Tencent Music bets on China’s crowded audio content space

Listeners of podcasts, audiobooks and other audio shows are estimated to number 542 million in China this year, according to a third-party survey by marketing firm iiMedia. It’s a healthy jump from the 489 million users recorded in 2019, and it no doubt has attracted new players to the game.

That includes Tencent Music Entertainment (TME), the Tencent spin-off that is sometimes regarded as the Spotify of China but differs on many fronts in practice. The group’s main line of businesses goes beyond music streaming to encompass virtual karaoke, live streaming and audio content; a category that has recently seen a big push from the firm.

In its newly released quarterly report, TME said it has made “significant progress in expanding” its audio library by adding thousands of new adaptions from popular IP pieces and works from independent producers. IP is an edge that TME holds over its competitors, bolstered by a strategic partnership with China Literature, the country’s leading online publisher. TME’s foray intensifies competition in what is already a crowded space.

Like Spotify’s tardy entry into podcasting, TME is late to voice-based content, an umbrella term that can include everything from podcasts, audiobooks and radio stations to more innovative listening experiences like audio live streaming. Does the giant want to conquer all these areas? 

Seemingly not, according to Yang Yi, COO of Chinese podcasting firm JustPod. What Tencent is after might be “audiobooks and audio drama series adapted from online literature, rather than so-called ‘programs’ such as documentaries, variety shows or talk shows.” That puts TME’s new effort more in line with the Audible model instead of what’s conventionally referred to as “podcasts.”

The online audio space in China has for years been occupied by leading companies Ximalaya, the main investor in San Francisco-based podcasting firm Himalaya, and Nasdaq-listed Lizhi. TME’s thrust into audio content holds no immediate promise, for there is still no obvious path to profitability.

Chinese users are known to be reluctant to pay for digital content, and when they do, say, for educational and self-improvement podcasts, the enthusiasm tends to fade quickly. Deep-pocketed platforms often resort to offering content for free to gain market share, relentlessly forcing out smaller contestants. The result is that everyone needs to find more indirect ways to monetize.

Lizhi, for instance, primarily generates revenues by selling virtual items through its live, interactive audio sessions, while the contribution from user subscriptions and advertising remains paltry. The seven-year-old company hasn’t turned a profit, recording a net loss of 133 million yuan ($19.1 million) last year.

Indirect monetization is nothing new in China’s internet industry. Tencent, most famous for its WeChat messenger, notably relies on gaming revenues that its social networking products help drive. TME, similarly, gets the bulk of its money by selling virtual items in music-themed live streams, while only 6% of its 657 million monthly active users on music streaming apps are paying. The MAU growth has also come to a standstill as China’s online music market saturates. From 2017 to 2020, TME added only 50 million new users to its music streaming services. The question is whether the music titan can breathe new life into the adjacent audio sector.

Added expert comment on May 12, 2020.