Spotify IPO Watch: Will Spotify’s “IPO” Be a Cautionary Tale for Stock-for-Royalty Deals?

The Wall Street Journal and other business news outlets are reporting that the much anticipated Spotify initial public offering may not look like what everyone was expecting and may end up not looking much like what almost everyone was thinking it would look like.

If you asked anyone in the music business over the history of Spotify, they would probably tell you that this time was different.  This time MTV wasn’t going to build a business on our backs–we had the Spotify stock.  So if the “tech guys” go into their mysterious counting house and come out with billions, then the people who built and invested in the one product that they all depend on would be treated fairly this time.  The people who really invested in the only product these companies sold–music–would be along for the ride.

Time will tell if that will turn out to be true, but it’s starting to look like there are some serious questions about what will be in the pot at the end of the rainbow, or even if the rainbow will actually end at all.

The assumption all along has been that Spotify will float what’s called a “full commitment underwriting” as opposed to a “busted underwriting” aka Deezer.  In a full commitment underwriting, an underwriter (like Spotify banker Goldman Sachs) agrees to buy all the shares of the issuing company that are available–generally less than all, maybe around 25% of the shares issued and outstanding on an “as-if-converted” basis (an important distinction in Spotify’s case that we will come back to).

What actually happens then is that the issuer doesn’t actually sell shares to the public in the traditional sense, they instead sell shares to underwriters who then sell the shares to the public.  The underwriters usually have a lead (like Goldman Sachs) who then puts together an underwriting syndicate to buy up all the shares that are available.

The proceeds, aka money, from those shares sold to the underwriters go into the issuing company’s treasury, aka bank account.  Thus the primary function of the IPO is fulfilled-raising money for the issuing company.  The company passes the market risk to the underwriters in return for locking in a share price.  So far the shares have not be available to trade, although all of the regulatory hurdles will have been met by this point, SEC clearances, etc. (a final approved Form S-1, for example).

The underwriters then sell the shares are then registered for sale to the public by licensed broker dealers with the idea that the underwriters will get at least a “2 handle” or “3 handle” on the first day of trading because there is a lot of enthusiasm for the stock with the retail stock market.  That means that the underwriters will double or triple their money (give or take) overnight, plus get some nice fees for doing the work and taking the market risk off of the issuer’s books.

The underwriters don’t want a whole bunch of shares of stock crowding into the market and interfering with the 2x or 3x (or more x) that they plan on making.  That’s why issuers have lock up agreements with certain investors (especially insiders) that prevent the sale of shares for anywhere from 90 to 180 days after an IPO.  That’s also why there are some executives (like Pandora’s Tim Westergren) who sell a predetermined number of shares on a predetermined date, which is almost always a sign of a “10b5” agreement that allows insiders to gradually cash out over a fairly long period of time (while not “trading” as in both selling and buying the company’s shares).

So what does all this mean for Spotify?  According to the Wall Street Journal, Spotify is not going the full commitment underwriting route at all–but remember, none of this is coming from the company directly, so they could still back out.  But they’re not denying the story so  far.

Spotify evidently is skipping the underwriting step altogether.  MTS readers will recall in our “Spotify IPO Watch” series that I was skeptical about Spotify’s ability to put together an underwriting syndicate, and the decision to skip an underwriter is being passed off as a way to save some millions in fees.  That’s whistling past the graveyard–those fees are high, but are more than justified if the IPO raises a bunch of money which is usually the point.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

The Swedish company, last valued at $8.5 billion, is seriously considering not holding a public sale of shares. Instead it is exploring simply listing its shares on an exchange in what is known as a direct listing, according to people familiar with the matter. It wouldn’t raise money—the hallmark of an IPO—or use underwriters to sell the stock.

The approach has advantages for Spotify and its existing investors. It could enable the firm to save tens of millions of dollars in underwriting fees, prevent its existing holders from having their stakes diluted, and enable executives to publicly tout the company ahead of its listing, unlike a strictly regulated IPO, the people said….

In direct listings, early investors would be subject to less stringent lockups governing the sale of insiders’ shares and the company could avoid the first-day trading pop that characterizes many IPOs shepherded by underwriters. They are good for some investors but also indicate a company potentially left money on the table. Having a public stock would also give Spotify’s investors and employees the opportunity to cash in their shares.

There are risks to this approach, whose consideration by Spotify was earlier reported by Mergermarket. With market forces determining the share price from the outset, the company’s public debut could be more volatile and unpredictable. Also missing would be the large blocks of stock underwriters typically allocate to investors they believe will hold the shares for the long term and promote trading stability.

Spotify last year issued a $1 billion convertible bond to parties including TPG and Dragoneer Investment Group. The interest rate of 5% increases 1 percentage point every six months until the company goes public, giving it a potential incentive to pursue a listing sooner rather than later. If it lists directly, Spotify would likely need to renegotiate terms of the facility, one of the people said.

Spotify had agreed that the investors could convert the debt into equity at a 20% discount to the share price if an IPO takes place one year hence. If it takes place later, the discount increases. Since this wouldn’t be a typical public offering, it may not trigger a conversion. So Spotify may need to negotiate with the investors a price at which they would receive equity.

I find it hard to believe that sophisticated investors like Texas Pacific Group and Dragoneer will be bamboozled by Spotify taking a loophole on their IPO.  The rest of the shareholders–hard to say.

One thing is almost certain–that “need to negotiate” the WSJ refers to is almost certainly going to result in more stock or cash or relief from lockups or some preferential goodie going to the bond holders who very likely have a first position security interest on all the assets of the company as collateral for their $1 billion plus loan.  (Assuming, of course, that a direct registration doesn’t constitute an event of default under the loan that could allow the bondholders to take over the company.)

It is also almost certainly going to result in other “investors”–the stock for royalties folk–not getting those same benefits.

Stay tuned–Spotify may give us the best argument yet for not taking equity-in-lieu of cash in companies that should be paying royalties like everyone else.

 

 

 

 

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