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Tencent Music dives as watchdog probes its record-label ties

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Tencent Music Entertainment Group fell the most in five months as China's antitrust authority investigates exclusive licensing deals it forged with the world's biggest record labels.

[HONG KONG] Tencent Music Entertainment Group fell the most in five months as China's antitrust authority investigates exclusive licensing deals it forged with the world's biggest record labels.

The State Administration of Market Regulation, which launched the probe in January, is scrutinising the Shenzhen-based company's dealings with music labels including Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group Corp, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday. Shares of Tencent Music slid 6.8 per cent in New York, marking their steepest drop since March 20. The rout pushed the stock into negative territory for the year, down 4.9 per cent.

The three largest record labels have all sold exclusive rights to a major chunk of their music catalogues to Tencent Music, which is controlled by social media titan Tencent Holdings Ltd, but also backed by Sony and Warner. Tencent Music then sublicenses that content to smaller rivals, an arrangement they complain is unfair. Tencent Music pays fees that are unreasonably high and passes along much of those costs to its competitors, people familiar with the matter said. Licensing songs from Tencent Music for use in China can be twice as expensive compared to when licensing directly from major labels for the rest of the world, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified because the arrangement is private.

Music and video platforms, including those operated by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, Baidu Inc and ByteDance Inc, all have to sublicense content from Tencent Music. The regulator's actions pose a threat to Tencent, which leveraged a billion-plus social media users to dominate a Chinese online music industry expected to be worth US$30 billion by 2023. Music is now a key driver for the WeChat-operator, which is struggling to sustain growth as US-China trade tensions depress its home economy.

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Tencent Music, NetEase, ByteDance, Baidu and Alibaba declined to comment on the probe, which was previously reported by Capitol Forum and MLex without giving details of the pricing concerns of other platforms. The three biggest labels also declined to comment. The regulator didn't respond to a fax seeking comment.

Tencent Music, which floated in the US last year, boasts the country's largest music content offering, with more than 20 million tracks from over 200 domestic and international labels, according to the company's prospectus. For the June quarter, it had over 650 million monthly active users and 31 million paying subscribers across its QQ Music, Kugou and Kuwo apps. Revenue from online music services rose 20 per cent to 1.56 billion yuan (S$302.4 million) in the period. But its gross margin declined to 33 per cent from 40 per cent in the June quarter in part because of waning sublicensing revenue from competing platforms, chief financial officer Shirley Hu said on a conference call in August.

Long a haven for piracy, China became one of the 10 largest music markets in the world in 2017 and climbed to seventh position last year. Major record labels' sales have ballooned in the country thanks largely to the exclusive deals with Tencent. Music publishers are still hoping more people in the world's most populous country will opt to pay for music.

Tencent Music isn't the only company to own exclusive rights. NetEase Music has also acquired exclusive rights to individual artist and record labels and continues to bid on licensing, according to industry figures. Many independent record labels have opted not to sell anyone exclusive rights, and say they have benefited from that arrangement.

As part of the ongoing investigation, regulators solicited input from competing music platforms as well as the record labels involved, according to the people. China's copyright watchdog in 2017 warned streaming services including Tencent Music against entering exclusive licensing deals. Under such pressure, Tencent Music and distant-second rival NetEase Music last year agreed to sublicense more than 99 per cent of their music catalogues to each other.

"Based on what I've observed in the past, such regulatory scrutiny doesn't usually amount to much, especially in the area of antitrust in China," Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Ling Vey-Sern said. "One potential outcome is to also try to control the price of sublicensing. However, these are commercial agreements and could be hard to manage."

The investigation may complicate Tencent's expansion ambitions. It's in talks to buy 10 per cent of UMG in a deal that would value the world's biggest music label at $34 billion and help bolster its Asia presence.

Music streaming is one of Tencent's few business units that has made it big beyond its home market. Tencent Music said its karaoke app WeSing has been topping the download chart in the Philippines' Google Play in recent months after it was launched in South-east Asia. Tencent also owns a stake in the world's leading music streaming service, Spotify, while the Swedish company is invested in Tencent Music.

BLOOMBERG