Apple’s Subscription Pivot

On Tuesday Apple announced its arrival on the world stage as a media company, using the lion’s share of its product keynote as the platform for a succession of super star actors, directors and other personalities to tell the story of their respective Apple original TV shows. Breaking with a longstanding tradition of using these keynotes to announce new hardware, Apple used this one to showcase content and its creators. While services revenue is still but a small minority of Apple’s business (11% in Q4 2018), there is no doubt that Apple is placing a far greater priority on content – a strategic pivot made necessary by slowing device sales in a saturated global smartphone market. Apple has already made itself a power player in music, but has the potential to turn the entire digital content marketplace upside down should it so decide.

four phases of media formats midia

Apple’s ramping up of its content strategy is best understood by looking at its place in the four stages of media formats:

  1. Phase 1 – physical media formats:In the old world, consumer electronics companies came together to agree on standards and then competed in a gentlemanly fashion on execution. This approach underpinned the eras of the CD and DVD.
  2. Phase 2 – walled garden ecosystems: In the internet era companies competed fiercely, building proprietary formats into impenetrable walls that locked consumers in. This resulted in the rise of walled gardens such as iTunes and Xbox.
  3. Phase 3 – post-ecosystem: App stores became the chink in the armour for walled garden models, allowing a generation of specialist standalone apps such as Spotify and Netflix.
  4. Phase 4 – aggregation: Walled garden players had inadvertently created global platforms for specialist competitors, so are now figuring out how to avoid going the route of telcos and becoming dumb pipes. The likes of Xbox, Amazon and Apple have started to embrace some of their standalone competitors, adding curatorial layers on top via hardware and software. This is how we have Amazon channels, Fortnite’s marketplace within Xbox and, soon, Apple channels.

Apple just prepped its content portfolio for a subscription pivot

Apple built its modern-day business firmly on the back of content. The iPod was the foundation stone for its current device business and simply would not have existed without music. While its current device portfolio meets a much wider set of user needs, content remains the use case glue that holds its device strategy together. On Tuesday Apple announced new subscriptions for news (News+), games (Arcade) and video (TV+). Interestingly, in an entire keynote focused on media, Apple Music did not even get a mention, despite Zane Lowe’s Beats One show providing the background music prior to the presentations. Perhaps Apple felt Apple Music is so well established that it did not merit a mention, but the lack of an update felt like more than an oversight, intentional or otherwise.

That aside, Apple now has prepped its content proposition for a subscription pivot. Prior to these new announcements, Apple’s content offering (Apple Music excepted) was firmly rooted in the increasingly archaic world of downloads. Shifting from downloads to streaming is no easy task, and Apple will have to tread a cautious path so as not to risk alienating less adventurous download customers. It is the exact same shift that Amazon is navigating. But now Apple has the subscriptions toolset to start that journey in earnest. It has decided that subscriptions are ready for primetime.

This primetime strategy underpins Apple’s early follower strategy across its entire product and services portfolio. As its customer base has gotten older and more mainstream, it has had to progressively stretch out launches, to such an extent that at times it looks at risk of being too late. Apple Music looked too late when it launched, but still made it to a clear number two position. TV+ was even later to market, but don’t count against it plotting a similar path to Apple Music.

What Apple needs from content

Watch and TV could both be long-term contenders for Apple’s revenue growth until it launches a product category to drive new, iPhone-scale hardware growth, but the odds are not yet in their favour. Services look like the best midterm bet. But Apple has some tough decisions to make about what role it wants content to play in its business. This is because subscriptions pose two challenges for Apple:

  • Margin could be a real problem:Apple’s high profile spat with Spotify over its App Store levy hides a bigger commercial issue. With margins in streaming as low as they are, Apple most likely makes more margin on its Spotify App Store levy than it does selling its own Apple Music subscriptions. The amount of money it has invested in its lineup of TV+ originals is also unlikely to do its services margins any favours.
  • Subscriptions have to get really big: Standalone subscriptions will not only be low (perhaps negative) net margin contributors, but will not deliver enough revenue. It would take more than one billion Apple customers paying for two $9.99 subscriptions every month of the year to generate the same amount of revenue it currently makes from hardware. The App Store is Apple’s current services cash cow, and Apple’s new slate of subscriptions are preparing for a post-App Store world. Yet it would take a hundred million $9.99 subscriptions every month of the year to get Apple’s services revenue to where it is now. That number is eminently achievable but generates revenue stagnation, not growth.

