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

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

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Source: Recording Industry Association of America

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

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

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

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

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

Especially when one considers how people are listening today.

 

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

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

So what can be done?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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TIDAL, the Jay-Z led streaming service may have a problem retaining user it has signed up. 

The Wall Street Journal recently published some pretty terrible numbers on the train wreck that is called TIDAL. Naturally, the entire industry started piling on Jay-Z’s music startup, determined to show what a cluster the company finds itself in. But to us music vets, it’s pretty much the same old, same old. Losing lots of money isn’t the problem—it’s actually required these days if you’re running a digital music company; due to the enormous costs of content, and the fight for paying subscribers. It should be pointed out that Spotify’s losses are much greater than TIDAL’s reported numbers.

The bigger problem that TIDAL faces is revenue growth. According to the filings the WSJ reported on, TIDAL lost $28 million on revenues of $43 million in 2015. And while that’s a lot of money to lose, Spotify lost nearly $194 million, and Rhapsody lost $35 in 2015. But the scale of both of those companies is impressive. Spotify nearly doubled its revenue last year, recording of $2 billion. Even Rhapsody logged around $200 million last year.

So what gives? Why is TIDAL’s revenue just a drop in the bucket compared to its competition? I think it has to do with its reliance of exclusives to sign up subscribers. A caveat here: this is speculation based on one report from Sweden, which might not even show the accurate financial picture of the company. A source told the Journal that the filing didn’t include all U.S. revenue, for example. Additionally, it doesn’t account for 2016, when TIDAL rolled out wave after wave of impressive exclusives, from Rihanna to Kanye to Beyoncé. So it doesn’t really account for its power moves.

However, if you just divide the revenues of each company and into each self-reported subscriber count, TIDAL lags well behind in revenue per subscriber. Rhapsody banks $57 per sub per year and Spotify is an impressive $87. TIDAL didn’t announce year end subs, but in March it said it had 3 million, so let’s just say they had 2.5 million at year’s end, for a total of $17 per subscriber. Don’t like that number? Fine. Let’s just go on the TIDAL subscriber number reported on October 1, 2015 of a million subscribers. Based on that, TIDAL is still generating half the revenue per sub of Spotify and a 25 percent less than Rhapsody, a company with a significant base of lower-revenue bundled subscribers.

I know what you’re thinking. How can this be? TIDAL doesn’t have a free offering. It also claims that a huge number of its subs are on the $20 plan for better audio quality, much higher than all streaming services. Shouldn’t TIDAL be generating tons of cash per user? Well, yes. Except for one nagging little problem: churn.

Churn, the amount of subscribers that quit your service every month, is the canary in the coal mine for a subscription business. Low churn means people are happy. High churn is a disaster, as you need to replace all those subscribers just to tread water–let alone to grow. Churn is the one metric subscription companies obsess over. Netflix has famously spent a great deal of effort lowering its churn and is considered the gold standard for an entertainment company.

In the next stage of subscription services, churn will be one of the most important factors in determining health of businesses. There were reports this summer that Apple Music’s churn was significantly higher than Spotify’s, and the company has recently been recruiting talent to deal with its problem. So it’s just not TIDAL that has to worry about it. However, the company is much more suspect to massive churn that its competitors.

My theory is that TIDAL does indeed harvest a lot of credit cards from people who just have to have access to The Life of Pablo or Lemonade. But the minute the exclusive is over, those subscribers leave. In droves.

I would suggest that TIDAL has done a great job at signing people up. And a terrible job at converting them to the service long term. Mostly because TIDAL isn’t marketing the service outside of the only place where you can get exclusives for a short period of time.

One of the measures of performance for companies I track is App Annie data on downloads for iOS in the U.S. It doesn’t tell the whole story, but it does suggest popularity of an app. More downloads: more new customers. One would expect small changes from time to time, but steady, consistent demand. Kind of like Spotify’s iOS downlaods:

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

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That’s one bumpy ride.

