What Netflix’s Missing $9 Billion Tells Us About Spotify’s Business Model

On Monday (July 16th), Netflix’s quarterly earnings missed targets, resulting in $9.1 billion being wiped off its market capitalisation due to twitchy investors jumping ship. To be clear, Netflix had a strong quarter, continuing to grow strongly in both the US – a much more saturated market for video subscriptions than for music – and internationally. Netflix also registered a net operating profit. What it failed to do was meet the ambitious expectations it had set. The lessons for Spotify are clear. With Spotify’s Q2 earnings due later this month, it will be bracing itself for another potential drop in stock value if its performanceis good but not good enough to keep ambitious investors happy. Such is the life of a publicly traded tech company.

But perhaps the most telling part of Netflix’s stock performance was that the $9.1 billion of market cap it lost is more than a quarter of Spotify’s entire market cap ($33.3 billion on Tuesday). Netflix of course plays in a much bigger market than Spotify: the US video subscription market will be worth $17.3 billion in 2018—the same amount that the IFPI estimates the entire global recorded music business generated in 2017. But, the perspective is crucial. Lots of institutional investment has flowed into Spotify since it went public – and indeed prior to that, but music is a tiny part of those investors’ portfolio. Netflix’s loss in market cap shows that even the golden child of streaming does not deliver enough promise for many of those investors, but investors have plenty of other TV industry bets to make if they abandon Netflix. For music, institutional investors basically have Spotify or Vivendi. So, while Netflix struggling is a problem for Netflix, a struggling Spotify would be a problem for the entire recorded music business.

Savvy switchers – Netflix’s churn problem

Netflix’s earnings also present some positive signs for the strength of Spotify’s business model compared to Netflix’s, such as its growing quarterly churn rate: around 8% in Q2 2018, up from 6% the prior quarter. This reflects what my colleague Tim Mulligan refers to as ‘savvy switchers’– video subscribers who churn in and out of services when there’s a new show to watch. This is a dynamic unique to video, created by the walled garden approach of exclusives. No such problem faces Spotify, for now at least, because all of its competitors have largely the same catalogue.

Content spend: uncapped versus fixed

Most relevant though, is Netflix’s content spend. One of the much-used arguments against Spotify in favour of Netflix is that Spotify has fixed content costs, hindering its ability to increase profits, because costs will always scale with revenue. However, Spotify’s advantage is in fact that content costs are fixed, there is a cap on how much it will spend on rights. Netflix has no such safeguard, which means that the more competitive its marketplace gets, the more it has to spend on content.

This is why Netflix has had to take on successive amounts of debt – accruing to $9.7 billion since 2013. Servicing this debt cost Netflix $318.8 million for the 12 months to Q2 2018, one year earlier the cost was $181.4 million. For the 12 months to Q2 2018, Netflix’s streaming content liabilities were $10.8 billion, representing 80% of streaming revenues, which compares favourably with Spotify’s 78%. One year earlier, those liabilities for Netflix were $9.6 billion, representing a whopping 99% of streaming revenues. The reason Netflix can do this and generate a net margin is that it amortises the costs of its originals (essentially offsetting some of its tax bill). For the 12 months to Q2 2018 Netflix amortised 64% of its content liabilities, one year earlier that share was 57%, reflecting originals being a larger share of content spend during 12 months to Q2 2018. The more originals Netflix makes, the more it can increase its margin. Which creates the intriguing dynamic of the US Treasury subsidising Netflix’s business model. Welcome to the next generation of state funded broadcaster!

Q2 will tell

Spotify spending billions on original content is some way off yet – assuming it engineers a way to do so without antagonising its label partners, but until then it can rest assured that while Netflix faces growing content costs, it has its exposure capped, allowing it to focus on growing its customer base and enhancing its product. The reaction to the forthcoming Q2 earnings will show us whether investors see it that way too.

Spotify Q1 2018 Results: Full Stream Ahead

Spotify released its first ever quarterly earnings results today. The results reflect strong performance in its first public quarter with growth in subscribers, total users, revenue and also gross profit. Here are the highlights:

