Four Companies That Could Buy Spotify

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For much of 2016 it looked nailed on that Spotify would IPO in 2017 and that the recorded music industry would move onto its next chapter, for better or for worse. The terms of Spotify’s $1 billion debt raise (which mean that Spotify pays an extra 1% on its 5% annual interest payments every six months beyond its previously agreed IPO date) suggest that Spotify was thinking the same way too. But now, word emerges that Spotify is looking to renegotiate terms with its lenders and there are whispers that Spotify might not even IPO. It would be a major strategic pivot if Spotify was to abort its IPO efforts and it begs the question: what next?

The World Has Changed

When Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon were drawing up the Spotify business plan in the 2000’s, the music and tech worlds were dramatically different from what they are now. The ‘Potential Exits’ powerpoint slide in Ek’s investor pitch deck would have listed companies such as Nokia, Microsoft, Sony and HTC. Over the subsequent decade, those companies have fallen on harder times (though Microsoft is now experiencing a turnaround) and all of them have moved away from digital music, which is why an IPO seemed like a much better option for being able to get a large enough return on investment for Spotify’s investors.

The only problem is that the IPO market has changed too. IPOs were once the best way for tech companies to raise capital but with the current VC bubble (and its recycled cash in the form of exited-founders reinvesting as Angels) equity and debt investment is much easier to come by. In 1997, there were 9,113 public companies in the U.S. At the end of 2016, there were fewer than 6,000. 2016 was the slowest year for IPOs since 2009. And of course, Deezer aborted its IPO in 2015. Snapchat’s forthcoming IPO will be a Spotify bellwether. If it does well it will set up Spotify, but if Facebook’s continued aggressive feature-cloning on Instagram continues, it could underperform, which could change the entire environment for tech IPOs in 2017. The fact that only 15.4% of Snapchat’s stock is being listed may also push its price down. No fault of Spotify of course, but it is Spotify that could pay the price.

$8 Billion Valuation Narrows Options

Because Spotify has had to load itself with so much debt and equity investment it has needed to hike its valuation to ensure investors and founders still have meaningful enough equity for an exit. Spotify’s revenues will be near $3 billion for 2016 but its $8 billion valuation is half the value of the entire recorded music market in 2015 and more than double the value of the entire streaming music market that year. However, benchmarked against comparable companies, the valuation has clearer reference points. For example, Supercell had revenues of $2.1 billion and was bought by Tencent for $8.6 billion in 2016. King had revenues of $2.6 billion and was bought for $5.9 billion by Activision Blizzard, also in 2016.

The complication is that both of those companies own the rights to their content, while Spotify merely rents its content. Which means that in a worst case scenario Spotify could find itself as an empty vessel if it had a catastrophic fall out with its rights holder partners. King and Supercell would both still have their games catalogue whatever happened with their partners.

Western Companies Are Not Likely Buyers

So, in the event that Spotify does not IPO, it either needs to raise more capital until it can get to profitability (which could be 3+ years away) or it needs someone to meet its $8 billion asking price. Of the current crop of tech majors, Apple, Google and Amazon are all deeply vested in their own streaming plays (Apple Music, YouTube and Prime) so the odds of one of those becoming a buyer is, while not impossible, unlikely and for what it’s worth, ill advised. Though there could be a case for Apple buying Spotify for accounting purposes as buying a European company would be a way to use some of its offshore domiciled $231.5 billion cash reserves. Reserves that the Trump administration is, at some stage, likely to make efforts to repatriate to the US in one way or another. Facebook is the wild card, but it’s unlikely to want to saddle itself with such a cost-inefficient way of engaging users with music. A distribution partnership with Vevo or launching its own music video offering are much better fits.

