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.

Why Netflix Can Turn A Profit But Spotify Cannot (Yet)

Having just celebrated its 10th (streaming) birthday, Netflix followed up with a strong earnings release, announcing 5.8 million net new paid subscribers in Q4, sending its share price up by 9%. This wraps up a stellar year for Netflix, one in which it doubled down on original programming and delivered acclaimed hits such as Stranger Things and The OA, shows that don’t fit the traditional TV mould. In fact, Stranger Things was turned down by 15 TV networks before finding a home at Netflix and The OA’s oscillating episode lengths (from 1 hour 11 mins to 31 mins) would have played havoc with a linear TV schedule (not even considering its mind bending plot).

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Netflix closed 2016 with 89.1 million subscribers and the temptation to benchmark against Spotify’s equally strong year is too strong to resist. Spotify (which celebrated its decade in June 2016) closed the year with around 43 million subscribers, 48% the size of Netflix. But a closer look at the numbers tells another growth story.

Read the full post on the MIDiA blog by clicking here.

Music Subscriptions Passed 100 Million In December. Has The World Changed?

In streaming’s earlier years, when doubts prevailed across the artist, songwriter and label communities, one of the arguments put forward by enthusiasts was that when streaming reached scale everything would make sense. When asked what ‘scale’ meant, the common reply was ‘100 million subscribers’. In December, the streaming market finally hit and passed that milestone, notching up 100.4 million subscribers by the stroke of midnight on the 31st December. It was an impressive end to an impressive year for streaming, but does it mark a change in the music industry, a fundamental change in the way in which streaming works for the music industry’s numerous stakeholders?

Streaming Has Piqued Investors’ Interest

The streaming market was always going to hit the 100 million subscriber mark sometime around now, but by closing out the year with the milestone it was ahead of schedule. This was not however entirely surprising as the previous 12 months had witnessed a succession of achievements and new records. Not least of which was the major labels registering a 10% growth in overall revenue in Q2, driven by a 52% increase in streaming revenue. This, coupled with Spotify and Apple’s continual out doing of each other with subscriber growth figures, Spotify’s impending IPO and Vevo’s $500 million financing round, have triggered a level of interest in the music business from financial institutions not seen in well over a decade. The recorded music business looks like it might finally be starting the long, slow recovery from its generation-long recession.

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Spotify Continues To Set The Pace

Spotify has consistently led the streaming charge and despite a continually changing competitive marketplace it has held determinedly onto pole position since it first acquired it. Even more impressively, it has also maintained market share. According to data from MIDiA’s Music Streamer Tracker, in Q2 2015 Spotify’s share of global music subscribers was 42%, H2 15 41%, H1 16 44%, H2 16 43%. Not bad for a service facing its fiercest competitor yet in Apple, a resurgent Deezer and an increasingly significant Amazon. Spotify closed out the year with around 43 million subscribers, Apple with around 21 million and Deezer with nearly 7 million. 2nd place is thus less than half the scale of 1st, while 3rd is a third of 2nd place. Meanwhile Apple and Spotify account for 64% of the entire subscriber base. It is a market with many players but only 2 standout global winners. Amazon could change that in 2017, largely because it is prioritising a different, more mainstream market (as long as it doesn’t get too distracted by Echo-driven Music Unlimited success). Meanwhile YouTube has seen its music streaming market share decline, which means more higher paying audio streams, which means more income for rights holders and creators.

A Brave New World?

So far so good. But does 100 million represent a brave new world? In truth, there was never going to be a sudden step change but instead a steady but clear evolution. That much has indeed transpired. The music market now is a dramatically different one than that which existed 12 months ago when there were 67.5 million subscribers. Revenues are growing, artist and songwriter discontent is on the wane and label business models are changing. But 100 million subscribers does not by any means signify that the model is now fixed and set. Smaller and mid tier artists are still struggling to make streaming cents add up to their lost sales dollars, download sales are in freefall, many smaller indie labels are set to have a streaming-driven cash flow crisis, and subscriber growth, while very strong, is not exceptional. In fact, the global streaming subscriber base has been growing by the same amount for 18 months now: (16.5 million in H2 2016, 16.5 million in H1 2016 and 16.4 million in H2 2016). Also, for some context, video subscriptions passed the 100 million mark in the US alone in Q3 2016. And streaming music had a head start on that market.

