This Is What Post-IPO Life Will Look Like For Spotify

With a fair wind, Spotify’s long-anticipated public offering should happen before the end of Q2 2018 (and yes, probably a direct listing rather than an IPO but ‘IPO’ worked better in the title!) . The music industry will be watching with keen interest as it is going to be the bellwether for the streaming music sector. Posting three or four successive quarters of well-received earnings will be key to Spotify’s life as a public company. Note my careful use of words, ‘well-received earnings’, not ‘strong earnings’. Spotify’s currently challenged underlying financials are not going to change in any fundamental sense over the course of nine to 12 months, so it will need to construct a series of narratives and targets that Wall Street will buy into. The only problem is, Wall Street often has very high expectations for growth stage tech stocks, and falling short of those expectations can result in a tumbling stock price, even if the growth trend is actually solid.

When narratives alone will not be enough

I’ve written before about how Spotify will need to construct a number of new narratives for life as a public company. They will need to demonstrate:

  • Sustained strong growth in subscribers, users and revenue
  • Improved profitability metrics
  • Diversification of revenue streams
  • Reduction of risk factors

All except the first could prove contentious, as many of the solutions will be inherently challenging for record label partners. Netflix has set a strong precedent for how to drive net margin with a 70% rights cost case (like Spotify’s) by creating its own content and using accounting technique,  such as amortization of costs, to turn cost into profit on the books. Netflix can get away with this because there are many TV networks so no single one can kill the service by removing its content. For example, Disney recently announced it was pulling its content, but Netflix continues to go from strength-to-strength. Spotify without Universal Music would swiftly wither on the vine. Spotify ‘becoming a label’ will be highly disruptive so it will have to do it slowly and in non-obvious ways. The news today that Spotify has acquired online music and audio recording studio Soundtrap – reportedly for $30 million – fits this thinking. In effect, subtly reversing into becoming a label. Meanwhile, it will need to have other new less disruptive revenue streams to spin narratives around, such as selling data to music industry stakeholders.

The upshot of all this is that during its first year as a public company, those narratives are unlikely to be enough. Instead, investors will be applying forensic scrutiny to Spotify’s user and revenue metrics. More than that, investors will set their own targets and if Spotify misses the consensus of these third-party targets, the share price will go down. Apple tried to distract investors from its slowing core metrics in 2016 by releasing a supplemental information document that focused on new metrics such as revenue per user. But investors refused to have their fixed gaze moved away from iPhone shipments.

spotify netflix users growth and stock price

So, Spotify will live or die by meeting investor-set subscriber growth targets? This means it will have to tread a delicate line between being bullish about its prospects to get investors’ interest piqued, but not so bullish as to raise their expectations too much. What complicates matters further though is the relationship between user growth and stock price. Pandora and Netflix have had very different journeys in the last 24 months, but both have endured ‘4 Quarter Kill Zones’ during which period stock prices struggled:

  • Pandora: Pandora’s post-earnings closing stock price declined at ever-greater rates than its monthly active user (MAU) count did. In Q1 2017 Pandora’s stock price fell by $0.11 for every million MAUs lost. By Q3 2017 this rate was $0.79.
  • Netflix: Between Q4 2015 and Q4 2016, Netflix added 12 million memberships (subscribers and trialists), yet its share price fell from $107.89 to $99.80. Investors, quite simply, expected even stronger growth. The irony is that since that time Netflix has continued to add memberships at a similar rate but its stock price has rocketed to $202.68 in Q3 2017.

Growth at what cost?

The lesson from these two cautionary tales is that it is not so much user metrics that is essential, but meeting user metric expectations. And Spotify will need to be careful about how it meets those targets. Growth stimuli like $1 for three-month super-trials can spike growth but hit profitability, which will be there for all to see in SEC filings. Therefore growth cannot come at any cost. In a similar vein, with market maturity approaching in many major western markets, Spotify will need to rely on a combination emerging markets for subscriber growth, and total free users (everywhere) to drive its user numbers, both of which will dent ARPU and margin. It is yet another balancing act for Spotify to manage and navigate.

