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Monday
Jun202011

Pandora- What's In A Name? Does The Music Service Walk Its Talk?

One of the interesting aspects of the Rethink Music conference back in April was hearing MOG CEO David Hyman and (separately) Pandora CEO Joe Kennedy discuss the present and future of online music subscription services.

MOG is all about access. Outside of the usual holdouts, MOG’s catalog contains just about everything, including most of the releases on our Static Motor imprint. For fans, it makes for an intelligent (Echo Nest-driven) music discovery experience that seamlessly blends the mainstream and the independent. For artists, getting your music onto MOG is a cinch. As long as you’re distributed via an indie aggregator (CD Baby in our case) your music will soon pop up on MOG. For fans and artists alike, MOG is an excellent platform. Easy access for all, with top-notch audio quality to boot (and no ads!).

A different business with a very different model, Pandora certainly talks a similar talk, which is why I was struck when Joe Kennedy commented (paraphrasing):

Pandora is all about connecting people to new music.

New music from who?

Back in January, one of our new releases was rejected by Pandora. After successfully getting three releases on the Pandora platform over the last few years, I received the following regarding the new album, Pyramid, by Boston solo artist Kurt von Stetten:

Thank you for your submission to Pandora’s Music Genome Project. We wish we could say otherwise, but we have decided that this submission does not fit our collection needs at this time.

Collection needs?!? It’s new, and it’s good. What else is there?

Meanwhile, around the time of the Rethink Music conference, we had another new release in the Pandora pipeline—Careers in Science by Boston post-poppers The Longwalls. I’d jumped through all the necessary hoops (the process takes months) and was waiting to learn if the Pyramid rejection was just a blip. One day I logged on to Pandora to check my submission status page…:

Thank you for your submission to Pandora’s Music Genome Project. We wish we could say otherwise, but we have decided that this submission does not fit our collection needs at this time.

Collection needs?!? It’s new, and it’s good. What else is there?

Two albums in a row. Groundhog day.

What’s with this “collection needs” stuff? 

I sent Pandora a few emails to try and find out.

I asked if Pandora was in the business of “connecting people to new music”, or if it was instead more interested in curating a particular music experience. Given Joe Kennedy’s comment, the name Pandora, and the fact that server space is certainly not an issue, one can easily posit that there should be no such thing as too much new music in the Pandora catalog—no matter what the genre. This is supposed to be about discovery—a Pandora’s box of new music. Warts and all. Yes?

I received the following response from a “listener advocate”:

Hi Brandon,

We have a curated collection and what we choose from independent submissions is entirely based on what we believe the collection needs at the time.

As you may know, our policy is that we don’t discuss submissions. We cannot go into the specific reasons why we make those decisions.

We hate to ever discourage any artist, so please understand that we are only deciding what will work best in the context of Pandora radio stations. If we decided not to include your current record, we hope that you continue to follow your vision, and that you will keep us in mind as you release new material.

Again, thanks so much for your interest, and best of luck to you in all your endeavors!

I ‘d copied Joe Kennedy on the note as well. His response was very much the same:

Brandon:

I’m really sorry to hear that some of the music you submitted was not accepted by our curation team.

We truly do love new music and add ~10,000 new tracks a month to our collection, most of it indie….but we receive at least 3x that number as submissions.

There’s no way to put a positive spin on turning down a submission. We genuinely do want every artist to continue to develop their craft and submit new work to us.

Three things jumped out at me

1
Curated collection:
Maybe I was being naive, but I’d never heard the word “curated” used in conjunction with Pandora’s catalog. (Again, isn’t “openness” at the heart of Pandora’s brand story? How can it not be?) Yes, you can curate your own stations—it’s the only way to add variety after all!!—but I didn’t know the collection itself was curated. The word isn’t used once on the Pandora about page nor their Music Genome Project page. There’s plenty of “curation” talk if you dig a little deeper into the site, particularly in the FAQs about the submission process. But it’s clearly not a main message. Why not? They’re sorta talking out of both sides of their mouth, no?

2
We don’t discuss submissions:
The catalog is curated, and they won’t talk about submissions. New radio is beginning to feel a bit like old radio.

3
We hate to discourage any artist:
They’re a bit self-conscious of this as it came up in a couple other emails we swapped back and forth. It is discouraging. After jumping through the hoops just to get into the approval pipeline.. to then be rejected with no explanation while the CEO sits on stage at Rethink Music waxing on about Pandora connecting people to new music… in a word, discouraging. And to make matters worse, according to their submission FAQ page:

…we do not reconsider submissions once an initial decision has been made.

Ugh.

Why I think this is a problem

Aside from the apparent contradictions between Pandora’s talk and its walk, the real (more subtle) problem is that the Pandora curation team quickly accepted three of our artists’ earlier releases.

