Pandora launches song replays, more skips for all

The online radio veteran embarks on a two-part makeover, soothing its two main frustrations and revamping its $5 subscription as Pandora Plus to take on Spotify and Apple Music.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
3 min read
Watch this: Pandora Plus offers new perks for $5 per month

The times, they are a-changin', and Pandora just started catching up.

The veteran online radio provider said Thursday it will let listeners can skip more songs and replay tracks if they watch an extra ad. For $5 a month, paid members get those perks without any commercials plus a mode for listening offline, in a revamped subscription called Pandora Plus.

The announcement marks the most substantive change to Pandora's service in years by giving its listeners more control. It's also a step toward the kind of on-demand subscription music service popularized by newer rivals like Spotify and Apple Music.

"We're taking radio into the 21st century,"
CEO and founder Tim Westergren said in an interview.

Pandora hopes the changes mark the beginning of its rebirth. The company built its business as an online and mobile version of traditional radio, which meant you had little control over what songs played. While it battled the recording industry and rigid licensing rules, Spotify and Apple Music struck more modern deals that allowed you to listen to whatever you want, as much as you want.

As a result, the upstart on-demand services grew at a breakneck pace, and Pandora began to stagnate. Spotify this year outstripped Pandora in total listeners.

The big hole in Thursday's unveiling: As of publication, Pandora hasn't announced a deal with one of the three major labels, Warner Music Group. That means if you want to apply any of the new tricks to Warner content, such as Coldplay, Metallica, Ed Sheeran or Blake Shelton, you'll get a message that Pandora doesn't have the rights to deliver it yet.

Pandora's new features, which will reach all US listeners in about a month, are the preamble to a full, on-demand service to directly compete with Spotify and Apple Music, expected to be priced at the same $10-a-month level. It will launch later this year.

The company's confidence in its new propositions is ambitious. Westergren said Pandora, with a midpriced Plus subscription backed by its decade-plus of listening data, has the chance to be the company that takes subscription music mainstream. But he conceded Pandora also faces tough competitors.

"You can't compete with perpetual free, and that's what we're competing with right now," he said, referring to Spotify's unique free tier, which lets listeners hear any song with occasional ads. He said Pandora's advantage is how it solves the "simplicity riddle," or making it easy for listeners to hear music they like with little effort.

"Giving somebody 30 million songs in a search box, that's not an easy experience [for listeners]," he said. "That's fucking hard."

Initially, Pandora Plus and the new skip and replay features will be available to US listeners on mobile devices. Pandora plans to bring the perks to other platforms over time, and they'll roll out to Australia and New Zealand next year.

For nonpaying users, a new rewind icon in the lower left-hand corner of Pandora's app will let you rehear the song you were just playing or any tune in the listening history. Clicking it will trigger a prompt asking if you want to watch an ad. Pandora currently allows six song skips per station per hour. Starting Thursday, when you hit that limit, the app will pop up a similar prompt asking if you'd like more skips in exchange for watching an ad.

Pandora wouldn't specify how many more skips you get in the trade-off, but it characterized them as a "handful."

For paid members, those same features apply, without any advertising. Paid members also get unlimited skips.

The Plus membership also has an offline mode that works two ways. If you know in advance you'll be offline, like when you're boarding a plane, you can toggle to offline mode in settings, and Pandora will pare down your station list to your personalized radio station, called thumbprint radio, and three of your most active stations. If you suddenly go offline unexpectedly, like getting on a subway without service, Pandora will finish the song you're currently hearing and then notify you that it is switching you to one of those same four offline stations.