loooong analysis of streaming music, discovery and the listener.

Streaming Report Card: Music industry analyst Mark Mulligan gives us a rundown on how streaming did in 2014.

Stop Blaming The Internet: Gang of Four’s Dave Allen gives a deep dive into the issues surrounding streaming and artists.

The Streaming Price Bible: David Lowrey’s in depth look at who’s paying what. While I might quibble with Lowrey about why those numbers are so low, the streaming rates on this post is illuminating and depressing.

The Album Cycle: Consequence Of Sound News Editor Chris Coplan looks at the nature of music promotion as the industry is changing.

Five Reasons The Music Industry Hates Pandora The Most: Music lawyer and blogger Jake London lays it out.

Spotify Has Six Years Of My Music Data, But Does It Understand My Tastes: Stuart Dredge digs into the taste profile.

Taylor Swift Announces A World Tour And Pulls Her Music From Spotify: Ben Sisario on everyone’s favorite spatting couple.

The Battle for Relevance: Apple and U2 Fight To Regain Their Mojo

The legendary band U2 came on stage at the end of the Apple Extravaganza that introduced the world to a pair of iPhone 6 models (big and freaking huge I think are the product names), Apple Pay and the Apple Watch. The band’s had a rough go of it recently. Their last release, No Line On The Horizon, disappointed both fans and critics and it seemed like they might have lost their relevance.

This is a band that has defied age and found ways to make themselves new again and again. Had time finally caught up with the band? Potentially, and it frightened them. Bono was quoted saying U2 didn’t want to be a heritage act. Being contemporary was much more important, he said. But it wasn’t easy. “To be relevant is a lot harder than to be successful,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. So making money isn’t the way the band judges itself. After all, U2’s latest tour broke records in terms of attendance and revenue, yet they still craved relevancy.

So the band made changes. They holed up with super producer Danger Mouse and poured themselves into the making of the new record. That was almost two years ago.

Why the delay?

The band took time to get the recording right, bringing in One Republic’s Mr. Everything Ryan Tedder and Adele’s producer Paul Epworth to assist in the making of the record.

Just like U2, Apple also has had a great run of success, but it appears they’ve been losing their relevancy. Tim Cook’s company is the richest in the world, and has shown the ability to deliver amazing profits. But that’s not the way he is judged. Tim still stands in the shadow of Steve Jobs as most of the company’s products since he took over the company are just iterations (are they truly improvements?)of the same product line. Meanwhile the world is catching up, and some may argue, passing the company (Samsung anyone?).

Tim’s plan to recapture the Apple magic has centered on the wrist. The company has invested heavily and spent a great deal of time incubating its watch. It has waited until Tim deemed the product was right and a mass number of people would want to wear it before they revealed it to the world. So in the wake of finally seeing the watch on Tim’s arm, how did the company do?

Hip To Be Square

Square is the new round for Apple.
Square is the new round for Apple.

The first visceral reaction to seeing the square-ish watch was one of disappointment. The form factor wasn’t all that different than artist mockups that have been circulating. Jony Ive had reportedly been bragging about how Swiss watchmakers were “fucked” because of the Apple Watch design, but it seems a bit bulky and much more masculine than expected. I have written that one of the musts for the company was to appeal to the female consumer, and the Apple Watch looks like it may overwhelm a woman’s wrist and underwhelm their demand for the timepiece.

What went wrong? Apple certainly made extremely complex technology back in the day. But when it came to showing that to the world, Jobs with without equal. He could find a way to find the few things a product did really well that connected with people. He innately understood desire and insisted the products showcased those. Complexity was hidden underneath the hood in favor of those few items that Steve told us were ‘awesome.’

In stark contrast we were shown the apps screen on the Apple Watch, which looked like a jumble of tiny icons and reeked of “technology” rather than useful features. Later in the demo, VP of Software Kevin Lynch geeked out on a watch face that placed exactly where we were in the solar system. Excuse me for saying this, but that’s fucking stupid. I know there are people who really care about such things, but do you really need that strapped to your wrist? To highlight that in a demo really tells me the company is having a hard time understanding why people need—or even want– the product.

Later, Tim came back on stage and kept referring to the Apple Watch as the most intimate product the company has ever produced. At first I had a hard time understanding Tim’s emphasis on intimacy. After all it’s not really a user benefit. Unless you are talking about massage creams or sex toys, does referring to intimacy really matter?

