The Ledger is a weekly newsletter about the economics of the music business sent to Billboard Pro subscribers. An abbreviated version of the newsletter is published online.
Most publicly traded companies have released earnings for the latest quarter (ended Sept. 30), and most of those results have shown encouraging signs for investors and the music industry alike. Earnings by Universal Music Group, Spotify, Live Nation, SiriusXM are in the books. Notable companies yet to announce include Warner Music Group (Nov. 22) and Tencent Music Entertainment (Nov. 15).
If there is one over-arching narrative, it’s that inflation and economic uncertainty haven’t ruined music’s post-pandemic recovery. Revenue growth is strong, aside from some softness related to a slowdown in advertising spending that impacts broadcast radio and ad-supported streaming. Consumer spending on everything from concerts to vinyl records is healthy – despite the around-the-clock warnings of an impending recession and the highest inflation rates in four decades eating into consumers’ wallets. When companies have raised prices for tickets and concessions at concerts, music fans, by and large, haven’t blinked. Even long-stagnant music subscription prices are on the rise, and nobody expects a consumer backlash.
Not that music companies’ stock prices reflect this optimism. Stocks in general have taken a beating in 2022. Music stocks have suffered, too, although stocks ended the week on a high note. The Billboard Global Music Index, a measure of 20 publicly traded music companies’ stocks, climbed 12.7% this week after markets rallied on Thursday and Friday on encouraging news about the slowing U.S. inflation rate.
Here are five quick takeaways from third-quarter earnings and the statements made by the companies’ management teams.
1. The subscription business model is insulating creators and rights holders from economic uncertainty. Music royalties are popular with investors in part because they are counter-cyclical, meaning their returns have little correlation with changes in the broader market. Put another way, when the economy sours, people are more likely to cut back on grocery spending or travel than cancel a Spotify subscription. Consumers might feel pinched in their pocketbooks, but Spotify and SiriusXM added 7 million and 187,000 subscribers, respectively, in the third quarter, and YouTube announced on Wednesday that it surpassed 80 million subscribers to YouTube Music and Premium, an increase of 30 million in about 14 months. Stock prices at companies more exposed to inflation pressures fared best on Thursday, as stocks surged on news that the annual change in the consumer price index in the U.S. fell to 7.7%. Shares of radio companies iHeartMedia and Audacy climbed 10.0% and 14.0%, respectively. Live entertainment companies also did well: MSG Entertainment was +5.6%, Live Nation was +5.1%, and ticketing companies Eventbrite and Vivid Seats were +8.3 and +9.2%, respectively.
2. Podcasts are a growing, stabilizing force. Spotify’s podcast business has rightly captured headlines as the company uses spoken-word content to build engagement, generate advertising revenue and improve on the gross margins of its core music business. The number of monthly users who consumed podcasts grew “in the substantial double-digits” year-over-year, the company said. But other companies’ podcast businesses get less attention despite their importance to their own futures. Radio companies – namely iHeartMedia, Cumulus Media and Audacy – have fast-growing podcast businesses. LiveOne, primarily a music streaming company, has a fast-growing podcast division, PodcastOne, that made $17.2 million of revenue in the last two quarters on the strength of such shows as The Adam Carolla Show, Cold Case Files and Uncut with Jay Cutler. The catch is that podcast growth has little direct impact on the music business outside of helping those platforms – digital and broadcast – that produce royalties for record labels and publishers. Music rights owners could better tap into this growing market if there were better systems for licensing music to podcast creators.
3. With share prices relatively low, companies are increasingly buying back shares to bolster shareholder value and help share prices. Among the companies currently engaged in stock repurchase programs are Spotify, Cumulus Media, Audacy, SiriusXM, Townsquare Media and LiveOne. Spotify announced a $1 billion share buyback program in August 2021, and it spent $2 million and $24 million repurchasing shares in the second and third quarters, respectively. Cumulus Media has $21.1 million remaining in its $50 million share repurchase authorization announced in May. And LiveOne announced on Thursday that it will expand its share repurchase program, originally planned for 2 million shares (worth about $1.5 million at Friday’s closing price), by an additional $2 million. More buybacks could be on the way soon: Universal Music Group shareholders voted in May to give the company’s board the ability to repurchase up to 10% of the issued share capital.
4. Strong growth in “rest of world” markets. Believe’s revenue in Asia Pacific and Africa grew 61.1% to 52.3 million euros ($53.2 million), about the same as its European revenues excluding France and Germany. Spotify’s “rest of world” markets improved their share of monthly active users to 26% in the third quarter, up from 21% in the prior-year period. Also, “rest of world” and Latin America each gained a percentage point in shares of Spotify subscribers while North America and Europe both lost a percentage point of subscriber share. As Billboard’s Elizabeth Dilts Marshall reported last week, investors are increasingly eyeing companies in the Middle East and North Africa as streaming transforms those regions.
5. Spinoffs are going to separate high-growth, high-potential businesses. MSG Entertainment plans to spin off its live entertainment and MSG Networks businesses, to be called Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corp. The remaining parent company consisting of the MSG Sphere venue currently under construction in Las Vegas and Tao Group Hospitality will be renamed MSG Sphere Corp. Ryman Hospitality will spin off its Opry Entertainment Group – possibly within four years, based on its agreement with two new investors, Atairos and NBCUniversal. LiveOne plans to file an S-1 document with the SEC by Dec. 15 for a spin-off of its podcast division, PodcastOne, which accounted for about 37% of the company’s total revenues in the six-month period ended Sept. 30. LiveOne’s management and board believe the company’s share price undervalues the sum of its parts and spinning off PodcastOne would maximize shareholder value and better position the division for M&A and talent acquisition.
Corrections: A previous version of this article said MSG Entertainment had plan to return $250 million to shareholders. It was corrected to say MSG Sports is returning that value to shareholders. Also, the article incorrectly said MSG Entertainment plans to spin off MSG Sphere and Tao Group Hospitality. The company plans to spin off its live entertainment and MSG Networks businesses and rename as MSG Sphere Corp.