Spotify D(PO)-Day

downloadArguably the most anticipated day in the history of digital music is upon us. By the end of it we will have the first hint at whether Spotify is going to fall at the Snap Inc. or Facebook end of the spectrum of promising tech IPO, or DPO in the case of Spotify. Of course, we’ll need a few quarters’ worth of earnings in place before firmer conclusions can be drawn as to the strength of Spotify as a publicly traded company, but the first 24 hours will lay down some markers. However, it is the mid and long-term market factors that will give us the best sense of where Spotify can get to. Here are a few pieces of pertinent market context that can help us understand where Spotify is heading:

  • Streaming is just getting going: Downloads are yesterday’s legacy market, streaming is the future. But streaming has a long way yet to go. To date, downloads have generated around $35 billion in revenue for labels since the market started. That compares to around $15 billion for subscriptions. Apple accounted for around $23 billion of that download revenue, Spotify accounted for around $5 billion of that subscription revenue.
  • Spotify retains leadership: While the streaming market is competitive, Spotify has retained around 36% subscriber market share. However fast the market has grown, Spotify has either matched or beaten it. Apple is growing fast too but is adding fewer net new subscribers per quarter than Spotify is. Fast forward 12 months from now, Spotify will still be the number one player. Fast forward 24 months, it will probably still be.
  • Tech majors want the same thing: Of all the big streaming services, only Spotify is truly independent. Apple Music – Apple, Amazon Prime Music – Amazon, YouTube – Google, QQ Music – Tencent, Deezer – Access Industries, MelON – Kakao Corp, and now, Facebook) all have parent companies that have ulterior business objectives with music streaming. None of them have to seriously worry about streaming generating an operating profit. This means that there is little pressure in the marketplace to drive down label rights costs. All of this means that Spotify is the only main streaming service that is trying to make the model commercially sustainable.
  • Spotify can’t be Netflix yet: 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 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. In the near-term Spotify will happily have record labels sign artists that bubble up on the platform. But over time, expect Spotify to start competing for some signings.
  • Unpicking the distribution lock: The major record labels represent around 80% of recorded music revenues globally on a distribution basis, but just 61% on a copyright ownership basis. They get the extra market share through the distribution they provide indies, either directly or via divisions like Sony’s The Orchard or WMG’s ADA. The 80% share gives the majors the equivalent of a UN Security Council veto. Nothing gets through without their approval, which acts as a brake on Spotify’s ambitions. But, if Spotify was to persuade large numbers of those indies distributing through majors to deal direct, then some of that major power will be unpicked, which, combined with increased revenue, subscribers and market share, would strengthen Spotify’s hand.

Right now, Spotify has soft power (playlist curation, user-level data, subscriber relationships etc.). Spotify’s long-term future will depend on it building out its hard power and bringing it to bear in a way that brings positives both for it and for its industry partners. That will be a tightrope act of the highest order.

If you want the inside track on Spotify’s metrics, get access to MIDiA’s latest report:

Spotify by the Numbers: Trials, Churn and Margin which is available to purchase on MIDiA’s report store and to MIDiA clients via our subscription service.

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The Spotify Numbers You Won’t Have Seen

One of the core values that we deliver to our clients at MIDiA Research is finding the ‘third number’— the data point that wasn’t reported by a company but that can be arrived at through a process of modelling and triangulation. Next week, we will publish a report that does just this for the numbers presented in Spotify’s F1 filing. The metrics we arrive at help create a more complete picture of Spotify’s performance for investors and rights holders, as well as the impact of core metrics upon other parts of Spotify’s business. In advance of its publication, here are just a few highlights.

spotify metrics

Spotify’s F1 filing paints a picture of a growing business that is improving metrics across the board, with the foundations for a solid couple of years ahead now well built. But there are also a number of challenges:

  • User growth: Spotify experienced strong growth between Q4 2015 and Q4 2017, increasing its subscriber base from 28 million to 71 million, its ad supported users from 64 million to 92 million and its total monthly active users (MAUs) from 91 million to 159 million. Set in the longer-term context, Spotify’s subscriber growth trajectory indicates it is well up the growth curve, with 2014 representing the earlier growth phase and Q1 2015 the point at which the inflection point occurred. Since Apple Music entered the market in mid 2015, Spotify has seen growth actually increase, and over the period added more net new subscribers by the end of 2017 (49 million) than Apple Music did (34 million).
  • Streams up, but inactive subscribers also: Engagement is growing, with subscribers playing an average of 630 streams a month in 2017 compared to 438 in 2015. Over the same period ad supported users increased average monthly streams from 119 to 222. The net result was 195.4 billion streams in 2017 compared to 59.6 billion in 2015. However, inactive subscribers (i.e. subscribers plus ad supported users minus MAU) grew from one million in Q1 2016 to four million in Q4 2017. Though this is a long way off the ‘zombie users’ problem that Deezer has historically suffered from due to inactive telco bundles, it is a metric Spotify will need to keep on top of.
  • Churn down…: Throughout 2016 and 2017 Spotify progressively reduced its churn rate from 6.9% for Q1 2016 to 5.7% in Q4 2017. This is despite churn being pushed up by the super trials and thus reflects a solid improvement of organic retention across Spotify’s paid user base. In a March investor presentation, CFO Barry McCarthy argued that as Spotify’s subscriber base matures, life time value (LTV) and gross profit will increase, with more subscribers sticking around for longer.
  • …but not out: Despite quarterly falls, churn remains a core issue while Spotify is in growth phase and is acquiring portions of subscribers who try out the service but realise it is not for them. On an annual basis churn 18% in 2017, down from 18.5% in 2016. These lost subscribers totalled 12.8 million in 2017, up from 8.9 million one year earlier. Spotify added 23 million subscribers to its year-end total in 2017 but, including churned out subscriber the total subscribers gained was 35.8 million. Thus, churned subscribers accounted for 36% of all subscribers gained. This process of getting more subscribers in than out is common to all premium subscription businesses and is particularly pronounced when a service is in growth phase, as is the case with Spotify. It is even more pronounced in contract-free subscriptions. Pay-TV and mobile companies have the benefit of long-term contracts to minimise churn. The fact that Spotify reports churn at all is creditable. McCarthy’s old company Netflix got so fed up with investors’ reactions to churn that it stopped reporting it all together.
  • Super trials: Spotify’s subscriber growth has not however been linear. Heavily discounted trials offering three-month subscriptions for $1 have been pivotal in driving strong user growth spikes each quarter in which they run. On average, Spotify’s global subscriber base grew by a net total of 2.8 million each quarter between Q4 2015 and Q4 2017 in the quarters that these ‘super trials’ were not running, but by 7.5 million in the quarters that they did.
  • Non-linear growth affects all regions: In 2016 and 2017, Spotify’s European and North American subscriber bases each grew at an average of one million subscribers in quarters without trials and three million and two million respectively in quarters with them. Thus, Spotify’s organic net monthly subscriber growth in each of these regions was around 330,000. A similar trend appeared in Latin America – where net subscriber growth doubled in each trial quarter from one to two million. The impact is more dramatic in rest of world, where rounded net subscriber growth was flat in all quarters without trials and more than one million in quarters with.

Despite the joint effects of subscriber bill shock and reduced margins, super trials are clearly net positive for Spotify’s business. When it later decides to fade them out in more mature markets – namely when it switches from user acquisition to user retention mode – Spotify will be able to quickly improve both margin and retention.

Barring calamity, Spotify looks set to have a strong 2018 in terms of growth across subscriptions, MAUs and revenue. If it continues its current operating strategy Spotify should reach 93 million subscribers by the end of 2018. By comparison, Apple Music is likely to have hit around 56 million subscribers by Q4 2018, with its rate of net new monthly subscribers having increased to 2 million in 2018.

