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.

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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.

Spotify’s Censorship Crisis is About Social Responsibility

Spotify has been forced into something of a rethink regarding its hate speech policy. Spotify announced it was removing music from playlists of artists that do not meet its new policy regarding hate speech and hateful behaviour. R.Kelly, who faces allegations of sexual abuseand XXXTentacion, who is charged with battering a pregnant woman, were two artists that found their music removed. Now Spotify is softening its stance following push back externally and internally, including from Troy Carter who made it known that he was willing to walk away from the company if the policy remained unchanged. Spotify had good intentions but did not execute well. However, this forms part of a much bigger issue of the changing of the guard of media’s gatekeepers.

Facebook has been here before

Back in late 2016, Facebook faced widespread criticism for censoring a historic photograph of the Vietnam warin which a traumatised child is shown running, naked, away from a US napalm attack. Facebook soon backed downbut it got to the heart of why the “we’re just a platform” argument from the world’s new media gatekeepers was no longer fit for purpose. Indeed by the end of the year, Zuckerberg had all but admitted that Facebook was now a media company.The gatekeepers might be changing from newspaper editors, radio DJs, music, film and TV critics and TV presenters, but they are still gatekeepers. And gatekeepers have a responsibility.

Social responsibility didn’t disappear with the internet

Part of the founding mythology of the internet was that the old rules don’t apply anymore. Some don’t, but many do. Responsibilities to society still exist. Platforms are never neutral. The code upon which they are built have the ideological and corporate DNA of their founders built into them – even if they are unconscious biases, though, normally, they are anything but unconscious. The new gatekeepers may rely on algorithms more than they do human editors, but they still fundamentally have an editorial role to play, as the whole Russian election meddling debacle highlighted. Whether they do so of their own volition or because of legislative intervention, tech companies with media influence have an editorial responsibility. Spotify’s censorship crisis is just one part of this emerging narrative.

Editorial, not censorship

As with all such debates, language can distort the debate. Indeed, the term ‘censorship’ conjures up images of Goebbels,but swap the term for ‘editorial decisions’ and the issue instantly assumes a different complexion. Spotify was trying to get ahead of the issue, showing it could police itself before there were calls for it to do so. Unfortunately, by making editorial decisions based upon accusations, Spotify made itself vulnerable to being accused of playing the role of judge and jury for artists who live in countries where innocence is presumed in legal process, not guilt. Also, by implementing on a piecemeal rather than exhaustive basis, it gave itself the appearance of selecting which artists’ misdemeanours were considered serious enough to take action upon. Spotify had the additional, highly sensitive, risk of appearing to be a largely white company deselecting largely black artists on playlists. Even if neither semblance was reflective of intent, the appearance of intent was incendiary.

Lyrics can be the decider

Now Spotify is having to rethink its approach. It would be as wrong for Spotify to opt for the ‘neutral platform’ approach as it would be ‘arbitrary censorship’. An editorial role is necessary. In just the same way radio broadcasters are expected to filter out hate speech, tech companies have a proactive role to play. A safer route for Spotify to follow, at least in the near term, would be to work with its Echo Nest division and a lyrics provider like LyricFind to build technology, moderated by humans, that can identify hate speech within lyrics and song titles. It wouldn’t be an easy task, but it would certainly be an invaluable one, and one that would give Spotify a clear moral leadership role. In today’s world of media industry misogyny and mass shootings, there is no place for songs that incite hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia or that glorify gun violence. Spotify can take the lead in ensuring that such songs do not get pushed to listeners, and thus start to break the cycle of hatred.

Is YouTube Serious About Music Subscriptions This Time Round?

In 2014 YouTube launched its inaugural music subscription service YouTube Music Keyin beta. The following year YouTube announced it was closing it ahead of the launch of YouTube Red, a multi-format subscription video on demand (SVOD) offering, of which music was going to be sub-component. Soon after Music Key’s launch I announced on stage at a Mixcloud Curates event that it would close within two years: and

I’m gonna put my cards on the table and say it [YouTube Music Key] won’t exist in 18-24 months after

Now YouTube is backfor another round at the table with the launch of YouTube Music.

In 2014 my Nostradamusmoment was less about being a psychic octopusthan it was simply a case of joining the strategic dots. YouTube is all about advertising. Advertisers pay most to reach the best consumers, who are also the ones most likely to pay for a subscription service, which is ad free. YouTube’s ad business is high margin and large scale. Its music subscription business is low margin and low scale. Hence, the more successful YouTube’s music subscription business is, the more harm it does to its core business and operating margins. The same principles apply today as they did four years ago.

