Take Five (the big five stories and data you need to know) August 23rd 2019

Taylor Swift, pre-sale love: Taylor Swift tends not to adhere to prevailing industry trends. As a millennial artist with a strong Gen Z following, streaming should rightly be the core of her recordings career. Having started her career very young in the album era, however, she and her fans still love album sales. So, on the eve of her first UMG album ‘Lover’, she has hit one million pre-sales– which is kind of spectacular in the post-album era. Add this to BTS helping push South Korean sales into growth, and we have an emerging trend: pop acts mobilising young fanbases on a global scale to buy albums as a gesture of fandom. 

Apple TV+, on its way: Apple confirmed plans to launch its video subscription service by November, part of a drive to reach $50 billion in service sales by 2020. Services represent 21% of Apple’s revenue and it is making a big deal of transitioning to being a services business. A cynic might argue that of course Apple would say this when iPhone sales are dipping below 50% revenue. While wearables are booming, there is no iPhone successor on the horizon, so services need to drive mid-term growth.

Korn, brutal mosh pit: Nu-metal veterans Korn have announced they are doing virtual gigs in MMO games AdventureQuest 3D and AQWorlds. The band have had characters made of them and they promise a ‘brutal mosh pit’ and an ‘unforgettably brutal, monster-filled virtual rock concert’ – as well as the opportunity to take selfies backstage with the band. Making in-game concerts work is no easy task (look at how long it has been since Marshmello’s Fortnite ‘gig’). But the potential is clear, and they will get easier to do.

Google, privacy fightback: Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, privacy has risen in the agenda. Companies that don’t rely on advertising (Apple in particular) have been able to leverage this to position privacy as a product. Google can’t afford to be a passive observer, as advertising is 83% of its revenue ($33 billion last quarter). Its Chrome team has thus proposed a ‘privacy sandbox’, which aims to deliver accurate targeting for advertisers without compromising user privacy. Blocking cookies can reduce publishers’ ad revenue by half, so Google needs a privacy-friendly version of targeting, fast.

PAOK, licensing brinkmanship: Greek Super League football club PAOK will stream its first match of the season on itsown OTT platform because it hasn’t yet got a licensing deal with national broadcaster ERT. Sports licensing is in an unusual place right now. On the one hand, traditional broadcasters are seeing audiences decline while having to spend more on drama to compete with Netflix (so less to spend on sports), while on the other new streaming players are increasing their spend. Expect more speed bumps like this along the way.

Backing Both Horses: The Thinking Behind Tencent’s UMG Stake

As long expected, Tencent is poised to take a stake in Vivendi, reported to be 10%. While the news might not be surprising, there are a number of important factors at play:

  • Tencent fast-tracked? Given that various entities stated their interest in investing in UMG, Vivendi appears to have fast-tracked Tencent. This might well be because Tencent showed the most appetite for paying a premium, and therefore Vivendi wanted to close the deal so as to create a price that subsequent bidders would have to work with.
  • Betting on both horses: The investment community is increasingly viewing music as a battle between rights and distribution, with Spotify versus UMG as the publicly traded vehicles through which the contest can be backed. Tencent already secured around 5% of Spotify via its Tencent Music Entertainment subsidiary back in 2017, and it is now securing 10% in UMG. Tencent is backing both horses in the race.
  • Investing within constraints: Back in 2016, concerned about capital flowing out of the country,Chinese authorities implemented restrictions on Chinese companies investing in overseas entities. This has compelled Tencent to focus on minority stakes rather than outright acquisitions. The UMG stake fits this investment framework.
  • Outgrowing China: Tencent had a 74% market share of the Chinese music subscriptions market in Q2 2018. While growth in the market is solid, it is slowing. Tencent will recognize that there is only so much remaining near-term opportunity at home. Being a part of the global market is a way of ensuring it is not constrained by its domestic marketplace.
  • Proxy wars: Back in 2018 I argued that Spotifyshould be wary of Tencent setting itself up as a competitor in markets where Spotify is not yet established (Russia, sub-Saharan Africa, some Asian markets etc). Tencent may still do this, and this may be part of the preparations, but for now ByteDance looks the most likely candidateto pursue this strategy.
  • Look east:While streaming is giving an old industry new legs in the west, China’s music industry is effectively being built from scratch. As a consequence, it doesn’t have decades of irrelevant baggage. This is seen in China’s music apps. Western streaming is all about monetising consumption; China’s isabout monetising fandom. If the Western music industry was born today, it too would be putting social at its core. Many argue that apps like WeSing can only really work in China – but I remember people saying the same about mobile picture messaging when i-mode was getting going in Japan nearly 20 years ago. Just look at TikTok’s global success if you need any further convincing.

