orange_owl (orange_owl) wrote,

Pandora: Thumbs Up.

Tim Gestures
Originally uploaded by typeweight.
Last night I attended the NC Pandora users Meetup. Tim Westergren, the founder, is about as natural of a spokesmodel as you could ask for. He's a long time musician. He's down to earth. He's clever. He's generous (with his time and swag). And he looks like he could be in a soap opera. That always helps.

I went to the meetup for a number of reasons. First, I have been using Pandora since it launched in October '05. Second, I am endlessly fascinated by innovations in sociable music media--and considering beginning a blog on that subject. Third, I also run meetups for Lulu and being on the audience end of a meetup helps me understand what I can do to better moderate my own Lulu events.

It's no surprise that Pandora has an interesting story behind its creation. Tim was a long time musician and then ended up writing film scores in the mid 90s. It was in this job that he found the best way to understand a stranger's musical taste was not by asking genre questions, but rather, pinpointing specific tracks directors were drawn to, then breaking apart that track's musical elements and finding other songs that had these same qualities. If the director was continually drawn to, say, legato, then he could delve further into understanding exactly what it is they wanted to hear. The music genome project does exactly this by listening track by track and rating songs based on a series of sonic components on a scale of one to ten. It does not group songs or arists by genre--like most other "recommended listening" programs, which opens the door to some bizarre suggestions. For example, it would be completely normal to hear a lesser known Britney Spears track on your Goth Industrial channel.

The company has been around for 7 years but did not launch the streaming radio site until 8 months ago. In its beginning, it was entirely devoted to creating and licensing use of the music genome project to larger companies, like Amazon and Yahoo. It wasn't until the rise of broadband coincided with the passing of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act that the idea to open up the genome project's usage to the public as streaming radio came about.

Users enter a track or artist they like, and then Pandora chooses the next track. You either thumbs up or thumbs down the tracks as they stream and it begins to map out your tastes. Pretty simple, but pretty powerful.

Tim shared some interesting facts about Pandora:

  • The site's name was chosen because Pandora was a musician and at the bottom of the box of surprises, there was hope. The site's namesake was not its first choice, however. Tim wanted to name it Pythagoras since he invented the octave, but the url was taken.
  • The site plays songs with closest simillarities in sets of 3-4. After the 3-4, it will send you down a slightly different branch and it's at this point that the user most often "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" that move. 
  • Every music analyst at Pandora goes through 150 hours of training to synchronize their listening skills. After all, what's vibrato-y to me, may not be vibrato-y to you. It's through this process that they at least hope that their team has a collective ear.
  • Users have a "collective ear" as well. Each track has a thumbs up/down count. Those which receive more thumbs up are more likely to be introduced to others and those with more thumbs down will be supressed.
  • There are currently over 20,000 labels in rotation on Pandora. 
  • The site is not legal outside of the U.S. When registereing, users have to enter a zip code . . . coincidently 90210 is the most popular.
  • Despite obvious comparisons to LastFM, Pandora does not plan to make social networking a main feature of its service. He did list one of the main 3 goals of Pandora as "Listener to Listener plans," but professional analysis will remain the core method of expanding the genome project.

To this day, no online radio company has had a "profitable" service, but Pandora is slowly making headway. They began as a subscription service and now they're like Flickr in that you have two options: an ad-supported free service or an ad-free subscription service. They have about 100 employees--approximately 50 musicians as analysts and 20 engineers. A ratio I find intriguing (what kind of office culture must that be like). I asked him to speak more about the office culture and he said that basically it's a huge space (all employees in house) with huge walls of albums, an open space with low cubes, stereos, and headsets where the analysts listen and enter data. There's also a stage with a ton of instruments that is used at the end of most work days.

Some music dudes lucked out--and so have we.
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