The Ledger: Music Subscription Prices Barely Budged for a Decade. That’s Quickly Changing
Apple Music wasn't the first music service to hike prices, but it laid the groundwork for its competitors to follow suit.
The Ledger is a weekly newsletter about the economics of the music business sent to Billboard Pro subscribers. An abbreviated version of the newsletter is published online.
Apple Music may have opened the floodgates on Monday when it announced that it will raise prices on its Apple Music subscription service, as well as its Apple TV+ streaming video on-demand service and its Apple One bundle of services (which includes Apple Music).
Apple wasn’t the first music streaming company to broadly raise prices. Deezer started raising prices in France in January. In May, Amazon hiked prices for Prime members for Amazon Music Unlimited from $7.99 to $8.99 (or $79 to $89 if paid annually) and for the single-device plan (for Amazon’s Echo and Fire TV devices) from $3.99 to $4.99 per month. And Spotify started testing the waters in 2021 by modestly raising prices on some plans in select markets – 46 price increases in total, according to company executives. In the U.S., the family plan price increased from $14.99 to $15.99.
But Apple’s decision to ask subscribers for more money signals a tide change and will likely embolden competitors to follow suit. Speaking during Spotify’s earnings call on Tuesday, CEO Daniel Ek strongly signaled the company would follow Apple’s lead. A price increase in the U.S. “is one of the things we would like to do,” Ek told investors, and Spotify could raise prices in 2023 after it has conversations “in light of these recent developments with our label partners.”
Prices for music subscription services have remained stubbornly low for the past decade — to the chagrin of rights holders and creators who want higher royalties from streaming platforms. Spotify launched in the U.S. in 2011 at $9.99 per month. Apple Music launched in 2015 with a standard $9.99 individual plan and a $14.99 family plan, the first of its kind to offer up to six subscriptions per account for $14.99. Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music and the now-defunct Google Play Music followed with equivalent offerings in the following months. Family plans resulted in a lower average revenue per user but helped reduce churn, Spotify has said repeatedly, and has increased the average subscriber’s lifetime value. Those gains obviated the need to raise prices and allowed Spotify and others to focus on growth instead.
Apple and Amazon certainly had incentive to raise music subscription prices. Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited offer high-fidelity audio as a standard feature even though licensing deals with record labels for premium audio are more costly for streaming services, according to industry sources. Unless Apple and Amazon raise prices to offset the lower margins, they must eat the higher costs associated with offering better audio quality. Spotify, on the other hand, does not yet offer high-fidelity audio. Plans for just such a product, called HiFi, have not materialized after announcing the project would come out in 2021. Recently, the company has been surveying customers regarding a more expensive package that would include HiFi, as well as other products.
But now Apple has effectively given its competitors cover to raise their prices, too — whether they offer high-fidelity audio or not. Deezer already planned to raise prices in the U.S. and Germany this month and in Brazil in December. Still, its competitors’ decisions to raise prices “makes us more competitive,” Deezer CEO Jeronimo Folgueira said during Friday’s earnings call, and “opens the door for further prices increases down the line.”
Spotify certainly appears confident it can charge more. Thus far, its price increases had results “as good as we would have hoped for,” said Ek said during the earnings call. “We believe we have significant pricing power and we’re offering an amazing consumer value proposition.” Other metrics seem to have convinced Spotify the time is right to raise prices: engagement continues to increase, and Spotify has “the lowest churn of any competitor,” according to Ek. Put another way, Spotify thinks it can raise prices without fear that a significant number of people will walk away.