Spotify is growing but can it win the streaming battle in 2021?

Spotify’s Daniel Ek now has enough money to buy a Premier League football club. Let’s let that sink in for a minute.

Spotify has long resisted or deflected the claims of artists and songwriters who say they should be earning more from streaming, noting it is not yet a consistently profit-making business.

Yet its founder has somehow accumulated enough cash to contemplate acquiring the ultimate billionaire’s plaything. And not just any old football club but Arsenal, one of the short-lived European Super League’s dirty dozen, made up of those willing to squander the game’s heritage in search of even more megabucks. Clubs like that come with the sort of price tag that only the super-rich could countenance.

It may all come to nothing of course (and the current owner has already said he’s not interested in selling), but the timing of Ek’s move – which has been backed by numerous ex-players and fans – seems more than a little awkward. Soon after Ek tweeted his interest and the music industry had enjoyed a chuckle at all the ‘Wait until the players find out they’ll only be paid £0.00001 per game!’-type responses, Spotify announced a round of long-awaited UK price rises (for student, family and duo plans).

That was long overdue, and should ultimately lead to a bigger subscription pot from which to pay rights-holders (and hopefully, eventually, trickle through to those that actually make the music). But given Spotify’s recent reluctance to make larger payouts to artists and songwriters, many Arsenal fans seemed to assume the money would actually go straight into a fund to buy more skillful-yet-under-achieving midfielders.

The optics, as they might say on Succession, don’t look great. But what’s the real picture behind a flurry of Spotify activity that occasionally seems to be pulling the streamer – once hailed as an artist-friendly presence in the cold, corporate world of digital music – in opposite directions?

The company’s Q1 financial figures showed a rare quarterly operating profit of €14 million (£12.4m) and some decent, if unspectacular subscriber and monthly active user figures, up to 158m and 356m respectively. Subscriber growth stalled in Europe and Latin America while, intriguingly, revenues from its ad-supported tier grew significantly faster (+46%) than those from its subscription tier (+14%), although the latter obviously continues to dwarf the former in real terms. And Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) fell again, to just €4.12 (£3.64).

Those figures made little impact on Spotify’s share price, but they will solidify some growing concerns in the music industry. ARPU is chief among them: Spotify’s rapid expansion into more global markets has no chance of success unless it slashes prices to compete with local services, but that won’t please its increasingly globalised rights-holders.

That’s part of why prices in markets such as the UK are rising, but the fact that such increases are focused on discount plans also surely indicates that Spotify no longer sees such schemes as significant drivers of new customers in mature, mainly Western markets.

Family plans are seen as stickier than most (as one exec noted to me the other week, who wants to be the Dad that tells their entire family they’ve got to switch services for the sake of a few quid?). Warner Music Group CEO Steve Cooper – a long-term critic of Spotify’s ever-diminishing ARPU – made clear during this week’s WMG earnings call that he wants Spotify to go further with such price rises, and for other services to do the same.

But other services have yet to follow suit. Indeed, Deezer chief commercial officer Laurence Miall-d’Aout commented: “Deezer isn’t going to raise prices in the middle of the pandemic. Music, podcasts and radio help people cope and we don’t feel this is the time to make things harder for them.”

In other words, Deezer is prepared to spend some of the artist-friendly capital it’s built up by being the only major streamer to push user-centric payments, by making a play for cost-conscious consumers.

And so, with little other differentiation between the major streamers these days, at least as far as most casual music fans are concerned, we could be about to see churn become a factor in the streaming market for the first time. Some even speculate that Apple – which recently announced 660m subscribers across its multiple services – may now have more global music subscribers than Spotify.

That still seems unlikely to me, but Spotify’s individual subscriptions won’t budge in price until Ek is sure it won’t reduce his leverage as global market-leader. As every football club owner knows, you lose your place amongst the elite at your peril.

The latest financial figures from the major labels remain healthy, and Spotify represents a huge part of their profits, so no one will be asking Ek too many really awkward questions just yet. But if subscribers start moving around – as they often do in other subscription markets – and ARPU remains stubbornly low, that could change fast.

Spotify continues to experiment around the edges of its offer: its in-car smart player, Car Thing, looks to have huge potential and it has also announced it will launch a high-res tier, Spotify HiFi, later this year – joining a niche market already well-served by Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer and Amazon.

But while such innovations might help keep the labels happy, too little is being done to significantly boost Ek’s relationship with the people who have actually helped build his own personal wealth: the army of songwriters and musicians (and, nowadays, podcasters) whose work drives those subscription numbers. UK creatives remain up in arms about the need to ‘fix’ streaming and, while some of their anger has been redirected to the majors, the Arsenal news seemed to stir up the enmity that has festered ever since those first meagre pay cheques started arriving in the early days of the streaming revolution.

Even the news of a European Commission preliminary ruling that Apple had breached competition rules by charging 30% commission on in-app purchases, as pushed for by Spotify, drew comparisons from some with the 30% slice Spotify (and all streaming companies) take from the streaming pie. Meanwhile, Apple attracted positive headlines over a claim its per-stream rate was double that of its arch-rivals (even though Apple never actually said that, and ‘per-stream’ has become a near-meaningless metric in the streaming world).

As discussed in this column a few weeks ago, Spotify’s Loud And Clear website at least attempts to bring transparency to the opaque world of streaming payments. But actions will always speak louder than words, and artists and songwriters continue to be frustrated by a lack of progress on a number of issues. The current website tagline doesn’t help either – ‘Millions of songs and podcasts. No credit card needed’.

Ek, of course, has plenty of other things on his mind. But, while running a company with a massive market cap that struggles to make a profit might seem like the ideal grounding for the unicorn economics of the Premier League, he might also want to contemplate the surge of fan anger that swiftly derailed the ESL. After all, that showed what can be achieved when people believe commercial considerations are trampling over everything they hold dear.

So could Ek kick it with the ESL billionaires crew? No doubt, but he might be better off concentrating on other goals for a while yet…