10 Trends That Will Reshape the Music Industry

The IFPI has reported that global recorded music revenues have hit $19.1 billion, which means that MIDiA’s own estimates published in March were within 1.6% of the actual results. This revenue growth story is strong and sustained but the market itself is undergoing dramatic change. Here are 10 trends that will reshape the recorded music business over the coming years:

top 10 trends

  1. Streaming is eating radio: Younger audiences are abandoning radio for streaming. Just 39% of 16-19-year olds listen to music radio, while 56% use YouTube instead for music. Gen Z is unlikely to ever ‘grow into radio’; if you are trying to break an artist with a young audience, it is no longer your best friend. To make matters worse, podcasts are looking like a Netflix moment for radio and may start stealing older audiences. This is essentially a demographic pincer movement.
  2. Streaming deflation: Streaming music has allowed itself to be outpaced by inflation. A $9.99 subscription from 2009 is actually $13.36 when inflation is factored in. Contrast this with Netflix, for which theinflation-adjusted price is $10.34 but the actual 2019 price is $12.99. Netflix has stayed ahead of inflation; Spotify and co. have fallen behind. It is easier for Netflix to increase prices as it has exclusive content, but rights holders and streaming services need to figure out a way to bring prices closer to inflation. A market-wide increase to $10.99 would be a sound start, and the fact that so many Spotify subscribers are willing to pay $13 a month via iTunes shows there is pricing tolerance in the market.
  3. Catalogue pressure: Deep catalogue has been the investment fund of labels for years. But with most catalogue streams coming from music made in this century, catalogue values are being turned upside down (in the streaming era, the Spice Girls are worth more than the Beatles!). Labels can still extract high revenue from legacy artists with super premium editions like UMG did with the Beatles in 2018, but a new long-term approach is required for valuing catalogue. Matters are complicated further by the fact that labels are now doing so many label services deals, and therefore not building future catalogue value.
  4. Labels as a service (LAAS): Artists can now create their own virtual label from a vast selection of services such as 23 Capital, Amuse, Splice, Instrumental, and CDBaby. A logical next step is for a 3rdparty to aggregate a selection of these services into a single platform (an opening for Spotify?). Labels need to get ahead of this trend by better communicating the soft skills and assets they bring to the equation, e.g. dedicated personnel, mentoring, and artist and repertoire (A+R) support.
  5. Value chain disruption: LAAS is just part of a wider trend of value chain disruption with multiple stakeholders trying to expand their roles, from streaming services signing artists to labels launching streaming services. Things are only going to get messier, with virtually everyone becoming a frenemy of the other.
  6. Tech major bundling: Amazon set the ball rolling with its Prime bundle, and Apple will likely follow suit with its own take on the tech major bundle. Music is going to become just one part of content offerings from tech majors and it will need to fight for supremacy, especially in the ultra-competitive world of the attention economy.
  7. Global culture: Streaming – YouTube especially – propelled Latin music onto the global stage and soon we may see Spotify and T-Series combining to propel Indian music into a similar position. The standard response by Western labels has been to slap their artists onto collaborations with Latin artists. The bigger issue to understand, however, is that something that looks like a global trend may not be a global trend at all but is simply reflecting the size of a regional fanbase. The old music business saw English-speaking artists as the global superstars. The future will see global fandom fragmented with much more regional diversity. The rise of indigenous rap scenes in Germany, France and the Netherlands illustrates that streaming enables local cultural movements to steal local mainstream success away from global artist brands.
  8. Post-album creativity: Half a decade ago most new artists still wanted to make albums. Now, new streaming-era artists increasingly do not want to be constrained by the album format, but instead want to release steady streams of tracks in order to keep their fan bases engaged. The album is still important for established artists but will diminish in importance for the next generation of musicians.
  9. Post-album economics: Labels will have to accelerate their shift to post-album economics, figuring out how to drive margin with more fragmented revenue despite having to invest similar amounts of money into marketing and building artist profiles.
  10. The search for another format: In 1999 the recorded music business was booming, relying on a long established, successful format that did not have a successor. 20 years on, we are in a similar place with streaming. The days of true format shifts are gone due to the fact we don’t have dedicated format-specific music hardware anymore. However, the case for new commercial models and user experiences is clear. Outside of China, depressingly little has changed in terms of digital music experiences over the last decade. Even playlist innovation has stalled. One potential direction is social music. Streaming has monetized consumption; now we need to monetize fandom.

