Most casual music fans have that one person in their life they turn to before they buy new music, a guru who keeps up with the trends, reads the mags, goes to the shows, surfs the 'Net and has taste that aligns with theirs. It could be a friend, a family member, a critic, a trusted DJ or a clerk in a record store -- hell, in recent years a few people have made livings as "music stylists" for rich people who want to stay hip but are too lazy or busy to hunt out their own tunes.
The Web site Pandora.com could put all of those people out of business. Like so many Web sites, it eliminates the middleman -- you and only you determine which new music you are exposed to. And since it relies on a close approximation to the scientific study of music as opposed to the usual commercialized approach favored by record labels and traditional radio stations, it has a chance of becoming one of the biggest and most successful sites on the Internet. As the Houston Press's assistant music editor Scott Faingold put it five minutes into his first Pandora experience, "Why would you listen to music any other way?" Especially since the site is free, or $3 a month for a site without banner ads.
Here's how it works: A prompt asks you to create your own radio station. You then enter either an artist or a song you like, and using the company's own highly complex Music Genome Project, Pandora will spit out song after song that displays those same musical qualities, and what's more, Pandora even tells you why in mildly technical musical terms. (Pandora often tells me I'm into "acoustic sonority," "call-and-response vocals," "extensive vamping," "busy horn section(s)" and "mild syncopation," and you know what? I have to agree.)
If you don't like a song, you can chuck it out of the rotation forever (and even tell them why you don't like it), or if you're just sick of something, you can retire a tune for a month. You can also create up to 100 stations if you like a bunch of genres that don't mix well, and even e-mail those stations to your friends. And unlike the recommendations generated by iTunes, Pandora is blind to a band's popularity, hipster cachet, critical reception or whether a band is on a major label. (The site also links to iTunes and Amazon so you can buy the music it exposes you to.)
Pandora is not about a band's sales, fame or connections -- it's about the "genetic" structure of its music. Each of the hundreds of songs on there is graded on multiple criteria by a team of dozens of musicians and trained musicologists. (For a full rundown on the site's operations, check out "Pandora's Box," by Kara Platoni, East Bay Express, January 11.) If a fan wants to base his station around Nick Drake's music, then the songs of Tody Castillo or Arthur Yoria are just as likely to pop up as those of Jeff Buckley or Elliott Smith, simply because they share the same "music DNA." The bands you know are your gateway drugs to the bands you don't know that happen to sound a lot like the ones you already love. Occasionally disconcertingly. I tried to base a station around the Allman Brothers' "Ramblin' Man," only to be treated to a litany of Sawyer Brown and Brooks & Dunn songs, some of which I thought were pretty good until I found out who was performing them. One company official has called this phenomenon the "You've got vapid pop in my indie rock" phenomenon.
The site is the brainchild of Tim Westergren, a Stanford graduate and jazz-trained pianist who played in rock bands for eight years. Westergren, like the rest of us, believed in the late '90s that the Internet would revolutionize the music business, but soon saw that it would do no such thing, at least not right away. Who had the time to surf all the millions of Web sites offering up obscure music? That was when the idea for Pandora started to germinate. He was always good at recommending music to his friends -- why not have a site where people could interact with a computer facsimile of himself, one that could scientifically select music that they were predisposed to like?
Westergren takes the site extremely seriously. So seriously, in fact, that he wades through hundreds of e-mailed suggestions and dozens of mailed-in CDs (from fans, bands and even the major labels) every day. Five Pandora computers continuously rip MP3s at the company HQ. And Westergren actually tours the country, harvesting new music to add to the site's music banks. Last week, on one such trip, he passed through Houston on his way to New Orleans and eventually Washington, D.C. After he interviewed me about the Houston music scene, I interviewed him about his site, which I honestly believe could revolutionize the way people listen to music.
Let's hope so, anyway. The music-loving public can't do much better than this approach. The fresh-faced Westergren, who resembles Jim Carrey in one of his serious roles, does not give a toss for business; it's all about the tunes. "There is simply tons and tons of great music out there that nobody has ever heard of," he says. "I go to every town and get armfuls, and when I get home I just have crates of this stuff. Just so much good stuff. Garage bands, composers, fans, everybody tells me about their favorite dozen bands. It just never ends. And that's the whole purpose of Pandora. To try to find and help these emerging artists -- well, they're not emerging. They're not doing anything. And there is just so much of it that needs to be found. I'm rooting for all these bands."
Westergren knows that the quality of a band's recorded music often has little to do with its notoriety, and that imbalance is what he hopes Pandora can help correct. "I've been in a bunch of bands myself, and I've seen the arc that bands can have. There's a window there where you get the people together and find the right sound, but then what happens? Is everybody focused enough? Can everybody coordinate enough to get time off to tour, and then can everybody survive each other in a van? It's frickin' hard to make all that work."
But it's a lot easier than that to make Pandora work, once you fool around with the site a little bit. I made a classic mistake the first time I logged on about four months ago: I put in about 15 different artists from wildly different genres. "The best thing for me is to enter a song or two rather than artists," says Westergren. "My thing for radio is I like a particular sound...If you put in too many artists, it becomes like an artist-on-demand page, or like if a painter paints too many colors in one place it turns into a black blob. I try to get more specific."
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Songs do indeed work better. After my "Ramblin' Man" debacle, I built a station around the Allmans' "Melissa," and instead of pop-country, Pandora sent me an assortment of Dylan, Seger, Springsteen and CCR obscurities that all featured the "country influences," "major key tonality" and "mellow rock instrumentation" I had been looking for.
And I'm not the only satisfied customer. Westergren and the company don't like to talk figures, but the site's popularity has boomed in the last few months. The very day I interviewed Westergren, a thread called "The Greatness that is Pandora.com" coincidentally popped up at the UT-Austin message board Hornfans.com.
I showed it to Westergren, who read 29 straight rave reviews of his site with a beatific smile on his face. Well, there were a couple of mild dissenters. One alt-rock fan was dismayed to hear some Nickelback mixed in with his Tool, and a hard country fan had an even stronger indictment: Pandora had mixed Kenny Chesney in with his Merle Haggard. "I'm new to Texas, but I think I could get shot for that," Westergren says with a laugh.
See, smart people are running this thing. They learn quick. Check it out.