(By Dani Deahl | Published on April 27, 2017 for Verge.com)
The biggest music market in the US hasn’t moved to streaming yet. Can Pandora make it happen?
After months of teasing, Pandora finally unveiled its much-touted Premium platform to the public two weeks ago, along with a massive marketing campaign called “Sounds Like You.” Featuring mixtapes and exclusive content from names like Big Sean and Halsey, Sounds Like You is meant to highlight Pandora’s ability to create personal listening experiences while upselling Premium. It’s flashy, uses a lot of buzzy phrases like “music discovery,” and, well, it’s a little cringey.
But look beyond the saccharine sell, and you’ll notice that about one-third of the celebrity musicians on board for Sounds Like You are country artists. This is no mistake — Pandora has a serious advantage in country music. A virtually untapped market in the world of streaming, country fans are loyal, spend more than fans in other genres, and, perhaps most importantly, already trust Pandora. 56 million of Pandora’s 81 million active users subscribe to its Today’s Country station — a whopping 69 percent of its total audience. It’s a long shot to think Pandora could steal a significant portion of business from other streaming providers, but what if it played to its unlikely strength? Can building a country music streaming business save Pandora?
It’s not a secret that Pandora needs saving — the past year for the company was rough. Subscription service Pandora Plus launched and arguably flopped; the company spurned a buyout from SiriusXM and is now in talks with several leading private firms to raise money; advertising has slowed; and, on top of everything, it’s actually lost 500,000 users since December 2015.
Through it all, co-founder and CEO Tim Westergren doggedly insisted a brighter future was ahead as it prepared to launch the Premium platform and much-needed revamp. Now that it’s here, Pandora’s shiny new updates feel like a distraction from the truth: that despite everything, it still hasn’t built a better mousetrap. Pandora once had a first-mover advantage, but that decayed when it ignored the competition, letting Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, and others develop robust ecosystems of their own. Premium amounts to catching up with other platforms that essentially do the same thing, and have already secured millions of loyal, paying customers.
Now, the company’s stock prices are down, there’s pressure from activist hedge fund investor Corvex Management to sell, and with Premium out into the world, the brand needs people to convert into paying customers fast.
As Pandora is shoveling money toward of-the-moment names in every genre, its most profitable resource is one it’s had for years: country music. And country is big on Pandora. In fact, it accounted for more than 1.7 billion listening hours on the platform in 2016.
Pandora laid the foundation for its country fans years ago. In 2015, Westergren talked with Entertainment Weekly about country-based initiatives for Pandora. That year, it teamed up with Ford Trucks for Country Built, an episodic radio program based upon country music’s greatest legends and stories. During CMJ week, Pandora hosted a Women in Country event with Martina McBride. When Tim McGraw released Damn Country Music that fall, you can probably guess what brand he teamed up with for custom content and events: Pandora. The fact that Pandora’s new Sounds Like You campaign leans heavily on country artists falls right in line with the foundation it’s already built.
“Frankly, country, as a genre, has been one of the most proactive digitally, period,” said Westergren. “And that’s probably not what people think of at first. They think, ‘Okay, it’s the hipsters that are going to be quickest to adopt these,’ but it’s totally country.”
Other streaming companies have been slow to foster their country fan bases. Spotify’s head of global programming for country music, John Marks, tells The Verge that the platform is “fairly new” when it comes to country-based initiatives. He also notes Spotify doesn’t rely on data for how many of their users specifically listen to country as it favors a more open-ended approach.
“Even though I have the genre of country music, [Spotify] thinks more in a genre-less fashion,” says Marks, mentioning that country playlists he curates could very well include “out of genre” artists like Lady Gaga or Avicii. “I look at [country] in comparison to our other flagship playlists. Overall, Hot Country is the fourth most-listened to list.” With 3.6 million subscribers, that’s a healthy number in comparison to other leading Spotify playlists, accounting for about 7 percent of its active user base, but pales in comparison to Pandora’s Today’s Country audience.
But Amazon is also making country music a priority. The company has an exclusive deal with Garth Brooks to stream his extensive catalog on its Music Unlimited service, and noted that Amazon Music listening trends lean more toward country and rock than the average streaming service. So Pandora has work to do if it wants to win — work it has to do fast as Amazon invests more into its music ecosystem and Echo speakers.
Country’s impact is usually underestimated as a whole. It’s the number one music format for adults 18–54 in the US, with a whopping estimated audience of 100 million and growing. The huge figure is obviously attractive, and making it even more attractive is the fact that country fans pony up cash.
Country music fans tend to make more money than the average American, and they’re also brand and artist loyalists, so they’re willing to shell out more on music in both the short and long term. Catering to all these hungry fans are over 2,000 terrestrial radio stations, multitudes of festivals, and artists that tour much more regularly than their counterparts in other genres. Yet despite this pool of country cash, there’s one thing that’s never quite clicked: streaming, where country’s slice of the pie is less than 10 percent.
“We’re seeing some acts like Maren Morris or Carly Pearce get traction on streaming services and parlay that into record deals,” says Jesse Frasure, a music publisher, producer, and songwriter with Rhythm House who has written for artists like Florida Georgia Line and Rascal Flatts. “Popular music and EDM have so many playlists on Spotify and points of access on [Sirius] XM, but there’s much less for country. Inherently, there are fewer routes to the consumer. We’re just now seeing country artists that have not done amazingly on terrestrial radio have huge, arena-selling careers on the touring market.”
Since country artist tour more frequently, and thanks to acquisition Ticketfly, Pandora recommends nearby concerts based on user listening habits, connecting fans with artists. “I think the great beneficiaries will be touring musicians, which country music is well known for,” Westergren told Entertainment Weekly. “I think of country as working-artist genre. These artists play out. It’s not like they book a few arena dates a year and that’s their shtick. It’s a culture of performance — and that’s absolutely our sweet spot.”
Speaking to The Verge, Westergren doubled down on Pandora’s overlap with country music consumption and fans’ spend habits. “We’re giving artists more opportunities than ever to connect with their fans at unprecedented scale,” he says. “With free tools like Artist Audio Messages, artists can easily promote new singles, albums, sell concert tickets, and systematically build their fan base. We're fundamentally changing the game, especially for artists who may not have a presence on terrestrial radio."
Pandora has another sweet spot that’s of particular interest for country fans: the connected car market. In 2016, one in three cars sold in America had Pandora embedded in the dashboard, and Pandora has seen over five million users activate memberships in cars that have Pandora built in. For customers that are still loosening their ties to terrestrial radio and switching to streaming, the in-car experience is an easy way to gently convert people: it’s convenient and feels familiar.
It’s still too early to tell if Pandora’s face-lift and Premium platform will be the key to inching the company off the proverbial ledge. But with a platform that’s finally aligned with the rest of the industry at a time when country streaming is about to take off, there’s at least a chance. And the investment keeps coming: Pandora recently became the live-streaming provider for this year’s Stagecoach, the highest-grossing country music festival in the world. Whatever Pandora becomes, it seems to know that, at its core, it sounds like country.