Quick Take: Spotify And Hulu Partner In The US

Spotify just announced it is bundling in the Hulu No Commercials plan into its $4.99 student offering in the US. Given that the Hulu product retails at $7.99 and Spotify at $9.99, this is unmistakably a good value for money deal – even compared to the standard $4.99 student Spotify tariff. In the Spotify blog post announcing the tie up, it is made clear that this is the start of something bigger: “This is the first step the companies are taking to bundle their services together, with offerings targeted at the broader market to follow.”

Putting aside for a moment how the economics of this bundle might work for Spotify, this partnership gives us a clear pointer as to Spotify’s video strategy going forward. The other part of the puzzle is the news that Spotify is hiring former Maker Studios exec, Courtney Holt, to head up its original video and podcast strategy.

Spotify knows that it needs to have a video play of some kind, despite the failure of its previous attempt. Unfortunately, everyone else is thinking the same – with Snap Inc, Facebook and Apple now committing billions to original content, in an already inflated market for video. Hulu will spend $2.25 billion on original content in 2017, matching Amazon’s original content budget for the year. This is the barrier to entry for video, and its simply too high for Spotify to justify.

Instead, it has focused on working with one of the leading streaming video services in the US, and is building complimentary music-orientated video in house. Thus, through this Spotify bundle a user gets their scripted drama hit from Hulu and their music video hit from Spotify.

Spotify’s Hulu partnership is a smart way to get into the video market without getting in over its head. While for Hulu, Spotify gives it clear differentiation from Netflix and Amazon. Which is given extra significance by the announcement that T-Mobile Netflix for free for its premium customers. Whether the economics of this deal add up for either party is another question entirely.

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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.

How Soundcloud Could Transform Deezer’s Market Narrative

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News has emerged of Deezer being a potential buyer of troubled Soundcloud. This follows on from Spotify’s prolonged but ultimately abortive courting last year. Soundcloud was once a streaming powerhouse, with 175 million Monthly Active Users reported in October 2014. Though that number is still widely cited whenever Soundcloud is mentioned in the media, in truth its user base is now much smaller. Spotify, which now has around 150 million MAUs has a Weekly Active User penetration rate of 16% while Soundcloud’s WAU rate is just 6%. With the caveat that multiple additional variables impact WAU vs MAU rates, this would imply that Soundcloud’s MAU number is now closer to 70 million. Despite this shift in its public narrative, Soundcloud remains a uniquely valuable asset in the streaming landscape, one that would give another streaming service a distinct competitive advantage. Here’s why.

A Streaming Service Unlike Any Other (Except YouTube That Is)

Soundcloud first rose to prominence as a platform for artists before it rocketed into the stratosphere as a consumer destination with its new VC-powered mission statement ‘to be the YouTube of audio’. The legacy of its unique starting point is that Soundcloud:

  • Has a catalogue unlike any other streaming service, except YouTube (and to a lesser extent, Mixcloud)
  • Gives artists a direct connection with fans unlike standard streaming services
  • Gives up and coming artists a global platform for reaching fans with no intermediary

That unique combination of assets makes Soundcloud a highly valuable commodity despite its diminished user base and similarly reduced valuation (now said to be around $250 million from a high of $1 billion). Soundcloud has two crucial attributes that will enrich any streaming service:

  • A service tailor-made for Gen Z (ie those consumers currently aged 19 or under)
  • A crowd sourced platform for artist discovery

Soundcloud Is Built For The Era Of Mass Customization

As DJ Spooky put it:

“Artists no longer work in the bub­ble of a record­ing stu­dio. The stu­dio is the net­work.” … “The 20th cen­tury was the era of mass pro­duc­tion. The 21st cen­tury is the era of mass cus­tomiza­tion…”

Artist creativity is no longer a creative full stop, we are now in a phase of Agile Music. Even though the number of people that upload music is small (7% of consumers upload music to Soundcloud or YouTube, of which half upload their own music) their impact on the broader market is multiplied many times over as they provide the music others listen to. But even more importantly, the blurring of the line between audience and creator is the fuel in the engine of Gen Z experiences such as Snapchat and Instagram. Other than lip syncing apps like Musical.ly and Dubsmash, Soundcloud and YouTube are pretty much all the music business has in this space. That, coupled with a highly shareable, highly social UI makes Soundcloud tailor-made for Gen Z. The importance to the segment is clear: among 16-19 year olds, Soundcloud penetration is higher than Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music, Tidal and Deezer, with only Spotify boasting higher penetration for audio services.

