Spotify Continues Profiting from Human Misery

In case you missed it, the creator’s loss is Spotify’s gain.  No, today is different than usual, because this time Spotify’s gain is not just tied to the misery of artists and songwriters, it’s actually tied to the whole world.  According to TechCrunch:

The coronavirus may be decimating some corners of the economy, but the impact on the digital music, as evidenced by the world’s biggest music streaming company, appears to be minimal. Today Spotify reported its earnings for Q1 with revenues of €1.848 billion ($2 billion at today’s rates) and an inching into a positive net income of $1 million. Monthly active users (not total subscribers) now stand at 286 million, with paid (premium) users at 130 million and ad-supported monthly active users at 163 million. Ad-supported users are growing at a slightly higher rate at the moment, at 32% versus 31%, Spotify said.

So far today, SPOT is up $16 a share, which means Daniel Ek made roughly $656,000,000 today alone.  And that doesn’t count the warrants.

So the bubbly is flowing at World Trade Center or wherever the Spotify elites are hiding out.

Just like at your house, right?

Do they care about your problems?

daniel-ek-spotify-ceo-2012BilloardSPOOF1

@variety: New Netflix Original to Tell the Story of Spotify’s Creation

Variety reports that the Spotify corpcomms book “Spotify Untold” is getting an order from Netflix for a series telling the story of Spotify’s “creation” featuring–guess who?  The levitational awesomeness of Daniel Ek.  No word on who will play David Lowery, Melissa Ferrick, Bob Gaudio or Brownlee Ferguson.  So Netflix–which screws songwriters–is promoting Spotify–which also screws songwriters.  And joins into Spotify’s lawfare campaign against Apple.

Perfect.

According to Variety, it’s not a question of astroturf writ large, it’s “a case of one disrupter [Netflix] telling the story of another [Spotify], Netflix has boarded a series about the creation of Spotify, the Swedish startup that’s become one of the world’s leading music services.”

So where’s what’s not mentioned in the Variety story on the Netflix deal is the Bergman-esque cheap shot at Apple the “authors” of “Spotify Untold” take at Steve Jobs on his death bed.  This one is just bizarre and is the kind of thing you could imagine oozing from the mind of Daniel Ek.  Maybe instead he should have been styled in a badminton game with Jobs.  (I drill down on the loose ends in this storyin another post.)

As reported in an earlier story about the book in Variety:

Barely a page into the book “Spotify Untold,” Swedish authors Jonas Leijonhufvud (pictured at left) and Sven Carlsson paint an odd scene. The year is 2010 and Spotify co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek is facing a succession of obstacles gaining entry into the U.S. market — or, more specifically, infiltrating the tightly-networked and often nepotistic to a fault music industry. As stress sets in, Ek becomes convinced that Apple’s Steve Jobs is calling his phone just to breathe deeply on the other end of the line, he purportedly confesses to a colleague.

Which aspect of this story got them a Netflix deal?  Was it the heavy breathing?  Or maybe the corporate funding.

There’s a saying, “don’t speak ill of the dead.”  That’s probably a bit superstitious for the Spotify Untold authors, but is good advice.  It’s unbecoming and Spotify should denounce it.  There’s also a saying, “don’t mock the afflicted,” so before you laugh hysterically at the story, realize that Steve Jobs caring enough about Daniel Ek to do such a thing (which assumes Steve knew Daniel Ek existed) was something that was very important to Daniel Ek

One thing I can tell you is that the Steve legend (a competing hero’s journey myth–a real one) has some choice tales of voice mails.  None of them involved heavy breathing, and Variety reports that the authors were not able to confirm this rather insulting and perverse allegation.

So why bring it up in their book or in press interviews?

@musictechsolve: Is Spotify Stock Quietly Tanking?

UPDATE:  This post originally appeared on 9/24 in MusicTech.Solutions before reading that on 9/23 Wells Fargo initiated coverage of Spotify at “Underperform” with a $115 price target.  (The stock touched $115 during the trading day on 9/24).  As of this writing, the consensus price target is $159 according to NASDAQ’s Marketbeat.  And of course, streaming’s massive consumption of electricity is becoming an issue faster than you can say “data center.”

