Just Who Would Buy Universal Music?

Vivendi continues to look for a buyer for a portion of Universal Music. Though the process has been running officially since May 2018, the transaction (or transactions) may not close until 2020. In many instances, dragging out a sale could reflect badly, suggesting that the seller is struggling to find suitable buyers. But in the case of UMG it probably helps the case. A seller will always seek to maximise the sale price of a company, which means selling as close to the peak as possible. It is a delicate balance, sell too early and you reduce your potential earnings, sell too late and the price can go down as most buyers want a booming business, not a slowing business. In the case of UMG, with institutional investors looking for a way into the booming recorded music business, UMG is pretty much the only game in town for large scale, global institutional investors.

In this sellers’ market, banks have been falling over themselves to say just how valuable UMG could be, with valuations ranging from $22 billion to $33 billionand Vivendi even suggesting $40 billion. Meanwhile, recorded music revenues continue to grow — up 9.0% in 2017, and up 8.2% in 2018 according to MIDiA’s estimates. 2019 will likely be up a further 6%, all driven by streaming. With UMG’s market share (on a distribution base) relatively stable, the market growth thus increases UMG’s valuation. This in turn increases Vivendi’s perceived value, and that is the crux of the matter.

The role of Bolloré Group

Vivendi board member and major shareholder Vincent Bolloré was Vivendi chairman until April 2018, when he handed power to his son Yannick, one month before he was reportedly taken into police custody for questioning as part of an investigation into allegations of corrupt business practices in Africa. Bolloré senior remains the chairman and CEO of Bolloré Group, which retains major shareholdings in Vivendi. Bolloré Group’s Vivendi holdings will inherently be devalued by a sale of prize asset UMG, which is a key reason why only a portion of the music group is up for sale. But, even selling a portion of UMG will have a negative impact on Vivendi’s valuation and thus also on Bolloré Group’s holdings. So, the sale price needs to be high enough to ensure that Bolloré Group makes enough money from the sale to offset any fall in valuation. Hence, dragging out the sale while the streaming market continues to boom. All this also means the sale is of key benefit to Bolloré Group and other Vivendi investors. It is perhaps as welcome as a hole in the head to UMG. Little wonder that some are suggesting UMG is markedly less enthusiastic about this deal than Vivendi is.

vivendi umg potential buyers

All of which brings us onto which company could buy a share of UMG. These can be grouped into the four key segments shown in the chart above. Normally, higher risk buyers (i.e. those that could negatively impact UMG’s business by damaging relationships with partners etc.) would not be serious contenders but as this is a Vivendi / Bolloré Group driven process rather than a UMG driven one, the appetite for risk will be higher. This is because the primary focus is on near-term revenue generation rather than long-term strategic vision. Both are part of the mix, but the former trumps the latter. Nonetheless, the higher-risk strategic buyers are unlikely to be serious contenders. Allowing a tech major to own a share of UMG would create seismic ripples across the music business, as would a sale to Spotify.

Financial investors

So that leaves us with the lower-risk strategic buyers, and both categories of financial buyers. Let’s look at the financial buyers first. Private equity (PE) is one of the more likely segments. We only need to look back at WMG, which was bought by a group of investors including THL and Providence Equity before selling to Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries in 2011 for $3.3 billion. Private equity companies take many different forms these days, with a wider range of investment theses than was the case a decade ago. But the underlying principle remains selling for multiples of what was paid. Put crudely, buy and then flip. The WMG investors put in around half a billion into the company, but a six-fold increase is less likely for UMG, as the transaction is taking place in a bull market while WMG was bought by Providence and co in a bear market. Where the risk comes in for UMG is to whom the PE company/companies would sell to in the future. At that stage, one of the current high-risk strategic companies could become a potential buyer, which would be a future challenge for UMG. The other complication regarding PE companies is that many would want a controlling stake for an investment that could number in the tens of billions.

Institutional investors such as pension funds are the safest option, as they would be looking for long-term stakes in low-risk, high-yield companies to add to their long-term investment portfolios. This would also enable Vivendi to divide and rule, distributing share ownership across a mix of funds, thus not ceding as much block voting power as it would with PE companies.

Strategic investors

The last group of potential buyers is also the most interesting: lower risk strategic. These are mainly holding companies that are building portfolios of related companies. Liberty Media is one of the key options, with holdings in Live Nation, Saavn, SiriusXM, Pandora, Formula 1 Racing and MLB team Atlanta Braves. Not only would UMG fill a gap in that portfolio, Liberty has gone on record stating it would be interested in buying into UMG.