Music market IQ

Spotify has one major advantage and one major disadvantage going into its flotation:

  1. Disadvantage: Since large investors have steered clear of the recorded music business for so long, the level of institutional market IQ is relatively low. The music business is notorious for being highly nuanced. This means that although big investment companies have been busy getting up to speed over the last 18 months, their expertise in music still lags massively behind the other sectors they invest in. Pandora learned the hard way that investors did not have the market IQ to differentiate between its ad supported radio model and Spotify’s subscription Similar things will happen to Spotify.
  2. Advantage: There are very few places truly big investors can put their money. Spotify’s IPO and a potential UMG sale or listing are about it. Big institutions see WMG as too small, and Sony Music as too small a part of Sony Corp. It’s no coincidence perhaps that UMG is reported to have been valued at between $30-$40 billion by Vivendi, conveniently keeping it well north of Spotify’s likely flotation valuation of $15-$20 billion.

So, with institutional investor demand massively exceeding supply, Spotify – and potentially UMG – could be very well placed to benefit. But a strong start can soon falter, as in the case of Snap Inc., which has fallen from an opening $24.48 to $12.56 now. The beauty of being a privately held company is that you can chose what metrics to report, and when. If you’ve had a tough quarter you can keep quiet until you have a good one. When you’re public you have no such luxury. It is warts and all, every quarter. Spotify’s life as a public company will be as much about managing expectations as it will be about driving growth.

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Pandora’s Loss Is Sirius XM’s Gain

Pandora is in trouble, as explained by the consistently excellent Tim Ingham at Music Business Worldwide, after losing a billion dollars over the last four years and monthly active users (MAU) fell to 73.7 million – its lowest point since Q1 2014. Regular readers will know that I’m a long-time advocate of Pandora’s model. Indeed, Pandora’s model is the future of radio. However, it now appears that Pandora may not be the future of Pandora’s model. In fact, with Liberty Media subsidiary Sirius XM waiting in the wings for Pandora’s market cap to fall even lower than its current $1.4 billion (down from $8 billion in Q1 2014), Pandora might not even be the future of Pandora. In fact, Pandora’s struggles could be Sirius XM’s gain, exactly when it needs the help.

Pandora’s three most important metrics have long been:

  1. MAU
  2. Revenue
  3. The share of total radio listening it accounts for

All three are intertwined, but Pandora has managed to sustain strong growth in numbers two and three because it got better at increasing engagement and driving ad revenue from a largely flat MAU base. However, Pandora was only ever going to be able to squeeze so much revenue out of a flat user base. So, it is no surprise that ad revenue for the nine months to September 2017 was up a paltry 2.4% at $777.3m, compared to the same period in 2016 (figure). Pandora’s problem is not monetization. Indeed, it is better at monetizing ad supported streaming than any other player on the planet, having invested heavily in ad sales infrastructure and continuing to innovate ad formats. But even the shiniest car will eventually grind to halt if it has a gaping hole in its fuel tank. And make no mistake, Pandora has a gaping hole.

Spotify Stole Pandora’s Clothes

Long before Spotify was changing the music business, Pandora was virtually single-handedly creating the US streaming market – though subscription service Napster (then Rhapsody) was also making a small contribution. For the best part of a decade Pandora had almost all of the market to itself, but it is now buckling under the impact of on-demand streaming. Pandora was meant to be different to Spotify, and it was, until Spotify started stealing Pandora’s clothes. Pandora grew its user base by delivering a lean back, but personalized listening experience. Radio on its users’ terms. Spotify soon recognized the value of lean back listening, bringing in a vast selection of curated playlists, directly and via partners. Beats Music followed suit and soon became the foundation for Apple Music’s curated streaming proposition.

Pandora’s Reach Metrics Obscure The Real Story

Pandora’s own key metrics have been part of the problem. It fell into the same trap that traditional radio broadcasters did, of convincing itself that its reach metrics were a genuine indicator of its success. But reach means nothing in the digital era. Engagement is everything. MAU is a meaningless metric in today’s always on world. If you have an app on your phone that you only use once a month, you’d hardly consider that active usage. Active usage is measured at the very least in weekly active user (WAU) terms. That’s why at MIDiA we track all digital media apps using this measure to reveal just how active user bases really are.

midia pandora sirius xm

On this basis, Pandora has jut 22% WAU penetration in Q3 2017, representing around 57 million users, or 77% of its MAU base. That ‘missing’ 17 million users will be the ones that Pandora will lose next over the coming 12 months. Yet, its WAU base is at risk too. 26% of Pandora’s WAUs – its most engaged users – also use Spotify. Although Pandora has done an admirable job of building its own subscription business – reaching 5.1 million subscribers in Q3 put it at a credible sixth in the global subscriber rankings, it is looking like it’s too little too late. Furthermore, dumping its founder Tim Westergren robbed Pandora of a genuine visionary just when the company needed him most.

Pandora Will Enhance Sirius XM’s User Base

Pandora’s loss will be Sirius XM’s gain. Sirius XM has been feeling the pressure from Spotify and co, just like Pandora, but it has also experienced competitive pressure from Pandora. Sirius XM is another of radio’s potential futures, but it has faced growing pressure from Pandora and also other streaming services. The growing adoption of interactive dashboards in cars has been key (5% of US consumers now have one). Sirius XM’s WAU base fell from 11% of consumers in Q4 2016 to 8% in Q3 2017. That 30 decline is far more dramatic than Pandora’s 6% WAU decline over the same period. The 8% WAU penetration represents around 21 million users which means that its active user rate is even lower than Pandora’s at just 69%. Added to that, more of Sirius XM’s WAUs (30%) use Spotify. It also has a demographic time bomb ticking: just 8% of WAUs are aged under 35 while just 49% are female. This compares to 31% and 57% respectively for Pandora. Sirius XM’s aging user base is old and male. While Pandora’s is young(er) and female. This is Sirius XM’s opportunity.

In 2016, Sirius XM made an informal offer of $3.4 billion for Pandora. Today, it looks like an amazing deal for Pandora, but Pandora turned it down. Sirius though was not deterred and was able to get close to its goal by investing $480 million in a struggling Pandora in June 2017 and securing three board positions. Now all Sirius has to do is wait for Pandora’s stock to fall further and make its move – perhaps when the market cap gets closer to $750 million. When this happens, Sirius will get a major boost to its user base. More than that though, Sirius will significantly enhance its audience profile. Sirius and Pandora’s user bases are so different in composition that they will slot together like jigsaw pieces. The challenge for Sirius will be how to integrate Pandora in terms of feature sets, user experience, business model and, of course, company organisations. That challenge could prove even bigger than Pandora’s attempted turn around.

The data in this blog post is taken from MIDiA’s forthcoming report: Radio – Streaming’s Next Frontier: How Streaming Will Disrupt Radio Like It Did Retail 

If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to find out how to get access to this report email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Have Spotify and Apple Music Just Won The Streaming Wars?

Spotify has just delivered 2 landmark data points: 40 million subscribers and $5 billion paid to rights holders to date. Although the 3 million added in Q3 was down on the 7 million added in Q2 (boosted by a summer pricing promo) there is no escaping the fact that Spotify’s momentum has accelerated rather than declined since the emergence of Apple Music. 2016 is proving to be Spotify’s year. The question is how well the rest of the market is performing beyond the 2 market leaders?

The streaming music market as a whole is experiencing unprecedented growth, with the major labels collectively reporting a 52% increase in streaming revenue in Q2 2016 compared to the same period 12 months ago. Given that total streaming revenues (including YouTube etc. but not Pandora) grew by 44% in 2015 (according to the IFPI) the picture that is emerging is one of, at worst, sustained growth, at best, accelerating growth.

Although the major label numbers have to be interpreted with caution due to factors such as Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs) – see my previous post for much more detail on this – the headline trend is growth. However, headline growth is not necessarily a reflection of how most of the market is actually performing. In fact, a forensic examination of these numbers cross referenced against reported Apple Music and Spotify numbers reveals that the outlook for the rest of the pack is very different indeed.

streaming-market-share-q2-16

At the end of 2015 there were 67.5 million subscribers, by the end of June 2016 that had increased to 83.2 million – a 23% increase from the end of 2015 and a 63% increase on Q2 2015. Spotify’s subscriber count for Q2 2016 was 37 million (including super trialists) while Apple Music was just under 16 million. This gives them a combined market share of 56%, which in itself is not particularly surprising. However, when we look at what has happened to the rest of the pack that things start to get really interesting…

The Rest Of The Pack Is Getting Left Behind

By end Q2 2015 Spotify had 20 million subscribers and Apple Music none. This meant that the rest had 31 million between them. By Q2 2016 this ‘remainder’ had shrunk to 30.5 million. Among this chasing pack there is a diverse mix of stories, with some services showing solid growth, some losing lots of paid subscribers and some disappearing all together. Meanwhile Spotify and Apple Music added 32.7 million to the global subscriber base. Thus over the same 12 month period these two players combined, became bigger then the entire rest of the market in subscriber terms with a 63% combined market share. An interesting side note: Tidal’s reported revenues of $47 million in 2015 mean that it can’t have had more than around 800,000 commercially active subscribers by year end, which means that the reported and ‘implied’ 4.2 million current subscriber count is probably closer to half that.