Crowd Sourced Discovery

The other key asset Soundcloud brings is the bridge it provides between fans and artists. A host of diverse services like Tunecore, BandLab, Bandcamp and Reverb Nation provide an unprecedented range of tools to up-and-coming artists. But Soundcloud (along with YouTube) is still the only place where artists can reach such a large audience directly, without an intermediary. Layer on its massively social functionality and discovery algorithms and you have an unrivalled audio platform for new artist discovery.

Soundcloud Needs An Ecosystem

Unfortunately for Soundcloud, it has found it impossible to effectively monetize these assets (and aping Spotify’s freemium model has done little to move the dial). What Soundcloud needs is an ecosystem into which it can slot, bringing all of the great functionality but relying on another part of the ecosystem to do the monetization. Slotting Soundcloud into Deezer, Spotify or even Apple Music would create an entirely new layer in each of those propositions and would massively enhance market positioning.

It would also enable the service to start behaving more like a label, identifying and testing artists before moving them up into the main service. If done by Spotify or Apple Music, this would look highly disruptive to labels as it really would be a precursor to becoming a next-gen label. But for Deezer, the story is a little different. As part of the Access Industry potfolio, Deezer sits alongside talent management agency First Access Entertainment, live discovery platform Songkick and, last but most certainly not least, Warner Music. By acquiring Soundcloud, Access Industries would be rounding out the most complete Full Stack Music Company in the business.

YouTube Is Not For Sale But Soundcloud Is

YouTube might do most of what Soundcloud does, and at much larger scale, but Soundcloud is up for sale and YouTube is not. Right now, Soundcloud represents the best opportunity in the marketplace for an audio streaming service to make up the ground in user experience innovation that the streaming market lost over the last few years in comparison to Gen Z apps. And with Deezer at the front of the queue, the French streaming service could be about to transform its market narrative in an instant.

 

Guess Who Gen Z Prefers For Music: Spotify Or YouTube?

It is still common to hear people talk about Millennials as if it is one amorphous group. In actual fact, Millennials are now 2 entirely distinct generations, not 1. In addition to the core Millennials we now have a new generation of younger consumers born on or around 2000. This is Generation Z, the ‘true Millennials’ if you like. MIDiA recently deep dived into the behaviours and characteristics of this group in a piece of research for the BPI and ERA. In it we explored technology and media trends for 0-11 year olds, 12-15 year olds and 16-19 year olds. You can download the full report here. I’m going to deep dive into 1 key idea here: YouTube vs Spotify.

YouTube emerges as the dominant theme throughout all of the age groups of Gen Z, as both a social and an entertainment platform. And of course, as a music platform. Indeed, a staggering 94% of UK 16-19 year olds use YouTube monthly, even among 12-15 year olds the rate is 87%. But it is not just music that people are using YouTube for, indeed it is only by the time Gen Z gets to late teens that music becomes the most widely penetrated content watched on YouTube (to be clear, that is not the same as saying the most frequently watched or most time spent). YouTube is the world’s most widely used music app and its reach among younger audiences is clear to all.

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All of which makes the next finding all the more remarkable: Spotify has overtaken YouTube as the primary music app for 16-19 year olds in the UK. In December 2016, 53% of UK 16-19 year olds used Spotify weekly compared to 47% for YouTube. As the chart shows, no other streaming service, paid or free, comes anywhere close to Spotify and YouTube. Of the countries we surveyed in this piece of research (US, Canada, Australia and UK) it is only in the UK that Spotify is ahead of YouTube and, crucially, only in this age group.

An Aspirational Youth Brand

So, what’s going on here? Spotify has become an aspirational brand for Gen Z. It has, for teens, become a byword for streaming in the same way the iPod became synonymous with the MP3s and Netflix has with streaming video. Spotify is not exactly an old brand but neither has it been a youth brand, instead prospering within its core demographic of 25-34 year olds. Now a new generation of youth, many of which were only just starting school when Spotify first launched, have seized the brand as their own.

