Any service which becomes central enough to its users’ lives eventually has aspects which become essentially intimate to the user: what feel like private places where the user feels extremely comfortable, and where intrusions of content, ads, or other unwanted outside elements feel like a violation. I suspect users’ own playlists on Spotify feel like just such a place to its loyal users, and so the news that Spotify is testing a “Sponsored Song” ad unit in which songs are literally placed into users’ playlists should be concerning. Almost every ad-based business model eventually engages in such violations, either temporarily or permanently, because the drive is always to push the boundaries of ad load and the places where ads can show – the most valuable real estate is also often the most invasive, and each ad platform has to draw its own line between what is and isn’t acceptable in the pursuit of ad dollars. Spotify’s recently leaked full results for 2016 show that its ad-based business is loss-making even on a gross margin basis, while its subscription business is profitable on that same basis, so there’s always going to be a push to squeeze more ad revenue out of each user. I’ve recently finished a piece for Variety which will publish in the next couple of weeks in which I argue that Spotify should in fact ditch its free tier and go subscription-only, because of all the tradeoffs the ad-based business forces, especially in its relationships with labels. But these types of encroachments into what should be sacrosanct aspects of the user experience are another example of the risks of the free tier, especially relative to the small rewards – just 10% of Spotify’s revenue in 2016.
FuboTV Raises $55m, Adds Scripps Channels and Financing (Jun 19, 2017)
Taylor Swift’s Music Comes Back to Spotify (Jun 9, 2017)
Streaming Music Boosts Indie Label Payouts by 52% (Jun 8, 2017)
Tidal Loses Third CEO in Less Than Three Years (May 26, 2017)
DirecTV Now Struggling to Grow, Says Bloomberg (May 26, 2017)
SiriusXM Talking to Pandora about an Acquisition (May 18, 2017)
Pandora, which has long been one of the most popular online music services in the US but has also long struggled to turn a profit based on that popularity, is apparently in talks with SiriusXM about an acquisition. By contrast, as I wrote in a column for Variety a few months ago, the latter is one of the big success stories in the subscription content world, which I suspect mostly flies under the radar because it delivers through satellites rather than the Internet. What the two have in common, of course, is radio, though neither provides the traditional FM or AM variety. SXM already has a limited online version of its service, while Pandora has recently been branching out into on-demand music, but there’s probably quite a bit more that could be done by bringing the two sets of assets and their respective audiences together. The fact that Rhapsody today announced job cuts and the departure of its CEO is indicative of just how challenging being a second-tier player in the music streaming business can be. And in reality the second tier encompasses essentially everyone but Spotify and Apple, while even Spotify seems to be heading in the wrong direction financially.
Spotify is Hiring for a Hardware Project (Apr 24, 2017)
Spotify is apparently hiring a senior hardware product manager, even though it doesn’t currently make any hardware of its own. The job listing (which is as far as I can tell no longer on the Spotify Jobs site) suggests that Spotify is looking to create a hardware product, although there are no real details about what form it might take. Predictably, the focus is music and talk content, so this is likely an audio player of some kind. The fact that Spotify has now removed the listing suggests that it probably gave a little too much away (or didn’t expect any reporters to find the listing), though the attention this is getting now may well spur just the kind of applications Spotify is looking for even without a formal listing. A move into hardware does and doesn’t make sense for Spotify. On the one hand, given the difficulty it’s had in generating a profit from music services, it might see hardware as a source of margin. But hardware is a notoriously low margin business, with single digit margins even for large scale players, and with many consumer electronics companies actually in the red frequently if not permanently. As such, coming from a standing start into what’s likely to be an established category feels like a steep uphill battle for Spotify, and I don’t rate their chances highly. To top it all off, of course, Spotify currently benefits enormously from being a device- and platform-agnostic service, which makes it appealing for other hardware vendors to integrate it. If it starts to compete with those vendors, that attitude might start to change. Also worth noting is that the company seems to be hiring people with voice technology and natural language processing skills, which may be part of the same project, but also looks like a wider initiative at Spotify.
Apple is starting a new program through which it will spend a month at a time promoting young relatively unknown artists through its various Apple Music assets, including the streaming service, Beats 1 Radio, and in other venues. When Apple first launched Apple Music, the Connect feature felt like it could be a great way for artists of all sizes to connect organically with their fans through the platform, but it really hasn’t taken off in that way. Meanwhile, SoundCloud and YouTube continue to do better in helping young artists get their start before they get signed to labels. This effort is aimed at a somewhat later stage in the game, but builds on Beats 1 DJ Zane Lowe’s reputation for giving artists their big break, but if it’s a monthlong effort it’s hard to see how it will be scalable. However, it’s all part of Apple’s pitch that its service is the best for artists, whether that’s through exclusives, discovery and promotion, or simply getting paid for their work (since it’s one of the few services that doesn’t have a free tier).