An Intimate Affair
Most likely the intimacy of the Apple Watch has been the rallying cry within the company. It’s a code word to remind everyone that the watch has to rise to a different level of value and importance if Apple expects people to wear this device on their wrist. It’s very important to product managers—not customers.

And that’s been the fundamental difference with Apple. Before there was simplicity and elegance and now it has been replaced with overwhelming features and options. Yesterday Kevin talked about the options a user had in customizing the watch screen. He showed off different watch faces with different features and colors. That’s very cool, but certainly not something that needed to be presented. Tell me why I need the watch. Not how I can bling the watch.

With all this said, I don’t believe the Apple Watch will be a bomb. Obviously, it will have its fans. And it’s not like the presentation of the iPhone really made the product a hit. The first generation iPhone came out and people went nuts for it when they saw it in action. It became a must-have device. We’ll see when the first customers start to use it and perhaps find they can’t live without it. But a breakout hit that makes the company the envy of the industry? Not from what we saw yesterday.

A better bet might be Apple Pay, which looks like it could potentially simplify the purchase experience and disrupt mediocre services like PayPal and Square. It does require an iPhone and a battery life, though. So yes, you might need to charge before you can charge.

And what of U2? Can Bono and his mates recapture their glory? Perhaps. But giving away your album (even if you are getting paid big bucks for the privilege) to every iTunes user in the world seems like you are cheating your way to relevancy.

 

Some Of My Favorite Tweets From Yesterday’s Apple Watch Presentation

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Liars Poker: Why can’t anyone write a fair assessment of streaming music

I think we know the answer.
I think we know the answer to this one already.

Streaming music has been a huge topic in the music industry for good reason. It’s been the subject of many articles, occasionally one will accurately understand the issues surrounding these hot companies, but most that have no idea of how the music business works. A couple of stories I’ve seen recently made me want to wretch. Interestingly enough, they are on the opposite sides of the debate.

First, there’s this terribly reported and, in some points, just plain wrong article in Take Part by Kathleen Sharp and Scott Timberg with the click-bait title, “Is Spotify Killing Music?” The authors comingle the loss of publishing rights by the heirs of John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie (who are in a band together – naturally) with the way that artists are getting hosed by big bad streaming companies. Not only do these two topics not belong together, they also weaken the main points of the article (which likely stemmed from a PR pitch promoting the aforementioned band).

The streaming portion of the article is a retread of the greatest hits from anti-streaming voices like David Lowery, Thom Yorke and David Byrne. The evidence it cites is flimsy, even including Lowery’s disputed $16 payment for 1.5 million plays of the Cracker song “Low” on Pandora. The authors even recruit streaming supporters for its purposes, posting a big photo of Billy Bragg with the caption:

British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg has spoken out against royalty rates and structures established by music-streaming companies.

This may indeed be true. But what Billy Bragg said was actually very supportive of streaming.

“I’ve long felt that artists railing against Spotify is about as helpful to their cause as campaigning against the Sony Walkman would have been in the early 80s. Music fans are increasingly streaming their music and, as artists, we have to adapt ourselves to their behavior, rather than try to hold the line on a particular mode of listening to music.”

Bragg went on to cite the problem is really with record labels that are paying streaming rates based legacy deals with artist that only paid a fraction of royalties on sales because of physical production and distribution costs.

“If the (streaming) rates were really so bad, the rights holders – the major record companies – would be complaining. The fact that they’re continuing to sign up means they must be making good money.”

Interestingly enough these comments from Billy don’t even up in the article. Instead we get that streaming is eating into CD sales, without even a slight mention of illegal MP3 downloads, which last time I checked, was the main reason why CD purchases are getting killed.

The next sensationally wretch-worthy item is a guest post in Billboard and his site, Tom McAlevey, CEO of Radical.FM, says this whole discussion is silly because streaming music is already profitable! His evidence? Well, Pandora could be profitable tomorrow if they pumped up the ad load to broadcast radio levels and Spotify was profitable in Sweden before they expanded around the world.

Those seem like factors why streaming music is not profitable rather than proving it is profitable today. Based on everything we know, streaming companies are struggling with profitability and the path to get there is uncertain. Pandora desperately needs growth of users to sell more ads and they must do so while keeping their listeners and investors happy with its progress. Without ad sales growth, the company will not survive. But the answer isn’t increasing the number of ads per hour, which Tom suggests. With too many ads, they’ll bleed customers.

Meanwhile, it is true that Spotify had a great deal of success in Scandinavia, but there are factors that have made the company successful–starting with the fact that digital music sales never took off there because of P2P’s popularity in that part of the world. Spotify became the hometown replacement that was so much easier to use that P2P services.