I recall a meeting with the strategy team of one of the world’s biggest consumer electronic companies in the mid 2000s when the iPod was reaching its apogee. The team explained that they knew there was nothing they could do to compete with the iPod because it had become an aspirational brand, with an appeal so strong that it didn’t matter whether other products were better or cheaper, the iPod was the brand people wanted to be associated with. This company had done its homework and knew exactly how the trend was playing out because it had benefited from the exact same effect for the previous 2 decades.

Teens Have Made Spotify Their Own

It is hard to exaggerate the potential of this development. Teenagers have taken the Spotify brand and made it their own. Unless Spotify totally screws up somehow, which is unlikely, it has a platform for future growth that could make its current success simply look like the warm up act. Although the UK is the only one of the 4 markets in this study where Spotify has taken the lead, it is on track to do the same in the 3 other English speaking markets surveyed. And it has also taken the lead in other markets we track: Sweden (where national sentiment plays a major role) and Germany (where YouTube offers a much more restricted music range due to rights issues).

And Spotify’s Lead Is Growing Further Still

But there’s more… In a more recent survey in the UK that we fielded in March, the lead extended even further. Now 71% (yes, 71%!) of 16-19 year olds are using Spotify weekly, though YouTube is also up slightly to 52%. Our June survey is in the field now, so watch this space for an update on Spotify’s progress. It could potentially break the 80% mark.

Now to be clear, 71% of 16-19 year olds using Spotify weekly does not mean that anything like that share is actually paying for it. Most are streaming for free while some are on family plans and others are on the half-priced student plan. But even with that caveat, the scale of adoption is inarguable. While the music industry has been locked in an existential angst over the perceived YouTube ‘value gap’, Spotify has created the best possible riposte for rights holders and creators.

As Spotify edges towards its overdue public listing, it now has the evidence of foundations for truly sizeable future growth. The future is bright, bright green.

 

 

Spotify Earnings: Growth Comes At A Cost

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Spotify has published its much anticipated 2016 revenues. Because the company is under so much analytical scrutiny, there is little that is particularly surprising but there is still plenty we can learn from the results:

  • Growth maintains momentum: Spotify recorded revenues of €2.9 billion in 2016, up 51% from €1.9 billion in 2015. Although that was a lower growth rate in % terms (80% for 14/15), it was a bigger net add in revenue terms (€989 million net new revenue in 2016 compared to €863 million in 2015). Spotify still has some way to go before it challenges Netflix’s $8.2 billion streaming revenue, but it is making clear progress.
  • Spotify is getting ready for public reporting: The 2016 accounts featured heavy restating of previous year figures and many line items from last year’s accounts were no longer reported. All of which points to an organization getting its reporting structures in place for a public listing of some kind.
  • ARPU is a mixed story: Spotify’s total monthly user ARPU increased from €1.82 in 2015 to €1.94, driven by a small increase in ad supported user APRU and, more importantly, a higher share of paid users (38% in 2016 compared to 31% in 2015). However, that increased paid conversion has come at the price of lower paid ARPU, with $1 for 3-month trials etc., pushing down paid ARPU from €5.16 in 2015 to €4.58 which in turn is more than an entire dollar a month less than the €5.85 paid ARPU figure Spotify enjoyed in 2014.
  • Losses are widening again: Spotify reported losses before tax of €539 million against revenues of €2.9 billion (i.e. 18% of revenue). This was up from 12% in 2015 although it had been as high as 17% in 2014. In order to keep up with the market, Spotify is having to spend heavily, and this is all without any major product or territory launch in 2016. You need deep pockets to play at streaming’s top table.
  • Rights costs may be on a positive trajectory: Spotify’s Cost of Sales (previously reported as Royalty Distribution and Other Costs) were €2.5 billion, or 84.6% of revenue, down slightly from 85.5% in 2015. The shrinking share of the loss-making ad supported user base is most likely the key contributor here. Though the new UMG and Merlin deals will help sustain this path.

In Search Of A Margin

So, what do Spotify’s results say about the economics that we didn’t already know. In truth, not much. The market has lots of growth in it yet; competing is expensive, growth has to be incentivized and rights are the main cost component.