You’ll also note that the scale between Spotify and TIDAL is significantly different. Spotify never dropped out of the top 30 apps, whereas TIDAL has bumped between 1 and 1,250 since churning out the exclusives.

TIDAL in June announced it has 4.2 million subscribers after signing up 1.2 million fans during Lemonade alone. But let’s not pay attention to how many subscribers TIDAL adds. It’s all about how many it retains.

One last caveat: maybe I’m wrong. Maybe TIDAL is signing up tons of people and they’re sticking around. But if that is the case, the company should have lots of cash on hand to pay its bills in the form of operating income. The fact that seems to be short of cash and it isn’t able to turn its exclusives into a consistent funnel of customers leads me to believe that something isn’t working with exclusives.

WSJ: Jay Z’s Music Streaming Service Tidal Posts Huge Loss in 2015

Recode: Spotify is adding more subscribers and is losing its chief revenue officer

Billboard: Rhapsody Nears 3.5 Million Global Subscribers

 

                                                                                                   

 

Unboxing Pandora

Why The New Royalty Rate Matters Little For The Digital Radio Giant

Yesterday, the Copyright Royalty Board–the three-judge panel that sets the rates that non-interactive radio services pay –set the new rate for the coming year 21 percent higher than the previous year. Services like Pandora were seeking a lower rate. SoundExchange, which represents rights holders, requested a higher rate. The CRB playing a wise Solomon, split it almost right down the middle, settling at .0017 per song played.

And then the industry yawned.

As a refresher, in the United States, music companies can offer playback by taking advantage of a compulsory license set forth in the Digital Millennial Copyright Act. All you need to do is follow the rules for non-interactive digital streaming and pay SoundExchange for all the plays within 45 days. This rate does not affect directly licensed services, like Spotify, Apple Music, or Deezer.

Disclosure: I work at 8tracks, which offers non-interactive radio in the US and Canada. These opinions are mine and don’t represent the company. See 8tracks CEO David Porter’s opinions on the subject here.

Moving On
The CRB rate seems like it’s already an antique of past days. Call it the iPhone 1 era. Remember way back in 2005 when you’d fire up Pandora, pick an artist and sit back and listen to an awesome radio station?

The world has moved on from those olden days. Thanks to YouTube, Spotify and Soundcloud, a whole new generation of listeners have grown up being able to play whatever she or he wants at any time. Also, listeners can skip as much as they want and save tracks to their phones with a premium account; all functionality that requires agreements with labels .

In terms of growth, relying the compulsory license has hemmed in Pandora. Spotify has been able to grow leaps and bounds by launching in country after country. Meanwhile poor Pandora is only available in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia as only a few countries offer compulsory licenses. Its growth has slowed dramatically compared to Spotify.

Directing the Action
Pandora understands that if it wants to offer some flavor of on-demand features and do it around the world, it’ll have to sign direct deals with labels. The company has already signed similar deals with all the major publishing groups to pay songwriters.

So the days of Pandora relying on the CRB rate are numbered. Of course the rate is still important as it sets the floor from which all parties will negotiate, but it really doesn’t truly matter as much as it once had.

The CRB seems like it would like to get out of the business of setting the rate. The rates in the following four years will be based on the increase of yearly inflation, which might be the template in the future.

A Pound of Flesh
While Pandora said it was pleased with the rate, it’s not all smooth sailing for the company. Up next will be sitting down with major labels to hammer out agreements for sound recordings. After years of deep discontent with Pandora, I would bet that labels will be licking their chops to dictate onerous terms. And if the company wants to offer the ability to download tracks to a phone or up the skip limits, its gonna cost an arm and a leg.

But still, there is a path forward. Pandora recently purchased some of the assets of the much admired yet failing Rdio streaming service in preparation for an on-demand world. After months of uncertainty, Pandora’s stock perked up, rising about 13 percent the day after the announcement.