So why bother at all? Because it has to keep the labels on side. Although the labels scored a lobbying own goal with their Facebook music deal, they are still applying pressure on YouTube for its safe harbour framework and the ‘value gap’. So if YouTube does not play ball on premium, it puts its core ad business at risk. And music is still the largest single source of YouTube’s ad revenue. Total YouTube ad revenue was $9.6 billion in 2017 – that is a revenue stream that parent company Alphabet cannot put at risk.

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When YouTube launched Music Key it used those negotiations to get better features for the free YouTube music offering, including full album playlists, which went live the day after the deal was announced and are still there now, even though Music Key is not. YouTube is no slouch when it comes to doing deals. This time however, YouTube Music will last longer. Here’s why:

  • This isn’t actually year zero:Google already has around five million Play Music subscribers and around the same number of YouTube Red subscribers. Red subscribers will become YouTube Premium subscribers, Play Music subscribers will get access to YouTube Music. So, inasmuch as YouTube is launching a cool new app with lots of new features, this is not Google entering the streaming fray, it is simply upping its game.
  • Spotify is making up ground:YouTube Music is not about to become the global leader in music subscriptions, for all the above stated reasons and more, but it can’t stand on the side lines either. Data from MIDiA’s Quarterly Brand Tracker shows that while YouTube is still the leading streaming music app in weekly active user (WAU) terms, Spotify is making up ground. Crucially, Spotify is now more widely used (for music) among 16–19 year olds. And Spotify is betting big on ad-supported, largely because it has finally persuaded the labels and publishers to amend its deals to allow it to, evidenced by the fact that Q1 2018 ad-supported gross margin increased dramatically from -18% to 13% in Q1 2017. YouTube Music is in part a defensive play to ensure it has an enriched offering for thoseconsumers, both now as free users, and for when they want to pay.
  • YouTube is the best featured music service: One of the great ironies of the recorded music industry’s relationship with YouTube is that because it doesn’t have to negotiate deals in the way other services to, it now has the best featured music service. Streaming and social have risen in tandem, but only YouTube has fully embraced this with comments, likes / dislikes, mash ups, user cover versions, parodies, unofficial remixes etc. And all of these features are front and centre in the new service. Spotify and co can’t get that sort of content because the labels can’t license it. Moreover, labels don’t like users being able to thumb down their songs or comment negatively on them. This launch enables YouTube to shout from the roof top about what it has and, by inference, what Spotify does not.
  • Testing:YouTube Music is being rolled out in the same markets as YouTube Red was (US, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and South Korea). This slightly eclectic mix of markets represent a test base; a wide range of varied markets that will provide diverse user data to enable YouTube to model what global adoption will look like.
  • Upping the ad load: YouTube’s global head of music Lyor Cohen has nailed his colours firmly to the subscription mast. Although Cohen may not be up high in the Alphabet hierarchy he is a strong voice in YouTube’s music business. It also serves Alphabet well to have this particular voice with that sort of message at the forefront. Cohen has gone on record stating that YouTube will up its ad load to force more users to paid, and it is happening, but it is not just a music thing. Ad loads are up across the board on YouTube. Either way, this element was patently missing back in the days of Music Key.

YouTube Music may not be the start of Alphabet’s streaming game, but it is certainly its biggest play yet. And while it will remain focused on protecting its core business, it will likely explore ways to drive ad revenue within its ‘ad free’ premium offerings. Sponsorship and product placement will be one tactic; using MirriAd’s dynamic product placement ad tech could be another. YouTube is unlikely to become the leading music subscription service soon, but there is no denying that it has clearly upped its game.

The data in this chart and some of the analysis will form part of MIDiA’s forthcoming second edition of its landmark ‘State of the YouTube Music Nation’ report. If you are not already a MIDiA client and would like to know how to get access to this report and data, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Could Spotify Buy Universal? 

Vivendi is reported to be proposing to its board a plan for spinning out Universal Music. It is certainly the right time for a spin off (always sell before the peak), but a full divestment would leave Vivendi unbalanced and a shell of its former self. Canal+ is facing the same Netflix-inspired cord-cutting pains as other pay-TV operators (and is relying heavily on sub-Saharan Africa for subscriber growth), while other assets such as those in Vivendi Village have failed to deliver. With CEO Vincent Bolloré having invested heavily in Vivendi, he would be devaluing his own wealth. For a man who is not shy of saying that he’s in the game to make money, this scenario simply doesn’t add up. As one investment specialist recently suggested to me, this talk of a spin-off is probably exactly that, talk. Talk aimed at driving up Vivendi’s valuation by association and, at most, potentially resulting in a partial spin-off or partial listing. However, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a big enough offer for Universal would persuade Bolloré to sell. So, let’s for a moment assume that Universal is on the market and have a little fun with who could buy it.

