Will streaming kill the music industry?

The resurgence in vinyl sales is certainly not enough to save the music business. But will streaming finally cook the goose that once laid Gold Discs?

statistic_id273308_music-album-sales-in-the-us-2007-2014

US album sales (in all formats) are in decline. (Source:  Statista)

What can we learn from the music industry based on the apparent rebound of vinyl sales in recent years? Is streaming doing enough to halt the decline in total music revenue? Will CD’s soon disappear altogether? What future for LPs in a world of “Album Equivalent Sales”, “Track Equivalent Albums” and “Streaming Equivalent Albums”?

Are there parallels here with other content, publishing or entertainment sectors?

Back to Black

Last month the 8th annual Record Store Day was launched with a fanfare of upbeat data for vinyl sales. It was a good news story in an otherwise depressing saga of declining album sales, stagnating revenues, and mixed messages about the impact of digital downloads and streaming services on the music industry.

Coming off a very low base (like, near-extinction levels), the extraordinary sales growth of vinyl (especially in Australia) can be attributed to a combination of factors, although it is difficult to see how any single trend is responsible for this growth:

  • The growing popularity of Record Store Day itself (although it’s not without its problems – see below)
  • Baby boomers buying their record collections all over again
  • Hipster interest in analogue technology
  • Record labels mining their back catalogues
  • Niche market interest among audiophiles, collectors and the cool kids
  • New approaches to packaging vinyl with downloads and other bonus content
  • DJ culture
  • Secondary markets via E-bay and Discogs
  • Retailing switching from megastores to specialist shops

Infographic: Vinyl Comes Back From Near-Extinction (Source: Statista)

Where Is The Money Coming From?

Latest industry data suggests that digital sales (downloads and streaming) are now on a par with physical sales (CD, vinyl and the rest). Overall revenue has stabilised, having fallen from a peak in 1999. And streaming services are enjoying huge growth.

But the true picture is harder to establish:

First, while the IFPI provides global aggregated data, each local industry body (RIAA, BPI, ARIA etc.) likes to tell a different story from its national perspective. So it’s difficult to compare like with like. (For example, while Taylor Swift is supposed to be a worldwide phenomenon, she does not figure at all in the BPI data for 2014…..) One brave soul has tried to compile data for the past 20 years.

Second, because of the changes in distribution and consumption, music sales have to be counted in different ways:

  • Wholesale revenue vs retail sales
  • Physical sales vs digital sales
  • Per unit download sales vs streaming equivalents
  • Product revenues (e.g., album sales) vs licensing revenues (e.g., soundtracks)
  • Subscription fees (e.g., Spotify) vs per download revenue (e.g., iTunes)
  • Advertising income from video streaming vs royalties from broadcasting and soundtracks

Third, when more and more music is accessed via video platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, and Vevo, streaming platforms like Spotify, Pandora and Omny, or apps such as Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Mixcloud and Shazam, “sales” data starts to become less and less relevant. (And some people are still hanging on to the ailing MySpace platform….).

The bottom line is that despite the growth in streaming services, digital sales (in whatever format or media) are not yet enough to compensate for the continued decline in album sales in particular, and music overall:

The peak era of CD sales is over. (Source: Talking New Media)

Record Store Day Woes

The success of Record Store Day has divided opinion as to whether it is actually a “good thing” for the industry. It started as a campaign by independent record labels, distributors and retailers to revive the habit of buying records in-store. Labels produce limited edition and often highly collectible items for the occasion, and there are rules as to how, when and where these releases can be made available to the public.

At first, it really was driven by the independent labels, many of whom brought out interesting product that otherwise wasn’t available, such as label samplers, unreleased material and one-off artist collaborations.

Now, the major labels have jumped on board, meaning the market is flooded with unnecessary re-releases (do we really need Bruce Springsteen‘s ’70s and ’80s albums reissued on vinyl?) drawn from their extensive back catalogues (no need to pay for recording costs or new artwork!).

This means that smaller labels who release new vinyl records on a regular basis (not just once a year) get bumped from the production line, as the major labels exert their purchasing power over the pressing plants.

