“ESG” is a Wall Street acronym that designates a company as suitable for socially conscious investing based on its “Environmental, Social and Governance” business practices–hence “ESG”. See the Upright Net Impact data model on Spotify’s sustainability score. The designation is often attributed to Larry Fink at Blackrock as the originator.
For more background, the MusicAnswers Podcast interviewed me on this subject which was good fun and I think informative. (That’s a great podcast series and I highly recommend it for a subscribe.)
The Securities and Exchange Commission is formalizing ESG disclosures for public companies like Spotify, stating that “[a]s investor demand for climate and other environmental, social and governance (ESG) information soars, the SEC is responding with an all-agency approach” and has taken many actions to require ESG disclosures. It was only a short step for the government to turn disclosure into violations and then turn violations into enforcement:
The Securities and Exchange Commission today announced the creation of a Climate and ESG Task Force in the Division of Enforcement. The task force will be led by Kelly L. Gibson, the Acting Deputy Director of Enforcement, who will oversee a Division-wide effort, with 22 members drawn from the SEC’s headquarters, regional offices, and Enforcement specialized units.
Consistent with increasing investor focus and reliance on climate and ESG-related disclosure and investment, the Climate and ESG Task Force will develop initiatives to proactively identify ESG-related misconduct. The task force will also coordinate the effective use of Division resources, including through the use of sophisticated data analysis to mine and assess information across registrants, to identify potential violations.
So how does streaming music score on the ESG scale? Let’s take Spotify as an example. (This post brings together several others that readers will recognize.). How bad is Spotify’s ESG competence? Seems pretty bad to me, but probably nothing that Spotify bankers at Goldman Sachs and Spotify’s never ending team of revolving door lobbyists and toadies in the Imperial City can’t get them out of with the right amount of campaign contributions.
Spotify has an ESG problem, and a closer look may offer insights into a wider problem in the tech industry as a whole or at least the streaming business that Spotify dominates. (Another 14% of market share and Spotify will hit that Herfindahl-Hirschman Index sweet spot for those keeping score at home–assuming there’s no change in the number of their competitors.)
If the Spotify decade of destroying artist and songwriter revenues isn’t enough to get your attention, maybe the Neil Young and Joe Rogan imbroglio will. But a minute’s analysis shows you that Spotify was already an ESG fail well before Neil Young’s ultimatum. They give a lot of happy talk about “net zero admissions” and their public messaging is full-on Davos as one would expect from a globalist like Daniel Ek, but streaming is their core business and streaming will only get so green. (It’s unlikely that the FAANG companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) will allow too much to be made out of the dirty data issue because it blows back directly on them. Neither will Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon the data center concierge–wonder why?)
Streaming is an Environmental Fail
I first began posting about streaming as an environmental fail years ago in the YouTube and Google world. While not as existential as Google’s streaming problems, Spotify is equally sanctimonious about how wonderful Spotify is.
It all comes down to this: The Internet in general and streaming in particular are huge electricity hogs.
Like so many other ways that the BIg Tech PR machine glosses over their dependence on cheap energy right through their supply chain from electric cars to cat videos, YouTube did not want to discuss the company as a climate disaster zone. To hear them tell it, YouTube, and indeed the entire Google megalopolis right down to the Google Street View surveillance team was powered by magic elves dancing on appropriate golden flywheels with suitable work rules. Or other culturally appropriate spin from Google’s ham handed PR teams.
Greenpeace first wrote about “dirty data” in 2011–the year Spotify launched in the US. Too bad Spotify ignored the warnings. Harvard Business Review also tells us that 2011 was a demarcation point for environmental issues at Microsoft following that Greenpeace report:
In 2011, Microsoft’s top environmental and sustainability executive, Rob Bernard, asked the company’s risk-assessment team to evaluate the firm’s exposure. It soon concluded that evolving carbon regulations and fluctuating energy costs and availability were significant sources of risk. In response, Microsoft formed a centralized senior energy team to address this newly elevated strategic issue and develop a comprehensive plan to mitigate risk. The team, comprising 14 experts in electricity markets, renewable energy, battery storage, and local generation (or “distributed energy”), was charged by corporate senior leadership with developing and executing the firm’s energy strategy. “Energy has become a C-suite issue,” Bernard says. “The CFO and president are now actively involved in our energy road map.”
If environment is a C-suite issue at Spotify, there’s no real evidence of it in Spotify’s annual report (but then there isn’t at the Mechanical Licensing Collective, either). “Environment” word search reveals that at Spotify, the environment is “economic”, “credit”, and above all “rapidly changing.” Not “dirty”–or “clean” for that matter.