And now, the new releases—on another level creatively and with more interesting production values—is deemed “not appropriate” for the collection. And they’re unlikely to ever reconsider these releases.

Why does this matter? By trying to be more exclusive, Pandora is actually undermining its collection by favoring an independent artists’s early work over their later, (presumably) more creatively mature work.

To be clear, I’m not out to clog the Pandora platform with our roster of indies, I just want our roster’s best stuff on the platform! Instead, there’s now an inaccurate picture of our work on the biggest internet radio platform around. And because Pandora doesn’t reconsider submissions, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done to remedy it.

There must be a better, more open, way to manage indie submissions. Otherwise, Pandora may very well become cluttered with early releases by independent bands so anxious to be heard, while their later work is ignored. (Though it can easily, thankfully, flow freely to listeners on Last.Fm, MOG, and the like.)

It’s a blow to the artists, the Pandora catalog, and their listeners. A real lose, lose, lose for music discovery.

I wonder what effect the IPO will have.

I also wonder if we should we have waited and never submitted the early releases? But with such a closed submission process, how were we to have known?

So what’s in a name, anyway?

—————————————————-

Brandon C. Walsh is a branding & digital strategist (Sametz Blackstone Associates) and indie-rock spelunker (Static Motor Recordings) on a recurring journey from one side of the brain to the other. Additional musings on music and branding can be found here. Check out Linkedin / Twitter for more. Cheers! 

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Reader Comments (16)

Brandon
Great Post !!!!!
If an application claims to be open then one would certainly expect that there would be a minmal amount or no gate keeping and that the entire process would be transparent.
We are working on this at http://www.maia68.com
One you become a members you can add a manually add a musical artist, albums and songs or simply add them by importing your itunes library file.
We are also looking into the possibility of maia68 becoming a kind of utility that is partially owned by the community.

June 20 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Wayen

Interesting read !

June 20 | Unregistered CommenterSonika

While it does suck to have your submissions rejected for some unknown reason, Pandora still has the right to accept whatever it pleases - that's what makes it Pandora. It's a closed, proprietary system. The way that the company spoke on stage certainly makes their motives questionable, but they need to act in ways that are in their best interest, not anyone else's. I just see the whole "collection needs" argument in the same light as certain fruits being in season. Sometimes demand is higher for certain sounding music than others - who knows why.

Not trying to defend them in a big way, just making observations. I generally dislike the idea of Pandora, making music recommendation into this faceless algorithm - but that's just me.

June 20 | Registered CommenterMark Dowdell

I don't even remember the last time I heard new independent music on Pandora. Pretty much plays the same stuff I hear on the radio so I no longer use it (and neither do my peers).

June 20 | Unregistered CommenterJJ

Here's the thing. Part of the reason Pandora has been much more successful than other similar services is the fact that they actually listen and filter thru the music the accept on their platform. I find this to be good, since people only want to hear great music, and don't want to be bombarded by amateur sounding music as it happens in other services out there. There may also be other reasons they didn't accept it. Maybe they are basing their decision on how much demand there is for that genre, etc. I will never say the YOUR music isn't good since Ive never heard it, and taste is a very personal thing. But in this case they are the taste makers and so far they have been extremely successful. The good news is that there is tons of other places where you CAN place your music, and if it becomes popular enough, they will probably end up adding it anyhow. Not trying to defend them here, but I also need to see their side of the issue. I am about to go thru the same process for my new album. And I hope I make it in. But If I don't, I would understand and keep trying.

June 20 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Mark - I hear you 100%. My post was certainly not meant to be a "sour grapes" rant (speaking of fruit). I just think the brand contradiction is an interesting one. And if they're only accepting a handful of releases from small indie artists (understandably), a "first come, first serve" approach will tend to favor early releases over later ones—which probably isn't a good thing for the catalog (or listeners) in the long run. Bottom line: given that it IS a curated catalog, I just think they should be a bit more transparent /upfront about it rather than relegating those messages to the FAQs...

June 20 | Registered CommenterBrandon Walsh

Look at it this way, if your music has enough public interest it will get picked up by them anyway. Many of my more obscure clients have music on Pandora and never submitted it. You could spend a lot of time submitting your music, and they might accept it, and it might get played three times and it will probably be skipped twice. Then your Sound Exchange check will be .0001 cents at best.

Sounds like there are better ways to spend your promotional efforts if you ask me.

-LA

Aside from their curated approach, Pandora won't accept any music into their system that's not available on Amazon.com in both CD and MP3 format.

