Conrad then brought up an interesting philosophy that suggests how Pandora can help promote new music and artists: being a curator of songs. "There is a piece to Pandora where the songs are 'curated,'" he said. "We are very careful not to play into the popular mechanisms of what constitutes 'good music'--what's on the Top 40 this week. But we do have staff whose full-time job is to go out and look for great music. We receive suggestions from our listeners all the time, including people sending their own music." For tips on submitting your own music, see the sidebar "Submitting Your Music to Pandora."
Would you like the world to hear your original music on Pandora? Simply send your CD with information about yourself, your band, and your music along with the official submission form (PDF) to the company. Be sure to follow the detailed information on their FAQ. The Pandora music analysts review every CD submitted, although they won't share those criticisms with you.
More than 50 percent of the music Pandora receives makes it to the Music Genome Project after passing through the human quality filter. Conrad continues, "We have people whose full-time job is to review every magazine and blog about interesting music, to plumb the Creative Commons depths and find great new music, and to put the very best on the air. So, while we are careful not to tell people what 'good music' is, there is an element where we are finding the very best music out there, music that's finding an audience, music that's finding critical success, and giving it a place to find a bigger audience."
I asked what Pandora was doing to avoid being influenced by big record labels, which have been widely accused of corrupting traditional radio through payola schemes.
"I think curator is the right word," Conrad replied. "Of all the financial models that could be leveraged to make Pandora a successful business, the 'play for pay' model runs completely spiritually opposite to the founding of the company.
"Let me give you a concrete example," he continued. "There are 30 Chicago albums. At 10 songs a piece, that's 300 possible songs by Chicago. iTunes probably has every single one of them, but we don't. Some of the musical judgments we exercise are about which of those 300 songs have found an audience that wants to hear them. There's some art to that, I admit. We make a judgment: at what point have we analyzed a sufficient quantity of Chicago music to be able to create the best possible listening experience when people tell us they like music that is similar to Chicago?"
Pandora's reasoning is sometimes odd: this classic ambient track has neither cymbals nor intricate rhythms.
I then asked about something that has irritated me about the Pandora service: I've just finished listening to a station that I labeled "Soft Jazz Guitar"--Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, Herb Ellis--that type of style. Now, I switch to my Bill Evans station and a solo guitar song by Jim Hall comes on. And I ask myself, "What's this song doing in my Bill Evans station? This song should be in my 'Soft Jazz Guitar' station. Why can't I tell Pandora to place this tune in the appropriate station?"
"It's fascinating to me that you raise that particular example," Conrad said. "Because the scenario that you just described is--after we evolved the product over five months and took a lot of low-hanging fruit off the table--probably the number-one listener request.
"It's fascinating because I wouldn't have guessed this would have risen to the top of consumer feedback. It was an area I was blind to. I guess my own usage and my observations of others in usability settings didn't have that perspective. But there is no question that that is the number-one listener request right now."
Shortly after our interview, Pandora added another top customer request--Backstage. Backstage is a feature that provides information, derived from the All Music Guide, about the current artist and song. As an example, searching on "Blind Faith" brought up a comprehensive story by famed record critic Bruce Eder about the trials and tribulations of recording the album. From there you can create a Pandora station built from your search word. It's a wonderful addition and added to my enjoyment of the album.
Right-click a song tile and a pop-up menu lefts you rate a song (so you'll hear more or fewer songs like it), see more information, or buy a copy from a partner store.