Six months ago, in an email to staff, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek said that the company would “be a bit more prudent” in its hiring over the next few quarters. That came a week after Spotify’s June 8, 2022, investor day presentation on its plans to improve its margins.
The key would be podcasts, executives said, along with a new foray into audiobooks. Within three to five years, podcasts could bring in gross margins of 30-35%, which could later rise to 40-50% – far more than the company can earn from recorded music.
The company’s podcast business hasn’t come cheap, though. Spotify – which on Monday (Jan. 23) announced plays to lay off 6% of its workforce, as well as the voluntary departure of chief content officer Dawn Ostroff – spent hundreds of millions of dollars acquiring podcast start-up and programing. Ostroff spent big to get exclusive rights to The Joe Rogan Experience, as well as projects from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions; Kim Kardashian; and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan Markle.
From a programming perspective, the podcasts worked. Spotify is now the most popular podcast platform in the U.S., as well as many other markets, and the exclusive programming helps attract advertisers. The company also introduced new podcast advertising formats that helped it grow its podcasting business to $200 million annually.
The podcasts didn’t solve Spotify’s financial issues, though. The company has always grown fast by any measure, including audience, subscribers, and revenue. But since it paid out a significant share of its revenue to labels and publishers, Spotify never had the profit margins of former Wall Street darlings like Facebook and Netflix. Podcasts were supposed to solve this, but they cost so much up front that they caused a $103 million drag on gross profit, CFO Paul Vogel said during the June presentation.
Last year was difficult for stocks in general, especially those of many technology companies, but Spotify has suffered more than most. Riding high on lockdown-time gains, its share price peaked at $364.59 on Feb. 19, 2021. By a year later, it had fallen 58% to $152.27, and then on Nov. 4, 2022 bottomed out at $69.29 — 81% below its all-time high closing price. Had it made more progress on improving margins, Spotify’s share price probably would have weathered the storm a bit better.
Now, the market will find out if the adage “to cut is to cure” applies to the music streaming business. The layoffs Spotify announced Monday will involve around 600 employees. Not among them is Ostroff, who chose to depart the company. Alex Norström, currently chief freemium business officer, will be responsible for product and will share co-president title with Gustav Söderström, currently chief research & development officer.
Citi analyst Jason Bazinet believes the layoffs are about “trying to stem the losses in podcasting.” Investors aren’t convinced Spotify has a viable business model, he says. “The revenues have done well but there’s not a lot of cash flow. A lot gets paid back to the labels.”
The market’s response to the news was positive, but muted. Spotify shares closed on Monday at $99.94, up 2.1%, after spiking to $104.00 that morning.
Overall, podcasting doesn’t seem to be working as well, or as quickly, as Spotify had hoped. While Spotify beat expectations for subscribers and monthly active users in the third quarter, its gross margin and operating loss were below earlier guidance.
The podcast business is an obvious place for Spotify to start cutting. The company began paring expenses in October by eliminating some original podcasts and cutting “at least” 37 positions at its Parcast and Gimlet studios.
“I think it’s the right strategy,” says Bazinet. “It’s going to be difficult to shift the balance of power with record labels.”
Now, the goal is to make Spotify more efficient, according to CEO Daniel Ek’s open letter released on Monday. “In hindsight, I was too ambitious in investing ahead of our revenue growth,” Ek wrote – meaning investing in personnel, not companies. The layoffs, as well as an organizational restructuring, will both control costs and quicken decision-making, he explained. Ek isn’t alone in highlighting efficiency lately. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has taken a hard line on underperforming employees. New Twitter CEO Elon Musk expects whatever workers remain at the company to be “extremely hardcore.”
Spotify’s numbers suggest that the company may have room for improvement. Bazinet points out that in 2016 Spotify’s roughly 2,100 employees generated an average of 1.41 million euros per person while in 2021 its 6,600 employees’ per-head revenue was 1.46 million euros. That implies that Spotify failed to achieve the kind of operating leverage that would create additional value as it added employees.
As for Ostroff, her departure could mark the end of the first chapter of Spotify’s podcast business. Neither Spotify nor investors seem to have much appetite for writing big checks these days. And exclusive content seems to have an inherently limited life span. Obama’s Higher Ground Productions left for Amazon. Brené Brown’s two exclusive podcasts, Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead, have come to an end.
Ostroff certainly made her mark on the company, though. The Joe Rogan Experience has battled through controversies to become the platform’s most popular podcast, heard by a quarter of Spotify users and 19% of all podcast listeners in the U.S., according to a recent Morgan Stanley survey. Kardashian’s true crime podcast got off to a great start in October by beating TJRE and Markle’s Archetypes. Spotify’s foray into spoken-word audio may have been costly, but it was effective.
Now, Spotify enters a new phase of cost conscientiousness. With the layoffs and reorganization, it has given investors a tangible commitment to deliver on the aggressive goals it laid out in June. That heightens expectations, though. If Spotify can’t maintain its growth with a slightly smaller headcount, it will be hard for it to deliver better margins – and the market is unlikely to be forgiving.