If you are not yet a MIDiA subscription client and would like to find out how to get a copy of the forthcoming seven-slide report and accompanying dataset, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

The Narrative Of Spotify’s Filing Is That The Best Is Yet To Come

Spotify just filed its F1 for its DPO. The most anticipated business event in the recorded music industry since, well…as long as most can remember, is one big step closer. The filing is a treasure trove of data and metrics, and while there won’t be too many surprises to anyone who follows the company closely, there are none the less a lot of very interesting findings and themes. The full filing can be found here. Here are some of the key points of interest:

  • Most of the numbers are heading in the right direction: MAUs, subscribers, hours spent etc are all going up while churn and cost ratios are heading down. Premium ARPU was an exception, declining: 2015 – €7.06 / 2016 – €6.00 / 2017 €5.24, which reflects pricing promotions. But Spotify was never going to have fixed every aspect of its business in time for its listing, that was never the point. What Spotify needs to convince potential shareholders is that it is heading in the right direction. The narrative that emerges here is of a company that has helped create an entire marketplace, that has made great ground so far and that is poised for even bigger and better things. That narrative and the clear momentum should be enough to see Spotify through. As I’ve previously noted, investor demand currently exceeds supply. If you are a big institutional investor wanting to get into music, there are few options. Pandora aside, this is pretty much the only big music tech stock in town. As long as Spotify can keep these metrics heading in the right direction, it should have a much smoother first few quarters than Snap Inc did, even though a profit is unlikely to materialise in that time.
  • Spotify is baring its metrics soul: Spotify has put a lot of metrics on the line, setting the bar for future SEC filings. While competitor streaming services will be busy plugging the numbers into Excel so they can compare with their own, the rest of the marketplace now has a much clearer sense of what running a streaming service entails. One really encouraging development is Spotify’s introduction of Daily Active User (DAU) metrics. As we have long argued at MIDiA, monthly numbers are an anachronism in the digital era, a measure of reach not engagement. So, Spotify is to be applauded for being the first major streaming service to start showing true engagement metrics.
  • Users and engagement are lifting: Spotify had 159 million MAUs in 2017, with 71 million paid and 92 million ad supported. Europe was the biggest region (58 million total MAUs) followed by North America (52 million), Latin America (33 million) and Rest of Word (17 million). The latter two are the fastest growing regions. Meanwhile, 44% of MAUs are DAUs, up from 37% in Q1 2015, which shows that users are becoming more engaged, though the shape of the curve (see chart below) shows that when swathes of new users are on-boarded, engagement can be dented. Consumption is also growing (a sign of both user growth and increased engagement): quarterly content hours went from 17.4 billion in 2015 to 40.3 billion in 2017. There are some oddities too. For example, ad supported MAUs actually declined in Q2 2017 by 1 million on Q1 2017 and in Q4 2017 only increased by 1 million on the previous quarter to reach 92 million.
  • The future of radio: Spotify puts a big focus on spoken word content and podcasts in the filing, as it does on advertiser products. It also lists radio companies first and subscription companies second as its key competitors. Meanwhile ad supported flicked into generating a gross profit in 2017 (ad supported went from -12% gross margin in 2016 to 10% in 2017. Premium gross margin up from 16% to 22% over same period.) As MIDiA predicted last year, free is going to be a big focus of Spotify in 2018 and beyond. The first chapter of Spotify’s story was about becoming the future of retail. The next will be about becoming the future of radio. And the increased focus on spoken word is not only about stealing radio’s clothes, it is about creating higher margin content than music. None of this is to say that Spotify will necessarily execute well, but this is the strategy nonetheless.
  • Spotify is still losing money but is trending in the right direction: Spotify’s cost of revenue in 2017 was €3,241 million against revenue of €4,090 with an operating loss of €378 million. However, losses are not growing much (€336 in 2016) and financing its debt added a whopping €974 million in 2017, from €336 million in 2016. Part of the purpose of the DPO is to ensure debt holders, investors and of course founders and employees get to see a return of their respective investments in money and blood, sweat and tears. Once that is done, financing costs will normalize. Also, Spotify’s new label licensing deals are kicking in, with costs of revenue as a share of premium revenue falling from 84% in 2016 to 78% in 2017. Spotify is not yet profitable but it is getting its house in order.

