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
The RIAA just released its annual report on the financial state of the US music industry, and it appears that streaming crossed the 50% mark of recorded music revenue in 2016 for the first time, landing at 51% for the year, up from just 34% a year earlier, an increase of around $1.5 billion year on year in total streaming revenue. Apple Music was clearly part of that picture, as it grossed around $1.5 billion globally last year by my calculations, but once you spread that number across the countries where Apple operates and subtract its cut, it clearly wasn’t the only contributor to growth, with Spotify obviously another big contributor. Other things worth noting: this is really about paid streaming, which dominates overall streaming revenue, with around two thirds of the total despite far fewer users (around 25 million at the end of the year versus a likely 150 million for ad-based streaming). This streaming growth actually helped drive digital and overall revenue growth significantly higher this year after a fairly stagnant 2015 too. Also, based on my analysis of the three major music labels, streaming is still under 40% of their recorded music revenue globally, so the US is ahead of the global curve here.
It’s impossible not to see this new Spotify show as, to put it charitably, inspired by Carpool Karaoke, especially given the role the standalone version will play in Apple Music. But kudos to Spotify for finding a new angle on the concept and making it distinctive. It’s also interesting to see hip hop as the focus here – where Carpool Karaoke crosses all genres, this show will be much narrower and therefore find a smaller but potentially more engaged and passionate audience. It’s important to note that hip hop has been a big part of the rise of streaming service, and Apple has heavily leant on hip hop in building its music service, especially when it comes to exclusives and Beats 1. I’m curious to see how each of these shows does on its respective service, especially given that James Corden, arguably the element that makes the original version of Carpool Karaoke work, won’t be a permanent feature in the Apple version.
This article seems to be the result of a push by Kobalt around its new royalty-tracking app for the artists it works with. If you don’t know Kobalt, it’s a music tech company which acts as an intermediary between artists and streaming services and helps ensure accurate tracking and payouts of royalties. It’s using the unique data it has on Spotify streaming to push its app and broader service this week, and this article picked up on some of the data about how Spotify drives listening of less-known artists and songs with its curated playlists. This sort of thing used to be the province of radio, but of course in recent years the streaming services have increasing power to make new artists, although they’ve used that in different ways, with Apple using Beats 1 radio to literally replicate the radio experience in a streaming setting, while Spotify uses its playlists feature.
via Watch what happens when Spotify gives unknown music acts a big push – Recode (you might also be interested in this episode of the Beyond Devices Podcast, in which I interviewed Ryan Wright, CMO at Kobalt)
Comcast reportedly planning streaming TV service just for its internet customers – The Verge (Mar 28, 2017)
Yet more evidence here that Comcast is readying a bigger launch of streaming TV, beyond last week’s report that it’s been signing deals for national streaming delivery of content. This streaming service is designed specifically for Comcast broadband customers who don’t also take its pay TV service, and has been offered as a sort of test in a few markets already. But it sounds like it’s gearing up for a big expansion, and that makes sense: Comcast has 2.2 million households which take broadband but not pay TV, so that’s the obvious target market for this service. But having launched this Stream service more broadly within its own footprint, it could eventually take it nationwide too, given those deals it’s been signing. I’ve been saying for a while now that I think there’s something of a game of chicken underway among the major pay TV providers about which will take a true pay TV replacement national first. Comcast was always a strong candidate, and it’s looking ever more likely that it will indeed be the one to go first.
via The Verge
Spotify’s deals with the music labels have long been a barrier to achieving profitability and therefore also a major barrier to an eventual IPO, especially because many of its relationships have been operating on a very short-term basis rather than being locked in longer term. It sounds like there might finally be light at the end of the tunnel, mostly because Spotify is finally caving on perhaps the single biggest sticking point in its relationship with the labels: the differences between the paid and free versions of its service. Spotify has, in fact, steadily eroded those differences, which used to be more significant but now amount mostly to a lack of ads, while the labels have long wanted Spotify to increase the differentiation between the two as a way to push users to the paid their and therefore compensate artists at a higher rate for their music. As I argue in the Streaming is Saving Music narrative, it’s not really streaming as a whole but more narrowly paid streaming which is helping the music industry thrive at present, and so those labels have every incentive to push that tier of service. On the other hand, Spotify has used that free tier very effectively as a funnel to create eventual paid subscribers, and the labels also want Spotify to IPO so they can get a return on their investments, which is why they’re finally showing some willingness to compromise too.
via Financial Times
Pandora Premium: the original music streaming giant is ready for prime time – The Verge (Mar 13, 2017)
I went to download the Pandora app so I could try out this new Premium service, but it’s not available yet, so the headline is inaccurate on that point at least. It also looks like there’s no desktop or even web app, which feels baffling given how many people probably listen to Pandora on a computer at the office. However, the app itself looks interesting – as befits Pandora’s heritage, it’s big on recommendations, though its characterization of everything else out there as “30 million songs behind a search box” feels entirely inaccurate, given how much effort Spotify and Apple Music put into recommendations. Pandora won’t succeed on the concept alone, but because (and if) it’s better at it. It’s always had a unique approach to that challenge, dissecting the music itself with its Music Genome Project rather than simply taking an Amazon-like “people who like this also like that” tack. But that means people actually have to experience it (or know someone who has) to know if it’s truly better, which means convincing them to give it a try will be the biggest challenge. For the 80 million regular users of the existing Pandora service that’ll be easy, but I’m not as sure about the rest of the world.
via The Verge
SoundCloud is beginning to look a lot like Twitter, another service which has lots of active users but which seems to be struggling to find a business model that can drive it toward profitability. In SoundCloud’s case, that has apparently meant it’s struggled to raise money over the past few months, and a possible acquisition by Spotify also seems to have fallen through. On paper, SoundCloud is in a hot area – music streaming – but of course even for the largest player in paid streaming (Spotify) it’s not yet profitable. Paid streaming has been great for the music labels, which have seen a turnaround in their fortunes over the last couple of years as a result of its growth, but not yet as good for the actual providers. SoundCloud is in an even worse position, being mostly a free provider, although it’s tried to turn up its paid services in the past year or so. I think the most likely outcome for SoundCloud at this point is an acquisition and absorption into something bigger, most likely Google.
Spotify now has 50 million paid subscribers – The Verge (Mar 2, 2017)
Spotify keeps extending its lead as the leader of the paid streaming market, although it’s worth noting that not all those subscribers are created equal – see, for example, its recent partnership with the New York Times and many more and larger partnerships with mobile carriers. Those subscribers are all paying a lot less than the standard $10 per month rate Spotify charges standalone subscribers, and they likely make up an increasing proportion of the total. Still, it’s quite the achievement by Spotify to get to this milestone, especially its rate of growth over the past year or so. Next achievement to focus on: turning all that growth into profits, something that remains elusive.
via The Verge
Another front in the challenging streaming music differentiation war: higher-fidelity music, something Tidal and some other niche services already offer but which the big players mostly haven’t. Spotify only appears to be testing this option with customers at the moment, including a range of different prices for the upgrade ($5-10), and there’s no guarantee it launches. Obviously, higher revenue per month could expand margins, but only if Spotify doesn’t have to pay commensurately more for the content itself. And of course the portion of users who would actually pay more per month is likely to be very small as a percentage of the total.
via The Verge