About Mark Mulligan

Music Industry analyst and some time music producer. Vice President and Research Director with Forrester Research

What Netflix’s Missing $9 Billion Tells Us About Spotify’s Business Model

On Monday (July 16th), Netflix’s quarterly earnings missed targets, resulting in $9.1 billion being wiped off its market capitalisation due to twitchy investors jumping ship. To be clear, Netflix had a strong quarter, continuing to grow strongly in both the US – a much more saturated market for video subscriptions than for music – and internationally. Netflix also registered a net operating profit. What it failed to do was meet the ambitious expectations it had set. The lessons for Spotify are clear. With Spotify’s Q2 earnings due later this month, it will be bracing itself for another potential drop in stock value if its performanceis good but not good enough to keep ambitious investors happy. Such is the life of a publicly traded tech company.

But perhaps the most telling part of Netflix’s stock performance was that the $9.1 billion of market cap it lost is more than a quarter of Spotify’s entire market cap ($33.3 billion on Tuesday). Netflix of course plays in a much bigger market than Spotify: the US video subscription market will be worth $17.3 billion in 2018—the same amount that the IFPI estimates the entire global recorded music business generated in 2017. But, the perspective is crucial. Lots of institutional investment has flowed into Spotify since it went public – and indeed prior to that, but music is a tiny part of those investors’ portfolio. Netflix’s loss in market cap shows that even the golden child of streaming does not deliver enough promise for many of those investors, but investors have plenty of other TV industry bets to make if they abandon Netflix. For music, institutional investors basically have Spotify or Vivendi. So, while Netflix struggling is a problem for Netflix, a struggling Spotify would be a problem for the entire recorded music business.

Savvy switchers – Netflix’s churn problem

Netflix’s earnings also present some positive signs for the strength of Spotify’s business model compared to Netflix’s, such as its growing quarterly churn rate: around 8% in Q2 2018, up from 6% the prior quarter. This reflects what my colleague Tim Mulligan refers to as ‘savvy switchers’– video subscribers who churn in and out of services when there’s a new show to watch. This is a dynamic unique to video, created by the walled garden approach of exclusives. No such problem faces Spotify, for now at least, because all of its competitors have largely the same catalogue.

Content spend: uncapped versus fixed

Most relevant though, is Netflix’s content spend. One of the much-used arguments against Spotify in favour of Netflix is that Spotify has fixed content costs, hindering its ability to increase profits, because costs will always scale with revenue. However, Spotify’s advantage is in fact that content costs are fixed, there is a cap on how much it will spend on rights. Netflix has no such safeguard, which means that the more competitive its marketplace gets, the more it has to spend on content.

This is why Netflix has had to take on successive amounts of debt – accruing to $9.7 billion since 2013. Servicing this debt cost Netflix $318,804 million for the 12 months to Q2 2018, one year earlier the cost was $181,346 million. For the 12 months to Q2 2018, Netflix’s streaming content liabilities were $10.8 billion, representing 80% of streaming revenues, which compares favourably with Spotify’s 78%. One year earlier, those liabilities for Netflix were $9.6 billion, representing a whopping 99% of streaming revenues. The reason Netflix can do this and generate a net margin is that it amortises the costs of its originals (essentially offsetting some of its tax bill). For the 12 months to Q2 2018 Netflix amortised 64% of its content liabilities, one year earlier that share was 57%, reflecting originals being a larger share of content spend during 12 months to Q2 2018. The more originals Netflix makes, the more it can increase its margin. Which creates the intriguing dynamic of the US Treasury subsidising Netflix’s business model. Welcome to the next generation of state funded broadcaster!

Q2 will tell

Spotify spending billions on original content is some way off yet – assuming it engineers a way to do so without antagonising its label partners, but until then it can rest assured that while Netflix faces growing content costs, it has its exposure capped, allowing it to focus on growing its customer base and enhancing its product. The reaction to the forthcoming Q2 earnings will show us whether investors see it that way too.

From Ownership to Access

MIDiA PanelLast Wednesday we held the third MIDiA Quarterly forum, exploring the shift from ownership to access across different media industries. In addition to MIDiA analyst presentations we had panellists from Sky, The Economist, Beggars Group, Reed Smith and Readly. The event was held at The Ministry in London and was a great success. Be sure to make it to our next one! Here are some of the key themes we explored.

Change is a coming

We opened with three quotes that summarise the tensions and transformations taking place in the digital content marketplace:

 ‘The fine wines of France are not merely content for the glass making industry’, Andrew Lloyd-Webber

‘We’re competing with sleep…sleep is my greatest enemy’, Reed Hastings, Netflix

‘Content may still be king but distribution is the queen and she wears the trousers’, Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed

All three quotes represent very different worldviews and illustrate how different things can look from the perspective of the companies being disrupted, those doing the disruption and those building businesses to harness the disruption. All three viewpoints are simultaneously valid, but the media landscape is changing at rapid pace, and fighting a rear-guard action against change only gives the disruptors a freer rein to, well, disrupt.

access slide 1Across most media industries – music, video and news especially, the future of content monetisation will be built around advertising for the mass market and subscriptions for the aficionados, while additional opportunities exist for one-off transactions within both environments (e.g. Tencent live streaming  Chinese boyband TFBoysand Epic Games selling $100 million a month of virtual items in Fortnite). What is going as a mainstream proposition is selling physical media, though niche markets for collectables will thrive—ironically exactly because of the demise of physical media. In an age without shelves full of CDs, DVDs and games, collectors want a physical manifestation of their tastes.

