to eleven

On Independent Music and the Radio by jason
September 1, 2011, 9:00 am
Filed under: Editorial, Interwebs, Radio | Tags: , ,

This was something I started thinking about after reading this post: We do need curators, but we don’t need gatekeepers or why you should stop using Pandora over at Michael J. Epstein and Sophia Cacciola’s blog. You can read it if you like.

I’m not writing this as an argument against what MJE says in that post. In fact, I agree with a lot of it. The point of Pandora is that it is customizable, so that you get music that you would want to here. it’s supposed to predict what you will like and expose you to stuff that it think you will like.

That algorithm in itself is kind of a tricky one. I have several stations that work, like my instrumental surf rock station and my Wu-Tang station. Other times, it’s way off…I started a Spaghetti Western station, and I can’t stop it from playing House music. But this algorithim is not the main problem.

The primary issue MJE points out with Pandora Radio is this: its content is controlled by one guy (well, he says it’s one guy, and it might be…that’s neither here nor there). This, in itself, reduces the listener democracy by limiting what the listener is exposed to. Great music that just needs to find its audience may be turned away at the whim of the guys who guard the musical gates of Pandora. And since Pandora has a 3.6% share of the radio listener market , Epstein argues that Pandora is harmful to music, especially the independent music scene, because of its lack of democratization in the creation of their catalog.

The Gatekeeper at Pandora. Or at least, the way I picture it.

This is where is disagree, but only a little. I mean, I’m the first to admit that radio, be it terrestrial radio or interwebs radio, is a very limited format. Hell, my first post on To Eleven was about how radio was a good example of why Capitalism was a terrible thing for the arts. My sticking point is this: Radio has never been a friend to independent music.

Sure…internet radio seemed to rewrite the rules for a bit, but internet radio like Pandora is ad-supported, and it answers to shareholders. This means that it isn’t going to take the risks that something that is truely independent might take. And while that irks me, overall, it’s OK. Here’s why:

The kind of person who likes independent music, who really doesn’t care what the radio tells them is good, doesn’t rely on one medium to find new music. They read Pitchfork, they subscribe to Under the Radar, they go to shows, and they listen to word of mouth. Pandora may have a large number of listeners, but a lot of them are making their ’80s stations and their ’90s RnB stations. They aren’t really looking for new music. This, of course, is not a scientificly researched thing I say…it’s based on what I hear from my friends. Even my own girlfriend uses Pandora as her ’70s and ’80s rock station. She says, “If I want to hear something new, I’ll just ask you what’s good.”

I agree that if Pandora were more inclusive, independent groups would get more exposure. If American Idol had an “Indie Night,’ there would be a lot of exposure. In a perfect world, these things would happen. But they’re not, they never have, yet people are still making music.

So, I guess coming back to Pandora, I would say “Use it all you want; just realize what it is that you’re using.” And then go out and buy some independent music. I’ve heard Michael J. Epstein and Sophia Cacciola make some pretty good stuff…



4 Comments so far
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Just to clarify – one person making the decisions meant that for each song submitted, one person evaluates whether it goes into the Pandora catalog or not. There are a lot of those “one persons” I am sure (though I have no idea really – it might be just one guy in a dungeon somewhere!).

I totally understand your point with wanting to hear familiar music. It’s just unfortunate that we made no progress going from traditional radio to this. Though, the truth is, there is a lot of indie stuff on Pandora, it just rarely comes up and it is arbitrarily selected. I have one album of songs on there. Based on my royalties, they don’t get played much. Of course, SoundExchange is the worst organization in the history of royalty organizations…and that says A LOT given how terrible ASCAP and BMI are (I have no experience with SESAC, but I’ll assume for argument’s sake that they are also terrible).

Most people don’t have someone they can ask for music recommendations and they don’t read music blogs, etc. I just hoped that Pandora could be an opportunity for people to say, “today, I’d like to hear all new music,” or “I’d like one out of every five songs to be something ‘risky’ given my listening history.” It’s very easy to allow Pandora to default to playing the same damn playlists as other radio stations/systems, but let the user sprinkle in new stuff at whatever interval they’d like.

I actually think that “risk” management and similarity data (similarity of listening patterns I mean) are absolutely the future of music recommendation. Pandora uses neither. It bases everything on trivial musical components of songs. I don’t think you can hire someone to think up a worse method for picking songs that listeners would be likely to enjoy. Perhaps that is why they keep playlists small and repeat artists a lot, they just know that a high percentage of people are going to like the artists they use and since their algorithm is terrible, that is a better approach than trying to do something real with their scant data and poorly designed analysis approaches.

Most of all, it is important for me that people know that Pandora is basically locking out independent artists.

Sorry my ranting is a little disjointed here, but thanks for adding to this discussion. I will add a link to here from my post as well! I always enjoy when these things grow into discussions. That is the only way we’ll ever figure anything out!

Comment by Michael J. Epstein

I am shocked and bummed to learn how much of the market Pandora has. I liked it about 2008, but after a while I grew really really annoyed with it’s limitations. The algorithmic thing proves itself to be really dumb in the long run. Extended vamping my ass.

At the same time the same time, blogs like ours aren’t democratic either. This is a three-person dictatorship. We’ve get submissions we pass on and never review or mention because we don’t like them. If you’re here is because one of three men decided they liked your music, if someone sent us something and hasn’t seen anything inside of about three months, their stuff made it to file 13 and is never heard from again.

Big difference between a blog and a streaming music service, I know, but in principle we operate along the same lines, relative to how I am reading your basic complaint.

Comment by Jayson

I disagree with you re: blog/radio. You are inherently limited to writing about a tiny quantity of music. You have to pick what you like best. Every blog then has a “personality” and people read it because it has that personality. I would equate you to one channel on Pandora – a curated set of music that you believe your readers will enjoy. Pandora is looking to serve a very wide audience and provide essentially the equivalent of “an infinite number of blogs.” So, even if my music isn’t right for one channel, it’s possible that it’s right for another. Am I saying they should accept everything? Maybe not, but I think they limit it too much and too arbitrarily, which was exactly the problem the music world had when radio and MTV ruled. I don’t want to proliferate that issue. Also, let’s face it, they will not reject any major-label artist. If they legitimately evaluated music by listening and deciding on a case-by-case basis, that would be one thing, but the majors (and large indies) get a free pass in and truly independent artists submit through a different system, where I am guessing they reject something like 95% of the music coming in. That’s the problem to me. I don’t mind curation in appropriate context. In fact, without it, we’ve got a mess, but I am saying they don’t really serve well as curators.

Comment by Michael J. Epstein

I understand and agree completely now.

Comment by Jayson

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