4 Questions for Pandora

Pandora's (NYSE: P  ) rocking and rolling these days.

The leading music-streaming service may be trading 25% below its 2011 IPO price of $16, but the shares have rallied nearly 70% since bottoming out in November.

Despite the rally, there are plenty of questions about Pandora's business and its model's potential as we head into Thursday's quarterly report.

Let's go over a few of the pertinent questions, including some that will likely be answered after Thursday's market close.

1. Is sequential growth resuming after a soft January?
One of the bigger negative surprises at the company that pioneered the music-discovery niche is Pandora's sequential slide in active users for the month of January. Pandora went from 67.1 million active listeners in December to just 65.6 million users a month later.

There are seasonal aspects at play, but active listeners didn't slip between December 2011 and January 2012.

The number of hours streamed also remained flat at 1.39 billion in this past December and January. There was a sequential uptick a year earlier.

Pandora should provide its metrics for February this week. There was a healthy sequential increase in active users and listener hours last year, and it would be problematic if this changes. Sure, Pandora would still be posting hearty year-over-year growth despite a sequential decline, but it would give more ammo to the argument that Pandora's service may be peaking.

2. Why did it start capping free mobile usage?
Pandora's problem has always been that the vast majority of its users are freeloaders.

Just 11% of the dot-com speedster's revenue came from subscription revenue in its latest quarter. That's a sharp contrast to Spotify and Sirius XM Radio (NASDAQ: SIRI  ) , which rely primarily on premium accounts.

One can rightfully argue that Pandora wouldn't be as popular if it wasn't consumed largely as a free ad-supported service, but the company is taking baby steps in that direction with last week's decision to cap free usage through mobile devices at 40 hours a month.

The timing is peculiar. Pandora is coming off a rare sequential slide in active listeners, and premium competition is starting to heat up. Sirius XM introduced personalized radio to enhance its streaming offering earlier this year, and Apple is widely rumored to be diving into this market soon.

3. Is advertising revenue still growing faster than subscription revenue?
As hard as it is for any music-streaming company to monetize digital content, Pandora's struggling even harder to grow its subscription revenue.

In its latest quarter, for example, ad revenue climbed 61% but subscription revenue rose by just 52%.

Sure, most companies would kill for 52% in subscription revenue growth. Sirius XM is naturally growing a lot slower, and even renewed market darling Netflix has only grown its sub revenue by 8% over the past year.

Pandora has bragging rights in there somewhere, but it's still not flattering for a company that's struggling to turn a profit to rely more and more on online advertising. The market's clearly rewarding the online subscription leaders. Pandora would love a piece of that.

Subscriptions bring consistency, especially if retention rates are high. Sirius XM relies on advertising for a sliver of its revenue, and Netflix doesn't bother with wooing marketers. It would be a great sign of progress if Pandora can get subscriber revenue growth to outpace its bread-and-butter ads business.

4. Will guidance for the new fiscal year meet or exceed estimates?
Pandora should initiate its guidance for fiscal 2014 -- which began last month -- on Thursday. It should also offer up a more accurate glimpse of how its current quarter is playing out.

Wall Street's eyeing a small loss on a 41% surge in revenue, but it wouldn't be a surprise if Pandora came in light on both fronts.

The move to cap mobile usage for free accounts suggests that profitability may be a problem, and the recent sequential weakness may spill over into soft top-line guidance -- at least for the fiscal first quarter.

Pandora has a lot to prove. At the very least it has to show that it's worthy of the nearly 70% rally since November's bottom.

Stream deeper into Pandora
Pandora has won millions of devotees among music fans but few supporters on Wall Street. The online jukebox seems to be redefining the way we consume music, a transformation that's only likely to grow. But high royalty rates and competition from all corners threatens to silence the company. Can Pandora translate success with its listeners into a prosperous business model that will deliver for investors? Learn about the key opportunities and potential pitfalls facing the upstart radio streamer in The Motley Fool's new premium research report. Not only will you get the kind of insight normally found from high-priced Wall Street brokerages, but you'll also receive a year's worth of free updates. All you have to do is click here now to subscribe to this invaluable investor's resource.


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