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If the Music Business Keeps Growing, Why the Layoffs?

Mr. Nimbus | 01/26/2024

During an October earnings call, Universal Music Group CFO Boyd Muir told investors the ­company was conducting “a careful review” of its costs. In the world of public ­company statements, that was a hint that UMG ­expected to make cuts to its workforce of roughly 10,000 — specifically hundreds of jobs in the first quarter of the year, as Bloomberg later revealed.

UMG has plenty of company. Until late last year, the music business had ­mostly escaped the job-cutting that ravaged industries that depend more on advertising in 2022 and 2023. That was still the best of times for the industry, which had found double-digit revenue growth in ­streaming. Since 2020, 10 music companies have gone public to take advantage of investors’ enthusiasm for music, including labels and publishers (UMG, Warner Music Group, HYBE, Reservoir Media, Believe, Round Hill Music Royalty Fund), streaming ­services (Deezer, Anghami, Cloud Music) and live-­entertainment firms (a spinoff of MSG Entertainment).

That changed during 2023. In March, WMG’s new CEO, Robert Kyncl, a former YouTube executive, laid off around 270 people — 4% of the company’s workforce — to focus more on technology initiatives and “new skills for artist and songwriter development,” as he wrote in a memo to staff at the time. Downtown Music Holdings — owner of CD Baby, FUGA, Songtrust and more — also thinned its payroll in May. BMG laid off about 30 people in October. Digital music companies fared even worse in 2023: Spotify cut about 23% of its workforce in two rounds of layoffs, TIDAL cut 10%, SoundCloud cut 8%, and Bandcamp chopped half its head count after being acquired by Songtradr.

But UMG? The company’s revenue in the first nine months of 2023 was up 9.4% on a constant currency basis, 6.8% as reported due to foreign currency fluctuations. More than two years after spinning off from former corporate parent Vivendi, UMG is a profitable, hit-making machine that controlled 29.4% of the U.S. recorded-music market in 2023, easily besting Sony Music’s 18.9% and WMG’s 15.6%. It has Taylor Swift, Morgan Wallen, Drake and many other big stars. Perhaps understandably, there has been talk that other labels could follow, with cuts of one size or another.

UMG’s decision may be the most dramatic example of just how profoundly the music business is changing — and how quickly. Lean is the new black. Bloat, or anything that evokes it, is out. The old ways of finding, developing and marketing artists no longer work the way they used to. How big a radio promotion department does a label need — how many radio promotion departments does its parent company need — at a time when radio no longer plays as important a part in breaking hits? Social media and data analysis might matter just as much. So could developing markets that once didn’t account for much revenue.

UMG’s next focus, chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge wrote in a memo to staff in early January, will be “creating the blueprint for the labels of the future” by building the technology to do more work in-house, expanding in developing markets and finding ways to better monetize superfans. That requires moving resources away from the “legacy business,” Muir said in the October earnings call, to “benefit from all of the opportunities that we see ahead.” What that will mean for how UMG reshuffles its organizational chart remains to be seen, but it is already building an artist services business with Virgin Music Group and making aggressive moves in developing markets with investments in TM Ventures in India and Chabaka in the United Arab Emirates.

Other music companies are also reassessing their priorities. BMG’s staffing changes were spurred by new CEO Thomas Coesfeld as a response to an international marketing structure that didn’t meet expectations and duplicated the efforts of local teams, he wrote in a memo to staff.

“Businesses are repositioning themselves slightly to become more competitive,” Downtown Music president Peter van Rijn says. “One must always be mindful to not get complacent,” he adds, noting that his company needed to stay nimble enough to respond to the marketplace. “What you do see, in general, is the music industry is maturing. The digital growth is still there, but it’s slowing down.”

The world is changing, too. Along with the major labels, companies like Believe and Reservoir Media are investing in Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and other regions where music revenue is growing. And both new companies and the established majors are expanding their artist services businesses to court creators who can now choose from among an increasing number of alternatives to a traditional major-label deal. Sony acquired the artist services company AWAL in 2022, UMG is building up Virgin, and WMG’s Kyncl wrote in an early-January memo that he wants to augment services to the “middle class of artists” and scale up the company’s publishing administration business.

Public companies in the music industry face pressure from investors to constantly improve their bottom lines, especially as streaming growth levels off. “Two-and-a-half years ago, we started making cuts because we knew the market was no longer about just growth,” says Rob Ellin, CEO of music streaming company LiveOne, which is cutting up to 100 staffers in a restructuring. “You had to be profitable.”

The growth-over-profits era finally ended at Spotify, too. When the streaming giant announced it would cut 17% of its global workforce in December, CEO Daniel Ek explained that costs were too high, efficiency was too low and too few people “contribut[ed] to opportunities with real impact.” Cutting roughly 1,500 jobs and seeking a replacement for CFO Paul Vogel, Ek wrote in an open letter, were necessary to become “relentlessly resourceful.”

Record labels and music publishers have better margins than Spotify, which will rarely turn a profit — but investors also expect more of them. In the first half of 2021, UMG — then a subsidiary of Vivendi — had a margin of 21.5% in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization and told investors in August it expected to reach the “mid-20s” soon. Two years later, revenue had increased 34% but its ­EBITDA margin was almost unchanged at 21.5% (or 14.9% after deducting 345 million euros of noncash, share-based compensation for senior management). With layoffs can come better margins. Restructuring saved Warner $19 million in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, and Barclays analysts estimated UMG’s layoffs could save the company $70 million annually.

To those who remember the crisis caused by the death of the CD, this talk of restructuring might have a familiar ring. As piracy ravaged the music business, the majors scaled back their physical distribution businesses, sold their CD pressing plants and retooled for a digital world. That’s why Grainge reminded investors that UMG is no stranger to managing disruption. “We’ve got decades of experience in executing cost-cutting programs in the various cycles of the industry, right back to the piracy days,” he said during the October earnings call. And currently, “we’re seeing a change in the business.”

This post was originally published on this site

Written by Mr. Nimbus

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