The Magic Numbers: How Apple Beats The Demise of Music Downloads

There are two numbers that you need to pay attention to in order to make sense of Apple’s breathtaking acquisition of Beats Electronics. Neither of them is the rumored $3.2 billion price. They are 13.3 and 800 million.

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Apple’s saint Steven P. Jobs  said customers wanted to own their music. Not anymore.

The first number is the percentage that music downloads have decreased in Q1 of this year compared with 2013. This is on the heels of a 5% decrease last year, so it’s looking like the decline is picking up speed. It’s pretty clear that the download era is waning and Apple knows this better than anyone. I’m sure the company has a phalanx of data analysts poring over projections and understand that the rate that customers buy downloads might not be in a freefall, but it could be coming quicker than anyone expects.

It’s pretty clear when it comes to the choice between buying downloads or using a streaming service, customers are beginning to choose streaming. But so far, Apple has sat out of the subscription music trend. After all, the Book of Jobs says that customers wanted to own rather than rent music.

Those days have passed. Apple needed to hedge their bets and get into streaming. But instead of building another bolt-on to iTunes as the company did with their underperforming radio service, Apple decided to speed their way to market by purchasing a hot new service that had a lot of buzz, but hadn’t scaled so much that it was prohibitively expensive. Beats is the most viable of all acquisition targets.

While music purchases may be falling, it’s still a big business for Apple. So instead of creating another option in iTunes that would potentially cannibalize download sales, why not just buy a service and keep it separate? Streaming blows up: Apple wins. Streaming doesn’t pan out, well, it will still have the iTunes store chugging along.

In The Cards

The second number refers to the 800 million iTunes accounts, most with credit cards on file.  Those credit cards are the keys to the kingdom for anyone who wants to sell something in the store. Apple charges a 30 percent premium for companies to use their in-app purchasing system, where a customer can subscribe directly from the native app.

After Beats Music’s troubled launch period didn’t produce many subscribers from the 7-day trial, company executives were calling around to see how other firms dealt with the 30 percent Apple tax (answer—you eat the $3 per customer a month).  In late April, Beats launched in-app purchase and the results were stunning. Their iOS app became the number one overall free app.

Just as important as in-app purchase is getting featured in the iTunes store. Placement in the iTunes store can make a hit out of an app and can mean hundreds of thousands of downloads. Combined with in-app purchase, the store is a kingmaker that can make or break a company. So once Apple integrates the Beats app, it wouldn’t be surprising that the app will get a permanent featured position in the store. Cha-ching.

Oh, and that $3.2 billion price tag? With Beats Electronics’ hardware business already creating significant profits, Apple’s purchase price could be covered within a couple years. So in essence the company is getting into streaming music for a song.

More Acquiring Minds

FT: Apple In Talks to Acquire Beats

Re/Code: Why Apple Is Betting Big On Beats

Om.co: On Streaming: Apple, Beats & Spotify

Apple Insider: Jimmy Iovine Set To Join Apple?

Growing Pains: Can YouTube’s Plans Power Music Revenues?

This was originally included in Billboard’s print edition dated March 4, 2014. The entire article is not available online without a subscription, but I’m reposting it to my network.

And no, I didn’t write the headline or the deck.

Opinion Column: Screwed By YouTube?

40 percent of its plays are music – even as its rights payments remain disproportionate

Do billions of YouTube views of Gangnam Style translate to millions for Psy?
Did billions of YouTube views of Gangnam Style translate to millions for Psy?

First it was broadcast radio, then MTV. Now YouTube? Could it be that the music industry is a three-time loser in getting its fair share for distribution of content? Did it give away the golden goose by not suing the bejeezus out of YouTube when it was a startup, or at least cut better deals when Google acquired it in 2006?

Of course it’s not a simple question. At first glance it’s clear that today YouTube isn’t delivering the goods. During a MIDEM panel this year, YouTube vp content Tom Pickett said the company had paid more than $1 billion to music rights holders during the past several years. Well, that’s sweet. Hey, you know who else has done that? Spotify. The difference: Spotify did it with a fraction of YouTube’s audience.

Let’s face it: When the worldwide market is $16 billion annually a billion isn’t that much, not when you consider the size and scope of YouTube’s mighty reach and insatiable thirst for more and more fresh content. While there have been some holdouts on paid streaming services, no working artist would dare skip YouTube — one of the world’s largest promotional channels — and limit his or her reach. According to comScore, YouTube’s 159 million active monthly U.S. users watched 13 billion videos in December 2013. And YouTube says nearly 40 percent of all videos were music-related.

But YouTube doesn’t just represent a promotional channel. It delivers a burgeoning stream of advertising revenue, and could soon find more ways to monetize its massive audience. YouTube does pay a split of ad revenue with rights holders, although the rates for ads are paltry when compared with such established players as broadcast radio. The company is trying to boost its revenue-per-impression rate with premium content, but this will take time.

By comparison, Spotify looks more attractive to rights holders, since it already delivers multiple revenue streams. Like YouTube, Spotify pays a low per-stream ad-supported fee for a play by a free consumer, but its average payout is much higher because it offers premium subscription fees as well. That’s why YouTube has long planned a paid subscription service that is finally expected to launch this year. If the company can convert even 1 percent of its active users to pay for on-demand music, it would be the largest service in the United States. At least that’s the theory.

In practice, converting these free users to paying customers could be much harder to execute. Why? Every all-you-can-eat music service has similar pricing. Want to stream your music on the desktop or on your phone? It’s free. Want to save your music to your Android phone? That’ll be 10 bucks. Asking for $10 from a customer base that has become accustomed to accessing all the music they want for the low, low price of free is a steep hill to climb.

The industry and Google will need to partner to create a new value proposition at a variety of price points. What could it offer the music fan for a buck a month? How about a top 40 app for $3? What about a catalog slice, say indie/alternative, for $6? How about a $2 Vevo subscription?

The truth is, all consumers are not alike. Defining those price points and offers will require innovative thinking and risk-taking by both sides. Remember, yearlong Spotify Premium subscribers pay more than three times what the average customer spends in a year for music.

The industry needs to think of ways to serve a mass audience. But if instead consumers see the same old offer of 20 million songs for $10 a month, we could end up with another Google Play All Access Music, which hasn’t blown the doors off with subscriber growth. That would be disappointing for the entire industry.

Perhaps the industry is learning. Certainly holding out content from YouTube would have made it much more challenging to build new revenue streams, so it was the right decision to bring the service into the fold.

Now it’s time to supercharge it.

Note: I have corrected an error. YouTube was acquired by Google in 2006, not in 2005 as it appeared in print. I regret the error. 

How Streaming Music Continues to Fail Artists

Streaming services could get fans as close to their favorite artists as they get at SXSW.
Streaming services could get fans as close to their favorite artists as they get at SXSW. That’s Alabama Shakes in 2012.

Perhaps it’s the news cycle, the launch of the next-big-thing or just simply boredom with the topic, but it sure seems like we’ve forgotten the meme of artists getting ripped off by music startups.

Nearly all last year this was a huge topic with artist like Thom Yorke and David Lowery menacing pitchforks at Spotify and Pandora. One of the major problems with the streaming services is they can’t have a frank and honest conversation about how much they pay for their content.  Because of their confidentiality agreements, they are bound to not discuss the financials of their deals with major labels. I’m sure it’s frustrating for Daniel Ek to pay out a billion dollars for the rights to music only to hear David Byrne call Spotify evil.

In December Spotify posted an extensive site that breaks down everything from the formula used to determine payments to specifically how artists are compensated. While the site lays it all out nicely, it kinda buries the real message to artists. The unsaid message goes something like, ‘We paid out a crapload of money for the music. But we don’t pay you directly. We pay the label, so go talk to them.’ Also it shows how future growth will make those moderate sized payments grow to gargantuan numbers, which you need to squint really hard to see.

