Spotify paid $5 billion in royalties last year to the music industry. Critics claim the $0.0038 per-stream average royalty rate is too low. However, this is largely due to high volumes of ad-funded listening, a core part of Spotify’s freemium model, and a defence against piracy. 

To silence the critics, the “Spotify Loud & Clear” site presents data on the distribution of industry royalties, which are heavily skewed to established artists. Only the top 5% of artists generate annual industry royalties above $1,000, though they take home less under their deals. 

The remaining 95% of artists on Spotify generate under $1,000 a year and use the platform mainly to reach fans that attend live gigs, their primary source of income, now halted by the virus. These artists’ problem is digital discovery, as Spotify’s playlists push hits rather than the midlist. 

The sector rebounded slightly in the quarter to December thanks to a seasonal improvement in the roaming drag, although the partial lockdown tempered the recovery.

We await imminent news on spectrum trading, and there may also be some licence fee reductions as a consequence of the lower prices in the recent 5G auction.

While the sector is likely to continue to struggle into Q1, the outlook is much brighter thereafter thanks to the annualisation and even reversal of some lockdown effects, and to higher price increases from the spring.

Market revenue growth sunk back to -3% in Q4 from -2% in Q3, with further backbook pricing and lockdown effects to blame .

Backbook pricing will improve with numerous price increases announced, but these will only start to take effect in Q2 2021.

Demand for broadband and ultrafast looks promising, but will also take time to filter through to revenue, with Q1 again lockdown-affected.

Ofcom’s full fibre regulation statement, released today, is largely as trailed, i.e. it allows BT’s Openreach considerable relaxation of wholesale pricing in return for building out full fibre.

On the longer-term regulatory prospects, Ofcom continues to be fair but more obtuse than it could and should be, unnecessarily dampening investor enthusiasm. Ofcom will decide on a case-by-case basis whether to allow Openreach to offer geographic/volume discounts, using slightly contradictory principles.

The publication and increased certainty may allow BT’s Openreach to extend its full fibre roll-out further, faster or even with external financing. The build plans of others will come under increasing question.

Ofcom’s second 5G auction concluded with proceeds half those of historic levels for a number of reasons.

The outcome is positive for all operators with no major surprises. The results imply a much more level playing field for the UK mobile operators than in the past.

A relief for the operators but proceeds for the exchequer will be disappointing, and ALF renegotiation may reduce their revenue steam further.

The wave of deal-making in the European towers sector is driven by cash-strapped telcos seeking a form of sale and leaseback financing.

While the operators are incentivised to provide a medium-term growth trajectory for these towers companies, sustainability of that growth is more questionable, especially as 5G will not require additional base stations.

Cellnex continues to insinuate itself into the UK market with its most recent deal signaling the ultimate unwinding of the MBNL JV. Further UK towers consolidation seems a long way off but could facilitate, or indeed be facilitated by, consolidation at the MNO level.

Virgin Media’s subscriber growth continues to be very strong, and it looks like next quarter’s price rise will (at worst) only stall, not stop, the renaissance.

ARPU was hit in Q4 by the postponed price rise, and it will likely remain in decline in 2021, with regulatory pricing pressure and lockdown effects still weighing, despite firm new customer pricing.

Nonetheless, accelerating subscriber growth is expected to drive group revenue growth positive again (helped by B2B growth), and Virgin Media’s main strategic problem—its fibre trilemma—looks like it will be dealt with after the merger with O2, expected to close mid-year.

All of O2’s operational metrics ticked up this quarter with service revenue growth, continued strong net adds and OIBDA growth particular highlights in spite of the end of O2’s Carphone Warehouse relationship.

Next quarter will be hit by the prolonged lockdown and, in spite of an improving picture thereafter, there remain several challenges particularly lower in-contract price rises than peers and some pressure on MVNO revenues post Sky MVNO renegotiation.

The merger with Virgin Media appears on track for a mid-year approval. O2 management will need to work hard to sustain their sharp operational focus at a time when merger integration and strategic question marks risk diverting much of their attention.

BT’s December quarter results were mixed, with revenue growth improving but EBITDA growth worsening, and next quarter will be hit by the effects of lockdown 3 on mobile, with B2B likely to be hit by business failures following the end of furlough.

BT has maintained/nudged up its financial guidance regardless, and there are plenty of positive longer-term signs, with subscriber growth strong in the quarter, pricing pressure easing, and full fibre roll-out and adoption progressing nicely.

Overall, we expect the road to continue to be bumpy, but a recovery by 2022/23 still seems very plausible, ultimately driven by the wholesale and retail benefits of full fibre, and perhaps helped if it can get ‘Digital’ right, a particular challenge historically for BT.

Generating cash is top of Vodafone’s agenda right now, and we may be seeing early signs of that driving operational tactics ahead of resolving its leverage crisis through either an IPO of Vantage or a sale of its Iberian assets.

EBITDA growth would really help. Analyst forecasts of +4% for next year are not supported by recent history and a simple bounce-back of roaming revenues should not be assumed.

Q3 results were a mixed bag with the very slight improvement in revenue trends accounted for by easing roaming pressure. Green shoots in German fixed is a highlight, with growth in UK mobile a touch disappointing.