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Monday
Sep122011

We do need curators, but we don't need gatekeepers or why you should stop using Pandora

Allegedly, Pandora now controls 3.6% of radio listening. This is an impressive figure, but, to me, a disturbing one. We’ve all spent the last few years touting how the Internet has changed music distribution and flattened the playing field so that everyone has equal access to distribution. Traditional terrestrial radio, with ever-shrinking playlists that contain almost new music certainly aren’t designed to appeal to a future audience, they are designed to grasp onto a shrinking past audience.

I used to discover new music by listening to college and commercial radio or watching late-night MTV. How do the kids do it these days? For a little while it seemed like there might be a few very influential bloggers and media outlets that could give artists big boosts, but I’d argue that most of the influential writers have had their influence downgraded as of late - Pitchfork, Perez Hilton, and even Brooklyn Vegan don’t seem to break artists quite as readily as they once might have.

Along comes Pandora. In some sense, noble in mission - to help people discover new music that might appeal to them given artists they already like. The only problem is that we’re back to a closed system. Pandora serves as gatekeeper and decides what music goes into the mix and frankly, their choices for independent artists seem arbitrary and just plain bad in many cases.

I certainly am biased by the fact that of 5 albums I’ve submitted for inclusion, only one has been accepted. In my opinion, it is maybe the 3rd or 4th best of the albums I’ve submitted. Two of the excluded albums include my most successful songs to date.  My most popular song, “30 Lives” (50,000+ views on Youtube and modest, but higher sales numbers than anything else I’ve ever done) has been excluded from Pandora. Okay, I am sure this will draw criticism saying that my music is bad and doesn’t deserve to be there, but that is not really the point. I don’t want to implicate friends and colleagues, but the exclusions and inclusions seem 100% arbitrary - in my view of indie artists that I personally know, sometimes terrible music makes the cut, great music does not.

Why should you care? This reverses the democratization of the playing field and puts the power into the hands of the monopoly gatekeeper. How does Pandora decide? Some person listens and makes an arbitrary, subjective decision. No appeals, no examination of the merits of the music based on other opinions nor track record. Just one listener. While 3.6% is not tremendous yet, what happens if Pandora is 50% of radio? We digress to a monopolistic organization deciding what music people find out about. You, the listeners, are the ones that suffer most. I realize again that this will sound like it’s specifically about my exclusion from the system. To some degree, that does motivate me to complain, but really, it’s a “class-action” problem.

Solutions - How can Pandora be a curator without being a gatekeeper? 

I understand that Pandora wants to serve as a curator to provide you with music that you will like, but do they need to block music from even being considered? I don’t expect Pandora to deliver terrible music to people, but I think the bar is clearly set too high (and by high I mean they reject too high a percentage of stuff - not that the quality is set high at all).

One solution is to let people adjust the riskiness of their listening recommendations - i.e., Pandora raters hear my song and think it’s not all that likely that people will like it, so they rate it as risky (the importance of the concept of “risk” in music listening was first made familiar to me by Debcha over at zed equals zee). The song is then only delivered to those willing to take risks. If lots of those people like the song, it gets upgraded to less risky.

Let the listeners decide! Alternatively, simply have a body of the public rate songs for Pandora. Don’t let the decision get made by a single Pandora employee.

I didn’t even mention that in order to even submit music for consideration, it must be available for sale in CD form on Amazon. The process for getting CDs sold on Amazon is tedious and sales via Amazon for physical media result in virtually no profit. I am personally moving toward not even putting out music on CD, which will automatically exclude future releases from the Pandora catalog. This inherently will exclude independent artists.

Why I personally don’t like Pandora

As a complete aside, I actually used Pandora before I ever submitted music to it and quit after about a week for several reasons:

1. Their music similarity criteria is absurd - extended vamping and acoustic guitars do not make songs similar. Every single damn artist I liked was apparently similar to Dave Matthews - the artist I like the least. Why? They had acoustic guitars.