Tom also mentions that his experience negotiating with major labels back in the nineties allowed him to see the secret numbers that reporters do not have access, as a way of proving his bona fides.

I too have seen these numbers, and my assessment is that major label deals make it extremely challenging to find a way to profitability. There are many veterans in digital music who believe that no company can be profitable, ever. I disagree. There is a path forward, but it’s no easy task.

Both Spotify and Pandora are focused on growth, as Tom mentions. But there’s a reason for it. Their current size and offering aren’t profitable. Period. Both need significant growth and are pursuing it all-out. Spotify needs a worldwide audience to build an advertising channel to attract worldwide brands, as well as take advantage of its worldwide infrastructure for streaming. Pandora desperately needs to be bigger in the US and scale around the world.

Scale is another factor. For all the headlines written about Pandora and Spotify, streaming music is still a fraction of all music consumption and revenue. Spotify’s estimated 25 million free users is a rounding error of YouTube’s massive audience. Pandora is only estimated to be 11 percent of all radio listening in the US. Because all the buzz the companies generate, most people believe that both companies, especially inside the music industry, are much bigger than they are. Both are early stage and must prove themselves as mass-market products to be viable.

Granted, you could say such aggressive growth strategies are required to tap the public markets to create a massive payday for investors, and that’s fair criticism. But this doesn’t mean these companies don’t need to grow. They must grow. Or die.

Look, I understand Tom’s motivations for writing the piece and I agree with it. Digital music has great promise and streaming has attracted throngs of people who love the convenience. Many have chosen streaming as the way they’d like to listen to music. The industry needs to find a way to make the economics for all those who’d rather access music than purchase, rip and organize digital files.

But we need to focus on what’s actually happening, and not create spin and counter-spin. There are real serious issues that must be solved, like ensuring every single artist gets compensated fairly as well as creating experiences that customers find valuable enough to pull out their credit cards. Let’s focus on these instead of trying to demonize startups and misrepresent the facts.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Digital Music Coverage

Take Part: Is Spotify Killing Music?

RadicalFM: Streaming Music Already Profitable

The Trichordist: My Song Got Played On Pandora and All I Got Was $16.98

The Understatement: Pandora Paid $1300 for A Million Plays, Not $16.89

MichaelRobertson.com: Why Spotify Will Never Be Profitable

Yahoo News: Roseanne Cash to Congress: Streaming Killing Music

Consequence of Sound: The Elephant In The Music Room

The Value of Nothing: Don’t Accept Junk Food Streaming Music Numbers

It really should be a great day for streaming music. After all Nielsen released a report that showed unbelievable growth for the listening format. In the first half of this year streams have increased by 50 percent over the past year. But these numbers also are leading to discomfort for the streaming industry. Because along with the streaming increases are massive declines in all retail formats. CDs, digital tracks and digital albums are all down around 15 percent in the same period.

Mmmm, junk data.
Mmmm, easily consumable streaming music junk data.

Today’s numbers clearly demonstrate that consumers greatly favor access to their music over purchasing tracks. What isn’t clear is what this means for the music industry. While the revenue model for a purchase is well understood, we have no clarity on streaming’s value.  This is partly because a stream really can’t be equated to a purchase. After all a listen can’t really be compared to a retail event. But the real problem is that streaming services that make up the Nielsen numbers are vastly diverse.

Look, nobody in their right mind is going to compare YouTube and Spotify. But today’s numbers jams several different services with a variety of business models into a single number. It leads us to a question: should we really accept these numbers that don’t tell us anything about the business value?

Discerning A Difference

There are several different streaming products and each one has a different method of providing revenue for the rights holder. Unfortunately, the streaming number Nielsen posted was a single all-in number designed to show huge gains, but not to create clarity. These numbers would actually be revelatory if Nielsen would start tracking and reporting on each of these metrics separately.

As they say at the old ball yard, you can’t keep score without a scorecard. Same with streaming music. And since nobody else is doing it, I thought I’d describe the main streaming sectors and how revenues are generated by each. I’ve also included a few metrics that would help the industry understand the real value of each of these services.