Streaming revenue followed a similar trend with Apple and Spotify dominating and the rest falling slightly (by 1 percentage point year on year). Spotify paid around $1.6 billion in royalties in 2015 and a cumulative $6 billion by September 2016, implying about $1.1 billion in 2016 already. The amount that Spotify paid to record labels in Q2 was somewhere between $479 million and $622 million, depending on when and how Spotify paid for those 7 million new super trialists it acquired that quarter. Towards the lower end of that range is probably the safer bet. Apple by comparison paid around $220 million. And as with subscriber numbers, the rest of the pack lost revenue.

It’s A 2 Horse Race

When Apple launched Apple Music some less informed observers suggested that it was too late to the party and that there was only room for one big player. The numbers from Q2 2016 show that Apple was far from too late (fashionably late perhaps) and that the rather than being a winner takes all scenario, the streaming market is a 2 horse race. Unfortunately for the rest of the pack it does look like there is only space for 2 leading global players, with Apple clearly having played a key role in knocking Deezer out of 2nd place and racing on ahead.

Still A Place For Regional Leaders

This does not mean that there is not space for other players, there is. Especially regional leaders like QQ Music, KKBox, Anghami and MelOn. But the consumer marketplace only has so much appetite for global scale $9.99 AYCE services. Which is why pricing and product innovation are so crucial if the recorded music business wants a vibrant streaming sector. Compare and contrast with the streaming video market where there is immense innovation with niche services and a diverse range of price points. Music streaming needs the same approach. Tidal may have (very successfully) differentiated on brand and content but it remains fundamentally an also-ran, $9.99 AYCE service. As things stand, the only really serious attempt to play by different rules is Amazon’s steadily emerging streaming strategy. Expect that dark horse to make up ground by playing by different rules. Perhaps even Pandora may be able to break the mould too.

But it is only through differentiated strategies that serious inroads can be made and unless pricing and product innovation occurs (and the labels and publishers need to enable it) expect the streaming race to continue to be a tale of 2 horses.

Pandora Plus And The Mid Tier Opportunity

Pandora continued its steady path towards subscriptions today with the announcement of a revamp of its premium radio offering Pandora One and confirmation of a forthcoming 9.99 tier. These of course have been in the works since its acquisition of Rdio’s assets back in November 2015. In the update Pandora One becomes Pandora Plus and gets new features including: ‘predictive offline playback’ for when signal drops, unlimited skips and unlimited replays. Pandora Plus may have a mid tier price point ($4.99) but it is not a mid priced subscription service, instead it is a premium priced radio service. This is not a revival of Rdio’s $3.99 Select offering nor is it a shot across Spotify and Apple’s bows. Nonetheless it is the start of a bolder streaming strategy for Pandora and it does raise the perennial issue of the case for mid priced subscriptions. Premium radio offerings like Pandora One Plus represent around 5 million subscribers in the US and are an important part of the market. But they are only the tip of the opportunity.

The case for mid priced subscriptions is clear: $9.99 is not a mainstream price point. It is fantastic value for music super fans, but more than mainstream fans are willing to pay. 9.99 subscriptions will continue to grow solidly for the next few years as the remaining untapped super fans are converted. But once that base is saturated the market needs something more, that’s where mid priced subscriptions come into play, helping unlock the next layer of consumers. Mid priced subscriptions can represent the best of both worlds, delivering large scale and premium revenue.

Mid Price Is No Easy Sell

However, the mid priced market is not without challenges, indeed, of the original wave of mid priced subscription services that came to market Blinkbox is gone, Cur Media is gone, Guvera is all but gone while Psonar and MusicQubed are still in market. The key challenges this market faces are:

  • It is not easy selling to mainstream consumers: mainstream consumers have less disposable income, are less engaged with music than super fans and are harder to convert
  • It is hard to compete against free: while there are on demand free services in the market (YouTube, Vevo, Spotify free) it is hard for mid priced products to compete in value terms. These free services steal much of the oxygen out of the market. $1 for 3 month trials from Spotify and co only compounds this issue
  • It is hard to differentiate: Label licensing constraints mean that the mid priced products deliver far less value than full priced products due to the restrictions imposed on them. Pandora’s INSERT gives the users 100 on demand tracks a month. That is 0.0003% of the 30 million on Spotify for 40% of the price of Spotify, or 1197% of the price of Spotify’s $1 for 3 months trial