Music and video are plotting the most directly comparable paths towards access-based models, though there are also some very telling differences:

  • Scale:Globally there were 206 million music subscribers at the end of 2017, compared to 452 million video subscribers. But while subscriptions represented 45% of retail music revenues, it was just 12% of pay-TV revenues. Music though is a far smaller industry than pay-TV (11% of the size), so like-for-like comparisons aren’t always that useful.
  • Concentration:What is worth comparing though, is the degree of market concentration. In music, the top four subscription services account for 72% of subscribers, compared to just 54% for video. And while the long tail for music services isn’t very, well, long, in video there is a vast number of smaller services: there are around 60 different services in the US alone.
  • Variety:While music services largely offer the same catalogue, with the same usage terms at the same price, video is defined by diversity and exclusives. Using the US as an example again, more than half of the services are niche – such as Korean drama, 4K nature, horror, reality – and there are 23, yes 23, different price points.

Aside the different heritages of these industries – consumers are used to paying for different slices of TV content, there is another key reason for the differences: rights holder distribution. In music three big companies account for the majority of revenues; in TV there are dozens of key studios and networks. This means that in video, the distribution companies can play rights holders off each other and effectively set the pace of change. In music, the major record labels shape the market.

This dynamic is what Clayton Christensen outlined in the Innovator’s Dilemma. There are two key types of innovation:

  1. Sustaining innovations:the smaller, more evolutionary changes that companies make to improve their existing products. Every company does this if they can, it’s how to maintain the status quo and grow revenues predictably
  2. Disruptive innovations:these are dramatic, industry-altering changes that rarely come from the incumbents but instead from disruptive new entrants. P2P file sharing was the big one that shook the TV and music industries. TV responded by fighting free with free, by launching services like iPlayer, ABC.com and Hulu. The music industry responded by licensing to the iTunes Music store. One embraced disruption, one fought it.

Talking of disruption, the big existential threat media companies will have to face over the coming decade, is ceding power, willingly or otherwise, to the tech majors (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Facebook). Europe’s Article 13aims to offset some of the growing reach of the tech majors, but ultimately these companies will shape the future of media, across both ad supported and subscription models.

The tech majors generated $40.7 billion in ad revenue in Q1 2018 alone, including around $2 billion for Amazon, the global advertising revenue powerhouse that many still aren’t paying enough attention to. The tech majors have already sucked away much of the news industry’s audience and ad revenues; with assets such as YouTube and IGTVthey are competing for radio and TV too. But it is the content and services revenue that media companies need to pay most attention to. With $16.9 billion in Q1 alone – nearly the same as the recorded music market for the entirety of 2017, this is a sector that all four tech majors are taking seriously, very seriously. And even though Facebook is a late arrival to the party, it is making up for lost time with its new music offeringand evolving video strategy.

The reason all this matters for media companies is that the strategic objectives of the tech major are rarely aligned with those of media companies. The tech majors each use media as a means to an end, a tool for driving their core strategy. Access based models underpin the content strategies of these companies who often control distribution and access to consumers via tools such as app stores, mobile operating systems, search and social platforms. Thus, the shift from ownership to access could also translate into a shift towards a tech major dominated media world.

The Outlook for Music Catalogue: Streaming Changes Everything

Friday’s news that catalogue acquisition business Hipgnosis Songs Fund is set to float on the London Stock Exchange,having already raised around $260 million, reflects a booming market for music catalogues. However, the outlook for catalogue is not quite as straight forward as it at first appears. MIDiA Research has just published a major new report looking at the state of catalogue and its future: The Outlook for Music Catalogue: Streaming Changes Everything. This report was six months in the making and pulls data from a wide range of industry sources to provide a definitive view of the global catalogue market, both in terms of revenues and also mergers and acquisitions (M&A). The report is immediately available to MIDiA subscription clients and is also available for individual purchase on our report store here. Here follows a brief overview.

Album unbundling is now hitting catalogue

Music catalogue sales is fundamentally about nostalgia, enabling us to relive our younger years through rediscovering music that mattered to us. In the old sales model, record labels could release a greatest hits album every eight–10 years and convince consumers to pay for a dozen or more songs, when in reality they only ever wanted a handful of them. If you think about the artists that sound tracked your younger years but are not among your favourite artists, there are probably only around five songs that you can actually recall as liking. In the old sales model you would have listened most to those tracks on the full album, and even then, probablyonly a dozen or so times before lessening your listening. Now, with streaming, you can get straight to those five tracks, skipping the others, and probably still only listen to them a handful of times each, perhaps adding them to a playlist that you’ll listen to occasionally. The old model would have generated, say $5 gross revenue for the label. In the streaming model, five songs listened to ten times each would generate 28 cents for the label. It is the album unbundling dynamic all over again.

Younger audiences look forward, not back

Younger Millennials and Gen Z – those born between 1995–2014 – have more content pushed to them that is tailored specifically for them than at any other stage in history. This is digital’s baby boomer generation. They have never had it so good. With Instagram and Snapchat feeds perpetually filled with new content, they have little need or want to look back. The music industry isn’t helping things either with hundreds of thousands of tracks released every month, leaving little time for older music.

