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.

State of the YouTube Music Economy 2.0: A Turning Point for All Parties

YouTube is the most widely used streaming music app globally but it is also the most controversial one, locked in a perpetual struggle with music rights holders, with neither side quite trusting the intent of the other. 2018 has already seen YouTube’s renewed focus on subscriptions as well as a European Parliament vote that could potentially remove YouTube’s safe harbour protection. Meanwhile, oblivious to these struggles, and despite the rise of audio streaming services, consumers are flocking to YouTube in ever greater numbers and, crucially, using it for music more than ever before. Back in 2016, at the height of the value gap / grab debate, MIDiA published its inaugural State of the YouTube Music Economy report. Now two years on we have just released the second edition of this landmark report. MIDiA clients have immediate access to the ‘State of the YouTube Music Economy’ report, which is also available for purchase on our report store. Here are some of the highlights from the report.

state of the youtube music economy midia research

2016 proved to be a pivot point for YouTube. Rights holder relationships were at an all-time low with value gap / value grab lobbying reaching fever pitch. Meanwhile, vlogger hype was also peaking and longer-form gaming videos were beginning to get real traction. If there was ever a point at which YouTube could have walked away from music, this could have been it. The picture though, has transformed, with YouTube doubling down on music and in doing so, making itself an even more important partner for record labels.

With young consumers abandoning radio in favour of streaming, YouTube is the biggest winner among Gen Z and Millennials; penetration for YouTube music viewing peaks at 73% among 16–19 year olds in Brazil. But its reach is even wider: YouTube is the main way that all consumers aged 16 to 44 discover music.

Doubling down on music

YouTube has responded by improving its discovery and recommendation algorithms and gearing them more closely to music. The combined impact of demographic shifts and tech innovation is that YouTube is making hits bigger, faster. Billion-views music videos used to be an exceptional achievement, now they are becoming common place. By end July 2018, Vevo reported that there were already ten 1 billion views music videos for tracks released that year, accounting for 17.2 billion views between them. One billion view music videos that were released in 2010 took an average of 1,841 days to reach the milestone. Videos released five years later took an average of just 462 days, while those from 2017 took an average of just 121 days to get to one billion views. Over the course of eight years, YouTube has become more than ten times faster at creating billion-view hits.

Under indexing

The impact on revenue is less even. Music videos are the single most popular video category on YouTube, accounting for 32% of views but a smaller 21% of revenue. Music is still the leading YouTube revenue driver with $3.0 billion in 2017 but many other genres, gaming especially, over index for revenue. (Many YouTube gamers have multiple video ads placed at chapter markers throughout their videos. Because music videos are shorter they get a smaller share of video ads.) Emerging market audiences are also pulling down ad revenues. The surge in Latin American markets has pushed artists like Louis Fonsi to the fore, but the less-developed nature of the digital ad markets there means less revenue per video. This trend is accentuated with the rise of emerging markets music channels like India’s T-Series becoming some of the most viewed YouTube channels globally.

The net result is that effective per stream rates are going down on a global basis, but are going up in developed markets like the US, where the digital ad market is robust. This brings us to one of the existential challenges for YouTube. What does the music industry want YouTube to be? After years of nudging by labels, YouTube is now embarking on a serious premium strategy, but is that really what YouTube is best at? What YouTube does better than anyone else in the market is monetise free audiences at scale on a truly global basis (China excepted).

A turning point

2018 is a turning point for YouTube. The accelerated success it and Vevo have enjoyed since 2016 over indexes compared to YouTube as a whole, which means that music is a more central component of the YouTube experience than it has ever been. However, driving impressive viewing metrics was never YouTube’s problem, convincing music rights holders that it is a good partner is. The value gap war of words may have died down a little but that is as much a reflection of the rise of audio streaming and a return to growth for record labels than anything else, as the European Parliament’s Article 13 vote highlighted. Safe harbour was never designed to be used the way YouTube does for music, and the fact it does so creates a commercial disincentive for other streaming services to play by music rights holders’ rules. The fact that YouTube can get a greater volume of rights and more cheaply than other services andbe the largest global streaming service unbalances the streaming market. Though against this must be set the fact that YouTube has been able to create a more rounded value proposition without operating within the same confines as other streaming services.

