Why Kanye West is the modern-day Prince

Not ‘prince’ in the Machiavellian sense of the term – though there is an argument for that too – but as in the artist formerly known as. Back in 1992, Prince fought his label Warner Bros to get ownership of his rights and more creative control, struggling to get out of a deal he signed when he was 19 and had since decided was unfair and overly restrictive. He famously started appearing with the word ‘slave’ on his face. The bitter conflict resulted in Prince changing his name to ‘symbol’ and self-releasing via an artist subscription service long before subscriptions were even a thing. He then came back to a label deal on his own terms, later returning to Warner Bros and winning ownership of his masters, and finally signed with Tidal (read this for a succinct history of Prince’s label deals).

Now we have Kanye posting pages of his UMG deal on Twitter and saying it represents slavery. Why, nearly 30 years later, is history repeating itself?

Many artists start naïve and become educated 

Many artist careers follow a similar path: 

  1. Sign a deal as a young, commercially naïve artist 
  2. Become successful
  3. Learn how the business works
  4. Realise that the deal you signed was heavily stacked in favour of the label

In recent years, this path has started to change, with most artists initially spending a few years as independent artists, learning how the business works, before getting a deal. When that deal comes, more of them go into it with eyes (relatively) wide open and negotiate terms that are more equitable for them. Companies like Cooking Vinyl, BMG and Kobalt’s AWAL helped change the market dynamic, pushing a new paradigm in artist deals and, in turn, driving the wider industry in the same direction. Label services, distribution deals and joint ownership deals are now commonplace even among major record labels.

A two-tier system

This dynamic has created a two-tier system. Many of the new generation of younger artists who own their masters have favourable royalty splits and high degrees of creative control. The older, established artists – including many of today’s superstars – are meanwhile still locked into the old way of doing things. These artists are starting to question why, as the artists with most sway, they seem to have less negotiating power than smaller, newer artists, and they don’t like it. Enter stage left, Kanye.

The reasons why artists did, and still do, sign traditional deals are simple: 

  1. They are often what is first offered to them by many labels
  2. They reduce the artist’s exposure to risk by putting more of the risk on the label
  3. They give them the best chance of getting the full marketing heft of the label to make them into superstars
  4. They get a big advance

Kanye signed the deal he signed

Kanye’s Twitter posts indicate that he was given millions of dollars in advance payments. Now, however, with his ‘nemesis’ Taylor Swift enjoying the benefits of a new(ish) deal that gives her ownership of her rights, Kanye wants the same treatment. (Kanye’s advisor couldn’t avoid having a little dig suggesting that Kanye’s masters are worth more than Swifts’). I am not a music lawyer so I am not going to get into the details of whether Kanye’s deal is fair or legally watertight, but it is nonetheless the deal that he signed. And it was long after Prince’s campaign to get ownership of his masters. Kanye, knowingly or otherwise, signed the deal that he signed despite other deal types being available. It is a deal that may now look outmoded and out of pace with today’s marketplace, but he remains tied to its terms – for now at least.

From indentured labour to agency-client

Kanye and Prince’s use of the word ‘slavery’ is emotive and has extra connotations for black artists – and there is some logic to the argument. In a worst-case scenario, traditional label deals can resemble indentured labour, with the artist permanently in debt to the label, having no ownership of their work and unable to take their labour elsewhere. Modern day label deals are able to reframe the relationship to one of an agency-client model.

When Prince took on the music industry, he was a lone voice trying to bring a new way of doing things (though others such as the Beatles had previously fought the battle for their masters too). Prince’s actions helped pave the foundation for today’s better-balanced music business, and many superstars have taken advantage of his pioneering efforts, with Rihanna and Jay-Z just a couple of those that now own their masters. Nor is this the first time Kanye has been angling for ownership of his masters.

So, to answer the opening question, why is history repeating itself? Simply put, many young artists new to the profession will take the big cheque and the promise of being made into a superstar over getting a better deal. Many of the newer generation of music companies will note that it is no longer a binary choice if an artist signs a deal with them; nevertheless, the case of Kanye West shows us that for many artists it still is. 

What has changed is that a new artist today has more opportunity to educate and empower themselves – to get a deal that will enable them to build an equitable, sustainable career. For that, they owe a debt of gratitude to Prince.

Streaming’s remuneration model cannot be ‘fixed’

The #brokenrecord debate continues to build momentum and new models such as user-centric are getting increased attention, including at governmental level in the UK. But as Mat Dryhurst correctly observes, there is a risk of the market falling into streaming fatalism; that the obsession with trying to fix a model that might not be fixable distracts us from focusing on trying to build alternative futures.

