Feb 3, 2021
Spotify Technology SPOT Q4 2020 Earnings Call Transcript
Spotify (SPOT) reported Q4 2020 earnings on a February 3, 2021 conference call. Read the full transcript of the call here.
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Speaker 1: (00:00)
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by, and welcome to Spotify’s Q4 2020 earnings call. At this time, all participants are in a listen only mode. If you require further assistance, please press star zero. I would now like to hand the call over to your speaker today, Bryan Goldberg, Head of Investor Relations. Thank you. Please go ahead.
Bryan Goldberg: (00:24)
Great. Thank you, and welcome to Spotify’s fourth quarter 2020 earnings conference call. Joining us today will be Daniel Ek, our CEO, and Paul Vogel, our CFO. We’ll start with opening comments from Daniel, and after the remarks, Daniel and Paul will be happy to answer your questions. We’ll again be taking questions exclusively through Slido. Questions can be submitted by going to slido.com and using the code #spotifyearningsq420. Analysts can ask questions directly into Slido, and all participants can then vote on the questions they find the most relevant. If you don’t have access to Slido, you can email investor relations at email@example.com, and we’ll add in your question.
Bryan Goldberg: (00:57)
Before we begin, let me quickly cover the safe harbor. During this call, we’ll be making certain forward looking statements, including projections or estimates about the future performance of the company. These statements are based on current expectations and assumptions that are subject to risks and uncertainties. Actual results could materially differ because of factors discussed on today’s call, and our letter to shareholders, and then filings with the securities and exchange commission. During this call, we’ll also refer to certain non IFRS financial measures, reconciliations between our IFRS and non IFRS financial measures can be found in our letter to the shareholders in the financial section of our investor relations website, and also furnished today on form six K. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Daniel.
Daniel Ek: (01:38)
All right. Thanks Brian. And hi everyone, and thank you so much for joining us. Despite the global uncertainty of 2020, it was a remarkable year for Spotify. Following a strong Q2 and Q3, Q4 met or exceeded our guidance by nearly every metric. Monthly active users reach 345 million, coming in at the very top of the range, and we now have 155 million subscribers, which surpassed all expectations. Over the last year, we have demonstrated our ability to pivot quickly, anticipate user trends, and adapt to their new behaviors. [inaudible 00:02:18] easy to forget, but 2020 had plenty of uncertainty and [put some calls 00:02:22]. Our success really is a testament to the strength of the teams and I’m confident this experience will serve us well in the future. Going into 2021, COVID still has the potential to be a headwind, as it’s difficult to fully gage its impact. For Spotify, more time at home resulted in more people discovering streaming and turning to our platform, but it also created disruption and listening habits, consumption hours, and the release of new music and podcasts.
Daniel Ek: (02:51)
We believe it’s cost [inaudible 00:02:54] the pull forward subscribers across the back half of 2020, which makes it really hard to predict if we’ll drive the same subscriber growth in the year ahead. However, the trend lines are healthy and longterm, the shift from linear to on-demand that Covid accelerated will continue and remains a massive multi-billion user opportunity. Knowing your focus is likely on our outlook for the upcoming year, I want to spend a few minutes addressing how I’m thinking about 2021 and some of the uncertainty and some opportunity it brings. And as a reminder, our approach to forecasting is to only forecast where we have a very high degree of certainty that we will achieve. Given the uncertainty we face today, I suspect that our full year of 2021 plan will have a higher variance than prior years. Therefore, what you see reflected in the forecast is what I believe we will absolutely do.
Daniel Ek: (03:49)
This does not mean that that’s what I hope we will achieve, as evidenced by our out performance in 2020. So I thought it might be worthwhile to outline some of the biggest drivers that may contribute to this variance. For example, while we have seen some pull forward effects that may slow down subscriber growth in some markets, we are shifting to drive more aggressive revenue growth where we know our pricing power will enable us to increase our code. We’ve long believed that Spotify provides exceptional value and the positive early data we’re seeing from this price increase that we announced in October makes us very optimistic that our users agree. This week, we implemented price increases across a number of markets and we will continue to evaluate future increases carefully based on the broader global economic impact of COVID. Another important tailwinds we will pursue is to continue the expansion into new markets.
Daniel Ek: (04:45)
We launched in South Korea on Tuesday morning, tapping into one of the fastest growing needs of markets in the world. And there are still millions of creators and billions of listeners who don’t yet have access to Spotify, and work is underway to change that, and I will share more in the near future. The impact from expansion into new markets also create some uncertainty as we forecast into growth. And it’s been really challenging to predict. Take Russia as a prime example. We quickly and significantly surpassed all expectations there. The result of this out performance is that we saw some additional foot forward of user demand, again, leading to growth in 2020 that we expected to occur in 2021. Another area of the business where we’re seeing extremely strong results, but where the true payoff of Spotify still in front of us is podcasting.