Even within streaming catalogue listening, the focus is very much on the new rather than the old. In the UK, according to the BPI, more than 70% of all catalogue (24-plus months old) streams are from on or after 2000. If we go back to the 1960s, where some of the most iconic catalogue artists were at their peak – e.g. the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – this decade accounted for just 3.6% of UK catalogue streams in [year]. In traditional catalogue valuations, the likes of the Beatles and the Stones will account for a major portion of valuations. In the streaming era, their value diminishes markedly.

 

midia research catalogue forecastsCatalogue is caught between the two extremes of streaming and physical, with current revenue boosted by older CD and vinyl buyers coalescing around old favourites. These physical formats are often high-priced premium products and therefore create a skewed picture when comparing the consumption business of streaming to the sales model. Catalogue’s outlook is nuanced. Music catalogue generated $11.5 billion in retail revenues in 2017, which was up from 2016 and it will continue to grow through to 2025. Yet catalogue’s share of recorded music revenues will diminish.

Many strings to catalogue’s bow

Catalogue also looks different depending on where you sit in the value chain. If you are an influential indie label group like Beggars, you’ll see catalogue still performing strongly on streaming because you have the influential music that fans want to discover. Meanwhile, publishing catalogues are commanding large fees, not least Sony ATV’s $2.3 billion acquisition of 60% of EMI Music Publishing. Music publishing has felt the impact of streaming much more slowly than labels, but it is happening. Mechanical royalties from sales are plummeting, sync revenues are stable but a far larger volume of syncs are happening thus reducing average synch incomes. Meanwhile on streaming, publishers get a much smaller share of revenue than labels. And of course, streaming is killing off radio, another key publishing income source. So what labels are beginning to experience now, publishers will too.

The future needs rewriting

None of this means that catalogue is dead, but it does need an overhaul if it is to retain relevance. Selling people nostalgia is no longer enough on its own (though of course a solid market still exists for selling digital remasters to aging rock fans). The Guardians of the Galaxy is a great example of how to make catalogue work in the current market. For young fans of the movie, the music is simply the soundtrack to part of their culture that just happens to be decades old. The music is given new cultural context for a new generation. This is the sort of thinking catalogue needs to thrive in the streaming era.

A catalogue bubble

There is a risk that we are in a catalogue bubble. Acquisitions are on a rapid rise – check out the reportfor our year-by-year catalogue M&A activity – and will likely continue to rise over coming years, as illustrated by Hipgnosis, though given that the average transaction value for catalogues is $140 million the initial $260 million may not go that far.

The risk with the current market is that valuations are being built using the models that were shaped in the distribution era and that don’t properly reflect the dynamics of streaming. Also, there is a finite number of decent sized catalogues for sale, which means it is a sellers’ market, thus driving prices up further still. 

With these dynamics and streaming’s emphasis on the new set to create a world of mega hits and audiences with less inclination towards looking back, catalogue is at a tipping point. Either it changes to meet the market or the market leaves it behind.

Could Article 13 Kill Off Music on YouTube?

It was a day of two halves for YouTube. On one side a big press release went out championing a host of impressive new stats – including hitting 1.9 billion logged in users, following an official launch of YouTube Musicthe day before. Meanwhile, on the other side, the European parliament’s legal affairs committee voted in support of Article 13, whichwill overturn some basic premises of the fair use / safe harbour frameworks under which YouTube operates. The question is which half will prove to be most impactful on YouTube’s music strategy.

It’s complicated

If YouTube was to post the status of its relationship with the labels on its Facebook profile it would be ‘It’s complicated’. The whole value gap argument – which posits that YouTube does not pay as much as other streaming services because it does not have to directly license in the way they do – has created a war of words characterised by obfuscation and disinformation on both sides. Its super-recent new premium strategy was almost certainly timed to coincide with this vote and it helps present YouTube as a premium player, doing what the labels want.

But fundamentally, Google and its YouTube subsidiary are all about selling advertising. If you put too many of your most valuable customers behind an ad-free pay wall, advertisers will eventually stop paying as much for ads. Google is not about to kill off a large scale, high-margin business for a small scale, low margin one. In short, Google cannot afford for music subscriptions to be too successful.

value gap

The three numbers that matter

The EU vote will likely get pushed to a full parliamentary vote, so the legislative picture is still far from resolved. When determining the outcome, policy makers, YouTube and rights holders should consider three metrics: $0.0020, -51% and 171:

  • $0.0020: In the US, where there is a strong video ad market, effective per stream rates for YouTube actually increased by 14% in 2017 to $0.0020. Bet you haven’t heard that spoken about much by rights holders? Globally however, the rate fell for labels but, interestingly, was about flat for rights holders overall (publishers get paid on videos—such as cover versions, so there are more videos they get paid on, labels do not).What it means:YouTube’s US experience shows market economics can reduce the value gap.
  • 51%: This was Spotify’s gross margin on ad supported in Q1 2016. By Q1 2018 it had risen to 13%. This was in large part because the labels had cut Spotify better deals on ad supported, which meant that the difference between what YouTube pays and what Spotify pays now is smaller than it was in 2016 when the value gap lobbying was in full effect. What it means: the labels have reduced the value gap!
  • 171: This is how many days it took on average for music videos to reach one billion views in 2017. In 2010 it took 1,841. YouTube has become far more effective at turning songs into hits, thus making it more valuable to the music business than ever before. Major record labels are in the business of making superstars, but superstars need massive global audiences to turn them into global brands—much bigger audiences than you get behind a Spotify paywall. The majors need YouTube’s scale to make global successes. What it means: the labels need YouTube as much as it needs them.