Doing an Amazon

So how does Apple square the circle? Probably through a combination of standalone subscriptions, bundles and a single Apple bundle plan. And yes, once again, this is exactly what Amazon has been doing for years now. In fact, you could say Apple is doing an Amazon. The Prime-like bundle could be the most disruptive move of the lot. Imagine if Apple, alongside the full-fat subscriptions, deployed a lite version of Music, Games and TV+ available for a single annual fee and / or as part of a device price (like Amazon Music Unlimited vs Amazon Prime Music). This option would mean that Apple would be simultaneously doing free without ads and subscription with fees. The implications for pure subscription and ad supported businesses are clear.

Whatever options Apple pursues, the permutations will be felt by all in the digital content marketplace.

Here’s How Spotify Can Fix Its Songwriter Woes (Hint: It’s All About Pricing)

Songwriter royalties have always been a pain point for streaming, especially in the US where statutory rates determine much of how songwriters get paid. The current debate over Spotify, Amazon, Pandora and Google challenging the Copyright Royalty Board’s proposed 44% increase illustrates just how deeply feelings run. The fact that the challenge is being portrayed as ‘Spotify suing songwriters’ epitomises the clash of worldviews. The issue is so complex because both sides are right: songwriters need to be paid more, and streaming services need to increase margin. Spotify has only ever once turned a profit, while virtually all other streaming services are loss making. The debate will certainly continue long after this latest ruling, but there is a way to mollify both sides: price increases.

spotify netflix pricing inflation

When Spotify launched in 2008, the industry music standard for subscription pricing was $9.99. So, when its premium tier was launched in May 2009, it was priced at $9.99. Incidentally, Spotify racked up an initial 30,000 subscribers that month – it has come a long way since. But now, nearly exactly ten years on, Spotify’s standard price is still $9.99. Its effective price is even lower due to family plans, trials, telco bundles etc., but we’ll leave the lid on that can of worms for now. Over the same period, global inflation has averaged 2.95% a year. Applying annual inflation to Spotify’s 2009 price point, we end up at $13.36 for 2019. Or to look at it a different way, Spotify’s $9.99 price point is actually the equivalent of $7.40 in today’s prices when inflation is considered. This means an effective real-term price reduction of 26%.

Compare this to Netflix. Since its launch, Netflix has made four major increases to its main tier product, lifting it from $7.99 in 2010 to $12.99 in 2019. Crucially, this 63% price increase is above and beyond inflation. An inflation-adjusted $7.99 would be just $10.34. Throughout that period, Netflix continued to grow subscribers and retain its global market leadership, proving that there is pricing elasticity for its product.

Spotify and other streaming services are locked in a prisoner’s dilemma

So why can’t Spotify do the same as Netflix? In short, it is because it has no meaningful content differentiation from its competitors, whereas Netflix has exclusive content and so has more flexibility to hike prices without fearing users will flock to Amazon. If they did, they’d have to give up their favourite Netflix shows. Moreover, Netflix has to increase prices to help fund its ever-growing roster of original content, creating somewhat circular logic, but that is another can of worms on which I will leave the lid firmly screwed.

If Spotify increases its prices, it fears its competitors will not. Likewise, they fear Spotify will hold its pricing firm if any of them were to increase. It is a classic prisoner’s dilemma.  Neither side dare act, even though they would both benefit. Who can break the impasse? Labels, publishers and the streaming services. If they could have enough collective confidence in the capability of subscriptions over free alternatives, then a market-level price increase could be introduced. Rightsholders are already eager to see pricing go up, while streaming services fear it would slow growth. Between them, there are enough carrots and sticks in the various components of their collective relationships to make this happen.

However – and here’s the crucial part – rightsholders would have to construct a framework where streaming services would get a slightly higher margin rate in the additional subscriber fee. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in exactly the same position we are now, with creators, rightsholders, and streaming services all needing more. When Netflix raises its prices it gets margin benefit, but under current terms, if Spotify raises prices it does not.

The arithmetic of today’s situation is clear: both sides cannot get more out of the same pot of cash. So, the pot has to become bigger, and distribution allocated in a way that not only gives both sides more income, but also allows more margin for streaming services.

Streaming music in 2019 is under-priced compared to 2009. Netflix shows us that it need not be this way. A price increase would benefit all parties but has to be a collective effort. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Why India Matters to Spotify, and Why it May Not Deliver

Warner Music and Spotify have been involved in a rather unseemly and very public spat this week over Spotify’s India launch. I’ll leave for someone else, the discussions of the potential implications of a blanket license for songwriter rights in India for an on-demand streaming service. Suffice to say, the words ‘can of worms’ come to mind. Instead, I am going to focus on why India matters so much to Spotify.

The next one billion, perhaps…

Spotify’s Daniel Ek has made much of addressing the next one billion internet users as part of Spotify’s long-term opportunity. Given the fact that China is effectively off the table for now and that sub-Saharan Africa is probably a generation away from being a major streaming market, India is the key component of that next one billion.

Europe and North America accounted for 69% of Spotify’s subscriber growth in 2018. While this was hugely positive for those regions and delivered high-value subscribers – declining ARPU notwithstanding, growth in those regions will slow down towards the end of this year. Next tier markets – Brazil, Mexico, Germany and ideally, though probably not, Japan – will pick up much of the slack. But to sustain the growth rates its shareholders require, Spotify needs other large markets to start building real momentum by 2020/2021. India and the Middle East represent the best options. However, the Middle East already has a strong incumbent – Anghami – and a potentially resurgent Deezer, newly empowered by its exclusive deal with leading local label Rotana. So, India is effectively the last bet on the table.

India is a very competitive but problematic market

India, however, is a problematic market. It has a host of well-backed incumbents – Jio Music, Saavn, and Tencent-backed Gaana – as well as solid performances from Apple and Google. Yet despite all this robust supply, the market heavily underperforms, registering only 1.7 million subscribers in 2018 with a monthly label ARPU of just $0.74. 1.7 million may sound like a solid enough base, but it represents just 0.1% of the total Indian population. There are two key reasons for such weak uptake to date:

  1. Music plays a different role in India:Bollywood and devotional are two of the most widely listened to music genres, neither of which are mainstays of subscription services, nor streaming music consumption in general.
  2. Income levels are low:the average per capita income is $553 a month, with the luxury of a music subscription far out of reach for most Indians, other than urban elites. Spotify’s $1.80 price point in India may sound cheap, but relative to average income, it is 9.3 times more expensive than $9.99 is in the US. So, Spotify would need to be priced at $0.19 to be the same relative affordability as in the US, which coincidentally is the price for its day pass.

The ARPU challenge

The realistic ambition for Spotify should be to drive five to 10 million subscribers over the next five years or so, primarily pulling from urban elites (essentially a re-run of what has been happening in Latin America). While more credible, this falls way short of denting the ‘next one billion’ opportunity. To unlock the scale opportunity, streaming has to look beyond subscriptions, and also beyond ad supported (India’s 270 million free streamers only generated a monthly ARPU of $0.006 in 2018). The scale opportunity is telco bundles. Reliance Communications’s prioritisation of Jio Music makes it the most likely player to capitalise on this in the mid-term.

Spotify needs to find a similar scale partner and somehow convince label partners to accept an ARPU of say $0.08, which would be roughly in line with US telco bundle ARPU on a Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) basis. This would unlock scale without having to tolerate the catastrophically lower ad-supported ARPU rates. But the odds of that happening anytime soon are miniscule. When, and it is a case of when, not if, that time does come, the scale of adoption could be transformative for the global market. In fact, this is exactly where MIDiA thinks the market is heading. In our just published music forecasts, we predict that by 2026 India will have the fourth largest installed base of music subscribers, anywhere in the world.

What matters most, revenue or scale?

The question is whether Spotify can be a major part of the ‘Indian adoption’. Even if it can, the ARPU will be so small that all the current concerns about Spotify’s falling ARPU will look like a storm in a teacup when compared.

Have no doubt, India can, and perhaps will, become a major player in the global streaming market, even helping reshape global music culture. It can also play a major role in Spotify’s future, but the rules of engagement will need to change to unlock that growth, and in doing so Spotify will be sacrificing ARPU. All of this means, Spotify’s investors and partners need to ask themselves, what do they want Spotify to deliver most: strong revenue growth or strong subscriber growth, because India cannot deliver both.

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

Making Free Pay

2018 was a big year for subscriptions, across music (Spotify on target to hit 92 million subscribers), video (global subscriptions passed half a billion), games (98 million Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus subscribers) and news (New York Times 2.5 million digital subscribers). The age of digital subscriptions is inarguably upon us, but subscriptions are part of the equation not the whole answer. They have grown strongly to date, will continue to do so for some time and are clearly most appealing to rights holders. However, subscriptions only have a finite amount of opportunity—higher in some industries than others, but finite nonetheless. The majority of consumers consume content for free, especially so in digital environments. Although the free skew of the web is being rebalanced, most consumers still will not pay. This means ad-supported strategies are going to play a growing role in the digital economy. But set against the backdrop of growing consumer privacy concerns, we will see data become a new battle ground.

Industry fault lines are emerging

Three quotes from leading digital executives illustrate well the fault lines which are emerging in the digital content marketplace:

“[Ad supported] It allows us to reach much, much deeper into the market,” Gustav Söderström, Spotify

“To me it’s creepy when I look at something and all of a sudden it’s chasing me all the way across the web. I don’t like that,” Tim Cook, Apple

“It’s up to us to take [subscribers’] money and turn it into great content for their viewing benefit,”Reed Hastings, Netflix

None of those quotes are any more right or wrong than the other. Instead they reflect the different assets each company has, and thus where they need to seek revenue. Spotify has 200 million users but only half of them pay.  Spotify cannot afford to simply write off the half that won’t subscribe as an expensively maintained marketing list. It needs to monetise them through ads too. Apple is a hardware company pivoting further into services because it needs to increase device margins, so it can afford to snub ad supported models and position around being a trusted keeper of its users’ data. Netflix is a business that has focused solely on subscriptions and so can afford to take pot shots at competitors like Hulu which serve ads. However, Netflix can only hike its prices so many timesbefore it has to start looking elsewhere for more revenue; so ads may be on their way, whatever Reed Hastings may say in public.

The three currencies of digital content

Consumers have three basic currencies with which the can pay:

  1. Attention
  2. Data
  3. Money

Money is the cleanest transaction and usually, but not always, comes with a few strings attached. Data is at the other end of the spectrum, a resource that is harvested with our technical permission but rarely granted by us fully willingly, as the choice is often a trade-off between not sharing data and not getting access to content and services. The weaponisation of consumer data by the likes of Cambridge Analytica only intensifies the mistrust. Finally, attention, the currency that we all expend whether behind paywalls or on ad supported destinations. With the Attention Economy now at peak, attention is becoming fought for with ever fiercer intensity. Paywalls and closed ecosystems are among the best tools for locking in users’ attention. As we enter the next phase of the digital content business, data will become ever more important assets for many content companies, while those who can afford to focus on premium revenue alone (e.g. Apple) will differentiate on not exploiting data.

Privacy as a product

So, expect the next few years to be defined as a tale of two markets, with data protectors on one side and data exploiters on the other. Apple has set out its stall as the defender of consumer privacy as a counter weight to Facebook and Google, whose businesses depend upon selling their consumers’ data to advertisers. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the start rather than the end. Companies that can — i.e. those that do not depend upon ad revenue — will start to position user privacy as a product differentiator. Amazon is the interesting one as it has a burgeoning ad business but not so big that it could opt to start putting user privacy first. The alternative would be to let Apple be the only tech major to differentiate on privacy, an advantage Amazon may not be willing to grant.

The topics covered in MIDiA’s March 27 event ‘Making Free Pay’.The event will be in central London and is free-to-attend (£20 refundable deposit required). We will be presenting our latest data on streaming ad revenue as well as diving deep into the most important challenges of ad supported business models with a panel featuring executives from Vevo, UK TV and Essence Global. Sign up now as places are going fast. For any more information on the event and for sponsorship opportunities, email dara@midiaresearch.com 

How YouTube’s Domination of Streaming Clips the Market’s Wings

Firstly, happy new year to you all. Now on to the first post of 2019.

The Article 13 debate that shaped so much of the latter part of 2018 will continue to play an important role throughout 2019 while European and then national legislators deliberate on the provision and the wider Digital Copyright Directive of which it forms a part. Regular readers will know that MIDiA first highlighted the risk of unintended consequences of Article 13. Today we present the case for the impact YouTube has on the broader streaming market, driven by the advantages of its unique licensing position. (This is a complex and nuanced topic with compelling evidence on both sides of the debate).

