Tim Westergren's in Australia right now to spruik the launch (technically a relaunch) of Pandora on these shores. I sat down with him to discuss Pandora's differences, the death of the album and the technology he travels with.
Pandora officially relaunched in Australia this week — it's been available for a little longer than that after its shutdown a couple of years back over rights issues. Many Lifehacker readers would be familiar with Pandora's existing model, so I was curious to find out from Pandora founder Tim Westergren where Pandora is headed to next:
"There's a couple of ways to think about that. One of course is expanding our global footprint, this being the beginning of that. Making Pandora available everywhere in the world is a huge mission of ours, still ongoing, because licensing is such a bear. But that will continue to be an ongoing effort. I'd say that our principal focus from a product standpoint is device ubiquity, so that Pandora is available on any connected device that consumers use. Right now there are over 700 of those in the US; that's everything from smartphones and tablets and so on, to Blu-Ray players, connected TVs, Cars — that's a big area of development for us. There's even a connected refrigerator from Samsung that runs Pandora. So our development is focused there.
The product itself — I think the interesting thing about Pandora — the product has been out about seven years now, and the product hasn't changed that radically. I think it's because, what people come to Pandora for is it hit a button and hear music. The product hasn't really changed — the engineers will hate me for saying that — but that's because we've kept it simple. That said, one area we're working on is getting social going; really trying to bring the whole sharing thing into Pandora more proactively. The version we've just launched here is Pandora 4.0, and in the last upgrade, we really brought social sharing services in."
The thorny issue of artist renumeration is one that plagues all streaming services, but here again Westergren has big plans
"The other piece that is not here yet, but I'd say it's a big priority for us, is how to leverage what's happening on Pandora for artists. We're developing this enormous audience for Pandora; 175 million, and we understand their music tastes. We know their geography, through ZIP codes, and we have the ability to communicate with them. Those are the basic ingredients of a really potent fan activation platform. We've done a lot of thinking about how we can put tools in the hands of musicians so they can log into Pandora, chat with fans, alert them to local shows and help them sell merchandise. "
Locally, Pandora is available for Android and iOS, but not Blackberry, although it's possible to listen to Pandora on a Blackberry in the States, but if enough Aussie Blackberry users raised enough fuss, that might change.
"That's not a final decision in Australia; Android and iOS are hugely dominant; there's very little listening comparatively in the US on Blackberry."
Pandora's model is one of playing single songs, and then related music, but ask Westergren what this means for the concept of the album as a musical entity, and he's surprisingly upbeat.
"I'm a musician, so I can't imagine albums dying out ever happening. I think that its place will be diminished, but I think that artists like to create music in collectives. I certainly do as a composer myself. You tend to have a musical moment, and a bunch of songs will come out of that. I think artists will always want to do that. But, I do think that most music is consumed on a song by song basis. Radio is the way that people listen to music; it's the vast majority — around 80 per cent — of the hours listened to. So we always have been a song based culture. I think personalised radio will amplify that; it'll make radio even better. But I still think people will buy albums. You can buy Albums (on Pandora) through Amazon US; we don't have that active here yet. We'll eventually have a full blown retail offering down here — not just through iTunes."
Pandora has to compete with the likes of Spotify, Mog, Rdio and Music Unlimited, but Westergren doesn't quite see it in terms of outright competition:
"One of the things that's important to understand about Pandora; people use the word "streaming" to describe a lot of services. But there are services that are very different under that definition. The bulk of services that exist right now in Australia are on-demand services; your Mog, Rdio, Spotify, iTunes, etc. It's about having all you can eat access to all you want, whenever you want it. That's really not what Pandora is. Pandora's fundamentally a radio product. It's meant to attack that 80 per cent of your listening. In terms of retail, what's really important about that is that it's fundamentally promotion. If you hear a song on Pandora, you can't really hear it again; you can't rewind it. You have to go and buy it. Hence the success we've had with sales. Versus an on-demand service, where you effectively own it, or you're at least renting it."
Ask Westergren about misconceptions that people have about Pandora, and the two that jump up to him surround data usage and musician's rights:
"There's a big fear people have about data usage for streaming audio. It's misperception of how much bandwidth audio uses. Pandora's tremendously efficient at streaming; on mobile we stream at 32kbps; it's a very thin and light stream. So those fears are unfounded."
"There's a strong local pride around music here in Australia, as there is in the States. The beauty of it is that you add an artist to Pandora here, they'll play for the folks in Australia and New Zealand. But they also become part of the catalog in the US; there's a global distribution model there. We have over 100,000 artists signed now, and 70 per cent of them are independent. So that's a lot of music that's not been played on Radio before. Artists (here) will begin to feel the same impact here as artists have in the states. There's a big mission at Pandora to impact artists. Our goal is to empower a musician's middle class; to create enough value and exposure for musicians to be able to do it for a living."
At the heart of Pandora lies the Music Genome Project that classifies songs, but it's an effort that's aided by user feedback through the simple thumbs up/thumbs down interface.
"Thumbs have become very important to us. For one, we've got a lot of them. We have over 22 billion thumbs in our database. And thumbs operate on two levels. One, they refine and curate your station just for you as you use them, but we also collect the aggregate thumb history for every station in Pandora. So take a Coldplay station, for example. People have been listening to Coldplay stations for years now, millions of people. Based on the thumb feedback, we've developed a pretty good wisdom of the crowd for what makes for a good Coldplay station that we then marry to the music genome project to get the best of both worlds. We start with the musicological approach, which importantly is blind to popularity, so it's playing all this music without regard to how successful the artist is. That gets fed into our listening feedback data, which takes it to a new level. We think of the music genome as encompassing all of that now."
Westergren travels all over the US — and now the world — but he makes a point of travelling as light as possible, with a minimal technology footprint.
"Noise cancelling headphones are a must. I also… it's not tech, I guess, but also really good lightweight eye shades — it took me years to find ones that are a perfect fit for me. Laptop, of course — a Macbook Pro, although I think I may go back to the Macbook Air for its weight. That's kind of it. I'm a pretty light traveller; I don't carry an iPad around — it's really just the phone and laptop."