Commercial sustainability is the core issue

At the heart of the value gap argument is a fight for control. Rights holders want more control over YouTube to extract better deals and YouTube does not want to cede that control. But there is an argument that YouTube’s greater control enabled it to build a commercial sustainable model. Spotify, which does not have YouTube’s negotiating power, is still not generating a net profit on streaming. On a sliding scale, there are label-defined rates with a non-commercially sustainable business model at one end, while at the other end there is YouTube, which does not pay rights holders what they want, but has a commercially sustainable model. The solution clearly lies somewhere between the two extremes. Moreover, what is crucial, if YouTube is going to remain incentivised to continue to make music videos a success, is that rights payment need to be a share of revenue, not based on a minimum per track fee.

Would YouTube walk away from music?

Spotify is, for now at least, all about music, so it has to make it work. YouTube is not. If music suddenly becomes lower margin for YouTube with fixed per stream costs, then it would be commercially foolish for YouTube to do anything other than push its viewers to other forms of content than music. That 171-day metric didn’t happen on its own. YouTube honed its algorithms to ensure it can make hits faster for the music industry, but it can dial that back in an instant.

There is even a possibility that paying more for music rights could scupper YouTube’s entire business model as other types of rights holders might start demanding better rates too. The crux of the matter is that the current economics suit YouTube but not rights holders. What we have to be careful to avoid is a new paradigm where roles are reversed. As important as music is to YouTube, Google could walk away if it really wanted to. Rights holders—labels especially, need to think whether that is a price they are willing to pay.

Spotify’s New Rules of Engagement

It is easy to feel that the pervasive obsession with Spotify overplays its importance to the recorded music industry. On the one hand it may only represent 27% of global recorded music revenues, but this compares to a peak of around 10% that Apple enjoyed at the peak of the iTunes Music Store. So, whatever label concerns existed back then about market influence – and there were plenty – their apprehensions have now multiplied. The assumption among many investors and label executives is that Spotify’s market share will lessen as the market grows. However, Spotify has thus far held onto its subscriber market share as the market has grown and looks set to do so in the foreseeable future.

If revenue is Spotify’s ‘hard power’ its real influence comes in its ‘soft power’. This takes two key forms:

  • Cultural influence:Despite being less than a third of revenues, record labels, artists and managers typically see Spotify as the proving ground, the place where hits are made. Marketing and promotion efforts are centred around getting traction on Spotify, knowing that success there normally leads to success elsewhere. Thus, Spotify’s cultural influence far outweighs its market share. As is so often the case with soft power, those affected most by it are those who inadvertently ceded it.
  • Innovation / disruption / innovation:Since embarking on its DPO path Spotify has been talking out of both sides of its mouth at the same time. On the one hand it positions itself as a safe pair of hands for the records labels, and on the other it lays out for investors a vision of a future world were artists don’t have to choose to work with labels. Labels have long feared just how far Spotify is willing to go and also, just how quickly. Spotify is now showing signs of going full tilt.

 

A rabbit out of the hat

When Spotify reported its Q1 earnings, the music industry consensus was a job well done. It delivered nearly on-target revenues (though they were down slightly on Q4), solid subscriber growth, improved margins and reduced churn. But it wasn’t enough for Wall Street. Spotify’s stock price fell to $150.07 down from a high of $170 in the days building up to the earnings. So what went wrong? Investors were expecting Spotify to pull a rabbit out of the hat. They’d been promised an industry changing investment and had instead got an industry sustaining investment. Such fickle investor confidence so early on in the history of a public company can be fatal. So, Spotify quickly searched for that rabbit; it announced that it will do direct deals with some artists and managers. Guess what happened? Spotify’s stock price rose to $172.37. The rabbit was bounding across the stage.

Untitled

Investors want the new world now

These are the new rules of streaming music. As the bellwether of streaming, Spotify has been dictating the narrative for years, but always with the focus of being a partner for rights holders. Now that it is public, Spotify has found that tough talking trumps sweet talking. Even if Spotify does not intend to go fast on its next gen-label strategy, it now knows it has to talk fast. Speaking from the experience of months of deep conversations with large institutional investors, Wall Street has pumped money into Spotify stock not because of how it will help labels’ businesses, but because they expect it to replace labels, or, at the very least, compete with them at scale. Spotify’s stock was not cheap, so to deliver to investors the returns they crave, it has to show that its influence is as disruptive / innovative (delete depending on your perspective) for the music business as Netflix has been for the TV business. They are investing in the potential upside on a future industry changer, not a present-day industry defender.

Spotify needs to speak boldly but act responsibly

Spotify cannot of course go all guns blazing yet, as it simply cannot afford to operate without the major labels. Netflix could get away with what it did because the TV rights landscape is fragmented. Therefore, Spotify will have to tread carefully until it can pick away at major label market share through various forms of direct deals. But it also has to do this cautiously (as I explained in this post). If it is too quick and bold it will incite retaliatory action from the labels. So, the new rules of engagement for Spotify and rights holders are a bit like international diplomacy: make bold public statements to keep domestic voters happy but adopt a more conciliatory approach with partners behind closed doors. Let’s just hope that Spotify opts for the Justin Trudeau school of international diplomacy over the Donald Trump approach.

