Listen up, Pandora Media (NYSE:P) investors! Your favorite music streaming specialist reports fourth-quarter 2014 results on Thursday, Feb. 5, so it's time to start thinking about what to expect.
Pandora's guidance calls for quarterly revenue in the range of $273 million to $278 million, which should translate to adjusted earnings per diluted share of $0.17 to $0.19. Analysts mostly agree, with the consensus calling for revenue and earnings of $276.3 million and $0.18 per share, respectively.
But last quarter, Pandora stock plunged despite the fact the company not only beat expectations on revenue and earnings, but also offered a better-than-expected outlook. It's helpful, then, to dig deeper in an effort to understand what really drives Pandora's results.
Here are three questions I'll have at the ready when Pandora reports.
Will active listener growth decelerate again?
First, the primary reason the market scoffed at Pandora's strong third quarter was slow growth in active listeners, which continued to decelerate as the total number rose just 5.2% year over year to 76.5 million -- just a touch below analysts' expectations for 76.7 million. Before that, Pandora had achieved 8% and 7.5% active listener growth in the first and second quarters of 2014, respectively.
Even so, Pandora management expressed confidence in its long-term ability to grow to at least 100 million users in the U.S. -- albeit at a slower pace than in years past -- primarily thanks to growing penetration of smartphones, connected cars, and other Internet-enabled devices. As the 250 million total weekly radio listeners in the U.S. gradually transition to streaming music, and as Pandora continues to more effectively monetize that base, patient shareholders should reap the rewards.
How loyal are those listeners?
But while Pandora obviously wants as many people tuning in as possible, CEO Brian McAndrews insists the number of monthly active listeners isn't the best way to measure the company's success. To the contrary, McAndrews suggested investors would do well to place more weight on the loyalty of those listeners.
To be sure, overall listening hours increased 25% year over year last quarter, while hours per active user per month jumped 18% over the past year. Put another way, McAndrews elaborated, "The average Pandora listener now uses Pandora for almost 10 days per month, almost three-quarters of a day more than the same time a year ago."
Naturally, when Pandora announces results on Thursday, we should hope to see this trend continue. If it has, it bodes particularly well for Pandora now amid increasing competition from the likes of Apple's iTunes Radio, Google Play Music, and Amazon's Prime Music service.
Any updates on royalty rates?
Finally, don't forget that in November, Pandora held a conference call with investors to defend its stance on the ongoing "Web IV" royalty rate-setting proceeding commenced by the U.S. Copyright Royalty Board earlier in the year. As part of that proceeding, the CRB is set to determine royalty rates and terms for 2016 through 2020 under the license used by digital radio services like Pandora.
However, keeping in mind Pandora paid over $100 million in royalties for the third consecutive quarter in Q3, royalty collector SoundExchange is requesting a large rate increase for the period that Pandora says is unsustainable and would force it to reduce exposure to rights-holders' music by 75% -- that is, at least until Pandora could come to alternative terms with deals made directly with labels, as it did with global rights agency Merlin last August.
As it stands, McAndrews last explained that the involved parties were set to hold a settlement conference before the end of 2014, with reports filed with the CRB by Jan. 7 indicating whether a settlement had been reached. If it hadn't, rebuttal statements would be due to be filed with the CRB by Feb. 17, followed by another discovery period, more rebuttal testimony in early April, closing arguments in early June, and a final determination by the CRB by the end of 2015.
Considering neither Pandora nor SoundExchange has offered any updates to the situation, I'm assuming Pandora is readying its February rebuttal statement now. In any case, rest assured we'll be listening closely to what management says about royalties during this quarter's call.