The fact appears to be that Spotify isn’t doing anything special and nobody seems to want to talk about it. But wait, you say–what about the sainted Music Climate Pact? Guess who hasn’t signed up to the MCP? Any streaming service. There is a “Standard Commitment Letter” that participants are supposed to sign up to but I wasn’t able to read it. Want to guess why?
That’s right. You know who wants to know what you’re up to because they are damn sure not signing up.
Spotify’s ESG Fail: Social
I started to write this post in the pre-Neil Young era and I almost feel like I could stop with the title. But there’s a lot more to it, so let’s look at the many ways Spotify is a fail on the Social part of ESG.
Before Spotify’s Joe Rogan problem, Spotify had both an ethical supply chain problem and a “fair wage” problem on the music side of its business, which for this post we will limit to fair compensation to its ultimate vendors being artists and songwriters. In fact, Spotify is an example to music-tech entrepreneurs of how not to conduct their business.
Treatment of Songwriters
On the songwriter side of the house, let’s not fall into the mudslinging that is going on over the appeal by Spotify (among others) of the Copyright Royalty Board’s ruling in the mechanical royalty rate setting proceeding known as Phonorecords III. Yes, it’s true that streaming screws songwriters even worse that artists, but not only because Spotify exercised its right of appeal of the Phonorecords III case that was pending during the extensive negotiations of Title I of the Music Modernization Act. (Title I is the whole debacle of the Mechanical Licensing Collective and the retroactive copyright infringement safe harbor currently being litigated on Constitutional grounds.)
The main reason that Spotify had the right to appeal available to it after passing the MMA was because the negotiators of Title I didn’t get all of the services to give up their appeal right (called a “waiver”) as a condition of getting the substantial giveaways in the MMA. A waiver would have been entirely appropriate given all the goodies that songwriters gave away in the MMA. When did Noah build the Ark? Before the rain. The negotiators might have gotten that message if they had opened the negotiations to a broader group, but they didn’t so now they’ve got the hot potato no matter how much whinging they do.
Having said that, you will notice that Apple took pity on this egregious oversight and did not appeal the Phonorecords III ruling. You don’t always have to take advantage of your vendor’s negotiating failures, particularly when you are printing money and when being generous would help your vendor keep providing songs. And Mom always told me not to mock the afflicted. Plus it’s good business–take Walmart as an example. Walmart drives a hard bargain, but they leave the vendor enough margin to keep making goods, otherwise the vendor will go under soon or run a business solely to service debt only to go under later. And realize that the decision to be generous is pretty much entirely up to Walmart. Spotify could do the same.
Is being cheap unethical? Is leveraging stupidity unethical? Is trying to recover the costs of the MLC by heavily litigating streaming mechanicals unethical (or unexpected)? Maybe. A great man once said failing to be generous is the most expensive mistake you’ll ever make. So yes, I do think it is unethical although that’s a debatable point. Spotify has not made themselves many friends by taking that course. But what is not debatable is Spotify’s unethical treatment of artists.
Treatment of Artists
The entire streaming royalty model confirms what I call “Ek’s Law” which is related to “Moore’s Law”. Instead of chip speed doubling every 18 months in Moore’s Law, royalties are cut in half every 18 months with Ek’s Law. This reduction over time is an inherent part of the algebra of the streaming business model as I’ve discussed in detail in Arithmetic on the Internet as well as the study I co-authored with Dr. Claudio Feijoo for the World Intellectual Property Organization. These writings have caused a good deal of discussion along with the work of Sharky Laguana about the “Big Pool” or what’s come to be called the “market centric” royalty model.
Dissatisfaction with the market centric model has led to a discussion of the “user-centric” model as an alternative so that fans don’t pay for music they don’t listen to. But it’s also possible that there is no solution to the streaming model because everybody whose getting rich (essentially all Spotify employees and owners of big catalogs) has no intention of changing anything voluntarily.
It would be easy to say “fair is where we end up” and write off Ek’s Law as just a function of the free market. But the market centric model was designed to reward a small number of artists and big catalog owners without letting consumers know what was happening to the money they thought they spent to support the music they loved. As Glenn Peoples wrote last year (Fare Play: Could SoundCloud’s User-Centric Streaming Payouts Catch On?,
When Spotify first negotiated its initial licensing deals with labels in the late 2000s, both sides focused more on how much money the service would take in than the best way to divide it. The idea they settled on, which divides artist payouts based on the overall popularity of recordings, regardless of how they map to individuals’ listening habits, was ‘the simplest system to put together at the time,’ recalls Thomas Hesse, a former Sony Music executive who was involved in those conversations.
