Opening the box

This morning, Derek at work asked if I’d heard about Pandora. Without thinking, the first words out of my mouth were “What… like the box?” He let me know that Pandora is, in fact, a new service from the Music Genome Project (most likely soon to be eaten up by someone like Yahoo or Google) that creates a personal web radio station. Okay, so that doesn’t seem all that revolutionary… but believe me, it is. While everyone in internet audio has been tooting the podcast horn, the folks at the Music Genome Project have been working on breaking songs… every song… down into its individual stylistic elements, and cataloguing the results.

Well, apparently the group tired of always being asked by friends what music they should listen to, so they created a slick web app to do it for them. Thus Pandora was born. What’s better, it doesn’t just tell you what to check out, it actually chooses music based on your tastes and starts making a continuous audio feed of the music you might like.

So how exactly do they do this? Well, you start off by entering a beginning band that you enjoy. In my case, I chose Wilco. Pandora then plays a song by the band you named, to ease you in to the stream. The next song is where the Music Genome database kicks in. Using your initial band’s characteristics, Pandora checks for songs and bands that are in a similar vien. If your band has mild rhythmic syncopation and folk inspired roots, your next song/band probably will. Clicking on the song’s icon gives you a menu with options, such as “I Like/Don’t Like It” (choosing “like” adds the bands characteristics to your running musical taste profile, “dislike” removes them… or at least takes points from it) and “Why did you play this song?” (choosing this explains the stylistic similarities in the song and the profile you are building as you listen), as well as the general “Buy in iTunes/Amazon” links to support the project and the artists/labels (because we all know Sony/BMI need our money…)

The longer you listen, the more honed the selection can become. You can add new artists into the mix as well, from the “Guide Us” button. Overall, I found the system to be very slick and powerful, but not without some of the problems I’ve seen in other online music profiling/suggestion sites. For your average music listener, the app should be more than enough to meet your needs. However, I have rather eclectic tastes in music, and I have a tendency to throw computer algorithms off. For example, at work, I listened to Wilco and Camera Obscura, then some Iron and Wine, only to add Head Automatica into the mix and completely throw the system off. Next thing I knew, it was playing pop-punk and generally making me want to wretch. This is nothing new for me… has choked on my taste before, and places like only seem to suggest based on what’s popular with other people, not based on what I like.

Another issue I ran into was lesser known artist selection. This isn’t exactly a big issue with Pandora, as I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of the selection of music, and of course they are still growing, but I think they are missing a big opportunity here to introduce unsigned and independent artists to the listening masses. While searching for a band not in the database does let the fine folks at the MGP know you want to hear that artist, it doesn’t provide any input field to potentially give them more information on the artist, nor a page for music submissions. Yes, I realise opening such a system up to anyone could have disastrous (read: Blink 128 cover bands) results, but it could also help indie bands out a lot.

Back to the recommendation algorithms… I’m reminded of a Patton Oswalt bit about Tivo. He had his Tivo record a great western movie one night, and he woke up the next morning, and Tivo had gone ape shit: children’s shows, equestrian events, etc. Turns out his Tivo thought he was watching the western because he liked horses, so it recorded everything imaginable with horses in it. Pandora can be like this at first… Add a curve ball in the mix, and then next thing you know, your station becomes unlistenable until you rate enough of the garbage as “dislike”… which brings up another issue: limited “next song” capabilities.

With Pandora, you may only jump to the next track a set number of times each hour. This is a direct result (as I see it) of Pandora using a “podcaster” license with BMI/ASCAP/etc… they offer extremely discounted broadcasting licenses, provided you only play a certain number of songs per hour of programming. I can understand the limitation, but I wonder if in the future this limitation will be removed for paying customers (oh yes, you can support the cause and be guaranteed ad-free Pandora in the future).

Okay, enough jabber-jaw… why don’t you go give it a spin? You can even try out the station I’ve been developing since this morning (oh yeah, you can share your “stations” with friends): radio gb (but it seems you have to login… hmm… well, we’ll see what happens there…)