Spotify’s Earnings Show the Power of Premium. Time to End the Free Option.

Theron Mohamed
Nov 5, 2018 · 3 min read

Spotify’s third-quarter earnings revealed strong gains at its advertising-supported and paid-subscription services. Yet the music-streaming platform could steady its sales growth, widen its margins and focus its business by getting rid of the free option.

The free, ad-supported version of Spotify “serves as a funnel” in management’s view, attracting new users then converting them into paying ones. They view it as a “strong and viable stand-alone product” that can generate long-term growth in users and revenue. Indeed, it accounted for 60% of Spotify’s gross added subscribers between early 2014 and early 2018. It’s also growing quickly: monthly active users are on track to exceed 200 million at the end of this year, up from 64 million at the end of 2015, potentially lifting revenues from €196 million to €480 million over the same period. The product also swung from a loss in 2015 to a gross margin of 10% in 2017, and that has widened to an average of nearly 16% over the past three quarters.

Nonetheless, Spotify should focus solely on its premium service. Its subscribers are set to exceed 93 million at the end of this year, up from 28 million in 2015, likely boosting premium revenues from €1.7 billion to about €4.7 billion over the same period. Although the free and premium services have grown their user bases by a similar proportion, the latter’s sales have grown about a third faster and are much larger, consistently accounting for around 90% of Spotify’s total revenues. The premium service is much more profitable than the basic service too, with an average gross margin north of 26% over the past three quarters.

Shutting down the free service would force users to pay up or lose access to their playlists and Spotify’s music library, accelerating growth in subscriptions. Average revenue per user (ARPU) — which has fallen from €7.06 in 2015 to an average of €4.78 over the past three quarters — would likely recover as North Americans and Europeans, who make up two-thirds of Spotify’s monthly active users and 71% of its subscribers, shell out to join the second category. Churn, which has already fallen from 7.7% in 2015 to below 5% earlier this year, might fall further as premium users refrain from cancelling their memberships without a free version of Spotify to fall back on. Price hikes would prompt fewer users to jump ship for the same reason. And the company could focus money and staff on bolstering its premium service rather than courting advertisers and developing ad products and technology.

One risk is that thrifty users in Latin America and other emerging markets, where Spotify is experiencing faster growth in monthly active users than in developed markets, decline to shell out for subscriptions and quit its service entirely. However, Spotify’s goal should be to make its platform and content compelling enough for people to pay for it. Running a pure subscription business would free Spotify from the headaches of unpredictable demand and fast-changing technology in the advertising space, and result in the predictable revenues and cash flows that investors love, making it easier for the company to finance investments in content and research and development.

Spotify has converted millions of free users into paying subscribers, supporting its claim that the two products “love independently, but thrive together”. But its premium service boasts superior scale, profitability and stability, and stands to gain from the elimination of a near-identical, free substitute. It’s better off alone.

Originally published at Follow Convershaken on Medium for more commentary and analysis of the news, and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


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Theron Mohamed

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I’ve written for The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Business Insider, WIRED, The Telegraph, The Independent, Investors Chronicle and more.


Shake up your conversation with commentary and analysis of the biggest news stories

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