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….