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Deezer’s CEO Charts a Streaming War Battle Plan

Jeronimo Folgueira, who took the reins in 2021, says a deal with German media powerhouse RTL will be "transformative" for the French company.

LONDON — Deezer has always been the streaming service that charted its own path. After launching in 2007 — a year before Spotify debuted — the Paris-based company rapidly opened its service in over 180 countries; but, unlike Spotify, which focused on one or two markets at a time, Deezer avoided the biggest markets, like the United States and Japan, for many years. But now that the number of on-demand music subscription services has boomed, Deezer has struggled to keep up with its rivals.

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New CEO Jeronimo Folgueira, who took over in June 2021, hopes to change that. Deezer is shifting from targeting small and emerging territories to renewing its focus on large and established music markets, where consumers are more willing to pay for subscriptions. In August, Folgueira forged a partnership with German broadcast giant RTL Deutschland to deliver music and video content in a single app — RTL+ Musik — putting Deezer in a stronger position to compete with Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, China’s Tencent Music Entertainment (TME) and YouTube Music.

Folgueira calls the RTL tie-up a “transformative” deal that gives Deezer the scale it needs to break into Germany, the world’s fourth-biggest recorded-music market, with revenue of $1.6 billion in 2021, up 12.6% from 2020, according to IFPI. “In those markets where we have the right partner and the right distribution strategy, our product is second to none,” says Folgueira.

But in the increasingly crowded streaming business, Deezer, which counts Warner Music Group owner Access Industries among its biggest shareholders, is fighting an uphill battle to unseat Spotify. Deezer’s strategy seems more about becoming a “second-tier player that is strong where first-tier players are not,” says Mark Mulligan, analyst at MIDiA Research. While it was “once incumbent,” along with Rhapsody, “it is now challenger, and it has honed its strategy accordingly.”

Deezer is strongest in France, where it is partnered on bundle deals with telecom company Orange and has 4.4 million subscribers, and in Brazil, where it partnered with TIM Celular in 2016 and has 2.7 million subscribers, according to company filings. Worldwide, Deezer has 9.4 million subscribers compared with Spotify’s 195 million subscribers and 273 million free (ad-supported) users, while TME has 82.7 million paying subscribers, according to the companies’ latest earnings reports.

While Apple Music, Amazon Music and YouTube Music don’t regularly announce user numbers, last year Lyor Cohen, YouTube’s global head of music, said the service had surpassed 50 million paying subscribers worldwide. The last time Apple issued any data for its service was in 2019, when it said it had over 60 million subscribers worldwide; Amazon Music said it had more than 55 million subscribers globally in January 2020 but has not updated that figure since.

Rapidly growing TikTok dwarfs them all, with the social media app boasting over 1 billion active monthly users, many of whom use music in their videos. Streaming executives will watch closely what ByteDance, TikTok’s parent, does next. The Beijing-headquartered company is understood to be in talks with labels about expanding its subscription-based music streaming service Resso — currently available in India, Indonesia and Brazil — to more than a dozen new markets ahead of a global rollout. (Verified profiles with the username “TikTok Music” have appeared on social media platforms in recent months advertising “a new way to experience music.”)

For Deezer, strategic partners like RTL Deutschland, which says it reaches 99% of the German population through its 15 TV channels and numerous radio, print and digital outlets, are the key going forward, says Folgueira. “RTL has to compete with Netflix, Apple and Amazon,” he says. “We compete against Spotify, Apple and Amazon. Together, we can compete much better and have a proposition that is equal or better.” Deezer is seeking strategic partners in other big markets, he says, including the United States (where it launched in 2016), the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy.

Engineers at Deezer and RTL spent a year developing the RTL+ Musik app, which combines music streaming with film, TV and news content and costs 9.99 euros ($9.84) for the first six months, then rises to 12.99 euros ($12.80) per month. RTL, which is owned by BMG parent company Bertelsmann, says it has 3.4 million paying subscribers for its lower-priced, video-only RTL+ streaming service but believes it can quickly grow its premium subscriptions through music.

This year’s merger with I2PO, a special purpose acquisition corporation that raised 275 million euros ($282 million) in a 2021 initial public offering, gives Deezer the funding it needs to execute the plan, says Folgueira. Still, as it tries to make its strategic pivot, Deezer faces strong market headwinds and an uncertain investment environment for music streaming.

Since its rocky debut on the Euronext Paris exchange in July 2021, Deezer’s share price has plummeted almost 60% and now hovers around 3.5 euros (it closed at 3.42 euros on Nov. 8). Spotify shares have tumbled 74% over the past year, to $73.44 on Nov. 7, as investors soured on streaming following a pandemic-related boom. (Spotify’s all-time high closing share price was $364.59, set on set on Feb. 19, 2021.)

“There is a growing acceptance among investors that the boom period for streaming investments is drawing to a close,” says Mulligan. He predicts streaming services will continue to represent long-term value but “will be less interesting to certain kinds of investors, which may weaken overall demand and thus push down share prices.”

Folgueira points to Deezer’s midyear financial results — revenue grew 12.1% (up 9.9% at constant currency) from the prior-year period to 219 million euros ($218 million) — as evidence that the company is well positioned to survive and grow within the fast-changing music streaming market. (Since the interview, Deezer released its third quarter earnings on Oct. 27, showing revenue up 13.8% and 11.4% at constant currency.) “For the last 10 years, streaming companies have prioritized growth over profitability,” says Folgueira. “That will start shifting now, and we will all focus more on profitability going forward.”