Column 296: Questions for Mr. Pandora…

Category: Blog,Column — Tags: , , — @ 1:38 pm November 10, 2010

by Tim McMahan,

Column 296: Searching for Answers
Can Pandora’s founder provide any?

Yesterday I conducted an interview with a nationally known musician where I mentioned that I bought his most recent CD. He laughed and said, “You bought it?” I asked what was so funny, and he said, “Oh nothing, just the idea that someone actually purchased music.”

And I thought to myself: This is where we are now. The idea of buying music has finally evolved into a joke that makes even the musicians themselves laugh in disbelief.

That is the reality of today’s music industry. No one expects to get paid for selling their music. Not anymore. Few musicians — certainly no local musicians — are counting on supporting themselves through music sales. It has become a matter of fact. And though this has been a reality for a few years, I’m only now really seeing the impact.

In the past month I’ve interviewed three successful indie bands — bands that thrived during the early part of the ’00s — and all said they’ve seen the well dry up. They now consider their careers to be in the “starting over” phase. They say they don’t know where the money is going to come from, and even their touring income, which was never huge to begin with, is slowly fading away. These bands are nationally recognized talent, and in any other era that would have been enough to keep them going. Not any more.

I’ve watched as one of the most talented local singer/songwriters — someone who has toured throughout America and Europe — has put away his guitar and keyboard, and is now pursuing a career completely separate from music. He has mouths to feed; it’s that simple. And he wasn’t going to feed them through his music. So he quit. And we no longer will hear the product of his creative, fertile mind. We all lose.

This is not a question of “the cream rising to the top” and the untalented hacks being cast aside in some sort of Darwinian culture model. Music has become so enthusiastically devalued by the buying public — or more importantly, by youth with disposable income — that the idea of paying for it seems as comical a concept as paying to watch television or to surf the Internet.

Industrious musicians with enough career traction are finding other ways to earn cash — specifically by selling publishing rights to their songs for use in commercials or TV shows or movies. What once was considered “selling out” is now smart business. No longer do we sneer when we hear an old Gang of Four song used to sell XBox game consoles. In fact, whenever we hear a band we’re familiar with on a commercial or in the background of some shitty MTV reality show, we quietly cheer because we know those musicians probably have some sort of income that will allow them to continue performing.

As Guster’s Ryan Miller said during our recent interview, the concept of “selling out” disappeared when people started stealing music five or six years ago. He’s right.

This lengthy and somewhat bleak commentary is merely a pre-amble to get you to go see Tim Westergren this Thursday at Durham Western Heritage Museum (moved from PS Collective due to crowd size). Westergren helped create Pandora Radio, an online service that plays music on your computer or cell phone, with content based on your personal taste. The “station” is 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.  “It’s instant personalized radio,” is how Westergren described it on The Colbert Report.

Listening to Pandora costs… nothing. There is a subscription service available, but most people listen to the free version that subjects them to advertising, Westergren said. I’ve listened to Pandora on my iPhone. It works very well. And it’s free. So, that’s good, right? Or is it simply perpetuating the myth that all music is free and has no value?

Look, I’m not trying to get you to show up at the event and bag on Westergren. Pandora pays royalties that are supposed to end up in musicians’ pockets. Instead, go to the “town hall” and ask him how musicians will be able to make a living making music in the future. Westergren is a very smart guy. He’s Mark Zuckerberg smart. He’s got to have answers. He better, or else he’s going to run out of quality new music to serve up on Pandora.

It’s all about sustainability. If you over-fish streams without thinking about replenishing the supply, your nets are going to start coming back empty, except, of course, for the flavorless bottom-feeders that no one wants. The same philosophy holds true for music. If we don’t start thinking about how musicians and songwriters are going to earn a living in a future where people laugh at the idea of paying for music, we’re going to see more and more talent simply give up and walk away, leaving only the least-creative, Bieber-flavored commercial acts and the amateurs.

So here are the details: Pandora founder Tim Westergren is hosting a town hall-style talk at Durham Western Heritage Museum, 801 So. 10th St., Thursday, Nov. 11, at 7 p.m. Westergren will discuss Pandora’s history and the Music Genome Project, and will take feedback, complaints and suggestions. The event, sponsored by Found in Benson culture zine, is free, however attendees must RSVP by e-mailing and mentioning “Omaha” in the subject line, or by RSVPing on the Found In Benson Facebook page. Seating is limited, and is first come, first served.

* * *

Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — 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.