Music

Spotify’s Decision to Lay Off 17% of Its Workforce Examined in 6 Graphs

Spotify’s announcement this week that it was laying off 17% of its global workforce surprised a music business enjoying a renaissance. After all, Spotify ignited the subscription-streaming boom that saved the industry. And while the companies that depend on the online advertising business go through booms and busts — think of Meta cutting 21,000 jobs since 2022 — music business jobs have been relatively safe.

Spotify’s decision to eliminate about 1,500 full-time staffers shouldn’t have come as a surprise, though. As CEO Daniel Ek put it in a letter announcing the layoffs, “Today, we still have too many people dedicated to supporting work and even doing work around the work rather than contributing to opportunities with real impact.”

Over a decade and a half, Spotify pioneered a new model for music subscriptions by prioritizing growth over profit. While on-demand video streaming services such as Netflix frequently raised prices, Spotify left most of its prices unchanged until July. Digital music platforms have a notoriously tricky path to profitability, but Spotify’s share price soared thanks to a pandemic-era boost to streaming companies as well as high expectations for its nascent podcasting business. By February 2021, as Spotify poured money into acquisitions and pricey podcasting content, the stock was trading at $364.59 per share, valuing the company at roughly $71 billion.

By 2022, however, Spotify’s investors had run out of patience. The stock was trading at $110 on June 8 when Ek and CFO Paul Vogel shared their ambitious plan at the company’s Investor Day presentation: $100 billion in annual revenue, 40% gross margins and 20% operating margins. To get there, Spotify would continue to scale its podcasting business and lean on its audio content acquisitions — The Ringer, Parcast, Megaphone and Anchor — to help the format reach larger audiences. Now, Spotify also wants to do for audiobooks what it did with podcasts: piggyback on its massive base of music listeners, develop innovative products and build a bigger market.

Podcasts and audiobooks, as well as services sold to artists and record labels like merchandise listings and Discovery Mode, are important to reaching the targets of 40% gross margin and 20% operating margin. Given the nature of licensing deals with record labels and music publishers, music margins have little room to improve. Whereas video streamers like Netflix pay fixed costs for much of their content, Spotify pays a percentage of revenue to record labels and music publishers. That means as revenue increases, so do its content costs. And that’s not likely to change. “Our strategy is not predicated on trying to extract margin by negotiating better terms with the content partners we have,” Ek said at the 2022 Investor Day.

Over a year later, however, Billboard’s analysis of Spotify’s financial statements shows the company is still nowhere near its target margins. Since the first quarter of 2020, its gross profit margin has fallen between 24.1% and 28.4% while its operating profit margin has ranged from –8.8% to 3% and was below zero in 11 of 15 quarters.

Merely adding subscribers isn’t enough. (The company reported 226 million at the end of Q3 2023.) Reaching its targets requires Spotify to cut costs while investing in new growth opportunities such as podcasts and audiobooks. Ek said as much when explaining Vogel’s upcoming departure on Thursday. “I’ve talked a lot with Paul about the need to balance these two objectives carefully,” he said in a statement. “Over time, we’ve come to the conclusion that Spotify is entering a new phase and needs a CFO with a different mix of experiences.”

Spotify’s cost-cutting started in 2022 with a pause on new hires, layoffs in October and the cancellation of six live audio shows in December. This year, it laid off 6% of its global staff in January and in June merged two podcast production houses, Gimlet and Parcast, and further cut its podcast workforce by 2%. In August, it shut down Spotify Live, a short-lived live streaming app. Then on Monday, Spotify announced it would lay off 17% of its workforce. It also canceled two in-house podcasts, Heavyweight and Stolen.

As the graphs show, recent trends in Spotify’s financials made it clear larger cuts were necessary to meet the company’s ambitious targets. Personnel costs as a percentage of revenue rose from 13.8% in 2021 to 16.2% in 2022. Research and development expenses — which include some salaries — jumped from 9.4% of revenue in 2021 to 11.8% in 2022.

As Ek explained in the memo to employees, Spotify grew in 2021 and 2022 to take advantage of lower-cost capital. Today’s environment is different, however, and Ek believes Spotify’s “cost structure for where we need to be is still too big.” Indeed, Spotify’s head count steadily increased as it acquired companies, developed new formats and created product innovations that both resonated (Spotify Wrapped) and flopped (Spotify Live) with users. The number of full-time employees increased nearly 50% from 2020 to 2022.

This growth came without added efficiency, however. The revenue generated per employee peaked at 1.54 million euros ($1.66 million) in 2019 and declined to 1.4 million euros ($1.51 million) in 2022 — the lowest since 2017. The July price increase will help Spotify bring in more revenue without additional staff or resources, though the effectiveness of those increases won’t be known until Spotify releases full-year results in late January.

What’s more, Spotify’s gross profit per employee fell to a five-year low in 2022. Gross profit is what’s left after cost of sales — primarily royalties to labels and publishers — is deducted from revenue. It goes toward personnel costs, sales and marketing expenses, and general and administrative costs. But as Spotify added employees in recent years, gross profit per employee fell to 350,000 euros ($377,000) in 2022 from 391,600 euros ($421,000) in 2021.

An obvious way for Spotify to reach its target margins was to make larger cuts to its workforce and, as Ek phrased it, "become relentlessly resourceful." Cutting 17% of its personnel costs would have resulted in savings of 323 million euros ($349 million) in 2022, based on total personnel costs of 1.9 billion euros ($2.05 billion). That savings would have halved Spotify’s 2022 operating loss of 659 million euros ($711 million).

Ultimately, the multi-billion-dollar question is simple: Can Spotify continue adding subscribers as fast as it has in previous years and develop its spoken word products into the higher-margin businesses it needs with far fewer employees? That’s the high-stakes situation the new CFO will walk into in 2024 and that will determine the company’s future from here on out.

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