Music Ally spent 2015 covering every aspect of the digital music world, from Spotify and Apple Music to YouTube and SoundCloud, taking in crowdfunding, hacking, Shakira and the return (unknown to her or her label) of Jessica Simpson.
We’ve rounded up our 100 key stories of 2015, with numbers 61 to 100 below. Scroll down and start at the bottom if you fancy a chart-like climb to number one, but if you’d rather start at the top, click here to get to numbers 1 to 10.
In October, Forbes published a chart of the top-earning YouTube stars from the last year, with classical musician Lindsey in fourth place with estimated earnings of $6m from sales and touring. Forget viral outlier Psy: Stirling is a more useful example of an emerging star who built her audience on YouTube first.
Pandora’s $75m acquisition of Rdio’s assets is covered further up this roundup, but Rdio’s bankruptcy and shutdown deserves its own entry here. We’re sad to see the service go: it was genuinely innovative on several fronts, from its design and emphasis on social features to its music collections. Yet by the time of its demise it was losing more than $2m a month. Rdio’s abrupt farewell hints at a tough 2016 for other smaller players in the streaming world.
We’ve seen digital crackdowns in China before on piracy, but the government’s move in November was more aimed at “harmful” content – an extension of censorship to the streaming music market, in other words. It followed the distribution in August of a list of 120 tracks deemed “morally harmful” – many of them hip-hop tracks.
Kevin Kadish was partly responsible for one of the year’s biggest hits: Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’. But he made waves when testifying to a Congressional hearing that 178m streams of the song had only earned him $5,679. Despite reports that this was ‘streaming’ generally, it turned out that the payout was purely from Pandora – but it was still a very relevant stat to have aired publicly.
It was a woeful year for dance-music firm SFX Entertainment – and not much better for its Beatport subsidiary. In August, Beatport raised warning bells by admitting to label partners that it could not pay them money for music sold on its service – blaming SFX’s attempts to go private for having “trapped certain earned label payments”. Once payments restarted, SFX boss Robert Sillerman didn’t mince his words: “The way we handled this was inexcusable and should never have happened.”
After a long-running legal dispute involving artists including Chuck D, Whitesnake and the estate of Rick James, Universal settled a case over how it classified download sales: as sales (paying out 15% of net receipts to artists) or licences (more like 50%). In settling for $11.5m of compensation to around 7,500 artists, Universal became the third major to settle in a row that – despite it making no admission of wrongdoing – had negatively affected relations between artists and labels.
Spotify doesn’t (or rather, didn’t) allow artists to restrict their music to its premium subscribers only – which was key to its dispute with Taylor Swift. Yet this year, one track WAS windowed for subscribers: a Muse song called ‘The Globalist’ was made premium-only due to a marketing deal. “A unique offer within a bespoke joint marketing campaign with Sony PlayStation, rather than our shift in our content approach,” said Spotify, at the time.
No lucrative IPO or acquisition exit for Kickstarter: in September the crowdfunding company restructured itself as a “public benefit corporation” (PBC) focused as much on its social impact as on its profits. CEO Yancey Strickler’s explanation of the move at November’s Web Summit conference will have been cheered by musicians: “We believe that a universe only driven by profit maximisation can be poisonous, to culture especially.”
YouTube’s relationship with labels may be on the thaw thanks to YouTube Red, but the company still has teeth when it comes to takedowns. In November YouTube announced a pushback against “legally unsupported DMCA takedowns” from music, TV and other rightsholders. It will defend people in court if it thinks they have a case, and will feature them in its YouTube Copyright Center as examples of fair use.
The first time we wrote about Vessel – the new startup from former Hulu CEO Jason Kilar – was in 2014, and it was very much aimed at YouTube stars. By the time of its launch in January, though, it had bagged a deal with Warner Music, with Universal following shortly after. Vessel represented a test on whether early access to music videos was monetisable, although with no numbers released since, the jury is out on whether it has succeeded.
Digital distributor TuneCore revealed that it had been hacked in November, with customer details – including the final four digital of credit cards and bank accounts for those doing financial transactions – having been stolen. It was the latest reminder that music companies, from tech firms to labels, are among the targets of cybercriminals.
Google’s Chromecast is a several million-selling gadget that helps people sling video, music and apps from their smartphone to their TV. The Chromecast Audio was released in October: a $35 device that turns ‘dumb’ hi-fis into Sonos-style connected music players. The release also saw Google add Spotify to its roster of Chromecast partners for the first time.
If we do another key stories roundup in 2016, we’re betting that MQA might be higher up the list. The high-definition audio technology was originally invented within Meridian Audio, but is now spinning off as a separate company – with a deal with Tidal already in the works. 2014 only hinted at its potential, but the unveiling of the first MQA-compatible music player by Pioneer was a taste.
Music Ally broke the story of Apple’s purchase of London startup Semetric in January for an undisclosed amount, and the deal had wider significance than simply paving the way for Apple Music’s launch later in the year. The company’s Musicmetric analytics service was – alongside Next Big Sound – a popular source of streaming and social data for music industry clients. By the end of the year, both had been snapped up, with Next Big Sound owned by Pandora.
