Dan Shafer

Opening Pandora’s thoughts

By - Oct 14th, 2011 10:30 am

Few industries have been more changed by technology than the world of music, and few companies have been more central to that change than Pandora Radio.

Pandora Radio founder Tim Westergren visited Milwaukee Thursday night to host a listener “Town Hall” discussion and meet-up at the Iron Horse Hotel in Walker’s Point. Pandora listeners sat down for an in-depth discussion of the wildly successful internet radio pioneers.

Like many 21st century innovators and entrepreneurs, Westergren got his start unconventionally. After working as a musician and a film composer, Westergren began the Music Genome Project in 2000 as a way to connect well-known artists with unknown artists. Specifically, Westergren was inspired by good friend Amiee Mann, who scored a couple of hits in the 80s with her band, Til Tuesday, but had struggled with distribution and exposure since, despite being acknowledged within the industry for both her writing and performing talent. He set out to create a mathematical algorithm to predict musical tastes.

“It was a very sudden turn of events,” he said.

While 2000 might not have been the best time to begin an online start-up, Westergren was able to find musicians to analyze and log over 100 specific attributes of individual songs, working with engineers to draft the algorithm. They essentially formed the basis of what is now Pandora – in an Excel spreadsheet.

To test the algorithm, they began with a Beatles song. After an excruciating few minutes of computing, a song by the Bee Gees popped up. Initially, they thought they had “blundered,” as Westergren put it, but in actuality, the songs shared many similar components and they realized that it did, in fact, work.

Westergren fielded questions from an enthusiastic audience during the two-hour discussion. Questions ranged from queries about the site’s new user interface (which was two years in the making), how music ends up on Pandora (the two criteria being that it is 1. commercially available and 2. good), to the company’s struggle to find funding. Luckily for Pandora fans, the funding came after Westergren’s 348th (yes, 348th) venture pitch in 2004. The company expanded from there, with the biggest expansion in Pandora’s history coming with the advent of the iPhone.

Westergren also shared a variety of fascinating stories he’s gathered along his way. One was of a 94-year old retired Navy veteran who was introduced to Pandora, and because of his love for marching bands, thought it was a marching band-specific radio station. Westergren took this as a compliment of the highest order, explaining that it was this type of response that excites the staff at Pandora.

The talk was overwhelmingly positive, but at one point, he expressed his frustration with people leaving the page open without actively using it, prompting him to say, “Use the goddamn pause button!”

Winding down, Westergren spoke of a true grassroots campaign that saved when Pandora when it was nearly shut down by the passage of impossibly high music licensing fees in 2008. Crisis was averted when more than 1 million Pandora users contacted Congress to lower the fees and keep the site alive, a larger response than the opposition to the Iraq War.

“You can go invade countries, but don’t fuck with my radio station,” remarked Westergren, with tongue in cheek.

The coup de grace was a free t-shirt for all in attendance, making last evening yet another “thumbs up” for Pandora.

Categories: Rock

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