Science journalist, Steve Silberman, just brought to my attention that Rob Walker at The New York Times wrote an article that last week on the method behind Pandora online radio. The article, The Sound Decoders at Pandora, made me go back through my archives to my own visit three years ago with Pandora founder, Tim Westergren.
Tim, together with musicologist Dr Norman Gasser, has applied science to music by cataloging songs based purely on musical attributes (over three dozen criteria) and providing the listener with a program of music similar to one’s liking of a band or even a particular song. You can then tweak the system by assigning selections a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to further refine your “station.” The scientific part of this approach, termed the Music Genome Project, takes out of the equation all sorts of hipster hype and emotional aspects of music preference.
From Walker’s NYT article:
[Westergren] likes to tell a story about a Pandora user who wrote in to complain that he started a station based on the music of Sarah McLachlan, and the service served up a Celine Dion song. “I wrote back and said, ‘Was the music just wrong?’ Because we sometimes have data errors,” he recounts. “He said, ‘Well, no, it was the right sort of thing — but it was Celine Dion.’ I said, ‘Well, was it the set, did it not flow in the set?’ He said, ‘No, it kind of worked — but it’s Celine Dion.’ We had a couple more back-and-forths, and finally his last e-mail to me was: ‘Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion.'”
I was quite happy to read that Pandora is finally almost turning a profit. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy or a greater group of people who are dedicated to the enriching role that music plays in our lives.
I wanted to run this repost because there are some aspects of Pandora that were not hit in Walker’s article. Most notable is the end of my post where I took Tim to Schoolkids’ Records in Chapel Hill, an independent record store that closed its doors in March 2008. I worry about how this trend of indy record store closures affects local music scenes in college towns and cities around the world. I hope that internet music sharing, iTunes, blip.fm, and YouTube are still equalizing the field for the multitude of amazing local bands who never get a major recording contract.
Congratulations to Tim and all the lovely folks at Pandora for the new high-profile press as well as the great memories.
This post originally appeared here at Terra Sigillata on 21 September 2006.
This post should actually be called, “Driving Mister Tim,” in recognition of the delightful day I just spent here with Pandora Internet Radio founder and chief strategic officer, Tim Westergren.
Tim was in the area for a couple of town hall meetings and chats with groups in the Raleigh-Durham community, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
What is Pandora Internet Radio?
Before I talk more about Tim, let me tell you about Pandora if you have not yet experienced it. Their thumbnail give you a good idea but here is my view as a user: Pandora is a streaming music service that allows one to create up to 100 personalized “stations” based on your input of either a specific band or song. Then, while the player streams your song, it asks you for a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” evaluation to indicate whether the song selected meets your needs.
Subsequent song selections come from what Tim calls the Music Genome Project, a mathematically-constructed taxonomy of a growing library of currently 500,000 songs. Your own “thumbs” to play more songs like this, or not, serve to train the data set for subsequent fine tuning of your station. Tim notes that Pandora has accumulated over 200 million thumbs in their evaluative data set, not only to fine-tune individual stations, but also to assess the accuracy of how their human musicology analysts classify songs.
What kinds of songs are on Pandora? Tim says they started with Rolling Stone, college radio charts, and Billboard charts when they were established in the 1950s, old folk, jazz, and so on. Admittedly, there is a paucity of classical music and non-English language music, but these are current areas of growth for Pandora.
How does the Music Genome Project work?
There are no computer-based listening machines. Pandora has hired several dozen musicians with solid training in musicology and music theory to sit and listen to every song, spending 20 to 30 minutes evaluating each piece based upon 400 different musical attributes. Vocals alone are assigned characteristics from among 35 attributes. Each analyst undergoes 150 hours of musical training before they can begin classifying songs, and Pandora selects 10% of songs to be evaluated by more than one analyst. Therefore, there is quality control and consistency of the data from both the front end as well as the back end, by listener “thumbs.” Even with this labor-intensive process, roughly 15,000 songs are added each month to their music genome.
The best way to really explain Pandora is for one to just go to www.pandora.com, register, and start your own station. The only personal identifiers required are an e-mail address and a US postal zip code. The zip code allows Pandora to meet the federal webcasting guidelines of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, although a remarkable number of subscribers come in from zip code 90210. The feds have not yet gotten so tough as to require IP filtering to prevent international registrants.
Entering my actual zip code is what also allowed me to meet up with Tim. Pandora is very serious about their role in local communities and reaching out to their listeners. Tim keeps a blog, Backstage at Pandora, detailing his roadtrips to press the flesh with listeners, check out local record stores, and just stay engaged with the music listening community. In the days before coming to the Triangle universities, he was up at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia; today, he’s in Dallas.
So, when I got an e-mail that Tim would be in the area, I wrote back about wanting to meet with him, both for the blog and because of my interest as a musician. I got a quick response from his team, and had a couple of great exchanges with a very capable communications specialist named Michele Husak – let’s just say I wish I had Michele at my lab taking care of my schedule and external communications.
Tim Westergren is simply an all-around cool guy
Picking up Tim from his hotel, one is struck immediately by what a nice personable guy he is. After years of hitting up over 300 venture capitalists for funding, he seems happy and relaxed to be wearing a ‘CDNow’ jersey, blue jeans, and carrying a box of Pandora swag. Tim graduated from Stanford University in 1988 with a political science degree (“it was Stanford’s shortest course of study”) and played in a good many bands, primarily as a piano and keyboard player in the style he describes as close to Ben Folds. We both had a good laugh that both of our early bands each took names from different Robert Frost poems and played the same club in Denver a few years apart.
When Tim took work with film producers and began writing musical scores, he became interested in the basis of “why producers liked one song and not another.” With significant musical training at Stanford, Tim began thinking about musical attributes, coming up with a list of over 800 characteristics that have been distilled down into classifying the ‘Genome,’ as he likes to call their music library.
What is also jumps out about Tim is that he is a supremely clear communicator with a true passion for the Pandora enterprise and the idea he has popularized with his team. After after his engaging presentation to the UNC Kenan-Flagler B-School, he was swarmed by MBA students with all sorts of questions about both music and being a successful entrepreneur.
Westergren is also tremendously proud of Pandora’s work environment. “Musicologists working 20 hours a week get full benefits – Rolls-Royce benefits,” he beams. “It costs money, but it’s the right thing to do.” They also have a performing stage in the middle of the office for folks to catch up during downtime and several bands have been spawned from among co-workers.
As we walked back to a local coffee shop with wireless for us both to catch up on computer work, I asked Tim if he now feels like a rockstar again, especially given the name recognition of Pandora on college campuses.
“It’s really not about me, or me being a celebrity,” he responded. “It’s about the music, the service, and the listener.” In fact, he cautions against too much ego or personality going into a commercial community resource like Pandora. To Tim, Pandora is a community, both at the company and among listeners.
Tim speaks with great admiration of his two partners who struggled with him through the lean days of their first round of funding, when they were working on being a B2B company for AOL or record stores. (David Hornik at Venture Blog does a nice job covering Tim’s early days.) Tim credits by name, Dr Nolan Gasser, chief musicologist and the brains behind the Music Genome project, an accomplished composer himself, but with phenomenal mathematical skills. He also has deep gratitude for his wife, an academic political scientist, in sustaining him and his vision day-to-day while his efforts might have dug them a financial hole that would’ve taken years or decades to recover from.
The business of music
On the UNC campus, it was fun to watch how students interacted with Tim. Of course, the MBA students asked him some tough questions about how the Pandora model will be financially sustainable (Tim’s business model is for Pandora to be supported by Web ad revenue rather than subscriber fees, although they count many subscribers more as financial underwriters; the ads are so low-key relative to the obnoxious ads on other services that drive one to be a paying subscriber.). But just as many MBA students were aspriring or practicing musicians, or avid listeners. Conversely, his presentation to a general student group comprised of mostly undergraduates had just as many young entrepreneurs as music enthusiasts.
Being a slightly older music listener, I was interested particularly in Tim’s queries of the MBA students as to how they learn about new music.
“What happens in your late 20s, early 30s, even 40s, where you no longer have a class of friends like this to exchange news and tips about the latest music?” Most everyone was shaking their heads and throwing up their hands; frankly, that’s just another reason why I love having students and postdocs: so I can tap their brains for new music.
Tim responds to his own question, “Pandora tries to fill that need of bringing the excitement of new music back into your life.”
The question that came up several times was what Tim hopes to accomplish, both for Pandora and for himself personally. Here, Tim’s passion and evangelism shines. “We want Pandora to create a musician’s middle-class, whereby signed and unsigned artists can be heard for their music, without regard for image or relative popularity,” Tim says.
In Pandora’s FAQ, musicians of all kinds and levels are encouraged and given instructions on how to submit their CDs for consideration. While not all CDs make it onto Pandora, the commitment is clear that a trained musicologist will listen to the disc.
In doing so, Tim hopes to give accomplished but underexposed musicians a venue to be heard and appreciated. Using the zip code function in Pandora registration, he hopes they can offer your own local bands more visibility. More proactively, Tim eyes an algorithm that will present you not only with local bands who you may not have heard, but whose musical style fits one of the stations that you have trained. “Maybe we’d even link those songs to the band’s latest performing schedule,” muses Westergren.
These town hall meetings have also inspired Tim to somehow bring on-line the listener-to-listener interactions he sees live.
“Nothing thrills me more,” says Tim, “than seeing some 15-year-old kid with a nose ring and a middle-aged businessman in a suit having an animated conversation about the latest Korn record.”
Bringing Chapel Hill home
True to his everyman style, Westergren begs a few more minutes on the walk back to the car to pop into Schoolkids Records on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street, the indy record store he learned about from commenters on his roadtrip blog. He asks the staff to round up ten or so discs from their favorite local music picks.
“Do you want to look at these first?” asks the clerk.
“Nope, I wanna buy ’em. You guys come recommended as the top store in town; I trust your judgement. Have you heard of Pandora?”
The clerk shakes his head emphatically, “Oh yeah, I use it all the time.”
Tim digs out a few Pandora caps for the woman standing next to the clerk.
I say, “This is Tim. He is Pandora.”
The clerks chat regretfully about the great local artist whose disc isn’t out yet.
“No problem. Just send have her send it to me.”
“How do we find you?” they ask.
“E-mail. I’m just Tim at Pandora.”
Tim’s own Tribute to the Triangle. The picture looking down Old Erwin Road between Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is out of the windshield of my trusty 1992 Subaru.
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