Pandora’s Site Is Recommended Listening

With all the talk about return on investment, earnings per share and monetizing multimedia on the Internet, it can occasionally seem like the Web search industry is taking itself too seriously. If you yearn to put some glide back into your online stride, it might be time to turn to Pandora, a music search site that basically wants to be your college roommate.

Like that roomie–or savvy co-worker, bass-playing neighbor or ideal record store clerk–Pandora asks what music you like and turns you on to a playlist of similar tunes and artists you may never have heard of. It can do this because its developers have put in the effort to analyze a library of (so far) 400,000 songs and 15,000 artists and to categorize them according to 400 musical traits—studying their musical DNA, so to speak.

In fact, Pandora has its roots in something called the Music Genome Project, begun back in 1999 by Tim Westergren, a former rock keyboardist. Taking a break from the road, Westergren was working on a score for an independent movie and was struck by the fact that the director had to explain what he wanted by alluding to other songs. Westergren began thinking about the categories and benchmarks we apply to music we like. He got a group of computer- and music-literate colleagues together and began work on a system for sorting and indexing the relationships among a library of songs.

This “genetic” approach looks at all the attributes of a song, from rhythm and tempo to harmony, instrumentation and vocal performance. Just in terms of vocal, for example, the project notes whether a song has a very nasal quality, or lots of falsetto, or little vibrato. If you like Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing”, you might also be interested in Bud Powell’s “Bouncing with Bud”. If you’re a Foghat fan, Pandora will play songs you might also like from White Lion and Campfire Girls.

Westergren’s efforts grew gradually from an interesting, slightly nerdy labor of love into a monetizable asset. The company formed around the Music Genome Project, Savage Beast, did some work applying its techniques to enable album recommendations at retail store kiosks for Best Buy, Barnes & Noble and Tower Records and on AOL.

What pushed it to the next level was the experience Westergren had of sharing a rehearsal space with the guitarist/singer Aimee Mann, whose label had just dropped her because she could “only” sell 400,000 albums. That news convinced him that the standard music-promotion system was irreparably broken and in need of a new approach.

“The notion grew up—something between Don Quixote chasing a dream and a real business opportunity—that there has to be a better way to connect artists with their audiences and listeners with music that they’re very likely to love,” says Pandora CEO Joe Kennedy. Pandora launched its music search Web site last August.

In brief, you tell Pandora the name of a song or an artist that you like. The engine searches through its database of 400,000 songs and 15,000 artists to find the ones that most closely match the traits of the song you’ve entered. The music is streamed lived to your desktop; it can’t be saved, and it can’t be moved to a portable device. But as long as the Pandora player is open, it will keep coming up with songs that resemble the one with which you started. In essence, Pandora works like an Internet radio station, and each song you ask it to match becomes a “channel”, saved for your future visits.

And the engine can “learn” about your tastes. During each song, a drop-down menu lets you give the music a thumbs-up or -down vote, to educate the algorithm about your preferences. If you add a second song or artist to that channel, Pandora will feed you music that shares traits with both your chosen selections. Registered users can keep up to 100 channels in their accounts.

The same drop-down menu can tell you why a specific song or artist fits your search. In most instances, users can also navigate to iTunes or Amazon to buy the song or album, although that’s not a requisite for getting a tune indexed in Pandora. Users can add song titles and artist names to a “favorites” page that can serve as a reminder the next time they’re downloading or shopping for music.

Digital-rights rules impose some strictures on how Pandora can deliver content. You can fast-forward past a song you don’t like, but only a limited number of times in an hour; that can be an irritant if you want to get a quick look at what songs Pandora has to suggest. You can pause play but you can’t rewind to hear old songs again. You also can’t call up a specific song on demand and can’t hear more than three songs off the same album in an hour or four songs from the same artist in an hour.

Right now, Pandora offers rock/pop, hip-hop and jazz, with a Latin music category in the works and thousands of new songs analyzed and added every week, courtesy of some 30 Bay-area musicians and musicologists. Pandora also gets a large number of suggestions from its listeners and keeps a file of failed searches as an indicator of music they still need to include.

Users can subscribe to a year’s worth of the Pandora service for $36 or three months for $12, or they can play it for free with an ad-supported version. In time, the company says, it may add more features to the subscription model. The company has only recently begun lining up display advertisers that will fit the look and feel of the site; the current ads lean heavily toward iTunes and selected film companies. But Kennedy is confident others will be drawn to the Pandora audience and its attractive qualities: broadband subscribers in product discovery mode, skewed heavily to the younger age group.

Kennedy came to Pandora in mid-2004 and, while he admits to being a music fan and an amateur piano player, says he’s more of a “lifetime consumer marketer”. He was the original vice president of sales and marketing for Saturn and a former president and COO of Web lending company E-Loan. Pandora caught his interest, he says, because “I love consumer categories where there’s a lot of passion on the line. People love buying cars but they hate dealers, and they love buying homes but hate the mortgage process. I helped change those things in my former jobs.”

A service like Pandora can be just as transformative, he says. “People love music, but a sad thing happens: Over time they lose the time and the social network to focus on it. So they wind up listening to the same things they liked in college. One of the special things Pandora does is to make it easy and fast to get connected to new music you haven’t heard.”

The laid-back business approach is echoed in Pandora’s promotion, which is mainly by word of mouth. Music is a good category for the viral marketing strategy, Kennedy says, because people enjoy passing on good recommendations. Users can e-mail their channels to friends. Westergren and other Pandora employees also post to an on-site blog that keeps the community feel going and offers times and dates for periodic meetups in New York, San Francisco and at MacWorld.

It’s a determinedly anti-business business strategy. “We have a saying around here: ‘After extensive research, we’ve concluded that music is about listening,’” Kennedy says. “We’d like to be the number one way that people of all ages listen to music. But we’re not ambitious to become the music super-portal, where people look at 100 different pages in the course of a visit. Music is about listening, and we’re about enabling people to quickly and easily connect with music that they love.”

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