All in all, there is enough in this filing to both convince potential investors to make the bet while also providing enough fodder for critics to throw doubt on the commercial sustainability of streaming. Spotify’s structural challenge is that none of the other big streaming services have to worry about turning a profit. In fact, it is in their collective interest to keep market costs high to make it harder for their number one competitor to prosper.

But in the realms of what Spotify can impact itself, the overriding trend in this filing is that Spotify is well and truly on the right track. For now, and the next 9 months or so, Spotify will likely remain the darling of the sector. But after that, investors will start wanting a lot more if they are going to keep holding the stock. Spotify is promising that the best days are yet to come. Now it needs to deliver.

spotify f1 a

spotify f1 b

Just What Is Tencent Up To With Streaming?

Tencent is building a global streaming empire. Back in December 2017 Tencent Music did a 10% equity swap deal with Spotify and now it has led a $115 million investment round for India-based streaming service Gaana. India may only be a small subscription market, with just 1.1 million paid subscribers at the end of 2016, but it one dominated by local players and has massive free streaming potential. Tencent now has major streaming stakes that give it reach across Asia, Europe and the Americas. The key missing parts are the Middle East and North Africa (Anghami is probably waiting for the phone to ring). Right now, Tencent has a streaming foothold in the world’s three largest countries:

  1. China: population 1.4 billion. 100% ownership of QQ Music, Kugou and Kuwo which together account for 70% of subscribers
  2. India: population 1.3 billion. Undisclosed ownership of top three streaming service Gaana
  3. US: 330 million. 10% ownership of leading subscription service

What Tencent is doing is building a global network of strategic positions in the streaming market that individually might not have global influence, but, collectively could be brought to bear to in an impactful way. Much like John Malone’s Liberty Media, Tencent is taking minority stakes in a strategically selected portfolio of companies. This provides it with the ability to exert some degree of influence and extract some benefit without the risk and resource required for a majority ownership. Minority stakes can also be used as beachheads for majority ownership further down the line.

In some respects, Tencent does not have a huge amount of choice in the matter. Last year the Chinese government placed restrictions on the amount Chinese companies could spend on overseas companies, in order to slow the outflow of capital from China. But, rather than let this be a hindrance Tencent is now using the policy to shape a bold internationalisation strategy. Coupled with other minority investments (12% in Snap Inc., 5% of Tesla) Tencent is positioning itself to be king maker in the future of digital media.

Joining the Dots: How Wixen’s Suit Impacts Spotify’s DPO

While many are still recovering from their festive exertions, Spotify hits the news twice –though for two very different reasons: the long-awaited confirmation of its DPO date and, less expected, a new lawsuit from a music publisher. While they’re totally different developments, their timing is not coincidental. (Note, Spotify is doing a Direct Public Offering (DPO) not an Initial Public Offering (IPO) as many outlets have mistakenly reported – though its SEC filing does mean it could still opt to do an IPO should it decide to).

Spotify has been talking about going public for years and many column inches have been expended on trying (and failing) to guess the date. The one bit that everyone got right was that Spotify could not afford to delay the move for much longer, because its debt was becoming increasingly expensive to service. Those debt costs were the main reason Spotify’s losses grew in 2016. I have written extensively about Spotify’s need to create a new narrative for Wall Street and how it will need to diversify its revenue base to drive profitability. But, it should have a fairly easy ride for its first 12 months—certainly easier than Snap Inc. has had. This is because demand far outstrips supply. The big institutional investors (investment banks, hedge funds, pension funds etc.) that now want a ‘position’ in the music business effectively only have Vivendi and Spotify as options (Sony Music is too small a portion of Sony Corp, while WMG is considered too small by bigger institutions).

