What’s in Pandora’s box? The RIAA, Journey and Karl Marx, among others.



“This service will mean socialization of music.”

“We’re trying to create a musical middle class.”

“We’re seeing the crumbling of a musical aristocracy.”

“C’mon man, it’s Journey.”

That was not an imaginary conversation between Karl Marx and the stoner who sat next to you in Music Theory 101. They were actual phrases thrown around last night at the Tivoli theatre by Tim Westergreen, creator of the free Internet-radio and music-recommendation service Pandora and about fifty of his most faithful users from St. Louis. The stop was part of Westergreen’s national barnstorming tour, which he’s conducting to meet and receive feedback from the more dedicated faction of Pandora’s eight million registered users, in addition to gathering support for Internet radio’s continuing battle with Congress and the RIAA.


For the uninitiated, Pandora is the hybrid of music recommendation services like last.fm, and Internet radio services such as Yahoo! Radio. What makes Pandora different is the brains behind the service’s recommendations, a program Westergreen created in 2000 called the Music Genome Project. Song analysts employed by the project, usually people trained in music-theory or former musicians, classify characteristics of songs, which they refer to as genes. Analyzing a song takes between fifteen to twenty minutes, and each analyst grades a song based on about 400 different attributes, from the simple, gender of the vocalist, to more complex characteristics like “mixed major and minor key tonality.” Depending on the genre, a song can have anywhere from 150 to 500 genes.

Log on to Pandora, and you’re asked to name an artist or song to create your own personalized radio station. From that one decision the application starts playing music it thinks you will enjoy. You can give its choices a thumbs up or down, making it continue to play similar songs or try something new.

Westergreen said projects are currently underway to create similar genome projects for wine and art as well.

Most at the Tivoli seemed to be present to discuss the future of Internet-streaming radio in the wake of the United States Copyright Royalty Board’s (USCRB) decision to triple the royalties internet radio stations must pay to SoundExchange, a branch of the Recording Industry Association of America. The decision, which was met with strong outcries from fans and radio stations alike, now appears to be on the verge of being reversed, thanks to strong congressional support for the Internet Radio Equality Act

Westergreen assured his listeners that his company isn’t going anywhere -- despite the fact that, like virtually every Internet-radio provider, Pandora is facing millions of dollars in debt, thanks to the provision in the USCRB’s decision to make royalty payments retro-active for a year-and-a-half. He also thanked those present for lobbying Congress to solve the problem, claiming that Pandora listeners sent more than a million faxes to their congressmen in the weeks following the decision.

Most interesting, however, was the discussion as to why -- other than the boatloads of money the RIAA stands to gain -- the industry would be so concerned about Internet radio. A few talkative audience members speculated that radio formats like Pandora remove much of the control major record labels have over what music gets heard.

In fact, Pandora, which makes all of its money from ad revenue, prides itself on exposing listeners to new artists or types of music. Westergreen boasts that “54 percent of the artists played on Pandora are not signed to a record label,” and that about 15,000 songs per month are analyzed and added to the database.

Thus, by removing the filters of record label promotion and distribution, services like Pandora created the aforementioned buzz words like “a musician's middle class,” and “socialization of music,” meaning while there will be fewer bands who see huge financial returns, there will be more bands making money and more people hearing music.

Of course on the flipside, Westergreen jokes that Pandora has no “cool filter” in its recommendations -- by objectively analyzing the aspects of a user’s taste in music, the service tends to recommend some artists which might sound similar to things they like but aren’t regarded as hip. He describes a survey which prompted users to explain why the gave a specific song a thumbs up or down, resulting a reply of, “C’mon man, it’s Journey."

-- Keegan Hamilton

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