Facebook Aims To Bring The Fun Back Into Music

Facebook has announced its long mooted move into music. As widely anticipated the service offering focuses on using music to add context to social experiences. The official blog outlines two key use cases:

  1. Adding music to videos
  2. Doing live stream lip syncs in Facebook Live videos

For now the roll out is limited, which will give Facebook the opportunity to hone the service and learn from the behaviour of a relatively narrow user group. A wider roll out will follow.

facebook music midiaIt’s not about subscriptions, nor should it be

Facebook was never going to try be a Spotify clone. Let me rephrase that, just in case anyone in Facebook’s management team is getting tempted to – wrongly – make the wrong move – Facebook should never try be a Spotify clone. Not only is it the wrong fit, it simply doesn’t need to. Streaming music is a low margin business that is being competed over by a number of very well established heavyweights. Facebook may be embarking on a content strategy like the other tech majors, but unlike Apple and Amazon, its core focus will be ad supported, not premium. (MIDiA subscribers – check out our forthcoming inaugural ‘Tech Majors Quarterly Market Shares’ report to see how Facebook’s content strategy stacks up against Apple, Alphabet and Amazon, and where it will be heading.)

YouTube now has a social music competitor worthy of note

For a whole host of reasons which warrant a blog post of their own, streaming music has coalesced around a very functional value proposition. In short, the fun has been taken out of music. Apps like Dubsmash and Musical.ly showed that it doesn’t have to be that way. These apps were small enough to be able to do first and ask forgiveness later. Even though Facebook has all the ingredients to do what those guys did, but at scale, it is far too big to try to get away with that strategy so had to get licenses in place first. YouTube is the only other scale player that really brings a truly social element to streaming. Now it has got a serious challenger that just upped the ante beyond comments, mash ups and likes / dislikes. The music industry so needs this right now. Especially to win over Gen Z.

Is Facebook bottling it when it comes to messaging apps?

For the moment, Facebook’s strategy is squarely focussed around its core platform. There’s no mention of Instagram (surely the best outlet for this kind of functionality). This hints at a degree of strategic wobbles in Facebook towers. By going all in with its messaging app strategy Facebook took a brave move few big companies do: it decided to disrupt itself before someone else did. It realised that the future of social was in messaging apps not traditional social networks. It is now the world’s leading messaging app company, with only Chinese companies truly challenging it (South Koreas’ Kakao Corp, Japan’s Line and Chinese players excepted). But that shift of user time to under monetized ad platforms threatens Facebook’s ad revenue growth. Hence the focus of music to drive usage back to its core platform where it can generate more ad revenue.

Not a Musical.ly killer, at least not yet

Although some have been quick to liken Facebook’s lip sync functionality to Musical.ly and co, in reality it is not competing head on with those apps because it is initially launched as a Facebook Live feature. Betraying Facebook’s strategic imperative of building its Live business. Expect a true Musical.ly ‘killer’ sometime within the next nine months.

Facebook is not here to compete with Spotify, but it is here to compete with YouTube and Snapchat and to steal some of the clothes of Musical.ly and co. The currently announced features just scratch the surface of what Facebook can do. In many respects music has taken a series of retrograde steps socially speaking since the days of imeem, MySpace and Last.FM. Now Facebook has picked up the dropped baton and is running with it.

Finally for anyone at MIDEM, I will be there from Weds PM to Thursday evening, including doing a keynote Q+A with Napster’s new CEO early Thursday evening. Hope to see you there. My colleagues Zach Fuller and Georgia Meyer are there too, both are speaking, so be sure to say hi.

Spotify’s Censorship Crisis is About Social Responsibility

Spotify has been forced into something of a rethink regarding its hate speech policy. Spotify announced it was removing music from playlists of artists that do not meet its new policy regarding hate speech and hateful behaviour. R.Kelly, who faces allegations of sexual abuseand XXXTentacion, who is charged with battering a pregnant woman, were two artists that found their music removed. Now Spotify is softening its stance following push back externally and internally, including from Troy Carter who made it known that he was willing to walk away from the company if the policy remained unchanged. Spotify had good intentions but did not execute well. However, this forms part of a much bigger issue of the changing of the guard of media’s gatekeepers.

Facebook has been here before

Back in late 2016, Facebook faced widespread criticism for censoring a historic photograph of the Vietnam warin which a traumatised child is shown running, naked, away from a US napalm attack. Facebook soon backed downbut it got to the heart of why the “we’re just a platform” argument from the world’s new media gatekeepers was no longer fit for purpose. Indeed by the end of the year, Zuckerberg had all but admitted that Facebook was now a media company.The gatekeepers might be changing from newspaper editors, radio DJs, music, film and TV critics and TV presenters, but they are still gatekeepers. And gatekeepers have a responsibility.

Social responsibility didn’t disappear with the internet

Part of the founding mythology of the internet was that the old rules don’t apply anymore. Some don’t, but many do. Responsibilities to society still exist. Platforms are never neutral. The code upon which they are built have the ideological and corporate DNA of their founders built into them – even if they are unconscious biases, though, normally, they are anything but unconscious. The new gatekeepers may rely on algorithms more than they do human editors, but they still fundamentally have an editorial role to play, as the whole Russian election meddling debacle highlighted. Whether they do so of their own volition or because of legislative intervention, tech companies with media influence have an editorial responsibility. Spotify’s censorship crisis is just one part of this emerging narrative.

