As an independent company, nothing. Nothing is next for Pandora other than a boring, if not meager existence.
To be clear, There's no way Pandora can continue as an independent company. When Apple says, in no uncertain terms, that it intends to corner every aspect of the digital music market -- from downloads to free streaming radio to on-demand subscriptions -- it's obvious the game has changed. The answer that worked for Pandora previously no longer applies.
As the digital music landscape matures, it stops mattering that Pandora is distinct from Spotify. The argument that Apple failed (initially) with iTunes Radio and isn't competing directly with Pandora (it is) ceases to be relevant. The correct answer from Pandora to the Apple/Beats question should have been something with more humility like: What it comes down to for us is ... do we deliver ROI for our advertising clients? If we do, we can continue to build that business. But there's no question -- Apple has its sights set on digital music and, as such, we need to step up our game.
In other words, conduct yourself like the classy Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, not like the trash-talking Lance Stephenson of the Indiana Pacers. Because as Stephenson proved with his equally-as-delusional needling of LeBron James, when you say and do the wrong thing in business against the big boys it often comes back to bite you.
All of that said, Pandora management isn't stupid. I know these guys. For as arrogant as they appear (and, to some extent, are), internally they are taking this seriously. If they're not, things are more wheels off at Pandora than I originally thought.
The future of Pandora as a going concern hinges on the decision they will have to make before the end of 2014, if not immediately. Do we try to go at it alone or do we set our egos aside, swallow our pride and, much like Beats did, ask for some help?
For as hard as I have been on Pandora lately (and right, as the stock's off more than 30% since I took my bearish turn), I have confidence, particularly in Westergren, to make the right choice. While he might be stubborn, it would also kill the guy to see what he and Pandora's first round or two of employees built crumble. Westergren must see the writing on the wall. And it leads, in indelible ink, to Google (GOOG) (or, possibly, Yahoo! (YHOO)).
One thing Herring said that actually made sense was, and I'm paraphrasing ... Apple's really looking to compete with Google. Most everything he said around that was wrong, namely the slippery slope that because Apple's going after Google, it can't possibly impact Pandora. But he was correct that Apple is now more serious than ever about hammering Google. I have written about it extensively. And that's exactly why it's high time for Google to buy Pandora.
Pandora requires a savior. And Google could do incredible things with Pandora as it integrates the, for the time being, Internet radio leader into everything from a digital music ecosystem with the potential to compete with Apple to its search strategy.
I staked out exactly what a Google-Pandora marriage could look like back in early April. That article -- Google or Yahoo! Buying Pandora Makes a Ton of Sense -- is more relevant than ever. In fact, it's required reading to form an understanding of the digital music turf Apple and Google are set to dominate.
Pandora can only work in this mix if it agrees to let go of the past and step into a future where it drops the trash talk and gives itself more than a fighting chance to survive. Nobody should be trash talking Apple, but if anybody is going to, it sure as heck shouldn't be Pandora. Not now. Not ever.
--Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.