The Ledger: Are Music Streaming Revenues Still Healthy?

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The Ledger is a weekly newsletter that covers the financial and economic side of the music business. An abridged version appears at Billboard Pro. Pro subscribers automatically receive The Ledger. Sign up here to receive the newsletter without a Pro subscription.

Keen observers noticed that last quarter Warner Music Group’s global streaming revenues were down 2.6% year over year, a rare sputter in the music industry’s main engine of growth. The company’s total revenue declined 7.8% as losses in recorded music’s physical and digital revenues couldn’t make up for publishing gains.

On its face, a year-over-year decline in streaming revenue – the driving force behind growth at labels as well as the rise in music catalog valuations – might seem alarming. Declines are routinely seen in download and physical sales. Streaming is typically the dependable bright spot of any earnings report.

The decline was more noticeable when compared to companies that released earnings for the same quarter. Sony Music Entertainment posted strong growth in the same period. SME’s streaming revenue improved 33.2% in its recorded music division and 59.8% in its publishing division. Reservoir Media didn’t show streaming softness last quarter, either. In its recorded music division, digital revenues were up 17% year-over-year. Digital revenues in its publishing division rose 29%.

So, what happened? Some of it is due to a quirk of WMG accounting, some of it is due to WMG, and some of it is due to factors that affect the entire music business.

One factor in WMG’s weak streaming revenue was a shorter quarter: WMG’s last quarter had one fewer week than the prior-year quarter, which gave the company a tough basis for comparison even before other factors could be considered. A 14-week quarter has 7.1% more days to generate income than a 13-week one and that’s a big gap to overcome. Adjusting for that, WMG streaming revenues would have been up 5% year-over-year.

The stronger dollar — WMG’s financial statements are reported in dollars, Sony reports in yen, Universal Music Group in euros — also played a part in the decline. In WMG’s recorded music division, streaming revenues declined 4% as reported but were flat on a constant currency basis (which assumes no change in foreign exchange rates). In its publishing division, streaming revenues grew 13.2% as reported and 16.8% at constant currency.

WMG also blamed the soft streaming numbers on a new release line-up that CFO Eric Levin called “a softer, largely U.S.-based release schedule” that “could roll into our fiscal Q2. But given our release schedule as second half-oriented this year,” he added, “we do feel good about our performance of releases and strength in the second half of the year.”

Another factor was not specific to WMG: a slowing ad market. Levin called it “a dislocated ad market” and warned “the decline is getting more pronounced.” The decline in ad-supported streaming revenue isn’t a surprise. The Ledger wrote about the soft advertising market in August 2022. Spotify CFO Paul Vogel warned advertising growth in the third quarter would be “slower than we might have forecast earlier in the year.” French music company Believe said “ad-funded streaming activities should be affected by rising inflation and economic uncertainties.”

The streaming market has become bifurcated. Subscription services have fared well through the pandemic and high inflation. Advertising is more closely associated with the direction of the broader economy. Consumers are generally reluctant to cancel entertainment subscriptions, but it’s easier for brands to pull back on ad spending, hurting everything from YouTube to broadcast radio companies like iHeartMedia (and music publishers to a lesser extent). At WMG, “subscription streaming grew by high single digits” but was partially offset by a drop “in the mid-teens” in ad-supported revenue, Levin said. WMG also noticed the slowdown in brands’ spending has created “a somewhat softer market for synch.”

In the fourth quarter, Spotify’s advertising revenue rose 14% compared to an 18% improvement for subscription revenue. With the growth of Spotify’s podcasting business, not all the advertising growth could be attributed to music. Advertising growth lagged subscription growth in the third quarter by three percentage points.

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