Liberty Media, the U.S. investment firm KKR and Chinese giant Tencent Music are among the potential suitors to purchase up to 50% of Universal Music from Vivendi, a deal potentially worth as much as $23 billion, sources close to the situation tell Variety. The news of KKR and Tencent Music was first reported by Reuters.
Reps for all companies had no comment or did not respond to Variety’s requests for comment.
The value of UMG — the world’s largest music company by a substantial measure — has ballooned as streaming has reinvigorated the music industry. In an earnings report released by parent company Vivendi earlier this month, the Lucian Grainge-helmed company clocked total annual revenues of approximately $7.15 billion, a 10% increase over 2017. An August 2017 Goldman Sachs report valued UMG at $23.5 billion, and that number has increased gradually but dramatically in the months since to a jaw-dropping $50 billion, according to a recent JPMorgan Casenove report.
While Vivendi has repeatedly stated its interest in selling up to half of UMG — in its most recent earnings report, the company said the plan is “moving forward,” noting that corporate structure reorganization was completed at the end of 2018, that the due diligence was launched at the beginning of this year and meetings have been held with pre-selected banks — two of its aims seem somewhat contradictory.
Vivendi, which is helmed by CEO Yannick Bollore, has said it is seeking a “strategic partner that will accelerate UMG’s growth,” yet it also says the buyer will have very limited involvement in the company’s decision-making. Those statements make the three companies under discussion awkward fits: Tencent is the largest online music platform in China and owns 10% of Spotify, which would make them a strong strategic partner but brings up potential regulatory issues; the same issue is even more true of Liberty, which owns U.S.-based SiriusXM as well as Pandora and around 35% of Live Nation, the world’s largest live-entertainment company. And while KKR would seem unlikely to be hands-on with UMG should it make such a deal, its value as a strategic partner seems limited, although it did have a successful joint-venture with the German company Bertelsmann and its music division BMG; that deal ended when KKR sold its interest back to Bertelsmann at a significant profit in 2013.
Also at play is the reported 4% that UMG still owns of Spotify, remaining from a deal the streaming giant struck with the major music companies (as well as the independent collective Merlin) labels in 2008. All of those entities except UMG sold some or all of their interest in Spotify in the weeks after the streaming company’s public listing in April of last year; UMG is widely thought to be holding onto its full share in an effort to maximize the price it can fetch, although Spotify’s stock price has been plunging, along with that of most tech companies, since reaching a peak of $198.99 in July; at press time it was at $145.