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.

The oncoming fandom crisis

The Chinese authorities’ crackdown on fandom represents the first major growing pain for the global fandom economy. Tencent Music Entertainment (TME) will likely be the bellwether of this shift, with two thirds of its revenues coming from non-music (i.e., fandom) related activities. But this is more than just about China – it shines a light on the dark underbelly of the global fandom machine. The companies behind K-pop and Idol acts industrialised fandom by leveraging, and even exploiting, fan psychology to massive global businesses that trade upon extracting every possible ounce of spend from fanbases. The China crackdown should act as a wakeup call for the global music market. 

The industrialisation of fandom

Regular readers will know that MIDiA has focused on fandom analysis and research for a number of years now, looking at it across all forms of entertainment. The reasons we believe it is so interesting in music is because Western streaming services monetise consumption rather than fandom, leaving both passion and spent on the table

The Chinese music apps illustrate just how much more can be achieved when experiences are built around the music, rather than simply relying on music to always be the experience. Alongside this, the rise of K-pop, which leans heavily on the Japanese Idol model, shows how much fanbases can be willing to support their favourite artists, particularly in terms of both spend and passion. But, as exciting as these models are, they have also been underpinned by the temptation to push fans’ spending and obsession further and further.

Even Western artists are getting in on the act. When Taylor Swift encouraged her fanbase to go and buy the re-recorded version of Fearless, she was looking for their support in her old master recordings ordeal. But who really needed the $50 for a vinyl copy most, Swift or her fans? 

This industrialisation of fandom has actually weaponised it, and, in doing so, puts its very essence at risk.

The oncoming fandom crisis

A fandom crisis is coming. Fandom is far more meaningful and profound for fans than mere consumption. It is also far harder to measure – in fact, it is only the effects of fandom that can be measured (i.e., merch sales, comments, likes, etc.). Fandom is rooted in human psychology. It is about identity, belonging and self-expression. Things that often matter more to younger people than anything else, especially teens in their formative years. It is no coincidence that the industrial fandom machines are primarily built around younger consumers. The Chinese government’s decision to limit fandom, in part because of its negative social impacts, is an extreme move, but it could also act as an ice breaker for regulatory scrutiny in Western markets. 

The fandom crisis goes beyond music

The oncoming fandom crisis is neither confined just to Asia, nor just to music. In fact, huge swathes of the global social economy are built on exactly the same dynamics. TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Twitch – all of these platforms exploit the creator / fan relationship and have constructed sophisticated monetisation frameworks around them. The sophistication does not so much lie in payment methods or technology, but instead in deploying products that drive competitive fandom. Fans compete to be the biggest fan, often by spending more. This can be a kid spending their parents’ money to have his comment pinned to the top of a YouTube gamer’s comment stream, or a Twitch user paying to unlock exclusive emotes and sub badges of their favourite Twitch streamer. 

The platforms need to consider a crucial principle: just because you can do it does not always mean that you should do it.

A crucial moment for the business of fandom

Fandom is the ozone layer of the entertainment world, and it is a critical resource that is too often taken for granted and can be irrevocably damaged. 

This is a crucial juncture for fandom. We are beginning to see the emergence of cool new apps, like Fave, and Western labels looking East for inspiration, such as UMG tapping Hybe’s Weverse app for some of its artists. It is crucial that well intentioned efforts do not falter because of a wider fandom backlash. Fandom should be nurtured, not harvested.

Not only is there so much that can be done, the music industry needs more to be done. A key reason there are armies of BTS and Black Pink fans in the West is because a generation of kids were growing up with a sense that something was missing from music for them, that streaming simply did not let them express themselves and feel part of something. Streaming in the West does not do fandom. Streaming in China, perhaps, does it too well. Clearly, there must be a solution somewhere in the middle that enables fans to be fans, while also doing the right thing for them. 

Fandom and ethics should not occupy opposite sides of the debate. They should be intertwined and interdependent. Fandom is about who you are and what you are. Without ethics, what are any of us?

Growth drivers – what comes after streaming

The pandemic-defined 2020 was an outlier year across digital entertainment, with the extra 12% of time consumers spent with entertainment boosting everything, including music. One of the effects was that streaming grew more than it would have otherwise, delaying the inevitable slowdown in streaming revenue growth. This artificial 2020 boost meant that the slowdown impact was felt even more strongly when it arrived in Q1 2021. 