Beginnings and Endings
The CRB also simplified the rates down to a single one from three. iHeart Media, the terrestrial giant also saw its fortunes improve. Its rates dropped 22 percent when the CRB eliminated the blended rate that companies who offered more than just non-interactive radio used. On the opposite side, the elimination of the small webcaster rate means that tiny services are facing the end of days, as the new rate means their costs have now gone through the roof.

Digital musics’s chorus doesn’t really change much. Let the beatings continue until the morale improves.

 

The Bundle Deal: The Miracle of Spotify’s Paid Subscription Numbers

We all knew it was coming.

Of course Spotify was going to answer back the big ballyhoo of Apple Music’s underwhelming unveiling. It came today as Spotify announced 1) that it now had 20 million premium users 2) that it was paying more than ever for content ($300 million in the first three months of 2015!) and once again, tried to clear up the misconception of free music. As we all know, Spotify has been in the woodshed for months on end because of its free music scheme to sign up paid users. What brilliant strategy did our Swedish friends cook up this time? Well, when you are facing tough problems, do what everyone turns to: animation!

After watching this extremely informational and entertaining clip, I felt so much better.

Since Spotify has been announcing numbers, it’s mentioned the same conversion rate. Twenty five percent of their entire base is paid. This hasn’t changed in any announcement, year after year. The remarkable consistency of Spotify’s conversion, regardless of the different markets it launches with different consumers and behaviors and competitive pressures, truly boggles the mind. It actually twist credulity.

After word of this came out this morning, a friend who’s a longtime digital music veteran texted:

“36 percent of the users are paid? C’mon! Now that’s insane conversion. Has to be cooked with some underwater bundle deals. I am disgusted.”

It got me thinking about what a paid customer is, and how do we judge one.

The prevailing winds in the industry bends towards thinking that a paid user is good, and all free users suck. Well, maybe not all paid users are the same. You have customer who use mobile and pays $10 a month. You have customer who only has web access and pay $5 a month. And then you have my disgusted friend’s bundled users.

The Bundled Wars

It’s an open secret that there has been a battle between services to bundle on-demand services with cell phone companies. Spotify, Beats, Deezer and Rhapsody have been trading body blows to sign these deals. They are considered the crown jewels of the services because:

  • It provides a huge base of users that you don’t need to worry about billing, since the fee is bundled into the monthly cell phone bill.
  • The cell company will do the heavy lifting of marketing.
  • Cell companies just bake the service in for everyone in a tier. So if someone signs up for the All You Can Play plan, you get paid, regardless if someone uses your service or not!

But these customers also have drawbacks. The service only sees a fraction of the revenue per user than it does for the retail customer. As I have written about before, these deals are complicated because you have more than one party involved. On one side, you have the supplier–the content owner, in this case, labels. On the other side you have your distributor–cell companies. In the middle you have ‘lil ole digital music services, who have to convince these two big bad boys to take a discount to make the deal work.

In theory it all works. Customers get music at a discount. Labels get access to revenue they’d never get. Cell companies get premium services that leads to more loyal customers. And the digital services get lots of users, even if they’re only making a buck a month instead of three a month. Except for one, small issue.

Competition.

These deals have become extremely competitive over the past couple years. All the music services are working hard to land carrier deals and take further discounts off already paltry margins. There have been rumors that Spotify has been the most aggressive of all the companies to close, or at least disrupt, deals. So my disgusted friend wonders how many millions that Spotify loses money every month on, just to say it has more paying users. It’s an excellent question.

Drain The Swamp

There’s an old saying in politics that to get rid of mosquitos (or alligators), you’ve got to drain the swamp. The concept is that once you get rid of the cause of your issues, all your annoyances go away. It could be that Spotify is trying to get rid of its competition by taking a loss on bundled customers to get the deals (the swamp in this instance). Additionally, it doesn’t hurt the PR cause to say you have more subs, because, you know, paid subs are GOOD!!!!

As we get smarter about subscription music, we’ll figure out better questions to ask. My contention is that these bundle deals will need to come under increasing scrutiny as services start to mature. Many in the industry believe the bundle is the answer to all of our problems. But the baggage the bundle contains might make it not worth the trouble.