Go East: Four Potential Suitors For Spotify

So much for Western companies. Cast your gaze eastwards though and suddenly a whole crop of potential suitors comes into focus:

imgres-2Tencent: With a market cap of more than $200 billion and a bulging roster of consumer propositions (including WeChat) and 3 music services, Tencent is arguably the most viable eastern suitor for Spotify. The fact that the company recently reported inflated subscriber numbers for QQ Music (which were in fact a repetition of the same inflated numbers given to Mashable in July last year) hints at Tencent’s eagerness to court the western media and to be judged on similar terms. A Spotify acquisition, especially an expensive one, would be both a major statement of intent and an immediate entry point into the west. It would also transform Spotify into a truly global player.

imgres-4Alibaba:
Another Chinese giant with a market cap north of $200 billion (although it has lost value in recent years), Alibaba has a strong retail focus but has been diversifying in recent years. Acquisitions include the South China Morning Post, Guangzhou Football Club and the Roewe RX5 ‘internet car’. Spotify would be a less obvious fit for Alibaba but could be a platform for building reach and presence in the west.

imgres-1Dalian Wanda: With assets of over $90 billion, revenue of more than $40 billion, a heavy focus on media and an insatiable appetite for acquisitions, Dalian Wanda is a strong contender. The company has built a global cinema empire in its AMC Theatres division, most recently picking up a Scandinavian cinema chain for a little under a billion dollars late January. Dalian Wanda’s strong US presence and long experience in that market, along with its bold global vision make its fit at least as good as Tencent’s. The fact that it is currently mulling a €6 billion acquisition of the German bank Postbank indicates it can buy big.

imgresBaidu: Baidu’s $10 billion revenues make it a markedly smaller player than Dalian Wanda but its $66 billion market cap and strong music focus (e.g. Baidu Music) make Spotify a good strategic fit. Spotify could help Baidu to both counter the domestic threat of Apple Music and to build out to the west, which could act as a platform for building out Baidu’s other brands.

imgres-3Other runners: A host of telcos could be contenders, including the $78 billion SoftBank and India’s Reliance Communications. However, most telcos will surely realise that emerging markets will soon hit the same music bundle speed bumps that are cropping up in western markets. One other outsider is the $29 billion 21st Century Fox. Perhaps less of a wildcard than it might at first appear, considering that News Corp was a major shareholder in the now defunct Beyond Oblivion. And of course, don’t rule out Liberty Global.

An IPO, albeit a delayed one, still remains the most likely outcome for Spotify, but if it proves unfeasible there is a healthy collection of potential buyers or at the very least, companies that could buy into Spotify to give it enough runway to get towards profitability.

How Spotify Can Become A Next Generation “Label”

Spotify on iPhoneOne of the themes my MIDiA colleague Tim Mulligan (the name’s no coincidence, he’s my brother too!) has been developing over in our online video research is that of next generation TV operators. With the traditional pay-TV model buckling under the pressure of countless streaming subscriptions services like Netflix (there are more than 50 services in the US alone) pay-TV companies have responded with countless apps of their own such as HBO Go and CBS All Access. The result for the consumer is utter confusion with a bewildering choice of apps needed to get all the good shows and sports. This creates an opportunity for the G.A.A.F. (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook) to stitch all these apps together and in doing so become next generation TV operators. Though the G.A.A.F. are a major force in music too, the situation is also very different. Nonetheless there is an opportunity for companies such as these to create a joined up music experience that delivers an end-to-end platform for artists and music fans alike. Right now, Spotify is best placed to fulfil this role and in doing so it could become a next generation “label”. I added the quote marks around the word “label” because the term is becoming progressively less useful, but it at least helps people contextualise the concept.

Creating The Right Wall Street Narrative

When news emerged that Spotify was in negotiations to buy Soundcloud I highlighted a number of potential benefits and risks. One thing I didn’t explore was how useful Soundcloud could be in helping Spotify build out its role as a music platform (more on that below). As I have noted before, as Spotify progresses towards an IPO it needs to construct a series of convincing narratives for Wall Street. The investor community generally looks upon the music business with, at best, extreme caution, and at worst, disdain. To put it simply, they don’t like the look of low-to-negative margin businesses that have little control over their own destinies and that are trying to sell a product that most people don’t want to buy. This is why Spotify needs to demonstrate to potential investors that it is working towards a future in which it has more control, and a path to profitability. The major label dominated, 17% gross operating margin (and –9% loss) 9.99 AYCE model does not tick any of those boxes. Spotify is not going to change any of those fundamentals significantly before it IPOs, but it can demonstrate it is working to change things.