As Spotify nears a public listing or an acquisition by Alibaba or Tencent, it remains the benchmark for the health of the streaming economy. With the underlying fundamentals remaining largely unchanged in 2016 despite stellar growth, here are a few thoughts on how the economics of streaming might change:

An often repeated argument from record labels is that streaming services will hit profitability when they reach scale. So, when does that happen? 48 million subscribers can lay a good claim to being ‘scale’, but it isn’t driving profit. While the market establishes itself, streaming services have to overspend on product innovation and marketing (and then, later, on user retention). So, these costs will likely rise in relative terms. Meanwhile, rights are always going to remain largely in line with revenue (though the UMG and Merlin deals reward growth with some discounting, which is a welcome innovation). But even these deals will not change the fact that rights will be large enough to challenge margins and will largely scale with growth. Which means no truly meaningful scale benefits. So here are a few alternative ways in which streaming margins might be improved:

  • Doing a Netflix: Because Netflix owns much of its own content, it is able to use its recommendation algorithms to ensure that content over-indexes, improving margin. It also amortizes costs against those content assets to help it register a profit. Spotify could do the same but is unlikely to do so anytime soon. It cannot afford to antagonize its major label partners, each of whom has a UN Security Council type power of veto (Spotify would falter if any one of them pulled out). Someday, Spotify probably will become a label, though not in the way most people would understand the term. However, it will wait for more scale and confidence before flicking the switch on that strategy.
  • Ecosystems: Apple has long demonstrated the value of competing right across value chains. Now Amazon is following suit (e.g. Amazon Video covers rights, infrastructure and distribution). Exercising control across the value chain gives a company more places to extract margin. Perhaps Alibaba or Tencent (or some other Chinese giant) could buy a major label and a streaming service? Access Industries is already on this path, wholly owning WMG and more than half of Deezer (though there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of dots being joined yet). And then the wildcard is a streaming service becoming so big that it can buy a major or a collection of big indies. Or of course Apple deciding to any of the above. Should this feel like wild conjecture, do not forget that it was not so long ago when an ISP (AOL) bought WMG, and a water and sewage conglomerate (Vivendi) went on a media company acquisition spree and bought UMG.
  • Ancillary revenue streams: The most pragmatic solution though is not a silver bullet, but instead a blended strategy of new revenue streams. These can range from B2B (e.g. Spotify selling its data to live companies like Live Nation and AEG to help them get more cost effective with better targeting), through premium user add-ons to new formats such as limited capacity, pay-per-view artist live streams.

Spotify played the starring role in streaming’s biggest year yet and looks well on track to do the same in 2017. But at some stage, the losses need to narrow. The industry needs to help ensure this happens, unless it wants the market to end up being dominated by companies that simply do not have to have streaming turn a profit because they are making money elsewhere.

 

Quick Take: IFPI Revenue Numbers

Today the IFPI published their annual assessment of the global recorded music business. The key theme is the first serious year of growth since Napster kicked off a decade and a half of decline, with streaming doing all the revenue heavy lifting.

The findings won’t come as much of a surprise to regular readers of this blog, as at MIDiA we had already conducted our own market sizing earlier in the year. The IFPI reported just under a billion dollars of revenue growth in 2016 (we peg growth at $1.1 billion) with streaming driving all the growth (60% growth, we estimate 57%). IFPI also reported 112 million paying subscribers (our number is 106.3 million, but the IFPI numbers probably include the Tencent 10 million number as reported, while the actual number is closer to 5 million).

IFPI report physical sales declining by 8% (we have 7%) and downloads down by 21% which is 3 percentage points more decline than the majors reported; this implies the IFPI estimates the indies to have had a much more pronounced decline than the majors. MIDiA is currently working with WIN to create the 2017 update to the global indie market sizing study, so we’ll be able to confirm that trend one way or another in a couple of months’ time.

Overall, the IFPI numbers tell the same good news story we revealed back in February, namely that streaming is finally driving the format replacement cycle that the recorded music business has not had since the heyday of the CD. Without streaming, the recorded music market would have declined in 2016. Streaming is driving revenue growth by both growing the base of users and, crucially, increasing the spend of more casual music spenders, changing them from lower spending download buyers into monthly 9.99 customers.

