Spotify Q3 2020: What price growth?

Spotify reported another strong quarter in Q3 2020, with subscriber growth up 27% year-on-year (YoY) and ad-supported user growth up 21%. Spotify continues to set the pace for the global streaming market and has demonstrated that streaming has proven resilient to lockdown. (Spotify finished the quarter with 144 million subscribers, just above MIDiA’s 143 million forecast – we maintain our end of year forecast for 154 million.) Further evidence of Spotify’s lockdown resilience is that global consumption hours surpassed pre-COVID levels and that churn levels fell. However, Spotify’s premium revenue growth continues to trail subscriber increases, which raises the question: what price is growth coming at for rightsholders and creators?

Spotify’s Q3 2020 premium revenue was €1,790 million, up 15% YoY – notably lower than the 27% subscriber growth. This is a long-term trend for Spotify, resulting in a steady erosion of premium average revenue per user (ARPU). Q3 2020 ARPU fell to €4.19, down from €4.67 in Q3 2019 and €5.76 back in Q3 2016.

There are multiple factors underpinning this shift:

Growth of emerging markets where ARPU is lower

Growth of family and duo plans

Use of promotional offers

Growth of low-priced tiers (telco bundles, student plans)

Spotify emphasised that ‘product mix’ was the core driver of lower ARPU in Q3 2020 and pointed to price increases for family plans across four Latin American markets, Australia, Belgium and Switzerland. Rightsholders and creators will be hoping that this is the start of a wider strategy. 

‘Measure us on growth’

Spotify continues to tell the markets to measure it on growth and market share rather than margin or ARPU. That serves Spotify better than rightsholders and creators. However, this may be about to change. Spotify’s big growth bet is podcasts, which it is monetising via advertising. Although Spotify had a decent quarter for ad revenue (after many weak ones) it is still just 9% of total revenue. Podcasts have the potential to be bigger than music for Spotify but it is going to take a long time to realise the potential, especially as the coming recession will likely dent the global ad market. 

A new growth story

Why this matters for music stakeholders is that Spotify may find it hard to convince investors to start backing yet another ‘measure us on growth’ story when it already has one. As streaming starts to mature in Western markets, Spotify may now be on a path to shift its music subscriptions narrative to one of turning around the ARPU decline, focusing on increasing “lifetime value”, reducing churn and improving margins. It can then make podcasts the ‘growth story’ and music the ‘margin and ARPU story’.

Music rights holders may be concerned that podcasts threaten their share of Spotify revenue, but they may also end up thanking Spotify’s podcasts strategy for indirectly resulting in a stronger focus of improving music monetisation. This in turn will mean higher per-stream rates – something that artists and songwriters in particular will appreciate.

Podcasts Q2 2020: Spotify takes an early lead

MIDiA has just published its latest Podcast report, Podcasts Q2 2020: Spotify Takes an Early LeadIn it we present data from MIDiA’s quarterly survey that presents a comprehensive view of podcast user behaviour, who podcast listeners are, how it stacks up against radio and music streaming listening and which platforms listeners are going to for their podcasts. One of the key findings of the 3,000 word report is that Spotify is now firmly established as the most widely used podcast platform. 

Spotify is now the leading destination platform for podcast users. In Q2 2020 42% of podcast listeners used Spotify, 10 points ahead of Apple in second place. This does not necessarily mean that it yet leads in terms of volume of listens, but it is the platform that the largest share of regular podcast listeners visit. Spotify was second in Q4 2019, so it is a rapid ascension for the streaming platform, leaving Apple trailing significantly. Google in third place may surprise some in the podcast sector, as it is renowned for being a small player. However, MIDiA has tweaked the wording of the question repeatedly over the last nine months, making it absolutely clear what we are referring to, and the result is always the same. This suggests either a) a large number of people use the app but have much lower listening patterns than users of other platforms, or b) Android users are somehow less clear on what podcast apps they use than iOS users. We think the latter is unlikely.

Early adopter behaviour shapes the market

Varying levels of podcast usage among users is however very likely as we are at such an early stage of market development (just 14% of consumers listen to podcasts regularly). This means that podcasts are at the ‘critical mass’ phase of adoption, where usage starts to move from early adopters towards the mainstream. As a consequence, heavy-usage early adopters, which Spotify podcast users tend to be, have particularly heavy behaviour and skew the overall numbers. This illustrates the supreme importance of measuring audience behaviour like MIDiA does, rather than relying solely on analytics – which are great for understanding volumes of listens, but less useful for understanding audiences. 

This early adopter skew also means that the content that resonates well with podcast users now will not necessarily be the right content to pull in more mainstream audiences, nor is it likely to be the right content mix for a longer-term strategy.

