Pandora: The Music Genome Project
A California company called Pandora Media Inc. tries to make "DNA-like blueprints for songs" and use them to recommend other songs you'd like, based on their science-like techniques. It probably comes as no surprise that they aren't just in this for the love of music, or the love of music-lovers like you and I. Their service costs $36 a year. According to their website, the first ten hours are free. Look out, kids. That's how it starts. They give it away for free at first, and get you hooked. Then suddenly $36 starts to seem reasonable. Just remember, that $36 could buy you Coldplay's X&Y, Jeff Lee Johnson's Hype Factory, and an Oxo Good Grips cheese spreader.
To be fair, the folks at Pandora do seem to put a fair amount of work into their analysis for your cheese money. Bob Coons, a jazz guitarist as well as a music analyst at Pandora, spends up to 20 minutes per song breaking down which instruments are present in the tune, its rhythm, key, the singer's vocal range, and other elements. The Wall Street Journal notes his tendency to drop phrases into his speech like "complexity of the chromaticism" and "richness of the harmonic structure" and says that he thinks the chord structure of "Oops I Did It Again" is "actually pretty complex". That observation leads me to wonder whether Britney Spears fans are likely to be recommended other songs with complex chord changes, and whether they will like them. It's possible there are loads of her fans willing to shell out $36 a year for music recommendations... she has a lot of fans.
Several days ago (not all at once), I spent some quality time with Pandora trying it out... My results, thoughts, notes, and assorted musings about it follow:
At Pandora, you can enter a group or a song to get started. Each time you do this, they will create a different "radio station" consisting of that song (or a song by that group -- if they could get the licensing rights to it), and various recommendations based on that group/song.
As you listen to the recommendations, there are a few ways in which you can respond to what you hear. You can ask why they chose that song, and Pandora will tell you what elements it has in common with "your" song. You can say you love the song, and tell Pandora to play more like it, or that you hate it and that it isn't the kind of song Pandora should play. If you choose the later, Pandora will apologize and say (on the screen) that it will never play on that station again. I wondered whether they mean on your station for that song, or for everyone who will later pick that song as well. Pandora will also immediately skip to the next song if you say you hate it.
On a separate menu, you can give a thumb's-up or thumb's-down to a song, and the symbol will appear next to its title. Giving a thumb's-down there won't skip past it. You can "search" past a song, but only a limited number of times before Pandora tells you their licensing agreement won't let you do it anymore. When I got to that point and I heard songs I disliked, I turned the volume down, and inevitably wound up not hearing the next song as well. I eventually figured out that using the bottom menu "hate" option (I think it said "hate" but I might be wrong) lets you forward past additional songs anyway (I think). The sort-of-overlapping menus are confusing, and not letting people forward past as many songs as they like will just get people upset, not get them to relax and listen to music they hate (Pandora urges you to do something along those lines, which is irritating. They likely know full well people will just mute the volume, or enter a new song and start over rather than listen to music they dislike).
Okay, on to the Pandora-experiment:
#1 I typed: "Arctic Monkeys"
Pandora: Did you want "Full of Monkeys" by the Frogs?
I clicked: No, search again.
#2 I typed: "Now It's On"
MP3:Grandaddy - Now It's On
Pandora gave me the following song recommendations on their streaming radio station:
No Wait Wait - "The Luckiest Bastard" (pretty good)
Enrique Iglesiasis - "The Way You Touch Me" (uh, no. Gave it a thumbs-down. Why did they choose this song? "Based on what you've told us so far, we're playing this track because it features a subtle use of vocal harmony, major key tonality, and many other similarities identified in the music genome project")
MP3:Wishing Wells - Ron Sexsmith (Good! Gave a thumbs-up to this tune, "written after a night of shockingly bad television..."
MP3:Stephen Malkmus - Mama (another quirky pop-rock song... I already like Malkmus, though I'm not sure about this one)
Consonant - "Blissful" (okay)
MP3:No Wait Wait - Beaches of the World
The Wrens - "Happy" (Why did they play it? "mild rhythmic syncopation, a subtle use of vocal harmony, major key tonality, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, and many other similarities identified in the music genome project")
Guided by Voices - ""Twilight Campfighter" (Why? "electric rock instrumentation, mild rhythmic syncopation, a subtle use of vocal harmony, major key tonality, and electric guitar riffs")
Mark Mulcahy - "I Just Shot Myself In the Foot Again"
Owsley - "I'm Alright"
I didn't take any notes on the last couple songs, but if I recall correctly, I didn't think very much of the Mark Mulcahy song (though I do like him), and I think I liked the Owsley song...
Asia - "Summer (Can't Last Too Long)" ("mild rhythmic syncopation, a subtle use of vocal harmony, major key tonality, a dynamic male vocalist, and subtle use of acoustic piano"
MP3:Fountains of Wayne - I Want An Alien for Christmas
I like Fountains of Wayne...