  • Subscribers: Spotify hit 75 million subscribers, up 44% from 71 million in Q4 2017, which is wholly in line with MIDiA’s 74.7 million forecast and reflects solid growth for a non-paid trial quarter. That is an increase of 22.9 million on Q1 2017, at which stage total subscribers stood at 52 million. The fact the year-on-year growth is 44% of the total subscriber count from one year previously reflects just how far Spotify has come in such a short period of time. Q2 2018 will be a paid trial quarter so subscriber growth will be markedly stronger. Expect Q2 2018 subscribers to reach around the 82 million mark.
    Takeaway: Spotify’s subscriber growth is maintaining its solid organic growth trajectory, with paid trials continuing to be the growth accelerant that keep total growth on a steeper growth curve.
  • Revenues: Revenues were up 26% from €902 million in Q1 17 to reach €1,139 million, though this was 1% down on Q4 2017. Premium revenue was €1,037 million, comprising 91% of all revenues. Ad Supported revenues were €102m growing at a faster rate (38%) than premium but contributing fewer net new dollars. Labels and publishers have empowered Spotify to fully commercialize its free user base and the dividends are now beginning to manifest, all be it from a low base.
    Takeaway: Premium revenues continue to be the beating heart of Spotify’s business. Though ad supported represents a massive long term opportunity, that business is going to take much longer to kick into motion. Growth though is not linear and is shaped by seasonal trial cycles.
  • Churn: Quarterly churn fell below 5% in Q1 2018 (it was 5.1% in Q4 2017), following a long term downward trend that was only interrupted by a 0.4% point increase in Q3 2017. Applying the churn rate to Spotify’s subscriber base reveals that it while its net subscriber additions for Q1 2018 were 4 million, the gross additions (ie including churned out users) was 7.4 million.
    Takeaway: Any growth stage business that is aggressively pursuing audience growth faces the challenge of bringing a high share of low value users into the acquisition funnel, which in turn keeps churn up. Sooner rather than later Spotify is going to need to start focusing more heavily on retention than acquisition, especially in more mature markets.
  • Costs and margins: Gross margin was 24.9% in Q1, up from 24.5% in Q4 and 11.7% in Q1 2017. This was above guidance and Spotify attributes this largely to changes in estimates for rights holder costs. Spotify is doing everything it can to highlight just how good a job it is doing of reducing rights costs. ‘Recalculating’ costs for Q1 2018 has the convenient benefit of extending that pre-DPO narrative into its first earnings.
    Takeaway: Spotify’s Barry McCarthy stated prior to Spotify’s listing was going to remain squarely focused on ‘growth and market share’. So modest progress on margins needs to be set in the context of a company that is focused on growing now while the market is still in flux, and planning to tighten its belt when the market starts to solidify. Spend now while growth is to be had.

The Netflix Comparison

Since its listing, Spotify has found itself rocketed into the spotlight with no end of financial analysts now setting their sights on the streaming company and making their own estimates for revenues and subscribers. The somewhat predictable dominant narrative is how much Spotify does, or does not, compare to Netflix. Spotify is going to have to get used to those sorts of comparisons. The good news for Spotify is that its first earnings compare well with when Netflix was at similar stage of its growth.

In Q4 2015 Netflix hit 74.8 million total subscribers, up 5.6 million from the previous quarter. Streaming revenues were up 6% to $1.7 billion while cost of revenues were at 70% of revenues and quarterly premium ARPU was $22.37. Over the course of the next 12 months Netflix would add 19 million subscribers to reach 93.8 million by end 2016.

By comparison, in Q1 2018 Spotify hit 75 million total subscribers, up 4 million from the previous quarter. Revenue was up down 1% on previous quarter while cost of revenues were at 75% of revenues and quarterly premium ARPU was €13.80.

It is clear these are snapshots of companies at very similar stages of growth, however Spotify has slightly higher cost of revenue and lower ARPU than Netflix did in Q4 2015, both of which need fixing. The indications are thus that Spotify has a solid chance of following a similar path. Indeed, MIDiA’s estimate for Spotify’s end of year subscriber count is 93 million, putting it on exactly the same growth trajectory as Netflix was in 2016. For now, looking at Netflix’s performance with a 27 months look back is a pretty good proxy for where Spotify is going to be getting to.

Conclusion

Right now, Spotify is trying to strike a Goldilocks positioning: not too disruptive to the traditional music business but not too supportive of it either. Spotify needs to talk out of both sides of its mouth for a while, showing how much value it is delivering to traditional rights holders but also how it is an innovative force for change. The F1 filing leaned more towards the latter position, while the Q1 earnings took a more matter of fact approach. But over time, expect Goldilocks to start trying more of daddy bear’s porridge.