Investor demand exceeds supply

The imbalance between supply and demand has been reflected in the grey market of private trading of Spotify stock. So, even if it has some weak earnings Spotify should hold onto much of its value, unless some big hedge funds decide to bet against Spotify, and decided to do so in a big way. In the longer term, if Spotify can execute well, three to five years from now we won’t be thinking of Spotify as a streaming company, but instead as a music platform. It will be a conduit for the plethora of music services and tools – ranging from data services, through e-commerce to services, that we currently largely identify with labels (artist promotion, label services, rights exploitation etc.). Streaming will generate more revenue than any of these, but all of these higher-margin revenue streams will help deliver Spotify profitability.

Wixen puts risk back on the table

Before its transmutation, Spotify has to make sure its DPO is a success and another hurdle just emerged: music publisher Wixen Music filed a lawsuit against Spotify for $1.6 billion. The background to the suit is complex and rooted in an effective loophole in US music publishing practice, which sees music services assume the right to stream songs rather than explicitly requesting it. The NMPA brokered a Spotify settlement for songwriters and publishers (following a David Lowery class action suit) and also helped shape a new piece of legislation aimed at closing the loophole, and crucially for Spotify, making it harder for publishers to file suit. Investors hate risk factors, and the double whammy threat of class action suits and uncapped statutory damages was a risk factor too far. This is why so much effort was put into creating a pragmatic solution that delivered results for all sides, in time for Spotify’s DPO. Only, Wixen doesn’t see things that way.

Wixen’s suit argues that the new legislation and the settlement do not provide enough in terms of compensation, guarantees nor safe guards. By filing before the legislation’s January 1 deadline, Wixen is hoping to be able to set new, improved terms for publishers. Whether the case has merit or not is almost inconsequential with regards to its potential impact on Spotify’s DPO. The mere presence of the suit could spook investors. In practice however, the sheer level of demand for Spotify stock is likely to win the day.

MIDiA Research Predictions 2018: Post-Peak Economics

With 2017 drawing to a close and 2018 on the horizon, it is time for MIDiA’s 2018 predictions.

But first, on how we did last year, our 2017 predictions had a 94% success rate. See bottom of this post for a run down.

Music

  • Post-catalogue – pressing reset on the recorded music business model: Revenues from catalogue sales have long underpinned the major record label model, representing the growth fund with which labels invested in future talent, often at a loss. Streaming consumption is changing this and we’ll see the first effects of lower catalogue in 2018. Smaller artist advances from bigger labels will follow.
  • Spotify will need new metrics: Up until now Spotify has been able to choose what metrics to report and pretty much when (annual financial reports aside). Once public, increased investor scrutiny on will see it focus on new metrics (APRU, Life Time Value etc) and concentrate more heavily on its free user numbers. 2018 will be the year that free streaming takes centre stage – watch out radio.
  • Apple will launch an Apple Music bundle for Home Pod: We’ve been burnt before predicting Apple Music hardware bundles, but Amazon has set the precedent and we think a $3.99 Home Pod Apple Music subscription (available annually) is on the cards. (Though we’re prepared to be burnt once again on this prediction!) 

Video

  • Savvy switchers – SVOD’s Achilles’ heel: Churn will become a big deal for leading video subscription services in 2018, with savvy users switching tactically to get access to the new shows they want. Of course, Netflix and co don’t report churn so the indicators will be slowing growth in many markets.
  • Subscriptions lose their stranglehold on streaming: 2018 will see the rise of new streaming offerings from traditional TV companies and new entrants that will deliver free-to-view, often ad-supported, on-demand streaming TV.

Media

  • Beyond the peak: We are nearing peak in the attention economy. 2018 will be the year casualties start to mount, as audience attention becomes a scarce commodity. Smart players will tap into ‘kinetic capital’ – the value users give to experiences that involve their context and location.
  • The rise of the new gate keepers part II: In 2018 Amazon and Facebook will pursue ever more ambitious strategies aimed at making them the leading next generation media companies, the conduits for the digital economy.