In addition, some Record Store Day releases are so badly distributed that stores are unlikely to take delivery of the items in time for the event. Or bad decisions lead to over-supply of certain items, which end up in the bargain bins (major labels again especially guilty of this offence).

Some store owners appear reluctant to participate because they feel embarrassed about the prices they may have to charge for many of the limited releases, which get bought by speculative customers, rather than collectors, fans and enthusiasts – a fact borne out by the immediate listings and inflated prices on E-Bay and Discogs….

As one store owner I talked to commented: “Every day should be record store day…”

What Else Does The Data Reveal?

For all the new young pop stars that the industry keeps churning out, there’s nothing like longevity and back catalogue to prop up the sales numbers. For example, Barbara Streisand was in the Top 10 for US album sales (and with new material!), and the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, Bob Marley and Oasis feature in the top-selling vinyl records. Will Record Store Day 2025 herald the vinyl release of Justin Bieber’s pre-pubescent “demos”?

The decline of album sales has been particularly steep in the genres of Hip-Hop and R&B, while rock and pop continue to dominate the market. Some industry commentators have suggested that music sales are merely “in transition” as consumers switch from buying CD’s and downloading music to subscribing to streaming services. Meanwhile, in the US, country music’s #4 position by overall consumption reflects substantial album sales, as streaming is still a small component for the genre.

And those vinyl sales numbers? They’re simply a blip on the chart and largely driven by avid fans willing to shell out for deluxe editions….

The future is streaming?

Apple and others certainly believe (or hope) that streaming will save the music industry. Having demolished the market for CDs, iTunes is in a battle for its own survival among competing streaming services, where Apple itself is about to lead the charge having acquired the Beats platform.

But others are not so sure, predicting that streaming is already in decline, along with download sales:

First, the streaming platforms are yet to make a profit. Part of this is due to the cost of content that has to be licensed from the record labels and artists. Part is also due to the cost of acquiring customers, even if this can be done via social media, because the decline in music buying has been so abrupt, so the industry may be permanently damaged that streaming cannot bring back paying customers.

Second, even though streaming may overtake downloads by next year, there’s still nothing certain that teen pop fans (the target audience) will pay $7.99 – $9.99 per month to listen to music via so-called “freemium” services. Evidence suggests that consumers are happy with the free services, even if they have to put up with ads.

Third, while I agree that the freemium model is a fixture in the digital economy, the problem with Spotify et al is that they are not growing the market for music, but simply cannibalising it by displacing existing platforms (commercial radio, digital downloads, physical sales), while being tied to third-party distribution channels (the internet) and devices (smart phones, tablets and computers).

Anyway, subscription-based music streaming is nothing new, and was first launched over 100 years ago (and thanks to Mark Brend’s “The Sound of Tomorrow”, I learned that Mark Twain was the first subscriber).

If the “old” record companies are charging streaming services too much to license their content, then the streaming services should just find other sources – there’s plenty out there – but then, just like the major record labels, they are not really interested in music, only in shifting product and promoting “artists” (even if they are still figuring out how to make digital pay). The record labels don’t help themselves with their reliance on back catalogue, and their archaic territorial licensing practices either – forcing customers to circumvent geo-blocking barriers (legally or otherwise…).

Unfortunately, file sharing, illegal downloads and “free” streaming have meant customers don’t feel compelled to pay for digital music content. Personally, I prefer to curate my own listening, and not let someone else dictate what I hear, even if the service “knows” my preferences…

And the moral of the story is…?

More distribution platforms, more formats and more content may not be enough to save ailing industries, whether it’s music or television, newspapers or movies. These businesses will have to learn to live with lower margins and/or smaller market shares. The quality of a home-made movie uploaded onto YouTube may not be anywhere near that of a Hollywood blockbuster, but if cat videos are what grab punters’ attention (and by default, pull in the advertisers), the studios may have to find alternative strategies. And if music fans prefer to use free streaming services, the industry has to do a better job of producing content that consumers may be willing to pay for.