Daniel Ek: (05:37)
In the last year alone, we tripled the number of podcasts on our platform moving from about 700,000 in Q4 2019 to 2.2 million podcasts today. And we’ve also significantly grown the number of podcasts users on Spotify. Going forward, I think our investment in originals and exclusives are creating more and more reasons for listeners to choose Spotify. And our exclusive programming is already proven to be an essential part of our differentiation. That said, with a small number of these shows on our platform today, but many more in the pipeline, it is very difficult to know exactly when we’ll see the compounding effect of these investments, but all early indications are very positive. Another example is our advertising business. Other platforms have experienced inconsistent ads growth in their early years, and we’re no exception to that. And we’re putting more resources into developing this business, and in Q4, our ad business accelerated, finishing above forecast.
Daniel Ek: (06:42)
In our mature markets, our largest issue was the … we were inventory constrained, and while this sounds like a good problem to have, and I guess it is, it is difficult for us to predict how quickly we can open up new inventory. And I expect that as the category of audio ads matures, and more radio dollars move to streaming, this area will become much more predictable, but for the next year or two, it will be a bit more uncertain. So to conclude, 2021 brings more uncertainty than any normal year. That said, we have a high degree of confidence in our ability to deliver against the guidance we provided, and we were able to overcome unprecedented uncertainty in 2020 and exceed almost all expectations. And I believe that we can do the same in 2021. I’m also focused on identifying where we can see new opportunities and drive sustained growth in the longterm.
Daniel Ek: (07:38)
Just look at what happened to video in 2020. Linear video fell apart as viewers flocked on demand, and the companies who were not prepared to take advantage of this disruption faced huge challenges as their business models were upended. A similar shift hasn’t happened yet to linear radio, but you’ve long heard me say that it’s coming, and I’m more confident today that that’s inevitable, but unlike video, there are only a handful of companies who will be able to take advantage of this disruption in audio and no other company has the capabilities or is as well positioned as Spotify for this massive opportunity, and that is our eye on the price. And with that, I’ll turn it back to Brian.
Bryan Goldberg: (08:23)
Thanks Daniel. Again, if you’ve got questions, please go to slido.com, #SpotifyearningsQ420. Once your question is entered, you can edit or withdraw your question by selecting the option in the bottom right. We’ll be reading the questions in the order they come in with respect to how people vote up their preferences for questions, and our first question today is going to come from John Edbert of Steeple. The high end of your 2021 subscriber guidance suggests you’ll add fewer net new subs this year versus 2020. You know that insurance should decline in 2021, but do you expect the newly announced price increases to represent a material headwind to sub growth in 2021? What other factors should we consider here?
Daniel Ek: (09:04)
Yeah, this is Daniel. Long-term, again, this is a multi-billion user opportunity, and I’m as confident about that as I’d ever been. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, all that said we are facing a global pandemic and that pandemic has shifted all user behavior in 2020, and as I mentioned also, did create some pull forward effect throughout the year. That means that there are more uncertainties throughout the year on what will happen to the subscriber growth. So again, our forecasting means that we do the things that we’re only very, very certain that we will deliver upon. Specific to the price increases, Paul can probably address that to a greater extent, but we’ve seen very, very positive response from the price increases in October, and we believe that will be the same for the price increases that we just concluded. Paul, if you want to add anything?
Paul Vogel: (10:11)
Yeah, I would just add a couple of things. I think, to echo what Daniel said, I think in 2020… We obviously had a very, very strong year. Daniel mentioned in his opening comments, we pull forward … the Russia launch. So Russia [inaudible 00:10:23] a meaningful impact in 2020. We had originally thought that we wouldn’t really see meaningful impact until 2021, so that helped 2020. And in hindsight, we didn’t really call out any specific quarter where we thought the benefits of people being at home with the tailwinds streaming necessarily in any one quarter, but in hindsight, when we look at it, it’s a little bit tough to [inaudible 00:10:43] how much was just better execution on our part, how much was some pull forward from kind of the tailwind that streaming had in general in 2020, but we do believe that each quarter probably saw a little bit of pull forward as well.
