December 23, 2015:2015’s top 100 digital music stories

2015’s top 100 digital music stories

What a year, eh? From Taylor Swift and Adele to Apple Music and YouTube Red, taking in cancelled IPOs, mouthy label bosses and a Tidal relaunch event that saw Deadmau5 shunted out of position to avoid “helmet clash” with Daft Punk.

And of course, there was the shutdown of Grooveshark; the launch and shutdown of Aurous within the space of a few days; New Music Fridays; pontification about humans versus algorithms; excitable blockchain babbling and a leaked contract (or three).

All these and more are among Music Ally’s pick of the top 100 digital music stories of 2015. Read on if you want to start at the top, or if you prefer counting up from the bottom, click here to begin with numbers 61-100.

1. Taylor Swift shakes Apple up

The launch of streaming service Apple Music was clearly the big story of 2015, but its strangest aspect was the fact that it so nearly launched with a free trial that didn’t pay creators. One Taylor Swift blog post later – although a week of concerted pressure from independent labels beforehand was also crucial – and Apple was ditching Plan A.

It was a strange mistake to (almost) have made, given the pre-launch publicity around Apple Music as a more artist-friendly alternative to Spotify’s freemium model. But Swift’s role in the u-turn was illustrative of another trend: the role of major artists as players of some clout in the streaming ecosystem, in contrast to the music industry’s previous format shifts. And before the end of 2015, we had another example…

2. Adele goes her own way

Yes, she sold a shedload of albums, but the strategy for ’25’ included two decisions with big digital ramifications. First, she kept her new album off all streaming services, rather than inking a long-rumoured exclusive with Apple. Second, she opted to work with Songkick to sell 40% of the tickets to her UK and European tour directly to fans, while barring more than 18,000 “known or likely” touts from buying them.

Despite a privacy scare on day one of the pre-sale, the partnership delivered a challenge to other prominent artists – and the wider industry – around the secondary-ticketing market. Meanwhile, the ’25’ campaign was smart and effective, from the album’s first teaser ad running within X Factor UK, to the 264m Spotify streams and 744m YouTube views of her ‘Hello’ single that primed album buyers around the world.

3. SoundCloud settles with PRS for Music

Just in time for Christmas, collecting society PRS for Music and streaming service SoundCloud made peace with a licensing pact. That means no court battle in 2016 that would have had major implications for the way ‘safe harbour’ legislation is interpreted in Europe – and a knock-on effect for YouTube among other internet services.

Crucially, the settlement covered SoundCloud’s existing free service since its launch, rather than simply its upcoming subscription tier. Does this mean arguments over safe harbour have been parked? Certainly not, but it means that in 2016, those arguments will focus on lobbying in Brussels, rather than in a high-profile court case. Meanwhile, SoundCloud must press on to secure deals with UMG and Sony Music in order to launch that subscription tier.

4. YouTube Music Key canned before launch

YouTube Music Key was YouTube’s long-awaited move into premium music subscriptions, but it never made it past the beta stage. After extending Music Key’s free trial twice, YouTube ultimately decided to roll it into the wider YouTube Red subscription. Only available in the US so far, for $9.99 a month it strips out the ads, allows offline cacheing of videos, and like a shortform Netflix throws in some exclusive shows from top YouTubers.

The big question – unanswered in 2015 – was whether a service historically focused on free, ad-supported content could persuade even a small sliver of its billion-plus viewers to start paying. 2016 will show whether YouTube is serious about subscriptions, not to mention how music shapes up against PewDiePie for viewing time and revenue share.

5. Deezer postpones its IPO

Deezer sprang two big financial surprises in a matter of weeks this autumn: first by announcing plans to go public, and then by cancelling them five weeks later. In truth, the company’s assessment that “market conditions” weren’t right for an IPO was correct, even if it begged the question as to why that hadn’t been clear in the first place.

But the IPO filing was a big moment for another reason: it shed light on Deezer’s much-discussed subscriber numbers. The company claimed 6.34 million subscribers at the end of June, but 3.34 million of those were “monthly inactive bundle subscribers” getting Deezer as part of a mobile contract, but not using it – and in fact, only 796,000 of them were generating any revenue for Deezer. It was an insight into the risks of the telco bundle deals that have been so prized by streaming services.