I have previously explored what those new growth drivers might be, but now I want to explain the unfixable problems with the current streaming system for creators and smaller labels. Streaming’s remuneration model cannot be ‘fixed’, but that is mainly because of its inherent structure. Tweaking the model will bring improvements but not the change artist and songwriters need. Instead of exploring sustaining innovations for streaming, it is time to explore new disruptive market innovations

Product remuneration versus project remuneration

Smaller independent artists and labels are outgrowing the majors and bigger indies on streaming, so why are we having the #brokenrecord debate? Why isn’t it adding up? The answer lies in how artists and songwriters are remunerated. In all other media industries other than music and books, creators are primarily remunerated on a project basis. An actor will be paid an appearance fee for a film or TV show; a games developer will be paid for their time on a project; a sports star paid a salary; a journalist paid for a story. In many of those cases the creator will sometimes have the opportunity to negotiate a share of profit too, an ability to benefit in the upside of success. But, crucially, the media company has assumed all of the risk. Also, of course, the media company owns the copyright.

Artists and songwriters might get an advance, but that is a loan against future earnings, not a project fee. Artists and songwriters, like authors, are remunerated via product performance. They shoulder the risk, and most of the time they do not even own the copyright. Actors and sports stars do not have to worry about slicing up a royalty pot; they have been paid for their creativity whatever the outcome of the project. Any royalty splits are an upside, an ability to benefit from success rather than a dependency for income.

The consumption hierarchy has become compressed

Music used to be split into a neat hierarchy, with radio and social being about passive enjoyment and generating usually small royalties, while albums were about active fandom that generated large income. Streaming fused those two together into one place and created a royalty structure that, in artist income terms, resembles radio more than it does album sales. The problem does not lie with how much streaming services pay (c.70% of income is a hefty share to pay out), but instead:

  1. how those royalties are divided up
  2. the way they monetise consumption
  3. the fact royalty rates are determined by how much streaming services charge

Streaming rates are going down because users are listening to more music and streaming services are charging less per user due to promotions, trials, multiple-user plans, telco bundles, student plans etc. Even before you start thinking about how the royalty pie is sliced, it is getting ever smaller in relation to consumption – and there is no onus on streaming services to protect against rates deflation because they pay as a share of income rather than a fixed per-stream rate (for subscriptions).

Monetising fandom

Music fans care about artists and songwriters, and given the opportunity and the right context many fans will support them. But that context is often artificial and happens outside of the normal consumption experience; for example, a music fan listening to a band on Spotify then going to Bandcamp to buy an album. It requires a conscious decision for the fan to say ‘I want to support this artist’. No such decision is necessary for a sports fan or movie fan because the remuneration system already ensures the talent has been adequately remunerated. On top of this, most music consumers are not passionate fans of most artists, so most will not make that step.

There are two natural paths that follow:

  1. Build fandom monetisation into the streaming platforms, e.g. virtual artist fan packs, virtual gifting, premium performances, creator support etc. I have written at length about how Chinese streaming services do well at monetising fandom, but there it is the platform that benefits most, not the artists. Western streaming services have an opportunity to monetise fandom for the creators, not for the platforms.
  2. Create new models where consumers pay for artist-centric experiences. These will always be more niche and have the challenge of building new audiences rather than tapping into existing streaming audiences, but the decision does not need to be ‘either/or’.

The third way

There is additionally a less obvious third path, that would reframe the entire basis of artist/label/publisher/songwriter/streaming service relationships: direct licensing for creators. No streaming service is going to want to do this (they already prefer to negotiate with aggregators rather than small labels) and labels and publishers are unlikely to want to cede such power. But a pragmatic compromise could be a new generation of artist and songwriter contracts that provide for the creators to set stipulations for royalty floors to ensure that they do not pay for streaming services cutting their prices via promotions and multi-user plans. This would also require rightsholders to ensure that streaming services set a royalty floor which in turn would compel streaming services to start pushing up the average revenue per user and perhaps even introduce metered access for users.

Options 1 and 3 are not exactly easy to do and they would require seismic industry change with wide-reaching impact. But if the industry wants a significant change in creator remuneration, then it needs to embrace truly disruptive innovation rather than spend its time tweaking a model that simply cannot change in the way many want it to.