Paul Vogel: (10:55)
And you go back and look at where we started 2020, where we ended… We finished about 4 million plus or minus above where we thought we were when we started the year. So definitely some better execution there, probably simple forward based on the tailwind that streaming had, as well as a pull forward in Russia, and then when you look at 2021, I would say, as Daniel mentioned, I think there is a higher degree of uncertainty than we normally have. There’s lots of initiatives. I would say, uncertainty isn’t always a bad thing. There’s lots of things that could break positively, and there’re some things that could be more challenging, but there’s just probably more of them in 2021 than we’ve experienced in years past.
Paul Vogel: (11:31)
And that’s all baked into the forecast. And then as Daniel mentioned, with respect to the forecast, we’ve always said to you guys, we will give you guidance based on what we actually think we’re going to do, and that is what we’ve done this year as well, but that being the case, it really is a base case model of what we have a high degree of confidence that we will achieve, and it doesn’t necessarily assume that we’re going to have the upside in some of the initiatives or uncertainties where if they break positively, we could be better. So again, we’ve given you a best case forecast and one that we feel we have a high.
Daniel Ek: (12:03)
Again, we’ve given you a best case forecast, and one that we feel we have a high degree of confidence we’ll be able to achieve.
Bryan Goldberg: (12:08)
All right. Our next question comes from Eric Sheridan of UVS. How should we think about the progress made against previously discussed investments in the podcast opportunity? Is there an update about the puts and takes in terms of upside to the business compared to global investments needed to scale over the coming years?
Daniel Ek: (12:26)
Yeah. Overall, we’re very pleased for what we’re seeing. But just as a reminder, the primary opportunity, as we think about the longterm here, is in the linear radio experience that is moving online and into on-demand. That is the eye on the prize, the one that we are changing, and that’s still what we’re looking at. As we look at that universe though, the primary thing that we’ve been focusing on as we got into this audio first strategy was we already had a massive user base on Spotify today. How can you turn them into podcast listeners? And extending our platform into becoming the de facto podcast player where a lot of these users [inaudible 00:13:14]? And that’s evident, I think, from this quarter compared to even last, we keep on extending number of users on our platform that are using podcasts on the platform, to now a quarter of them that are podcast users.
Daniel Ek: (13:32)
I think as we start getting on the upper end of those user [inaudible 00:13:37], you will see us going outside and trying to convert more and more of the outside users, who are not yet Spotify listeners, to come onto the platform. And I think exclusives will be a material part of that strategy. And even there, I would say it’s very encouraging to see the early results of the exclusivity strategy that we have. But we’re in the early days in the sense that there are many, many more exclusives that we have in the pipelines in 2021 that we’re excited about. The hard thing is to forecast what the compounding effect is of all of those when they happen and when you bring to Spotify, there will be more and more reasons to come to Spotify, that’s one thing for sure. But a near term uncertainty in terms of the effect of that.
Paul Vogel: (14:24)
The one thing I would add as well, I think if you go back a little over a year ago, I think we mentioned one of our shareholder letters that we believe that podcasts and podcast usage was highly correlated with improvements in retention and user growth. But we, at that point, couldn’t really prove out the causality. I think you’ll notice in the shareholder letter that we did mention that we now feel reasonably confident that we can prove out the causality of having a podcast and the benefit of having unusual growth and retention, and then having podcasts as a positive contributor to LTV per subscriber. We’re still going to continue to obviously work and monitor that, and test that. But we do feel good about the incremental knowledge we have in terms of the positive impact of podcasts that it’s having on our platform.
Bryan Goldberg: (15:11)
Okay. Our next question is from Allan Howe, of Howe and Company. When will Spotify add a social element of the overall experience, like Tencent Music? Apps like Clubhouse could have an interesting entry to audio, and Tencent Music could be a good way to followup in some regard.
Daniel Ek: (15:28)
Yeah. We’re very interested, and obviously pay close attention to everything that’s happening in markets around the world, and new developments in audio. I’ve said this many times before, but I think we’re in the early innings of the innovation of the audio formats. And creator to fan interactivity is definitely one of those things that we’re paying attention to and looking at. And we are conducting experiments on it already, but I don’t have any specifics here to announce. But there are plenty more things to come in the coming months and this year as well when it comes to creator to fan engagement as well.
Bryan Goldberg: (16:16)
Okay. Next question from Richard Kramer of [Arete 00:16:18]. In entering markets like South Korea, what is your strategy for building a subscriber base, given that the market has six very well established players?