Editorial, not censorship

As with all such debates, language can distort the debate. Indeed, the term ‘censorship’ conjures up images of Goebbels,but swap the term for ‘editorial decisions’ and the issue instantly assumes a different complexion. Spotify was trying to get ahead of the issue, showing it could police itself before there were calls for it to do so. Unfortunately, by making editorial decisions based upon accusations, Spotify made itself vulnerable to being accused of playing the role of judge and jury for artists who live in countries where innocence is presumed in legal process, not guilt. Also, by implementing on a piecemeal rather than exhaustive basis, it gave itself the appearance of selecting which artists’ misdemeanours were considered serious enough to take action upon. Spotify had the additional, highly sensitive, risk of appearing to be a largely white company deselecting largely black artists on playlists. Even if neither semblance was reflective of intent, the appearance of intent was incendiary.

Lyrics can be the decider

Now Spotify is having to rethink its approach. It would be as wrong for Spotify to opt for the ‘neutral platform’ approach as it would be ‘arbitrary censorship’. An editorial role is necessary. In just the same way radio broadcasters are expected to filter out hate speech, tech companies have a proactive role to play. A safer route for Spotify to follow, at least in the near term, would be to work with its Echo Nest division and a lyrics provider like LyricFind to build technology, moderated by humans, that can identify hate speech within lyrics and song titles. It wouldn’t be an easy task, but it would certainly be an invaluable one, and one that would give Spotify a clear moral leadership role. In today’s world of media industry misogyny and mass shootings, there is no place for songs that incite hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia or that glorify gun violence. Spotify can take the lead in ensuring that such songs do not get pushed to listeners, and thus start to break the cycle of hatred.

Is YouTube Serious About Music Subscriptions This Time Round?

In 2014 YouTube launched its inaugural music subscription service YouTube Music Keyin beta. The following year YouTube announced it was closing it ahead of the launch of YouTube Red, a multi-format subscription video on demand (SVOD) offering, of which music was going to be sub-component. Soon after Music Key’s launch I announced on stage at a Mixcloud Curates event that it would close within two years: and

I’m gonna put my cards on the table and say it [YouTube Music Key] won’t exist in 18-24 months after

Now YouTube is backfor another round at the table with the launch of YouTube Music.

In 2014 my Nostradamusmoment was less about being a psychic octopusthan it was simply a case of joining the strategic dots. YouTube is all about advertising. Advertisers pay most to reach the best consumers, who are also the ones most likely to pay for a subscription service, which is ad free. YouTube’s ad business is high margin and large scale. Its music subscription business is low margin and low scale. Hence, the more successful YouTube’s music subscription business is, the more harm it does to its core business and operating margins. The same principles apply today as they did four years ago.

So why bother at all? Because it has to keep the labels on side. Although the labels scored a lobbying own goal with their Facebook music deal, they are still applying pressure on YouTube for its safe harbour framework and the ‘value gap’. So if YouTube does not play ball on premium, it puts its core ad business at risk. And music is still the largest single source of YouTube’s ad revenue. Total YouTube ad revenue was $9.6 billion in 2017 – that is a revenue stream that parent company Alphabet cannot put at risk.

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When YouTube launched Music Key it used those negotiations to get better features for the free YouTube music offering, including full album playlists, which went live the day after the deal was announced and are still there now, even though Music Key is not. YouTube is no slouch when it comes to doing deals. This time however, YouTube Music will last longer. Here’s why:

  • This isn’t actually year zero:Google already has around five million Play Music subscribers and around the same number of YouTube Red subscribers. Red subscribers will become YouTube Premium subscribers, Play Music subscribers will get access to YouTube Music. So, inasmuch as YouTube is launching a cool new app with lots of new features, this is not Google entering the streaming fray, it is simply upping its game.
  • Spotify is making up ground:YouTube Music is not about to become the global leader in music subscriptions, for all the above stated reasons and more, but it can’t stand on the side lines either. Data from MIDiA’s Quarterly Brand Tracker shows that while YouTube is still the leading streaming music app in weekly active user (WAU) terms, Spotify is making up ground. Crucially, Spotify is now more widely used (for music) among 16–19 year olds. And Spotify is betting big on ad-supported, largely because it has finally persuaded the labels and publishers to amend its deals to allow it to, evidenced by the fact that Q1 2018 ad-supported gross margin increased dramatically from -18% to 13% in Q1 2017. YouTube Music is in part a defensive play to ensure it has an enriched offering for thoseconsumers, both now as free users, and for when they want to pay.
  • YouTube is the best featured music service: One of the great ironies of the recorded music industry’s relationship with YouTube is that because it doesn’t have to negotiate deals in the way other services to, it now has the best featured music service. Streaming and social have risen in tandem, but only YouTube has fully embraced this with comments, likes / dislikes, mash ups, user cover versions, parodies, unofficial remixes etc. And all of these features are front and centre in the new service. Spotify and co can’t get that sort of content because the labels can’t license it. Moreover, labels don’t like users being able to thumb down their songs or comment negatively on them. This launch enables YouTube to shout from the roof top about what it has and, by inference, what Spotify does not.
  • Testing:YouTube Music is being rolled out in the same markets as YouTube Red was (US, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and South Korea). This slightly eclectic mix of markets represent a test base; a wide range of varied markets that will provide diverse user data to enable YouTube to model what global adoption will look like.
  • Upping the ad load: YouTube’s global head of music Lyor Cohen has nailed his colours firmly to the subscription mast. Although Cohen may not be up high in the Alphabet hierarchy he is a strong voice in YouTube’s music business. It also serves Alphabet well to have this particular voice with that sort of message at the forefront. Cohen has gone on record stating that YouTube will up its ad load to force more users to paid, and it is happening, but it is not just a music thing. Ad loads are up across the board on YouTube. Either way, this element was patently missing back in the days of Music Key.

