Just Who Would Buy Universal Music?

Vivendi continues to look for a buyer for a portion of Universal Music. Though the process has been running officially since May 2018, the transaction (or transactions) may not close until 2020. In many instances, dragging out a sale could reflect badly, suggesting that the seller is struggling to find suitable buyers. But in the case of UMG it probably helps the case. A seller will always seek to maximise the sale price of a company, which means selling as close to the peak as possible. It is a delicate balance, sell too early and you reduce your potential earnings, sell too late and the price can go down as most buyers want a booming business, not a slowing business. In the case of UMG, with institutional investors looking for a way into the booming recorded music business, UMG is pretty much the only game in town for large scale, global institutional investors.

In this sellers’ market, banks have been falling over themselves to say just how valuable UMG could be, with valuations ranging from $22 billion to $33 billionand Vivendi even suggesting $40 billion. Meanwhile, recorded music revenues continue to grow — up 9.0% in 2017, and up 8.2% in 2018 according to MIDiA’s estimates. 2019 will likely be up a further 6%, all driven by streaming. With UMG’s market share (on a distribution base) relatively stable, the market growth thus increases UMG’s valuation. This in turn increases Vivendi’s perceived value, and that is the crux of the matter.

The role of Bolloré Group

Vivendi board member and major shareholder Vincent Bolloré was Vivendi chairman until April 2018, when he handed power to his son Yannick, one month before he was reportedly taken into police custody for questioning as part of an investigation into allegations of corrupt business practices in Africa. Bolloré senior remains the chairman and CEO of Bolloré Group, which retains major shareholdings in Vivendi. Bolloré Group’s Vivendi holdings will inherently be devalued by a sale of prize asset UMG, which is a key reason why only a portion of the music group is up for sale. But, even selling a portion of UMG will have a negative impact on Vivendi’s valuation and thus also on Bolloré Group’s holdings. So, the sale price needs to be high enough to ensure that Bolloré Group makes enough money from the sale to offset any fall in valuation. Hence, dragging out the sale while the streaming market continues to boom. All this also means the sale is of key benefit to Bolloré Group and other Vivendi investors. It is perhaps as welcome as a hole in the head to UMG. Little wonder that some are suggesting UMG is markedly less enthusiastic about this deal than Vivendi is.

vivendi umg potential buyers

All of which brings us onto which company could buy a share of UMG. These can be grouped into the four key segments shown in the chart above. Normally, higher risk buyers (i.e. those that could negatively impact UMG’s business by damaging relationships with partners etc.) would not be serious contenders but as this is a Vivendi / Bolloré Group driven process rather than a UMG driven one, the appetite for risk will be higher. This is because the primary focus is on near-term revenue generation rather than long-term strategic vision. Both are part of the mix, but the former trumps the latter. Nonetheless, the higher-risk strategic buyers are unlikely to be serious contenders. Allowing a tech major to own a share of UMG would create seismic ripples across the music business, as would a sale to Spotify.

Financial investors

So that leaves us with the lower-risk strategic buyers, and both categories of financial buyers. Let’s look at the financial buyers first. Private equity (PE) is one of the more likely segments. We only need to look back at WMG, which was bought by a group of investors including THL and Providence Equity before selling to Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries in 2011 for $3.3 billion. Private equity companies take many different forms these days, with a wider range of investment theses than was the case a decade ago. But the underlying principle remains selling for multiples of what was paid. Put crudely, buy and then flip. The WMG investors put in around half a billion into the company, but a six-fold increase is less likely for UMG, as the transaction is taking place in a bull market while WMG was bought by Providence and co in a bear market. Where the risk comes in for UMG is to whom the PE company/companies would sell to in the future. At that stage, one of the current high-risk strategic companies could become a potential buyer, which would be a future challenge for UMG. The other complication regarding PE companies is that many would want a controlling stake for an investment that could number in the tens of billions.

Institutional investors such as pension funds are the safest option, as they would be looking for long-term stakes in low-risk, high-yield companies to add to their long-term investment portfolios. This would also enable Vivendi to divide and rule, distributing share ownership across a mix of funds, thus not ceding as much block voting power as it would with PE companies.

Strategic investors

The last group of potential buyers is also the most interesting: lower risk strategic. These are mainly holding companies that are building portfolios of related companies. Liberty Media is one of the key options, with holdings in Live Nation, Saavn, SiriusXM, Pandora, Formula 1 Racing and MLB team Atlanta Braves. Not only would UMG fill a gap in that portfolio, Liberty has gone on record stating it would be interested in buying into UMG.

Access Industries is the one that really catches the eye though. Alongside WMG, the Access portfolio includes Perform, Deezer and First Access Entertainment. On the surface Access might appear to be a problematic buyer as it owns WMG. But compared to many other potential investors, it is clearly committed to music and media, and is likely to have a strategic vision that is more aligned with UMG’s than many other potential suitors.

There is of course the possibility of being blocked by regulators on anti-competitive grounds. However, at year end 2017 WMG had an 18% market share, while UMG had 29.7% (both on a distribution basis). If Access acquired 25% of UMG, respective market shares would change to 25.4% for WMG and UMG for 22.2% (still slightly ahead of Sony on 22.1%). It would mean that the market would actually be less consolidated as the market share of the leading label (WMG) would be smaller than UMG’s current market leading share. While the likes of IMPALA would have a lot to say about such a deal, there is nonetheless a glimmer of regulatory hope for Access. Especially when you consider the continued growth of independents and Artists Direct. All of which point to a market that is becoming less, not more, consolidated.