Daniel Ek: (16:29)
Yeah. We always take a large amount of time to try to analyze the markets, and South Korea is certainly not an exception to that rule. So some would even say that we’re late to the party in some markets, Russia was the same dialogue. But we’ve been studying their market for many, many years. And we’re well aware that South Korea is a mature market and that it will take time for us to establish ourselves. I think the key is the same thing that we do in pretty much every single market, we deeply try to understand the content that we have. In many of the domestic markets we try to bring an international flare to it, and bring the creative talents that we have from all of our creators around the world to that platform.
Daniel Ek: (17:15)
I think we can definitely do a good job there. I think our strength in personalization will certainly play incredibly well in South Korea. And specific to the South Korean market, we obviously have a lot of partnerships. For instance, with Samsung, which is a major player in South Korea. So that, and the 2,000 other devices that Spotify is on is the major contributing factor I think to why the user experience is better, and why I think South Korean consumers are very excited about Spotify.
Bryan Goldberg: (17:54)
Okay. Our next question comes from Brian Russo of Credit Suisse. Do you think customers would be willing to pay specifically for podcasts? And if so, would the margin profile of that podcast revenue look different than your existing premium service?
Daniel Ek: (18:09)
I think we’re in the early days of seeing the longterm evolvement of how we can monetize audio on the internet. I said this before, but I don’t believe that it’s a one size fits all. I believe, in fact, that we will have all distance models and that’s the future for all media companies. That you will have ad supported subscription and à la carte in the same space of all media companies in the future. And you should definitely expect Spotify to follow that throughout in seeing that pattern. I think it’s early days, though, to specifically look at how that could play out. But obviously if that were to be the case, that brand new profile would be different than how we do music.
Bryan Goldberg: (19:03)
Okay. Next question from Mike Morris at Guggenheim. Did the meaningful audience uptick for the Joe Rogan Experience come from new or existing Spotify users? How does the premium to free mix of heavier podcast users compare to the overall base? And can you share the churn difference between podcasts users and non or light users?
Daniel Ek: (19:25)
Paul, do you want to take this one?
Paul Vogel: (19:27)
Yeah. I’m not going to be overly specific, but obviously we do believe that Joe Rogan has contributed positively to user growth on the platform. We haven’t broken out how much of his usage has come from existing users or new users. But if you take a giant step back, part of the strategy when you bring someone like that on the platform is, it’s going to have a couple of different effects. One is to bring new people onto the platform, and another is to create a better experience for those already on the platform, whereby their retention increases or their churn goes down. And so all of that is still what we believe to be the case, and will happen. We haven’t really given the split between free and paid podcasts users. But as I said earlier in my commentary, we are increasingly comfortable that podcasting are having a positive effect on LTV for subscribers, and so that’s where the continued investment comes from.
Bryan Goldberg: (20:28)
Okay. Another question in the queue from Eric Sheridan at UBS. How does the team think about strategies around tiering the product by format or content over the longterm? I just lost that question. There we go.
Bryan Goldberg: (20:41)
[inaudible 00:20:41] take that one. [inaudible 00:20:49].
Daniel Ek: (20:50)
Yeah. I mean, I can try to answer it. Anyway. Again, I think we’re currently in the evolution stage, and I think you can see this in the other media formats as well, where it’s pretty much been in the early stages of adoption you try to go for simplicity. So you have a one size fits all in order to have an easy consumer proposition, but that consumers understand. In our case, we had a free tier and a paid for tier. We’ve evolved that model to having a free and paid and family and students. I think as you get to the next level of growth, and even more local markets as we expand, you’re going to see many more configurations than the ones that are currently there. And it’s going to be a mix between subscription and advertising and à la carte that will play a role into the Spotify future.
Bryan Goldberg: (21:45)
Okay. The next question from Matt Thornton at [Truist 00:21:48] Securities. As it relates to price increases, could we see a family plan price increase in 2021 in the US? Further, does guidance assume any impact to retention conversion growth ads from the plan price increases?
Paul Vogel: (22:01)
Do you want to take it, or I’ll take it? On the price increases, as we’ve talked about, we launched seven markets a little while ago, and then 25 more markets most recently. We are not going to specifically talk about what markets may or may not come in the future, so we’ll just have to see. I mean, there’s obviously a number of factors that will go into price increases and where we launch them, and the magnitude. And there are a number of factors, some of them are the maturity of the market, both extremely in general, our penetration rate there, how we feel about each individual market. And so from pricing, that’s how we think about it. With the impact on the model, as I’ve said, we have assumed the price increases in the model where we know we’re going to launch them and when we’re going to launch them.
