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

I'm going to make you an offer you can't refuse

Welcome To The Content App Era

Good news! We’re starting a new epoch in the titanic shift technology has foisted upon content creation and consumption. No longer are we stuck under the thumb of huge behemoth companies like Spotify, Facebook, YouTube and Pandora. Those dinosaurs are on their way out.

Oh what’s that you say? ‘Jon, have you been sniffing glue again? YouTube is flexing its muscles and bossing around creators. Didn’t you see the headlines about how poor Zoe Keating is being so mistreated?’ Yep. I sure did. And I say good riddance. Because it is done. Kaput. Collapsing. Sure, maybe not today or in the next couple years. But when bullies like YouTube start dictating insane terms to artists, it forces creators to look at different ways to distribute their work and that creates new opportunities. And companies are already starting to sprout up to take advantage.

Just last week the startup Vessel announced a new model designed to provide a much larger percentage of revenue for content creators than YouTube offers. Of course Vessel must build audience to create big buckets of revenue, which is far from a simple task. But as Peter Kafka of Re/code reported, Vessel is offering a much better experience, including a new advertising product that might mean the end of the dreaded video ad pre-roll. Vessel’s CEO Jason Kilar has long wanted to improve the experience for both viewers and advertisers, which is way overdue.

And Vessel is just the start. We’re at the beginning of the Content App Era. Just like how industries have been affected by the tech boom, there will be a phalanx of highly focused content apps of all different kinds to take on the big guys. In music this phenomenon is already taking shape with the recent launch of the Christian focused Overflow app.

Are all the upstarts going to succeed? Absolutely not. Most will fail spectacular. But a few will find the right audience with the right content and product innovations. They’ll learn from their mistakes, get smarter, and start making more money for creators. There will be a healthy competition for best content and talent. So sure, we’ll still have the big guys, at least for some time. But all these small players will throw enough stones at these monsters until they become a shell of their former selves.

An example of how this might go? Take a gander at broadcast television. For decades, three players dominated ratings. Nearly all Americans watched CBS, ABC or NBC. Advertisers paid a massive premium to reach, well, everyone. And then the audience started to erode away as all kinds of options for casual time came on the scene. Nowadays consumers have the choice of cable, satellite, Call Of Duty, Netflix, Crunchyroll, and hundreds of other services.

So what can these Goliaths do? How about starting with fair policies? YouTube grew monstrously big by ripping off all the video content in the world and allowing their audience and creators to remix it. Its popularity built a massive reach. Now it’s taking that audience hostage by demanding creators grant the company most favored nation status in order to get access to Content ID, which–as a reminder—was first designed to allow creators get at least some compensation for the videos that YouTube users posted without paying creators in the first place. It’s like YouTube is saying: help stop us from stealing your life’s work by just giving us all your life’s work and get paid whatever we decide. That’s some Orwellian logic.

I’m sure as a business school case study you’d get an A+ for devising such a brilliant strategy. But in terms of real life business ethics, it is unconscionable.

More News About Bullies

Music Industry Blog Zoe Keating’s Experience Shows Us Why YouTube’ Attitudes To Its Creators Must Change

Stratechery Dear Zoe Keating: Tell YouTube to Take a Hike

Hulu Blog The Future of TV

Can Spotify Keep Growing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now comes the hard part.

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

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

2015 Digital Music Predictions

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

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

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

My picks for the top stories for 2015:

Say Goodbye: At Least Two Services Will Consolidate

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

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

YouTube Music Key Will Deliver A Flat Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotify Will IPO and More Artists Will Window

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

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

Pandora Will Become Musicians’ Most Hated Digital Service

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

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

Amazon Will Continue To Play Its Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jon Tiger

Into The Wild: A Year of Working Independently Teaches Lessons In Humility, Ego and Direction

I’ll remember 2014 as the year I started to get my stripes back.

The past year was one of enormous growth, as I started the journey of figuring out what was next, who I am and what I want to do. This comes on the heels of a 2013 that saw me leave the company I had determinedly worked at for almost a decade. I say determinedly because I stayed too long and gave up too much in the process. Don’t get me wrong. I got a lot out of it. But after a period of reflection, I began to awaken to what was lost in the bargain.

