Terra Sigillata

This post should actually be called, “Driving Mister Tim,” in recognition of the delightful day I just spent here with Pandora Internet Radio founder and chief strategic officer, Tim Westergren.

Tim was in the area for a couple of town hall meetings and chats with groups in the Raleigh-Durham community, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

What is Pandora Internet Radio?
Before I talk more about Tim, let me tell you about Pandora if you have not yet experienced it. Their thumbnail give you a good idea but here is my view as a user: Pandora is a streaming music service that allows one to create up to 100 personalized “stations” based on your input of either a specific band or song. Then, while the player streams your song, it asks you for a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” evaluation to indicate whether the song selected meets your needs.

Subsequent song selections come from what Tim calls the Music Genome Project, a mathematically-constructed taxonomy of a growing library of currently 500,000 songs. Your own “thumbs” to play more songs like this, or not, serve to train the data set for subsequent fine tuning of your station. Tim notes that Pandora has accumulated over 200 million thumbs in their evaluative data set, not only to fine-tune individual stations, but also to assess the accuracy of how their human musicology analysts classify songs.

i-f9d6f9627b87d44205f3ac375535811d-Tim CDs 515px.jpg

What kinds of songs are on Pandora? Tim says they started with Rolling Stone, college radio charts, and Billboard charts when they were established in the 1950s, old folk, jazz, and so on. Admittedly, there is a paucity of classical music and non-English language music, but these are current areas of growth for Pandora.

How does the Music Genome Project work?
There are no computer-based listening machines. Pandora has hired several dozen musicians with solid training in musicology and music theory to sit and listen to every song, spending 20 to 30 minutes evaluating each piece based upon 400 different musical attributes. Vocals alone are assigned characteristics from among 35 attributes. Each analyst undergoes 150 hours of musical training before they can begin classifying songs, and Pandora selects 10% of songs to be evaluated by more than one analyst. Therefore, there is quality control and consistency of the data from both the front end as well as the back end, by listener “thumbs.” Even with this labor-intensive process, roughly 15,000 songs are added each month to their music genome.

The best way to really explain Pandora is for one to just go to www.pandora.com, register, and start your own station. The only personal identifiers required are an e-mail address and a US postal zip code. The zip code allows Pandora to meet the federal webcasting guidelines of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, although a remarkable number of subscribers come in from zip code 90210. The feds have not yet gotten so tough as to require IP filtering to prevent international registrants.

Entering my actual zip code is what also allowed me to meet up with Tim. Pandora is very serious about their role in local communities and reaching out to their listeners. Tim keeps a blog, Backstage at Pandora, detailing his roadtrips to press the flesh with listeners, check out local record stores, and just stay engaged with the music listening community. In the days before coming to the Triangle universities, he was up at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia; today, he’s in Dallas.

So, when I got an e-mail that Tim would be in the area, I wrote back about wanting to meet with him, both for the blog and because of my interest as a musician. I got a quick response from his team, and had a couple of great exchanges with a very capable communications specialist named Michele Husak – let’s just say I wish I had Michele at my lab taking care of my schedule and external communications.

Tim Westergren is simply an all-around cool guy
Picking up Tim from his hotel, one is struck immediately by what a nice personable guy he is. After years of hitting up over 300 venture capitalists for funding, he seems happy and relaxed to be wearing a ‘CDNow’ jersey, blue jeans, and carrying a box of Pandora swag. Tim graduated from Stanford University in 1988 with a political science degree (“it was Stanford’s shortest course of study”) and played in a good many bands, primarily as a piano and keyboard player in the style he describes as close to Ben Folds. We both had a good laugh that both of our early bands each took names from different Robert Frost poems and played the same club in Denver a few years apart.

When Tim took work with film producers and began writing musical scores, he became interested in the basis of “why producers liked one song and not another.” With significant musical training at Stanford, Tim began thinking about musical attributes, coming up with a list of over 800 characteristics that have been distilled down into classifying the ‘Genome,’ as he likes to call their music library.

What is also jumps out about Tim is that he is a supremely clear communicator with a true passion for the Pandora enterprise and the idea he has popularized with his team. After after his engaging presentation to the UNC Kenan-Flagler B-School, he was swarmed by MBA students with all sorts of questions about both music and being a successful entrepreneur.

Westergren is also tremendously proud of Pandora’s work environment. “Musicologists working 20 hours a week get full benefits – Rolls-Royce benefits,” he beams. “It costs money, but it’s the right thing to do.” They also have a performing stage in the middle of the office for folks to catch up during downtime and several bands have been spawned from among co-workers.

As we walked back to a local coffee shop with wireless for us both to catch up on computer work, I asked Tim if he now feels like a rockstar again, especially given the name recognition of Pandora on college campuses.

“It’s really not about me, or me being a celebrity,” he responded. “It’s about the music, the service, and the listener.” In fact, he cautions against too much ego or personality going into a commercial community resource like Pandora. To Tim, Pandora is a community, both at the company and among listeners.

Tim speaks with great admiration of his two partners who struggled with him through the lean days of their first round of funding, when they were working on being a B2B company for AOL or record stores. (David Hornik at Venture Blog does a nice job covering Tim’s early days.) Tim credits by name, Dr Nolan Gasser, chief musicologist and the brains behind the Music Genome project, an accomplished composer himself, but with phenomenal mathematical skills. He also has deep gratitude for his wife, an academic political scientist, in sustaining him and his vision day-to-day while his efforts might have dug them a financial hole that would’ve taken years or decades to recover from.