Big Machine (Inadvertently) Just Did a Promo Ad for Label Services Deals

Taylor-SwiftThe sales of Taylor Swift’s former label Big Machine Records to Scooter Braun has resulted in an ugly spat that has been played out very publicly. First Braun enthused about acquiring a ‘brilliant’ company and the global ‘opportunities’.Then Swift responded with an open letter saying that Braun had ‘stripped her of her life’s work,before Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta responded saying he had given her the ‘opportunity to own her masters’. The feud clearly has some distance to run but the issues of ‘who got what text message when’ are not the big deal here, the real deal is the big deal.

Whether she likes it or loathes it, Taylor Swift’s catalogue is Big Machine’s asset

Late last year Swift left Big Machine to sign a long-term deal with Universal Music that was most likely a label services deal. At the time she said it was ‘incredibly exciting’ to own her masters. But, however good her UMG deal might be, she is now in a position whereby her recordings are being sold to someone she’d much rather not have ownership of them. In her post she calls this a ‘worst case scenario’. From Big Machine’s perspective, it simply couldn’t sell the company without having either Taylor Swift or her recordings on its balance sheet. Without one of those, the company’s value would have been much lower. Swift may not like the feeling of being someone else’s asset but that is the very nature of what happens when an artist signs a traditional label deal.

Artists now have unprecedented commercial choice

Back in the early 2000s the Beatles wentto court to try to regain ownership of their master recordings because of a dispute with their label. Fast forward to now and we have another massive pop act angered at not having control of their own creation. At one level the world has not changed much, but on another it has done so, and dramatically so. The fact that Swift signed a label services type deal with UMG shows just how much more choice artists have with the type of deals they sign, whether that be label services, joint ventures, distribution deals or combinations of all three. Artists have never been so empowered and so educated. Nor have they ever had so many commercial options, from doing direct distribution with a CDbaby or Amuse, a label services deal with an AWAL or BMG or simply going direct to fans with platforms like Bandcamp.

Big Machine just highlighted the downside of traditional label deals

By allowing the dispute with Swift to become so public, Big Machine has just inadvertently done a promo campaign for label services deals. The more that the media is awash with stories like this, the more that artists will be considering their options. This does not however mean that all artists will be turning down traditional masters deals in favour of label services deal. A label services deal normally means trade-offs. A record label is going to get less, so in return it is going to give less back. Artists have to balance out factors such as smaller advances, lower royalty income, higher risk and bearing costs. For an artist that has spent years building to the point of signing a deal, a fat advance and guaranteed marketing spend will often be a more appealing prospect. Especially when you consider that successful artists will expect recording income to be just a minority of their total music income.

Artists increasingly use labels to build their own artist brands 

In this context, the record label becomes a marketing asset to the artist, a tool with which to become famous enough to ensure that all the other income streams (live, merch, publishing, brand partnerships etc.) kick in. In this era of empowered artists, more artists will be making an informed decision that matches their priorities. If they prioritise creative independence and control, then label services will make most sense. If they value building a large-scale audience fast, they may opt for a traditional label deal. Or they’ll take something in the middle. The bottom line is that there is no standard approach anymore. Any artist signing a deal now that finds themselves five years from now complaining about not having control of their masters will, to put it bluntly, only have themselves to blame. It will have been their choice.

