Oakland-based music streaming site Pandora.com, developed out of the Music Genome Project founded by musician/producer Tim Westergren, allows users to create taste-specific radio stations simply by entering an artist’s name.
To create a Pandora radio station, users enter an artist name or song title and a playlist made up of other artists with similar sounds, and presumably the same appeal, follows. Sometimes the suggested selections are a perfect match, but if not, users can disapprove of tracks from their radio station.
Steve Hogan, music operations manager at Pandora, said music analysts work three to five hours a day listening to tracks and describing them with more than 300 categories and attributes in order to connect users to music that accurately reflects their tastes.
“Analysts select the tracks best representative of the sound,” Hogan said. “They work to build a blueprint of every track.”
Hogan said analysts choose CDs from four or five shelves of music in a typical workday. They choose approximately five tracks per disc, and then spend 10 to 20 minutes listening for different characteristics, Hogan said. Categories include vocal timbre, tone, effects and harmony; acoustic, electric or synthetic instrumentation; and lyrical content and language.
In addition to categorizing tracks, Hogan said the analysts, who undergo 40 hours of training, also research album reviews, charting singles and underground music.
Shaden “DJ Lady Sha” Tavakoli, the first female disc jockey on South African airwaves, said the site is a great way for users to be exposed to new music while continuing in the direction of music they already prefer.
“As a DJ, it is my responsibility to be finding quality music and exposing the world to it,” Tavakoli said. “However, I do question if the people behind this Web site really spend time finding what music is out there, or if they just lead you on a path toward the music they want you to be listening to.”
“Pandora’s entire focus is on music and quality,” Hogan said. “There’s no motivation to be tastemakers.”
The attributes and descriptions applied by the analysts is objective, Hogan said. Pandora provides a level playing field for everyone from mainstream pop icons like Madonna to underground indie groups, he said.
“We have an all-inclusive system,” Hogan said.
“The Pandora philosophy is, ‘Whatever they want, give it to them,'” said Tim Westergren, founder and chief strategy officer of the company.
A musician who personally experienced the indie scene, Westergren said he is obsessed with helping talented emerging artists connect with the music fans most likely to appreciate their music. Independent artists are the “DNA of Pandora,” Westergren said.
“We’re similar to other radio sites in that the listenership activity is the same, but some have a different approach,” Westergren said. “Pandora has no limits. We have live music and international music. We want to be global.”
Currently, copyright issues present a problem for Pandora’s global goals. In America, Pandora’s services are protected by the Digital Music Copyright Act of 1998, which limits liability from copyright infringement for online service providers.
Hogan said the legislation serves as a blanket license with which record labels must comply. In turn, Pandora must keep track of each song played, including details about record labels.
“Licensing is one of the largest expenses at Pandora,” Hogan said.
Since the DMCA is primarily in place in this country, Pandora must negotiate individual contracts with labels in other countries in order to carry the material on the site, Hogan said.
“Technically, it is illegal for people in other countries to use the site,” Hogan said. “That’s why you’re asked to check whether you live in the U.S. when signing up for the site.”