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?


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




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?



YouTube and guilty pleasures…

My local gym has recently installed new cardio equipment with touch screen monitors and internet access. So I find myself indulging in what some musicologists call “guilty pleasures” on YouTube – music that was so naff or cheesy when it first came out that no serious music lover would ever admit to liking it, but now it’s OK because retro is cool.*


However, when I stumbled upon a couple of unauthorised YouTube posts featuring my own band, it got me thinking about all the “unofficial” uploads, and the impact that digital technology and social media are having through the increasing disregard for copyright and the rapid erosion of traditional business models by which content creators commercialize their intellectual property.

As more companies use digital media to support sales and marketing, brand management, customer engagement and market analysis, it becomes a valuable product or asset in its own right.

Even if you don’t believe your business is concerned with either content creation or commercializing intangible assets, there are implications for how you protect your business against commoditization or disintermediation.

What are the implications of new delivery channels for contemporary content creators, and what lessons does this offer to other businesses? 

For example, how can artists earn adequate fees from music streaming services? What do broadcasters gain from personalised radio apps? Who is making sure authors and publishers get their fair share of royalties from “curated” and aggregated content services?

The truth is, I don’t think anyone really knows the answers to these questions.

Some musicians may feel they are not adequately compensated by commercial streaming services; others recognise that the game has changed, that releasing recorded music is no longer enough to provide them with a living. In the past, musicians toured to promote their latest albums; now they release music to promote their next concert tour. They also know they must take more direct control over their income sources and revenue streams from music sales, live performance, merchandising and publishing.

For broadcasters, traditional content syndication models may no longer work if content can be disaggregated and re-aggregated without them really knowing about it. Internet streaming and web broadcasting are wonderful things, but how will advertisers react when broadcasters have limited ways of measuring the audience, because nobody knows where they are, or who they are, or when they are listening/watching?

Even authors and publishers, with a long and established history of licensing systems such as public lending rights, are wary of schemes to digitize their back catalogues. They are in a bind, because they know some income from these programs is better than none, but does it justify losing a high degree of control over the commercialisation and distribution of their copyright material?

Which brings me back to YouTube, one of the “best” examples of commercialised copyright infringement that the internet and social media have created. Even if file sharing services such as Megaupload are no longer with us, or controversial music re-sellers like LegalSounds have shut down, with very little effort anyone can extract content posted to YouTube, despite the fact that the latter does not actually support a download function.

For my part, I’ll happily admit to accessing YouTube content which is subject to copyright infringement – so much material on YouTube appears to have been posted without the prior consent (or knowledge) of the copyright holder. I’m actually very pleased that someone has posted it because I enjoy watching long-forgotten documentaries and TV interviews, out-of-print live recordings and broadcasts, and stuff that is unavailable commercially. But my consumption of this content is largely predicated on unauthorised uploading.

Although much of this “re-cycled” content is tagged with a “Standard YouTube License” (which simply means the viewer cannot record, download, monetize or claim ownership over the content), many people posting and uploading 3rd party content don’t have permission to do so in the first place. (Even a broad interpretation of “fair use” exemptions would not justify the wholesale uploading of complete albums which are still commercially available.)

I acknowledge that YouTube provides a copyright infringement process, and a Content ID system designed to help content owners assert copyright over material that has been unlawfully uploaded. But personally, I can’t help feeling that this is a rather disingenuous arrangement. YouTube stresses it is not in a position to determine copyright status – but it is more than happy to create opportunities for generating advertising revenue as part of the dispute resolution process (revenue which it presumably shares with the aggrieved copyright holder?).

YouTube started out as a platform for user-defined and user-contributed content. It does not create its own content – although it invests in original content for its “channels”,  and supports curated and personalised content (“recommendations”). This means YouTube attracts everything from amateur cat videos to professionally produced music promos, as well as highly original, creative and informative content uploaded by the independent musicians, artists, designers, educators and film-makers who create it and who choose to upload it.

And yet I keep coming back to the fact that YouTube is also full of “shared” content – content which is not owned by or licensed to the people uploading it. This is where the real commercial value of YouTube was always going to be found: in 3rd party content, however dodgy the provenance, because this reveals what might be popular and therefore, what can be monetized.

As a result, it could be argued that YouTube has been a considerable beneficiary of  copyright abuse – by using its analytics and other data mining, it can identify potential revenue “hotspots”, even if the content has not been legitimately uploaded in the first place.

So, while YouTube is very useful as an archive resource, its future is written in the terms of its commercial alliance with Vevo. This deal is designed to promote popular artists through the distribution of their music and video content via highly controlled sales and marketing channels.

On one level, it’s merely the latest attempt by major record labels to reclaim their market dominance over a music industry that is increasingly subject to vertical re-integration. On another, it will inevitably lead to an uneven playing field: some (a very few?) content producers will generate huge revenues from mobile and on-line platforms through their share of the advertising (rather than from traditional airtime and mechanical royalties); others (the majority?) will neither be able to collect royalties (because the model is broken), nor attract advertising (because they don’t have the marketing budgets to spend on buying an audience big enough to be of interest to advertisers).

What is happening in the content and media industries today will likely happen to other industries tomorrow, especially in the services sector; but we can already see that the development of domestic 3-D printers creates the possibility of “open source” designs for producing our own consumer products – so what impact will this have on manufacturing, for example?

*Confession: Yes, I admit that Dollar’s “Hand Held in Black and White” is one of the “guilty pleasures” in my record collection. It’s big on cheese and none of my friends would ever admit to liking it, but it features some classic ’80s synth arpeggios and electronic drum programming, and was produced by Trevor Horn as he transitioned from the bubblegum synth pop of the Buggles to the splendour that was Art Of Noise….