The time is now

Whatever the final outcome, Bolloré Group and Vivendi are currently in the driving seat, but they should not take too much time. 2019 will likely see a streaming growth slowdown in big developed streaming markets such as the US and UK, and it is not yet clear whether later stage major markets Germany and Japan will grow quick enough to offset that slowdown in 2019. So now is the time to act.

Artists Direct and Streaming the Big Winners in 2018

With less than two weeks of 2018 left, the die is largely cast for the year, but we’ll have to wait at least a couple more months for the major labels to announce their results (though WMG still hasn’t declared its calendar Q3 results), and then another month or so for the IFPI numbers. So, in the meantime, here are MIDiA’s forecasts for 2018 based on the first three quarters of the year and early indicators for Q4.

midia research 2018 music revenues and market shares

To create our end of year revenue estimate, we collected data from record labels, national trade associations and also confidential data from the leading Artist Direct / DIY platforms. We plugged this data into MIDiA’s Music Market Share model and benchmarked against quarterly and full year 2017 growth.

The headline results:

  • Recorded music revenue will hit $18.9 billion this year: This represents an increase of 8.2% on 2017 which is a slight lower growth rate than 2016–2017, which was up 9%. However, net new revenue ($1.4 billion) – is almost exactly the same amount as one year previously. The recorded music market appears to be settled into a steady, strong growth pattern.
  • Streaming revenue up to $9.6 billion: The 41% growth rate of 2017 may be gone, replaced by 29%, but the absolute amount of new revenue generated was, as with the recorded music total, the same as 2017 $2.2 billion. There was enough growth in the big mature streaming markets – the US especially – to ensure that streaming continued to plot a strong course in 2018. Though the fact that total revenues grew by $0.8 billion less than streaming revenue, indicates the pace at which legacy formats continue to decline.
  • Artists Direct the big winners: MIDiA was the first to quantify the global revenue contribution of the Artists Direct (i.e. Independent Artists, DIY etc.) last year when we published our annual market shares report. Now we can report that the spectacular growth registered by this segment continued in 2018. Total Artist Direct revenue was $643 million, up an impressive 35% on 2017, i.e. more than three times faster than the market. Unlike the rest of the market, Artists Direct revenue growth is accelerating in both percentage and absolute terms, with market share up from 2.7% in 2017 to 3.4% in 2018. (It’s worth noting that only a portion of Artists Direct revenue is measured by the IFPI. Categories such as at-gig CD sales aren’t captured by either the labels or measurement companies that national trade associations depend upon to measure the market. So, expect the IFPI’s global recorded music total to come in closer to $18.6 billion).

It was another great year for the recorded music business, with streaming consolidating its role as industry engine room. Here are the key takeaways for 2019:

  • Global recorded revenues will grow once again in 2019 – this rebound has a good number of years left in it. Even if label revenues hit $25 billion (where the market was at in 2000 before the decline) in real terms (i.e. factoring in inflation etc.), that would actually be around half the actual value. While it is not realistic to expect a $50 billion market, getting towards the inflation-reduced $25 billion is certainly a realistic target.
  • Streaming growth will slow in the big mature markets (US, UK), but impact will be offset by growth in markets such as Japan, Germany, Brazil, Mexico. Overall market growth, though still strong, will be slower.
  • 2019 will be a coming of age year for Artists Direct, label services companies, JVs and other alternative models that have been establishing themselves in recent years. It’s never been a better time to be an artist, as long as you and / or your management are clued up enough to know what to ask for.

Independent Labels Grew Global Market Share to 39.9% in 2017

The global independent label trade body WIN has just published the third edition of the Worldwide Independent Market report. You can download the entire report for free here. As regular readers will know, MIDiA Research has conducted this study on behalf of WIN for each of the three editions, collecting an unparalleled volume of data from many hundreds of independent record labels right across the globe. This highly detailed, company-level data is provided to us on a strictly confidential basis and enables us to create a precise and authoritative view of the global independent sector. Think of it as the IFPI Recorded Industry in Numbers for the independent sector, but with the additional benefit of greater detail on how the labels operate. This year MusicAlly wrote the text of the report.

‘Why is this report necessary?’ you may ask, ‘surely you can just deduct the major record labels’ revenue from the IFPI global total. There are two key reasons why this is essential:

  1. There is additional Artists Direct revenue that the IFPI cannot and does not track, such as CDs and vinyl sold directly at gigs by bands, and artists selling directly to fans on DIY platforms such as Bandcamp and Pledge Music
  2. Large portions of independent label revenue are distributed via major record labels, or wholly owned major record label distributors, such as the Orchard (which is owned by Sony Music). This revenue appears in the major labels’ financial statements and thus appears as major record label revenue

In the Worldwide Independent Market report, we add in the portion of Artist Direct revenue that is not tracked by the IFPI and we additionally carve out the independent label revenue that is distributed via majors and allocate this back to the independent sector. We are able to do this because the independent labels tell us how much of their revenue is distributed via majors, and which companies they use for the distribution. This added up to $1.5 billion in 2017.

So, methodology out of the way, here are the headlines.

midia wintel indie market share

Independent revenue grew by 11.3% in 2017 to reach $6.9 billion, which compares to a total growth of 9.7% for the major labels, which in turn meant that the independents’ share of global revenue grew from 39.6% in 2016 to 39.9% in 2017.

midia wintel indie market share

Growth was not evenly distributed though. For example, Brazilian independent revenue grew by 30% while in Japan it fell by 1%, which resulted in a slight growth in major share in Japan, a market in which the western majors have long been a minority player (market share was just 36.6% in 2017).

