Pandora Rocks the Casbah

Songs Over Oakland
One of Pandora’s musicologists listens and evaluates a song at their Oakland, CA offices.

Back in 1981 I put on a record on for the first time that fundamentally changed my musical taste forever. The record was a compilation. Rodney on the Roq Volume 2. It was the first time in my life that I heard the band Social Distortion. It was my introduction to punk rock.

Over the course of the next few years I devoured every punk record I could find. Never Mind the Bullocks Here’s the Sex Pistols. Not So Quiet on the Western Front. Black Flag. The Circle Jerks. Bad Religion. Minor Threat. The Ramones. The Adolescents. X.

The way we learned about new punk rock back then was largely from two radio stations. Sunday nights on KROQ with Rodney Bingenheimer and every so often you could also catch the right late night DJ on KCSN (Cal State Northridge’s college radio). As far as radio in the San Fernando Valley went back then, that was pretty much it for punk rock. Discovering new punk rock back then was not the easiest thing in the world.

Fast forward to 2009. Right now I’m playing Thomas Hawk’s Social Distortion Rocks Station on Pandora Radio. My own custom station started out playing the Social Distortion song “Cold Feelings,” and from there has gone on to play a live version of “Finnegan’s Wake” by the Dropkick Murphys, “London Dungeon” by the Misfits, “Give you Nothing,” by Bad Religion and then back to “So Far Away,” another Social D track.

The best thing about Thomas Hawk’s Social Distortion Radio version 2009 on Pandora? No commercials and it’s free. There are ads on the site that play in the background as I’m writing this of course (Pandora does offer a paid subscription version without these ads) and Pandora makes a few bucks whenever someone likes a song enough to buy it using their link to iTunes or Amazon, but for the most part it’s pretty awesome commercial free radio tailored just right to my musical taste.

Thomas Hawk’s Social Distortion Radio is just one of my many stations on Pandora. Each user can have up to 100 different customizable stations. The one that I listen to the most is titled simply Thomas Hawk’s Tunes. It’s a compilation of 100 or so bands that I’ve submitted to Pandora and about three years of rating songs by thumbs up or thumbs down on the service. It’s where I first heard the Bright Eyes. It’s where I first heard the Shins. It’s where I first heard the White Stripes. It’s where I first heard the most recent artist that I’ve been enjoying Andrew Bird.

To put it most simply, there is no other music site on the internet that I rely on more than Pandora for discovering new music on the web. It’s uncanny how well the site seems to know me and my tastes. I’m not alone — as one of the web’s most popular services, Pandora reports over 23 million listeners on the web and another four million on the iPhone.

Last week I had an opportunity to stop by Pandora’s offices in Oakland and spend some time with their employees and photograph their operations first hand. Pandora’s CTO Tom Conrad’s been a friend for a few years now and it was great catching up with him and his team live at their offices.

You wouldn’t know that you were about to head into one of the internet’s most popular music services by the sign on the outside of the door. A simple plastic plaque reads “Pandora Media, Inc.” But once you get inside you find an atmosphere that’s like a lot of other Silicon Valley start ups, complete with the company ping pong table, beautiful hand painted music themed paintings on the columns in the office space (by local artist Jon Weiss) and even guitars, bass, and in house drums. Bands regularly stop by their Oakland offices to perform live there.

Lucia and TomRipping CDs at PandoraPandora Town Hall MeetingsThe Daily Mail at Pandora
Photos (clockwise from upper left). 1. Pandora Community Manager Lucia Willow and CTO Tom Conrad. 2. A music ripping station at Pandora ripping new songs from CDs for the service. 3. The daily mail of new CD submissions to Pandora. 4. A map that hangs outside Founder Tim Westergren’s office documenting the various Pandora meetups across the United States.

Pandora was started as an offshoot of the Music Genome Project which was started back in 2000. Pandora describes the Music Genome Project as “the most sophisticated taxonomy of musical information ever collected. It represents over eight years of analysis by our trained team of musicologists, and spans everything from this past Tuesday’s new releases all the way back to the Renaissance and Classical music.”

As part of my visit to Pandora I got to watch their musicologists working first hand. Basically it was a room full of super smart music people listening on headphones and spending 20 minutes or so per song categorizing each tune by up to 400 different characteristics (talk about a pretty cool way to earn a living). The result is that if you tell Pandora you like certain types of songs they are then able to present you with more songs that are similar characteristically according to their musicologists. If you like a song you give it a thumbs up. This way Pandora knows to play more songs like that for you in the future. If you don’t like a song you give it a thumbs down and it skips forward to the next song for you.

