The Spotify Numbers You Won’t Have Seen

One of the core values that we deliver to our clients at MIDiA Research is finding the ‘third number’— the data point that wasn’t reported by a company but that can be arrived at through a process of modelling and triangulation. Next week, we will publish a report that does just this for the numbers presented in Spotify’s F1 filing. The metrics we arrive at help create a more complete picture of Spotify’s performance for investors and rights holders, as well as the impact of core metrics upon other parts of Spotify’s business. In advance of its publication, here are just a few highlights.

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Spotify’s F1 filing paints a picture of a growing business that is improving metrics across the board, with the foundations for a solid couple of years ahead now well built. But there are also a number of challenges:

  • User growth: Spotify experienced strong growth between Q4 2015 and Q4 2017, increasing its subscriber base from 28 million to 71 million, its ad supported users from 64 million to 92 million and its total monthly active users (MAUs) from 91 million to 159 million. Set in the longer-term context, Spotify’s subscriber growth trajectory indicates it is well up the growth curve, with 2014 representing the earlier growth phase and Q1 2015 the point at which the inflection point occurred. Since Apple Music entered the market in mid 2015, Spotify has seen growth actually increase, and over the period added more net new subscribers by the end of 2017 (49 million) than Apple Music did (34 million).
  • Streams up, but inactive subscribers also: Engagement is growing, with subscribers playing an average of 630 streams a month in 2017 compared to 438 in 2015. Over the same period ad supported users increased average monthly streams from 119 to 222. The net result was 195.4 billion streams in 2017 compared to 59.6 billion in 2015. However, inactive subscribers (i.e. subscribers plus ad supported users minus MAU) grew from one million in Q1 2016 to four million in Q4 2017. Though this is a long way off the ‘zombie users’ problem that Deezer has historically suffered from due to inactive telco bundles, it is a metric Spotify will need to keep on top of.
  • Churn down…: Throughout 2016 and 2017 Spotify progressively reduced its churn rate from 6.9% for Q1 2016 to 5.7% in Q4 2017. This is despite churn being pushed up by the super trials and thus reflects a solid improvement of organic retention across Spotify’s paid user base. In a March investor presentation, CFO Barry McCarthy argued that as Spotify’s subscriber base matures, life time value (LTV) and gross profit will increase, with more subscribers sticking around for longer.
  • …but not out: Despite quarterly falls, churn remains a core issue while Spotify is in growth phase and is acquiring portions of subscribers who try out the service but realise it is not for them. On an annual basis churn was 19% in 2017, down from 20% in 2016. These lost subscribers totalled 13.4 million in 2017, up from 9.4 million one year earlier. Spotify added 23 million subscribers to its year-end total in 2017 but, including churned out subscriber the total subscribers gained was 36.4 million. Thus, churned subscribers accounted for 37% of all subscribers gained. This process of getting more subscribers in than out is common to all premium subscription businesses and is particularly pronounced when a service is in growth phase, as is the case with Spotify. It is even more pronounced in contract-free subscriptions. Pay-TV and mobile companies have the benefit of long-term contracts to minimise churn. The fact that Spotify reports churn at all is creditable. McCarthy’s old company Netflix got so fed up with investors’ reactions to churn that it stopped reporting it all together.
  • Super trials: Spotify’s subscriber growth has not however been linear. Heavily discounted trials offering three-month subscriptions for $1 have been pivotal in driving strong user growth spikes each quarter in which they run. On average, Spotify’s global subscriber base grew by a net total of 2.8 million each quarter between Q4 2015 and Q4 2017 in the quarters that these ‘super trials’ were not running, but by 7.5 million in the quarters that they did.
  • Non-linear growth affects all regions: In 2016 and 2017, Spotify’s European and North American subscriber bases each grew at an average of one million subscribers in quarters without trials and three million and two million respectively in quarters with them. Thus, Spotify’s organic net monthly subscriber growth in each of these regions was around 330,000. A similar trend appeared in Latin America – where net subscriber growth doubled in each trial quarter from one to two million. The impact is more dramatic in rest of world, where rounded net subscriber growth was flat in all quarters without trials and more than one million in quarters with.

Despite the joint effects of subscriber bill shock and reduced margins, super trials are clearly net positive for Spotify’s business. When it later decides to fade them out in more mature markets – namely when it switches from user acquisition to user retention mode – Spotify will be able to quickly improve both margin and retention.

