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.

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.

The music industry’s centre of gravity is shifting

Regular readers will know that MIDiA has been analysing the creator tool space for some time now and building the case for why the changes that are taking place will be transformational not just for the creator tools space itself but for the music business as a whole. In fact, we believe that the coming creator tools revolution could be at least as impactful on the wider music business as streaming was. Firstly, it establishes a new top-of-funnel that sits above distribution companies, meaning that creator tools companies are now able to fish upstream of labels for the best new talent. Secondly, audio will become the next tool with which consumers identify themselves, following the lead of images (Instagram) and video (TikTok). But there is another factor too: the fast-growing volume of institutional investment is changing where the centrifugal forces of the music industry reside.

Outside of the currently crippled live business, the record labels used to be the undisputed central force of the music business. Then streaming services grew in scale and attracted the first wave of inward investment into the industry. Alongside labels, streaming services became the joint central force of the music business, around which all else orbited. Big investors started to make bets on either side of a binary equation: rights or distribution.

The publishing renaissance

Then music publishers and publishing catalogues started to attract investment. At the time, the only real place big institutional investors could place their bets on the rights side of the equation was Vivendi – and even then, it was an indirect bet as UMG was just one part of Vivendi. SME is just too small a part of Sony Corporation for the parent company to be a viable music industry bet. Since then, UMG divested 20% of its equity and is on path towards an IPOWMG went public and Believe is on track to an IPO also

When growth isn’t growth

Investors may be given pause for thought by the way in which leading music industry trade associations such as ARIA in Australia and Promusicae in Spain have restated their 2019 figures, having the effect of making what would otherwise be declines in 2020 instead look like growth. Take a look at Australia (2019 total revenues AUD 555 million here versus 2019 total revenues AUD 505 million here) and Spain (2019 subscriptions €159 million here versus 2019 subscriptions €138 million here).

Publishing catalogues by contrast look more predictable, with performance still largely shaped by non-recorded music market trends, including radio and public performance – though COVID-19 threw a lot of that stability down the toilet. Music publishers used the inward investment to diversify their businesses. Kobalt pushed into artist distribution (recently sold to Sony), neighbouring rights and a PRO; Downtown pushed hard into the independent creator sector (CD Baby, Songtrust); while Reservoir is going public with a Spac merger; and then of course there is Hipgnosis.

The creator tools gold rush

With music publishing catalogue valuations over-heating, big investors started looking for places where they could still play in the music market but get better value for money. Enter stage left creator tools. Key moves include Francisco Partners’ moves for Native Instruments and Izotope; Summit Partners’ investment in Output; and Goldman Sachs’ investment in Splice

What this means is that the music industry now has an additional gravitational force at its core. Just as music publishers and streaming services used their newfound investment to push into other parts of the music and audio businesses, expect creator tools companies to do the same. With hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into creator tools (and lots more set to follow), investors are making big bets on audio in a broader sense, with bold ambitions that will not be sated by staying in the creator tools lane as it is currently defined. Avid’s recent move into distribution follows on from LANDR’s similar move, and of course Bandlab has 30 million ‘users’. Adding label-like services (e.g. marketing, debt financing) and streaming functionality are logical next steps for creator tools companies.

Streaming may be the change agent that has enabled all of these shifts – but streaming is the start of the story, not the end point. The process of music business diversification is only just beginning and the next chapter may be the most exciting yet.

Native Instruments and iZotope: creator tools major in the making

At the start of the year private equity firm Francisco Partners acquired a majority stake in creator tools stalwart Native Instruments. It always looked like it was going to be the start of something big and today we saw the next step on Native’s new journey, with leading audio plugin company iZotope added to the Francisco roster. Although both companies will operate independently for now, this is the first step of a standard private equity strategy of creating a ‘roll up’ play, with Native the lead acquisition around which a portfolio of creator tools companies will be created. This is one of the first big moves of the new era of creator tools that MIDiA identified last year.

The cultural shift in music making

The music streaming market has enabled many things, not least the era of the artist. A new generation of empowered independent artists have an unprecedentedly rich (and fast growing) array of self-serve tools and services that enable them to replicate the traditional roles once performed only by record labels, marketing agencies and studios. This shift is underpinned by a seismic cultural trend: the act of musical creativity has been simultaneously simplified, amplified, and improved. Creators can go from one to 100 faster than ever before. Creativity has been accelerated and intensified. In doing so, the creator tools space has merely borrowed from wider consumer culture, where new tools enable the masses to make great content without having to put in the years of hard graft to learn the ropes. Just like Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for videos.

The new, predominately younger, generation of music consumers expect to be able to make great sounds at the swipe of a finger. New companies like Landr and Output have created tools that focus on great user experiences rather than overloading on features and complexity, the latter of which is the modus operandi of traditional creator tools companies.

Embracing the new

Native and iZotope both make great tools, but fall into the traditional category. If they are to represent the backbone of a future creator tools powerhouse, then Francisco Partners will also need to start integrating some next gen creator tools companies which can act as innovation catalysts for Native and iZotope. Key to this will be developing compelling subscription offerings. 

Thus far, most of the subscriptions from creator tools companies have been rudimentary, making the false assumption that subscriptions are a billing mechanism rather than a customer relationship. Output’s Arcade subscription (a sampler tool with daily content and a well-thought-out CRM strategy) is a better indication of where creator tools subscriptions need to go. It is this sort of thinking that is often embedded in new, young digital insurgents that needs baking into the DNA of traditional incumbents.