MP3:Jesus Jones - Real, Real, Real (nope)
Robert Plant - "I Believe" (don't remember it, I believe I wasn't paying attention)
#3 I typed: "Wuthering Heights"
Was given several options, and I chose this one:
MP3:Kate Bush - Wuthering Heights
Wait 'till you see these recommendations... it almost made me wish I had a webcam to capture my reactions. Okay, no it didn't, but I probably made a wide variety of interesting expressions.
Art Garfunkel - "Traveling Boy" (What, the...? No)
MP3:Jefferson Starship - Be Young You (No, thank you)
Up to this point, I patiently gave each song a chance, and just didn't feel either was "my thing".
Melissa Manchester - "Through the Eyes of Love" (Later recommended again under the name... "Ice Castles Theme Song (Through the Eyes of Love)" It's still "that ice-skating song" to me, no matter how they try to peddle it. I won't like it any more, no matter how many times it's recommended, Pandora!)
Jane Olivor - "The Greatest Love of All" (yes, that song. Why? "major key tonality, meandering melodic phrasing, a prominent rhythmic piano, and many other similarities". I find this song pretentious and incredibly annoying)
Vanessa Carlton - "Sway" (didn't love it, but I begin to have some hope that they're on the right track, at least picking something that doesn't inspire abject horror)
Led Zeppelin - The Rain Song (*warning* - 320 bitrate, so *huge*)
Why this song?
It was chosen because of "major key tonality, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, acoustic rhythmic guitars, and many other similarities". This sort o' tune isn't generally my cup of tea. It's good, and I like it well enough... but it's not something I'd go to listen to much.
Rod Stewart - "Have I Told You Lately" (I totally reject the notion that my appreciation for Kate Bush makes me more likely to like Rod Stewart or this song by Rod Stewart)
Elton John - "I Feel Like A Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford) (I file Elton John in this sort of category: "Talented, good... but not someone I find myself wanting to listen to.")
Celine Dion - "Have You Ever Been In Love"
Okay, that's it. Yes, I sure have. Have you ever been expected to listen to a Celine Dion song and pressed a mouse button at record-speed to avoid it? Is this proof there are still a few bugs in the system? No system that tries to predict musical taste can be flawless, not even one that tries to be "scientific". There really isn't anything wrong with liking both alternative icons and more "mainstream", "incredibly annoying" artists. (Sorry, couldn't help it). It could be considered a good, healthy sign that you're open to different kinds of music if you like vastly different kinds of artists; I think ecclectic tastes are a good thing. In theory, I like that this system doesn't worry about genre-crossing when recommending/playing songs. In reality, while there may be some Celine Dion fans who also like Kate Bush, how many people who already love "Wuthering Heights" have not already been over-exposed to Celine Dion's warbling? Hasn't... the world... had ample opportunity to discover whether they might enjoy her melismatic wailings? Is this the best use of this technology?
Jessica - "For Wowser" (Sounds like a teenage girl singing a bubble pop song... nothing like Kate Bush, really)
Jane Olivor - "The Right Garden" (Her again. Why play another song from an artist I've already given a "thumbs-down" to when there are songs remaining from artists whose work I haven't already heard and disliked?)
MP3:Cocteau Twins - Cico Buff (from Blue Bell Knoll)
Hey, a song I like! (although it's one from a group I already knew)
I decide to quit while slightly ahead.
Perhaps Kate Bush's "meandering vocal style" is one I only enjoy when sung by Kate Bush, but I doubt it. I like it when sung by Cocteau Twins, and others, as well. I think the problems possibly inherent in Pandora's attempts to think outside the genre box are evident here, or at least some sort of problems are evident here. Any Kate Bush fans want to defend these choices, say they love all or most of these songs?
#4 I typed: "Spectacular Views"
MP3:Rilo Kiley - Spectacular Views (from The Execution of All Things)
The Cuts - "Flip A Coin" (sounded promising, then it lost me)
Echobelly - "Lustra" (liked this! I already knew Echobelly, but had not heard this song before. Wish I had it to post)
MP3:Secret Machines - The Road Leads Where It's Led (from The Road Leads Where It's Led EP and Now Here Is Nowhere). Like this a lot -- have posted it before; it was on an NME disc. I start to feel the system may work better for rock/alt. rock songs)
Veruca Salt - "The Morning Sad" (pretty good, don't love it though)
Jennifer Trynin - "Snow" (okay)
Cowboy - "Kneebending" (I really like this)
Thea Gilmore - "Heart String Blues" (doesn't work for me. A country song -- entirely unlike the Rilo Kiley track -- which would be fine, only I just don't like her voice. I admit that after the Kate Bush catastrophe I have grown impatient and give the song a very short amount of time before forwarding to the next track)
Antigone Rising - "Last Try" (Nope, but I don't remember why, and didn't make a note of the reason)
The Kickovers - "Under You" (play on "You're over me, I'm still under you"... something like that... cute)
MP3:Copeland - Pin Your Wings
I liked this...
