Is QQ Music Worth $10 Billion?

Western appetite for the Chinese market has long been based upon accessing the 1.4 billion consumers. This has in turn impacted valuations of Chinese companies, particularly when eager western investors are involved. However, there is a growing realisation that market potential does not always translate to [performance]. Now we have Chinese tech major Tencent seeking pre-IPO investment in its music streaming service QQ Music, against a valuation of $10 billion. That is only $3 billion less than Spotify’s valuation. So, is QQ Music worth $10 billion?

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Valuations in isolation can be misleading and therefore need context and scale. For example, Deezer had a valuation of $1.25 billion for its aborted IPO, while Spotify’s valuation is nearly 10 times higher. Moreover, Spotify’s subscriber count (60 million) is nearly 10 times higher than Deezer’s was (6.5 million), leading up to the aborted IPO. So, the best way to make meaningful comparisons between streaming music valuations is to look at the valuation divided by the number of subscribers, to give us a valuation per subscriber metric (see above). Here are a few ways to assess the value of QQ Music compared to other streaming services:

  • Valuation per subscriber: On the valuation per subscriber basis Spotify and Deezer’s valuations per subscriber are quite similar ($217 for Spotify, compared to $198 for Deezer). Tidal is significantly higher at $300 (well done that man Jay-Z for talking up the value of his service to Sprint), while QQ Music with its reported 10 million subscribers comes in at $1,000. This obviously begs the question, are QQ Music subscribers worth 5 times more than Spotify subscribers?
  • Subscriber revenue: The headline consumer retail price for Spotify is $9.99, while the headline price for QQ Music is $1.60. Spotify’s actual average revenue per user (ARPU) in 2016 was around $6.10, so if we scale QQ Music by a similar rate we get an ARPU of $0.98. If we multiply those ARPUs by the current subscriber number for each company, we end up with a monthly subscription revenue of $366 million for Spotify and $9.8 million for QQ Music. Therefore, rather than QQ Music subscribers being worth 10 times more than Spotify subscribers, they actually generate just 3% of Spotify’s subscriber revenue each month.
  • Addressable market: Valuations are of course based on potential, not just actual. China has 717 million smartphone owners (30% of the global total) and a GDP of $11.2 trillion (14% of the total). Given QQ Music’s Chinese positioning, that is its addressable market. By contrast, Spotify is a global service, though pointedly not in China, so its addressable market (excluding China) is technically 1.7 billion smartphone owners, and $67 trillion of GDP. QQ Music’s addressable market is in fact smaller, unless of course it decides to roll out to more territories. Likewise, Spotify could also roll out to China.
  • Like-for-like comparisons: We also need to be careful about the numbers behind QQ Music. 10 million QQ Music subscribers may not be the same as 10 million Spotify subscribers. Firstly, QQ Music [subscription] includes karaoke features, such as Bullet Screening, which many would not consider to be music subscribers as such. Additionally, 10 million might not actually be 10 million. Back in Q1 2016, Tencent reported to the markets that it had a little under four million QQ Music subscribers. Then in July 2016, in a Mashable piece, it claimed to have 10 million subscribers. Then nothing until January 2017, when it did another media push, announcing…10 million subscribers. If we take these reports at face value, it means QQ Music had an incredible Q2 2017 then did absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, thereafter. Whatever the subscriber number actually is for QQ Music, the 10 million figure, at the very least, merits some scrutiny.

So, to answer the opening question, is QQ Music worth $10 billion? That depends. Compared to other streaming music services, the metrics suggest that it isn’t. But, to Tencent’s local investor market, maybe so. 80% of Chinese stock market transactions are from small retail investors, i.e. not institutional investors. So, while a $10 billion valuation might look high to institutional investors, to enthusiastic local retail investors who know QQ Music and have read all the stories about the booming streaming music market, this will appear to be a golden opportunity to get in on the great streaming boom.

Is QQ Music worth $10 billion? It depends on who you are!

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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.

Why the Music Industry Should be Watching Twitter’s Stock Price

This is the chart that the music industry needs to be paying close attention to over the coming weeks and months (it’s Twitter’s stock price).  How well Twitter fares will be a bellwether for digital consumer service investments. Two of the music industry’s biggest bets (outside of the big tech trio of Apple, Amazon and Google) are Spotify and Deezer.  Both of whom are performing strongly (Deezer just hit 5 million paying subscribers and Spotify could be edging towards 10 – see my prediction from last year).  But both have also taken very significant amounts of investment resulting in valuations that markedly narrow the pool of potential buyers.  For Spotify in particular a flotation looks like the best route of realizing a strong return for its investors, particularly the later stage ones.

Facebook’s flotation rattled a lot of the investment community.  Although it eventually recovered and is now trading solidly, it sowed fear and uncertainty about the ability of digital consumer companies to translate business plan valuations into actual market trading value.  Those of a certain age recalled painful memories of the dotcom bubble bursting and the near instantaneous disappearance of billions of dollars worth of dotcom company valuations.

If Twitter’s stock price falters over the next 6 weeks or so then it will make an IPO all the more challenging to sell to the market.  But if Twitter does well, some of those lingering doubts and concerns will be assuaged, paving the way – in a best case scenario – for a new dawn of digital consumer company IPOs.

The stock market is a fickle beast and though underpinned by some of the most sophisticated financial modeling on the planet, is easily swayed by investor sentiment, which in turn is driven by that equally ineffable of qualities: momentum.  If Spotify can report 10 million paying subscribers some time over the coming months it will have a clear momentum story to tell.  If Twitter’s stock price holds up into the start of 2014 Spotify will be able to translate its momentum into market sentiment and build towards an IPO.

There is of course no guarantee Spotify, or Deezer, will IPO, but the option looks like a strong commercial and strategic fit given the direction of travel of the digital music market and the companies’ current valuations. If one or both companies successfully IPO or successfully exit via a trade sale or some other route then the music industry will be able to breathe a huge sigh relief and brace itself for a resurgence in digital music investment.

Right now digital music is not a great investment proposition for professional investors, especially VCs.  They see sizeable chunks of their investment disappearing straight onto the bottom line of record labels in the form of advances and guaranteed payments; a congested market that still remains predominately niche in reach; and the CD still lingering as the world’s largest music sales revenue source.  But get a couple of high profile exits under the belt and the music industry will appear a far more compelling investment proposition, with investors more willing to tolerate the costs of doing business in music.  First though, Twitter needs to deliver the goods. Keep watching that chart!