Monday, 22 February 2016

The Beatles - What happened when the world's biggest band arrived on streaming services?

What happens on social media when the biggest band in the world put their catalogue on streaming services? Well, this is a question I tried to answer a few weeks after the fab four's 13 albums (and 4 compilation albums) were added to the likes of Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer on 24th December 2015.

Before I delve into the impact that the addition of their catalogue had in the wider realms of social media, let’s look at their more obvious chart success around the festive period. Eleven of the band’s albums made their way back into the Top 200 chart in the UK and in the table below you can see how these broke down in terms of percentages of physical, download and streaming. It’s worth noting that The Beatles ‘1’ compilation had recently been re-released with the band's videos available on DVD audio for the first time, hence the physical sway for this release. Before it’s re-release in June 2015, ‘1’ was already the sixth best-selling album of the 21st century in the UK having sold over 3.1 million copies.

The week prior to the band's albums being added to streaming services only '1', ‘Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and ‘Abbey Road’ were featured in the Top 200 album chart.

The Beatles - 1st Week Streaming Data UK Charts Breakdown

The Beatles - First Week Streaming Data Breakdown

Breaking these figures down, chart registered ‘sales’ of the main albums featured in the UK album chart were boosted by an average of 58% due to the inclusion of streaming data. Without the inclusion of ‘1’, this figure rose to a staggering 67%!

The week following streaming launch, ten of those albums (‘1’, ‘1967-1970’, ‘Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’, ‘Abbey Road’, ‘1962-1966’, ‘The Beatles’, ‘Revolver’, ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’) still remained in the Top 200. The only steep decline in chart placement in the second week of streaming data came from ‘The Beatles’ (The White Album) which fell from number 48 to number 166. This record could be seen as a great Christmas gift for Beatles aficionados which may have contributed this. In fact when looking at the chart data in the first few weeks, you could have been forgiven for thinking that at least a handful of The Beatles’ albums would remain in the UK Top 200 for the foreseeable future. However, from the graph below, you can see the albums began to decline dramatically in chart position post Week 2.

 The Beatles - First 5 Weeks on Album Chart inclusive of Streaming Data

Now let's take a look at what happened on non chart eligible streaming service YouTube - the only streaming service which already had The Beatles’ catalogue. What is potentially surprising is that the band had a huge spike in their YouTube views, peaking at 1,277,101 views on the 24th December. This was part aided by the addition of ‘The Beatles Now Streaming’ video which was added to the band's official YouTube channel on 23rd December resulting in 215,876 views on the 24th December alone.

Interestingly, it would appear that The Beatles videos were removed from music video service Vevo on the 17th September 2015 ahead of their launch on streaming services and the re-release of the ‘1’ album on DVD featuring 27 of the group's videos. Eight videos have since been re-addded to and the bands Vevo controlled YouTube channel over a period of 2 months with the latest being a restored and remixed version of 'Revolution'.

In the first week The Beatles albums were added to streaming services, followers on the newest of the band's social profiles, Instagram, grew a staggering 130% in comparison to the previous week’s growth. Facebook (70%), YouTube (39%) and Twitter (11%) also experienced significant growth on previous weeks. Twitter’s minimal growth of only 11% was perhaps the most surprising given the activity that was happening on the platform.

The Beatles - Spotify Emoji
On Twitter (a platform largely embraced by 18–29 year olds), Spotify appeared to rule the majority of Beatles related conversation. This was partly thanks to the rollout of a Beatles ‘Abbey Road’ style emoji that was added to any Tweets that used the hashtag #BeatlesOnSpotify and a series of beautifully animated artwork videos. The Spotify hashtag was estimated to have reached over 2 million users at the time of writing with similar hashtags for Deezer (#BeatlesOnDeezer 11,745), Apple Music (#BeatlesOnAppleMusic 1,736), Tidal (#BeatlesOnTidal - 808) and Google (#BeatlesOnPlayMusic - 0) paling into insignificance. Kevin Brown of Spotify has since said that they racked up 70 million streams within their first 3 days on the platform and I’m sure that awareness on Twitter had a large part to play in this.

Spotify have since released some in depth data which provides a rather interesting insight into the demographics of listeners of The Beatles on the platform. This also includes a breakdown of most popular track by age group and gender.

Share of The Beatles Listening on Spotify

A younger demographic appears to be mirrored across both social and listener data, something which is also likely to become less pronounced as consumers habits continue to change over time.

Although it's clear that launch of The Beatles catalogue on streaming services has not resulted in the bands music landing within The Official UK Top 200 Albums Chart on a permanent basis, what it has proven is that it's more likely that their albums will chart in times of heightened press activity or cultural significance. It's important to remember that the inclusion of streaming data within the Official Charts is in it's infancy and as downloads sales continue to decrease it will be interesting to see what happens as the Official Charts Company adapts the calculation they used to determine a per-stream rate to sale. Maybe we will see further adaptations of the Official Chart rules to prevent timeless hits surfacing on a weekly basis. I guess we shall have to wait and see!

Friday, 15 January 2016

Why the internet means there will never be another David Bowie

Earlier this week David Bowie died, he had already died many times before (through his reincarnations and musical transformations), but this time it was for real. Bowie died of an aggressive cancer only a few days after his 69th birthday; release day of his new album ‘Blackstar’. Little did we know at the time but Tony Visconti, producer and long-serving collaborator, has since revealed that ‘Blackstar’ was Bowie’s “parting gift” to his devoted fanbase.

Image by Helen Green

Throughout his career David Bowie carried an air of mystery wherever he went; in his chameleon like sound, in his constant visual reinvention and in his performance. In a world where it’s commonplace for musical artists to be within social grasp of their fanbase 24/7 it’s hard to imagine how an artist like Bowie could be birthed in the internet age.

Modern day comparisons of household names who constantly reinvent are few and far between and all seem to pale in significance when compared to the great man. Lady Gaga is one of a handful who can’t stand in the same place for too long, but it’s hard to imagine listening to one of her records 30 years from now. A quick look the ‘The Countess’s Twitter profile reveals that Gaga, like many other musicians, was a fan herself. Others pop artists with stature that come remotely close in terms of reinvention are perhaps Madonna and Prince, both making their breakthrough pre-internet.

What the internet gives in relation to interacting with and understanding an audience it certainly seems to take away in terms of the cloaked mystery that surrounded rockstars of the past. When I first started going to gigs pre-internet, or certainly before artists used the internet in the way they do today, the expectation of the unknown was was part of the fun. We knew what the band sounded like on record but other than the odd bootleg barely had an understanding of how they would sound live, what they would look like etc. we only knew how they were perceived in the media and printed press and that wasn't the real them! You would have to actually be there. With my fond memories of those early shows of what comparatively are fairly standard issue rockstars, it’s hard to fathom what it was like when my mother saw Ziggy Stardust arrived from whatever planet he was living on to play Hammersmith in 1973!

Although Bowie had a social presence late in his career it was rare for anything to be posted in his own voice or that he would use social media personally. But it was great to see how he took to the internet, or didn’t, around 2013’s surprise album ‘The Next Day’. We had not heard of the man for 10 years and then he dropped a 14 track album completely out of the blue! It was the man we loved being as mysterious and brilliant as ever.

This element of surprise was also something that surrounded what would become his final album release and untimely (or even artistically timed) death. ‘Blackstar’ is currently heading towards the top of the charts in both the US and the UK. Rather surprisingly if the album secures the top spot on the Billboard 200 it will be Bowie's first ever number 1 album in the United States selling a rumored 130,000 copies.

Bowie will take his brilliantly mysterious persona to the grave with him and it’s unlikely there will ever be another one like him, but maybe it’s meant to be that way. The stars are looking bright tonight.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

An open letter to Neil Young

To Mr. Young (or may I call you Neil?),

I have been a big fan of your music for years. I listen to you at home, at work, walking the streets of London, at friends’ houses and on my daily commute. But you recently removed all of your work from music streaming services and I wanted to point out why I think that was a bad move.

I’m aware your main issue with Spotify, Apple Music and other popular streaming services is that the quality in which the audio is broadcast is not of a standard that you feel represents your music fairly. As your music is available on MP3, CD and vinyl I’m going to presume that you consider these formats of a suitable standard. The majority of platforms available may not yet present audio to this quality, but I would argue that the average consumer generally does not care or simply can’t tell the difference. To demonstrate this I have included a video below in which some of the most popular streaming services were tested.

The test above actually includes Jay Z’s Tidal service that offers a premium lossless streaming tier, which is the same quality as a CD (at 1411 kbps). As you have seen in the video, nobody in the test can tell the difference.