YouTube Music may not be the start of Alphabet’s streaming game, but it is certainly its biggest play yet. And while it will remain focused on protecting its core business, it will likely explore ways to drive ad revenue within its ‘ad free’ premium offerings. Sponsorship and product placement will be one tactic; using MirriAd’s dynamic product placement ad tech could be another. YouTube is unlikely to become the leading music subscription service soon, but there is no denying that it has clearly upped its game.

The data in this chart and some of the analysis will form part of MIDiA’s forthcoming second edition of its landmark ‘State of the YouTube Music Nation’ report. If you are not already a MIDiA client and would like to know how to get access to this report and data, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Could Spotify Buy Universal? 

Vivendi is reported to be proposing to its board a plan for spinning out Universal Music. It is certainly the right time for a spin off (always sell before the peak), but a full divestment would leave Vivendi unbalanced and a shell of its former self. Canal+ is facing the same Netflix-inspired cord-cutting pains as other pay-TV operators (and is relying heavily on sub-Saharan Africa for subscriber growth), while other assets such as those in Vivendi Village have failed to deliver. With CEO Vincent Bolloré having invested heavily in Vivendi, he would be devaluing his own wealth. For a man who is not shy of saying that he’s in the game to make money, this scenario simply doesn’t add up. As one investment specialist recently suggested to me, this talk of a spin-off is probably exactly that, talk. Talk aimed at driving up Vivendi’s valuation by association and, at most, potentially resulting in a partial spin-off or partial listing. However, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a big enough offer for Universal would persuade Bolloré to sell. So, let’s for a moment assume that Universal is on the market and have a little fun with who could buy it.

The Chinese option

It is widely rumoured that Alibaba was in advanced discussions with Vivendi to buy some size of stake in Universal. Those conversations derailed when the Chinese government tightened up regulations on Chinese companies buying overseas assets, which is why we now see Tencent buying a growing number of minority stakes in companies rather than outright acquisitions. So, an outright Chinese acquisition is likely off the table. This doesn’t rule out other Asian bidders (Softbank had an $8.5 billion bid rejected in 2013), though perhaps Chinese companies are the only ones with the requisite scale and access to cash that would meet a far, far higher 2018 price point.

The tech major option

The most likely scenario (if Universal were for sale) is that one of the tech majors (Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook) swoops in. Given Google’s long-held antipathy for the traditional copyright regime, Alphabet is not the most likely, while Facebook is too early in its music journey (though check back in 18 months if all goes well). Apple and Amazon are different cases entirely. Both companies are run by teams of older executives whose formative cultural reference points were shaped by traditional media companies. These are companies that, even if they may not state it, see themselves as the natural evolution of media, moving it from the physical era of transactions to the digital era of access. Thus far, Apple and Amazon have focused principally on distribution, although both have invested in rights too. Apple less so, (e.g. Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper) but Amazon much more so (e.g. Man in the High Castle, Manchester by the Sea). Acquiring a major media company is a logical next step for Amazon. A TV studio and, or network would likely be the first move (especially as Netflix will likely buy one first, forcing Amazon’s hand), but a record label wouldn’t be inconceivable. And it would have to be a big label – such as UMG, that would guarantee enough share of ear to generate ROI. Apple though, could well buy a sports league, which would use up its budget.

The Spotify option

While the tech majors are more likely long-term buyers of Universal, Spotify arguably needs it more (and is certainly less distracted by other media formats). Right now, Spotify has a prisoner’s dilemma; it knows it needs to make disruptive changes to its business model if it is going to create the step change investors clearly want (look at what happened to Spotify’s stock price despite an impressive enough set of Q1 results). But it also knows that making such changes too quickly could result in labels pulling content, which would destroy its present in the hope of building a future. Meanwhile, labels are worried Spotify is going to disintermediate them but can’t risk damaging their business by withdrawing content now – hence the prisoner’s dilemma. Neither side dares make the first move.

That’s the problem with the ‘do a Netflix’ argument: do it too fast and the whole edifice comes tumbling down. Moreover, original content will not be the same silver bullet for Spotify as it was for Netflix. This is mainly because there is a far smaller catalogue of TV content than music, so a dollar spent on original video goes a lot further than a dollar spent on original music. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Spotify will get to a tipping point, where the labels see a shiny-toothed wolf lurking under the lamb’s wool, and with its cover blown it will be forced to go nuclear. If this happened, buying a major label would become an option. And, as with the tech majors, it would have to be a major label to deliver enough share of ear.

But that scenario is a long, long way off. First, Spotify has to prove it can be successful and generate enough revenue and market cap to put itself in a position where it could buy a major. And that is still far from a clear path. For now, Spotify’s focus is on being a partner to the labels, not a parent company.

All of this talk might sound outlandish but it was not so long ago that an internet company (AOL) co-owned Warner Music and a drinks company (Seagram) owned Universal Music, before selling it to a water utilities company (Vivendi), and, long before that, EMI was owned by a light bulb company (Thorn Electrical Industries). We have got used to this current period of corporate stability for the major record labels, but this situation is a reflection of the recorded music business being in such a poor state that there was little M&A interest. Nonetheless it is all changing, potentially heralding a return to the past. Everything has happened before and will happen again.

