Can Spotify break out of its lane?

After years of relative stability, music consumption is shifting, with the DSP streaming model beginning to lose some ground as illustrated by the major labels growing streaming revenue by 33% in Q2 2021 while Spotify was up by just 23%. It is never wise to read long-term market trends into one quarter’s worth of results, but there was already enough preceding evidence to suggest we are entering a genuine market shift. The question is whether Spotify and the other Western DSPs are going to find themselves left behind by a fast-changing market, or can they innovate to keep up the pace?

Social music is streaming’s new growth driver, generating around $1.5 billion in 2020 and growing fast in 2021. It represents a natural evolution of social media rather than an evolution of streaming. Audio is just another tool for social expression, along with video, pictures and words. MIDiA has long argued that Western streaming focuses too heavily on monetizing consumption, at the expense of fandom. While social video does not fix the fandom problem, it does cater to some of the key elements of fandom: self-expression, identity and community. Which means that, in some respects, Spotify and the other DSPs only have themselves to blame for having kept fandom out of their propositions. In doing so, they created a vacuum that TikTok and Instagram eagerly filled.

The data in the above chart comes from MIDiA’s latest music consumer survey report which is available now to MIDiA clients and is also available for purchase here.

Rights holder licensing met market demand

Spotify and the other DSPs are the dominant, core component of recorded music and they will remain so for the foreseeable future. But whereas a couple of years ago it looked like they might be the entire story, now music consumption is moving beyond, well, consumption. Finally, we are seeing music becoming an enabler of other experiences. Historically this was restricted to non-scalable, ad hoc sync deals. Now rights holders have established licensing frameworks that are flexible, dynamic and scalable enough to enable a whole new generation of experiences with music either in a central or supporting role.

DSPs occupy one of streaming’s lanes

The implication of this is that Spotify and the other DSPs now risk looking like they are stuck in just one lane of the streaming market. What looked like a highway is now just a single lane – and Spotify, Apple and Amazon do not have the assets to build propositions that can get them out of it. Being part of this social music revolution requires both massively social communities and video. They could all build that, of course, but with little guarantee of success. YouTube is a different case, having launched Shorts in a belated bid to ward off TikTok’s audience theft – but at least it is now running that race, and Alphabet reported 15 billion daily global views for Q2.

An increasingly segmented market

Spotify and other DSPs now find themselves not being part of streaming’s new growth story and, YouTube excepted, with no clear path to becoming part of it. To be clear, Spotify will continue to be the world’s largest subscription revenue generator and the DSP subscription model will continue to be the biggest source of revenue, at least for the foreseeable future. But revenue growth will increasingly come from elsewhere. In many respects this simply reflects the maturation of the music streaming market. Consider video streaming. Netflix added just 1.5 million subscribers in Q2 2021 while YouTube grew by 84% and TikTok went from strength to strength. Netflix occupies just one lane in a multifaceted streaming market. The same is now becoming true of the DSPs.

Time to do a Facebook?

So, what can Spotify and the other DSPs do about it? If Spotify really wants to ‘own’ audio, then it will have to do what Facebook did to ‘own’ social: create a portfolio of standalone sister apps. Facebook would have become the Yahoo of social media if it hadn’t bought / launched Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. The signs are already there for Spotify. Even ignoring the slowdown in monthly active user (MAU) growth in Q2 2021, podcast users stopped meaningfully growing as a share of overall MAUs in Q4 2020. It turns out that trying to compete with yourself in your own app is hard to do. The time may have come for a standalone podcast / audiobook app (by the way, I’m just taking it as read that Spotify is going to take audiobooks a whole lot more seriously). If Spotify does launch a podcast app, then the case suddenly becomes a lot clearer for other audio-related apps, all of which could include subscription tiers, such as social short video, karaoke, and artist channels.

The more probable outlook however is for specialisation, with segments going deep and vertical rather than wide and horizontal. While Spotify, and other DSPs, might have success in one or more side bets, it will be the specialists who lead in streaming’s other lanes. Whatever the final market mix looks like as a result of this change, the streaming market is going to be more diverse and innovative for it.

Hi-Res audio: It’s all about a maturing market

Apple and Amazon made a splash this week by integrating Hi-Res Dolby Atmos audio into the basic tiers of their streaming services. The timing, i.e. just after Spotify started increasing prices, is – how shall we put it, interesting. It also struck a blow against the music industry’s long-held hope that Hi-Res was going to be the key to increasing subscriber ARPU. While that might be true, for now at least, the move is an inevitable consequence of two streaming market dynamics: commodification and saturation.

