February 27, 2007

Pandora creator sounds off on booming website

Tim Westergren, founder and creator of the Music Genome Project, held an open dialogue this past Friday with local Chicago musicians and producers to promote, an innovative internet radio service that he claims accounts for 1.5 percent of the world’s internet traffic. The talk was held in a casual atmosphere at the Riverside Theater on North Broadway Avenue.

Pandora is seen by many as a potential equalizing force in the music industry, which Westergren characterized as “bifurcated” between the major labels “putting big bets on a few popular bands” and the growing independent music scene, which Westergren said “will account for 10 times as much of the recorded music people hear 5 to 10 years from now.”

The Pandora service does not distinguish between major and independent labels, instead categorizing music stylistically on a song-by-song basis. Moreover, almost any musician can be added to the site if he or she wishes.

Founded in 2000, the Music Genome Project is a group of musicians and critics that analyzes songs with rubric of 400 musical attributes. The idea to turn the collection of songs into a radio service, Westergren said, was almost accidental. Family and friends were given a secret URL so that they could evaluate for themselves the connections Music Genome analysts were making between tracks, but “within a week, we had 5,000 listeners,” said Westergren.

As of 2006, there are now 6 million regular users of the Pandora site.

Users of Pandora create their own personalized radio stations on the site by searching for an artist or track. Pandora then plays a track that the Music Genome Project database suggests in response to the user’s input.

The user can vote on each track as it plays, thumbs up or thumbs down, which prompts the player to pursue certain correlations between styles, and, hopefully, introduces the user to new music that still appeals to his or her existing musical tastes. Thus, data is constantly being amassed, not only by the Music Genome Project analysts applying rubrics, but also by the endless stream of up-or-down feedback from users.

Such data will affect not only the likelihood of that track being played again on that particular user’s station, but also the likelihood of its playing on the stations of users with similar tastes, and more generally, the likelihood of that track playing again at all anywhere on the site.

Capitalizing on the popularity of the idea has been difficult, however, due to the tricky legal aspects of the site’s distribution licenses. Their licenses permit them to play tracks for very low royalties, but they do not permit tracks to be played by request. Polls of users suggest that very few of them would be willing to pay for a service that wouldn’t allow them to select a particular song, Westergren said.

Still, Pandora’s profit potential is conceivably enormous. The average user interacts with the page 19 times an hour, which means that 19 advertising impressions per hour can be sold per visit. A typical user, listening to the site while he works, might generate over 750 impressions per week, very high statistics for such an operation. Recorded audio ads have recently been added to the site as well.

On top of all that, artist’s links are usually supplied whenever a track is played, pointing the user to websites like the iTunes music store or, where the song or album can be purchased. The Music Genome Project takes a commission on every sale made off a click-through from the Pandora site.

Since the site requests that its users o enter their zip codes whenever they create a station, the site could also conceivably be exploited as a data mine by artist and repertoire scouts or musicians planning a tour. “If you were trying to put a tour together and you paid for that kind of service, all you’d have to do is call up a map of every fan who’d played your song in the last six months, and then just connect the dots,” Westergren said.

Westergren insists, however, that he’s not in it for the money.

“Most of the employees of the Project didn’t get paid for the first two years,” he said, and then joked, “In Silicon Valley that’s called a ‘deferred salary.’ When I finally did come into a meeting with a stack of fat paychecks in my hand, I swear to God I felt like Santa Claus.”

Some long time industry figures have not been as slow to discern the profit potential provided by Westergren’s breakthrough, however.

When asked how the major labels were responding to the growing popularity of his service, Westergren noted, “The most significant symptom is that they’re sending us every piece of recorded material they’ve got.”

While the site gained its initial popularity among independent musicians, their fans, and electronic music buffs, it now embraces all genres of music.

Westergren noted as a particular priority of the project the full integration of the canon of classical music into the service. “You might be listening to a song with a real heavy hook, and then that might segue to a motown song, a hip-hop track, or even a big-band number. One of our most frequent search terms is Mozart.”

Pandora’s primary demographic is, as one might expect, 20- to 30-year-olds, but Westergren emphasized the diversity of the site’s audience. “Sure, we’re primarily speaking to 20-somethings, but we’ve got users in their 80s out there having a blast with it.”

When asked to give tips on site usage, in particular in regard to the creation of good stations, Westergren emphasized that there are no hard or fast rules, but “too many thumbs-up [ratings] will almost invariably ruin a station. It suggests to the Genome that it can get away with anything with you. Most people get bored with that fast.”

When asked if there were any artists Pandora had particular trouble analyzing, Westergren rattled off a list of genre-defying musicians: “King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Beck—I hate Beck now. Not as a musician. But I hate him.”

Asked if he had encountered any particularly illuminating feedback or noteworthy criticism left by any users lately on the site, he mentioned “one user gave a thumbs-down to a track, and then wrote in as his comment, ‘C’mon, man, it’s Journey! I mean, I LIKE Journey!’”