Is Pandora the new “radio”?
And by that I’m asking, could digital music streaming services such as Pandora replace terrestrial radio stations, especially after car stereos become “internet ready,” allowing drivers to punch in a website from their dashboards?
While I can’t answer that in this column, I can say that Pandora at least gives unsigned musicians a glimmer of hope that a stranger will find their music, a glimmer of hope that they’ll never get from old-fashioned radio.
That hope is what drove local unsigned singer/songwriter Matt Whipkey to submit his latest album -- an ode to the late, lamented Peony Park called Penny Park -- to Pandora.
Before we get to that, what is Pandora? The service is a website and a smartphone app that plays music based on an artist’s “station.” For example, when I typed in “Led Zeppelin Radio” the four songs Pandora belched out were Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love,” Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar,” Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Chile” and Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” — basically the same thing you’d hear on Z-92.
Where Pandora gets interesting is when it “suggests” songs you haven’t heard before. That rarely happens when tuned into dinosaur acts like Zep; but it happens all the time when tuning into indie band “radio stations.”
Not just any act can get its music in Pandora. Whipkey said bands signed to record labels have a clear path. Unsigned artists, on the other hand, undergo a process that isn't exactly easy.
Step One: Open an Amazon Marketplace Account and offer a physical copy of your CD for sale. Step Two: Submit two songs from your record to Pandora. Whipkey said it took two months for someone from Pandora to notify him that his music had been accepted. Hooray! Step Three: Fill out a ton of legal forms. Step Four: Send Pandora a complete copy of your CD.
Three months after Whipkey began the process, “Matt Whipkey Radio” was on the air, but more importantly, his music became part of Pandora’s sci-fi sounding “Music Genome Project.”
According to Pandora, every song in the Music Genome Project is analyzed using up to 450 distinct musical characteristics by a trained music analyst. Those attributes capture not only the musical identity of a song, but also the many “significant qualities that are relevant to understanding the musical preferences of listeners.” Pandora does not use machine-listening or other forms of automated data extraction.
I envision a huge warehouse filled with hipsters and tweed-wearing music professors sitting behind row after row of desks like headphoned elves. As they thoughtfully listen to each CD, they check boxes from a long list of descriptions that includes traits such as rhythm syncopation, key tonality, vocal harmonies and displayed instrumental proficiency (i.e, bitchin’ guitar solo).
“By utilizing the wealth of musicological information stored in the Music Genome Project, Pandora recognizes and responds to each individual's tastes. The result is a much more personalized radio experience - stations that play music you'll love - and nothing else.”
And nothing else.
So what does Matt Whipkey Radio sound like? In the first hour I heard songs by Delorentos, Second Dan, Boys School, Sissy and the Blisters, Two Cow Garage, Kirby Krackle and Peter Elkas -- all artists and bands I’ve never heard of. Whipkey thinks Pandora groups unsigned indie artists with other unsigned indie artists.
Not everything on Matt Whipkey Radio was anonymous. I also heard songs by The Thermals, The Cynics, Gasoline Heart, Maps & Atlases and one of my all-time favorite bands, The Feelies. Pandora lets users “thumbs up” songs they like, and as a result, it learns a listener’s tastes. I “thumbed up” The Feelies, for instance.
As a whole, the music streamed for Matt Whipkey Radio was pretty good and in character with Whipkey’s style of music. I can’t say the same for “Eli Mardock Radio.”
Mardock is one of my favorite Lincoln singer/songwriters whose debut album was released by tiny label Paper Garden Records. An hour of his station included commercial-friendly music by unknown acts Black Lab, Golden Bear, No Second Troy, The Click Five, a Pat Benetar cover (“Love Is a Battlefield”) by Jann Arden, and songs by familiar (but dreadful) artists Blue October and Travis. None of the music bore the unique, sinister quality that makes Mardock’s songs so interesting.
On the other hand, listening to “Little Brazil Radio” (a popular local punk band) resulted in a very satisfying hour of music that included songs by classic indie bands Superchunk, Silkworm and The Academy Is... Cursive Radio was a veritable hit parade of ‘90s indie, with songs by Radiohead, The Pixies, Modest Mouse and Brand New. The groupings oddly made sense.
What would make Pandora really cool? Imagine the thousands of people listening to “Bruce Springsteen Radio” being fed a Matt Whipkey song. Whipkey says it (probably) will never happen, though he’s heard of bands that have become “Pandora famous.”
“Someone listening to Led Zeppelin Radio who was fed an indie band that sounds like Led Zeppelin probably wouldn’t be too cool with that,” he said.
Whipkey said he submitted to Pandora purely for the chance of gaining wider exposure (He never expects to see a royalty check). “When you tell people you’re on Pandora, they think it’s cool,” he said. “It’s kind of an achievement of sorts. They did have to pick me. They won’t take just anything.”
And who knows, strangers might actually hear his music, which is something they won’t hear on the regular radio. Whipkey said he’s done his share of in-studio performances on local radio stations, “but I never understood how my two minutes live on the air is different than putting on one of my CDs and hitting ‘Play,’” he said. “That’s a no-no. They can’t do it. The guys that host the shows say they have to play what they’re told to play, and that’s it. On the other hand, it’s super-cool that they let me come on their shows.”
So is Pandora the new "radio"?
“I think of Pandora as radio,” Whipkey said. “It’s out there, it’s always on my phone, it’s easy. I just hit the button and there it is. That’s kind of cool.”
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.