5/24/13: Big revenue growth, yet losses continue, for Pandora in its fiscal first quarter

Paul Maloney
May 24, 2013 - 1:20pm

Late yesterday afternoon Pandora reported on its finances and audience levels for the first quarter of its 2014 fiscal year (which ended April 30).

The leading webcaster's total revenue for the period of $125.5 million represents 55% growth since a year ago ($105 million came from ads, $20 million from subscriptions). Total listener hours grew 35% to 4.18 billion for the first quarter of fiscal 2014, compared to 3.09 billion for the first quarter of fiscal 2013.

Despite record revenues and audience, the company ended up losing nearly $29 million during the quarter.

"Content acquistion costs" (i.e. royalties for licensing music) grew 48% from $56 million a year ago to $83 million in this period. This means these costs amounted to 66% of Pandora's revenue that quarter.

Total mobile revenue was nearly $84 million -- nearly double year-over-year -- and outpacing growth of its mobile audience (which grew 47%).

Pandora added more than 700-thousand new subscribers to its ad-free Pandora One service in the first quarter, up 114% to more than two-and-a-half million (and more net new subscribers in the quarter than in all of fiscal 2013, which means Pandora has the largest U.S. streaming subscription audience of any music service).

Pandora says it now regularly reaches 70.1 million active users (up 35% from a year ago), and accounted (in April) for 7.33% of total U.S. radio listening.

Paul Maloney
May 24, 2013 - 1:20pm

The annual spring RAIN Summit West gathering in Las Vegas last month closed with a discussion of the evergreen topic of music licensing costs and the effects on services. Somewhat encouragingly, the on-stage participants -- representing webcasters, the music industry, rights organizations, and performers -- seemed to agree on more than disagree. The panel, "The Song Plays On," was moderated by attorney and webcasting legal expert David Oxenford.

Attendees heard from artist Patrick Laird, a cellist in the classical/rock outfit Break of Reality. A strong advocate for webcasting, he says his band's experience has led him to believe play (that is, exposure) on Internet radio is far more valuable than the royalties his band earns from that play.

"I'd much rather be played," Laird said. "We've had over 16 million plays in a year on Pandora... we wouldn't get radio play otherwise... but our record sales tripled." He told a story of a promoter finding Break of Reality on line and booking them for a show which paid them more than all their royalties for an entire year.

When the discussion swung to the promotional value of Internet radio versus that of on-demand streaming, Laird (left) said, "Internet radio is what radio has always been, a discovery tool, a way to sell tickets, to fill concerts, to sell music, to get more fans. Internet radio is a better version of radio, it does all those things better. What's important is the growth of the medium. We need to support Internet radio, it's the future of the way people discover music... especially independent artists."

Consultant Ted Cohen, of TAG Strategic, while maintaining that "radio should pay," respects the benefit to artists of being played on services that can now reach "a hundred, two hundred million people." He said, "We're somewhere in the sweet spot -- I don't think the artists and labels are entitled to more... I'm not sure how much less they're entitled to."

This led to panelists considering how services could be even more beneficial to artists. Laird really liked the idea of linking directly to artists' presences on Facebook or YouTube ("that's money right there"), and suggested giving tghe artists themselves an interface to maintain those links.

But SomaFM GM/Program Director Rusty Hodge (right) feels the statutory license is a barrier to some of these methods of promoting new music. He suggested the need for a wider range of licenses, that could, for example, allow for use of music that's currently prohibited by the "performance complement" of the law (such as a rule forbidding play of more than three songs by a single artist in two hours, among others). It "keeps you from doing a lot of creative things," Hodge explained.

Cohen agreed that constraints on webcasters' use of content, even when promoting artists, held back creativity.

Moderator Oxenford then brought up the fact that some services like iHeartRadio and Apple's upcoming service are negotiating directly with copyright owners (and going around the statutory license) to, among other things, avoid the constraints of which Hodge complained. And while services going this route would lose the convenience of a "one-stop" for all their licensing, Cohen said the process of direct licensing has become much easier in recent years: "The goalposts have gotten wider."

Getting back to the statutory license, Oxenford asked if a "percentage-of-revenue" royalty model, such as those employed by publishing performance rights organizations, makes more sense for a young industry like Internet radio (The statutory rate is based on a "per performance" rate, a performance being one song/one listener.).

SoundExchange Senior Counsel, Licensing & Enforcement Brad Prendergast explained "the beauty of a per-performance" royalty is that "every transmission of a track is valued the same -- it's 'delivery mechanism neutral.'" It helps protect the value of the music from an operator that would use a high volume of music but make very little money from the service. (He also reminded the panel that there are indeed some statutory agreements to which SoundExchange is a party that use a percentage of revenue, such as the small webcasters' license).

One recent development the panel brought up was the announced withdrawal of digital rights by some publishers from performance rights organizations (PROs) like BMI and ASCAP. BMI VP/New Media & Strategic Development David Levin (left) explained that publishers are seeing record labels making much more licensing music to services than they are, because the PROs operate under federal regulations that they feel supress the rates they can charge. The publishers tell BMI, Levin said, "Because of the government structure you operate under, we can get a better rate outside of this monopoly, by going direct."

Cohen empathized with the sentiment. "The labels are getting 90% of the revenue, the publishers are getting 10%. That pendulum has to swing a little bit."

We have audio for all of our RAIN Summit West content (including this panel) available via SoundCloud. Look for the links in the right-hand side of kurthanson.com.