As expected, Universal Music Group has sold a 10% stake to a consortium led by Chinese company Tencent in a deal that values UMG, the world’s largest music company and home to Taylor Swift, Drake and many others, for €30 billion (around $33.6 billion).
UMG parent company Vivendi also agreed that the consortium has the option to buy another stake of up to 10% at the same price by Jan. 15, 2021. Vivendi said Tencent’s music division will also buy a minority stake in Universal Music’s operation in China.
In a joint statement, the companies said: “Vivendi is very happy with the arrival of Tencent and its co-investors. They will enable UMG to further develop in the Asian market. Tencent and the Consortium members are excited to support UMG’s growth through this investment. Together with Vivendi, Tencent and TME will work to broaden the opportunities for artists and to enrich experiences for music fans, further promoting a thriving music and entertainment industry.”
In a note to his staff, UMG chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge assured his colleagues that it will remain business as usual. “With the exception of additional resources to further advance our strategy, everything else will remain the same: our strategic vision; our company, label and business unit names; our locations; and of course, our outstanding people,” he wrote.
“This is an exciting development reflecting a strong validation of our business strategy, our incredible team and your excellent work. It also reflects our shared optimism about UMG’s continued role as the driving force in our industry and how focused we are on the future.”
In its latest quarterly financial results, UMG’s revenues were up 17.5% to €5.06 billion ($5.63 billion) compared to the first nine months of 2018. Recorded music revenues grew by 15.6%, bolstered by the growth in subscription and streaming revenues (up by 23.4%) and strong physical sales (up 14.9%). Since the beginning of the year, its bestsellers were the new releases from Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Post Malone and the Japanese band King & Prince, as well as continued sales of the soundtrack from “A Star Is Born” and several albums from Queen.
Tencent is known primarily for its gaming and social network business — it owns China’s powerful WeChat platform, which has 900 million daily users. But the company also has its own music unit, Tencent Music Entertainment Group, which raised more than $1 billion in an IPO late last year that valued the division overall at $21.3 billion. Tencent also holds a 7.5% equity stake in streaming giant Spotify, the result of a share swap in December 2017, making it one of the Swedish company’s biggest shareholders.
Vivendi and Tencent are already familiar interlocutors. In 2017, UMG and Tencent Music struck a multi-year agreement making the latter a distributor of UMG music in China on its QQ Music, KuGou and Kuwo streaming platforms. Tencent Music also has exclusive rights to sub-license UMG’s content in the Middle Kingdom.
Tencent had long been rumored to be one of the suitors for a stake in UMG after Vivendi announced a year ago its intention to sell up to 50% of the company. The French media giant ruled out an IPO as an option.
Progress on a potential sale appeared to be slow, as some analysts pushed up UMG’s valuation to as much as $50 billion. UMG has also been hit by a controversy over a fire in 2008 that is estimated to have wiped out 500,000 master recordings in the company’s massive archive.
An insider with knowledge of the sale process told Variety that a deal with Tencent would be strategic because China is primed to become the world’s biggest music market. At the same time, however, the potential deal is also supposed to encourage other investors to get involved in order to keep a Chinese company from gaining too much control of UMG, he said.
In June, Yannick Bollore, chairman of Vivendi’s supervisory board, said that the company was “not in a hurry” and “very confident” it would find the right partner to purchase up to 50% of UMG. He cited the music industry’s “huge growth” as a pace Vivendi wants to maintain in the coming years.