At some stage, perhaps in 2017, we will see streaming in many markets hit the glass ceiling of demand that exists for the 9.99 price point. Additionally the streaming-driven download collapse and the impending CD collapses in Germany and Japan all mean that it would be unwise to expect recorded music revenues to register uninterrupted growth over the next 3 to 5 years. But growth will be the dominant narrative and streaming will be the leading voice. 100 million subscribers might not mean the world changes in an instant, but it does reflect a changing world.

Experience Should Be Everything In 2017

 

2017 is going to be a big year for streaming. Spotify will likely IPO, paid subscribers will pass the 100 million mark in Q1, playlists will boom. 2017 will build upon an upbeat 2016 in which the major labels saw streaming drive total revenue growth. This stirred the interest of big financial institutions, companies that had previously avoided the music industry like the plague. These institutions are now seriously assessing whether the market is finally ready to pay attention to. The implication of all of this is that if Spotify’s IPO is successful, expect a flow of investment into a new wave of streaming services. But if these new services are to have any chance of success they will need to rewrite the rules by putting context and experience at the centre of everything they do.

Why User Experience Often Ends Up On The Back Seat

Putting experience first might sound like truism. Of course, everyone puts user experience first right? Wrong. You may be hard pushed to find many companies that do not say that they put user experience first, but finding companies that genuinely walk the talk is a far harder task. Just in the same way that every tech company worth its salt will say they are innovation companies, only a minority do genuine, dial-moving, innovation. Prioritising user experience is one of those semi-ethereal concepts that may be hard to argue against in principle, but that is much more difficult to actually build a company around. Why? Because the real world gets in the way. In the case of music services ‘the real world’ translates into (in no specific order): catering to rights holders’ requirements, investing in rolling out to new territories, paying out 81% of revenue to rights holders on a cash flow basis, spending on marketing etc.

The distinct advantage that the next generation of streaming services will have is that they will sit on the shoulders of the streaming incumbents’ innovation. Instead of having to learn how to fix stream buffering, drive compelling curation, make streaming on mobile work and define rights holder licenses for freemium, they can take the current state of play as the starting point. They are starting the race half way through and with completely fresh legs. They come into the market without the same tech priorities of the incumbents and also without any of their institutional baggage (baggage that, whether they like it or not, shapes world views and competitive vision).

Streaming Music Is Not Keeping Digital Pace

During the last 5 years, users’ digital experiences have transformed, driven by apps like Snapchat, Instagram and Musical.ly. Video has been at the heart of most of the successful apps, as has interactivity. Music services though have struggled, not only with how to make video work, but also with how to give their offerings a less 2 dimensional feel. They have lagged behind in the bigger race. For all of the undoubted innovation in discovery, recommendation, personalization and programming, the underlying streaming experience has changed remarkably little. We are still fundamentally stuck in the music-collection-as-excel-spreadsheet paradigm. Underneath it all is the same static audio file that resided on the CD and the download. Granted, there have been some major improvements in design (such as high resolution artist images, full screen layouts and strong use of white space). Now though, is the time to apply these design ethics to streaming User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX).

Successful (non-music) apps are multidimensional, highly visual and often massively social. These are the UX and UI bars against which streaming services should benchmark themselves, not how other streaming services are doing. Of course, a key challenge is that music in not inherently a lean forward, visual experience. Most people want much of their listening time to be lean back, without interruptions. Nonetheless, Vevo and YouTube have shown us that there is massive appetite, at truly global scale, for lean forward, highly social, visual music experiences.

Fixing A Plane Mid-Flight

The streaming incumbents could all do this, but they will be at distinct disadvantage compared to potentially well-funded new entrants. It is no easy task to refit a plane mid-flight. Also, Spotify, Deezer and Napster are built on tech stacks with origins more than a decade old. All have made massive changes to those original tech stacks (Spotify in particular, shifting from a monolithic structure to a modular one) but in essence, all these companies were first built as desktop software providers in an era when Microsoft and Nokia were still technology leaders. They have adapted to become app companies but that change did not come naturally and took a huge amount of organizational discipline and resource. This next market phase will require exactly the same sort of discipline, but more effort and at a time when competition is fiercer and costs are higher.