To illustrate YouTube’s impact on the streaming market this post highlights a few of the findings from a new MIDiA report: Music Consumer Behaviour Q3 2018: YouTube Leads the Way But At What Cost?

midia youtube penetration

YouTube is the dominant music streaming platform, with 55% of consumers regularly watching music videos on YouTube, compared to a combined 37% for all free audio streaming services. YouTube usage skews young, peaking at nearly three quarters of consumers under 25. Although YouTube leads audio streaming in all markets — even Spotify’s native Sweden — there are some strong regional variations. For example, emerging streaming markets Brazil and Mexico see much higher YouTube penetration, peaking at close to double the level of even traditional music radio in Mexico. Indeed, radio is feeling the YouTube pinch as much as audio streaming. 68% of those under 45 watch YouTube music videos compared to 41% that listen to music radio. The difference increases with younger audiences and the more emerging the market. For example, in Mexico YouTube music penetration is 84% for 20–24 year olds, compared to 37% for music radio. Streaming may be the future of radio, but right now that streaming future is YouTube.

YouTube’s advantage

While cause and effect are difficult to untangle, the implied causality here is that YouTube’s unique value proposition steals much of the oxygen from the wider streaming market. Due to its unique licensing position – which Article 13 would likely change, YouTube has more catalogue and fully-on-demand free streaming, not to mention standout product features such as complete music video catalogue and social features such as song comments, likes / dislikes. Services that do not use safe harbour protection (i.e. the vast majority of audio streaming services) do not have these assets and so are at a distinct market disadvantage to YouTube. If you are a consumer in the market for a free streaming service, you have the choice between everything that you want, with complete control or constraints and restrictions, with fewer features. It’s not hard to see why consumers from Mexico through to Sweden make the choice they do. With a free proposition this good (especially when you factor in stream ripper apps and ad blockers), who needs a subscription?

A new value gap emerging?

Against this though, must be set two crucial factors:

  1. Audio streaming services would fare better if they had more of the features YouTube and Vevo have
  2. YouTube and Vevo are still the best ad monetisation players in the global market (i.e. discounting Pandora as it is US only). What’s more, (annual) audio ad supported ARPU declined in 2018 to $1.23, while video ad supported ARPU rose to $1.08. Ad-supported users grew faster than revenue while the opposite was true of video. There is a real risk here of an audio ad-supported value gap emerging. Spotify needs to get better at selling ads, fast.

Fully committed to subscriptions?

The final part of the YouTube impact equation is premium conversion. Since appointing Lyor Cohen, YouTube has taken a much more proactive approach to subscriptions, heavily touting its, actually-really-quite-good, YouTube Music premium product. Whether Alphabet’s board is equally exuberant about subscriptions, and whether YouTube Music’s launch lining up with the Article 13 legislative process was coincidental, are both open questions…

But politics and intent aside, YouTube is always going to be far poorer at converting to paid subscriptions because a) its user base is vast, and b) that user base is there for free stuff. So, while 58% of Spotify’s weekly active users (WAUs) are paid, the rate for YouTube Music weekly active usership is in single digit percentage points. That dynamic is not going to change in any meaningful way. In fact, YouTube has a commercial disincentive for pushing subscriptions too hard. It makes its money from advertising, and advertisers pay to reach the best possible consumers. Subscription paywalls lock away your best users, out of the reach of ads, which in turn reduces the value of your inventory to advertisers, which leads to declining revenues. YouTube is not about to swap a large-scale high-margin business for a small-scale low-margin one. Moreover, this issue of advertisers trying to reach paywalled consumers is going become a multi-industry issue in 2019. See my colleague Georgia Meyer’s excellent ‘Marketing to Streaming Subscribers’report for a deep dive on the topic.

Article 13 as a platform for innovation?

The overarching dynamic here is of a leading service that constrains the opportunity for services that are not able to play by the same rules. A levelling of the playing field is needed, but this should not just be legislation (and of course should be careful not to kill music’s ad supported Golden Goose). It should also see labels and publishers finding some common ground between the Spotify and YouTube models, and making those terms available to all parties. Because if YouTube does one thing really well, it shows us how good the streaming music user proposition can be when it is not too tightly constrained by rights holders. Let’s use Article 13 to raise the lowest common denominator, not to bring YouTube down to it.

Streaming music services need a user experience quantum leap in 2019; wouldn’t it be great if Article 13 could be the springboard for transformation and innovation?

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.

Looking for the Music in Tencent Music

The Tencent Music Entertainment (TME) F1 filingmakes for highly interesting reading, but don’t expect copious amounts of data to give you an inside track in the way that Spotify’s F1 filing did. Instead TME’s F1 bears much closer resemblance to iQyi’s F1, namely a basic level of KPIs, lots of market narrative and even more space assigned to explaining all of the risks associated with investing in a Chinese company. But, perhaps the most significant thing of all is that TME isn’t really a music company or investment opportunity, but is instead a series of social entertainment platforms, of which music – and much of it not even streaming music – is one minor part.

Risk factors – there’s a lot of them

As with iQiYi’s F1 filing, a lot of the document is taken up with outlining the risks associated with investing in a Chinese company, particularly with regard to the various ways in which the Chinese government can potentially put the business out of existence. Evidence of just how real this threat is for Tencent is very close to home. The Chinese authorities are currently refusing to authorise any new Tencent games – and have not done so since March,  while it brings in new restrictions on game playing for kids.Tencent’s shares tumbled as a result. The problem for Chinese companies providing due diligence for overseas investors is that they have to admit that they might not be compliant with all Chinese laws. With the PRC (People’s Republic of China) government not having democratic checks and balances, Chinese companies have to face the real possibility of unpredictable, unchallengeable, draconian intervention, such as is happening with games.

Two particular areas of potential difficulty that the TME F1 highlights are social currency and overseas interests:

  1. TME makes much of its money from social gifting and virtual items. TME argues this does not constitute virtual currency, so should not be subject to tight PRC regulations. The PRC government may disagree.
  2. TME is registered in the Cayman Islands and does not actually own many of its Chinese streaming services but instead has shareholdings in, and contractual relationships with, them. This is a risk-laden approach at the best of times, but is given extra spice by the fact the PRC could determine TME to be a foreign interest, which would put it in breach of a whole bunch of PRC regulations.

Other notable risk factors are:

  • UGC:TME explains: “Under PRC laws and regulations, online service providers, which provide storage space for users to upload works or links to other services or content, may be held liable for copyright infringement”. It goes on to say: “Due to the massive amount of content displayed on our platform, we may not always be able to promptly identify the content that is illegal.” There are two potential outcomes: 1) things carry on as they are 2) rights holders get itchy feet and TME needs to find someone to help it monitor and police copyright infringement.
  • ADS: TME is not offering shares for sale but instead American Depositary Shares (ADS), which in heavily simplified terms means that investors’ money is deposited in US banks in USD and then can in principle be converted into RMB shares at the prevailing currency exchange rate, which may be higher or lower than when the ADS was purchased.

What’s in a number?

Prior to this filing, Tencent had only released one audited music subscriber number – back in Q1 2016 it announced 4.3 million QQ Music subscribers. After that came a succession of press cited numbers that got a lot bigger, but nothing audited. Finally we have a whole collection of numbers to play around with (though see the PS at the end of this post for a health warning on interpreting Chinese company numbers reported in SEC documents).

TME 1

In 2016, TME was very much a music company, with music accounting for nearly half of its RMB 4.4 billion revenues. But by 2017 that picture had changed…and some…with just 29% of its revenues classified as ‘online music services’. Online music revenues grew by 47%, which is impressive enough in isolation, but is much slower growth than the rest of the Chinese paid content market. Video, which parent company Tencent is a key player in, is a major growth area. One sub strand of this is social video, where TME is also market heavyweight. Luckily for TME, it has eggs in many baskets. Social video, which largely comprises live streaming in China, contributed to TME’s social entertainment services revenue growing by 253% (i.e. five times more quickly than online music) in 2017 to reach RMB 7.8 billion – 71% of TME’s total RMB 10.9 billion.

