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From Layoffs to Licensing, What to Watch For – Billboard

At the beginning of 2024, the always-changing music business is going through rapid transformation unlike anything in the last decade. How music companies organize themselves is changing. How royalties are calculated and paid is changing. How companies engage with fans is changing. And investors have different expectations of public companies — more focus on margins, less obsession with growth.

Music companies’ earnings results for the fourth quarter of 2023 will provide insights into how companies have performed and, more importantly, what they expect to do in the future. Only one company, SiriusXM, has announced to date. Next week’s earnings releases include Spotify (Tuesday, Feb. 6), Reservoir Media (Wednesday, Feb. 7) and Warner Music Group (Thursday, Feb. 8). Universal Music Group (UMG) announces earnings on Feb. 28. Here are some things to watch for in upcoming earnings calls.

The scope of layoffs

In October, UMG executives primed investors for cost-cutting measures that would improve margins and allow for investments in growth opportunities. The result would be hundreds of layoffs, according to a Jan. 12 Bloomberg report. On Thursday, UMG revealed some details of a bi-coastal label group restructuring. But what’s missing, so far, are details on the number of layoffs and the cost savings UMG expects to get from a restructuring. UMG’s fourth-quarter earnings release on Feb. 28 will be an opportunity for analysts to ask the company to give an update on its restructuring plans. As Billboard noted last week, the music industry is seeing widespread layoffs despite continued streaming growth. Warner Music Group (WMG), Downtown Music Holdings and BMG cut jobs in 2023. Digital music companies have shrunk their head counts, too: Spotify, Amazon Music, SoundCloud, Tidal and Bandcamp went through downsizings of various sizes.

More troubles in TikTok-land?

When UMG failed to renew its licensing contract with TikTok, it made licensing to the social video platform a major topic of conversation for upcoming earnings calls. Analysts and investors should want to know how a company’s negotiations with TikTok are proceeding and whether to expect an interruption if the two sides cannot reach an agreement. TikTok and WMG reached an agreement in July 2023, but investors may want progress reports from other public companies — Reservoir Media, Believe, Sony Music — about their licensing talks.

UMG’s decision is not without precedent: In 2008 and 2009, WMG pulled its catalog from YouTube for nine months while the two companies’ licensing negotiations were at an impasse. In 2011, Google launched an audio music streaming service, Music Beta by Google, without licenses from both Sony Music Entertainment (SME) and WMG. When Google added MP3s to its Google Music service later that year, the SME and WMG catalogs were initially absent.

The direct financial hit to UMG will be minimal since TikTok accounts for 1% of the company’s revenue, UMG stated in an open letter about the licensing talks. But because TikTok is an important promotional vehicle and a popular place to discover music, the indirect financial hit is more substantial. Investors always want to know about direct dollar impacts of a company’s moves, and they should want to understand the downsides of leaving a hit-making social platform.

How much have price increases mattered?

Music subscription prices didn’t budge for over a decade before succumbing to change in 2022 and 2023. The big fish was Spotify, which finally raised prices in the United States and other major markets in July. A higher price creates a multiplier effect on top of existing subscriber growth and will augment what would have otherwise been record quarterly revenues. The gains should come without an increase in churn: Spotify CFO Paul Vogel said during an Oct. 27 earnings call that Spotify didn’t lose any subscribers in the third quarter due to the price increase.

For record labels and publishers, a 10% price increase atop year-over-year subscriber growth stands to accelerate revenue growth. Guggenheim analysts said in a recent note to investors that they expect price increases at Spotify, YouTube and Deezer to raise UMG’s subscription revenue growth to 14.8% in the fourth quarter from 13.0% in the third quarter.

The state of the advertising business

While the subscription market has been strong, the ad-supported side of the business has struggled to keep chase. Through the first three quarters, Spotify’s ad-supported streaming revenue increased 14.9% year over year. That’s better than the 11.4% improvement in subscription revenue but well below the 22.2% and 62.1% gains in ad revenue in full-year 2022 and 2021, respectively.

Broadcast radio has fared even worse. Companies such as iHeartMedia, Cumulus Media and Audacy have blamed a slowdown in national broadcast advertising on some disappointing earnings in recent quarters.

SiriusXM provided the latest clue about broadcast advertising. “SiriusXM’s advertising revenue remains challenged,” CFO Tom Barry said during Thursday’s earnings call, “which we believe is a product of a tough broadcast advertising market.” Elsewhere, however, SiriusXM’s digital advertising improved versus 2022: Pandora had “strong growth” in its podcasting and programmatic advertising businesses, added Barry.

Some positive news in recent days shows advertising — perhaps not for broadcast businesses — is rebounding. U.S. ad spending in November was up 25% year over year, according to MediaRadar, an advertising intelligence company. The number of advertisers declined 8%, however, suggesting existing advertisers were ramping up spending.

More good news came from major ad-driven tech companies. Google’s advertising revenue in the fourth quarter increased 11% from the prior-year period, the company announced Wednesday, up from year-over-year improvements of 3.3% and 9.5% in the second and third quarters, respectively. Meta’s revenue grew 25% and its ad impressions rose 28% in the fourth quarter, the company announced Thursday.

The mission to reach superfans

Major music companies are suddenly taking a greater interest in serving superfans, those heavy-spending consumers that drive the concert and merchandise businesses but have less effect in a world of flat-rate, all-you-can-eat music subscription services. The 80-20 rule says 80% of a company’s business comes from 20% of its consumers. With music streaming, however, a $10.99-per-month service doesn’t capture a superfan’s willingness to pay more for additional value. Spotify hinted that “superfan clubs” were in the works in an announcement about the Digital Markets Act in the European Union. UMG CEO Lucian Grainge’s letter to staff in January said the company will focus on “strengthening the artist-fan relationship through superfan experiences and products.”

The problem isn’t that consumers won’t pay more money to engage with their favorite artists. The problem is no platforms have found a winning formula. Numerous previous attempts to court superfans fizzled. Drip, a platform that allowed artists to provide fans with music and other items for a recurring monthly fee, lasted from 2011 to 2016 (it relaunched a Kickstarter in 2017 but shut down in 2018). PledgeMusic shut down in 2019 amidst financial problems and allegations of improprieties. Most recently, startups’ attempts to use Web3 technologies to build superfan communities ran headfirst into the public’s sudden distrust of cryptocurrency and disinterest in NFTs. Given Spotify’s market size and resources, though, the company could make a real impact.

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