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.

The record labels are weaning themselves off their Spotify dependency

The major labels had a spectacular streaming quarter, registering 33% growth on Q2 2020 to reach $3.1 billion. Spotify had a less impressive quarter, growing revenues by just 23%. After being the industry’s byword for streaming for so long, Spotify’s dominant role is beginning to lessen. This is less a reflection of Spotify’s performance (though that wasn’t great in Q2) but more to do with the growing diversification of the global streaming market. 

Spotify remains the dominant player in the music subscription sector, with 32% global subscriber market share, but streaming is becoming about much more than just subscriptions. WMG’s Steve Cooper recently reported that such ‘emerging platforms’ “were running at roughly $235 million on an annualized basis” (incidentally, this aligns with MIDiA’s estimate that the global figure for 2020 was $1.5 billion). 

The music subscription market’s Achille’s heel (outside of China) has long been the lack of differentiation. The record labels showed scant interest in changing this, but instead focused on licensing entirely new music experiences outside of the subscription market. As a consequence, the likes of Peloton, TikTok and Facebook have all become key streaming partners for record labels – a very pronounced shift from how the label licensing world looked a few years ago.

The impact on streaming revenues is clear. In Q4 2016, Spotify accounted for 38% of all record label streaming revenue. By Q2 2021 this had fallen to 31%.

Looking at headline revenue alone, though, underplays the accelerating impact of streaming’s new players. Because Spotify already has such a large, established revenue base, quarterly dilution is typically steady rather than dramatic. Things look very different though when looking specifically at the revenue growth, i.e., the amount of new revenue generated in a quarter compared to the prior year. On this basis, streaming’s new players are rapidly expanding share. Spotify’s share of streaming revenue growth fell from 34% in Q4 2017 to just 26% in Q2 2021. Unlike total streaming revenue, the revenue growth figure is relatively volatile, with Spotify’s share ranging from a low of 11% to a high of 60% over the period – but the underlying direction of travel is clear.

Spotify remains the record labels’ single most important partner both in terms of hard power (revenues, subscribers) and soft power (ability to break artists etc.). But the streaming world is changing, fuelled by the record labels’ focus on supporting new growth drivers. The implications for Spotify could be pronounced. With so many of Spotify’s investors backing it in a bet on distribution against rights, the less dependent labels are on it, the more leverage they will enjoy. From a financial market perspective, the last 18 months have been dominated by good news stories for music rights – from ever-accelerating music catalogue M&A transactions to record label IPOs and investments. 

Right now, the investor momentum is with rights. Should the current dilution of Spotify’s revenue share continue, Spotify will struggle to negotiate further rates reductions and will find it harder to pursue strategies that risk antagonising rights holders. Meanwhile, rights holders would be surveying an increasingly fragmented market, where no single partner has enough market share to wield undue power and influence. That is a place where rights holders have longed dreamed of getting to, but now – divide and conquer – may finally be coming to fruition.

We Are At a Turning Point for Social Music

In recent days we have seen three major developments that, collectively, are a potential pivot point for social music:

  1. TikTok close to a US-entity buyout by Microsoft to avoid potential sanctions, following hot on the heels of an India blackout
  2. Facebook launched a (US-only) YouTube competitor for music videos
  3. Snap Inc signed a licensing deal with WMG and others, also for music videos

As cracks begin to appear in the audio streaming market, there is a growing sense in the music industry of the need for a plan B. This has been driven by growing discontent among the creator community, and a slowdown in revenue growth (UMG streaming revenues actually fell in Q2 as did Sony Music’s); the tail wagging the artist-and-revenue (A&R) dog. The search for new growth drivers is on, and social music – for so long a promise unfulfilled in the West – is one of the bets. TikTok was meant to be a major part of that bet. But with the US future of the app so at risk that a Microsoft US-entity buyout may be the only option, and the continued impact of COVID-19 on core revenue streams, the future is beginning to look a little more troublesome. Perhaps now more than ever, the music industry needs social music to start delivering.

There are three key issues at stake here:

  1. How consumers discover music
  2. How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music
  3. Competing with YouTube

How consumers discover music

Among the under-aged 35 demographic, YouTube is the primary music discovery channel, followed by music streaming, then radio, and only then by social. Streaming discovery is heavily skewed towards tracks and playlists, and away from artists and release projects, which is fine for streaming platforms but impedes building sustainable artist careers. Radio is losing share of ear and YouTube… well, YouTube is YouTube (more on that below), so the music business needs a new discovery growth driver. Social has the potential to be just that. But spammy artist pages on Facebook and more-than-perfect Instagram photos are not it. TikTok, for all its amazing momentum, actually has a really uneven impact on discovery. Some tracks blow up out of nowhere while most do little, and rarely is it because of a smart label marketing strategy but instead because certain tracks just work on the platform and the community leaps on them. For now, TikTok is too unpredictable to plan around. Facebook (Instagram especially) and Snap Inc have a fantastic opportunity to do something special here. They have the audience and the social know-how. Whether they can deliver is a different matter entirely.

