Spotify’s New Rules of Engagement

It is easy to feel that the pervasive obsession with Spotify overplays its importance to the recorded music industry. On the one hand it may only represent 27% of global recorded music revenues, but this compares to a peak of around 10% that Apple enjoyed at the peak of the iTunes Music Store. So, whatever label concerns existed back then about market influence – and there were plenty – their apprehensions have now multiplied. The assumption among many investors and label executives is that Spotify’s market share will lessen as the market grows. However, Spotify has thus far held onto its subscriber market share as the market has grown and looks set to do so in the foreseeable future.

If revenue is Spotify’s ‘hard power’ its real influence comes in its ‘soft power’. This takes two key forms:

  • Cultural influence:Despite being less than a third of revenues, record labels, artists and managers typically see Spotify as the proving ground, the place where hits are made. Marketing and promotion efforts are centred around getting traction on Spotify, knowing that success there normally leads to success elsewhere. Thus, Spotify’s cultural influence far outweighs its market share. As is so often the case with soft power, those affected most by it are those who inadvertently ceded it.
  • Innovation / disruption / innovation:Since embarking on its DPO path Spotify has been talking out of both sides of its mouth at the same time. On the one hand it positions itself as a safe pair of hands for the records labels, and on the other it lays out for investors a vision of a future world were artists don’t have to choose to work with labels. Labels have long feared just how far Spotify is willing to go and also, just how quickly. Spotify is now showing signs of going full tilt.

 

A rabbit out of the hat

When Spotify reported its Q1 earnings, the music industry consensus was a job well done. It delivered nearly on-target revenues (though they were down slightly on Q4), solid subscriber growth, improved margins and reduced churn. But it wasn’t enough for Wall Street. Spotify’s stock price fell to $150.07 down from a high of $170 in the days building up to the earnings. So what went wrong? Investors were expecting Spotify to pull a rabbit out of the hat. They’d been promised an industry changing investment and had instead got an industry sustaining investment. Such fickle investor confidence so early on in the history of a public company can be fatal. So, Spotify quickly searched for that rabbit; it announced that it will do direct deals with some artists and managers. Guess what happened? Spotify’s stock price rose to $172.37. The rabbit was bounding across the stage.

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Investors want the new world now

These are the new rules of streaming music. As the bellwether of streaming, Spotify has been dictating the narrative for years, but always with the focus of being a partner for rights holders. Now that it is public, Spotify has found that tough talking trumps sweet talking. Even if Spotify does not intend to go fast on its next gen-label strategy, it now knows it has to talk fast. Speaking from the experience of months of deep conversations with large institutional investors, Wall Street has pumped money into Spotify stock not because of how it will help labels’ businesses, but because they expect it to replace labels, or, at the very least, compete with them at scale. Spotify’s stock was not cheap, so to deliver to investors the returns they crave, it has to show that its influence is as disruptive / innovative (delete depending on your perspective) for the music business as Netflix has been for the TV business. They are investing in the potential upside on a future industry changer, not a present-day industry defender.

Spotify needs to speak boldly but act responsibly

Spotify cannot of course go all guns blazing yet, as it simply cannot afford to operate without the major labels. Netflix could get away with what it did because the TV rights landscape is fragmented. Therefore, Spotify will have to tread carefully until it can pick away at major label market share through various forms of direct deals. But it also has to do this cautiously (as I explained in this post). If it is too quick and bold it will incite retaliatory action from the labels. So, the new rules of engagement for Spotify and rights holders are a bit like international diplomacy: make bold public statements to keep domestic voters happy but adopt a more conciliatory approach with partners behind closed doors. Let’s just hope that Spotify opts for the Justin Trudeau school of international diplomacy over the Donald Trump approach.

This Is What Post-IPO Life Will Look Like For Spotify

With a fair wind, Spotify’s long-anticipated public offering should happen before the end of Q2 2018 (and yes, probably a direct listing rather than an IPO but ‘IPO’ worked better in the title!) . The music industry will be watching with keen interest as it is going to be the bellwether for the streaming music sector. Posting three or four successive quarters of well-received earnings will be key to Spotify’s life as a public company. Note my careful use of words, ‘well-received earnings’, not ‘strong earnings’. Spotify’s currently challenged underlying financials are not going to change in any fundamental sense over the course of nine to 12 months, so it will need to construct a series of narratives and targets that Wall Street will buy into. The only problem is, Wall Street often has very high expectations for growth stage tech stocks, and falling short of those expectations can result in a tumbling stock price, even if the growth trend is actually solid.

