Spotify’s Q4 2019 results reflect another strong quarter and a good year for Spotify. Look a bit deeper, however, and there are the first signs of the new company that Spotify is building – and they point to a very different and much bolder future.
First, here are the headline metrics:
124 million subscribers (exactly in line with MIDiA’s forecast built earlier in the year. In fact, we’ve been pretty good with our quarterly subscriber forecasts throughout the year – see the chart at the bottom of this post).
Six million inactive subscribers (flat from Q3 2019).
271 million monthly average users (MAUs) and 153 million ad-supported MAUs, which is a paid conversion rate of 45.8%, down a little from Q3 2019 and Q4 2018 with Rest of World the fastest-growing ad-supported region. This fits with early-stage growth for Spotify in new markets. Unlike markets in Europe and the Americas, Spotify will likely see ad supported remaining a much larger share of the user base long term in markets like India, with less ability to monetise via ad revenue. Spotify needs some big telco deals, especially in India.
Subscriber churn was down to 4.8% from 5.2% one year earlier. This is slow but steady progress that helps stabilise Spotify’s business and helps net adds grow faster.
Subscriber average revenue per user (ARPU) was €4.65, down 5% on Q4 2018. Spotify stated that much of this decline was down to “the extension of the free trial period across our entire product suite in the quarter”.
Total revenue was €6.8 billion, up 29% from 2018 with ad supported just 10% of that.
So much for the old, now in with the new…
Spotify’s uphill journey towards profitability is well documented (net margin fell into negative territory again in Q4 2019, to -€77 million). The circa-70% rights costs base is the core issue here, and rights holders have little (no) desire to go any lower – in fact, publishers want increases. Spotify has had to explore where else it can grow its business with cost bases that are less than 70%. Podcasts, marketing and creator tools are the three publicly stated places where Spotify has placed its bets, and the Q4 results show small and early – but nonetheless crucially important – movements in each:
Podcasts: As MIDiA reported last month, Spotify has been growing its audience very quickly and is now the second-most widely used podcast platform. 44.8 million Spotify users now listen to Spotify podcasts, with total usage up 200% year-on-year (YoY). Though podcast revenue is still only around 1% of Spotify’s total revenues, this reflects Spotify’s overall relative underperformance in ad revenue. This needs to be fixed – at least in a few of the bigger digital ad markets – but podcasts have the additional benefit for Spotify of diluting the royalty pot and thus improving gross margin. Current license agreements have a strict cap on how much the pot can be diluted (and labels have no intention of increasing that cap). But by MIDiA’s estimates, even within the current deals, Spotify could potentially shave off up to seven points of music royalty payments. Little wonder, then, that Spotify said this in its earnings report: “Any decision to accelerate our investment in podcast and technology spend should be viewed as an indication of our belief that our strategy is having tangible results. We have gained even more confidence in the data, particularly around the benefits from podcasts, and as a result, 2020 will be an investment year.”
Marketing: Spotify launched its paid ad tools for labels and artists in beta in Q4 2019. Early results are positive: +30% click-through and listener conversion rates, and on the sponsored recommendations side, Caroline Music’s Trippie Redd’s fourth album was helped to #1 with sponsored recommendations. Though there has been some pushback from labels feeling that they shouldn’t have to pay to reach their own audiences, Spotify is not doing anything particularly unusual here. The strategy is directly comparable to what Facebook and YouTube do. In fact, record labels spend about a third of what they earn from YouTube on YouTube advertising. The impact of that sort of revenue exchange on Spotify’s commercial model cannot be understated.
Creators: 2020 is going to be a massive year for creators. Our early estimates are that artists direct generated around $820 million in 2019, growing more than twice as fast as the overall market. 2019 was another big year for the top of the funnel, but we think the even more interesting space is one step earlier: creator tools. Creator tools are the new top of the funnel, before music even makes it onto streaming services. In fact, we think this might be the music industry’s next big growth area – and Spotify is already betting big, with acquisitions like online collaboration tool Soundtrap and artist marketplace SoundBetter. The music industry was, understandably, preoccupied with Spotify competing with it by signing artists and ‘becoming a label’. Spotify backed off from this strategy, but by focusing its efforts on the creator end of the spectrum it is building the foundations for what a record label of the future will look like. Spotify may just be competing with the labels’ future business before they have even realised it. Spotify’s quote says it all (at least to those who are listening for it): “We will continue to grow and expand the marketplace strategy, including with services such as Soundtrap and Soundbetter.As an example, while still early days, Soundtrap doubled its paying subscriber base in Q4. Expect more innovation of products over the coming years.”
