Spotify’s has announced the 2013 financial results for its global parent company. The headline is a -12% operating loss, down from a -19% loss in 2012. The numbers are in stark contrast to the small operating profits recently reported in Spotify’s UK and France subsidiaries. Both were able to do so because only a portion of Spotify’s costs reside in those businesses. This raises the interesting point of Spotify making efforts to report an operating profit where ever it possibly can to help build an evidence base that its model is sustainable. Which contrasts sharply with Pandora’s prolonged efforts to do what it can to not make a profit in order to help its rate lobby efforts.
Having spent the last few weeks knee deep in a client project exploring the profitability of digital music services I had a stronger than usual sense of ‘told you so’ when Spotify’s numbers came out. The headline of rights costs being the large cash drain on the subscription business model is well known, but there are other accelerating costs that are less well known. Spotify’s research and development costs rose by 92% between 2012 and 2013.
Music services find themselves running to keep up in the mobile world. Mobile apps are how the vast majority of subscribers interact with streaming services yet mobile app development is only an ancillary competence of subscription services. Unlike a King.com, a Supercell or a Mojang, Spotify’s core operating structures are built around cloud distribution, content management and music programming. Spotify and other subscription services are now having to develop mobile as core competence too and the rapid rate of innovation and change in mobile experiences mean that this more resembles an arms race that it does a standard operating cost.
The other big change is data. Streaming services generate vast quantities of usage data and making sense of that data is an ever more important task for streaming services of all kinds, not just music. Netflix spends $150 million on recommendations alone and has 150 staff just for this single data driven task. Call it ‘big data’ if you will, but managing large data sets effectively is crucial to the success of streaming services for everything from managing churn through to rights holder reporting.
The key takeaway? Scale will definitely help streaming subscription services move closer towards profitability (as Spotify’s narrowing loss attests) but costs are also going to continue to rise for any streaming service that takes competencies such as app development and data intelligence seriously.