I'm a musician/DJ/label owner with a discography of well over 50 records that have been released on vinyl, CD, cassette, digital, 8-track (well maybe not 8-track), etc. on a number of record labels and distributed globally, but Pandora won't even let my music pass go because I no longer release CDs. I used to have CDs available on Amazon.com and currently have MP3s there, but not both anymore. Newsflash, Pandora! People aren't making and consuming CDs much anymore!

It seems to me that they're filtering out a significant amount of potentially quality indie music from their recommendation engine before it even hits their curation filter, and that's bad for both indie artists and the listeners who may enjoy discovering their music.

I don't like Pandora much anyway. Each time I've tried using it in the past it thinks that just because I happen to like one Christina Aguilera tune that I'm automatically going to like all Britney Spears tunes, rather than giving me an awesome dubstep or indie-rock track next. My taste is eclectic. I want good music no mater what genre, not a bunch of music in the same genre.

That said, Pandora is obviously extremely popular, but they could be doing a much better job connecting fans with new music.

June 20 | Registered CommenterJake Trussell

Too true.

I've noticed the lifespan of these hot internet sites..

1. Start of accessible to all..Indie and very proletariat.
Free to use.

2. Cut back on access (They try to turn a coin) More ads..User fee.
More directed, sponsor driven content.

3. Gets greedy..Too many ads. Bloated. Unavigable and irrelevant. Unable to produce new material. Commercialized.

Seen it with Yahoo, Myspace and is happening with Facebook, You Tube, and Pandora.

June 20 | Unregistered CommenterLatch Key

I have to second what Jake Trussel said. It doesn't make sense in this day an age that forward thinking record labels who only produce in a downloadable format should be saddled with last century's technology just to get play on Pandora. Pandora has become just another "gatekeeper" for the major labels, and I feel it borders on restraint of trade. It's the 21st century,and I don't see why they can't program music based on it's artistic merit,but then again,who is deciding if the music has merit or not? How many indie releases are in their "curated collection"? Rebecca Black and ARK Music have shown us the way. Just think how well she would have done with a better quality song! Scr*w Pandora.

June 20 | Unregistered CommenterNURREDIN

Chris - I hear you.. but the "rub" (as I see it) is that our artists' new work is simply better—more creative, better production values—than the older work. So for indies it doesn't seem to be just about quality. They'll let you in, but you only get a couple shots. The lesson leaned is that I should have waited. I fear I wasted our "bullets" on the early records. Good luck with your submission. If it's your first one I have a feeling you'll get in without a hitch. Let me know!

Lucifers - The reason I wrote the post is that I know Pandora does work for indie artists. I've gotten emails and seen comments on our YouTube videos from people who found their way to us via Pandora. I only wish our newer material could find its way onto the platform. But you're completely right.. there's certainly no shortage of other promotional avenes. On to the next.

June 20 | Registered CommenterBrandon Walsh

I think Pandora is THE BEST! Because yes they do filter through the music in order to give us good quality. I have bought tons of songs from artists that I had no clue of until of course Pandora introduced them to me. Now if I could only get my music on there! LOL! Great post!

June 20 | Unregistered CommenterNik West

Every time I submit a new release, I include a cover letter that tactfully mentions my previous releases are in their catalog. The five albums I've sent in have all been accepted. If one gets rejected, so be it. That's the cost of keeping the bar high, which benefits everyone (except the rejected artists, of course).

June 21 | Registered CommenterBrian Hazard

The idea of acknowledging your earlier releases in the catalog seems like a good one.

Otherwise, I guess I'm just not convinced that there is a "bar." If there is, I can't imagine how the first Longwalls record we put out—basically a rough demo recorded on a 10 year old iMac in a dank rehearsal space—ever made it in. The bar seems flimsy, and inconsistent, at best.

Curation requires criteria, and theirs seems to be a bit of a black box.

I happen to find that a bit ironic, hence the post.

That said, I'm pleased to have 3 albums in the system and will certainly be pushing for more down the road.

Onward...

June 21 | Registered CommenterBrandon Walsh

so, i guess Pandora is A&Ring their stations. this sounds to me like Pandora is concerned about a flood of indie music in their system over-populating the radio stations of more well-known artists that are "sound-alikes." but why? and if that's such a concern, why couldn't they simply allow any artist to have a separate station that includes tracks from more popular artists, but not vice versa?

June 21 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Avery

Great post, it surely rings a bell

We have had our debut album rejected with only this "collection needs" pseudo-explanation, despite dozens of good reviews around the world and double page features in leading, printed magazines.

Being in Europe we concluded it was US market protection at work, but now I'm wondering... Anyway we're distributed on every other major platform, now Pandora is free to catch up whenever the curators feel the need...

Peace, ventilo

June 24 | Unregistered Commenterventilo

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