What the 2018 Success of the Beatles for UMG Tells Us About Where Streaming is Heading

Universal Music Group recorded an impressive €6 billion in revenue in 2018, bolstering a JP Morgan valuation of $50 billion. No doubt, UMG is enjoying a purple patch, riding and driving the wave of recorded music industry growth. But as with an any industry transition, progress is not linear and the past can have a lingering embrace. In UMG’s earnings report lies a small but crucial detail that point to the fact that the music industry’s path ahead may not be quite as straight as it first appears: the continued success of the Beatles.

The Beatles were UMG’s fourth best seller in 2018 

On page 13 of Vivendi’s year-end financial report, the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ is listed as UMG’s fourth best seller in 2018. It finished ahead of frontline artists including XXXTentacion, Migos and Ariane Grande. Above it were Drake’s ubiquitous ‘Scorpion’, Post Malone’s ‘Beerbongs & Bentleys’ and the soundtrack to ‘A Star is Born’. On the one hand this reflects the continued importance of the Beatles as a revenue driver for UMG. The Beatles, along with Abbey Road, were among the ‘crown jewels’ that UMG gained when it acquired EMI in 2012, so it is encouraging for UMG that the Beatles continue to deliver top tier revenue. However, Beatles revenue is not only a very different thing from Drake revenue, it also highlights the earnings divide between physical sales and streaming.

Streaming’s twin promise

The long-term promise of streaming is the combination of:

  1. Delivering larger audiences
  2. Replacing near-term, large volume revenue for a longer-term, annuity-like income model

Item number two happened very quickly; item number one is still in progress, but moving sufficiently enough to ensure many artists are now able to earn meaningful streaming income. However, we are not yet at our streaming destination, which is illustrated by the prominence of the Beatles in UMG’s 2018 sales. A ranking that owes little to streaming.

The Beatles are not a streaming powerhouse

According to the BPI, music from the 1960s accounted for just 3.6% of catalogue streams in the UK, which represents about 2% of all streams. Let’s assume the Beatles account for 40% of those streams – which is probably a generous assumption, this would mean the Beatles represented 0.8% of the $9.6 billion of streaming revenue in 2018, which translates as $79 million, which in turn equates to 2.7% of UMG’s 2018 streaming revenue. A meaningful amount for sure for a single artist, but not that significant in the greater streaming scheme of things. Therefore, the Beatles did not get to be UMG’s fourth biggest seller through streams. Instead, it did so through physical sales.

midia beatles umg

The main release in 2018 was the 50th Anniversary edition of the White Album. This premium physical release includes a $25 edition, right through to a $145 deluxe box set. With such high-unit prices, only small numbers need be sold to generate meaningful revenue.

To illustrate the point, let’s assume UMG collects around $15 of the $25 retail price and $100 of the $145 edition. To generate $7.5 million of label revenue, UMG would need to sell just half a million copies of the $25 edition and only 75,000 of the Boxsets. To generate the same $7.5 million from streaming UMG would need to have 62.5 million people each streaming 15 tracks from the album. $7.5 million is incidentally also roughly the amount a label would earn from selling a million copies of a standard priced album.

Streaming cannot yet match CD-era album revenue metrics

This gets to the heart of the matter of why streaming is creating, alongside a welcome growing body of middle-tier artists, a small handful of megastars. To replicate physical sales success, an artist must have exceptional streaming success. To replicate standout physical success requires as yet ungraspable streaming success.

For example, the number one album in the US in 2000 – NYSNC’s ‘No Strings Attached’ – sold over nine million copies, which would require 600 million people each streaming it all once — roughly 8.5 billion streams — to generate the same income. That is more streams than the entirety of Drake’s 2018 Spotify streams across the entire planet – Drake was Spotify’s most streamed artist. In short, streaming is currently large enough to make record labels grow, but not yet vast enough to create artist-level revenue on the same scale that that the CD peak once did.

Longer-term revenue may, or may not, add up.

