Napster, once hailed as the king of digital music, has fallen on hard times. Its stock is down 35% this year alone, and 55% from its 52-week high set in October 2007. Resulting shareholder ire forced the company to announce last week that it is seeking strategic alternatives to boost value, and it has hired UBS Investment Bank to lead the effort. Who might acquire the house that Shawn Fanning built?
Since relaunching as a legal music service in late 2003, Napster has been unable to turn a profit. The company pulled in $125m in revenue for the trailing 12 months ended June 30 from about 708,000 paid subscribers. Despite increasing revenue 15% year-over-year, the company had a negative EBITDA of $12.3m and subscriber count decreased from last quarter’s total of 761,000. The switch from stagnation to a drop in subscribers for the first time means that Napster will be unable to keep growing revenue. Consequently, that makes it doubtful that it will be able to achieve profitability. Nevertheless, with $36.9m in cash and $30.7m in short-term investments, Napster is an attractive target at its current valuation of $62.25m.
We previously speculated that SanDisk would attempt to acquire a proprietary music service of its own. But given its financial woes, as well as reported takeover negotiations with Samsung, we do not think it will bite. We believe Napster’s fierce competitor RealNetworks, the majority owner of the Rhapsody music service, is the most likely acquirer. Amid growing competition from Apple, which unveiled its iTunes 8 and a new line of iPods this week, and with digital music newcomers Amazon, Nokia and a few promising startups making waves, this is a much more plausible proposition. Last year Rhapsody picked up Viacom’s Urge, which had been struggling despite its high-profile association with MTV and Microsoft. RealNetworks has the cash, and has repeatedly told us it is bullish on acquisitions that spur growth. Given Napster’s current valuation and similar deals, we estimate that it will fetch around $80-100m in a sale.