Fair enough. At least when you consider music playback. But I don’t consider that enough and neither should artists. You see, streaming services really should be vibrant active communities of fans who love their favorite artists. But today, they most definitely are not. They are primarily flat, with stale boilerplate content and the charm of a filing cabinet. Even the recently launched Beats Music had nearly the same execution of artist pages as all the other services, (although I have seen some screenshots of a nice implementation of Topspin’s artist commerce in the app, so I’m assuming that the features will roll out soon).

What streaming services must do is find a way to authentically connect fans to the artists they love. And they should provide ways for the artist to directly speak to fans on their platforms. It’s one of the trickier problems for artists today. Fans are listening everywhere from Pandora to Spotify to Soundcloud to iTunes. But unless the fan reaches out directly through social channels or the artist’s website, they won’t know what the artist is up to. And if they’re not paying attention, a fan can miss it on those channels too.

Let’s take a “use case” as we say in product development. Let’s say I happen to be walking through Billy Reid on Bond Street and I ask the well-coiffed dude behind the counter what was that beguiling song emanating from the speakers. “Oh, that’s Lord Huron. Great band.” I pull out my smart phone, download it using my favorite streaming service and dig into it for the next week. But when I finally get around to checking out the band’s Facebook page for concert dates, sure enough they played in Seattle two nights before. Fail!

My service knows I like the band, since I’ve played it incessantly for the past few days. And since I have the app downloaded it also knows where the hell I am. So why can’t it suck in all the concert dates and let me know that I’m about to miss the band in a super small venue (The Crocodile in this case)? And maybe I couldn’t get to the Crocodile, but I should be able to buy a poster or a tee shirt, right? Maybe I want to connect directly to their @lordhuron and read all their updates while I listen. And why can’t it look at all the other verified @artist tags that Lord Huron is following to give me a list of bands that I might like?

Let’s keep in mind, my use case is of an, um, older demographic. There’s a whole generation of fans who crave direct connections with artists and their needs have yet to be defined. There is so much discovery work that needs to be done to figure out what those products and offerings should be. We’re just getting started on what the best product will look like and what people will need.

Services need to shift the way they are thinking about artist engagement. It’s not just a place where fans listen to music. It should be a place that unites the information and offers from artists to create a unified solution for the fan and also be a platform for artists to market directly to the fans that care most about them.

The bad PR streaming receives right now is because they haven’t scaled enough to make up the revenue difference in flagging physical and digital sales, and these services are hot so they become the punching bag. But the services do have the superfan, the ones that live and die for the artist. They might still buy all the band’s CDs. They make it a priority to see the band when they roll through town. They might even buy a $1500 ticket to take a cruise or travel long distances to see a festival.

Solving this problem should be one of the top priorities for every service out there. Until the day that happens, we’ll be talking about the micropayments for plays and waiting for scale. I’m sure this is discussed at every service, as we used to talk about it all the time. There have been a few early initiatives, like Spotify’s integration of Topspin commerce into their desktop applications or Rhapsody linking Bandpage’s Experiences within their apps, it hasn’t been focused on mobile and personal, which are the two key ingredients for the fan to take action. Addressing those valuable modes will power increased engagement and, hopefully, revenue.

Trust me, I know all too well the jammed up product roadmaps that services must juggle. There multiple competing projects all the most urgent priority. But completing this work will go a long ways toward changing the conversation and building new value for both artists and streaming services.

Links for the Obsessive

The GuardianWhy David Byrne Is Wrong About Spotify

MediumWhat Streaming Music Can Be

WSJ (Requires $$$): An Ode To Joyous Streaming

Hypebot: The Barriers of Music of Music Listening: Past And Present

Viacom BlogMTV’s Music to the M Power

Post-cociousDavid Byrne Tells Streaming Services To Get Off His Lawn