Pandora, the 17-year-old streaming music service best known for its ad-supported free radio stations, is launching a paid tier aimed at the likes of Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. It’s called Pandora Premium, and it offers on-demand and offline access to more than 40 million songs for $10 a month.
The bulk of the Pandora Premium experience takes place within a smartphone app. Unlike apps from some of Pandora’s competitors, it doesn’t feel overwrought — it’s minimalist, simple, and streamlined. There’s a carousel of recently played albums and stations, a list music saved for later listening, and filters that let users to search for specific albums, artists, and song lists. A simple toggle makes it easy to hide explicit music on radio stations and in search, and a New Music section offers tracks tailored to individual tastes.
Premium boasts a more than just music, though. An curatorial team is tasked with getting rid of karaoke, tribute songs, and duplicate tracks, which Pandora said will improve the quality of search results. Premium has millions of curated and auto-generated radio stations that offer variations on a theme — like ’80s party hits, Smooth Jazz, and Orchestral. And a “favorites” feature put songs users give a “thumbs-up” into a personalized playlist.
Pandora has made it easy to grow music collections over time. An “add similar songs” feature lets users add algorithmically related tracks to an existing playlist, and a soon-to-launch AutoPlay feature will create a station based on the song or album you just listened to.
The launch of Pandora Premium comes 15 months after Pandora acquired assets from Rdio, and shortly after the company launched a $5-a-month Pandora Plus with ad-free listening, downloads, high-quality streaming audio, and an unlimited number of skips and replays.
The competition is fierce, but Pandora thinks its recommendation features give it a leg up. Its Music Genome Project, a decade-long effort to “capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level” using over 450 attributes to describe songs, powers Premium’s song suggestions. And the company is using dozens of additional signals to offer “intelligent” and “informed” recommendations.
But Premium will have to contend with exclusives. The past year has seen Apple Music and Tidal ink timed deals with Kanye West, Drake, Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, and Beyoncé. The broader music industry is against the idea — Universal Music Group has banned exclusives, as have Lady Gaga, Adele, and Spotify — but that won’t change the fact that Pandora Premium subscribers will have to wait longer for some singles and albums than others.
And compared to some of the competition, Pandora Premium is fairly bare-bones. For example, it’s launching without a desktop app or an iPad app and there aren’t music videos. And while it works with Chromecast, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto, it doesn’t support Sonos or Amazon Echo devices.
But despite all that, Pandora’s convinced that it can convert at least a few of the 80 million users who listen to Pandora each month to Premium customers. To entice existing users, it’s offering a free two-month trial for all account holders and a six-month trial for Pandora Plus subscribers.
Pandora CEO Tim Westergren said the company is aiming for 6-9 million paying customers by the end of the year. “We have very grand ambitions for what this can be” Pandora CEO Westergren told The Verge. “No one has solved the ease of use and personalization part of the on-demand world. I don’t think there’s really a true premium product out there yet … we think we’re bringing something really different here.”
With Premium, Pandora is angling to nab the more than 100 million collective people who pay for music subscriptions globally. Apple Music is paying subscribers number north of 10 million (out of 20 million), and Spotify crossed the 100-million-user threshold earlier this year.
Time will tell whether Pandora can wean users away from their music streaming service of choice, but it’s off to a strong start. According to research firm MusicWatch, Pandora earned 28 percent of all streaming music hours in 2016. YouTube (including YouTube Red subscriptions) was second at 27 percent and Spotify came in third (17 percent).
Pandora is rolling out Premium on iOS and Android, with current users first in line. It’s only available in the United States, for now, but the company has plans to roll it out to territories in Australia and New Zealand.
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