The New Tastemakers
SETH FORD-YOUNG is a professional bass player who performs up to five nights a week with local jazz and rock bands and occasionally lends his talents to recording sessions for artists like Tom Waits. But these days he has an unusual second gig.
As a senior music analyst at Pandora Media, he spends roughly 25 hours a week wearing headphones in an office suite here, listening to songs by artists like Sonny Boy Williamson and Memphis Slim and dicing them into data points. Is the singer’s voice gravelly or silky? Is the scope of the song modest or epic? Does the electric guitar sound clean or distorted?
As he listens, in a room not far from an elevated stage with drums, guitars and amps for employee jam sessions, Mr. Ford-Young fills out a scorecard on which he can rate hundreds of traits in each song on a five-point scale. Bit by bit, Pandora’s music analysts have built a massive archive of data, cataloging the minute characteristics of more than 500,000 songs, from alt-country to bossa nova to metal to gospel, for what is known as the Music Genome Project.
At pandora.com visitors are invited to enter the name of their favorite artist or song and to get in return a stream of music with similar “DNA,” in effect a private Internet radio station microtailored to each user’s tastes. Since the service made its debut last November, more than three million people have signed up.
But they are tuning in to more than a musicologist’s online toy: services like Pandora have become the latest example of how technology is shaking up the hierarchy of tastemakers across popular culture. In music the shift began when unauthorized file-sharing networks like the original Napster allowed fans to snatch up the songs they wanted, instantly and free.
But the field is also full of new guideposts: music blogs and review sites like the hipster darling Pitchfork have gained influence without major corporate backing. And customizable Internet radio services like Pandora, Last.fm, Yahoo’s Launchcast and RealNetworks’ Rhapsody are pointing users to music far beyond the playlists that confine most FM radio broadcasts.
All told, music consumers are increasingly turning away from the traditional gatekeepers and looking instead to one another — to fellow fans, even those they’ve never met — to guide their choices. Before long, wireless Internet connections will let them chatter not only on desktops, but in cars and coffee shops, too. And radio conglomerates and MTV, used to being the most influential voices around, are beginning to wonder how to keep themselves heard.
“The tools for programming are in the hands of consumers,” said Courtney Holt, executive vice president for digital music at MTV Networks’ Music and Logo Group, who formerly ran the new-media department for Interscope Records. “Right now it almost feels like a fanzine culture, but it’s going to turn into mainstream culture. The consumer is looking for it.”
If Pandora and other customizable services take off (and so far that’s a big if), they could shift the balance of power not just in how music is consumed, but in how it is made. “You now have music fans that are completely enabled as editorial voices,” said Michael Nash, senior vice president for digital strategy and business development at Warner Music Group, one of the four major music conglomerates. “You can’t fool those people. You can’t put out an album with one good single on it. Those days are over.”
But if fans become their own gatekeepers, the emerging question is what sort they will be. Will they use services like Pandora to refine their choices so narrowly that they close themselves off to new surprises? Or will they use the services to seek out mass shared experiences in an increasingly atomized music world?
THE idea behind a recommendation engine is essentially to create an online version of a knowledgeable retail salesman, someone to help consumers navigate the dizzyingly vast digital marketplace. The most familiar form uses so-called collaborative filtering, software that makes recommendations based on the buying patterns of like-minded consumers. Think of the “customers who bought items like this also bought …” function on Amazon.com.
Pandora’s innovation is to focus on the formal elements of songs, rather than their popular appeal. Say your favorite song is Aretha Franklin’s recording of “Respect.” Pandora will make you a personalized soundtrack that could include Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” and Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” (Why? Click twice and learn that Pandora thinks the Gladys Knight tune resembles “Respect” because it includes “classic soul qualities, blues influences, acoustic rhythm piano, call and answer vocal harmony and extensive vamping.”)
It may not take 21st-century technology to deduce a link between Ms. Franklin and Ms. Knight. But the more you tell Pandora about your tastes, the more creative it can get.
For some devotees the core of the experience is being led in directions they did not know they wanted to go. Tara Smith, 43, is a fan of the relaxed rock of Jack Johnson and Jimmy Buffett. After she started toying with Pandora about a month ago, she learned her taste was more diverse than she knew.
“I would never really listen to a country music radio station,” said Ms. Smith, who runs a rescue-equipment sales business with her husband in Santa Barbara, Calif. “But because Jimmy Buffett’s music has kind of a country bent, it’s just played Tim McGraw and Randy Travis. It really goes into some serious country, and I’m surprised I like it as much as I do.”
Mrs. Smith said she no longer listened to old-style terrestrial radio, not least because she prefers the Internet’s “nonpartisan approach to finding good music.”
“Myself, I’ve always been of the ilk that it’s much better to take the broader approach and use my own judgment on what I like and what I don’t like,” she said. “I’d much rather have five strangers rather than one expert” — like a professional radio programmer — “because you get a much better variety.”
Even Mr. Ford-Young, the jazz bassist who is one of Pandora’s more than 40 music analysts, has discovered some new favorites, like the indie-rock band the Shins. The appeal of the service’s computer-generated stations is that “popularity has nothing to do with it,” he said. “A song that hasn’t ever gotten played on terrestrial radio is going to get played as soon as a No. 1 hit song.”
And unlike the stuff that comes across terrestrial radio, Pandora’s suggestions are just that: users get to rate new songs with a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” so if they don’t like what they’re hearing, they won’t hear it again. That has a big effect.
“It’s interactive so you feel like it’s more yours,” said Michael Dory, 26, who until recently worked as a public relations executive in the technology industry and is now entering graduate school in New York. “If a faceless corporation is telling me I should like this music, even if it’s the best band in the world, I’ll probably be skeptical.”
