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

 

 

 

Has digital killed the music industry?

Or, more specifically, has disintermediation broken the business model?

Image

Ever since the invention of compact cassettes in the 1960s and the arrival of the Walkman in the 1970s, pundits have been predicting the end of the music business (remember those “Home Taping Is Killing Music” campaign logos of the 1980s?) – a theory that look set to come true in the 1990s with the launch of mp3 players and peer-to-peer file sharing. Yet, rather like Mark Twain, the death of the record industry appears to be greatly exaggerated.

Most debate about the demise of the music industry is predicated on the impact of technology that facilitates music piracy, whereas in reality the business model has been broken as a consequence of digital disintermediation.

For most of its history, the recording industry was a model of vertical integration. The major record labels owned the content, the means of production (recording and manufacture), the publishing and licensing activities, the distribution channels – and in some cases, they even manufactured the hardware, owned the retail stores and promoted live concerts.

The 1970s began a rapid process of horizontal integration, as the major record labels merged with one another at such a rate that by the late 1990s there were really only four global companiesSony, Warner, Universal and EMI. At various times, each of these companies has also been affiliated to substantial film, electronics and publishing interests – further proof of the vertical and horizontal integration.

The “Big Four” have now been reduced to just three with the sale of EMI to Universal. European Union Competition rules resulted in parts of the EMI group of labels being divested to Warner, and the music publishing division being sold to Sony/ATV Music Publishing.

EMI was probably the epitome of vertical integration – but over the years, it was forced to sell or close assets like its UK manufacturing plant and the HMV retail chain, and came close to selling off London’s Abbey Road Studios (a decision that was reversed following public outcry and reinforced by a heritage listing). Some observers blame poor business decisions and weak digital strategies for EMI’s demise, but I would argue that the highly integrated model has been found wanting, and EMI was a dinosaur that could no longer survive in its current form. For example, despite some errors of judgement (such as putting “Copy Control” software on their CD’s which affected their ability to play on personal computers), in many ways EMI was something of a pioneer in digital music – being one of the first major labels to remove DRM from its downloads, and licensing its content for streaming services.

Despite the rampant corporate contraction, the growth of digital download platforms and the expansion of music streaming services, it’s clear that record labels still have a role to play in developing and distributing new content. Independent labels, distributors and retailers continue to wax and wane according to the fortunes of the wider industry, and technology makes it even easier for artists to self-release their recordings direct to the customer – but record labels provide the financial and marketing support that are critical to commercial success, and other intermediaries (publishers, distributors, licensees, retailers, promoters, etc.) continue to add value to the supply chain.

In fact, just this week, Billboard has been running a poll on whether Universal and Sony should break away from their parent entertainment conglomerates – the theory being that the music labels represent greater value on their own, especially when unencumbered by ailing electronics and movie businesses. Results so far suggest that ownership does not matter so much as having the best strategies for, and access to, the means of content creation and distribution.

At the same time, the music industry is going through another round of vertical and horizontal integration and disintermediation, driven by new technology, new distribution platforms and new business models linked to the way we access and consume content. So, while Apple’s iTunes platform has been accused of anti-competitive practices in its dealings with content owners, it also faces competition from music streaming services like Spotify, Rdio and Pandora, and new content platforms like Twitter’s #music and Vine. And if sales of new CD’s (and even mp3 downloads) are reportedly declining, there is still healthy demand for live music events especially those linked to the marketing of established back catalogue titles, which is where record labels come into their own as curators of re-released and re-packaged content.

In conclusion, here are some random reasons why I think the music industry is actually in good health:

Whose content is it anyway?

Faust 2.0

Every social media and digital publishing platform is engaged in a continuous battle to acquire content, in order to attract audiences and bolster advertising revenues.

Content ownership is becoming increasingly contentious, and I wonder if we truly appreciate the near-Faustian pact we have entered into as we willingly contribute original material and our personal data in return for continued “free” access to Facebook, YouTube, Google, Flickr, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, MySpace, etc.

Even if we knowingly surrender legal rights over our own content because this is the acceptable price to pay for using social media, are we actually getting a fair deal in return? The fact is that more users and more content means more advertisers – but are we being adequately compensated for the privilege of posting our stuff on-line? Even if we are prepared to go along with the deal, are our rights being adequately protected and respected?

In late 2012, Instagram faced intense public backlash against suggestions it would embark upon the commercial exploitation of users’ photographs. While appearing to backtrack, and conceding that users retain copyright in their photographs, there is nothing to say that Instagram and others won’t seek to amend their end-user license agreements in future to claim certain rights over contributed content. For example, while users might retain copyright in their individual content, social media platforms may assert other intellectual property rights over derived content (e.g., compiling directories of aggregated data, licensing the metadata associated with user content, or controlling the embedded design features associated with the way content is rendered and arranged).

Even if a social media site is “free” to use (and as we all know, we “pay” for it by allowing ourselves to be used as advertising and marketing bait), I would still expect to retain full ownership, control and use of my own content – otherwise, in some ways it’s rather like a typesetter or printer trying to claim ownership of an author’s work….