Streaming Services Need To Know Who They Are Really Competing With

The streaming services might think that they are competing with each other but in reality they are competing in the digital economy as a whole. Their competitors are Snapchat, Instagram and Buzz Feed. Right now, music listening accounts for 36% of consumers’ digital media time but that share is under real threat. Over the course of the millennium, music has relied increasingly on growth in lean back environments and contexts. The rise of listening on the go via MP3 players and then smartphones created more time slots that music could fill, while media multitasking has been another major driver of listening. All of this works well when whatever else is going on does not require the listener to be using their ears. The rise of video is, paradoxically, creating more competition for the user’s ear. Even though we are seeing the 2nd coming of silent cinema with social video captioning, there are many more calls to action for our eyes and ears. Even a Facebook feed 24 months ago would have been something that could in the large be safely viewed in silence. Now it is full of auto playing videos, willing the user to unmute. As soon as s/he does so the music has to stop. On video-native platforms like Snapchat the view is even starker for music. Killing time in the Starbucks queue is now as likely to involve watching a viral video as it is listening to a song.

Thus streaming music has to create a user experience renaissance, not just to keep up with contemporary digital experiences but in order to ensure it does not lose any more share of digital consumers’ consumption time. This is the new problem to fix. The Spotify generation fixed buffering and mobile streaming, the Apple Music generation fixed discovery, the next generation will fix UX. Just as Apple Music and Google Play Music All Access were able to skip the first lap of the race, launching with what Spotify and co took years to develop, so the next generation of streaming services, when they come, will take all of the recent innovation playlists, curation and user data analysis as the blank canvas. Which in turn will force the incumbents to up their game fast. Until then, the streaming incumbents have an opportunity to get ahead else get left behind.

MIDiA Research Predictions 2017: The Year Of The Platform

MRP1611-coverFollowing an 84% success rate for our 2016 Predictions report, we today launch our 2017 predictions report: ‘MIDiA Research Predictions 2017: The Year Of The Platform’. The report is immediately available to all MIDiA subscription clients and can also be purchased for individual download from our report store here.

Here are some highlights:

2016 was the year that video ate the world. 2017 will be the year of the platform, the year in which the tech majors will fight for pre-eminence in the digital economy, competing for consumer attention through formatting and distribution wars. Companies that are already using mobile Operating Systems to achieve global reach will take the next step, creating Mobile Life Ecosystems that both break out of the app silo walls and straddle them. Facebook, Amazon, Tencent, Microsoft, Apple and Google/Alphabet will be the main players. 2015 was about parking tanks on each other’s front lawns, in 2016 shots were fired, 2017 will be all-out war. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and voice assistance will be key battlegrounds and indeed will form the glue of Mobile Life Ecosystems.

Some of MIDiA’s other key predictions for 2017 are:

  • Services are the new black: Maturing ‘phone and tablet markets mean that hardware companies will place a greater focus on digital content and services in 2017. Services are an opportunity to drive strong growth that will compensate for slowing device sales
  • Ad market growing pains: Digital advertising inventory supply will exceed demand in 2017. Audience engagement will grow more quickly than advertisers’ appetite. Consequently, ad rates will decline with the bloating of the market by content farms accentuating the problem. Facebook will not be alone in seeing slowing ad revenues in 2017.
  • A tech major will be hit with the first stage of an anti-trust suit: The incoming US Presidency has made its anti-trust inclinations clear. A likely early target will be the AT&T/Time Warner merger. The global-scale tech companies may be mature companies but their respective sectors are not. Regulation is one of the inevitable growing pains of maturing business sectors. Digital is next.
  • Snapchat’s IPO will be digital’s canary in the mine: App store era unicorns and their attendant Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) will redefine the media and tech landscape. Not only will the success, or failure, of Snapchat’s IPO affect those of Uber and Spotify, poor showings could deflate the VC bubble andput an end to the grow-at-all-costs For the music industry, the stakes are even higher, as an under-achieving Spotify IPO would create a crisis in confidence in the entire streaming market.

Among our music predictions for 2017 are Spotify’s IPO and the subsequent start of a new generation of experiential streaming services, Tidal selling (probably to Apple) while Spotify closes out the year with around 55 million subscribers to Apple Music’s 30 million.