Japan Should Look to China for Future Streaming Growth

Japan is the world’s second largest recorded music market and accounts for 14% of the global total. However, Japan is not following the wider market path of surging streaming revenues driving overall market growth. Instead, Japanese recorded music revenues fell by 3.3% in 2018 — in US dollars terms, in Yen terms it fell by 1.8%. Japan’s fate matters because its revenues are so big, a slowdown impacts the global market in a big way. On the plus side, streaming is growing solidly in Japan, up 30% in 2018, which puts it on a par with US for growth, but the US is a much more mature streaming market with growth beginning to slow. Japan is at an earlier stage of streaming growth (physical still accounted for 69% of all revenues in 2018) so should be growing much faster than it is. Instead it only added $71 million of net new revenues in 2018, which represented just 3% of the global total of net new streaming revenues. Considering streaming services have long been established in Japan and the wide gamut of services available, just what is going on with streaming in Japan?

The handshake economy

One of the major drivers of the Japanese recorded music market in recent years has been pop CD sales. While it might sound counterintuitive to have young Japanese fans rushing out to buy CDs rather than stream their favourite J-Pop artists, there are a lot of reasons for them to do so. These include J-Pop artists are releasing multiple editions of the same album with different free gifts, and Idol artists like Nogizaka46 and AKB48 are issuing in CDs voting cards that fans can use to help choose the band membership. Add into the mix ardent fans being able to get handshakes with their favourite artists through vouchers in CDs purchased, and you have the outline of a CD market that has less to do with music sales than it does with monetising fandom. While this is a high valuable asset for the Japanese market, it does not translate well to streaming. This is Japan’s streaming challenge: current streaming services, as in Western markets, monetise consumption not fandom. Over in China though, monetising fandom is exactly what many streaming services do.

Tencent sets the global standard for monetising fandom

Tencent has built a portfolio of music appsthat have fandom culture at their core; whether that be the live streaming, social features and in-app gaming of Kuwo, virtual tipping on KuGuo Live or VIP passes to get access to special virtual gifts in karaoke app Quanmin K Ge (We Sing). In short, Tencent has built a digital music empire that monetises fandom rather than consumption, a logical move in a market where piracy was rampant and had changed consumers’ perceptions of where value lies. And it is not just Chinese music fans that have bought into the Tencent music project: spin off venture Tencent Music Entertainment (TME) is trading above $15 on the NYSE, after opening at $14 late 2018.

The Tencent blueprint can work in Japan too

So, the question is, can the TME model work in Japan? One of the many, many differences between Japan and China’s music markets is that Japan has a long tradition of consumers paying for music, and paying a lot. So it is at a very different starting point to China, but the role of monetising fandom in CD sales means that it is also at a different starting position compared to Western music markets. Expecting a simple Yen-for-Yen transition from physical to digital is not a probable scenario. A unique approach is required that combines elements of the western model and the Chinese model (though of course in Japanese geographical terms, the West is East, and China is West). Japanese messaging app Line is perhaps the best placed to capitalise, having already built a vibrant virtual gifts business and also having a music service with around a million subscribers at the end of 2017. Sony Music Japan recently launched its own service Mora Qualitas,but its focus on quality is targeting a very different segment and a smaller one: MIDiA’s Q3 2018 survey showed that just 12% of Japanese consumers prefer to listen to higher-quality audio, well below the all-country average of 23%.