Going wide

The other move that Francisco Partners will be most likely considering, is how to construct a creator tools ecosystem that goes beyond music creation, and into all the other aspects of an artist’s needs. It is not a giant leap to think that rights management (e.g. Stem), distribution (e.g. Amuse), collaboration (e.g. Delic), sounds (e.g. tracklib) and marketing (e.g.  Linkfire) companies could be built into the portfolio. Perhaps even a certain DAW company might be in the sights.

The future of music companies

When Spotify was going big on independent artists the labels pushed back and it was forced to put its plans on ice, shifting focus to podcasts as its next growth driver. Meanwhile, it continued to leave its creator tools assets (Soundbetter, Soundtrap) to tick over, finally giving them some love in its recent Stream On event. As MIDiA has long argued, the labels may have stopped Spotify from competing with its business of today, but could do nothing to stop it building out what will likely become its business of tomorrow. 

Just as every label of size now has a distribution play to give it access to the ‘top of funnel’, sometime soon(ish) they will also need a creator tools play. Creator tools are simply becoming the future of what a music company is. Francisco Partners has an opportunity to not only build a future creator tools company, but the future of what a music company is. In fact, Francisco Partners might have the opportunity to create the first creator tools major. It is certainly showing more enthusiasm for it than Spotify is right now.

Creator tools: The music industry’s new top of funnel

For most of 2020, MIDiA has been working on a major piece of work around the fast-growing creator tools space. The themes we had already started working on became rocket propelled with the onset of the pandemic, with an unprecedented volume of artists starting to engage with music production tools, services and hardware. Even before COVID-19, the creator tools space was set to transform the entire music business; now that future has become the present. This landmark report ‘Creator Tools – The Music Industry’s New Top of Funnel’ is immediately available to MIDiA Research clients here (more details of the report can be found at the bottom of this post).

Music production used to be a siloed segment of the music industry that revolved around studios, hardware and packaged software – at best a cost centre for labels. Now that is all changing. A new wave of creator tools companies are meeting the needs of a new generation of artists with innovative and intuitive music production solutions. Adding to an already vibrant marketplace, this new breed of production tools and services, often subscription-based, are reinventing the creative process and will reshape the long-term view of what a music company is. 

This is set to be the most dramatic product strategy shift the music industry has experienced in decades catalysed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 68% of independent artists reported making more music and 36% doing more online collaborations during lockdowns.

There are 14.6 million digital music creators globally, of which 4.7 million are self-releasing ‘artists direct’, up 31% from 3.6 million in 2019.

The emergence of a subscription economy

In the same year, music software, sounds and services generated $884 million, with plugins and VSTs the largest single segment at 43%. Building on this ‘COVID bounce’ total revenues will reach $1.86 billion by 2027. Though music software is the most widely-adopted creator tools category among independent artists, sounds and services will be the two largest drivers of future growth. 

Subscriptions models will also be key, with new models, more self-sufficient tools and the rise of SAAS services making the market majority subscription by 2026, with subscription services reaching $870 million by 2027, up 477% from $151 million in 2019. The shift from software sales to SAAS models means these companies are collecting crucial creator data before they even get to the distribution or release stage, giving these companies the ability to identify the likely hits before they even get into streaming services. This is the music industry’s new top of funnel. Meanwhile at the other end of the funnel, Apple (Garage Band, Logic) and Spotify (SoundBetter, Soundtrap) are well placed to push up the funnel, with the foundations of what tomorrow’s record label will be. Sony Music’s move to invest in creation app Tully is the start of what will rapidly become a creator tools arms race. Expect Splice and LANDR to become sought after by both labels and streaming services. 

Creative feedback loops

The new breed of creator tools is also fostering creative feedback loops between other creators and in some cases with audiences—a dynamic MIDiA expects to become a mainstay of the future production landscape as digitally-native Gen Z and younger millennials mature in their production capabilities. The creator tools that build around such creative feedback loops will be those that resonate most with the young generation who will be the creators and fans of tomorrow’s music business. 

Snap’s acquisition of collaboration app Voisey illustrates how this is so much more than just a music tech play. We are on the cusp of a consumer revolution also. Just like TikTok made amateur video making a mainstream consumer activity as Instagram did photography, so this new generation of apps and games are aiming to do the same with music. Warner Music’s Tones and I making a soundpack available for fans to create music with inside Roblox’s Splash is an early indication of how music making is about to go mainstream.

Just as samplers and DAWs transformed music making, so this new approach to production will change the future of how music is made and in turn, how it sounds. Music production product strategy is at a pivot point, where a new breed of user experience-led propositions will rise to prominence. The smart services that have already empowered their users to go from zero to 100 more quickly than ever before, will grow their offerings in line with their user base’s growing capabilities. The business of music has always shaped the culture of music, but perhaps never more so than how the creator tools revolution will reshape the future of what it means to be a fan, an artist and a music company.

If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about how to get access to the ‘Creator Tools – The Music Industry’s New Top of Funnel’ then email [email protected]

Report details

Pages: 48

Figures: 15

Words: 7,500

Vendor profiles: 12

Products tracked: c.2,000

Excel includes:

Music Software, Sounds and Services Revenue

Creator Tools Value Chain

Software Tracker Summary

Software Tracker – Plugins

Software Tracker – VSTs

Software Tracker DAWs

Software Tracker – Rent-to-own

Software Tracker – Platforms

Software Tracker – DJ Tools

Creator Tools Company Directory

Methodology Statement