Mid Tier Needs To Be Given More Substance

In short, the mid priced segment needs empowering with proper functionality. Mid tier products need more tracks and more on demand playback. Of course this has to be within clear bounds, else the risk of cannibalizing 9.99 tiers is to strong. But there are many other ways to do this rather than creating a painfully restrictive limit on the number tracks that can be played on demand. Here are some examples of how to differentiate mid tier while maintaining genuine user value by delivering more content and more choice in return:

  • Windowed content only (e.g. a 4 week window on new releases)
  • Limit on number of tracks that can be added to a playlist
  • Genre specific subscriptions
  • Strong focus on pushed playlists
  • Cheaper pricing ($2.99 or $3.99 to reflect the changed marketplace)

For mid tier to work, the music industry needs to have the confidence that the $9.99 product is good enough to keep its core customer base, that these users will not jump ship for a product squarely aimed at the mainstream.

After a couple of years in the wilderness it looks like the marketplace is beginning to warm to mid tier once again. In addition to Pandora’s moves, Sony Music and Universal Music quietly launched the £5.99 Now Music app into the UK market earlier this year while MusicQubed’s MTV Trax has been getting large scale TV advertising support from Viacom. Meanwhile QQ Music and Apple Music are both driving scale in China with a price point equivalent to around $2.

$9.99 was always a blunt instrument, a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Now though, while $9.99 adoption is still growing, is the time to have a far more sophisticated approach to pricing. The safe option would be to wait until $9.99 growth slows. But by then it would be too late.

Streaming Hits 67.5 Million Subscribers But Identity Crisis Looms

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For our recently published MIDiA report ‘State of the Streaming Nation’ we conducted an exhaustive programme of research to assess the global streaming music market, from each of the consumer, market and service perspectives. In pulling together subscriber numbers for each of the music services (there’s a full table in the report) we found that there were 67.5 million subscribers globally in 2015. That was 24 million more subscribers compared to 2014 (also nearly double the number of new subscribers in 2014). It is clear that global subscriptions are gathering pace. However, all is not as it may at first appear:

  • Zombies still walk the streaming streets: Back in 2013 I ruffled a few feathers highlighting the issue of zombie subscribers, music subscribers that are recorded in the headline numbers but that are actually inactive, normally because they are on telco bundles. Fast forward to 2016 and the issue is more firmly in the public domain due to Deezer’s IPO filings. Zombies coupled with overstating by music services accounted for around 12 million subscribers in 2015 so the active ‘actual’ subscriber number was nearer 55 million.
  • Emerging markets are gaining share: Emerging markets will play a key role for streaming over the next few years. They are already driving growth for Apple and Spotify and they will collectively bring the most dynamic growth with western markets nearing saturation for the 9.99 price point. Much of the growth though will come from indigenous companies, such QQ Music (China), KKBOX (Taiwan), MelOn (South Korea) and Saavn (India).
  • Free still dominates: For all the scale of of subscriptions, free still leads the way with free streaming services accounted for nearly 600 million unique users (1.3 billion cumulative users if you add together the user counts of all the services). Free thus outweighed paid by a factor of 10-to-1.

Streaming’s Identity Crisis

Streaming must overcome its identity crisis. Depending on where you sit in the music industry, streaming is either the future of retail or the future of radio. It can be both, but there is increasing pressure for it to be retail only. That would see only a fraction of the opportunity realised. Throughout its history, a small share of people have accounted for the majority of spending. Casual buyers and radio accounted for the rest.

17% of music buyers account for 61% of spending. These are the people who are either already subscribers or that will become subscribers over the next couple of years. Which leaves us with the remaining 83% of consumers. The majority of these listen to radio while a growing minority use free streaming (mainly YouTube). The question the music industry must now answer is how seriously does it want to treat the opportunity represented by these consumers? Does it want to only serve its super fans or does it also want to be global culture? Radio enabled music to be global culture in the 20th century, free streaming will enable it to be in the 21st.

The Free Streaming Debate Is As Complex As It Is Nuanced

This is why the free streaming debate is important but also so complex. Yes, too much free music will curtail the opportunity for paid subscriptions, but too little could consign music culture to the margins. With streaming there is an opportunity to monetize a bigger audience at higher rates than radio ever enabled. At the moment free streaming bears the burden of being all about driving sales (either subscriptions or music purchases) but that misses the far bigger opportunity for free in the streaming era: mass monetization.