The business of music
i-9c9b02577f45636adb1580fec79ec290-IMG_4796_3.jpgOn the UNC campus, it was fun to watch how students interacted with Tim. Of course, the MBA students asked him some tough questions about how the Pandora model will be financially sustainable (Tim’s business model is for Pandora to be supported by Web ad revenue rather than subscriber fees, although they count many subscribers more as financial underwriters; the ads are so low-key relative to the obnoxious ads on other services that drive one to be a paying subscriber.). But just as many MBA students were aspriring or practicing musicians, or avid listeners. Conversely, his presentation to a general student group comprised of mostly undergraduates had just as many young entrepreneurs as music enthusiasts.

Being a slightly older music listener, I was interested particularly in Tim’s queries of the MBA students as to how they learn about new music.

“What happens in your late 20s, early 30s, even 40s, where you no longer have a class of friends like this to exchange news and tips about the latest music?” Most everyone was shaking their heads and throwing up their hands; frankly, that’s just another reason why I love having students and postdocs: so I can tap their brains for new music.

Tim responds to his own question, “Pandora tries to fill that need of bringing the excitement of new music back into your life.”

i-5d876ab362541edeb59d8e6dd4c82c4a-IMG_4801_3.jpgThe question that came up several times was what Tim hopes to accomplish, both for Pandora and for himself personally. Here, Tim’s passion and evangelism shines. “We want Pandora to create a musician’s middle-class, whereby signed and unsigned artists can be heard for their music, without regard for image or relative popularity,” Tim says.

In Pandora’s FAQ, musicians of all kinds and levels are encouraged and given instructions on how to submit their CDs for consideration. While not all CDs make it onto Pandora, the commitment is clear that a trained musicologist will listen to the disc.

In doing so, Tim hopes to give accomplished but underexposed musicians a venue to be heard and appreciated. Using the zip code function in Pandora registration, he hopes they can offer your own local bands more visibility. More proactively, Tim eyes an algorithm that will present you not only with local bands who you may not have heard, but whose musical style fits one of the stations that you have trained. “Maybe we’d even link those songs to the band’s latest performing schedule,” muses Westergren.

These town hall meetings have also inspired Tim to somehow bring on-line the listener-to-listener interactions he sees live.

“Nothing thrills me more,” says Tim, “than seeing some 15-year-old kid with a nose ring and a middle-aged businessman in a suit having an animated conversation about the latest Korn record.”

Bringing Chapel Hill home
True to his everyman style, Westergren begs a few more minutes on the walk back to the car to pop into Schoolkids Records on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street, the indy record store he learned about from commenters on his roadtrip blog. He asks the staff to round up ten or so discs from their favorite local music picks.

“Do you want to look at these first?” asks the clerk.

“Nope, I wanna buy ‘em. You guys come recommended as the top store in town; I trust your judgement. Have you heard of Pandora?”

The clerk shakes his head emphatically, “Oh yeah, I use it all the time.”

Tim digs out a few Pandora caps for the woman standing next to the clerk.

I say, “This is Tim. He is Pandora.”

The clerks chat regretfully about the great local artist whose disc isn’t out yet.

“No problem. Just send have her send it to me.”

“How do we find you?” they ask.

“E-mail. I’m just Tim at Pandora.”

Note added in proof: Links to other homers who covered Tim’s various Triangle meetups:
badgerblog
aklikins
orange_owl
cardboard (“a ‘gentleman’ who asked a question” – do I really stand out that much among you college students? At least he didn’t say, ‘old guy.”)
Pandora Stations Blog

Last, but not least, Tim’s own Tribute to the Triangle.

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Comments

  1. #1 Lab Cat
    September 21, 2006

    So I just wasted the evening playing with Pandora radio. What great fun ;)

    They didn’t have everything I looked for – no classical composers listed except Gershwin and not much in the slightly obscure folk-rock world which is what I also love. They did have The Mammals though – that was my first selection – I was very impressed!

    Thanks for the introduction. Tim sounds like a cool guy to hang with too.

  2. #2 anjou
    September 22, 2006

    way cool!!

  3. #3 coturnix
    September 22, 2006

    Hmmmm, this means my computer is required to have sound? I am just not used to having any sound – even if/when my computer has it I keep it on Mute. It distracts me from whatever I’m doing. But I’d love something like this in the car.

  4. #4 venky
    September 22, 2006

    I have been listening to pandora for 4-5 months now. The listening experience was good initially. But I have some complaints regarding it now. It has become somewhat repetitive and predictable. Plus I don’t really know if the music genome project is very discriminating. For example I like listening to Andrea Bocelli (a few of his songs) but whenever one song by him has played pandora always follows up with 5-6 Spanish and Italian songs even though many time I have given such songs the thumbs down.

    Maye they should also include some computer learning system to deal with user feedback which I think is at a very rudimentary level (basically if you negatively flag a song, it doesn’t play that song anymore but it still plays very similar songs).

  5. #5 Rathan Haran
    May 13, 2009

    Fantastic solution to a very difficult problem. I love how they’ve taken pretty interesting math and helped people discover music.