The counter argument is that over a number of years the revenue will add up to the equal. But even with that assumption, an album would need to generate around a billion streams a year over eight years to replicate the success of NSYNC’s ‘No Strings Attached’. No easy task when you factor in the dynamics of streaming consumption i.e. playlists replacing albums, new music being pushed over catalogue etc.

None of this is to suggest that streaming is failing, nor that UMG’s revenues are in question. Both are doing well. Instead, it is evidence that we still have much distance to go with streaming before we can start seeing artist-level successes on a par with the peak of the industry. Though of course streaming-level success needs measuring differently than CD-era success, so these comparisons provide context rather than performance targets.

Will there ever be another Beatles’ greatest hits?

One intriguing post-script to all of this is that with download revenue falling by 15% in 2018, and physical by 7%, the days of large-scale album sales are long gone. When this is considered alongside the Beatles’ under-representation on streaming, the elephant in the room is whether UMG would ever risk releasing a Beatles greatest hits album for fear of underwhelming sales numbers damaging the Fab Four’s legacy. The last greatest hits was ‘1’ back in 2000 during the EMI years. Might it just be that UMG bought the Beatles too late ever to release their last ever greatest hits?

Just Who Would Buy Universal Music?

Vivendi continues to look for a buyer for a portion of Universal Music. Though the process has been running officially since May 2018, the transaction (or transactions) may not close until 2020. In many instances, dragging out a sale could reflect badly, suggesting that the seller is struggling to find suitable buyers. But in the case of UMG it probably helps the case. A seller will always seek to maximise the sale price of a company, which means selling as close to the peak as possible. It is a delicate balance, sell too early and you reduce your potential earnings, sell too late and the price can go down as most buyers want a booming business, not a slowing business. In the case of UMG, with institutional investors looking for a way into the booming recorded music business, UMG is pretty much the only game in town for large scale, global institutional investors.

In this sellers’ market, banks have been falling over themselves to say just how valuable UMG could be, with valuations ranging from $22 billion to $33 billionand Vivendi even suggesting $40 billion. Meanwhile, recorded music revenues continue to grow — up 9.0% in 2017, and up 8.2% in 2018 according to MIDiA’s estimates. 2019 will likely be up a further 6%, all driven by streaming. With UMG’s market share (on a distribution base) relatively stable, the market growth thus increases UMG’s valuation. This in turn increases Vivendi’s perceived value, and that is the crux of the matter.

The role of Bolloré Group

Vivendi board member and major shareholder Vincent Bolloré was Vivendi chairman until April 2018, when he handed power to his son Yannick, one month before he was reportedly taken into police custody for questioning as part of an investigation into allegations of corrupt business practices in Africa. Bolloré senior remains the chairman and CEO of Bolloré Group, which retains major shareholdings in Vivendi. Bolloré Group’s Vivendi holdings will inherently be devalued by a sale of prize asset UMG, which is a key reason why only a portion of the music group is up for sale. But, even selling a portion of UMG will have a negative impact on Vivendi’s valuation and thus also on Bolloré Group’s holdings. So, the sale price needs to be high enough to ensure that Bolloré Group makes enough money from the sale to offset any fall in valuation. Hence, dragging out the sale while the streaming market continues to boom. All this also means the sale is of key benefit to Bolloré Group and other Vivendi investors. It is perhaps as welcome as a hole in the head to UMG. Little wonder that some are suggesting UMG is markedly less enthusiastic about this deal than Vivendi is.

vivendi umg potential buyers

All of which brings us onto which company could buy a share of UMG. These can be grouped into the four key segments shown in the chart above. Normally, higher risk buyers (i.e. those that could negatively impact UMG’s business by damaging relationships with partners etc.) would not be serious contenders but as this is a Vivendi / Bolloré Group driven process rather than a UMG driven one, the appetite for risk will be higher. This is because the primary focus is on near-term revenue generation rather than long-term strategic vision. Both are part of the mix, but the former trumps the latter. Nonetheless, the higher-risk strategic buyers are unlikely to be serious contenders. Allowing a tech major to own a share of UMG would create seismic ripples across the music business, as would a sale to Spotify.