What we have now is a dysfunctional system. Freemium services have licensing minimas (the minimum that must be paid per stream) that effectively prevent them from building profitable ad supported businesses, while YouTube has licenses unlike any other but is the industry’s bête noire. Only Pandora has a model that is both (largely) acceptable to the industry and (theoretically) profitable. I say, ‘theoretically’ because Pandora could get towards a 20% margin if it wasn’t investing so heavily in ad sales infrastructure and other companies.

Out of those three disparate models an effective middle ground can and should be found so that the streaming debate becomes one of free AND paid rather than free VERSUS paid. Then we will have the foundations for creating a market that enables subscriptions to thrive within their niche and for global audiences to be monetized like never before.

What’s Going On With Free Streaming?

Earlier this week Soundcloud’s financials revealed that the company was haemorrhaging cash (even before it had to start worrying about content license fees). Now news comes that Pandora is working with Morgan Stanley to meet with potential buyers. Back in Q4 2014 free streaming got a stay of execution when the majors decided to put their weight behind freemium after a period of many executives seriously considering canning the model. In 2015 free streaming was the growth story, with YouTube out performing everyone. Now though free streaming looks to be in seriously troubled waters. So what gives?

Pandora’s Problem Is Wall Street

Probably the biggest problem of all that Pandora has is the story it tells Wall Street. Every year Pandora accounts for a little bit more of total US radio listening, builds ad revenue and steadily strengthens its business. But that’s not the sort of story Wall Street expects from a streaming media company. Investors expect dynamic growth. But Pandora is, along with Rhapsody, the granddaddy of streaming and had 10 million users before Spotify was even launched in Sweden, let alone the US. Pandora long since passed its dynamic growth stage in the US and is now a mature business that is going about sensibly building a sustainable business.

The standard thing to do at this stage for streaming companies is to roll out internationally and find new markets where you can start a new dynamic growth story. This is exactly what Netflix is doing now that US subscriber growth has slowed. The approach has also served Spotify well. But the unique compulsory licensing structure in the US the underpins Pandora’s business model does not exist elsewhere. There is no global landscape of SoundExchanges for Pandora to plug into. With the exception of Australia and New Zealand Pandora has not been able to negotiate rates that it launch internationally with.

Actually, Slowing Growth Is A Problem Too 

All of which explains why Pandora has gone down the acquisition route, buying Next Big Sound, Ticket Fly and Rdio in a bid to become a full stack music company. The problem is that Wall Street either does not buy it, or simply does not get it. In fact, Wall Street does not really make much of a distinction between semi-interactive radio or on-demand streaming. The pervasive view among the investor community is that Pandora is being out competed by Spotify, regardless of the fact that there is only partial competitive overlap in terms of value proposition, target audience and business model. The net result is that Pandora’s market capitalization has fallen from $7bn to $1.8bn and to make matters worse it had to raise $500 million in debt, with revenue growth slowing.

Pandora Needs A New Wall Street Narrative

In just the same way Apple needs a new Wall Street narrative, so does Pandora. Even if just to maintain some market value while it finds a buyer. The full stack music strategy should be central to that narrative, even though the real story is that Pandora is the future of radio. Unfortunately that story will take a decade or more to play out and most investors do not have that kind of patience. (Spotify, these are the sorts of problems you’ll be having to worry about this time next year). And, to be precise, it is the Pandora model that is the future of radio, not necessarily Pandora itself.  Though the odds are still on Pandora playing that role, in the US at least.

If Pandora really does not have the stomach for seeing out the long game it should not find it too difficult to find a buyer, if the price is right. Exactly because Pandora is the future of radio, some of those big radio incumbents are likely buyer. Hello iHeart Media.

 

Pandora’s Rate Ruling Reveals The Cracks In Streaming Economics

The much anticipated outcome of yesterday’s Copyright Tribunal decision was a 20% increase of Pandora’s ad supported stream rate from $0.0014 per non-interactive stream to $0.0017. The result was roughly equidistant between the two parties’ preferred rate: Pandora wanted $0.0011, SoundExchange (the body that collects the royalties on behalf of the labels) wanted $0.0025. As with any good compromise neither party will be truly happy, though on balance Pandora probably came out slightly better. Both the rate and the whole rate setting process shine a bright light on the economics of streaming, especially when contrasted against on-demand services.

