Sweet and Lowedown

Will Apple’s Tastemaker Test Win The Streaming Music Challenge?

Apple made big news last week by hiring one of the music’s best tastemakers, Zane Lowe, the preeminent DJ on BBC Radio 1 who has introduced the world to artists like Arctic Monkeys, Gnarls Barkley, Adele and Sam Smith.

With Zane’s hiring and the reported tapping of other music journalism talents, Apple is betting big on the ‘human curation’ chestnut that Jimmy Iovine used to sell the service to music fans, and more importantly, to Apple last spring.

Curation is believed to be a solution for streaming music’s problem of what to play next. All-you-can-eat music services like Spotify and Beats provide access to tens of millions of songs, but listeners consistently run into the issue of figuring out what they want to hear next. So by creating recommendations, radio stations and playlists that the music fan might like, curation helps alleviate the problem.

Except it isn’t that easy.

Why? First, is there’s a lot of music. Millions and millions of songs are available on these services and figuring out everything about the music is rather difficult. And then there’s the user expectation. A broadcast radio tastemaker like Zane is pretty adept at talking to a lot of people at once, but streaming the music customer expects—if not demands—a unique music experience based on their taste and listening habits.

The Beats Formula

Curation solutions have come in two flavors. Companies either use automated technology solutions, like Pandora’s ‘music genome’ and the Echo Nest’s taste profile. Or you hire a staff of music experts to pick music.

Beats’ Co-CEO Jimmy Iovine and Chief Creative Officer Trent Reznor rightfully pointed out that most services have the soul of a hard drive and that music fans craved more in a music experience.

Beats preferred playlists selected by humans, experts on music who understood what the listener needed music for, like cooking dinner, exercising or studying. The startup went on a spending spree, hiring a team of music programmers to build playlists and pick the perfect song. While others, like Rhapsody and Emusic, had staffs of curation experts long before Beats, Jimmy was the first to make human curation the main selling point.

When it launched, Beats had subscribers  select their favorite style of music. Afterwards, the service would feature playlists built by their staff of music experts who hailed from the radio industry and music blogs. Beats playlists were indeed compelling but the depth of the lists appeared to be light and the curation stale. After all, how many times can you listen to the same 15 tracks on the Indie Breakup or 2006 Hip Hop Gems playlist? Fact is hand curation requires a lot of hands to consistently churn out new lists, something the service didn’t quite get right.

Emotional Math

Beats management objected to algorithms that automatically choose the next song based on a set of rules. “The promise of algorithms that we’ve all bought into over the past few years, that you enter a band and you are going to hear a ton of music that’s all based on that seed,” Trent Reznor told USA Today last year. “I think we’ve all realized the reality of that is that it’s a shallow puddle, it immediately kind of sounds good and then you realize the limitations and you start to hear the machine in there.”

“(With an algorithm) you are using math to solve an emotional problem,” is the way Jimmy Iovine put it. He is partially correct. When the catalog is tens of millions of songs and you have millions of customers, picking what song comes next can only be tackled by math.

It’s impossible for a service to function without any algorithms. There’s just too much data and you need to rely on something with automated rules to do some of the heavy lifting. Even Beats, despite its marketing message of ‘the music service with music experts’ had several different algorithms that were used in the service or under development.

So marketing pitch or not, everyone (in one way or another) must use math to solve these problems. The success or failure of algorithms and curation depends on how companies employ the products and who’s in charge.

It’s far from me to tell Apple what to do, but hey, that’s never stopped me from dispensing advice of questionable value. Here are my guiding principles for building curation and algorithms in streaming services.

  1. The Right Tool for the Right Job

As much as I have a problem with Pandora and their marketing of the ‘music genome,’ the company sure went about solving the right problem with their algorithm. Simply put, Pandora is designed to serve up around 40 solid minutes of songs for the person who likes to listen to music. It doesn’t do more than that and that’s a good thing.

Technology products get unwieldy because they are designed like a Swiss Army Knife. My general rule is that technology solutions need to be designed to nail one solid use case at a time. Expansion beyond that gets to be tricky.