Ad-Supported Streaming

The biggest contributor to Nielsen’s streaming number is ad-supported streams, which is dominated by YouTube’s massive reach and nearly unlimited catalog of music. While it doesn’t have the hype of Spotify or Beats Music, when we in the industry talk about streaming, we’re mostly talking about YouTube. YouTube is free and only generates revenue from advertising that is sold against the plays. Unfortunately, very little of the content on YouTube is monetized and the amount of money it generates per play is unbelievably tiny. Because of YouTube’s scale, a tiny increase in ad sales could vastly increase overall streaming revenues. But it requires significant growth in sales staffing and performance from Google.

Metrics We’d Like to See

-Active users
-Plays per active
-Revenue per play rate

Internet Radio

Comprised of non-interactive services and direct licensed radio, Internet radio includes services like Pandora, IHeartRadio and Slacker. A majority of these pay a stream rate or a percentage of revenue depending if the listener is free or is paying a subscription fee. In the US, Internet radio has performed very nicely. While YouTube can be described as a sampling platform, Internet radio is sticky, with listeners in droves using the services month after month for free, and some even paying to remove ads. The rates are wildly different depending on the deals for both recording and publishing rights. There has been major kerfuffle with this, primarily as Pandora has sought to keep publishing costs at their (nearly unjustifiably) low rate. But it remains a fact that every Internet radio play produces revenue for both rights holders, something that broadcast radio doesn’t do.

Metrics We’d Like to See

-Plays per user
-Number of plays per user
-Number of subscribers
-Lifetime duration of subscribers
-Revenue per play rate for free streams

On-Demand Streaming

When people refer to streaming, many times they’re talking about this bucket, which is dominated around the globe by Spotify, but includes Deezer and Rhapsody amongst others. However there are two different types of on-demand streams. Spotify has found that by having a free tier of the service, the company can build a pipeline of potential customers that it can monetize with advertising and convert into the paid tier. A vast majority of users in Spotify don’t pay a dime for the service. Spotify does pay for every free play, but it’s significantly less than the amount of revenue generated by the premium subscribers. That rate is confidential and differs based on the deal with rights holders. However many artists have seen it on their statements as low as one third of a premium play. It is worth noting that others have followed Spotify into the free racket, like Rdio, but services like Beats Music have stayed away from free.  It’s also worth noting that the number of people who use an on-demand service pales in comparison to Internet radio or ad supported streaming.

Metrics We’d Like to See

-Free users
-Free plays
-Revenue per free play
-Subscribers
-Subscriber plays
-Revenue per subscriber play
-Lifetime duration of subscribers

It’s A Trap

It’s easy to fall into the trap of pointing the finger at streaming services for the loss of retail sales in music. And there’s probably a whole lot of truth that many consumers who previously purchased music now just access it either for free or paying. But since customers are voting strongly for streaming and we’re committed to building new revenue models as opposed to suing upstarts out of existence, we should be asking much better questions about the streaming business.  That’s not only the suit who have their hands on the controls of the business, but also reporters, analysts and industry insiders. We should demand that Nielsen and other market research firms create better metrics that illuminate business value, when instead we get sensationalist reports that deliver big headlines. Good data is good for everybody—especially Nielsen, when we all start obsessing over these metrics like we used to with SoundScan every Wednesday.

Subscription Streaming: A Measly Billion Dollar Industry

Congratulations subscription music! You are finally a billion-dollar industry. The IFPI, the trade organization for the worldwide recorded music industry, last week reported that subscription streaming music revenues finally broke the billion dollar mark in 2013. Let’s mark this moment. It’s a huge number for the industry and at long last a confirmation of what many of us who have worked on the streaming side have believed in ever since Rhapsody launched as the first legal service in 2003.

While Spotify might be music for everyone, a select few subscribed to a streaming music service in the US.
While Spotify might sell itself music for everyone, only a select few subscribed to a streaming music service in the US in 2013.

Yet with all the congratulatory backslapping and shaking of hands, dark clouds still threaten to limit what subscription music could become. Why? The secrets are revealed in the data, my friends. You see, subscription streaming might be the same product around the world, but the business results have varied. While perhaps not by design, markets are delivering vastly different revenues and subscribers.

The US market is creating a great deal of revenue, but it hasn’t caught on as a mainstream product. Outside of the US the goal seems much less about revenue—it’s about bundling the service with other providers. Additionally rightsholders seem to be much more willing to experiment with other models in the rest of the world rather than the good ol’ US of A.

Negotiation Before Innovation

A product manager for a streaming service spends a lot of time obsessing about what people value. We research of what customers do daily and what causes them open their pocketbooks. Then we craft product concepts that potentially could satisfy those needs. In a past life I had one of those jobs where I would take these ideas and package them up for presentation in front of the labels in order to gain licenses.  You might think ‘oh, you already have a license to a catalog of music, so why do you need anything else.’ Well, every functionality and technical detail must go through a vetting and approval process with labels. And that’s where this gets interesting.