Tom Conrad joined Pandora back in 2004. I first met him back then at a Robert Scoble Geek Dinner. Back then Pandora was much smaller. There were eight full time employees and 15 music analysts. Now the company has over 130 employees with offices in five cities. “It’s been an incredibly gratifying five years, not the least of which has been due to the opportunity to work with so many talented, passionate people,” said Conrad. “It’s the best job in the world.”

According to Conrad, Pandora now has about 600,000 different songs cataloged in their system. They buy 90% of their CDs themselves and rip them there at the offices on a bank of PCs dedicated to ripping. They then scan the bar codes on the CDs to organize the tracks and pull the album information and album art down from sites like Amazon. Once the CDs are ripped they go back into a storage room with aisles and aisles of boxed up CDs. It certainly was the largest CD collection I’ve ever seen.

Boxes and Boxes and Boxes of CDs
One of the many aisles of boxed CDs from Pandora’s giant music library.

These days Pandora is going all over the world to find new music. They recently added a number of Celtic songs to their collection. On the day that I visited they were busy ripping a number of new CDs that one of their employees brought back as part of a musical buying trip to India. A lot of these were interesting but obscure Indian titles that you’d probably be unlikely to ever find here in the U.S. They also receive baskets full of CD submissions via US mail every day. These submissions come both from major record labels as well as small independent artists, each looking to get more exposure for their music through Pandora’s ever growing number of listeners. Their music library gets larger and larger every day.

For many of us who are big fans of Pandora the service is a web mainstay. I’ve got the site permanently at the top of my browser as a bookmark. But as much as Pandora is growing by leaps and bounds on the web, there are still lots of other ways that people are listening to Pandora as well. Conrad spent some time showing me one their rooms devoted to an ever growing numer of Pandora enabled consumer devices. On a wall of hardware he turned a few of them on showing me one of the latest offerings, a Pandora and Netflix enabled Blu Ray DVD player. More and more in the future you’ll begin to see Pandora’s service moving beyond just the web and integrating into more and more consumer devices.

One consumer device to date does stand out head and shoulders above the rest. Presently Pandora’s iPhone app is one of their fastest growing services and accounts for about 10% of their playbacks. According to Apple, Pandora’s iPhone app was the most downloaded application for the iPhone in 2008. Not just the most downloaded free app, or the most downloaded music app, the most downloaded app period. And I can definitely say having used this app that it pretty much rocks. It was the first app I added to my iPhone and the one that I use the most. If you want to download the Pandora app for your iPhone you can do that here.

Pandora also is continuously working to find new ways to engage their users. During my visit I was able to spend time with both Founder Tim Westergren as well as their Community Manager Lucia Willow.

Outside Westergren’s office he has a great map of the United States with dozens of little pieces of papers pinned to cities across the U.S., one of his pet projects. Each city documents town hall type road show meetings that have taken place there. It’s interesting to watch small meetups in 2006 of 10 or so users turn into meetups with 200 users in the same city a year later. Pandora continues setting up user meetup events in cities across the U.S. to promote their service and engage their loyal listeners. If you want to see see Tim’s diary/map of places he’s visited so far (and places he still wants to visit) you can check out their map online here.

As their community manager, Willow has one of the best customer support and evangelism jobs on the web. It’s nice to be a community manager when so many people love your service. It’s been said that your most passionate users oftentimes end up becoming the best community managers. In the summer of 2005 Willow was working full time at the public library and finishing her Masters degree in library and information science. She loved the service though and offered to intern/volunteer for free. Pandora went ahead and hired her for a one day a week job and then ended up offering her a full time listener advocate job in 2005. In March of last year they created the Community Manger position for her.

Willow monitors Pandora’s brand across the internet and also maintains an active presence on other social networking and micro blogging sites on the internet like Twitter and Friendfeed. On Twitter Willow tweets about new musical offerings by Pandora and also offers interesting suggestions for new Pandora custom music stations.

Music on the web is a constantly evolving frontier. It wasn’t that long ago when they shut down our dearly beloved Napster. And being on the forefront of the frontier Pandora is trailblazing both new ideas and new concepts about how we find and consume music. When you open a Pandora’s Box you never know what might come out of it. But at least according to the Greek myth the last thing to come out of Pandora’s Box is hope. Already Pandora has had to fight several well publicized political fights. At present they pay a fraction of a cent for every tune played on their service as a webcaster. Some out there would like to see them pay a lot more. Here’s hoping that the hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box keeps the service around for a long time into the future and keeps it economically viable and largely a free type of service like it is today.

If you’d like to see my complete photoset of images that I took at Pandora’s office you can do that here. If you’d like to see some of what I’ve been listening to on Pandora and some of my favorite bookmarked artists you can check out my Pandora profile here.