What slightly upsets me about why you removed your music from streaming services is that your career to date has largely been about pushing boundaries. Your music was always very forward-thinking and ahead of its time. Your digital service Pono was a very interesting idea, even if it only spoke to a very select number of audiophiles. That’s what I love about you and your music, you have always been about evolution, and that’s why I think removing your music from streaming services was a bad move.

If you look back over the course of time and formats that have succeeded within music, the only thing that has remained true is convenience to the fan/consumer. Think about it, vinyl < cassette < CD < download < stream. As much as we would like to believe the mass consumer wants high quality audio, they don’t. I myself often find this hard to believe, but then again, I’m also not an average music consumer.

I buy almost all of my music on vinyl. I have three copies of your album Harvest — one on CD and two copies on vinyl. I think it’s that good! Up until recently I was also streaming that album (among others you have released) at work via my Spotify account. But since you removed it from the streaming service I have not been able to enjoy it at work. You have aggravated me as a fan but have also cannibalised a means of income for yourself.

But like I said, I’m not a typical music consumer and it can be hard to separate yourself from that mindset. The average music consumer simply won’t listen to any artist’s music via three different means of consumption and typically only has one preferred format. You have therefore alienated a specific type of listener, and future listeners, of your music.

What’s great about streaming platforms is that sharing is very much encouraged. The need to communicate is ingrained in human existence. If I find some music I love, I want to share it with friends. I can’t help myself! Streaming services help me achieve this with relative ease. So by not being on these services, you are also losing the ability for your music to reach new ears by the most organic means possible, word-of-mouth.

I respect your right as an artist to do whatever you like with your music; it’s your art. But the fact of the matter is that it’s my right as a paying consumer to listen to your music however I like! You can’t stop me from compressing an MP3 that I have paid for to a low bitrate and adding it to my phone (because I’m running short of space on the device and want to listen to more of your records), so why would you get protective about the audio quality of streaming services when very few can tell the difference?

You can’t change human intuition and you can’t stop evolution so why not come and ride the wave with me?

Thanks for listening and I hope to catch you when you are next on tour again in the UK (who knows, by then I may own my 4th copy of Harvest).

Dan Griffiths

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Pulling a Swifty?

This week marks the launch of Apple Music and it's an exciting time for the music industry. Streaming has long been a major part of what we perceive to be the future of the industry but we are only really starting to see heightened visibility on a national (even global) scale through recent coverage in the press and the introduction of the largest retailer of digital music to the streaming market; Apple.

The launch of Apple Music was watched by Apple devotees and industry insiders alike amidst rumours of an 'imminent' launch ever since Apple acquired Dr. Dre's Beats streaming service back in May 2014 for a reported $3 billion. Apple announced Apple Music at their WWDC 2015 conference in June but what was more intriguing than the initial launch was the dialogue that followed between Taylor Swift and Apples' Senior Vice President of Internet Software and Services Music Eddy Cue. Was it the greatest marketing ploy streaming has seen or just a happy accident?

It had been well publicised that Apple would not be paying artists for the initial 3 month trial period of the new service. Feeling this was unjust Swift took to her blog writing an open letter to Apple. In the letter she claimed "This is not about me" but instead about supporting up and coming independent artists, or in her own words...

"This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success. This is about the young songwriter who just got his or her first cut and thought that the royalties from that would get them out of debt. This is about the producer who works tirelessly to innovate and create, just like the innovators and creators at Apple are pioneering in their field…but will not get paid for a quarter of a year’s worth of plays on his or her songs."

The blog post was published on Sunday 21st June and was replied to later that day by Cue on Twitter. In the exchange Cue backed out of the agreement at a speed that would suggest no form of internal discussion where had, tweeting "We hear you @taylorswift13 and indie artists..." and "#AppleMusic will pay artist for streaming, even during customer's free trial period". Either that or perhaps discussions were already being had to change the agreement and a wave of heightened awareness was being ridden.

Although the speed of the response and u-turn in agreement started to raise alarm bells it has recently been confirmed that Swift's new album '1989' will appear on Apple Music. While in isolation this seems like no huge story what makes it particularly interesting is that the record has been windowed from large streaming services with a freemium tier (most notably Spotify) since launch.

Speaking about Spotify in an interview with Time magazine prior to the announcement of Apple Music Swift said, "I’m always up for trying something. And I tried it and I didn’t like the way it felt. I think there should be an inherent value placed on art.

