Pandora Knows Me Better Than I Do

Pandora Logo

Sometimes it takes me a while to do things I know I should do. Case in point: in October I read this fascinating feature in Inc. Magazine about Pandora entitled Pandora’s Long Strange Trip: Online radio that’s cool, addictive, free, and-just maybe-a lasting business.

Pandora has developed a proprietary method to analyze music–Westergren calls it the music genome–that lets users create online radio stations generated by the software’s recommendations. Tell Pandora your favorite song is “Casey Jones” by the Grateful Dead, and within seconds it will create a station–Casey Jones Radio–that streams nonstop songs from artists such as the Youngbloods, the Byrds, and the Beatles, along with stuff you might not expect, like R.E.M., the Jam, and Tom Petty. It’s undeniably cool and completely addictive, but Pandora has never quite found its footing as a business. Indeed, the company has been through an almost unbelievable number of setbacks, a series of blows that would make the most determined entrepreneur throw in the towel. Westergren has run out of money, which forced to him to lay off his entire staff (except for those willing to work for free). He’s been rejected some 350 times by venture capitalists. He has faced bankruptcy, haggled with anxious creditors, and been sued by employees. Deal after deal has fallen through at the last minute.

Sounded pretty cool to me. So what did I do? Completely forgot about it after I read the article…until this morning when I forgot my iPod at home. I’m the only one in the warehouse right now, so I randomly thought of Pandora and decided to give it a shot.

After entering about 10 of my favorite bands I started listening. The first few songs were from the groups I entered. Then it happened: for the last two hours they have not missed once – every single song has been either a group I like (but didn’t enter into the system), a song I like but had forgotten about and don’t own, or a song I never heard before from a group I’ve never heard of but liked. Amazing.

When I clicked the ‘why did you play this song’ tab for one song it said: “based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features hard rock roots, a subtle use of vocal harmony, minor key tonality, melodic song writing, and dirty electric guitar rifts.

Sure, if you say so. Next time someone asks me what kind of music I like I know what to say 🙂

2 comments on Pandora Knows Me Better Than I Do

  1. Anthony says:

    Hah, I love Pandora, been listening to it for a couple years now. It’s great.

    Kind of makes you wonder what kinds of tools more advanced businesses have at their disposal (or will in the very near future) – I mean, if you can predict exactly what the songs a person will enjoy based on a few parameters, I’m sure you can also determine what price points will work best, what channels are most effective, how they will react to certain messages, etc. Forget focus groups – seems like computers are starting to know people better than they know themselves.

  2. Adam McFarland says:

    Anthony – didn’t really make that connection because I kind of posted on a whim, but you are 100% correct. Focus groups are tough because most of the time people don’t even know what they truly want. I have to believe an advanced algorithm like Pandora is waaaaay better at predicting what music people will like than pretty much any other method available.

    You see it happening already in baseball with sabermetrics – computers are better at analyzing data from large sample sizes and drawing conclusions (or aiding in drawing conclusions) than scouts ever have been or ever will be. It’s caused a huge rift among people in the game, and it’ll probably be the same in any industry when data driven models start making decisions that people used to make…and do a better job of it. Anyone interested in reading regularly about this stuff should check out http://www.firejoemorgan.com/ – possibly the best site on the web in my opinion.

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