Japan’s streaming market is going to need to plot a unique path if the transition is to stand any chance of driving total market growth any time soon. But if it does so, the lessons that will be learned could set a blueprint for the next phase of streaming growth in Western markets. Watch this space!

Soon to be the Biggest Ever YouTube Channel, T-Series May Also Be About to Reshape Global Culture

pewdiepie tseries

Some time over the next month or so a YouTube landmark will be passed: T-Series will pass PewDiePie as the most subscribed YouTube channel on the planet. As of time of writing T-Series had 75.4 million subscribers compared to PewDiePie’s 76.4 million. (PewDiePie’s lead was narrower but he has mobilised his fan base to delay the inevitable.) But do not mistake this milestone to be a narrow measure of the shifting sands of the YouTube economy. Indeed, it tells us more about the future of streaming as a whole (both music and video) than it does the current status of sweary Swedish gamers.

For those of you who somehow do not yet know who T-Seriesis, it is a leading Indian music label and movie studio – it in fact claims to be ‘the biggest – that is the world’s largest YouTube music channel and before long it will likely be able to drop the ‘music’ qualifier from that title. It is also the label that Spotify just struck a deal with as it preps its protracted launch into India.

A streaming market of contradictions

India is a problematic market for streaming monetization. It has 1.4 billion consumers but just 330 million of those have smartphones. There were 215 million free streaming users in 2018 but just 1 million paid subscribers despite leading indigenous players like Hungama and Saavn having been in market for years. Total streaming revenue was just $130 million in 2017 generating a combined annual ARPU of $0.27. And that number is heavily boosted by unrecouped Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs) due to local streaming services continually failing to meet their projected subscriber numbers (though according to local accounts, perfectly happy to continue to effectively overpay for their streaming royalties). The video side of streaming is more robust with eight million subscribers generating more than three times more revenue than music streaming does. Even still, eight million subscribers is scant return against a base of 330 million smartphone users.

Streaming unlocks the potential of emerging markets

India is exactly the sort of market that streaming business models have the potential to unlock. The old world was defined by commerce, by people paying to own music or for hefty household TV subscriptions that inherently meant owning a TV set. As a direct consequence, the traditional music and TV markets skewed towards western markets with higher levels of disposable income. This was a massive missed opportunity and one that can now be fixed. As Mexico and Brazil are currently in the process of showing us, populations with strong cultural heritage and large, but lower income, populations can have massive impact. Like or loathe Reggaeton, its ability to permeate the global music marketplace is testament to the power of Latin American music fans and the artists they support, as is Colombian J Balvin’s current status as the most streamed artist on Spotify.

The growing influence of second tier markets

Streaming can monetize scale in a way the old model simply could not. What we will see over the coming decades is a steady realignment of the balance of power across the global music and video markets. Western markets – and a handful of others such as Japan – will continue dominate revenues due to a combination of higher subscription penetration and higher subscriber ARPU. But large population, 2ndtier markets will have a growing influence. The BRIC markets (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are obvious candidates but also Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria, Egypt, Turkey and Thailand all have similar potential.

Large, engaged local audiences can shape global trends

One of the key reasons Latin American artists have become part of the global cultural zeitgeist is that Spotify has a big regional user base – 42 million MAUs as of Q3 18. Because record labels over-prioritise Spotify in terms of marketing and trend spotting, when Latin American artists started blowing up, European and North American labels started paying extra close attention and building up their own rosters of Latin American artists. Latin American users represent 22% of global Spotify MAUs but their influence is amplified by the fact that they stream a lot and they tend to stream individual tracks repeatedly. So, when they put their support behind something it blows up, edging into the global charts which then triggers a whole bunch of actions that see that track being fed into non-Latin playlists and user recommendations, which can then trigger a further escalation of playlist strategy. And so forth. This was Luis Fonsi’s path to global stardom.

Could India ‘do a Mexico’?

