Adele’s success will be measured in cultural impact – not sales

Adele is something of an anomaly in the modern music business, a throwback to how things used to be. These days even the biggest artists struggle to get mainstream attention for their new releases in a flooded market that is defined by more releases than ever before, and the ‘always on’ artist who is continually releasing new music and talking to their audience. Adele, though, follows the old model of landmark releases every half a decade and, up to now, she has managed to make it work by creating a cultural zeitgeist that the world opts into at scale. But the world has moved on a lot since her 2015 release, 25, and the nagging question is whether she can do it again with 30 in the much-changed music world.

Adele’s album releases act as chapter markers for the evolution of the recorded music market. Back in 2008, when 19 was released, it was still a sales (physical and downloads) and album dominated world. 90% of global revenues were from sales, while streaming was just 2%. With each half-decade release, the music world had moved on. Indeed, it could be argued that the biggest risk was with 25 in 2015, when streaming was already more than a fifth of revenues, and physical sales had fallen by 44% from 2008. Yet the album still managed to rack up 22 million sales and, in turn, became one of the biggest selling albums of the millennium. Adele bucked the prevailing industry trends.

Streaming does not favour albums

Fast forward to 2021 and the world has shifted even further, with 65% of revenues coming from streaming, and sales accounting for just a quarter. This is a dramatically different music world from the one in which 25 was released. Streaming will be the main way in which success is measured. Yet, just 15% of people listen to full albums on streaming services, so either Adele pulls an Ed Sheeran and has her entire album dominate the most streamed song charts (a possibility, but not a probability), or she has a few really big songs that rack up big streaming numbers. And to do that, she has to perform like a streaming-era artist.

Competing with streaming-era artists

Right now, Adele has two songs on Spotify with a billion streams. Compare this with Travis Scott who has three songs, two of which are more than 1.5 billion. Or Ed Sheeran, who has five songs, one of which is about to hit three billion (Shape of You). Heck, even Marshmello has three one billion stream tracks, of which one has 1.5 billion. No offence to Marshmello, but Adele will be expecting to have bigger cultural impact than him. It should be achievable (assuming that the music is strong enough), if for no other reason than the fact that there are three quarters of a billion more people streaming than in 2015.

Cultural impact will be the truest measure of success

But even if she does catch up on streaming figures, that probably is not how we should measure Adele’s success. In today’s world of fragmented fandom, fandom is defined by cultural movements rather than cultural moments. This is a dynamic that is intensified by the fact that media is also far more fragmented. Audiences are spread more thinly across a much wider range of platforms, shows and apps. It is simply much harder to create cultural moments. But that is exactly what Adele’s team will be planning to do. And given the current media buzz, she looks on track to do so once again, supported, as ever, by a simple but clever marketing campaign.

Recently, Adele has become much more visible, using Instagram and Facebook Live, pushing herself back into the public consciousness and even playing into meme culture. Beyond the music itself, it will be the continued use of social media, coupled with meeting the eager demand of traditional media that will determine whether 30 can become the sort of cultural phenomenon that 21 and 25 were. The fact that she still sings from the heart and is so relatable gives her an authenticity that is so often thin on the ground with today’s pop stars.

Creating a cultural moment

So, the success of 30 will probably be best measured in terms of whether there is a genuine cultural moment. In short, how long will Adele’s music and her team be able to maintain global interest and relevance? Success may be more about whether, two months down the line, we still have memes flooding TikTok and James Corden doing skits. This will say as much about how the world is responding to her music than how many streams she clocks up. And, of course, I have not even mentioned sales – not by accident. These metrics are just not going to be the way to gauge her success anymore (even considering the industry’s obsession with artificially boosted ‘sales’ figures with ‘sales equivalent streams’).

Adele has always been something of an anomaly, finding success through the power of her music rather than by playing whatever the latest marketing game is. Of course, expect every contemporary marketing card to be played (especially TikTok). But it will be through cultural impact, not streams, that we will truly understand how loudly her music still speaks.

Did July 1st 2019 mark the end of Spotify’s music creator dream?

On July 1st 2019, Spotify announced that it was closing its system that allowed artists to upload their music directly to Spotify. The move came in the wake of fierce opposition from record labels who had let Spotify know, in no uncertain terms, that they were not going to let it compete directly against them. They were not about to let their partner disintermediate them. When Spotify launched its artists direct tool, moves had been made on the heels of its 2017 Cloud DAW and collaboration tool, Soundtrap, and formed part of a clear strategy of becoming a music creator powerhouse. Even after the label enforced volte-face, Spotify additionally acquired music skills marketplace, SoundBetter, in September 2019. But now, with news emerging that Spotify has just sold SoundBetter back to its founders, it is beginning to look like the strategy was already dead in the water before the original deal.

The future of what music companies will be

Spotify’s music creator strategy was both bold and sound. It was making a bet that the music companies of the future would not simply be on the business of recording and releasing signed artists, but would instead participate in the creation of music further up the chain – just like they currently participate in distribution further up the chain. The assumption remains valid and, indeed, there is much to see in the market today to point to a future where the distinctions are blurring between what is a label, distribution platform, creator tool or streaming service. BandLab is most of those things (with 30 million people signed up to its platform), while AVID (maker of ProTools) launched distribution last year, as did Canadian creator tools company LANDR. The value chain shifts are happening. But not only that, 2020 started the unprecedented process of large institutional investment into creator tools companies, such as Native Instruments, Splice, Output and iZoptope. The creator tools space is white hot. So why is Spotify backing away?

Podcasts get the attention

The answer probably lies in focus. When the labels pushed back against Spotify’s artist ambitions, Spotify had to find a new big bet, which was – of course – podcasts. Since that point, Spotify has focused its investments, with a raft of acquisitions of both companies and talent. It even rebranded its creator strategy to encompass podcasters. The sale of SoundBetter is a clear implication that podcasters are now the centre piece of Spotify’s creator strategy.

A return could still be on the cards

Spotify can still be, and may yet be, a powerhouse for music creators. But, for now, podcasts are where the energies are focused. Besides, the sheer volume of creator tools M+A activity is such that Spotify may well feel that it would not be able to get good value for money if it was to go on an acquisition spree. Perhaps Spotify will return to the space 3-7 years from now. That will be when the current private equity owners have finished building up their acquisitions and start looking to sell them, enhanced and transformed for the new market dynamics. It will also be when Spotify may feel powerful enough to take on the labels again.

Whatever the longer-term future may hold, right now SoundBetter returns to the market as the sort of tool that encapsulates what the next wave of creation is all about, and it may feel that it can now finally deliver on its initial promise.

Live streaming’s second growth phase

Live streaming erupted in 2020 in the wake of the pandemic. As the year progressed, the market transformed rapidly from a bunch of bands playing guitar in their bedrooms to highly produced, ticketed shows with tens of thousands of viewers. New companies flashed into existence while older ones dusted of their websites and rode the new wave of demand and enthusiasm. Everything was going great – and then along came real life. COVID restrictions began to ease, vaccination rates rose and real life concerts were back. It almost did not matter that they were not yet back in full effect, because even a gradual return had caught the imagination of artists and their managers. Suddenly, the prospect of looking their fans in the eyes made sulking in front of a camera in an empty venue seem a whole lot less appealing. With the sting taken out if its tail, it would be easy to imagine the live stream sector going back into its pre-COVID shell. But it has not. Instead, the sector is laying foundations for longer term growth, as shown this week by Deezer’s investment in Driift, and Dice’s acquisition of Boiler Room.

Competition from IRL

Revenue from ticketed live stream concerts surpassed $600 million in 2020, and the market trajectory in Q4 20, combined with the pandemic outlook, suggested that the market was going to push on past $2 billion in 2021. But with IRL concerts and festivals making their comeback, the number of ticketed live stream concerts slowed in Q1 21 and only started meaningfully picking up again mid-way through Q2 21. Also, average ticket prices started to come down, likely in response to softening demand among audiences who were eagerly anticipating real concerts once more. Live streamed concert audience penetration stopped growing in Q2 21, but retains a solid base (as the data in a forthcoming MIDiA report shows). But IRL was always more likely rather than less likely to come back, so live streamed concerts were always going to have to plan for a hybrid future (by which I mean both hybrid concerts and co-existing alongside IRL concerts). If there was a surprise, it was just how quickly artists were willing to jump the live stream ship. 

The hype cycle

If 2020 was the Peak of Inflated Expectations in the hype cycle and the start of 2021 was the Trough of Disillusionment, then we are now in the period of slow, steady consolidation, where the real market is built out of the rubble of over-zealous hype. With so many investments made in 2020, there was always going to be a consolidation opportunity for those players with a sound, longer-term view. Mandolin, widely acclaimed during 2020, recently acquired indie focused platform NoonChorus. Then, this week, the next-gen ticketing platform, Dice, acquired long running dance music live platform Boiler Room.

Consolidation

While Mandolin’s move was straightforward consolidation, Dice’s is more disruptive. 2020 catalysed growth for Dice, with a neat positioning as an alternative to the big traditional ticketing companies that empowers venues with more control, as well as being the ticketing company of choice for many live stream concert providers. But with the acquisition of Boiler Room, Dice has just taken a leaf out of the playbook of the big, traditional ticketing companies – expanding across the value chain. However, as much as Dice will try to position the move as otherwise, it is now competing directly with many of its clients. Other next-gen ticketing companies focused on live streaming could be forgiven for seeing this as a great opportunity to differentiate and compete.