Paul Vogel: (22:53)
Again, just to reiterate how we think … planning throughout the year is baked into our guidance. That being said, as I go back to my earlier comments, we give you the base case of what’s going to happen. So we have some assumes, positives or negatives to churn our retention based on price increases, and we’ll see how the year rolls out. And I think as Daniel mentioned earlier, there’s still a tremendous amount of uncertainty throughout the year, COVID being one, and the impact that has on the global economy.
Paul Vogel: (23:22)
I will say, now that we’re past 2020, we had expected to experiment with more price increases in 2020 than we did. We pulled back on that because of the pandemic and because of the uncertainty, and because of not wanting to raise that with consumers, given all that was going on. And so when we talk about the unknowns into 2021, that’s another unknown. Which is, how confident do we feel in certain markets and the timing. And a lot of that is still TBD.
Bryan Goldberg: (23:54)
Okay. Next question, another one from Richard Kramer. Artists lost their main source of income during the pandemic, live performance. Is Spotify in a position to support live-
Bryan Goldberg: (24:03)
Live performance, is Spotify in a position to support live streaming performances whereby artists would get directly… Excuse me. Directly paid by the platform?
Daniel Ek: (24:12)
Yeah. This has been a very, very rocky year, of course, for a lot of artists around the world, that have seen their lives upended based on COVID and their livelihoods. We have responded in a number of ways, including Artist Picks, the COVID Relief Fund, et cetera. And one of those happens also, that’s traditionally on the Spotify artist pages, we have had concert listings. We have now evolved those to include also live performances as well. Those do not happen through Spotify directly, but it’s facilitated so that artists can point consumers to that. And I know that there’s been a number of artists that have been experimenting with those types of performances, and some have been quite successful in doing so. So, we absolutely offer the opportunity, but it’s not something that we are a principal of today. But we, of course, look very carefully about how it’s going, and what works better than what doesn’t to evolve. And again, long-term, our strategy, as I said, it is to allow those creators to fan engagements to happen on the platform in an even greater extent than what it currently does today.
Bryan Goldberg: (25:40)
Okay, next question from Rich Greenfield of LightShed Partners, “We’ve seen Amazon buy Wondery to integrate podcasts into Amazon Music, and Apple appears to be gearing up to launch some form of subscription podcast product. While this is clear strategy validation, curious how you expect it to impact Spotify and the ability to make acquisitions in the category.”
Daniel Ek: (26:01)
Yeah, I mean, what I would say is, I definitely do believe that, and we’re not surprised that something like audio that interests billions of consumers around the world also will catch the attention of the big companies, because there are very few spaces that have hours of most consumers time of day, and reach billions of people at the same time. So, we’re not surprised that this is happening. And we also do look at it as a say validation that we’re heading in the right direction. Again, we did expect this, hence why we’ve also been very aggressive previously with the acquisitions. Most of our strategy going forward, while we don’t exclude any further acquisitions, it is about ramping the ability of our own production capabilities that we now have through all the studios that we have acquired.
Daniel Ek: (26:57)
And just to put that in a finer point, because I think this is one of the internal points that I use to our team most of the time. I believe about three years ago, there were fewer than 30 people at Spotify that were actively producing content that ended up on our service in one way or the other. And that number now is, I would say certainly during ’21 will be closer to 1,000 people. It’s really a tremendous shift as a company, and even our skillsets that we have. And we’re looking to use some of those muscles that we’ve added to our roster or throughout the last few years and create even more amazing content for our users to experience.
Bryan Goldberg: (27:46)
I got another question from Richard Kramer. “Is there any reason to believe you can change the terms of deals with the labels to carve out time for podcasts and reduce the value of payout to the labels for the pool of listening?”
Daniel Ek: (28:02)
While I can’t comment specifically on how our label deal terms looks like, we have said this before, but podcast is a separate category and does not involve how we pay out for music royalties. I don’t know Paul, if you wanted to add something to that.
Paul Vogel: (28:21)
No, as we said, we carve out the advertising on podcasting. So as that grows, we’ll continue to get the benefit of the advertising revenue on top of podcasts. And then, to Daniel’s point, how the relationships evolve over time, we don’t really get into specifics. They always change.
Bryan Goldberg: (28:41)
Okay. Next question from Steven Chahal. “The implied 2021 incremental operating margin looks like it’s approximately 3%. Is 2021 indicative of the operating leverage of the business on a lie, or are there other factors ahead that should drive more meaningful margin expansion?”
