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Pandora Premium: the original music streaming giant is ready for prime time

The service will begin rolling out to US users on March 15th

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Just over 15 months after Pandora acquired key assets from Rdio, and three months after it announced its plans, the company is ready to launch its full-fledged on-demand music service, Pandora Premium.

For the most part, Pandora Premium is exactly what you would expect it to be: a $10-a-month service with millions of songs that you can listen to at will and save offline whenever you want. There are workout and driving mixes and — of course — a radio feature. But Pandora has worked to separate itself from the rapidly growing pack of streaming services with a slew of personalization features and the least complicated music app to date. The goal is to make a music streaming experience more approachable for many who may not have given Apple Music or Spotify a try.

While there are over 100 million people paying for music subscriptions around the world, there’s a huge audience that hasn’t given streaming a second thought. Apple Music’s enormous marketing push has kept its growth rate on par with Spotify since it launched, but even at 10 million subscribers a year, that still leaves a vast audience of potential customers, many of whom haven’t gotten on board because either they didn’t want to learn a new service or they found the current crop too complicated. That’s where Pandora sees an opportunity. “Today it’s just 30 million songs in a search box, essentially,” CEO Tim Westergren says. “I think that can be appealing to a small segment of the population, but for most people that’s just overwhelming; it’s hard work.”

“Today it’s just 30 million songs in a search box.”

On the surface, it may seem as if Pandora is very, very late to the streaming game: Apple Music launched way back in 2015 and has 20 million users. Spotify has been around for nine years and has 100 million users. There's Amazon, Tidal, SoundCloud, and even Google already in this game. But with 80 million users already listening to Pandora every month, the company thinks it has a strong base to grow on. The plan is to offer a new service with essentially no learning curve for those users, and a free six-month trial for current Pandora Plus subscribers. That's probably the best possible jump start for any streaming service, and so Pandora Premium is well positioned to give Spotify and Apple Music the legitimate third challenger that Google, Amazon, and SoundCloud haven’t been able to produce.

The first thing you’ll notice with Pandora Premium is that it takes fewer clicks to actually start playing music compared to Apple Music and Spotify. The app launches into My Music, which features a carousel of recently played albums and stations that can be played with one tap, something that requires switching tabs and searching through a list on Apple Music.

Below the carousel is a list of all your saved music, sorted in reverse chronological order — another decision that keeps you from going back and forth between the album, artist, and song lists that streaming users have become accustomed to. (You can still sort by those categories if you so choose, but the option is hidden in a drop-down menu.)

Pandora made simplicity a key focus on Premium, and it shows. When it comes to the design, the influence of Rdio is clear: big album artwork and a minimalistic look featuring clean, white lines combine to form a very intuitive design that will make it easy for both new and current Pandora users to pick up quickly. When compared to the simplicity of Apple Music’s second iteration, Pandora Premium is at least on par.

Pandora is also handling its catalog differently than the other streaming services. While it has access to the same 40 million-plus song catalog as Apple Music and Spotify, it is curating the catalog to get rid of karaoke, tributes, and duplicate tracks, which it says will help to improve search.

There are a few quirks that may take some getting used to if you’ve used other music streaming apps. Pandora Premium doesn’t offer pre-generated playlists — you have to create your own. The service relies heavily on its radio stations, but with Premium they come without the restrictions you may recall. Clicking on titles like ‘90s R&B and New Orleans Funk will launch radio stations instead of opening playlists like you’d expect on competing services. It sounds annoying, but in practice it’s pretty decent, thanks to a feature that helps you generate your own playlists on the fly.

Pandora has made Premium as novice-friendly as possible

Premium has a new feature that takes all the thumbs-up you give songs on a certain station and creates a playlists out of them. So after you listen to that New Orleans Funk station and give a few thumbs-up, you’ll have a personalized playlist full of your favorite songs. Because Pandora’s radio stations are far better than the competition — thanks to a decade head start and its Music Genome Project — the lack of traditional algorithmic or handcrafted playlists aren’t as big of a loss for the service as you might expect.

To head off the inevitable issue of creating a bunch of playlists from radio stations with four or five songs, Premium introduces an “add similar songs” feature that will add three to seven songs to your playlist at the click of a button. The algorithm will determine a handful of songs you’d enjoy based on the current content of your playlist, and it’s surprisingly accurate. With just a single Beyoncé track (“Drunk in Love”) in a playlist, the algorithm chose two Rihanna songs (“Pour it Up,” “Needed Me”) a Drake track (“Right Hand”), Nicki Minaj featuring Beyoncé (“Feeling Myself”), and another Beyoncé single (“Countdown”).

Pandora has taken the musical analysis and data science behind its radio stations that clusters songs that work well together and combined that with your musical tastes to offer up a small collection of songs every time you tap the magic wand. The customization goes further than just pulling together related songs, Chris Phillips, Pandora’s CPO tells The Verge.

