By all accounts, the music service Rhapsody has been on a roll. Subscriber numbers continue to grow. The company announced an innovative use of a trial based on plays that makes it appear like free music on Twitter. It recently acqi-hired a team of developers who built a social sharing application named Reveal.
Disclosure: I dirtied Rhapsody’s white boards when I worked there from 2004 until 2013.
More revealing, however, is the cost of growth. Real Networks is compelled to disclose Rhapsody’s financials in its 10-K reports, and the most recent results are brutal. Rhapsody lost $8.9 million in the first quarter of 2015. The Seattle-based company lost $1.6 million in the same quarter in 2014. Rhapsody had to borrow $10 million in cash from Real Networks and its other owner–the private equity firm Columbus Nova.
Do You Know ARPU?
So how can the company grow subscribers, but losses continue to escalate? It’s pretty simple. The company’s average revenue per user (ARPU) is slipping. Badly.
Most, if not all, of Rhapsody’s growth has come from their cellular carrier partnerships, like T-Mobile in the United States, Telefonica in Latin America and Vodaphone and SFR in Europe. These deals are awesome for distribution. But the deals provides just a fraction of the revenue a retail customer in the US provides the company. So instead of making, say, $5 bucks a month for each retail customer who signs up directly, Rhapsody might make $0.50 on per each user month of Brazil’s Vivo Musica, if not even less.
As I posted earlier, Rhapsody’s cellphone carrier strategy is a sound one, if the company can do two things: make up the loss of ARPU by dramatically increasing the volume of partner subscribers and bolster its brand to sign up a number of high ARPU customers the company has traditionally attracted in the US.
Rhapsody, just like everyone in digital music, is probably feeling the pressure of Spotify’s successful year. The company continues to sign up tons of high-value premium customers as it expands around the world. There’s some evidence that Spotify is taking the oxygen out of the market. Spotify’s premium users grew the equivalent of Rhapsody’s entire subscriber base in two months at the end of last year. The company grossed over a billion dollars in revenue last year.
And Rhapsody’s losses are a drop in the bucket compared to Spotify. The Swedish-based digital music juggernaut lost $184 million in 2014, according to recent reports. Based on how the company continues to harvest the private markets for more and more cash, Daniel Ek’s company makes Rhapsody’s losses look good in comparison. Rhapsody appears to be more like a rock-ribbed conservative banker compared to Spotify’s sailor-on-shore-leave approach to spending. We are clearly still in a Grow Fast or Die Slow stage of development, and Rhapsody has playing the best hand it has available.
The digital music market has long valued growth at any costs over rational business planning. That may be changing as Universal Music Group is starting to question the value of free music. There’s been many reports that Apple is pushing UMG to have Spotify limit or end its unending stream of free music as a way to sign up paying customers.
UMG CEO Lucian Grainge may see Apple as the best of both worlds: a 100 percent paid service that has access to hundreds of millions of credit cards. If Apple is the White Knight that will save the music business from itself, or just another Trojan Horse is an open question.