Music start up Utopia just announced a round of layoffs, fitting into a much bigger dynamic that may reshape the entertainment landscape. There are many reasons why the coming global recession will be unique, but the one that is most relevant to the digital entertainment sector is that it is going to be the first one since modern consumer tech has been truly mainstream. This matters, not just because of the unchartered territory this reflects, but also because tech companies (even the biggest) operate differently than traditional companies, placing much bigger bets on future growth. A strategy that works well in times of plenty, but that is undergoing rapid re-evaluation in the face of an onrushing recession. Big tech firms are reducing headcount, especially in the bets that plan to make profit in the future, but not yet. Most forms of digital entertainment fall in this bracket. Streaming music and video have long been loss leaders for the tech majors, but can that continue in a recession?
2007 was the year the last recession started and the consumer tech world looked very, very different to today. The first iPhone was not sold until June 2007; Facebook started the year with 14 million users; Netflix launched its streaming service; but Spotify was still a year away from launch; Instagram would not be launched for another three years; and Snapchat for another five. So, when the next recession most likely hits in 2023, it will be the first one in which consumer tech has been mainstream.
All of those companies, and most of the rest that drove the consumer tech revolution, grew fast because they aggressively invested in future potential, rather than wait to fund it organically. It is a mindset that has its origins in the VC world view of: build product and customer base first, worry about profit later. Without that approach, it is probable that the consumer tech sector would not be anywhere near as big and developed as it is now. But the strategy requires the basic premise of next year bringing more growth, otherwise the model falls down. Which is why we are now seeing retractions across big tech. Meta laid off 11,000 employees, many from its VR Labs division; Stripe cut 1,000 jobs because it overexpanded during its lockdown-boom; Apple froze hiring outside of R+D; and 10,00 layoffs look on the cards for Amazon.
Out of all this redundancy mayhem, one particularly interesting figure emerged: Amazon is on track to lose $10 billion a year from its ‘Worldwide Digital’ team, which includes Alexa, Echo, and its streaming businesses. Amazon makes its money from Cloud services and commerce, devices and content are growth categories that it is investing in, both for future growth and because they help its core business. Very similar arguments can be made for Apple’s streaming businesses (video and music) and, at the very least, for YouTube Music and YouTube Premium.
Which raises the question, if the tech majors start reigning in their non-core expenditure, where does this leave streaming? Practically speaking, it is highly unlikely that the tech majors are going to face such difficulties that they will have to think about shuttering their streaming services, but they may well have to trim spending. And if that happens, it is video that is far more exposed than music, because streaming video requires large investments in original content, whereas music rights costs are fixed. All that said, any music rights deals that are up for negotiation with tech majors from this point on will almost certainly see the licensees pushing for reductions anywhere they can find them.