Podcasts are still small scale for now, but have vast potential

Podcasts are still small scale and far outweighed by radio. In fact, overall audience penetration has not shifted much during the last six months, though volumes of podcast listens have increased. So, existing podcast users are listening to new podcasts, creating new ‘day parts’ in their lockdown behaviours.

Spotify’s podcast strategy is dominating thinking in the podcast space at the moment, and with good reason considering its heavy investment. However, with the ad market softening, and Spotify relying primarily on ads to monetise podcasts, it will be some time before it can recoup its investment. Nevertheless, Spotify is betting big. It sees the opportunity in competing for radio listening to be a much bigger move than music alone. It is betting that podcasts will take radio out of radio, just like Netflix took TV out of TV.

BBC Sounds represents a podcast blueprint for radio broadcasters 

Spotify will not, however, find all radio companies bending to its will. In the UK, the BBC Sounds app illustrates how powerful a strongly integrated app and content strategy can be, with the app the second-most used podcast platform in the UK. Crucially, the vast majority of Sounds users that are also podcast users, use the app for podcasts. This contrast strongly with other broadcaster apps. For example, in the US, only a small minority of NPR’s app users that are podcasts listeners use the app for podcasts.

The experience of BBC Sounds illustrates that broadcasters can be a major force in the future of podcasts, but that they cannot rely solely on the strength of their content and programming. Without the tight technology integration that Spotify employs, broadcasters will find themselves looking more like NPR than they do the BBC.

If you are a radio broadcaster exploring how to innovate your audio and tech strategy to compete in this new marketplace, then get in touch with stephen@midiaresearch.com to see how MIDiA can help.

Where did Disney and Live Nation’s missing $10 billion go?

In both economic and pandemic terms, we are in a relatively quiet period compared to the first half of the year. COVID-19 is at much lower levels in most countries and there are multiple sectors, such as housing and auto, that are reporting booms. These positive indicators will likely be both a pre-recession bounce and the lull before COVID-19’s second peak. However, there is a crucial subtext here, which is that one sector’s loss is often another’s gain. COVID-19 saw winners and losers, as any post-recession recovery is defined by ‘scarring’ where some companies and formats build where others have failed. For entertainment companies that lost revenue during the first half of the year, the question is whether they will regain that revenue or whether their lockdown legacy will be a long-term contraction.

Live Nation and Disney (because of its theme parks) were two of COVID-19’s biggest and highest-profile entertainment company casualties. Live Nation’s revenues fell from $3.2 billion in Q2 2019 to $74 million in Q2 2020, a 98% decline. Disney’s fall was less in relative terms (-38%) due to having a diversified business but more than double Live Nation’s loss in actual terms. Between them, Disney and Live Nation lost nearly $10 billion of revenue which can be bluntly equated with $10 billion of consumer entertainment spend that went unspent in Q2 2020. The big question is whether that spend remains dormant, waiting to be tapped when doors open again, or has it gone elsewhere – and if so, can it be won back.

The lockdown winners were companies that could trade on consumers being cooped at home: games, video, home shopping, video messaging etc. Some of these were stop-gaps that consumers turned to in order to fill the void; others represent long-term behaviour shifts. Here are some of the places consumers shifted their spend, and how it might impact recovery for entertainment businesses:

Home improvements: One of the areas to see strong lockdown growth was home improvements – people stuck at home staring at the DIY jobs they had always meant to get around to doing and now had both the time and the money to do them. Home Depot saw its Q2 2020 revenues increase by $7.2 billion, nearly three quarters of that lost Disney and Live Nation revenue. Obviously, these are not like-for-like shifts as different geographies are involved, but the direction of travel is clear. The beauty of the home improvements business model is that there is always another room to do, another project to start. The risk for entertainment companies is that a portion of these new home improvers may have got the DIY bug and will have less spend to shift back to entertainment.

Home shopping: Amazon was a huge lockdown winner, growing quarterly revenues by 42% compared to 2019, representing an increase of $38.3 billion. Those revenues include, among other things, its cloud business, which rode the wave of many of lockdown’s other success stories. Additionally, the shift to home shopping has been pronounced. Amazon’s growth has extra implications for entertainment companies. Its subscriptions were up 29% which largely refer to Amazon Prime, which of course comes with music and video bundled in and will in turn compete directly with pure-play propositions like Spotify and Netflix. This will take on added significance during the recession: when cost-conscious consumers are forced to cut back on spending, an all-in-one entertainment bundle that includes home shipping looks a lot more cost effective than a handful of standalone subscriptions. Amazon Prime is not recession proof, but it is certainly recession resilient.