Access Industries is the one that really catches the eye though. Alongside WMG, the Access portfolio includes Perform, Deezer and First Access Entertainment. On the surface Access might appear to be a problematic buyer as it owns WMG. But compared to many other potential investors, it is clearly committed to music and media, and is likely to have a strategic vision that is more aligned with UMG’s than many other potential suitors.

There is of course the possibility of being blocked by regulators on anti-competitive grounds. However, at year end 2017 WMG had an 18% market share, while UMG had 29.7% (both on a distribution basis). If Access acquired 25% of UMG, respective market shares would change to 25.4% for WMG and UMG for 22.2% (still slightly ahead of Sony on 22.1%). It would mean that the market would actually be less consolidated as the market share of the leading label (WMG) would be smaller than UMG’s current market leading share. While the likes of IMPALA would have a lot to say about such a deal, there is nonetheless a glimmer of regulatory hope for Access. Especially when you consider the continued growth of independents and Artists Direct. All of which point to a market that is becoming less, not more, consolidated.

The time is now

Whatever the final outcome, Bolloré Group and Vivendi are currently in the driving seat, but they should not take too much time. 2019 will likely see a streaming growth slowdown in big developed streaming markets such as the US and UK, and it is not yet clear whether later stage major markets Germany and Japan will grow quick enough to offset that slowdown in 2019. So now is the time to act.

How Soundcloud Could Transform Deezer’s Market Narrative

deezer soundcloud

News has emerged of Deezer being a potential buyer of troubled Soundcloud. This follows on from Spotify’s prolonged but ultimately abortive courting last year. Soundcloud was once a streaming powerhouse, with 175 million Monthly Active Users reported in October 2014. Though that number is still widely cited whenever Soundcloud is mentioned in the media, in truth its user base is now much smaller. Spotify, which now has around 150 million MAUs has a Weekly Active User penetration rate of 16% while Soundcloud’s WAU rate is just 6%. With the caveat that multiple additional variables impact WAU vs MAU rates, this would imply that Soundcloud’s MAU number is now closer to 70 million. Despite this shift in its public narrative, Soundcloud remains a uniquely valuable asset in the streaming landscape, one that would give another streaming service a distinct competitive advantage. Here’s why.

A Streaming Service Unlike Any Other (Except YouTube That Is)

Soundcloud first rose to prominence as a platform for artists before it rocketed into the stratosphere as a consumer destination with its new VC-powered mission statement ‘to be the YouTube of audio’. The legacy of its unique starting point is that Soundcloud:

  • Has a catalogue unlike any other streaming service, except YouTube (and to a lesser extent, Mixcloud)
  • Gives artists a direct connection with fans unlike standard streaming services
  • Gives up and coming artists a global platform for reaching fans with no intermediary

That unique combination of assets makes Soundcloud a highly valuable commodity despite its diminished user base and similarly reduced valuation (now said to be around $250 million from a high of $1 billion). Soundcloud has two crucial attributes that will enrich any streaming service:

  • A service tailor-made for Gen Z (ie those consumers currently aged 19 or under)
  • A crowd sourced platform for artist discovery

Soundcloud Is Built For The Era Of Mass Customization

As DJ Spooky put it:

“Artists no longer work in the bub­ble of a record­ing stu­dio. The stu­dio is the net­work.” … “The 20th cen­tury was the era of mass pro­duc­tion. The 21st cen­tury is the era of mass cus­tomiza­tion…”

Artist creativity is no longer a creative full stop, we are now in a phase of Agile Music. Even though the number of people that upload music is small (7% of consumers upload music to Soundcloud or YouTube, of which half upload their own music) their impact on the broader market is multiplied many times over as they provide the music others listen to. But even more importantly, the blurring of the line between audience and creator is the fuel in the engine of Gen Z experiences such as Snapchat and Instagram. Other than lip syncing apps like Musical.ly and Dubsmash, Soundcloud and YouTube are pretty much all the music business has in this space. That, coupled with a highly shareable, highly social UI makes Soundcloud tailor-made for Gen Z. The importance to the segment is clear: among 16-19 year olds, Soundcloud penetration is higher than Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music, Tidal and Deezer, with only Spotify boasting higher penetration for audio services.

Crowd Sourced Discovery

The other key asset Soundcloud brings is the bridge it provides between fans and artists. A host of diverse services like Tunecore, BandLab, Bandcamp and Reverb Nation provide an unprecedented range of tools to up-and-coming artists. But Soundcloud (along with YouTube) is still the only place where artists can reach such a large audience directly, without an intermediary. Layer on its massively social functionality and discovery algorithms and you have an unrivalled audio platform for new artist discovery.

