Despite SoundCloud’s repeated protestations that it’s not on the verge of going under, the scuttlebutt has been that it is indeed just a few months from running out of cash, and two recent new investors have been reported as potential saviors: Singapore’s Temasek Holdings and the Raine Group. SoundCloud is now reportedly communicating with existing investors and asking them to back the rescue effort by these two new backers as a last-ditch attempt to avoid having to wind down the business. Some of the numbers involved are a bit crazy – the new investment is $169.5 million at a $150 million pre-money enterprise valuation and some existing shareholders will see their liquidity preference slashed by 40%. But all this would apparently put the company on a much sounder financial footing and allow it to consider searching for a way out of its current predicament. I’m still bearish that there’s any way to really turn SoundCloud around given its history and what’s happened in the industry since it experienced its meteoric rise, and imagine the most likely long-term outcome is still an acquisition for intellectual property and possibly customer data. Update: Recode is reporting that the CEO will be replaced and kicked upstairs to the board chair role in favor of former Vimeo CEO Kerry Trainor if the deal goes through, which now seems very likely based on other reporting later in the day.
NBCU to Shut Down Seeso Comedy Subscription Service (Aug 9, 2017)
Pandora’s Premium Subscription Growth Slows in Q2 (Jul 31, 2017)
Spotify Has 60 Million Paid Subscribers (Jul 31, 2017)
The Financial Times reports that Spotify has hit the 60 million paid subscriber milestone, a fact that has now been confirmed by the company’s press site, where it also says it has 140 million active users in total, suggesting 80 million free users. It had previously reported 50 million paid users in early March of this year, suggesting it took just under 5 months to add a million subscribers, while Apple Music added around half that over the same period. It’s been fascinating to watch Spotify’s growth accelerate in the aftermath of Apple’s launch of its competing service, as streaming takes off as the dominant form of music consumption and paid subscriptions generate the vast majority of streaming revenue. That’s indicative of Spotify’s success in both establishing itself as the de facto standard in the market and creating social features that help win new subscribers, and also at signing partnerships with wireless carriers and others who help promote discounted subscriptions. As Spotify’s financial results for last year show, its average revenue per paid subscriber has been dropping rapidly, something I suspect has continued this year. But it’s the paid business that’s profitable on a segment basis, while free streaming loses money, which is why I suggested in a piece for Variety last week that it ditch the free tier. I’m only partially serious about that – the free tier remains by far Spotify’s best marketing tool, but it also remains a point of contention with the music labels, among which Warner is the remaining holdout in signing a new long-term deal.
via Financial Times
Netflix Squeezes Fox Out of Top 4 Must-Keep Viewing Options (Jul 12, 2017)
BuzzAngle, a company which tracks the North American music industry, has released a first-half 2017 report, with lots of numbers on music consumption patterns in the US over the past six months, and Variety here has a summary of some of the key findings. One of the most striking numbers to me is that subscription streams accounted for nearly 80% of total streaming audio plays in the first half, with ad-based streaming only driving 21% of listens. That was slightly surprising to me, because the number of ad-based streaming music users is much higher than the number of paid subscribers, so I went back and checked some earlier data from BuzzAngle in this year-end 2016 report. It appears that this balance began to shift dramatically starting in the middle of 2015, which is not coincidentally when Apple Music launched. Importantly, BuzzAngle treats streaming video plays of music (e.g. music videos on YouTube) as a separate category, so the split mentioned above only accounts for pure audio streaming such as Spotify’s free and paid tiers and their equivalents. But it’s still striking that the balance has gone from roughly 50/50 between subscription and free audio streaming at the beginning of 2015 to 80/20 in Q2 of this year. And in Q2, subscription audio streaming actually eclipsed combined ad-based audio and video streams for the first time, so it’s now the largest category even when video plays are included. It’s worth remembering that this is US data, and the US has shifted dramatically from being a streaming laggard to being a leader over the last few years, so this certainly isn’t reflective of global behavior. But it is worth noting that subscription music streaming not only provides the vast majority of revenue and profits in the US, but now also a majority of actual plays as well.
AT&T More than Doubles DirecTV Now Live Local Channel Lineup (Jun 30, 2017)
Jay-Z, one of the principal owners of the Tidal music streaming service, released his latest album, 4:44, on the service last night through a partnership with Sprint, which of course recently invested in the service and gave its subscribers six months’ free access. The intent was clearly to get more people to sign up for the service, while rewarding Sprint customers, but the effect was to aggravate many others who assumed they could merely sign up for the service after the album dropped and then found that it wasn’t available, at least right away. In addition, the exclusive seems pretty porous, and potentially short-lived: iHeartRadio has been streaming the album and will continue to do so for the first day, while Apple Music is reportedly getting the album a week in too. That’s a reflection mostly of the realities of the industry: though Jay-Z and Tidal’s other owners might like the idea of boosting subscriptions through exclusives like this, the reality is that the service has a tiny fraction of global streaming users, and over the long term Jay-Z and other artists are best served by the broadest possible distribution, especially given that he can’t pay himself for the exclusive in the way Apple has paid for them in the past. Exclusives generally seem to be waning as a source of differentiation for music services, but for Tidal its connection to artists (several of whom have been owners) has always been a major selling point. But if even its artist owners aren’t willing to stay the course on exclusives for more than a few days, it doesn’t have much hope of ever reaching significant scale, making the Sprint investment more of a temporary lifeline than true salvation.
