The first-generation iPod appeared 15 years ago, ushering in the age of MP3s and downloading, and fundamentally altering the music industry in ways that are still being felt today (not to mention energising Apple and preparing the world for the rise of the smartphone). While digital music players had existed since the late ’90s, the iPod’s success popularised the technology and led to a seismic shift in how music is accessed.
Today, we are in the midst of another change in how we consume music. More and more people are abandoning owning files, just as they left behind physical media, and subscribing to music streaming services that let them access millions of songs without having to actually buy a single one. As these services battle it out for our attention, our data and our cash, we take a look at what the biggest players are offering, and how they sit in the existing app ecosystem.
Apple’s iTunes service was key to the rise of digital music, and its expansion over the years helped introduce concepts like the App Store to consumers, as smartphones began to overtake dedicated digital music players. However, as customers moved over to streaming services, Apple understood the need for a new offering that stood apart from its existing music download channel, so Apple Music was born.
The service had its genesis in Beats Music, the music streaming platform created by Jimmy Iovine and rapper Dr Dre as part of their Beats Electronics company. When Apple acquired Beats in 2014, Ian Rogers, Music CEO for Beats, was placed in charge of iTunes Radio, Apple’s existing (and underdeveloped) streaming platform.
After months of rumours and anticipation, Apple Music was launched on 30 June 2015. The service offers over 35m songs and thousands of playlists, with personalised recommendations for users, plus the Beats 1 radio station, a 24-hour broadcast led by DJ Zane Lowe. Among the exclusive releases the service has seen are Views From the 6 by Drake, which released on Apple Music a week ahead of other platforms, and 1989 by Taylor Swift, who has had a contentious relationship with streaming services in the past. Swift criticised Apple Music for not offering artists royalties during its three-month free trial but has since – after Apple changed its policy – endorsed and even starred in adverts for the service.
Apple Music has quickly amassed users, especially thanks to its three-month trial period which saw many consumers sign up and, in many cases, simply forget to switch off. The service charges $9.99 a month for membership, or households can purchase a family plan for multiple devices and users for $14.99 (£11.35) a month. The last confirmed figures from Apple give the service over 15m subscribers in over 100 countries. While this is hardly the largest service we’re looking at, the speed at which Apple Music has hit this figure is truly impressive, with early numbers suggesting the service is adding subscribers at a rate of around 2m a month, even a year after launching. Clearly, Apple Music aims to take up the throne that iTunes has so recently vacated, as the premier platform of the new age of music consumption.
Paris-based streaming service Deezer was originally developed by Daniel Marhely in 2006, and was called Blogmusik in its initial incarnation. The service was intended to give users unlimited access to music via streaming technology, but soon ran into issues over copyright infringement. Relaunching as Deezer in 2007, it still focused on streaming but also enabled users to buy tracks via iTunes. Deezer grew rapidly over the next few years, establishing deals with major record labels and reaching 7m users after just over two years of operations.
In addition to investment, Deezer supported itself by running ads, managed through its own ad agency, Deezer Media, as well as introducing an ad-free subscription model. However, the subscription model struggled to take off, attracting less than 15,000 of Deezer’s 12m users by 2010. An overhaul saw the company partner with Orange to package subscriptions with phone contracts in France, a move that saw sign-up rates grow almost 20-fold. The service has continued this successful tactic through partnerships with Samsung, Toshiba and Sonos to bundle subscriptions with smartphones, connected TVs and hi-fi systems.
The service currently works on a three-tier model. Discovery, its free mode, is supported by ads, with limited track skipping and no offline playback. Premium+ removes ads and skip limits for a €9.99 a month fee, while Elite subscriptions, costing €14.99, provide access to higher quality audio files, but can only be played offline through Sonos systems. Deezer boasts around 6m subscribers, but only around half of those are considered active (having played at least 30 seconds of music in the last month). Most of the rest gained access to service through mobile contracts but have never bothered to actually use it.
One of Deezer’s biggest challenges, and also one of its most substantial opportunities, is in the US. While the platform launched there in 2013, it was only available on a limited number of devices until earlier this year. Another deal with a mobile operator or smartphone maker in the US market could see it dramatically increase its subscriber numbers, and hopefully transform them into regular users. Deezer does boast more available tracks than both Apple Music and Spotify, with around 40m songs in its service. However, with little in the way of exclusive content, and many US consumers already locked in to at least one other streaming service, it may be facing an uphill struggle.
First conceived in 2000, Pandora is something of an odd-one-out among streaming services, more closely resembling a radio station than a digital music player. The platform creates a playlist based on a genre or particular artist’s style, with users’ control limited to a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ button for individual songs. Tracks can be skipped, but only 12 times in a 24-hour period.
The platform is largely used as a free service, and is financially supported mainly through advertising, as well as by providing businesses with licensed radio stations they can play in public locations. Listening via the service’s mobile app was originally limited to 40 hours per month, but Pandora removed that limitation in September 2013 in light of mobile’s increasing popularity. An estimated 91 per cent of all listening on the platform now comes from mobile devices.
