Column 297: Looking inside Pandora’s box; Brad Hoshaw homecoming tonight…

Category: Blog,Column,Interviews — Tags: , — @ 1:58 pm November 18, 2010

by Tim McMahan,

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, 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 — 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.


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.

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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.