Just for fun, let’s say I’ve just created a service that allows a user play anything from a 20 million song catalog for free on demand while you listen on a laptop. But if you pay $3 a month, we’ll automatically save the top 100 songs you’ve played to your phone. It’s simple: download the app onto your phone and based on what you play on your laptop, we’ll automagically save ’em on your phone. Just for fun, let’s name it something cute like The Roo, as in Kangeroo, because it saves favorite songs in its mobile pouch. My logo is a cuddly ‘Roo wearing headphones and holding a mobile phone.

For the record, I’ve never pitched The Roo to anyone. I just made it up.  But I can imagine the feedback I’d get from places like TheMarketingHeaven.com and the label representatives. The first thing I’d hear is that I’m really pitching a freemium product, which has a different cost to a service than a premium product. After all, there is a cost to giving away a bunch of music as a marketing ploy to attract users. I might also hear that The Roo gives away too much value compared to other products that are already in the marketplace at that price point, like premium radio. And finally I’d probably hear how I’m “giving away” the equivalent of 10 albums a month for $3.

In my tenure I’ve pitched dozens and dozens of these ideas and very few even get past the first round of negotiation. Major labels in particular keep a tight rein on what is in the market by not granting licenses for new ideas. And I don’t think my experience was unique. While trading war stories with colleagues in the industry it’s pretty clear we’ve all had similar meetings.

Trust me, they’re not all good ideas—most of the are probably just as lame-brained as The Roo and deserve not to see the light of day. Yet the approach of startups and rightsholders does shine a light on how each party approaches new products. Most of the startups focus on creating products that will attract the attention of the customer. The best ones work hard on getting those users to pay something, anything, for music. Labels seem to be more focused on protecting current revenues and current products, and seem terrified of upsetting the price floor.

So where does that leave the US market? Only 6.1 million subscribed to a service last year–21 percent of the estimated worldwide 28 million. Meanwhile a whopping 57 percent of all worldwide revenues come from those 6.1 million customers. That works out to $102 per customer, while the rest of the world–$22 a person.

So at least in the US, we are creating a very small subclass of customers who are contributing lots of revenue, but we’re not creating enough consumers of subscription services. We’ve built two tiers of products: free and very expensive. And that’s just not the way people think about music. There are probably hundreds of ideas for paid on-demand products that might find an audience. Instead of licensing tons of them and let the market sort itself out, we only license a couple models and call it a day.

Labels seem to be willing to try other models outside of the US, though. For a £1 a week O2 Tracks lets you listen to any song in the Top 40 on your phone. With Bloom.fm you can download 20, 200 or unlimited number of songs to your phone at varying price points. The United States is the crown jewel of the music business, and the industry treats it as such, at the expense of innovative digital music products.

Music With Plenty of Limits

There are of course many other factors. In the rest of the world, cell phone companies compete much more aggressively with services. Nearly every carrier in Europe has a bundled music service offering from Spotify, Deezer or Napster. The only true bundled offering in the US is MuveMusic, while MetroPCS and AT&T have offerings that are billed on top of the price of the phone service.

The cell carrier duopoly of AT&T and Verizon, who lock up customers in long term contracts, have been less than willing to share the costs of music with startups and labels. That won’t last forever. T-Mobile has declared war against the contract. Perhaps if the company makes a strong move into the market it could spur growth and motivate the entire industry.

Growing Customers

If our goal as an industry is to protect the revenues we have today instead of growing a class of customers who will pay anywhere from $1 up to $20 for different valued package of services, we’ll probably hear the same story for the next several years.

NPD estimates 44 million US customers bought digital music in 2012. If streaming subscription could build up to 20 million paying customers, we might not greatly increase the subscription revenues of today, but we will build a new generation of customers who start to value paid music services, and maybe even become delighted with features that solve their problems. With time, the revenues will follow.

And if anyone wants to invest the $25 million needed to start up The Roo, drop me an email. I’ll start writing the business plan now.

