Pandora’s Beat Box

Pandora drives another nail into the coffin of the traditional (can we now say legacy) music industry. Instead of a broadcast model, you create “stations” by choosing one or more seed songs. Then Pandora finds similar songs based on a complex categorization system [The Music Genome Project].

I never really listened to regular radio for lots of reasons: Advertising, blathering DJs, no “skip” button to bypass the 90% crappy programming. I’d listen to NPR in the car sometimes, but thankfully they podcast everything now. My brief flirtation with iPod radio transmitters is also thankfully moot with MusicLink and the aux port in the Civic. Yes, I use two iPods in my car at once. That’s another story though.

Internet radio has some strong benefits over regular broadcast: Tailored content, less talking, no advertising, full remote control functions, being able to see previously played songs for follow-up. We’ll see if it survives the changes to the royalties fee structure though. Thing is, I’d still skip lots of songs. The categories are still too broad, assuming I even know what they mean. Anybody have a good taxonomy that explains house, tribal, and all those other exotic species? Problem solved with Pandora.

Pandora’s genius is the correct man-machine division of labor. Experts (humans) classify songs across hundreds of dimensions, genes in their speak. They do what humans do best, recognize complex patterns and subtle traits in analog. Then machines do what they do best: Suggest music by crunching those hundreds of genes across millions of songs to find similarities that a listener might not even perceive. Human experts classify individual songs and machines crunch the entire database. Perfect.

After seeding the station, Pandora gathers listener feedback (thumbs up/down on suggestions) to fine-tune each station; I skip fewer and fewer songs. The adaptive icing on the cake. This is all great for me, but what’s the business incentive here?

This is what radio-industry-asaurus doesn’t get: I find new music that I like, stuff I’d absolutely never even look at otherwise, and buy it. My Touch goes places where internet access is limited or non-existent. Will that change if/when ubiquitous internet access becomes available? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for iPods and paperback books to become obsolete anytime soon.

Like most iTunes users, my purchases dropped off after an initial feeding frenzy. I hunted down all those albums from the vinyl/tape days that I couldn’t find on disc and the singles from otherwise worthless albums. Pandora does what you’d expect from a smart Web 2.0 application: It lets you click on songs and buy them directly from Amazon (a little clunky) or iTunes (smooth as expected). You can also bookmark the song or the artist for later consideration. Pandora makes my life easier with useful personalization and helps pay the bills with some web services smarts.

I came across another music site, iLike, on Facebook. Comparing music with friends doesn’t lead to new music purchases though. Reading a Facebook page or the “What’s New” iTunes emails doesn’t entice me to buy. Actually hearing music does. I’ll keep using iLike because it provides concert and album release announcements for artists I’ve bookmarked, something Pandora doesn’t do.

Now I will admit to something embarrassing. My Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) station suggested a Britney Spears song, Heaven on Earth. And I really like it. And I bought it. I would never have bought anything like this without Pandora. Oh joy, another reason to avoid letting friends scroll through my Touch’s music library.

Unlike Pandora’s Lunchbox (love the name, the food not so much), this Pandora lives up to its mythic namesake. Try it and let me know what you think.

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