Pandora Opens Streaming Subscription to All (Apr 18, 2017)
Note: this is my first piece of commentary on Q1 2017 earnings. The Q1 2017 tag attached to this post will eventually house all my earnings comments for this quarter, just as the Q4 2016 tag does for last quarter and the earnings tag does for all past earnings comments. Netflix is also one of the dozen or so companies for which I do quarterly slide decks as part of the Jackdaw Research Quarterly Decks Service. See here for more.
Netflix today reported its earnings for Q1 2017, and the results were mostly good, with a few possible red flags. This year, the new season of House of Cards will debut in Q2 rather than Q1, and that makes some of the year on year comparisons tough. One of the results was much weaker Q1 subscriber adds this year than a year ago in the US, worsening what’s already been a trend of slowing growth for several years. Netflix is projecting something of a recovery next quarter, however. In some ways, the biggest news was the first quarterly profit for the international business, which has neared profitability in the past but been plunged deeper into the red by market expansions every time it did so. Now that Netflix is in essentially every country it can be, that won’t be the case anymore, so although it’s projecting a return to small losses next quarter, it’s now saying it wants to be judged partly on growing revenue and margins globally over time, which is a big shift (previously it wanted to be judged on sub growth and domestic margins only).
There were a couple of mild admissions of failure: customer satisfaction in Asia, the Middle East and Africa is not what it could be, and the company’s Crouching Tiger sequel didn’t achieve its goals for original content. Marketing spend will be up at least a little in 2017, and content obligations continue to grow. The company also made clear that the big free cash flow losses caused by its investment in original content will continue for “many years”, though it also said that it will eventually throw off significant cash when it hits a “much larger revenue base”, giving I think the clearest indication yet of what a long-term project positive free cash flow will be. In the meantime, it will continue to borrow to fund that growth. Domestically, profits are growing very rapidly, and the theory continues to be that eventually the International business will reach that level of maturity too and deliver decent margins. But in the meantime, a bet on Netflix continues to be a bet on continued high growth, something which certainly isn’t guaranteed in the US and may end up being tough long term internationally too.
I wrote a piece last week for Techpinions about the fragmentation in the TV market as everyone launches their own streaming services, and here comes yet another example of that. It sounds like Comcast is working on a service that would combine content from NBC and the NBCU cable networks into a single subscription package, although the conditions on the Comcast-NBCU merger make it unlikely that it will debut in the next 18 months or so. But we’ve already seen the premium cable networks (HBO, Starz, and Showtime) go over-the-top, along with broadcaster CBS and NBC itself with a comedy subscription service called Seeso. As cord cutting and cord shaving eat into cable network subscriber numbers, we’re going to see lots more of this direct-to-consumer stuff. In principle, that sounds great for consumers, who will now be able to pick and choose just the content they want, but in practice they’re likely to end up spending more and dealing with multiple bills, user interfaces, and content models to get it, which is in turn going to lead to an opportunity for re-aggregation down the road.
Jay-Z quietly removes catalog from Apple Music and Spotify as Tidal continues fight for exclusives – 9to5Mac (Apr 7, 2017)
Jay-Z, one of the owners of the Tidal music service, has apparently pulled all his solo music from both Apple Music and Spotify, though without any kind of official explanation or much fanfare. In theory, it’s likely that he’s trying to reinforce one of the original value propositions of Tidal, which was that its artist-owners would provide exclusives for their music, though in practice most of the owners have continued to license their music to other streaming services, which have far bigger subscriber bases. Tidal has struggled financially, and recently got something of a lifeline from Sprint, but it may have decided that it needs more exclusives to drive interest and subscriber numbers. I’m not convinced it’s going to do all that well on that basis given that the vast majority of the global music catalogue is still available on other services, but this is yet another sign that exclusives – whether temporary or long-term – are one of the few sources of differentiation to streaming music services, whether or not that’s good for their subscribers.
This statement from Spotify and one of the big three music labels confirms a report from a few weeks back, which itself made perfect sense. It’s paid streaming that’s been driving a revival in the music industry, not ad-based streaming, and as such the labels want to do what they can to foster that model. Since Spotify is simultaneously the provider with the largest paid streaming base and also offers a big ad-based service, it’s natural that the labels would want to use what leverage they have to push Spotify to differentiate its paid offering more. Spotify, in turn, needs both to sign long-term deals with the labels and reduce its royalty rates so that it can gain investor confidence ahead of an IPO. So this is a win-win, though it forces CEO Daniel Ek to compromise on a key principle he’s held to previously, which was not preferring the paid service in terms of the music library it offers. Still, we’ll likely see similar deals with the other labels, which may finally pave the way for that IPO, which is increasingly urgent for Spotify.
via The Verge