Paul Vogel: (29:05)
Yeah, I don’t necessarily want to give a full modeling discussion on this call, but I guess I’ll give some high-level thoughts on operating margins over time. I’d say one is, you do have to take into consideration year over year the impact that social charges have on reported numbers. But, we can take that aside and we’re happy to have those conversations offline. When you look at the big components on the impact on the operating margin after the gross profit, when you think about R & D, we’ve been pretty consistent and steady about talking about that we’re going to continue to invest heavily in the business, that’s an area of our financial model that you probably won’t see a lot of leverage in, that if we could, we’d probably even spend more there in order to continue to grow the business.
Paul Vogel: (29:48)
And then, when you look at sales and marketing, I think there are areas over time that we could be more efficient there. Potentially on the marketing side, we’ll see. And then, also on the sales side, as we add more automation into the ecosystem and more self-serve products and those types of things. And on the GNA side as well, I mean, it’s a heavy lift, first to go and, and be prepared to be a public company. And then, as you continue to launch more and more markets, what you need to do from an infrastructure standpoint, obviously there’s some build up there, but you can imagine over time, once we’re in more markets where we want to be and where it is sufficient TO scale, you’ll start to see leverage on the GNA side as well.
Daniel Ek: (30:28)
I maybe want to add one more perspective too. We are very much still in the investment phase of Spotify, and it’s not just the investment phase in music that we’re pursuing, because clearly there, we could share a lot more operating margin improvements as well, by for instance, lowering the sales and marketing costs and some of those things that Paul mentioned. But, we’re going after billions of consumers around the world, and we’re going broadly after the category called audio. And even more so, I think the future of that audio platform is one where you will have millions of creators that are interacting with consumers in a social fashion. And to allow us to be that platform where they can grow their audience, they can engage with their audience, and they can monetize them in a number of different ways, those are all the capabilities that we’re investing behind, and these are multi-year investments.
Daniel Ek: (31:34)
Plus of course, adding to the fact that we’re producing our own content, pursuing exclusives, we’re going into categories, we’re going into new markets, those are all the things that you’re seeing in the PNL, coming through that we are doing. In many cases, on a company our size, many of the investments that we’re even making now are years in the making. And many of the things you see flow through from the goodness are also things that we did years ago. So, we’re very, very bullish on the longterm, and we’re still investing behind that bullishness and that’s what you should be expecting. And I think at a mature stage, the business will look very different than the growth stage that we’re investing in now.
Bryan Goldberg: (32:25)
Okay. Next question from Mario Lu at Barclay’s. “Currently in Korea, it launched only with the premium individual and dual plans with no option of either the family plan or freemium model, which should help drive ours too. That being said, can you speak a bit as to why you came to that decision, and if we will eventually see both plans in Korea?”
Daniel Ek: (32:45)
Yeah, just critically, this is not a very uncommon practice for us. We typically launch, as I mentioned, with a very simple proposition in markets, and then over time build on. And that’s something that’s been incredibly successful for us to do. And if you go back to almost all market launches follows the same pattern; go in with a very clear proposition to a very clear audience, and then broaden that proposition over time, both with more local content, with more local nuances, and as you mentioned, more plans and pricing. Just to mention one example, prepaid planning is something that we’ve been experimenting with in in South East Asia. That’s just one example of us innovating to local nuances.
Bryan Goldberg: (33:36)
Okay. Next question from Rich Greenfield. “There was a recent article about podcasters being disappointed in the anchor’s ability to deliver sponsorship with ads often for anchor-less Spotify. What happened, and does this tie into why you bought Megaphone?”
Daniel Ek: (33:58)
Well, what I would generally say is we’re early on in our podcast platform monetization efforts. So, most of the focus so far has been how to get more great content on the service. And the vast majority of podcasters on the service today are self-monetized. We have been experimenting with various forms of monetization, including of course, the ability, one, for podcasters to monetize themselves, but then are the anchor monetization efforts that you mentioned, and now also with Megaphone as part of that, we were very bullish on the opportunity to provide a meaningful way for podcasters to monetize through the platform efforts. And I hope to be able to talk a little bit more about what our plans are in the near future on that.
Daniel Ek: (34:53)
But again, lots of experimentation, but you should feel comfortable that there is a lot in our capabilities and portfolio that I think we can bring to the amazing creators that are doing podcasts on the platform today.
Bryan Goldberg: (35:12)
Okay. Another question in the queue from Mario Lu. “Can you remind us how price increases flow through to costs?” In other words, do labels receive the same share of the price increase or is there a min-max threshold for pass-throughs?
Paul Vogel: (35:25)
Yeah, as we said in the past, we’re never going to give you specifics of how any of our label deals work. That being said, anytime we’re raising prices, I think the labels are happy with that, in terms of how it flows through. We don’t get into specifics.
