Friday, August 6, 2010

Pandora: Cool Stuff you Might not Know

You might know about Pandora.com- Internet radio. It's a website where you enter a favorite song or artist and it starts playing music similar to the kind you like. You can rate a song with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down so it better understands your taste in music, and you can have multiple stations that play different kinds of music. Pandora is free, but you can upgrade to Pandora1 to get higher music quality without the ads, for $36 a year. That's like buying what, four albums? A year? It's a steal!

A little while ago the founder of Pandora, Tim Westergren, came to Denver to meet-up with Pandora users and discuss the company. My dad and I decided to go and see what he had to say. He started off talking about himself, and then the company; its history, where they are right now, and where they want to go in the future. The rest was Q&A, and open for discussion. There were maybe 300 people there, and I thought it was really cool. Here's some of the stuff he talked about that you might not know about Pandora.

  • The guy who started it all, Tim Westergren, is a musician- a piano player. He was in a rock band that played smaller venues around the US for a while. He was serious about his music, and at some point decided that the rock band wasn't enough. His next big career move was to compose music for movies. He would talk to the director about how they wanted the audience to feel, and created music accordingly. He found that he had skill in matching music to certain people and certain needs, and thus came an even greater ambition: to change the way people listen to music. To create Pandora.
  • Pandora is based around something they call the Music Genome Project. Every song on Pandora has been ranked on more than 400 different attributes giving it a kind of fingerprint, a gene. It gets ranked on things like melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, singing, and vocal harmonies. And it's all done manually. It's all done by people, employees that have studied music theory in a university, that come in every day, put on a set of headphones, and listen to and rank songs.
  • Pandora operates under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This limits some of the ways it can distribute music. For example, you can only play Pandora in the United States, Pandora can't play a specific song on demand, and it can't tell you what song is going to play next, (for concern that you're going to record it). The Act gives Pandora the ability to play any artist on Pandora, the artist has no say in it.
  • I always thought that artists didn't like Pandora, as people could listen to their music without buying their albums. But actually, Pandora is extremely helpful to artists in a few ways. Pandora pays an incredible amount of money to artists in royalties. In a year where they made $50,000, they payed $30,000 to artists in royalties. Radio doesn't have to pay anything. What’s up with that?! Pandora also helps artists get discovered. It may play a song you've never heard before, and you really like. You can easily see who the artist is, and even read more about them. But more than that, Pandora can really help new bands because almost anyone can be on Pandora. To be on the radio, you generally need a contract with some big record label. To be on Pandora, all you need is to have your CD for sale on Amazon. You could record a CD in your own home studio, and as long it's on Amazon, it could be played on Pandora.
  • The really cool thing about Pandora, is it finds music based solely on the characteristics of the music. It has no way to measure how popular a band is, where they're from, what they look like, what genre of music they play, or how modern they are. Pandora doesn't care who else listens to them, if it's "cool" to listen to them. The only thing it recognizes is the music itself.
  • The designer of the Pandora website worked previously as a designer of interactive museum displays. Simple things where you were expected only to push a button or pull a lever. He carried that over to Pandora with the thumbs up thumbs down. The simplicity of the Pandora website makes it easy to use, friendly, and appealing to almost everyone.
  • Pandora went through a rough spot while they were starting up. They were struggling to get licenses and pay royalties, and with everything else involved with starting a company. As a result, for more than a year no one at Pandora got paid. They worked there just because they believed in it and wanted to make it happen. The business slowly came together. One day Tim summoned them in for a standard meeting, and astounded everyone by producing a pay check for all the time they had worked. Everyone had given up on ever getting paid, and this was a very nice surprise.
  • Pandora almost got shut down because the government was going to change laws around music streaming. Pandora sent out a note to all of their listeners basically saying ‘This is it guys. Pandora's going away because the laws are changing. If you are against this, here is your local congressman's contact information. You can contact them if you want, see if it helps anything.’ There was an overwhelming grass-roots response. The phones were ringing non-stop all day in every congressman's office, pushing them until they finally decided not to change the laws.
  • It now has more than 60 million listeners, which they have gained without advertising. They have grown simply by word of mouth, and their policy to always listen to and talk to their customers. They have also been doing these meet-ups across the country. A big part of their growth is mobile, the Pandora app allows people to stream music on their phones, and even in their cars.
  • In Pandora's future, they want to give artists the ability to log on and see who's listening to their music; who's 'thumbs uping' their songs, and who's entering them as a station seed. They could see maps of where the most listeners are, helping them decide where to drive the tour bus. Then Pandora could notify listeners that their favorite band is coming to town. They are also considering trying to bring other types of radio into the music genome project, such as sports, weather, and comedy.
I'm a big fan of Pandora now. I think it's one of the best ways to listen to and discover music. It's a cool company with some cool people working there. Radio used to be one of the best ways, one of the only ways, to get you're music out there. You could go to your local radio station, give them a CD, and hope they would play your songs. But now, there's no such thing as local radio. It's all owned by a few major radio companies, and they don't play anything unless it's already popular.
Not to mention radio is constantly interrupted with commercials. It's the man. And sometimes you gotta stick it to the man. Pandora is the best thing for artists and for listeners. My thumb is up to you Pandora. May you grow and thrive.

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