Following their best performance in more than a month yesterday, stocks are higher on Thursday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) and the broader S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) up 0.31% and 0.22%, respectively, just before 1 p.m. EDT. Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) high-profile launch of its Apple Music streaming service has already created ripples in the sector. Some developments, such as Spotify's $526 million capital raising, are not unexpected, while others reveal the breadth of competition Apple faces -- "total victory" is not assured. Either way, the race is on!
To much less fanfare than Apple, Japanese messaging application Line today launched a streaming music service of its own, in a joint venture with Sony Music and Japanese label Avex. You might never have heard of Line, but it's hugely popular in parts of Asia: In February, Fast Company reported that Line had over 560 million registered users worldwide, "the majority of them in Japan, Taiwan and Thailand" (although given the three countries' combined population of roughly 220 million in 2013, that can't be strictly accurate).
Despite being the world's second-largest music market, Japan is practically virgin territory for streaming music services. Incredibly, for a society of early adopters, physical sales still represent nearly four-fifths (78%) of music sales! Neither Spotify nor Pandora (NYSE:P) have established a presence in Japan.
Line Music's pricing is consistent with Apple's ($9.99 per month), but with a two-tier structure: 500 yen ($4) per month for 20 hours of music and 1,000 yen per month for unlimited streaming, with a 300-yen discount for students. Furthermore, Line has an excellent track record of developing revenue opportunities that puts messaging services such as WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) or Snapchat to shame.
We can't dismiss Apple out of hand; according to research firm Kantar, iOS had a 46% market share in Japan in the three-month period through April 2015. The ubiquity of Apple's devices is a great foundation on which to build a streaming music franchise (in Japan and elsewhere).
Back to Spotify, which just raised $526 million in a private financing round that values the loss-making Swedish service at $8.5 billion. Spotify also revealed that it now has 20 million paying customers, an impressive one-third increase since January. Nevertheless, while Spotify's revenue rose 44% last year, past 1 billion euros, operating losses also increased to 165 million euros. Similarly, rival Pandora has yet to produce a positive annual operating profit.
Whether or not it will be the dominant music streaming service in three years' time, Apple Music will be profitable and Apple will still be an independent company. The same cannot be said with equal confidence of all of its competitors. This week, the Financial Times' Lex column suggested Pandora could best preserve or maximize value on behalf of its shareholders by selling itself. One thing is certain: Some of today's players will have to face the music.