Spotify Q4 2018: Solid Growth With a Hint of Profitability But Longer Term Questions

Spotify finished 2018 strongly, overperforming in both subscriber and ad supported MAU additions. This was accompanied by Spotify’s first ever profitable quarter and two major podcast acquisitions early in 2019 hinting at a positive year ahead. However, at the same time premium ARPU continues a long term decline – the price Spotify is paying for maintaining global subscriber market share.

spotify 2018 earnings midia research

Spotify hit just over 96 million subscribers which was an increase of 36% from 71 million in Q4 17. The addition of nine million net new subscribers in Q4 18 was the same amount of subscribers added one year previously. However, while the Q4 17 increase represented 15% growth in Q4 18 the rate was 10%. Relative growth is slowing as the market matures.

Spotify is growing its subscriber base markedly more quickly than it is growing its premium revenue, resulting in declining ARPU. Although subscribers hit 96 million at the end of 2018, premium ARPU declined from €6.20 in 2016 to €4.81 in 2018, a fall of 22%. Over the same period ad supported ARPU followed a mirror opposite trend, growing +22% from €0.96 to €1.17. Spotify routinely explains in its earnings that trials and family plan adoption are driving down ARPU. However, this is not a secular trend but instead a Spotify trend. In retail terms, global music subscriber ARPU actually grew 3.5%. Spotify slightly increased its global subscriber market share in 2018, up to 36.2% from 35.8% in 2017, but it is clearly having to aggressively discount pricing to do so.

Subscriber ARPU continues a downward trend

While ad supported ARPU was up, ad supported revenue grew more slowly in 2018 than 2017 so the increased ARPU is in part a result of users growing more slowly than monetisation. While this is the right balance commercially, Spotify also needs to grow ad revenue more strongly. 

Takeaway: Spotify is maintaining subscriber market share through price discounts while ad ARPU growth owes more to slower ad supported user growth than it does monetisation.

Churn up on an annual basis

Following a peak of 5.8% in Q2 18, Spotify brought quarterly churn rates down, first to 5.6% in Q3 18 and then 5.3% in Q4 18. However, the cumulative impact of churn throughout the year was an annual churn rate of 19.8%, up from 18.1% in 2017. This in part reflects the effectiveness of promotional trials. These trials open the funnel to new subscribers and have strong conversion rates, but because paid trialists are counted in Spotify’s subscriber numbers, any that do not convert become churned subscribers.

Takeaway: Spotify is having to spread its net wider to maintain subscriber growth. 

Profitability has arrived but investment is needed for long term growth

Spotify closed off 2018 in style, adding higher than expected numbers of both subscribers and ad supported users. Also, profitability is on the horizon – Spotify generated a quarterly net operating profit of €94 million in Q4 18 compared to a quarterly loss of €87 one year previously. Spotify is demonstrating that its business can operate profitably even without flicking the switch on new revenue streams, albeit at a modest level. 

Longer term revenue growth will be dependent on a two pronged approach of accelerating subscriber growth in big music markets that are later entrants to streaming – Germany and Japan – while continuing growth in large mid-tier markets like Brazil and Mexico. It also needs to continue its investment in ad infrastructure. Ad revenue is not growing fast enough, nor is Average Advertising Revenue Per User (AARPU), up just $0.15 in Q4 18 compared to Q4 17. This is an increase of just 3% compared to the 26% growth in ad supported MAUs. Spotify understands the importance of building its ad supported business and is investing heavily in ad technology and sales infrastructure. This needs to continue. But it will look to big radio markets  (e.g. the US, Australia and the UK) to drive mid-term growth, not emerging markets as those territories do not have strong enough digital ad markets. So expect AARPU to be hit as free user bases grow in emerging markets.

Takeaway: All in all, a solid quarter for Spotify but with enough softening metrics to suggest that 2019 growth will require more effort than in 2018.