Music streaming contrasts sharply with video streaming. While the video marketplace is characterised by unique catalogues, a variety of pricing and diverse value propositions (including a host of niche services) music streaming services are all at their core fundamentally the same product. When the market was in its hyper-growth phase and there were enough new users to go around, it did not matter too much that the streaming services only had branding, curation and interface to differentiate themselves from each other. Now that we are approaching a slowdown in the high-revenue developed markets, more is needed. Which is where Hi-Res comes in.

Now that streaming is, as Will Page puts it, in the ‘fracking stage’ in developed markets, success becomes defined by how well you retain subscribers rather than how well you acquire them. As all the key DSPs operate on the same basic model, they need to innovate around the core proposition in order to improve stickiness and reduce churn. Spotify started the ball rolling with its podcasts pivot, but the fact that its podcasts can be consumed by free users means it is not (yet) a tool for reducing subscriber churn.

On top of this, when podcasts are mapped with other positioning pillars, Spotify’s competitive differentiation spread is relatively narrow. Because Apple and Amazon now both have Hi-Res as standard, they not only boost audio quality but value for money (VFM) as well. Bearing in mind, both companies already scored well on VFM because they have Prime Music and Apple One in their respective armouries. 

It is Amazon, though, that looks best positioned of the four leading Western streaming services. In addition to audio quality and VFM, it is building out its podcasts play (as compared to the Wondery acquisition) and it has the potential to bundle in the world’s leading audiobook company, Audible. Given that spoken-word audio consumption grew at nearly twice the rate music did during 2020, being able to play in all lanes of audio will be crucial to competing in what will become saturated streaming markets. 

Immersive audio storytelling 

Finally, Dolby Atmos is more than simply Hi-Res audio; it is an immersive format that enables the creation of spatial audio experiences. If we are truly on the verge of a spoken-word audio revolution, then immersive audio may have a central role to play. Surround sound has been a slow burner for home video, but that may be because the video experience itself has improved so much (bigger screens, HD, more shows than ever) that the audio component has been less important (though the growing soundbar market suggests that may be beginning to change). However, in audio formats there is only the audio to do the storytelling. This could mean that tools like immersive audio become central to audio storytelling, which means, you guessed it, Amazon and Apple would then have a competitive advantage in podcasts and audiobooks that Spotify would not.

HomePod Mini: Apple’s pandemic-era product

Apple’s Tuesday product announcement showcased its 5G iPhones, but also included the launch of the new $99 HomePod Mini. Though it might have looked like a supporting act for the launch, its strategic importance should not be underestimated – especially in the context of how Apple competes with Amazon, the company that is arguably becoming Apple’s most important competitor among the Western Tech Majors (Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook). Amazon is emerging as a global scale hardware competitor, focused on the home rather than on personal devices.

HomePod Mini is a product for the era of pandemic

The home is becoming the new battleground for the tech majors and Amazon has a comfortable lead with more than 50% of the installed base of smart speakers, significantly ahead of Google and far ahead of Apple which currently sits at less than 10% market share. HomePod Mini is an affordable device that gives Apple the opportunity to quickly expand its role across the homes of iPhone owners, a beachhead for future content and services. HomePod Mini is also very much a pandemic-era product move; with more of us spending more time working and studying from home, we are more inclined to use specialised home devices such as smart speakers, rather than the convenient but not specialised phone. As the HomePod was always a premium, Apple afficionado device, HomePod Mini gives Apple a tool with which it can extend its footprint in the average day of its increasingly home-bound iPhone owners.

An enabler for audio strategy

Though Apple has much bigger ambitions for the home than music alone, music is the use case that is spearheading the product strategy. Apple TV continues to grow in importance for Apple, but as a screen plug-in, it lacks the capabilities of a standalone smart speaker. As Amazon has shown, smart speakers can become the digital hub around which smart home strategies can be built. HomePod Mini may also be the tool for a bolder, joined-up audio strategy for Apple. Alongside Apple Music, Apple continues to back its radio bet Apple Music 1 (previously Beats 1) and of course it is one of the leading destinations for podcasts. Apple can pull these three disparate strands together by creating in-home use cases via HomePod Mini. In this respect, Apple will need to, once again, do all of that and more – as not only has Amazon recently added podcasts to Amazon Music, but it also the home of Audible, an asset both Apple and Spotify lack.

Finally, what Apple did not announce on Tuesday was content bundles for its hardware. An Apple One / iPhone device lifetime bundle feels like an obvious move – competition authorities permitting, perhaps sometime over the coming 12 months. A $3.99 Apple Music Home Pod tier would make sense also.

