Pandora Media Is Pinning Its Future on the U.S. Market

MarketsMotley Fool

It's been quite a month for Pandora Media (NYSE: P). The company announced yesterday that co-founder and CEO Tim Westergren would be stepping down as part of a senior management shakeup. CFO Naveen Chopra will act as interim CEO while the company searches for a new leader. Furthermore, Westergren is also leaving the board. Pandora is adding a new director, Jason Hirschhorn.

Westergren's resignation confirms rumors that had been floating around in recent days. Former CFO Mike Herring and CMO Nick Bartle are also leaving Pandora.

Continue Reading Below

Pandora also says it will be pulling out of Australia and New Zealand, the only two international markets it had entered, in order to "remain laser-focused on the expansion of our core business in the United States." In other words, Pandora is going to be a U.S.-only affair for the foreseeable future. Here's the rub: Pandora doesn't have a good chance competing solely in the U.S. That recent $480 million cash infusion from Sirius XM Radio will help, but it might not be enough. Pandora did just lose $250 million over a year and a half from the botched Ticketfly acquisition.

No license, no on-demand service

As with most music-streaming services, it all boils down to licensing agreements. Pandora desperately needs to expand its new Pandora Premium on-demand service, which finally launched in March, that allows users to listen to specific tracks and albums. While Pandora made a name for itself years ago by offering internet radio, consumer preferences have been steadily shifting away from curated radio toward on-demand for years. At a minimum, users expect a little bit of both, but with more emphasis on on-demand these days. That's where Pandora fell behind and lost its first-mover advantage.

Meanwhile, Pandora has long relied on statutory licensing administered by SoundExchange; statutory licensing is unique to the U.S. copyright law, with no equivalent system outside of the U.S. The company only recently inked direct licensing deals with the major record labels in order to launch Pandora Premium. Here's a relevant excerpt from the 10-K (emphasis added):

OK, so Pandora was going to have an extremely hard time negotiating favorable terms for international direct licensing for an on-demand tier, which the future of Pandora relies upon. It makes sense, mostly out of necessity, to cut its losses in an effort to shore up the core U.S. business. It's hard to quantify the financial impact, as Pandora does not disclose the geographical mix of paid subscribers or active listeners. At the end of the first quarter, Pandora had 76.7 million total active listeners and 4.7 million total paid subscribers.

Slipping into irrelevance

The trouble is that Pandora is competing with two heavyweights, Apple and Spotify, that are taking over the market for paid music streaming. Consider each service's user base.

Neither Spotify or Apple disclose a geographic mix of their users either, but they both have secured the necessary direct licensing agreements to operate all around the world. (Spotify is available in 60 markets, and Apple lists 115 countries where Apple Music is available.)

It's unlikely that Pandora will be able to meaningfully challenge Apple Music or Spotify in the U.S. market, in part because Pandora has so much on its plate right now. It's navigating a massive transition not only in senior management, but also in its underlying business model and cost structure. It also lacks the number of third-party integrations that rivals offer. Unfortunately, Pandora has slipped into irrelevance in the market that it helped create.

10 stocks we like better than Pandora MediaWhen investing geniuses David and Tom Gardner have a stock tip, it can pay to listen. After all, the newsletter they have run for over a decade, Motley Fool Stock Advisor, has tripled the market.*

David and Tom just revealed what they believe are the 10 best stocks for investors to buy right now... and Pandora Media wasn't one of them! That's right -- they think these 10 stocks are even better buys.

Click here to learn about these picks!

*Stock Advisor returns as of June 5, 2017

Evan Niu, CFA owns shares of AAPL. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends AAPL and Pandora Media. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.