As with the total market, streaming was the engine room of growth, increasing by 46% to reach $3.1 billion, representing 44% of all revenues (the share was 34% in 2016). Physical and downloads both fell, by -2% and -22% respectively. As for major labels, independent labels are on path to becoming streaming-first in revenue terms.

midia wintel indie market share

One of the really interesting themes to emerge from this year’s work was the loyalty that independent labels enjoy from their artists. When offered, 77% of artists choose to renew their contracts with their independent labels, with that rate above 90% in Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands and Denmark.

A nuanced, but crucial takeaway from this year’s research is that the independent sector is booming, but that the major record labels are important partners in that growth, providing independent labels with the global scale tools and teams that they need to compete in this increasingly global music market.

Taylor Swift, Label Services and What Comes Next

universal-music-group-logoTaylor Swift has done it again, striking a deal with UMG that includes a commitment from the world’s largest label group to share proceeds from Spotify stock sales with artists, even if they are not recouped (ie haven’t generated enough revenue to have paid off the balance on their advance so not yet eligible to earn royalty income). This follows Swift’s 2015 move to persuade Apple to pay artists for Apple Music trials. That Swift has influence is clear, though whether she has that much influence is a different question. Let’s just say it served both Apple and Universal well to be seen to be listening to the voice of artists. But it is what appears to be a label services part of the deal that has the most profound long-term implications, with Swift stating that she is retaining ownership of her master recordings.

The rise of label services

The traditional label model of building large banks of copyrights and exploiting them is slowly being replaced, or at the very least complemented, by the rise of label services deals. In the former model the label retains ownership of the master recordings for the life time of the artist plus a period eg 70 years. In label services deals the label has an exclusive period for exploiting the rights, after which they revert to full ownership of the artist. Artist normally cede something in return, such as sharing costs. Companies like Kobalt’s AWAL and BMG Music Rights have led the charge of the label services movement. However, Cooking Vinyl can lay claim to being the ‘ice breaker’ with its pioneering 1993 label services deal with Billy Bragg, negotiated between his manager Pete Jenner and Cooking Vinyl boss Martin Goldschmidt. It may have taken a couple of decades, but the recording industry has finally caught up.

Major labels in on the act

The major labels remain the powerhouses of the recorded music business in part because they have learned to embrace and then supercharge innovation that comes out of the independent sector. Label services is no exception. Each of the major labels has their own label services division, including buying up independent ones. Label services are proving to be a crucial asset for major labels. The likes of AWAL and BMG have been mopping up established artists in the latter stages of their careers, with enough learned knowledge to want more control over their careers. By adding label services divisions the majors now have another set of options to present to artists. This enables them to not only hold onto more artists but also to win new ones – which if of course technically what UMG did with Swift, even though it had previously been Swift’s distributor. As with all new movements, examples are often few and far between but they are there. The UK’s Stormzy is a case in point, signing a label services deal with WMG before upgrading it to a JV deal between WMG’s Atlantic Records and his label #MERKY. For an interesting, if lengthy, take on why Stormzy and WMG took this approach – including the concept of secret ‘Mindie Deals’ that allow more underground artists maintain some major label distance for appearances’ sake, see this piece.

The early follower strategy 

In August 2018UMG’s Sir Lucian Grainge called out the success of UMG’s label services and distribution division Caroline, noting it had doubled its US market share over the previous year. UMG was already not only on the label services deal path but had identified it as a key growth area and wanted the world – including investors – to know. UMG has stayed ahead of the pack by pursuing an early follow strategy of identifying new trends, testing them out and then throwing its weight behind them. Before you think of that as damning with faint praise, the early follower strategy is the one pursued by the world’s most successful companies. Google wasn’t the first search engine, Apple wasn’t the first smartphone maker, Facebook wasn’t the first social network, Amazon wasn’t the first online retailer.

What comes next

The label services component of the UMG deal was actually announced by Taylor Swift herself rather than UMG, writing:

“It’s also incredibly exciting to know that I own all of my master recordings that I make from now on. It’s really important to me to see eye to eye with a label regarding the future of our industry.”

While this might betray which party feels most positive about this component of the deal, the inescapable fact is that other major artists at the peak of their powers will now want similar deals. Label services success stories to date had been older artists such as Rick Astley, Janet Jacksonand Nick Cave as well as upcoming artists like Stormzy. Now we will start to see them becoming far more commonplace in the mainstream.

But perhaps now is the time. Catalogue revenues are going to undergo big change in the coming years, as MIDiA identified in our June 2018 report The Outlook for Music Catalogue: Streaming Changes Everything. Deep catalogue is not where the action is anymore. For example, 1960s tracks accounted for just 6.4% of all UK catalogue streams in the UK in 2017, while catalogue from the 2000s accounted for 60.4%, according to the BPI’s invaluable All About the Music report. So, by striking a long-term label services type deal, UMG secures Swift’s signature and can still benefit from the main catalogue opportunity for the first few releases without actually owning the catalogue.

Label services have come a long way since Billy Bragg’s 1993 deal and Taylor Swift has just announced that they are ready for prime time.

Penny for the thoughts of Bill Bragg having paved the way for the queen of pop’s latest deal….

The Meta Trends that Will Shape 2019

MIDiA has just published its annual predictions report. Here are a few highlights.

