Like many music fans, I will go to great lengths to
find new artists or songs
that move me. I’ve spent countless hours at music store listening stations. I’ll call a radio station’s listener line, if I hear a new song that I like. I’ve spent ridiculous amounts of time rating and browsing artists in various online recommendation systems. While I’ve found lots of great music, at times, it can begin to feel like work.
online radio, but with the exception of a few genre-specific shows, it’s hard to find stations online that can consistently keep my interest. Then there’s the sub-par sound quality of some stations and the multitude of competing streaming formats and client software required to listen to them.
What I’ve needed all along is a personalized radio station that would play high-quality streams of songs I love, plus introduce me to new music suited to my taste. A new Web site debuted recently, called
Pandora, seemingly in answer to my musical prayers. Not only does it let users create a customized and personalized station of 128Kbps streaming music, Pandora lets users create up to 100 such stations.
Curious About Pandora?
Pandora’s strength comes from its extensive database of songs and their unique properties, called the Music Genome Project. Over the course of several years, a team of trained musicians have analyzed the attributes of songs by close to 12,000 artists. The results of their analysis contribute to making Pandora’s recommendations startlingly accurate.
Getting started with Pandora is easier than most online radio stations. The site uses a simple Flash-based streaming audio player. Since Flash is so ubiquitous on the web, most users will be able to listen immediately without needing to download and configure additional software.
Users can create new stations by choosing a single song or an artist’s name to act as a station’s “seed.” If Pandora recognizes the selection, it begins to stream music that shares many of the same attributes as the seed artist’s work. Pandora doesn’t simply select music in the same genre, but music that is similar based on the close to 400 attributes analyzed for each song in the Music Genome Project.
Users can pause the current song as well as skip to the next track in the queue. An additional menu is available by clicking on the cover art representing songs. The resulting pop-up menu allows users to rate a song with either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Marking a track thumbs-down immediately queues a new track to begin playing. The menu also contains links to Amazon.com and to the iTunes Music Store, making it easy to purchase the music that suits your taste. Users can also create new stations based on the song currently being played.
A feature unique to Pandora is the “Why did you play this song?” option. Selecting this item will display some of the attributes unique to the station and song currently being played. Prior to Pandora, I couldn’t have told you that I enjoyed music with modal harmonies, a tight kick sound, and prevalent use of a groove. Now I can.
The Story of Pandora
Pandora grew out of founder Tim Westergren’s career as a musician. Westergren got his start in the music business as a piano player, touring for years with various bands before eventually settling down to compose film scores. It was his work on films, trying to piece together music to fit the precise mood called for by a particular scene, that led Westergren to think about breaking down the component building blocks of songs in order to better connect fans with music.
By early 2000, with help from some friends and a round of venture capital funding, Westergren was heading up a team of musicians bent on uncovering the “music genome” through painstaking analysis of individual songs. The initial business plan called for the company to license its data to music retailers both online and off, allowing customers to access the system to find music they loved.
The company found some modest success placing kiosk systems with retailers such as Best Buy, as well as striking deals with AOL and Tower Records online. All the while, the team of specially trained musicians toiled away, continuing to build up the music genome. With the changes brought on by the dotcom bust, the company eventually fell on hard times.
In a recent interview with Playlist, Westergren said, “Once we picked our heads up out of the weeds and looked around, one of the things that became clear to us was that music was increasingly heading in the direction of being streaming channelswhere music consumption was more and more going to be about listening and about playlists, as much as it was about CDs or about physical goods.”
Since the Music Genome Project analyzes individual songs, Westergren says, “The strength of the genome really comes out when you’re dealing with a playlist technology. We’re particularly good at organizing, managing, and crafting playlists at a song level. So, it all coalesced for us.” From that realization, it took about a year to get the new streaming service online.
What Makes Pandora Unique
Pandora stands above typical online radio stations, since users can partially control the playlists. Users still get introduced to new music, but it’s no longer necessary to sit through uninteresting tracks.
Pandora is also unique among recommendation systems, since it lets users listen to entire songs, not just short clips. In addition, the service is specifically designed to help connect users with lesser-known but no-less-worthy artists. Unlike collaborative filtering sites, in Westergren’s words, “Pandora places no weight on how well known the music is. It doesn’t have that knowledge.” Instead, Westergren says Pandora plays “whatever makes sense musically.”
Users of Pandora can also help introduce their friends to the new music they’ve found. Users can email invitations to a given station, which allows the recipient to listen to the stream, though not refine its playlist.
There are a few downsides to Pandora. The stations are prone to repeating songs, sometimes a bit too often. However, it’s hard to fault the service too much, considering it’s easy to advance tracks.
Fans of world music will be disappointed to hear that until recently Pandora has focused primarily on songs in English, since the lyrical content is factored into the analysis. In recognition of this shortcoming, the company has begun a push to add European and Latin music. Classical music is also noticeably absent. The company is still in the process of evaluating how to approach the overwhelming volume of classical recordings.
What is in Pandora’s future? Westergren says the service continues to add new music and is especially focused on adding independent artists as it moves forward. In response to user requests, the company is also considering features to give users finer control of the musical attributes heard on a given station.
There may be more in store for fans of the service. One of the most commonly requested features has been the ability to listen to Pandora when not connected to the Internet. Westergren was vague about the specifics, but did say “the ability to have the exact same experience when you’re not connected is in the cards.” He added, “Our goal is for this to be the best listening experience anytime and anywhere. That’s our missionwhether you’re jogging or in your car.”
Matt Vance (
) is a technology consultant, Web developer, and freelance writer