The major labels saw streaming revenue grow by just 0.8% between Q4 2020 and Q1 2021, while Spotify saw revenues fall by 1%. Seasonality plays a major role here (a similar trend was seen last year) and year-on-year revenues were up by around a quarter. Nonetheless it reflects a maturing market. 

Back in 2019 Spotify’s revenues grew 15.7% from Q4 2018 to Q1 2019, while the majors’ streaming revenue was up 3% between Q4 2017–Q1 2018. In short, when the market was growing faster, seasonality did not result in flat / negative growth. Streaming is still in good shape and is going to remain the core of recorded music revenues for the foreseeable future, and Spotify’s price increases will bring a little extra revenue in 2021, but it is clearly time to start thinking about what comes next.

There is an argument that in today’s post-format world, we should not even be thinking about the next thing. So, it is better to think about what new business models and user experiences can grow alongside streaming, to diversify the music industry’s income mix. 

Music businesses, labels in particular, are busy exploring where future growth will come from. The more pessimistic argue that this is largely as good as it gets, that there will not be a ‘next streaming’. That might be right in terms of a single revenue source, but the early signs are that there is enough potential in a range of sources to collectively drive growth. Here are a few of the music industry’s potential growth drivers:

  • Games: Ever since the Marshmello Fortnite event, games has acquired a new degree of importance for the music business. WMG’s stake in Roblox points to just how serious labels are taking the opportunity. With global games revenues hitting $120 billion in 2020 (around $100 billion more than the recorded music market) and more than a third of those revenues being driven by cosmetic (i.e., non-gameplay) spend, there is a wealth of opportunity. But to succeed, music companies will need to think about creative ways to enhance the gaming experience rather than simply seeing it as another licensing play.
  • Social: Revenue from the likes of TikTok and Facebook finally became meaningful in 2020, accounting for around three quarters of the growth registered in ad supported. We are still scratching the surface of what social can do for music, but building tools for users to create their own music and audio will be key. Facebook’s Sound Studio could prove to be a defining first step towards the establishment of the consumer’s version of the social studio.
  • Creator tools: As regular readers will know, MIDiA considers the current revolution in the creator tools space to be one of the most important shifts to the entire music business in recent years. Not only is it transforming the culture of music creation, it represents a new set of opportunities for deepening artist-fan relationships and a set of new facets for the future of music companies.
  • Next-generation sync: Although traditional music sync revenues fell in 2020, music production libraries (including royalty free) grew. We are on the cusp of a major new wave of opportunity in sync, with social content, platform and creators representing a scale of demand that far exceeds that of the traditional sync market. And it is the slow-moving nature of that traditional sector which means that the likely winners in the social sync market will be the new generation of companies that offer solutions that are sufficiently agile and fast to meet the scale of micro-sync demand.
  • Live streaming: The pandemic virtually created the live stream marketplace, resulting in a tidal wave of new start-ups rushing to fill the void left by live. While the results have been a mixed bag, there have been enough high-quality successes to suggest that this is a sector with longevity that will outlive lockdown. The services that will prosper when IRL returns are those that deliver genuinely differentiated experiences that complement rather than try to replace IRL live. 
  • Fitness: Another of the pandemic’s second order effects was a surge in consumer spending on home fitness equipment, including Peleton. Right now there is some meaningful music licensing revenue building around the space, but Beyoncé’s Peleton partnership shows that the opportunity goes way beyond simply piping music into workouts. Crucially, the Beyoncé partnership creates an audience that is focusing their entire attention on the artist, which is rarely the case when people are listening to music on audio streaming services.
  • Fandom: Fandom is the next frontier for music monetisation. Western streaming services monetise consumption, whereas Tencent Music Entertainment monetises fandom, with two thirds of its revenue coming from non-music activity. We are beginning to see a flurry of activity in artist subscriptions and meanwhile, Patreon goes from strength to strength. Check out this free MIDiA report for more on how to tap the fandom opportunity.

To reiterate, streaming is, and will remain for many years, the beating heart of recorded music revenue. In fact, more than that, most of these new opportunities exist at such scale because of streaming. Until now, streaming enabled revenue growth in its own right, now it will enable growth in new adjacent markets.

Music Streaming Needs a New Future

While doing some research on the Chinese streaming market I came across this fantastic UX tear down of Xiami Music. I recommend you read it in full. The day before I found this – also must-read –article on Beyoncé’s streaming strategy, which explains how she uses different platforms to segment her fanbase (Tidal – super fans, Spotify engaged fans, Netlix, passive fans). These two articles may seem entirely unrelated, but they are in fact two sides of the same coin: fandom.

Regular readers of MIDiA’s output will know that we have made fandom one of our central research themes, most recently identifying it as one of the next five growth drivers for the music business. We have also discussed at length how Chinese streaming services have built businesses around monetising fandom while Western streaming services instead simply monetise consumption.

Now I am going to take this thinking one step further by proposing a new way to consider how to segment the music consumption journey and how Western companies can become part of this new vision.

the three srtags of the music journey

Consider music consumption as three key steps:

  1. The song
  2. The (artist) story
  3. The fan

Streaming services now own the song. Social is doing an okay, but far from perfect job of owning the artist story. But no one – digitally – is owning the fandom. Music fans have to hop from one place to another to join the dots. This of course contrasts sharply with Chinese streaming services which own all three steps in the music journey. Let’s take a look at Xiami Music to illustrate the point.

XiamiI have written a lot in the past about Tencent Music’s portfolio of apps. Alibaba’s Xiami Music is one of the smaller players and its end-to-end value proposition is all the more impressive for that: this sort of functionality is table stakes for competing for audience attention in the Chinese market.

Delivering the music is almost just the starting point for Xiami Music, wrapping the music with endless additional context and features including (but by no means limited to): music videos, lyrics, commentaries, reviews, news, comment streams, virtual tipping, badges, trophies, lyrics poster, you can even grow your own Tamagotchi. As Siew writes in his UX tear down:

“Every piece of music has its own entourage — live versions, videos (the official one and the live ones), behind-the-scene footage, outtakes, remakes or covers, reviews etc.

Xiami has taken a leaf out of WeChat’s playbook. Everything you need about a song, an album, or an artiste/band, you can get it on Xiami. No need for you to google for lyrics, head to YouTube for a video, or launch Twitter/Weibo for news.”

Time to stop leaning back

Another insightful observation that Siew makes is that Xiami Music – as with other Chinese streaming apps – has a white background to make it easier to read and interact with lots of content. Whereas Western streaming apps have dark backgrounds as they behave as largely passive vehicles for delivering music: find your playlist, press play, close screen.

There is a fundamentally different UX ethos:

  • Western apps: lean back, listen with minimal friction
  • Chinese apps: lean forward, dive in, interact

Years ago (11 to be precise) I laid out a vision for lean forward music experiences, where interactive context and social features were built around the music. Now is the time for Western streaming services to push themselves out of their UX comfort zones and start to own stages two and three of the music journey.

Lead, don’t follow

It is important that they do not all follow the same path. Differentiation – or the abject lack of it – is the Achilles heel of Western streaming services. The hope here is that they each pursue their own path and use this blank canvass to develop their own unique identities. Which will make it easier for record labels and artists to follow Beyoncé’s approach of segmenting their audiences across different platforms.

Of course this will take time. It may even take another 11 years (though hopefully not). In the meantime radio companies should be seeing this as a great opportunity to carve out a role for themselves in step two (artist story telling). Most have realised by now that they cannot compete with streaming but instead should compete around it. Get it right and radio could become the home of artist storytelling, a genuine complement to streaming consumption. Meanwhile, TikTok may well be best placed to act fast to own step three (fandom) before the Western streaming services can get their respective acts in gear.

There is nothing quite like some fierce competition to focus the mind.

The Music Industry’s Next Five Growth Drivers

The risk with trying to imagine what the future might look like is to simply think it is going to be a brighter, shinier version of today. At this precise moment in time, this has perhaps never been truer.

The COVID-19 lockdowns were a seismic shock to the economy, one which will take months, possibly years to recover from. Entertainment consumption patterns have been transformed, with some need states becoming void states in an instant, while new ones have filled their place.

Whether COVID-19 goes for good in the coming months or whether it is with us for years to come, some behaviour patterns have changed for good, creating new opportunities, many of which (e.g. virtual events) have yet to be properly monetised. So at a time when it seems that the whole world is creating music forecasts, it is now the time to think about what comes next rather than just predicting how big the long established revenue streams will get.

With streaming growth slowing and creators feeling short changed, it is time to think about what plan B is, for the sakes of both the industry and the creator community.