Changing of the guard: Some of most interesting shifts are actually within entertainment. For example, AMC cinemas saw quarterly revenues fall by a catastrophic 99%, representing a quarterly loss of $1.5 billion while over the same period Netflix gained $1.3 billion. Again, the geographies are not directly comparable but the direction of travel is clear: old video being replaced by new video. A similar changing of the guard is happening in digital advertising. Alphabet, the powerhouse, saw revenues fall by 2% while Amazon saw its ad revenues grow by 40%. Turns out that advertisers will pay a premium to reach customers that are one click away from a purchase. Who’d have thought it…

The list of examples of lockdown shifts goes on and on. In fact, so much so that MIDiA is currently working on a major new piece of research exploring these shifts and what the long-term implications are for entertainment businesses. We’re calling it ‘Post-Pandemic Programming’. There will be a series of in-depth reports for clients and also a webinar and podcast mini-series. So, watch this space!

But returning to the above findings, the key takeaway is that companies that lost entertainment spend during lockdown should not assume that this spending is waiting in consumer’s bank accounts, ready to be spent as soon doors open again. Pent-up demand will ensure much of it will but some of it is probably gone for good, allocated to new habits developed during lockdown but that will persist long after. This is not to say that those companies cannot return to previous heights, but to do so they will need to unlock new spending from new customers. Which may not be the easiest of tasks during a global recession.

COVID-19 hit major labels much harder than it did Spotify

COVID-19 was always going to have a significant impact on the music business, and with the Q2 results for all of the major music companies now in we can start to look at just how big that impact has been so far. Year-on-year (YoY), combined major label recorded music revenues fell by 7.8% on a current currency basis while major publisher revenue fell by 1.6% over the same period (though slow reporting for income such public performance means that the full impact on publishing is yet to be seen). The figures in themselves are disappointing for an industry that has grown acclimatised to growth but the factors driving this are global economic and health policy ones. As we identified back at the start of June, income streams such as physical, public performance and ad supported are all vulnerable to lockdown impact. The only truly resilient revenue source so far is paid subscriptions. The dependency on streaming has never been higher but there are questions here too.

q2 2090 major label streaming music revenues

Major label streaming revenue fell by 0.6% in Q2 2020 compared to the previous quarter. Although it was up YoY by 6.3%, (and even allowing for seasonality), there was already a clear slowdown in growth before COVID-19 kicked it into reverse. When markets mature, the margins between growth and decline are small. So, factors such as the weakening digital ad market pushing down ad-supported revenues can be the difference between being in the red or in the black. The music business is going to have to get used to ad-supported under-performing because advertising is always an early victim of recessions.

Despite all of this gloom, the likelihood is that by the end of the year, there will have been sufficient return to growth in many sectors and regions, meaning global recorded music revenues will be higher in 2020 than 2019 – not by much, but up nonetheless.

However, the streaming slowdown emphasises just how important it is for the industry to establish a series of potential plan Bs to streaming’s plan A, and fast.

spotify revenues compared to major label revenues q2 2020

Q2 2020 wasn’t bad news for everyone in streaming. In fact, Spotify actually increased its revenues both quarter-on-quarter (2.2%) and annually by 13%, i.e. double the rate the majors grew their streaming revenue. The result is that by Q2 2020, Spotify’s total revenue was only 5% smaller than the entire major labels’ streaming revenue combined. All this was despite Spotify’s ad-supported revenue falling by 11%. Spotify’s revenues are slowly but surely becoming uncoupled from that of the majors. Although factors such as timing of revenue recognition and payments to rightsholders will play a role, the key inference is that independents grew faster than majors on Spotify in Q2, continuing the 2019 trend. Although, the term ‘independent’ is becoming progressively less useful as the market internationalizes; in addition to independent labels and artists we are seeing growing impact from regional, non-western ‘majors’ e.g. T-Series, India; Avex, Japan; YG Entertainment, South Korea.

The three key takeaways from all this are:

  1. Streaming revenue growth was already slowing. COVID-19 shows us just how important it is to push new growth drivers
  2. Spotify is already working on its new growth driver (i.e. podcasts) and though the slowdown in the digital ad market will dent momentum, podcasts will further decouple Spotify revenue from that of the majors
  3. The more likely scenario remains that streaming and label revenues will pick up before year end, but if the recession deepens and swathes of millennials lose their jobs, then subscription revenue could be hit, which brings us back to takeaway #1

We Are At a Turning Point for Social Music

In recent days we have seen three major developments that, collectively, are a potential pivot point for social music:

  1. TikTok close to a US-entity buyout by Microsoft to avoid potential sanctions, following hot on the heels of an India blackout
  2. Facebook launched a (US-only) YouTube competitor for music videos
  3. Snap Inc signed a licensing deal with WMG and others, also for music videos

As cracks begin to appear in the audio streaming market, there is a growing sense in the music industry of the need for a plan B. This has been driven by growing discontent among the creator community, and a slowdown in revenue growth (UMG streaming revenues actually fell in Q2 as did Sony Music’s); the tail wagging the artist-and-revenue (A&R) dog. The search for new growth drivers is on, and social music – for so long a promise unfulfilled in the West – is one of the bets. TikTok was meant to be a major part of that bet. But with the US future of the app so at risk that a Microsoft US-entity buyout may be the only option, and the continued impact of COVID-19 on core revenue streams, the future is beginning to look a little more troublesome. Perhaps now more than ever, the music industry needs social music to start delivering.

