The MIDiA Research Podcast: Episode 1 – What Next for Tencent?

midia research podcastWe are excited to announce the first episode of the MIDiA Research podcast: What Next for Tencent?

President Trump’s executive orders concerning Bytedance and Tencent set the cat among the pigeons. In this podcast we explore what the potential ramifications are for Tencent’s bold and disruptive entertainment business strategy in the West.

MIDiA Research · MIDiA Research Podcast Episode 1: What Next for Tencent

Newsflash: UMG, WMG and Spotify may have a problem with Tencent

UPDATE: AWhite House official confirmed to the LA Times that the announcement, at this stage, will not affect Tencent shareholdings of companiesand clarified that the order only refers to transactions ‘related to’ WeChat. How tight or narrow that definition will prove to be is another matter. This is a case of watch this space but whatever path the order eventually takes when put in action 45 days from now, Tencent’s global entertainment investment strategy has at the absolute least been put on a warning. The potential repercussions remain vast.

Donald Trump just signed a presidential order prohibiting any company subject to US jurisdiction from “any transactions” with Tencent Holdings Limited or “any subsidiary of” Tencent. This will have just put Universal Music, Warner Music and Spotify into emergency planning mode, not to mention Snap Inc, Epic Games, Blizzard Entertainment, AMC cinema and countless other entertainment companies that have taken Tencent investment. What had looked like a mischievously smart global strategy, giving Tencent back-door reach and influence over the Western entertainment business has just been dealt a potentially fatal blow by the stroke of the US president’s pen.

Donald Trump’s campaign against Bytedance and TikTok has had centre-stage media coverage (which of course has benefits during an election year) but by now pulling Tencent into the bitter dispute he may have (though probably inadvertently) started a domino effect that could cause major disruption to the US entertainment world. The wording of the presidential executive order (full text here) while aimed primarily at WeChat is incredibly vague and broad in reach, far beyond the WeChat app. While a White House official has since suggested the order is narrower in scope than the order suggests, the order says Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will not identify what transactions are covered until the order comes into effect in 45 days time.

There is a possibility that the scope of the order will be more tightly defined when it comes into effect, which will be in late September, just in time for peak presidential election campaigning. If it is broad in scope then it will likely be subject to legal challenges but they are lengthy affairs and going to legal war against a president that takes things very personally, especially during an election, is going to get messy. The kind of messy that already jittery stick markets do not like.

So, the near term scenario for UMG, WMG and Spotify is that they may all have to sever ties with Tencent (including Tencent Music Entertainment as it is a Tencent subsidiary) and then maybe even have to ensure Tencent divests its shareholdings (though that of course would require “transactions” – see how messy this is going to be). After that, the big repercussions for music could kick in. Tencent has been willing to pay a premium for the investments it has made in US based music companies. In doing so it has helped push up the overall value of music assets. Tencent’s sudden (potentially permanent) withdrawal from the market at a time when the global economy is entering a recession, could have long term impact. And in principle, any US label, publisher or CMO licensing music to Chinese streaming services via Tencent could easily be considered ‘transactions’.

Trump’s campaign against TikTok, while controversial, is relatively narrow in scope for the West, but Tencent represents an entirely different scale. Years of building its Western investments mean that Tencent’s tentacles of commercial interest stretch throughout the Western entertainment world. To date, Tencent has played a relatively passive role in its invested companies, if Tencent decides to go down fighting, that may be about to change. Whether it does so or simply deflates the music investment market by vacating it, the potential ramifications of Trump’s order for US based entertainment companies are huge.

We Are At a Turning Point for Social Music

In recent days we have seen three major developments that, collectively, are a potential pivot point for social music:

  1. TikTok close to a US-entity buyout by Microsoft to avoid potential sanctions, following hot on the heels of an India blackout
  2. Facebook launched a (US-only) YouTube competitor for music videos
  3. Snap Inc signed a licensing deal with WMG and others, also for music videos

As cracks begin to appear in the audio streaming market, there is a growing sense in the music industry of the need for a plan B. This has been driven by growing discontent among the creator community, and a slowdown in revenue growth (UMG streaming revenues actually fell in Q2 as did Sony Music’s); the tail wagging the artist-and-revenue (A&R) dog. The search for new growth drivers is on, and social music – for so long a promise unfulfilled in the West – is one of the bets. TikTok was meant to be a major part of that bet. But with the US future of the app so at risk that a Microsoft US-entity buyout may be the only option, and the continued impact of COVID-19 on core revenue streams, the future is beginning to look a little more troublesome. Perhaps now more than ever, the music industry needs social music to start delivering.