Grow Fast And Burn Cash

By all accounts, the music service Rhapsody has been on a roll. Subscriber numbers continue to grow. The company announced an innovative use of a trial based on plays that makes it appear like free music on Twitter. It recently acqi-hired a team of developers who built a social sharing application named Reveal.

Disclosure: I dirtied Rhapsody’s white boards when I worked there from 2004 until 2013. 

More revealing, however, is the cost of growth. Real Networks is compelled to disclose Rhapsody’s financials in its 10-K reports, and the most recent results are brutal. Rhapsody lost $8.9 million in the first quarter of 2015. The Seattle-based company lost $1.6 million in the same quarter in 2014. Rhapsody had to borrow $10 million in cash from Real Networks and its other owner–the private equity firm Columbus Nova.

Do You Know ARPU?

So how can the company grow subscribers, but losses continue to escalate? It’s pretty simple. The company’s average revenue per user (ARPU) is slipping. Badly.

Most, if not all, of Rhapsody’s growth has come from their cellular carrier partnerships, like T-Mobile in the United States, Telefonica in Latin America and Vodaphone and SFR in Europe. These deals are awesome for distribution. But the deals provides just a fraction of the revenue a retail customer in the US provides the company. So instead of making, say, $5 bucks a month for each retail customer who signs up directly, Rhapsody might make $0.50 on per each user month of Brazil’s Vivo Musica, if not even less.

As I posted earlier, Rhapsody’s cellphone carrier strategy is a sound one, if the company can do two things: make up the loss of ARPU by dramatically increasing the volume of partner subscribers and bolster its brand to sign up a number of high ARPU customers the company has traditionally attracted in the US.

Rhapsody, just like everyone in digital music, is probably feeling the pressure of Spotify’s successful year. The company continues to sign up tons of high-value premium customers as it expands around the world. There’s some evidence that Spotify is taking the oxygen out of the market. Spotify’s premium users grew the equivalent of Rhapsody’s entire subscriber base in two months at the end of last year. The company grossed over a billion dollars in revenue last year.

And Rhapsody’s losses are a drop in the bucket compared to Spotify. The Swedish-based digital music juggernaut lost $184 million in 2014, according to recent reports. Based on how the company continues to harvest the private markets for more and more cash, Daniel Ek’s company makes Rhapsody’s losses look good in comparison. Rhapsody appears to be more like a rock-ribbed conservative banker compared to Spotify’s sailor-on-shore-leave approach to spending. We are clearly still in a Grow Fast or Die Slow stage of development, and Rhapsody has playing the best hand it has available.

The digital music market has long valued growth at any costs over rational business planning. That may be changing as Universal Music Group is starting to question the value of free music. There’s been many reports that Apple is pushing UMG to have Spotify limit or end its unending stream of free music as a way to sign up paying customers.

UMG CEO Lucian Grainge may see Apple as the best of both worlds: a 100 percent paid service that has access to hundreds of millions of credit cards. If Apple is the White Knight that will save the music business from itself, or just another Trojan Horse is an open question.

2014: Music Services Lost Subscribers…And That’s A Good Thing

Last year was a banner year for music subscription in the US. The RIAA reported big time growth, primarily driven by Spotify’s gains in paying subscribers.

But at the same time, the market stalled a bit in terms of actual subscribers. The RIAA in its midyear report had paid subscribers at 7.8 million, but by the time we got to the end of the year, it was only 7.7, a loss of 100k subs. So what gives?

Well, we had another year of consolidation. Two big players came off the market. The biggest driver of losses is Muve Music, which at its peak, reportedly had two million subscribers. Granted those subs weren’t generating much in revenue for the industry, but it was a big number. AT&T acquired Muve’s parent Cricket Wireless and then treated it like a redheaded stepchild.

Conventional wisdom is that Muve delivered a big number of subs, but it was primarily a sleeper service, where most of the users were inactive. There was a ton of media flaunting how great Muve was for the industry, which in retrospect, now seems absurd. AT&T shuttled off Muve’s subscribers to Deezer in January. However, these kinds of deals generally mean retaining 50 percent of subscribers at best. I’ve seen acquisitions deliver less than 30 percent of subscribers to the new service.

