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Comments Posted 07.16.10 | PERMALINK | PRINT | SINGLE PAGE

Rob Walker

The Song Decoders


 He founded his company with two tech-and-business-savvy pals in the start-up-friendly year of 1999. Back then it was called Savage Beast Technologies, and the early (not exactly farsighted) business model involved listening kiosks in record stores. Eventually the company got new financing, beefed up the executive team and landed on using its genome as the engine of an Internet radio service “that plays only music you like.”

Pandora went online in 2005 and looked much as it does today. When you arrive at the site, you’re invited to type in the name of an artist, or a specific song. Let’s say you type in “These Foolish Things,” by Stan Getz. The Pandora genome looks for something it judges to have a similar infrastructure — like, when I tried recently, “I Don’t Know Why,” by Don Byas.

This is Pandora’s first guess at a song you will like, based on upon its analysis of the song you picked. You can simply let it play; click a “thumbs down” icon to try another song; or give it a thumbs up if you want Pandora’s algorithm to know this was a particularly good choice. You can also click to learn why the song was chosen: you don’t get a full breakdown but rather a kind of thumbnail summation. In this case the Byas tune was chosen “because it features swing influences, a leisurely tempo, a tenor-sax head, a tenor-sax solo and acoustic-piano accompaniment.”

If you click a lot, the idea is that Pandora’s algorithm adjusts, squaring your taste with the genome’s database. There are other ways to tweak things — adding more songs to a “station” for the system to scrutinize, creating different stations based on other artists or songs, telling the service not to play a given song for a while. (This happens on a station-specific basis: whatever preferences I express on a station based on “My Sharona” would not affect the songs on, say, my Yanni station.)

Relying on advertising revenue — visual ads on its site as well as occasional audio ads interspersed between songs on your stations — means that much depends on Pandora’s genome doing a good-enough job to keep people listening. (There’s also a “premium” ad-free service for $36 a year, and Pandora makes a small commission if you click through its site to buy a song on iTunes or Amazon.com, but it’s primarily an ad-driven business.) Its biggest expense is the licensing fee it pays to publishers and performers; the performance fee, paid to an entity called SoundExchange, which distributes royalties to artists, is equal to something like 50 percent of Pandora’s revenue. When you start a station with a specific song, that song isn’t the first thing you hear, because this would an entail an “on demand” license, which costs even more.

By way of Pandora’s Twitter feed, I issued a call for users who not only listened to the service a lot but also felt that it had had some kind of impact on their listening tastes. Summer Sterling, a 21-year-old senior at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., often starts by typing in well-known bands like the Dixie Chicks, and that has led her to music by groups she had never heard of but now loves, like the Weepies. Stephanie Kessler, a 24-year-old M.B.A. student in St. Louis, started by typing in K T Tunstall and has found her way to Waylon Jennings and David Allan Coe.

Aashay Desai, a 25-year-old computer engineer, has become a “very meticulous” user, building some 30 stations and paying for Pandora’s premium service, which offers better sound quality and more features. Aside from his hard rock/metal station, he has a “metalcore” station that’s “a little more aggressive,” as well as a “polyrhythm metal station” that is probably his “most aggressive.” He has also built an R&B station and a trance station; more recently he discovered Django Reinhardt, whom he used as the basis for a gypsy jazz station.

Others, of course, are not impressed by the genome’s results. Someone passed along to me a harsh assessment by Bob Lefsetz, whose popular Lefsetz Letter critiques pretty much every aspect of the contemporary music business. “I tried and rejected it,” he wrote. “Was flummoxed when a Jackson Browne station I created delivered a Journey song. Huh? . . . Jackson is music for the mind, Journey is music for the MINDLESS!”

Jonathan McEuen told me he heard about Pandora a couple of years ago and started using it immediately, “with the goal of breaking whatever algorithm they had.” A devoted music fan and a musician himself, McEuen says he did not believe an online service could understand what sort of music he would like and introduce him to new artists based on some deconstruction of his listening tastes. “You can’t just reduce it to a bunch of numbers,” he recalls thinking. “This is a romantic, emotional thing,” and Pandora’s approach to it “can’t work.”

He has changed his mind. A 28-year-old clinical neuroscience researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, he’s a listener who lacks the time to keep up with music news the way he did while amassing hundreds of CDs as a student. Sometimes he runs Pandora as background music; sometimes he’s more engaged, using it as a way to learn about contemporary classical and opera — and as a result has become a fan of the music of a young composer named Eric Whitacre. “I don’t know how else I would have found out about it,” he says. “Except through the exhaustive process of making new friends on the Internet. Which is something I’m kind of loath to do.”

What I didn’t hear Pandora users talk about was the Genome Project; many didn’t really know about it. They cared about the music Pandora served up, period. But I wanted to know what was behind that music. 
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Rob Walker is a technology/culture columnist for Yahoo News. He is the former Consumed columnist for The New York Times Magazine, and has contributed to many publications. He is co-editor (with Joshua Glenn) of the book Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things, and author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are
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