Newsflash: UMG, WMG and Spotify may have a problem with Tencent

UPDATE: AWhite House official confirmed to the LA Times that the announcement, at this stage, will not affect Tencent shareholdings of companiesand clarified that the order only refers to transactions ‘related to’ WeChat. How tight or narrow that definition will prove to be is another matter. This is a case of watch this space but whatever path the order eventually takes when put in action 45 days from now, Tencent’s global entertainment investment strategy has at the absolute least been put on a warning. The potential repercussions remain vast.

Donald Trump just signed a presidential order prohibiting any company subject to US jurisdiction from “any transactions” with Tencent Holdings Limited or “any subsidiary of” Tencent. This will have just put Universal Music, Warner Music and Spotify into emergency planning mode, not to mention Snap Inc, Epic Games, Blizzard Entertainment, AMC cinema and countless other entertainment companies that have taken Tencent investment. What had looked like a mischievously smart global strategy, giving Tencent back-door reach and influence over the Western entertainment business has just been dealt a potentially fatal blow by the stroke of the US president’s pen.

Donald Trump’s campaign against Bytedance and TikTok has had centre-stage media coverage (which of course has benefits during an election year) but by now pulling Tencent into the bitter dispute he may have (though probably inadvertently) started a domino effect that could cause major disruption to the US entertainment world. The wording of the presidential executive order (full text here) while aimed primarily at WeChat is incredibly vague and broad in reach, far beyond the WeChat app. While a White House official has since suggested the order is narrower in scope than the order suggests, the order says Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will not identify what transactions are covered until the order comes into effect in 45 days time.

There is a possibility that the scope of the order will be more tightly defined when it comes into effect, which will be in late September, just in time for peak presidential election campaigning. If it is broad in scope then it will likely be subject to legal challenges but they are lengthy affairs and going to legal war against a president that takes things very personally, especially during an election, is going to get messy. The kind of messy that already jittery stick markets do not like.

So, the near term scenario for UMG, WMG and Spotify is that they may all have to sever ties with Tencent (including Tencent Music Entertainment as it is a Tencent subsidiary) and then maybe even have to ensure Tencent divests its shareholdings (though that of course would require “transactions” – see how messy this is going to be). After that, the big repercussions for music could kick in. Tencent has been willing to pay a premium for the investments it has made in US based music companies. In doing so it has helped push up the overall value of music assets. Tencent’s sudden (potentially permanent) withdrawal from the market at a time when the global economy is entering a recession, could have long term impact. And in principle, any US label, publisher or CMO licensing music to Chinese streaming services via Tencent could easily be considered ‘transactions’.

Trump’s campaign against TikTok, while controversial, is relatively narrow in scope for the West, but Tencent represents an entirely different scale. Years of building its Western investments mean that Tencent’s tentacles of commercial interest stretch throughout the Western entertainment world. To date, Tencent has played a relatively passive role in its invested companies, if Tencent decides to go down fighting, that may be about to change. Whether it does so or simply deflates the music investment market by vacating it, the potential ramifications of Trump’s order for US based entertainment companies are huge.

COVID-19 hit major labels much harder than it did Spotify

COVID-19 was always going to have a significant impact on the music business, and with the Q2 results for all of the major music companies now in we can start to look at just how big that impact has been so far. Year-on-year (YoY), combined major label recorded music revenues fell by 7.8% on a current currency basis while major publisher revenue fell by 1.6% over the same period (though slow reporting for income such public performance means that the full impact on publishing is yet to be seen). The figures in themselves are disappointing for an industry that has grown acclimatised to growth but the factors driving this are global economic and health policy ones. As we identified back at the start of June, income streams such as physical, public performance and ad supported are all vulnerable to lockdown impact. The only truly resilient revenue source so far is paid subscriptions. The dependency on streaming has never been higher but there are questions here too.

q2 2090 major label streaming music revenues

Major label streaming revenue fell by 0.6% in Q2 2020 compared to the previous quarter. Although it was up YoY by 6.3%, (and even allowing for seasonality), there was already a clear slowdown in growth before COVID-19 kicked it into reverse. When markets mature, the margins between growth and decline are small. So, factors such as the weakening digital ad market pushing down ad-supported revenues can be the difference between being in the red or in the black. The music business is going to have to get used to ad-supported under-performing because advertising is always an early victim of recessions.

Despite all of this gloom, the likelihood is that by the end of the year, there will have been sufficient return to growth in many sectors and regions, meaning global recorded music revenues will be higher in 2020 than 2019 – not by much, but up nonetheless.

However, the streaming slowdown emphasises just how important it is for the industry to establish a series of potential plan Bs to streaming’s plan A, and fast.

spotify revenues compared to major label revenues q2 2020

Q2 2020 wasn’t bad news for everyone in streaming. In fact, Spotify actually increased its revenues both quarter-on-quarter (2.2%) and annually by 13%, i.e. double the rate the majors grew their streaming revenue. The result is that by Q2 2020, Spotify’s total revenue was only 5% smaller than the entire major labels’ streaming revenue combined. All this was despite Spotify’s ad-supported revenue falling by 11%. Spotify’s revenues are slowly but surely becoming uncoupled from that of the majors. Although factors such as timing of revenue recognition and payments to rightsholders will play a role, the key inference is that independents grew faster than majors on Spotify in Q2, continuing the 2019 trend. Although, the term ‘independent’ is becoming progressively less useful as the market internationalizes; in addition to independent labels and artists we are seeing growing impact from regional, non-western ‘majors’ e.g. T-Series, India; Avex, Japan; YG Entertainment, South Korea.

The three key takeaways from all this are:

  1. Streaming revenue growth was already slowing. COVID-19 shows us just how important it is to push new growth drivers
  2. Spotify is already working on its new growth driver (i.e. podcasts) and though the slowdown in the digital ad market will dent momentum, podcasts will further decouple Spotify revenue from that of the majors
  3. The more likely scenario remains that streaming and label revenues will pick up before year end, but if the recession deepens and swathes of millennials lose their jobs, then subscription revenue could be hit, which brings us back to takeaway #1

The Global Music Industry Will Decline in 2020

Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings but the global music industry will decline in 2020.

Although we are now nearing the post-lockdown era in many countries across the globe, we are only just at the start of the recession phase that is coming next. Over the coming months we will start to see concrete examples of the downturn (including Q2 financial results) that will transform the recession from an abstract possibility into something far more tangible.

Although live music is the most obviously impacted, all elements of the music industry will be hit. In a forthcoming MIDiA client report we will be publishing our detailed forecasts of exactly what this impact could look like. In this blog post I am sharing some of the top-level trends.

music industry revenue forecasts 2020 midia research

In order to forecast recessionary impact on music revenues MIDiA broke down all of music’s sub-industries (recorded, publishing, live, merch, sponsorship) and all relevant sub categories (streaming, sync etc.), and then divided these into the financial quarters of the year. We then modelled the impact of lockdown, longer-term social-distancing measures and the recession on each of these quarters. We then put this model through bear, mid and bull cases. The sum totals are what you see in the chart above. In all cases, the Q2 decimation of live revenue and the subsequent slow clawback in the remainder of 2020 account for the majority of the decline.

In our mid case (i.e. what we consider to be the most likely case) we forecast a 30% decline on 2019 revenues with the following sector-level changes:

  • Recorded music (retail values) +2.5%
  • Publishing -3.6%
  • Live -75%
  • Merch -54%
  • Sponsorship – 30%

This is how we are thinking about each sector:

  • Recorded music: Music streaming will be far less affected by a recession than many other sectors. But under no circumstances is it immune, and ad supported in particular is anything but ‘resilient’. When the recession bites, consumers will cut discretionary spending, including subscriptions. We expect the increase in existing music subscriber churn to be relatively modest but the growth of new subscribers to slow in markets hardest hit by a recession. Unfortunately, millennials – streaming’s heartland – are the most vulnerable to job cuts. Ad supported is going to struggle whichever way you look at it. Spotify was struggling to make ad supported work even before the recession, while Alphabet was seeing a weakening Google ad business even last year. But it is the other parts of the labels’ businesses that lockdown has hurt most so far: physical sales due to store closures; sync due to the halt in TV and film production; performance due to store and restaurant closures. Q2 revenues could average out at between -2% and +1.5% up on Q1. If the recession deepens significantly in the second half of 2020, the combined effect of higher unemployment and reduced consumer spending could result in a worst case scenario of -4.0% annual growth for recorded music. If the economy recovers in 2021, recorded music revenue will return to growth also.
  • Publishing: Music publishing has been a steady earner for so long and as a consequence has enjoyed an influx of investment in recent years. 2020 though looks set to be a year of revenue decline. Our base case is for a -3.6% change on 2019. Key to this are: reduced syncs due to the halt in filming; reduced performance royalties due to a) live music decline; b) commercial radio declines; c) retail and leisure closures. Physical mechanicals, though small, will be hit by store closures. If the economy recovers in 2021, music publishing revenue will return to growth also, though performance revenues will see long-term transformation due to changes in lifestyles, e.g. more homeworking means less commuting (less radio) and less time spent in urban centres (less retail and leisure) both of which impact publisher income. If the economy recovers in 2021, publishing revenue will return to growth also.

 

  • Live: Even if live events can be put on in Q3, reduced capacities and some venues not being able to operate at all will mean that live revenue growth will be a slow clawback – a process that will run into 2022 and that will only be partially offset by the (much needed) growth in virtual event revenue.
  • Merch: Although there have been some great merch success stories during lockdown (including veteran UK synth poppers OMD selling £75,000 of merch during one live stream) merch sales are so often closely tied to live. Once the lockdown bump is over, the natural cycle of merch sales will remain disrupted by live’s slow clawback.
  • Sponsorship: Artist sponsorship will be hit by brands scaling back their marketing budgets as the advertising economy contracts.

In addition to the forthcoming MIDiA client report we will be exploring these themes and others in our free-to-attend webinar next week: Recovery Economics: Bounce Forward Not Back. Register here.

The IFPI Confirms 2019 was the Independents’ Year for Streaming

UPDATE: this post has been updated to correct an erroneous data point. Previously it stated that independent market share was 41%. It has been corrected to 29%

Recently I wrote about how a little-known Spotify statistic revealed that independents (labels and artists) outperformed the majors on its platform in 2019. The IFPI’s latest global revenue estimates provide further evidence of 2019 being a stellar streaming year for independents. As we have two sets of fixed reported figures (major label reports, and the artists direct sector reported by MIDiA) we can simply deduct these figures from the IFPI’s streaming figures to reveal what the IFPI estimates independent label revenues to be. The tl;dr: Independents grew by 39% while majors grew by 22%, which means that the independents’ global share of streaming revenue increased by two whole points from 27% to 29%.

ifpi midia 2020 streaming

The IFPI reported global streaming revenues of $11.2 billion, however these figures include YouTube but not Pandora ad supported revenues. So, to match up the IFPI’s definition with how the record labels report the revenue we need to add in Pandora ad revenue which takes us to $11.9 billion which is almost exactly what MIDiA reported two months ago.

Although independent labels and artists grew fastest in relative terms in 2019, the majors grew most in absolute terms, adding nearly twice as much net new revenue ($1.5 billion compared to $0.8 billion). The majors remain the powerhouse of the streaming economy but independents are rapidly making this space their own. If they were to add another four or five points of share across 2020 and in 2021, then independents would be represent a third of the entire streaming market. But a crucial consideration is that these figures are on a distribution basis, so the major revenue includes independents they distribute. According to the last WIN study, the independent market share went up another c12%. On that basis, by 2021, the independent label share of streaming could be approaching 50%. That would be a genuine paradigm shift, the clear announcement of a newly aligned music business.

Soon we’ll be writing on how the majors can turn this around. Watch this space.

Independents Grew Fastest on Spotify in 2019, But There’s a Twist

Tomorrow (Wednesday 29th April) Spotify announces its Q1 2020 results, at which point we will find out whether it had a COVID-bounce like Netflix did (adding 15.8 million subscribers in Q1) or whether growth slowed. But before that, there is one little detail from Spotify’s 2019 Annual Report which warrants a closer look. Hidden away in the commentary there is this innocuous looking line:

“For the year ended December 31, 2019 [Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, and Merlin] accounted for approximately 82% of music streams.”

The same line is in Spotify’s 2018 Annual Report with the figure at 85%. So, the majors and Merlin indies saw their share of Spotify streams decline by three percentage points in 2019. That in itself is interesting and builds on the narrative of the streaming tail getting longer and fatter, with the superstars losing share. But with a little creative thinking we can do a lot more with this three percentage points shift.

