Four Companies That Could Buy Spotify

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For much of 2016 it looked nailed on that Spotify would IPO in 2017 and that the recorded music industry would move onto its next chapter, for better or for worse. The terms of Spotify’s $1 billion debt raise (which mean that Spotify pays an extra 1% on its 5% annual interest payments every six months beyond its previously agreed IPO date) suggest that Spotify was thinking the same way too. But now, word emerges that Spotify is looking to renegotiate terms with its lenders and there are whispers that Spotify might not even IPO. It would be a major strategic pivot if Spotify was to abort its IPO efforts and it begs the question: what next?

The World Has Changed

When Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon were drawing up the Spotify business plan in the 2000’s, the music and tech worlds were dramatically different from what they are now. The ‘Potential Exits’ powerpoint slide in Ek’s investor pitch deck would have listed companies such as Nokia, Microsoft, Sony and HTC. Over the subsequent decade, those companies have fallen on harder times (though Microsoft is now experiencing a turnaround) and all of them have moved away from digital music, which is why an IPO seemed like a much better option for being able to get a large enough return on investment for Spotify’s investors.

The only problem is that the IPO market has changed too. IPOs were once the best way for tech companies to raise capital but with the current VC bubble (and its recycled cash in the form of exited-founders reinvesting as Angels) equity and debt investment is much easier to come by. In 1997, there were 9,113 public companies in the U.S. At the end of 2016, there were fewer than 6,000. 2016 was the slowest year for IPOs since 2009. And of course, Deezer aborted its IPO in 2015. Snapchat’s forthcoming IPO will be a Spotify bellwether. If it does well it will set up Spotify, but if Facebook’s continued aggressive feature-cloning on Instagram continues, it could underperform, which could change the entire environment for tech IPOs in 2017. The fact that only 15.4% of Snapchat’s stock is being listed may also push its price down. No fault of Spotify of course, but it is Spotify that could pay the price.

$8 Billion Valuation Narrows Options

Because Spotify has had to load itself with so much debt and equity investment it has needed to hike its valuation to ensure investors and founders still have meaningful enough equity for an exit. Spotify’s revenues will be near $3 billion for 2016 but its $8 billion valuation is half the value of the entire recorded music market in 2015 and more than double the value of the entire streaming music market that year. However, benchmarked against comparable companies, the valuation has clearer reference points. For example, Supercell had revenues of $2.1 billion and was bought by Tencent for $8.6 billion in 2016. King had revenues of $2.6 billion and was bought for $5.9 billion by Activision Blizzard, also in 2016.

The complication is that both of those companies own the rights to their content, while Spotify merely rents its content. Which means that in a worst case scenario Spotify could find itself as an empty vessel if it had a catastrophic fall out with its rights holder partners. King and Supercell would both still have their games catalogue whatever happened with their partners.

Western Companies Are Not Likely Buyers

So, in the event that Spotify does not IPO, it either needs to raise more capital until it can get to profitability (which could be 3+ years away) or it needs someone to meet its $8 billion asking price. Of the current crop of tech majors, Apple, Google and Amazon are all deeply vested in their own streaming plays (Apple Music, YouTube and Prime) so the odds of one of those becoming a buyer is, while not impossible, unlikely and for what it’s worth, ill advised. Though there could be a case for Apple buying Spotify for accounting purposes as buying a European company would be a way to use some of its offshore domiciled $231.5 billion cash reserves. Reserves that the Trump administration is, at some stage, likely to make efforts to repatriate to the US in one way or another. Facebook is the wild card, but it’s unlikely to want to saddle itself with such a cost-inefficient way of engaging users with music. A distribution partnership with Vevo or launching its own music video offering are much better fits.

Go East: Four Potential Suitors For Spotify

So much for Western companies. Cast your gaze eastwards though and suddenly a whole crop of potential suitors comes into focus:

imgres-2Tencent: With a market cap of more than $200 billion and a bulging roster of consumer propositions (including WeChat) and 3 music services, Tencent is arguably the most viable eastern suitor for Spotify. The fact that the company recently reported inflated subscriber numbers for QQ Music (which were in fact a repetition of the same inflated numbers given to Mashable in July last year) hints at Tencent’s eagerness to court the western media and to be judged on similar terms. A Spotify acquisition, especially an expensive one, would be both a major statement of intent and an immediate entry point into the west. It would also transform Spotify into a truly global player.