Barring calamity, Spotify looks set to have a strong 2018 in terms of growth across subscriptions, MAUs and revenue. If it continues its current operating strategy Spotify should reach 93 million subscribers by the end of 2018. By comparison, Apple Music is likely to have hit around 56 million subscribers by Q4 2018, with its rate of net new monthly subscribers having increased to 2 million in 2018.

If you are not yet a MIDiA subscription client and would like to find out how to get a copy of the forthcoming seven-slide report and accompanying dataset, email


The Narrative Of Spotify’s Filing Is That The Best Is Yet To Come

Spotify just filed its F1 for its DPO. The most anticipated business event in the recorded music industry since, well…as long as most can remember, is one big step closer. The filing is a treasure trove of data and metrics, and while there won’t be too many surprises to anyone who follows the company closely, there are none the less a lot of very interesting findings and themes. The full filing can be found here. Here are some of the key points of interest:

  • Most of the numbers are heading in the right direction: MAUs, subscribers, hours spent etc are all going up while churn and cost ratios are heading down. Premium ARPU was an exception, declining: 2015 – €7.06 / 2016 – €6.00 / 2017 €5.24, which reflects pricing promotions. But Spotify was never going to have fixed every aspect of its business in time for its listing, that was never the point. What Spotify needs to convince potential shareholders is that it is heading in the right direction. The narrative that emerges here is of a company that has helped create an entire marketplace, that has made great ground so far and that is poised for even bigger and better things. That narrative and the clear momentum should be enough to see Spotify through. As I’ve previously noted, investor demand currently exceeds supply. If you are a big institutional investor wanting to get into music, there are few options. Pandora aside, this is pretty much the only big music tech stock in town. As long as Spotify can keep these metrics heading in the right direction, it should have a much smoother first few quarters than Snap Inc did, even though a profit is unlikely to materialise in that time.
  • Spotify is baring its metrics soul: Spotify has put a lot of metrics on the line, setting the bar for future SEC filings. While competitor streaming services will be busy plugging the numbers into Excel so they can compare with their own, the rest of the marketplace now has a much clearer sense of what running a streaming service entails. One really encouraging development is Spotify’s introduction of Daily Active User (DAU) metrics. As we have long argued at MIDiA, monthly numbers are an anachronism in the digital era, a measure of reach not engagement. So, Spotify is to be applauded for being the first major streaming service to start showing true engagement metrics.
  • Users and engagement are lifting: Spotify had 159 million MAUs in 2017, with 71 million paid and 92 million ad supported. Europe was the biggest region (58 million total MAUs) followed by North America (52 million), Latin America (33 million) and Rest of Word (17 million). The latter two are the fastest growing regions. Meanwhile, 44% of MAUs are DAUs, up from 37% in Q1 2015, which shows that users are becoming more engaged, though the shape of the curve (see chart below) shows that when swathes of new users are on-boarded, engagement can be dented. Consumption is also growing (a sign of both user growth and increased engagement): quarterly content hours went from 17.4 billion in 2015 to 40.3 billion in 2017. There are some oddities too. For example, ad supported MAUs actually declined in Q2 2017 by 1 million on Q1 2017 and in Q4 2017 only increased by 1 million on the previous quarter to reach 92 million.
  • The future of radio: Spotify puts a big focus on spoken word content and podcasts in the filing, as it does on advertiser products. It also lists radio companies first and subscription companies second as its key competitors. Meanwhile ad supported flicked into generating a gross profit in 2017 (ad supported went from -12% gross margin in 2016 to 10% in 2017. Premium gross margin up from 16% to 22% over same period.) As MIDiA predicted last year, free is going to be a big focus of Spotify in 2018 and beyond. The first chapter of Spotify’s story was about becoming the future of retail. The next will be about becoming the future of radio. And the increased focus on spoken word is not only about stealing radio’s clothes, it is about creating higher margin content than music. None of this is to say that Spotify will necessarily execute well, but this is the strategy nonetheless.
  • Spotify is still losing money but is trending in the right direction: Spotify’s cost of revenue in 2017 was €3,241 million against revenue of €4,090 with an operating loss of €378 million. However, losses are not growing much (€336 in 2016) and financing its debt added a whopping €974 million in 2017, from €336 million in 2016. Part of the purpose of the DPO is to ensure debt holders, investors and of course founders and employees get to see a return of their respective investments in money and blood, sweat and tears. Once that is done, financing costs will normalize. Also, Spotify’s new label licensing deals are kicking in, with costs of revenue as a share of premium revenue falling from 84% in 2016 to 78% in 2017. Spotify is not yet profitable but it is getting its house in order.

