Instead of a fade out, the next move for Pandora Media (NYSE:P) might be a key change. Shares of the music streaming pioneer moved 6% higher yesterday, after a major shareholder voiced a desire for Pandora to seek strategic alternatives. This would result in a buyout in an ideal scenario, and as an activist investor Corvex Management would love nothing more than for its roughly 10% stake to appreciate as a result of a modest buyout premium.
Pandora has run into some growth challenges lately. It had 79.4 million active listeners by the end of March, nearly unchanged from the 79.2 million users it was servicing a year earlier. Consolidated revenue has soared 29% over the past year. Pandora's doing a great job of milking more money out of its listeners. However, the lack of user growth and mounting losses have kept the stock in check. Pandora stock has surrendered 74% of its value since peaking in early 2014. If activists are clamoring for an exit strategy -- and there's a willing buyout out there -- independence may not be up to Pandora.
Let's go over a few of the companies that would benefit from Pandora -- and can afford to buy it.
There's probably a fan fiction base devoted to Pandora buyout speculation, and Apple is often at the heart of the chatter. CNBC's Jim Cramer was doing it late last year. Billboard followed suit earlier this year, after New York Times' DealBook blog reported that Pandora hired Morgan Stanley to help it smoke out potential suitors.
Apple makes sense. It dominated the world of digital downloads, but now that streaming has become the consumption media of choice Apple's iTunes Music Store feels dated. It paid $3.2 billion for Beats Electronics, a deal mostly for Dr. Dre's flagship headphones business but also for its budding Beats Music subscription offering. Apple has used that as a springboard for Apple Radio and more recently Apple Music, but it will take the consumer tech giant a long time before it reaches a streaming audience as large as Pandora or Spotify.
It's true that Pandora's audience consists largely of freeloaders, streaming Pandora in an ad-supported format for free. However, Apple has a funny way of getting folks to pay a premium for stuff.
Another tech giant with tens of billions in the bank is Microsoft, and just as analysts see Apple posting a rare decline in revenue this fiscal year the world's largest software is also expected to post its first top-line decline.
Apple may make more sense as a possible acquirer, but Microsoft is hungrier. It's been second fiddle to Apple in portable media players when its Zune flopped against the iPad, and it's a distant third fiddle to Android and Apple's iOS when it comes to mobile.
Microsoft still has strong ties with young consumers, but more through the Xbox than Windows. This is where Pandora's reach can help Microsoft. It would make Mr. Softy relevant in digital music, and therefore mobile and millennials.
One of biggest busts in social media stocks has been Twitter. The stock has plummeted 81% since peaking shortly after its IPO in late 2013. Unlike Apple and Microsoft, Twitter's still growing on the top line.
The problem for investors is Twitter's stubborn user engagement and decelerating growth in active users. Twitter isn't afraid to throw big money at catalysts. We've seen Vine and Periscope push it into digital video and a deal with the NFL for content. Music is the missing piece, and that's where Pandora would certainly help.
Apple, Microsoft, or Twitter would look better with Pandora on its arm, and they can all afford to snap up the potential buyout bait. A modest premium to Pandora's $2.2 billion in enterprise value can get it done, and all three of those companies could use the kick that a repositioned Pandora would provide.