There are three key issues at stake here:

  1. How consumers discover music
  2. How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music
  3. Competing with YouTube

How consumers discover music

Among the under-aged 35 demographic, YouTube is the primary music discovery channel, followed by music streaming, then radio, and only then by social. Streaming discovery is heavily skewed towards tracks and playlists, and away from artists and release projects, which is fine for streaming platforms but impedes building sustainable artist careers. Radio is losing share of ear and YouTube… well, YouTube is YouTube (more on that below), so the music business needs a new discovery growth driver. Social has the potential to be just that. But spammy artist pages on Facebook and more-than-perfect Instagram photos are not it. TikTok, for all its amazing momentum, actually has a really uneven impact on discovery. Some tracks blow up out of nowhere while most do little, and rarely is it because of a smart label marketing strategy but instead because certain tracks just work on the platform and the community leaps on them. For now, TikTok is too unpredictable to plan around. Facebook (Instagram especially) and Snap Inc have a fantastic opportunity to do something special here. They have the audience and the social know-how. Whether they can deliver is a different matter entirely.

How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music

What TikTok lacks in consistent marketing contribution it makes up in consumption. Following on from Musical.ly’s start, TikTok has reimagined how music can be part of social experiences for young audiences. It has made music a highly relevant and integral part of self-expression, something that CD collections and music dress codes used to do in the pre-digital world but that soulless, ephemeral playlists wiped out. While labels pin hopes on TikTok successes to drive wider consumption, the discovery journey is also the destination for most TikTok users – they hear the track in a video and swipe onto the next one. That is no bad thing. This is a new form of consumption, and if TikTok were to disappear or fade then someone else needs to pick up the baton. Whether Facebook and Snap Inc can do so is, again, an open question.

Competing with YouTube

Now we get to the heart of the Facebook and Snap Inc deals. As important as the previous two points are, they were not the overriding priorities of the commercial teams driving these deals. Instead they were focused on expanding the revenue mix and part of that is creating more competition for the notoriously low-paying YouTube. Well, maybe not that low paying after all.

spotify youtube arpu

The internet is full of statements from trade associations, rightsholders and creators about how much less YouTube pays than Spotify. YouTube does pay less, because it manages to escape paying minimum per-stream rates for ad-supported videos – but it is a more nuanced picture than lobbyists would have you believe. Firstly, in terms of its Premium business, Google is entirely on par with Spotify. But then, that is the part that is licensed in the same way as the rest of the market.

Ad-supported is a mixed story. In North America, where there is a mature digital ad market, YouTube’s ad-supported average revenue per user (ARPU) is entirely on par with Spotify’s. However, on a global basis, ad-supported ARPU is dragged down by its large user base in emerging markets where digital ad markets are nascent. Spotify’s ARPU is 66% higher, in part because it has to pay minimum per-stream rates, i.e. it pays a fixed rate per stream regardless of whether it has sold any ad inventory against the track. This boosts ad-supported ARPU but it risks making the model unstainable, to the extent that Spotify reported -7% gross margin for ad-supported in Q1 2020 (and note, that’s gross margin, not net margin).

Rightsholders will be hoping for Facebook and Snap Inc to bring a similar level of competition to music video as exists in streaming audio, which in turn may give them a path to higher global ad-supported ARPU rates and a healthier marketplace. However, what will determine that objective is not business strategy but product strategy. The key question is what can they both do with music videos that YouTube cannot? YouTube has years of experience and user data around music videos, Snap Inc and Facebook do not. They will be playing catch-up with a weaker portfolio of content assets: Snap Inc is only partially licensed and both it and Facebook have only licensed official music videos. Unofficial videos (mash ups, covers, lyrics, TV show appearances etc.) account for 25% of the views of the top 30 biggest YouTube music videos. Those videos are crucial in that they provide the lean-forward element for viewers; they are crucial to making YouTube music social rather than just a viewing platform.

YouTube has dominated the music video globally for more than a decade. This might just be the time that this position starts to be challenged. But if Facebook and Snap Inc are going to do that, they will have to bring their product strategy A-game to the field. If they can, then the we may indeed witness a social music turnaround in the West.

Why Spotify needs Russia

Spotify’s delayed Russia launch finally happened this week. While it did not drive a stock price growth like the Josh Rogan deal did (the stock closed just 1 cent higher than the previous day’s close) it will actually prove much more important in the medium term.

Podcasts are Spotify’s long-term bet, the moon shot that keeps investors excited and that points to a future where Spotify is better able to plot its own destiny without being constrained by record labels. But that future destination does not mean anything if Spotify is unable to maintain strong growth in its core business in the interim. Which is where Russia comes in.

Spotify has an Apple-like problem but chose a very non-Apple solution

Global streaming revenue growth was 22% in 2019 and growth will slow significantly in the COVID-19 impacted 2020. Growth rates however were already slowing due to the maturation of developed western markets, while subscriber numbers were growing faster than revenues, pushing down ARPU. Spotify has the same challenge as Apple.

Apple is the market leader in smartphones but does not own the majority of the market and the overall smartphone market is slowing, which means that iPhone sales have slowed. Apple could have decided to go ‘down market’ and created cheaper devices for less affluent consumers and emerging markets. It decided not to, and instead to start pushing its top-end devices even higher up the market with higher price points. Spotify has taken the opposite approach. Rather than increase prices in high-value markets, it is prioritising lower ARPU emerging markets. Spotify has done so because a) it does not have a diversified product like Apple so is less able to risk slowing sales, and b) its product is not sufficiently differentiated from other streaming services to prevent churn if prices went up.

Betting big on emerging markets

Instead of focusing on maximising revenue growth among existing subscribers, Spotify is rolling the dice on subscriber growth. It keeps telling investors to measure it on growth and market share, and that is exactly the game Spotify has chosen to play. Which is where Russia comes in.

Emerging markets are where the subscriber growth lies: Asia Pacific, Latin America and Rest of World combined will drive 71% of global music subscriber growth between 2019 and 2027. Spotify is already committed to this strategy and is already seeing results. In its Q1 2020 earnings, Latin America and Rest of World were the workhorses of Spotify’s growth during the quarter, accounting for 73% of all new subscribers; one year previously the share was just 30%.

But emerging markets take time to convert, users need to get familiar with the service via ad supported and extended trials before slowly converting to paid, though always at lower rates than in developed markets due to lower spending power. So, Spotify needs to keep expanding the user acquisition funnel which means launching in populous new markets such as Russia.

Russia’s contribution to the global picture is what matters for Spotify

The question many are asking is, has Spotify left it too late for Russia? There is no doubt that 2019 was a big year for streaming in Russia, with revenues growing at 79% to reach $249 million in retail terms, which makes it a sizeable, but not (yet) a large market. By way of comparison, Brazil’s streaming revenues are comfortably more than double that. As of Q1 2020 there were 7.4 million subscribers with Vkontakte and Yandex commanding a combined market share of 80%, so Spotify is entering an established market with well-established indigenous players.

This is not Spotify’s modus operandi and the last time it took this approach was India, which is yet to deliver results. So Russia is unlikely to be a runaway success for Spotify, but it is entirely reasonable for it to expect to pick up three million subscribers there over the next three years, which in turn will help sustain Spotify’s global subscriber growth. This is not about winning in Russia but instead winning globally. Or put another way, Spotify needs Russia more than Russia needs Spotify.

Music Subscriber Market Shares Q1 2020

WWDC would have been a perfect opportunity for Apple to announce another streaming milestone for Apple Music. It didn’t but the good news is that MIDiA already have a figure for Apple Music, as part of our latest music subscriber market shares. Whether Apple’s lack of announcement was because it didn’t have a good news story to tell or because it is waiting for a bigger number to pull out of the hat at a later date, well, we’ll have to wait and see.

Music Subscriber Market Shares 2020 MIDiA Research June 20

Overall there were 400 million music subscribers in Q1 2020, up 30% from Q1 2019, with 93 million net new subscribers added. This compares to the 77 million added one year earlier. The eagle eyed of you may be struggling to rationalise why streaming revenue growth slowed in 2019 while subscriber growth accelerated. The simple answer is ARPU. The combination of family plans, promotional trials and progressively more global growth coming from lower ARPU, emerging markets means that the long-term outlook for streaming is that subscriber growth will increasingly outpace revenue growth.

Spotify remains the standout leader in terms of subscribers with 32% market share. Spotify’s market share has remained between 32% and 34% every quarter since 2015. This is some achievement given how much more competitive the market has become in that time, and the stellar growth of Amazon. Spotify’s growth is both an extension of the wider market and a driver of it.

Despite Apple Music’s strong showing in second with 18%, this market share is down from 21% in Q1 2019 and contrasts with Amazon Music which finished Q1 2020 with 14% share, up from 13% one year earlier. Apple Music is making ground in absolute terms, Amazon is making ground in both absolute and relative terms.

Tencent Music Entertainment takes fourth spot with 11%, all the more impressive given that this number almost entirely refers to China and that it is accelerating growth, adding 14 million subscribers by Q2 2020 compared to 6 million on the year earlier.