Using MIDiA’s label market shares data for FY 2019 we can do a full breakdown of Spotify’s streaming revenue. Applying shares for streaming volumes to streaming revenue, and shares for the total streaming market to Spotify is not methodologically pure and has margins of error, but it is a broadly sound approach and lets us do the following:

  • First we apply the percentage share to Spotify’s annual revenue
  • Next, we take the majors’ share of streaming revenues for 2019 and apply them to Spotify’s streaming revenue
  • We can then deduct the majors from the majors + Merlin total to leave us with Merlin’s revenue
  • Then we apply the independent artists streaming share to the Spotify revenue which leaves us with one remaining segment: ‘other independent labels’

spotify streaming griowth by label type

What emerges is a hierarchy of dramatically different growth rates, ranging from just 11% for Merlin labels through to a dramatic 48% for independent artists and an even more impressive 58% for ‘other independent labels’. This provides further evidence of the way in which (much of) the independent sector continues to thrive during streaming’s continuing ascendancy.

spotify streaming growth by label type

Most intriguing is the 58% growth for ‘other independent labels’. I am using the quote marks because this is essentially an ‘all others’ bucket and so captures music entities that don’t fit the traditional classification of ‘label’. This includes AI generative music and of course library music companies like Epidemic Sound.

It is of course important to consider that growth rates are not absolute growth – the majors still added much more new Spotify revenue in 2019 (€1 billion) than all of the rest put together. Nonetheless, the difference in growth rates is stark and only Spotify will be able to answer questions about how much of this is organic versus how much of this is driven by the way that it engineers its recommendations and programming.

Whatever the causes, the effect is clear: streaming benefits everyone but it benefits some more than others.

Recorded Music Revenues Hit $21.5 Billion in 2019

With IPOs from Warner Music and Universal Music pending and continued institutional investment into music catalogues, the music business is firmly in the sights of big money. The performance of the recorded music business in 2019 is going to heat up interest even further. The global recorded music industry continued its resurgence in 2019 with a fifth successive year of growth. Global revenues grew by 11.4% in 2019 to reach $21.5 billion, an increase of $2.2 billion on 2018. That growth was bigger than 2018 in both absolute and relative terms. Whichever way you look at it, growth accelerated, and – crucially – this growth was achieved even though streaming revenue growth slowed.

recorded market shares infographic

These are the key trends that underpinned growth:

  • Independence is on the rise: The major record labels retained the lion’s share of the overall market in 2019, accounting for 67.5% of the total – down half a point from 68.0% in 2018. The remaining 32.5% accounted for by independent labels and artists combined was up 0.5 points from 2017 and 4.6 points from 2015. Artists direct – i.e. artists without record labels – was again the fastest-growing segment of the market, growing by 32.1% in 2019 to reach $873 million, representing 4.1% of the total market, up from 1.7% in 2015.
  • Big year for Universal: Universal Music Group was the big winner among the majors, growing both faster than the other two majors and the total market to reach 30% market share. Universal also added more revenue in 2019 ($729 million) than Warner Music and Sony Music combined ($650 million).
  • Race for 2nd heats up: In 2015 Warner Music’s recorded music revenue was just 67% of Sony Music’s, and at the end of 2019 that share had increased to 93%. Just $279 million separated Warner and Sony at the end of 2019. Based on 2019 growth rates, Warner would be level with Sony by the end of 2022.
  • Still stream powered: Streaming was again the key source of growth, up 24% year-on-year to reach $11.9 billion, representing 56% of all label revenues. But growth is slowing; streaming revenue grew by $2.3 billion, which was $64 million less than in 2018. The reason that the total market was able to grow as fast as it did in spite of this is because downloads and physical fell by $0.4 billion less than in 2018. So, ironically, it was the improved performance of legacy formats that enabled streaming’s performance to be good enough to drive 11.4% growth. 

Despite the inevitable slowdown in streaming revenue growth, the recorded music market managed to not only consolidate on its strong 2018 performance but improve upon it in 2019. The continued boom in recorded music revenues is accompanied by a growing complexity to the underlying business, with increased diversification of business models and artist/label relationships. Over the next few years continued revenue growth will be both accompanied and driven by business model innovation and disruption.

What UMG’s IPO Means for the Business of Music

Finishing 2019 on $6.4 billion, Universal Music is to go to IPO hot on the heels of Warner Music’s announcement to do the same. This of course also follows the Tencent-led agreement to acquire 10% of UMG for $3 billion with an option to acquire another 10%. Added into the context of a total of $10 billion in music rights mergers and acquisitions (M&A) in the last decade, we have a clear case of capital flowing into the booming recorded and music publishing businesses. The global recorded music market looks set to have reached a little under $21 billion in 2019, up 10% on 2018 (MIDiA’s definitive market estimate will be ready within the next few weeks). That 10% growth was up on the 8% seen in 2018. Investors of all sizes are either already invested in the music business or are looking for a route in, and UMG just gave them a new, very attractive option. But where is all this heading? How far can it go? And what are the implications for the business of music itself?