2018 was another year of change, disruption and transformation across media and technology. Although hyped technologies – VR, blockchain, AI music – failed to meet inflated expectations, concepts such as privacy, voice, emerging markets and peak in the attention economy shaped the evolution of digital content businesses, in a year that was one to remember for subscriptions across all content types. These are some of the meta trends that we think will shape media, brands and tech in 2019 (see the rest of the report for industry specific predictions):

  • Privacy as a product: Apple has set out its stall as the defender of consumer privacy as a counter weight to Facebook and Google, whose businesses depend upon selling their consumers’ data to advertisers. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the start rather than the end. Companies that can – i.e. those that do not depend upon ad revenue – will start to position user privacy as a product differentiator.
  • Green as a product: Alphabet could potentially position around environmental issues as it does not depend as centrally on physical distribution or hardware manufacture for its revenue. For all of Apple’s genuinely good green intentions, it fundamentally makes products that require lots of energy to produce, uses often scarce and toxic materials and consumes a lot of energy in everyday use. Meanwhile, Amazon uses excessive packaging and single delivery infrastructure, creating a large carbon footprint. So, we could see fault lines emerge with Alphabet and Facebook positioning around the environment as a counter to Apple and potentially Amazon positioning around privacy.
  • The politicisation of brands: Nike’s Colin Kaepernick advert might have been down to cold calculation of its customer base as much as ideology, but what it illustrated was that in today’s increasingly bipartisan world, not taking a position is in itself taking a position. Expect 2019 to see more brands take the step to align themselves with issues that resonate with their user bases.
  • The validation of collective experience: The second decade of the millennium has seen the growing success of mobile-centric experiences across social, music, video, games and more. But this has inherently created a world of siloed, personal experiences, of which being locked away in VR headsets was but a natural conclusion. The continued success of live music alongside the rise of esports, pop-up events and meet ups hints at the emotional vacuum that digital experiences can create. Expect 2019 to see the rise of both offline and digital events (e.g. live streaming) that explicitly look to connect people in shared experiences, and to give them the validation of the collective experience – the knowledge that what they experienced truly was something special but equally fleeting.
  • Tech major content portfolios: All of the tech majors have been building their content portfolios, each with a different focus. 2019 will be another year of content revenue growth for all four tech majors, but Apple may be the first to take the next step and start productising multi-content subscriptions, even if it starts doing so in baby steps by making Apple original TV shows available as part of an Apple Music subscription.
  • Rights disruption: Across all content genres, 2019 will see digital-first companies stretch the boundaries and challenge accepted wisdoms. Whether that be Spotify signing music artists, DAZN securing top tier sports rights, or Facebook acquiring a TV network. These are all very different moves, but they reflect a changing of the guard, with technology companies being able to bring global reach and big budgets to the negotiating table. Expect also more transparency, better reporting and more agile business terms.
  • GDPR sacrificial lamb: In 2018 companies thought they got their houses in order for GDPR compliance. Most consumers certainly thought they had, given how many opt in notifications they received in their inboxes.
    However, many companies skirted around the edges of compliance, especially US companies. In 2019 we will see European authorities start to police compliance more sternly. Expect some big sacrificial lambs in 2019 to scare the rest of the marketplace into compliance. They will also aim to educate the world that this is not a European problem, so expect some of those companies to be American. Watch your back Facebook.
  • Big data backlash: By now companies have more data, data scientists and data dashboards than they know what to do with. 2019 will see some of the smarter companies start to realise that just because you can track it does not mean that you need to track it. Many companies are beginning to experience data paralysis, confounded by the deluge of data, with management teams unable to decipher the relevance of the analysis put together by their data scientists and BI teams. A simplified, streamlined approach is needed and 2019 will see the start of this.
  • Voice, AI, machine learning (and maybe AR) all continue on their path: These otherwise disparate trends are pulled together for the simple reason that they are long-term structural trends that helped shape the digital economy in 2018 and will continue to do so in 2019. Rather than try to over simplify into some single event, we instead back each of these four trends to continue to accelerate in importance and influence. 

For music, video, media, brands and games specific predictions, MIDiA clients can check out our report here. If you are not a client and would like to get access to the report please email arevinth@midiaresearch.com.

Spotify May Already Be Too Big for the Labels to Stop it Competing With Them

Spotify’s Daniel Ek is betting big on developing a ‘two sided marketplace’ for music. With the company’s market cap on a downward trend despite strong growth metrics, Ek might find himself having to play up the disruption narrative more boldly and more quickly than he’d planned. Investors are betting on a Netflix-like disruptor for the music industry, rather than a junior distribution partner for the labels. And this is where it gets messy. Whereas Netflix can play individual TV networks off each other and can even afford to lose Disneyand Fox, each major record label has enough market share to have the equivalent of a UN Security Council Veto. So when Spotify announced it was going to let artists upload music directly and thenadded distribution to other streaming services via DistroKid,the labels understandably smelt a rat. To the extent they threatened to block access to India. Spotify’s balancing act may be reaching a tipping point (mixed metaphor pun intended), but it may already be too late for the labels to act. Here’s why…

In search of market share

If Spotify is able to become more competitive (and therefore threatening) to labels and keep hold of them, it will all be down to market share. The less market share the big labels have on Spotify, the more negotiating power Spotify has. It is a classic case of divide and rule. If Spotify really wants to play the role of market disruptor (and so far we have strong hints rather than outright statements), it will need to whittle down the power of the majors before they call it and pull their content. Here’s a scenario for how Spotify could achieve that.