Letters to Cleo - "Demon Rock" (hey, good old Letters to Cleo. Don't remember hearing this one before, just found it okay)
The Cinch - "Get Up & Get Out" (have a vague recollection of eventually deciding I didn't like this but I'm not sure about that)
The Soviettes - "Get Up & Get Out" (did not hear, had turned down the volume from The Cinch song, I think)
Samiam - "Mud Hill" (did not hear, forgot about the volume being off)
The Stereo - "String You Along" (got annoying, turned the volume down)
Portastatic - "Autumn Got Dark" (did not hear it)
The Used - "The Taste of Ink" (didn't that guy like totally date that one girl who was on that MTV show playing Ozzy's daughter and stuff? Had the volume down, half forgot about Pandora as I multi-tasked. Vaguely remember this song...)
Billy Bragg - "Accident Waiting to Happen (Red Star Version)" (Yay, Billy Bragg!)
20/20 - "Nuclear Boy" (didn't like this)
Last Days of April - "Been Here All the Time" (didn't hear it)
MP3:Bruce Hornsby - See the Same Way (It's fine for what it is, which is not my kind of song)
The Bartlebees & Anj - "Ne Me Quitte Pas" (I like a lot of French-language tunes. But not this one)
Giant Drag - "Pretty Little Neighbor" (I liked this one)
MP3:Elastica - Line Up ("a vocal-centric aesthetic" is one of the reasons they played it. I liked some Elastica songs back in the day, but find as I listen to this that it's annoying me. I dutifully give it a thumbs-down)
The Academy Is... - "Classifieds" (kinda like this, though it strikes me as not remotely Rilo-like. It's more lightweight. I know one of the goals is to cross genres, and all that... but I would have liked to hear more Rilo-like music).
Kay Hanley - "This Dreadful Life" (forgot to write what I thought... I think "okay". I also realize I became increasingly willing to give dismissive opinions freely, even when I wasn't sure how well I remembered a song... rather than leaving it at saying I didn't remember what I thought. I'm usually a bit kinder than that... I think! I guess this comes naturally after hearing so many songs in such a short time span. It also became increasingly acceptable to forward past them, and not only give them a thumb's down but say they weren't even right for the station -- something Pandora encourages by making this the only way to let you forward past a song after you reach your fast-forward limit. If I feel this almost jaded about some of the songs, I wonder how the music analysts feel... how routine it must be for them to dissect, and perhaps on some level feel dismissive of these songs?)
Solid Pleasure - "Numbers" (liked this)
Selfish - Toto - "Selfish" (no, thanks)
Limblifter - "Drug Induced" (good)
MP3:Teenage Fanclub - What You Do to Me (yay, Teenage Fanclub is like a balm for the soul. Yet I must admit while I note happily that they played Teenage Fanclub, I don't actually take in the music or really enjoy it... I'm waiting for the next song... Pandora's station view, showing you what has already played, and always keeping what's to come teasingly just out of view, is just one more way of encouraging the "what's next" mentality, although mine was likely impacted because I wasn't listening strictly for pleasure)
Helium _ "Pat's Trick" (I like some Helium songs, but not this one)
Shonen Knife - "Making Plans for Bison" (I like Shonen's Knife; this one isn't great)
Superchunk - "Silver Leaf and Snowy Tears" (okay)
The Go-Gos - "Superslide" (Don't remember, didn't take any notes; sorry, Go-Gos!)
So I forwarded through plenty of songs, muted songs, entered a new song when I finally got a good song recommendation after loads of bad ones, and got frustrated with repeat songs from artists I had already given a thumb's down to... I also found some new-to-me artists and songs I really liked. This isn't worth $36/year to me, though it was a fun experiment. I have lots of free time left, and I will probably go back and play around with Pandora some more. I think the Grandaddy song was a good choice for the experiment -- quirky, a bit offbeat... I would have liked to see some more unusual recommendations. I know it isn't that out-there a song, but it is different enough that asking someone to stretch a bit wouldn't have been too wacky. The Rilo Kiley song may not have been dissimilar enough from the Grandaddy song to see what Pandora could really do... I think in both cases, Pandora did a decent job, not a great job. I can think of a few friends and a lot of music bloggers who, given the title of either song, could probably recommend a couple dozen songs I would be much more likely to adore and not just say I "like" or are "okay".
As for Pandora's recommendations for "Wuthering Heights"... no. Just no, no, no. Analyze the meandering melodic phrasing and major key tonality of Kate Bush's song as much as you like, but if you think those are scientific qualities, then I think mayhaps art must play a strong role in this as well. Sorry, guys. Back to the lab?