Mr. Dory said he shared suggestions of new bands with his friends via instant messaging and by sharing Web links. But Pandora and similar services, he said, are “creating this atmosphere like you’re talking to the clerk at your favorite record shop.”
That is exactly the role envisioned by Tim Westergren, who was a founder of Pandora, originally known as Savage Beast, in 1999. The first step was creating the genome, as he calls the musical database, and licensing it to Best Buy and America Online. It wasn’t until last year that the company decided to offer a radio service aimed squarely at fans themselves. Now the site is adding about 15,000 new songs a month to the database.
Mr. Westergren, a former rock keyboardist and film composer, says he is particularly proud of the obscure artists in Pandora’s library. “I don’t have any bone to pick with the hits, but I think what’s missing,” he said, referring to the music market, “is that a huge wealth of artists never get a crack at it. In any given year there are maybe 100 records that really do big sales. I think there’s room for 10,000 artists” to reach a broader audience.
He sees the thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down voting as a concession to human subjectivity, an exception to the algorithms on which the genome is primarily based. But that human element — along with the chance for users of some music services to publicize their own taste, by posting their playlists for other fans to see — may be the most powerful part of the new technology.
It’s the same story across the spectrum of these new Internet services. At iTunes, Apple’s digital music store, fans have posted more than 898,000 individual playlists. And eMusic, a service specializing in independent-label releases, identifies users’ “neighbors”— people who have downloaded tracks from the same artists — and allows them to view a list of everything their neighbors have been listening to.
Pandora has its own take on the trend, allowing fans to create stations and then e-mail them to a friend; other sharing features are in development. As a tool for discovery, it seems to show promise: Mr. Westergren said that 10 percent of the time people tune in to a Pandora station, they end up clicking through to buy a song or album from iTunes or Amazon. That’s a much better rate than standard online retailers can claim.
Pandora receives a commission on such sales, and charges for advertising on its Web site. But so far it has not been enough to turn a profit.
These are still early days for digital music over all: digital singles are selling briskly, but more than 94 percent of the recording industry’s album sales still involve pieces of plastic, not megabytes. And that leads to a central problem for makers of recommendation and sharing tools: unless consumers become more active and embrace them, these services may exist as the limited province of music geeks.
The heaviest buyers of music — fans who spend more than $100 a year on new recordings — compose 10 percent of all music consumers but account for more than 40 percent of the industry’s CD sales, according to the NPD Group, a research company in Port Washington, N.Y. Most of the audience is far less engaged, and may be less inclined to rummage for recommendations.
Still, Gartner Inc., a media analysis company, predicted in a report last year that by 2010, 25 percent of online music retail transactions will be driven by applications that allow fans to compare their tastes and by recommendation engines tracking their preferences.
Mike McGuire, a Gartner analyst and co-author of the report, said the emergence of the empowered fan represented “the slow death of programmed content.” He added, “Unless and until the D.J.’s and programmers can start realizing that, they’re going to find themselves inexorably pulled further and further apart from their audiences.”
They’ve started realizing. In Seattle for example the modern-rock station KNDD has offered visitors to its Web site the chance to submit a list of 10 songs. A few of the lists are selected and played on a weekend segment. As a result of these suggestions, says Lazlo, the program director, at least two bands, Band of Horses and the Long Winters, have been added to the station’s regular rotation.
“It’s about listening to someone else’s thoughts on music, and having the input and ability to then share your thoughts on music,” he said.
Clear Channel, the nation’s biggest radio conglomerate, seized on the trend early with a feature called “MyPod.” WKQI, a Clear Channel pop station in Detroit, plays listener-submitted playlists every day. WEND, a rock station in Charlotte, N.C., airs a “MyPod Lunch” feature, in which a listener, chosen on the basis of four favorite songs, records a segment “taking over” the station. “There’s an image value, in terms of the listener involvement,” said Tom Owens, Clear Channel’s executive vice president for content.
The customizable online radio networks of the current crop are still far too small to be direct competitors, but Mr. Owens acknowledges that they “have the potential to change the game to some degree.” As for listeners, he said, “If you don’t continually challenge them in some way, and provide some degree of unexpectedness, inevitably it’s going to lead to an erosion.”
IN the next phase of the battle over who determines what’s hot, combat is about to cross from the desktop to the street.
New generations of wireless Internet-connected devices will vault the Web’s customized radio services into places where broadcast radio is still dominant: in cars for example. “All of a sudden the competition for your ear there changes dramatically,” Mr. Westergren said. “The FM station then has to compete with a personalized service that you’ve crafted for yourself. That’s a watershed moment.”
Personalized recommendation services like MyStrands are already building a presence on hand-held mobile devices. Microsoft plans to make fan recommendations a key feature in the device it is designing in hopes of unseating Apple Computer’s iPod. According to regulatory filings, its as-yet-unreleased Zune portable music player will enable fans to play D.J., letting users stream music to others with devices nearby.
MyStrands, based in Corvallis, Ore., plans to allow fans to influence the music played at nightclubs equipped with its new application. The system, currently being tested at a handful of outlets like DoHwa, a Korean restaurant in the West Village, lets patrons send a text message to a screen, identifying their favorite artist. The screen displays album artwork from the selected artist and the name of the fan who entered it. As conversational icebreakers go, most bars have seen a lot worse.
“Instead of trying to personalize a stream of music to one person, what we’re trying to do is create a sequence of music that a group of people can be liking,” said Francisco Martin, MyStrands’ chief executive. Then, turning philosophical, he added: “The human being is very social. Music is not only for yourself. What people really want is to share their tastes.” Autor: Jeff Leeds