Investment

‘Value chain creep’ was already a defining feature of the live streaming vendor space in 2020, with many companies attempting to do multiple parts of the process rather than specialising. This looks great in investor presentation, but for artists and managers, it simply replaces the old boss with a new boss who looks just like the old boss. A number of companies forged a different path, focusing instead on producing high quality shows for artists. One such company was Driift, which this week received a strategic investment from Deezer, that had already previously invested in DREAMSTAGE. Deezer’s moves reflect an understanding that audio streaming and live streaming represent a strong overlap opportunity. Indeed, Deezer WAUs are more likely to watch live streamed concerts than other music service WAUs.

Long term, steady growth

2021 will go down as the year of adjustment for live streaming, following a year of exceptional circumstances in 2020. COVID catalysed secular growth but boosted figures higher than the natural level of the market at this early stage. The coming years will be characterised by steady continued growth, with hybrid and ‘pandemic proof’ solutions for venues, such as Live Nation fitting 60+ venues with Veeps capabilities. The live music sector did not experience the dramatic transformation wrought by streaming. Instead, the sector had to wait for the pandemic’s impact and the resultant COVID bounce for live streaming. Expect more investments and more consolidation as this market begins to set itself up for long-term, organic growth. 

Kanye just obliterated the creative full stop

Kanye just obliterated the creative full stop 

Kanye West knows how to stir things up, not least in making us rethink what music is and nudging us away from considering it as linear and static. First there was his announcement that Life of Pablo was a “living, breathing, changing creative expression”, and now there is his Donda Stem Player – which we wrote about here last week. Transformational change does not normally happen in one big wave, but instead is triggered by disruptive outliers, things that, at the time, might look like inconsequential edge cases, but act as the ice breakers for the paradigm shift that follows. Digital entertainment in its wider sense is entering its lean inphase, where audiences participate with content, whether that be simply commenting on a YouTube video or creating your own TikTok video. Given simple but powerful tools, it turns out that the consumers like to be creators too. First it was pictures and video, but now it is audio’s turn, and Kanye’s Donda Stem Player could prove to be a pivotal step in that journey.

Formats do not need to be how they have always been

The future always looks much more like the past. The Model T Ford looked more like a horseless cart than it did a 1950’s car. Change takes time. Digital entertainment business models have undergone dramatic change, but the content itself much less so. We think of TV shows, movies and music as being clearly defined things that have always been thus, but, in truth, they were defined by analogue technology in the 19th century. Now that linear TV schedules, radio and CD players are entering their final phases, there is no need for the traditional formats to continue to dominate. Creatives who argue that a 45-minute drama and 3.5-minute song are simply the best formats, do so because that is all that they have ever known. Yes, they work, but that does not mean that other formats cannot also work. Just look at the album. Many artists still like the creative construct, but just 21% of music streamers regularly listen to albums on streaming services. Music fans have already decided that this format is not part of their future.

Fluid audio erases the creative full stop

The Donda Stem Player, made for Kanye by Kano, takes this concept and runs with it. This, as my colleague, Kriss Thakrar, identifies, is fluid audio, and it fits into the Agile Music that we first identified back in 2011. Analog entertainment formats were inherently creative full stops. When an album was recorded, it was done – final. It did not matter if the artist’s creative vision had moved on, as the songs remained the same. This seems entirely natural, but until the recording era, this would have appeared as a creative anathema in popular music. Before recordings, a song was never the same twice. It only existed as a live performance that was played in the moment and survived in the listener’s memory. Songs evolved and changed. Whether that be centuries of evolution in European folk music or decades in American blues and jazz. Then recording came along and songs became petrified – the stuffed animals of creativity. 

Kanye took his first swipe at the creative full stop with his continual updates of Life of Pablo. Not everyone got it. Many fans simply wanted it to sound the way it did when they first heard it. It takes time for people to get their heads around change – quite literal change in the case of Life of Pablo. Now, with the Donda Stem Player, Kanye has obliterated the creative full stop. Donda will never sound the same twice, and that is now literally in the hands of his fans.

In some respects, making a piece of physical kit looks to be quite a retro move in this digital era, but the subtle, yet crucial idea here is to make the Donda Stem Player an actual instrument. It is the ultimate form of creator culture, by turning songs made with instruments into an instrument itself. How very meta!

