The idea behind the technology powering Pandora is as labour intensive as it is brilliant. The dedicated souls of the Music Genome Project, which is affiliated to Pandora, have gone and listened to many thousands of major artists and tens of thousands of individual tracks, and then proceeded to label tracks by what distinguishes them and what essential musical structures they share. For some genres this means cataloging a paltry hundred attributes, for more complex genres such as Blues and Jazz, something in the order of three times that number have been compiled. Esoteric information such as ‘major’/ ‘minor key tonality’ or ‘use of the wah-wah pedal’ abounds.
They then created the Pandora client, which is the front end that the humble user gets to see, to act as a player to sit on top of these vast repositories of information, and which could stream over the Internet the tracks that were described in the database.
How it all actually works is surprisingly simple. You go to the Pandora page, and it loads in Flash. You enter the name of the song or artist that you have a fondness for. If you wish for a wider range of sounds, depending on the depth of the artist that you have a inclination towards, choosing the artist’s name will give you a wider range of musical works then you get for a particular song, which will have a narrower musical basis. They then create a radio station for you. A personalised radio station. And you can have up to a 100 of them. This radio station you created will play music that is identified to be similar to the music you chose to start with. It may play the music that you explicitly selected, or another track by the same person, but this is not guaranteed, because the legal conditions under which Pandora operates requires that it not allow users to request an individual track, or to do anything that would be equivalent to requesting an individual track.
You listen to the music, if you like it, give it a thumbs up and the tunes keep rolling. If you dislike it, a thumb down will make the track disappear. Two thumbs down for the same artist will result in them being purged forever from your listening life, unless you’ve previously given them a thumbs up for another song, in which case only the two offending songs are confined to purgatory for their musical transgressions. You can also get a lot of information from the Pandora site about the artist, the song, why that particular song is being played and to keep track of what is currently in the popular buzz.
So far I’ve used Pandora to set up two radio stations that I’ve decided to keep. The first was seeded by a band that James introduced me to named Swtichfoot, known for their intelligent lyrics for my part, though the music itself is pretty good listening as well. From that it spawned a bevy of bands that it reckoned were the equal of Switchfoot musically, and sure enough, even with a few false starts, I soon made my first discovery, finding that every time I flipped back to the player to find out what was the song that sounded so good, that it inevitably originated from the band Feeder, which if I can find any more music off, I may well buy.
The second time I started from a Song. Specifically it was Leroy’s Good Time which features in the first season of Scrubs and is on their Soundtrack. If you have an encyclopedic memory of Scrubs, its the third episode in which Dr. Kelso sings “Are you having a good time?” I didn’t think that you would. Anyway, it again proved very consistent at picking out the sound that the track represented and managed to find rafts of music that was almost all exceptionally good and faithful to the original seed. While no one band has caught my eye yet, this station is only a few hours old, and I’ll be likely listening to it for the next few days without any doubts.
There are three major downsides to Pandora. The first is the limited skipping that I mentioned before, but if you’ve given it a good sense of what you like by inputting an artist worthy in your eyes of that sobriquet, you shouldn’t find yourself too vexed by this, as most of the tunes will be enjoyed. The second rather major limitation in theory is that it is only currently open to USA residents as their legal streaming licence only extends itself so far. If the notion that in the Internet age a website should be limited by the geographical limits of the law has you chuckling, then you’re right to be so dismissive. It doesn’t take a genius to find a US Zip Code on the Internet to bypass thei ‘admittedly not trying very hard attempt’ at verifying that you are resident in the US of A. Finally and perhaps the most severe complaint on my part, they haven’t included any Classical music at all in their collection, stemming from an inability to understand how they should begin to classify it and tie it together, or perhaps even what genetic markers can be identified as probative in classical music towards encoding useful information. It’s a pretty big gap, and one critical advantage that Last.fm possesses over this young upstart.
All in all Pandora has made me, the ordinarily unmusical, much more willing to listen to music and bestowed an intuitive way of finding things that I will actually enjoy listening to rather then the musical pond scum that rises to the top through marketing and flesh appeal rather then any musical qualities. Finding music that you enjoy, because it speaks to you, is part of the cultural value of music in the first place and why it is relevant at all.
But then Pandora might not be as omniscient as all that, after all I’m currently listening to Jessica Simpson.