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  • 1:38:05 am
  • Saturday
  • 20 July 2024

Pandora: Opening a Better Box

Tim Westergren and Pandora open up new worlds of music to countless internet surfers every day.

The virtual ubiquity of the internet in homes and dorm rooms around the world has both helped and hurt musicians over the past few years. While some bands and labels enjoy an accelerated spread of recognition by word-of-mouth (or is it now word-of-keyboard?), both legal and illegal downloading took its toll on the economic side of things in 2005, arguably the worst fiscal year in non-digital music industry history.

One of the factors leading to this is the advent of digital music and peer-to-peer sharing—the less legal 21st century version of the cool older brother who gives you his old Talking Heads vinyls. However, that little issue of illegality does make it a tad controversial and, well, risky. Enter the compromise:

Pandora is like that one moderately hipster friend of yours; the one you can mention a certain band to who then lists off about ten others you’ve never heard of along with the guarantee “you’re gonna love these guys.” This friend is pretty consistently right about 70% of those recommendations, so you trust him and at least give him the benefit of the doubt in all of his music advice. We’ll call him the Good Jukebox on Shuffle Friend. Pandora, an internet-based streaming audio player, is your new Good Jukebox on Shuffle Friend.

Pandora is a product of the efforts of the Music Genome Project, a daunting and seemingly endless quest to catalog and analyze all existing music in terms of music theory. Pandora works with the progress of the Music Genome Project to be the Good Jukebox on Shuffle Friend; type in the name of a band or song, and Pandora begins streaming songs similar in musical characteristics to the entry. Rinse and repeat with as many of your favorite bands or songs as you’d like. So far, the Music Genome Project has almost 60 years of non-classical music analyzed to draw from, analyzed in terms of about 400 different attributes. The analyzed artists range in popularity from Top 40 royalty to fresh-faced 20-somethings just out of the college town bar scene. Any elitist can find a new gem to brag about knowing before anyone else—with the exception of those at Pandora of course.

The Project and its internet manifestation were founded by Tim Westergren, who can add ‘super-hero of new music discovery’ to his resume that already includes ‘accomplished musician’, ‘award-winning composer’, and ‘record producer’. Tim was kind enough to take some time and answer a few of my questions via email.

TWEED: First and foremost, I have to compliment you on Pandora’s ease of use and comprehensiveness. In about an hour I had already become addicted to it and had about 15 new favorite bands.

TIM: We’re very pleased to be facilitating addictive behavior! Particularly pleased that you’re discovering new music through Pandora—we think that’s the single most important part of an ongoing love affair with music.

TWEED: Can you give me a brief history of how the Music Genome Project came about and when the idea for creating a program like Pandora first entered your mind?

TIM: As a professional musician I was often frustrated by how hard it was for new artists to find an audience. My all-time favorite artist, a brilliant composer and musician named Judee Sill, died in relative obscurity several years ago, despite a cult following among musicians. I really started thinking a lot about this in 1999, when online music was taking off, and held so much promise. In spite of its inherent ability to connect people one on one, the online music space quickly became an electronic replica of the traditional business. Recommendation systems that were used just compared your shopping or listening preferences to those of others before making suggestions, a methodology that remained inherently biased toward what is already popular. I resolved to make it easier for people to find new music to enjoy, based on what the music they already love sounds like—and to do it in a way that was based on musical qualities, not popularity, or some kind of exclusive editorial taste-making. I wanted a more objective methodology, and one that would not be inherently biased against lesser-known bands. Our journey started more than five years ago, when we created the Music Genome Project methodology and started analyzing thousands of songs, one at a time. Nolan Gasser, a Stanford Ph.D. and musicologist was instrumental part of this effort. Together with a number of other very talented musicians, we broke down music into its component parts—kind of like musical primary colors. It was kind of a crazy idea at the time.

TWEED: Did you have any personal bias on what music you wanted to emphasize in either project?

TIM: Not really. We just look for high-quality music in all genres. We don’t care whether it was created by a well-known band that has already achieved commercial success or one that is just starting out.

TWEED: You’ve been involved with the world of music in many ways—as a musician, composer, and producer among other things—do you still work in these other fields or is Pandora your primary focus for the time being?

TIM: I’m afraid my practice hours have been rather diminished over the past few years... But one of the great things about working in a company full of musicians is that there are weekly jam sessions so there are regular excuses to play music, if only for fun.

TWEED: What do you see as Pandora and the Music Genome Project’s mission for the future and are you going to continue the Music Genome Project until you map every piece of music in existence?

TIM: Our primary goal will always be to help music lovers discover and enjoy music they love. In so doing, we hope to affect many positive changes on the industry. We hope for example, that many, many more musicians will be heard—and perhaps that someday because the Music Genome Project is so widespread, making a living as a musician will become a reality for tens of thousands of artists, rather than hundreds. We also hope the sharing of music across continents will bring world peace... but more on that later. As far as the genome goes, we will continue to add new music as fast as we can (thankfully, we’ll never catch up)—including expanding into new areas like world music. The playlist algorithms will always be a work in progress and we don’t see an end to possibilities for exciting new features.

TWEED: Once again, congratulations on taking on such an ambitious and valuable project and making it so accessible. Thank you so much for your time and good luck with this and all your other musical projects from here on out.

TIM: My pleasure.

Kevin Michell
Monday, 23 January 2006

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