The new tastemakers

By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  January 31, 2007

Using Pandora isn’t nearly as exhaustive as all the work behind the scenes. The site’s sleek layout offers a free, quick signup and then asks you to start searching. Recommend an album, artist, or specific song you enjoy, and Pandora will begin offering suggestions, in streaming-audio channels the site calls “stations.” You can click on a song’s album art to find out why the site suggested it, give it a thumbs-up or -down, or skip it if Pandora was off the mark. Your guidance helps decide what song is played next.

Its function, of course, isn’t perfect. It can’t gauge popularity or trends, and it has no knowledge of the breadth of your taste, style, or disposition. It doesn’t know the difference between “prominent lead vocals” and inane, whiny pop-punk. It has nearly no grasp on the qualities of a song’s lyrics. Perhaps most frustratingly, it’s designed to play you a series of songs that sound an awful lot alike. How can a program with such a narrow (albeit impressive) concept — isolating the sonic elements that supposedly constitute your taste — satisfy an individual as dynamic as you?

I asked myself that question in a moment of frustration with Pandora’s redundant suggestions. I retreated to my iPod and played a song by Phil Spector-inspired, post-feminist pop group the Pipettes. Exhilarated by the sugary rush, I needed more. I unwrapped a chocolate-chip cookie, suggested my favorite track by the group, and was treated to a treasure trove of addictive pop — both indie and mainstream — that spanned decades, from some mid-’90s Canadian indie-pop by the Salteens to the old-school soul/R&B of James Hunter. It wasn’t all fast-paced or even female-fronted, but it worked. Pandora’s sonic wizards had accomplished their chief goal: they suddenly knew what I wanted better than I did.

Preconception perception
That’s the key with Pandora: it has no idea what your preconceptions are, what you look like, or what you think is cool. I searched for the Pipettes hoping to hear a similar band I already knew, like Camera Obscura, and after a minute being annoyed that Pandora couldn’t read my mind, I thought back to the developers’ dream: “to help you discover new music you’ll love.” And sure enough, I’ve never heard about three-quarters of the music Pandora suggests to me, and I like a sizable chunk of the new stuff. Moreover, the consistency in tone throughout was oddly relaxing; it felt like I really was listening to a radio station, of my own design. In an Internet culture that’s as primed to conform to your tastes as it is supposedly eager for you to express your individuality, it’s heartening to interact with a Web site that makes no assumptions about who you are.

Pandora’s romantic idealism seems to be catching on. With more than five million registered users (a feat accomplished with no advertising) — “most” of which founder/poster-boy Tim Westergren describes as becoming “habitual listeners” — the site’s community is becoming larger and more interactive.

The customized channels the site creates for you can be shared with other users; in theory, you can ditch a station you just started for another user’s, which has been honed to something fine-tuned and consistently satisfying. The site also adds about 15,000 songs to its database a month, ensuring that the options for new discovery on my Pipettes station will never run dry.

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