So the obvious question is, if T-Series had enjoyed the same sort of success on Spotify that it did on YouTube, would Guru Randhawa be topping Spotify’s global artists instead of J Balvin? Would we be finding Bhangra in every sonic nook and cranny instead of Reggaeton? The answer is – as certain as a counter factual claim can ever be – almost certainly yes. Whereas Latin American emigres are a major demographic in the US, they are less so elsewhere. Also, Latin American culture is divided between Spanish and Portuguese. The Indian diaspora however, is far more global, with large populations in the US, Canada and UK. What is more, though India has many indigenous languages, English is spoken nationally, with many artists releasing in English. Similarly, a growing number of Bollywood movies are being made in English with an eye on the global market.

So when Spotify finally launches in India, expect a series of global cultural aftershocks. Spotify is unlikely to covert that many premium subscribers – except via telco bundles – but it is likely to build a big free user base. And when that happens expect T-Series to take centre stage with Guru Randhawato be the most streamed artist globally by 2020…?

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.

Emerging Music Markets: Streaming’s Third Wave

MIDiA has just published a new report that deep dives into how streaming is, or in some cases is not, lifting off in emerging markets. The regions we focused on were Russia, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, China and India. The report ‘Emerging Music Markets: Streaming’s Third Wave’ is immediately available to MIDiA subscription clients and can also be purchased, along with its full dataset (including service- and country-level subscriber and free users numbers, as well as consumer data for India and China) on our report store here.

Here are some of the key findings and themes of the report.

emerging markets midia streaming

With streaming growth set to slow in mature western markets by 2019, the next wave of fast growth will come from a mixture of mid-tier markets such as Mexico, Brazil, Japan and Germany. The lower income mid-tier markets such as Brazil and Mexico are so populous that the urban elites have been big enough to generate paid user bases that are comparable to those of smaller European markets. The real scale opportunity, however, exists in monetising lower income groups with much cheaper propositions. Beyond that, the streaming market will need to look towards emerging markets for growth. Emerging markets in Asia and Africa present a diverse variety of opportunities, but current evidence suggests that the outlook for these markets is far from uniform.

The rule that defines emerging markets for streaming music is that there isn’t one. China has a large base of free users and a solid base of subscribers. India has large numbers of free users, but a tiny paid base. Russia and the Middle East both have a solid ratio of free-to-paid users while Africa has the lowest per capita metrics for both paid and free.

Arguably, the single most important reason for these differences is mobile data network availability and affordability. In China and India mobile data use is increasingly widespread, making streaming a compelling proposition, while in most sub-Saharan African countries coverage is patchy and expensive.

Despite their differences, these regions will be crucial to the long-term outlook for streaming growth. So, mapping their respective trajectories helps to forecast long-term global market growth for streaming. Rights holders will need to innovate out of their comfort zone if they are to truly seize the emerging markets opportunity. The fact that Nigeria’s MTN only gets a retail ARPU of around $2 a year across sub-Saharan Africa for its music products, including ringtones and downloads, hints at where ARPU expectations may have to be set.

Companies and brands mentioned in the report:Baidu Music, Gaana, Hungama, iRoking, Jio Music, Kugou, Kuwo, Mdundo, Mkito, MTN, MTN Music+, Mzliki, Netease Cloud Music, QQ Music, Quan Min K G, Saavn, Simfy Africa, Vkontakte, Vkontakte Music, Vuga, Wynk Music, Yandex, Yandex Music, Zvook

Click here to view the report on MIDiA’s report store.

Just What Is Tencent Up To With Streaming?

