Napster sings the blues

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.

UBS: You buy us?

As it reported an ‘unsatisfactory’ loss of hundreds of millions of dollars, UBS AG also said Tuesday that it will carve off its investment banking business. The move represents a retreat from the ‘universal bank’ model the Swiss giant has pursued. And despite management’s statements, it makes a sale of the banking unit more likely. (Just as Time Warner splitting AOL’s legacy Internet access division from its online advertising business clears the way for a sale of the dial-up unit. That is, if there are any AOL subscribers left to sell.)

Washed away by the gallons of red ink spilling from the investment banking department is that UBS actually has a fairly robust advisory business, particularly for transatlantic tech deals. In terms of deal value, it ranked fifth in our recent league tables covering transactions between North America and the EU from mid-2007 to mid-2008. The previous year, UBS placed fourth. (An executive summary of the report is available here; download the full report here.)

Far and away, UBS was the busiest bank, advising on 13 transatlantic transactions over the past year. Both Lehman Brothers and Deutsche Bank advised on eight transactions. And UBS has kept its momentum, already claiming another tombstone since we closed our survey period on June 30. (UBS served as sole adviser for IBM in its purchase of Paris-based ILOG for $340m.) But given how things stand now, the next big deal UBS advises on could be the sale of its own banking business.

Selected UBS-advised transatlantic deals

Date Acquirer Target Price
July 2008 IBM (sole UBS mandate) ILOG $340m
April 2008 Apax Partners TriZetto Group (sole UBS mandate) $1.4bn
Feb. 2008 Reed Elsevier (co-adviser UBS) ChoicePoint $4bn
April 2008 Diodes (sole UBS mandate) Zetex Semiconductors $176m

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase