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.

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.

Spotify and music listening 10 years from now

July marks ten years since Spotify’s US launch. Although the tendency among some is to consider this ‘year zero’ for streaming (thus ignoring everything that had happened in prior years both within and outside of the US) it does present a useful opportunity to reflect on what the next decade might hold for Spotify. 

Rather than focus on the business outlook, I am going to explore how Spotify and other streaming services, could change the way in which music is consumed ten years from now. But first, three quick future business scenarios for Spotify:

  1. It continues to be the global leader but with reduced market share due to the rise of regional competitors in emerging markets
  2. It loses market momentum, stock price tumbles and is acquired by another entity 
  3. It morphs into a true multi-sided entertainment and creation platform, doing for entertainment what Amazon now does for retail but with more tools and services

So, on to the future of music consumption.

To map the future, you need to know the past. These are (some of) the key ways streaming has transformed how we engage with music:

  • We listen to a larger number of artists but spend less time with individual artists
  • We listen to tracks and playlists more, and albums less
  • Music is programmed (by ourselves and by streaming services) to act as a soundtrack for our daily lives and routines
  • Genre divisions are becoming less meaningful
  • Artist brands are becoming less visible
  • Music fandom is becoming less pronounced

Music is more like the soundtrack to daytime TV than blockbuster movies

In 2015 Spotify’s Daniel Ek said that he wanted Spotify to ‘be the soundtrack of your life’. Undoubtedly, Spotify and other streaming services are achieving that but the utopian vision is more prosaic in practice. Less ‘that was the best day of the summer’ and more ‘put on some tunes while I cook’. It is a soundtrack, but less the soundtrack to a blockbuster movie and instead more like the soundtrack to daytime TV. Music has become sonic wallpaper that is a constant backdrop to our daily mundanity. (Though the pandemic, the climate crisis and stagnant labour markets can make even the mundane look aspirational for many).

Like it or loathe it, this sound tracking dynamic is likely to play a key role in what the future of music consumption looks like. But it is not all sonic dystopias; personalisation, algorithms, user data and programming also have the potential to reinvigorate music passion. Here are two key ways in which Spotify and other streaming services could transform music listening ten years from now:

  • Dynamic and biometric personalisation: The current recommendation arms race works from a comparatively small dataset, focused on users’ music preferences and behaviour. The next battle front will be the listener’s entire life. Any individual user can appear to be a dramatically different music listener depending on the context of their listening. Even the same time of day can have very different permutations; for example, looking for chilled sounds at 7pm after a manic Monday but banging beats at the same time on a Friday. If streaming services could harvest data from personal devices and the social graph, elements such as heart rate, location, activity, facial expression and sentiment could all be used to create a music feed that dynamically responds to the individual. Instead of having to actively seek out a workout or study playlist, the music feed would automatically tweak the music to the listener’s behaviour and habits. The faster the run, the more up-tempo the music; the later in the evening, the more chilled (unless it’s 9pm and you’re getting ready for a big night out). Selecting mood and activity-based playlists will look incredibly mechanical in this world. Think of it like the change from manual gear change to automatic in cars.

  • Music catalogue reimagined: Just as activity and mood-based listening will become more push and less pull, so can music catalogue. Traditionally catalogue consumption is driven by a combination of user behaviour (‘I haven’t listened to that band in a while’) and marketing pushes by labels, publishers and now music funds’ ‘song management’. But it needn’t be that way anymore. Over the years, streaming services have collected a wealth of user data. Just as Facebook introduced memories for users’ posts, so streaming services could deliver music memories, showing users what they were listening to on this day ten years ago, or what the soundtrack to your summer was way back in 2021. Clearly Spotify is already making steps in this direction with Wrapped but this would be much bigger step, routinely delivering nostalgia nuggets throughout a day, week, month, year. In many respects the result would be a democratisation of catalogue consumption. It wouldn’t simply be the rights holders with the biggest marketing budgets and smartest campaigns on TikTok (or whatever has replaced TikTok ten years from now) that get the biggest catalogue bumps. Instead, catalogue consumption across the board would boom. This could make the current 66% of all listening look like small fry in comparison. What that means for frontline releases finding space is another question entirely.