The music industry needs the YouTube-Vevo combination, especially while Spotify scales its global free audience. The road ahead will be rocky, especially if Article 13 is eventually passed and also if rights holders continue to be disappointed by engagement growth out accelerating revenue growth due to the growing role of emerging markets. But it is in the interests of all parties to make the relationship work because neither side wants a YouTube shaped hole in the streaming marketplace, even if a Facebook / Vevo partnership was to try to fill some of it.

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 16.54.06Click here to see more details of the 29-page, 6,000 word, 11 chart reporton which this blog post is based. The report is based upon months of extensive research, industry conversations, MIDiA data and proprietary company data and represents the definitive assessment of the YouTube Music Economy.

Announcing MIDiA’s Streaming Services Market Shares Report

coverAs the streaming music market matures, the bar is continually raised for the quality of data required, both in terms of granularity and accuracy. At MIDiA we have worked hard to earn a reputation for high-quality, reliable datasets that go far beyond what is available elsewhere. This gives our clients a competitive edge. We are now taking this approach a major step forward with the launch of MIDiA’s Streaming Services Market Shares report. This is our most comprehensive streaming dataset yet, and there is, quite simply, nothing else like it out there. Knowing the size of streaming revenues, or the global subscriber counts of music services is useful, but it isn’t enough. Nor even, is knowing country level streaming revenue figures. So, we built a global market shares model that breaks out subscription revenues (trade and retail), subscribers, and subscription market shares for more than 30 music services at country level, across 30 countries and regions. You want to know how much subscription revenue Spotify is generating in Canada? How many subscribers Apple Music has in Germany? How much subscription revenue QQ Music is generating China? This is the report for you. Here are some highlights:

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  • At the end of 2016 there were 132.6 million music subscribers, up from 76.8 million in 2015
  • In Q4 2016 Spotify’s subscriber market share was 35% and it had $2,766 million in retail revenue
  • Apple Music was second with 21 million subscribers at the end of 2016, a 15.6% market share and it had $912 million in retail revenue
  • In 2016 Apple was the largest driver of digital music revenue across Apple Music and iTunes
  • The US is the largest music subscription market, which Spotify leads with 38% subscriber market share
  • The UK is Europe’s largest streaming market, which Spotify also leads
  • China’s subscriber base is the second largest globally, but it ranks just 13th in revenue terms
  • Japan is the world’s third largest subscription market, in which Amazon has the largest subscriber market share
  • Brazil is Latin America’s largest music subscription market

The report contains 23 pages and 13 charts with full country detail as well as audience engagement metrics. The dataset includes four worksheets and a comprehensive methodology statement.

Streaming Services Market Shares is available right now to MIDiA premium subscribers. If you would like to learn more about how to access MIDiA’s analysis and data, email Stephen@midiaresearch.com.

The report and data is also available as a standalone purchase on MIDiA’s report store as part of our ‘Streaming Music Metrics Bundle’. This bundle additionally includes MIDiA’s ‘State of The Streaming Nation 2.1’. This is our mid-year 2017 update to the exhaustive assessment of the streaming music market first published in May. It includes data on revenue, forecasts, consumer attitudes and behaviour, YouTube, app usage and audience trends.

Examples of country graphics (data labels removed in this preview)

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What Spotify Can Learn From The Roman Slave Trade

OK, you’re going to have to bear with me on this one, but let me take you back to 2nd century Rome….

Roman Slaves

Roman Slaves

The Roman Empire was at the peak of its powers. Its borders stretched from Scotland down to Syria and across to Armenia, and across its dominions Rome spread its culture, language, administration and of course, military prowess. It brought innovations such as under floor heating, running water, astronomy and brain surgery but the consensus among many modern day historians is that the Roman Empire could have been much more. Rome was fundamentally a military, expansionist state. Its endless conquests produced a steady flow of captured people that fuelled Rome’s most important economic interest: the slave trade. By the mid 2nd century around 1 in 4 Romans were slaves. It was common for wealthy citizens to have 40 or more household slaves while the super-rich had hundreds.