Analyst Mark Hake has developed three different scenarios for where Spotify’s stock price will be in 2021:  $125.68, $61.42 and $38.39.  He assigns a $114.89 price based on a probability analysis.  About where it is at the close today, in other words.  His post in Seeking Alpha (“Spotify Has A Valuation Problem”) is a must read if you’re interested in financial analysis.  (I predicted about a year ago the stock would retrace to the $120 to $130 range before dropping below $100 and that it would happen sooner than later.)

As analyst BNK Invest noted after the close last Friday (9/20):

In trading on Friday, shares of Spotify Technology SA (Symbol: SPOT) entered into oversold territory, hitting an RSI reading of 26.8, after changing hands as low as $120.63 per share. By comparison, the current RSI reading of the S&P 500 ETF (SPY) is 56.4. A bullish investor could look at SPOT’s 26.8 RSI reading today as a sign that the recent heavy selling is in the process of exhausting itself, and begin to look for entry point opportunities on the buy side.

This chart is from today’s trading and it reveals a couple interesting patterns–they may mean nothing, but then again they might.  It’s not so much that Spotify is now trading about $20 below its self-assigned private company valuation of $135.  That’s not a comfortable feeling as it says that investors would have been $20 a share better off if the company had never had its controversial direct public offering (or “DPO”) and just stayed private.

Spot 9-24
Intraday Trading on 9/24/19 Only

What’s interesting about this chart is not so much the price but rather the volume.  Spotify is a very thinly traded stock that typically has relatively low volume.  When you see larger volume around the opening and the close of trading it may indicate certain motivations of sellers.  Particularly if there are holders of large blocks of shares that want to slip out of their position when nobody is (a) noticing or (b) can do much about it.

Because of the nature and “rules” of the DPO, Spotify doesn’t have the typical underwriting syndicate that helps to keep the price somewhat stable to allow the stock to establish a trading range with support levels.  Instead of the underwriters selling to the public, Spotify insiders are selling their shares to the public, which then of course can be resold.  In an underwritten public offering, insider shares are usually subject to a “lock up” period where insiders cannot sell their shares for a period of time, say 90 to 180 days after the first public offering.

Spotify had no lock up on insiders.  So who has an incentive to sell their shares relatively quickly?

It’s hard to know who is doing the selling unless you’re a transfer agent with access to the master shareholder list, and they probably wouldn’t disclose that information for anyone under certain thresholds.  But it is odd and it’s been similar patterns for a week or so.

Spot 5 days 924

@musictechpolicy Podcast: Eight Mile Style Sues Spotify Under Music Modernization Act — Music Technology Policy

Chris Castle discussion of Eight Mile Style lawsuit against Spotify under Music Modernization Act (driving with dogs series, a One Take Wonder Production)

Eight Mile Style v. Spotify Complaint

@musictechsolve: Do Spotify Stock Downgrades Go Far Enough?

On June 24th, Spotify shares (ticker: SPOT) was downgraded by Evercore analyst Kevin Rippey, who cut the stock to Underperform from In Line.  Since then, analysts are steadily looking past the loss-making Spotify’s $1 billion stock buy back plan.

Rippey says investors are overestimating Spotify’s ability to make money from podcasts and offering services to musicians and are underestimating the competition from other streaming services—particularly in countries outside the U.S. He reduced his price target to $110.

As ARW readers will recall, I have long challenged Spotify’s kvetching about high royalty rates by pointing to the its high overhead, 7 figure performance bonuses to Daniel Ek when he failed to meet the bonus criteria, and other irresponsible behavior by the board that Ek controls.

Spotify’s interest in podcasts is another comical example of Ek as the Easter Bunny of Screw Ups.  He bought a podcasting company that was unionized.  Sheer genius.  Why did he buy them?  Some people think it’s because podcasts were another form of user-generated content where people work for free in exchange for hot meals…no, in exchange for exposure bucks.

Exposure Bucks

Apple is busy paying for podcasts according to Newsmax:

Apple Inc. plans to fund original podcasts that would be exclusive to its audio service, according to people familiar with the matter, increasing its investment in the industry to keep competitors Spotify and Stitcher at bay.

Executives at the company have reached out to media companies and their representatives to discuss buying exclusive rights to podcasts, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the conversations are preliminary. Apple has yet to outline a clear strategy, but has said it plans to pursue the kind of deals it didn’t make before.

Apple all but invented the podcasting business with the creation of a network that collects thousands of podcasts from across the internet in a feed on people’s phones, smartwatches and computers. The Apple Podcast app still accounts for anywhere from 50% to 70% of listening for most podcasts, according to industry executives.