Financial investors

So that leaves us with the lower-risk strategic buyers, and both categories of financial buyers. Let’s look at the financial buyers first. Private equity (PE) is one of the more likely segments. We only need to look back at WMG, which was bought by a group of investors including THL and Providence Equity before selling to Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries in 2011 for $3.3 billion. Private equity companies take many different forms these days, with a wider range of investment theses than was the case a decade ago. But the underlying principle remains selling for multiples of what was paid. Put crudely, buy and then flip. The WMG investors put in around half a billion into the company, but a six-fold increase is less likely for UMG, as the transaction is taking place in a bull market while WMG was bought by Providence and co in a bear market. Where the risk comes in for UMG is to whom the PE company/companies would sell to in the future. At that stage, one of the current high-risk strategic companies could become a potential buyer, which would be a future challenge for UMG. The other complication regarding PE companies is that many would want a controlling stake for an investment that could number in the tens of billions.

Institutional investors such as pension funds are the safest option, as they would be looking for long-term stakes in low-risk, high-yield companies to add to their long-term investment portfolios. This would also enable Vivendi to divide and rule, distributing share ownership across a mix of funds, thus not ceding as much block voting power as it would with PE companies.

Strategic investors

The last group of potential buyers is also the most interesting: lower risk strategic. These are mainly holding companies that are building portfolios of related companies. Liberty Media is one of the key options, with holdings in Live Nation, Saavn, SiriusXM, Pandora, Formula 1 Racing and MLB team Atlanta Braves. Not only would UMG fill a gap in that portfolio, Liberty has gone on record stating it would be interested in buying into UMG.

Access Industries is the one that really catches the eye though. Alongside WMG, the Access portfolio includes Perform, Deezer and First Access Entertainment. On the surface Access might appear to be a problematic buyer as it owns WMG. But compared to many other potential investors, it is clearly committed to music and media, and is likely to have a strategic vision that is more aligned with UMG’s than many other potential suitors.

There is of course the possibility of being blocked by regulators on anti-competitive grounds. However, at year end 2017 WMG had an 18% market share, while UMG had 29.7% (both on a distribution basis). If Access acquired 25% of UMG, respective market shares would change to 25.4% for WMG and UMG for 22.2% (still slightly ahead of Sony on 22.1%). It would mean that the market would actually be less consolidated as the market share of the leading label (WMG) would be smaller than UMG’s current market leading share. While the likes of IMPALA would have a lot to say about such a deal, there is nonetheless a glimmer of regulatory hope for Access. Especially when you consider the continued growth of independents and Artists Direct. All of which point to a market that is becoming less, not more, consolidated.

The time is now

Whatever the final outcome, Bolloré Group and Vivendi are currently in the driving seat, but they should not take too much time. 2019 will likely see a streaming growth slowdown in big developed streaming markets such as the US and UK, and it is not yet clear whether later stage major markets Germany and Japan will grow quick enough to offset that slowdown in 2019. So now is the time to act.

Taylor Swift, Label Services and What Comes Next

universal-music-group-logoTaylor Swift has done it again, striking a deal with UMG that includes a commitment from the world’s largest label group to share proceeds from Spotify stock sales with artists, even if they are not recouped (ie haven’t generated enough revenue to have paid off the balance on their advance so not yet eligible to earn royalty income). This follows Swift’s 2015 move to persuade Apple to pay artists for Apple Music trials. That Swift has influence is clear, though whether she has that much influence is a different question. Let’s just say it served both Apple and Universal well to be seen to be listening to the voice of artists. But it is what appears to be a label services part of the deal that has the most profound long-term implications, with Swift stating that she is retaining ownership of her master recordings.

