Will Pandora’s On-Demand Streaming Service Make a Difference?

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Music-streaming service Pandora Media Inc. (NYSE: P) launched its premier on-demand streaming service, Pandora Premium, Monday morning. The new service will cost $9.99 a month, after a free trial period for selected listeners that is set to begin Wednesday, March 15.

The company is entering a crowded field. Last week privately held Spotify announced total paid subscribers had reached 50 million. Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) claims 20 million paid subscribers to its Apple Music service, and Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) offers an on-demand streaming service to Prime members.

At the end of last year, Pandora reported 4.4 million paid subscribers for its Pandora Plus service and a total ad-supported (free) user base of 81 million.

What Pandora hopes will differentiate its service from the established on-demand crowd is its user interface, based on the universally acclaimed interface acquired from Rdio in 2015, and Premium’s ease of creating playlists based on user preferences and recommendations.

No one has ever suggested that Spotify’s user interface was either beautiful or especially user-friendly. The best comments typically use words like “utilitarian” and “okay.” Apple Music was plagued with interface issues when that product was first released, but those were largely fixed last summer with a new release of the program. Amazon has created a tight link between its Echo device with Alexa voice activation and its on-demand streaming music service that is popular with Prime subscribers and is offered to Echo owners at a discount.

The big question for Pandora is whether Premium is too little, too late. A report from MIDiA forecasts global streaming subscribers to reach some 221.5 million by 2020, about double the current total. Those gains, however, are most likely to be strongest in emerging markets, and Pandora will need to undertake serious expansion to get a share of emerging market growth. On top of that, consumers in emerging markets are unlikely to tolerate a $9.99 monthly subscription, making the payback time for expansion even longer.

Shares of Pandora traded up about 0.5% midday Monday, at $12.20 in a 52-week range of $8.05 to $14.98. The consensus 12-month price target on the stock is $14.64.