Facebook Is Finally Ready To Become A Media Company

Male Finger is Touching Facebook App on iPhone 6 ScreenFacebook beat estimates with its latest earnings but announced that ad revenues would likely slow in 2017 as the digital ad market feels the pinch of advertiser budgets lagging the shift in user behaviour. Facebook’s stock fell by 7% but it already has Plan B in motion: to become a media company. Facebook delayed this move as long as it possibly could, showing little enthusiasm for getting bogged down with content licenses while it was able to drive audience growth and engagement by piggy backing other people’s content. That strategy has run its course. Facebook is now about to start looking and behaving much more like a media company, but in doing so it will rewrite the rule book on what a media company is.

The Socially Integrated Web

Back in 2011 I published a report ‘The Socially Integrated Web: Facebook’s Content Strategy and the Battle of the Ecosystems’. You can still download the report for free here. In it I argued that Facebook was starting out on a path to become a media company, but not the sort of media company anyone would recognise:

Change is afoot in the Internet.  Facebook’s new Socially Integrated Web strategy is set to make Facebook one of the most important conduits on the web. It is pushing itself further out into content experiences in the outside web while simultaneously pulling more of them into Facebook itself. Facebook is establishing itself as a universal content dashboard – a 21st century cable company for the Internet, a 21st century portal – establishing its own content ecosystem to compete with the likes of Apple and Amazon. While traditional ecosystems are defined by hardware and paid services, Facebook’s is defined by data and user experience.

Now with ad revenues set to slow, Facebook is flicking the switch on phase 2 of this strategy. Think of it as the Socially Integrated Web 2.0.

Wall Street Doesn’t Like Mature Growth Stories In Tech

As Apple, Pandora and others have found to their cost, Wall Street likes its tech stocks to be dynamic growth stories. It doesn’t like mature growth stories – that’s what traditional company stocks are for. So what can a tech company with a mature customer base do? The answer is to switch on new user monetization strategy, with content and services the lynchpin. Apple’s new supplemental investor materials outlining iOS users’ services spend is a case in point. Monetizing audiences is the new black. This is the game Facebook is now starting to play.

How Facebook Will Become A Next Gen Media Company

Moving from curating to licensing is a subtle but crucial shift in Facebook’s role as a content distribution platform. Here are the pieces that Facebook will stitch together as it begins its transition towards become a next generation media company:

  • Games: In August Facebook announced its gaming platform Facebook Gameroom, a Steam for casual games. It followed that with the announcement it will bring Instant Games to Messenger – an extension of its messaging bot strategy. Games is a logical place for Facebook to start carving out its media company role as it has become the default home of casual PC gaming. It also wants to own a slice of the hugely lucrative mobile gaming market.
  • Filters: Snapchat and Line have created global marketplaces for stickers and filters. Facebook is set to follow suit and is now experimenting with Snapchat-like filters. Filters may not look like media assets in the traditional sense, but the whole point about next generation media businesses is that they contain next generation content assets. Filters are an early indication of how the definition of content will change over the next decade and Facebook now has a horse in that race.
  • Video: Despite the embarrassment of having over reported some of its video metrics, Facebook has quickly become a major player in the online video space, accounting for 29% of short form video views. The next step for Facebook is to start building a discovery and curation layer. When it does, expect video consumption to boom. This will be a major step towards its media company future. It will however have to build a lot of tech for rights holders and content creators. Right now, its aversion of getting tied up with policing rights means that many rights holders don’t even post content there. YouTube has a massive head start with its highly sophisticated Content ID stack. Facebook will need to follow YouTube’s lead.
  • Live Stream: Facebook has been doubling down on its live streaming, expanding its focus from user and celeb streams towards more traditional media content such as Steven Colbert’s Showtime Monologue, partnering with 50 media outlets for presidential election coverage, and eSports. eSports could be as lucrative as traditional sports within the next 10 years and the shift has already begun – Twitch accounted for more streaming video bandwidth than the Olympics.
  • Next generation TV operator: One of the most disruptive moves Facebook can make, at least from the perspective of traditional media, is to stitch together its video assets and combine them with video subscription apps like Netflix and TV channel apps like iPlayer and HBO Go to create an all-in-one video destination straddling, UGC, short form, live streaming and TV content. The rise of video apps has created a bewilderingly fragmented video landscape. Facebook can stitch it all together to become a next generation TV operator. It will face direct competition from Apple, Amazon and Alphabet if/when it does.
  • Editorial: Facebook took a lot of flak for its decision to censor, on grounds of nudity, a famous Vietnam photo showing the effects of a napalm attack on Vietnamese children. The photo had been posted by Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten and its editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen wrote “Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor”. Facebook eventually bowed to public pressure and reinstated the photo. While Facebook may have been wrong to censor the photo it revealed that Facebook is already a ‘master editor’ whether Facebook or traditional media like it or not. Facebook hosts such a vast amount of content that the master editor role is inescapable. Aftenposten might have editorial credibility but what about a white supremacist publication? Facebook is already an editor in chief, in short it is already a media company.
  • Music: Facebook’s recent ad for a music licensing executive got music business types all excited. But music is the content vertical Facebook probably has least to gain from switching from host to licensed service. Streaming music is a notoriously difficult business to make money in (Spotify’s gross operating margin is around 17%). Facebook needs to grow margin, not just revenue, and with all its other content options it doesn’t make sense for Facebook to loss lead with an AYCE music service when it can get a bigger return on that investment elsewhere. IF Facebook does do something in music either expect it to be a more radio-like experience for its mainstream audiences (Pandora had a gross operating margin of around 40% in 2015) or – and this is more likely – something for younger users that has music at its core but that is not a streaming service. Think something along the lines of lip synching app Musical.ly.