A good example: I recently spoke to David Porter, CEO of 8tracks, a radio service that features playlists curated primarily by the service’s pro DJ community. David mentioned that 8tracks had recently hired a data scientist to match his listeners to playlists that they might enjoy.

An algorithm must be very good to nail this use case, but it doesn’t rise to the level of a playlisting algorithm, where a user will think you don’t know music nor them if a Coldplay song ends up in a Jose Gonzalez playlist.

Defining what your algorithms are meant to do and sticking closely to those use cases is vital for success.

  1. Man Guides The Machine

An algorithm must be built as a tool for curators and not simply a technology product. Therefore it must be tunable and adaptable. There is no such thing as ‘code lock’ on an algorithm.

In my experience, this is not the way many algorithms have been built. Machine learning–the ability for algorithms to improve based on usage–is a big topic right now for many technology companies, but I have yet to see one example of a music algorithm that gets smarter with time. Ensuring curators have input and a modicum of control of algorithms is extremely important.

  1. Playing Your Position

What makes managing a music algorithm so absurdly challenging is that no single person is qualified to manage it. You must posses a full understanding of music composition as well as its place in culture. You should have the knowledge of how a data scientist goes about their work. And you have to have a keen observation about how consumers behave in the system.

Without any leg of this stool, the product will end up hamstrung. It cannot be managed by one human, unless you have a consumer driven, musicologist, data scientist on staff (not bloody likely), therefore it requires a team of experts to tackle the problem.

Each will bring an expertise and needs to trust other members of the team. Success should be judged on results and data; not taste or perfect code.

  1. Match Curation to the Taste of Your Listeners

This one is easy to say and hard to pull off. Curation should closely mimic the usage in your system. While a marketing approach will influence who your listeners are, good old data and analytics should be fastidiously monitored and results fully understood by the team.

A curatorial staff must adapt their approach to what the listener is doing, and what brings more value to their experience. And above all, it’s about your listeners’ tastes. Not your own.

Tim Quirk, my former boss at Rhapsody and formerly Google’s global content programming head, authored the objective approach to editorial that we practiced heartily at the service. He recently posted a series of tweets that questioned the practice of tastemakers being the lead programmers at services and believes that curators should function more like ‘park rangers than gatekeepers.’ “Yay curation. But boo anyone who thinks he or she knows better than you what you should listen to,” Tim summed up.

  1. There Is No Finish Line

The algorithm will constantly need to adapt to the music, the customer usage and the technology. Likewise music trends change over time. After all, few could have predicted the amazing rise (and the fall) of EDM? As long as you have music, you must have a team who lives and dies to have the perfect music catalog, the algorithm and the curation to fully create a great music experience.

The promise

The first generation of streaming services focused closely on catalog and access. We’re nearing the end of this era, as pretty much everyone has the same catalog and the apps are very similar. The next phase will focus on the music experience of the services. Curation, whether lovingly hand-crafted by humans, or processing massive amounts of data crunched down by an algorithm, will be the battlefield all the services will vie on over the next couple years.

We can already see this battle taking form as ‘the humans’ vs. ‘the geeks.’ That’s a mistake. A company needs to seamlessly blend these talents together to build curation that listeners will enjoy and create true value.

More Curation on Curation

Billboard What Apple’s Hiring of Zane Lowe Signals for the Company’s Music Strategy

Hypebot Zane Lowe Could Do More For Discovery At Apple Than Echonest’s $25.6 Million Does For Spotify

Music Ally Apple Hiring for iTunes Role with ‘Specific Expertise in Music Journalism’

Business Insider What We’re Hearing About The New Music Streaming Service Apple is Developing in Secret

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

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift Vs Spotify: Fact or Fiction

Well, that was fun. The spin was hot and heavy last week after Taylor Swift said goodbye to Spotify. You had Taylor describing why she left, her label president, Scott Borchetta, offering some facts and figures, Daniel Ek giving his side of the controversy, and a myriad of opinions on what the deal really was about (including mine). So what’s really going on? Let’s take a look at a few of the issues and see if there’s truth or not to the claims.