In other words, the market centric model was designed behind closed doors and then presented to the world’s artists and musicians as a take it or leave it with an overhyped helping of FOMO.
As we wrote in the WIPO study, the market centric model excludes nonfeatured musicians altogether. These studio musicians and vocalists are cut out of the Spotify streaming riches made off their backs except in two countries and then only because their unions fought like dogs to enforce national laws that require streaming platforms to pay nonfeatured performers.
The other Spotify problem is its global dominance and imposition of largely Anglo-American repertoire in other countries. The company does this for one big reason–they tell a growth story to Wall Street to juice their stock price. In fact, Daniel Ek just did this last week on his Groundhog Day earnings call with stock analysts. For example he said:
The number one thing that we’re stretched for at the moment is more inventory. And that’s why you see us introducing things such as fan and other things. And then long-term with a little bit more horizon, it’s obviously international.
Both user-centric and market-centric are focused on allocating a theoretical revenue “pie” which is so tiny for any one artist (or songwriter) who is not in the top 1 or 5 percent this week that it’s obvious the entire model is bankrupt until it includes the value that makes Daniel Ek into a digital munitions investor–the stock.
Debt and Stock Buybacks
Spotify has taken on substantial levels of debt for a company that makes a profit so infrequently you can say Spotify is unprofitable–which it is on a fully diluted basis in any event. According to its most recent balance sheet, Spotify owes approximately $1.3 billion in long term–secured–debt.
You might ask how a company that has never made a profit qualifies to borrow $1.3 billion and you’d have a point there. But understand this: If Spotify should ever go bankrupt, which in their case would probably be a reorganization bankruptcy, those lenders are going to stand in the secured creditors line and they will get paid in full or nearly in full well before Spotify meets any of its obligations to artists, songwriters, labels and music publishers, aka unsecured creditors.
Did Title I of the Music Modernization Act take care of this exposure for songwriters who are forced to license but have virtually no recourse if the licensee fails to pay and goes bankrupt? Apparently not–but then the lobbyists would say if they’d insisted on actual protection and reform there would have been no bill (pka no bonus).
Right. Because “modernization” (whatever that means).
But to our question here–is it ethical for a company that is totally dependent on creator output to be able to take on debt that pushes the royalties owed to those creators to the back of the bankruptcy lines? I think the answer is no.
Spotify has also engaged in a practice that has become increasingly popular in the era of zero interest rates (or lower bound rates anyway) and quantitative easing: stock buy backs.
Stock buy backs were illegal until the Securities and Exchange Commission changed the law in 1982 with the safe harbor Rule 10b-18. (A prime example of unelected bureaucrats creating major changes in the economy, but that’s a story for another day.)
Stock buy backs are when a company uses the shareholders money to buy outstanding shares of their company and reduce the number of shares trading (aka “the float”). Stock buy backs can be accomplished a few ways such as through a tender offer (a public announcement that the company will buy back x shares at $y for z period of time); open market purchases on the exchange; or buying the shares through direct negotiations, usually with holders of larger blocks of stock.
Vox’s Matt Yglesias sums it up nicely:
A stock buyback is basically a secondary offering in reverse — instead of selling new shares of stock to the public to put more cash on the corporate balance sheet, a cash-rich company expends some of its own funds on buying shares of stock from the public.
Why do companies buy back their own stock? To juice their financials by artificially increasing earnings per share.
Spotify has announced two different repurchase programs since going public according to their annual report for 12/31/21:
Share Repurchase Program On August 20, 2021, [Spotify] announced that the board of directors [controlled by Daniel Ek] had approved a program to repurchase up to $1.0 billion of the Company’s ordinary shares. Repurchases of up to 10,000,000 of the Company’s ordinary shares were authorized at the Company’s general meeting of shareholders on April 21, 2021. The repurchase program will expire on April 21, 2026. The timing and actual number of shares repurchased depends on a variety of factors, including price, general business and market conditions, and alternative investment opportunities. The repurchase program is executed consistent with the Company’s capital allocation strategy of prioritizing investment to grow the business over the long term. The repurchase program does not obligate the Company to acquire any particular amount of ordinary shares, and the repurchase program may be suspended or discontinued at any time at the Company’s discretion. The Company uses current cash and cash equivalents and the cash flow it generates from operations to fund the share repurchase program.
