Spotify’s Tencent Risk

NOTE: a previous version of this post referred to a non-compete clause with Spotify detailed in this SEC filing. I have been advised that the scope of this clause is narrower than I had originally interpreted. I have therefore updated this post to remove reference to that clause but the essence of the post remains intact due to the potential role of the major labels which, as outlined below, could have the same effect as a non-compete clause.

On Thursday (September 20th) Spotify grabbed the headlines with its announcement that it is launching a free-to-use direct upload service for artists. While it is undoubtedly a big move, and one that will concern Soundcloud among others, it was not a surprising move. In fact, in April we predicted this would happen soon:“Spotify will take a subtler path to ‘doing a Netflix’, first by ‘doing a Soundcloud’, i.e. becoming a direct platform for artists and then switching on monetisation”. Will labels be concerned, sure, because although Spotify might not be parking its tanks on their lawn yet, it is certainly slowly reversing them in that general direction. However, they may just have a way of clipping Spotify’s wings and waiting in, er, the wings…Tencent.

Still waiting for IPO metrics

Tencent is prepping its music division (TME) for a partial US IPO but announced earlier this week that it will be reducing the amount it is seeking to raise from $4 billion to $2 billion, though still against a reported valuation of around $25 billion. Regular readers will know I have a healthy scepticism of Tencent’s music numbers. It has only ever reported one subscriber number officially – 4.7 million for QQ Music in Q1 2016, therefore it has plausible deniability over all the non-official numbers it puts out via the press. So, the fact there still isn’t an F1 filing revealing TME’s metrics is intriguing to say the least.

Go west

The likelihood is that the numbers will show a relative flattening in music subscriber growth (though other areas of its business should be robust). If so, they fit a wider narrative of Tencent nearing the limits of its potential in China. Video subs, which have grown superfast, will soon slow, messaging is saturated and the Chinese government is curtailing Tencent’s games operations. The title of our April report says it all: “Tencent Has Outgrown China: Now Comes the Next Phase of Growth”. Until last year’s change in Chinese regulations, Tencent could quite happily have spent its time strolling across the globe buying up companies to spread its global wings. But now, operating under limits of how much it can spend on overseas companies, Tencent is restricted to taking minority stakes in companies like Gaana and Spotify. But those efforts do not deliver Tencent the scale of global growth it needs. You can probably see where this is heading: to grow its music business TME will have to roll out internationally, which is quite possibly part of the story it will use to justify its $25 billion valuation.

Ring fencing Spotify’s global reach 

Should TME decide to use the $2 billion it raises via IPO as a war chest, it could then go on a global roll out to all the markets where Spotify is currently not present. Getting their first, with the backing of Tencent and of the $2bn IPO windfall would put Spotify on the back foot. Especially if, and here’s the crucial part, the major record labels took this as an opportunity to knock Spotify down a peg because of its increasingly competitive behaviour. They’ve been relying on Indian licenses already, that could prove to be a template, with Tencent the grateful beneficiary.  This would have the effect of ring-fencing Spotify’s global roll out plans. For fans of the board game Risk, the board would look something like this:

Spotify tencent risk 1

But Risk’s map doesn’t really do it justice. Using a political global map, the respective footprints would look more like this:

Spotify tencent risk 2

The major labels have proven unwilling to license Spotify for India because they weren’t happy with Spotify offering direct deals for a small number of artists. Imagine how they are going to feel with this latest move. With TME waiting patiently on the side lines, they may just see it as an opportunity to carve up the global streaming landscape into two halves, creating a cold war stalemate. Your move Spotify.

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.

Yonder And Streaming’s Less Travelled Path

Back in 2012, a music service that had raised $174 million in funding closed without yet having launched to consumers. That service was Beyond Oblivion, a company that intended to transform the music market with music bundled into handsets and phone packages at no extra cost to consumers. Five and half years later, Beyond Oblivion’s founder is finally seeing his latest iteration of the bundled music service model gain traction. Yonder, his new(ish) company, has started off 2018 with a million monthly active users (MAUs) under its belt, with the majority of that growth coming in the fourth quarter of 2017. Yet Yonder is not on many people’s radar, in large part because it is building its business in markets that are off streaming’s beaten track.

yonder graphic

Yonder’s main market is Bangladesh, which makes up just over half of its MAU base, followed by Indonesia and Sri Lanka. It even has tens of thousands of users in Nepal and the Maldives and plans to roll out to markets such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Iraq and Ghana in 2018. These are not markets famed as booming digital music markets, and they’re certainly not priority markets for any of the top streaming services. So, in many respects Yonder is competing around, rather than with the likes of Spotify.

Low ARPU markets

But there is more to it than just that. These are markets with mostly large populations and very low GDP per capita and mobile ARPU. In many of these territories mobile ARPU is significantly lower than the cost of a western streaming subscription. For example, total mobile ARPU in Bangladesh is around $4 a month. This makes fitting the economics of a streaming music bundle into a tariff challenging in the extreme. The standard wholesale tariffs record labels provide streaming services in these regions struggle to fit these wafer thin margins. So, making music bundles work needs a very specific and localized approach. The same principle applies to localization, with music programming requiring a much higher degree of local specialization than many other markets.

More than one way to skin a cat

2018 will likely see a slowdown in music subscriber growth in many western markets. In the meantime, majority of the 9.99 price points will be addressed. Ad supported and discounting will be key to sustaining growth in these markets, but the scale of opportunity for digital music lies in emerging markets. 2017 was the year we really started to see Latin American markets begin to make their mark, while China established itself as a major contributor to subscribers, if not revenue. Services like Yonder are important for the music business, not just because they address new markets but also because they represent another approach. The 9.99 AYCE model will remain the core opportunity, but sticking too tightly to it will limit the scope of the wider market.

Yonder’s model is not without challenges – not least the concept of making premium music feel like it’s free to its users – but it represents one of what should hopefully become a wider selection of alternative paths to making streaming pay.

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

Deezer Says It’s Going Global…

…and it means it: the pictures below are of Deezer branded bus stops in rural Mauritius. With Spotify also having announced a bunch of new markets this week, and Apple and Nokia already having an extensive network of global digital stores, 2013 really is the year that digital music should start to see some meaningful ‘rest of world’ traction.

deezer-mauritius copy