The device may be mini, but the strategy is anything but.

Quick Take: Apple One – Recession Buster

Apple officially announced its long anticipated all-in-one content bundle: Apple One. $9.99 gets you Apple Music, Arcade, Apple TV+ and 50GB of iCloud storage. A family plan retails at $14.99 and a premier plan includes 1TB storage, News and Apple’s new Fitness+ service. While the announcement was expected (and you may recall that MIDiA called this back in our December 2019 predictions report) it is important nonetheless. 

As we enter a global recession, the subscriptions market is going to be stressed far more than it was during lockdown. With job losses mounting, and many of those among Millennials – the beating heart of streaming subscriptions – increased subscriber churn is going to be a case of ‘how much’ not ‘if’. In MIDiA’s latest recession research report, we revealed that a quarter of music subscribers would cancel if they had to reduce entertainment spend and a quarter of video subscribers would cancel at least one video subscription.

A $15.99 bundle giving you video, music, games and storage will have strong appeal to cost conscious consumers who are loathe to drop their streaming entertainment but need to cut costs. As with Amazon’s Prime bundle, Apple One is well placed to weather the recession. They may not be recession proof – after all, entertainment is a nice-to-have, however good the deal – but they are certainly recession resilient.

Which may explain why music rights holders have been willing to license the bundle which almost certainly included a royalty haircut for them, to accommodate the other components of the bundle. While rights holders will not have been exactly enthusiastic about further royalty deflation (one for artists and songwriters to keep an eye out for when Apple One starts to gain share) they are also keenly aware of the need to ensure they keep as many music consumers on subscriptions as possible. 

One key learning of the impact of lockdown has been that new behaviours learned during a unique moment in time (eg not commuting to an office, doing more video calls) can result in long term behaviour shifts. Lower music rightsholder ARPU may be a price worth paying for shoring up the long term future of the music subscriber base.

Apple to launch subscription bundle – we called it!

In MIDiA’s 2020 Predictions report published in December 2019 we predicted that tech majors would start creating subscription bundles, with Apple leading the fray. Lo and behold, news has just come out that Apple is working on ‘Apple One’ – a multi-genre subscription bundle that will include Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade and Apple News+.

This is what we said back in December:

“Expect Apple to experiment with paid bundles. Adding TV+ to its student Apple Music package is another test case and may soon see Arcade folded in also. With a global recession looming, Apple and Amazon will be well placed to grow market share.

We called it!

So why is Apple doing this, and why now?

With smartphone sales slowing, Apple needs another growth driver to maintain revenue growth. It is making this move now because, one, it needs the transition to start soon, and two, it is looking to profit from the recession. Standalone digital subscriptions are contract-free and so are vulnerable to cancellation. Additionally, they skew towards Millennials – the segment most likely to be hit hardest by any workforce reductions. Consumers who find themselves having to tighten their belts will not want to simply ditch their digital entertainment, however – it has become too important to them. So, a multi-subscription, value-for-money bundle will become particularly appealing during a recession. Apple is thus hoping to pick up price-sensitive subscribers during the economic downturn.

Apple also has an ace up its sleeve: device bundles. As we wrote in December:

“Currently, Apple’s mix of premium, standalone subscriptions are educating its user base that they have a clear monetary value. Apple will start to bundle these together with devices in order to maintain revenue growth in its otherwise slowing device sales segments. The initial bundling of Apple TV+ for free for one year may help acquire market share but it also lays the ground for a more comprehensive and structured bundling strategy. By tying subscriptions into long-term, need-to-have relationships – i.e. phones and shipping – […] tech majors could gain at the expense of standalone subscriptions.

Bundling used to be the sole domain of Telco’s but the tech majors are looking to get in on the act. Apple can use Apple One to increase device prices, e.g. pay $200 more to get an iPhone with a lifetime of unlimited music, video, games and extra cloud storage. By doing so it both increases device revenue (and after all, Apple is still a device company and is measured that way by investors) and taps into an entirely different purchase decision cycle. Devices are need-to-have and if you are in the market for a high-end device, adding on 15% for unlimited content is a much easier sell than trying to sell the subscription standalone.

In doing all of this, Apple is of course taking a leaf out of Amazon’s book. Amazon has built the core of its streaming businesses around the Prime bundle. In doing so, it has the additional benefit of creating a recession-proof bundle (everyone still needs to buy stuff) – one which is proving its worth already, if it’s incredibly successful Q2 is anything to go by. As we enter the recession, standalone subscriptions like Spotify and Netflix are vulnerable to increased churn. Apple and Amazon will be waiting to pick up the pieces.