Snapchat buys Voisey to enter the music market

Snapchat parent company Snap Inc is reported to have acquired music collaboration tool Voisey. Voisey is a relatively new start-up, having raised its first major round mid-2019 and launching later the same year. Snap has acquired Voisey not for what it has achieved, but for what it can be. We are on the cusp of a revolution in music making, with a host of new tools and services set to create the fastest growth in music creativity ever seen. Snap wants to be a part of that.

There is more activity, inward investment and innovation in the music creator tools space than ever. Companies like Splice, LANDR, Output and BandLab are changing the face of music making, empowering creators to go from zero to one hundred faster than ever before. But in many respects, these companies are the second chapter in the original story. The first phase belongs to a growing body of apps that give consumers intuitive tools to be able to make high quality music via gamified experiences. It is all part of a broader trend of audiences being empowered with creative tools that let them achieve with one swipe what in the past would have taken years of experience and complex control panels to achieve. TikTok enables consumers to create high quality videos; Instagram, high quality photos. The new generation of creator tools are enabling consumers to make music quickly and easily. Snapchat sees itself being able to be at the centre of that.

Voisey joins a growing body of consumer-facing music creator tools, with Popgun’s Splash sound pack game in Roblox racking up 21 million players earlier this week. While the majority of these gamers will not go on to make music in a more structured way, many will who would not have otherwise done so. This is not actually the point, however. The point is that just like TikTok made amateur video making a mainstream consumer activity as Instagram did to photography, so this new generation of apps and games are aiming to do the same with music.

In the history of music, only a minority of people could ever actually express themselves through playing an instrument. That has now changed. These are truly exciting times for music, with the emergence of an industry that goes far beyond the confines of the way it is defined today, and the companies that function in it today. 

If Radiohead was releasing its debut album in 2020 perhaps it would have contained the single ‘Anyone can play gamified AI beats and sounds’.

MIDiA has been working on a major new report on the music creator tools space which we will be announcing next week. The report is already available to MIDiA clients. If you would like to find out more about MIDiA’s creator tools research email [email protected]

YouTube at two billion: Still much more music opportunity to be had

YouTube just announced its milestone of reaching two billion music users on the platform. YouTube has long been the largest music service on the planet, and it has just extended that lead. In 2019, its official total user number was two billion. Lockdown has proven to be a growth driver of epic proportions. 

Nicely timed to (accidentally!) coincide with YouTube’s announcement is third edition of MIDiA’s biannual ‘State of the YouTube Music Economy’ report. This report, which provides a detailed analysis of YouTube’s contribution to the music business, put YouTube’s music user number at 1.2 billion for the end of 2019. Of course, all this comes at a time when European legislators are discussing how Article 17 of the European Copyright Directive will be implemented and therefore impact YouTube’s business (potentially a very convenient time to release a stat of this magnitude?). 2020 has proven to be a big year for YouTube – but equally, make no mistake: YouTube and music rightsholders are still not on the same page. 

One of the biggest issues regarding the YouTube music economy is that music, while performing and growing strongly, still underperforms commercially compared to other content genres on the platform. This is because music videos are not as well suited to YouTube’s monetisation mechanics as genres such as games. For example, the videos are too short to have mid-roll video ads and most music channels (Asian and Latin American ones excepted) are artist-centric, so simply do not have enough content to drive channel engagement. While there are constraints on what can be done with a music video, there is nonetheless a lot of scope for innovation and increasing music’s share of YouTube revenue.

Google is now the second largest global payer of music royalties, with $5.2 billion across free and paid as well as masters and publishing. Spotify is comfortably ahead, but the scale of Google’s royalty contribution is pronounced.

In 2019, YouTube generated $15.2 billion in ad revenue with $4 billion of that music related (this figure includes income for labels, publishers and YouTube etc.). While that was an impressive increase of 18% on 2019 it was much slower than the 36% growth in overall ad revenue. Consequently, music’s share fell from 31% to 26%. Music rightsholders might point to this being evidence of YouTube not paying enough for music, but it pays pretty much the same revenue share to all of its creators. So, there is clearly more that music can be doing to ensure that it can grow at a rate closer to that of other content genres. 