Number 1: Taylor Swift made a rash decision to leave Spotify

Fiction

Taylor Swift and Big Machine made a rationale decision based on the numbers and what they considered real value and what Spotify is actually paying out. Or at least what they saw in their pocketbooks. Nobody is in a better position in the industry to make that decision than Team Taylor and I’m sure it wasn’t without some deep consideration.

However, the timing of the decision appeared to be made to milk the maximum value out of Spotify in terms of promotion. When an artist is releasing an album, he or she is looking for the largest number of people to know it and hear it. YouTube, Late Night With Jimmy Kimmel, covers of magazines, tv ads, and yes, even Spotify plays its part. Shake It Off was one of the most popular tracks on the service until it disappeared. It also should be noted that Taylor’s catalog didn’t get yanked until a full week after release of 1989, allowing her fans to listen to her old releases before removal Monday, providing lots more headlines and curiosity of her albums.

Number 2: Spotify is not paying Taylor Swift for her music

Fiction

Spotify does have a free-to-the-listener tier. However every spin of her music generates some revenue. But how much? It’s actually a fact that most of the revenue Spotify pays comes from its paid service. But the company doesn’t pay per stream from subscribers. The formula divides up all of its revenue by the popularity of artists/catalog and then cuts a check.

It is unknown how the free plays are paid, but artists have noticed a difference between free plays and paid plays, which could mean that there is indeed a micropayment for every play. Or there could be a much lower active rate per listener.

Spotify says it needs the free service to drive more listeners into the paid tier. Daniel Ek claims that 80 percent of paid subscribers were once free listeners. And Spotify has had great success scaling its business with the free tier. At 12.5 million worldwide subscribers, Spotify paid subs has made all the other services currently in the market an afterthought.

Taylor’s camp also made a pretty strong point about how she doesn’t believe in free music, and had asked to be removed from Spotify’s free tier. Citing how vital free is to its acquisition strategy, the company refused to do so. It might also be pointed out that besides P2P and semi-pirate services like Grooveshark, several of Taylor’s new songs, including Shake It Off remains free on the world’s largest streaming service, YouTube.

Number 3: Spotify Pays Much Less Than Other Services

Fiction

Earlier this week The Trichordist posted a chart of all the per-play “rates” from services and asked if Nokia Music was paying a much higher rate, then why can’t Spotify. Unfortunately, that formula didn’t include the most important number: revenue.

Nokia doesn’t pay more than Spotify. In fact, it pays less. Much less. Yes, the per-play rate might seem bigger. But Nokia’s service is so unpopular and content costs are so high that it appears they are paying much more per play. In terms of real dollars, Spotify is the labels’ number two or three account in every territory worldwide behind Walmart and iTunes. They will probably pay out a billion in revenue in 2014. And remember: this is a company that didn’t exist six years ago.

Number 4: Spotify pays artists

Fiction

For the most part, Spotify has an agreement with and pays the rights holder, generally a major label or aggregator, like Tunecore. The rights holder distributes the money to the artist based on their deal with that entity.

Number 5: Artists have no idea what Spotify pays

Fact

This is where Spotify really gets into really deep doodoo. It is far from clear what Spotify contributes to artists. There’s a ton of reasons for this. Bear with me as we go through it:

  • Spotify has an agreement with a rights holder for the license to the catalog. It can include a bunch of fees due to the label, like a minimum revenue guarantee, an advance, or an equity stake. It’s unclear where these buckets of revenue would show up in a royalty calculation for an artist (most likely, these fees would go to the rights holder’s bottom line and not into a revenue shared bucket).
  • The artist has an agreement with a label. There’s generally a split of revenue, which has traditionally meant CD, LPs and digital track sales. There are also some deductions from the artist’s revenue pool before money is dispersed. Most of these expenses are from a time when the labels made tons of money by egregiously marking up physical distribution and marketing costs. For some reason, some of these deductions at some labels remain in the digital world. There have been some tragically hilarious lawsuits where legacy acts, like the Temptations, have sued their major label for continuing to charge deductions on iTunes downloads when the company clearly didn’t incur any costs. There are also deductions from negotiations with streaming services. As a rule the deductions cover bandwidth, credit card processing costs, and any type of deal the streaming service gets for, say, a discount on the royalty as the label is sharing on the costs to get billing from a cellular carrier.
  • The artist gets an incomplete, indecipherable royalty report from their major labels that shows plays divided by revenue, but nothing else.

