The streaming wars have some familiar large players. There’s the ubiquitous Spotify (huge subscriber numbers), the surprisingly robust Apple Music (more paying subscribers in the U.S. than Spotify), the indie darling SoundCloud, the aggressively retooling YouTube Music, and smaller but well-known names like Pandora and Tidal. However, based on the number of subscribers, none of these services comes even close to being the largest in the world. That honor is held by Tencent Music.
It’s sometimes hard to comprehend the sheer size of China, even compared to the U.S., which is not a small country in any way. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that, with 800 million monthly users, Tencent Music far outpaces Spotify’s 180 million. It helps that Tencent Music is highly integrated with the rest of Shenzhen-based, tech and entertainment conglomerate Tencent’s offerings, most notably WeChat.
Tencent Music still lags behind Spotify in paying subscribers, with only about 23.3 million to Spotify’s 40 million, but it still has a baked-in advantage because it dominates the Chinese market. The two services mostly recognize each other’s market position in their respective parts of the world because each owns a stake in the other, rather than trying to compete directly, Tencent has a 7.5% stake in Spotify, and Spotify owns 9% of Tencent Music.
Although only founded in 2016, Tencent Music recently made the news because it filed paperwork to go public in the United States, but then postponed soon after due to the uncertainty caused by the ongoing trade war between the United States and China. However, the IPO, which presumably will still happen eventually, did give us a view into the financials of the Chinese streaming giant. Turns out, unlike Spotify, Tencent Music has been able to turn a consistent profit for the past two years.
This is mostly because Tencent Music’s model incorporates a “tipping” system where users can send money to artists, producers, and creators directly through the platform. Between that and the more social media-oriented activity Tencent Music provides due to its integrations, they have found a way to drive revenue more effectively than any U.S.-based streamer with a free user base.
Of course, the growth of this revenue model may have implications for artists that undercut the long-term value of their work. As other tipped employees have long experience, this kind of economy is not good for stable or sustained wage growth. Although the Music Modernization Act in the U.S. is by no means perfect, it makes an attempt to find a different path towards paying artists for their work.
Another interesting aspect of Tencent Music is the fact that its audience is heavily Chinese, it provides a platform for homegrown artists to find a vast audience. While most international media still is fixated on American and European music charts, the Chinese music market has launched a number of successful careers within the country. In 2014, QQ Music (one of the brands of Tencent Music) sold over 120,000 e-tickets to an exclusive, native live broadcast of a stadium concert by pop singer Hua Chenyu.
Even if you haven’t heard of Tencent Music before, its looming IPO and its dominance in China should make you start paying attention because it will be a big playing in shaping the future of the music industry.