The rise of label services

The traditional label model of building large banks of copyrights and exploiting them is slowly being replaced, or at the very least complemented, by the rise of label services deals. In the former model the label retains ownership of the master recordings for the life time of the artist plus a period eg 70 years. In label services deals the label has an exclusive period for exploiting the rights, after which they revert to full ownership of the artist. Artist normally cede something in return, such as sharing costs. Companies like Kobalt’s AWAL and BMG Music Rights have led the charge of the label services movement. However, Cooking Vinyl can lay claim to being the ‘ice breaker’ with its pioneering 1993 label services deal with Billy Bragg, negotiated between his manager Pete Jenner and Cooking Vinyl boss Martin Goldschmidt. It may have taken a couple of decades, but the recording industry has finally caught up.

Major labels in on the act

The major labels remain the powerhouses of the recorded music business in part because they have learned to embrace and then supercharge innovation that comes out of the independent sector. Label services is no exception. Each of the major labels has their own label services division, including buying up independent ones. Label services are proving to be a crucial asset for major labels. The likes of AWAL and BMG have been mopping up established artists in the latter stages of their careers, with enough learned knowledge to want more control over their careers. By adding label services divisions the majors now have another set of options to present to artists. This enables them to not only hold onto more artists but also to win new ones – which if of course technically what UMG did with Swift, even though it had previously been Swift’s distributor. As with all new movements, examples are often few and far between but they are there. The UK’s Stormzy is a case in point, signing a label services deal with WMG before upgrading it to a JV deal between WMG’s Atlantic Records and his label #MERKY. For an interesting, if lengthy, take on why Stormzy and WMG took this approach – including the concept of secret ‘Mindie Deals’ that allow more underground artists maintain some major label distance for appearances’ sake, see this piece.

The early follower strategy 

In August 2018UMG’s Sir Lucian Grainge called out the success of UMG’s label services and distribution division Caroline, noting it had doubled its US market share over the previous year. UMG was already not only on the label services deal path but had identified it as a key growth area and wanted the world – including investors – to know. UMG has stayed ahead of the pack by pursuing an early follow strategy of identifying new trends, testing them out and then throwing its weight behind them. Before you think of that as damning with faint praise, the early follower strategy is the one pursued by the world’s most successful companies. Google wasn’t the first search engine, Apple wasn’t the first smartphone maker, Facebook wasn’t the first social network, Amazon wasn’t the first online retailer.

What comes next

The label services component of the UMG deal was actually announced by Taylor Swift herself rather than UMG, writing:

“It’s also incredibly exciting to know that I own all of my master recordings that I make from now on. It’s really important to me to see eye to eye with a label regarding the future of our industry.”

While this might betray which party feels most positive about this component of the deal, the inescapable fact is that other major artists at the peak of their powers will now want similar deals. Label services success stories to date had been older artists such as Rick Astley, Janet Jacksonand Nick Cave as well as upcoming artists like Stormzy. Now we will start to see them becoming far more commonplace in the mainstream.

But perhaps now is the time. Catalogue revenues are going to undergo big change in the coming years, as MIDiA identified in our June 2018 report The Outlook for Music Catalogue: Streaming Changes Everything. Deep catalogue is not where the action is anymore. For example, 1960s tracks accounted for just 6.4% of all UK catalogue streams in the UK in 2017, while catalogue from the 2000s accounted for 60.4%, according to the BPI’s invaluable All About the Music report. So, by striking a long-term label services type deal, UMG secures Swift’s signature and can still benefit from the main catalogue opportunity for the first few releases without actually owning the catalogue.

Label services have come a long way since Billy Bragg’s 1993 deal and Taylor Swift has just announced that they are ready for prime time.

Penny for the thoughts of Bill Bragg having paved the way for the queen of pop’s latest deal….

Could Spotify Buy Universal? 

Vivendi is reported to be proposing to its board a plan for spinning out Universal Music. It is certainly the right time for a spin off (always sell before the peak), but a full divestment would leave Vivendi unbalanced and a shell of its former self. Canal+ is facing the same Netflix-inspired cord-cutting pains as other pay-TV operators (and is relying heavily on sub-Saharan Africa for subscriber growth), while other assets such as those in Vivendi Village have failed to deliver. With CEO Vincent Bolloré having invested heavily in Vivendi, he would be devaluing his own wealth. For a man who is not shy of saying that he’s in the game to make money, this scenario simply doesn’t add up. As one investment specialist recently suggested to me, this talk of a spin-off is probably exactly that, talk. Talk aimed at driving up Vivendi’s valuation by association and, at most, potentially resulting in a partial spin-off or partial listing. However, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a big enough offer for Universal would persuade Bolloré to sell. So, let’s for a moment assume that Universal is on the market and have a little fun with who could buy it.