So Spotify’s law fare against Apple in Europe should come as no surprise (for more on that subject see the “Spotify Untold” corporate bio book).  What this comes down to is that once again, Apple understands its audience and what would delight them where Spotify wants to build them a faster horse (or at least a cheaper one).

Meanwhile, Spotify is commoditizing music into a “playlist friendly” environment based on your mood rather than being artist driven.  Why?  One possible reason is the psychographic research of Michael Kosinski, whose work formed the basis for techniques honed by Cambridge Analytica and the Internet Research Agency you hear so much about (although it must be said the Kosinski did not work for either of those outfits–no he works as a professor at…you guessed it…Stanford).  See his paper The Song Is You: Preferences for Musical  Attribute Dimensions Reflect Personality, available at the Leland Stanford Google University Business School.

The more insightful analysts are represented by Mr. Rippey, who seems to have a good grasp on Spotify’s business and sees through all the bright and shiny objects they want you to focus on as reported by Barrons (emphasis mine):

Rippey says Wall Street’s expectations assume that either the company will come out way ahead in negotiations with the music labels that control the vast majority of the content that Spotify streams, or that it will make a bundle of money from services that previously accounted for almost none of its income.

Now that the sugar high of the Spotify stock has passed through the system and artists either are happy or not happy with their share of the proceeds–which will be hitting royalty statements right about September 30–labels are now faced with a  second act, and that second act likely will require a bigger royalty check–not a smaller one.

To achieve Wall Street’s targets for gross profit, Spotify would either need to take a larger cut of proceeds from each song stream [also called a lower royalty to artists and songwriters] or generate as much as $650 million from “ancillary” areas like Spotify for Artists and podcasts by 2022—areas the company doesn’t make much money on today, Rippey says. Spotify for Artists offers data for musicians to track which songs are performing well and in which areas, among other benefits. [Which is OK if Spotify for Artists is free, I guess–since we sent them the fans–but my bet is that no one is going to pay for it, certainly no one with a modicum of leverage.]  Spotify makes money from ads on podcasts it owns and has also begun to launch exclusive podcasts that listeners can only get on Spotify.  [Spotify has never had a hit that originated entirely within Spotify.  When it does, check this space.]

Given that music crosses over multiple cultures but that Spotify brings a decidedly European and Anglo/American creative viewpoint to its distribution platform, it is unlikely to be able to fight all fights in all markets and be all things to all music fans in the some 60 countries it operates in.  This is particularly true in countries that actually value their culture and creators.

Spotify is the global leader in streaming music, but Rippey thinks that Wall Street overestimates the company’s power in local markets. “In emerging markets like India, local players dominate the market,” he writes, noting that Jio and Gaana were the market leaders there in the first quarter. “This fragmentation leads to an understatement of how competitive streaming music is globally.” Similar dynamics play out in countries like Indonesia too.

Those are some good concrete reasons why Rippey’s price target is $110, which I think is still about $50 too high because of Spotify’s C team management.  And also because the other analysts are all guiding too high in the Overton Window:

Analyst Rating Price Target
Evercore/Kevin Rippey Underperform (From In Line) $110
Nomura Instanet/M. Kelly Buy $190
Stifel/John Egbert Buy $175
Credit Suisse/B. Russo Underperform $120
BOA/Jessica Reif Ehrlich Buy $230

One major factor that all the analysts overlook, like they missed the subprime crisis, is buried in the commentary that never gets picked up in the Wall Street publications–the fact that artists can’t begin to make a living from streaming the way they could from the CDs that streaming is replacing.  This sudden contraction hurts artists at all stages of development.  To put it in terms that Wall Street might understand more readily, this is a supply chain issue.  The chain will have no supply if unsustainable economics expands which it seems like it will.

There’s about 5% of the tracks that make 90% of the revenue from Spotify-type streamers.  Fans are paying subscriptions every month for music they don’t listen to performed by artists they don’t like.  When that idea starts to permeate the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice, who knows what may happen.  This will be true of podcasters, too–the unionized podcasters affiliated with the Writers Guild of America.  I’m looking forward to that collective bargaining experience.

But for now, it’s only a matter of time before artists who are not in that 5% start to jump ship.  Analysts should be asking, who can encourage them to jump and what will happen to the ship they jump from if there were some disruption below decks in the royalty rates?