NOTE: these findings form a small portion of MIDiA Spotify Q4 Earnings Report which will be available to MIDiA subscribers next week

Soon to be the Biggest Ever YouTube Channel, T-Series May Also Be About to Reshape Global Culture

pewdiepie tseries

Some time over the next month or so a YouTube landmark will be passed: T-Series will pass PewDiePie as the most subscribed YouTube channel on the planet. As of time of writing T-Series had 75.4 million subscribers compared to PewDiePie’s 76.4 million. (PewDiePie’s lead was narrower but he has mobilised his fan base to delay the inevitable.) But do not mistake this milestone to be a narrow measure of the shifting sands of the YouTube economy. Indeed, it tells us more about the future of streaming as a whole (both music and video) than it does the current status of sweary Swedish gamers.

For those of you who somehow do not yet know who T-Seriesis, it is a leading Indian music label and movie studio – it in fact claims to be ‘the biggest – that is the world’s largest YouTube music channel and before long it will likely be able to drop the ‘music’ qualifier from that title. It is also the label that Spotify just struck a deal with as it preps its protracted launch into India.

A streaming market of contradictions

India is a problematic market for streaming monetization. It has 1.4 billion consumers but just 330 million of those have smartphones. There were 215 million free streaming users in 2018 but just 1 million paid subscribers despite leading indigenous players like Hungama and Saavn having been in market for years. Total streaming revenue was just $130 million in 2017 generating a combined annual ARPU of $0.27. And that number is heavily boosted by unrecouped Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs) due to local streaming services continually failing to meet their projected subscriber numbers (though according to local accounts, perfectly happy to continue to effectively overpay for their streaming royalties). The video side of streaming is more robust with eight million subscribers generating more than three times more revenue than music streaming does. Even still, eight million subscribers is scant return against a base of 330 million smartphone users.

Streaming unlocks the potential of emerging markets

India is exactly the sort of market that streaming business models have the potential to unlock. The old world was defined by commerce, by people paying to own music or for hefty household TV subscriptions that inherently meant owning a TV set. As a direct consequence, the traditional music and TV markets skewed towards western markets with higher levels of disposable income. This was a massive missed opportunity and one that can now be fixed. As Mexico and Brazil are currently in the process of showing us, populations with strong cultural heritage and large, but lower income, populations can have massive impact. Like or loathe Reggaeton, its ability to permeate the global music marketplace is testament to the power of Latin American music fans and the artists they support, as is Colombian J Balvin’s current status as the most streamed artist on Spotify.

The growing influence of second tier markets

Streaming can monetize scale in a way the old model simply could not. What we will see over the coming decades is a steady realignment of the balance of power across the global music and video markets. Western markets – and a handful of others such as Japan – will continue dominate revenues due to a combination of higher subscription penetration and higher subscriber ARPU. But large population, 2ndtier markets will have a growing influence. The BRIC markets (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are obvious candidates but also Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria, Egypt, Turkey and Thailand all have similar potential.

Large, engaged local audiences can shape global trends

One of the key reasons Latin American artists have become part of the global cultural zeitgeist is that Spotify has a big regional user base – 42 million MAUs as of Q3 18. Because record labels over-prioritise Spotify in terms of marketing and trend spotting, when Latin American artists started blowing up, European and North American labels started paying extra close attention and building up their own rosters of Latin American artists. Latin American users represent 22% of global Spotify MAUs but their influence is amplified by the fact that they stream a lot and they tend to stream individual tracks repeatedly. So, when they put their support behind something it blows up, edging into the global charts which then triggers a whole bunch of actions that see that track being fed into non-Latin playlists and user recommendations, which can then trigger a further escalation of playlist strategy. And so forth. This was Luis Fonsi’s path to global stardom.

Could India ‘do a Mexico’?

