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

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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:

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

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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

 

                                                                                                   

 

Don’t Look Back: The Return of Napster Highlights a Company Running Out of Options

Oh Rhapsody! Or should I say, oh Napster! The pioneering Seattle-based streaming music company yesterday finally announced a long-planned rebranding of its service to Napster. While it certainly got some attention, it wasn’t exactly the kind of attention one craves.

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[Disclosure: I argued about which brand to support while serving as VP of Product for Rhapsody International until 2013]

Rhapsody acquired the Napster brand when it bought the assets of the company from Best Buy in 2011. Instead of rebranding the service Rhapsody in Germany and the UK, the company has operated two brands since—Rhapsody in the States and Napster internationally.

So it would make sense that the company would need to unite under a single name. We can all agree that Rhapsody hasn’t been a powerful brand. It’s better known as your Dad’s first streaming service, back from the days when you had to listen to on the computer or on a weirdo MP3 player (Philips Go Gear or SanDisk Sansa, anyone?) but definitely, absolutely NOT the iPod. When we did surveys on the brand back in the day, the overwhelming consensus from music fans was, ‘meh.’

While the company Rhapsody International has had some success growing recently, it’s all about Napster. All of the company’s expansion in past few years in Europe and Latin America has been under the Napster brand. Meanwhile, Rhapsody has failed to find traction.

As I have written about before, Rhapsody’s strategy is to focus on cell carriers to market and sign up users, as it does with e-Plus in Germany, Telefonica in Latin America, and Metro PCS in the United States.

Rhapsody has a loyal core of high margin subscribers who have been with the service for years. But those numbers dwindle each year as new products come into the marketplace that are aimed directly at the music fan. I’m sure the execs in Seattle had a number in mind when the company could roll out a new brand without risking a mass loss of revenue. So, now they have nothing to lose.

Napster is a powerful brand, bringing back a strong sense of nostalgia for many music fans. So I can understand the temptation to want to utilize that asset. However in the United States, Napster’s negatives are huge. Most consumers still associate Napster with stealing music. And it’s just not potential consumers. Sources tell me that at least one major label is not very happy with the return of the brand.

Look, the world has changed. Does it make sense to continue to look back to an era when people (again, your dad, if you’re a young Millennial) stole mass amounts of music, or should the company look ahead and come up with a new name that is associated with something else than the early days of digital music? I mean, if the problem is that Rhapsody is an old tired brand, why do you go back further in the past and pick a name that has more baggage than Samsonite? And no, ‘just because we had this brand laying around’ is not a good answer.

My personal favorite would have been the original proposed name for Rhapsody, Aladdin. Equally difficult to spell, but somehow apt. You just rub the magic lamp and watch money disappear.

 

 

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