All in all, there is enough in this filing to both convince potential investors to make the bet while also providing enough fodder for critics to throw doubt on the commercial sustainability of streaming. Spotify’s structural challenge is that none of the other big streaming services have to worry about turning a profit. In fact, it is in their collective interest to keep market costs high to make it harder for their number one competitor to prosper.

But in the realms of what Spotify can impact itself, the overriding trend in this filing is that Spotify is well and truly on the right track. For now, and the next 9 months or so, Spotify will likely remain the darling of the sector. But after that, investors will start wanting a lot more if they are going to keep holding the stock. Spotify is promising that the best days are yet to come. Now it needs to deliver.

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Joining the Dots: How Wixen’s Suit Impacts Spotify’s DPO

While many are still recovering from their festive exertions, Spotify hits the news twice –though for two very different reasons: the long-awaited confirmation of its DPO date and, less expected, a new lawsuit from a music publisher. While they’re totally different developments, their timing is not coincidental. (Note, Spotify is doing a Direct Public Offering (DPO) not an Initial Public Offering (IPO) as many outlets have mistakenly reported – though its SEC filing does mean it could still opt to do an IPO should it decide to).

Spotify has been talking about going public for years and many column inches have been expended on trying (and failing) to guess the date. The one bit that everyone got right was that Spotify could not afford to delay the move for much longer, because its debt was becoming increasingly expensive to service. Those debt costs were the main reason Spotify’s losses grew in 2016. I have written extensively about Spotify’s need to create a new narrative for Wall Street and how it will need to diversify its revenue base to drive profitability. But, it should have a fairly easy ride for its first 12 months—certainly easier than Snap Inc. has had. This is because demand far outstrips supply. The big institutional investors (investment banks, hedge funds, pension funds etc.) that now want a ‘position’ in the music business effectively only have Vivendi and Spotify as options (Sony Music is too small a portion of Sony Corp, while WMG is considered too small by bigger institutions).

Investor demand exceeds supply

The imbalance between supply and demand has been reflected in the grey market of private trading of Spotify stock. So, even if it has some weak earnings Spotify should hold onto much of its value, unless some big hedge funds decide to bet against Spotify, and decided to do so in a big way. In the longer term, if Spotify can execute well, three to five years from now we won’t be thinking of Spotify as a streaming company, but instead as a music platform. It will be a conduit for the plethora of music services and tools – ranging from data services, through e-commerce to services, that we currently largely identify with labels (artist promotion, label services, rights exploitation etc.). Streaming will generate more revenue than any of these, but all of these higher-margin revenue streams will help deliver Spotify profitability.

Wixen puts risk back on the table

Before its transmutation, Spotify has to make sure its DPO is a success and another hurdle just emerged: music publisher Wixen Music filed a lawsuit against Spotify for $1.6 billion. The background to the suit is complex and rooted in an effective loophole in US music publishing practice, which sees music services assume the right to stream songs rather than explicitly requesting it. The NMPA brokered a Spotify settlement for songwriters and publishers (following a David Lowery class action suit) and also helped shape a new piece of legislation aimed at closing the loophole, and crucially for Spotify, making it harder for publishers to file suit. Investors hate risk factors, and the double whammy threat of class action suits and uncapped statutory damages was a risk factor too far. This is why so much effort was put into creating a pragmatic solution that delivered results for all sides, in time for Spotify’s DPO. Only, Wixen doesn’t see things that way.

Wixen’s suit argues that the new legislation and the settlement do not provide enough in terms of compensation, guarantees nor safe guards. By filing before the legislation’s January 1 deadline, Wixen is hoping to be able to set new, improved terms for publishers. Whether the case has merit or not is almost inconsequential with regards to its potential impact on Spotify’s DPO. The mere presence of the suit could spook investors. In practice however, the sheer level of demand for Spotify stock is likely to win the day.