The Importance Of Economic Surplus

The problem was that the over-supply of labour meant that wages were horrifically low for the masses while the rich over spent on slaves to keep up with the neighbours. The net result is that the Roman Empire was not able to create an economic surplus across its population, which meant that there was insufficient investment in learning, science and culture. If that surplus had been created, Rome would have spawned a generation of innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs that should have created an industrial revolution. This raises the tantalizing possibility of steam power and steel emerging before the middle ages, which in turn could have meant that today’s technology revolution might have happened hundreds of years ago by now.

Instead, the Roman Empire eventually crumbled with Europe forgetting most of Rome’s innovations, paved roads weeding over, aqueducts running dry and heated floors crumbling. We had to wait until the second half of the 18th century for the Industrial Revolution for the change, which crucially followed and overlapped with the Age of Enlightenment, a period of learning unprecedented since the Renaissance (when everyone busied themselves relearning Rome’s lost secrets) which was fuelled by Europe’s economies have developed sufficiently to create enough surplus for more than just the aristocracy to learn, invent and create. 

So, Rome inadvertently held back human progress by half a millennium because of its obsession with slaves. But what does that mean for Spotify? The key lesson from the Roman experience is that being saddled with too large a cost base may not prevent you from becoming big but it will hold you back from fulfilling your potential and from building something truly lasting. You can probably tell now where I am heading with this. Spotify’s 70% rights cost base is Rome’s 1 in 4 are slaves.

Product Innovation Where Are You?

Spotify has made immense progress but it and the overall market have done too little to innovate product and user experience.  There’s been business and commercial innovation for sure but looking back at the streaming market as a whole over the last 5 years, other than making playlists better through smart use of data and curation teams, where is the dial-moving innovation? Where are the new products and features that can change the entire focus of the market. Compare and contrast how much the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon have changed their businesses and product offerings over that period. Streaming just got better playlists. Musical.ly shouldn’t have been a standalone company, it should have been a feature coming out of Spotify’s Stockholm engineering team. But instead of being able to think about streaming simply as an engine, Spotify has had to marshal its modest operating margins around ‘sustaining’ product development and marketing / customer acquisition.

Post-Listing Scrutiny

Spotify will likely go public sometime next year as a consequence. But once public it will need to be delivering demonstrable progress towards profit with each and every quarterly SEC filing. Growth alone won’t cut it. Just ask Snap Inc. Spotify does not have a silver bullet but it does have a number of different switches it can flick that will each contribute percentages to net margin and that collectively can help Spotify become commercially viable and in turn enable it to invest in the product and experience innovation that the streaming sector so crucially lacks.  Spotify hasn’t done these yet because most will antagonize rights partners but it will be left with little option.

spotify full stack midia

Spotify The Music Company

To say that Spotify will become a label is too narrow a definition of what Spotify would become. Instead it would be a next generation music company, encompassing master rights, publishing, A+R, discovery, promotion, fan engagement and data, lots of data. If Spotify can get a couple of good quarters under its belt post-listing, and maintain a high stock price then it could go on an acquisition spree, acquiring assets for a combination of cash and stock. And the bigger and bolder the acquisition the more the stock price will rise, giving Spotify yet more ability to acquire. This is the model Yahoo used in the 2000s, with apparently over-priced acquisitions being so big as to impress Wall Street enough to ensure that the increase in market cap (ie the value of its shares) was greater than the purchase price. Spotify could use this tactic to acquire, for example, Kobalt, Believe Digital and Soundcloud to create an end-to-end, data-driven discovery, consumption and rights exploitation music power house.

What other ‘label’ could offer artists the end-to-end ability to be discovered, have your audience brought to you, promoted on the best playlists, given control of your rights and be provided with the most comprehensive data toolkit available in music? And of course, by acquiring a portion of the rights of its creators though not all (that’s where Kobalt / AWAL comes in) Spotify will be able to amortize some of its content costs like Netflix does, thus adding crucial percentages to its net margin. It will also be able to do Netflix’s other trick, namely using its algorithms to over index its own content, again adding crucial percentages to its margin.

