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!]

ala annual, part two — washington, d.c.

The Blog Salon was definitely the highlight of the social events at ALA. I met a few new interesting folk, as well as got to chat with a few folks I had met previously.

I had an illuminating conversation with an advocate for games in libraries who gave me a different perspective of gamer society, particularly how casual games fit in. My skills with the console and arcade games of the 80s and early 90s were rudimentary at best, and I haven’t tried anything since then. He let me play a basic game on his portable game device that was fairly simple to pick up and learn without instructions. Sure, the first person shooters and “twitch” games, as he called them, are quite popular, but “casual” games have been booming as well.

Come to think of it, thanks to Blogcritics, I’ve had a chance to play with and review a few casual games over the past year, and by his definition, that makes me a gamer. Weird. Anyway, it has me thinking of how we could use games as a way of making the library a friendlier place for our students, and what kinds of games would work with some of the general education curriculum.

Continue reading “ala annual, part two — washington, d.c.”

usage statistics

The following is an email conversation between myself and the representative of a society publisher who is hosting their journals on their own website.


Can I access the useage information for my institution? We subscribe to both the print and online [Journal Name].

Anna Creech


Dear Ms. Creech,

At the most recent meeting of the [Society] Board of Directors, the topic of usage statistics was discussed at length. As I am sure you are aware, usage statistics are a very coarse measure of the use of a web resource. As just one example, there is no particular relationship between the number of downloads of an article and the number of times it is read or the number of times it is cited. An article download could represent anything from glancing at the abstract, to careful reading. Once downloaded, articles can be saved locally, re-read and redistributed to others. Given the lack of any evidence that downloads of professional articles have any relationship to their effective audience size or their value to readers, the Board decided that [Society] will not provide potentially misleading usage statistics. We do periodically publish the overall usage of the [Society] website, about 10 million hits per year.

Regards,

[Name Removed]
[Society] Web Editor


Dear Mr. [Name Removed],

Your Board of Directors are certainly a group of mavericks in this case. Whether they think the data is valuable or not, libraries around the world use it to aid in collection development decisions. Without usage data, we have no idea if an online resource is being used by our faculty and students, which makes it an easy target for cancellation in budget crunch times. I suggest they re-think this decision, for their own sakes.

We all know that use statistics do not fully represent the way an online journal is used by researchers, but that does not mean they are without value. No librarian would ever make decisions base on usage data alone, but it does contribute valuable information to the collection development process.

Hits on a website mean even less than article downloads. Our library website gets millions of hits just from being the home page for all of the browsers in the building. I would never use website hits to make any sort of a decision about an online resource.

Provide the statistics using the COUNTER standard and let the professionals (i.e. librarians) decide if they are misleading.

Anna Creech


UPDATE: The conversation continues….


Dear Ms. Creech,

Curiously, the providers of usage statistics are primarily commercial publishing houses. Few science societies that publish research journals are providing download statistics. In part, this is a matter of resources that the publisher can dedicate to providing statistics-on-demand: commercial publishing houses have the advantage of an economy of scale. They are also happy to provide COUNTER-compliant statistics in part because they are relatively immune to journal cancellation, as a result of mandatory journal bundling.

In any event, after careful consideration and lengthy discussion with a librarian-consultant, the Board concluded that usage statistics are easy to acquire and tempting to use, but are in effect “bad data”. I certainly respect your desire to make the most of a tight library budget, but also respectfully disagree that download statistics are an appropriate tool to make critical judgements about journals. Other methods to learn about the use of a particular journal are available- for example, asking faculty and students to rate the importance of journals to their work, or using impact factors. I am sure you take these into account as well.

I will copy this reply to the [Society] Board so that they are aware of your response. No doubt the Board will revisit the topic of usage statistics in future meetings.

Regards,

[Name Removed]


Dear Mr. [Name Removed],

I never ment to imply that we exclusively use statistics for collection development decisions. We also talk with faculty and students about their needs. However, the numbers are often a good place to begin the discussions. As in, “I see that no one has downloaded any articles from this journal in the past year. Are you still finding it relevant to your research?” Even prior to online subscriptions, librarians have looked at re-shelve counts and the layer of dust on the tops of materials as indicators that a conversation is warranted.

I suggest your Board take a look at the American Chemical Society. They provide COUNTER statistics and are doing quite well despite the “bad data.”

Anna Creech

there and back again: part two

Despite getting a decent night’s sleep, I woke up a bit groggy the next morning. But I manged to find some espresso and a muffin and went to learn about herbology. Unfortunately, the herbalist was late, so most of the session was lead by the pharmaceutical expert.

Continue reading “there and back again: part two”

winner-take-all v. proportional representation

Third parties don’t work in the USA by design, albeit unintentional.

Some time ago, a friend sent me this article from Common Dreams. The premise is essentially, “Don’t vote Ralph or W will win.” However, what I found most interesting about it was a clear and concise explanation of the whys and wherefores of the differences between the USA representative democracy setup and most of the rest of the free world’s setup. We are a winner-take-all democracy that by its very nature only works in a two-party system. Third parties are almost never moderate, and therefore are likely to be pulling from only one of the two major parties, no matter what Ralph may want you to believe. When the setup is Major Party 1 at 41%, Major Party 2 at 39%, and Third Party leaning towards Major Party 2 at 20%, the Major Party 1 will win, even though they are a minority and do not truly represent a majority of the people. In a proportional representation system, the percentage of votes would translate to the number of seats won by each party, and thus coalitions would have to be formed in order to get a true majority. If the USA changed to this system, more people would feel that their interests are represented in the government and we wouldn’t be worrying about spoilers.