Due to the nature of its licensing deal with the major record companies, Pandora only operates in the US, Australia and New Zealand, making it something of an unknown brand to consumers outside those countries. Within these markets, however, it is a huge player. According to figures from the end of 2013, Pandora accounted for 70 per cent of all internet radio and eight per cent of total radio listening in the US. The service has over 250m users, around 75m of whom are monthly active listeners. In Q2 2016, users listened to over 5.5bn hours of music via the service.
Despite these huge numbers, Pandora hasn’t attracted a large subscriber base. It offers ad-free listening for $4.99 a month or $54.89 annually, but less than five per cent of active listeners have signed up for subscriptions. That may soon change, with the company reportedly exploring a more traditional streaming model to accompany its free, radio-style system, but there’s been no official confirmation of this yet.
The ad-supported model makes Pandora one of the most viable marketing platforms of the music streaming age. Its huge audience generates 1bn data points a day, and can be targeted programmatically using over 700 data segments. Plus, for those listening via mobile, audio spots can be supported with display, rich media and video ads onscreen. Pandora may be the odd-one-out, but it’s a model that businesses love.
In many ways, Spotify is the brand to beat when it comes to music streaming services. The Swedish firm has become almost synonymous with digital streaming platforms and, justifiably or not, has served as a lightning rod for some of the controversial issues surrounding the evolving way we consume music in the 21st century. The degree to which artists are compensated for their music being played on streaming services has dominated debate surrounding these platforms, and has led to high-profile clashes between artists like Taylor Swift and Thom Yorke, and companies like Spotify.
Whether Spotify represents a fair deal for artists is up for debate, but the service’s popularity is undeniable. As of June 2016, the platform boasts half a billion registered users, 100m monthly active users and over 30m paying subscribers. Spotify is available in over 50 languages, and operates in Western Europe, North and South America, and Australia. In the US, 15 per cent of smartphone users have the dedicated Spotify app on their mobile and, with 39m monthly active users, the Facebook version of its app – which was heavily marketed in the US – is one of the most popular applications hosted within the social network.
Spotify’s subscription packages set the rhythm for industry standards, with Premium costing £9.99 a month for unlimited, ad-free HD-quality audio, which can be listened to offline. A Family package is also available for £14.99 a month. Unlike Apple Music, Spotify also offers a free, ad-supported version. On mobile, the free version includes unlimited plays, but only in ‘shuffle’ mode.
One of Spotify’s big selling points is its music curation functionality, with an active community of users, built up over almost 10 years of operation, who put together their own playlists, on top of the company’s own. While the service has roughly the same number of songs in total as Apple Music, Spotify seems to have cracked music recommendation in a way that Apple has yet to match. Its Discover Weekly playlist – a personalised, algorithmically generated list of 30 songs that it updates every Monday – boasts 40m subscribers, a huge portion of its user base, with more than half of those listening to at least 10 tracks a week and saving at least one song to their own playlists.
While Apple Music may have been highly anticipated by everyone in the tech industry, the highest-profile launch almost certainly belongs to Tidal. The service was unveiled in a press conference involving Jay Z, Beyoncé, Prince, Madonna, Kanye West, Daft Punk, Jack White, Calvin Harris and Coldplay’s Chris Martin among others. Tidal was created by a team of Norwegian and Swedish developers called Aspiro, but rose to prominence when it was acquired by Jay-Z and relaunched in March 2015.
The service focuses on a high-fidelity audio offering that promises over 25m tracks of lossless audio and more than 85,000 high-definition music videos, with curated channels and playlists. Thanks largely to its status as a musician-owned platform, Tidal reportedly pays the highest percentage of royalties to artists and songwriters within the music streaming market, and maintains close relationships with many performers.
Those close relationships underpin Tidal’s unique selling point in the music streaming market – its large number of exclusive releases. Most of the artists who have a stake in the ownership have either released tracks early on Tidal or have songs that are only available on the platform. Among the high-profile releases to debut on the service are Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Rihanna’s Anti. In addition, the platform is the only streaming service to offer Prince’s entire back catalogue of albums, most of which have been pulled from other streaming services.
Tidal’s high-fidelity audio and exclusive tracks come at a cost, however. Tidal Premium costs £9.99 a month, while Tidal HiFi, which grants access to the lossless audio version of songs, sets users back £19.99 a month. Both levels of subscription are entirely ad-free and offer unlimited plays. The higher price level for accessing the lossless audio, combined with a launch that, despite being high-profile, left many consumers confused over what differentiated Tidal from other services, have meant the platform has struggled to attract subscribers in its first year, with only 3m signed up so far. Whether Tidal has the legs to survive will depend largely on the power of its exclusive releases to draw in new users who are willing to pay.
This article first appeared in the June 2016 print edition of Mobile Marketing. You can read the whole issue here.