Also, streaming is unlocking spending in emerging markets (especially Latin America). The old model was based on people being able to afford a CD player and being able to afford to buy albums. The new model monetizes consumption on smartphones (which are becoming ubiquitous in emerging markets). Expect each year from now to see a reallocation of recorded music revenue towards emerging markets. It will be a long process but an irresistible one. Indeed, as Spotify’s Will Page put it:

“Spotify’s success story has expanded beyond established markets, with Brazil and Mexico now making up two of our top four countries worldwide by reach. Back when the industry peaked in 2000, Brazil and Mexico were 7th and 8th biggest markets in the world respectively. A combination of increasing smartphone adoption [reaching far more users than CDs ever did] and Spotify’s success makes the potential for these emerging markets to ‘re-emerge’ and to exceed previous peaks.”

One surprising point is that the IFPI reported a total of $4.5 billion for streaming ($3.9 for freemium and $0.6 billion for YouTube, etc.). However, the major labels alone reported revenues of $3.9 billion (see my previous post for more detail on label revenues). That would give the majors an implied market share of 87% in streaming. Which seems like a big share even accounting for majors including the reveue of the indie labels they distribute in their revenue numbers (eg Orchard distributed indie label revenue appearing in Sony’s numbers). Last year the IFPI appeared to have put Pandora revenues into US performance revenues rather than treat them as ad supported streaming, so that could account for an extra $400 million or so.

Nonetheless, taking the IFPI’s $3.9 billion freemium revenue and the 112 million subs number both at face value for a moment, that would equate to an average monthly label income of $2.90 per subscriber or a combined average monthly income of $1.53 for total freemium users (including free). These numbers are skewed in that they are year end numbers (mid year user numbers would be lower, so ARPU would be higher) but they are still directionally instructive ie there is a big gap between headline 9.99 pricing and what label revenue is actually generated due to factors such as $1 for 3 month trials and telco bundles.

All in all, a great year for recorded music. And despite a slow-ish Q1 2017 for streaming and the impending CD revenue collapse in Japan and Germany, it looks set to be another strong year ahead for streaming and, to a lesser extent, the broader recorded music business.

MIDiA Exclusive: 7digital Acquires Leading Competitor 24-7

7digital logo_0UK music services provider 7digital today announced they are currently considering the acquisition of longstanding competitor 24-7 from German retail giant MediaMarktSaturn (MMS).  24-7 is one of the longest standing companies in the entire digital music space, founded in 2000 (MMS took a majority holding in 2009). In a marketplace where the average life span of a digital music start up is 5.5 years, 24-7 is a veritable veteran and powers one of the very first telco music services: TDC’s Play. 7digital takes full ownership of 24-7’s business and its existing music service customers, including Play and Saturn’s Media Markt.

Market Consolidation

2016 was a year of consolidation in the white label services space, with Omnifone going into administration and Medianet getting bought by SOCAN. 7digital’s acquisition of 24-7 further concentrates the market. With the growing brand strength of streaming services like Spotify and Tidal, telcos have been increasingly looking to partner with those brands rather than build their own. Which was one of the key drivers of market consolidation. Those companies that have weathered the storm, of which 7digital is clearly one, have done so by diversifying away from telcos. For example, in 2016 7digital powered French retailer Cdiscount’s streaming service Cstream.

Sleeping Giant Retailers

That is not to say that opportunity does not still exist in the telco sector, it does, but a successful white label services provider now has to have a much more diversified client and product portfolio. Retailers will be a big part of that mix going forward. Especially so in markets where CD sales still account for a large portion of music sales. Germany, just and so happens to be the world’s 4th largest recorded music market with 59% of its sales physical in 2015. So powering the music service of the country’s largest CD retailer has clear potential. Add into the mix the fact Media Markt is also the leading consumer electronics retailer with a very large base of online user accounts and the tantalizing prospect of an Amazon Prime / Echo type proposition emerges, should they ever decide to go down that route.

Powering The Next Generation Of Spotifys

Another real area for growth for companies like 7digital is giving pure play services a head start in the streaming race. Bringing a streaming music service to market is no easy task and many a start up finds itself 2 years into its journey wishing it had realised just how complex a business multi-territory music licensing actually is. By bringing licensing, tech knowhow and infrastructure to the table, companies like 7digital should be well placed when a post-Spotify IPO / sale generation of streaming services look to come to market.