These are of course just two well-educated guesses, and their weaknesses are that they are based on what has happened so far rather than what currently unforeseen consumption shifts may happen in the future. Indeed, streaming itself may have been surpassed ten years from now. But tomorrow’s technology often looks more like today than it does tomorrow. Henry Ford’s model T Ford looked more like a horse and trap than it did the swept wing aerodynamics of 1950s cars. Change takes time. But ten years is a long time in the world of technology, so even if neither of the above come to pass, you can be sure that music listening is going to look a whole lot different than it does now.


Who will own the virtual concert space?

2020 will go down as a rough year for many artists, largely because of the income they lost when live ground to a halt. Unfortunately, the live music sector is still going to be disrupted in 2021 and it may take even longer for the sector to return to ‘normal’. In fact, we could see the bottom of the live sector thinned out as the smaller venues, agencies and promoters do not have the access to bridging finance that the bigger players have. So, smaller artists may find the face of live permanently changed for them in a way that larger artists do not. Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear: live music is not going to be the same again, and the innovations in virtual and streamed events are not simply a band-aid to get us through tough times. Instead, they are the foundations for permanent additions to the live music mix. The big unanswered question is, who is going own the live-streamed and virtual concert sector?

Bringing it all together

One of the most important things digital tech does is to bring things together. The smartphone is a perfect example. 20 years ago people switched between phones, calendars, diaries, computers, maps, phones, music players, DVD players etc. Now these are all in one device. Streaming did the same to music, taking radio, retail, music collections and music players and putting them together into one unified experience. Until now, live music was not subject to streaming’s great assimilation process. But COVID-19 changed all that. Live used to be separate because it required logistical assets like buildings, ticketing operations, relationships etc. The last few months have shown us that the virtual live sector can operate entirely independent of the traditional sector’s frameworks – which is one of the reasons so much innovation and experimentation has happened. Sure, lots of the early stuff was scrappy and of patchy quality, but is through mistakes that we learn the right way forward. Thus, we have new companies like Driift emerging to bring a more structured and professional approach to a fast-growing but nascent sector.

Disruption is coming

The big traditional live companies right now may be most concerned about whether the still-dormant venues are looking at the new ticketing models being deployed with the likes of Dice and wondering whether they can rethink their entire way of doing business when they reopen. While that may trigger what could prove to be the biggest-ever shift in the live business, the virtual part of the business is where the money is flowing right now: Melody VR bought pioneering but struggling streaming service Napster, Scooter Braun invested in virtual concert company Wave and Tidal bought seven million dollars’ worth of access into virtual concert ‘space’ Sensorium. Virtual reality (VR) spent much of the last couple of years in the trough of disillusionment but now COVID-19’s catalysing impact may see it starting to crawl onwards and upwards. Prior to COVID-19 VR was a technology searching for a purpose. COVID-19 has created one. This is not to say that all of VR’s prior failings no longer matter – they do – but it at least has a set of music use cases to build on. VR can now realistically aspire to be a meaningful component of the wider virtual event sector.

Streaming+

It is no coincidence that streaming is playing a key role. Nor is it just the smaller streaming services at play – Spotify has built the tech infrastructure for live events, while Apple is introducing artificial reality (AR) into Apple TV+, so it is not too big a leap to assume Apple Music AR experiences will follow. Live was the last major component of the music business that streaming could not reach, and that is all about to change. The value proposition for music fans is clear: why go to multiple different places for all your favourite music experiences when they can all be in one place? Think of it as Streaming+. Whatever the future of live is going to be, we can be certain about one thing: it will never be the same again.

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.