These findings are just a few highlights from MIDiA’s 6 chart Spotify Q1 2018 Earnings report which will be published Thursday 3rdMay. The report includes, alongside core earnings data, proprietary MIDiA metrics such as gross profit per subscriber and gross subscriber adds. If you are not already a MIDiA client and would like to learn how to get access to this report and other Spotify research and metrics, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Spotify Earnings: Growth Comes At A Cost

spotify metrics

Spotify has published its much anticipated 2016 revenues. Because the company is under so much analytical scrutiny, there is little that is particularly surprising but there is still plenty we can learn from the results:

  • Growth maintains momentum: Spotify recorded revenues of €2.9 billion in 2016, up 51% from €1.9 billion in 2015. Although that was a lower growth rate in % terms (80% for 14/15), it was a bigger net add in revenue terms (€989 million net new revenue in 2016 compared to €863 million in 2015). Spotify still has some way to go before it challenges Netflix’s $8.2 billion streaming revenue, but it is making clear progress.
  • Spotify is getting ready for public reporting: The 2016 accounts featured heavy restating of previous year figures and many line items from last year’s accounts were no longer reported. All of which points to an organization getting its reporting structures in place for a public listing of some kind.
  • ARPU is a mixed story: Spotify’s total monthly user ARPU increased from €1.82 in 2015 to €1.94, driven by a small increase in ad supported user APRU and, more importantly, a higher share of paid users (38% in 2016 compared to 31% in 2015). However, that increased paid conversion has come at the price of lower paid ARPU, with $1 for 3-month trials etc., pushing down paid ARPU from €5.16 in 2015 to €4.58 which in turn is more than an entire dollar a month less than the €5.85 paid ARPU figure Spotify enjoyed in 2014.
  • Losses are widening again: Spotify reported losses before tax of €539 million against revenues of €2.9 billion (i.e. 18% of revenue). This was up from 12% in 2015 although it had been as high as 17% in 2014. In order to keep up with the market, Spotify is having to spend heavily, and this is all without any major product or territory launch in 2016. You need deep pockets to play at streaming’s top table.
  • Rights costs may be on a positive trajectory: Spotify’s Cost of Sales (previously reported as Royalty Distribution and Other Costs) were €2.5 billion, or 84.6% of revenue, down slightly from 85.5% in 2015. The shrinking share of the loss-making ad supported user base is most likely the key contributor here. Though the new UMG and Merlin deals will help sustain this path.

In Search Of A Margin

So, what do Spotify’s results say about the economics that we didn’t already know. In truth, not much. The market has lots of growth in it yet; competing is expensive, growth has to be incentivized and rights are the main cost component.

As Spotify nears a public listing or an acquisition by Alibaba or Tencent, it remains the benchmark for the health of the streaming economy. With the underlying fundamentals remaining largely unchanged in 2016 despite stellar growth, here are a few thoughts on how the economics of streaming might change:

An often repeated argument from record labels is that streaming services will hit profitability when they reach scale. So, when does that happen? 48 million subscribers can lay a good claim to being ‘scale’, but it isn’t driving profit. While the market establishes itself, streaming services have to overspend on product innovation and marketing (and then, later, on user retention). So, these costs will likely rise in relative terms. Meanwhile, rights are always going to remain largely in line with revenue (though the UMG and Merlin deals reward growth with some discounting, which is a welcome innovation). But even these deals will not change the fact that rights will be large enough to challenge margins and will largely scale with growth. Which means no truly meaningful scale benefits. So here are a few alternative ways in which streaming margins might be improved:

  • Doing a Netflix: Because Netflix owns much of its own content, it is able to use its recommendation algorithms to ensure that content over-indexes, improving margin. It also amortizes costs against those content assets to help it register a profit. Spotify could do the same but is unlikely to do so anytime soon. It cannot afford to antagonize its major label partners, each of whom has a UN Security Council type power of veto (Spotify would falter if any one of them pulled out). Someday, Spotify probably will become a label, though not in the way most people would understand the term. However, it will wait for more scale and confidence before flicking the switch on that strategy.
  • Ecosystems: Apple has long demonstrated the value of competing right across value chains. Now Amazon is following suit (e.g. Amazon Video covers rights, infrastructure and distribution). Exercising control across the value chain gives a company more places to extract margin. Perhaps Alibaba or Tencent (or some other Chinese giant) could buy a major label and a streaming service? Access Industries is already on this path, wholly owning WMG and more than half of Deezer (though there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of dots being joined yet). And then the wildcard is a streaming service becoming so big that it can buy a major or a collection of big indies. Or of course Apple deciding to any of the above. Should this feel like wild conjecture, do not forget that it was not so long ago when an ISP (AOL) bought WMG, and a water and sewage conglomerate (Vivendi) went on a media company acquisition spree and bought UMG.
  • Ancillary revenue streams: The most pragmatic solution though is not a silver bullet, but instead a blended strategy of new revenue streams. These can range from B2B (e.g. Spotify selling its data to live companies like Live Nation and AEG to help them get more cost effective with better targeting), through premium user add-ons to new formats such as limited capacity, pay-per-view artist live streams.

Spotify played the starring role in streaming’s biggest year yet and looks well on track to do the same in 2017. But at some stage, the losses need to narrow. The industry needs to help ensure this happens, unless it wants the market to end up being dominated by companies that simply do not have to have streaming turn a profit because they are making money elsewhere.