Back in March, there were reports that AMC was looking to provide an ad-free version of its TV network through pay TV operators, though the specifics weren’t then known. Today, AMC and Comcast have announced that the service will run (for now at least) as a partnership between them, providing AMC Premiere as a video on demand service through Comcast’s set top boxes and apps for $5 per month. As I said in March, that’s a hefty price for a network which commands just a fraction of that from pay TV operators each month, and which generates only half its current revenue from advertising. It may have decided that pricing a service below $5 per month devalues it, but the $5 price point clearly overvalues it, especially given that it won’t be a standalone service – in other words, you have to be an Xfinity pay TV subscriber to be able to get the service, so this is an add-on to the standard AMC channel, not an alternative to it. Taking a step back, the move clearly taps into a broad consumer push to get ad-free TV, something which Netflix has always offered and Hulu has made something of a default recently too for VoD. And of course competitors like HBO have never had ads either, but they also have massively more content including lots of big-budget original content to justify a higher price. This feels like a good concept in principle, but both the wrong channel to apply it to and the wrong price point for what AMC actually offers. I’m looking forward to better applications of the same idea from other content owners.
Amazon’s Twitch Adding New Features on Mobile App (Jun 29, 2017)
Amazon’s Twitch streaming service is adding a bunch of new features to its streaming app in July, something I missed yesterday. The big addition is streaming live video (though not the usual gameplay video) from the mobile app itself, something which will be useful for direct-to-camera or other vlogging-type content which Twitch is trying to push as it expands beyond its core historical gaming video roots. Twitch also touted 83m downloads of its app, though with just under 10m daily active users, that number feels a bit irrelevant, and merely highlights the fairly small percentage of people who’ve tried the app who use it daily. The 9.7m daily active user number is also a great illustration of how niche a video platform Twitch remains, though it’s clearly very important to the users it does have: they spend an average of 106 minutes per day on the site, which is huge. But given YouTube’s recent 1.5 billion monthly user announcement, it’s clear that Twitch is still a marginal player in the overall video space, even if it’s a much more significant one in the gaming segment specifically. Something else I’d never really looked at before but is stark once you do look is the fact that there’s basically no sign anywhere on Twitch that it has anything to do with Amazon, even on the About page. So it’s clear that, though Amazon likely has some integration plans in mind longer term, for now it’s very much running as a separate independent entity, much as Zappos always has in the e-commerce space.
Spectrum TV, which is the brand for television services offered by the entity formed from the merger of Charter, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks, is offering an over the top pay TV streaming service. So far, that probably sounds pretty me-too, but there are two important differences: firstly, the base $20 tier excludes all sports networks, and secondly, because this service is being offered by an existing pay TV provider in its franchise area, it includes the local broadcast channels. The big caveat is that the service is only available to Spectrum broadband subscribers, so this isn’t a national offering, but it’s arguably the most comprehensive set of basic channels offered by any of the streaming services, and sports and premium channels can be added at a pretty reasonable price ($12 for ESPN and others, and $15 for a premium package). I’ve long argued that the existing pay TV providers are in the best position to offer a really compelling streaming TV service, but of course they’re also the least incentivized to do so, because that means potentially cannibalizing their legacy pay TV services. As such, we’ve only seen fairly hamstrung offerings from the big satellite providers (DISH’s Sling and AT&T’s DirecTV Now). But Spectrum’s new service suggests we may finally be seeing some serious movement from the cable guys, and were Comcast to move in this direction too (something it’s been testing on a limited basis so far), I have to believe that would force the remaining telco and satellite players to get more serious about providing comprehensive streaming pay TV services.
Any service which becomes central enough to its users’ lives eventually has aspects which become essentially intimate to the user: what feel like private places where the user feels extremely comfortable, and where intrusions of content, ads, or other unwanted outside elements feel like a violation. I suspect users’ own playlists on Spotify feel like just such a place to its loyal users, and so the news that Spotify is testing a “Sponsored Song” ad unit in which songs are literally placed into users’ playlists should be concerning. Almost every ad-based business model eventually engages in such violations, either temporarily or permanently, because the drive is always to push the boundaries of ad load and the places where ads can show – the most valuable real estate is also often the most invasive, and each ad platform has to draw its own line between what is and isn’t acceptable in the pursuit of ad dollars. Spotify’s recently leaked full results for 2016 show that its ad-based business is loss-making even on a gross margin basis, while its subscription business is profitable on that same basis, so there’s always going to be a push to squeeze more ad revenue out of each user. I’ve recently finished a piece for Variety which will publish in the next couple of weeks in which I argue that Spotify should in fact ditch its free tier and go subscription-only, because of all the tradeoffs the ad-based business forces, especially in its relationships with labels. But these types of encroachments into what should be sacrosanct aspects of the user experience are another example of the risks of the free tier, especially relative to the small rewards – just 10% of Spotify’s revenue in 2016.