One of two fascinating $60m funding rounds of the year in the music space – Kobalt’s was the other – digital distributor and MCN Believe Digital got its funding from investors including Technology Crossover Ventures – which has specialised in late-stage investments in companies including Spotify and Facebook. For Believe, the funding was a statement of intent, as was its acquisition of rival TuneCore shortly before.
The idea that musicians can learn from YouTubers was floated regularly in 2015. That extends to labels too. Witness Sony Music’s partnership with YouTube musician Kurt Hugo Schneider, whose channel has more than 6.3m subscribers and 1.4bn all-time views. He’ll be making a web-show called To The Beat featuring various Sony Music artists: a clever collision of new and old media.
Sweden has been held up regularly in recent years as a model for other countries to follow, due to streaming helping its recorded-music revenues rise. There was a wake-up call in February though: the announcement that Swedish revenues had actually fallen in 2014 – down 0.4% to SEK 987.1m (around $119.1m). The picture is likely to be brighter for 2015, but it was a reminder that even in Spotify’s homeland, growth can’t be taken for granted.
Another small moment illustrating a wider trend: the point in April when Music Ally noticed that in several countries, Spotify was beating mobile game Candy Crush Saga in Apple’s top-grossing apps chart in the UK, Germany, Sweden and Brazil among others. That in turn hinted at the growing in-app subscription revenues for streaming services – not to mention the issue of 30% cut that Apple took from every payment.
In a year when some of our favourite music sites admitted they were struggling to make ends meet, Pitchfork’s acquisition by magazines giant Condé Nast at least showed someone saw value in music media. The site, which attracts 6m monthly visitors, was bought for its “very passionate audience of millennial males”. But can Conde Nast find a way to make that audience pay off in 2016?
Another small story illustrating a wider trend. Veteran band Placebo struck a deal with Kobalt Label Services that covered far more than just a new album. In fact, it covered their entire back catalogue plus associated audio and video archives, after the band took back control of their masters. Within weeks, Placebo were back on streaming services – this time keeping the majority of their income. Later in the year came an inventive Apple TV app too.
Won’t somebody think of the children?! Rhapsody certainly did – as did Deezer later in the year – when it launched a dedicated ‘Kids’ mode. It had simpler, colourful navigation, and a curated selection of age-appropriate tracks – including children’s artists and compilation brands like Caspar Babypants, The Laurie Berkner Band and Kidz Bop Kids. As streaming services try to sell ‘family’ plans to parents, they’ll need similar features.
Earlier in 2015, Vevo finally appointed a new CEO: former BBC and Intel executive Erik Huggers. The first plank in his plan to revamp the music-videos service was a redesigned mobile app, while the second was the acquisition of online-video startup Showyou. It had started making efforts to get people to subscribe to individual video channels – something that could play in to Vevo’s future plans to deepen artist/fan relationships.
Universal has Digster (and now other playlist brands); Sony has Filtr and Warner Music has Topsify – all creating playlists for Spotify and other streaming services. What about indies? In April, Cooking Vinyl’s Sammy Andrews mooted the idea of their own umbrella brand. “It kind of seems mad to me that no organisation has stood up yet and said ‘let’s do this’ – we’re represented with [independent record] stores, but we should be represented with playlists too.” By the end of the year, indie body AIM was taking pitches from people willing to run it, for a launch early in 2016.
Love Rocks is a ‘match-three’ mobile puzzle game not a million miles away from Candy Crush Saga, but the most interesting thing about it is where it’s come from: a joint venture between Angry Birds developer Rovio and musician Shakira. Players of the game on Android can download two of her albums for reaching certain levels, and the plan is to use the game as a communications channel between Shakira and fans – old and new.
Ministry of Sound boss Lohan Presencer has made plenty of headlines for criticising streaming services, but his most interesting move in 2015 was to launch his own. Well, a streaming app, Ministry of Sound Live, which was released for iOS and Android in November. It’s a mix of themed channels, DJ mixes and a live radio station, offered for free. A sign that Ministry sees the value of streaming to continue building its brand, even if its relations with the big streaming services remain – in Facebook lingo – complicated.
Baidu Music is one of the big digital music services in China, but this year it’s come under pressure from rivals including CMC, Tencent and Alibaba, who have all struck exclusive content deals with labels. In December, though, Baidu revealed its comeback strategy: it’s merging its service – which claims 150m monthly listeners – with two of China’s biggest pop labels, Taihe Rye Music (TR Music) and Ocean Butterflies. The result: the closest integration yet between a label and a digital service, the impact of which will only be felt in 2016.
Few music fans would have begrudged De La Soul the $600k they raised on Kickstarter to make a new album, with more than 11,000 backers pledging money to make it the second most-funded music Kickstarter of all-time. Yet the pioneering rappers’ strategy was less talked about: giving away their entire back catalogue in 2014 in exchange for email addresses. That was the perfect setup for this year’s crowdfunding.
