Pandora will not be the only pure Internet radio station to fail, but its failure will be all the more spectacular for its overreaching and confidence that musicians can create better radio than radio programmers.
Pandora is different from other Internet radio stations. It creates unique playlists for each member based on a complex algorithm:
Together our team of fifty musician-analysts has been listening to music, one song at a time, studying and collecting literally hundreds of musical details on every song. It takes 20-30 minutes per song to capture all of the little details that give each recording its magical sound - melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics ... and more - close to 400 attributes!
Rob Walker of The New York Times recently wrote about the company noting:
Pandora's approach more or less ignores the crowd. It is indifferent to the possibility that any given piece of music in its system might become a hit. The idea is to figure out what you like, not what a market might like.
More interesting, the idea is that the taste of your cool friends, your peers, the traditional music critics, big-label talent scouts and the latest influential music blog are all equally irrelevant. That's all cultural information, not musical information. And theoretically at least, Pandora's approach distances music-liking from the cultural information that generally attaches to it.
The majority of the company’s employees are the musicians and musicologists who deconstruct songs according to beats per minute, chordal patterning, the importance of lyrics, and dozens of other criteria.
Pandora is often cited as an example of where radio is headed. Let’s hope not.
A song’s appeal cannot be reduced to a set of scored criteria. It cannot be reduced to objective criteria, particularly by musicologists and musicians. And what evidence is there that the criteria used are valid? Musicians and listeners have very different ideas about songs, particularly songs that they like.
We once showed an open minded artist the results of a music test that included his songs. He was initially flabbergasted. He couldn’t understand why people liked some of what he considered his weaker songs, while they disliked some of his finer work. And the biggest hits were not necessarily the songs that got the biggest reaction performed live.
Putting together a radio station playlist is an art. The very best radio stations are programmed by men and women who have an innate sense of what the station’s listeners want to hear. Music testing helps in the process, but only to a point. Ultimately it is the programmer’s interpretation of the results that determines the sound of the station.
Musicologists with algorithms will never out program a PD with the right ears.
Now Pandora has announced a goal of making its service available on pretty much any connected device from cars to Blu-Ray players. It may be able to weasel itself onto the appliances, but bad radio is bad radio even if it comes through a kitchen device.
Pandora is toast.