Google is fifth with a more modest 6% but this represents a turnaround, with YouTube Music finally making Google a genuine contender in the subscription space. In Q1 2018, Google’s market share was just 3%. Google is outperforming the overall market.

What is particularly interesting about the state of the global market now compared to a couple of years ago is that we are starting to see some genuine segmentation taking place, which is a real achievement given that most of the services have to operate with the same catalogue and pricing:

  • YouTube Music is resonating with Gen Z and younger Millennials
  • Amazon Music is bringing older audiences to subscriptions
  • Spotify and Apple Music are the mainstream options
  • Deezer is enjoying success in emerging markets – Brazil especially – with pre-pay mobile bundles

The global subscriber market is in rude health in Q1 2020, significantly more so than the revenue and ARPU side of the equation.

These figures are the very top level findings from MIDiA’s Subscriber Market Shares model which includes quarterly data for 25 music services across 36 markets. This year we have added splits for MENA, Russia and Ireland. As well as a whole new dataset: Ad supported market shares, with splits for Sub-Saharan Africa. This data will be available for MIDiA clients in the coming weeks. If you are not yet a MIDiA client and would like to learn more about this dataset, email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Just what is Tencent’s Endgame?

tencent logoTencent’s combined $200 million investment in WMG follows on the heels of its $3.6 billion joint investment in Universal Music. It is hardly Tencent’s first investments in music, having spent $6.2 billion on music investments since 2016. But music is just one part of a much larger, supremely bold and undoubtedly disruptive strategy that is making the Chinese company an entertainment business powerhouse in the East and West alike.

Tencent is a product of the Chinese economic system

Tencent being a Chinese company is not incidental – it is pivotal. The Chinese economy does not operate like Western economies. Rather than following free market principles, it is a controlled economy in which everything – in one way or another – ultimately comes back to the state. In China, the economy is an extension of the state. The state takes an active role in the running of successful Chinese companies, sometimes very openly, sometimes in less direct ways, such as ensuring party nominees end up in management positions.

Chinese companies are used to working closely with the state – in its most positive light – as a business partner. When a company’s objectives align with those of the state, an individual company may gain preferential treatment at the direct expense of competitors. This is exactly the opposite way in which state involvement happens in the West (or is at least supposed to) – i.e. regulation. Tencent has benefited well from this approach, not least in music.

Tencent Music is the leading music service provider in China (78% market share in Q1 2020) and is also the exclusive sub-licensor of Universal, Sony and Warner in China. This means that Tencent’s streaming competitors have to license the Western majors’ music directly from it. Tencent clearly has a market incentive to ensure terms are less favourable than it receives itself. Netease’s CEO call the set up ‘unfair’ and regulatory authorities are at the least going through the motions of investigating. But the fact this set up could ever exist illustrates just how different the Chinese regulatory worldview is.

Investing in reach and influence

Why this all matters, is that when Tencent views overseas markets it does so with a very different worldview than most Western companies. Taking investments in two of the world’s three biggest record labels might feel uncomfortable from a Western free-market perspective, but to Tencent it just makes good business sense to have influence over as much of the market as it can get. What better way to help ensure you get good deals in the marketplace? Such as, for instance, exclusive sub-licensing into China.

Music is not Tencent’s main priority. For example, its combined $6.2 billion spent on music investments is less than the $8.6 billion that Tencent spent on acquiring 84% of gaming company Supercell in 2016). Nonetheless, music – along with games, video, messaging and live streaming – is one of the central strands of Tencent’s entertainment portfolio strategy.

Just as Apple, Amazon and Alphabet are building digital entertainment portfolios designed to compete in the ‘attention economy’, so is Tencent. In fact, it is fair to say that Tencent is prepping itself as a direct competitor to those companies. But while each of the Western tech majors compete in familiar (Western) ways, Tencent is taking a more Chinese approach.

If you don’t like the rules of the game, play a different game

Tencent’s entertainment investment strategy can be synthesised as follows:

  • Take (predominately) minority stakes in companies to get the benefit of influence without having to shoulder the burden of ownership
  • Invest end-to-end across the supply chain, from rights through to distribution
  • Systematically invest in direct competitors so that they are all each other’s enemies but are all Tencent’s friend

This strategy has given Tencent access to and / or control of:

  • Audience (e.g. QQ, WeChat, Weibo, Snapchat (12%), Kakao (14%), AMC Cinemas – via its stake in Wanda Group),
  • Distribution (e.g. Tencent Music, Tencent Video, Tencent Games, Joox, Spotify (10%), Gaana, KuGou, Kuwo, QQ Music, Tencent Video, Tencent Games, Epic Games (40%)
  • Rights (e.g. UMG (<10%), WMG (1.6%), Skydance (5%–10%), Supercell (84%), Glumobile (15%), Activision Blizzard (5%), Ubisoft (5%), Tencent Pictures)

The Western tech majors have built similar ecosystems, acquiring the audience and distribution parts of the supply chain (e.g. iOS, YouTube, Instagram, Twitch, Apple Music) but only rarely getting into rights (e.g. Apple TV+ originals) and never systematically investing in competing rights holders.