A transparent royalty statement doesn’t need to be complicated. It could be pretty simple, but it should detail where all the money went.

At a minimum a streaming royalty report should include this:

  • How many plays I had on Spotify: XXXXXXX
  • How much revenue that generated: XXXXXXXX
  • Itemized deductions from my revenue: XXXXXXX

Spotify’s position on transparency has been tone deaf. I’ve heard representatives say ‘go ask your label’ when lack of transparency is brought up. Without any clarity to what the artist is generating from Spotify and what deductions came out of the revenue bucket, it’s impossible for anyone to make a decision about 1) what’s the value of Spotify and 2) how badly an artist is getting ripped off.

I’m sure there are cases, maybe an overwhelming number of them, where Spotify isn’t actually creating revenue for the artist. But arcane royalty reporting is making it hard for an artist to make an informed decision about streaming’s value. It may be unfair, but Spotify needs to help solve this problem. It’s also clear that the company has zero leverage in changing the way business is done. It makes the company’s mission to change the way fans listen to music seem easy in comparison. At the end of the day, though, Spotify will need to make it much simpler for artists to understand their value and revenue in the service.

Number 6: Spotify Believes That Scaling The Business Will Create Enough Money For Everyone

Fact(ish)

Nobody has grown like Spotify in the streaming. Its revenue growth is phenomenal and they’ve done something that company after company has failed at: getting a mass number of people to pay for music subscription. Daniel Ek claimed 12.5 million subs and 50 million users worldwide. The company did a roadshow recently for artists and showed what kind of monies it’ll contribute when it reaches 40 million subs.

I’ve written about how Spotify’s goal is to be the biggest media channel dedicated to music, but that requires rolling out services around the world. Spotify is still not in some massive markets, like, Russia, India, and China. But it must be pointed out that piracy is so rampant in those countries that there isn’t even a thought about paying for content. The company claims that it has wiped out P2P services in some territories it has launched in. It’s a huge gamble to believe if Ek will be able to convince residence in Shanghai to change their behaviors and start paying for music.

If Ek can accomplish this feat, it could well see a couple hundred million active listeners and 80-100 million paying fans. But it’s not a given that the company will do so.

Number 7: Spotify Is Killing Digital Music Sales

Fiction

First Napster andP2P maimed CDs and then iTunes tore its heart out as it lay dying. Now here comes Spotify that will turn $1 downloads into micropennies for artists. This is the theme you hear from people in the industry. It’s undeniable what P2P did to CD sales.

But it’s questionable that the death of iTunes sales is solely Spotify’s fault. It probably has more to do with consumers having always connected devices with a variety of apps in their pockets. iPod sales have fallen through the floor as the iPhone has taken over. And instead of buying tracks, consumers use Pandora, YouTube, Soundhound, Spotify, Rhapsody, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, Deezer and a flood of other services to fulfill their streaming music needs. Customers have changed their behavior as the technology changed. It’s hard to blame it on one service.

Number 8: Spotify Is Killing The Album Buyer

Fact (with a caveat)

It is true that music fans (like me and probably most people in the music industry) that used to end up with a stack of CDs at the Tower Records checkout line are now getting awesome value. For the monthly price of one CD, that fan now gets hundreds of thousands of releases, available whenever they want. And say you want to keep it for your subway ride to Williamsburg? No problem, just download it as part of your subscription.

But here’s the deal: if someone subscribes continuously to Spotify, they are paying more than double what the average music customer bought during the heyday of CD buying ($65 a year). Spotify’s bet is that it’ll signup enough subscribers to the service and stay with the service long-term that it’ll far outstrip the CD sales. Others believe that even if Spotify scales the business, it will completely obliterate CD and digital sales, further shrinking the global music business.

You can’t blame skeptics for seeing the world as half empty rather than half full, but even in a Spotify-free world, those big customers aren’t coming back any time soon.

Number 9: Spotify is only exists because they’re full of greedy technologists and venture capitalists who want to get rich off musician’s lifework.