The Chinese option

It is widely rumoured that Alibaba was in advanced discussions with Vivendi to buy some size of stake in Universal. Those conversations derailed when the Chinese government tightened up regulations on Chinese companies buying overseas assets, which is why we now see Tencent buying a growing number of minority stakes in companies rather than outright acquisitions. So, an outright Chinese acquisition is likely off the table. This doesn’t rule out other Asian bidders (Softbank had an $8.5 billion bid rejected in 2013), though perhaps Chinese companies are the only ones with the requisite scale and access to cash that would meet a far, far higher 2018 price point.

The tech major option

The most likely scenario (if Universal were for sale) is that one of the tech majors (Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook) swoops in. Given Google’s long-held antipathy for the traditional copyright regime, Alphabet is not the most likely, while Facebook is too early in its music journey (though check back in 18 months if all goes well). Apple and Amazon are different cases entirely. Both companies are run by teams of older executives whose formative cultural reference points were shaped by traditional media companies. These are companies that, even if they may not state it, see themselves as the natural evolution of media, moving it from the physical era of transactions to the digital era of access. Thus far, Apple and Amazon have focused principally on distribution, although both have invested in rights too. Apple less so, (e.g. Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper) but Amazon much more so (e.g. Man in the High Castle, Manchester by the Sea). Acquiring a major media company is a logical next step for Amazon. A TV studio and, or network would likely be the first move (especially as Netflix will likely buy one first, forcing Amazon’s hand), but a record label wouldn’t be inconceivable. And it would have to be a big label – such as UMG, that would guarantee enough share of ear to generate ROI. Apple though, could well buy a sports league, which would use up its budget.

The Spotify option

While the tech majors are more likely long-term buyers of Universal, Spotify arguably needs it more (and is certainly less distracted by other media formats). Right now, Spotify has a prisoner’s dilemma; it knows it needs to make disruptive changes to its business model if it is going to create the step change investors clearly want (look at what happened to Spotify’s stock price despite an impressive enough set of Q1 results). But it also knows that making such changes too quickly could result in labels pulling content, which would destroy its present in the hope of building a future. Meanwhile, labels are worried Spotify is going to disintermediate them but can’t risk damaging their business by withdrawing content now – hence the prisoner’s dilemma. Neither side dares make the first move.

That’s the problem with the ‘do a Netflix’ argument: do it too fast and the whole edifice comes tumbling down. Moreover, original content will not be the same silver bullet for Spotify as it was for Netflix. This is mainly because there is a far smaller catalogue of TV content than music, so a dollar spent on original video goes a lot further than a dollar spent on original music. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Spotify will get to a tipping point, where the labels see a shiny-toothed wolf lurking under the lamb’s wool, and with its cover blown it will be forced to go nuclear. If this happened, buying a major label would become an option. And, as with the tech majors, it would have to be a major label to deliver enough share of ear.

But that scenario is a long, long way off. First, Spotify has to prove it can be successful and generate enough revenue and market cap to put itself in a position where it could buy a major. And that is still far from a clear path. For now, Spotify’s focus is on being a partner to the labels, not a parent company.

All of this talk might sound outlandish but it was not so long ago that an internet company (AOL) co-owned Warner Music and a drinks company (Seagram) owned Universal Music, before selling it to a water utilities company (Vivendi), and, long before that, EMI was owned by a light bulb company (Thorn Electrical Industries). We have got used to this current period of corporate stability for the major record labels, but this situation is a reflection of the recorded music business being in such a poor state that there was little M&A interest. Nonetheless it is all changing, potentially heralding a return to the past. Everything has happened before and will happen again.

Spotify Q1 2018 Results: Full Stream Ahead

Spotify released its first ever quarterly earnings results today. The results reflect strong performance in its first public quarter with growth in subscribers, total users, revenue and also gross profit. Here are the highlights:

  • Subscribers: Spotify hit 75 million subscribers, up 44% from 71 million in Q4 2017, which is wholly in line with MIDiA’s 74.7 million forecast and reflects solid growth for a non-paid trial quarter. That is an increase of 22.9 million on Q1 2017, at which stage total subscribers stood at 52 million. The fact the year-on-year growth is 44% of the total subscriber count from one year previously reflects just how far Spotify has come in such a short period of time. Q2 2018 will be a paid trial quarter so subscriber growth will be markedly stronger. Expect Q2 2018 subscribers to reach around the 82 million mark.
    Takeaway: Spotify’s subscriber growth is maintaining its solid organic growth trajectory, with paid trials continuing to be the growth accelerant that keep total growth on a steeper growth curve.
  • Revenues: Revenues were up 26% from €902 million in Q1 17 to reach €1,139 million, though this was 1% down on Q4 2017. Premium revenue was €1,037 million, comprising 91% of all revenues. Ad Supported revenues were €102m growing at a faster rate (38%) than premium but contributing fewer net new dollars. Labels and publishers have empowered Spotify to fully commercialize its free user base and the dividends are now beginning to manifest, all be it from a low base.
    Takeaway: Premium revenues continue to be the beating heart of Spotify’s business. Though ad supported represents a massive long term opportunity, that business is going to take much longer to kick into motion. Growth though is not linear and is shaped by seasonal trial cycles.
  • Churn: Quarterly churn fell below 5% in Q1 2018 (it was 5.1% in Q4 2017), following a long term downward trend that was only interrupted by a 0.4% point increase in Q3 2017. Applying the churn rate to Spotify’s subscriber base reveals that it while its net subscriber additions for Q1 2018 were 4 million, the gross additions (ie including churned out users) was 7.4 million.
    Takeaway: Any growth stage business that is aggressively pursuing audience growth faces the challenge of bringing a high share of low value users into the acquisition funnel, which in turn keeps churn up. Sooner rather than later Spotify is going to need to start focusing more heavily on retention than acquisition, especially in more mature markets.
  • Costs and margins: Gross margin was 24.9% in Q1, up from 24.5% in Q4 and 11.7% in Q1 2017. This was above guidance and Spotify attributes this largely to changes in estimates for rights holder costs. Spotify is doing everything it can to highlight just how good a job it is doing of reducing rights costs. ‘Recalculating’ costs for Q1 2018 has the convenient benefit of extending that pre-DPO narrative into its first earnings.
    Takeaway: Spotify’s Barry McCarthy stated prior to Spotify’s listing was going to remain squarely focused on ‘growth and market share’. So modest progress on margins needs to be set in the context of a company that is focused on growing now while the market is still in flux, and planning to tighten its belt when the market starts to solidify. Spend now while growth is to be had.

The Netflix Comparison

Since its listing, Spotify has found itself rocketed into the spotlight with no end of financial analysts now setting their sights on the streaming company and making their own estimates for revenues and subscribers. The somewhat predictable dominant narrative is how much Spotify does, or does not, compare to Netflix. Spotify is going to have to get used to those sorts of comparisons. The good news for Spotify is that its first earnings compare well with when Netflix was at similar stage of its growth.

In Q4 2015 Netflix hit 74.8 million total subscribers, up 5.6 million from the previous quarter. Streaming revenues were up 6% to $1.7 billion while cost of revenues were at 70% of revenues and quarterly premium ARPU was $22.37. Over the course of the next 12 months Netflix would add 19 million subscribers to reach 93.8 million by end 2016.

By comparison, in Q1 2018 Spotify hit 75 million total subscribers, up 4 million from the previous quarter. Revenue was up down 1% on previous quarter while cost of revenues were at 75% of revenues and quarterly premium ARPU was €13.80.

It is clear these are snapshots of companies at very similar stages of growth, however Spotify has slightly higher cost of revenue and lower ARPU than Netflix did in Q4 2015, both of which need fixing. The indications are thus that Spotify has a solid chance of following a similar path. Indeed, MIDiA’s estimate for Spotify’s end of year subscriber count is 93 million, putting it on exactly the same growth trajectory as Netflix was in 2016. For now, looking at Netflix’s performance with a 27 months look back is a pretty good proxy for where Spotify is going to be getting to.

Conclusion

Right now, Spotify is trying to strike a Goldilocks positioning: not too disruptive to the traditional music business but not too supportive of it either. Spotify needs to talk out of both sides of its mouth for a while, showing how much value it is delivering to traditional rights holders but also how it is an innovative force for change. The F1 filing leaned more towards the latter position, while the Q1 earnings took a more matter of fact approach. But over time, expect Goldilocks to start trying more of daddy bear’s porridge.

These findings are just a few highlights from MIDiA’s 6 chart Spotify Q1 2018 Earnings report which will be published Thursday 3rdMay. The report includes, alongside core earnings data, proprietary MIDiA metrics such as gross profit per subscriber and gross subscriber adds. If you are not already a MIDiA client and would like to learn how to get access to this report and other Spotify research and metrics, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

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.

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.

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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

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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.