Tencent is building a global streaming empire. Back in December 2017 Tencent Music did a 10% equity swap deal with Spotify and now it has led a $115 million investment round for India-based streaming service Gaana. India may only be a small subscription market, with just 1.1 million paid subscribers at the end of 2016, but it one dominated by local players and has massive free streaming potential. Tencent now has major streaming stakes that give it reach across Asia, Europe and the Americas. The key missing parts are the Middle East and North Africa (Anghami is probably waiting for the phone to ring). Right now, Tencent has a streaming foothold in the world’s three largest countries:

  1. China: population 1.4 billion. 100% ownership of QQ Music, Kugou and Kuwo which together account for 70% of subscribers
  2. India: population 1.3 billion. Undisclosed ownership of top three streaming service Gaana
  3. US: 330 million. 10% ownership of leading subscription service

What Tencent is doing is building a global network of strategic positions in the streaming market that individually might not have global influence, but, collectively could be brought to bear to in an impactful way. Much like John Malone’s Liberty Media, Tencent is taking minority stakes in a strategically selected portfolio of companies. This provides it with the ability to exert some degree of influence and extract some benefit without the risk and resource required for a majority ownership. Minority stakes can also be used as beachheads for majority ownership further down the line.

In some respects, Tencent does not have a huge amount of choice in the matter. Last year the Chinese government placed restrictions on the amount Chinese companies could spend on overseas companies, in order to slow the outflow of capital from China. But, rather than let this be a hindrance Tencent is now using the policy to shape a bold internationalisation strategy. Coupled with other minority investments (12% in Snap Inc., 5% of Tesla) Tencent is positioning itself to be king maker in the future of digital media.

Spotify, Tencent And The Laws Of Unintended Consequences

spotify tencent midia

News has emerged that Spotify and Tencent Holdings could be swapping 10% holdings in each other’s companies ahead of Spotify’s public listing. There are some obvious implications for both enterprises, as well as some less immediately obvious, but even more interesting permutations:

  • Spotify gets a foothold in China: Tencent is the leading music subscription company in China with QQ Music, Kugou and Kuwo accounting for 14.7 million subscribers in 2016. Apple Music has got a strong head start over Spotify with 3.5 million Chinese music subscribers. Tencent, with its billing relationships, social reach (WeChat, QQ Messenger) and rights holders relationships (Tencent sub-licenses label rights) provides a potential China launch pad for Spotify. So, the obvious implication is that Spotify could use Tencent as an entry point into the market. But this is where things get complicated. Tencent is planning a $10 billion flotation of Tencent Music. How would this valuation be impacted by Tencent aiding the entry of a direct competitor – which is a leader in virtually every market it is currently in, into the market of? A joint venture could be the way to square the circle.
  • Spotify continues its narrative building: As I have long argued, Spotify needs to construct a compelling narrative for Wall Street. It needs to be able to show that it is making strong progress on many of its weak points. Getting better deals from the labels was one such move. Now it has ticked the ‘what about China’ box too.
  • Tencent gets a foothold in the US: Earlier this year the Chinese government put in place restrictions on Chinese companies investing in overseas companies, in order to slow the outflow of Chinese capital. (It slowed a potential investment by Alibaba in UMG). Swapping equity is a way to get round this restriction. It also builds on Tencent’s move extending its stake in Snap to 12%. Tencent is pushing the rules to the limit in order to become a key player in US digital consumer businesses (Spotify of course will become, in part at least, a US company when public). The intriguing question is whether Tencent will get any access to Spotify’s western billing relationships.
  • Valuation disparities: Tencent Music has around a 3rd of Spotify’s subscriber base, a fraction of its revenue and half of its market valuation. Yet a 10% swap deal is on the table. Which suggests that Spotify really, really feels that it needs that entry point into China….

If this deal pans out the way it has been slated, it will potentially save Spotify and Tencent from a resource-draining clash of Titans for when (not if) Spotify would enter the Chinese market. It also provides Spotify with a potential long-term insurance asset. When Yahoo acquired a stake in Alibaba it was very much the senior partner. But, as Yahoo’s business imploded its Alibaba stake became its core asset.

Spotify obviously won’t be thinking that way but history shows us to never say never.

UPDATED: This post has been updated to reflect that the 10% equity swap is with Tencent  Music, not Tencent Holdings Ltd

Is QQ Music Worth $10 Billion?