1 – Direct indie label deals

The first step is detangling embedded indie label market share from the majors that distribute them and therefore wield their market share as part of their own in licensing negotiations. There are two ways to measure market share:

  1. By distribution (this includes indie labels distributed via major labels being included in the share of the bigger labels)
  2. By ownership (this measures based on the original label, so does not count any indie labels as part of major labels)

By the first measure, the major labels had an 82% market share in 2016 and 79% market share in 2017. By the second measure, according to the WINTel report, major label market share was 62% in 2016 (the 2017 WINTel number is not yet out but will be shortly). So, if Spotify does direct deals with the larger indies currently distributed by majors or major-owned distributors (or persuades them to join Merlin), it unpacks up to more than a fifth of major label market share.

2 – More artists direct

DIY artists uploading directly to Spotify is a long-term play, aimed at harnessing the potential of tomorrow’s stars. In the near term, these artists will generate a smallish amount of streams, even with a helping hand from Spotify’s algorithms and curators. There are about 300 artists right now; let’s say Spotify gets to 2,500 next year, it could potentially deliver around a third of a percent of share of Spotify streams.

3 – Library music

Fake artist gatesaw a lot of people getting very hot under the collar, but nothing that was done was against any rules. Instead library music companies like Epidemic Sounds were – and still are – serving tracks into mood based playlists. The inference is that Spotify is paying less for Epidemic Sounds tracks than to labels. Whether it is or isn’t, this still eats away at label market share on Spotify. With a bit more support from Spotify’s playlist engine, these could account for around 0.7% of streams.  Coupled with artists direct, that’s a single point of share. Not exactly industry changing, but a pointer to the future, and a point of share is a point of share.

4 – Top 20 artists

Where Spotify could really move the needle is doing direct deals with top tier, frontline artists, probably on label services deals, as Spotify doesn’t appear to want to become a copyright owner – not yet at least. Netflix is funding its original content investments with around $1.5 billion of debt every two years, which it raises against its subscriber growth forecasts. No reason why Spotify couldn’t do the same, paying advances that other labels couldn’t compete with. The top 20 artists on Spotify account for around 22% of all Spotify streams. If Spotify could do direct deals with each of them and promote the hell of out of their latest releases, they could contribute up to 15% of all streams. Of that top 20, Taylor Swift is on the lookout for a new label, and Drake is putting out ‘albums’ so frequently that he must be pushing up close to the end of his deal.

spotify streaming repertoire shares midia research

When we add all these components together we end up in a situation where the major labels’ share of total streams would be just 47%. Spotify would have the second highest individual market share, while regional repertoire variations mean that SME and WMG could drop towards 10-11% in a couple of regions.

Of course, this is a hypothetical scenario, and one on steroids: the odds of Spotify signing up all the top 20 artists in the next 12 months is slim, to put it lightly, but it is useful for illustrating the opportunity.

Prisoners’ Dilemma

At this stage we move on to a prisoners’dilemma scenario for the majors:

  • All of the majors help Spotify’s case by over prioritising Spotify as a promotional tool in light of its share of total listening compared to radio, YouTube, other streaming services etc
  • WMG and SME probably couldn’t afford to remove their content from Spotify but would be watching UMG, the only one that probably feel confident enough to do so
  • However, UMG would be thinking if it jumps first and removes its content, each of the other two majors would benefit from it not being there (and would probably be secretly hoping for that outcome)
  • Each other major would be thinking the same, and regulatory restrictions prevent the majors from discussing strategy to formulate a combined response
  • But even if UMG did pull its content, this would hurt Spotify but would not kill it (Amazon Prime Music launched without UMG and spent 15 months growing just fine until UMG came on board)
  • Spotify could easily tweak its curation algorithms to minimise the perceived impact of the missing catalogue, making it ‘feel’ more like 10%
  • So, the likely scenario would be each major paralysed by FOMO and so none of them act

Thus, maybe Spotify is already nearly big enough to do this, and could do so next year. And the more that Spotify’s stock price struggles, the more that Spotify needs to talk up its disruption. History shows that when Spotify makes disruptive announcements, its stock price does better than when it delivers quarterly results. Maybe, just maybe, the labels have already missed their chance to prevent Spotify from becoming their fiercest competitor. The TV networks left it too late with Netflix…history may be about to repeat itself.

Spotify, DistroKid and the Two Sided Marketplace

distrokid spotify

Spotify has taken a minority stake in DistroKid. In itself, it may be a slightly left field but relatively insignificant move, except that it is in fact one small but important step on a much bigger journey. Back in September, Spotify announced that it was enabling artists to upload their music directly to Spotify, simultaneously aggravating record labels, distributors, DIY platforms and Soundcloud all in one fell swoop. This raised an intriguing possibility of a ‘coalition of the willing’ forming against Spotify from slighted partners and competitors. But that’s another blog post. Right now, though, DistroKid’s role in this performance is as an enabler for Spotify in its path to becoming a next generation label / creating a two-sided marketplace (delete as appropriate depending on how all this affects your business).

Bringing efficiencies into the supply chain

Spotify’s DistroKid deal will enable Spotify’s direct artists to “seamlessly distribute their music to other platforms through DistroKid”.So, instead of putting all their streaming eggs in one basket, Spotify’s direct artists now get to stream their music on Apple, Amazon, Deezer and the rest too. What wasn’t made clear in the announcement is whether Spotify will have visibility of the streaming data from those other platforms and / or whether the revenue will be recognised as Spotify revenue and then distributed to its artists. If these statements were to be the case, then Spotify’s competitors would be feeding it data and revenue…

UPDATE: A Spotify spokesperson clarified that “Spotify has no rights to see data from other digital service providers and DistroKid will not share confidential information.”