This revenue was driven in large part by live streaming services Kugou Live and Kuwo Liveand by social karaoke app Quanmin K Ge, known as WeSing in the west. WeSing is arguably the biggest ‘music’ app many people don’t know about. Music doesn’t play the same cultural role in China as it does in western markets, thanks in part to the legacy of the oxymoronically named Cultural Revolution, which limits the potential opportunity for music services in China. Karaoke, however, is huge, and WeSing does a fantastic job of converting this demand. By putting social centre stage, TME is able to monetise social in a way that would make Facebook green with envy. As TME explains:

“We provide to our users certain subscription packages, which entitle paying subscribers a fixed amount of non-accumulating downloads per month and unlimited “ad-free” streaming of our full music content offerings with certain privilege features on our music platforms.

We sell virtual gifts to users on our online karaoke and live streaming platforms. The virtual gifts are sold to users at different specified prices as pre-determined by us.” 

Putting social centre stage

But TME’s social skills are not limited to WeSing. Social seeps from virtually every pore of its music services, with features such as likes, comments, shares, ability to create and share lyrics posters from a song, ability to sing along to songs, see local trending tracks, get VIP packages etc. TME has worked out how to bake true social behaviour into the centre of its music services in a way few western companies have (YouTube and Soundcloud are rare exceptions). Both Soundcloud and YouTube built their services without having to play by the record label rule book. Read into that what you will.

The social power of TME’s end-to-end social music offering is illustrated by this case study:

Ada Zhuang (  ). Ada started out as a talented singer on our live streaming platform. A few months later, she released her debut album on Kugou Music. Since then, Ada has released over 200 songs that have won numerous music awards. Her popularity continued to grow through concerts held across China. A single released by Ada in October 2015 has since then been played over three billon times on our platform. 

TME2

Through its acquisition of competitor services Kugo and Kuwou, TME has built a music empire, giving it a 76% music subscriber market share and leaving two key competitors: Apple Music and NetEase Cloud Music. TME pointedly makes no reference to Apple Music, despite it having 2.6 million Chinese subscribers in 2017. NetEase, however, does get a name check.

TME reported its combined (net) mobile music MAUs to be 644 million in Q2 2018, though defining its users as unique devices rather than unique users. (Interestingly, it defines its social users on an individual basis.). What is clear is that TME’s music users and social users are mirror opposites in user tally and the revenue they generate; social users are just 26% of users but account for 71% of revenues. Clearly, TME has identified there is a lot more money to be made from social experiences than streaming music. Few western companies saw this opportunity. Musical.ly, founded by Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang, did, and was predictably bought for $1 billion by Chinese company Bytedance, home to Douyin (known as TikTok in the west).

TME3

TME’s ARPU numbers hammer home the scale of success for its social segment versus its music side. In Q2 2018 TME was earning RMB 122 a month from social users, against a paid user base of 9.5 million, while its paid music base of 23.3 million was generating an ARPU of just RMB 9.

 

Interestingly, international expansion is not mentioned once in the 198,984 words of the TME F1 filing. TME explains exactly how it intends to spend the money from the IPO but international is not spelt out. Our bet though, is that TME is playing its cards close to its chest and will indeed go west.

Wildcard

TME is one of a number of Chinese tech firms listing a portion of their stock on US exchanges. Should the US economy topple into a downward trend at some stage, for example as a resulting of an escalating trade war with China, then stocks like TME could give US investors a seamless way of transferring their holdings out of US companies into Chinese ones, without having to change their portfolio mix (ie one tech stock for another) and without having to change jurisdiction. And with China sitting on $3 trillion of foreign currency reserves – with USD the largest part – China could even hasten things along by flooding US currency into the markets, triggering a tumbling exchange rate.

PS

There is an international jurisdictional loophole between the SEC in the US and the CSRC in China. Which in overly simplified terms means that Chinese companies can falsely report numbers in SEC filings,withtheSEC unable to prosecute Chinese miscreant companies and the CSRC unable to take action over the SEC filing.This has resulted in a significant number of fraudulent filings by Chinese companies reverse listing onto US exchanges via dormant US companies, with SEC filings showing numbers up to 10 times higher than their CSRC filings. The only watertight way to validate Chinese company SEC filed numbers, is to corroborate them with CSRC filings. Unfortunately, TME is not a separate entity in China so has not filed any numbers, and, as stated above, Tencent has rarely reported any numbers for its music division. This does not mean that TME’s should not inherently be taken at face value, but it does suggest extra scrutiny might be wise.

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.

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