Western appetite for the Chinese market has long been based upon accessing the 1.4 billion consumers. This has in turn impacted valuations of Chinese companies, particularly when eager western investors are involved. However, there is a growing realisation that market potential does not always translate to [performance]. Now we have Chinese tech major Tencent seeking pre-IPO investment in its music streaming service QQ Music, against a valuation of $10 billion. That is only $3 billion less than Spotify’s valuation. So, is QQ Music worth $10 billion?

qq music.png

Valuations in isolation can be misleading and therefore need context and scale. For example, Deezer had a valuation of $1.25 billion for its aborted IPO, while Spotify’s valuation is nearly 10 times higher. Moreover, Spotify’s subscriber count (60 million) is nearly 10 times higher than Deezer’s was (6.5 million), leading up to the aborted IPO. So, the best way to make meaningful comparisons between streaming music valuations is to look at the valuation divided by the number of subscribers, to give us a valuation per subscriber metric (see above). Here are a few ways to assess the value of QQ Music compared to other streaming services:

  • Valuation per subscriber: On the valuation per subscriber basis Spotify and Deezer’s valuations per subscriber are quite similar ($217 for Spotify, compared to $198 for Deezer). Tidal is significantly higher at $300 (well done that man Jay-Z for talking up the value of his service to Sprint), while QQ Music with its reported 10 million subscribers comes in at $1,000. This obviously begs the question, are QQ Music subscribers worth 5 times more than Spotify subscribers?
  • Subscriber revenue: The headline consumer retail price for Spotify is $9.99, while the headline price for QQ Music is $1.60. Spotify’s actual average revenue per user (ARPU) in 2016 was around $6.10, so if we scale QQ Music by a similar rate we get an ARPU of $0.98. If we multiply those ARPUs by the current subscriber number for each company, we end up with a monthly subscription revenue of $366 million for Spotify and $9.8 million for QQ Music. Therefore, rather than QQ Music subscribers being worth 10 times more than Spotify subscribers, they actually generate just 3% of Spotify’s subscriber revenue each month.
  • Addressable market: Valuations are of course based on potential, not just actual. China has 717 million smartphone owners (30% of the global total) and a GDP of $11.2 trillion (14% of the total). Given QQ Music’s Chinese positioning, that is its addressable market. By contrast, Spotify is a global service, though pointedly not in China, so its addressable market (excluding China) is technically 1.7 billion smartphone owners, and $67 trillion of GDP. QQ Music’s addressable market is in fact smaller, unless of course it decides to roll out to more territories. Likewise, Spotify could also roll out to China.
  • Like-for-like comparisons: We also need to be careful about the numbers behind QQ Music. 10 million QQ Music subscribers may not be the same as 10 million Spotify subscribers. Firstly, QQ Music [subscription] includes karaoke features, such as Bullet Screening, which many would not consider to be music subscribers as such. Additionally, 10 million might not actually be 10 million. Back in Q1 2016, Tencent reported to the markets that it had a little under four million QQ Music subscribers. Then in July 2016, in a Mashable piece, it claimed to have 10 million subscribers. Then nothing until January 2017, when it did another media push, announcing…10 million subscribers. If we take these reports at face value, it means QQ Music had an incredible Q2 2017 then did absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, thereafter. Whatever the subscriber number actually is for QQ Music, the 10 million figure, at the very least, merits some scrutiny.

So, to answer the opening question, is QQ Music worth $10 billion? That depends. Compared to other streaming music services, the metrics suggest that it isn’t. But, to Tencent’s local investor market, maybe so. 80% of Chinese stock market transactions are from small retail investors, i.e. not institutional investors. So, while a $10 billion valuation might look high to institutional investors, to enthusiastic local retail investors who know QQ Music and have read all the stories about the booming streaming music market, this will appear to be a golden opportunity to get in on the great streaming boom.

Is QQ Music worth $10 billion? It depends on who you are!