Each year at this time, a research study comes out that is increasingly important in the digital media world: The Infinite Dial, from Edison Research and Triton Digital. The Infinite Dial is a national phone survey that started out 20 years ago as a study of trends in digital radio and related areas: internet radio, satellite radio, music downloads, podcasts and so on. The study is longitudinal — it tracks the same topics consistently year after year — so it has become more and more important to the industry.
This year’s Infinite Dial tells us a few interesting things about the state of the digital music market. First is the rise of Amazon.
Amazon’s Alexa Music Strategy Is Paying Off
Amazon has been a latecomer in the digital music market. It launched an MP3 download store in 2008, five years after Apple started the iTunes Music Store. Similarly, it launched the on-demand streaming service Amazon Music Unlimited in late 2016, five years after Spotify entered the U.S. market.
Whereas Amazon MP3 had an initial advantage over iTunes of offering DRM-free music downloads (which Apple emulated a year later), Amazon Music Unlimited initially looked like a lesser me-too offering compared to Spotify and all the others in that crowded space — Apple Music, Google Play Music, Tidal, etc. But Amazon’s strategy was to differentiate its service by tying it to Alexa via the Echo device, to make it easier and cheaper to get music on demand.
Amazon charges Amazon Prime members $8/month for access to Amazon Music Unlimited instead of the usual $10/month for other paid services. It charges Alexa device owners $4/month for the service, though only for use on that device. This is especially remarkable given that Apple tried to convince the major record labels to let it charge $5/month for Apple Music and the labels said no.
The latest Infinite Dial shows that Amazon’s strategy is paying off. One of the newest categories of data that the study tracks is smart speaker ownership. Not surprisingly, it found that products like Amazon Echo and Google Home are in hockey-stick growth mode. Smart speaker ownership has almost tripled since last year: 18% of respondents report owning at least one smart speaker, up from 7% last year. Of those, 83% own Amazon devices.
The study shows that Amazon Music listenership is about twice as popular among home speaker owners than among the general respondent pool. Contrast this with Google: 28% of smart speaker owners own Google Home devices (some respondents own both Google and Amazon devices), but Google Play Music is only slightly more popular among smart speaker owners than it is among the general public. Certainly one reason for this is that Google Home owners don’t get discounts on Google Play Music subscriptions. (Both Google Home and Alexa devices can integrate with third-party services such as Spotify.)
Accordingly, The Infinite Dial shows that Google Play has plateaued in popularity at 6% of respondents (“Listened in the last month to…”), while Amazon has surpassed it: Amazon Music is now at 9%, up from 6% last year. By this trajectory, Amazon is poised to overtake Apple Music by next year: Apple Music is up to 10% from 8% last year but down from 12% in 2016, which was its first full year of operation.
YouTube Still Reigns Supreme
Spotify has at least double the listenership of its nearest competitors. 20% of Infinite Dial respondents listened to it within a month, up from 18% last year and 13% the year before.
But Spotify’s not really the leader in on-demand music. The Infinite Dial tracks YouTube usage specifically for music listening, but it doesn’t lump YouTube in with other music services. The Infinite Dial’s numbers show that YouTube is actually — and by a wide margin — the most popular. Forty-six percent of respondents used YouTube for music listening during a week, which is more than all of the other on-demand music services combined. (The study doesn’t measure monthly usage of YouTube, but it would be higher than 46%.)
In other words: despite all the hype and momentum around Spotify, and the brand loyalty and mystique around Apple, Google wins in on-demand music service usage. Infinite Dial numbers for popularity of Google’s music services — YouTube plus Google Play Music — exceed all of its competitors combined by roughly half. The study reports a total of 51% for Google services vs. 31% for Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music. Add in smaller services such as Napster, Tidal, and Deezer, which The Infinite Dial doesn’t track specifically, and you get to about 34% or two-thirds of Google’s 51%.
At the same time, a study from five years ago (from a different source) showed that YouTube outpaced all the other on-demand music services combined by a factor of four. Others are catching up, but YouTube still leads and will continue to lead for a while. That’s because it’s free, unlimited, and has music that the other services don’t offer (due to quirks in copyright law), even though its user experience is not as optimized for music as the others.
Radio Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Moving Online
The other interesting music-related finding from The Infinite Dial relates to radio. Despite the fact that the only talk about radio these days is about its poor financial health, radio listening is anything but dead. It’s just shifting to the internet.
The Infinite Dial shows that AM/FM continues to be by far the most popular source of audio in the car, holding steady at 82%. And the online radio service Pandora is still the most popular “audio brand” by a margin, holding steady at 31% monthly use even while the company struggles and is known to be seeking a buyer.
The study also shows signs that radio is gradually slipping outside of the car. Smart speakers are starting to displace radios in the home. The average number of radios per household has dropped from 2.6 to 1.9, though that’s over the past ten years; the average among younger people (18-34) has dropped to 1.0.
But that’s more about devices than content. People are now using smart speakers — as well as smartphones, tablets, and many other types of devices — to listen to good old AM/FM radio.
The two most popular ways to listen to AM/FM radio signals online are iHeartRadio and TuneIn. iHeartRadio is a service from iHeartMedia, the largest AM/FM station owner in the U.S. It aggregates the streams of a few thousand stations owned by iHeartMedia as well as other major broadcast groups like Cumulus Media and Cox. TuneIn aggregates the streams of most AM/FM radio signals around the world as well as lots of pure-play Internet radio content and podcasts.
Both iHeartRadio and TuneIn are available on the web, through mobile apps, and on various devices such as TV streaming boxes, game consoles, A/V receivers, and smart speakers. But on smart speakers and other products with voice assistants, you could be using either of those apps without knowing it: if you ask Alexa or Google Assistant or Microsoft Cortana (though not Siri!) to play a radio station, it will figure out which app plays that station and start the app to play it. (They’ll even figure out nicknames like “Hot 97” and “The River.”)
Once radio stations are easy to call up on digital devices, this makes sense. It becomes just as easy to get a station from anywhere in the country or world as it is to get a local one, and there’s never a need to move an aerial or antenna around. Apps like TuneIn and iHeartRadio also organize stations by programming or music genre, which helps with browsing.
All this helps to explain this chart, which aggregates various Infinite Dial figures over the past five years and suggests that radio programming is still just about as popular as it has been. The figures for TuneIn and iHeartRadio reflect brand awareness rather than actual listenership, while the figures for AM/FM radio reflect in-car listenership. The dropoffs for iHeartRadio and TuneIn in 2018 could reflect their growing anonymous usage on devices with voice assistants.