Your own private radio station takes new approach

Marc D. Allan takes new approach

Marc D. Allan
An analyst from listens intently as he works at pairing listener with artist.
Everyone who loves music should go to immediately - after reading this, of course - where you will experience the joy of creating your own private radio station. You'll thank me for this later, much like I thanked Tim Westergren, who founded the site. "I spend most of my time now corresponding with people who are using the service," Westergren said. "I have to tell you, the emotion of people is wild. People want and need music in their lives, but they forget how much they want and need it until they get it back again. And there's such a sense of gratitude, which is just amazing. People write love letters." As well they should. On Pandora, you start with a group - let's say the Beatles - or a song - "Ticket to Ride," for example. Pandora will create a station for you. It'll start with a Beatles song, then continue on with similar-sounding tunes. You can tell the computer what you like (which keeps similar songs coming) and what you don't (you can stop bad songs immediately). You can add more bands or songs, too. Or you can just let it play. The site is advertiser-supported, and it's free. As of this writing, I've been on an eight-day XTC thread that has gone in magnificent directions, including one especially memorable run of "Adult Books" (X), "Rocket from a Bottle" (XTC), "Hardcore UFOs" (Guided By Voices) and "Star Sign" (Teenage Fanclub). There have been several new discoveries - most notably the jaunty "Out Out Damn Spot" by Anthony Rapp ("If you wanna know the truth about my life / it's a mess, it's a mess, it's a mess, it's a mess") and maybe the greatest song title ever, "Outbreak of Vitas Gerulatis" by a British group called Half Man Half Biscuit. I'd never heard of Patty Hurst Shifter, Aspera Ad Astra, The Waxwings, De Novo Dahl and Ellie Pop, but I have now. And I'm glad. So far, Pandora employees have catalogued nearly 400,000 songs based on an array of different characteristics such as major-key tonality, melodic songwriting and rhythmic syncopation. They call what they're doing "the musical genome project" because it's the musical equivalent of what scientists have done with human genes. Westergren wouldn't divulge how many users are on Pandora, but he said 8.5 million stations have been created in three months. Each user can start up to 100 stations.
Tim Westergren
"Music makes your life better," said Westergren, a former musician whose acoustic-rock band Yellowwood Junction has just been added to the Pandora catalog. "I think it makes the world better. It's goodness. And people like to bask in that." Here's what else he said: NUVO: Let's say I start my station and put in the Beatles. The Beatles' catalog runs from "Michelle" to "Helter Skelter." How do songs come up? Westergren: That's a work in progress. Our initial premise was, we would assume you like all the Beatles. Then what we're going to do when we create playlists for you is traverse their musical identity. It's not dissimilar to you actually having seeded your radio station with a bunch of representative Beatles songs. The breadth and eclecticism of the playlist will reflect their breadth and eclecticism. We never analyze an artist, per se. We only understand an artist as a collection of individual songs we've analyzed by that artist. NUVO: Can a thread go on forever? Westergren: That's something we're tweaking. This is going to be driven by what listeners want. People have different appetites for repetition and familiarity and all of these things. In theory, you could hear five years of music without ever hearing something repeat, but after a while, the music would probably drift pretty far from where you started. NUVO: What about licensing? "Pop Song '89," which is an R.E.M. song, has come up a couple of times, but it's always been by a group called Motion City Soundtrack. Are there problems with any bands? Westergren: We can play anyone. We adhere to a licensing law called the DMCA, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. That was designed for Webcasters. It allows us to play any music we want, provided there are certain things we don't do - like we don't allow you to request a song on demand and we don't play more than four songs by the same artist within a three-hour period. And we don't preannounce a song, in the same way terrestrial radio stations don't do that. NUVO: It says on the site that the goal is to help us find music we'll like. Is there more to it than that? Westergren: If I was trying to distill why our company exists, I think there are two reasons. One is to help musicians find their audience. I'm not sure we state that very prominently. But that is the source of what inspired the idea. It was my experience of being a needle in a haystack as far as playing in rock bands. I hope that in the long run we can achieve something fundamental about a business where it's feast or famine and try to change that. The second thing is music discovery - the feeling you get when you find a new piece of music you love. It makes your life better. If you can provide that kind of experience on any kind of regular basis for someone, you're going to have an enduring love affair. From a listening standpoint, I think people have resigned themselves, as they get older, to music playing a smaller role in their lives. That's a terrible shame. If you talk to your average adult and you ask if they love music, they'll say, "Of course I do." But when you ask, "Do you buy it anymore?" they'll say no because they can't find anything they like. What that tells me is that's an itch that needs to be scratched. NUVO: Do you think there's a Nobel Prize in your future? Westergren: (Laughs) I'm just happy to be getting a paycheck right now.

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