There are three key issues at stake here:

  1. How consumers discover music
  2. How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music
  3. Competing with YouTube

How consumers discover music

Among the under-aged 35 demographic, YouTube is the primary music discovery channel, followed by music streaming, then radio, and only then by social. Streaming discovery is heavily skewed towards tracks and playlists, and away from artists and release projects, which is fine for streaming platforms but impedes building sustainable artist careers. Radio is losing share of ear and YouTube… well, YouTube is YouTube (more on that below), so the music business needs a new discovery growth driver. Social has the potential to be just that. But spammy artist pages on Facebook and more-than-perfect Instagram photos are not it. TikTok, for all its amazing momentum, actually has a really uneven impact on discovery. Some tracks blow up out of nowhere while most do little, and rarely is it because of a smart label marketing strategy but instead because certain tracks just work on the platform and the community leaps on them. For now, TikTok is too unpredictable to plan around. Facebook (Instagram especially) and Snap Inc have a fantastic opportunity to do something special here. They have the audience and the social know-how. Whether they can deliver is a different matter entirely.

How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music

What TikTok lacks in consistent marketing contribution it makes up in consumption. Following on from Musical.ly’s start, TikTok has reimagined how music can be part of social experiences for young audiences. It has made music a highly relevant and integral part of self-expression, something that CD collections and music dress codes used to do in the pre-digital world but that soulless, ephemeral playlists wiped out. While labels pin hopes on TikTok successes to drive wider consumption, the discovery journey is also the destination for most TikTok users – they hear the track in a video and swipe onto the next one. That is no bad thing. This is a new form of consumption, and if TikTok were to disappear or fade then someone else needs to pick up the baton. Whether Facebook and Snap Inc can do so is, again, an open question.

Competing with YouTube

Now we get to the heart of the Facebook and Snap Inc deals. As important as the previous two points are, they were not the overriding priorities of the commercial teams driving these deals. Instead they were focused on expanding the revenue mix and part of that is creating more competition for the notoriously low-paying YouTube. Well, maybe not that low paying after all.

spotify youtube arpu

The internet is full of statements from trade associations, rightsholders and creators about how much less YouTube pays than Spotify. YouTube does pay less, because it manages to escape paying minimum per-stream rates for ad-supported videos – but it is a more nuanced picture than lobbyists would have you believe. Firstly, in terms of its Premium business, Google is entirely on par with Spotify. But then, that is the part that is licensed in the same way as the rest of the market.

Ad-supported is a mixed story. In North America, where there is a mature digital ad market, YouTube’s ad-supported average revenue per user (ARPU) is entirely on par with Spotify’s. However, on a global basis, ad-supported ARPU is dragged down by its large user base in emerging markets where digital ad markets are nascent. Spotify’s ARPU is 66% higher, in part because it has to pay minimum per-stream rates, i.e. it pays a fixed rate per stream regardless of whether it has sold any ad inventory against the track. This boosts ad-supported ARPU but it risks making the model unstainable, to the extent that Spotify reported -7% gross margin for ad-supported in Q1 2020 (and note, that’s gross margin, not net margin).

Rightsholders will be hoping for Facebook and Snap Inc to bring a similar level of competition to music video as exists in streaming audio, which in turn may give them a path to higher global ad-supported ARPU rates and a healthier marketplace. However, what will determine that objective is not business strategy but product strategy. The key question is what can they both do with music videos that YouTube cannot? YouTube has years of experience and user data around music videos, Snap Inc and Facebook do not. They will be playing catch-up with a weaker portfolio of content assets: Snap Inc is only partially licensed and both it and Facebook have only licensed official music videos. Unofficial videos (mash ups, covers, lyrics, TV show appearances etc.) account for 25% of the views of the top 30 biggest YouTube music videos. Those videos are crucial in that they provide the lean-forward element for viewers; they are crucial to making YouTube music social rather than just a viewing platform.

YouTube has dominated the music video globally for more than a decade. This might just be the time that this position starts to be challenged. But if Facebook and Snap Inc are going to do that, they will have to bring their product strategy A-game to the field. If they can, then the we may indeed witness a social music turnaround in the West.

Take Five (the big five stories and data you need to know) December 2nd 2019

Take5 2 12 19Bytedance / TikTok split: Bytedance appears to be getting nervy about the impact of Chinese censorship regulation on TikTok, to the extent that it is reportedly mulling spinning off the app as a separate company. This follows negative reactions to the closure of an account of a TikTok user that posted about Uyghurs. TikTok’s value to Bytedance is external to China, so it appears to want to ring-fence it from China. Whether Chinese authorities will permit that is another issue entirely.

Netflix at the movies: Netflix is reopening an iconic, boutique movie theatre in New York. This is all about cultural relevance and credibility. Netflix already does small screenings of some of its movies to be eligible for awards. This enables it to have red-carpet, star-studded premiers which will help its actors, directors and producers feel like they are still in the movie business. Old-world hangover.

