Neil Young's Music Subscription Success Is a Lesson for Music Industry - Rolling Stone
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Why People Should Take Neil Young’s Subscription Success More Seriously

People who laughed at him for his HD music obsession should learn from his Neil Young Archives project

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“It’s 2015, we’re making music to the highest level; it sounds more amazing than ever before, in my opinion. And [yet] we’re listening to it on this platform where it’s compressed. I try to make music to the highest quality, and that’s why this stood out. You tell people what they’re getting, and they’re going to hear the difference.”

The story of Tidal could — and maybe should — have been very different. These were the words of superstar DJ/producer Calvin Harris, introducing the full-length launch trailer for the Jay-Z-founded, artist-owned streaming platform in March 2015.

Unfortunately for Tidal, Harris’ clarion message — that of higher-quality audio, for higher-quality music fans — soon became muddled by others central to the same campaign. A chorus of superstars began echoing a different narrative: that Tidal could help them wrest back control from the likes of Spotify. “They’re the carrier — we’re the artists,” grumbled Madonna. “Somehow things shifted; we went into the background and [now we] have to come forward.”

And so, Tidal’s elevator pitch was hijacked by multi-millionaires playing the poor-me card. Inevitably, they got ridiculed.

Tidal has since wisely returned to a simple message of audio quality, billing itself as the home of “High Fidelity Music Streaming.” So it’s worth remembering that Neil Young actually beat Tidal, not to mention Calvin Harris, to it.

Following a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $10 million, Young’s Pono music download platform (offering hi-res, 24-bit audio) and its complementary music hardware, PonoPlayer, launched in January 2015, two months before Tidal arrived (via a menagerie of megastars, from Kanye to Beyoncé and Jason Aldean, publicly signing a laughably po-faced “Declaration”).

PonoMusic was not a success. By summer 2015, reports suggested the venture was running out of money; at one point, Young even asked a pre-presidential Donald Trump for financial help. Pono effectively shut down in 2016, out of cash and getting it in the neck from critics. ArsTechnica called the $400 PonoPlayer: “A tall, refreshing drink of snake oil.” The Washington Post one-upped that for cruelty, asking: “Has Neil Young finally managed to make something worse than Trans?”

With half a decade in the rearview mirror since Pono’s arrival, however, there may be another, more valuable take on its creator to consider. 

Neil Young’s insistence that hardcore music fans would be willing to pay extra for a high-definition digital music experience looks less outmoded in 2020 than it did in 2015, now that Amazon has put an HD-quality up-sell at the center of its multi-tiered music streaming offering. Particularly so because Amazon Music, according to Midia Research, now looks set to overtake Apple Music in global subscriber volume terms this year.

Squaring the circle, Neil Young was quoted in an Amazon press release last year announcing the arrival of its HD music tier. The legendary Canadian songwriter noted — with just a wisp of hyperbole — that, via Amazon’s hi-res music introduction, “Earth will be changed forever.”

Titter all you want; it’s no wonder Young was beating his chest. His long-held belief in HD music had just been vindicated by one of the biggest (some would say rapaciously expansive) companies on the planet.

Allow me, then, to lead you toward an alternate retrospective tale; one which vanquishes any suggestion of Neil Young as a myopic fuddy-duddy, scrabbling to deal with the realities of the Spotify age — and instead views him as someone provably ahead of the curve of music-technological trends (albeit not always with the most rip-roaring tech at his disposal).

It’s through this lens that I’d now like you to consider Young’s own online subscription service — the Neil Young Archives. This portal not only allows his own super-fans access to his complete catalog of music (in a hi-res format, naturally), but also to view digitized relics from his career, including exclusive videos, photos— and even live streams of his modern tours.

Access to Young’s Archive sets you back a mere $1.99 a month and, according to Wired, had already attracted 25,000 subscribers by the end of October last year, with a goal of 40,000.

Here’s some startling math: Those 25,000 Neil Young super-fans are paying him a total of $600,000 per year for the privilege of a premium, direct-from-the-artist experience.

Some of these subscribers might devour every piece of content Young posts within his online receptacle, liner notes and all; others might like the idea of ‘tipping’ their favourite superstar a relatively teeny bit of their paycheck each month; some might simply enjoy the feeling of being part of a club.

Whatever their reasons for signing up, that $600,000 — per year, remember — is roughly equivalent (going off a reported $0.0037 blended per-stream average) to the payment an artist could expect from 162 million streams on Spotify. Neil Young’s biggest all-time track on Spotify is Heart of Gold… with 132 million lifetime streams.

And so, to the future. I recently wrote about multi-industry subscription experts who believe the music streaming business must now innovate on Spotify’s one-size-fits-all, 50 million-tracks-for-everyone model, if it’s to achieve optimum revenues in the future. One oft-suggested way to achieve this is via segmentation which, judging by numerous chats with influential industry types in Grammy Week earlier this month, is in serious contention to become the music biz buzzword of 2020.

There are various schools of thought on what segmentation should look like — whether it should be focused on genre, or classic catalogs (think Blue Note, Motown, etc.), or individual artists. But broadly speaking, the idea is always the same: give super-fans of a certain strand of music history the opportunity to “deep dive” beyond the standard streaming experience their $9.99-a-month is currently delivering, for an additional “top up” fee.

Neil Young, it appears, is once again ahead of the game here. According to SimilarWeb, NeilYoungArchives.com received fewer than 60,000 “visits” in December — many of them likely duplicates from the same fans — despite boasting those 25,000 subscribers. Now that’s a committed audience.

Over on Spotify, Neil Young has over 5 million monthly listeners and over 1.6 million followers (i.e. people who have clicked a button to make sure they stay up-to-date with all Young-related activity on the service). How many of these fans might be willing to pay a couple of bucks more on their monthly Spotify bill to unlock access to Young’s archive — via the service they have already chosen for music consumption?

Granted, not the same percentage of those who actively visit NeilYoungArchives.com. But if just 1% of Young’s 5 million monthly Spotify listeners could be upsold to pay $2 extra each month, it would generate another $1.2 million annually — money that the industry is currently (foolishly?) leaving on the table.

You have to wonder how many other artists could benefit from this kind of premium/fan-club segmentation, and how much money could be made on a macro level as a result — especially if such a subscription also unlocked access to historical rare recordings, demos or even early access to ticket on-sales.

A few artist subscription app platforms have launched — and a few have failed — in the past, although the likes of Disciple Media (Rolling Stones, Luke Bryan) continue to ply their trade and win business. If anything, Neil Young’s quiet success with his Archive suggests there could be a lucrative future in artist-focused premium upsells on streaming services. It also suggests that Young may soon deserve reappraisal as a visionary of the modern music business.

Indeed, still on his high horse about hi-def audio — and still not caring what you think — Young recently blasted Apple and its Macbook Pro for peddling “Fisher Price audio quality”, adding that the laptop model’s “DAC is no good” for those artists who take recording seriously.

A few years back, with piles of PonoPlayers set for the landfill, one might have understandably raised a smirk at such an outburst. Now, with new evidence to consider, Tim Cook might want to open his ears.

Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis and jobs since 2015. He writes a weekly column for “Rolling Stone.”

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