You see, when things go bad, I have a tendency to bury my head, grit my teeth and just get through it. I grew up in challenging situations and had to deal with whatever got thrown my way, so that’s just my general mode of being. When the end came I had invested so much of my time and effort in the company—and tied myself so closely to it—that I couldn’t discern where the company ended and I began.

The details of what happened were mildly shocking and yet exceedingly mundane. It’s your typical new-guy-cuts-you-out-while-presenting-your-work-as-his-and-positions-himself-as-the-future-while-a-new-investor-demands-big-changes type of thing. My company had a layoff and I was out, along with a whole management layer.

I knew it was coming months in advance. I was ready for it. Steeled even. But afterwards my emotions caught me by surprise. For about three months after the layoff I was confused. And then sad. And then exceptionally angry. And then even more exceptionally angry.

It started three years before the end. In typical fashion, I had thrown myself into a new job and was determined to make it work, regardless of the writing on the wall: the company where I was working at was not the company that I had joined.

You see, my company had to change its strategy because of the massive growth of mobile. It led to many more people using our products, which was awesome. It also became important that the company shored up its knowledge and connections in the cellular carrier business, as those partnerships would turn on an endless spigot of new customers.

Meanwhile since the day I started, the company had lost a long line of what I called the ‘true believers.’ Those who were inspired to change the music industry by creating an addictive experience for music fans and new revenue for musicians. A major turning point occurred when the company lost one of the longest-tenured and most influential of the true believers; perhaps the person who served as our musical soul.

Later, over lunch, he mentioned that he wished he left earlier. Like when it was obvious that things had changed. I made a mental note. I was absolutely sure my time would come, as it had for many of my former colleagues, and I wanted to act before that day. Instead, I took up the flag for the company. I doubled down in loyalty and effort, even as people left and were replaced by new employees with cellular carrier experience instead.

The fact is when the people changed, the place changed. The new direction made sense, but the company had a different feel. Instead of recognizing this, I tried to keep a culture alive that didn’t exist anymore. I even hired a career coach to help me through it. After sitting down the first time and describing my situation, she asked why I wanted to be at my company. Because I have to make it work, I said. But why, she asked.

Her point was that no matter how hard you try a company’s culture is the most important factor in determining your professional success. It might fit you. It might not. If it doesn’t, there is no reason to continue working there.

My coach pointed out that I was trying to fit into a company that seemed different from my values. I listened closely, knew what she said was true, and then quickly ignored the advice. It worked for a while. I got promoted and moved up. But in that exchange, I started to lose something important. My instincts.

I started to question if I really fit. And instead of hearing the words of my coach, I adapted to the new direction. Instead of just being me, it felt like I was playing the part of someone I wasn’t. Granted I learned much from the new regime: you can always learn if you pay attention. But if I’m being honest with myself, I was relying on the trappings of the new direction rather than just being myself and letting that be enough.

So after a couple months of processing and 2014 dawned, I was ready to reclaim me. My release back into the career wild has led me to rediscover my love for writing and analysis, choose who I want to work with and tackle problems that can potentially make a difference in our industry.

And it’s paying off. I’ve attracted a small but influential audience of readers. I worked with a handful of innovative clients. And have found time to consider and communicate new ways to approach the business.

It’s far from easy. There are tough days as assignments and income can be sporadic. Sometimes I lose the thread of what I’m doing. Some days my ego gets the best of me and I wonder if think I’m so good then why am I on the sidelines. Other days, I question my talents and abilities. And I have more work to do. Plus there’s the downside of being highly adaptable: I’ve done many jobs because I can do them instead doing what I really want to do. But instead of losing years trying to fit in, I’m now forced to examine what I stand for and who I am.

I trust myself more. I’m even getting better at introducing myself as Jon instead of somebody who does something at a company. I’ve stricken the ‘we’ when talking or thinking about my former employer and its challenges.

Steve Jobs famously said that getting fired from Apple freed him to have “the lightness of being a beginner.” Today let’s toast that lightness of seeing things from the beginning.

Happy New 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