Soundcloud Needs An Ecosystem

Unfortunately for Soundcloud, it has found it impossible to effectively monetize these assets (and aping Spotify’s freemium model has done little to move the dial). What Soundcloud needs is an ecosystem into which it can slot, bringing all of the great functionality but relying on another part of the ecosystem to do the monetization. Slotting Soundcloud into Deezer, Spotify or even Apple Music would create an entirely new layer in each of those propositions and would massively enhance market positioning.

It would also enable the service to start behaving more like a label, identifying and testing artists before moving them up into the main service. If done by Spotify or Apple Music, this would look highly disruptive to labels as it really would be a precursor to becoming a next-gen label. But for Deezer, the story is a little different. As part of the Access Industry potfolio, Deezer sits alongside talent management agency First Access Entertainment, live discovery platform Songkick and, last but most certainly not least, Warner Music. By acquiring Soundcloud, Access Industries would be rounding out the most complete Full Stack Music Company in the business.

YouTube Is Not For Sale But Soundcloud Is

YouTube might do most of what Soundcloud does, and at much larger scale, but Soundcloud is up for sale and YouTube is not. Right now, Soundcloud represents the best opportunity in the marketplace for an audio streaming service to make up the ground in user experience innovation that the streaming market lost over the last few years in comparison to Gen Z apps. And with Deezer at the front of the queue, the French streaming service could be about to transform its market narrative in an instant.

 

MIDiA Research Predictions 2017: The Year Of The Platform

MRP1611-coverFollowing an 84% success rate for our 2016 Predictions report, we today launch our 2017 predictions report: ‘MIDiA Research Predictions 2017: The Year Of The Platform’. The report is immediately available to all MIDiA subscription clients and can also be purchased for individual download from our report store here.

Here are some highlights:

2016 was the year that video ate the world. 2017 will be the year of the platform, the year in which the tech majors will fight for pre-eminence in the digital economy, competing for consumer attention through formatting and distribution wars. Companies that are already using mobile Operating Systems to achieve global reach will take the next step, creating Mobile Life Ecosystems that both break out of the app silo walls and straddle them. Facebook, Amazon, Tencent, Microsoft, Apple and Google/Alphabet will be the main players. 2015 was about parking tanks on each other’s front lawns, in 2016 shots were fired, 2017 will be all-out war. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and voice assistance will be key battlegrounds and indeed will form the glue of Mobile Life Ecosystems.

Some of MIDiA’s other key predictions for 2017 are:

  • Services are the new black: Maturing ‘phone and tablet markets mean that hardware companies will place a greater focus on digital content and services in 2017. Services are an opportunity to drive strong growth that will compensate for slowing device sales
  • Ad market growing pains: Digital advertising inventory supply will exceed demand in 2017. Audience engagement will grow more quickly than advertisers’ appetite. Consequently, ad rates will decline with the bloating of the market by content farms accentuating the problem. Facebook will not be alone in seeing slowing ad revenues in 2017.
  • A tech major will be hit with the first stage of an anti-trust suit: The incoming US Presidency has made its anti-trust inclinations clear. A likely early target will be the AT&T/Time Warner merger. The global-scale tech companies may be mature companies but their respective sectors are not. Regulation is one of the inevitable growing pains of maturing business sectors. Digital is next.
  • Snapchat’s IPO will be digital’s canary in the mine: App store era unicorns and their attendant Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) will redefine the media and tech landscape. Not only will the success, or failure, of Snapchat’s IPO affect those of Uber and Spotify, poor showings could deflate the VC bubble andput an end to the grow-at-all-costs For the music industry, the stakes are even higher, as an under-achieving Spotify IPO would create a crisis in confidence in the entire streaming market.

Among our music predictions for 2017 are Spotify’s IPO and the subsequent start of a new generation of experiential streaming services, Tidal selling (probably to Apple) while Spotify closes out the year with around 55 million subscribers to Apple Music’s 30 million.

Watch Out Access, Liberty Media Is Building A Full Stack Music Company

liberty-full-stackAccess Industries’ full stack music company has, ahem, company: Liberty Media. With a combined market market cap of $37 billion John Malone’s Liberty group of companies is by anyone’s standards is a serious player. In the world of media and telecoms it is one of the biggest. Liberty grabbed the headlines this week with its $2.7 billion acquisition of a 15% stake in Formula One, with an option to acquire the entire company, possibly by year’s end. It is a typically bold move for a company that makes a habit of acquiring companies and consolidating markets. Over the past 11 years Liberty Media and Liberty Global have spent around $50 billion on acquiring companies such as UK TV operator Virgin Media, Dutch cable company Ziggo and (indirectly via a holding company) major league baseball team Atlanta Braves. So far so good, but where’s the music angle I hear you ask. Well, just a few weeks ago Liberty made a bid for a certain Pandora Media to add to its already extensive collection of music assets.

Read the full post on the MIDiA Blog here.