2023 in Review: Deezer, Pandora, SiriusXM, and Tidal
Hello, folks. Brief but important news for New York City readers. On March 22nd, me and a couple friends will be throwing a party called hulaHOOP at Mood Ring in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Expect trance, eurodance, and euphoric pop. Obviously I’m always down to chat music biz but do come to dance please. You can RSVP here, also check out the promo mix by moistbreezy, who’ll also be playing. Otherwise, y’all know the drill: Recommend the newsletter to friends and all feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Now let’s chat about some minor players in the music streaming ecosystem.
This year, I wanted to take stock of the major music streaming platforms. (Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube to be exact.) Research showed a dearth of unique ideas and signs of business strain, only in the second decade of these businesses. The next two newsletters will expand the scope to slightly smaller western streaming companies and larger international ones that don’t receive the same level of attention, but tell their own unique stories of this market. Now, what’s up with Tidal nowadays.
Two years ago, Block, the financial services company formerly known as Square, bought Tidal for around $300 million. The deal appeared fairly out of nowhere and thus spurred quite a bit of speculation about the connections between Jay-Z, Tidal’s owner, and Jack Dorsey, the founder of Square along with Twitter. My initial read on the deal was that Dorsey simply was doing a favor for a big name friend, and little’s changed to adjust my original assessment. Tidal’s brief moment of relevance stopped when streaming exclusives went away around 2017. Still, its core product was a lesser version of YouTube/Spotify with a better corporate narrative. (Artists are paid more and extremely wealthy artists own it.)
Last month Block released its Q4 earnings and tucked away are the details of Tidal’s financial health. Prior to Square’s purchase Tidal’s 2019 revenue stood at $166 million with losses of $52 million, still the company’s gross profit in 2022 was down 20% compared to 2019.(If you’re looking for Tidal, search “Corporate and Other” in Block's earnings.) The company’s 2022 revenue topped $200 million, but Q4 barely cracked $38 million. A mighty fall from Q4 2021’s $55 million or the previous quarter’s $56 million. Block can absorb the losses but Tidal exhibits few signs of a healthy business outside of Dorsey’s protective bubble. The company isn’t capable of sustaining itself, but luckily the record industry’s found a decent use case for the app.
In 2021, after the purchase from Block, Tidal said it was going to move over to a user-centric royalty payment model, a free version of the app, a $19.99 plan, and would give a small percent of the revenue to the most listened to artist for that listener on the highest payment tier. Per the last paragraph, none of these efforts sparked a hidden enthusiasm in the app. This was made painfully clear last week. Tidal revealed it was leaving behind its offering to support someone’s top artist and further retreating from the user-centric model. The reason for the pivot is that Universal Music Group and Tidal stated they were going to work towards an updated streaming model. Just another example of Lucian Grainge, the CEO of UMG, pushing the industry to his, still unclear, vision.
Tidal, in lieu of a prosperous business, is used for low stakes major label experiments. When Block bought Tidal, tech journalists and analysts attempted to tease out how Tidal could connect with fans in a more direct way. The chatter was during the height of the NFT mania when touring was still grounded for many artists, so speculation was running rampant. Now with two years of hindsight, little of note from the purchase can be found. Hopefully the deal did improve Dorsey’s Rolodex.
Last summer, Deezer went public via a special purpose acquisition company with a valuation of €1.1 billion. A notable moment for the french streaming platform, especially since Emmanuel Macron’s made much ado about finding unicorns (companies with a billion plus valuation) in France. However, that value was short-lived. The company’s valuation immediately plunged a third and hasn’t recovered, and remains at less than half of the initial offering. That cannot be too shocking when the company said it wouldn’t hit profitability till 2025 and in 2022 posted a loss of €166 million on revenue of €451 million. Certainly there are more exciting ways to set one’s money on fire if so inclined.
Founded in 2007, Deezer eventually ended up where all streaming platforms do with a telecommunication company deal in this case Orange, a massive french telco. However, the french conglomerate took a keen interest in Deezer and helped it raise multiple rounds of capital, including one in 2018 that saw investment from the Rotana Group, a Saudi Arabian media conglomerate, and Kingdom Holding Company. Despite more recent attempts to connect the company to North Africa and the Middle East. The company’s most recent quarterly report revealed it left free markets that were too costly. A notable reversal of the growth principle that guided tech over the last two decades. The decision boosted the company’s average revenue per user, and aligns with its attempt to make more inroads into Germany and United Kingdom, markets most closer to home. (Though the saturation of streaming in both countries makes the prospect of them making much of a breakthrough rather slim…) That move feels a bit different from the tune the company was singing only a few months ago.
The pandemic fever dream hit Deezer through a couple investments into livestreaming streaming startups (Driift, Dreamstage). Truthfully I cannot remember the last time I heard someone mention livestreaming, as the extremely short lived moment where folks were forced to think of it replacing live music faded away. Still that these were relatively small investments is maybe the kindest assessment that could be made.
Last year, the company also got a new CEO and introduced a €19.99 subscription tier, along with quietly increasing the prices of its baseline plans. All of that may be why the company could see revenue increase with losses continuing to mount. During UMG’s Q4 earnings call, Deezer was mentioned in working on a new streaming model. This would appear to close the door on Deezer’s pursuit of the user-centric streaming model that it was an early champion of but never able to implement. It again places Deezer squarely within the major label guinea pig camp of Tidal, where its purpose is less to serve music to fans but rather give labels a space to experiment while negotiating with the platforms that matter.