Bryan Goldberg: (35:44)
Okay. Another question from Richard Kramer. “What’s the total investment you’ve made in acquisitions and commitments to content owners in the podcast space? And how do you measure the payback on that investment? Will it be in ad sales, conversion to premium or separate subscriptions?”
Daniel Ek: (36:01)
Paul, do you want to take that one?
Paul Vogel: (36:02)
Daniel Ek: (36:02)
Paul, do you want to take that one?
Paul Vogel: (36:04)
Yeah. So, look, I think from a payback, it is a holistic approach, and I think you mentioned a number of them in the question itself. And so, when we look at the investment in podcast whether it’s something developed on our own or license or buy, the model that we build out has all of those factors into it. So there’s an expectation of potential new users that may come to the platform based on having this content. There’s increasing … We’re starting to be able to measure what we think the retention benefits would be through having that on the platform as well. And then over time it’s how much can we grow advertising [inaudible 00:36:43] else through it. There’s a lot of nuance in there. Obviously, there’s certain points and inflection points where you have enough content on certain type of content or certain genre or certain demo where you could have an inflection point on the advertising side, but once you get that threshold, you can even have a faster growth because you have that critical mass.
Paul Vogel: (37:00)
And so, that will weigh into as well. So we look at all of those factors to measure it. And, I would say, additionally, as I said earlier, for us it’s really spending the time to understand how much value different pieces of content have on our platform. Understanding what we should be paying for different pieces of content on the platform and then understanding sort of the causality between having it and then how much it benefits LTV. So we’re looking at all of that, we’re modeling all of it out, and I think when you look at, as Daniel mentioned, we continue to invest and be in an investment mode. We had said that [inaudible 00:37:37].
Daniel Ek: (37:37)
I think we lost Paul there. [inaudible 00:37:51] glitches. Paul, you’re back.
Paul Vogel: (37:54)
I’m back now. Sorry about that. I was saying that if you go back, in the past, we said, if you continue to see us invest in podcast and podcast content, it’s because we are seeing the benefits within our ecosystem, and the more we invest, the more you can have some confidence that the good news we are seeing through Spotify and the benefits we’re seeing, we’re going to continue and do invest again. I apologize, if I got cut off too much, I’m happy to restate anything I missed.
Bryan Goldberg: (38:28)
We’ve got a related question in the queue from Josh Le of Covenant Capital. You expect 2021 gross margin to be lower than the current level, while seeing premium ARPU improvement. Can you elaborate on content cost and podcast investments in 2021?
Paul Vogel: (38:46)
Yeah. Let me address a couple of that. So with respect to ARPU, I think we said is improvements in ARPU, up year-on-year. When you look at it on an FX-neutral basis, I think for the full-year, ARPU will probably be roughly flattish. Currency is still a pretty big impact on our business. It’s pretty material in Q1, as I think we wrote in the shareholder letter, so it will still be down a little bit in the first half of the year. We do expect ARPU to increase sequentially throughout the year, but, again, because of currency, it probably still be slightly negative from a reported basis.
Paul Vogel: (39:25)
The second part of the question was just on gross margin in general. Yeah. I mean, I think there’s always lots of puts and takes in gross margin. If you look over the last couple of years, we’ve sort of hovered between 25%, 25.5% gross margin. We do have some control on our investment to how much we want to spend and what we feel comfortable with respect to where we are on the growth curve, where we want to continue to double down on spending. And so, I mean, there is a continued increase in podcast spending in 2021. The revenue against podcasting is growing very, very nicely as well, so we are seeing that. We’re not quite at the point yet where the revenue is outpacing the continued investment. We are very optimistic that over time we will get there. But as Daniel mentioned, we’re going to continue to invest and that investing has a compounding effect and a compounding benefit on the business. And so, that’s where we’re headed.
Bryan Goldberg: (40:25)
Okay. Another question from Rich Greenfield at LightShed. It appears Apple is going to enable direct monetization for podcasters akin to Patreon, compared to an aggregated subscription the way Spotify does. Can you explain why your model is superior for podcasters?
Daniel Ek: (40:40)
Yeah, sure. So, first and foremost, while I can’t speak to what anyone potentially may do, I think I alluded to this in some of my prior remarks. I don’t view the future of Spotify to be a one-size-fits-all, and even today, if you are a podcaster, there are plenty of ways for you to monetize through Spotify. So, again, you can come in as a consumer as a free user, you can come in as a paid subscriber, and long-term I believe that we will allow for all three models, which is both advertising, subscription and a la carte as the future for creators.