Back in 2015, I published my book ‘Awakening’, which was part history of the digital music business and part vision for the future. Some of my predictions did not age as well as I would have liked, but some of them are still looking good. One of them was the DISC concept. I proposed that future music formats needed to be:

Dynamic

Interactive

Social

Creative

I mainly aimed this at the digital realm, and we are already seeing it happen, whether that be TikTok lip sync videos, Facebook Audio Studio, Clean Bandit’s Splice sounds pack, or apps like Voisey and Trackd. But I also suggested that it could apply to physical formats in order to free music of its smartphone chains. One theoretical proposal was for pieces of art that would enable to the user to change the songs by walking between them, triggering a vocal part here, a drum beat there, etc. It is not a million miles away from the Donda Stem Player.

A lean in future

The entire music world is not suddenly going to go from static streams to interactive widgets, but change is a coming. In a year from now, we may look back on the Donda Stem Player as being a fun gimmick, but if we do, it will be because we have not yet found the Model T Ford, rather than the underlying principles being wrong. Of course, the majority of music listening will most likely remain lean back and static, but not all of it will. As audiences lean in ever further, more of them will want to create as much as they consume, just like they do with social video today. There is one thing we can be certain of – the future of music creativity and consumption is changing, and Kanye just played his part, again.

Labels are going to become more like VCs than they probably want to be

When you are in the midst of change it can be hard to actually see it. Right now, the music business is undergoing a consumption paradigm shift that is changing the culture and business of music. Streaming may be well established and maturing in many markets but the market impact will continue to accelerate as behaviours continue to evolve and bed in. Whether it is the rise of catalogue or the decline of megahits, everywhere you look, the music landscape is changing. So it is only natural that the role of record labels is going to change too. They have already of course, but shifts like label services deals and JVs are not the destination, instead they are preliminary steps on what is going to be a truly transformational journey for labels. 

Record labels often like to compare themselves to venture capital (VC), taking risks, investing in talent and sharing in the upside of success. While that comparison is flawed, its relevance is going to increase, but not in the way many labels will like. 

Firstly, where the comparison breaks down: VCs invest money early in a company’s life and then earn back if / when a company has a liquidity event (e.g., it sells, it IPOs, a new investor buys out earlier investors). But record labels invest and then take money immediately. As soon as the artist is generating royalties, the label is earning a return, it does not have to wait until some distant time in the future. What is more, even after the label no longer has an active relationship with the artist, it continues to earn. So a record label basically has a perpetual liquidity event. Which means its risk exposure is lower than a VC. Even if the artist flops, it will have recouped at least some of its outlay. VCs can be left with nothing if a start- up fails.

But where the label / VC analogy works best, is when looking at how the role of labels will evolve. VCs are typically earlier-stage investments so start-ups use VCs as launchpads for future success, a means to an end. Labels will likely have to start getting used to the same dynamic. Ever more artists are going their own way, launching their own apps, labels, using D2C sites. But the reason why record labels are around (despite artists being able to create their own virtual label from a vast choice of services – see chart) is that artists still need someone to build their audience (at least in most instances). The investment and A&R support help too, though those services can also be tapped into ad hoc from standalone companies.

This value chain dependency is what has helped labels to stay relevant despite dramatic industry shifts. But the next stage of this evolution will see a cohort of artists viewing labels as accelerators rather than long-term partners. They will use labels to establish their fan bases and then engage with them on their own terms, sometimes with labels, sometimes not. This is of course already beginning to happen, but it will become an established and increasingly standard career path.

Major labels like to think of themselves in the business of creating superstars. But as the very nature of what a superstar is dilutes, more artists will simply see labels as a launch pad. Start-up Platoon positioned itself as an artist accelerator and was bought by Apple. In many respects it was ahead of its time, pioneering a model that labels will increasingly find themselves filling, even if it is not their preferred role. 

Labels as artist accelerators

The repercussions will be massive. Labels, especially majors, will often over invest early to establish an artist. The business model depends on recouping the investment on future earnings. But with ever more artists looking to retain their rights, the labels only have a finite window in which they can monetise those rights, unless they negotiate term extensions. What this means is that labels are becoming a utility for many artists, a stepping stone while their brands are built for them. Like it or loathe it, savvy, empowered artists will increasingly see labels as the launchpad for future independence, and in this respect, labels are becoming more like VCs than ever.

As disruptive as this paradigm shift will be, record labels will find a way to adapt, just as they have to streaming, TikTok, label services, distribution etc. The difference here though is that this may represent a complete recalibration of the role that record labels play in the music industry value chain. This will mean a riskier, more limited role for labels, which in turn will make them more like VCs than they may be comfortable with. Turns out that modelling yourself on VCs can be a risky business in itself.