The Dog in the Manger

Nobody ever claims to have contributed to a traffic jam, despite all the evidence around them when they are doing so. And clearly had they not contributed, the jam would have been less of a delay for everyone, especially them. So it is with yearly summaries of markets; the great temptation is to see the aggregate as something to beat, or be beaten by, or as an inexorable force that prevents good outcomes for oneself while making inevitable better outcomes for one’s competitors or vice versa. Or, as some kind of gestalt which absolves participants from their responsibility to repair and regenerate for next year what this year they have fed off.

Quick off the mark UK 2014 music numbers from the BPI are reported in the FT this New Year’s Day 2015, and they show a retail value decline of 2% to £1.03b. While that might not sound like much it is still about £20m that record companies and artists had last year and not this. The FT is absolutely sure about the cause of the decline, which it ascribes to the effect on downloads of the growth of streaming services, which in revenue terms are up 65% to £175m compared to 2013. A bit of math tells us that roughly speaking, if the relationship is simple and the numbers are right, every £1 in streaming growth reduces the retail value of recorded music by about 30p. Of course nothing is quite so simple, but it is an interesting thought nevertheless.

And here’s the bit where we play spot the dog. On 1st August Vivendi put out a press release so brief I can quote the whole thing:

Vivendi announced today that its subsidiary UMG has completed the sale of its share (approximately 13%) in Beats to Apple for a total amount of 404 million USD.

That is £260m of revenue for the world’s largest music company that cannot and should not figure in any of the retail recorded music markets, but that few could honestly argue is completely unrelated to UMG’s portfolio of recorded music rights and roster of popular artists. If 10% of that were returned to the UK recorded music revenue pool it would more than offset the loss that the FT considers due to streaming. Perhaps the FT needs a better model!

That £1.03b retail value returns probably around £700m wholesale revenue to suppliers, and as the FT points out we do like our local music currently with all of the top 10 albums coming from UK artists. It would be foolish even to try to second guess how Apple’s acquisition of Beats is going to grow the retail value of recorded music in the UK. Taking 10% as perhaps a slightly generous estimate of the UK’s share of the world market, approximately £200m of the price of Beats needs to wash its face in Blighty. Coincidentally, a 10% annual return on an investment that size would be remarkably close to the £20m net shrinkage in the retail market last year. If significant growth in the UK market seems a bit far fetched, especially against the net shrinkage that success with Beats seems more likely to cause, there are two other obvious ways buying a competitor can be justified. A defensive buy neutralises future threat; consolidation also controls wholesale prices.

The dog in the manger eats none of the food it so assiduously guards. If streaming is popular among downloaders, then it is missing by a wide mile the theoretical average person of wage earning age. UK resident 16-75 year olds averagely spend roughly £23 each on recorded music each year. Spotify subscribers spend £99.96 excluding VAT on their annual subscription. To get the net shrinkage observed in the annual numbers, each of those would have formerly to have had a £156 per year download and CD habit. In a Gaussian worldview, perhaps that £99.96 could represent a point from which to measure likelihood of consumers to convert from ad hoc sales to a fixed and predictable future spend, less than ideal to the extent to which it shrinks the total pool (currently about 1:1.3 according to the BPI numbers). But even if it were 1.3:1 it would not necessarily follow that the manger was fuller, nor that anyone could get at the food.

Wholesale revenue could be under more pressure than retail, for several reasons. Inventory continues to grow (with 43m tracks reportedly on iTunes worldwide) increasing competition which reportedly, at least for now, Apple with its single take-it-or-leave-it indie deal is not taking advantage of. More of the wholesale revenue is now going to suppliers of public domain recordings, and this will only grow as the public domain expands each year (retailers could usefully tweak the incentives in that area).

And the new wildcard is changes in private copying regulation which introduce new competition at the retail level from music lockers, which will be exempted from licensing and not required to pay compensatory levies. These will offer mobile access to music collections and could be filled with rips from second hand CDs, or worse, files found from who knows where. And just as with Vivendi’s Beats sale, locker money is part of the music economy but not part of the music market.

So the conclusion, after a little excursion around 2014 in the industry is that there are several quite surprising dogs in the manger. Between them they contributed to a 2% decline in the retail value of recorded music in the UK, with further declines anticipated. Market gestalt says that this will be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Perhaps 2015 will bring a much needed new manger.

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