Bryan Goldberg: (41:25)
Okay. Another question from Richard Kramer. Given that your podcast engagement definition is MAUs seeing content for more than zero milliseconds, can you provide us with a more useful metric on podcasting? For example, time spent relative to music?
Paul Vogel: (41:41)
Yeah. It’s not to mention. We’ve given out … In the past we’ve talked about that the 25% of our MAU engagement with podcasts. That’s where we are now, which was up from 22% in Q3. Clearly, music is still the dominant mode on Spotify, but the podcast listening has continued to move up materially every quarter and was up again in Q4.
Bryan Goldberg: (42:09)
All right. Great. We’ve got time for one more question and that’s going to come from Ben Swinburne at Morgan Stanley. Daniel, is the growth strategy shifting from focused on users to a balance of price and users? If so, why does that make sense to do now, does it suggest user growth has peaked? And then a follow-up for Paul, does the premium user guide for first quarter ’21 assume any additional churn from the price increases?
Daniel Ek: (42:34)
So why don’t I start and then you can take the second part of your question, Paul? Yeah. So from my side, I think we’ve talked about this a number of different times, including when Barry was there. There’s three legs to the stool of how we can grow: one, we can improve our product composition; two, we can launch new markets; and three, we can raise prices. Up until now, you haven’t really seen us flex the third on muscle because we’ve been focused on improving our product proposition and launching new markets, and that is still the majority of what we’re doing. But take my home country, Sweden as a great example. That is a clear case where we are tapping out an addressable population, hence raising prices in Sweden probably makes sense in order to grow, which then, obviously, not only compensate Spotify, but compensate all the amazing creators we have on our platform and allows us to strengthen the proposition for them as well.
Daniel Ek: (43:36)
So, we’re trying to optimize for growth and there’s three ways to grow and we’re now adding the third part of the stool here as well. But I don’t think you should read into that, that the growth has peaked. It is more that we are now sort of flexing our muscles and adding that third part, too. And we have experimented with this for quite some time, I should say, as well, like we started two years ago. So it’s not something that we’ve done just in a rush. We did in Norway two years ago. We’ve done it since in Argentina, Australia and in many, many other markets throughout the time, but this is the time maybe where you’re seeing it’s actually becoming a real part of the strategy, mostly, in fact, because of all the positive response that we have been seeing of just the value that we’re providing already to consumers. So, we feel we have this opportunity and that it will benefit both Spotify and all the amazing creators on the platform.
Paul Vogel: (44:40)
Yeah, Ben. And then with respect to Q1, in particular, I would call out a couple of things. One is last year in Q1, we had an exceptionally strong Q1. We had, as we often do, experimented with different marketing plans and different plans. And so, we had some of our promotional activity, which normally ends at the end of the year continue on through into February of Q1 2020, which we think obviously benefited Q1 of last year. We don’t have a similar promotion running in Q1 of this year, so the comp between a promotion last year, no promotion this year will definitely impact growth in Q1. I would say, secondarily, we obviously had a very, very strong Q4. We think there’s potential, we pulled forward some of what we would normally get in Q1 into Q4 given the upside there. So, again, we feel really geared about kind of where we’re headed in 2021, but Q1 does have some pretty challenging comps relative to the promotional activity we had last year and the lack thereof in Q1 of this year.
Bryan Goldberg: (45:42)
Okay. We’re out of time for the question-and-answer session. I will turn it back over to Daniel for some closing remarks.
Daniel Ek: (45:47)
All right. Well, thanks, Bryan. I’m very encouraged by the progress we’ve made on our path to becoming the world’s number one audio platform, and I want to thank all the Spotify employees who stayed focused on our creators, fans, and partners around the world this year, and for executing at such a high level. While it’s still early days, it’s clear to us that our strategy is working. Looking ahead, we will continue to enhance the user experience, expand into new markets, and develop and acquire unique content from both new and established creators. We’re planning to share more details about these innovations, as well as what’s next for Spotify during our Stream On event later this month. I hope you’ll join us for this virtual event as it will shed more light on what the coming months and years will bring. I’ll be talking more about it, and our earnings report on our podcast, Spotify: For The Record, which will go live on our platform tomorrow. Thanks again for joining us.
Bryan Goldberg: (46:48)
Okay. And that concludes today’s call. A replay will be available on our website and also on the Spotify app under Spotify Earnings Call Replays. Thanks again, everyone, for joining.
Speaker 2: (46:58)
Thank you, everyone. This will conclude today’s conference call. You may now disconnect.