At MIDiA we are currently compiling our music industry forecasts with a lot of detailed work being put into estimating how COVID-19 and the coming recession will impact a revenue growth. We’re modelling everything from ARPU, churn, net adds, and disposable income patterns through to store closures. We’re confident that this new methodology will make our already reliable forecasts even better (for the record our 2019 subscription forecasts with within 4.5% of the actual figures).

We’re also going to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and over the course of the year forecast some new revenue streams for which a comprehensive set of historical data does not exist. This means our chances of making incorrect calls is higher, but we’re doing it because we think it is crucial to start trying to frame what the future landscape will look like.

Here are the five emerging revenue sectors that we think could collectively be the music industry’s next growth driver

  1. Contextual experiences: Two big lockdown winners have been mindfulness / meditation apps and online fitness training. With it looking likely that consumers will be spending more time at home and away from public places for some time to come, the opportunity for these categories is twofold: 1) build audience now, 2) establish behaviour patterns that will outlive lockdown.

    Music is often a core part of these but it is not always licensed. The example of artists and rightsholders making music available to fitness trainer Joe Wicks illustrates the point. To date, streaming services have provided the soundtrack to such activities with contextual playlists (chill, study, workout). But it is of course far better for the context itself to deliver the music. We expect the next few years to see categories like online wellness and fitness to eat into the time that people were previously using streaming for the soundtrack. Instead of bring your own music, the trend will be the context will bring it. UMG’s Lego partnership is a case in point.

  2. Creator tools: There is an increasingly diverse mix of tools for music creators, including production, collaboration, sounds, reporting, mastering and marketing. The vast majority of the millions of independent artists will spend much more on creator tools than they will ever earn from their music. The revenue opportunity is clear, but there is more to it than that.

    Artist distribution platforms built a role as top of funnel tools, helping labels find the next big hit. But the music creation itself, enabled through online SAAS tools is in the fact the real top of funnel. Anyone who can establish relationships there does so before they release music. Right now, Spotify looks better placed to capitalise on this opportunity than labels. But labels should be paying close heed. Just in the way that distribution platforms came out of nowhere to become an established part of the label toolkit, so will artist tools. Simply put, creator tools will become part of what it is to be a music company.

  3. Virtual events: As we wrote about earlier this week, there is a huge opportunity to make virtual events (live streaming, listening sessions, avatar performances) a major income stream. The sector is in desperate need of commercial structure and product tiering, but it can happen. A freemium model with free, pay to stay, premium and super-premium tiers will enable this fast-growing sector to be more than a lockdown stop gap.
  4. Fandom: Regular readers will know that MIDiA has long argued that phase one of streaming was monetising consumption and that phase two will be about monetising fandom. Tencent Music Entertainment already does a fantastic job of this with live streams, virtual gifts and virtual currencies. So do K-Pop artists and Japanese Idol artists. Now is the time for western social and streaming platforms to wake up to the opportunity. Virtual merch, artist badges, premium chat, artist avatars—there are so many opportunities here waiting to be tapped.
  5. Social music: As an extension of fandom, the fact that the vast amount of music-centred social activity on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok has not yet been properly monetised is a gaping hole of opportunity. TikTok will be crucial. As my colleague Tim Mulligan wrote, TikTok is having its ‘Snapchat moment’, trying to identify what commercial route it will take. I’d go even further and frame it as a YouTube or Facebook moment. Both those platforms went on to massively expand their remit and build diversified business models.

    TikTok clearly has momentum that far exceeds that of previous similar apps. It can either choose to just carry on being good at one thing or instead become the next big social platform, growing as its audience ages. Just like Facebook did. TikTok now is where YouTube was back in the late 2000s. If rights holders can establish an entirely new monetisation framework then TikTok could become the biggest single driver of future revenue.

As with any future gazing, the odds are that not all of these opportunities will transpire, but what is clear is that the current dominant format is not enough on its own. Rights holders and creators alike need new future revenue streams to offset the impact of slowing revenue growth and royalty crises.

The last time the music industry had one dominant format and no successor was the CD and we all know what happened then. The music industry is not about to enter a decade of freefall this time, but it is at risk of stagnating, especially as its leading music service is now so eager to diversify away from music that it offers a podcaster more money in one deal than most artists will ever earn in their lifetime from it. Let’s make this next chapter of the industry’s growth about innovation, growth, new opportunities and fresh thinking.