How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music

What TikTok lacks in consistent marketing contribution it makes up in consumption. Following on from Musical.ly’s start, TikTok has reimagined how music can be part of social experiences for young audiences. It has made music a highly relevant and integral part of self-expression, something that CD collections and music dress codes used to do in the pre-digital world but that soulless, ephemeral playlists wiped out. While labels pin hopes on TikTok successes to drive wider consumption, the discovery journey is also the destination for most TikTok users – they hear the track in a video and swipe onto the next one. That is no bad thing. This is a new form of consumption, and if TikTok were to disappear or fade then someone else needs to pick up the baton. Whether Facebook and Snap Inc can do so is, again, an open question.

Competing with YouTube

Now we get to the heart of the Facebook and Snap Inc deals. As important as the previous two points are, they were not the overriding priorities of the commercial teams driving these deals. Instead they were focused on expanding the revenue mix and part of that is creating more competition for the notoriously low-paying YouTube. Well, maybe not that low paying after all.

spotify youtube arpu

The internet is full of statements from trade associations, rightsholders and creators about how much less YouTube pays than Spotify. YouTube does pay less, because it manages to escape paying minimum per-stream rates for ad-supported videos – but it is a more nuanced picture than lobbyists would have you believe. Firstly, in terms of its Premium business, Google is entirely on par with Spotify. But then, that is the part that is licensed in the same way as the rest of the market.

Ad-supported is a mixed story. In North America, where there is a mature digital ad market, YouTube’s ad-supported average revenue per user (ARPU) is entirely on par with Spotify’s. However, on a global basis, ad-supported ARPU is dragged down by its large user base in emerging markets where digital ad markets are nascent. Spotify’s ARPU is 66% higher, in part because it has to pay minimum per-stream rates, i.e. it pays a fixed rate per stream regardless of whether it has sold any ad inventory against the track. This boosts ad-supported ARPU but it risks making the model unstainable, to the extent that Spotify reported -7% gross margin for ad-supported in Q1 2020 (and note, that’s gross margin, not net margin).

Rightsholders will be hoping for Facebook and Snap Inc to bring a similar level of competition to music video as exists in streaming audio, which in turn may give them a path to higher global ad-supported ARPU rates and a healthier marketplace. However, what will determine that objective is not business strategy but product strategy. The key question is what can they both do with music videos that YouTube cannot? YouTube has years of experience and user data around music videos, Snap Inc and Facebook do not. They will be playing catch-up with a weaker portfolio of content assets: Snap Inc is only partially licensed and both it and Facebook have only licensed official music videos. Unofficial videos (mash ups, covers, lyrics, TV show appearances etc.) account for 25% of the views of the top 30 biggest YouTube music videos. Those videos are crucial in that they provide the lean-forward element for viewers; they are crucial to making YouTube music social rather than just a viewing platform.

YouTube has dominated the music video globally for more than a decade. This might just be the time that this position starts to be challenged. But if Facebook and Snap Inc are going to do that, they will have to bring their product strategy A-game to the field. If they can, then the we may indeed witness a social music turnaround in the West.

UnderbellyI enjoy social media just as much as the next guy. I…



Underbelly

I enjoy social media just as much as the next guy. I love Twitter the most; the level of wit and genius people can squeeze into 140 characters never ceases to amaze me. It also allows me to connect with people that I would never meet. Another advantage is that it makes networking easier. You can get your message out to hundreds of people in seconds. It’s a wonderful, powerful tool.

As good as social media is, there’s also a dark side. A place where trolls behind egg and dog avatars. A place where anything, and I mean anything can be said with little to no repercussion. Keyboard warriors spew hate at whoever crosses their path. Most people don’t have to deal with the legions of trolls that live in the underbelly of social media but for others that’s not the case.

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Ghostbusters was remade with an all female cast. There was a lot of usual uproar from misogynist screaming that it was an abomination and that killing dead ghost should be left to the men. The movie was released this weekend with moderate numbers. Leslie Jones, one of the main cast members, has faced a litany of abusive and racist tweets. You can catch up here. Long story short, the racist misogynist used every stereotype to depict the successful comedian. It’s quite disgusting the hate that she’s had to endure.

I’ve heard many people over the years say that the internet is not a “safe space” and that celebrities just need to roll with the punches. They’re told to grow thicker skin or to be happy because they make a lot of money. Just to be clear, no one deserves to be insulted and/or belittled because of the health of their bank account. Take someone’s wealth away and you still have a person just like you and I.  

I close with this, it’s okay to unplug from social media. Your mental health is a lot more important than whatever is being said on Twitter. Take care of yourself, no matter what.

As always, thanks for reading.