Music Streaming Comes Of Age

Last Saturday was the 10th International Record Store Day, an annual event to celebrate independent music shops. A key feature is the list of exclusive and limited edition vinyl releases, most of which can only be bought in selected participating stores – in person and on the day. But there are also loads of other promotions and live events, designed to get people browsing the racks in their local retail outlet. In an age when streaming services now account for the bulk of US music industry revenues, what is the future of the neighbourhood record shop (those that are still left, that is)? Will streaming services kill off digital downloads, as well as sales of physical product like CDs and records?

Despite the sense of doom that has permeated the record industry in recent years (if not decades!), there is also a feeling that, just as the internet has not yet managed to kill off the publishing industry, digital has not yet killed the radio star. The independent music industry in particular has found a way to survive, and retail stores are still an important part of the business.

So, what are the recent trends in music industry sales and business models?

First, the continued rebound in vinyl sales (at least in the UK) show that there is renewed interest in this 70-year-old format, with industry data showing a 25-year high (but not yet a return to the 1980s’ peak). Record Store Day is generally credited with boosting vinyl sales. And to be fair, even music streaming services have contributed to this growth, through curated content, recommendation engines and user preferences: meaning that listeners get exposed to a wider range of music and artists than they would from traditional Top 40 radio, and they get to explore and discover new music.

Second, digital downloads, once seen as the industry growth engine, are facing a pincer attack, from streaming services as well as vinyl sales. No wonder that Apple is expected to slowly and quietly retire the iTunes download store, and shift more focus onto its own Apple Music subscription service. The music industry (especially the dwindling number of major labels) didn’t really “get” the internet. Having just competed in the CD-format wars, the major labels then competed on digital file formats, and tried to lock their digital content to proprietary players and software protocols. Some of this reticence was justified – thanks to digital piracy and illegal file sharing – but they didn’t (and still don’t) help themselves by poor CX on their retail websites (if they have an e-commerce presence at all), and adherence to arcane geo-blocking.

Third, many musicians are benefiting from increased exposure via streaming services – although with Apple Music and Spotify seemingly leaving the other platforms far behind, the downside risks from a dominant duopoly don’t need spelling out. Especially as the royalty payments from streaming are generally much smaller than they would have been from physical sales, “traditional” downloads and radio airplay. This source of friction between labels, their artists, music publishers and online content platforms surfaced again earlier this month, in a spat with YouTube over fees for video streaming.

Fourth, in a new move in the streaming wars and the battle to win mobile screen real-estate, Australian startup Unlockd has just secured a deal with MTV UK to stream free music videos in return for viewing ads. It’s also a move designed to counter ad-blockers and locked screens, while finding another way to distribute sponsored content. Elsewhere, some mobile carriers are now including music streaming services as part of customers’ un-metered data consumption, although what this may mean for artist royalties and the revenue share from ad-supported content on Spotify etc. is unclear.

Fifth, as another example of how the music industry is having to adapt, UK startup Secret Sessions is using a combination of social media, independent/unsigned artists and major brand licensing deals to find new ways to generate revenue streams for artists that can no longer count on income from traditional sales-based royalty deals, especially with the diminished licensing revenues from streaming services.

Sixth, as further evidence that all is not well in the world of music streaming, SoundCloud continues to lose its way. Once the music service of choice for user-contributed content created by independent and unsigned musicians, it got greedy and has been subject to recent speculation about its financial health and future.

Initially, SoundCloud was all about the makers and producers – helping artists connect with their audience, via a simple but effective website and mobile app. It also meant that at first, SoundCloud charged musicians and labels under a “pay to publish” model, while listeners could simply stream (and sometimes download) all this content for free. Then, it alienated many of its earliest supporters and champions, by introducing “ad-supported” streaming (with priority access going to labels and artists with big marketing budgets, who could also attract/demand the lion’s share of the advertising revenue).

SoundCloud also seriously messed with the app, making it far less useful to artists, and then introduced its own subscription-based streaming service, SoundCloud Go. Only, it wasn’t satisfied with just one subscription model, and recently announced an “upgrade” – whereby the “old” service became “SoundCloud Go+“, and a “new” SoundCloud Go was launched. Confused? You will be….

