Pandora is not new. The internet radio service was founded in Oakland a decade ago. Tim Westergen, an unsuccessful musician turned business entrepeneur, started the company in 1999 with a “two tech-and-business-savvy pals.” In 2005, Pandora went online. While it is gaining popularity in large part to the popularity of the Pandora iPhone app, it is still waiting to turn a profit. So why should Pandora be of interest?
The idea behind Pandora is that an individuals musical taste can be identified and catered to based on analysis of the songs they like. In a piece by Ron Walker (writer of the writes the Consumed column for the magazine and author of “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are”) in The New York Times called “The Song Decoders“, the history, economics, principles of Pandora are examined and scrutinized. While it may seem daunting to tackle this 8 page article, for fans of music (and those curious in meta-music), it is an incredibly worthwhile endeavor. Walker thoroughly analyzes Pandora’s methods and underlying assumptions, namely that individuals like certain music based on that music’s component parts. Pandora employs musicologists (Walker calls them “musicians with day jobs”) to breakdown and rate the elements of songs. From their determinations, a list of songs is compiled for a listener who searches for a certain artist or song. Pandora does not pay for the ability to play your first search, rather it presents to you a song that it determines you will like.
On face, this seems like a clever and convenient idea. I really enjoy the Beatles and I love to music in a similar vein. So, rather than going to the record store and asking a clerk to suggest similar bands, Pandora generates a list of songs that a Beatles listener, such as myself, should enjoy. Also, it gives me the ability to rate the songs it chooses for me in order to hone in on my specific taste. Essentially, I now have a unique playlist of music that is catered to my sonic interests.
However, as Walker rightly highlights, the underlying principle behind this service is flawed as well as the method by which they try to attain objective music suggestions. As Walker states, “The idea [behind Pandora] is to figure out what you like, not what a market might like.” Pandora was created with the intention of guiding listeners to music based on their taste rather than succumbing to the peer pressure of music marketing. Walker writes:
Westergren is similarly unimpressed by hipster blogs or other theoretically grass-roots influencers of musical taste, for their tendency to turn on artists who commit the crime of being too popular; in his view that’s just snobbery, based on social jockeying that has nothing to do with music. In various conversations, he defended Coldplay and Rob Thomas, among others, as victims of cool-taste prejudice.
It is naive to believe that Pandora is without prejudices. Pandora possess a 700,000-song library. In comparison to other sites (for example, Slacker.com, a rival Internet-radio service, says its library contains about 2.5 million songs), this is a small amount. And, in having a smaller library, Pandora is making choices as to what is “should” be on the site. These choices constitute a preference made on the part of Pandora and transfered to listeners. Thus, listeners are still receiving subjective suggestions as to what music to listen to. This also goes for the musicologist side of Pandora. Musicologists give subjective ratings to the songs which in turn determines what you hear.
I think this article is thought provoking in a number of ways. While I mentioned some, I am interested what you think about this article. Is music an aggregate of component parts or is it greater than the sum of its parts? Can taste be defined through that which we like or is it elastic and constantly changing?