COVID-19 hit major labels much harder than it did Spotify

COVID-19 was always going to have a significant impact on the music business, and with the Q2 results for all of the major music companies now in we can start to look at just how big that impact has been so far. Year-on-year (YoY), combined major label recorded music revenues fell by 7.8% on a current currency basis while major publisher revenue fell by 1.6% over the same period (though slow reporting for income such public performance means that the full impact on publishing is yet to be seen). The figures in themselves are disappointing for that has grown acclimatised to growth but the factors driving this are global economic and health policy ones. As we identified back at the start of June, income streams such as physical, public performance and ad supported are all vulnerable to lockdown impact. The only truly resilient revenue source so far is paid subscriptions. The dependency on streaming has never been higher but there are questions here too.

q2 2090 major label streaming music revenues

Major label streaming revenue fell by 0.6% in Q2 2020 compared to the previous quarter. Although it was up YoY by 6.3%, (and even allowing for seasonality), there was already a clear slowdown in growth before COVID-19 kicked it into reverse. When markets mature, the margins between growth and decline are small. So, factors such as the weakening digital ad market pushing down ad-supported revenues can be the difference between being in the red or in the black. The music business is going to have to get used to ad-supported under-performing because advertising is always an early victim of recessions.

Despite all of this gloom, the likelihood is that by the end of the year, there will have been sufficient return to growth in many sectors and regions, meaning global recorded music revenues will be higher in 2020 than 2019 – not by much, but up nonetheless.

However, the streaming slowdown emphasises just how important it is for the industry to establish a series of potential plan Bs to streaming’s plan A, and fast.

spotify revenues compared to major label revenues q2 2020

Q2 2020 wasn’t bad news for everyone in streaming. In fact, Spotify actually increased its revenues both quarter-on-quarter (2.2%) and annually by 13%, i.e. double the rate the majors grew their streaming revenue. The result is that by Q2 2020, Spotify’s total revenue was only 5% smaller than the entire major labels’ streaming revenue combined. All this was despite Spotify’s ad-supported revenue falling by 11%. Spotify’s revenues are slowly but surely becoming uncoupled from that of the majors. Although factors such as timing of revenue recognition and payments to rightsholders will play a role, the key inference is that independents grew faster than majors on Spotify in Q2, continuing the 2019 trend. Although, the term ‘independent’ is becoming progressively less useful as the market internationalizes; in addition to independent labels and artists we are seeing growing impact from regional, non-western ‘majors’ e.g. T-Series, India; Avex, Japan; YG Entertainment, South Korea.

The three key takeaways from all this are:

  1. Streaming revenue growth was already slowing. COVID-19 shows us just how important it is to push new growth drivers
  2. Spotify is already working on its new growth driver (i.e. podcasts) and though the slowdown in the digital ad market will dent momentum, podcasts will further decouple Spotify revenue from that of the majors
  3. The more likely scenario remains that streaming and label revenues will pick up before year end, but if the recession deepens and swathes of millennials lose their jobs, then subscription revenue could be hit, which brings us back to takeaway #1

We Are At a Turning Point for Social Music

In recent days we have seen three major developments that, collectively, are a potential pivot point for social music:

  1. TikTok close to a US-entity buyout by Microsoft to avoid potential sanctions, following hot on the heels of an India blackout
  2. Facebook launched a (US-only) YouTube competitor for music videos
  3. Snap Inc signed a licensing deal with WMG and others, also for music videos

As cracks begin to appear in the audio streaming market, there is a growing sense in the music industry of the need for a plan B. This has been driven by growing discontent among the creator community, and a slowdown in revenue growth (UMG streaming revenues actually fell in Q2 as did Sony Music’s); the tail wagging the artist-and-revenue (A&R) dog. The search for new growth drivers is on, and social music – for so long a promise unfulfilled in the West – is one of the bets. TikTok was meant to be a major part of that bet. But with the US future of the app so at risk that a Microsoft US-entity buyout may be the only option, and the continued impact of COVID-19 on core revenue streams, the future is beginning to look a little more troublesome. Perhaps now more than ever, the music industry needs social music to start delivering.

There are three key issues at stake here:

  1. How consumers discover music
  2. How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music
  3. Competing with YouTube

How consumers discover music

Among the under-aged 35 demographic, YouTube is the primary music discovery channel, followed by music streaming, then radio, and only then by social. Streaming discovery is heavily skewed towards tracks and playlists, and away from artists and release projects, which is fine for streaming platforms but impedes building sustainable artist careers. Radio is losing share of ear and YouTube… well, YouTube is YouTube (more on that below), so the music business needs a new discovery growth driver. Social has the potential to be just that. But spammy artist pages on Facebook and more-than-perfect Instagram photos are not it. TikTok, for all its amazing momentum, actually has a really uneven impact on discovery. Some tracks blow up out of nowhere while most do little, and rarely is it because of a smart label marketing strategy but instead because certain tracks just work on the platform and the community leaps on them. For now, TikTok is too unpredictable to plan around. Facebook (Instagram especially) and Snap Inc have a fantastic opportunity to do something special here. They have the audience and the social know-how. Whether they can deliver is a different matter entirely.

How (particularly younger) consumers engage with music

What TikTok lacks in consistent marketing contribution it makes up in consumption. Following on from Musical.ly’s start, TikTok has reimagined how music can be part of social experiences for young audiences. It has made music a highly relevant and integral part of self-expression, something that CD collections and music dress codes used to do in the pre-digital world but that soulless, ephemeral playlists wiped out. While labels pin hopes on TikTok successes to drive wider consumption, the discovery journey is also the destination for most TikTok users – they hear the track in a video and swipe onto the next one. That is no bad thing. This is a new form of consumption, and if TikTok were to disappear or fade then someone else needs to pick up the baton. Whether Facebook and Snap Inc can do so is, again, an open question.