The margin impact of these three business areas is already being felt: “The largest driver of outperformance stemmed from slight improvement in the non-royalty component of Gross Margin, including payment fees, streaming delivery costs, and other miscellaneous variances.”
Picks and Shovels
These are the three pillars of the new Spotify – one that will continue to be powered by music, but with profit coming from ancillary services. In the California Gold Rush in the 19th century, the first person to make a million dollars was a man called Samuel Brannan. But he wasn’t a miner; he sold mining equipment. If there is a gold rush, you want to be selling picks and shovels. Spotify has found its picks and shovels.
The podcast platform data from MIDiA’s Q4 tracker is in. These are the high-level findings:
Apple still leads overall: A recent report showed that Spotify has become the leading podcast platform in the US. MIDiA’s Q4 Tracker data shows that among regular podcast users, Spotify is very nearly but not quite the leading platform in the US, just trailing Apple’s podcast app – though the difference is so small that it could be within margin of survey error. However, when Apple Music is factored into the equation, Apple remains the leading platform.
Spotify the leading single platform: In terms of single platforms – i.e. considering Apple Music and Apple’s podcast apps separately – Spotify has quickly established a leading position across all markets surveyed except the US. Spotify is betting big on podcasts, but this bet is as defensive as it is offensive. Spotify knows that its users over index for podcasts – 28% use them weekly, compared to 15% of overall consumers. If it did not go big with podcasts it was always at risk of losing share of ear as podcasts grew, in the same way Amazon lost CD buyers to Apple’s iTunes. It has taken Amazon years to start winning back the spend of its music consumers, but it could tolerate that inconvenience as it makes most of its money elsewhere. Spotify has no such luxury.
National broadcasters faring well: Radio broadcasters lost their younger music audiences to streaming. They were not going to sit back and let streaming services then go and steal their older, spoken word audiences without a fight. In many respects, radio broadcasters have a greater chance of being power players in podcasts because their decades of programming expertise will take time for streaming services to learn. With music, they were sitting on the shoulders of a decade of experience learned by Apple’s iTunes. The three national broadcaster apps we tracked (BBC Sounds, NPR One, CCBC Listen) had mixed fortunes, but all have solid adoption. None more so than BBC Sounds, which is the second-most widely used single platform in the UK – a testament to the BBC’s sometimes controversial Sounds strategy. However, one major factor is that broadcaster podcast app users are much older than streaming service podcast users, and indeed of dedicated apps like Acast and Stitcher. This shows that broadcasters are doing a good job of bringing their older audiences over to podcasts but are not yet making podcasts an entry point for younger users lost to streaming.
These findings come from MIDiA’s quarterly tracker survey and will be presented in much more detail in MIDiA’s forthcoming ‘Podcast Platforms’ report.
If you are not already a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about how to get access to MIDiA’s research, data and analysis, then email email@example.com
Word count is always a useful guide for how important something is to a company’s ambitions. It is therefore no small detail that Spotify’s Q3 2019 earnings release mentioned the word ‘podcast’ thirteen times. Spotify has bet big on podcasts – spending $340 million on Gimlet and Anchor – and they now form a central component of Spotify’s strategy for five main reasons:
They are Spotify’s most realistic mid-term means of creating original content at scale
They represent Spotify’s (current) biggest long-term revenue bet outside of music
They are crucial to helping Spotify fulfil its ambition of enabling a million creators to earn a living from their art
They help Spotify diversify its content offering
They represent an opportunity to improve margins
Podcasts also enable Spotify to compete on a bigger stage: radio. The commercial radio market is a bigger pond to fish in than the recorded music market and represents an opportunity to drive the continued growth investors so crave should subscriber growth slow.
Spotify announced in its Q3 2019 earnings that 14% of its monthly average users (MAUs) streamed podcasts on the platform during the quarter, representing 33.7 million users and generating $15.9 million.* With total podcast hours up 39% on Q2, there is clearly momentum too – though this growth will be boosted by new podcast users shifting more of their podcast time to Spotify. Spotify has established itself as an important player in the global podcast marketplace but is far from a dominant player yet (it will likely hit 5.5% of global podcast revenue market share by year end 2019). Also, podcasts are still a tiny part of Spotify’s business (just 0.8% of Spotify’s total Q3 2019 revenue).