imgres-4Alibaba:
Another Chinese giant with a market cap north of $200 billion (although it has lost value in recent years), Alibaba has a strong retail focus but has been diversifying in recent years. Acquisitions include the South China Morning Post, Guangzhou Football Club and the Roewe RX5 ‘internet car’. Spotify would be a less obvious fit for Alibaba but could be a platform for building reach and presence in the west.

imgres-1Dalian Wanda: With assets of over $90 billion, revenue of more than $40 billion, a heavy focus on media and an insatiable appetite for acquisitions, Dalian Wanda is a strong contender. The company has built a global cinema empire in its AMC Theatres division, most recently picking up a Scandinavian cinema chain for a little under a billion dollars late January. Dalian Wanda’s strong US presence and long experience in that market, along with its bold global vision make its fit at least as good as Tencent’s. The fact that it is currently mulling a €6 billion acquisition of the German bank Postbank indicates it can buy big.

imgresBaidu: Baidu’s $10 billion revenues make it a markedly smaller player than Dalian Wanda but its $66 billion market cap and strong music focus (e.g. Baidu Music) make Spotify a good strategic fit. Spotify could help Baidu to both counter the domestic threat of Apple Music and to build out to the west, which could act as a platform for building out Baidu’s other brands.

imgres-3Other runners: A host of telcos could be contenders, including the $78 billion SoftBank and India’s Reliance Communications. However, most telcos will surely realise that emerging markets will soon hit the same music bundle speed bumps that are cropping up in western markets. One other outsider is the $29 billion 21st Century Fox. Perhaps less of a wildcard than it might at first appear, considering that News Corp was a major shareholder in the now defunct Beyond Oblivion. And of course, don’t rule out Liberty Global.

An IPO, albeit a delayed one, still remains the most likely outcome for Spotify, but if it proves unfeasible there is a healthy collection of potential buyers or at the very least, companies that could buy into Spotify to give it enough runway to get towards profitability.

Yonder Music Unlocks The Emerging Market Opportunity

One of the high profile digital music casualties of recent years was the failed ‘next generation’ service provider Beyond Oblivion. There were numerous factors behind Beyond Oblivion’s failure but a key one was the fact the market was not yet ready for its telco bundled music offering. Now 5 years on the digital music and telco content markets are very different propositions, with the number of telco music bundles global totaling 105, up from 43 in 2014.  With the proliferation of data plans and smartphones, mobile carriers are now eagerly seeking out streaming music and video services as a means of driving subscriber uptake, ARPU and market differentiation. The 11.5 million telco bundled music subscribers that now exist globally represent a vibrant marketplace that was almost non-existent back in 2011. So why the potted history? Because, as MIDIA reported back in November 2015 Beyond Oblivion’s founder Adam Kidron is back for another bite of the Apple with a new take on the model with his latest venture Yonder. Now, 7 months after its Malaysian launch Yonder has racked up an number of impressive regional metrics that act as further evidence that the telco market is ripe for music bundles.

Yonder’s partnership with a number of Axiata telcos in multiple markets is off to a flying start. Yonder’s music bundle is available across a range of tariffs including both pre-paid and post paid. With an already sizeable 300,000 strong subscriber base Yonder users are using markedly more data than users of other music services on the same tariffs. But of most interest from a telco perspective is the much lower rates of churn for Axiata’s Yonder users, on both pre-paid and paid. Though these numbers must be caveated by the fact that Yonder is available on tariffs that appeal to Axiata’s most valuable and loyal customers – a caveat that applies to most music telco bundles. But even with that considered, Yonder users have a fraction of the churn even of other same tariff users that do not have Yonder.

Axiata has demonstrated its belief in Yonder by both taking a 25% stake in Yonder and by committing to launching in another 9 emerging market territories, with further markets in the pipeline.

Axiata, Celcom’s parent company, has demonstrated its belief in Yonder by both taking a 25% stake in Yonder and by committing to launching in another 9 emerging market territories, with further markets in the pipeline.

Curation And Pre-Pay Are Key 

Yonder has four key assets that that have driven success so far:

  1. A curated content offering
  2. A telco optimized business model
  3. A focus on emerging markets
  4. An offering for pre-pay customers

Emerging Markets Are The Next Big Streaming Opportunity

Emerging markets are the next big opportunity for digital music. Western markets dominated the 20th century music industry because it was built on buying units of pre-recorded media and thus skewed towards countries with high levels of disposable income. Now though, as we move into the streaming era, it is consumption that is monetized and thus it is the markets with the biggest populations (typically emerging markets) that represent the bigger opportunity. This realignment of the music industry’s world order won’t happen overnight, and the big western markets will still dominate, but a realignment is taking place. The obvious way to capitalize on this is ad supported (which is YouTube’s big play) and indeed that is where the big numbers will come. But it is telco bundles that will drive the meaningful revenue in these markets because:

  1. telcos have the billing relationships (a crucial asset as credit card penetration is typically low)
  2. telcos can shoulder some or all of the cost to drive data plan uptake and make the music feel like free

Crucially, in order to tap this emerging market opportunity, the standard, premium AYCE offering is not enough. Curation and Pay As You Go (PAYG) bundling are the assets needed to unlock this opportunity and right now Yonder and MusicQubed’s MTV Trax are pretty much the only services bringing this combination to market.

2016 is already proving to be a big year for the big streaming services, but with finite remaining growth opportunity remaining in developed markets, the really interesting long term growth lies in PAYG and emerging markets.

The telco music market statistics quoted in this report are featured in the MIDiA report ‘Telco Music Strategy: Ironing Out The Strategic Kinks As Objectives Evolve’ which is available to MIDiA subscribers and can also be bought individually on the MIDiA report store herebought individually on the MIDiA report store here

This post was amended on June 28th

The Digital Music Year That Was: 2011 in Review and 2012 Predictions

Following the disappointment of 2010, 2011 was always going to need to pack more punch.  In some ways it did, and other ways it continued to underwhelm. On balance though the stage is set for an exciting 2012.

There were certainly lots of twists and turns in 2011, including: disquiet among the artist community regarding digital pay-outs, the passing of Steve Jobs, Nokia’s return to digital music,  EMI’s API play, and of course Universal Music’s acquisition of EMI.  Here are some of the 2011 developments that have most far reaching implications:

  • The year of the ecosystems. With the launch of Facebook’s content dashboard, Android Music, the Amazon Fire (a name not designed to win over eco-warriors),  Apple’s iTunes Match and Spotify’s developer platform there was a surge in the number of competing ecosystem plays in the digital music arena.  Despite the risk of consumer confusion, some of these are exciting foundations for a new generation of music experiences.
  • Cash for cache.  The ownership versus access debate raged fully in 2011, spurred by the rise of streaming services.  Although we are in an unprecedented period of transition, ownership and access will coexist for many years yet, and tactics such as charging users for cached-streams blur the lines between streams and downloads, and in turn between rental and ownership. (The analogy becomes less like renting a movie and more like renting a flat.)
  • Subscriptions finally hit momentum.  Though the likes of rdio and MOG haven’t yet generated big user numbers Spotify certainly has, and Rhapsody’s acquisition of Napster saw the two grandaddys of the space consolidate.  Spotify hit 2.5 million paying users, Rhapsody 800,000 and Sony Music Unlimited 800,000.
  • New services started coming to market.  After a year or so of relative inactivity in the digital music service space, 2011 saw the arrival of a raft of new players including Blackberry’s BBM Music, Android Music, Muve Music , and Rara.  The momentum looks set to continue in 2012 with further new entrants such as Beyond Oblivion and psonar.
  • Total revenues still shrank.  By the end of 2011 the European and North American music markets will have shrunk by 7.8% to $13.5bn, with digital growing by 8% to reach $5 billion.  The mirror image growth rates illustrate the persistent problem of CD sales tanking too quickly to allow digital to pick up the slack.  Things will get a little better in 2012, with the total market contracting by just 4% and digital growing by 7% to hit $5.4 billion, and 41% of total revenues.

Now let’s take a look at what 2011 was like for three of digital music’s key players (Facebook, Spotify and Pandora) and what 2012 holds for them:

Facebook
2011.  Arguably the biggest winner in digital music in 2011, Facebook played a strategic masterstroke with the launch of its Digital Content Dashboard at the f8 conference.  Subtly brilliant, Facebook’s music strategy is underestimated at the observer’s peril.  Without investing a cent in music licenses, Facebook has put itself at the heart of access-based digital music experiences.   It even persuaded Spotify – the current darling of the music industry – to give it control of the login credentials of Spotify’s entire user base. Facebook’s Socially Integrated Web Strategy places Facebook at the heart of our digital lives.  And it’s not just Facebook that is benefiting: Spotify attributed much of its 500,00 new paying subs gained in October and November to the Facebook partnership.

2012. Facebook is quietly collecting unprecedentedly deep user data from the world’s leading streaming music services.  By mid-2012 Facebook should be in a position to take this to the record labels (along with artist profile page data) in the form of a series of product propositions.  Expect whatever is agreed upon to blend artist level content with music service content to create a 360 user experience.  But crucially one that does not require Facebook to pay a penny to the labels.

VERDICT: The sleeping giant of digital music finally stepped up to the plate in 2011 and will spend 2012 consolidating its new role as one of the (perhaps even *the*) most important conduit(s) in digital music history.

Spotify.
2011.
 It would be puerile not to give Spotify credit for a fantastic year.  Doubts about the economics of the service and long term viability remain, but nonetheless 2011 was a great year for the Swedish streaming service.  It finally got its long-fought-for US launch and also became Facebook’s VIP music service partner. Spotify started the year with 840,000 paying subscribers and hit 2.5 million in November.  It should finish the year with around 200,000 more.  Its total active user base is now at 10 million. But perhaps the most significant development was Spotify’s Developer platform announcement,paving the way for the creation of a music experience ecosystem.  Spotify took an invaluable step towards making Music the API.

2012: Expect Spotify’s growth trajectory to remain strong in 2012.  It should break the 3 million pay subscribers mark in February and should finish the year with close to 5 million.  And it will need those numbers because the funnel of free users will grow even more dramatically, spurred by the Facebook integration.  But again it will be the developer platform that will be of greatest and most disruptive significance.  By the end of 2012 Spotify will have a catalogue of music apps that will only be rivalled by Apple’s App Store.  But even Apple won’t be able to come close to the number of Apps with unlimited music at their core.  More and more start ups will find themselves opting to develop within Spotify rather than getting bogged down with record label license negotiations.  Some will find the platform a natural extension of their strategy (e.g. Share My Playlists) but others will feel competitive threat (e.g. Turntable FM).  If Spotify can harness its current buzz and momentum to create the irresistible force of critical mass within the developer community, it will create a virtuous circle of momentum with Apps driving user uptake and vice versa.  And with such a great catalogue of Apps, who would bet against Spotify opening an App Store in 2012?

VERDICT: Not yet the coming of age year, but 2011 was nonetheless a pivotal year paving the way for potentially making 2012 the year in which Spotify lays the foundations for long term sustainability.

Pandora
2011.
 Though 2011 wasn’t quite the coming of age year for Spotify it most certainly was for Pandora.  In June Pandora’s IPO saw 1st day trading trends reminiscent of the dot.com boom years.    By July it had added more than 20 million registered users since the start of the year to hit 100 million in total and an active user base of 36 million, representing 3.6% of entire US radio listening hours.  But Pandora also felt the downs of being a publically listed company, with flippant traders demonstrating their fear that Spotify’s US launch would hurt Pandora.

2012: And those investors do have something of a point:  whatever founder Tim Westergren may say, Spotify will hurt Pandora.  A portion of Pandora’s users used Pandora because it was the best available (legal) free music service.  Those users will jump ship to Spotify.  This will mean that Pandora’s total registered user number will not get too much bigger than 100 million in 2012 and the active number will likely decline by mid-year.  After that though, expect things to pick up for Pandora and active user numbers to grow again.  The long term outlook is very strong.  Pandora is the future of radio.  It, and services like it, will get an increasingly large share of radio listening hours with every month that passes in 2012, and with it a bigger share of radio ad revenues.  Pandora will be better off without the Spotify-converts, leaving it with its core user base of true radio fans. Spotify’s new radio play will obviously be a concern for Pandora  but this is Pandora’s core competency, and only a side show for Spotify.  Expect Pandora to up their game.

VERDICT: Since launching in November 2005 Pandora have fought a long, dogged battle to establish themselves as part of the music establishment, and 2011 was finally the year they achieved that.  There will be choppy waters in 2012 but Pandora will come out of it stronger than it went in.

In Conversation With Boinc’s Adam Kidron

Here is the video of my conversation yesterday with the CEO and founder of the forthcoming music service Boinc.  We discuss a number of things, including:

  • the state of digital music
  • Facebook’s potential impact on the space
  • reestablishing value in music
  • addressing the emerging market challenge

Adam also shares his vision for the music industry annd his concept of ‘creating an API around the entirity of music’.

Take a look and let me know your thoughts and comments.