Currently, YouTube is becoming more important to music than music is to YouTube. The one billion views club is becoming the de facto Platinum ‘sales’ award for the streaming era, and there are now 208 music videos that have reached the milestone with 74 videos reaching it in 2019/20 alone. YouTube continues to dominate the global music streaming market, with 47% music weekly active user penetration, ahead of Spotify in second place at 29%. Being the most widely used music streaming app across all ages, with weekly active usage highest among 16-19 year olds at 70% penetration, YouTube is simultaneously a key ad-supported, premium, marketing and discovery asset for artists and labels. Against this setting, the debate around rights holder royalty rates continues to rage. 

Are rights holders missing the point with Twitch?

Twitch has apologised to its users for the growing volume of rights holder takedown notices for music used in Twitch videos. Twitch is in an awkward transitionary phase with music rights holders, not dissimilar to where YouTube was when it was acquired by Google. 14 years on from that acquisition, YouTube’s relationship with rights holders is in a better place but short of where it should be. Article 17, weaving its way between the competing lobbying efforts of rights holders and tech platforms, is just the latest mile marker on a long and winding rocky road. Twitch, like YouTube, does not fit the licensing norms of most streaming services, resulting in repeated stand offs. But just like the music industry still hasn’t grasped the full potential of YouTube, it may be making a similar mistake with Twitch.

Firstly, for sake of clarity, MIDiA firmly believes that copyrighted work should be used correctly and remunerated. We are not, in any way, suggesting that a platform should be able to use music without permission. However, the current licensing structures are:

  1. Not flexible and agile enough to truly capitalise on user-generated content (UGC) music (a market which will be worth $4 billion by year end – download our major new FREE report on UGC music here)
  2. YouTube and Twitch represent an opportunity to create new growth drivers, especially for artists, that can help fix the ‘broken record’

A lack of sync in sync

Let’s address the first point, well, first. Platform-native creators on YouTube, Twitch and TikTok create content so frequently they make the music industry’s volume and velocity problem look like child’s play. Usually, creators who want music in their videos have a choice: 1) get sync licenses, 2) get library music, 3) use music without permission and get taken down or demonetised. 

The problem with option one is that sync clearance is a lengthy process that can take weeks and cost a lot. Not a great fit for creators who create and upload videos the same day. Companies like Lickd are trying to fix this with catalogues of pre-cleared music, but the industry as a whole is moving too slowly. For the record, MIDiA’s preferred solution is for platforms securing large ‘sandboxes’ of pre-cleared tracks for creators and developers to work with. An early example of this is the NFL making all of its soundtracks available for creators on a Synchtank powered site.Unless music rights holders want to cede the growth in the music UGC space (which will be worth $5.9 billion by end 2022) to library music companies, they need to put alternative approaches at the core of their licensing strategy, not simply pursue them as interesting ‘edge’ experiments.

Going beyond the stream

However, the biggest music industry opportunity is not licensing music. It is monetising fandom. The #brokenrecord debate has shone a light on how streaming’s scale benefits do not trickle down at a sufficient rate to creators. Artists compete for tiny bits of highly valuable ‘real estate’ – playlists, artist profiles etc – but most often do not get enough to earn a living. While efforts like user-centric licensing and better songwriter rates will help, they will not change the underlying fundamentals of streaming economics. The counter argument is that scale will change everything, but:

  • Average revenue per user (ARPU) is falling. Spotify’s premium ARPU fell 34% between Q1 2016 and Q3 2020, a 34% decline
  • Streaming growth is slowing in developed markets
  • Consumption is slowing – last quarter Spotify reported an increase in consumption hours to pre-COVID levels but as there were 49 million new monthly active users (MAUs) compared to pre-COVID this implies a reduction in hours per user
  • Emerging markets are growing but a) ARPU is lower and b) domestic repertoire will drive most of the long-term consumption – so this means only a small uplift for Western creators

Before live stopped, streaming existed in a mutually beneficial ecosystem, giving artists more fans for concerts and merch. Now that live is out of the equation, streaming isn’t enough. 

This is where platforms like YouTube and Twitch can come in. They enable creators to build loyal fanbases of which they can monetise the loyal core to build sustainable careers. The idea of ‘1,000 True Fans’ was first put forward years ago by Kevin Kelly but now the dynamics of social platforms have made this a realistic possibility for any creator. Nevertheless, music artists are still way off the pace. 

Micro-communities

Twitch and YouTube enable creators to build (often small) loyal fanbases that can generate them income that far exceeds what artists get from streaming. MIDiA terms this dynamic ‘micro-communities’ and we think it will be one of the trends that will shape the music business in 2021 and beyond. As part of our creator tools research we will be exploring how platforms like Splice and Landr will be able to build their own artist-fan communities that can be as valuable to artists as Bandcamp is to many already. 

