Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora, was in Denver last night for a users’ group. It was inspiring to hear the story of a web startup that had a great idea before its time and still prevailed over the dot com bust (and other monetary and technical challenges) to become one of the coolest things on the web nowadays.
For 7 years, the Pandora folks have been analyzing millions of songs across certain attributes (e.g., tempo, instruments, genre, etc.) and have come up with a sort of “genome” of music across which they can map just about any song. What this allows them to do is create for you a personalized radio station of songs you know and songs you don’t based on songs you like. With every song offered up, you can vote it up or down and Pandora adjusts its algorithm for your song selections accordingly. So, you can basically tune your station to your liking. It has been the most enjoyable way for me to get introduced to new music that I’ve found in years.
Tim got the idea and started out in 1999 after having done a little film composing where the requirements were “music that sounds like this song but for cheaper”. So, he began to analyze songs for likeness and, at the time, he figured that he’d license it to on-line radio stations and music sales companies for recommendation engines. He had no idea at the time that it would get a life of its own. A year and a half into it the money ran out and they ran on empty for a couple of years until the post 9/11 economy started to recover a bit. By this time, broadband was much more ubiquitous and on-line radio became a lot more viable. Also, the much maligned DMCA (that was created so that the big corporations wouldn’t get undercut by services like Napster) dictated uniform royalty percentages for on-line music and therefore made it do-able for Pandora to get licenses to share with a wider audience the library they had so carefully built. (The alternative would be to be the time consuming and legally expensive process of having to negotiate agreements with *every* record company out there.) In late 2004, Pandora sent out invitations to 200 friends and family to try their simply radio application and, within a month, they had 4000 registered users where it supposed to be only the original 200. They opened it up to the public in November 2005 and have just passed the 4 million user mark simply by word of mouth.
They now have 45, full-time trained musicians whose job it is to expand Pandora’s library, which they do based on user suggestion, direct submissions by musicians, and traveling around looking for local bands that deserve a wider audience (which is what brought Tim to Denver and many other places). Tim’s personal vision is to create a musician middle class (somewhere between major record deal and completely unknwon), a place where music lovers and musicians can find each other without big record companies chaperoning and without listeners and musicians having to drag themselves around to smoke-filled bars at all hours of the night.
Upcoming features will includes social features (such as finding others who share your music interests for sharing recommendations and other music discussions), the ability to select songs not only on general likeness but on specific attributes as well (I can’t wait for this for developing my non-traditional tango station), and tracking local tour dates for your favorite artists.
If you haven’t tried Pandora, it deserves a listen. Check out my stations here. U.S. listeners only, sorry. Since the DMCA is only for the U.S., they are still in the process of negotiating contracts for European and Japanese listeners. (Of course, you can fake it out and give it a US zip code and get in that way.)