7digital is not quite last man standing in the white label services marketplace (there is already a new crop of competitors emerging such as Cylo and General Harmonics) but it is now in the clear position of being the leading player with more than a decade of track record behind it. Do not under estimate the importance of that latter attribute to rights holders and potential partners, both of whom want to have the security of working with a trusted company that is still going to be around next week.

With Spotify, Apple and Amazon all set to follow up their strong 2016 with an ever stronger 2017, there is no doubt that the streaming market is heating up. It will be down to new entrants to ensure that the market does not become too concentrated around too few players. The newly expanded 7digital will be hoping to be a key part of that puzzle.

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.

Change Is Afoot In Music Video

Music video’s two power players are both in the news for strategic resets. On the one hand YouTube has announced that it is merging its YouTube Music and Google Play Music teams while on the other hand Vevo has announced it is postponing the launch of its subscription service in favour of prioritising global expansion. These are both important developments in their own rights but together form part of a changing narrative for music video.

Music video is streaming music’s killer app. According to MIDiA’s latest consumer survey, 45% of consumers watch music videos on YouTube or Vevo every month, while 25% of consumers use YouTube for music every week (more than any of the streaming audio services). So what YouTube and Vevo do has real impact.

YouTube Is Where Google Is Placing Its Music Bets

YouTube’s merging of teams is not a huge surprise. It always appeared overkill having 2 separate teams, especially considering that Play was performing so poorly in the market (its weekly active users are measured in single digit percentages) and that Google’s music priority has always been, and will always be, YouTube. Although nothing will change immediately in terms of user proposition, the strategic direction of travel is clear: YouTube is where Google will place its music bets. Which places even greater importance on rights holders and Google coming to an understanding around royalty payments. YouTube moving to minimum guaranteed per stream rates is untenable (for Google) as is the Value Gap/Grab (for rights holders). Something has to give.

My long-term bet is still on Google creating a parallel music industry around YouTube, one that is entirely opted out of the traditional music industry’s rights frameworks. But a more immediate concern for Google is contingency planning in the event of Vevo upping sticks and becoming the centre piece of a revamped Facebook video play. A combination of no Vevo and disgruntled rights holders would be a recipe for disaster for YouTube’s music strategy.

Facebook And Vevo May Be Courting 

Vevo jumping ship to Facebook is not as far-fetched as it might have seemed when it was first mooted a few years ago. Facebook is now the world’s 2nd biggest online video property and has finally admitted that it is a media company. Slowing ad revenues in 2017 will see Facebook double down on ancillary revenue streams and content will be a key plank of that strategy. Games is the biggest addressable market and it has already made moves in that direction. Growing video is another. While streaming music is a relatively small market opportunity for Facebook, it has wide appeal. Launching an AYCE streaming service would be an ill-advised (and highly unlikely) option for Facebook, but partnering with Vevo would be a higher margin, lower risk way of getting into music. It would also be the perfect vehicle with which to showcase Facebook’s next generation of video UI, which will include features such as curation, channels, recommendations etc. In short, a lot less like Facebook video and lot more like YouTube.

The Rise Of Music Inspired Video

Interestingly, Vevo’s CEO Erik Huggers has announced that Vevo will be increasing its focus on short form, non-music video, such as artist interviews, mini-documentaries, and animated shorts. This snackable, highly shareable content bears closer resemblance to the sort of video that works well in Facebook’s more social-centric video platform than YouTube’s more viewer-centric environment. Vevo’s non-music video approach is smart. As we explained in our report ‘From Music Video To Music Inspired Video’, if rights holders want their share of overall video time to grow, or at least hold their own, then they need to start exploring creating music related video rather than just music videos.

The core consumption format will still be the music video, but the additional content expands reach and time spent. In a Facebook environment (especially if Instagram was incorporated) this sort of content would spread like wildfire. Add into the mix that Huggers also referenced Vevo’s prioritization of building its direct audience via its own apps (ie not via YouTube) and we might just be starting to see the emerging shape of a planning-for-life-after-YouTube strategy. Even if Vevo decided to stick with YouTube (which remains the most likely outcome), it could use all of these moves as leverage for getting a better deal.

