Pandora Town Hall (Richmond, VA)

Open question/answer forum with Tim Westergren, the founder of the Music Genome Project and Pandora Internet Radio.

June 29, 2009
approx 100 attending
free t-shirts! free burritos from Chipotle!

Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora

His original plan was to get in a car & drive across country to find local music to add to Pandora, but it wasn’t quite as romantic as he thought it would be. On the way home, he planned a meetup on the fly using the Pandora blog, and since then, whenever he visits a new city, he organizes get together like this one.

Tim is a Stanford graduate and a musician, although he didn’t study it specifically. He spent most of his 20s playing in bands, touring around the country, but not necessarily as a huge commercial success. It’s hard to get on the radio, and radio is the key to professional longevity. Eventually, he shifted to film score composition, which required him to analyze music and break it down into components that represent what is happening on the screen. This generated the idea of a musical genome.

The Music Genome Project was launched in 2000 with some seed money that lasted about a year. Eventually, they ran out of money and couldn’t pay their 45 employees. They tried several different ways to raise money, but nothing worked until some venture investors put money into it in 2004. At that point, they took the genome and repurposed it into a radio (Pandora) in 2005.

They have never advertised — it has all been word of mouth. They now add about 65,000 new listeners per day! They can see profitability on the horizon. Pandora is mainly advertising supported. The Amazon commissions provide a little income, but not as much as you might think they would.

There are about 75,000 artists on the site, and about 70% are not on a major label. The song selection is not based on popularity, like most radio, but rather on the elements of the songs and how they relate to what the user has selected.

Playlists are initially created by the song or artists musical proximity to begin with, and then is refined as the user thumbs up or down songs. Your thumbs up and down effect only the station you are listening to, and it effects whatever the rest of the playlist was going to be. They use the over-all audience feedback to adjust across the site, but it’s not as immediate or personalized.

They have had some trouble with royalties. They pay both publishing and performer royalties per song. They operate under the DMCA, including the royalty structure. Every five years, a committee determines what the rate will be for the next year. In July 2007, the committee decided to triple the ratings and made it retroactive. It essentially bankrupted the company.

Pandora called upon the listeners to help them by contacting their congressional representative to voice opposition to the decision. Congress received 400,000 faxes in three days, breaking the structure on the Hill for a week! Their phones were ringing all day long! Eventually, they contacted Pandora to make it stop. They are now finishing up what needs to be done to bring the royalty back to something more reasonable. (Virtually all the staffers on Capitol Hill are Pandora users — made it easy to get appointments with congress members.)

Music comes to Pandora from a variety of sources. They get a pile of physical and virtual submissions from artists. They also pay attention to searches that don’t result in anything in their catalog, as well as explicit suggestions from listeners.

They have a plan to offer musicians incentives to participate. For example, if someone thumbs up something, there would be a pop-up that suggest checking out a similar (or the same) band that is playing locally. Most of the room would opt into emails that let them know when bands they like are coming to town. Musicians could see what songs are being thumbed up or down and where the listeners are located.

Listener suggestion: on the similar artists pages, provide more immediate sampling of recommendations.

What is the cataloging backlog? It takes about 8-10 weeks, and only about 30% of what is submitted makes it in. They select based on quality: for what a song is trying to do, does it do it well? They know when they’ve made a wrong decision if they don’t include something and a bunch of people search for it.

Pandora is not legal outside of the US, but many international users fake US zip codes. However, in order to avoid lawsuits, they started blocking by IP. As soon as they implemented IP blocking, they received a flood of messages, including one from a town that would have “Pandora night” at a local club. (The Department of Defense called up and asked them to block military IP ranges because Pandora was hogging the bandwidth!)

Why are some songs quieter than others? Tell them. They should be correcting for that.

The music genome is used by a lot of scorers and concert promoters to find artists and songs that are similar to the ones they want.

Could the users be allowed more granular ratings rather than thumbing up or down whole songs? About a third of the room would be interested in that.

Mobile device users are seeing fewer advertisements, and one listener is concerned that this will impact revenue. Between the iPhone, the Blackberry, and the Palm Pre, they have about 45,000 listeners on mobile devices. This is important to them, because these devices will be how Pandora will get into listener’s cars. And, in actuality, mobile listeners interact with advertisements four times as much as web listeners.

Tim thinks that eventually Pandora will host local radio. I’m not so sure how that would work.

Subscription Pandora is 192kbps, which sounds pretty good (and it comes with a desktop application). It’s not likely to get to audiophile level until the pipes are big enough to handle the bandwidth.

Variety and repetition is their biggest areas where they get feedback from listeners. The best way to get variety is to add different artists. If you thumb down an artist three times, they should be removed from the station.

They stream about 1/3 of the data that YouTube streams daily, with around 100 servers. Tim is not intimately familiar with the tech that goes into make Pandora work.

[The questions kept coming, but I couldn’t stay any longer, unfortunately. If you have a chance to attend a Pandora Town Hall, do it!]

lovers and stars

This EP is long enough to show off Ivey’s range, but short enough to keep the listener wanting more.

cover of Lovers and StarsThe first thing you notice about Melissa Ivey is that this girl has a fine set of pipes. Inevitably, there will be the comparisons to Melissa Etheridge and Janis Joplin, but Ivey can hold her own with a unique voice. She and her band have put together an EP of tight rock tunes called Lovers and Stars, which was released last fall, and should be getting more attention than it has already.

