In the beginning, we were all blown away by Pandora, right? Type in the name of an artist, and it generates an instant radio station based on their music. You rate particular songs up and down and it refines the station. You can store multiple stations of your own, and mix and match them at will. And it works really, really well; you discover music you’d never heard of that you love, and more importantly the music experience is just really good.
So how does it work? I guess shockingly, the hard way. They have people — Pandora employees, no croudsourcing here — sitting around listening to and categorizing songs. So when Pandora says you’ll like something because of “swung rhythm, minor tonality, syncopated guitar, and whispered singing” (or whatever it says), those are tags that someone manually applied to that song. Amazing. This is from a feature on Pandora in NYTimes’ magazine last week. Here are a few particularly interesting bits (and do not miss the completely absurd accompanying “infographics”):
[Tim Westergren, Pandora founder] likes to tell a story about a Pandora user who wrote in to complain that he started a station based on the music of Sarah McLachlan, and the service served up a Celine Dion song. “I wrote back and said, ‘Was the music just wrong?’ Because we sometimes have data errors,” he recounts. “He said, ‘Well, no, it was the right sort of thing — but it was Celine Dion.’ I said, ‘Well, was it the set, did it not flow in the set?’ He said, ‘No, it kind of worked — but it’s Celine Dion.’ We had a couple more back-and-forths, and finally his last e-mail to me was: ‘Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion.’ ”
They moved on to vocals [in Indian classical music, a new genre being added to Pandora], and Alan Lin, a violinist, ticked off the scores he came up with for things like rhythmic intensity and the relative exoticism of the melody scale. “I actually put exotic at 3.5,” he said. This prompted Sameer Gupta — a percussionist and an expert on Indian music who was weighing in by speakerphone from New York — to lead a brief discussion of how to think about melody and exoticism in this context. Seven or eight scores related to melody, and then about the same number for harmony. (“A 5 for drone,” one analyst announced.) More scores related to form. Tempo. The timbre of the reeds. When Gupta gave his score for riskiness on the percussion — a 3.5 — Lin did a sort of fist pump: “Yes!” Evidently he’d scored it the same way, meaning progress toward properly fitting Indian music into the Music Genome Project. Things went on like this for a while. “Even if you have a solo violin with a tabla, you’re still going to have monophony,” Gupta remarked at one juncture. “I just wanted to point that out.” It was hard to believe there was a business riding on this kind of conversation.
Maybe the more vivid illustration of social influence on listening habits isn’t in what we share but in what we obfuscate. Last.fm, for example, publishes a chart listing the songs that its users most frequently delete from their public listening-stream data. The guilty pleasure Top 10 is dominated by the most radio-ready pop artists — Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” several tracks by Lady Gaga. The service iLike compiles similar data on the most “suppressed” songs its users listen to in secret; Britney Spears figures prominently. Apparently even listeners who can set aside certain cultural information long enough to enjoy something uncool would just as soon their friends didn’t know.
But there’s a problem that emerges with Pandora, right? It’s anti-variety. If what you want to hear is just plain good music, it hasn’t really got your covered. If what you’re craving specifically is variety, or great new music that sounds like nothing you’ve heard before, you’re out of luck. I happen to enjoy completely disparate sounds back to back with each other. And while Pandora allows me to combine my stations into a “quick mix” (in fact of course, that’s how I created the “listen now” button in the sidebar), it’s limited by my imagination and my existing taste, which is exactly what I’m trying to get away from when I turn to internet radio rather the, say, my own iTunes playlists.
Not everyone wants quite the level of variety I do, but to some extent this is a real problem for anyone looking for more then background noise. If you care about music, then you want to have your tastes pushed, you want a music service to favor brand new music, and you most definetly do NOT want to hear Celine Dion (and no, it is not a shocker that her music is in fact completely pleasant and enjoyable in a bland sort of way).
Even the “listen now” link I’ve got is sort of a dead thing. I put it together something like a year ago, and it’s been exactly the same thing since. There’s a mix of genres, and it’s “eclectic” in a sort of a way, but not in a satisfying way, because the formula emerges and then becomes predictable. I could go in and tweak it once in awhile, but I’m never going to surprise myself in the way I want to be surprised, because that takes the real work of discovering stuff. And I can’t help but feel like all those people sitting at Pandora HQ are chasing a dead end. That croudsourced “people who liked X also liked Y” systems are inherently better, but that even that only goes so far.
My two favorite recently-discovered artists are the Bird and the Bee and the Brazilian Girls. And not only did I not find them through Pandora, but there’s no way I could have found them through Pandora. Their “musical qualities” do not match anything I listen to now; in fact, their musical qualities don’t much match anything else at all. (Well, maybe the Bird and the Bee have musical qualities similar to Beach House, but let us not digress.) This has less to do with sociocultural issues then with great musicians making pop music in a smart new way. The way you get to this is by reading blogs like Gorilla vs. Bear, and by keeping an eye on Pitchfork, and by checking out what your clued-in friends are listening to, and by listening to smartly curated online radio stations.
Pandora is great from time to time, but relying on it as your main source of music leads to nothing but ruts.