Meanwhile, Bandcamp continues to outperform the industry, in terms of annual sales growth, and has become a unique platform that offers music streaming, digital downloads and even physical product. (Frustratingly, Bandcamp is still blocked from selling digital content directly via iOS devices – even though much of this content is unavailable on either iTunes or Apple Music. Surely that’s anti-competitive?) And now there’s an amusing string of “SoundCloud vs Bandcamp” memes doing the rounds which may say a lot about the respective fortunes of these rival services.

Finally, the last word on the current state of music streaming and digital downloads should go to the artist known as L.Pierre. He has just announced the release of his latest and final (vinyl-only) album under that particular moniker, with an accompanying artist statement which could be seen as both an indictment upon and a requiem for the music industry.

NOTE: Apologies to my readers for any confusion regarding the timing and accessibility of this post. Thanks to WordPress, this article “missed” its scheduled time, and the outgoing e-mail notification had a faulty link. Normal service will hopefully be resumed next week…

Next week: Startup Vic’s E-commerce Pitch Night

Tribute

It’s two months since my father passed away, and nearly a year to the day since he went into hospital for scheduled heart surgery. Sadly, although the operation itself appears to have been a success, the ordeal seemed to trigger a whole series of complications and underlying conditions: within 6 months he was admitted to a dementia ward, and by late last year, he was in a nursing home undergoing palliative care. Less than three months later, he passed away, the shadow of his former self.

I was able to spend several weeks back in the UK over Christmas and New Year, visiting him up to three times a day. Most of the time, he was living in his own little world, and I would simply sit with him and listen to some of his favourite music, mainly baroque and opera. But in his lucid moments there were flashbacks to the distant past, and some recollections of more recent memories. On one occasion, even though he had lost most of his capacity for speech, he did manage a sage piece of advice: “Don’t play with fire”.

More recently, I was in the UK again to scatter his ashes and help sort out his study and his workshop. Memories of impromptu DIY lessons came flooding back. There were also several quirks and surprises in his personal archive: photos of him at management conferences in the 1970s and 1980s, a scrapbook of his time in Germany in the late 1950s during National Service (including some chilling images of Belsen), and a spreadsheet showing his annual income and income tax right up to his retirement.

Although he was fortunate in being able to take early retirement in his late 50s, he spent the next 25 years volunteering, building a portfolio of interests and serving on multiple committees for the arts, small business, veteran affairs, U3A and other community projects. My mother likes to joke that he’d rather chair a committee than mow the lawn. He also continued to learn, and I found recent certificates of proficiency for speaking German, and for formatting Word documents (very handy for writing up agendas and minutes).

He was the product of a classic liberal education, not a polymath, but possessing a solid knowledge about lots of different things: the arts, politics, language and history as well as science and technology. All the things you need to solve The Times crossword.

There are probably three key things that my father taught me:

  • Think for yourself
  • Don’t follow the herd
  • And of course, being an engineer, don’t take something apart unless you know how to put it back together again.

The latter is particularly useful when working with clients on their business reviews!

Next week: Music Streaming Comes of Age

Investor #pitch night at the London Startup Leadership Program

For the most recent pitch night I attended, I had a welcome change of scenery: I was invited to join fellows from the London chapter of the Startup Leadership Program (and a few from Paris) as they pitched to an audience of investors, mentors and well-wishers at Deloitte’s HQ.

In no particular order, the pitches were as follows (the names link to the startup websites):

Selified

This FinTech business is making customer identity management as easy as taking a selfie and photos of relevant documents, combined with multifactor verification. They claim to be able to “verify people anywhere in the world in less than a minute”.

Selified certainly seems capable of streamlining and automating new account on-boarding, and reducing the time it takes banks and card companies to collect customer data for loan and credit applications. However, there are many similar solutions out there, and some, like Proviso, are already installed at major banks. So, the challenges for Selified include: demonstrating a valid USP (or maybe the combination of what it does?); working out a SasS plus transaction pricing model; and new client installations versus displacement sales.

Re-Imagi

Declaration of interest: I have been working with, and sometimes mentoring the team at Re-Imagi for the past year or so. (Hence my ticket to tonight’s event). So, I’ll try to be objective!

