The Recorded Music Revolution(s)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about innovation. In particular, the idea that no organisation exists in a vacuum. It seems critical to know where your organisation’s goals fit in the bigger picture before charging off on some innovation or product initiative.

An example everyone is familiar with is the music industry.

In the 30 years to the late 1990s, the primary business model for recorded music was physical distribution (vinyl, cassette, CD). A few big, powerful players – giant recording labels like EMI – dominated. Gaining a contract with one of these powerful players was the only meaningful way for aspiring artists and bands to get exposure to markets. While taken seriously by some, many artists used live music as a marketing tool; a “loss leader” to promote sales of recordings. Charts of recorded music sales dominated.

In the late 1990s executives at major recording labels were counting their money. They had no idea of the dark clouds forming.

The deadly storm hit in the late 1990s. Illegal file sharing services made it possible to download any music for free. Revenues for recorded music plummeted overnight. With their time freed up from counting money, the recording labels reacted with legal challenges, but as soon as they shut down one service, another 10 came to life. The genie was out of the bottle.

It took a few years for experimentation to begin in earnest. And the innovation did not come from the recording labels. launched in 2002, with a music recommender that built a profile of each user’s music taste based on their listening history and allowed users to share and recommend tracks to others.

Apple introduced iTunes in 2003, the first large legal service to sell music tracks for download. Whilst iTunes seemed revolutionary at the time, it left the business model largely unchanged. Customers were still buying ownership of music (admittedly, downloaded tracks as opposed to physical objects) and major labels were still the intermediaries with all the bargaining power.

In the late noughties, more experimentation took place. Pandora (2005), Soundcloud (2007), Bandcamp (2008) all launched and experimented with combining streaming and social features. They also pioneered a new business model, based not on ownership, but on a service with ongoing subscription fees.

More recently we have seen the proliferation of music streaming services: Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon Prime Music, Google Play, YouTube Music, Spotify, amongst others.

Spotify is the largest of the music streaming services. It began in Europe in 2008 and after negotiating rights deals it expanded to the USA in 2011. It is now the largest dedicated streaming service, with a total of 200 million users, 87 million being paying customers. Spotify pays around 70% of total revenue to rights holders and whilst they are yet to make a profit, the continuing rise of revenue means streaming is here to stay.

In fact, music streaming is rapidly eating the recorded music world. In the first half of 2018, streaming made up 75% of all revenue from recorded music in the USA, the world’s largest music market, up from 21% just 5 years before.

Music Streaming Percentage.jpg

As we sit here early in 2019, it is clear that the industry transformation from ownership to subscription is well advanced and unstoppable. As subscription services become commodities and compete on price, the next wave of innovation is likely to be around who can make the most of the vast data collected on customer behaviour and listening habits, and the interconnections with social networks.

Here’s a chart that illustrates the overall transformation of the recorded music industry. Numbers are in US dollars and approximately adjusted to 2018 values. Full 2018 figures are not available yet, so the chart extrapolates from the first half of that year.

US Recorded Music Revenues.jpg

Revenues peaked in 1999 before crashing to their lowest levels in about 2015. They have only started growing again in the last couple of years, and streaming is starting to dominate.

On a side note, live music has boomed since the internet changed everything in the recorded music world. The largest music companies in the world in 1999 were the major recording labels. The largest music company in the world in 2019 is LiveNation, an American global entertainment company that owns, leases, operates, has booking rights for and equity interests in many US entertainment venues. They have also established presences in more than 40 countries via acquisitions and partnerships. In 2018 they ran 30,000 shows, more than 100 festivals, and sold more than 500 million tickets. That’s an astonishing shift in power from recorded music giants to live music giants in just 2 decades!

To wrap up, we all know that technology is changing the world, and the rate of change is accelerating. Tracing the revolutions in the recorded music industry over the last 2 decades highlight that to succeed with innovation and product development, you must understand the bigger picture.

Attempting some cool sounding but “random” innovation with your product is unlikely to fit with the trends transforming your industry by sheer accident. Executives of the major record labels in the late 1990s didn’t see the revolution coming, so they were caught off guard and saw their positions of power quickly disappear.

You’re probably not innovating in the music industry. But think about it: What is really going on in your domain? How are technologies transforming your industry, in the grand scheme of things? Unless you understand this, you are probably doomed to fail.

How Agile Is Your Triangle?

Traditional project management represents constraints as an “iron triangle”, meaning that a given project has 3 inter-related considerations: schedule, cost, and scope.

Iron Triangle 1

Someone defines the scope up front, then project managers figure out the cost (resources like materials and people) and the schedule (time lines, Gantt charts, critical path, and so on).

The idea is that the customer (or someone, at least) knows the scope. In fact, scope is not under the control of project managers. If the estimated amount of materials was too low, project managers can request more materials (increase the costs). If the estimated time line was too low or the project team is slower than estimated, project managers can request more time (increase the schedule). The scope is non-negotiable.

Iron Triangle 2

In traditional projects – whilst the focus is on delivering the scope (defined up front) – the risks therefore are that schedule and/or cost increase. This is the way organisations manage waterfall software projects. And it results in many projects running over budget, over schedule, and (worse still) delivering a broad scope only to discover later it is not what the customer really wanted.

Agile project management flips this. The agile project management philosophy is that you – as a product company – know the schedule and cost. You know when you want to release. You know the resources you have (developers, testers, devops, and so on). The thing that can change is the scope.

Iron Triangle 3.jpg

The risk with this approach is reducing the delivered scope. However, agile combines this with the incremental delivery of the highest value backlog items (features, bug fixes, improvements) thus enabling organisations to focus on what really matters: optimising the output of fixed resources.

Who decides the highest value backlog items? Why, I’m glad you asked. The Product Manager, of course.

With various flavours of agile taking over the product world, it is easy to see why the Product Manager role is central to success.

Have a look around in your organisation and ask yourself: how agile is your triangle (on the scope vertex, at least)?