Last October SoundCloud–a free music-streaming service with a massive 175 million monthly users–appeared to be running out of cash. News broke that the Berlin-based company had lost $29.2 million in 2013, and when a rumored $2 billion buyout bid by Twitter fell through, it looked like music’s hottest startup might be in danger of going bust.
Then something strange happened: Warner Music Group became the first major record label to strike a licensing deal with SoundCloud, instantly legalizing scores of songs posted to the service. More surprisingly, Warner acquired up to 5% of the company, adding to funding that’s passed $120 million; the company is now valued at over $1.2 billion.
Yet despite the credibility they bestowed on each other, Warner and SoundCloud have largely eschewed talking about the partnership–neither side would comment to FORBES–and have zealously guarded the terms. Why? A source with knowledge of the agreement says the record company acquired its SoundCloud stake at a discount of about 50% from what other investors paid. And such details illustrate a quiet revolution in digitization of the music industry that all sides seem to prefer go unnoticed .
Left for dead by most investors and pundits, the surviving Big Three labels–Warner, Universal and Sony–have quietly muscled out stakes of the hottest digital entertainment startups, including 10% to 20%, collectively, of the established streaming services, such as Spotify and Rdio. Terms are similarly stark for younger startups: The labels take stakes for free or on the cheap, and then often give themselves the right to buy larger chunks at deep discounts to market later on. It’s not just streaming: The labels have gobbled up pieces of startups ranging from choose-your-own-adventure music video purveyor Interlude to song-recognition giant Shazam–valued at $1 billion in its latest round–which counts Carlos Slim, the second-richest man in the world, among its investors.
And what have the labels been giving the startups, aside from legitimacy, to secure these sweetheart deals? All-encompassing access to the artists and their songs–a neat little trick. Sure, the artists derive some minimal amount of royalties from these new channels, but they aren’t getting any of the ownership.
“That’s the story of the music business,” says John Oates, one-half of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame duo Hall & Oates, who went independent almost 20 years ago amid frustration over their financial arrangements with labels. “It goes back to the earliest days–take it back to, ‘Give him a bottle of wine and take all his publishing for the rest of his life.’
The artists are starting to fight back–and not just by opting out of the system. Earlier this year Jay Z purchased Swedish high-resolution-streaming services WiMP and Tidal for $56 million, merging them into a single service to compete directly with Spotify. At the official launch 16 of music’s biggest acts were introduced as the new “owners” of Tidal, including Beyoncé, Calvin Harris, Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Jason Aldean and Daft Punk. Each was reportedly offered a 3% stake.
Representatives from all three major labels–as well as Beats, Spotify and Rdio–declined or did not respond to requests for a comment on whether or not the majors demanded free or cheap equity in streaming companies as part of the price of doing business. But in industry circles, the practice is an open secret.
FORBES estimates that the three labels have amassed positions in digital music startups valued at almost $3 billion–or around 20% of the $15 billion or so the labels are collectively worth. The percentage will shoot even higher if and when Spotify goes public. And some bets have already paid off: Universal Music Group took an early position in Beats by Dr. Dre and owned 13% when Apple bought the company for $3 billion last year, resulting in a $404 million score. Artists + leverage = digital windfall. That’s the kind of math, applied across all their revenue models, that the labels hope puts them back atop the musical food chain.
Read more at forbes.com –