"I didn't see that happening, perception-wise, when I put my music on Spotify. Everybody's complaining about how music sales are shrinking, but nobody's changing the way they're doing things. They keep running towards streaming, which is, for the most part, what has been shrinking the numbers of paid album sales.

"With Beats Music and Rhapsody you have to pay for a premium package in order to access my albums. And that places a perception of value on what I've created. On Spotify, they don't have any settings, or any kind of qualifications for who gets what music. I think that people should feel that there is a value to what musicians have created, and that's that."

Would this idea behind a free level of access not tar Apple Music with the same brush as Spotify? It has been reported that Apple Music may pay less than Spotify and Swift is seemingly happy to have her whole catalogue on the largest freemium video service; YouTube. Could this not be seen as double standards?

Whatever way you look at it the next 3 months mark an important and very interesting time for the music industry and its artists. Regardless of your view on the exchange and weather it was a very well thought out marketing exercise or not, one thing is clear, before nobody was talking about Swift's new album '1989' or Apple Music and now everyone is talking about both!

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Will Streaming Be The New Cable TV?

A few weeks ago rumours were starting to circulate about the impending launch of Apple’s new streaming service. The music industry has been waiting with bated breath ever since Apple acquired Dr. Dre's Beats streaming platform for $3 billion at the close of last year. One of the more interesting developments is the Apple service being strongly rumoured to not include a freemium tier (something which all of its competitors do). With this in mind, it's interesting to contemplate what streaming services may offer in the future, once what platforms bring to the market in a wider sense stabilises. If platforms were to shut the door on the freemium user, could they been seen as another form of cable TV?

If the uptake on a non-freemium platform was to be a success one can only imagine what the boosted revenues might bring. More editorial content and placements for exclusive content? Journalist and industry tastemaker acquisitions (such as Zane Lowe)? Higher streaming rates? More content exclusives for single platforms? We shall see.

What can be learned from the exclusive content that has been obtained by Tidal (premiering BeyoncĂ©’s performance video for ‘Die With You’, first exclusive play for Rihanna's 'American Oxygen' etc.) and Apple’s recent partnership with ex-Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe (and rumored acquisition of top Radio 1 producers James Burse, Natasha Lynch and Kieran Yeates) is that all streaming platforms are starting to realise they need editorial content to drive a specific type of listener. Maybe these listeners are the 'super fans' that encourage others? Their views appear to be shared by Google, whose Google Music streaming service recently introduced human curated playlists at centre stage on the apps homepage. Algorithms are impressive, and getting better all the time, but you need the perfect combination of technology and the human touch to really strike gold.

This desire for editorial content is fascinating and goes against the grain of download stores of the past, where reviews have been driven by the consumer. But exclusive content does not stop with the written word - let's face it, consumers are drawn to these platforms firstly to listen. Spotify was the early adopter of exclusive content with its long-standing 'Spotify Sessions’ live series. These are few and far between, however, and it would be great to develop a method whereby these could be rolled out more freely for artists of any size. The model is an interesting one, though, and it's not hard to imagine this extending to full-length studio albums either licensed or paid for entirely by a single streaming platform. Content, be that licences or paid for, could be exchanged for editorial content or higher algorithmic placements. Could streaming platforms be the record labels of the future?

The way in which content will be premiered via these platforms is likely to cause repercussions for other parts of the industry. What will happen to online press officers when they are pitching for un-monetised premieres across websites/blogs vs. monetised streaming services which (for a small windowing period) are likely to attract far more ears and eyeballs? It's an overlap we are already seeing in regard to video premieres, with press officer pitches overlapping with those of digital distributors.

The recent launch of Vessel, whose business model allows fans access to exclusive music video content days ahead of its rivals for only $2.99 per month for its ‘early access’ users, is in more of a similar vein to Netflix and other film and documentary streaming platforms than more traditional music services. Will we see platforms combining documentaries, film and music exclusives in the future? Although yet to be proven a success, Vessel’s business model further underlines the value that music platforms see in exclusive content as an asset to win over listeners from other services.

The bundling of content is another fascinating similarity between both the television and the music businesses. It's almost impossible to buy a Sky TV package without adding a landline and internet package for a nominal fee. This is mirrored by music streaming platforms as they partner with mobile phone operators, such as Deezer and Orange, Spotify and Vodafone etc.

If Apple’s streaming service is launched imminently it will be interesting to see how the next few months play out. If what appears to be a highly editorially-driven model proves to be a success, it's going to be interesting to see how existing platforms adapt or follow suit. Content started with man and it appears we aren't through with it just yet!