So the obvious question is, if T-Series had enjoyed the same sort of success on Spotify that it did on YouTube, would Guru Randhawa be topping Spotify’s global artists instead of J Balvin? Would we be finding Bhangra in every sonic nook and cranny instead of Reggaeton? The answer is – as certain as a counter factual claim can ever be – almost certainly yes. Whereas Latin American emigres are a major demographic in the US, they are less so elsewhere. Also, Latin American culture is divided between Spanish and Portuguese. The Indian diaspora however, is far more global, with large populations in the US, Canada and UK. What is more, though India has many indigenous languages, English is spoken nationally, with many artists releasing in English. Similarly, a growing number of Bollywood movies are being made in English with an eye on the global market.

So when Spotify finally launches in India, expect a series of global cultural aftershocks. Spotify is unlikely to covert that many premium subscribers – except via telco bundles – but it is likely to build a big free user base. And when that happens expect T-Series to take centre stage with Guru Randhawato be the most streamed artist globally by 2020…?

Can Spotify Ever Meet Investors’ Expectations?

Spotify just posted another solid set of results, adding four million subscribers and beating profit and revenue estimates, yet its share price fell. What’s going on? Spotify is on track for where it should be, slightly below, but on track. Before Spotify went public MIDiA laid out three growth scenarios (low, mid, high). Our mid forecast put Spotify at 87.8 million subscribers for Q3 2018, it reported 87 million. So, Spotify is pretty much exactly where it should be. It’s not exceeding expectations, nor missing them, but is plotting a strong, solid course, all the while improving operational metrics such as churn and profitability. Yet still, this is not enough for investors. The reason is simple: misaligned expectations.

Investors want more

Spotify has pretty much had this problem all year, delivering good, steady growth that is good enough for the music industry, but isn’t good enough for investors. Record labels measured Spotify’s success relative to the performance of their revenues, which were coming out of a tailspin. Investors have a higher bar for success. They want faster growth, profitability (never really a label priority – it was Spotify’s problem to fix) and market disruption. Spotify is building its business at a decent rate that meets / exceeds music industry expectations, but not investor expectations. It is also laying the foundations for future self-sufficiency (artists direct, podcast etc.) but investors want more, now.

Tech stocks are the benchmark

The problem with going public as music company is that your investors are not music specialists; most aren’t even media specialists. Consequently, they don’t have the same situational industry expertise that music industry specialists have. They don’t get bogged down with the minutiae of collection society reciprocal agreements, mechanical rights, label marketing strategies, publisher concerns or artist contracts. They can’t. Music is too small a part of an institutional investor’s portfolio to commit the time required to truly understand what is a very complex industry. So instead they look at the big picture and benchmark against Netflix and other tech stocks.

I remember a comment Pandora’s founder Tim Westergren made to me on a panel last year, to the effect that Spotify better be careful what it wished for by going public. Tim learned first-hand that investors didn’t have the appetite to understand the nuances that shaped his business and eventually he paid the ultimate price, foisted out of his own company.

Game changer or industry ally?

In music industry terms Spotify is doing a great job, in tech stock terms, less so. Either it has to start performing even more strongly – no easy task in a maturing market – or it has to start talking up the disruption angle. Tech investors like backing game changers, betting big on something that is going to change the world. In the way that Facebook, Google, Netflix, Amazon (and for a while, Snapchat) did. Thus far Daniel Ek has trodden a difficult middle ground, remaining the firm ally of the music industry but also promising disruptive change. If the stock continues to underperform, he and his exec team might just be forced to start talking up disruption. At that stage it will be gamble time, because Spotify will be swapping allegiances that could make or break the business.