6. Tidal becomes Jay-Z’s 100th problem

Norwegian firm Aspiro’s WiMP streaming service had a well-deserved reputation for innovation: from bundling audio with music videos and proper editorial through to introducing a twice-the-price lossless-quality ’HiFi’ tier. Yet in March, Aspiro was bought by Jay-Z, who completed the already-underway process of rebranding WiMP as Tidal and launching it globally, while bringing on a starry cast of co-owners drawn from his artist peers.

But that’s the moment when Tidal’s wave started to ebb away: a misfiring launch event set the tone – derision – for much of the year’s media coverage of Tidal. Ditching a pair of CEOs and losing well-regarded executive Vania Schlogel were setbacks, but Tidal made some sensible moves too: launching an emerging-artists initiative, exploring live video streams and e-commerce, and reportedly striking a deal to become the first streaming service to use the new MQA technology for even better audio quality in 2016.

7. The Beatles go streaming

At the time of publishing this, the Beatles’ launch on streaming services has not been officially announced – but it’s certainly happening. They’d previously been the biggest holdout by far in the streaming world, despite making their back catalogue available as downloads through an exclusive iTunes deal in 2010.

The news has been coming for a while though: George Harrison’s solo work was added to streaming services in October this year, following John Lennon’s in October 2014, with Paul McCartney’s having returned to Spotify and similar services in November 2012 after a two-year holdout. For a heritage act that’s done a good job exploiting its back catalogue as CDs and downloads, streaming fulfils a new role: connecting with a younger audience. Although we’d be surprised if even the Beatles can rival the monthly listener counts of the likes of Drake and Rihanna on Spotify in the longer term.

8. Lucian Grainge vs freemium

2015 was an unsettling year for Universal Music, as its digital boss Rob Wells exited in February, while rivals gossiped about the intentions of UMG’s parent company Vivendi and its army of management consultants. Chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge’s new five-year contract in July at least put paid to any speculation about his future, but Grainge had already been driving another public debate: about the value of free, on-demand music-streaming.

“The ad-funded part of the music ecosystem – that’s on-demand, ad-funded – as I’ve said before, is not something that is particularly sustainable in the long-term,” said Grainge at the Code/Media conference in February. “Ad-funded on demand is not going to sustain the entire ecosystem of the creators as well as the investors.” Cue months of industry jungle-drums beating the tune that Grainge wanted to crack down on Spotify’s free tier in particular – egged on, so many said, by Apple.

9. Kobalt reveals AMRA ambitions

Why would Google invest in a company with its roots in music publishing? Answers on a postcard with a full complement of metadata, please. But Kobalt’s $60m funding round in February was led by Google Ventures, whose managing partner Bill Maris told us that “We don’t see them as a music industry company. We look at them as a technology company – but it happens to be in the music industry.”

As notable as that funding round was, though, Kobalt’s most interesting move came in June when it relaunched the American Music Rights Association (AMRA) as “the first global, direct, digital mechanical and performing rights society”. It swiftly struck licensing deals with Apple Music and YouTube, and by November Kobalt boss Willard Ahdritz was publicly roasting traditional collecting societies that “don’t want to be transparent”. This battle will be worth watching in 2016.

10. Pandora’s full-stack music future

Pandora made plenty of headlines in 2015, but the bigger story is the personal radio service’s ambitions to expand – both the nature of its service and the territories it’s available in. Pandora splashed an undisclosed amount on analytics firm Next Big Sound, then $450m on ticketing firm Ticketfly, then $75m on the assets (but notably not the debts) of streaming service Rdio: three acquisitions that set it up for a future where (so it hopes) the big data from free radio-style streaming fuels both ticket sales and streaming subscriptions – and in many more countries than just the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Then came December’s Copyright Royalty Board ruling setting US ‘commercial nonsubscription services’ rates at $0.0017 per stream in 2016, closer to the rate Pandora had been lobbying for than the $0.0025 mooted by SoundExchange on behalf of labels. Investors cheered, and Pandora’s chances of making a go of that full-stack future rose accordingly.

That’s the top 10, now read numbers 11 to 30!

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Stuart Dredge
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