Facebook is a past master at business model transformation. Its co-opting of younger audience focussed messaging platforms in the face of ageing social network audiences was a best-in-class example of a company disrupting itself before someone else did. Now Facebook is set to make another major change in its strategy before it finds its core business disrupted. Media companies beware, there’s a new player in town and its betting big, real big.

Here’s Why The Music Industry Needs To Dump Non-Discretionary Pricing

Spotify’s 2015 UK accounts painted a vibrant picture with both profits and above average Average Revenue Per User (ARPU). However, a little caution is required before assuming all the answers to the streaming market’s woes can be found here. Firstly, only a portion of Spotify’s costs are based in the UK. For example, much of the (more highly paid) exec team is in the US and much of the development team is based in Sweden. Such are the vagaries of financial reporting for multi-territory companies. More importantly though, is Spotify’s higher UK subscriber ARPU (€6.47 per month compared to €5.20 per month globally according to the ever insightful Music Business Worldwide). On the surface this is clear success (and indeed the UK may well have a higher paid-to-free ratio). However, the main reason for the ARPU difference is the music industry’s fixation with non-discretionary pricing. 9.99 is 9.99 in the US, the UK and the Euro zone, even though each of those currencies have very different values. Especially now post-Brexit referendum.

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At current exchange rates, the Euro Zone €9.99 is equivalent $10.86 and the UK £9.99 price point is equivalent to $12.18. Thus Euro Zone subscribers are paying 9% more than US subscribers while UK subscribers are paying 22% more. What makes matters even worse is that US per capita GDP (a measure of relative wealth of the population) is 55% higher in the US than in the EU and 27% higher than in the UK. So in effect that means a combined pricing ‘swing’ of 63% for the US compared to the Euro Zone and 49% compared to the UK.

In short, European subscribers are getting doubly hit by the music industry’s insistence on non-discretionary pricing for music subscriptions. While there are a host of commercial factors that can be cited in favour of the approach (e.g. it helps mitigate against currency fluctuations) there is zero customer value, unless of course you happen to be a US resident consumer.

Regular readers will know I am a long term advocate of a more sophisticated approach to subscription pricing (e.g. mid tier products and super-premium options) but before we get there, a first step should be to ensure that European music fans get a fair deal compared to their US peers. Or of course, we could try the alternative: increasing US subscriptions by 63% which would mean a $16.32 price point. Sounds crazy right? Exactly…

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.

For more information on the analysis and statistics in this post check out MIDiA Research and sign up to our free weekly research digest.