Re-Imagi describes itself as “enabling decision makers to unlock human capital inside their organisation through collaboration”. By harnessing in-house innovation, creativity and collaboration among employees (through the use of design thinking, employee engagement, and unique data capture and analysis) Re-Imagi was able to change the behaviour of 42% of participants at a global bank, within the course of a two-week programme.

From experience, one challenge for the team is describing the essence of the business – since it cuts across innovation, enterprise platforms, people analytics and design thinking. At its core, it acts as a prism through which to view a range of social movements that all companies are struggling with: e.g., the Future of Work, the Future of Ageing, the Future of Money etc. But key to success will be connecting with corporate champions who “get” what the benefits are, and are willing to embrace change and welcome some external input and perspective to their current processes.

0tentic8

A very topical subject, namely a blockchain-based solution enabling agricultural producers to access financial services, and provide more transparency on supply chains.

According to the founders, there are around 500 million farmers in the developing world who do not have bank accounts. The platform will verify each stage in the supply chain – from providing a digital ID for each farmer through to tracking end customer purchases.

Part of the goal is to give farmers a verifiable financial profile that can enable financial inclusion and access to bank services, as well as supporting “field to table” provenance.

Unfortunately, on the night, the presentation was a little unclear as to strategy and execution. It’s certainly a great idea, and one of a number of AgriTech startups looking to deploy blockchain technology along the food production, manufacturing and distribution supply chains.

Secret Sessions

Here’s a business that is aiming to turn the music industry on its head. In some ways, it’s an A&R agency for the digital age; in others, it’s a curated service linking artists, fans and consumer brands, that can potentially generate more revenue for bands (from sponsorship, content creation and licensing) than traditional record label deals or license fees from streaming services.

With backgrounds in video production, digital media and music distribution, the founders are well-placed to execute on their strategy. Secret Sessions is already working with some major consumer brands who want to connect with new artists who have established a core fan base via social media, a dedicated YouTube channel, and special live events.

As a part-time musician (and one-time recording artist myself), I recognise the changing economics of the music industry. The model has been totally disrupted by digital, and the days of multi-album deals with multi-million dollar advances are long behind us. However, I can’t help thinking that if the only way people can discover and connect with new music is via a branded advertising campaign, does it in any way compromise or impoverish the artistic merit of the content? In the 1980’s and 90’s, when household brands started sponsoring world tours by major artists, it generated a bit of a fan backlash – but maybe I’m just old-fashioned, and no doubt I’m not the target demographic.

Owlmaps

Owlmaps is targeting the enterprise SaaS market, offering their take on a knowledge management platform. Organisations need a way to identify and access “hidden” skills that lie within their existing workforce, and Owlmaps does this using a talent-mapping and skill-matrix tool.

It aims to provide a dashboard solution so that users can identify skills distribution, and skills in demand, as well maintain an audit of current staff. Owlmaps places itself at the intersection of enterprise content management, learning management and collaboration solutions, and has launched several pilots with startup accelerators, academic programmes and member-based organisations. The business model is based on tiered SaaS subscriptions.

There are a plethora of software solutions that address, in some way the problem of “in-sourcing” the right skills and experience, especially for new projects or ahead of planned restructures. These platforms are either part of “traditional” HR tools (what I sometimes refer to as “human accounting software”), project management tools, or ERP applications. No doubt, some organisations are also using their recruitment tools to maintain “current” (at the time of hiring) profiles of their employees. But they are often laborious to use and update, and the tools themselves become the process…

Owlmaps may need to demonstrate it can integrate with legacy tools, but it may also need to help end users (employees) understand what’s in it for them – maybe it can serve as a prompt to take some further professional development or skills training? I also wonder if Owlmaps needs to identify a specific industry sector, rather than trying to appeal too broadly?

imby.bio

I have to say that I really like the intent behind this startup – helping a new generation of urban gardeners connect with their back yards. It’s essentially a gardening app with some built-in smarts, that also acts as a channel to market for the retail horticultural sector, by enabling users to connect with and buy from suppliers direct.

