Pandora today announced that it was acquiring the assets of now failed subscription service Rdio. While the whispers about Rdio’s future had been building for some time, the deal is more interesting for what it says about Pandora’s plans than what it says about the state of the subscription business.
Rdio Battled Bravely And Set Innovation Standards But Fell Short
For what Rdio lacked in subscriber numbers it made up for in innovation. It continually set product and feature precedents that Spotify and others subsequently aped, and its $75 million dollar ad inventory deal with US radio giant Cumulus sets a business model blueprint that other streaming services will follow. But for all its efforts and extensive marketing efforts Rdio was simply not able to get to the same sort of level as Spotify’s 2nd tier competitors, let alone to seriously challenge Spotify itself. The music subscription business is not a winner-takes-all market. But it is one in which some degree of meaningful scale is required to trigger the telco partnerships and brand advertiser deals that are necessary to achieve sustainability. Eventually a company transitions from ‘bright new hope with potential’ to an ‘also ran that isn’t ever going to make it’. Once that imperceptible line of market perception has been crossed it is only a matter of time before the end comes.
Pandora Will Use Rdio’s Assets To Go Global
Crucially Pandora is not acquiring Rdio as a going concern but only its assets, which won’t include licenses (as they have to be renegotiated when a music service changes corporate hands). What those assets represent, or at least the bits that matter to Pandora, are teams, product and tech, licensing know how and an international footprint. That last bit is particularly pertinent. Rdio’s 100 markets contrasts sharply with Pandora’s 3 (US, Australia and New Zealand). Indeed Pandora CEO Brian McAndrews stated “We seek to be the definitive music source for music discovery and enjoyment globally”. While 100 markets is probably a step too far for Pandora, expect a healthy selection of top tier and emerging markets to feature in Pandora’s roadmap. And if you’re eager to identify which ones, just take a look at the bigger radio markets globally (Japan possibly excepted).
Pandora’s Success Is Built On Lean Back Not Lean Forward
Pandora’s success is firmly rooted in delivering a high quality, lean back experiences to largely mainstream audiences. That’s how it reaches 78 million monthly listeners, more than a quarter of US adults. That positioning has served Pandora well and made it one of the few success stories of digital music. In fact, other than Beatport and Last.FM, it is one of the very few music start ups that had an exist that considered to be a true financial success. Crucial to that success has been the fact Pandora has operated under statutory licenses for semi-interactive radio, which leaves it with dramatically higher (potential) operating margins than on demand services. Which begs the question, just why is Pandora getting into the subscription business?
This Is The Latest Part Of A Major Strategic Pivot
The answer is that it forms part of a much bigger, much bolder plan. Pandora has spent the last couple of years quietly amassing the assets that will transform it into a music platform super power. In 2015 it acquired music data company Next Big Sound (c.$50 million), then came ticketing company Ticketfly in October ($450 million) and now Rdio ($75 million). The combined $0.6 billion is a truly sizeable investment in a streaming-centred business model by anyone’s standards. It also accompanies a concerted and costly investment in Pandora’s regional ad sales teams across the US to compete on a level footing with traditional radio’s sales teams. Couple all that with November announcements to become the exclusive streaming outlet for popular podcast series ‘Serial’ and the landmark direct deal with Sony/ATV Publishing and a picture of something truly ambitious starts to emerge.
Pandora was fortunate to be able to IPO at a time when public offerings were still a highly viable option for digital start ups. Spotify and Deezer (which just cancelled its IPO) will look on with no little jealousy at the power that a market capitalisation of nearly $3 billion gives you. Now it is using this financial firepower to take the next step on its streaming journey. Whatever that will prove to be, expect it to be a platform in its truest sense, rather than simply a streaming service with a few loosely attached ‘alternative revenue’ models, which is a mistake some of the subscription incumbents have made thus far.
Discovery Doesn’t Lead Anywhere Anymore, At Least Not To Sales
Pandora may aspire to be the definitive source of ‘music discovery’ but streaming discovery is becoming streaming consumption. i.e. it is increasingly not leading to sales. Live music sales is one alternative way to make money from ‘discovery’ but if ‘free music to sell tickets’ is Pandora’s end game then some difficult conversations with songwriters (who of course often don’t play live) will need to be had.
Pandora has just thrown its hat into the ring as a top tier player in the global streaming business. By some measures you could say it is poised to become the biggest. McAndrews left no room for doubt by stating “We plan to substantially broaden our subscription business.” But in doing so Pandora will have to look itself in the mirror and ask itself “what am I now?”.