Joyn (not a typo): ProSiebenSat.1 and Discovery have added a premium tier to their free OTT service Joyn (which is apparently a combination of ‘joy’ and ‘join’…). Naming quibbles aside, we are going to see more and more video services launching. Consumers will have to spend ever more in order to get all the shows they want to watch. The original streaming promise of replacing expensive pay-TV with a couple of cheap streaming subscriptions is dying on its feet.

Create Music, one to watch: Streaming and independent artists are rewriting the music business. A new(ish) breed of companies is emerging, playing by the new rule book. One to watch in 2020 is Create Music Group, which just signed a global distribution deal with Latin and hip hop label First Order Music.

Piracy is back: Well, maybe. But the principle that piracy could be the big winner of the streaming wars is valid. The more expensive it becomes to stream all the shows you want due to service fragmentation, the more likely people are to start pirating again, and streaming piracy is way harder to deal with than peer-to-peer downloads.

Why the Music Industry Needs Bytedance to Disrupt It

Back in September 2018 I suggested that Spotify faced a Tencent risk,with the potential of Tencent launching a competitive offering in markets that Spotify is not yet in. This would effectively divide the world between Spotify in Europe, Americas and some of Asia, and Tencent potentially everywhere else. Since then, Tencent has been distracted by acquiring a 10% stake in Universal Music. The fact it is now reportedly looking for partners to share the investment could point to Tencent getting spooked by slowing streaming growth in the second half of the year, something MIDiA predicted in November last year. Meanwhile, as all this was happening, Bytedance’s TikTok has become a global phenomenon – adding 500 million users in 2019 to reach 1.2 billion in total. On the back of this success, Bytedance has picked up Tencent’s dropped baton and has been working on a subscription service that now looks set for a December launch. The streaming market desperately needs a breath of fresh air; the only question is whether music rights holders feel bold enough to let Bytedance launch something truly market changing.

Change, but remain the same

TikTok has undeniable scale, even though the 1.5 billion figure likely refers to installs rather than active users. While it is certainly bigger than previous music messaging apps, the tech graveyard is full of once-promising, now-dead or near-obsolete ones (Musical.ly, Flipagram, Dubsmash, Ping Tunes, Music Messenger etc). In order to ensure it does not go the way of its predecessors (i.e. burn bright but fast) TikTok must learn how to expand and evolve its content offering but remain true to its users’ core use cases. The smart digital content businesses do this. Facebook and YouTube have both dramatically changed their content mixes since launch, yet fundamentally meet the same underlying use cases they started out with. It is essential for TikTok to ensure it grows with its young audience in the way Instagram has – otherwise it risks following the unwelcome path of its predecessors.

Do first, ask forgiveness later

The three global-scale consumer music apps which are genuinely differentiated from the rest of the streaming pack are YouTube, Soundcloud and TikTok. All three have one thing in common: they did first and asked forgiveness later. Rather than coming to music rightsholders to acquire rights and then building platforms around whatever rights they were able to secure, they built apps, built scale and then entered into serious licensing conversations. Crucially, they did so from a position of strength. The rest managed to secure fundamentally the same sets of rights, resulting in a marketplace of streaming services that lack differentiation. They all have the same catalogue, pricing and device support. They are even competing largely in the same markets. They are forced to differentiate with extras, such as playlists, personalisation and branding. This contrasts sharply with the highly-differentiated streaming video market and is the equivalent of the automotive market telling everyone they have to buy a Lexus but can choose what colour paint they want. Those three disruptors did exactly that: they disrupted, and in doing so fast-forwarded the rate of innovation.

The music market needs Bytedance to do something transformational

This is the context in which Bytedance is building a music subscription service. What the music market really needs is for this to be something that builds on the ethos and use cases of TikTok rather than becoming a cookie-cutter “all you can eat” service. Soundcloud and YouTube both found themselves dumbing down their core propositions in order to launch music subscriptions. Now, with streaming growth slowing, the market needs a disruption more than ever. It needs a Plan B to reinvigorate growth.

It is all too easy to say that rights holders have held back the market, and in some respects they have. But they also have an obligation to protect their rights and core revenue source: streaming. Indeed, there is an argument that YouTube is currently holding back streaming potential by delivering such a compelling free proposition – something that would not have happened if it had licensed first and launched later.

Emerging markets testbed

Music experiences from China, Japan and South Korea look very different from the ones that have come from the West, whether you are looking at Tencent’s music apps or K-pop artists. While there is a temptation to say that these reflect the unique cultural make ups of their respective markets, in all probability much of it will export. Indeed, we already see this happening with the success of BTS and of course TikTok in Western markets. What unifies these experiences is monetising fandom rather than consumption (which is what Western services do). The problem is that it is difficult for music rightsholders to agree with digital service providers (DSPs) on how much of the assets monetised in fandom platforms should bear royalty income, and just how much. This is one of the main stumbling blocks in monetising fandom.

