Pandora Sees the DNA in Digital Music

Although we may not realize it, our musical preferences can be easily analyzed. Whether it's the soothing sounds of Enya or the guitar of heavy metal, an Oakland, California-based company thinks it knows how to figure out what you like, and in turn expose you to new music based on these tastes.

Enter the Music Genome Project, a six-year initiative undertaken by Pandora Media. A team of thirty musical analysts makes up the core of this effort, and they have listened to hundreds of thousands of songs from over 15,000 artists, individually analyzing each on some 400 distinct musical attributes.

While some music services have dabbled in personalization and recommendations, those are usually based on the purchasing habits of someone else, who may not necessarily have the same tastes in music as you do.

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Instead, Pandora says the service is driven by the listener's own musical preferences, and these attributes, or 'genes' as the company calls them, helps decipher what that person likes to hear.

"The best way to think of it is as primary colors," Pandora's Chief Strategy Officer and founder Time Westergren told BetaNews in a recent interview. For example, voice has 30 attributes, each a different aspect of that subject, including bravado, range, ornamentation, pitch, and tamber among others.

The company has been licensing the technology behind the Music Genome Project since shortly after its launch in December 1999. However, the consumer product has only been in existence for several months.

Pandora's online service takes the concept of Internet radio one step further. Whereas current offerings only allow the listener to hear what the DJ has programmed, the technology behind the Music Genome Project gives the user full control.

"When you enter an artist or song in Pandora, we use that song's 'DNA' as a guide on how to sequence songs for you," Westergren explained. The playlist is then streamed to the user. From there, the listener can give a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" -- much like TiVo -- to tell the service if its playing the right songs.

As the user does this, the playlist will change based on his or her affinity for some number of 'genes.' "If you give thumbs up to eight songs in a row with a female vocalist, we think 'okay, he's probably liking the female vocal,' so your playlist will skew in that direction," Westergren added.

Westergren said that many times you may not know exactly why you dislike a song, but the Music Genome Project can help explain it.

"You may not realize it, but you don't like chromatic harmony," he said. "You may have no idea what that means, but we see you don't like anything that has it." Thus, your playlist would not include anything including that gene.

A user can create as many "channels" as they'd like, each based off that initial song or artist. However, the service cannot play a song or artist on demand due to the webcasting laws within the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

It is also due to the DMCA that a user can only skip so many songs in a hour, but this keeps costs down for the service, which currently relies on a small but growing subscriber base and venture capitalists to keep it going. Banner ads also keep the site afloat, and traditional digital music service iTunes has bought Pandora's entire ad stock in the near term.

Those who do not have a paying subscription with the service, which costs $12 for three months or $36 annually, will see the banner ads. Pandora had always intended to offer a free service, but did not do so initially.

"When we launched the paid-only [in October] we had sort of an ocean of new users that would cycle off that we said we just couldn't wait," he explained.

The 'ocean' of users that Westergren talks about did not come through advertising. He said all referrals to the Music Genome Project have come through word of mouth. Pandora has also received some press, but that has come from reporters running into the product in their own lives.

In turn, a focus of the company has been to urge users to share their Pandora channels, and the company has endeavored to make it easy to do so.

The service is only available through the Web right now, however Westergren said the company's long-term vision includes taking it to other platforms. Over the next one to two years Pandora plans software and mobility options that would allow a subscriber to take their channels with them on smart phones and MP3 players.

"There's no limit to what we'll try to do in order to make this ubiquitous," he said. In the end, however, the user will decide where the company takes the product.

"Our users have lots to say about the service," Westergren remarked. "We're using their opinions to figure out what to do next."

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