A few of the app features seem so obvious when you think about them: take a photo of an unknown plant and get it identified; use your location data to get tips and recommendations on which plants to grow, and how to care for them; get reminders to water/weed/feed your plants. But why haven’t any of the existing gardening brands taken this market by storm? Apparently, this retail sector is very fragmented, with a large number of independent nurseries and garden centers, who rely on loyal, local customers. And many gardeners still like to use traditional printed seed catalogues from their regular suppliers.

The path to market is also slightly complex, since imby.bio is planning to work with local, offline communities to begin with, and offer the app for free (initially, at least). There are other market segments that could present opportunities (such as education, botanical gardens and parks, gardening clubs, even gardening magazines and TV shows), although the synergies between them are not entirely obvious. Plus there may be an opportunity to sell or license data captured via the app, although this is not a priority. But I applaud the vision, and an app that can help us to plant the right flowers to support our bee populations has to be encouraged.

Eligent

This is a solution born out of the founder’s personal need and experience – a multi platform task management tool for virtual collaboration within creative, digital and advertising agencies. The solution is designed to streamline the production process at each stage of a project, help co-ordinate better communication between teams (especially those working remotely), and track costs.

Also using a freemium and tiered pricing model, this cloud-based application already claims to have 100 active users across 20 teams. And with strong industry experience, the founders are pretty confident of their solution design. (There was also mention of a re-seller programme, although no details were provided.)

However, it does seem a crowded space, with the range of collaboration and project management tools seemingly growing by the month. And while I’m sure there are some unique aspects as to how the creative industries work, are they so really different? I myself have seen at least two other similar tools pitched before – Coin-Craft (architects), and Studio Ninja (photographers) – and in each case, the founders were adamant that their fields had specific needs that justified dedicated platforms just for their professions.

Capium

Capium is a suite of cloud-based productivity, client management and practice management tools for the tax and accounting profession. As part of the UK’s digital tax regime, everyone will need to have their own Personal Tax Account, and annual tax returns will be increasingly submitted online. So, Capium’s mantra is “making tax digital”.

In their two years of trading, Capium has secured 380 paid-for accounts with professional firms, representing 38,000 businesses profiles, plus around 4,000 freemium accounts (SMEs) being serviced direct.

So, rather like the successful Xero business model, Capium is recruiting accounting firms as their re-sellers and advocates. The founders also recognise that there are a range of new and existing competitors (with high, mid and low-tier solutions), but Capium is showing some impressive growth rates.

I’m not so familiar with the UK tax and accounting market, but my significant other is an Australian CPA and BAS agent, so I know what she likes (and dislikes) about each of the accounting platforms she has to use – meaning that no system is perfect, and each has one or more feature or function that is better than their competitors! Finally, even leading platforms like Xero, Quickbooks and MYOB have to build and maintain different versions for each market they serve, which can be an expensive operating model.

Taste Of Kenya

There was no doubting the founder’s passion and personal investment in this business – a project connecting coffee growers direct to retailers. Designed to offer growers a better deal and ensure they are paid in a more timely fashion, Taste Of Kenya is attempting to disrupt the existing supply chain by buying direct from Kenyan growers, and removing 5 levels of intermediaries to supply coffee retailers in the UK. Taste of Kenya pays at source at the time of purchase, and manages the processing, shipping and logistics.

Because of the competition, and due to their current limited capacity, Taste of Kenya has decided to target coffee retailers who want to source more ethically and more directly from growers. From four container shipments in the first year, volumes are designed to grow to 15 containers (240,000 kg) in year 3.

With around 30 farmers on their shortlist, and a target market of 200+ coffee retailers in London, I suspect that this may never be a business that can scale. But that’s OK (after all, weren’t we once told that “small is beautiful”?) as the business model and the social objectives are clear. Maybe the real opportunity will be in showing others how they can do the same?

Clikd

Clikd is a dating app with a couple of key features – first, it is photo-based; second, it allows users to set their own questions for prospective dates if they don’t want to use the built-in content. The founders describe it as “photo-social”. The pitch included a working demonstration, and it certainly looks like a lot of fun to use.

I’m somewhat wary of dating apps. I’m not the target audience, I’ve never used one, and I know that some investors dislike the business model – there’s the reputation risk, plus if the app is really good at its job, customers won’t be subscribers for very long, so there is considerable churn.