Photo: Pandora

“Sequencing is such an important part. It’s not just grabbing the right music to put into a playlist for you, it’s also organizing it and sequencing it so it flows,” Phillips says. “Those are really important qualities when you want to have a listening experience that just works. Just grabbing a bunch of recommendations of songs and throwing it in front of you still requires you as the user to do work. Our whole aim was to do it for you.”

The best aspect of the “add similar songs” feature is that it learns your preferences as you keep or remove the songs it adds. “If you delete all four [recommendations] but leave one in there, that’s a pretty strong signal that you like that one song,” Pandora’s VP of product, Chris Becherer, says. “There’s a lot of really delicate constant learning going on around how you feel about those recommendations. If you delete it, we will learn right away.”

One of the features Pandora announced at its event in December was AutoPlay, an import from Rdio which creates a radio station based on the song or album you just listened to, so music never stops playing. That feature — which has already been copied by Spotify — won’t be ready for the launch of Premium, but Pandora says it’s still in the works and will be available on the service in the near future.

As the exclusive war continues between Apple Music and Tidal, Pandora Premium will miss a few albums at launch from time to time. Last year, albums from Drake, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Chance the Rapper were all kept off competing services for a week or two when they launched on either Apple Music or Tidal, and those moves show no signs of slowing down. For its part, Pandora says it’s against long-term exclusives, and won’t get into the race between Apple Music and Tidal for windowed albums.

“I don’t really think that’s a winning strategy for anybody.”

“That’s not a focus for us,” Westergren says. “I don’t really think that’s a winning strategy for anybody — either services or the artist or labels. And you’re already seeing that, some of the label execs have spoken out about that and put the kibosh on exclusives. In music, I don’t think that single albums command that kind of control over a service. If you have an exclusive you might get a short-term bump, but it’s not sustained. We don’t see that as important.”

That may sound like someone who doesn’t want to pay millions to artists to lock up an album for two weeks, but Westergren is echoing a large portion of the music industry. Universal Music Group has already banned exclusives, Spotify is still avoiding them, and artists like Lady Gaga and Adele have shunned them. So if you’re a Pandora Premium subscriber, you may not get access to the next Chance the Rapper or The 1975 album as soon as it launches, but so far that hasn’t seemed to bother the 100 million Spotify users that much.

It’s clear that Pandora has made Premium as novice-friendly as possible. There’s a toggle to hide explicit music on radio stations and in search. The New Music section is tailored for your tastes. The app features Ticketfly interaction so you can buy tickets as you stream your favorite artists. There’s also a My Thumbs Up playlist that includes every song you’ve ever liked. If you’re coming from the free version of Pandora, it won't take very long at all to get used to it. If this is your first time signing up for a streaming service, you’d be hard-pressed to find an easier experience.

But for advanced users, some of these changes may not be welcome, and I doubt Pandora will be able to convince a bunch of Apple Music and Spotify users to leave their musical homes for the service, at least initially. There’s no way to edit the “up next” queue. Premium won’t launch with a desktop app or an iPad app (a web app is in the works). There are no music videos or videos of any kind. Sonos support and Echo support are in the works, but they’re not ready yet. And some people just can’t live without being able to see the entire playlist before hitting play. Westergren says some of these features are in the pipeline, but right now Pandora is focused on the masses and keeping Premium easy to use.

“We’re really going to be just maniacally focused on what really enhances the experience for everybody,” Westergren says. “There will be power user capabilities. Will video appear on Pandora? That’s been on our list for a long time. But it’s more about what are the right things to do next and in what order, to make the product better and keep it simple. That’s our guiding philosophy.”

“I don’t think there’s really a true premium product out there yet.”

While many people within the music industry question whether Pandora can make noise with Apple and Spotify dominating the streaming landscape, Pandora isn’t shying away from making it known that it wants to be the best — and the biggest service. Pandora has said that it wants to finish the year with around 6–9 million Premium subscribers; when I asked Westergren if Pandora wants to be the top streaming service within five years, he responded with an emphatic “absolutely.”

“We have very grand ambitions for what this can be,” Westergren said. “If we look around at the space right now, we just don’t think that there’s a product that’s done it right. No one has solved the ease of use and personalization part of the on-demand world. I don’t think there’s really a true premium product out there yet… we think we’re bringing something really different here.”

Pandora has opted for a staggered rollout plan for Premium on iOS and Android, with current users first in line. Existing users of Pandora’s free service will be able to test out Pandora Premium free for two-months, with invites to the trial beginning to roll out on March 15th. Pandora Plus users will get to try out Premium for six months for free, which is the best deal any streaming service has offered to date. Non-Pandora users will also have access to the two-month free trial, and can click here to sign up for an invite. Invitations will begin rolling out in mid-April.

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge