Incoming Pandora CEO Roger Lynch Shreds With Corporate Bandmates at Aspen Fest: Exclusive Interview

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Steve Knopper
Roger Lynch

The rocker-turned-digital music executive talks about his musical roots and his plans to be a "stabilizing force" for his new company

SNOWMASS, COLO. -- Pandora's new chief executive officer put on his best John Mayer shred-face during the guitar solo in U2's "Vertigo" and head-banged with a fan in sunglasses and a bandana. "You get some adrenaline," Roger Lynch had said a couple of hours earlier, over salad in a hotel lobby, before his classic-rock cover band, The Merger, performed Sunday (Sept. 3) in a tent at Jazz Aspen Snowmass. "But I wouldn't call it nerves."

Lynch, the former Dish and Sling TV chief who will replace interim Pandora CEO Naveen Chopra as head of the struggling internet-radio giant on Sept. 18, has been playing guitar since he was 10. He was in bands throughout high school and practiced three hours a day, until he reached a crossroads. "Was I going to go to college, or try to pursue professional musicianship?" he says. "And I wisely decided to go to college." Of the four execs in the seven-year-old Denver band, which has raised $7 million for local charities, Lynch, 54, was the most confident, perfectly reproducing the solos in Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" and Santana's "Smooth."

Formerly the Moderators, The Merger is a classic-rock cover band of super-rich dudes and a few experienced ringers, including guitarist Josh Skelton and bassist Nick Golder, to polish the rough edges. Frontman Mike Fries, CEO of cable provider Liberty Global, reportedly made $40 million in personal compensation last year; he has an energetic, regular-guy stage presence and a decent rocker's voice, although he needed help from a backup singer when he couldn't hit the high notes in Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl," among others.

Performing in a dark, side-stage festival tent, The Merger did two nondescript originals written by guitarist Bryant Martin, a Denver real-estate developer, but emphasized red-meat baby-boomer standards such as Tom Petty's "American Girl," Van Morrison's "Wild Night" and Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright (for Fighting)." They mostly managed to look not like CEOs, although Fries checked his phone a couple of times during the hour-long set and made an awkward family reference during the Jet song. ("Are you gonna be my girl -- looking at my wife, she better say yes!")

The band drew a decent crowd of 75 or so people at first, a few in black Merger t-shirts, including spouses and family members, many dancing and raising wine glasses near stage front to the best-known songs. The fan in the shades and bandana went crazy for just about every song, to the point that Fries exhorted others to dance -- "not just this guy." Most of the younger fans disappeared by the end, perhaps to catch the Roots, one of the festival headliners, who played the main stage immediately after The Merger's set.

Lynch wore a black Pandora "music geek" t-shirt, jeans and sneakers and smiled through the solos. He began playing guitar after his parents split up and he and his mother moved in with his older sister and her husband, a student who jammed at nightclubs to pay for law school. "He taught me to play," Lynch recalls. He earned a physics degree at the University of Southern California, then an MBA from Dartmouth College. A longtime TV and telecommunications executive, Lynch joined Denver-based Dish in 2009 and helped launch the company's $20-per-month Sling TV package for non-cable subscribers. 

The band of CEOs had been performing as the Moderators for several years before Lynch joined; they practice in a warehouse and get together once every few months. "The band doesn't take that much time, really," he says. "We've already built a decent repertoire."

At the Westin, a brief shuttle ride from the Snowmass festival, Lynch gave a loose outline of his vision for Pandora. He had just left his Sling TV post two days earlier and hadn't studied every issue, so he couldn't comment on how SiriusXM's $480 million investment earlier this year might change the company. Pandora's user numbers have recently dropped, to 76 million from 81 million, as the company has undergone executive shakeups and trotted out a new $10-a-month, Spotify-like subscription plan. The company had rehired co-founder Tim Westergren to serve as CEO in 2016, but he lasted only a year. Lynch says he hopes to be a "stabilizing force" who sticks around far longer.

"Spotify's freemium model is there for one purpose, and that's to get people into subscription -- they use it as a funnel and they use it effectively," he says. "The opportunity at Pandora is bigger than that. Pandora is good at monetizing the free service, and there's more investment we can make in that...to bring in more listeners and therefore return more money back to the [record] industry."

Lynch seemed jittery as he waited to meet with the Roots' Questlove, explaining, "He's a very important partner for Pandora with his weekly show and I'm hoping we can figure out more things to do together." He dropped his guard when comparing the TV and record industries, which have similar histories of dealing with tech disruption -- Sling encouraged cable customers to cut their cords with a cheaper online service, while the record industry has been struggling with how to do this since online piracy kicked in 20 years ago.

Although Lynch has never really worked in music, he says the key is making sure record labels and streaming services deliver music to consumers in the way they want to receive it, rather than insisting they pay extra for products they don’t want. "Remember all those years back, Apple did that famous ad campaign, 'Rip. Mix. Burn'? The industry didn't like that one," Lynch says. "But they were trying to take away pain points... It leads to more consumer satisfaction and therefore more consumption." 

Given his ability to navigate the guitar solo in Santana's "Evil Ways," Lynch may well be the right person to take over a streaming-music company. "I'm able to use the experience I've built up in related industries -- and now apply it to where my real passion is," he says. Soon after he was on stage, a red-haired, tech-nerd Richie Sambora doing "Livin' On a Prayer."