When narratives alone will not be enough

I’ve written before about how Spotify will need to construct a number of new narratives for life as a public company. They will need to demonstrate:

  • Sustained strong growth in subscribers, users and revenue
  • Improved profitability metrics
  • Diversification of revenue streams
  • Reduction of risk factors

All except the first could prove contentious, as many of the solutions will be inherently challenging for record label partners. Netflix has set a strong precedent for how to drive net margin with a 70% rights cost case (like Spotify’s) by creating its own content and using accounting technique,  such as amortization of costs, to turn cost into profit on the books. Netflix can get away with this because there are many TV networks so no single one can kill the service by removing its content. For example, Disney recently announced it was pulling its content, but Netflix continues to go from strength-to-strength. Spotify without Universal Music would swiftly wither on the vine. Spotify ‘becoming a label’ will be highly disruptive so it will have to do it slowly and in non-obvious ways. The news today that Spotify has acquired online music and audio recording studio Soundtrap – reportedly for $30 million – fits this thinking. In effect, subtly reversing into becoming a label. Meanwhile, it will need to have other new less disruptive revenue streams to spin narratives around, such as selling data to music industry stakeholders.

The upshot of all this is that during its first year as a public company, those narratives are unlikely to be enough. Instead, investors will be applying forensic scrutiny to Spotify’s user and revenue metrics. More than that, investors will set their own targets and if Spotify misses the consensus of these third-party targets, the share price will go down. Apple tried to distract investors from its slowing core metrics in 2016 by releasing a supplemental information document that focused on new metrics such as revenue per user. But investors refused to have their fixed gaze moved away from iPhone shipments.

spotify netflix users growth and stock price

So, Spotify will live or die by meeting investor-set subscriber growth targets? This means it will have to tread a delicate line between being bullish about its prospects to get investors’ interest piqued, but not so bullish as to raise their expectations too much. What complicates matters further though is the relationship between user growth and stock price. Pandora and Netflix have had very different journeys in the last 24 months, but both have endured ‘4 Quarter Kill Zones’ during which period stock prices struggled:

  • Pandora: Pandora’s post-earnings closing stock price declined at ever-greater rates than its monthly active user (MAU) count did. In Q1 2017 Pandora’s stock price fell by $0.11 for every million MAUs lost. By Q3 2017 this rate was $0.79.
  • Netflix: Between Q4 2015 and Q4 2016, Netflix added 12 million memberships (subscribers and trialists), yet its share price fell from $107.89 to $99.80. Investors, quite simply, expected even stronger growth. The irony is that since that time Netflix has continued to add memberships at a similar rate but its stock price has rocketed to $202.68 in Q3 2017.

Growth at what cost?

The lesson from these two cautionary tales is that it is not so much user metrics that is essential, but meeting user metric expectations. And Spotify will need to be careful about how it meets those targets. Growth stimuli like $1 for three-month super-trials can spike growth but hit profitability, which will be there for all to see in SEC filings. Therefore growth cannot come at any cost. In a similar vein, with market maturity approaching in many major western markets, Spotify will need to rely on a combination emerging markets for subscriber growth, and total free users (everywhere) to drive its user numbers, both of which will dent ARPU and margin. It is yet another balancing act for Spotify to manage and navigate.

Music market IQ

Spotify has one major advantage and one major disadvantage going into its flotation:

  1. Disadvantage: Since large investors have steered clear of the recorded music business for so long, the level of institutional market IQ is relatively low. The music business is notorious for being highly nuanced. This means that although big investment companies have been busy getting up to speed over the last 18 months, their expertise in music still lags massively behind the other sectors they invest in. Pandora learned the hard way that investors did not have the market IQ to differentiate between its ad supported radio model and Spotify’s subscription Similar things will happen to Spotify.
  2. Advantage: There are very few places truly big investors can put their money. Spotify’s IPO and a potential UMG sale or listing are about it. Big institutions see WMG as too small, and Sony Music as too small a part of Sony Corp. It’s no coincidence perhaps that UMG is reported to have been valued at between $30-$40 billion by Vivendi, conveniently keeping it well north of Spotify’s likely flotation valuation of $15-$20 billion.

So, with institutional investor demand massively exceeding supply, Spotify – and potentially UMG – could be very well placed to benefit. But a strong start can soon falter, as in the case of Snap Inc., which has fallen from an opening $24.48 to $12.56 now. The beauty of being a privately held company is that you can chose what metrics to report, and when. If you’ve had a tough quarter you can keep quiet until you have a good one. When you’re public you have no such luxury. It is warts and all, every quarter. Spotify’s life as a public company will be as much about managing expectations as it will be about driving growth.