Competing with YouTube

Now we get to the heart of the Facebook and Snap Inc deals. As important as the previous two points are, they were not the overriding priorities of the commercial teams driving these deals. Instead they were focused on expanding the revenue mix and part of that is creating more competition for the notoriously low-paying YouTube. Well, maybe not that low paying after all.

spotify youtube arpu

The internet is full of statements from trade associations, rightsholders and creators about how much less YouTube pays than Spotify. YouTube does pay less, because it manages to escape paying minimum per-stream rates for ad-supported videos – but it is a more nuanced picture than lobbyists would have you believe. Firstly, in terms of its Premium business, Google is entirely on par with Spotify. But then, that is the part that is licensed in the same way as the rest of the market.

Ad-supported is a mixed story. In North America, where there is a mature digital ad market, YouTube’s ad-supported average revenue per user (ARPU) is entirely on par with Spotify’s. However, on a global basis, ad-supported ARPU is dragged down by its large user base in emerging markets where digital ad markets are nascent. Spotify’s ARPU is 66% higher, in part because it has to pay minimum per-stream rates, i.e. it pays a fixed rate per stream regardless of whether it has sold any ad inventory against the track. This boosts ad-supported ARPU but it risks making the model unstainable, to the extent that Spotify reported -7% gross margin for ad-supported in Q1 2020 (and note, that’s gross margin, not net margin).

Rightsholders will be hoping for Facebook and Snap Inc to bring a similar level of competition to music video as exists in streaming audio, which in turn may give them a path to higher global ad-supported ARPU rates and a healthier marketplace. However, what will determine that objective is not business strategy but product strategy. The key question is what can they both do with music videos that YouTube cannot? YouTube has years of experience and user data around music videos, Snap Inc and Facebook do not. They will be playing catch-up with a weaker portfolio of content assets: Snap Inc is only partially licensed and both it and Facebook have only licensed official music videos. Unofficial videos (mash ups, covers, lyrics, TV show appearances etc.) account for 25% of the views of the top 30 biggest YouTube music videos. Those videos are crucial in that they provide the lean-forward element for viewers; they are crucial to making YouTube music social rather than just a viewing platform.

YouTube has dominated the music video globally for more than a decade. This might just be the time that this position starts to be challenged. But if Facebook and Snap Inc are going to do that, they will have to bring their product strategy A-game to the field. If they can, then the we may indeed witness a social music turnaround in the West.

Why Spotify needs Russia

Spotify’s delayed Russia launch finally happened this week. While it did not drive a stock price growth like the Josh Rogan deal did (the stock closed just 1 cent higher than the previous day’s close) it will actually prove much more important in the medium term.

Podcasts are Spotify’s long-term bet, the moon shot that keeps investors excited and that points to a future where Spotify is better able to plot its own destiny without being constrained by record labels. But that future destination does not mean anything if Spotify is unable to maintain strong growth in its core business in the interim. Which is where Russia comes in.

Spotify has an Apple-like problem but chose a very non-Apple solution

Global streaming revenue growth was 22% in 2019 and growth will slow significantly in the COVID-19 impacted 2020. Growth rates however were already slowing due to the maturation of developed western markets, while subscriber numbers were growing faster than revenues, pushing down ARPU. Spotify has the same challenge as Apple.

Apple is the market leader in smartphones but does not own the majority of the market and the overall smartphone market is slowing, which means that iPhone sales have slowed. Apple could have decided to go ‘down market’ and created cheaper devices for less affluent consumers and emerging markets. It decided not to, and instead to start pushing its top-end devices even higher up the market with higher price points. Spotify has taken the opposite approach. Rather than increase prices in high-value markets, it is prioritising lower ARPU emerging markets. Spotify has done so because a) it does not have a diversified product like Apple so is less able to risk slowing sales, and b) its product is not sufficiently differentiated from other streaming services to prevent churn if prices went up.

Betting big on emerging markets

Instead of focusing on maximising revenue growth among existing subscribers, Spotify is rolling the dice on subscriber growth. It keeps telling investors to measure it on growth and market share, and that is exactly the game Spotify has chosen to play. Which is where Russia comes in.

Emerging markets are where the subscriber growth lies: Asia Pacific, Latin America and Rest of World combined will drive 71% of global music subscriber growth between 2019 and 2027. Spotify is already committed to this strategy and is already seeing results. In its Q1 2020 earnings, Latin America and Rest of World were the workhorses of Spotify’s growth during the quarter, accounting for 73% of all new subscribers; one year previously the share was just 30%.

But emerging markets take time to convert, users need to get familiar with the service via ad supported and extended trials before slowly converting to paid, though always at lower rates than in developed markets due to lower spending power. So, Spotify needs to keep expanding the user acquisition funnel which means launching in populous new markets such as Russia.

Russia’s contribution to the global picture is what matters for Spotify

The question many are asking is, has Spotify left it too late for Russia? There is no doubt that 2019 was a big year for streaming in Russia, with revenues growing at 79% to reach $249 million in retail terms, which makes it a sizeable, but not (yet) a large market. By way of comparison, Brazil’s streaming revenues are comfortably more than double that. As of Q1 2020 there were 7.4 million subscribers with Vkontakte and Yandex commanding a combined market share of 80%, so Spotify is entering an established market with well-established indigenous players.

This is not Spotify’s modus operandi and the last time it took this approach was India, which is yet to deliver results. So Russia is unlikely to be a runaway success for Spotify, but it is entirely reasonable for it to expect to pick up three million subscribers there over the next three years, which in turn will help sustain Spotify’s global subscriber growth. This is not about winning in Russia but instead winning globally. Or put another way, Spotify needs Russia more than Russia needs Spotify.