Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Pandora's Music Fees Are Huge! And Not That Bad.

After Pandora filed to go public Friday, some people were taken aback to learn the company was spending half of its revenues on “content acquisition”–the royalties it pays the owners of all the music the service streams.

They shouldn’t be.

Pandora has always been up front about the fact that royalties are its biggest expense. And that those fees increase in lockstep with the music service’s popularity.

But while spending half of every dollar it brings in on royalties is a burden, it could be worse. A lot worse.

Prior to the summer of 2009, when Pandora and other Web services negotiated a new royalty deal, Pandora’s music bill was more than 100 percent of its revenues.

Check out this table from Pandora’s S-1, which breaks out each line item in its P&L as a percent of revenue. Notice how brutal the first two quarters of 2009 were. And see how much more tolerable (or at least less awful) they became after July 2009, when Pandora got its new rates (click image to enlarge):

See? Now 50 percent doesn’t look that bad.

And while Pandora’s music fees are hefty, the system that generates those bills is really one of the company’s strengths.

That’s because unlike other music services, from Apple’s iTunes to Spotify, Pandora doesn’t have to negotiate with individual labels and publishers to use their stuff.

Instead, it takes advantage of a U.S. law that created a “compulsory license” for Internet radio. That allows anyone to stream any recorded music they want, as long as they’re willing to pay for it. And as long as they’re functioning as a “Webcaster” and not an on-demand “interactive service.”

The advantages of using the compulsory license are huge. It means Pandora never had to ask the big labels for permission to use their stuff, or pay out giant advances or equity stakes to get a deal done.

While the licenses do come with restrictions–that’s why Pandora doesn’t let listeners request individual songs, and limits the number of times users can skip a song per hour, etc.- they haven’t dissuaded some 80 million people from using the service.

Those licenses don’t exist outside of the U.S., which is one reason Web radio services are such a rarity everywhere else, and why Pandora may struggle with international expansion.

And the fees that Pandora does pay will escalate each year until 2015, when it has to negotiate a new royalty agreement with the music industry.

It’s always possible that the rates will get significantly worse for Webcasters then, and that Pandora ends up in the shape it was in prior to the summer of 2009.

But for the next four years, at least, Pandora thinks it can work with the music bills its users are generating. Now we’ll see if investors agree.

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Nobody was excited about paying top dollar for a movie about WikiLeaks. A film about the origins of would have done better.

— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”