Ironically, in publishing, one sector that has been written off ever since the arrival of CD-ROM’s and the internet, teen consumers are still happily buying and reading print editions, alongside e-books. More so than other content industries, publishing has rapidly adapted to the new user-defined model: aspiring authors find it easier to self-publish (e.g., via Tablo and dedicated crowdfunding platforms such as Pubslush and Unbound); they can easily connect with an audience (especially in the realm of fan fiction); and a platform like Wattpad allows writers to test material before they commit to formal publication, and lets readers vote for what they’d like to read more of.

Next week: Making connections between founders and investors

 

 

 

#SoundCloud app update fails Product Management 101

The Golden Rule of Product Management is ‘under-promise and over-deliver’ (otherwise known as ‘managing expectations’). If anyone needs a case study on how NOT to release a new app upgrade, SoundCloud is proving to be a rich source of material…..

Background image via SoundCloud - post-production editing by the author

Background image via SoundCloud – post-production editing by the author

Last week, SoundCloud broke the Golden Rule by releasing a new version of its iOS phone app before it was finished. It did so without telling its customers in advance – not even the paying subscribers. Only after a considerable backlash on Twitter and Facebook (and a growing number of 1-star ratings in the iTunes Store) did the company start addressing customer complaints, via a rather anodyne blog. Based upon user comments, this response has failed to placate subscribers. While SoundCloud admitted that the shiny new release was not the final product, it was unable to give any indication when the rollout will be completed.

For the uninitiated*, SoundCloud is to audio what YouTube is to video. It allows customers to upload audio files that can then be shared with and downloaded by the community of users. It is entirely powered by user defined content:

  • content created and uploaded by content creators, and
  • content curated by users (via re-posts, playlists and social media interaction).

Audio content takes the form of:

  • music, mixtapes, podcasts, radio programmes and spoken word contributions.

Social media content takes the form of:

  • likes, feedback comments, and data on the number of plays, likes, downloads, followers and re-posts.

Many content creators are Pro Users, who pay upwards of $70 a year for the privilege. In return, they get a platform for hosting and distributing their content, and access to a global community of listeners. However, unlike other music streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora, SoundCloud does not charge listeners (yet), nor does it carry 3rd party advertising or sponsored content (yet).

Although SoundCloud has been highly successful (thereby contributing to the decline of MySpace?), it faces a range of competitors – from Twitter Music and Bandcamp to Mixcloud and 8tracks (as well as the aforementioned subscription streaming services).

In recent months, there has been some industry speculation about SoundCloud’s next business move, mostly in relation to increased monetization. There has also been some commentary about copyright infringement, a new cookie policy, and access to SoundCloud’s back-end data by major record labels. Leaving aside the usual conspiracy theories (Big Brother is listening in on you), future commercial relationships with major labels could mean that record companies with more marketing budget than talent may be given preferred access to listeners’ accounts and activity, in order to promote the next generation of Lady Gaga wannabes. And this prospect has no doubt contributed to some concerns among the user community, especially content creators that fuel SoundCloud’s platform.

From the start, SoundCloud has done a couple of things really well (in addition to the widgets for embedding sound files in 3rd party websites, and a few other technical tools): first, it has made it easier to discover new music; and second, it has enabled thousands of independent and unknown musicians to get some public exposure. The mobile app has now seriously compromised both of these features, because a lot of the existing functionality has been removed or suppressed pending the ‘full’ release (admittedly, these functions are still supported on the desktop version).

In short, the new app release has created the impression that SoundCloud is focussing on listeners (rather than content creators) and plans to make it much easier for major labels to connect with consumers, thereby squeezing out the independent musicians, producers and labels who have helped to make SoundCloud successful in the first place.

*FOOTNOTE: Declaration of interest – I maintain a Pro User subscription to SoundCloud under my nom de musique.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: Credit is due to ‘Do Androids Dance?’ (itself a beneficiary of the SoundCloud user community) for continuing to cover this developing story

Pricing for the Digital Age – A Postscript

Last week I wrote about pricing for digital content. In the past, I’ve also written about geo-blocking.

So, I decided to conduct a (very) small experiment in price comparison by market territory.

I chose a specific book title, and compared prices of the digital and print editions, between several retail sites, in 3 markets (Australia, UK and USA).

Before I conducted the exercise, my expectation was that Australia would be the most expensive (based on current exchange rates*), and USA the cheapest, but not much cheaper than the UK. But I was surprised by the results….

First, digital version:

Apple’s iTunes store: Australia A$37.99; USA A$37.76; UK A$41.83

Amazon: Australia A$20.60; USA A$20.61; UK A$33.18

eBooks.com: Australia A$40.95; USA A$37.72; UK A$48.03

Booktopia: A$39.95

I was surprised that the iTunes price between Australia and the USA was so close – when it comes to music, iTunes Australia is usually far more expensive than either the USA or UK. Amazon appeared to have the title on sale, but I can’t work out why the UK prices are so much higher. Thanks to geo-blocking, of course, I cannot access the slightly cheaper price in the US store. But I was able to buy it from Amazon.com (and at the same, cheaper price as Amazon.com.au).

Second, print edition (based on shipping costs to/within Australia):

Amazon: Australia not available; USA A$40.89 (inc. P&P to Australia); UK A$50.37 (inc. P&P to Australia)

Book Depository: A$32.31 (inc. P&P from UK)

Angus & Robertson: A$39.99 (inc. P&P within Australia)

Readings: A$40.95 (inc. P&P within Australia)

Booktopia: A$48.45 (inc. P&P within Australia)

Clearly, Book Depository is the best option by far (and is frequently so) and seems willing to undercut its parent company, Amazon – or maybe there’s a deliberate strategy as Amazon.com.au does not yet sell physical products. However, the much higher price charged by Australia’s Booktopia might speak volumes about the state of local retail….

 

NOTE:

Prices were converted from the published local price on each website, then converted to A$ using xe.com

 

 

Pricing for the Digital Age

Understanding the 4 Ps of marketing (Product, Price, Place, Promotion) has traditionally been critical to commercial success.

Theory has it that if you produce the right product for your target market, at the right price, make it available in the right place, and give it the right promotion, the market will buy it.

The model has worked well for both goods and services. But how is the model holding up in the digital arena?

In the Digital Age, a combination of technology, different transaction models and new marketing tools means that the Product (content), Place (internet) and Promotion (social media) not only co-exist, they are so inter-twined that in some cases they are almost one and the same thing: for example, a Justin Bieber video clip on Vevo, an in-app purchase for Angry Birds, BBC news headlines on Twitter. The boundaries are blurred between the content, the means of production, and the point of distribution and promotion.

So, how do content providers approach Pricing? If that’s the main point of differentiation, how do they compete on price (even though we sort of know that competing on price alone is often a race to the bottom, where nobody wins)?

In fact, even though the price of digital content sold via services like iTunes and Google Play is set by the content owner, they generally have to price according to set price bands and at specific price points determined by the retail platform – and often for particular territories (thanks to the practice of geo-blocking). The alternatives are to sell direct (which means creating a separate sales and distribution infrastructure) or via 3rd party platforms (which may not have the market presence of iTunes or Google Play).

With so much content available for “free” (as long as customers are willing to submit certain personal information, or are prepared to tolerate advertising) the current wisdom suggests that you have to give (some) content away in order to attract customers who might be willing to pay for it (over time). But is that a long-term strategy for success?

In my experience, pricing in the Digital Age is all about the 4 As:

  • Actual Costs – what are the costs of design, development, production and distribution (plus overheads)?
  • Acquisition Costs – what does it take to get new customers (and not just “followers” and “likes”)?
  • Adhesion Costs – what makes content “sticky” (and what will it take to keep your customers once they start paying)? Is it frequent new content? Is it service quality? Is it establishing brand loyalty?
  • Alternative Costs – what choices do your customers have (both traditional and non-traditional competition)? What are the switching costs?

Finally, when competing on price, especially if it’s not a like-for-like comparison, where are the acceptable customer trade-offs between your product and a competing service (e.g., do you know the customer drivers and the purchase decision processes)? What do your customers think they are paying for? Just because you place a high degree of value on some aspect of your content (e.g., exclusivity) does the customer value it the same way?