Thursday, October 20, 2005

Pandora: I have seen the future...

...and it sounds pretty damn good. It's name is Pandora.

A digressive prelude: About a half-decade ago, I attended a Macromedia users' conference where there was a panel with the stock "Future of the Web" theme. Outside of Jerry Yang from Yahoo, I don't remember who any of the panelists were, but I do remember their confusion when an audience member asked what they personally used the Web for right then and now. A couple of them giggled nervously as another mumbled, "who let him in here?" and one panelist finally opinioned that she used the Web a lot to locate new restaurants as she traveled. The rest were silent.

That was then, and by now most of us have found our own uses for the Web. For example, I seldom use the phone book anymore (I Google instead) usually get driving directions from a Web site or at last resort, MapQuest, and at least 75 percent of my personal and gift shopping is done over the Web. That's just the basics. Some of my weirder uses of the Web include using Google as an on-line dictionary and spell-checker, since I'm always connected.

And then there's music. When I first started to work at home, I had the stereo on most of the time. But our stereo is in the living room, and I'm a couple of rooms away, usually working at our kitchen table. Commercial radio in New Hampshire sucks, as it does most everywhere, especially if your music tastes are a bit off the scale, so the stereo was usually playing something from our CD collection, which quickly got old for me. When Adelphia began offering Music Choice, the television became my music source during most of the work day, as the set is in the den right next to the kitchen. But the Music Choice playlists quickly get repetitive if you listen to them day after day for six or seven hours a day.

So, I moved to Web radio, the NPR stations and some jazz stations - notably "The Spirit of KJAZ" out of San Francisco, a continuous jazz radio stream that I found through iTunes. And that was pretty good, but I've found something better.

I first read about Pandora on Wil Wheaton's site (actually his site in exile, as WWdN has been down for several weeks). Wil enthused enough about Pandora that I went to check it out, and stayed to try out their 10 hour free trial. Pandora is a self-described "music discovery service designed to help you find and enjoy music that you'll love." In non-marketing-speak, what you do is give Pandora artists and music you like and it creates a personalized radio station that plays similar music. It's powered by something called the Music Genome Project, and it works. In fact, it's almost scary how well it works.

For example, during the test drive, I plugged in one of my current fave raves, Madeleine Peyroux, who sometimes sounds like Billie Holiday reborn, and outside of the expected Peyroux and Holiday songs, Pandora quickly started pulling music from Nancy Wilson, Jane Monheit, Blossom Dearie, Susan Tedeschi, and a cast of seemingly thousands, many already my favorites, and quite a few which I had never heard before.

Want a taste? Try my Madeleine Peyroux station here. Or my Thelonius Monk station. Or my Gillian Welch station. Any of those links
will bring you to a a free no-questions-asked trial where you can listen to my station, and/or create your own.

After the 10-hour free trial, you can subscribe to Pandora for 12 months of unlimited use for $36 or 3 months of unlimited use for $12. I just signed up for the 3-month subscription, but suspect I'll be moving off to a full year at the end of the quarter.

Is Pandora perfect? Not to everyone. I've seen various comments around the blogosphere that Yahoo Radio and other similar concepts works better for some people, especially if their tastes tend towards indie, obscure bands. A few have complained about the stream cutting out. I've only had that happen once in a week's worse of listening, but it's apparently a problem for some.

Even with a claimed 300,000+ songs in their library, Pandora has some holes. No Latin or Classical (both reportedly in the works). Occasionally an artist or song you'd expect to find isn't there. I was disappointed that Pandora has apparently never heard of Richard and Mimi Fariña.

The interface could use some enhancements. Being able to connect to Amazon or iTunes to purchase an album or music you just heard is way cool, but it'd be nice if there was some way to save playlists (which currently disappear into the aether between listening sessions), so you could go back and find something you liked at a later time. And Pandora doesn't make it completely clear that once you've bought a subscription, you can add additional artists and songs to any "station" you created, greatly expanding the music you'll hear. For example, my Madeleine Peyroux station includes Norah Jones, Nancy Wilson, and Katie Melua. That feature is disabled in the trial version, and until I realized that I was going to be able to add additional artists, I was dithering about subscribing.

I'm fairly
blasé about neat, new technology at this point in my career. It's been a long time since something really knocked my socks off. Pandora did, and I think there's a good chance it will do the same for you.

UPDATE: Just when you think Pandora can't get much better. I sent off an email to their request line last night asking that they include Dick and Mini
Fariña in the Music Genome project. In the in-box this morning was a message from Tim Westergen, founder of Pandora(!!!), who wrote,

"Many thanks for the suggestion, Fred. I took a quick look at their website. Have they both passed away? It seems they have quite a legacy. So much music to discover..."
If Pandora is trying to completely charm me, they're succeeding.

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