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Why Pandora Radio Is Still Faltering: The Sound Bias Pratfalls of Web Music Tech

More variety?
More variety?
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At the dawning of world wide web commerce in the 1990s, on the Internet superhighway, entertainment variety was supposed to be a global force for free choice. It was the dot com E search function to locate what you wanted to see or hear. Although freebie piracy would always be a constant theft threat, the new digital E business model translated well to display, repackage and resell music online. If new age music was not up to par, you could filter out the trendy sounds of the moment by going oldie retro. Then there came a bevy of sites that catered to pop appeal like LastFM or YahooMusic.

And Pandora. With the Music Genome Project, they revolutionized the study of taste by tying it to major or minor key tonality or the preference for soft structured melody or downbeat linear reverb. They did not know it, but they unlocked the in-house secret to making their customer fan base happy. Unfortunately, they did not apply what they learned with the MGP to their station content which is decided by an algorithm. Instead, they turned to lowbrow musical profiling where you either approve or reject tracks with a thumbs up or down to get a sampling of what you want. This is unfair if you like most music but don't listen to all music all the time.

The major mistake Pandora made was in thinking that all music fans want variety or are in the mood for every kind of music anytime. This is akin to box store industries expecting buyers to like all types of food, clothing or merchandise. The first rule in business school is to give consumers what they want as opposed to what robot think tank bean counters believe is politically correct. This may explain why certain customized Pandora stations automatically default to different styles regardless of personal preference while other ones somehow inexplicably remain faithful to a single pet genre.

This sort of filtered exceptionalism reminds one of the American Idol talent show where on average you really only hear a few hipster redundant styles of singing despite many genres and covers that often encompass more than half a century of music. Whether Pandora's way of doing business is due to built-in lineup airplay deals, profit driven demographics or a form of pop cultural bias is anyone's guess. But what it has amounted to is an inconsistent profit share that leads the industry but is on a treadmill and must do something in order to grow and expand. As in giving music fans what they want.

To further demonstrate the song play disparity involved, Pandora has a narrow representation of 70s soft rock and condenses it to acts like the Eagles, Elton John and James Taylor. However, if you study music history, this decade was the most democratically diverse in the US chart annals. A three year period mid decade posted more than 100 Adult Contemporary hits that went to number one, the most ever in the 20th century. Yet this gold mine of melodic, have-a-nice-day ear candy is unlisted on the front page but segregated to the Easy Listening section. As opposed to what? Hard Listening?

Apparently, Pandora is either run by millennial ageists or is unaware that a whole lot of baby boomers grew up in the Me decade and want stations that reflect their taste without having them watered down because some bot coder thinks they should get tired of what they like. Fact is, many mature fans will never grow weary of music they grew up with. When they are interrupted with unwanted filler, such Pandora users lose interest and their listening base shrinks. If the E music go-to site is unable or unwilling to satisfy all users while featuring ads, then why would anyone consider a pay account?

Moreover, who decides the limitations of what gets heard? Is there a bottom line that only features the most widely beloved and profitable music stars? Or are there powers that be in the industry who don't like happy good old days music? The universality of the Internet is supposedly a break from the constraints of terrestrial radio and has ushered in a new age of timelessness where oldies get rediscovered and therefore no music is ever dated. I'm unsure how much satellite radio differs from this, but if they pick up on what folks want, then net competition will either have to adapt or close up shop.

If and when Internet radio evolves to reach its full potential, song play lists must be compiled by warm human beings and not cold computer programs. Relying on digit-tech as a go-between to gauge human element input, if it guesses wrong by mistake or agenda, then all consumers lose. Taste in music is not always like ordering takeout food. You don't usually sample from columns A, B and C. It's more like dessert; everyone has a favorite. To get something else is to not have it forced upon you. Until Pandora learns to refine and streamline fan taste, suits out to not offend anyone will wind up pleasing no one.