Pandora on the Ropes


There are plenty of online music services to choose from these days, many of them household names: iTunes, Amazon, Napster, Rhapsody, Pandora, and, most recently, Spotify.

I have been amazed by what Spotify can do. My favorite anecdote is when I was driving to a concert where Larry Carlton was to be a guest artist. Two of the younger members in our vehicle didn’t know who Carlton was, so my friend said, “Here, listen to this.” And he called up Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne.” Now, my friend didn’t have the song already in his smartphone. He didn’t have to download it. He launched Spotify and immediately found it. No purchase necessary (as would have been the case with iTunes and Amazon). Just music on demand. In a moving car. For these cases—summoning a specific title in an instant—Spotfiy can’t be beat.

But I’m not here to talk about Spotify. I’m here to talk about a service that doesn’t give you what you want. Well, at least not what you ask for … which is sometimes two different things. Hmm, I guess I’d better explain myself, because that seems to be necessary whenever Pandora comes up.

Pandora, which is fighting for survival among a crowded and fiercely competitive landscape of commercial media sellers, is largely misunderstood. This may be part of its problem. A typical conversation explaining how Pandora works goes like this:

Q: What’s Pandora?
: It’s an online music-delivery service.

Q: Like iTunes or Amazon?
: No, it uses a streaming model, and is more like a personalized radio experience.

Q: Like Spotify, Rhapsody, or Rdio?
: No, because a) it’s completely free; and b) you can’t request a song directly. You enter a song title and get back songs that are very much like it.

Q: But not the song I asked for?
: Right, but you wouldn’t use it for that purpose. And the recommended music is uncannily close in many ways. So you have to imagine situations where that works.

Q: You mean like when Amazon says, “Customers who bought X also bought Y”?
: Not really, because it’s not based on what other people do or think or “like.” It’s based on data as defined by the Music Genome Project.

Q: So I can’t request a tune I want, but I can sort of predict what kind of music I’ll get back? What crazy business model justifies that?!
: How about the entire history of commercial radio—both terrestrial and satellite—with radio stations that feature formats like Top 40, Americana, Classical, Jazz, Rock, Metal, Rap & Hip Hop, Oldies, Classic R&B, and Music of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s, and “Now”? Except that with Pandora, each song you request acts like its own station with its own unique format criteria. Only with a lot more specificity—like, 400 times more.

Q: Wow! Does it … you know … work?
: Fantastically so.

Pandora has been on the decline recently (in terms of the company’s valuation) because other competitive entities are on the upswing. But Pandora is unique, both in its technology and business model, and deserves to be understood, from both perspectives.

First, the biz talk. Because Pandora streams music in a “non-interactive” way, it’s regulated by federal laws, rather than licensing agreements with record companies, and so pays fixed and consistent royalty rates (as commercial radio does). This is not true of other on-demand services, such as iTunes, Spotify, and Netflix. Once a content provider (say, a cable TV channel) sees Netflix’s profits go up, it can renegotiate a higher fee. And guess who’s going to absorb that cost, dear consumer? Pandora, on the other hand, won’t change rates until federal legislation changes—a slower and more predictable process.

Now for the “creative technology” part. Pandora makes its selections based not on user reviews and other human-generated (and there potentially corruptible) sources, as Amazon does, but on data derived by the Music Genome Project, an open source standard of tagging music with up to 400 different attributes. Whether music can be defined and classified—let alone judged—according to attributes, rather than the emotional experience of hearing it, is an aesthetic debate for the ages. But in the meantime, Pandora works more often than it doesn’t. And more than that, it can surprise you with its selections. Consider that your favorite baseball players (and in fact, the best baseball players of all time) surprise you in a good way fewer than four times out of ten, but when they do, it brings you out of your seat. It takes just a few direct hits to forgive a lot of strikeouts.

As musicians, we all know that the highest musical moments of our lives can happen unexpectedly. By putting ourselves in the path of “positive possibilities,” but not being completely prescriptive about it, we open ourselves up for the serendipity and happy accidents that music promises. That’s what happens when Miles and Trane got together. Or Omar Rodríguez-López and John Frusciante. And it’s probably happened to you with the radio. Perhaps you were listening to a station late at night, surfing the dial, and you came across a song or a band you didn’t know existed but then couldn’t live without.

Pandora has that effect. Being a Pandora user means endorsing a technology that, while not perfect, is free from the influence of the human hand—the same hand that manipulates for its owner’s profit. Spotify is great because it gives you what you want when you want it. But how are you going to learn if you experience only what you know? Pandora surprises and delights, and takes you to places you could not have found on your own. It rewards the listener with a pilgrim soul. And that is worth saving.

Jon Chappell


One Response to Pandora on the Ropes

  1. Sally Kitt says:

    “It rewards the listener with a pilgrim soul. And tat is worthsaving.” Thhis last wonderful sentence made me think that what you wrote about music also applies to other art forms. You go to a museum to see some Impressionists and on the way out you see a Picasso that alters your mind about what a painting can say, bringing a paradigm shift to your sensibilities. The same probaby works with a poetry anthology, or a film society series. Here’s to the pilgrim soul!

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