Amazon: Reverse Pricing, And The Rise Of Zero UI

Amazon’s announcement of its AYCE streaming service Amazon Music Unlimited should not come as a surprise to anyone whose been keeping even half an eye on the digital music market. Amazon are the sleeping giant / dark horse (select your preferred descriptive cliché) of digital music. With 60 million Prime Memberships it has a bigger addressable base of subscribers than Spotify, and its 300 million credit card linked customer accounts surpasses most but falls well short of Apple’s 800 million. Nonetheless, Amazon is the last major force to play its streaming hand. However, what the two really interesting things about Amazon Music Unlimited are its ‘reverse pricing’ strategy and the move towards Zero UI music experiences.

Sleeping Or Coma?

Being the sleeping giant of a space can work both ways. It normally implies major resources, a large legacy audience waiting to be tapped, and years of brand equity and trust. Amazon certainly ticks all those boxes, and some. But it can also mean that you’ve left it too late, allowing new entrants steal away your customers with new product offerings. HMV, Tower Records and Fnac were all sleeping giants but they all moved too late and too cautiously to be able to prevent Amazon, and then Apple, and then Spotify from stealing their customers. Things should though, be different for Amazon and streaming. Although streaming is growing fast we are still short of 100 million subscribers globally and in most markets subscriber penetration is below 10%. Even more importantly, the majority of adoption is being driven by music aficionados (those consumers that spend above average time and money with music). The next opportunity is the engaged end of the mainstream. This is where Amazon plays best.

Targeting The Mainstream Music Fan  

Amazon’s streaming strategy to date has revolved around a limited catalogue, curated streaming service bundled into Amazon Prime. Although it has struggled for visibility by being 3rd in the Prime pecking order (behind free shipping and video) it nonetheless deserves much credit for genuinely trying to do something different in the increasingly homogenous streaming marketplace. It is a lean back, curated experience for the music fan that is neither passive nor aficionado. This group is nearly double the size of the high spender group (see our MIDiA subscriber reports on music segmentation for much more detail). What makes this group even more interesting is that none of the other big streaming services are going after it. Why? Because they spend less than $10 a month.

So on the surface Amazon’s new $7.99 is a smart move, pushing a price point into the market that unlocks the next tier of users. The move is less radical than it first appears though, as this price is only available for Amazon Prime subscribers (all others have to pay $9.99). Also Spotify and Deezer’s aggressive price discounting ($1 for 3 months) have both created effective price deflation. That aside, there is however no doubt that Amazon’s $7.99 price point will have a major impact on consumer perceptions of pricing and will in the longer run help bring the main $9.99 price point down to $7.99 (something Apple tried and failed to do when it launched Apple Music).

Amazon’s Reverse Pricing Strategy

But Amazon’s pricing strategy is way smarter than just that, here’s why. Note the name of the service: Amazon Music Unlimited. Not Amazon Music. It echoes Google’s Google Play Music All Access. Each service’s naming convention ensures that it does not give the impression of being the core music offering for each company. In Amazon’s case this is its music sales business (CDs and downloads) and its pre-existing Prime bundled streaming service. The great thing about having a $7.99 / $9.99 product in the market is that it suddenly creates very clear perceived monetary value for its Prime-bundled service. How could consumers understand the value of something that didn’t have a price point anywhere? Now it is abundantly clear that it is $7.99 / $9.99 worth of value. This is Amazon’s Reverse Pricing Strategy: price a decoy product high to make a core product appeal more valuable. Now, a seasoned music exec might argue, ‘ah, yes, but it’s not unlimited on demand, so it’s not worth that’. But if an Amazon user gets full satisfaction from a curated, limited catalogue streaming service then the AYCE distinction doesn’t matter. It’s like telling some one that unless they eat until they are sick at an all you can eat buffet that they are not getting their money’s worth. Let’s just hope that Amazon’s reverse pricing strategy is not accidental…

Music’s Zero UI Era

Finally, onto Alexa and Amazon Echo. For just $3.99 a month Echo owners can get the full Amazon Music Unlimited service, controlling the entire experience via the Alexa voice controlled assistant. Although initially it will prove challenging to do anything other than the more rudimentary elements of using the service with the Echo, voice control is going to come of age over the next five years. Three of the big four tech companies have a voice play (Apple has Siri, Alphabet has Google Assistant and Amazon has Alexa). Also Microsoft has Cortana. Voice will play an increasingly important role in our digital lives and will help move smartphones towards post-app experiences, with app functionality increasingly built into the OS of devices and called upon via voice.