The authorization of the previous share repurchase program, announced on November 5, 2018, expired on April 21, 2021. The total aggregate amount of repurchased shares under that program was 4,366,427 for a total of approximately $572 million.
Is it ethical to take a billion dollars and buy back shares to juice the stock price while fighting over royalties every chance they get and crying poor?
I think not.
Spotify’s ESG Fail: Governance
Spotify has one big governance problem that permeates its governance like a putrid miasma in the abattoir: “Dual-class stock” sometimes referred to as “supervoting” stock. If you’ve never heard the term, buckle up. I wrote an extensive post on this subject for the New York Daily News that you may find interesting.
Dual class stock allows the holders of those shares–invariably the founders of the public company when it was a private company–to control all votes and control all board seats. Frequently this is accomplished by giving the founders a special class of stock that provides 10 votes for every share or something along those lines. The intention is to give the founders dead hand control over their startup in a kind of corporate reproductive right so that no one can interfere with their vision as envoys of innovation sent by the Gods of the Transhuman Singularity. You know, because technology.
Google was one of the first Silicon Valley startups to adopt this capitalization structure and it is consistent with the Silicon Valley venture capital investor belief in infitilism and the Peter Pan syndrome so that the little children may guide us. The problem is that supervoting stock is forever, well after the founders are bald and porky despite their at-home beach volleyball courts and warmed bidets.
Spotify, Facebook and Google each have a problem with “dual class” stock capitalizations. Because regulators allow these companies to operate with this structure favoring insiders, the already concentrated streaming music industry is largely controlled by Daniel Ek, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg. (While Amazon and Apple lack the dual class stock structure, Jeff Bezos has an outsized influence over both streaming and physical carriers. Apple’s influence is far more muted given their refusal to implement payola-driven algorithmic enterprise playlist placement for selection and rotation of music and their concentration on music playback hardware.)
The voting power of Ek, Brin, Page and Zuckerberg in their respective companies makes shareholder votes candidates for the least suspenseful events in commercial history. However, based on market share, Spotify essentially controls the music streaming business. Let’s consider some of the implications for competition of this disfavored capitalization technique.
Commissioner Robert Jackson, formerly of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, summed up the problem:
“[D]ual class” voting typically involves capitalization structures that contain two or more classes of shares—one of which has significantly more voting power than the other. That’s distinct from the more common single-class structure, which gives shareholders equal equity and voting power. In a dual-class structure, public shareholders receive shares with one vote per share, while insiders receive shares that empower them with multiple votes. And some firms [Snap, Inc. and Google Class B shares] have recently issued shares that give ordinary public investors no vote at all.
For most of the modern history of American equity markets, the New York Stock Exchange did not list companies with dual-class voting. That’s because the Exchange’s commitment to corporate democracy and accountability dates back to before the Great Depression. But in the midst of the takeover battles of the 1980s, corporate insiders “who saw their firms as being vulnerable to takeovers began lobbying [the exchanges] to liberalize their rules on shareholder voting rights.” Facing pressure from corporate management and fellow exchanges, the NYSE reversed course, and today permits firms to go public with structures that were once prohibited.
Spotify is the dominant streaming firm and the voting power of Spotify stockholders is concentrated in two men: Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon. Transitively, those two men literally control the music streaming sector through their voting shares, are extending their horizontal reach into the rapidly consolidating podcasting business and aspire soon to enter the audiobooks vertical. Where do they get the money is a question on every artists lips after hearing the Spotify poormouthing and seeing their royalty statements.
The effects of that control may be subtle; for example, Spotify engages in multi-billion dollar stock buybacks and debt offerings, but has yet makes ever more spectacular losses while refusing to exercise pricing power.
So yes, Spotify is starting to look like the kind of Potemkin Village that investment bankers love because they see oodles of the one thing that matters: Fees.
On the political side, let’s see what the company’s campaign contributions tell us:
Spotify has also made a habit out of hiring away government regulators like Regan Smith, the former General Counsel and Associate Register of the US Copyright Office who joined Spotify as head of US public policy (a euphemism for bag person) after drafting all of the regulations for the Mechanical Licensing Collective;
Whether this is enough to trip Spotify up on the abuse of political contributions I don’t know, but the revolving door part certainly does call into question Spotify’s ethics.
It does seem that these are the kinds of facts that should be taken into account when determining Spotify’s ESG score.
What about the SEC investigation?
I suppose time will tell how the SEC handles its announced investigations into ESG “violations” whatever those might be (particularly in light of the SCOTUS West Virginia v. EPA holding and other “major questions” rulings recently).
The SEC is accepting whistleblowers and tips here.