Why this relatively small announcement matters, is that it is another piece of Spotify’s strategy of shifting its way up the value chain by a) removing some of the distribution component and b) entering into direct relationships with artists. It’s what west coast tech firms call ‘bring efficiencies into the supply chain’. If it all works, Spotify will get more margin, artists will get more margin, but middle players (labels, distributors etc.) will get squeezed.

Treading a subtler path

This is how Spotify can edge quietly towards becoming a record label without going nuclear from the get go. It is a strategy we predicted by in April ahead of Spotify’s DPO:

“As much as the whole world appears to be saying Spotify needs to do a Netflix (and it probably does) it just can’t, not yet at least. In TV, rights are so fragmented that Netflix can have Disney and Fox pull their content and it’d still be a fast growing business. If UMG pulled its content from Spotify, the latter would be dead in the water. So, Spotify will take a subtler path to ‘doing a Netflix’, first by ‘doing a Soundcloud’ i.e. becoming a direct platform for artists and then switching on monetisation etc.”.

The challenge for Spotify is whether it can execute on the strategy quickly enough to excite investors (and thus drive up the share price), but slowly enough to keep record labels on board…so that when they realise where things are heading then it is too late for them to do anything about it.

 

Spotify’s Tencent Risk

NOTE: a previous version of this post referred to a non-compete clause with Spotify detailed in this SEC filing. I have been advised that the scope of this clause is narrower than I had originally interpreted. I have therefore updated this post to remove reference to that clause but the essence of the post remains intact due to the potential role of the major labels which, as outlined below, could have the same effect as a non-compete clause.

On Thursday (September 20th) Spotify grabbed the headlines with its announcement that it is launching a free-to-use direct upload service for artists. While it is undoubtedly a big move, and one that will concern Soundcloud among others, it was not a surprising move. In fact, in April we predicted this would happen soon:“Spotify will take a subtler path to ‘doing a Netflix’, first by ‘doing a Soundcloud’, i.e. becoming a direct platform for artists and then switching on monetisation”. Will labels be concerned, sure, because although Spotify might not be parking its tanks on their lawn yet, it is certainly slowly reversing them in that general direction. However, they may just have a way of clipping Spotify’s wings and waiting in, er, the wings…Tencent.

Still waiting for IPO metrics

Tencent is prepping its music division (TME) for a partial US IPO but announced earlier this week that it will be reducing the amount it is seeking to raise from $4 billion to $2 billion, though still against a reported valuation of around $25 billion. Regular readers will know I have a healthy scepticism of Tencent’s music numbers. It has only ever reported one subscriber number officially – 4.7 million for QQ Music in Q1 2016, therefore it has plausible deniability over all the non-official numbers it puts out via the press. So, the fact there still isn’t an F1 filing revealing TME’s metrics is intriguing to say the least.

Go west

The likelihood is that the numbers will show a relative flattening in music subscriber growth (though other areas of its business should be robust). If so, they fit a wider narrative of Tencent nearing the limits of its potential in China. Video subs, which have grown superfast, will soon slow, messaging is saturated and the Chinese government is curtailing Tencent’s games operations. The title of our April report says it all: “Tencent Has Outgrown China: Now Comes the Next Phase of Growth”. Until last year’s change in Chinese regulations, Tencent could quite happily have spent its time strolling across the globe buying up companies to spread its global wings. But now, operating under limits of how much it can spend on overseas companies, Tencent is restricted to taking minority stakes in companies like Gaana and Spotify. But those efforts do not deliver Tencent the scale of global growth it needs. You can probably see where this is heading: to grow its music business TME will have to roll out internationally, which is quite possibly part of the story it will use to justify its $25 billion valuation.

Ring fencing Spotify’s global reach 

Should TME decide to use the $2 billion it raises via IPO as a war chest, it could then go on a global roll out to all the markets where Spotify is currently not present. Getting their first, with the backing of Tencent and of the $2bn IPO windfall would put Spotify on the back foot. Especially if, and here’s the crucial part, the major record labels took this as an opportunity to knock Spotify down a peg because of its increasingly competitive behaviour. They’ve been relying on Indian licenses already, that could prove to be a template, with Tencent the grateful beneficiary.  This would have the effect of ring-fencing Spotify’s global roll out plans. For fans of the board game Risk, the board would look something like this:

Spotify tencent risk 1

But Risk’s map doesn’t really do it justice. Using a political global map, the respective footprints would look more like this:

Spotify tencent risk 2

The major labels have proven unwilling to license Spotify for India because they weren’t happy with Spotify offering direct deals for a small number of artists. Imagine how they are going to feel with this latest move. With TME waiting patiently on the side lines, they may just see it as an opportunity to carve up the global streaming landscape into two halves, creating a cold war stalemate. Your move Spotify.

Article 13 – Laws of Unintended Consequences

I do not normally add disclaimers or qualifiers at the start of blog posts, but given how divisive the whole Article 13 debate has become, there is a big risk that some readers will make incorrect assumptions about my position on Article 13. The emerging defining characteristic of popular debate in the late 2010s has been the polarization of opinion e.g. Brexit, Trump, immigration. Article 13 follows a similar model, leaving little tolerance for the middle ground. You are either anti-copyright / pro-big tech or you’re pro-big government / anti-innovation.