Games

  • The rise of the unaffiliated eSports: eSports leagues emulate the structure of traditional sports, but they may have missed the point. In 2018, we’ll see more eSports fans actually seeking games competition elsewhere, driving a surge in unaffiliated eSports.
  • Mobile games are the canary in the coal mine for peak attention: Mobile games will be the first big losers as we approach peak in the attention economy – there simply aren’t enough free hours left in the day. Mobile gaming activity is declining as mainstream consumers, who became mobile gamers to fill dead time, now have plenty of digital options that more closely match their needs. All media companies need to learn from mobile games’ experience.

Technology

  • The fall of tech major ROI: Growth will come less cheaply for the tech majors (Alphabet, Apple, Amazon, Facebook) in 2018. They will have to overspend to maintain revenue momentum so margins will be hit.
  • Regulation catches up with the tech majors: Each of the tech majors is a monopoly or monopsony in their respective markets, staying one step ahead of regulation but this will change. The EU’s forced unbundling of Windows Media Player in the early 2000s triggered the end of Microsoft’s digital dominance. 2018 could see the start of a Microsoft moment for at least one of the tech majors. 

2017 Predictions

For the record, here are some of our correct 2017 predictions:

  • Digital will finally account for more than 50% of revenue
  • Spotify will still be the leading subscription service
  • eSports to reach $1 billion
  • Streaming holdouts will trickle not flood
  • AR will have hype but not a killer device.
  • VR players will double down on content spend
  • Google doubles down on its hardware ecosystem plays
  • 2017 will not be the year of Peak TV
  • Original video content to arrive on messaging apps

Here are some that we got wrong or were inconclusive:

  • Tidal finally sells ($300 million stake from Softbank was a partial sale – full sale likely in 2018)
  • Apple will launch an Apple Music iPhone – didn’t happen but the Home Pod may be the bundled music device in 2018 (see below)
  • Spotify will be disrupted – it actually went from strength to strength with no meaningful new competitor, yet

Disney, Netflix and the Squeezed Middle: The Real Story Behind Net Neutrality

Unless you have been hiding under a rock this last couple of weeks you’ll have heard at least something about the build up to the decision over turning net neutrality in the US, a decision that was confirmed yesterday. See Zach Fuller’s post for a great summary of what it means. In highly simplistic terms, the implications are that telcos will be able to prioritize access to their networks, which could mean that any digital service will only be able to guarantee their US users a high quality of service if they broker a deal with each and every telco. As Zach explains, we could see similar moves in Europe and elsewhere. If you are a media company or a digital content provider your world just got turned upside down. But this ruling is in many ways an inevitable result of a fundamental shift in value across digital value chains.

net neutrality value chains

Although the ruling effectively only overturns a 2015 ruling that had previously guaranteeing net neutrality, the world has moved on a lot since then, not least with regards to the emergence of the streaming economy across video, music and games. In short, there is a lot more bandwidth being taken up by streaming services and little or no extra value reverting to the upgraded networks.

Value is shifting from rights to distribution

Although the exact timing with the Disney / Fox deal (see Tim Mulligan’s take here) was coincidental the broad timing was not. The last few years have seen a major shift in value from rights companies (eg Disney, Universal Music, EA Games) through to distribution companies (eg Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify) with the value shift largely bypassing the infrastructure companies (ie the telcos).

The accelerating revenue growth and valuations of the tech majors and the streaming giants have left media companies trailing in their wake. The Disney / Fox deal was two of the world’s biggest media companies realising that consolidation was the only way to even get on the same lap as the tech majors. They needed to do so because those tech majors are all either already or about to become content companies too, using their vast financial fire power to outbid traditional media companies for content.

The value shift has bypassed infrastructure companies

Meanwhile telcos have been left stranded between rock and a hard place. Telcos have long been concerned about becoming relegated to the role of dumb pipes and most had given up any real hope of being content companies themselves (other than the TV companies who also have telco divisions). They see regulatory support for better monetizing their networks by levying access fees to tech companies as their last resort.

