Celebrities can’t fix Spotify’s biggest flaw

By Alex Webb

Europe has its first $50 billion internet company: Spotify Technology SA breached the mythical barrier on Thursday. While it’s a moment worth savoring, the Swedish company isn’t entirely deserving of the inflated price tag. Unfortunately, investors seem a little out of tune with the music streaming service’s real potential.

The stock has more than doubled from a March low, spurred by an aggressive push into podcasting. Since May it has signed deals with podcasting giant Joe Rogan, Superman and Wonder Woman parent DC Comics and reality TV star Kim Kardashian, adding to acquisitions such as the $230 million deal for production house Gimlet Media Inc. Altogether, it’s a $1 billion bet on a flourishing industry.

It’s nice to see a European tech company finally flying high. The continent has long bemoaned its lack of a consumer-internet company to rival the giants of Silicon Valley. The continent’s tech behemoths often struggle to capture the popular imagination: Germany’s SAP SE makes enterprise software, ASML Holding NV builds machines to make semiconductors and Amsterdam-based investor Prosus NV owes its 138 billion-euro ($155 billion) valuation to a 31% stake in Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. Spotify is a rare success.

The podcasting strategy of Chief Executive Officer Daniel Ek is shrewd, but alone it is not going to fix Spotify’s biggest problem: paying a giant slice of revenue to the record industry for royalties. That expenditure is why it has a pitiful (for an internet company) gross margin of just 25%.

Yes, podcasts will reduce the Stockholm-based firm’s dependence on music for its income, allowing it to chase higher margin advertising dollars where it won’t have to pay a cent to the record labels. But advertising is still likely to remain a small slice of total revenue. Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Amine Bensaid estimates ad revenue will account for just 12% of sales by 2022, up from 8% this year. The impact on the gross margin will be limited.

For sure, Spotify is concentrating on the right trends. Revenue in the U.S. podcast market is set to double to $1.4 billion by 2024, and that will help Spotify’s business slowly become more like Netflix Inc. The video streaming giant pays a flat rate for content, meaning that every additional subscriber brings incremental profit.

But investors are already valuing Spotify more generously than Netflix. Including cash and debt, it’s valued at 48 times the analyst consensus for its 2024 Ebitda, a measure of earnings. Netflix is valued at just 18 times expected 2024 Ebitda. Even using the most optimistic analyst estimate for that year, Spotify is valued at more than 22 times Ebitda. Investor expectations are out of kilter with reality.

What’s more, deep-pocketed rivals such as Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. are also eagerly eyeing podcasts. Both firms have been seeking to develop more original shows, Bloomberg News has reported. Podcasting is a slightly different proposition for the two tech giants, since, if successful, they can subsequently be adapted for their video streaming offerings where Spotify doesn’t compete. There will be a lot of hands taking money from the increasingly lucrative podcast pot.

The market reaction is hardly CEO Ek’s fault. He’s making much-needed bets to diversify his firm away from its reliance on the record industry. But investors are dancing a little too exuberantly to his melody.

Spotify outperforms expectations

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Celebrities can’t fix Spotify’s biggest flaw