Fiction(ish)

Spotify is preparing an initial public offering so that they can fund the expansion of their business. It is true that many employees who work at Spotify will get rich off the IPO and start buying houses, boats, horses and other trappings of the nouveau rich. Investors in the company will also see a payday, including the major labels. But that’s what happens in venture funding.

And it’s also not a given that Spotify will have a successful IPO. Many investors and analysts are extremely skeptical. There is much we do not know about the company. The good thing about the march to an IPO is that Spotify will be compelled to disclose a treasure trove of facts about the business and the risk factors in investing in its stock. It will make it easier to ascertain the company’s long-term prospects. An IPO, an acquisition or even bankruptcy and liquidation all seem possible at this point.

It’s necessary to point out that the big payday is amazingly rare in digital music. You can count successful companies on one hand. More common is the experience of (the legal) Napster, which lost tens of millions for a couple companies before selling to Rhapsody for pretty much nothing. The digital music graveyard is filled with corpses of great ideas, and every day there are new companies popping up that will undoubtedly join the lost souls.

Digital music seems like a good way to turn billions of venture financing into nothing. I hold the overwhelming majority of people (but not all) who start digital music businesses aren’t motivated by the payday. They do so because they love it.

Number 10: Spotify is a good bet for investing

Fiction

Good god, no. This isn’t Joe Montana with the ball and 2 minutes left in Super Bowl XXIII against the Cincinnati Bengals. This is Joe Montana against a coliseum filled with unfed, angry Bengal Tigers (who have a much stouter defense). Okay, maybe that’s a bit much. But Spotify faces huge challenges even if Taylor Swift and Daniel Ek make up.

Outside of the previously mentioned leap of trying to get a majority of the world’s population to pay for content for the first time ever, Spotify’s free service is extremely expensive to run. Some believe too expensive to allow profitability. Additionally, subscription businesses are extremely tricky to get right, in particular if you aren’t a quasi-utility that requires a monthly fee, like a cell phone or cable bill.

In the words of my former boss, Mike Lunsford, this calls for the ‘what would it take for you to believe’ test. Meaning what assumptions will have to become true if you believe that a company like Spotify will succeed.

Here’s my list of assumptions:

  • Spotify will succeed in rolling out around the world and make most of their markets successful, but in particular the big ones, like Russia, China and India.
  • Spotify can build a worldwide channel of music listening that international brands will pay top dollar to be part of, and therefore defer free listening costs.
  • Spotify can convert enough free listeners to paying customers and (maybe even more importantly) keep them paying for a long time.
  • Spotify can keep the cost of acquiring customers (mainly in free music costs) to a minimum.
  • Spotify can pay artists enough money that they won’t follow Taylor Swift and leave in droves, eating into its value proposition and watch customers quit because there’s no music in the service.
  • Spotify can continue its hockey stick growth chart as YouTube’s Music Key and Apple’s iStream launch.
  • Spotify can fix search, which sucks.

Okay, I threw that last one in there. But a misstep in any one of the above could deeply harm the company. Missing on two could potentially add Spotify to the Digital Music Graveyard. Use extreme caution when considering its future.

More Spins Than A Record

JonMaples.com: Following Their Own Beat: Spotify’s Ambitions Outsize Anyone In Digital Music

Time.com: Taylor Swift on 1989, Spotify, Her Next Tour and Female Role Models

The Guardian: Spotify Paid Out $300k To Stream Shake It Off

NY Times: Billboard Changes Charts, Will Count Streaming

Digital Spy: Dave Grohl on Taylor Swift and Spotify “I don’t f**king care”

Spotify Blog: Two billion and Counting

Separation Disagreement: Why Taylor Swift and Spotify Is Not (Just) About The Music

News yesterday shined a light on the new queen of popular music, Taylor Swift. After selling 1.3 million copies of her shiny new pop release, 1989, she made the decision to remove her whole catalog of music from Spotify. It’s hard to overstate the effect this decision has on Spotify. “Shake It Off” was the most popular song in the service. The company said that Taylor’s music was included in 19 million playlists. Obviously losing the most popular artists on the service is a huge loss for Daniel Ek’s company.

Taylor has been a critic of streaming services and strongly believes that album sales are still the way most artists should make a living. In a Wall Street Journal article this July she mentioned that some major artists have given their albums away as promotion and believes this is a mistake. As she put it:

“Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”

But is this really about free? After all, streaming services pay for the right to play the music, as do Internet radio services like Pandora. And if we’re going to really discuss about free, shouldn’t we discuss YouTube, which provides so little money back for playing music that it might as well be free? No artist in the world, even Taylor, would release music without a YouTube strategy. It’s reach and power is enormous. And as of today, YouTube is the only place users can stream the three biggest songs from 1989. For free.

With 1989 Taylor decided to hold the release back from streaming services to help increase retail sales, just like she did for the previous release, Red. Windowing to streaming services is an emerging tactic for artists, as it limits access to fans only to retail to experience the entire record. After the retail window closes, the record becomes available on streaming outlets.

While 1989 is windowed on all services, Spotify was singled out for elimination of Taylor’s music. Her catalog remains available for play on streaming services like Beats Music, Rhapsody and Rdio, and on the world’s biggest streaming service, YouTube.

So what’s going on here? Why would Taylor stiff one of the largest music listening platforms in the world, one that is providing the third most revenue in the music industry, while leaving her music up on other services that are smaller, but pay nearly the same on a per-play basis as Spotify, and on YouTube–which pays diddly squat compared to streaming services?

It’s all about participation.

That is, participation in financial events, like initial public offerings and acquisitions. In this day and age of frothy music startups, there are those who get a stake and those that are left looking in from the outside. Can you take a guess which respective side of the line artists and major labels fall?

In August, Vivendi reported that Universal Music Group closed the sale of Beats Electronics to Apple and gained a nice tidy sum of $404 million. Granted UMG was an early investor in Beats. Nevertheless, UMG cleaning up on these kinds of investment strikes artists as unfair. Without music, would there be any company to sell to Apple?

It’s also been widely reported that all the major labels have sizable investments in Spotify. As the company prepares its IPO, the major labels have a huge stake at stake at making it successful, as they’ll get a big chunk of change that won’t be shared with artists.

When you are most popular artist in the world, you probably believe that you should participate in an event where the label gets paid. After all, labels are compensated for providing a catalog. And the catalog is woefully incomplete without Taylor Swift. In fact, Taylor’s decision to withhold her music from Spotify will have a fairly sizable impact on UMG’s topline revenue.

UMG is the distribution partner for Taylor’s label, the independent Big Machine. All their music rolls up into UMG revenue for streaming services. Sure, UMG still must pay Big Machine for the plays, but artists and even labels have long been unhappy with unfavorable streaming deals and sloppy (or worse) accounting practices of major labels.

Even without knowledge about Big Machine’s deal with UMG, it’s easy to speculate that the label is unhappy–or at least unimpressed–with their revenue from Spotify. And as an added extra, news broke yesterday that the label–along with Taylor as its flagship artist—is for sale. And one of the leading suitors for the Nashville-based firm? UMG.

With all this information, it leads to these questions:

-Did Taylor’s catalog suddenly come out of Spotify to pump the price of Big Machine’s acquisition by UMG? Nothing would show the power of Big Machine like pulling one of the most popular artists at the top of her game. It will also have a material impact on UMG’s revenues. How much? Just my meatball math based on Spotify’s reported revenue and Taylor’s probable popularity, removing the catalog could decrease UMG’s share by a full percentage, meaning at least $13 million less.

-Was Big Machine negotiating a relationship directly with Spotify and hit an impasse? Spotify has come to agreements with holdout artists like Led Zeppelin, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica. But all those are legacy acts  that have all made tons of cash on their deep catalogs. These acts got a big check were ready to  move on.

Spotify has never done a deal with a premier active artist, and I’m sure it is very reticent to start, as Rihanna, Beyonce, Jay-Z and other big acts will line up for their own deals. Big Machine also would be looking for participation points above and beyond any compensation for plays, such as equity and potentially advances.

Also, Spotify will correctly claim that it already is paying top dollar for the catalog. Why should the company have to pay twice for the same content?

Answer: because that’s the way business is done.

More Breakup News

NY Times: Taylor Swift Announces World Tour and Pulls Her Music From Spotify

Wall Street Journal ($$): For Taylor Swift, the Future of Music Is a Love Story

Bill Werde: An Open Letter To Spotify About Taylor Swift And Why I’m Unsubscribing

NY Post: Taylor Swift’s Label On The Block For $200 million

Vivendi/Universal Music Group: Closing Of The Interest Sale In Beats

Ellen DeGeneres

The Beats Formula For Streaming Music’s Happy Ending

Close your eyes. Good. Now let me ask you to imagine something. A product that has every song ever recorded, available for you on the devices you use everyday wherever you are, regardless if it’s at home, work, the gym or even places where you don’t have a connection, like the subway or on an airplane. Sounds pretty sweet, right? Any song you can think of, available at your fingertips.

At its crux, that is the promise and marketing pitch for every all-you-can-eat music service that has come out in the past decade. It’s a pretty cool product. And lots of consumers gave it a shot. Only problem is nobody wanted it.

Okay, okay, I’m being a little provocative. When I say ‘nobody’ what I mean is only the most hardcore music nerds—those people who obsess over their playlists and the perfect collection—were willing to pony up the $10 a month. Certainly not the number of people who’ve signed up for other access products, like Netflix or Hulu, or even other music products, like the satellite radio giant Sirius/XM.

Which made it kinda strange when Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre’s Beats By Dre headphone juggernaut bought the failing MOG subscription service and planned to relaunch it. Great, just what the industry needed. Another subscription service. But they had another idea.

Jimmy and Dre, along with Chief Creative Officer Trent Reznor, decided that the streaming services had it all wrong. Nobody wants 20 million songs. Music fans want 20 awesome songs for what they were doing in a particular moment. They want them picked and sequenced by someone who knows lots about music. And the company thought that most of all, they want the stamp of approval from a music legend. Like someone who produced one of the greatest rock records. Or an artist/producer who redefined music. Or the lead singer of one of the most innovative bands of all time.

In a nutshell, that’s the Beats Music product. Music designed for the way you listen brought to you by music people you trust. And while the product launched two weeks ago falls well short of delivering those lofty goals, the positioning is so different than the zillion or so other companies now crowding into the space that it might work. Maybe. If Jimmy and Dre can market it like they did headphones.

You see Jimmy and Dre turned headphones—which used to be either a cheap commodity, or a high-end specialty item—into a must-have cultural icon that people would drop $300 without blinking an eye. Why? Not because of quality. Not only because of quality. There have always been high quality players and Beats By Dre headphones don’t always win the best headphone bakeoffs. It’s because everyone you look up to is wearing them. Like Super Bowl champions. And celebrities. And the hottest rappers. When they first launched, it had the stamp of approval of Dre. When he’s recording the next superstar, Beats were the headphones he used. And you could trust him.

So it’s that combination: a differentiated product with an imprimateur that consumers trust, and the marketing muscle to sell it to people who have never heard of Spotify, Rdio or Rhapsody. Beats Music says they’re going to get behind it in a big way. How big? Well, they started with a Super Bowl commercial featuring Ellen DeGeneres. But the company is promising to do much more. And they’ll have to if they want to have a lasting impression, because compared to headphones, marketing streaming services is a tough sell.

So will it work? Can Beats Music extend the Dre-pire and sell the value of streaming music where all the music nerds failed? Yes. If Beats can continue to improve the product so it delivers on the promise of ‘music so right it’s like magic.’ If they can make it effortless to subscribe by adding it to your cellphone bill for cheap. And if they can market it with the sheen and style of Beats By Dre, we will have the hit that the music industry so desperately craves.

More for the obsessively curious

Podcast: Can Beats Music Crack The Mainstream

Spin: Is Beats Music All Its Cracked Up To Be

NY Times: Algorithm For Your Personal Rhythm

Hollywood Reporter: Ellen DeGeneres Reveals Her Super Bowl Ad

NY Post: AT&T Delays Big Push as glitch hits Beats Music