You Know It's Bad When Even LeBron James Won't Pay For Pandora

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Pandora (NYSE: P) has been struggling to get its freeloaders to pay up for its premium offerings, the one thing outside of its stagnant user base that's been weighing on the stock. It's a pretty big problem when even rich celebrities aren't willing to put up with ads before throwing a few bucks Pandora's way.

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LeBron James raised more than a few eyebrows in an ESPN piece that aired during Monday Night Football. In a Rachel Nichols interview with James and longtime friend Dwyane Wade, the two reunited teammates went off on how cheap James can be despite the NBA superstar's life-altering wealth.

James confesses that he's so frugal he won't use his smartphone if there isn't free Wi-Fi to be had. He's also not paying for apps.

"I've still got Pandora with commercials," James said. 

He goes on to illustrate that he'll be listening to "great music" on Pandora at home when an ad comes on for a giveaway to see James play at an upcoming Cleveland Cavaliers game. Nichols reminds him that he's rich.

"I'm not paying for it," James concludes. "I'm not paying."

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That -- in a nutshell -- is Pandora's problem.

I'm taking my talents to Spotify

Pandora is a pioneer in streaming music, so it's not a surprise that it's still drawing a large crowd. There were 76 million active listeners by the end of the second quarter, down from 78.1 million a year earlier but still a substantial audience. Its problem is getting those listeners to pay up the way they do for Spotify or Apple Music.

Unfortunately for Pandora, just 6% of those 76 million listeners -- 4.86 million -- are paying customers. Pandora offers commercial-free Pandora Plus, and earlier this year it introduced the Spotify-like Pandora Premium on-demand music service. Pandora grew its paying user base by just 150,000 subscribers in its latest quarter, the first full period of Pandora Premium availability. Spotify, on the other hand, is now up to 60 million premium subscribers.

Most people, like James, seem to be fine putting up with ads and a limited number of song skips. It's a problem, and, since Spotify and Apple Music are closing in on a combined 100 million paying listeners, this could be a brand perception problem.

Sirius XM Radio (NASDAQ: SIRI) might be able to help. It was bent on acquiring Pandora last year, and was able to snap up a minority stake this summer for a lot less than it was reportedly willing to pay a year earlier. Sirius XM knows how to get people to pay for premium audio, and its subscribers pay a lot more than Spotify customers do.

Pandora is playing it cool. The dot-com dud even got James to respond on social media after offering him a premium account for free.

 

Giving Pandora away to arguably the best basketball player on the planet may not do much to improve the value proposition of a premium streaming subscription, but it's free publicity for a pay product at a time when Pandora needs all of the help that it can get.

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Rick Munarriz owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple and Pandora Media. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.