Could Spotify Buy Universal? 

Vivendi is reported to be proposing to its board a plan for spinning out Universal Music. It is certainly the right time for a spin off (always sell before the peak), but a full divestment would leave Vivendi unbalanced and a shell of its former self. Canal+ is facing the same Netflix-inspired cord-cutting pains as other pay-TV operators (and is relying heavily on sub-Saharan Africa for subscriber growth), while other assets such as those in Vivendi Village have failed to deliver. With CEO Vincent Bolloré having invested heavily in Vivendi, he would be devaluing his own wealth. For a man who is not shy of saying that he’s in the game to make money, this scenario simply doesn’t add up. As one investment specialist recently suggested to me, this talk of a spin-off is probably exactly that, talk. Talk aimed at driving up Vivendi’s valuation by association and, at most, potentially resulting in a partial spin-off or partial listing. However, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a big enough offer for Universal would persuade Bolloré to sell. So, let’s for a moment assume that Universal is on the market and have a little fun with who could buy it.

The Chinese option

It is widely rumoured that Alibaba was in advanced discussions with Vivendi to buy some size of stake in Universal. Those conversations derailed when the Chinese government tightened up regulations on Chinese companies buying overseas assets, which is why we now see Tencent buying a growing number of minority stakes in companies rather than outright acquisitions. So, an outright Chinese acquisition is likely off the table. This doesn’t rule out other Asian bidders (Softbank had an $8.5 billion bid rejected in 2013), though perhaps Chinese companies are the only ones with the requisite scale and access to cash that would meet a far, far higher 2018 price point.

The tech major option

The most likely scenario (if Universal were for sale) is that one of the tech majors (Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook) swoops in. Given Google’s long-held antipathy for the traditional copyright regime, Alphabet is not the most likely, while Facebook is too early in its music journey (though check back in 18 months if all goes well). Apple and Amazon are different cases entirely. Both companies are run by teams of older executives whose formative cultural reference points were shaped by traditional media companies. These are companies that, even if they may not state it, see themselves as the natural evolution of media, moving it from the physical era of transactions to the digital era of access. Thus far, Apple and Amazon have focused principally on distribution, although both have invested in rights too. Apple less so, (e.g. Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper) but Amazon much more so (e.g. Man in the High Castle, Manchester by the Sea). Acquiring a major media company is a logical next step for Amazon. A TV studio and, or network would likely be the first move (especially as Netflix will likely buy one first, forcing Amazon’s hand), but a record label wouldn’t be inconceivable. And it would have to be a big label – such as UMG, that would guarantee enough share of ear to generate ROI. Apple though, could well buy a sports league, which would use up its budget.

The Spotify option

While the tech majors are more likely long-term buyers of Universal, Spotify arguably needs it more (and is certainly less distracted by other media formats). Right now, Spotify has a prisoner’s dilemma; it knows it needs to make disruptive changes to its business model if it is going to create the step change investors clearly want (look at what happened to Spotify’s stock price despite an impressive enough set of Q1 results). But it also knows that making such changes too quickly could result in labels pulling content, which would destroy its present in the hope of building a future. Meanwhile, labels are worried Spotify is going to disintermediate them but can’t risk damaging their business by withdrawing content now – hence the prisoner’s dilemma. Neither side dares make the first move.

That’s the problem with the ‘do a Netflix’ argument: do it too fast and the whole edifice comes tumbling down. Moreover, original content will not be the same silver bullet for Spotify as it was for Netflix. This is mainly because there is a far smaller catalogue of TV content than music, so a dollar spent on original video goes a lot further than a dollar spent on original music. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Spotify will get to a tipping point, where the labels see a shiny-toothed wolf lurking under the lamb’s wool, and with its cover blown it will be forced to go nuclear. If this happened, buying a major label would become an option. And, as with the tech majors, it would have to be a major label to deliver enough share of ear.

But that scenario is a long, long way off. First, Spotify has to prove it can be successful and generate enough revenue and market cap to put itself in a position where it could buy a major. And that is still far from a clear path. For now, Spotify’s focus is on being a partner to the labels, not a parent company.

All of this talk might sound outlandish but it was not so long ago that an internet company (AOL) co-owned Warner Music and a drinks company (Seagram) owned Universal Music, before selling it to a water utilities company (Vivendi), and, long before that, EMI was owned by a light bulb company (Thorn Electrical Industries). We have got used to this current period of corporate stability for the major record labels, but this situation is a reflection of the recorded music business being in such a poor state that there was little M&A interest. Nonetheless it is all changing, potentially heralding a return to the past. Everything has happened before and will happen again.

What Frank Ocean’s Bombastic Blond Moment Tells Us About The Future Of Artists And Labels

When frank-ocean-blond-compressed-0933daea-f052-40e5-85a4-35e07dac73dfFrank Ocean’s latest album ‘Blond’ dropped, it did so like a nuclear bomb, sending shockwaves throughout the music industry. In one of the audacious release strategies of recent years Ocean and his team at 360 fulfilled the final album contractual commitment to Universal Music by ushering his breaking-the-mold visual album ‘Endless’ onto Apple Music.  Featuring collaborations from the likes of Sampha and James Blake and set as a loose soundtrack to art house visuals, ‘Endless’ looked like the sort of digitally native, creative masterstroke that would win plaudits and awards in equal measure. But no sooner had Universal executives started daydreaming about Grammys then along came what turned out to be the ‘actual’ album ‘Blonde’, self released by Ocean (Universal contractual commitments now of course conveniently fulfilled) and, for now at least, exclusively available on Apple Music. You can just imagine seeing the blood drain from (Universal CEO) Lucian Grainge’s face as the full magnitude of what had just happened came into focus. In truth ‘audacious’ doesn’t even come close to explaining what Ocean pulled off, but where it gets really interesting is what this means for the future of artist careers.

Artist-Label Relationships Are Changing

Quickly sensing the potential implications, Grainge swiftly sent out a memo to Universal staff outlawing streaming exclusives…though voices from within Universal suggest that this diktat had been in the works for some time . A cynic might even argue that it was politically useful for Universal to be seen to be taking a strong stand ahead of the impending Vivendi earnings call. As the ever excellent Tim Ingham points out, in practice Universal could put a streaming exclusives moratorium in place and still have a good number of its front line artists put out streaming exclusives. This is because many of the deals these artists have are not traditional label deals where Universal owns all the rights. And that itself is as telling as Ocean’s bombastic blond moment. Not so much that Universal is probably the major with the highest amount of its revenue accounted for by licensed and distributed works, but that any label’s roster is now a complex and diverse mix of deal types. Artists are more empowered than ever before, and thanks to the innovation of label services companies and next generation music companies like Kobalt, labels have been forced to steal the disruptors’ clothing in order to remain competitive.

Streaming Exclusives Represent Another Option For Artists

Just as labels had started to successfully co-opt the label services marketplace by launching their own – e.g. Universal’s Caroline – or by buying up the competition – e.g. Sony’s acquisition of Essential Music & Marketing – along come streaming services giving artists another non-label route to market. In truth, the threat has remained largely unrealised. Exclusives on Tidal have most often proved to be laced with caveats and get out clauses (e.g. Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ arriving on iTunes 24 hours after landing ‘exclusively’ on Tidal). Chance The Rapper’s (in name only) mixtape ‘Colouring Book’ and Ocean’s ‘Blond’ are exceptions rather than the rule. So all that’s about to change now right? Not necessarily…

Album Releases Require More Time Than Apple Probably Has

As anyone who works in a label will tell you, releasing an album is typically a long, carefully planned process with many moving parts. It’s not something you do in a couple of weeks (Ocean started building the hype and expectation for his latest opus a year ago). If, for example, Apple was going to start doing exclusives routinely, even if it just did 20, that’s still a new exclusive to push every 2 weeks. That might work, at a stretch, for music service retailing promotional pushes but is far short of a fully fledged album release cycle. Which means that even for just 20 exclusives Apple would have an intricate mesh of overlapping release campaigns. This is something that labels do with their eyes closed but would it require new organizational disciplines for Apple. Not impossible, but not wholly likely either.

In practice, exclusives are likely to be limited to being the crown jewels of streaming services, their most valuable players, creative playmakers if you like. Even for Netflix, that pioneering exemplar of the streaming originals strategy, only spends 15% of its $3 billion content budget on originals and probably won’t break 20% even by 2020. What Apple and Netflix have in common is that they are using exclusives as a customer acquisition strategy, achieving their aims by making a big noise about each one. But if you’re releasing exclusives every week or two the shine soon wears off. And suddenly the return on investment diminishes.

Streaming Exclusives Are Unlikely To Turn Into A Flood

None of this means that we won’t see more artists striking streaming exclusives. We will, regardless of what labels may actually want to happen. And most of those will probably be on Apple – the service with bottomless pits masquerading as pockets. But the trickle will not turn into a flood, a fast flowing stream perhaps (see what I did there) but not a torrent.

Although they might not realise it yet, Kobalt might find themselves hurting more than the majors from this latest twist in the Exclusives Wars. Kobalt has probably done more than any single other music company to drive change in the traditional music industry in the last 5 years, showing artists and songwriters that there is another way of doing things. But Frank Ocean has just shown that there is now new another option for established artists looking for options at the end of a label deal.

Most importantly of all though, is that streaming exclusives (and indeed label services deals) work best when an artist has already established a brand and an audience. Most often that means after an artist has had a record label recording career. Apple cannot be relied upon to build anything more than a handful of artist brands. One of the founding myths of the web was that it was going to do away with labels and other traditional ‘gatekeepers’. Now, decades later, labels still account for the vast, vast, vast majority of music listening. Make no mistake, a momentous value chain shift is taking place, with more power and autonomy shifting to the creators, but that is a long journey and ‘Blond’ is but one part of this much bigger shift.