by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
In this week’s column, a look at Pandora from the vantagepoint of local singer/songwriter Matt Whipkey, who outlines the steps he underwent to get his music included in the streaming service, and included in the Music Genome Project. You can read it in the current issue of The Reader or online right here at thereader.com, or, since the column is centered around music, you can read it below…
Over the Edge No. 91: Opening Pandora’s Box
Is Pandora the new “radio”?
And by that I’m asking, could digital music streaming services such as Pandora replace terrestrial radio stations, especially after car stereos become “internet ready,” allowing drivers to punch in a website from their dashboards?
While I can’t answer that in this column, I can say that Pandora at least gives unsigned musicians a glimmer of hope that a stranger will find their music, a glimmer of hope that they’ll never get from old-fashioned radio.
That hope is what drove local unsigned singer/songwriter Matt Whipkey to submit his latest album — an ode to the late, lamented Peony Park called Penny Park — to Pandora.
Before we get to that, what is Pandora? The service is a website and a smartphone app that plays music based on an artist’s “station.” For example, when I typed in “Led Zeppelin Radio” the four songs Pandora belched out were Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love,” Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar,” Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Chile” and Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” — basically the same thing you’d hear on Z-92.
Where Pandora gets interesting is when it “suggests” songs you haven’t heard before. That rarely happens when tuned into dinosaur acts like Zep; but it happens all the time when tuning into indie band “radio stations.”
Not just any act can get its music in Pandora. Whipkey said bands signed to record labels have a clear path. Unsigned artists, on the other hand, undergo a process that isn’t exactly easy.
Step One: Open an Amazon Marketplace Account and offer a physical copy of your CD for sale. Step Two: Submit two songs from your record to Pandora. Whipkey said it took two months for someone from Pandora to notify him that his music had been accepted. Hooray! Step Three: Fill out a ton of legal forms. Step Four: Send Pandora a complete copy of your CD.
Three months after Whipkey began the process, “Matt Whipkey Radio” was on the air, but more importantly, his music became part of Pandora’s sci-fi sounding “Music Genome Project.”
According to Pandora, every song in the Music Genome Project is analyzed using up to 450 distinct musical characteristics by a trained music analyst. Those attributes capture not only the musical identity of a song, but also the many “significant qualities that are relevant to understanding the musical preferences of listeners.” Pandora does not use machine-listening or other forms of automated data extraction.
I envision a huge warehouse filled with hipsters and tweed-wearing music professors sitting behind row after row of desks like headphoned elves. As they thoughtfully listen to each CD, they check boxes from a long list of descriptions that includes traits such as rhythm syncopation, key tonality, vocal harmonies and displayed instrumental proficiency (i.e, bitchin’ guitar solo).
“By utilizing the wealth of musicological information stored in the Music Genome Project, Pandora recognizes and responds to each individual’s tastes. The result is a much more personalized radio experience – stations that play music you’ll love – and nothing else.”
And nothing else.
So what does Matt Whipkey Radio sound like? In the first hour I heard songs by Delorentos, Second Dan, Boys School, Sissy and the Blisters, Two Cow Garage, Kirby Krackle and Peter Elkas — all artists and bands I’ve never heard of. Whipkey thinks Pandora groups unsigned indie artists with other unsigned indie artists.
Not everything on Matt Whipkey Radio was anonymous. I also heard songs by The Thermals, The Cynics, Gasoline Heart, Maps & Atlases and one of my all-time favorite bands, The Feelies. Pandora lets users “thumbs up” songs they like, and as a result, it learns a listener’s tastes. I “thumbed up” The Feelies, for instance.
As a whole, the music streamed for Matt Whipkey Radio was pretty good and in character with Whipkey’s style of music. I can’t say the same for “Eli Mardock Radio.”
Mardock is one of my favorite Lincoln singer/songwriters whose debut album was released by tiny label Paper Garden Records. An hour of his station included commercial-friendly music by unknown acts Black Lab, Golden Bear, No Second Troy, The Click Five, a Pat Benetar cover (“Love Is a Battlefield”) by Jann Arden, and songs by familiar (but dreadful) artists Blue October and Travis. None of the music bore the unique, sinister quality that makes Mardock’s songs so interesting.
On the other hand, listening to “Little Brazil Radio” (a popular local punk band) resulted in a very satisfying hour of music that included songs by classic indie bands Superchunk, Silkworm and The Academy Is… Cursive Radio was a veritable hit parade of ‘90s indie, with songs by Radiohead, The Pixies, Modest Mouse and Brand New. The groupings oddly made sense.
What would make Pandora really cool? Imagine the thousands of people listening to “Bruce Springsteen Radio” being fed a Matt Whipkey song. Whipkey says it (probably) will never happen, though he’s heard of bands that have become “Pandora famous.”
“Someone listening to Led Zeppelin Radio who was fed an indie band that sounds like Led Zeppelin probably wouldn’t be too cool with that,” he said.
Whipkey said he submitted to Pandora purely for the chance of gaining wider exposure (He never expects to see a royalty check). “When you tell people you’re on Pandora, they think it’s cool,” he said. “It’s kind of an achievement of sorts. They did have to pick me. They won’t take just anything.”
And who knows, strangers might actually hear his music, which is something they won’t hear on the regular radio. Whipkey said he’s done his share of in-studio performances on local radio stations, “but I never understood how my two minutes live on the air is different than putting on one of my CDs and hitting ‘Play,’” he said. “That’s a no-no. They can’t do it. The guys that host the shows say they have to play what they’re told to play, and that’s it. On the other hand, it’s super-cool that they let me come on their shows.”
So is Pandora the new “radio”?
“I think of Pandora as radio,” Whipkey said. “It’s out there, it’s always on my phone, it’s easy. I just hit the button and there it is. That’s kind of cool.”
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First published in The Reader, Jan. 22, 2014. Copyright © 2014 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
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Before radio host Dave Leibowitz can chime in with “What about my show, New Day Rising on 89.7 FM The River? We play local music,” I want to point out that Whipkey did mention how much he appreciated Sunday programming on The River. And I’ve written a couple times in my column about Dave’s radio show, which airs from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday afternoons (In fact, New Day Rising was the subject of the very first installment of my former music column, way back in 2004).
But I don’t think I need to remind Dave that three hours — along with a couple other shows aired on Sundays — do not make up for The River’s abhorrent play list the rest of the week. I explored this topic with Sophia John in my column as well — go here, and scroll down to the May 9, 2005 entry. The River’s perceived shift in format referenced in that column never happened. The station is still a glowing bastion of growly, Cookie Monster goon-rock, and likely will remain so until Sophia moves on. Her justification for not changing format: “If I did that, I wouldn’t be doing what’s best for everyone. I want to bring the masses what they really want while opening their minds to something different.”
Argue all you want about the quality of terrestrial radio, it’s not changing. If you like the kind of music The River spins, then you’re lucky; you’ve got an outlet right here in your home town. If you wish a station had a full-time playlist similar to what Dave plays on his show — or for a radio station that spins local musicians regularly — well, you’ve always got Pandora, Spotify and your record and CD collection. Technology will catch up eventually, and you’ll soon be able to tune into that music in your car as if it were a terrestrial radio station.
This begs the question: Why doesn’t someone create an online radio station that focuses solely on Nebraska music? Keep watching, folks, it’s just around the corner.
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Tonight at The Barley Street Tavern it’s Phanton Scout (featuring Jeremy Stanosheck). Also on the bill, Sacramento band Misamore and Sowers. $5, 9. More info here.
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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 © 2014 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.