Pandora Opens the Box
Feeling out of touch with current music? I sure am. Some time around 1995, I mostly stopped buying new pop, rock, and country CDs, in part because I ran out of space to store them but also because I lost interest in trying to follow popular music. Most of what I heard sounded like stuff I’d heard before, only not as good. NPR is all right as far as it goes for hearing new music, but it barely scratches the surface of the thousands of CDs released each year. If that describes your situation and there isn’t a good rock radio station in listening range—there isn’t in New York City—and you can spend some time at the computer, I’d suggest that you point your browser to Pandora.com, a high-tech way to hear music you’re likely to like.
Pandora is the computer equivalent of a friend with good taste, a site which takes your favorite groups or musicians and creates a personal radio station that programs them and musicians like them. Pandora uses the 423 criteria devised by the Music Genome Project to categorize and organize popular music to select other songs and performers that share those criteria. The more musicians you input, the more songs it selects. Or you can listen to your friends’ stations, or the most popular stations.
The music is continuous, with a few seconds of silence between the cuts. Information about the artists is accessible through a link under the album art or generic image that appears as each song is selected. If you really like something you hear, you can order it from Amazon or download it from iTunes.
To create my station, Music-o-Rooney Radio, I started with Marshall Crenshaw, then added Thelonious Monk to spice up the mix, and Chris Hillman to expand the selection to the country-bluegrass universe. Adding Chris Hillman to the roster brought in a heavy bluegrass representation, as well as some alt-Country artists, which is fine but I’d like to find a way to make it more of an occasional thing. Those major keys and modal progressions are hard to resist, though.
The resulting mix included some artists I’d never heard of, though they’ve been around for decades: John Strohm, who was in the Blake Babies in the late 1980s and is now an entertainment lawyer; Sloan, which is a group, and Dan Colehour. I don’t know if I’d buy CDs by any of them but the tracks were good, interesting, and I was glad to hear them. Their songs were chosen, Pandora explained, because they feature “a subtle use of vocal harmony, meandering melodic phrasing, major key tonality, melodic songwriting and many other similarities identified in the Music Genome Project.” “Meandering,” I guess, is the opposite of “monotonous.” I don’t know, I just think it’s interesting.
On the jazz side, Monk brought in Steve Lacy, whom I’ve known about for years, and Elmo Hope, whom I can’t have heard much though his name is familiar. Then the jazz cuts disappeared for a while. It seems like Pandora concentrates on one genre at a time; the rotation through your favorites isn’t as random as it might be. Jazz seems to be less well covered than rock or country. Pandora doesn’t have any Dave Frishberg or Roberta Gambarini, though I was able to add Fats Waller. A somewhat annoying aspect of the jazz selection is that you can’t get discographical information. Want to know who’s playing on that track? Well, you can see the CD it’s drawn from and maybe figure out who the musicians are and when it was recorded, but mostly you just have to enjoy the playing.
To give an example of what Pandora is like, turning on the radio today loaded jazz for the first eight selections. Starting with Louis Armstrong, moving through Eddie Lang, Coleman Hawkins, and a track from Freddie Redd’s music for The Connection, the jazz set ended with Charlie Parker’s Ornithology. The next track was Marshall Crenshaw’s Calling Out for Love (At Crying Time), one of my favorite songs but jarring in that context. If I were going to try a segue like that I’d have done an ID, recapped all of the tracks I’d played, and added an intro to the new segment of pop, Western swing, bluegrass, and alt-Country. Maybe Fats Waller’s It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie would have been a better lead-in but that’s what you get when a computer program is the DJ.
An in-depth article about the Music Genome Project and Pandora can be found here: http://www.eastbayexpress.com/Issues/2006-01-11/news/feature_1.html