But, maybe it appeals to the social media generation, who are more comfortable using these tools, or who have different social attitudes. Certainly for people who have just moved to a new city where they don’t know anyone, such an app could help them meet new friends.

User adoption is key to success, and the founders have scoped an in-depth marketing and launch campaign. They have also formed a significant partnership with an outdoor media brand.

Adalys

This MedTech business is enabling smart medical data through patients’ profiles and unpublished clinical trial data, by structuring, analyzing and aggregating the growing volumes of medical data and delivering it to doctors, clinicians, pharmacies, hospitals, Big Pharma and health care groups.

Part of the goal is to make clinical trials more effective (by providing structure to the data, and making greater use of data analytics), and by allowing new data to build on existing and real-time data more easily, it should help take some of the data costs of current practices. The business model is based on SaaS subscription revenues.

With a number of trials and installations at hospitals, plus 700 individual patients on the platform, Adalys is connecting “clinical trials with real world data”. E-health solutions for managing patient records, resource planning and tracking prescription drug costs are high on most governments’ public health agendas. However, issues of patient privacy, low take-up among GPs and a lack of “incentives” makes traction challenging.

Or Du Monde

This was probably a first for me – a jewellery startup. Not only that, Or Du Monde claims to be the leading green jewellery business in France, by only using ethically sourced diamonds, recycling gold, and as far as possible using local craftspeople, to support its sustainable goals. Gold mining generates huge amounts of ore waste, and most people will be aware of the issues associated with “blood diamonds”.

The gems used by Or Du Monde are sourced direct from mines that have established appropriate working conditions, also enabling country of origin certification.

With a strong family presence in the industry, the founders probably knew their business better than anyone else in the room. But one thing that wasn’t quite explained was the B2C click and mortar retail model. From my limited knowledge, the diamond market is closely controlled by just a handful of companies, so I’m not sure how direct sourcing works. Also, on the retail side, there are obviously high-end luxury brands, and mass-market high street chains.

I’m guessing that Or Du Monde aims to sit in between, as a niche or boutique brand, appealing to a certain customer profile. The pitch made reference to the “branded jewellery” sector (representing 20% of the market, and growing), but I assume this involves intensive brand marketing and strong distribution networks – again, not much explanation, although the business plans to have 9 stores around the world by 2020.

Finally, because much of the business is made-to-order, they company does not have to hold large inventories, and more than half of the revenues come from online sales.

Checkit-Out

Quoting some research that 90% of buyers use online customer reviews, Checkit-Out is aiming to update this now well-established model. In fact, the founders believe that there has been “no evolution in 15 years”, and there is some suggestion that customer reviews are now a less trusted source. (I suppose search result rankings and paid-for SEO have distorted the market?)

Incorporating gamification and aiming for an “influent” audience base, Checkit-Out allows users to upload 1 minute videos of their restaurant visits, from the restaurants themselves. (This is the first market segment the founders are targeting.)

I wasn’t sure what the revenue model was – restaurants pay a commission on bookings or referrals made via the app? – and it wasn’t clear how or how often the video content gets updated. I’m also sure that some restaurants may not be too happy about diners filming their experiences and posting them online, while they are still dining – managers and waiters probably have enough to do coping with diners taking photos of every dish for their social media pages….

Finally, as with most user-defined and user-contributed content platforms, we tend to gravitate to the reviewers whose views and tastes appear to align with our own – understanding how that model works would be incredibly valuable.

 

Note: I’m extremely grateful to Steven Hess, Program Leader, and the team at Re-Imagi for inviting me to participate in the dress rehearsals, and to attend the pitch night itself. It was a very interesting and worthwhile experience, and noticeable that the program fellows had taken on board much of the feedback that myself and other mentors had provided at the rehearsals.

Next week: Tribute

 

 

 

 

 

 

Personal data and digital identity – whose ID is it anyway?

In an earlier blog on privacy in the era of Big Data and Social Media, I explored how our “analog identities” are increasingly embedded in our digital profiles. In particular, the boundaries between personal/private information and public/open data are becoming so blurred that we risk losing sight of what individual, legal and commercial rights we have to protect or exploit our own identity. No wonder that there is so much interest in what blockchain solutions, cyber-security tools and distributed ledger technology can do to establish, manage and protect our digital ID – and to re-balance the near-Faustian pact that the illusion of “free” social media has created.

