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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DNA Mismatch

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

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

Free Advice

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

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

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

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

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

Hypebot: Music Industry Uncharacteristically Silent about Lyor Cohen to YouTube

Bobby Owsinski: YouTube Misses The Point With Lyor Cohen Hire

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.

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-10-55-58-am
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.

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-12-01-28-pm
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?

 

 

Evolution Trumps Revolution: Why the Macbook Air Unveiling Is the Real Star for Apple

Forget the watch.

This week Apple announced the ship date and details around its first foray onto the wrist, the long-awaited Apple Watch. Of course the press fawned over the details and the design of the device, as the richest company in the world takes on luxury brands like Rolex.

But the watch wasn’t even the most important announcement today. Not when you take into consideration how Apple is approaching the diversity of screen sizes.

We might look back at the announcement of the 12-inch MacBook (note Apple is no longer using the Air name) as the beginning of the end of iPad Era for the company. Over the past few years, the iPad sales have slumped for a variety of reasons, mostly because the pincer maneuver of phones are getting bigger and more useful and computers getting lighter and more efficient with better screen resolutions. The need for a tablet has waned as each of these technology trends eroded the popularity of tablets.

The new Macbook combines a size of an iPad (though slightly larger) with the functionality that once was only available in the MacBook Air or Pro lines. With a Retina display, Apple hopes the 12-inch MacBook will lead lots of iPad consumers to consider it instead. Earlier this year, CEO Tim Cook stated he believes Macs are cannibalizing iPad sales.

Mac Daddy
Apple sold 5.5 million Macs in their record-breaking quarter that ended in December. Granted, that is a drop in the bucket compared to the company selling 74.4 million iPhones or even the 21 million iPads in the same period, but it still shows the strength Apple has in computers. Although Apple doesn’t break out specific sales per model, the company trumpeted the new iMac with a 5K Retina display as the main driver of the sales.

For several years now Apple has been busy slimming down the laptop by removing features that we thought consumers couldn’t live without. With each version, Apple continued to nip a drive here, tuck an under-utilized port there. The end result: a lightweight, killer machine with terrific battery life that leads the industry. The current MacBook Air 13-inch weighs less than three pounds and boasts a performance very close to the MacBook Pro version.

Simplest Mac Ever
For the new MacBook, Apple is even stripping away more, leaving only a headphone jack and one multi-functioning port. The machine takes advantage of the new Intel mobile device microchip, allowing for more battery life and lighter weight. The machine comes in at two pounds that can last all day.

What Apple kept, though, and even greatly improved, was the keyboard. Fact is that despite all the tablet hoopla, consumers like a keyboard. Even Microsoft understood this and added the colorful detachable keyboard to the Surface line.

Some have commented that the machine doesn’t really seem like a real computer. But what a real computer is has changed. Sure the new Macbook isn’t going to perform when crunching massive Excel files or editing video. And yeah, the company is selling a $79 dongle that many hardcore business users will need to project a presentation on a screen.

But devices have been trending toward wireless transmission for years now. I don’t suppose that we’re going back to a wired world anytime soon. The need for a bunch of ports is fading fast.

Apple has clearly seen the future of computing and is creating a device that will just go ahead and compete directly with iPad. It is something that other companies would avoid at all costs. But Apple has seen the writing on the wall and is adopting its strategy to take advantage of the trend.

The Watchman
Yes, the Apple Watch does suggest a shift for the company. It is reminiscent of its big audacious bets with the iPod and iPhone. By creating a huge market that didn’t exist previously, the company believes it can dominate like no other. The iPad was meant to be another example of making a market.

Only time will tell if Apple is able to make a mass market out of wearables. But by re-envisioning what computing looks like in the future and aggressively changing its product, it could be that the new MacBook ends up being the biggest winner from this week’s announcements.

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

BillboardFight Between Apple and Spotify Could Change Digital Music

This is amazing! First, we hear there’s a lack of comfort with free music and how Spotify should have so many more than 15 million paid subscribers. Then Apple marches in, provides market research evidence to the labels how many more customers (and therefore, revenue) the industry could garner with a lower price point and labels say ‘no way.’

Why? Well, then labels would have to offer lower pricing to the entire industry so to not advantage Apple. Glen Peoples‘ source at the end of the piece is absolute right: labels are deathly afraid of Apple becoming the entire music industry. A strong Spotify is required to counter Apple. Freemium isn’t going anywhere, though a listening cap could come back for a brief time, as it did a couple years ago.

No matter what others in the media absurdly suggest, the reason Apple isn’t interested in freemium is because it doesn’t need it. The main goal of freemium is to attract listeners and then slowly convert them over time into a paid tier. Listeners won’t be a problem for Apple as the streaming app will be pre-loaded on every iOS device and most likely baked into iTunes.

Free Music Lives

Trust me, Apple will feature free music in the streaming product. But instead of paying for freemium, the company will offer labels promotional opportunities. Nobody can bundle the power of the iTunes store with free streaming for a week or month. That’s a killer combination for labels, even with paid downloads falling.

And converting those listeners into subscribers? Apple already has an enormous amount of valid credit cards, so it’s just a matter of signing in to subscribing. So why would Apple pay hundreds of millions of dollars to major labels for freemium when it already has distribution and payment covered?

Price Fixating

Eddy Cue, Jimmy Iovine and the Apple team have been harping on labels to consider lower the price of streaming. There’s been more and more data analysis showing a lower price of streaming will lead to many more customers signing up, more than making up for the loss of revenue. And I’m sure that Apple presented significant market research and bulletproof data that proved the point.

Despite overwhelming evidence, the labels stuck to their guns, and said if you want to charge less, you can pay for it. Meanwhile the largest streaming service in the world, YouTube, continues to give away free music at a scale the dwarfs Spotify and Pandora combined.

And you wonder why the music industry can’t grow. Not that we needed more evidence.

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

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.