Pandora (NYSE:P) seems to be hitting all of the right notes these days. The leading music streaming platform's stock hit an all-time high on Friday, and even after closing lower on Monday, is still trading sharply higher this month.
It may seem odd. Earlier this month, Pandora reported that it suffered a sequential dip in users between September and October, heightening fears that Apple's iTunes Radio is eating into its previously growing user base since its mid-September launch.
Then we have Thursday's earnings report, where analysts see an improving profit of $0.06 a share on a 46% surge in revenue. This is where things can get hairy if it turns out that the Pandora users who are sticking around are the freeloaders taking advantage of Pandora's recent relaxation of listening caps for free accounts.
This is something that could turn the one positive in its report earlier this month on October's performance relative to September -- a healthy increase in the number of hours of content served up by Pandora -- into a negative. If the increase is coming from those who refuse to pay for the service, it's not going to be very model-affirming. It costs a lot of money to serve up these files and pay the related royalties. Online ad rates on audio content should be improving, but are we at the point where freeloaders bingeing on ad-supported tracks a viable business?
Apple claims to have served up more than 1 billion tracks to 20 million users during its first four to five weeks in the wild. That's impressive. It shows that folks aren't just kicking the tires or firing up the app by accident, but the average listening per user is far less than Pandora and its more than 70 million active listeners.
Until now, the market didn't have to question market share in premium audio. Sirius XM Radio on the satellite radio end and Pandora on the streaming front have both been able to grow. The demand for high-quality music and content is expanding, and it's why Sirius XM, Spotify, Pandora, and iHeartMusic continue to post growing metrics.
October wasn't the first month that Pandora suffered a sequential dip in active listeners or hours streamed. However, the timing of the event -- taking place during Apple's first full calendar month in the streaming market -- should make investors suspicious until the November metrics are announced. Pandora can set investors at ease on Thursday by providing upbeat insight into how November is shaping up.
Revenue, earnings, and guidance are the three major aspects of any quarterly report, but they have rarely been this important for Pandora. It needs to prove that it's milking more money out of its users, holding up on the margins front, and still growing in popularity. Anything less and investors may be feeling the pain later this week.