Emerging markets may be the perfect testbed. We have already seen this approach in Brazil, where Deezer launched a prepay carrier-billing-integrated 60% discounted music bundle with local carrier TIM and has enjoyed strong subscriber growth as a result. The fact that Bytedance may launch first in emerging markets such as India, Indonesia and Brazil suggests that this approach may be being followed. If so, there is a chance that we might see something genuinely innovative coming to market.

While this may not yet constitute the Tencent risk model, there nonetheless remains a chance that Bytedance could end up being an emerging market counterweight to the Western market incumbents. The streaming market needs something new to up the innovation ante; let’s hope Bytedance can take on that mantle…

Take Five (the big five stories and data you need to know) November 18th 2019

Take5 18 11 19Bytedance subscription: Bytedance, parent of TikTok, is reportedly close to launching a music subscription service, initially focused on emerging markets. The big question is whether Bytedance will get the deals to launch something genuinely new, built on TikTok’s foundation, or just end up launching a cookie-cutter “all you can eat” 9.99 service.

Netflix and Nickelodeon team up: Netflix and Viacom’s Nickelodeon have announced a multi-year partnership to create kids shows. This shows two things: 1) Netflix is ensuring its kids offering is up to competing with Disney+, and 2) not all traditional TV companies see Netflix as being the enemy. This is becoming a heavily nuanced market.

Tencent looking for backingTencent is reportedly looking for external partners to come in as part of its $3.3 billion acquisition of 10% of UMG. Given Tencent was bullish about going it alone and paying a premium, something feels odd here. Maybe Tencent got spooked by slowing streaming growth in Q3 – something MIDiA said at the start of the year would happen.

Disney streaming woes: Good news for Disney+ with 10 miillion sign ups in 24 hours – that’s more than Apple Music got in weeks after launch. Bad news: it couldn’t cope with the demand, with widespread user complaints.Turns out it is just as hard for a media company to become a tech company as vice versa. There will be broad grins in Netflix towers.

BT keeps Champions League rights: UK telco BT has secured television rights for the European Champions League for another three seasons from 2021. The deal is reported to be worth £1.2 billion ($1.6 billion), with streaming service DAZN missing out in the bidding process. Sports rights remain a highly valued asset, but the bubble will burst at some stage in the next five years or so.

Backing Both Horses: The Thinking Behind Tencent’s UMG Stake

As long expected, Tencent is poised to take a stake in Vivendi, reported to be 10%. While the news might not be surprising, there are a number of important factors at play:

  • Tencent fast-tracked? Given that various entities stated their interest in investing in UMG, Vivendi appears to have fast-tracked Tencent. This might well be because Tencent showed the most appetite for paying a premium, and therefore Vivendi wanted to close the deal so as to create a price that subsequent bidders would have to work with.
  • Betting on both horses: The investment community is increasingly viewing music as a battle between rights and distribution, with Spotify versus UMG as the publicly traded vehicles through which the contest can be backed. Tencent already secured around 5% of Spotify via its Tencent Music Entertainment subsidiary back in 2017, and it is now securing 10% in UMG. Tencent is backing both horses in the race.
  • Investing within constraints: Back in 2016, concerned about capital flowing out of the country,Chinese authorities implemented restrictions on Chinese companies investing in overseas entities. This has compelled Tencent to focus on minority stakes rather than outright acquisitions. The UMG stake fits this investment framework.
  • Outgrowing China: Tencent had a 74% market share of the Chinese music subscriptions market in Q2 2018. While growth in the market is solid, it is slowing. Tencent will recognize that there is only so much remaining near-term opportunity at home. Being a part of the global market is a way of ensuring it is not constrained by its domestic marketplace.
  • Proxy wars: Back in 2018 I argued that Spotifyshould be wary of Tencent setting itself up as a competitor in markets where Spotify is not yet established (Russia, sub-Saharan Africa, some Asian markets etc). Tencent may still do this, and this may be part of the preparations, but for now ByteDance looks the most likely candidateto pursue this strategy.
  • Look east:While streaming is giving an old industry new legs in the west, China’s music industry is effectively being built from scratch. As a consequence, it doesn’t have decades of irrelevant baggage. This is seen in China’s music apps. Western streaming is all about monetising consumption; China’s isabout monetising fandom. If the Western music industry was born today, it too would be putting social at its core. Many argue that apps like WeSing can only really work in China – but I remember people saying the same about mobile picture messaging when i-mode was getting going in Japan nearly 20 years ago. Just look at TikTok’s global success if you need any further convincing.