Such extremes are the inevitable result of multi-million-dollar lobby campaigns by both sides. Reasoned nuance doesn’t really play so well in the world of political lobbying. My objective, and MIDiA’s, from the outset has been to strike an evidence-based, agenda-free position, that considers the merits of all aspects of both sides’ arguments. So, before I embark on a blog post that will likely be viewed by some of being pro-Google and anti-rights holder (it is not, nor is it the opposite), these are some ‘value gap’ principles that MIDiA holds to be true:

  • YouTube has misused fair use and safe harbour provisions against the legislation’s original intent
  • YouTube’s ‘unique’ licensing model creates an imbalance in the competitive marketplace
  • YouTube’s free offering is so good that it sucks oxygen out of the premium sphere
  • Google has rarely demonstrated an unequivocal commitment to, nor support of current copyright regimes
  • YouTube being able to license post-facto rather than paying for access to repertoire, gives it a competitive advantage over traditional licensed services
  • There is too big a gap between YouTube ad-supported payments and Spotify ad-supported payments, meaning too little gets to rights holders and creators
  • Take down and stay down is a feasible and achievable solution (albeit within margins of error)
  • The current situation needs fixing in order to rebalance the streaming market

Nonetheless, for each one of these positions from the rights holder side of the debate, we also see an equally long and compelling list of points from YouTube’s side. Rather than list them however, I want to explain how ignoring some of the counterpoints could unintentionally create a far bigger problem for the music industry than the one it is trying to fix.

Value gap or control gap?

What really riles labels is that they cannot exercise the same degree of control over YouTube that they can over Spotify and co. This is very understandable, as they rightly want to be able to determine who uses their music, how it is used and how partners pay for usage. However, taking a very simplistic view of the world, the label-licensed approach has created: a few tech major success stories that don’t need to wash their own faces (Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music); a collection of smaller loss-making services (e.g. Deezer, Tidal); and one big break out success story that can’t turn a profit (Spotify). In short, the label-led model has not (yet at least) resulted in the creation of a commercially sustainable marketplace. Rights holders want to pull YouTube into this controlled economy model. YouTube is understandably resistant. After all, YouTube is a crucial margin driver for Alphabet. It cannot afford it to be loss leading. Alphabet’s core ad businesses generate the margin that subsidises Alphabet’s loss-making bets such as space flight, autonomous cars and curing death (I kid you not). Ad revenue has to be profitable.

Fixed costs / variable revenue

As we explained in our recent State of the YouTube Economy 2.0 report, YouTube went double or quits during the last two years, doubling down on music, making music over index across its user base, in order to try to make it an indispensable hit-making partner for labels. That bet now looks to have failed. So, the question is, will YouTube acquiesce to the new command economy approach to streaming or do something else—perhaps even walk away from music?

The fundamental commercial imperative for YouTube is as follows:

  • Spotify pays a fixed minimum fee to rights holders for each ad supported stream, even if it does not sell any advertising against it. The rate is the same for every song, every day of the year.
  • YouTube pays as a share of ad revenue. This means it is always paying rights holders a consistent share of its income, including all the up side on revenue spikes. But ad inventory is not worth the same 365 days a year. There are seasonal variations meaning a song can generate less rights holder income in December say, than January. Also, not all songs are worth the same to advertisers: they are willing to pay much more to advertise against a Drake track than they are for an obscure 1970s album track.

This revenue share approach without minimum per stream rates is why YouTube has a profitable, scalable ad business, but Spotify does not (as recently as Q1 2018 Spotify had a gross margin of -18% for ad supported, compared to a +14% gross margin for premium). Remember, that’s gross margin, imagine how net margin looks…

The walk away scenario

Minimum per-stream rates could break YouTube’s business model, especially in emerging markets where it usage is strong, but digital ad markets are not yet developed. It would also set a precedent that other YouTube rights holders and creators would want the same applied to them.

So, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that YouTube could simply opt to walk away from music, applying take down and stay down its way (i.e. every piece of label content stays down). It could feasibly continue to provide ad sales support and audience to Vevo, but if YouTube gets to this point, then relationships are likely to be fractured beyond repair, meaning Vevo would likely have to decamp to Facebook and build a new audience there, one which is crucially not accessible to under 13s.

A YouTube shaped hole

So, what? you might ask. The so what, is the YouTube shaped hole that would exist in the music landscape. Readers of a certain vintage will remember the long dark years of piracy booming and corroding the recorded music business. It was YouTube that killed piracy, not enforcement. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but the ubiquitous availability of all the world’s music on demand, on any device, nullified the use case for P2P in an instant. Add in stream rippers and ad blockers, and you’ve got a like-for-like replacement. Piracy created and filled a demand vacuum. YouTube (and Spotify, Soundcloud, Deezer etc.) have all since filled that same space, pushing P2P to the margins. YouTube, however, has had by far the biggest impact due to its sheer global scale. If YouTube pulls out from music, that YouTube shaped hole will be filled because the demand has not changed. Kids still want their free music, as in fact so do consumers of just about every age.

Piracy could be the winner

The most likely mid-term effect of YouTube shuttering music videos would be piracy in some form or another raising its head, filling the demand vacuum. Probably a decentralised, end-to-end encrypted, streaming interface built on top of a torrent structure, sort of like a Popcorn Time for music. Then it really would be back to the bad old days.

Is this the most likely scenario? Perhaps not. But perhaps it is. I suppose a just-as-possible outcome is that YouTube sticks up the proverbial middle finger and creates its own parallel music industry, using a unified music right and ‘doing a Netflix’. Yes, YouTube could be a next-generation record label, with more reach and bigger pockets than any major record label. If the labels are worried about Spotify disintermediation, YouTube could make that threat look like a children’s tea party.

As one YouTube executive said to me a couple of years ago: “This is how we are as friends. Imagine how we’d be as enemies.”

Too much to handle?