One of the benefits of a five song EP is that the artist can show off their range without having to include any weaker material in order to fill out an LP. Ivey pulled out all the stops for the tracks on Lovers and Stars, leaving the listener wanting more after the all-too-short 22 minutes have passed.

The title track begins the EP with an energetic acoustic rhythm guitar riff that is soon joined by the rest of the band and Ivey's vocals. It's a toe-tapper of a love song that is reminiscent of late-90s pop-rock bands like Sixpence or the Rembrandts.

Ivey follows it up with the darker sounding "Eyes on the Door" with its lyrical and musical theme of unrequited longing for someone who is not there. Something about the chord progression reminds me of Amy Ray's "Tether." I think it's that steady driving rhythm that carries an underlying intensity.

"Everywhere and Nowhere" is a head-bopping syncopated introspective pop-rock tune that provides a nice mid-EP lift.

"Far Far Away" kicks off with the energetic punk-influence grind of electric guitars that supports the lyrical theme of separation and longing to be back home with a loved one. This leads into the quietly introspective final track, "No Ties To Break," that begins with the line "she's been a lot of places / seen so many faces / walked across the borders of time," and continues on with the theme of the traveler and his/her relationships with others. It's an old story, but like a good storyteller, Ivey is able to present it in a fresh way.

Lovers and Stars reminds me of my eighth grade English teacher's description of an essay: It's like a miniskirt — long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting.

Lovers and Stars is available at CDBaby.com.

frazzled

Some days I wish I only had to work a half-day. Usually when I do work a half-day, I remember why I don’t do it very often. I find myself feeling very rushed and flustered trying to cram in everything I need to cram in before leaving work.

Then there is the reason why I am working a half-day. Almost always it’s because I’m going out of town for something, and inevitably I’ve left the packing or the one last errand to be done as soon as I leave work. I end up harried and annoyed with myself because it takes me longer to get it all done than I planned for.

Eventually, I’m in my car and cruising down the interstate just a bit over the speed limit in order to make up for the extra time spent getting ready to go. This time I was heading towards Seattle with forty-eight hours of a local science fiction convention ahead of me.

Foolscap is in its eighth year of existence. The con focuses on flat media, which is mainly books and artwork, as opposed to the more general conventions one usually hears about (ie WorldCon, Dragon*Con, Norwescon, etc.). Each year the con features one author and one artist, and this year it was C. J. Cherryh and Mark Ferrari, respectively. I was not familiar with either of them before attending the con, and they weren’t the reason why I went. I just wanted geek out all weekend with a bunch of people who enjoy reading similar stuff and talking about it.

By the time I found the hotel in Bellevue, got checked in, and parked my car, my brain was nearly fried. I get that way when I travel, and the events listed above didn’t help that much. Dragging my suitcase along behind me, I headed towards the elevators where I saw two older women getting on. Quickening my pace, I was able to get in before the doors shut.

I notice they were both wearing name tags, and in my befuddled state, I asked the one standing directly across from me if she knew where the registration desk was located. She told me where it was on the first floor, and somehow I managed to retain that information, despite my embarrassment at realizing that I had just asked the Guest of Honor, C. J. Cherryh, for directions.

D’oh.

The next time I go to a con, I’m going to do my homework and make sure I can recognize the GoH’s on sight.

podcasts

I bring you a list of my current favorite podcasts.

I got an iPod Nano for Christmas this year (whee!), but I have been listening to podcasts without it for a couple of months now. Here are a few of my favorites:

Rubyfruit Radio reminds me of my old college radio show, the Estrogen Nation. It’s an all female artist music program that runs from 30-45 minutes per episode. Host Heather Smith gets the music from the PodSafe Music Network and by permission directly from the artists.

Podcast Fondue is the creation of singer/songwriter and humorist Deirdre Flint. It’s filled with original songs and Deirdre randomness, and I love it! Deirdre is a current member of the touring group the Four Bitchin’ Babes.

The Coffee Geek is a review and opinion show produced by self-avowed coffee geek Mark Prince. Informative, but sometimes a bit over my head.

I’ll be adding more to my listening rotation. I should check out some of the librarian podcasts, too.

torrent

I have a new obsession hobby. This past weekend, I discovered BitTorrent, a cooperative distribution protocol for sharing large files. In my case, it’s a way to get concert recordings (of artist who approve of that sort of thing) without having to set up a snail mail trade with someone and hope it works out for the best. It’s fast way to distribute shows, too. I was able to download a show yesterday that was recorded the day before!

The key to scalable and robust distribution is cooperation. With BitTorrent, those who get your file tap into their upload capacity to give the file to others at the same time. Those that provide the most to others get the best treatment in return. (“Give and ye shall receive!”)

Cooperative distribution can grow almost without limit, because each new participant brings not only demand, but also supply. Instead of a vicious cycle, popularity creates a virtuous circle. And because each new participant brings new resources to the distribution, you get limitless scalability for a nearly fixed cost.

So, what’s the library world application of this kind of protocol? The obvious one that comes to my mind is distribution of electronic publications. If part of the difficulties of publishing electronically is the cost of maintaining the backfiles, then perhaps publisher should look into a BitTorrent-type distribution model where everyone who is interested in the electronic content shares the burden of distributing it on demand.

I’m not sure if this would work in libraryland, but it certainly makes it a lot easier to share concert recordings.