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Pandora’s semi-interactive radio service operates under statutory rates in the US that are set by the Copyright Royalty Board for a few years at a time, with inflation baked in. This means a continual rise in rates (see figure). It also gives Pandora a degree of certainty over its mid term future but prevents record labels from negotiating for better rates (publishers however are able to strike direct deals with Pandora). Spotify, and other on-demand streaming services, negotiates deals directly with multiple record labels, publishers and rights bodies. Deals typically come up for renewal every couple of years, involve large upfront payments and Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs). They also run the risk of core product features being threatened in renegotiations – as we saw with the labels’ dalliance with killing off freemium this time last year.

The most significant difference between the models is how the per stream rate works. For on-demand services a royalty pot as a % of revenue is determined. This is then divided between rights holders based on plays in a given period and allocated on a per stream rate basis. Thus royalty payments remain a comparatively constant share of revenue, assuming of course that the service hits the MRG targets – if it doesn’t the share increases, often above 100% of revenue. This model also implies a clear ceiling to the potential profit an on-demand service can earn. By contrast Pandora pays out on a (largely) pure per stream basis. The direct consequence of this is that Pandora is able to increase it revenue per play faster than its rights cost per play which in turn creates the potential to grow margin (see next figure).

pandora dec 15 - 2

Between 2009 and 2014 Pandora’s content acquisition costs per listener hour increased by 27% from $17.52 to $22.29. This reflects both the CRB set rate as well as deals with rights bodies and publishers. But over the same period Pandora’s revenue per listener hour increased by 114% from $21.48 to $45.97. Now clearly, an increase in revenue per hour does not inherently mean increased profitability, or even profitability at all. Indeed, Pandora’s continued losses have been a perennial bugbear for investors. But Pandora has chosen to invest its increased revenue to grow its business, building out regional ad sales teams and making acquisitions such as Next Big Sound, Ticket Fly and Rdio. In short, Pandora could have been profitable for some time now if it had so chosen. Instead it is chasing a bigger prize, namely to become the single biggest revenue driver in US radio. To get big it needs to spend big.

Pandora’s Core Strength Is Being Able Increase Profitability Per User

The underlying principle is clear: while on-demand services have little meaningful way of increasing revenue per user with the current model, Pandora has more than doubled revenue per user in 6 years while rights costs have declined in relative terms. Content acquisition costs fell from a high of 82% of revenue in 2009 to 48% in 2014. That rate will increase in 2015 due to direct deals struck with publishers and the $90 million pay out for the pre-1972 works ruling. But it still remains well south of Spotify’s 70%+.

On Demand Services Have Similar Fixed Costs But Tighter Margins Because Of Royalties

While there is a clear case for semi-interactive radio rates being markedly lower than on-demand rates many of the fixed costs of both types of streaming business are the same.  Both have to commit similar amounts to product development and tech, bandwidth, data analysis, reporting marketing, customer care, management. This puts on-demand services at an operational disadvantage compared to webradio services.

If paid-for streaming services are going to become commercially sustainable there is going to need to be pricing and product innovation to both reach more mainstream users (cheaper tiers) and to drive more revenue from high value users (more expensive tiers and bolt ons). Right now there is relatively little commercial incentive for on-demand services to innovate upwards as profitability will remain largely the same. There is an opportunity for labels to offer Spotify and co a Pandora-style pure per-play license structure for all products launched above and beyond the standard 9.99 tier. This would give the services the ability to follow Pandora’s path of growing revenue per user faster than rights costs per user, thus improving commercial sustainability and allowing them to invest more in product innovation.

Rights Frameworks Need To Engender Commercial Sustainability

Pandora is one of the few stand out, independent success stories of the entire history of digital music. It has become one of the world’s biggest music services despite being largely constrained to the US, it has built a commercially viable model and it has delivered a big return for investors via its IPO. Only Last.FM, Beatport and Beats Music can genuinely lay claim to having delivered big returns for their investors. There are many mitigating factors, but the unique licensing structure Pandora operates under is the single most important one. Do songwriters and labels feel that they’re getting short changed? Absolutely. But it is in the interest of every music industry stakeholder that the economics of digital music are structured in a way that enables standalone companies like Pandora, Spotify and Deezer to thrive. Otherwise there can be no complaints when the only options left on the table are companies like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google whose interest in music all stems from trying to sell something else. That’s when artists and songwriters are really at risk.

Pandora Buys Rdio To Become A Global Streaming Powerhouse

 

pandora rdioPandora today announced that it was acquiring the assets of now failed subscription service Rdio.  While the whispers about Rdio’s future had been building for some time, the deal is more interesting for what it says about Pandora’s plans than what it says about the state of the subscription business.