Looking for a return

The power behind UMG parent Vivendi is Vincent Bolloré. Although he stepped down from the board last year, he helped instigate a share buyback programme that will leave his family the majority shareholder and could even trigger a mandatory takeover. Additionally, Vincent Bolloré remains as a ‘censor and special advisor’ to Vivendi’s chairman, his son Yannick. This all matters because the motivations of Vivendi’s prime mover are, according to investors we’ve spoken to, focused on maximisation of value for Bolloré Group and for investors. This is not inherently a bad thing. The Bolloré Group has invested billions in Vivendi, so it is only natural that it will be seeking a return on that investment. And the likelihood is that Vivendi will only list a minority of UMG stock, otherwise Vivendi – Bolloré Group’s key financial interest here – would most likely lose value.

Why an IPO?

The IPO announcement follows a previous statement from Vivendi that it would look for other equity buyers for UMG. The IPO may well reflect that this course of action has not delivered fruit. But this does not mean the IPO would struggle. Equity buyers may have balked at the valuation and the lack of company control they would acquire. Stock investors, however, have a different perspective. For example, asset managers will be looking to add a profile of asset class that slots into a particular segment of their portfolios. Meanwhile, hedge funds would see UMG stock as a way to directly bet for (and against) rights in the emerging ‘rights versus distribution’ investment thesis. Finally, publicly-traded stock inherently reflects what the market values a company at, not what the company values itself at.

Investing back into the music business

Sales and IPOs during the peak of markets are usually a good way of maximising return. The question is how much of the income from the equity sales and IPO will flow back into the UMG business, compared to profit taking by investors. The same question of course applies to Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries’ proposed WMG IPO.

In its earnings release Vivendi stated that the income from the various UMG transactions “could be used for substantial share buyback operations and acquisitions”. Share buyback suggests further potential consolidation of the Bolloré Group’s relative dominance of Vivendi shareholding, while acquisitions could refer to activity at both Vivendi and UMG levels. There is a strong case for IPO proceeds being reinvested in the businesses of both UMG and WMG. The music market is growing and both companies outperformed total market growth in 2019 – but a slowdown is coming. Both UMG and WMG added less new streaming revenue in 2019 than they did in 2018. Not by much, but the early signs are there.

Time for plan B, C and D

Emerging and mid-tier markets will drive much of the growth over the next half decade, but the lower average revenue per user (ARPU) rates mean that subscribers will grow faster than revenue. So, the record labels need a new revenue driver. UMG actually saw physical sales grow a little in 2019 (due in part to deluxe editions of Beatles classic releases). But physical is not going to be the long-term revenue driver. Innovating in new revenue streams (e.g. creator tools) and new business models (e.g. streaming services that monetise fandom rather than consumption) is more promising. There is an opportunity here for UMG and WMG to supercharge growth beyond the coming streaming slowdown. In fact, MIDiA would go further and say there is an imperative to do so. Larger independents such as Downtown Music Holdings, Kobalt, BMG and Concord are collectively taking billions worth of capital and investing it in growing their businesses. If the majors do not follow suit, then they will lose ground to this emerging generation of innovative music companies.

This is looking to be the time to capitalise on the music industry’s revenue renaissance. Which begs the question: if/when will Sony spin off some of Sony Music via an IPO?

WMG to IPO: Here’s What You Need to Know

Throughout the last decade more than $10 billion has been invested into music catalogues. UMG bookended the merger and acquisition (M&A) boom with the Tencent-led $3 billion stake in its business, but was exceptional in that the majority of the investment was otherwise going into the independent sector (especially independent publishers). It follows that this remaining $7 billion flowing into the independent sector, even if only a minority is reinvested into the companies themselves, is going to boost the sectors’ capabilities vis-à-vis majors. UMG wanted a piece of the action – and now so does WMG, having just announced its intention to IPO. Current owner Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries will rightly be expecting a good return for the $3.2 billion it cost to acquire WMG in 2011. No doubt this is a good time for an IPO – but we are also on the cusp of disruptions and innovations that will transform the music business, many of which WMG hints at in its S1 filing.

Revenue performance

WMG’s S1 filings hold fewer surprises than most, as it has been filing SEC-compliant documents since the Access takeover as part of debt obligations. Nonetheless, WMG’s Q4 results and its stated risk factors, with a little bit of interpretation, present an intriguing view of where WMG sits in the fast-changing competitive marketplace.

