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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Meet Tim Westergren, the mind behind the Pandora music service

Posted By on Tue, Mar 4, 2008 at 5:00 AM

When was the last time someone in radio solicited your feedback? (And I’m not talking about that annoying call-out research where you listen to like 30 seconds of three songs.) Displaying an approachableness absent from one-way media like radio, television and newspapers, the founder of the free internet music service Pandora, Tim Westergren, arrived in Cleveland last Friday to talk to over 100 of the city’s 25,000 Pandora users as part of a national tour… “I just want to have a conversation,” Westergren said at Tower City after a 20-minute introduction in which he sketches his Music Genome Project that powers Pandora’s customized stations. Like many online music services, Pandora allows you access to an unlimited number of “stations” playing a particular style of music. A station is seeded with any number of bands or songs you choose, then Pandora extrapolates from that to create a musical neighborhood inhabited by similar artists you may not know. This discovery is what radio once had over your record collection, until programmers became less adventurous than an accountant. By allowing listeners to put a thumbs up or down on what’s playing, Pandora further hones that station’s playlist to match your taste. What separates Pandora from the rest is what’s under the chassis – an algorithm that renders the musical topography in unprecedented relief. The idea came from a blend of Westergren’s personal experiences. Noting how hard it is for musicians to find their natural audience, and relating his experiences trying to match soundtrack music to the tastes of different directors, the Stanford grad and Minneapolis native came up with the idea of rating music on a series of attributes or genes to better identify differences and similarities. These characteristics range from vocal timbre to instrumentation to tempo to style, which are rated on a 10 point scale. Begun in January 2000, the Project developed about 400 genes, and has created a catalog of over a million songs, to which they add around 15,000 new ones every day. Originally Westergren thought the Project’s findings would be used to power a recommendation algorithm for internet retailers like Amazon. Yet he came onto the market with his first batch of venture capital right as the tech bubble burst in 2001. When the money ran out, around 40 employees kept working for almost two and a half years without pay to keep things going. Westergren had maxed out 11 credit cards before finally securing funding in 2004 to turn the Music Genome Project into Pandora, an internet station that picks music based on what you like. It’s a terrific, fairly unique service. Musicians don’t need a label to get onto Pandora (70 percent aren’t), and Pandora encourages unsolicited submissions. Since debuting just over two years ago, its grown to 11 million users, who mostly listen at work. When Westergren revealed that he was working on a version of Pandora that made the site look like a fake spreadsheet, cheer erupted at the Cleveland meeting. – Chris Parker

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