I’ve been playing with Pandora, the new Web-based streaming-audio “music discovery service.” Based on a week’s worth of hands-on experience, I’ve decided that (A) it works and (B) it’s going to be a Very Big Thing.
To use Pandora, you start by inputting the name of a pop artist or song that you like. This creates a “station” that you can “tune in” on your computer at will. The station then plays a record by that artist, followed by similar-sounding songs by different artists. You respond in turn by telling Pandora whether or not you like each song it plays. At any time you can input additional artists or song titles, which automatically increases the size of your station’s playlist. The more information you supply about your tastes, the more accurately Pandora can analyze them and select new songs you’re likely to enjoy.
How does Pandora work? It has access to 300,000 songs available through iTunes and amazon.com (you can use either service to purchase the songs you hear). According to Pandora’s Web site, these songs have all been analyzed in the following manner:
We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or “genes” into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song–everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It’s not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records–it’s about what each individual song sounds like.
Over the past five years, we’ve carefully listened to the songs of over 10,000 different artists–ranging from popular to obscure–and analyzed the musical qualities of each song one attribute at a time. This work continues each and every day as we endeavor to include all the great new stuff coming out of studios, clubs and garages around the world.
Believe it or not, this isn’t just hot air. When I “asked” Pandora why it was playing The Band’s “Look Out Cleveland,” for instance, it responded as follows: “Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features country influences, a subtle use of vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation, acoustic rhythm piano and mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation.” All true. Of course, it was also playing “Look Out Cleveland” because I’d already told Pandora that I liked The Band, but the very next song it played, Albert Lee’s “The Victim,” contained the same musical features, and I liked that one, too.
Once I’d inputted the names of a dozen artists and given thumbs-up and thumbs-down responses to the songs Pandora was playing in response, it became clear to me that the analytic algorithm it uses to choose new songs was sufficiently sophisticated to second-guess my musical tastes with an accuracy that bordered at times on the eerie. As I write these words, Pandora is playing me Frank Sinatra’s live recording with Count Basie of “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Why? Because it features “swing influences, smooth vocals, romantic lyrics, a horn ensemble and” (wait for it) “acoustic guitar accompaniment.” Sure enough, Freddie Green’s rhythm guitar is very prominent in the mix on the Sinatra-Basie recording of “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Needless to say, that’s not a detail a casual listener would be likely to notice, but it happens to be one of the aspects of this particular recording that I find most engaging.
All this points to the accuracy of another claim made by Pandora:
Together our team of thirty musician-analysts have been listening to music, one song at a time, studying and collecting literally hundreds of musical details on every song. It takes 20-30 minutes per song to capture all of the little details that give each recording its magical sound–melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics…and more–close to 400 attributes!
Allowing for a certain amount of what Joseph Epstein calls “blurbissimo,” I’d say this self-description is more than mere self-praise.
Pandora is a two-tiered system: you can use it for free by agreeing to listen to occasional advertisements, or you can skip the ads by paying a very reasonable fee. I’m not sure the company has started selling air time yet–I’m a free user, and I have yet to encounter any commercials–but presumably ads will start to appear as soon as a sufficiently large number of listeners are using the service. I can already tell you, though, that should I find them obtrusive when that time comes, I’ll definitely subscribe.
What I find most attractive about Pandora is that it offers the best of two worlds. I like choosing my own music–that’s why I have three thousand songs on my iPod–but when you do that, you’re never surprised by what you hear. Shuffle play is a way of getting around this problem, but only within a realm of choice predetermined by you; satellite radio offers a much greater degree of surprise, but only within one musical genre at a time. Pandora, by contrast, allows you to mix genres at will. By telling Pandora that I like (for starters) Louis Armstrong, The Band, Count Basie, Donald Fagen, Robert Johnson, Lyle Lovett, Nancy LaMott, Erin McKeown, Aimee Mann, Pat Metheny, Nickel Creek, and Luciana Souza, I’ve ensured that it will play a very wide variety of music–but never anything I know I don’t like. Radio Teachout plays no heavy metal or hip-hop. Within the parameters I’ve specified, though, it is constantly surprising me, usually in good ways–and when it plays something I don’t care for, I simply give that song a thumbs-down, thus ensuring that I’ll never hear it again.
Like blogging, Pandora is easier to experience than it is to explain, so I suggest you give it a hands-on try, bearing in mind that you’ll need to spend twenty minutes or so interacting with the program before it knows enough about your taste to start making intelligent music choices. Don’t let that throw you: the Pandora interface is both user-friendly and fun to use. My guess is that within a half-hour or less, you’ll be addicted.
A couple of years ago I came to the conclusion that terrestrial radio, as conventional broadcast radio is now known, was doomed, at least in its historic capacity as a mass medium for the dissemination of recorded music. Judging by this story, I’d say I was right on target. After spending a few days playing with Pandora, I now think the demise of music-oriented terrestrial radio will come even sooner than I expected. What’s more, I think Pandora could conceivably threaten the emergence of satellite radio as a major player on the home-music scene (unless some genius at XM or Sirius figures out a way to make satellite radio interactive, which seems highly improbable).
Yes, these are strong words, but wait until you’ve tried Pandora before you dismiss them as technophilic hype. I have no doubt–none at all–that it’s the most potentially significant music-delivery system to come along since the introduction of iTunes and the iPod. You heard it here first.
UPDATE: Sarah tried Pandora, and is impressed.