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.


Hi-Res audio: It’s all about a maturing market

Apple and Amazon made a splash this week by integrating Hi-Res Dolby Atmos audio into the basic tiers of their streaming services. The timing, i.e. just after Spotify started increasing prices, is – how shall we put it, interesting. It also struck a blow against the music industry’s long-held hope that Hi-Res was going to be the key to increasing subscriber ARPU. While that might be true, for now at least, the move is an inevitable consequence of two streaming market dynamics: commodification and saturation.

Music streaming contrasts sharply with video streaming. While the video marketplace is characterised by unique catalogues, a variety of pricing and diverse value propositions (including a host of niche services) music streaming services are all at their core fundamentally the same product. When the market was in its hyper-growth phase and there were enough new users to go around, it did not matter too much that the streaming services only had branding, curation and interface to differentiate themselves from each other. Now that we are approaching a slowdown in the high-revenue developed markets, more is needed. Which is where Hi-Res comes in.

Now that streaming is, as Will Page puts it, in the ‘fracking stage’ in developed markets, success becomes defined by how well you retain subscribers rather than how well you acquire them. As all the key DSPs operate on the same basic model, they need to innovate around the core proposition in order to improve stickiness and reduce churn. Spotify started the ball rolling with its podcasts pivot, but the fact that its podcasts can be consumed by free users means it is not (yet) a tool for reducing subscriber churn.

On top of this, when podcasts are mapped with other positioning pillars, Spotify’s competitive differentiation spread is relatively narrow. Because Apple and Amazon now both have Hi-Res as standard, they not only boost audio quality but value for money (VFM) as well. Bearing in mind, both companies already scored well on VFM because they have Prime Music and Apple One in their respective armouries. 

It is Amazon, though, that looks best positioned of the four leading Western streaming services. In addition to audio quality and VFM, it is building out its podcasts play (as compared to the Wondery acquisition) and it has the potential to bundle in the world’s leading audiobook company, Audible. Given that spoken-word audio consumption grew at nearly twice the rate music did during 2020, being able to play in all lanes of audio will be crucial to competing in what will become saturated streaming markets. 

Immersive audio storytelling 

Finally, Dolby Atmos is more than simply Hi-Res audio; it is an immersive format that enables the creation of spatial audio experiences. If we are truly on the verge of a spoken-word audio revolution, then immersive audio may have a central role to play. Surround sound has been a slow burner for home video, but that may be because the video experience itself has improved so much (bigger screens, HD, more shows than ever) that the audio component has been less important (though the growing soundbar market suggests that may be beginning to change). However, in audio formats there is only the audio to do the storytelling. This could mean that tools like immersive audio become central to audio storytelling, which means, you guessed it, Amazon and Apple would then have a competitive advantage in podcasts and audiobooks that Spotify would not.

Spotify pushes prices up, but do not expect dramatic effects

Spotify finally announced a significant price increase, raising prices in the UK and some of Europe, with the US set to follow suit. The increases affect Family, Duo and Student plans. The fact that streaming pricing has remained locked at $9.99 since the early 2000s is an open wound for streaming, so this news is important – but less so for actual impact than statement of intent.

Back in 2019 MIDiA showed that since its launch, Spotify’s $9.99 price point had lost 26% in real terms due to inflation while over the same period Netflix (which increased prices) saw a 63% increase. Price increases are a must, not an option. Not increasing prices while inflation raises other goods and services means that streaming pricing is deflating in real terms. In this context, Spotify’s move is encouraging, but it is not yet enough. The increases of course do not affect the main $9.99 price point, currently apply to a selection of markets and do not address the causes of ARPU deflation (promotional trials, uptake of multi-user plans, emerging markets). But let’s put all that aside for the moment and look at just what impact these changes will have:

  • Pricing: The increase is 13% for a Family plan and 20% for Student, both meaningful but below the 26% real terms deflation that was hit back in 2019. Averaged across all price points, the price increase represents a 10% uplift (in the markets where this is being done). By comparison, Netflix’s last major price hike averaged out at 11% across all price points, so it is line with that, though obviously Netflix had numerous other previous increases.
  • ARPU: ARPU (i.e. how much people are actually spending) matters more than nominal retail price points, which are subject to promotions and discounts. Spotify ARPU fell from €4.72 in 2019 to €4.31 in 2020. Let us conservatively estimate that would fall to €4.00 in 2021 without any price increases. Let us also assume that the announced price increases roll out to every single Spotify market (which of course they won’t) and let’s assume it all happened on January 1st 2021 (which of course it didn’t). On that basis, and factoring in what share of Spotify subscribers are on family and student plans, total revenue and premium ARPU would increase by 6.2%. ARPU would hit €4.25 (still below 2020) and premium revenue would hit €9.5 billion.
  • Income: Spotify would earn an extra €166 million gross margin, music rights holders would earn an extra €388 million, record labels €310 million and the majors €212 million, representing 2% of their total income. UMG would earn €95 million. Meanwhile, a recouped major label artist could expect to see a million streams generate €1,487 rather than €1,400 (assuming all the streams were premium).

All of these assumptions are based on this rollout being global and FY 2021, neither of which are the case. So the actual effect will be markedly less. The key takeaway is that this is an important first step on what needs to be a continual journey, and one followed by the other streaming services. Spotify was previous locked in a prisoner’s dilemma where no one was willing to make the first move. Spotify had the courage to jump first. What needs to happen next are (though not necessarily in this order):

  • Pricing increase to all remaining tiers, especially $9.99
  • Other streaming services follow suit
  • Tightening up of discounts and promotional trials in well-established markets

Good first step by Spotify; now let the journey begin.