Who Would Want to Buy Pandora?

February 11, 2016, 10:21 PM UTC
Pandora To Raise $231 Million With Sale Of 10 Million Shares
The Pandora Media Inc. logo is seen on an Apple Inc. iPhone displayed for a photograph in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013. Pandora Media Inc., owner of the biggest Web radio service, filed to raise about $231 million by issuing new shares after its stock more than doubled this year. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Andrew Harrer — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Would you like to buy a streaming music service? It has annual revenues of about $1 billion or so, and about 250 million registered users. Unfortunately, this company also happens to be losing about $10 million monthly, and there’s no sign of when the red ink is likely to stop.

That’s probably not the official pitch Pandora Media is making to would-be acquirers—since the streaming radio service is reportedly shopping itself around, according to a recent report in the New York Times—but those are the facts. And it’s difficult to see who would see such a deal as attractive, even if company’s market value has dropped (P) to only around $2 billion from $7.5 billion in 2014.

According to the NYT, Pandora has hired Morgan Stanley to shop the company around, and it’s difficult to see this move as anything other than a virtual fire sale. The shares have lost 60% of their value in just the past few months, as hopes for a turnaround in Pandora’s business appear to be increasingly remote.

So is there anyone who might rescue the company at this point? It’s possible that one of the major Internet giants—Apple (AAPL), Google or possibly Amazon—might want to acquire it, if only because it has more than 200 million registered users.

Of that number, however, only about 80 million are regular monthly users, and only about 3 million—or a little over 1% of the total number of registered users—actually pay for their Pandora accounts. The rest are supported by the company’s advertising business. By comparison, Apple reportedly has about 10 million paying subscribers (it has no free tier), and Spotify has about twice as many paying subs, and 75 million users overall.

In theory, Apple, Google (GOOG), or Amazon might be interested in adding 80 million or so monthly users, on the assumption that they could convince at least some of them to upgrade to a paid account. Or they could just wait for Pandora to go under, and bank on the prospect of picking up some of its users eventually anyway, without having to pay anything at all.

Pandora itself just acquired a bankrupt streaming music company when it bought Rdio in November for a reported $75 million. Like its new parent, Rdio just couldn’t find a way to make money, in part because of onerous licensing terms required by the music industry.

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There’s also the possibility that a mobile company like Samsung or Verizon might want to buy Pandora so that they could offer a bundled streaming music service to their users. But is it worth $2 billion or more for them to do that? That’s unclear.

The biggest issue with Pandora is that the business is consuming cash at a tremendous rate, and that is unlikely to change any time soon. The company reported on Thursday that it lost $170 million in 2015, and both its adjusted earnings (which exclude a variety of expenses like interest, taxes and stock-based compensation) and revenue came up short of analysts’ estimates in the most recent quarter. The company said it will likely lose another $80 million this year.

Pandora’s shares fell 6% in after hours to $8.53, erasing most of the gains they made during regular trading based on the rumored acquisition talks, despite the company’s promises on its conference call that its new businesses will start generating significant amounts of income.

The streaming service has been trying to diversify away from the ad-driven model that it launched with, by buying Rdio and also by acquiring TicketFly, a ticket-selling business that it bought last year for $450 million. But that diversification is not happening quickly enough for investors, and in the meantime there is a perception that Pandora is falling behind.

The reality is that the streaming music business has become a playing field that only the very rich can hope to compete on. Spotify recently raised another $500 million in financing, in part to bolster its war-chest for competition, since both Apple and Google have massive cash reserves—and Amazon (AMZN) has a cash machine in its cloud computing service, AWS, that could easily fund its music business.

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