The Instagram issue has resurfaced in recent months, with the UK’s Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act. The Act amends UK copyright law in a number of ways, most contentiously around the treatment of “orphan” works (i.e., copyright content – photos, recordings, text – where the original author or owner cannot be identified). The stated intent of the Act is to bring orphan works into a formal copyright administration system, and similar reforms are under consideration in Australia.

Under the new UK legislation, a licensing and collection regime will be established to enable the commercial exploitation of orphan works, provided that the publisher has made a “diligent” effort to locate the copyright holder, and agrees to pay an appropriate license fee once permission to publish has been granted by the scheme’s administrator.

Such has been the outcry (especially among photographers), that the legislation has been referred to as “the Instagram Act”, and the UK government’s own Intellectual Property Office was moved to issue a clarification factsheet to mollify public concerns. However, those concerns continue to surface: in particular, the definition of “diligent” in this context; and the practice of some social media platforms to remove metadata from photos, making it harder to identify the owner or the original source.

Meanwhile, the long-running Google book scanning copyright lawsuit has taken another unexpected twist in the US courts. From the outset, Google tried to suggest it was providing some sort of public service in making long-out-of-print books available in the digital age. Others claim that it was part of a strategy to challenge Amazon.

Despite an earlier unfavourable ruling, a recent appeal has helped Google’s case in two ways: first, the previous decision to establish a class action comprising disgruntled authors and publishers has been set aside (on what looks like a technicality); second, the courts must now consider whether Google can claim its scanning activities (involving an estimated 20 million titles) constitute “fair use”, one of the few defences to allegations of breach of copyright.

Personally, I don’t think the “fair use” provisions were designed to cater for mass commercialization on the scale of Google, despite the latter saying it will restrict the amount of free content from each book that will be displayed in search results – ultimately, Google wants to generate a new revenue stream from 3rd party content that it neither owns nor originated, so let’s call it for what it is and if authors and publishers wish to grant Google permission to digitize their content, let them negotiate equitable licensing terms and royalties.

Finally, the upcoming release of Apple’s iOS7 has created consternation of its own. Certain developers with access to the beta version are concerned that Apple will force mobile device users to install app upgrades automatically. If this is true, then basically Apple is telling its customers they now have even less control over the devices and content that they pay for.

Outside of a small circle of friends, there’s only connections…

"A Dance to the Music of Time" is an epic tale of friendships and relationships

How many true friends can a person really have? Friends you would go to the cinema with, and who would walk out with you if you didn’t like the film? Friends whom you would invite to stay at your home for the holidays? Friends who would tell you when you had made a fool of yourself, but not hold it against you? Friends from whom you would borrow money or to whom you would lend money?

Social networking makes it all too easy to connect with people we’ve barely or never met. Instead of investing our time and effort in cultivating meaningful and lasting friendships, social media encourages us to “collect” as many virtual friends as possible, and we spend increasing amounts of time in vicarious “sharing” – but how many of these “connections” can we actually count on as our friends?

The question occurred to me as I read the First Movement of Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”, a literary tour de force situated somewhere between Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu” and Evelyn Waugh’s sequence of novels from “Decline and Fall” to the “Sword of Honour” trilogy.

At the heart of Powell’s 12-novel saga is a group of four friends – Jenkins, the narrator, and his three contemporaries from school – Templer, Stringham and Widmerpool. As we follow their adventures over a 50-year period, we discover the interweaving relationships and often tangential connections that run through their lives. We also witness the subtle change in relationships between the main characters – especially the ebb and flow of their individual circumstances as they fall out of favour and lose contact with one another for years at a time. The reflective and considered format of the novel allows us to see that as in real life, there are periods when the friends positively dislike each other and are frequently disappointed by their personal shortcomings and irritated by their annoying habits.

Powell’s epic work of fiction reminds us that even among our strongest and most enduring friendships, there can be episodes of absolute dislike, as well as times of empathy, loyalty and support; and of course, being only human, our opinions and views of our friends can change over time. Powell’s perspective also confirms that most of the people we encounter in social and professional situations are mere acquaintances. We must surely recognize that our personal friendships are each valued on their own merits, and we enjoy different friendships for different reasons – we do not simply have a homogenous group of “connections” that are all exactly the same. There is nothing wrong with being part of well-connected and inter-related networks, but we must guard against reducing all these relationships to a single dimension.

Unfortunately, most social networking platforms operate on a binary structure where we are forced to make simplistic choices of either “friend” or “unfriend”, “like” or “unlike”, “follow” or “unfollow”. And there is something rather materialistic and incredibly narcissistic in the way that the number of “likes”, “follows” and “shares” we collect on-line is not only representative of our popularity, but it is somehow an indication of how fabulous a friend we really are.

Unlike the real world, these on-line platforms do not recognize the subtle dynamics of our true friendships, nor do they acknowledge that we value each of our friendships for the different experiences that we draw from them. We also have different friends with whom we enjoy doing different things, and we probably don’t introduce all our friends to one another (and certainly not at the same time).

Of course, younger generations who have grown up with social media may have no qualms about the reductionist nature of social networking, and the inherent opportunity it affords them to “connect” with as many different people as they can. But for someone like myself who is quite happy to count fewer than a score of people as my true friends, I relish the quality of my friendships, not the quantity.

Apologies to Phil Ochs for (mis-)appropriating his song title.