Firstly, a quick review of some key financial metrics:

  • WMG full-year (FY) 2019 (calendar year basis) recorded music revenues were $3,883 million, up 11% year-on-year (YoY) – in line with the total market which should come in at around $21 billion, giving WMG around 18% market share.
  • However, Q4 revenues were only up 4% YoY which reflects the continued decline of physical and the start of the streaming slowdown. This is a secular trend, not a WMG-specific one.
  • Artist and repertoire (A&R) and production costs were 52% of 2019 revenues (fiscal year basis) and grew in line with revenue over the same period, though A&R grew more slowly than production costs (which were up 18% YoY). In Q4 A&R spend was actually flat from Q3, while production was up 12% (three times faster growth than revenues). Key takeaway: it is costing more to make major label quality music.

Market outlook

Risk factors are an integral part of company filings and are normally so intentionally bland as to make the risk factors look like they’re not really risks at all. With a little bit of focussed interrogation, however, they can be revealed. Here are the key ones for WMG:

“Our prospects and financial results may be adversely affected if we fail to identify, sign and retain recording artists and songwriters and by the existence or absence of superstar releases.”

WMG references rising competition from the ‘technological developments’ of insurgents. This points to the emerging generation of those such as AWAL and Downtown Music Holdings that are employing new, tech-led approaches with businesses built for the digital era rather than having to evolve into it. All traditional labels are playing catch-up. That doesn’t mean they won’t get there, but they are having to work doubly hard to do so. It is often far easier to compete as an insurgent stealing market share than it is to be an incumbent defending it.

“If streaming adoption or revenues grows less rapidly or levels off, our prospects and our results of operations may be adversely affected.”

At the start of last year MIDiA predicted that streaming revenue growth would slow towards the end of 2020. We are seeing the first signs of this and all labels, WMG included, know it is coming. The question is not ‘if’, but ‘by how much’. MIDiA’s view is that despite growth slowing to single digits by 2021 the market will still nearly double between 2019 and 2026. The bigger question is whether we will have a plan B for streaming by then, alternative to the 9.99 model dominated by three global players – which brings us onto the next point…

“We are substantially dependent on a limited number of digital music services for the online distribution and marketing of our music, and they are able to significantly influence the pricing structure for online music stores and may not correctly calculate royalties under license agreements.”

With the big three digital service providers (DSPs) accounting for 66% of global subscribers (80% if we remove single-market DSPs like Tencent) labels are becoming worried about the hard power (licensing negotiations) and soft power (curation and discovery) of Spotify, Apple and Amazon. Labels have been unable to exercise ‘divide and rule’ over them so far and really need a new competitive force in the market. Few investors would back a vanilla 9.99 challenger, so rightsholders need to think about licensing the next new thing. MIDiA’s bet is on monetising fandom (virtual gifts, tipping, live streaming etc.) to complement the current model of monetising consumption.

“Our business may be adversely affected by competitive market conditions, and we may not be able to execute our business strategy.”

The emerging generation of new competitor music companies are building a complex web of entirely new music business structures. The only unifying factor is diversity. Major labels are responding in kind. Expanded rights were the first step, label services the next. But we are just at the start of this journey, and much more will need to be done. WMG dipped its toes into the ‘top of funnel’ business with the launch of Level in 2018. This will remain a crucial growth area, but creator tools are becoming the new top of funnel. Spotify is currently leading the charge here. WMG and other majors will need to follow suit, or be left behind.

“We face a potential loss of catalogue to the extent that our recording artists have a right to recapture rights in their recordings under the U.S. Copyright Act.”

Although this risk factor specifically refers to the US Copyright Act, there is a more fundamental market dynamic at play: as more artists move towards label services deals, major record labels will grow their owned catalogues much more slowly than their revenues due to artists retaining their rights. Just 8% of independent artists plan to sign a traditional record label deal. The music business is about to be transformed by the emerging generation of artists.

Right place, right time – but choppy waters ahead

This is good time for WMG to IPO. The music rights M&A market has until now been constrained by supply. Now, large institutional investors have another way in which they can place bets in the burgeoning recorded and music publishing businesses. Unlike owning shares in UMG parent Vivendi or Sony Music parent Sony Corporation, this is a direct investment not diluted by other corporate assets. But we are also on the cusp of what will be the most transformational era that the music business has been through in decades. The 2010s was the decade of streaming, the foundation for business model transformation. The 2020s will be the decade of the artist. To thrive in this new world, WMG will have to follow one guiding principle: putting the artist first.