Streaming Is The Engine Not The Vehicle

The way to think about Spotify right now, and indeed streaming as a whole, is that we have built a great engine. But that’s it. We do not have the car. Streaming is not a product, it is a technology for getting music onto our devices and it is a proto-business model. While rights holders can point to areas where Spotify is arguably over spending, fixing those will not be enough on their own, they need to accompany bolder change. Once that change comes Spotify can start to fulfil its potential, to become the butterfly that is currently locked in its cocoon. While rights holders we be understandably anxious and may even cry foul, they have to shoulder much of the blame. Spotify simply doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Unless of course it wants to end up like Rome did….overrun by barbarians, or whatever the music industry equivalent is…

Windowing, Shake It Off

The removal of all of Taylor Swift’s albums from Spotify and other streaming services is sending minor shockwaves through the music industry. Swift’s label Big Machine has long adhered to a streaming windowing strategy and there is pretty compelling evidence that the approach has paid dividends. Swift’s ‘1989’ is not only on track to be the only million selling US album this year it is also set to have the highest ever first week album sales for a female artist, again in the US. No mean feat considering how much album sales have tanked. While it is impossible to prove the exact degree of causality, it would be fatuous to claim that windowing had done anything less than not hurt those sales. Windowing is an issue that refuses to go away but is a natural effect of the transition phase we are in.

Some artists and labels were just as fearful of iTunes in the 2000’s as they are now of Spotify. Heck, it took the Beatles seven whole years to finally license their catalogue. Right now there is still a very sizeable music sales marketplace. 79% of all recorded music revenue in 2013 came from sales. So it is understandable that some labels want to protect that Golden Goose as long as they can. And it is little compensation for labels that declining music sales are made up by increased live revenues. In even the most label friendly 360 deals music sales are still the core revenue stream.

However the shift to consumption models is an inevitable process. In the short term expect copy cat actions. Labels and artists will see the run away success of ‘1989’ and conclude that windowing played a key role. This may hurt Spotify just as it was beginning to feel good about proving its model. But the long view shows us that licensed streaming music will be ubiquitous five years from now, music sales will not. Even if Taylor Swift is still at the top of her game in 2019 she won’t be selling any 1 million albums anymore.

Spotify though can’t wait five years for Swift to shake off her streaming inhibitions. It can however help itself by accepting that its free tier should be on a different release window from its paid tier. If it doesn’t it makes windowing a binary equation which in turn makes it easier for an entire blanket ban to be conceived.

Of course the biggest irony in all this is that the free streaming services face no such blocks. All of Swift’s videos are still on YouTube and you can find her music all over Soundcloud, let alone Grooveshark. As MIDiA revealed last week, YouTube is one of the largest threats to music revenue. But because the music industry still views it as a marketing channel rather than a consumption channel it is measured by different standards. Thus 10 million YouTube views is a promotional success, whereas 10 million Spotify streams is x thousand lost sales. This hypocritical inconsistency has to end. Spotify premium customers are some of the most valuable music fans there are, most YouTube users are not.

taylor swift youtube

And both YouTube and Soundcloud also fail to crack down on blatant misuse of their platforms. As the screen grab above shows, YouTube makes it easier than easy to access the full ‘1989’ album, which in this instance is fully monetized and has 400,000 views. Meanwhile Soundcloud also has the full album, this time conveniently presented as individual tracks. And even if / when UMG catches up with these infringing files, not only will more pop up, YouTube also has this, a full ‘1989’ playlist, full of non-infringing, Vevo videos.   The simple fact is that too much is given away for free on YouTube. If Big Machine and Taylor Swift are really worried about cannibalizing album sales, they should take a long hard look at their YouTube strategy before pulling their content from Spotify.

UPDATE: UMG caught up with the 400,000 views full album YouTube video of ‘1989’ (that was quick) but the very same user has multiple other instances of the full ‘1989’ album which have hundreds of thousands of views and are still live.