Spotify Q1 2018 Results: Full Stream Ahead

Spotify released its first ever quarterly earnings results today. The results reflect strong performance in its first public quarter with growth in subscribers, total users, revenue and also gross profit. Here are the highlights:

  • Subscribers: Spotify hit 75 million subscribers, up 44% from 71 million in Q4 2017, which is wholly in line with MIDiA’s 74.7 million forecast and reflects solid growth for a non-paid trial quarter. That is an increase of 22.9 million on Q1 2017, at which stage total subscribers stood at 52 million. The fact the year-on-year growth is 44% of the total subscriber count from one year previously reflects just how far Spotify has come in such a short period of time. Q2 2018 will be a paid trial quarter so subscriber growth will be markedly stronger. Expect Q2 2018 subscribers to reach around the 82 million mark.
    Takeaway: Spotify’s subscriber growth is maintaining its solid organic growth trajectory, with paid trials continuing to be the growth accelerant that keep total growth on a steeper growth curve.
  • Revenues: Revenues were up 26% from €902 million in Q1 17 to reach €1,139 million, though this was 1% down on Q4 2017. Premium revenue was €1,037 million, comprising 91% of all revenues. Ad Supported revenues were €102m growing at a faster rate (38%) than premium but contributing fewer net new dollars. Labels and publishers have empowered Spotify to fully commercialize its free user base and the dividends are now beginning to manifest, all be it from a low base.
    Takeaway: Premium revenues continue to be the beating heart of Spotify’s business. Though ad supported represents a massive long term opportunity, that business is going to take much longer to kick into motion. Growth though is not linear and is shaped by seasonal trial cycles.
  • Churn: Quarterly churn fell below 5% in Q1 2018 (it was 5.1% in Q4 2017), following a long term downward trend that was only interrupted by a 0.4% point increase in Q3 2017. Applying the churn rate to Spotify’s subscriber base reveals that it while its net subscriber additions for Q1 2018 were 4 million, the gross additions (ie including churned out users) was 7.4 million.
    Takeaway: Any growth stage business that is aggressively pursuing audience growth faces the challenge of bringing a high share of low value users into the acquisition funnel, which in turn keeps churn up. Sooner rather than later Spotify is going to need to start focusing more heavily on retention than acquisition, especially in more mature markets.
  • Costs and margins: Gross margin was 24.9% in Q1, up from 24.5% in Q4 and 11.7% in Q1 2017. This was above guidance and Spotify attributes this largely to changes in estimates for rights holder costs. Spotify is doing everything it can to highlight just how good a job it is doing of reducing rights costs. ‘Recalculating’ costs for Q1 2018 has the convenient benefit of extending that pre-DPO narrative into its first earnings.
    Takeaway: Spotify’s Barry McCarthy stated prior to Spotify’s listing was going to remain squarely focused on ‘growth and market share’. So modest progress on margins needs to be set in the context of a company that is focused on growing now while the market is still in flux, and planning to tighten its belt when the market starts to solidify. Spend now while growth is to be had.

The Netflix Comparison

Since its listing, Spotify has found itself rocketed into the spotlight with no end of financial analysts now setting their sights on the streaming company and making their own estimates for revenues and subscribers. The somewhat predictable dominant narrative is how much Spotify does, or does not, compare to Netflix. Spotify is going to have to get used to those sorts of comparisons. The good news for Spotify is that its first earnings compare well with when Netflix was at similar stage of its growth.

In Q4 2015 Netflix hit 74.8 million total subscribers, up 5.6 million from the previous quarter. Streaming revenues were up 6% to $1.7 billion while cost of revenues were at 70% of revenues and quarterly premium ARPU was $22.37. Over the course of the next 12 months Netflix would add 19 million subscribers to reach 93.8 million by end 2016.

By comparison, in Q1 2018 Spotify hit 75 million total subscribers, up 4 million from the previous quarter. Revenue was up down 1% on previous quarter while cost of revenues were at 75% of revenues and quarterly premium ARPU was €13.80.

It is clear these are snapshots of companies at very similar stages of growth, however Spotify has slightly higher cost of revenue and lower ARPU than Netflix did in Q4 2015, both of which need fixing. The indications are thus that Spotify has a solid chance of following a similar path. Indeed, MIDiA’s estimate for Spotify’s end of year subscriber count is 93 million, putting it on exactly the same growth trajectory as Netflix was in 2016. For now, looking at Netflix’s performance with a 27 months look back is a pretty good proxy for where Spotify is going to be getting to.

Conclusion

Right now, Spotify is trying to strike a Goldilocks positioning: not too disruptive to the traditional music business but not too supportive of it either. Spotify needs to talk out of both sides of its mouth for a while, showing how much value it is delivering to traditional rights holders but also how it is an innovative force for change. The F1 filing leaned more towards the latter position, while the Q1 earnings took a more matter of fact approach. But over time, expect Goldilocks to start trying more of daddy bear’s porridge.

These findings are just a few highlights from MIDiA’s 6 chart Spotify Q1 2018 Earnings report which will be published Thursday 3rdMay. The report includes, alongside core earnings data, proprietary MIDiA metrics such as gross profit per subscriber and gross subscriber adds. If you are not already a MIDiA client and would like to learn how to get access to this report and other Spotify research and metrics, email stephen@midiaresearch.com