After a big marketing blitz, Beats turned off their acquisition channels once Apple purchased the company, which adversely affected its numbers.

Just totaling up subscribers isn’t the best way to judge success of subscriber. The key number to get the total picture is revenue plus subs. In the first half of this year, streaming subs increased to $371.4 million, and increased even more in the second half to total $799 million for the year.

Perhaps the old adage about lies, damn lies and statistics applies here. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing provocative headlines based on precursory numbers. But it requires digging a level deeper to understand what the numbers actually mean. Spotify had a great year in 2014. In some respects the company, along with the massive increase of internet radio revenue, kept the industry afloat through another transition.

There’s no need to bemoan the loss of garbage subscribers. We need to focus on revenue and subscribers to get a true sense of what streaming subscribers is delivering to the industry—and where the real growth will come from.

More Reading

RIAA: 2014 Industry Shipment and Revenue Report

CNETCricket’s Deezer Music Partnership Rises From The Ashes of Muve Music

Fierce WirelessCricket’s Muve Music’s Fate Is Up In Air Following AT&T Deal

Billboard: Muve Music Surpasses 2 Million Subscriber In US

Accordion Games: Why Spotify’s Free Service Should Constantly Grow And Contract

Here we go again.

Spotify is running into trouble with someone else in music. This time it’s the behemoth Universal Music Group. UMG’s CEO Lucian Grande woke up one day and figured out that Spotify was giving away too much music and it was impacting digital sales, which have slumped considerably. The company controls a considerable amount of popular music throughout the world. In some markets it’s as much as 40 percent of all music sales, so when it doesn’t like something, you can be assured that something’s gonna change. Outside of the absurdity of all this, there is a point here. And it comes down to the funnel.

You see Spotify uses free music as a customer acquisition funnel. By getting the largest number of people possible playing music, Spotify believes that it can convert a significant number of them into the paid products. Spotify has pushed to create the biggest funnel possible by giving unlimited free music on the desktop, and allowing shuffle play listening for free on mobile phones.

All information has shown that Spotify has had a great year. Its growth numbers in free and paid listeners has grown tremendously. Early data signals are showing that Spotify ate into other free services, like YouTube. And while the company wheels out data points that claims it hasn’t eaten into iTunes sales, it bends credulity to believe that Spotify hasn’t eaten into track sales.

Think Accordion, Not Funnel

The main point of Spotify’s troubles  comes down to how it considers free playback. The company would have much more success in identifying those who would pay by considering free as an accordion that expands and contracts from time to time. Instead of 100 percent free plays all the time, the company could limit free playback occasionally, or better yet, carve up its user base into intelligent cohorts based on their playback behavior and value to the company.

So if listener creates awesome playlists that gets tons of followers, that person gets as much free music they want. If someone shares more playlists than most, free music. If one has more active friends, give ’em free. The company could even create scores based on user’s future possibility that they might subscribe and keep them around. Others should see a wall when they get to a certain number of plays. And when Spotify’s funnel starts to collapse, open it up again. Free music for everyone.

It has been my contention that sooner or later, Spotify will have to have a system like this in place. Right now, the content costs are crushing to the company, and eventually, playtime will be over. Time to get the books right. But right now in its run-up to an initial public offering the company is 100 percent focused on growth. Therefore, it must keep the funnel as big as possible.

And finally, it’s absurd to think that the major labels are going to do anything to jeopardize Spotify’s IPO. All the labels own a chunk in Spotify and will benefit from the IPO. It could be big money. Just last year UMG made hundreds of millions on Beat Electronics sale to Apple. So free music might be more limited sooner or later. But let’s not pretend free music is going anywhere before Spotify makes labels millions.

Jonmaples.com: Major Label Are Truly Home of the Free (Music)

FT: Universal Takes On Spotify’s Free Model