The Chinese option

It is widely rumoured that Alibaba was in advanced discussions with Vivendi to buy some size of stake in Universal. Those conversations derailed when the Chinese government tightened up regulations on Chinese companies buying overseas assets, which is why we now see Tencent buying a growing number of minority stakes in companies rather than outright acquisitions. So, an outright Chinese acquisition is likely off the table. This doesn’t rule out other Asian bidders (Softbank had an $8.5 billion bid rejected in 2013), though perhaps Chinese companies are the only ones with the requisite scale and access to cash that would meet a far, far higher 2018 price point.

The tech major option

The most likely scenario (if Universal were for sale) is that one of the tech majors (Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook) swoops in. Given Google’s long-held antipathy for the traditional copyright regime, Alphabet is not the most likely, while Facebook is too early in its music journey (though check back in 18 months if all goes well). Apple and Amazon are different cases entirely. Both companies are run by teams of older executives whose formative cultural reference points were shaped by traditional media companies. These are companies that, even if they may not state it, see themselves as the natural evolution of media, moving it from the physical era of transactions to the digital era of access. Thus far, Apple and Amazon have focused principally on distribution, although both have invested in rights too. Apple less so, (e.g. Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper) but Amazon much more so (e.g. Man in the High Castle, Manchester by the Sea). Acquiring a major media company is a logical next step for Amazon. A TV studio and, or network would likely be the first move (especially as Netflix will likely buy one first, forcing Amazon’s hand), but a record label wouldn’t be inconceivable. And it would have to be a big label – such as UMG, that would guarantee enough share of ear to generate ROI. Apple though, could well buy a sports league, which would use up its budget.

The Spotify option

While the tech majors are more likely long-term buyers of Universal, Spotify arguably needs it more (and is certainly less distracted by other media formats). Right now, Spotify has a prisoner’s dilemma; it knows it needs to make disruptive changes to its business model if it is going to create the step change investors clearly want (look at what happened to Spotify’s stock price despite an impressive enough set of Q1 results). But it also knows that making such changes too quickly could result in labels pulling content, which would destroy its present in the hope of building a future. Meanwhile, labels are worried Spotify is going to disintermediate them but can’t risk damaging their business by withdrawing content now – hence the prisoner’s dilemma. Neither side dares make the first move.

That’s the problem with the ‘do a Netflix’ argument: do it too fast and the whole edifice comes tumbling down. Moreover, original content will not be the same silver bullet for Spotify as it was for Netflix. This is mainly because there is a far smaller catalogue of TV content than music, so a dollar spent on original video goes a lot further than a dollar spent on original music. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Spotify will get to a tipping point, where the labels see a shiny-toothed wolf lurking under the lamb’s wool, and with its cover blown it will be forced to go nuclear. If this happened, buying a major label would become an option. And, as with the tech majors, it would have to be a major label to deliver enough share of ear.

But that scenario is a long, long way off. First, Spotify has to prove it can be successful and generate enough revenue and market cap to put itself in a position where it could buy a major. And that is still far from a clear path. For now, Spotify’s focus is on being a partner to the labels, not a parent company.

All of this talk might sound outlandish but it was not so long ago that an internet company (AOL) co-owned Warner Music and a drinks company (Seagram) owned Universal Music, before selling it to a water utilities company (Vivendi), and, long before that, EMI was owned by a light bulb company (Thorn Electrical Industries). We have got used to this current period of corporate stability for the major record labels, but this situation is a reflection of the recorded music business being in such a poor state that there was little M&A interest. Nonetheless it is all changing, potentially heralding a return to the past. Everything has happened before and will happen again.

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.