 

Rdio Battled Bravely And Set Innovation Standards But Fell Short

For what Rdio lacked in subscriber numbers it made up for in innovation.  It continually set product and feature precedents that Spotify and others subsequently aped, and its $75 million dollar ad inventory deal with US radio giant Cumulus sets a business model blueprint that other streaming services will follow. But for all its efforts and extensive marketing efforts Rdio was simply not able to get to the same sort of level as Spotify’s 2nd tier competitors, let alone to seriously challenge Spotify itself.  The music subscription business is not a winner-takes-all market.  But it is one in which some degree of meaningful scale is required to trigger the telco partnerships and brand advertiser deals that are necessary to achieve sustainability.  Eventually a company transitions from ‘bright new hope with potential’ to an ‘also ran that isn’t ever going to make it’.  Once that imperceptible line of market perception has been crossed it is only a matter of time before the end comes.

Pandora Will Use Rdio’s Assets To Go Global

Crucially Pandora is not acquiring Rdio as a going concern but only its assets, which won’t include licenses (as they have to be renegotiated when a music service changes corporate hands).  What those assets represent, or at least the bits that matter to Pandora, are teams, product and tech, licensing know how and an international footprint.  That last bit is particularly pertinent.  Rdio’s 100 markets contrasts sharply with Pandora’s 3 (US, Australia and New Zealand).  Indeed Pandora CEO Brian McAndrews stated “We seek to be the definitive music source for music discovery and enjoyment globally”.  While 100 markets is probably a step too far for Pandora, expect a healthy selection of top tier and emerging markets to feature in Pandora’s roadmap.  And if you’re eager to identify which ones, just take a look at the bigger radio markets globally (Japan possibly excepted).

Pandora’s Success Is Built On Lean Back Not Lean Forward

Pandora’s success is firmly rooted in delivering a high quality, lean back experiences to largely mainstream audiences.  That’s how it reaches 78 million monthly listeners, more than a quarter of US adults.  That positioning has served Pandora well and made it one of the few success stories of digital music.  In fact, other than Beatport and Last.FM, it is one of the very few music start ups that had an exist that considered to be a true financial success. Crucial to that success has been the fact Pandora has operated under statutory licenses for semi-interactive radio, which leaves it with dramatically higher (potential) operating margins than on demand services.  Which begs the question, just why is Pandora getting into the subscription business?

This Is The Latest Part Of A Major Strategic Pivot

The answer is that it forms part of a much bigger, much bolder plan.  Pandora has spent the last couple of years quietly amassing the assets that will transform it into a music platform super power.  In 2015 it acquired music data company Next Big Sound (c.$50 million), then came ticketing company Ticketfly in October ($450 million) and now Rdio ($75 million).  The combined $0.6 billion is a truly sizeable investment in a streaming-centred business model by anyone’s standards.  It also accompanies a concerted and costly investment in Pandora’s regional ad sales teams across the US to compete on a level footing with traditional radio’s sales teams.  Couple all that with November announcements to become the exclusive streaming outlet for popular podcast series ‘Serial’ and the landmark direct deal with Sony/ATV Publishing and a picture of something truly ambitious starts to emerge.

Pandora was fortunate to be able to IPO at a time when public offerings were still a highly viable option for digital start ups.  Spotify and Deezer (which just cancelled its IPO) will look on with no little jealousy at the power that a market capitalisation of nearly $3 billion gives you.  Now it is using this financial firepower to take the next step on its streaming journey.  Whatever that will prove to be, expect it to be a platform in its truest sense, rather than simply a streaming service with a few loosely attached ‘alternative revenue’ models, which is a mistake some of the subscription incumbents have made thus far.

Discovery Doesn’t Lead Anywhere Anymore, At Least Not To Sales

Pandora may aspire to be the definitive source of ‘music discovery’ but streaming discovery is becoming streaming consumption.  i.e. it is increasingly not leading to sales.  Live music sales is one alternative way to make money from ‘discovery’ but if ‘free music to sell tickets’ is Pandora’s end game then some difficult conversations with songwriters (who of course often don’t play live) will need to be had.

Pandora has just thrown its hat into the ring as a top tier player in the global streaming business.  By some measures you could say it is poised to become the biggest.  McAndrews left no room for doubt by stating “We plan to substantially broaden our subscription business.”  But in doing so Pandora will have to look itself in the mirror and ask itself “what am I now?”.