In its most basic form, this regulatory decision will allow telcos to throttle the bandwidth available to streaming services either in favour of their favoured partners or until an access fee is paid. The common thought is that telcos are becoming the new gatekeepers. In most instances they are more likely to become toll booths. But in some instances they may well shy away from any semblance of neutrality. For example, Sprint might well decide that it wants to give its part-owned streaming service Tidal a leg up, and throttle access for Spotify and Apple Music for Sprint users. Eventually Spotify and Apple Music users will realise they either need to switch streaming service or mobile provider. Given that one is a need-to-have, contract-based utility and the other is nice-to-have and no contract and is fundamentally the same underlying proposition, a streaming music switch is the more likely option. Similarly, AT&T could opt to throttle access for Netflix in order to give its DirecTV Now service a leg up. Those telcos without strong content plays could find themselves in the market for acquisitions. For example, Verizon could make a bid for Spotify pre-listing, or even post-listing.

The FCC ruling still needs congressional approval and is subject to legal challenges from a bunch of states so it could yet be blocked. If it is not, then the above is how the world will look. Make no mistake, this is the biggest growing pain the streaming economy has yet faced, even if it just ends up with those services having to carve out an extra slice of their wafer-thin margins in order reach their customers.

Spotify, Tencent And The Laws Of Unintended Consequences

spotify tencent midia

News has emerged that Spotify and Tencent Holdings could be swapping 10% holdings in each other’s companies ahead of Spotify’s public listing. There are some obvious implications for both enterprises, as well as some less immediately obvious, but even more interesting permutations:

  • Spotify gets a foothold in China: Tencent is the leading music subscription company in China with QQ Music, Kugou and Kuwo accounting for 14.7 million subscribers in 2016. Apple Music has got a strong head start over Spotify with 3.5 million Chinese music subscribers. Tencent, with its billing relationships, social reach (WeChat, QQ Messenger) and rights holders relationships (Tencent sub-licenses label rights) provides a potential China launch pad for Spotify. So, the obvious implication is that Spotify could use Tencent as an entry point into the market. But this is where things get complicated. Tencent is planning a $10 billion flotation of Tencent Music. How would this valuation be impacted by Tencent aiding the entry of a direct competitor – which is a leader in virtually every market it is currently in, into the market of? A joint venture could be the way to square the circle.
  • Spotify continues its narrative building: As I have long argued, Spotify needs to construct a compelling narrative for Wall Street. It needs to be able to show that it is making strong progress on many of its weak points. Getting better deals from the labels was one such move. Now it has ticked the ‘what about China’ box too.
  • Tencent gets a foothold in the US: Earlier this year the Chinese government put in place restrictions on Chinese companies investing in overseas companies, in order to slow the outflow of Chinese capital. (It slowed a potential investment by Alibaba in UMG). Swapping equity is a way to get round this restriction. It also builds on Tencent’s move extending its stake in Snap to 12%. Tencent is pushing the rules to the limit in order to become a key player in US digital consumer businesses (Spotify of course will become, in part at least, a US company when public). The intriguing question is whether Tencent will get any access to Spotify’s western billing relationships.
  • Valuation disparities: Tencent Music has around a 3rd of Spotify’s subscriber base, a fraction of its revenue and half of its market valuation. Yet a 10% swap deal is on the table. Which suggests that Spotify really, really feels that it needs that entry point into China….

If this deal pans out the way it has been slated, it will potentially save Spotify and Tencent from a resource-draining clash of Titans for when (not if) Spotify would enter the Chinese market. It also provides Spotify with a potential long-term insurance asset. When Yahoo acquired a stake in Alibaba it was very much the senior partner. But, as Yahoo’s business imploded its Alibaba stake became its core asset.

Spotify obviously won’t be thinking that way but history shows us to never say never.

UPDATED: This post has been updated to reflect that the 10% equity swap is with Tencent  Music, not Tencent Holdings Ltd

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.