Competing With Digital Music’s Triple A

Over the last two years the digital music stores-and-services-marketplace has consolidated and – with a few notable exceptions – stagnated. And as the likes of Comes With Music, Spiral Frog and imeem added to the ever growing list of failed but innovative start-ups, the queue of new entrants grew ever smaller.  Successive failures – due in no small part to hefty advances and license fees paid to rights holders – have made investors increasingly sceptical of injecting cash into digital music services that require record label licenses.  On the flip side rights owners have seen more and more services failing to deliver on their promises and thus started – major labels in particular – to demand greater financial guarantees to reduce their exposure to risk.

Meet Digital Music’s Triple A

The net result is a dramatic slowdown in the number of new stores and services coming to market, the direct consequence of which is an ever larger reliance on the Digital Music’s Triple A, namely:

Apple
Android
Amazon

The problem though, is that just as this consolidation is kicking in, so is a slowdown in digital growth, and long before it should be happening.  Digital Music’s Plan A isn’t working.  Apple’s shift of attention from music downloads to Apps, Video and Books is a key contributing factor, but the lack of wider marketplace innovation is equally influential.  But it is the Triple A to whom the music industry is increasingly looking to fix the problem.

SPACE (The Five Letters That Buy You A Chair At Digital Music’s Main Table)

The Triple A’s ‘last men standing’ credentials shouldn’t be under estimated – although they’re not the only big consumer brands left in town (as Spotify and Beyond Oblivion among others will attest).  Yet they are the music industry’s three big safe bets because each of them have the same crucial combination of assets.  They all have SPACE.  That is:

  • Scale: rights owners can’t afford Plan B to be a failure.  That’s why they need big players with big audiences, big reach and big everything else.  The logic goes; the bigger the player, the greater chance of success and the greater chance of pulling in previously elusive mass market audiences.
  • Product: each of Digital Music’s Triple A are in the digital music game with ulterior motives. Apple want to sell devices. Android is all about the operating system and what it can deliver to Google.  Even Amazon’s motive for being a major player is an ulterior one.  They need to remain a major player in music retailing to protect the low-price customer entry point on the purchase consideration ladder. i.e. you start off buying music and end up on PCs and fridges.  Not being a major player in digital music retail would risk a major long term dent on high ticket item sales.
  • Ambition: all three have big ambitions in digital music and appropriate commitments to funding that ambition.  Not all of them (that’s you Android and Amazon) might yet be putting that budget in the places the labels would like them to, but the strategic ambition and commitment is there nonetheless.  These guys are all playing a big, long game.
  • Cash: Even if Android and Amazon may have temporarily baulked at paying licenses for locker services, rights owners know they have big budgets to invest in licenses for other accompanying services – hence no law suits (yet) over the licence-free locker services.  The revenue and balances of The Triple A provide the financial security the labels in particular are so keenly seeking.
  • Ecosystem: An ecosystem is arguably the single most important ingredient of a successful digital music service (ask the c.300 European services which don’t have an Ecosystem play and are left fighting over the 30% of market share Apple leaves them to squabble over).  Apple’s device / service ecosystem is best of breed. Android’s, though based on a different ideology of (semi) openness, is an eager challenger.  Amazon’s is a work in progress; the locker service, music buying customer base and collaborative filtering are all ingredients for Amazon, and the forthcoming tablet may prove to be the secret sauce that completes the recipe.



Drop the P

So if you are not one of the Triple A, what can you do to compete, to get your seat at the main table?  For a start you are going to need at least four of their key attributes, namely Scale (or a clearly demonstrable way of achieving it), Ambition, Cash and Ecosystem (even if this is achieved with 3rd party channel partners).  All of which of course skews the market towards heavily funded major players.  Assuming you can deliver on these attributes, you are still going to need to have the extra ‘X factor’ which will give you the differentiation necessary to steal a march on the three incumbents.

And here’s where there is a big chink of light in the darkness. If you are a pure play music service, not constrained by the needs of your core non-music product(s) then you can throw all of your energies into innovating your core music product experience in a way the Triple A have patently failed to do so yet.  How is it possible that all that Amazon – the longest tenure major player in online music – has so far only launched an MP3 store and a locker service? Similarly, how is it possible that Android haven’t yet launched the world’s most technologically innovative music service?  And how can Apple still not have moved out of their a la carte store beachhead? (Their locker player is not exactly a bold thrust into new territory, however well executed).

Music fans need a new generation of innovative, ground breaking digital music experiences.  The Triple A’s inherent bias of their core non-music products looks set to continue to hinder their ability to deliver.  Here’s hoping that this set of circumstances creates a window of opportunity for (well-funded) disruptive innovations rather than a blueprint for continued stagnation.