In April, Jason Derulo launched his new single on dating app Tinder, with a profile that, once swiped right on, let fans watch the video for ‘Want To Want Me’. Gimmick? Check the stats: more than 1.1m people swiped right to watch the video in just three days, with 14% of them also tapping on a link to Apple’s iTunes Store in his profile. It was a sign of artists willingness to go where the eyeballs were in a range of social apps.
Twitch may have started life as a live video-streaming platform for gamers to showcase their skills, but in 2015 it became increasingly interesting for musicians too – Deadmau5 and Steve Aoki among them. The Prodigy made their new single ‘Wall of Death’ available through Twitch’s licensed Music Library, for gamers to use in their own videos. We’re sure more artists will follow in 2016.
Google has been under fire for a long time over how piracy sites appear in its search results, but a related grumble from music rightsholders has been certain categories of apps in Android’s Google Play store: from YouTube and SoundCloud-rippers to torrenting apps. In April, though, Google showed its teeth, removing torrent service FrostWire’s app from its store after 2.9m downloads. Yet the cause wasn’t torrenting – instead, the app fell foul of Google’s policies on accessing YouTube videos.
We’re familiar with stems as a concept from a number of remixing tools in recent years, where fans could work with the different parts of songs. Native Instruments ‘Stems’ initiative is worth watching though: announced in August, it’s a multi-track digital audio format designed for DJs to interact with the four key elements of any song. Could it become a new standard in the DJ world in 2016? Watch this space.
DJ mixes are a notoriously problematic area in the streaming world, as several dust-ups over SoundCloud takedowns made clear in 2015. Late in the year came two interesting developments. First, Spotify launched its “Party” feature, serving up DJ-like mixes that could be tweaked by listeners – complete with tracks curated by Diplo. Then fellow Swedes Pacemaker unleashed their iOS app’s latest update, with an artificial-intelligence DJ able to be instructed by the user when preparing mixes (and the “recipes” governing them).
Japan hasn’t been fertile territory for streaming services so far – and certainly not since Sony Music Unlimited shut down. Yet Line, the messaging app with 212m monthly active users globally (with a big chunk of those in Japan) managed to launch in June. At launch, it offered 1.5m tracks for 1,000 yen (around $8) a month, with ambitious expansion plans. With Line Music in Japan and MixRadio elsewhere in the world, in 2016 we’ll find out if messaging and music can be happy partners.
Country stars were innovating digitally in 2015 too. Hunter Hayes released a series of new singles as digital-first releases – and, indeed, as streaming-first, as iTunes only got them after the streaming services. Label Warner Music Nashville described the strategy as “building a digital story first with 18 to 24-year-olds”, while Hayes later became an early guinea pig for the ability to use Spotify’s analytics to plan tours.
If there’s an alternative to the big-money (yet also big-losses) world of streaming, it’s in platforms like Bandcamp and Drip.fm, which on a much smaller yet more sustainable level are helping musicians explore new direct-to-fan income. Drip was launched in 2011 by indie label Ghostly International, but this year it raised $1.5m and opened up its platform to a wider selection of labels and artists.
Having raised $12.5m from crowdfunding in 2014, Neil Young’s PonoMusic launched its high-def downloads store in January, with albums sold for between $17.99 and $27.49. Yet Pono was not a game-changer in 2015: Yahoo Music’s blind test in February suggested many listeners couldn’t tell Pono and iTunes tracks apart, and by August Young was admitting that a “lack of resources” was hampering Pono’s expansion plans. “We have learned it is not easy.”
Johan Johansson is a punk icon in Sweden, but became known more widely across the world in September for winning a lawsuit against label MNW to prevent it from releasing his music on Spotify. “We have to hope that it sets a standard that companies must not exploit the rights anyway without a contract,” said Johansson. “It shows there has not been an agreement on streaming when it comes to old tracks, but the companies still constantly drove on.” Less an anti-streaming case, than an anti-old-contracts-not-being-updated-for-streaming case – and an important blow for artist rights.
Rob Wells’ exit from Universal Music in February came as a shock, with inevitable gossip afterwards about the reasons for his departure. Wells subsequently reappeared as an advisor to music/tech firms Revelator and Lovelive before taking a permanent role at startup Crowdmix. Armed with £14m of funding, his next job is to prove that a music-focused social network can be a sustainable business – a task that several have tried and failed at in the past
British startup Jukedeck has been talked about more by the tech blogs than the music press, but it might just turn out to be the most disruptive new music/tech company in years. Jukedeck has developed a technology using artificial intelligence to compose music according to the mood, style, tempo and length selected by its client – initially companies and creators looking for soundtracks for online videos. It’s far from a human-composer killer in its current form, but the development of this and similar technology in the next couple of years will be fascinating to watch (or, indeed, hear).
Poor Lucia Cole saw her album kicked off iTunes, Spotify and other digital music services in July. Although we’d feel a lot more sorry for her if the album wasn’t simply a collection of old Jessica Simpson tracks re-tagged and uploaded under Cole’s name – complete with UMG subsidiary Republic Records’ banner (she wasn’t signed to that label either). Yet as this and the more recent case when Taylor Swift’s ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ was uploaded to services as Lostprophets, metadata-based trolling is seemingly now a thing.
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