Interview of the Week – Will Page, Former Chief Economist Spotify and PRS for Music, UK

Will Page is a celebrated economist and communicator who has played a prominent role in understanding the economic workings of the global music business. He has a Masters Degree in Economics from the Edinburgh University and initially worked with the UK Government Economic Service at the Scottish Executive.

Page subsequently joined PRS for Music as Chief Economist, during which time he published some notable papers including the widely recognized annual report, Adding up the UK Music Industry highlighting the economic strength of the Industry; The Long Tail of P2P which challenged the popular demand distribution theory; and In Rainbows, On Torrents where he discussed the success of Radiohead’s free album, as against illegal free down loads.

From 2012 till 2019 Will Page was the Director of Economics of Spotify and played a central role in influencing the company’s policy making, growth strategy, data analytics, besides publication of his annual global value of music copyright report using a broader methodology.

Page played a crucial role in saving music radio channel BBC Radio 6 in 2010. He is currently working on a book assignment that he was commissioned to write by Simon and Schuster.

We spoke to Will Page about how can the Indian music industry boast its growth, the need for an alternate revenue model for the streaming platforms, bridging the value gap and more.

India is the third strongest market in Asia and has seen double-digit growth in 2019 (18.7%), while still being some way behind China. Optimistically, this gap can be bridged but how?

Yes it is possible and I say this because of a number of reasons that are working in Indian music industry’s favour. Firstly, there are far more smartphones in emerging markets like India than there ever were CD players. So you recognise the potential, it is so much bigger than it has ever been in the past. Secondly, let us look at the success of YouTube, the 265 million users on the platform can help grow music and potentially increase subscription.

Also, let us look at some of the bigger economic developments like Facebook’s investment in Jio which will accelerate change that is already underway. You are going to have 1.3 billion people leapfrogging from conventional shopping and moving online. When that happens, it will indirectly lead to a burgeoning advertising market. I am convinced that India will move from the low league table (amongst the emerging markets) to the top league a lot sooner than some people think.

We have been talking about the value gap for quite some time in the Indian music industry, is there a specific model/plan of action that can be implemented to bridge the gap?

The market is what it is and ad revenues are what they make. How that works its way through the system as royalties is a function of how much people are willing to advertise. So it is a tricky balancing act. That said, the economics of per stream is that the ad revenues are growing in India but YouTube consumption is exploding, then you have more consumption and relatively less cash on a per stream fold. I think that’s one of the challenges of the value gap situation.

But India has the infrastructure to leapfrog and develop and so the advertising revenues will flow and the value gap will close. Lastly the value gap is a relative concept, so you might get some money from ad funded music models or you get no money from people stealing music. Keeping people within the boundaries of legally consuming music is worth far more than having people outside it.

India is primarily an ad-supported streaming market growing by 41.6% in 2019. With brands not willing to spend on advertising at the moment (and the foreseeable future), also advertisement revenue might be ousted with linear mediums turning obsolete because of bundling, how do you think the overcrowded Indian streaming landscape will shape up?

People talk about the current crisis in advertising as a ‘V’ i.e. it has collapsed very quickly and it has the potential to recover very quickly as well. It is an anecdotal example but today the British government announced that the garden centres could open. And I can see people queueing up to enter the Boma Garden Centre already. What does this have to do with Indian music industry? It tells you about the nature of the ‘V’, yes it has gone down sharp but it can come back up sharp as well. No doubt there is turbulence in the advertising market in India but there is a potential for a stock piling scenario, so when it bounces back, it bounces back hard. Advertising has always been and will always be the bellwether for cyclical change.

Subscription audio streams grew only by 5.3% and roughly about 1% of the total number of people streaming music in India pay for a subscription. Do you think India needs to look at a different business model for streaming platforms to survive?

Yes, I do. When we are looking at willingness to pay, I am willing to pay a lot more for education than for music. Could bundling music with education tap a market that music can’t do by itself? I believe there is a huge opportunity in partnering music with education. In Europe, we successfully paired streaming with telcos back in 2012-13. Ralph Simon, CEO & Founder at Mobilium Global Limited, was a big motivator by getting these two worlds to collide and realise that we can grow each other’s gardens. A similar thing can be done in India for education and music.

The GMR has placed significant emphasis on the major labels showing keen interest in local repertoire and engaging with local talent. UMG brought Nas’ Mass Appeal to India and signed the brightest prospect in Indian Hip-Hop, Divine, Sony invested in a boutique label, Big Bang Music, Warner recently started operations in India. Do you think it is time for Indian acts to break into the global industry also taking into account the Indian expat community?

A big Yes!! The expat community is the biggest untapped potential we are staring at. It’s a low hanging fruit and it does not take a lot to get to them. Before we launched Spotify in India we asked a question, could we make it in India without actually being in the country? Let’s face it, the most popular music in Asia was K-Pop and Spotify was not in South Korea. The curation team based in Singapore would spend all day working on Korean music. One of the most popular countries for K-Pop consumption was Peru in Latin America and that is insane. So understanding the expat community is going to be extremely critical for the Indian music industry. It will happen with the intention of major record labels investing or it will happen without it.

Streaming is playlists without borders. It takes away the political lines and can help music travel far. We must also stress about the monetary importance of this. If a song has a million streams at home and another hundred thousand aboard, the royalty factor of those streams from the developed music markets travelling back to India could be worth more than the million streams at home. While exporting music, the Indian music industry should target the expat population in cities rather than the countries, like for example Hamburg and Dusseldorf in Germany or Montreal and Toronto in Canada.

With integrated features in music streaming such as voice recognition, speech-to-text, in-built lyrics, and off-shoots such as, sharing music on social media or as music enabled social media platforms, flexibility in music streaming and A&R of music has shifted paradigms. How much of an impact have these advancements brought to the global music industry

I like to think of it as a ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approach. ‘Top down’ marketing is about “I know what you want” and I’m going to blast billboards and magazine adverts to tell you what you want thereby influencing your decision. If I am an artist it might be about selling my concert tickets. At the same time I also think of these technological advancements as producing a ‘bottom up’ metric where consumers become broadcasters. So in terms of A&R it’s fascinating to look at examples of the number of hits happening without the intent of the businesses, it is entirely driven by fans.

The record labels are capitalising on it after the song is a hit. Soundcloud was the first to notify that Billy Eilish is an amazing talent. The record label took the signal and made her a globally recognised talent. My answer is going to be about the order of events from judges being the gatekeepers to consumers becoming the new broadcasters. What really matters with all of these innovations mentioned in the question is that we start thinking about a ‘bottom up’ approach to marketing where the consumer takes the lead and the industry follows.

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