Music’s addicted to the ‘Monthly Active User’ metric. But it tells us nothing.

MBW Views is a series of exclusive op/eds from eminent music industry people… with something to say.  The following comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press. 

It has become so widespread, so normalised, as to be taken as watertight evidence; yet MAU (monthly active users) as a means of measurement are simply grand obfuscation in motion. As such, they should be laughed out of the room.

Yet, in their asininity, they persist and they grow, like Japanese knotweed that someone is trying to convince you is cherry blossom.

They are, as such, much more than just idiotic: they are diseased and dangerous.

Major social platforms and DSPs still commonly cite MAUs as proof of their reach, engagement and growth, but they offer nothing of the sort. They are intended to keep investors happy, to keep the market cap ticking upwards, to show a company over-delivering on its promises.

As a measurement term, there is no unified definition of what MAUs actually are and what they actually cover. This dubious lack of standardisation means that companies are blithely free to use MAU to mean whatever best suits them. Which, of course, they do. The malfeasance behind MAU as a measurement system is widespread in its use and egregious in its intent.

Most definitions of MAU hold that someone just needs to visit a website or open an app once in a given month and immediately they are counted as an active user.

Each of the three component parts – “monthly”, “active” and “users” – are  doing an awful lot of heavy lifting here, but they are mostly deflections, like a carefully cropped photo of a crowd suggesting a lot more people turned up to an event than actually did.

Why, in an age of real-time data, are companies still trying to insist that a person logging in once in a month makes them “active” as a user? It is utterly redundant as a metric and is there primarily to bulk up numbers. It is deeply, desperately unsound and unstable. It is the statistical equivalent of building a house where half the bricks are Shreddies.

The same applies to monthly listeners on a platform like Spotify. Despite having its Fans First programme – where its entire selling point to artists and record labels is that it absolutely knows which listeners are there, from dawn to dusk, playing music by a favourite artist – there is no nuanced segmentation when it comes to listing “monthly listener” figures below an artist’s profile.

Spotify absolutely has the data to hand that shows just how engaged its users are. That it is not choosing to make public these tiers of listening is not by accident; it is entirely by design.

(I am not wishing to single out just Spotify for this because the practice is endemic across all digital platforms. It is just that Spotify has a specific tool that is entirely based on ranking multiple levels of engagement. This is, however, never for public use, only for publicity use.)

The argument from services will certainly be that they do not want to make visible too much information that might be used by competitors, as if their segmented numbers are the 11 herbs and spices Colonel Sanders steadfastly refused to divulge.

Which all begs the question: why are daily or hourly user numbers not OK to reveal but monthly user numbers are? Is it because, when you stretch measurement across a whole month, everything becomes so nebulous as to be malleable and exploitable?

MAU in 2023 is the equivalent of someone quickly glancing at whatever is showing on a TV set in an electronics shop and being counted as a viewer of that show. Yes, they technically saw the show and that is somehow deemed good enough.

For a platform like Facebook, one form of engagement a month is all it takes for someone to be rolled up in the data set for the month. One log in that might last a few seconds. That’s it. So someone who uses Facebook once a month is treated the exact same, for measurement purposes, as someone who uses it every week or every day or, most realistically, several times a day.

Someone who plays music once a month on Spotify or another DSP is counted as being the same as someone who plays music once a week who is counted as being the same as someone who plays music once a day who is counted as being the same as someone who plays music once every waking hour.

For a platform like Spotify, a low MAU rate (one listening session a month) is probably amazing for its subs business. But it’s likely disastrous for its ad-supported business. And yet this terrible statistical crutch is leaned on again and again.

By the broken and mendacious logic of MAU, I am an “active” vegetarian if I don’t eat meat one day each month.

These are weasel metrics that conflate use types to inflate user rates.

The old line about there being “lies, damned lies and statistics” should be expanded to read “lies, damned lies, statistics and MAUs”.

MAU is a conjuring trick, a deception, a trompe-l’œil. It is also a symptom of desperation.

To slightly adapt Shakespeare and take his own words from Macbeth (MAUbeth?) out of context (something I am absolutely certain he would be completely fine with): “MAU’s but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

It is time to call a moratorium on MAU: bring on the MAUratorium.

Music Business Worldwide

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