by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
Column 297: Playing God
Pandora’s Tim Westergren on the future of music.
Pandora founder Tim Westergren stood alone on the empty oak stage floor of the packed Durham Western Heritage Museum auditorium holding a microphone, looking like Peter Krause from Six Feet Under, and calmly told the audience of music fans, musicians, business people and techni-geeks what the future of the music industry looks like. If he’s right, we’re all in for a long, boring ride.
Westergren was in town last Tuesday night conducting one of his many “town hall meetings,” where he goes among the masses like a wizened messiah and tells them about the magic of Pandora while answering questions not only about the technology, but about why it’s so damn important.
Westergren believes Pandora and Internet radio will ultimately rescue the drowning, dying music industry. It will do this by offering its listeners only the music they want to hear, and nothing else. Pandora is web-streaming radio powered by the “Music Genome Project” — a complicated algorithm where users enter a song or artist that they enjoy, and the service responds by playing selections that are musically similar. ”Instant personalized radio,” is how Westergren describes it.
He spent the first half-hour talking about Pandora’s origin, about how he maxed out dozens of credit cards and almost went broke, but how the project eventually broke through. He talked about how the broadcast music industry has become irrelevant, how it no longer speaks to us, and how music has become sonic wallpaper. “What Pandora has done is reconnect people with music,” Westergren said. “That’s why it’s growing.”
But it can’t keep growing unless there are musicians out there supplying the grist for this electronic mill. Westergren said rock stars of the future will be “kind of a middle class of musicians that are really talented, that are willing to work hard and travel, but that don’t have a home anymore” with traditional record labels. And that’s OK because Pandora makes great big record labels unnecessary. Here’s why.
“We (Pandora) know essentially the songs and music people like, and where they live in the United States,” Westergren said. “One vision of the future is that a musician will come to Pandora, log into his information, and literally see a map of the U.S. with his audience plotted out.”
From there, the musician can route his tour, and go to every location where listeners have “thumbed up” (akin to approving) his music in Pandora. Fans who have “opted in” will receive an e-mail two weeks before that musician hits their town or might find out about the concert while listening to Pandora. “That’s when you can start being serious about this musician’s middle class,” Westergren said. “Musicians will be able to make a living instead of living on Ramen.
“Through our service, there will come a time when the day your song gets added to Pandora, you’ll be able to quit your job,” he added. “Because that song goes out and is played for literally millions of people who like your kind of music, who can connect directly with you, who know when you’re coming to town, can buy your CD and join your fan list. It’s this magic kind of eBay, connecting music fans with music more efficiently.”
Westergren said they’ve surveyed listeners and that about 40 percent bought more music after they started listening to Pandora, while only 2 percent bought less. “We’re one of the top affiliates of sales to iTunes and Amazon,” he said.
But more than music sales, Pandora does something that broadcast radio never did — it pays musicians. “When you’re a musician and your song is played on an AM/FM station, the composer is paid a very small amount of money, but the performers get no compensation,” Westergren said. “With Internet radio, we actually pay a very large royalty to the performers. If you took all broadcast radio today and slapped it onto Internet radio it would be billions of dollars of new revenue for the music industry just from radio royalties (that musicians) are not getting right now. That’s the biggest tectonic shift that’s happening for artists.”
Yeah, but doesn’t that make you an artistic dictator? someone asked.
“I like to think of us as being an empowerer of artists,” Westergren said. “We have a team of musicians that determine what should go into Pandora, and it’s based on quality. At that point, we are playing God and are deciding what should go in and what shouldn’t. But I’m OK with that. Pandora is providing opportunity. These are musicians that wouldn’t get heard anywhere else.”
It all sounds so perfect. Maybe it is… except for one little thing: If all you ever listen to is music that you think you like — or that sounds like music that you think you like — how will you ever discover something new, something different, something that could change your life?
What fun is that? I mean, I like Bruce Springsteen as much as the next guy, but Bruce Springsteen Radio? The only thing worse than listening to non-stop Springsteen would be listening to bands that supposedly “sound” like Springsteen. Not only does that deify homogeneity, it’s downright boring.
Even more depressing: If everyone listens only to what Pandora thinks they want to hear, how would we find the next Beatles? We take them for granted as if they’ve always existed, but I’ve been told by people old enough to remember that when the Beatles first arrived, they sounded like nothing anyone had heard before. They certainly wouldn’t have fit onto Beach Boys Radio or Bobby Vinton Radio or Chubby Checker Radio.
Or maybe the ones playing God wouldn’t have let them in at all.
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Two more quick points about Pandora. First, there’s a good chance that Pandora could wind up being the next Myspace in a couple of years — a once-popular online service that is now passe. If Apple ever gets its shit together and puts iTunes “in the cloud” as has been rumored since the company bought Lala.com, it could cripple Pandora. After all Apple’s “Genius” service is designed to do what Pandora does using your personal collection of music. If iTunes becomes a subscription service, allowing access to millions and millions of songs in the iTunes library, it would provide virtually the same service as Pandora, though Pandora will claim that its “Music Genome Project” is a better solution for finding music that fits your personal taste. Personally, I’d rather have Genius’ variety.
The other point: I created a Little Brazil Radio station in Pandora, and among the “similar music” provided by the genome were songs by Staind and Jon Spencer — not exactly a perfect match. It also played a song by Superchunk which was a good fit. To see if the system was reciprocal, I set up a Superchunk Radio station, but lo and behold after more than an hour, I was never served up a Little Brazil song. If I had been, I would more confidence in Westergren’s claim that Pandora is opening up new listeners to bands, specifically small indie bands.
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Tonight at PS Collective it’s the return of Brad Hoshaw after a month on the road playing solo acoustic shows throughout America. Opening is Pat Gehrman (5 Story Fall, Shovelhead). $5, 8 p.m.
Also tonight, Tim Kasher and his band play Lincoln’s Bourbon Theater with Darren Hanlon and Conduits. $12, 8 p.m. It’s a preview of tomorrow night’s show at The Waiting Room.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2010 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
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