The Western tech majors may have often tetchy relationships with rights holders but their strategic focus (for now at least) is to be partners for rights holders. Tencent’s strategy is one of command and control: vertical supply chain integration secured through the sort of behind-closed-doors influence that billions of dollars’ worth of equity stakes get you.

Tencent may be the future of digital entertainment

Tencent is building the foundations of being one of – perhaps even the – global digital entertainment powerhouse. By taking stakes in two of the Western major labels, Tencent broke the unspoken gentleman’s agreement that streaming services and rights holders would remain independent of each other in order to ensure the market remains open and competitive. Now the Western tech majors have to choose whether to continue playing the old game or to get a seat at the table of the new game. Back in 2018 MIDiA predicted that over the coming decade Apple, Amazon or Spotify would buy a major record label. Maybe that prediction is not quite so outlandish anymore.

What is the value of exposure when exposure is all there is?

There is an existential debate going on at the moment, around whether streaming is paying artists enough. It may feel like a rerun of old debates but it is catalysed by COVID-19 decimating artist income. These are some of the key narratives: here, here and here.

In this piece I lay out the underlying economics of the argument. I also focus wholly on artist income as songwriter income is another topic entirely.

COVID-19 has reset the debate

The latest streaming royalty debate is not an isolated event. It is happening because COVID-19 has decimated live income, leaving many artists worrying about how to make ends meet. Last week, just before this whole debate kicked into gear I wrote:

“Live’s lockdown lag may have the knock-on effect of making artists take a more critical view of their streaming income. When live dominated their income mix, streaming’s context was a meaningful revenue stream that built audiences to drive other forms of income. It was effectively marketing artists got paid for. Now that artists are becoming more dependent on streaming income, the old concerns about whether they are getting paid enough will likely come back to the fore. It is in the interests of both labels and streaming services, that labels use this as an opportunity to revisit their streaming splits with artists. Labels cannot afford to have artists united against the labels’ primary income stream.”

None of this makes the debate any less important, but it explains why it is happening now, and with live revenue potentially set to take years to fully recover, it is a reality that streaming services and labels need to adjust to. It is in the interests of both labels and streaming services that artists feel like they are being treated fairly. But it is crucial that this debate is grounded in a firm understanding of streaming economics and that we do not return to the mudslinging of more than half a decade ago. A debate which, by the way, did not result in any fundamental change to how artist royalties are paid and was eventually followed by labels negotiating smaller revenue shares with Spotify and others.

Where streaming has got us to

Firstly, let’s lay some ground markers:

  • Streaming has driven half a decade of recorded music revenue growth, with the market now 42% bigger than it was in 2014
  • The wider streaming economy has globalised fandom and engagement
  • More people are listening to more music now than before

Streaming has been the change agent that turned around 15 years of decline. But it also completely reframed artist income from recorded music. In the old sales model artists would get a large sum of money in a relatively short period of time. Streaming income is more like an annuity, a longer-term return where the music keeps paying long after release. In the old model artists had smaller but high-spending audiences. With streaming they have larger but lower-value audiences.

For example, a recouped independent artist might expect to earn $4,500 for selling 1,500 copies of an album. That is roughly how much an artist would get from 5,000 people streaming the album 20 times each. The average revenue per user (ARPU) has gone from $3.00 to $0.90 for streaming. The artist has traded ARPU for reach.

This model worked fine when live and merch were booming because more than three times as many monetised fans meant three times more opportunity for selling tickets and t-shirts. This of course is the ‘exposure’ argument streaming services are fond of, which works until it does not. Now that live and merch have collapsed, as the trope goes ‘exposure does not pay the rent’. The previously interconnected, interdependent model has become decoupled.

Put simply, artist streaming economics do not work without live.

midia streaming royalty payments

The question is: what levers can actually be pulled and what effect can they have? In the above chart I have used Spotify’s 2019 premium revenues to illustrate how changes in royalty shares can impact what artists earn. I have used a total per stream rate of $0.06 as the base case, which could look on the high side for some artists, but the purpose is to show the relative change. Whatever amount the base rate is, it will increase by the same percentages.

The tl;dr of the chart is the most radical of the options (label rate returns to 55%, podcast dilution is removed from the royalty pot, a 25% increase in retail price and therefore royalties) results in a very meaningful uplift of 42% in royalties for artists from today’s current state. But, the three problems here are:

  1. Such measures could damage the commercial sustainability of streaming
  2. It does not change the underlying annuity model shift that streaming represents
  3. We are about to enter a recession. Music subscriptions are at risk, increasing the prices right now could accelerate subscriber churn. Meaning a bigger slice of a smaller cake for artists.

