Pandora: The future of music

A couple weeks back the folks at Pandora just held a town-hall meeting in Denver to discuss Pandora’s history, future, and the things Pandora is planning to do to bring you customized music-listening to you everywhere you go. What is Pandora? If you haven’t heard, Pandora is like an online radio station, but not only that, Pandora helps you find related music based on what artist or song you give it. Pandora creates stations out of your tastes then allows you to tweak the collection of music for that station by thumbing a song up or down. Pandora is really an incredible piece of software that according to Tim Westergren (our town-hall speaker and Pandora founder & CEO) has two main objectives: The first one is to help all those starving musicians get their music to the masses in a way that will help would-be fans find great new stuff. The second is to cater to music listener’s unique tastes by giving them a customizable listening experience, and did I mention it is FREE for the taking? For music fans, casual listeners and even audiophiles, Pandora is the thing to be rocking out to on the net. For those who haven’t seen Pandora, check out this video for a taste, and then get on over to Pandora for goodness’ sake!

The mechanism that runs Pandora’s uncanny magic, the Music Genome Project, is a very complex one that requires almost 400 different “genomes” (scores) per song to be assigned by well-educated music professors and musicians who listen to the song carefully to determine its musical genome or very specific DNA. This process is complicated, and requires these music experts to have a lot of training before they can even use Pandora’s rating system. This idea of pulling these somewhat ethereal musical attributes (call it meta-information if you like) right out of a recording by listening to it is a great one, and Pandora works well because of it.

Many companies have licensed Pandora’s unique “Music Genome” data to better the recommendations on their own music sites, which says something for its high quality. Tim says that though Pandora does much of this today to pay the bills, their focus really is on the artist and the listener, prompting them to take more steps toward getting the music out there for people to listen to, and making it easier for artists to find a voice. Tim gave us some vague details of the things Pandora may or may not be planning, but time frames and even the likelihood of some of these things may be up for grabs. Here are some ideas you might see Pandora putting to good use in next few years:

  1. Classical Music. Tim said that the number one request they get on Pandora for music is Mozart. Why don’t they have classical music yet? Tim basically said that they had to start somewhere, so they chose to do more popular music that there would be the widest audience for at first. He did say that Pandora is planning on adding classical music, and the impression I got was that it might happen in the near future. We will just have to wait and see.
  2. Music in other languages. Pandora is pondering other languages, but Tim said that right now it is just too complicated to integrate this into Pandora until they have progressed a bit further in this musical revolution they have started. In a few short years, however, we may have all types of world music and many different languages in Pandora for your listening pleasure. For Tim Westergren, Pandora is all about music, and all music. This will take a long time, but it gets easier whenever people join the listening throng or link up with the team at Pandora. Did I mention they are hiring? Details at their site.
  3. Why. If you have listened to Pandora for a while, you may have the familiar urge to tell them why you didn’t like a song, instead of just thumbing something up or down like an indiscriminate ape, for example one listener at the town hall I attended said that he didn’t like Bjork, but everything that Pandora generated in the same adjacent genre he did like. Also, if you like a song, but not the rest of the artist’s music, or vice versa, soon you will be able to tell Pandora why you don’t like something. It will most likely consist of a set of pre-determined selections you can make to tell them why you don’t approve. Tim said they had rolled the feature out with a box to type in the reason why not a while back (in a limited feature test) and found that this would be a viable idea that a lot of people would appreciate if added to the player. I personally would love this feature. I think a lot of Pandora’s listening faithful feels the same way.
  4. Mobility & Ubiquity. Tim really wouldn’t really dish out any particulars (he couldn’t for legal reasons), but said that Pandora was looking at possibly a Vcast-like service for mobile music listening, maybe even a car audio solution, and some other things, in addition to the Squeezebox-enabled version that already lives in the living room. If you want to know more about what is coming on this front, feel free to attend a town hall meeting in your area when it comes.
  5. The Pandora API. I asked Tim if Pandora was planning on a Pandora API so all of us code hackers and API junkies could mold Pandora’s sexiness into our own brand of play-dough, and he said that despite the advertising-driven model that they employ today to make any money, they are thinking about it and trying to come up with an API of some sort. The problem with an API is that Pandora relies on ad-revenue and venture capital right now to make money, so they can’t very well release an API that would allow developers to bypass their ad-revenues from a business perspective. Once they figure out how to get around this issue, it sounds like they would love to put out an API, so keep your fingers crossed for that.
  6. Community features. While I love and pretty much live on Pandora’s sweet ear-candy, I wish there were some community features to share music in real-time. There is a way to share music, but it isn’t fully what it could be, leveraging the Web 2.0 software that is out there today. I envision a music Facebook or del.icio.us. Tim did mention that we should see these features soon, possibly in 2007, but again, this isn’t a hard and firm ETA, it’s just an estimate. He said he always wished there was a way to get the news out about local shows to listeners contextually while they were hearing a song from a particular artist. He said the problem is trying to get artists to post shows on the site (at least in the indie and grassroots genres) so people would know about the shows. I agree, and asked if there was a way to let music fans add shows, since us music-freaks/bookmarking buffs would do it 100 times a day given the chance ion all sorts of cities. In this way, Pandora would do well to employ the masses to help them reach their goals. Social software is not only the wave of the future, but it would solve a ton of problems that traditional software has today. Granted, Pandora isn’t exactly traditional software, but they aren’t quite hopping on the Web 2.0 band-wagon either. Not that this is a bad thing. Pandora is really in its own class, but I do think that a few pages ripped from the newest books couldn’t hurt it in the long run.

Tim is a big music fan like many of us, an avid musician, and is very passionate about music and where it is headed in the future. Hearing him detail Pandora’s vision and take our questions was fun, and he shed a lot of light on Pandora’s inner workings and future plans. If you ever get a chance to attend one of these town hall meetings, please do–he usually brings some free Pandora gear for those who attend, and chatting with him a bit is worth the trip.

If you are already a Pandora fan, know that some good changes are on the way, and if you haven’t checked out Pandora yet, you should. It is the most amazing and satisfying music listening experience I have ever had. I have found so many new artists I didn’t know existed before, thanks to Pandora. Many of us here at Download Squad are Pandora fans for good reasons, so go check it out for yourself!

If you feel so inclined, you can support Pandora by signing up for their no-ads version, which costs $3 a month. There aren’t any extra features if you do support Pandora, but it just shows a vote of confidence for this great service that will keep getting better as we listen. If you have idea, suggestions, comments, thoughts, etc. you can let Pandora know by email: suggest DASH music AT pandora DOT com, because they do implement many of the ideas they get from listeners. Happy listening!

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One thought on “Pandora: The future of music

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