Pandora's new on-demand service is finally available to everyone - here's what it's like

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On Monday, Pandora completed the rollout of its new on-demand service, which competes with the likes of Spotify and Apple Music, and is key to the company's future.

Pandora has a massive and loyal audience, and its leadership is betting big that Pandora Premium, the new on-demand service, will be a hit.

"We intend to be profitable this year," Pandora CEO Tim Westergren said last month on CNBC . A chunk of that goal is likely tied to on-demand, where Pandora wants to have 6 to 9 million subscribers by the end of the year.

I spent about a week trying Pandora Premium before it launched, and I have both good news and bad news for Pandora investors.

The good news is that it's a beautiful and intuitive product, and is likely to snag some of Pandora's internet-radio fans, especially with playlist-building features that leverage Pandora's trove of historical data on longtime users. The bad news is that there are a few places where Pandora Premium misses on the chance to be the first service to seamlessly integrate on-demand with the "lean-back" style of listening Pandora is famous for.

Here's what I mean:

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Pandora's new on-demand service is finally available to everyone - here's what it's like

Services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora Premium share much of the same basic DNA, so I won't spend too much time on those elements. They all let you listen to basically any song you want for $10 a month — with a few high-profile exceptions like Taylor Swift — and they all let you save music offline to listen when you don't have reception.

The first things you'll notice about Pandora Premium, however, is that it generally makes those millions of songs a tiny bit easier to navigate than Spotify. I especially appreciated the ease at which I could toggle to just viewing "downloaded" songs, in the event that I wanted to limit my data usage. Spotify makes that process a tad trickier, and it shows that Pandora is really committed to making things dead simple.

Pandora's new on-demand service is finally available to everyone - here's what it's like

The piece I truly loved about Pandora Premium was how easy it was to make playlists. Pandora has built a nifty feature that lets you "add similar songs" to your playlists, easily turning that 4-song playlist into 20. It's a really nice touch, especially for longtime Pandora users.

And the "My Thumbs Up" playlist Pandora automatically makes of every song you have ever given a thumbs-up to is a useful trip down memory lane.

Pandora's new on-demand service is finally available to everyone - here's what it's like

But one place Pandora lags behind Spotify is in marquee pre-made playlists.

Spotify has popular curated playlists like "Rap Caviar," as well as updating personalized playlists like "Discover Weekly," meant to turn you onto new tunes. Both of those have developed a cult following, and while Pandora's radio stations can plug some of the "Discover Weekly" gap, blockbuster curated playlists feel like a missing element.

Pandora does have pre-made radio stations that function much like playlists (i.e. you can hop ahead to a different song in the queue). These come in varieties like "Today's Hits" in different genres, decades by genre, moods, activities, and so on. But they just don't have the same flavor as Spotify's.

Pandora's new on-demand service is finally available to everyone - here's what it's like

Where Pandora had the chance to shine, and blow Spotify and other competitors out of the water, was in connecting its internet radio roots to on-demand. Though other on-demand services have customized radio functionality, Pandora's has always been my favorite. In fact, though I'm a Spotify Premium user, I still use Pandora as my primary music service on my Amazon Echo. Pandora has always nailed the ease-of-use factor, and that's perfect for radio.

That continues with the new product. Pandora Premium makes it simple to save a song from a station to "My Music," add it to a playlist, download it, or start an entirely new station based on it. It also lets you easily jump from a song playing on a station to the album or artist page.

In short: The Pandora Premium interface for connecting stations and on-demand is great.

Pandora's new on-demand service is finally available to everyone - here's what it's like

The big problem is that, in practice, this lovely interface is hampered by a few things.

The first is that many of Pandora's "radio" songs are not licensed for on-demand. Those songs appear as "gray" and can only be used for radio functionality, so you can't save them to playlists or skip ahead to them.

When I asked Pandora about those gray songs, a spokesperson said they weren't a function of any outstanding record label deals that still needed to be signed, but rather represented songs that on-demand services generally didn't have. Pandora pointed to Taylor Swift as an example.

I understand why Pandora has chosen to keep those songs integrated into the Pandora Premium radio stations, even though you can't do things like save them or skip ahead. And if a Taylor Swift song popped up but was gray, I wouldn't be mad about it.

But what does get annoying is that Pandora doesn't seem to favor songs that are in its on-demand library over ones where it doesn't have the license, and that creates problems.

Here's an example:

While testing the service, I went into the "Pop and Hip Hop Power Workout" station and noticed that Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling" appeared in gray, as if Pandora didn't have an on-demand license for it.

Here's what that looked like:

That's odd, I thought, surely they have the rights to JT.

So I searched directly for the song and, lo and behold, "Can't Stop the Feeling" was right there, with an on-demand license.

What gives? What happened was that there were two versions of the song in Pandora, which likely happens if the song is released as a single, and Pandora has one marked as radio-only.

This two-version problem might be something Pandora fixes over time, but it speaks to a wider issue. Broadly, Pandora needs a better way of bridging that divide between radio-only songs and on-demand ones.

Here's another example:

I love listening to classical music, and while I might have a preference for a particular orchestra, in my radio stations I would rather have Pandora favor tracks it has on-demand rights to, or let me save a similar version of the song to "My Music" if it doesn't. It seems like something Pandora should be capable of at least offering as an option, but right now, it gets convoluted.

Pandora's new on-demand service is finally available to everyone - here's what it's like

This leads me to my final point: the Amazon Echo.

Let's get the first thing out of the way: Pandora Premium doesn't yet have support for devices like the Amazon Echo, though the company says it's coming soon. That's a bummer.

As I said before, I love using regular Pandora on my Echo, and I think it represents a huge opportunity for the company. I listen on my Echo when I'm doing other things, particularly cooking or writing. During those times, I don't want to actively engage in looking for music, so I go for Pandora's lean-back feel.

But what would be amazing is if, during the midst of this, when I hear a song I like, I could instantly tell Pandora to save it to "My Music" or to a particular playlist. That would be a game-changer for me because it would enable passive discovery of music in a whole new way.

No doubt when Pandora Premium comes to Echo you'll be able to do this, but Pandora has to fix the radio licenses issue first. If, when the wrong "Can't Stop the Feeling" pops up on a Pandora station, Pandora just tells me it can't save the song, instead of suggesting a similar version that it can save, that's a huge blunder.

Overall, I still have hope that Pandora Premium can be the first service to completely nail the combination of lean-back and on-demand, but its initial rollout has a few quirks that make it fall short.

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