I had the good fortune of stumbling on Pandora internet radio in its early days and continue to expand my musical interests by listening to my stations there almost daily. My early enthusiasm for Pandora also led me to host founder and Chief Strategic Officer, Tim Westergren, in 2006 for one of his many outreach visits as documented in this old Terra Sig post.
The basic idea is superb: you register and “seed” a personal Pandora station by citing a band you like – or even a specific song. Your choice then matches with the “genome” of other similar songs as determined by professional musicians and music technologists who have actually listened to each song. As described at Pandora:
We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or “genes” into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song – everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It’s not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records – it’s about what each individual song sounds like.
What happens, of course, is that some folks learn that music they like might also be similar to that of artists they never thought they’d like. This can be good or bad and you have the option to give songs a “thumbs down” to refine future song selections. I’ve seeded some stations with jazz faves like Oscar Peterson and Ben Webster, singer-songwriters like Shawn Mullins and Son Volt’s hit, “Drown.”
The payout is that the Pandora algorithm gives you a chance to hear music you are likely to enjoy and hear new bands without having to be going out to clubs a few times a week (because god knows that radio isn’t bringing us much innovation today). For example, my “Drown” station introduced me to The Dexateens from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. For bands without a major recording contract, it gives a chance for them to be heard next to major names in their genre.
By all accounts, Tim is still the lovely, open guy I met in 2006 – a musician himself and former movie score writer, we learned that we had both played the same Denver club (Herman’s Hideaway) and had both played in bands named for Robert Frost poems (his, Savage Beast; mine, Fragmentary Blue).
Launching Pandora and seeing it through for the last 10 years has been a labor of love for Westergren and, to some, a crazy business idea. This month, one of my favorite design and business mags, Fast Company, interviewed Tim as part of their Innovation Agents feature:
I have to laugh at how well things seem to be going for Pandora. I told Tim that after all of the sacrifices he and his wife made financially to get this thing off the ground and for his dedication to fellow musicians and music lovers, he deserved to become a very rich man. I don’t know if he is but the business has certainly weathered some storms.
Two weeks ago, I walked past the now defunct local music store on the University of North Carolina’s retail strip where I visited with Tim for him to feed Pandora’s Music Genome – my 2006 post ends with us there and our exchange is that’s how I always think of him:
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.”