Pandora,, and the likes

When started in the late 1990s, I thought it was rather a clever idea. Tell the system (quite laboriously) what type of music you like, and it’ll play more of the music you like. So I did, and it ended up with a ‘station’ where most of the songs sounded the same, and I wasn’t surprised nor enjoyed any of the songs by and large, so I got bored with it. And while Yahoo Launch, as it is these days, continues, we’ve two more rather cleverer systems - Last FM and Pandora.

Last FM technically works in the same way as Launch did; that is, you tell it what type of music you play and it’ll play more. Last FM does this rather more cleverly, using their own Audioscrobbler technology, which has plugins for most music-producing things you own - so, one plugin for iTunes will enable you to feed back to the system what you listen to on your iPod, theoretically, while another plugin for WinAmp will do the same on that system. It doesn’t monitor online radio stations, incidentally: probably a good thing, since a radio station’s choice is inevitably never going to be 100% the type of music I might want to listen to.

Last FM uses the Amazon principle of ‘Other people who bought this product also bought…’, the theory being that if you like The Beatles, and most other people who like The Beatles also like the Rolling Stones, then you’ll probably like the Rolling Stones. In fact, it appears to do this on a song-by-song basis, rather than per artist.

Last FM’s approach is interesting; but slightly flawed. I can choose a station with “music like The Eels”, as I can with Pandora, but I can’t then tweak the station to my tastes. The only station I have as my own taste is based on all the music I listen to: whether I’m in a happy mood, a quiet mood, or a pissed-off mood. And basing a station on popularity probably means that I’ll only get the most obvious choices - even though Last FM’s music choice for me is sometimes very way-off what I enjoy.

Popularity is one way of doing it; but Pandora has a more interesting way. Just like Last FM uses their Audioscrobbler technology, so Pandora uses something called the Music Genome Project, which attempts to strip down songs into their component parts. The theory goes that if you like one song with a piano, a male vocalist, in a mostly major key, with little syncopation, etc, then you’ll like more like that. (In reality, it appears much more complicated).

This morning, as a little test, I programmed in the top 30 of the Virgin Radio All Time Top 500, and was curious to see what the system would make of it. After all, if the music is mostly an accurate reflection of what Virgin plays, then I ought to hear more songs that Virgin plays every day. Apparently, Virgin’s top 30 “features mild rythmic syncopation, mixed acoustic and electic instrumentation, a subtle use of vocal harmony, electric rhythm guitars, and minor key tonality”, among other things.

Putting aside the fact that Virgin’s top 30 is not an accurate reflection of Virgin’s daytime playlist (obviously, an ‘all time top 500’ isn’t going to have too many new songs in it), I’ve been surprised by the choices made by the system for a radio station based on the VR top 30.

Mother, John Lennon
I threw it all away, Scott Walker
Changes are no good, The Stills
Jessie’s Girl, Rick Springfield
Love is the key, Rick Springfield
Stalemate, Nada Surf
So Lonely, The Police
Sultans of Swing, Dire Straits
A taste of the same, The Bad Seeds
Say it ain’t so, Weezer
Bruises, Gene Loves Jezebel
When the Spell is broken, Richard Thompson
Can’t stand losing you, The Police
Check the meaning, Richard Ashcroft
City on the hill, Van Dyke Parks

Virgin would play The Police, Richard Ashcroft, and Dire Straits tracks, but that’s it. Jessie’s Girl gets occasional play on Virgin’s sister station Virgin Radio Classic Rock, but no other. Now, I’ve enjoyed the tracks it’s played, but not recognised many of them. And choosing songs ONLY based on rules, like this, ignores the very thing that radio stations are good at: recogniseability. And what produces recogniseability? Popularity.

In short, therefore, I’m not sure that either of these systems ‘work’. Perhaps choosing music based on both musical-rules and popularity - and, perhaps, geographical area (I suspect many of the tracks Pandora’s played me have been US hits but not UK ones, for example) - may make this system work a little better and give real radio stations a run for their money. And, of course, adding a human being to give that personal contact once in a while, which all these systems currently lack.