The Role Of Labels Is As Important As Ever

At the moment Spotify is a retail channel with bells and whistles. But it is acquiring so much user data and music programming expertise that it be so much more than that. The role of record labels is always going to be needed, even if the current model is struggling to keep up. The things that record labels do best is:

  1. Discover, invest in and nurture talent
  2. Market artists

Someone is always going to play that role, and while the distribution platforms such as Spotify could, in theory at least, play that role in a wider sense, existing labels (big and small) are going to remain at the centre of the equation for the meaningful future. Although some will most likely fall by the wayside or sell up over the next few years. (Sony’s acquisition of Ministry Of Sound is an early move rather than an exception.) But what Spotify can do that incumbent labels cannot, is understand the artist and music fan story right from discovery through to consumption. More than that, it can help shape both of those in a way labels on their own cannot. Until not so recently Spotify found itself under continual criticism from artists and songwriters. Although this has not disappeared entirely it is becoming less prevalent as a) creators see progressively bigger cheques, and b) more new artists start their career in the streaming era and learn how to make careers work within it, often seeing streaming services more as audience acquisition tools rather than revenue generators.

The Balance Of Power Is Shifting Away From Recorded Music

Concert crowd.In 2000 record music represented 60% of the entire music industry, now it is less than 30%. Live is the part that has gained most, and the streaming era artist viewpoint is best encapsulated by Ed Sheeran who cites Spotify as a key driver for his successful live career, saying “[Spotify] helps me do what I want to do.” Spotify’s opportunity is to go the next step, and empower artists with the tools and connections to build all of the parts of their career from Spotify. This is what a next generation “label” will be, a platform that combines data, discovery, promotion (and revenue) with tools to help artists with live, merchandise and other parts of their career.

How Spotify Can Buy Its Way To Platform Success

To jump start its shift towards being a next-generation “label” Spotify could use its current debt raise – and post-IPO, its stock – to buy companies that it can plug into its platform. In some respects, this is the full stack music concept that Access Industries, Liberty Global and Pandora have been pursuing. Here are a few companies that could help Spotify on this path:

  • Soundcloud: arguably the biggest artist-to-fan platform on the planet, Soundcloud could form a talent discovery function for Spotify. Spotify could use its Echo Nest intelligence to identify which acts are most likely to break through and use its curated playlists to break them on Spotify. Also artist platforms like BandPage and BandLab could play a similar role.
  • Indie labels: Many indie labels will struggle with cash flow due to streaming replacing sales, which means many will be looking to sell. My money is on Spotify buying a number of decent sized indies. This will demonstrate its ability to extend its value chain footprint, and therefore margins (which is important for Wall Street). It could also ‘do a Netflix’ and use its algorithms to ensure that its owned-repertoire over performs, which helps margins even further. But more importantly, indie labels would give Spotify a vehicle for building the careers of artists discovered on Soundcloud. Also the A&R assets would be a crucial complement to its algorithms.
  • Tidal: Spotify could buy Tidal, taking advantage of Apple’s position of waiting until Tidal is effectively a distressed asset before it swoops. Though Tidal is most likely to want too much money, its roster of exclusives and its artist-centric ethos would be a valuable part of an artist-first platform strategy for Spotify.
  • Songkick: In reality Songkick is going to form part of Access’ Deezer focused full stack play. But a data-led, live music focused company (especially if ticketing and booking can play a role) would be central to Spotify driving higher margin revenues and being able to offer a 360 degree proposition to artists.
  • Musical.ly: Arguably the most exciting music innovation of the decade, Musical.ly would give Spotify the ability to appeal to the next generation of music fans. The average age of a Musical.ly user is 20, for Spotify it is 27. Spotify has to be really careful not to age with its audience and music messaging apps are a great way to tap the next generation in the same way Facebook did (average age 35) did by buying up and growing messaging apps. (e.g. Instagram’s average age is 26).
  • Pandora: A long shot perhaps, but Pandora would be a shortcut to full stack, having already acquired Ticket Fly, Next Big Sound and Rdio. If Pandora’s stock continues to tank (the last few days of recovery notwithstanding) then who knows.

In conclusion, Spotify’s future is going to be much more than being the future of music retail. With or without any of the above acquisitions, expect Spotify to lay the foundations for a bold platform strategy that has the potential to change the face of the recorded music business as we know it.

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