Streaming Music Companies Battle for International Ears - Rolling Stone
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Streaming Music Companies Battle for International Ears

Winning over a country isn’t as simple as just opening an office. Here are nine key countries at the heart of global streaming domination

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As on-demand music-streaming services such as Spotify, Deezer and Rdio gouge each other’s eyes out to reach the most possible American customers, they’ve also expanded their battlegrounds throughout the world. Deezer is in 180 countries, with Rdio and Spotify available in 85 and 50 countries, respectively. And it’s not as if they can open a local office in Argentina or Germany and start streaming — to be successful, a streaming service has to work with record labels, publishers and other local rights holders, make deals with Internet and cellphone providers and, in the case of Brazil, figure out the difference between baile funk and bossa nova.

“You have hip-hop in virtually every place and people that make jazz and people that do funk and you have a ridiculous amount of folk traditions,” says Dan Rosenberg, a compilation producer for the Rough Guide world-music series. “If you wanted to do that [music-streaming] service, you would essentially want to be doing all those playlists.”

Rolling Stone has identified nine key countries as being crucial to winning the international streaming wars. Here’s a run-down of how Spotify, Deezer and the rest have been trying to win them over.

With a population of 1.2 billion, India is a huge prize for expanding Western streaming services — beginning with Rdio, which launched there in January. Rather than just applying its standard-issue catalog and playlists, Rdio bought local service Dhingana a year ago to help curate Bollywood soundtracks and unique regional hitmakers such as Punjabi dance producer and rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh. More than a dozen digital-music operations in India mostly focus on selling downloads, from Saavn to Australia-based Guvera, which launched a streaming service there last November. “It isn’t that simple,” says Sachin Doshi, vice president of content and distribution for Spotify, which has yet to launch in the country. “The Bollywood content — that’s a fragmented business in itself.”

Streaming services have competed fiercely to reach Brazil’s 100 million music fans — although Google Play has a built-in advantage, since almost all local smartphones contain Android operating systems. Spotify, Deezer and others have made progress, in part because they’re savvy about curating homepages and playlists to accommodate the country’s diverse musical tastes. “It’s a very divided country in terms of social class. There’s huge income disparity,” says Emmanuel Zunz, chief executive of ONErpm, a New York digital-distribution firm specializing in Brazilian music. “People who are more educated tend to have different musical tastes than the people from the favelas.”

Home of not just legal Spotify but renegade Pirate Bay, Sweden has been far ahead of almost any other region in plunging into online music — first via piracy, then streaming, which accounts for 80 percent of local music consumption, according to the International Federation of the Music Industry. “It’s a very affluent country,” Doshi says. “There’s a much larger base of smartphone users.” Also based in Spotify: Aspiro, which owns high-quality streaming service Tidal; Jay Z bid $56 million in January to buy it.

When Taylor Swift yanked her music from Spotify last fall, she made a corresponding move with China’s own streaming services — which pissed off local executives. “I personally believe this is a stupid move by Taylor Swift. It’s also ungrateful; she has used the Internet to generate hype, then cut the Internet out,” Wang Hao, chief executive of China’s Xiami, said at the time. Although Nokia and Microsoft have an online-radio service in China, every other Western service remains shut out — even iTunes. 

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Japanese music fans really love CDs — 85 percent of the country’s music sales come via shiny plastic disc, and an old-school, storefront version of Tower Records still exists. That means Spotify, Rdio and others have had a tough time breaking into the market. “There’s really no major streaming player,” Charles Coonen, Deezer’s chief operating officer, said last year of electronics giant Sony Corp.’s home base. “We’re exploring ways to enter that market but we don’t have anything concrete yet.”

Competition for music-streaming customers in Russia rivals the U.S., as Spotify and Deezer battle for local players such as Zvooq, which has 2.7 million customers and provides downloads as well as a “freemium” model. Complicating things is Russian music fans’ ongoing obsession with piracy — Spotify boasts of its ability to turn pirates into customers, but it’s difficult in Russia. “It’s a bit of a wild West,” Doshi says. “Some of the more famous MP3 sites, like, have come out of Russia.”

Deezer’s list of 180 countries includes Mexico, crucial territory not just for its 122 million people but for its cultural ties to the U.S. Any streaming service that masters the complex landscape of tejano, norteno, ranchero, son and local rock and pop music can expand that knowledge to reaching the sizable Mexican-American population.

Unlike Brazil, where customers rely on social media and personal interactions to spread news about hot new music and services, Germany’s populace prefers consistency. “Germany tends to be a tougher market because they tend to favor local over global brands,” says Beth Murphy, Deezer’s chief marketing officer. Deezer solved this problem last June by merging with local ProSiebenSat.1, which owns the Ampya music-streaming service, and gaining access to its extensive music library and deal with mobile carrier Vodafone. (Notably, due to copyright crackdowns, Germany’s history with YouTube has been not exactly welcoming.)

In stark contrast to Japan, Colombia’s CD market never really took off — too expensive. Thus Deezer and other services have been able to “kind of leapfrog into music streaming,” Murphy says. Streaming has boomed in recent years in Latin America, but particularly in Colombia, where adoption jumped 85 percent from 2012 to 2014.

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