It’s All About the Stock: Tone deaf Spotify Insiders Vote for Stock Buyback to Juice Their Share Price While Congress Questions Streaming Payola

Spotify announced a second billion dollar stock buy back last week which means they have $1 billion in free cash that they will spend, not for paying artists, not for paying songwriters, but to juice their stock price and make Spotify insiders and senior employees richer still. Remember that Spotify already did this once before in the pre-pandemic. Just like they lavish the artists’ money on their fancy World Trade Center offices and buying the Arsenal Football Club, a second billion dollar stock buy back means more of the same while they pay artists a pittance, songwriters even less and session performers not at all.

Every Spotify employee should understand that the income disparity between their monopoly business practices and the creators who drive the fans to their platform that Spotify monetizes out the back door has never been so dire.

Why do you care? A few reasons. First, it demonstrates that Spotify has plenty of cash laying around despite its continued loss making–which confirms the “get big fast” and devil take the hindmost strategy that has driven the company to make its insiders extraordinarily rich. So when Spotify tell you (and the UK Parliament) that they can’t pay a fair royalty because they’re struggling so much, here’s more evidence that those claims really are as much bunk as they sound like.

Second, it highlights the value transfer from featured artists who barely get paid at all and non-featured artists who really don’t get paid at all. The real value to the music that Spotify pays at a hundredths of a penny is reflected in the share price and market value, not the revenue which they refuse to increase as they pursue their growth strategy. This failure to allow the creators that make their company to capture value through higher royalties is the subject of a study I co-wrote for the World Intellectual Property Organization and is underlying the Spotify royalty crisis.

But perhaps most importantly it’s yet another tone deaf move by Spotify that ignores both the Congressional payola inquiry into Spotify’s business practices as well as the streaming income inequality that’s argued every day as the walls close in on songwriters trying to make a living and artists trying to tour in a life threatening environment. As Senators Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer wrote in a New York Times op-ed, stock buybacks should not come at the expense of workers, which I would argue includes artists and songwriters in Spotify’s case. For a deeper dive, see Profits Without Prosperity by the economist William Lazonick in the Harvard Business Review.

Professor Lazonick tells us:

Though corporate profits are high, and the stock market is booming, most Americans are not sharing in the economic recovery. While the top 0.1% of income recipients reap almost all the income gains, good jobs keep disappearing, and new ones tend to be insecure and underpaid.

One of the major causes: Instead of investing their profits in growth opportunities, corporations are using them for stock repurchases. Take the 449 firms in the S&P 500 that were publicly listed from 2003 through 2012. During that period, they used 54% of their earnings—a total of $2.4 trillion—to buy back their own stock. Dividends absorbed an extra 37% of their earnings. That left little to fund productive capabilities or better incomes for workers.

Why are such massive resources dedicated to stock buybacks? Because stock-based instruments make up the majority of executives’ pay, and buybacks drive up short-term stock prices. 

Here’s the Spotify press release:

Spotify Technology S.A. (NYSE: SPOT) (the “Company”) today announced that it will commence a stock repurchase program beginning in the third quarter of 2021. Repurchases of up to 10,000,000 of the Company’s ordinary shares have been authorized by the Company’s general meeting of shareholders, and the Board of Directors approved such repurchases up to the amount of $1.0 billion. The authorization to repurchase will expire on April 21, 2026. The timing and actual number of shares repurchased will depend on a variety of factors, including price, general business and market conditions, and alternative investment opportunities. The repurchase program will be executed consistent with the Company’s capital allocation strategy, which will continue to prioritize aggressive investments to grow the business.

“This announcement demonstrates our confidence in Spotify’s business and the growth opportunities we see over the long term,” said Paul Vogel, Chief Financial Officer at Spotify. “We believe this is an attractive use of capital, and based on the strength of our balance sheet, we continue to see ample opportunity to invest and grow our business.”

Under the repurchase program, repurchases can be made from time to time using a variety of methods, including open market purchases, all in compliance with the rules of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission and other applicable legal requirements.

The repurchase program does not obligate the Company to acquire any particular amount of ordinary shares, and the repurchase program may be suspended or discontinued at any time at the Company’s discretion.

What are they not telling you? Well, first of all I’m not so sure how strong the Spotify balance sheet really is, with all due respect to Mr. Vogel (who is no doubt pitching a stock buyback that he probably personally benefits from as a shareholder). Without grinding through details, let’s say that Spotify’s stock is down 30% from its COVID-induced highs so there’s that. Someone else seems to think the balance sheet isn’t all that.

Why do I say that Spotify’s stock buy back juices the share price and earnings per share? It’s simple–you keep the financial metrics like revenue and earnings separate and constant. The share price and earnings per share is a function of market capitalization, a ratio based on the number of shares outstanding. And here’s the key: By reducing the number of outstanding shares alone, you can increase the stock price and the earnings per share without actually changing anything about the company’s financial performance (kind of like a reverse stock split).

Stock repurchases are usually funded through hitting an account called “retained earnings” and buying the shares in the open market at a fixed price, sometimes through a tender offer. If there is insufficient retained earnings, the company can take on debt. Spotify doesn’t mention in its press release exactly how this particular buyback will be financed, but it’s usually one or the other, and otherwise in compliance with the SEC Rule 10b-18 safe harbor for issue repurchases for those reading along at home.

The key takeaways:

  1. Spotify is a monopolist and has plenty of money
  2. Spotify is doing a stock repurchase to juice the share price and make it look higher than it is, fooling no one on Wall Street
  3. The major beneficiaries are Spotify insiders like Daniel Ek who control the company, the board and all shareholder votes.
  4. Spotify have the money to compensate featured artists, nonfeatured performers (musicians and vocalists) and songwriters but choose to spend it on themselves.

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