More Growing Concerns

IFPI: Worldwide 2013 Digital Music Report

RIAA: US 2013 Revenue Report

Music Industry Blog: First Take on 2013 Numbers

Sonic Boom: How Spotify Acquiring The Echo Nest Remakes Digital Music’s Landscape

The Echo Nest: now part of Spotify
The Echo Nest: now part of Spotify

Whoa! Did you hear that? If you’re in the digital music business, that ear piercing sound you just heard is the cracking of the industry’s landscape. Maybe not right away, and maybe it won’t cripple many companies, but the fact that Spotify purchased The Echo Nest today puts a spotlight on the challenges all the companies that partnered with the music discovery company now face. And even beyond that, it could give Spotify a huge advantage.

The Echo Nest powers music discovery for quite a few of the music services, from Rdio to Rhapsody to iHeartRadio to Vevo. The companies use it primarily to run their radio services. But the service can take any piece of content–tracks, albums, playlists, radio, similar artists, or genres–and create recommendations. And The Echo Nest makes the recommendations personal for each of their client’s customers. The service provides the company with all the plays that a customer logged and The Echo Nest creates a ‘taste profile’ for every user. That, in turn, guides the recommendations algorithm.

Within an hour of the announcement, an exec from one of Echo Nest’s customers told me that The Echo Nest said they will fulfill their contract, which he understood to mean that after the contract is up, his firm will need to build a recommendation algorithm. “It’s tractable work. It just requires time and money,” he said.

And talent, too. Let’s not forget that part of the equation. What has made The Echo Nest so attractive to music startups is the peerless quality of their algorithm. To create a great algorithm, you need to understand music, you need to understand technology and you need to understand cultural significance. These are three different skillsets that don’t naturally go together and getting them to work as successfully as The Echo Nest has, for a massive number of customers, is extremely challenging.

So unless startups are willing to create highly skilled teams of musicologists, machine learning Ph.Ds. and engineers that know how to tap big data, a company isn’t going to get close to what The Echo Nest can do. Conservatively it’s at least a million bucks to get into the game, and probably more than that just to get to parity with them. And instead of development times taking a minimum of a year, The Echo Nest can get you up and running in about a month.

But here’s the thing: to do a deal with The Echo Nest, a company most likely chooses to not build its own algorithm, which is what all these companies are staring down the barrel of today. Everyone who is a customer considered The Echo Nest to be a neutral partner that didn’t play favorites to any of their competitors.

But not everyone thought about it this way.

When Spotify launched their radio product in 2011 it was with The Echo Nest’s algorithm, but it quickly developed its own. Why? The company knew owning its algorithm was strategically important. Beyond that, it might not have wanted to hand over customer play data to personalize the system. And that’s where this deal gets very scary.

Think about play data for a digital music company like you’d think about a country’s natural resources. It contains amazing insights of what customers like, what songs relate to each other and a great deal of intelligence about customer behavior. But just like getting natural resources out of the ground, it requires a big data infrastructure to mine it and make it actionable. Some companies have invested in heavily in this infrastructure, but most have this data—perhaps a service’s most important asset—buried deep in within their usage logs.

It just so happens that The Echo Nest has all this data—from all of its customers—to power its algorithms. Services are very protective of this data and are therefore extremely concerned about exposing their streams to competitors, and of the ability for The Echo Nest to potentially centralize the data and create products that show a total view of online listening.

But here’s my question: did Spotify just get access to all the listening data for all of The Echo Nest customers? Even if it does not commercialize it, just seeing that data could lead to enormous advantage for the company.

Look, all these services have different customer bases. An iHeart customer is very different from an Rdio one. Rhapsody customers listen differently than an Xbox one. Insights on how these music fans are different (and are alike) would give Spotify a total view of the listening universe, which could help in everything from tuning their algorithm to targeting customers for acquisition.

And if Spotify wants to continue to sell The Echo Nest’s algorithm, wouldn’t that give the company an enormous, NSA level of music playback? The company confirmed today that they’re pulling out of the algorithm business for other platforms once all the terms are up. But if you want to build an app on the Spotify ecosystem, you can have access to The Echo Nest’s goodness.

Daniel Ek has built Spotify into a company with the best technology in the industry. He’s now bought the shiniest tech toy on the market and he’s taking it home to play with it. Alone.

Algorithmic-Free Linkage

TechCrunchTogether, Spotify And Echo Nest Want To Build The Facebook Connect Of Music

GeekwireSpotify acquires music discovery service The Echo Nest to the dismay of Rhapsody, Xbox Music

HypebotSpotify and Beats Music Acquisitions Illustrate Differing Strategies

Gigaom: Spotify Acquires The Echo Nest and Its Musical Smarts

The VergeSpotify Could Be Making Trouble for Rdio