Sunday, September 25, 2005

Pandora Take Two

Since my last post about the service, I got a comment from Tom Conrad, the CTO of Pandora. I've had more time to think about the service, its good qualities, and its drawbacks. I'm sure Tom keeps a custom blog aggregator to find anyone posting about Pandora, but I'm still honored for that to be my first post (not counting the Blog Comment Spam I had to delete). I'm surprised I don't see any posts by Tom on Ned's blog, though, I guess Tom just peeks around on Blogspot and doesn't catch the independents.

Anyway, Tom did say to feel free to continue blogging about Pandora, which I will do, because I have some more thoughts I'd like to share, especially knowing that he is listening.

Pandora is great. Its the best online music service I've found, and possible the greatest source of music I have, next to listening to Nights with Alice Cooper on the nights at work when I get the desk with the radio. When I say something is the best I've found, that doesn't really say a lot. It does in Pandora's case, but I'll clear it all up here.

What Pandora does right:
  • Deployment as a web app
  • Multiple stations
  • More fine grained than genre and year
  • Finds new music
  • Dirt cheap subscription ($36/year or $12/quarter)
What Pandora does wrong:
  • Can't listen by genre and/or year
  • Think computers are the best at organizing music
  • Pass up on the greatest source of music listening habits since iTunes. Maybe better than iTunes.
The last point is where I'm going, so bare with me. Let me go over the good in more detail. I'm giddy over the pricing. I can't believe people really pay $.99 a song from Apple, and I'm sickened that the music execs actually think that isn't enough.

I love when Pandora plays a song, and I think, "Hey, this is pretty good, who are these guys?" Of course, I also get Tivo flashbacks when I think, "Hey, why are you playing that?" It does find some nice tunes and I would be out of my league to acquire and organize a playlist of that quality and size. Now, I'm a Linux user (though more and more distastefully), so I'm happy Pandora went the web app route. It makes it so much easier to refer the service to my friends, who can just go to and start listening, just like that. And, thank god they don't just group by year and genre, because I might be in the mood often for 80's music, but lots of music not made in the 80's will fit that class of music.

Sometimes, I just want to listen to 80's music, and how do I tell Pandora that? I can't seem to search for shared stations by name so I can just find anyone's "80's Music Mix" station. The redefinition of the very meaning of a station is a god-send, I must say. I can listen to the same station as thousands of people, and skip over any song I don't like. That freaking rules, because I hate when the radio plays something I don't like.

Now, what is the biggest thing that Pandora is missing? First of all, let me say this is speculation on some level, because if they take advantage of this, it must be completely on the internal level. They have thousands of listeners voting songs in and out of various groupings and all of this is stored into a wonderful database of golden information. So, Tom Conrad, I ask you, where is the "Play what other's like to listen to with this" option? The Music Genome Project may be a great venture and successful at what it does, but nothing beats a fellow human with a common taste in music. How about mining that database for common listening patterns, generating collective stations?

I'm sure they may find this a scary idea, because in essence it seems to go against the very beginnings and roots of Pandora itself, but it is also quite possibly the biggest value in the service for the company behind it, and to not take advantage of this would be, to put it simply, kind of stupid. (Sorry, Tom)


Tom Conrad said...

Well, without a doubt I have my moments of stupidity, but in this case it's not so much lack of IQ, but just lack of time.

I think using our community of listeners to help improve the playlists is a great idea and is certainly something that Pandora will adopt over time. Right now there are lots of great services out there that focus on that aspect (launchCAST,, so we put our energy into giving the world something unique first. We think that we uncover matches that no "folksonomy" service alone would make (you have to admit that a Indigo Girls station that plays Metallica covers of Lynard Skynard is pretty unique). Having said that, there are things that the community is just plain better at for now -- for example our musicological approach doesn't sort out trip-hop as well as I'd like. We'll do better with that over time both by improving the genome and our core matching engine, but also by accommodating the wisdom of crowds. Thanks again for listening.

CTO @ Pandora

PS: It's true that I read just about everything written about Pandora on the blogosphere (sure stuff but also many, many others all around the globe). I comment when something really strikes a chord.

Ned Batchelder said...

Calvin: I guess you strike better Tom-chords than I do! :-)