Amazon has pushed the dial for music and voice, it might even have got a little ahead of itself. But more and more of music consumption will be voice and gesture driven and Amazon is setting the pace for the voice side of the ‘Zero UI’ equation. To be clear, Zero UI does not mean Zero functionality nor Zero UX. In fact, functionality has to be even better in a Zero UI context, as it has to be able to deliver user benefits without visual reference points. But what it does mean, is that there is less friction between the listener and the music. The music becomes the experience.

Regardless of whether this ‘sleeping giant’ has timed its entry into the AYCE market right or not, its lasting legacy could well be making the first truly bold step towards music’s Zero UI era.

Spotify May Be Buying Soundcloud, But Who Wins?

spotify-pac-manThe Financial Times has reported that Spotify is in advanced talks to buy Soundcloud. Soundcloud has been shopping itself around for some time, while Spotify needs to continue outpacing Apple as it heads towards an IPO. Which is why the deal has been rumoured for some time. But who would do best out of the deal (if indeed it goes ahead)?

  • Soundcloud has peaked: Throughout the 2010’s Soundcloud’s growth was impressive, growing from 1 million registered users in May 2010 to 150 million by December 2014. But registered user numbers only ever tell part of the story. The most telling statistic is Soundcloud’s Monthly Active User (MAU) number: 175 million. Impressive enough, and 50 million more than Spotify’s 125 million. But Soundcloud hit that number in August 2014 and it hasn’t reported a bigger number since. In fact, it could well be that Soundcloud hasn’t actually issued a new number since, but instead has simply being restating that number. If it had grown, you can be sure we’d have heard about it. If it had fallen, perhaps not. On top of this, in October 2013 CEO Alexander Ljung stated that Soundcloud had hit 250 million MAUs. A number that has not since been repeated. So best case, Soundcloud usage has peaked, worst case it is in decline. DEAL WINNER: Soundcloud
  • Soundcloud users are male super fans: According to MIDiA’s consumer data 7% of consumers are Weekly Active Users (WAU) of Soundcloud, about half the rate of Spotify (again suggesting that Soundcloud’s headline user numbers aren’t all they appear). But crucially 60% of its WAUs are male while Spotify’s are 50/50 male/female. Spotify has spent the last few years diversifying its user base away from this male super fan skew. All that work would be undone if the Soundcloud user base is absorbed. DEAL WINNER: Evens
  • Soundcloud users are a funnel: Spotify’s model relies upon giving new audiences a taste of its offering via its free tier, super trials and telco bundles, before converting to paid. To keep ahead of Apple, Spotify has to keep filling up its funnel. So Soundcloud’s user base will be a welcome boost to Spotify’s user acquisition as it seeks to maintain momentum as it heads towards IPO. DEAL WINNER: Spotify
  • Many Soundcloud users are already subscribers: 28% of Soundcloud users already have a music subscription, with the majority of those already paying for Spotify rather than Soundcloud Go. So many of the low hanging fruit users have already been converted, weakening the value of the audience. DEAL WINNER: Soundcloud
  • Soundcloud has a unique catalogue: A key reason so many Soundcloud users also use Spotify is that so much Soundcloud catalogue can only be found there. This is a rich asset for Spotify but as much of it is not licensed so it could prove to be a licensing quagmire for Spotify. DEAL WINNER: Spotify, if it can sort out the licensing
  • Soundcloud’s valuation is high: Reported valuations for Soundcloud have ranged from $700 million to $2 billion. Even if it comes in at $500 million, unless the deal is heavily skewed towards stock, Spotify will burn through a massive chunk of its latest $1 billion debt round. DEAL WINNER: Soundcloud

There is an additional wild card, that Spotify could use Soundcloud as vehicle for becoming a serious player in ad supported in its own right (which will delight Apple’s Jimmy Iovine, not). The deal of course may not even happen, but if it does, it is far from a guaranteed winner for Spotify. It will help Spotify build a bullish growth story for Wall Street but Spotify will have to IPO before the shine starts to come off if Soundcloud’s user base turns out to be smaller and less valuable pickings than at first appears.