Can Spotify Ever Meet Investors’ Expectations?

Spotify just posted another solid set of results, adding four million subscribers and beating profit and revenue estimates, yet its share price fell. What’s going on? Spotify is on track for where it should be, slightly below, but on track. Before Spotify went public MIDiA laid out three growth scenarios (low, mid, high). Our mid forecast put Spotify at 87.8 million subscribers for Q3 2018, it reported 87 million. So, Spotify is pretty much exactly where it should be. It’s not exceeding expectations, nor missing them, but is plotting a strong, solid course, all the while improving operational metrics such as churn and profitability. Yet still, this is not enough for investors. The reason is simple: misaligned expectations.

Investors want more

Spotify has pretty much had this problem all year, delivering good, steady growth that is good enough for the music industry, but isn’t good enough for investors. Record labels measured Spotify’s success relative to the performance of their revenues, which were coming out of a tailspin. Investors have a higher bar for success. They want faster growth, profitability (never really a label priority – it was Spotify’s problem to fix) and market disruption. Spotify is building its business at a decent rate that meets / exceeds music industry expectations, but not investor expectations. It is also laying the foundations for future self-sufficiency (artists direct, podcast etc.) but investors want more, now.

Tech stocks are the benchmark

The problem with going public as music company is that your investors are not music specialists; most aren’t even media specialists. Consequently, they don’t have the same situational industry expertise that music industry specialists have. They don’t get bogged down with the minutiae of collection society reciprocal agreements, mechanical rights, label marketing strategies, publisher concerns or artist contracts. They can’t. Music is too small a part of an institutional investor’s portfolio to commit the time required to truly understand what is a very complex industry. So instead they look at the big picture and benchmark against Netflix and other tech stocks.

I remember a comment Pandora’s founder Tim Westergren made to me on a panel last year, to the effect that Spotify better be careful what it wished for by going public. Tim learned first-hand that investors didn’t have the appetite to understand the nuances that shaped his business and eventually he paid the ultimate price, foisted out of his own company.

Game changer or industry ally?

In music industry terms Spotify is doing a great job, in tech stock terms, less so. Either it has to start performing even more strongly – no easy task in a maturing market – or it has to start talking up the disruption angle. Tech investors like backing game changers, betting big on something that is going to change the world. In the way that Facebook, Google, Netflix, Amazon (and for a while, Snapchat) did. Thus far Daniel Ek has trodden a difficult middle ground, remaining the firm ally of the music industry but also promising disruptive change. If the stock continues to underperform, he and his exec team might just be forced to start talking up disruption. At that stage it will be gamble time, because Spotify will be swapping allegiances that could make or break the business.

Spotify D(PO)-Day

downloadArguably the most anticipated day in the history of digital music is upon us. By the end of it we will have the first hint at whether Spotify is going to fall at the Snap Inc. or Facebook end of the spectrum of promising tech IPO, or DPO in the case of Spotify. Of course, we’ll need a few quarters’ worth of earnings in place before firmer conclusions can be drawn as to the strength of Spotify as a publicly traded company, but the first 24 hours will lay down some markers. However, it is the mid and long-term market factors that will give us the best sense of where Spotify can get to. Here are a few pieces of pertinent market context that can help us understand where Spotify is heading:

  • Streaming is just getting going: Downloads are yesterday’s legacy market, streaming is the future. But streaming has a long way yet to go. To date, downloads have generated around $35 billion in revenue for labels since the market started. That compares to around $15 billion for subscriptions. Apple accounted for around $23 billion of that download revenue, Spotify accounted for around $5 billion of that subscription revenue.
  • Spotify retains leadership: While the streaming market is competitive, Spotify has retained around 36% subscriber market share. However fast the market has grown, Spotify has either matched or beaten it. Apple is growing fast too but is adding fewer net new subscribers per quarter than Spotify is. Fast forward 12 months from now, Spotify will still be the number one player. Fast forward 24 months, it will probably still be.
  • Tech majors want the same thing: Of all the big streaming services, only Spotify is truly independent. Apple Music – Apple, Amazon Prime Music – Amazon, YouTube – Google, QQ Music – Tencent, Deezer – Access Industries, MelON – Kakao Corp, and now, Facebook) all have parent companies that have ulterior business objectives with music streaming. None of them have to seriously worry about streaming generating an operating profit. This means that there is little pressure in the marketplace to drive down label rights costs. All of this means that Spotify is the only main streaming service that is trying to make the model commercially sustainable.
  • Spotify can’t be Netflix yet: As much as the whole world appears to be saying Spotify needs to do a Netflix (and it probably does) it just can’t, not yet at least. In TV, rights are so fragmented that Netflix can have Disney and Fox pull their content and it still be a fast growing business. If UMG pulled its content from Spotify, the latter would be dead in the water. So, Spotify will take a subtler path to ‘doing a Netflix’, first by ‘doing a Soundcloud’ i.e. becoming a direct platform for artists and then switching on monetisation etc. In the near-term Spotify will happily have record labels sign artists that bubble up on the platform. But over time, expect Spotify to start competing for some signings.
  • Unpicking the distribution lock: The major record labels represent around 80% of recorded music revenues globally on a distribution basis, but just 61% on a copyright ownership basis. They get the extra market share through the distribution they provide indies, either directly or via divisions like Sony’s The Orchard or WMG’s ADA. The 80% share gives the majors the equivalent of a UN Security Council veto. Nothing gets through without their approval, which acts as a brake on Spotify’s ambitions. But, if Spotify was to persuade large numbers of those indies distributing through majors to deal direct, then some of that major power will be unpicked, which, combined with increased revenue, subscribers and market share, would strengthen Spotify’s hand.

Right now, Spotify has soft power (playlist curation, user-level data, subscriber relationships etc.). Spotify’s long-term future will depend on it building out its hard power and bringing it to bear in a way that brings positives both for it and for its industry partners. That will be a tightrope act of the highest order.

If you want the inside track on Spotify’s metrics, get access to MIDiA’s latest report:

Spotify by the Numbers: Trials, Churn and Margin which is available to purchase on MIDiA’s report store and to MIDiA clients via our subscription service.