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

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

In search of market share

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

1 – Direct indie label deals

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

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

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

2 – More artists direct

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

3 – Library music

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

4 – Top 20 artists

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

spotify streaming repertoire shares midia research

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

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

Prisoners’ Dilemma

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

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

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

Spotify, DistroKid and the Two Sided Marketplace

distrokid spotify

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

Bringing efficiencies into the supply chain

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

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

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

Treading a subtler path

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

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

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

 

Spotify’s Tencent Risk

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

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

Still waiting for IPO metrics

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

Go west

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

Ring fencing Spotify’s global reach 

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

Spotify tencent risk 1

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

Spotify tencent risk 2

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

Mid-Year 2018 Streaming Market Shares

Music subscribers grew by 16% in the first half of 2018 to reach 229.5 million, up from 198.6 million at the end of 2017. Year-on-year the global subscriber base increased by 38%, adding 62.8 million subscribers. This represents strong but sustained, rather than strongly accelerating, growth: 60.8 million net new subscribers were added between H1 2016 and H1 2017. This indicates that subscriber growth remains on the faster-growth midpoint of the S-curve. MIDiA maintains its viewpoint that this growth phase will last through the remainder of 2018 and likely until mid-2019.

midia mid year 2018 subscriber mareket shares

This will be the stage at which the early-follower segments will be tapped out in developed markets. Thereafter, growth will be driven by mid-tier streaming markets such as Japan, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, and Russia. These markets have the potential to drive strong subscriber growth, but, in the case of the latter three, will require aggressive pursuit of mid- tier products – including cut-price prepay telco bundles, as seen in Brazil. Without this approach, the opportunity will be constrained to the affluent, urban elites that have post-pay data plans and credit cards. These sorts of products though, will of course deliver lower ARPU in already lower ARPU markets. All of this means: expect revenue to grow more slowly than subscribers from mid 2019.

The key service-level trends were:

  • Spotify:Spotify once again maintained global market share of 36%, the same as in Q4 2017, with 83 million subscribers. Spotify has either gained or maintained market share every six months since Q4 2016. Spotify added more subscribers than any other service in H1 2018 – 11.9, which was 39% of all net new subscribers across the globe in the period.
  • Apple Music:Apple added two points of market share, up to 19%, and up three points year-on-year, with 43.5 million subscribers. Apple Music added the second highest number of subscribers – 9.2 million, with the US being the key growth market.
  • Amazon:Across Prime Music and Music Unlimited Amazon added just under half a point of market share, stable at 12%. Amazon experienced the most growth within its Unlimited tier, adding 3.3 million to reach 9.5 million in H2 2018. In total Amazon had 27.9 million subscribers at the end of the period.
  • Others:There were mixed fortunes among the rest of the pack. In Japan, Line Music experienced solid quarterly growth to reach one million subscribers, while in South Korea MelOn had a dip in Q1 but recovered in Q2 to finish slightly above its Q4 2017 figure. Elsewhere, Pandora had a solid six months, adding 0.5 million subscribers, while Google performed strongly on a global basis

The mid-term report card for the music subscriptions market in 2018 is strong, sustained growth with a similar second half of the year to come.

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

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

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

Where we are now

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

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

Next week: where these trends will go.

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

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

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

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

Savvy switchers – Netflix’s churn problem

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

Content spend: uncapped versus fixed

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

This is why Netflix has had to take on successive amounts of debt – accruing to $9.7 billion since 2013. Servicing this debt cost Netflix $318.8 million for the 12 months to Q2 2018, one year earlier the cost was $181.4 million. For the 12 months to Q2 2018, Netflix’s streaming content liabilities were $10.8 billion, representing 80% of streaming revenues, which compares favourably with Spotify’s 78%. One year earlier, those liabilities for Netflix were $9.6 billion, representing a whopping 99% of streaming revenues. The reason Netflix can do this and generate a net margin is that it amortises the costs of its originals (essentially offsetting some of its tax bill). For the 12 months to Q2 2018 Netflix amortised 64% of its content liabilities, one year earlier that share was 57%, reflecting originals being a larger share of content spend during 12 months to Q2 2018. The more originals Netflix makes, the more it can increase its margin. Which creates the intriguing dynamic of the US Treasury subsidising Netflix’s business model. Welcome to the next generation of state funded broadcaster!

Q2 will tell

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

Spotify’s New Rules of Engagement

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

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

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

 

A rabbit out of the hat

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

Untitled

Investors want the new world now

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

Spotify needs to speak boldly but act responsibly

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