Pandora [ http://www.pandora.com ] is a project that grew out of the Music Genome Project, and promises its users that it’ll let them find new music that they’ll love. I can back that up. I’ve been using Pandora for quite a while now, and find it a very robust and useful service; full of bands and artists that I both know well and have never heard of before, and able to present me with listening options for some of even the most obscure artists that I tested it with.
All flash based (which means compatible with any web browser that can deliver flash content), Pandora is part online music player, part radio station; but what sets it apart from other services that are somewhat similar like Yahoo!’s Launch and Last.fm is that the service doesn’t just learn from your up or down ratings of the songs that play, but can also generate stations based solely on the artist, band, or even specific song that you give it to work with.
For example, I told it to generate a station around one of my favorite jazz musicians, Miles Davis. Not only did the station give me my Miles Davis fix, but moved on to delight me with Freddie Hubbard and Dizzy Gillespie in short order. This is what the Pandora developers refer to as the service’s roots in the Music Genome Project. For years the folks working on the project have been classifying and categorizing artists and bands and relating them to each other in ways that only music fans could really understand: by listening to them side by side and noting similarities and differences; nothing that a computer could really do. When they listen to the music and note the similarities between artists and songs, that’s where the computers come in; categorizing the results based on the characteristics that the listeners pointed out, and then serving them up to you, the listener, in a way you can really enjoy.
I decided to test the service a bit and toss in a Japanese composer/musician that I adore who has done the soundtracks to several of my favorite Anime movies and TV series, Yoko Kanno. It was a whim, thinking that Kanno’s audience couldn’t possibly be that large in the United States (for reference, she is responsible for the scores and soundtracks of the popular series both in Japan and the US, Cowboy Bebop, which is currently being aired on Cartoon Network, as well as the movie Ghost In the Shell, its sequel, and the subsequent TV series that has drawn acclaim. But back to point!) and I imagined that I’d be able to stump the service, but no way-Pandora thought a bit, and immediately played one of Kanno’s songs from the Ghost in the Shell TV series soundtrack. It then moved on to The Mountaineers, and then Green Day. Green Day? Well, okay, it’s not perfect. The service categorizes artists based on the trends that the listeners have heard in some of the artist’s music, but perhaps not all of it.
This isn’t to say I didn’t manage to stump it either; some of the more obscure DJs and electronic music artists that I enjoy didn’t turn up much in Pandora, but almost everyone I passed through it, regardless of genre, turned up a hit and a corresponding station. If you’re into any alt-rock, indie, pop, or hip-hop artists and bands, you’ll find plenty to listen to. That being said, my only real gripe with having used Pandora for several months now is that if the Genome isn’t really big on a particular artist or genre you’ll get a lot of repeated songs, and often you’ll just get remixes of the same song. For example, if I get another remix of Britney Spears’ Toxic on my Kaskade station, I’m going to cry. That’s not to say that you don’t help guide the track selection though-you can definitely give a song the thumbs down and it won’t be played again, and if you give a song the thumbs up, artists along their tree of the Genome will get added as well and you’ll hear even more new music.
The service works equally well as a method of exploring new artists and music or as a radio station you can leave on in the background. Careful skipping tracks though-Pandora’s agreement with the labels states that it can’t be a “music on demand” service, so you can’t just keep skipping tracks until you hear what you want-you’re only allowed to skip so many in an hour.
All in all however, Pandora is an excellent product and literally, as the creators say, a “doorway” to a “vast trove of musical information.” I believe it. You’ll definitely hear something you’ve never heard before, and fall in love with a new artist or a new track you never knew you’d love so much. At the same time, you’ll turn up your nose at an artist that you’d say is nothing at all like who you created the station after, and thumbs down several tracks in a row before the station gets the hang of what you really like. It’s fun, interactive, and oh-did I mention: absolutely free? You can create as many stations as you like, listen to whichever you like whenever you like, and explore as many artists as you choose, or even create stations based on specific songs that you like. By the way, you can share your stations with friends via email or RSS feed, and check out other popular Pandora stations that other people are listening to.
Now, head on over and create a station or two of some of your favorite artists, and be both amazed and amused (and at times, horrified) as the stations that Pandora builds for you. Take a look and enjoy! I’ll be over here jamming to my Mark Farina station. I had to skip over some Fragma and DJ Sammy (ugh), but I finally got some decent Craig Armstrong and Artful Dodger. Then it gave me Melanie C. Yikes. I said it wasn’t perfect, didn’t I? No matter, this Kelly Osborne track is actually pretty catchy.