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Streaming: Is the price model wrong?

There is no doubt that the streaming model will continue to grow and become an even more dominant force in music consumption in 2015. Only a few weeks ago it was reported that streaming revenues in France have overtaken that of download revenue and it's only a matter of time before the rest of us follow suit.

Last year industry revenues from streaming rose by £114.7m, a year-on-year increase of almost 50% (with subscription services rising to £86.6m).  However, it must be noted that when looking at the industry as a whole,  the share of revenue from streaming is still relatively small and has not yet reached it’s full potential. With both physical (-9%) and download (-12%)  market share falling, this begs the question, what can be done to speed up the rate of transition? Have we got the pricing model right? We all waited with baited breath for the launch of YouTube's Music Key (which is currently in Beta), but is it priced too high for it's intended target market? Is a Spotify subscription too expensive for the casual listener to take a punt? 

Only the time will tell and yet content restrictions, pricing models and the limitations of cheap portable devices are concerns that stretch beyond?? the realms of the music industry alone. Recently I wanted to watch a football match between two huge Premiere league football teams (Manchester City and Everton in the FA Cup), the same fixture the previous season is said to have determined the result of who lifted the Premier League trophy, but this match was not being televised and was not even available to view online. It was a lost opportunity for both clubs, the league and it's official bodies to make a lot of money and yet this circumstance is not exclusive to this match or indeed football. The very same thing occurs every week in the UK (and without doubt the world) with lesser teams not being covered in the mainstream media. Ignoring the red tape, when we live in a world where the ability to stream and broadcast online is so cheap, and piracy is rife, why is it possible to stream a football match illegally but not pay for it when these matches are being recorded anyway? The same problem occurs in music with a lot of content that’s available in the public domain (be that B-sides, live recordings, remixes etc) simply not available to consume legally on streaming services.

The average 'premium' monthly subscription to a music streaming service (such as Spotify, WiMP, Deezer etc) in the UK costs £9.99 (or £119.88 PA) yet the average annual spend per music consumer is around £30. Surely these figures alone justify a cheaper paid tier? Yes, there are freemium models but we live in a world of portable? consumption. People don't want to only listen to music when they are tied to their PC, they want it on the train, in their car and more importantly when they have no data at all!

Some labels raise the argument that streaming revenues are too low but with streaming revenues on the rise maybe there are just not enough people using these services yet to fully understand the power the streaming model has.

The question is, how do we turn more casual listeners into streaming consumers? Well thanks to recent celebrity endorsed stories in the press, numbers have been on the increase. Taylor Swifts recent departure from Spotify saw the largest rise in subscribers in the service’s history and Jay-Z's bid for the company only a few weeks ago is likely to have a similar effect. The more difficult dilemma is how we turn the casual freemium user into a paid subscriber? For me the answer is simple, the price.

YouTube recently launch the Beta of it's Music Key, the service allows users to watch music video content from the platform offline (and also includes Google Music as part of the bundle). Although I'm a little confused as to why Music Key is limited to music and not YouTube as a whole, what confuses me the most is it's price. The average age of YouTube's audience in the UK is 18-24 year olds, with the most music on the platform being consumed by those aged 13-19. However, with the service being priced at £9.99 ($9.99/€9.99), surely this prices them out of the market before they have even got started?

What strikes me most? about streaming in general, is that while we are in this transitionary phase,  it's the early adopters that are being punished by the current pricing model rather than the companies picking up the slack. Is the industry yet again hurting the pockets of those that matter the most to it? After all it was the backlash against the industry and rise in piracy felt in the late 90’s/early 00's that was both a product of the industry's failure to keep up with modern technology and fan's fatigue with paying excessive prices for overpriced merchandise.

What does this mean for the future of streaming? Could it be that if prices of streaming services are not reduced then the transitionary period we are currently in is likely to take longer? It would appear that this maybe the mindset of Apple / Beats as their streaming service is rumoured to be cheaper than that of Spotify and others platforms leading the market. It's also a theory shared by Psonar who buck the monthly subscription platform in favour of a 'pay as you go' offering and also a rejuvenated Guvera who offer ‘access to millions of tracks at no cost thanks to our generous advertisers’.

One things for sure, we will only get a complete picture of the power of streaming when more users  adopt the technology, by whatever means it takes. Currently only one third of the world's population is online, imagine the possibilities when one of the other two thirds join the party!