Let’s take the first two points in turn.

1) Spotify lost $184 million in 2019. With this royalty model it would have lost more than $1 billion. Spotify would have to reduce its operating costs by a fifth just to get back to losing $184 million. Critics would argue this represents trimming the fat. It might, but it would also likely lead to Spotify:

  1. Cutting back on product development
  2. Cutting back on growing its subscriber base
  3. Finding new ways to charge labels and artists for additional services

None of these are reasons not to pursue the strategy but they are prices that labels and artists have to be willing to take. Spotify revenue growth will slow. Furthermore, it will skew the market towards Apple, Amazon and Google who can afford to make music loss leading. In the mid term this may benefit artists, but in the longer term (i.e. when Spotify is sufficiently squeezed) these tech majors are likely to follow their MO of ‘reducing inefficiencies in the supply chain’. So be careful what you wish for.

2) Taking an artist straw person, with 20% of her total income coming from streaming, if live and merch only gets to 25% of its previous level, the 41% increase in streaming income would still see her total annual income fall by 40%.

No streaming lever can be pulled hard enough to offset the decline in live revenue.

So, let’s pull together all the pieces:

  1. Streaming royalties can be increased meaningfully if prices are increased and rates revisited but it may slow the streaming market
  2. Now is probably not the best time to be increasing streaming prices for consumers
  3. Even a big increase is not going to offset the fall in live income

There is not a simple, single answer to fixing the current crisis in artist income. A blended, pragmatic solution would be:

  1. Increase royalties at a middle option rate (do not increase prices until after the recession)
  2. Artists push their fans to buy their music at destinations like Bandcamp
  3. Professionalise and commercialise the livestreaming sector, with a strong focus on charging for events in order to create some live income
  4. Innovate virtual fandom products to drive new, additional income streams

It is not going to be easy for artists for some time yet. The hard truth is that income levels will not return to full strength until live does, and that is a way off yet. Streaming is more important now than ever so any solution must balance maintaining its momentum and scale with sustaining artist careers.

Independents Grew Fastest on Spotify in 2019, But There’s a Twist

Tomorrow (Wednesday 29th April) Spotify announces its Q1 2020 results, at which point we will find out whether it had a COVID-bounce like Netflix did (adding 15.8 million subscribers in Q1) or whether growth slowed. But before that, there is one little detail from Spotify’s 2019 Annual Report which warrants a closer look. Hidden away in the commentary there is this innocuous looking line:

“For the year ended December 31, 2019 [Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, and Merlin] accounted for approximately 82% of music streams.”

The same line is in Spotify’s 2018 Annual Report with the figure at 85%. So, the majors and Merlin indies saw their share of Spotify streams decline by three percentage points in 2019. That in itself is interesting and builds on the narrative of the streaming tail getting longer and fatter, with the superstars losing share. But with a little creative thinking we can do a lot more with this three percentage points shift.

Using MIDiA’s label market shares data for FY 2019 we can do a full breakdown of Spotify’s streaming revenue. Applying shares for streaming volumes to streaming revenue, and shares for the total streaming market to Spotify is not methodologically pure and has margins of error, but it is a broadly sound approach and lets us do the following:

  • First we apply the percentage share to Spotify’s annual revenue
  • Next, we take the majors’ share of streaming revenues for 2019 and apply them to Spotify’s streaming revenue
  • We can then deduct the majors from the majors + Merlin total to leave us with Merlin’s revenue
  • Then we apply the independent artists streaming share to the Spotify revenue which leaves us with one remaining segment: ‘other independent labels’

spotify streaming griowth by label type

What emerges is a hierarchy of dramatically different growth rates, ranging from just 11% for Merlin labels through to a dramatic 48% for independent artists and an even more impressive 58% for ‘other independent labels’. This provides further evidence of the way in which (much of) the independent sector continues to thrive during streaming’s continuing ascendancy.

spotify streaming growth by label type

Most intriguing is the 58% growth for ‘other independent labels’. I am using the quote marks because this is essentially an ‘all others’ bucket and so captures music entities that don’t fit the traditional classification of ‘label’. This includes AI generative music and of course library music companies like Epidemic Sound.

It is of course important to consider that growth rates are not absolute growth – the majors still added much more new Spotify revenue in 2019 (€1 billion) than all of the rest put together. Nonetheless, the difference in growth rates is stark and only Spotify will be able to answer questions about how much of this is organic versus how much of this is driven by the way that it engineers its recommendations and programming.

Whatever the causes, the effect is clear: streaming benefits everyone but it benefits some more than others.