SiriusXM / Pandora
On Monday, SiriusXM announced eight percent layoffs, or roughly 475 jobs. This comes on the heels of thousands of layoffs impacting the technology and media sector the last six or so months. Notable to me was that SiriusXM already foreshadowed these layoffs so far in advance that originally I was going to note that it was strange the company hadn’t acted upon the threat. The reason given is copy-and-pasted from previous tech layoffs (“uncertain economic conditions”), which feels thin when looking at the company’s “General and Administrative” or “Engineering, Design, and Development” segments that haven’t ballooned by any means during the pandemic. Corporate layoffs really can be contagious.
Throughout this newsletter I’ve never taken a huge interest in SiriusXM, because I typically cover digital streaming, labels, and I never knew what to really say much about the satellite radio company. However these announced layoffs in many ways affirm that lack of substance on my end. Over the last few years SiriusXM leaned more into podcasts, see its Spotify-esque purchase of Stitcher for $325 million. However, unlike Spotify, SiriusXM maintains a rather steady free cash flow, with its premium subscription business. The company is always adjusting its programming but the core product is pretty standardized, which could represent a best case scenario for certain streaming platforms. Maintain a strong core product, keep experiments low, and the business can remain stable. Otherwise a path forward could be Pandora.
The online radio platform founded in 2000 (!) feels increasingly written out of the streaming music history these days. Pandora, alongside YouTube, really helped pave the way for music streaming before Spotify, Apple, Amazon and the eventual shift towards mobile apps. However, a reason for Pandora’s diminished role can be easy to see: The platform lost 16 million users since 2019. Revenue was basically flat from 2021 to 2022 but the gross profit dropped by more than 10%. Price could go up to offset declining subscribers, but if that continues that will only further eat at the thin margins on the business. If the utilitarian malaise of SiriusXM is one path; then bleeding users and stagnating revenue is the other. There’s little reason to see any of these platforms disappearing in the next couple of years but whatever vitality might’ve existed years ago is long gone.
The European Union updated its antitrust case against Apple, which unfortunately for Spotify, and truthfully most digital firms, backed away from further pressing on the 30% cut Apple takes on app store purchases. Though many firms have grown to accept and work within these constraints, it certainly does stifle smaller firms' ability to directly connect with their customers.
A Note of Financialization
Medium news week today. Metro Boomin, one of rap’s biggest producers over the last decade, sold part of his catalog to Shamrock Capital. Reservoir Media bought the publishing and recording rights for jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Mojo Music & Media announced they completed catalog deals with *takes a breath*: Warren Cuccurullo, Teddy Sky, Bruce Belland, Omar Lyefook, Anthony Improgo and Blake Healy. Multimedia Music, a newer catalog acquisition firm that’s centered on film rights, bought the “film music library of STX Entertainment”. Outside of purchases, Lyric Capital Group, owner of Spirit Music Group, raised $410 million from previous institutional and new investors. The firm also raised another few hundred million via debt financing to bring a total of $800 million to purchase catalogs.
Last month, Music Business Worldwide asked if the music catalog market was heating up again. That gave me an excuse to update the records I’ve maintained of catalog sales over the years. Below are two graphs that can help illuminate recent trends: 1. Reported catalog and publisher sales since 2016, 2. Reported money raised for catalogs since 1998.
The coronavirus bump, which produced massive government backstopping of the economy, ultimately helped push the amount of interest in this asset class well beyond its recent historical trend. The boom and now slow bust closely mirrors many tech stocks and assets like Bitcoin. Music Business Worldwide may be right that deals are picking up again but that affirms this to be simply another risk asset with an inflated cultural awareness.
6 Links 2 Read
Scooter Braun and HYBE want to Build a ‘Major’ Music Label. How Will Their $300m Bet on Quality Control Play into That Aim? - Music Business Worldwide
The more details, and court battles, that emerge in the struggle to take over SM Entertainment, I do struggle to care much about the way this drama unfolds. Without getting into the internal SM family drama, the sudden pressure and weight placed upon Quality Control is interesting, because the label’s success arguably peaked years ago when Lil Baby, City Girls, and Migos were all still producing hits. The question of how to maintain that level of success alongside potentially eyeing more western talent will be curious to see how Scooter Braun and co. navigate.
The Long Tail’s Sting: The Political Battle Over Content Moderation and Music’s Dilemma - Music Ally
A fascinating op-ed that identifies a number of state and national bills that could hold large implications for online content moderation and weaves that with the increasing concern over long tail music content. The takeaway is that it's expensive for platforms to host all of this content, the major rights holders don’t like long tail content, and it may end up causing more governmental headaches down the line. So, platforms may consider strong outlines, if not outright walls, around one’s garden.
Paying to Read the Graffiti on a Bathroom Stall / Fandom is Fun!!!! - Garbage Day
The internet is getting ever more expensive with every platform seeking to paywall and limit access more and more. This is compounded by leaning ever harder on fans that are expected to pick up the extra bill or step up “fandom” work on behalf of one's favorite act. Certainly don’t expect this to let up anytime soon.
Tencent Music Responds to China Streaming Manipulation Concerns With New Year-End Chart - Billboard (Subscription)
Right now, China skepticism drifts into business reporting in the most peculiar ways. Nothing detailed in this story doesn't happen on western platforms; and ironically, Tencent Music’s response appears much more considerate than their western counterparts.
Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC) Refuses to Disclose ‘Black Box’ Account Figures as Total Payouts Top $1 Billion - Digital Music News
The bipartisan nature of the Music Modernization Act will only make more sense as major publishers start receiving massive government paychecks for royalties that aren’t even their own. Great job everyone!
Broken Thing - Dada Drummer Almanach
Damon Krukowski wrote a few clarifying words on the topic of artificial intelligence. I find nearly all applications of AI to be unholy but like crypto the sheer amount of capital injected into this technology makes it hard to ignore. Sadly, I don’t always get what I want.