Competing for share of ear
Spotify’s podcast moves however are motivated not just by growth ambition but also as a defensive strategy for maintaining its audience’s attention.Prior to adopting its bold podcast strategy, Spotify’s users were already active podcast users – the problem was that they were going elsewhere to listen. So, podcasts for Spotify are as much about competing for share of ear as they are driving ad revenue. As of Q3 2019, just under 14% of Spotify’s user base streamed podcasts on the platform. MIDiA’s consumer data indicates that 32% of Spotify’s weekly active users (WAUs) listen to podcasts monthly, 27% weekly and 19% daily. Spotify’s reported numbers are on a quarterly basis so a comparison with the monthly figure is generous to Spotify, but even on that basis more than half of Spotify’s user base is still listening to podcasts elsewhere. This is clearly both challenge and opportunity for Spotify and points to why it is taking originals so seriously.
Spotify’s clear strategic focus suggests that there is plenty more to come and with nearly half of current podcast listeners also Spotify users, the moves it makes will have profound implications for all other companies in the podcast marketplace.
NOTE: This blog is based on an excerpt from MIDiA’s forthcoming report ‘Spotify Podcast Strategy: Strong Start but a Long Way to Go’. If you are not already a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about how to get access to this report and MIDiA’s other podcast research email firstname.lastname@example.org
*Spotify stated podcast revenues were ‘less than 10%’ of all ad revenues in its Q3 19 earnings release. As the results are SEC regulated we will assume that Spotify was not being intentionally misleading with this figure and that it does not also mean less than 5%. For this estimate we have taken the midpoint of 7.5% of all ad revenue.
After many years stuck on the side lines, podcasts are now becoming sought after by everyone from radio companies, streaming services, newspaper publishers to TV companies and many, many more. Media brands of all forms see podcasts as a part of their future, a way to increase and diversify listening time (streaming services); fight back against streaming (radio); reach new audiences (news); and extend audience engagement (TV). To some degree podcasts can probably deliver on all those expectations, and while the creative possibilities are clear, the path ahead is not so straight forward:
A Netflix moment for radio: Netflix transformed the TV market not just by giving consumers a cheap, value-for-money way of getting great TV, but by changing forever the way in which TV is made. No longer shackled by the constraints of linear schedules and needing to keep everyone on the sofa happy at the same time, studios and networks started smashing the boundaries of what could be made and what a TV show looks like. We are now in the golden age of TV. Podcasts do the same for radio, allowing every niche topic under the sun to be explored in huge detail and without any constraints on number or length of episodes. Podcasts create even more of a blank canvass for what was once only radio content than Netflix did for what was once only TV content.
Apple iTunes stranglehold: Apple is the powerhouse of podcast distribution. In what is otherwise a highly fragmented podcast distribution landscape, Apple is as close as it gets to a unified podcast platform – which is also integrated into Apple Music. During podcasting’s wilderness years, Apple quietly built up a loyal base of podcast users. Given that more than half of Spotify’s subscribers are iOS users, those that are podcast users are most likely also Apple podcast users. Spotify will have to bank on converting those users while simultaneously flicking the ‘market creation’ switch by converting new users to podcasts. A double challenge.
Radio:As MIDiA identified early last year, radio is streaming’s next frontier. Spotify has built a sizeable ad supported audience – 11 million as of Q4 2018 – but it has not yet built a viable ad model – ad user ARPU is just $0.28 which is just one cent up on Q4 2017. To persuade radio’s big advertisers to switch, it needs to woo more of radio’s core audience but it currently lacks the content assets (news, weather, sports etc). Podcasts are a step in that direction but radio companies will feel they have a better chance of owning this space than Spotify, and many are currently investing heavily in podcasts. As Apple has been learning with Beats 1, just because you want to do something does not mean you necessarily can, even if you hire many of the industry’s power players.
Programmatic ad buying:Spotify is doubling down on its programmatic ad buying and this will be crucial to monetizing podcasts. Spotify reported in its Q4 earnings that programmatic is growing fast and, along with self-serve, now accounts for 25% of all ad sales – though as ad ARPU is flat (up just $0.15 y-o-y), it is not growing fast enough.
Use cases:Lastly, but most importantly, the underlying use cases for podcasts potentially limit the market opportunity for podcasts. The addressable audience for podcasts is not all the time spent listening to audio. Listening to music is a lean back experience that we can do while doing other things like work and study. Podcasts tend to require more of our attention and thus the use cases for podcasts are more limited. Also, unlike TV shows, users are less likely to have a large number of podcasts on the go at the same time. Spotify will hope that it will be able to generate appointment-to-listen behaviour, with users tuning in for their favourite podcasts on a specific day. But that necessitates users re-learning how they use Spotify.
The podcast opportunity is undoubtedly strong but there will be many competing to be the owner of podcasting’s future and radio may well do a better job of winning this battle than it has retaining its music listeners. Spotify is betting big on podcasts being part of the future of streaming, but the future of podcasts may lie elsewhere.