Exchanging Keys in “Ghostbusters” (“I am Vinz Clortho the Keymaster of Gozer”)

It’s over 20 years since “The Net” was released, and more than 30 since the original “Ghostbusters” film came out. Why do I mention these movies? First, they both pre-date the ubiquity of the internet, so it’s interesting to look back on earlier, pre-social media times. Second, they both reference a “Gatekeeper” – the former in relation to some cyber-security software being hijacked by the mysterious Praetorian organisation; the latter in relation to the “Keymaster”, the physical embodiment or host of the key to unleash the wrath of Gozer upon the Earth. Finally, they both provide a glimpse of what a totally connected world might look like – welcome to the Internet of Things!

Cultural references aside, the use of private and public keys, digital wallets and payment gateways to transact with digital currencies underpins the use of Bitcoin and other alt coins. In addition, blockchain solutions and cyber-security technologies are being deployed to streamline and to secure the transfer of data across both peer-to-peer/decentralised networks, and public/private, permissioned/permissionless blockchain and distributed ledger platforms. Sectors such as banking and finance, government services, the health industry, insurance and supply chain management are all developing proofs of concept to remove friction but increase security throughout their operations.

One of the (false) expectations that social media has created is that by giving away our own personal data and by sharing our own content, we will get something in return – namely, a “free” Facebook account or “free” access to Google’s search engine etc. What happens, of course, is that these tech companies sell advertising and other services by leveraging our use of and engagement with their platforms. As mere users we have few if any rights to decide how our data is being used, or what third-party content we will be subjected to. That might seem OK, in return for “free” social media, but none of the huge advertising revenues are directly shared with us as ordinary end consumers.

But just as Google and Facebook are facing demands to pay for news content, some tech companies are now trying to democratise our relationships with social media, mobile content and financial services, by giving end users financial and other benefits in return for sharing their data and/or being willing to give selected advertisers and content owners access to their personal screens.

Before looking at some interesting examples of these new businesses, here’s an anecdote based on my recent experience:

I had to contact Facebook to ask them to take down my late father’s account. Despite sending Facebook a scanned copy of the order of service from my father’s funeral, and references to two newspaper articles, Facebook insisted on seeing a copy of my father’s death certificate.

Facebook assumes that only close relatives or authorised representatives would have access to the certificate, but in theory anyone can order a copy of a death certificate from the UK’s General Register Office. Further, the copy of the certificate clearly states that “WARNING: A CERTIFICATE IS NOT EVIDENCE OF IDENTITY”. Yet, it appears that Facebook was asking to see the certificate as a way of establishing my own identity.

(Side note: A few years ago, I was doing some work for the publishers of Who’s Who Australia, which is a leading source of biographical data on people prominent in public life – politics, business, the arts, academia, etc. In talking to prospective clients, especially those who have to maintain their own directories of members and alumni, it was clear that “deceased persons” data can be very valuable to keep their records up to date. It can also be helpful in preventing fraud and other deception. Perhaps Facebook needs to think about its role as a “document of record”?)

So, what are some of the new tech businesses that are helping consumers to take control of their own personal data, and to derive some direct benefit from sharing their personal profile and/or their screen time:

  1. Unlockd: this Australian software company enables customers to earn rewards by allowing advertisers and content owners “access” to their mobile device (such as streaming videos from MTV).
  2. SPHRE: this international blockchain company is building digital platforms (such as Air) that will empower consumers to create and manage their own digital ID, then be rewarded for using this ID for online and mobile transactions.
  3. Secco: this UK-based challenger bank is part of a trend for reputation-based solutions (e.g., personal credit scores based on your social media standing), that uses Aura tokens as a form of peer-to-peer or barter currency, within a “social-economic community”.

Linked to these initiatives are increased concerns about identity theft, cyber-security and safety, online trust, digital certification and verification, and user confidence. Anything that places more power and control in the hands of end users as to how, when and by whom their personal data can be used has to be welcome.

Declaration of interest: through my work at Brave New Coin, a FinTech startup active in blockchain and digital assets, I am part of the team working with SPHRE and the Air project. However, all comments here are my own.

Next week: Investor pitch night at the London Startup Leadership Program