‘Couldn’t Spotify, Deezer and Soundcloud fill the potential YouTube shaped hole?’ I hear you ask. If these companies did take on YouTube’s 1.5 billion music users on the current financial agreements they have with rights holders, and with their currently far inferior ad sales infrastructure, they would be out of money in no time. It would literally kill their businesses. Based on YouTube’s likely music streams for FY 2018 and, say, a minimum per stream rate of $0.002, Spotify and co would need pay nearly $3 billion in rights revenue, regardless of how much revenue it could generate. Let alone the unprecedented bandwidth costs for delivering all that video. Of course the flip side, is that in the mainstream streaming model, that is how much potential revenue is up for grabs. So, more money would flow back to rights holders. But the extra revenue could come at the expense of the survival of the independent streaming services, ceding more power to the tech majors.

The artist and songwriter value gap

Throughout all of this you’ll have noted I haven’t said much about artists and songwriters. That’s because the value gap isn’t really about how much they get paid, even though they get put front and centre of lobbying efforts. It’s about how much labels, publishers and PROs get paid. And none of them are talking about changing the share they pay their artists and songwriters once Article 13 is put into action. That particular value gap isn’t going to be fixed. Even if Spotify picked up all of YouTube’s traffic, on say a $0.002 minimum per stream rate, a typical major label artist would still only earn $300 for a million streams, while a co-songwriter would earn just $150. The new boss would look pretty much like the old boss.

Be careful what you wish for

The laws of unintended consequences tend to proliferate when legislation tries to fix commercial problems without a clear enough understanding of the complexities of those very commercial problems.

It is of course in the best interests of YouTube and rights holders to carve out a workable commercial compromise, and I truly hope they do. But there is a very real risk this may not happen if Article 13 is successfully enacted into national member state legislation. Perhaps the phrase that rights holders should be considering right now is ‘be careful what you wish for’.

How Streaming is Changing the Shape of Music Itself [Part I]

[This is the first of two thought pieces on how streaming is reshaping music from creation to consumption] 

The streaming era has arrived in the music business, but the music business has not yet fully arrived in the streaming era. Labels, publishers, artists, songwriters and managers are all feeling – to differing degrees – the revenue impact of a booming streaming sector. However, few of these streaming migrants are fundamentally reinventing their approach to meet the demands of the new world. A new rule book is needed, and for that we need to know which of today’s trends are the markers for the future. This sort of future gazing requires us to avoid the temptation of looking at the player with the ball, but instead look for who the ball is going to be passed to.

Where we are now

These are changes that represent the start of the long-term fundamental shifts that will ultimately evolve into the future of the music business:

  • A+R strategy: Record labels are chasing the numbers, building A+R and marketing strategies geared for streaming. The bug in the machine is the ‘known unknown’ of the impact of lean-back listening, people listening to a song because it is in a pushed playlist rather than seeking it out themselves. Are labels signing the artists that music fans or that data thinks they want?
  • Composition:Songwriters are chasing the numbers too. The fear of not getting beyond the 30 second skip sees songs overloaded with hooks and familiar references. The industrialisation of song writing among writing teams and camps creates songs that resemble a loosely stitched succession of different hooks. Chasing specific playlists and trying to ‘sound like Spotify’delivers results but at the expense of the art.
  • Genre commodification:The race for the sonic centre ground is driving a commodification of genres. The pop music centre ground bleeding ever further outwards, with shameless cultural appropriating par for the course. Genres were once a badge of cultural identity, now they are simply playlist titles.
  • Decline of the album:iTunes kicked off the dismembering of the album, allowing users to cherry pick the killer tracks and skip the filler. The rise of the playlist has accentuated the shift. Over half of consumers aged 16–34 are listening to albums less in favour of playlists. The playlist juggernaut does not care for carefully constructed album narratives, nor, increasingly, do music listeners.
  • Restructuring label economics:Achieving cut though for a single takes pretty much the same effort as for an album. So, it is understandable that label economics still gravitate around the album. But streaming is rapidly falsifying the ROI assumption for many genres, with it being the tracks, not the albums that deliver the returns in these genres.
  • Decline of catalogue:Streaming’s fetishisation of the new, coupled with Gen Z’s surplus of content tailored for them, deprioritises the desire to look back. Catalogue – especially deep catalogue, will have to fight a fierce rear-guard action to retain relevance in the data-driven world of streaming.
  • Audience fragmentation: Hyper targeting is reshaping marketing and music is no different. While the mainstream of A+R chases the centre ground, indies, DIY artists and others chase niches are becoming increasingly fragmented. Yet, most often, this is not a genuine fragmentation of scenes, but an unintended manifestation of hyper- focused targeting and positioning.
  • End of the breakthrough artist:Fewer artists are breaking through to global success. None of the top ten selling US albums in 2017 were debut albums, just one was in the UK. Just 30% of Spotify’s most streamed artists in 2017 released their first album in the prior five years. Streaming’s superstars – Drake, Sheeran etc. – pre-date streaming’s peak. Who will be selling out the stadium tours five years from now?
  • Massively social artists:Artists have long known the value of getting close to their audiences. Social media is central to media consumption and discovery, and its metrics are success currency. Little wonder that a certain breed of artist may appear more concerned with keeping their social audiences happy than driving streams.
  • Value chain conflict:BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti once said “content may still be king but distribution is the queen and she wears the trousers”. Labels fear Spotify is out to eat their lunch, Spotify fears labels want to trim its wings. Such tensions will persist as the music industry value chain reshapes to reflect the shifts in where value and power reside.

Next week: where these trends will go.

To paraphrase Roy Amara:“It is easy to overestimate the near-term impact of technology and underestimate the long-term impact.”