Change is afoot in the music video space and we may just be beginning to see the two key players beginning to put competitive space between each other. But perhaps most tellingly, as both companies up their game, they are also both, in different ways distancing themselves from their subscription plays. Music video is the killer streaming app for many reasons. The fact that it is free is reason number one, and Vevo and YouTube both know it.

Streaming Music Pricing: Inelastic Stretching

Pricing has long been an issue for streaming music subscriptions, with the $/€/£ 9.99 price point above what most people spend on music each month. Streaming services have navigated around the issue with a combination of tactics such as telco bundles and aggressive price discounts (e.g. $1 for 3 months). However, these tactics place long term pressure on the 9.99 price point as they create a consumer perception that streaming music should be cheaper than it is. There is no doubt that discounts are doing a great job of converting users and of easing otherwise reluctant consumers into the 9.99 pricing, but the next phase of the streaming market requires a more sustainable approach to pricing strategy, coupled with some serious product innovation.

To explore this issue in detail, MIDiA has published its latest music report: Streaming Music Pricing: Inelastic StretchingIn it we use proprietary MIDiA data to assess how much of the 9.99 opportunity has been tapped, how much further opportunity exists and what level of demand exists for different price points.

midia music subscriber projections

These are some of the key takeaways from the report:

  • 2017 will be a stellar streaming year: A combination of enough growth being left in the market and the continued success of pricing discounts should see subscriber numbers grow at a slightly faster rate in 2017 than they did in 2016, hitting 146.6 million. This is up 44.3 million from the 106.3 million hit in 2016. (That 2016 figure is 5.9 million more than our provisional estimate published back in the start of January, as the result of receiving a couple of slightly stronger than expected numbers. However, the increase is not due to the very high subscriber numbers reported elsewhere for some Chinese services. We consider these numbers to be high and we place our estimate closer to half of those.) By 2018, subscriber growth will begin to lessen and by 2019 we’ll be in market maturation phase. Around 2/3 of the readily addressable opportunity for 9.99 has already been tapped and this remainder is what will drive the 2017 growth. New tactics will be required for the rest of the cycle.
  • Beyond 9.99: Emerging markets, new partnerships and discounts will all be important growth tactics, but pricing will also be key. Many readers will be familiar with my longstanding enthusiasm for mid tier streaming pricing. Unfortunately, mid-tier pricing by stealth (e.g. price discounts, student offers) coupled with an overly resplendent free marketplace (YouTube, Vevo, Spotify free, etc.) have combined to suck most of the oxygen out of the mid tier sector. Nonetheless, there is a major need for something to cater for the lower end of the market. One of the key sections in the report reveals that streaming pricing is inelastic and the change in demand is smaller than the change in pricing. Even dropping the main price to $6.99 would only result in reducing the size of the streaming market.
  • Unbundling: So how do we square the circle? By using super low prices (e.g. 2.99; 3.99) to launch laser focused niche apps aimed at specific demographics and genres. This can be done both by standalone specialists (e.g. the Overflow, FreqsTV) and by the big incumbents taking a leaf out of Facebook’s app strategy and creating standalone, unbundled apps. In order for them to work, they cannot simply look like a thin slice of Spotify or Apple Music. They have to be as different from their parent apps as Instagram and Whatsapp are from Facebook. That means new user experiences, new functionality, different approaches to programming/ curation and standalone branding. To work, mid tier products have to look like something unique, not a compromised, watered down version of the full fat product. Mid tier services risk looking like low-fat, gluten-free, sugar-free, organic, diet, hand knitted soya milk. While there is a market for it, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the market is in fact tiny.

So, a good 2017 looks on the cards for streaming, one which will confirm the maturity of the streaming sector as a whole. But the next stage of the market will require product and pricing innovation, at both the high end and the low end. Now is the time to start putting the pieces in place for 2018 and beyond.

The report from which this insight is taken (Streaming Music Pricing: Inelastic Stretching) is immediately available to MIDiA report subscribers. To find out how to become a MIDiA subscriber email info@midiaresearch.com.  If you just want to buy the report and the supporting data then visit our report store here.