The COVID Bounce and the coming Attention Recession

2020 was by any measure a unique year in modern times. While the societal impact of the pandemic was, and continues to be, horrific, for the entertainment industries it was a year of plenty. At the start of the pandemic, MIDiA Research estimated that there would be an extra 15% of consumption time for the average working consumer. Well, now that the end of year data is in, we can confirm that this ‘COVID bounce’ did in fact happen, with overall consumption time up by 12%. When you consider that the working population is only a subset of the overall population, that 12% means that we were pretty much on the money with our prediction. But while this uplift was seen right across entertainment, some formats did better than others and, crucially, some of that extra time will diminish whenever it is that the population starts returning to work and going out again. Which means that for the first time ever in the Attention Economy, there will be an Attention Recession, with very obvious potential ramifications for all entertainment companies.

The full results of MIDiA’s highly detailed COVID media consumption study is now available to MIDiA clients in the report ‘Media consumption: Lockdown’s attention boom’ and the accompanying dataset. Here are a few of the high-level findings.

  • Everything was up: 2020 was a case of a high tide rises all boats, with all forms of entertainment increasing average consumption time. Video consolidated its position as the leading format in terms of hours spent, but the largest percentage gains were in games (30%) and non-music audio (24%). Consumers even increased their time doing nothing / chilling, illustrating that despite the unsettling chaos of the pandemic, consumers found more time to relax and also to contemplate. Interestingly, doing nothing increased by a greater rate than listening to music.
  • Audiobooks were audio’s big winner: While podcast listening was up by an impressive 35%, audiobooks were lockdown’s biggest winner, increasing average time by nearly 50%. The radio and music businesses’ obsession with podcasts is understandable given how much focus the likes of Spotify, Amazon and Apple have placed on them, but the audiobooks category has emerged as the dark horse of the piece. When all audio time is considered together (radio, music, streaming, podcasts, audiobooks), audiobooks now account for a similar share of total time as podcasts do. Though music streaming was up too during lockdown, it grew more slowly than podcasts and audiobooks so was flat in terms of total share. Radio lost share. The shift is reflected in Spotify’s numbers: its average content hours per monthly active user (MAU) fell by 1% in 2020. Given that this figure includes podcasts, the inferences are: a) Spotify lost share of audio time, and b) music hours fell. It wasn’t just Spotify that did not keep pace with the audio boom. Even apps like the BBC’s Sounds saw a fall in the ratio of weekly to daily users. 
  • Casual gamers boosted games: Games’ growth was driven both by core gamers using the former commute time to get in some extra time on their consoles and gaming PCS. But the biggest growth was driven by mobile casual games. In previous years, mainstream consumers had driven a games surge, adopting titles like Candy Crush, but then shifted much of this time to the likes of Netflix and Spotify as the Attention Economy saturated. With more time on their hands in lockdown, mainstream consumers flocked to casual games once again. This will be a likely casualty of the coming Attention Recession.
  • Music is just one lane in audio: COVID-19 catalysed many pre-existing trends; the audio shift was one of those. Just as Netflix took TV out of the TV, podcasts took radio out of radio and contributed to a wider trend of consumers taking an increasingly format-agnostic view of audio. Breaking long-held habits in lockdown, audiences were able to try out new things and, given that we are nearly a year into the lockdown era, establish new behaviours that will remain to some degree post-pandemic (if that is ever a phrase that will really ring true). Traditional habits like the commute and exercise will now see audiobooks and podcasts competing for music time like never before. For music companies, this means that they need to understand they are now in the audio business and they are predominately just competing in one lane. This does not mean that they inherently need to become ’audio businesses’, but it does mean that they need to build strategies that account for this shift. Meanwhile, Amazon once again emerges as the dark horse with music, podcasts and – via Audible – audiobooks. Amazon looks set to be a big beneficiary of the lockdown legacy.

If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to learn how to get access to the ‘Media consumption: Lockdown’s attention boom’ report and data then please email [email protected]

Three trends that will shape the rest of 2021, and beyond

Late last year, MIDiA published its latest predictions report (clients can read the entire report here). The central theme was the Immersive Web, which we summarised as follows:

“The immersive web is characterised by environments in which we do not simply conduct extensions of in-real-life activity (e-commerce, video calls) but ones that create behaviours and relationships that only, and can only, exist within these environments. Apps and platforms like Roblox, TikTok and Discord are early iterations of the immersive web, but merely hint at what will come.”

Our analyst team has been developing this theme and thinking about how its impact will shape digital entertainment in 2021 and beyond. These are our three identified disruptive themes that will flow from the Immersive Web:

  1. Lean in: One of the dominant discussions concerning on-demand entertainment is the balance between lean forward and lean back experiences, i.e. the degree to which audiences actively choose what they are engaging with versus what they sit back and consume. But that framework does not capture the emerging shift towards audience participation, of consumers actively engaging with and modifying the content. We term this behavioural paradigm as lean in. Whether that be a teen creating a TikTok video, a consumer creating a meme or a gamer making music on Splash in Roblox, digital audiences increasingly expect to be a part of the content itself. We think audio will be the next frontier for lean inMIDiA’s Cultural Insights analyst Hanna Kahlert will be developing this theme.
  2. The insurgent opportunity: The competitive marketplace of digital entertainment companies is becoming static. Though there is still lots of growth and in many cases – e.g. podcasts, video – accelerating investment, innovations in user experience have slowed. The likes of Apple, Warner Media and ViacomCBS are shaking up the video subscriptions marketplace, yet they are differentiating around content, not features. Incumbent Netflix has done relatively little to innovate its user experience. The same story plays out in music (with the exception of layering podcasts into the mix, which is of course not innovating the music experience but instead the wider audio experience). Across all of digital entertainment, big incumbent players (Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify etc.) are becoming so mainstream they are having to slow their innovation so as not to alienate their newer, mainstream audiences. This is exactly what happened to Apple once the iPod and iPhone thrust it into the mainstream. This creates a huge opportunity for disruptive insurgents who do not have to cater for older, mainstream audiences and can focus on disruptive innovation rather than sustaining innovation. Asian-origin apps like TikTok and Weverse are beginning to chip away at incumbent stasis. This trend will aggressively accelerate, driving the next major chapter in digital entertainment.

  3. Entertainment internets: A number of the biggest platforms on the planet have become so dominant and so exhaustive that they are effectively creating mini-internets. YouTube is the internet of video, Amazon the internet of commerce, Facebook the internet of social. Each has succeeded in this all-encompassing impact by delivering so much to diverse audience segments and use cases. They have then used this audience to pull the majority of the partner and creator value chain into their orbit because those parties simply cannot afford not to be there. The internet itself has continued to prove largely immune from wholesale regulation, but these entertainment internets may prove easier targets for regulators as they are owned by single corporate parents and thus risk falling foul of anti-competitive behaviour oversight. Other than regulation, in the near to mid-term, these entertainment internets will face relatively little disruptive threat other than their own hubris. The rise of insurgents will hit the incumbent pure plays harder and first, though over time even the entertainment internets will also find themselves under fire.

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2021 Predictions: The year of the immersive web

As we approach the end of 2020 it is time to look forward to what 2021 may bring. MIDiA has published the fifth edition of our Annual Predictions report which clients can read here. There are 27 predictions in the report, but I am sharing a few of them here. MIDiA has a pretty good track record with its predictions; 79% of our predictions for 2020 were correct.

These are the seven meta and cultural trends that we believe will shape 2021: 

  1. The immersive web
  2. Recessionary impact
  3. The great reaggregation
  4. The return of synchronous experiences
  5. Social consumption and micro communities
  6. Video streaming as a cultural catalyst 
  7. The end of influencers

The immersive web

Web 1.0 was an information dump; web 2.0 added multimedia and social. Now we are entering the third phase, which MIDiA terms the immersive web. As is usually the case with big epoch shifts, this will not be a clear and sudden change but instead a steady change – a change that is, in fact, already happening. The immersive web is characterised by environments in which we do not simply conduct extensions of IRL activity (e-commerce, video calls) but ones that create behaviours and relationships that only, and can only, exist within these environments. Apps and platforms like Roblox, TikTok and Discord are early iterations of the immersive web, but merely hint at what will come. The trend will be driven by Gen Z, who have grown up with social apps from the playground onwards. Gen Z relies more than any previous generation on such apps for social interaction and expression, forming muscle memory for digital-first relationships. The COVID-19 lockdown measures have accentuated this shift, further solidifying Gen Z’s receptivity to future immersive web experiences.

Music

Here is a short version of some of the trends we expect to shape music in 2021:

  • The start of an artist economy: Streaming is a song economy of which the scale benefits rights holders far more than creators. The industry needs to work towards a collection of models that work for artists. Components could be micro-communities (see below), sounds platforms, ticketed live streams, skills marketplaces, and virtual merch. 
  • The rise of micro-communities: Niche is the new mainstream. The next phase of this market dynamic is the emergence of micro-communities; small audiences of dedicated fans who almost consider it an honour-bound duty to support their artists. 
  • The creator tools revolution: Creator tools, particularly music production and collaboration, will be one of the most important market shifts in 2021. Companies like Splice, LANDR and Output will continue to build scale in 2021, changing both the culture and business of music. 
  • Live streaming professionalises: With live unlikely to be anything close to full capacity until the latter part of 2021, live streaming will be used by a growing body of artists as a genuine revenue driver, rather than the audience engagement role it played in much of 2020, driven by increased professionalisation, better distribution and more sophisticated monetisation.
  • Music continues to deliver as an asset class: Although the pandemic dented music publishing’s long-term growth story, music catalogues retain strong appeal as an asset class, not least because they are performing better in relation to many asset classes that have been hit hard by the pandemic and that look vulnerable to the coming recession. The imbalance between supply and demand remains, so expect prices paid to continue to accelerate. 
  • UGC continues to accelerate: User-generated content (UGC) music revenues reached $4 billion in 2020 and will push up to $4.9 billion in 2021. The crucial difference between UGC music now compared to five years ago, is that the focus is on genuine user creativity rather than users simply uploading others’ music.

2020 was a year like no other in modern times, with the impact on digital entertainment both pronounced and creating the foundations for accelerated innovation in 2021. Whatever may happen to the global economic and health outlook, digital entertainment will go through further dramatic change in 2021.