It was mid-November when I received the surprise invitation:
Subject: Pandora Meetup at Colorado College!
Hey, Tim here -
Just a reminder that I'll be hosting a Town Hall meetup Tuesday afternoon on the Colorado College campus. Full details are below.
I suppose it would have been less of a surprise if I had not just come back from a long seminar that day, and had been paying better attention to the details of my emails. As I was half asleep and just arriving home at the time, I made a quick note of the time and location (2 pm at the WES Room, in the Worner Student Center, on the Colorado College Campus - in Colorado Springs) ...and promptly retired for the night. I remember thinking that a meetup with other users of the Pandora Music service sounded like a rather nice activity for a day off, and only had a minor nagging question as to who could have found out my email address to send the invitation in the first place.
For those who may not know, the Pandora Music Service at (www.Pandora.com) bills itself as a creation of the Music Genome Project, an experimental effort at "creating the most comprehensive analysis of music ever". Where a gathering of musicians, and music-lovers with technical expertise, came together in an attempt to define music according to an organic pattern of attributes, or the genetic imprint of a song, if you will. Pandora, the offspring of that project, is a music search engine that tries to help users discover new music they may have not heard before, by basing searches on songs that the user already enjoys listening to.
When I arrived the next afternoon (on Nov 14th), and found the Woman's Educational Society (WES) Room, it was already half full of students and a few faculty members of the college. I noted there was a table with some promotional hats, t-shirts and buttons for Pandora, so as I found a seat at the back of the room, I figured I was in the right place to meet, mingle and share musical interests with a group of like-minded young people.
It wasn't until one of the students stood and welcomed everyone to the meetup that I realized this was more than just a meet and mingle, as the speaker he announced, and the Tim from the email I had received, was none other than Tim Westergren; creator of the Music Genome Project and founder of Pandora Media. I found that I had made one of the stops on the Pandora Tour, a series of town hall meetings set in several states that the road-tripping Westergren was visiting, to give him a chance to talk to fans of the service about his interest in creating Pandora, answering questions as gathering feedback on it use, and looking for new bands and music to add to the site's musical catalog.
Mr. Westergren spoke that afternoon for almost two hours, sharing anecdotes about his life and the work of creating the Music Genome Project, and the ideas that led to the launch and subsequent growth of the Pandora service, a few of which I will list here...
Pandora, as Tim explained it, is an experiment in creating a Taxonomy of Music. By classifying and cataloging songs from all over the musical spectrum, the Music Genome Project (tMGP) attempts, as a play on words and concepts, to create a DNA framework for the body of music. By establishing a set of objective and measurable criteria in which almost any song can be added to the catalog, they adopt a standard by which other music from within thier song library can be accurately and scientifically compared and recommended as matches to a given entry.
The company had just recently celebrated the one year anniversary of Pandora's launch.
(which began around Sept-Oct of 2005).
In September of 2005 the staff of tMGP opened the Pandora site for a "close friends and family only preview". When within the first month they discovered that they had over 5000 registered members, Pandora was firmly on its way to becoming one of the worst kept secrets of the internet.
In all the time the site has been online, they have never had to advertise, depending solely on word of mouth and recommendations from fans to their own friends to promote the service.
The Pandora staff catalogs about 15,000 new songs a month, all by hand (ear?). Each song is given a score based on up to 400 unique characteristics of that particular piece of music.
Fifty percent of matching hits for a users first choice of songs or artist on Pandora are for independent music (Music that is not considered a big name act, or is the work of artists who have not signed with a major label).
A large part of Westergren's goal in creating Pandora was as an outlet for struggling musicians to find an audience for their creative works, and during the tour he sought to encourage artists to submit their music to the service, in hopes that they could further grow the catalog and continue to introduce new music to a larger listener base.
At this point in development, Pandora has over a half million individual tracks scored and cataloged in their radio library. It should be considered as an Internet Radio Station, as each user creates their own personal "station" based on a particular musical choice (a song or an artist name), from which Pandrora then plays back a semi-random selection of songs that closely match the genetic fingerprint of the users original selection.
Westergren has been (among other career choices) a professional musician, has worked with children, and has been a film composer. It was working as a film composer, helping directors create new music for film scores by contrasting scenes from a film project with given samples of popular music, that he gained partial inspiration for the effort to create a set of definitions for music that could then be applied as a recommendation engine.
As a speaker Tim Westergren has a very personable and down to earth approach, which if one did not know better by the setting, one might have mistaken his enthusiasm and energy as that of one of the other collegiate youth at the meetup.
He was quite willing to stay a few minutes after the meeting was finished to answer more questions, but mentioned that he had to leave fairly soon to attend another meetup later that night in Denver, Colorado.
It was that point I decided I would be a Pandora groupie for the night, and follow up with Mr. Westergren by attending that meetup as well. Which I will relate in the second part of this series...