Opening Pandora's Music Box
By Timothy Harper
Tim Westergren claims he’s never heard the old joke: “What’s the difference between a jazz musician and a large pizza? The pizza can actually feed a family of four.”
Westergren, himself a jazz and rock keyboard player, grimaces at the cruel truth behind the punch line: It’s hard to make a living writing or performing music, whether jazz or any other genre. But he’s trying to change that. “I want to help make musicians middle-class,” he says.
His small company, Pandora, is using new technology to change the way you and I listen to music. Pandora allows us to create radio-like “stations” that play music we like, both old favorites and songs we’ve never heard before. The online service, which offers unlimited listening hours but includes unintrusive advertising (no pop-up ads), is free. For those purists who prefer their music sans ads, subscriptions are available for three months ($12) or a year ($36).
Westergren, 41, knocked around the music world for years after graduating from Stanford University. He played keyboard for rock groups you’ve probably never heard of, and jazz piano in the lounges of hotels you’ve probably never stayed in. He often supplemented his earnings by working as a male nanny. He commiserated with other musicians toiling in obscurity and poverty. “Wouldn’t it be great,” they mused, “if there was some way for more people to hear our music?”
In the late 1990s, just before the dot-com bubble burst, Westergren teamed up with some tech-savvy Silicon Valley friends and created the Music Genome Project. The concept was simple but ambitious: use trained musicians to quantify 400 attributes of individual songs, everything from tempo and tonality to instrumentation and vocal styles. This analysis would yield the “DNA” of a piece of music, and allow computer programs to match a listener’s preferences to other songs.
Online music retailers tell purchasers, “Other people who bought the music you just bought also purchased this album. . . .” The Music Genome Project tells listeners, “If you liked that song, you probably will like this one, too, because it has many of the same elements. . . .”
Pandora grew out of the Music Genome Project. In the autumn of 2005 Westergren asked 200 people to test Pandora. They signed onto the Web site (pandora.com) and entered one or more of their favorite songs, artists or styles of music. Their computers began playing a seamless stream of music chosen in response to an ongoing computer analysis of their preferences. Westergren didn’t ask any of the original 200 to recommend Pandora to anyone else, but two weeks later there were 5,000 users. A year after its quiet debut, Pandora’s membership is approaching 6 million—solely through word of mouth.
Setting up a new station takes seconds, and most listeners have several different ones. I have Wes Montgomery and “Theme From Brokeback Mountain” stations for when I want languid bluesy or Western guitar–dominated instrumentals. I have a Norah Jones “Come Away With Me” station for laid-back vocals, a Charlie “Bird” Parker station for up-tempo instrumentals, and Sting and Four Tops stations for livelier moods. For variety, you can combine two or more artists or songs or styles on a single station, and create up to 100 individual stations.
Pandora invites you to use a “Guide Us” feature and click on buttons that tell you why a particular song is playing— naming the attributes you indicated that you like. The feature lets you further individualize your station by signaling what songs you like or don’t like. For example, when a song with vocals comes on my Leo Kottke station, I click my displeasure; now I hardly ever get a vocal on that station.
Not everybody likes Pandora, of course. One friend said he tried to create a Ravi Shankar station, but couldn’t. I asked Westergren about that, and he said Pandora simply hasn’t gotten around to Ravi Shankar—or many other world or classical musicians—yet. “But we will,” he promises.
Another friend complained that he was disappointed at not hearing more music from the artist he specified; he vowed to stick to his iPod, where he always knows what he’s listening to. On the other hand, I like the idea that not every song on my Leo Kottke station is by Leo Kottke, and not every song on my “Come Away with Me” station is by Norah Jones. Pandora exposes me to lots of artists I might never have heard otherwise, such as Luka Bloom, Julie Waters, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Paul Johnson, Jack Rose, Umphrey’s McGee, David Grier, Stephen Bennett and Raina Rose. “So many people in their 30s, 40s and 50s still love music, but they’ve kind of given up on finding new music,” Westergren says. “It’s just too hard to keep up. Pandora brings them lots of new music they like.”
Pandora listeners can click through to Amazon or iTunes to buy music they hear on their stations, but Westergren hopes Pandora eventually will open other avenues through which musicians can reach fans directly. In this new model, instead of paying the typical 99 cents for a song, of which 2 or 3 cents goes to the artist, listeners might pay 25 cents per song, of which 15 cents would go to the artist. Whether by direct download or through CDs they produce themselves, musicians would be able to profit from their work without going through the middlemen, the recording companies. For music lovers, the wall that keeps them from finding new artists would crumble. “People could buy songs like breath mints,” Westergren says. “Music would be so cheap that if you’re remotely interested, you’ll say, ‘Sure, I’ll buy that.’”
The music industry has taken notice of Pandora. Jason Hirschhorn, until recently chief digital officer of MTV Networks, believes Pandora is the future of music, and that the big recording companies should take heed. As musicians hook up with marketing companies to spread the word, he says, it will redefine the role of the record label. Imagine, he suggests, if the next “American Idol” winner turns down the plum prize, a recording contract, and instead says, “Thanks, but I’d rather reach my fans directly, so that they pay less for my music and I make more from it.”
At Pandora’s headquarters in a nondescript building in a modest area of Oakland, California, Westergren believes that Pandora can survive solely through advertising on its Web pages. Because they are constantly clicking to Pandora to give feedback, Pandora listeners view more ads than typical Web users.
Westergren is hiring advertising salespeople, but the heart of Pandora is the big room where 50 musicians sit at desks nodding their heads, tapping their toes and making notes on the “genetic code” of the music in their headphones. Their specialties range from heavy metal to jazz to easy listening to rap, and the walls are lined with posters as varied as Jimi Hendrix, Gorillaz, Outkast, Frank Sinatra, Beyoncé, The Beatles and the Grateful Dead. Tens of thousands of CDs line shelves and sit in stacks everywhere, many of them from musicians who have yet to heard outside their garages or bedrooms—but who may soon be heard on Pandora.
If Westergren is right, a fair number of those unknown musicians may someday be able to make a living through their music—and perhaps even become middle-class.