Consumerless Recovery: Music Revenues Are Up But Is More Pain Coming?

News this week, for once, was positive for the music business. The RIAA released its report for the first half of this year and there was an eight percent growth in revenues over the same time 2015, thanks to subscription streaming. At long last, after years and years of losses, we’re finally on the other side of the decline and now we’re going to see a huge run up of revenues as the industry continues to grow like gangbusters. At least that’s what you’d think from the headlines. I agree: it’s a good result. But there are also troubling signs in the numbers.

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Source: Recording Industry Association of America

You see, while revenues are up, the number of people who buy music has steadily fallen for the past decade. According to MusicWatch, a music industry research firm, the number of people buying rebounded a bit in 2015 to 85 million, it’s still significantly down from the buying population 10 years previous.

Not all consumers are created equally. Over the years the average consumer spent around $50 a year on music. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, the average consumer only about about 1.5 CDs a year. So how is that possible. Well, there was small number of consumers who bought 10 or 20 times what most consumers did. I used to see this all the time in line at my local record store. I’d be wondering if I should be buying the 10 CDs in my hand on my meager first job salary (the answer was no). Meanwhile, the woman in front of me was buying the Debbie Gibson CD for her daughter. It most likely was the only CD she’d buy all year.

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Sources: MusicWatch and U.S. Census Bureau                     Music Buyers in Millions

This has all changed in the subscription era.  We’ve flattened that curve between the casual buyer, who only bought Adele’s 25 last year, and that obsessive-compulsive music nut who happily subscribes to Spotify. Sure, the nut is still spending much more than casual fan. But at $10 a month, it’s capped at $120. And yes, the music nut might also purchase vinyl, buy up posters at Flatstock, and attend music festivals, but they don’t have to pay more for all that music. Many super fans I interviewed to while working at a streaming service thought they were getting away with something by only paying $10 a month.

The theory of the streaming era is that we’ll produce so many more subscribers, that we’ll make up the difference in revenue. But thinking that casual fan will pay twice as much as the average consumer spends is fairly flawed logic.

Especially when one considers how people are listening today.

 

Based on MusicWatch’s recent audiocensus report, more than 70% of all listening today is on services that are free, like Pandora, YouTube, Spotify’s free service and iHeartRadio. Because when faced with the choice of $10 a month for something they use rarely or free, casual fans choose free. Duh. Hence the massive decrease in the percentage of buyers.

Much like how the U.S. economy recovered in the years after the housing market collapse, but only with many fewer jobs, the music industry is recovering. But with many fewer customers. And the pain is just coming. Compact discs may only be a shadow of its former self, but there were still 38 million CDs shipped in the first half of this year. Question: when was the last year you bought a device that can even play a CD? While vinyl and even downloads have a purpose and will maintain some attractiveness, my contention is that CDs will go to zero. This, my friends, is a problem.

So what can be done?

Perhaps address the product itself. Streaming services main use case is access to all the music. While it’s great for the fan that knows what she or he wants to play, it causes more problem than it solves for the casual fan. After all, how many times do you sit at your computer and not know what to play next. Even with 30 million songs only a seconds from a search.

Considering after all these years peddling subscriptions to consumers, we now have a total of  18 million subscribers in the U.S., I’m sure it’s safe to say that the $10 all you can eat music subscription isn’t the product for anything but the super fan. Will there be more growth? Yeah, sure, no doubt. Can it grow to 50 million? Doubtful.

So what about lowering the price, which has been bandied about as a cure all? Beyond the fact that rights holders won’t budge on price, it probably is the wrong product for those who like to listen occasionally. “Casual fans have different needs than super fans and may be fine with a more basic experience,” Russ Crupnick, managing partner of MusicWatch, told me via email. “So converting them to paid requires a different set of strategies and tactics. Lowering price alone won’t automatically convert them into super fans.”

Last week Pandora announced improvements to its free service as well as Pandora Plus, a product that merges a few on demand features, like more skips and the ability to save tracks to the phone for offline use, to its core experience. Can the new product as well as Amazon’s planned subscription service, which apparently will share Pandora Plus’s $5 price, help? Perhaps.

But those are just two ideas. In the world of product development, it takes many attempts to find the perfect product market fit that people are willing to pay for. Licensing two and saying ‘okay, we’re done,’ is not going to cut it. It took 15 years, a handful of flopped companies and at least a couple hundred million in funding before AYCE streaming services finally produced a billion dollars in revenue. My guess is that it will take years to attract the casual fan. Fact is, we’re going to need wave after wave of ideas to grow customers again.

Variety: Music Streaming Wars: Consolidation Looms as Lower Prices Kick In

Music Industry Blog: Have Spotify and Apple Music Just Won The Streaming Wars?

 

 

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.

 

 

7 Points I Wish Team Tidal Made

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

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

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

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