Streaming created a superstar economy where even within the non-superstars, superstars exist. For example, Tunecore states it has ‘thousands’ of artists that make more than $100,000 a year. A simple bit of arithmetic shows that this means the remainder make less than $100.

Micro-communities represent an opportunity for artists to fill the income gap that streaming leaves without live in the mix. This probably does not reflect a direct revenue opportunity for rights holders – indeed, that would be missing the point. Instead, they can ensure those platforms are supported to empower artist monetisation without speed bumps. Why? Quite simply, rights holders have a model that works for them (streaming), so now they need to support a model that works for their creators so that they can in turn continue to support the streaming model that works for rights holders. 

If the industry does not support this new virtuous circle ecosystem, then it could bring the streaming model crashing down due to creator discontent. 

Discovery Mode: Understanding how Spotify thinks

Spotify’s Discovery Mode announcement looked at the very best a poorly timed announcement, coming at a time when artists and songwriters are more concerned about their income than at any other since the music business returned to growth more than half a decade ago. If the initial responses of the creator community are anything to go by, the announcement has had the effect of taking the broken record debate, breaking it some more, and turning it into the pulverised record debate. Yet, judging the impact of the announcement on the creator community alone misses the wider strategic worldview that Spotify operates within, and understanding why Spotify would make such a move now.

Spotify has three competing interest groups:

1 – Investors

2 – Audiences

3 – Rightsholders and creators (a group which it sometimes splits, for example with its temporarily aborted Direct Artists move)

It has to keep all three happy or it does not have a business. As it gets bigger and more established, however, it feels that it can afford to make moves that may antagonise rightsholders / creators and audiences but that will keep investors happy. The logic is that Spotify is getting so big that those two audiences cannot do without it (the ‘too big to fail’ stage) but that investors have many other places to put their money. So, investors are more ‘at risk’ than the others.

The new normal 

As we discussed last week, since going public Spotify has told investors to measure it on growth and market share rather than margin or average revenue per user (ARPU). This clearly serves the investor segment better than rightsholders and creators. Now, however, as it embarks on a long-term podcast strategy that will not see full return on investment for many years, Spotify needs to show investors that it is able to turn its core music business into a profitable one. Price increases, which it kicked off last week and Daniel Ek trumpeted in his investor note, are key to this. The strategy delivers benefits for both investors and rightsholders / creators, though goes against the interests of the audience, which will always prefer to pay less, not more.

Audiences are at the back of the queue 

Though they are very different propositions, Discovery Mode, along with Marquee, have the similar effect of improving profitability but have the consequence of reducing the net amount of income that goes back to rightsholders because they are spending more of their income on marketing. They shift the ‘balance of trade’ between Spotify and rightsholders  and creators. This will also mean more deductions for creators, which in turn means less streaming income. 

Thus, these tactics are primarily focused on appeasing the investor segment. Interestingly, both are actually negative for the audience, damaging the user experience by delivering music that has paid its way into a user’s listening rather than solely because it matches the user’s tastes. Spotify has long positioned itself as an alternative to radio but is becoming ever more like the very thing it is trying to replace. It is making the assumption that it is so entrenched with its users that it can afford to make such moves without risking losing audience. Apple, Amazon, Google and Deezer will be running their hands with glee.

The next Spotify chapter

We are entering the next chapter in Spotify’s story. Podcasts will take centre stage, while the core music business is treated as a mature subscription business rather than a growth category – at least in Western markets. The underlying tactics are aimed at improving investor sentiment but will deliver long sought benefits to rightsholders / creators, not least improved ARPU and per-stream rates. Interestingly, podcasts could improve per-stream rates too: if podcasts steal music time (which they will) but the royalty pot remains set at its current share, then there will be fewer streams to share the royalty pot between. Hence, higher rates.

Increased royalty income but a bumpy road

The net impact of this new strategic direction will be beneficial for investors first and rightsholders / creators second. On balance, the impact of increased prices, fewer promotions and increased lifetime value should offset the impact of efforts like Marquee and Discover Mode. Rightsholders and creators should see a steady increase in rates in Western markets. However, they should not expect to be happy with everything Spotify does, as this is first and foremost about pleasing investors. Do not expect Discover Mode to be an isolated event.