What’s In A Number: Can Streaming Really Be Worth $28 Billion?

Goldman Sachs just made some headlines with its assessment that Universal Music is worth $23.5 billion and that the paid streaming market will be worth $28 billion in 2030 (up from $3.5 billion in 2016 and close to double the size of the entire recorded music business in 2016). For a little bit of perspective, the entire recorded music business generated $27.4 billion at its peak in 1996. Goldman Sachs’ numbers provide us with a salutary reminder of the risk that comes with taking a short-sighted view when building forecasts, or, to put it another way, predicting tomorrow based on what happened today.

Regular readers will know that I have been a music industry analyst since the end of the 1990s, witnessing enough industry cycles and getting close enough to business to build a deep understanding of the industry and its potential. As anyone involved in the business knows, the recorded music industry is more complex and more idiosyncratic than most other industries. Predicting its future is complicated by three factors:

  • Market concentration: Three companies (UMG, SME and WMG) control the majority of revenues, and four companies (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Spotify) control the majority of the streaming market. Such concentration of power makes for an unpredictable market that can be reshaped by the decision of one company. For example, if HBO decided it was going to move out of streaming for good, Netflix would still be a viable business. Spotify though, would not if Universal made the same decision.
  • Scarcity is gone: When Napster launched in May 1999 it threw scarcity out of the window. Until then, music had been a scarce commodity. Scarcity was the foundation upon which the glory days of the business was built. Unless you bought a CD, you had no other way of getting a high quality copy of the music. Nearly 20 years on from Napster, P2P may have faded but YouTube and Soundcloud have met the now-permanent demand for free music. Even if Safe Harbour legislation gets tightened up and YouTube scaled down, on demand free music will remain. The illegal sector will sprout a YouTube replacement in an instant. $27.4 billion in 1996 was a scarcity high-water mark.
  • $9.99 is not a mass market price point: 9.99 is more than most people spend on music. In fact, it is what the top 10% of music buyers spend in the US and in the UK. Once the first two waves of adopters (early adopters and early followers) have been converted to subscriptions, growth will slow unless pricing changes. We are already seeing this happening in mature markets. More than 90% of the opportunity has been tapped in Sweden, while across the US, UK, Canada and Australia paid streaming growth has slowed over the last three quarters. So much of the subscriber growth Apple and Spotify have been reporting is coming from other, often emerging, markets. Eventually the 9.99 (or local currency and purchasing power parity equivalent) opportunity will be tapped there too. In 2016, 106 million subscribers drove $3.5 billion of growth, which translated into an annual ARPU of $32.79. Taking this as our anchor point (and ignore the fact streaming ARPU has actually been declining) then Goldman Sachs’ $28 billion would require 853 million paid subscribers. If we factor in emerging markets having much lower ARPU and driving much of the growth, the figure would be closer to one billion paid subscribers. Even with the most radical price point innovation it takes quite a leap of faith to support one billion subscribers.
  • The world changes: It is very easy to think of tomorrow as being a bigger, shinier version of today. But things change, fast. Streaming is the driver now, but if it still is by 2030 then that will be a serious failure of innovation. When I first saw the Goldman Sachs numbers they reminded me of a similar report put out back in 1999 by another financial institution when the music business was last in vogue among that sector. It was a 130 page report called the Music and The Internet: A Celestial Jukebox and it predicted that online CD sales and downloads would be the future of the music market, because that was what the emerging market was then. It too had uber bullish predictions, claiming that the European music business alone would be worth $12 billion by 2010. It in fact reached $7.7 billion and in 2016 was $6.9 billion. With no little irony, the company that wrote the report was—Lehman Brothers. Look where they are now.

Conflicts of Interest

There is one final important factor to consider regarding both Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs. In fact, it is probably the most important thing of all: conflicts of interest.

Lehman Brothers made money from buying and selling shares in the companies they wrote about. Goldman Sachs is the same. On its disclosures page there are no fewer than six items listed by Goldman Sachs’  for UMG’s parent company Vivendi. These include owning a substantial volume of Vivendi shares and providing investment banking services to the company. So, if Vivendi’s share price goes up as a result of Goldman Sachs’ report, Goldman Sachs’ Vivendi investment gains value. If Vivendi sells a stake in UMG at a price influenced by Goldman Sachs new valuation, Goldman Sachs will earn a bigger transaction fee if it provides the banking services. A Goldman Sachs hedge fund also has shares in Spotify while another division is helping Spotify prepare for its IPO. So, if Spotify’s IPO/direct listing is boosted by Goldman Sachs’ report, Goldman Sachs’ Spotify investment gains value and it earns a bigger fee for the listing.

No financial institution with a vested interest (unless its interest is betting against a company – which also happens­) is going to provide a cautious or skeptical view of the streaming market. It would go against its own interests to do so. But everyone likes big numbers, so big numbers do the rounds.

For the sake of utter transparency, MIDiA Research has among its research subscription client base both UMG and Spotify, along with the other majors, indies, the other streaming services, tech companies and telcos. In fact, anyone and virtually everyone of note in the streaming business is a MIDiA subscription client. But, unlike an investment bank, they pay to access our research because we tell them what they need to hear not what they want to hear. That can make the client-analyst relationship uncomfortable and tricky to navigate at times but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Nineteen years ago, I wouldn’t have put my name to research like Lehman Brothers’— nor would I do so today.

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