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Google’s Pilot Program for In-App Billing Is Music to Spotify’s Ears — Is Apple Next?

Spotify's push into audiobooks is hampered by in-app purchase fees. A pilot program with Google can end up helping the economics.

Spotify’s quest to improve its margins has taken another step forward, as a pilot program for billing subscribers using Google devices expands to the U.S. and additional markets. Called “user choice billing,” the system allows app developers to provide Google Android smartphone users with the option of paying the developer directly — at a reduced fee — or through Google Play.

Last week, Google’s user choice billing pilot expanded to the U.S., Brazil and South Africa, and Google announced that dating app Bumble also joined the program. Spotify was the first developer to join the pilot program in March with test markets of Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan and the European Economic Area. With the additional markets, user choice billing will be tested in most of the world’s largest smartphone markets and most valuable music markets.

With user choice billing, prospective Spotify subscribers are presented with two payment options side-by-side in an Android app: Spotify and Google Play. Choosing Spotify will take the user to a form to fill out credit card information to sign up for a subscription. Importantly, it all happens within the Spotify app, not Spotify’s external website. Choosing to pay with Google Play prompts the user to enter a password to pay with the credit card on file with Google.

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Billing is an under-appreciated but important issue in the subscription music business. Because music streaming is inexorably tied to smartphones, and because consumers have come to expect simplicity when engaging in e-commerce on smartphones, in-app billing helps a company like Spotify sign up subscribers. The problem for a music service like Spotify operating on thin margins, though, is that app stores run by Apple and Google have traditionally demanded a cut of these in-app purchases. That’s left music companies either paying the app store fees themselves, without raising prices, eroding each subscription’s profitability, or raising the price to compensate for the fee, which could turn away potential subscribers. Prior to 2016, Spotify charged users 30% more for an in-app upgrade to Premium to offset Apple’s 30% fee.

There’s one other option, of course: To save on fees, a music service may disallow in-app subscriptions and encourage a customer to take a few extra steps and subscribe at its website. That process risks losing potential subscribers along the way, but nevertheless, Spotify has gone this route and not allowed in-app purchasing on its Apple app since 2016.

Companies have faced this quandary for years. In 2019, for example, Pandora raised the price for subscribers who used Apple’s in-app purchasing premium subscription service from $9.99 to $12.99 to offset the fees. Pandora reported paying $50 million in fees to Apple and Google in 2015 – 3.7% of its annual revenue.

“It certainly puts independent music services at a disadvantage where we’re paying 30% of the economics out to the platforms that distribute our apps, who also happen to be competing with us, and for the same users, and the same economics,” Pandora’s then-CFO Mike Herring told investors in 2016.

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Apple typically charges a 30% fee for in-app purchases during the first year of a subscription and 15% thereafter, according to Apple’s website for developers. Neither Apple nor Spotify have said publicly what fees are paid for Spotify subscriptions. The fees that Spotify pays Google are also private.

“We’re not going to comment on the terms of our agreement with Google because they are confidential,” a Spotify spokesperson tells Billboard, “but it’s safe to say that our [user choice billing] partnership is based on commercial terms that meet our standards of fairness.” 

Generally, subscription services such as Spotify pay a 15% fee for in-app purchases, but the fee can go lower. App developers in Google’s Play Media Experience Program, which integrates apps into Google’s ecosystem of wearables and other hardware products, can pay less than 15%, for example. For subscription-based services with significant licensing costs — such as music, video, books and audiobooks — fees “can be as low as 10%,” according to a Google spokesperson.  

User choice billing provides additional savings for app developers on top of any other program or discount. If an Android user presented with user choice billing opts for the app developer’s payment system, Google lowers the fee by 4%. So, if an app developer were paying a 10% fee to Google, user choice billing would reduce the fee to 6%.  

Small improvements to gross margin are crucial to a music service that pays more than three-quarters of its revenue to rights holders. Spotify’s gross margin on its Premium subscription service was 28% in the third quarter of 2022, meaning that Spotify paid out 72% of its subscription revenue for licensing fees and some smaller costs of sales. Every percentage point of revenue represents about $100 million in subscription revenue in 2022, based on past earnings and Spotify’s fourth-quarter guidance. If Spotify can move its gross margin by a small amount, it would greatly impact the company’s free cash flow. To put it in perspective, Spotify’s net cash flow from operations for the first three quarters of 2022 was $109 million.  

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While Google seems willing to consider alternative approaches to in-app billing, Apple does not. Prominent app developers, including Spotify, have been fighting for better terms for years. In 2019, Spotify filed a complaint against Apple with the European Commission for anticompetitive behavior alleging that Apple “continue to give themselves an unfair advantage at every turn.” 

Additionally, Apple is currently involved in a lawsuit brought by Epic Games regarding its control over the App Store. Although the judge in the case has mostly sided with Apple, the judge did order Apple to allow apps to provide links to payment alternatives outside the App Store. The lower court’s requirement has been delayed until the appeals court rules on the case. The two sides began oral arguments in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday (Nov. 14). 

Apple’s strict rules are particularly meddlesome to Spotify’s latest attempt to improve its margins — audiobooks. In September, the streaming service began selling 300,000 audiobook titles following its acquisition of audiobook distributor Findaway in June. The plan makes sense: Audiobook purchases on its platform can provide Spotify with 60% gross margins — about twice the margin in music streaming – and audiobooks are a natural addition to its burgeoning podcast business.  

But Apple’s rules for in-app purchases would make audiobooks purchased through an iOS app far less profitable — and a less straightforward process. Whereas the Google app provides “a beautiful experience,” CEO Daniel Ek said during the Oct. 25 earnings call, the process of buying an audiobook through Apple “is inherently broken because Apple decided it wanted it to be broken.” Spotify had lawyers “in the room” working with developers, but Apple rejected Spotify’s app multiple times, according to Ek. “It holds developers back and holds creators back,” he said. “And it’s bad for consumers.” Plus, there’s the added element here that Apple happens to be Spotify’s leading competitor for music streaming.

With audiobooks, Spotify currently sells titles on its website rather than inside the app to avoid fees (the user can listen using the Spotify app after the title is purchased). But just getting people to its website isn’t straightforward. As Spotify claimed on a website called Time to Play Fair, Apple does not allow Spotify to explain how to purchase an audiobook outside of the app, include a link to direct the user to a Spotify audiobook page, request or receive an email with instructions on how to purchase an audiobook or reveal an audiobook’s price in the app or in an email. Spotify’s Android app does not sell audiobooks, but the app allows users to receive an email with a link to Spotify to purchase a title.  

In its June investors’ day presentation, Spotify management looked beyond music, podcasts and audiobooks. In the next ten years, Spotify will add sports, news and education to the platform and double the current average revenue per user, said Alex Norström, chief freemium business officer. The user choice billing pilot program can only help with that goal.