2. Dave Matthews. I could not block artists or say “never ever ever ever ever play this artist.”  I could block songs, but I apparently would have to wait for all 600 DMB songs to come up before I could guarantee that I’d never have to hear another one. Then, I’d have to do the same for John Mayer and Vampire Weekend and all of the other artists that are apparently similar to artists I do like. Not worth my time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Pandora and whether listeners should demand a larger catalog and the ability to block Dave Matthews.

 

Michael J. Epstein is an artist, writing and performing with The Michael J. Epstein Memorial LibraryDo Not Forsake Me Oh My DarlingNeutral Uke HotelThe Motion Sick, and others. Along with writing about his bands, he frequently posits his thoughts on the present and future of music on his blog.

Reader Comments (27)

I look forward to your comments!

August 30 | Registered CommenterMichael Epstein

You could can give maia68 a try.

http://www.maia68.com/factoetum/The_Motion_Sick_Musical_Artist

September 12 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Berlin

Michael, Great Post...!

I agree with a most of what you are saying about Pandora. I don't use Pandora to discover new artist and music I use it as a way to play music I know and to be surprised by some of the choices it's algorithms make based on my musical taste or genre of choice at that time..It's almost my dummy system when we have company or are just in the mood to set it and forget it. I reach to the Soundclouds and Bandcamps for new artist and music. I use other bloggers recommendations and then curate back to my small group of followers.

I do think that Pandora has moved from Curator to Gatekeeper...and maybe they were never curators to begin with. They had no editorial content and we don't know who the employees are that make the decisions on new and emerging artist so maybe our expectations are not what they had in mind. Keep in mind that that are now a publicly traded company and must now move to make profits and answer to a host of people when they do not. This changes them like it or not. My blog is my blog I can write and share what I want how I want it that to me is curation.

My last point is that to break a artist, where are we trying break them too? I feel like with the power of the net and the ability for anyone to build a fanbase..the "breaks" are in the hands of those who make the music. The market for physical records has come back depending on your genre and there is a premium attached to that. CDs will always be around not everyone wants to download but the artist must know his/her audience and them provide it. In the near future I see the world with lots of artist not on MTV or VH1 but still very successful serving there niche audience. As a "curator" it's my job to help share the work of artist like you with those that like me. I will continue in spite of the Pandoras of the net..we still have Topspin and new emerging technologies..Keep hope alive lol...

September 12 | Unregistered CommenterRhythm Hub

Did you tried other radio ondemand providers? I know Jango and they work very well with independent and young artists.
I think Pandora must rethink the way they dismiss new songs, but it will take time.

September 12 | Unregistered Commenterjpmeneses

Hi there,

Great post. I'm in complete agreement with you that putting listeners in charge will lead to a better experience, so much so that I've already created a Pandora-like radio station called Most Rated, that allows listeners to choose how much air-play a particular artist receives on our listener page. Further than that, we aim to book the 'most rated' artists on a particular music scene and promote them at our showcase events, currently held in London and Brighton, UK.

So please give us a try and let us know what you think. Don't forget to rate!

All the best,
Dan

September 12 | Unregistered CommenterDan Garland

I totally agree. I don't find Pandora a rewarding experience at all. I chafe against their editorialization and acquiescence to the smouldering remains of the major labels.

For about 25 years, before the advent of the web, how I found new music was by digging: listening to community radio for music with no corporate influence, reading reviews and interviews in independent zines and mags, making a point to find the good record stores any time I was lucky to be in a new metropolis, also checking the local music scene wherever I am.

Today, that method has been altered, but only slightly. the reviews might appear in a blog, for instance.and the retailer might be virtual. But I really don't need- or want- a script to turn me on to new music. I have limited trust in some fairly establishment voices I am hearing on the nets- mostly independent label websites and a few retailers with tastes that I share. But I mostly rely on the deft ear of music lovers who make labor-of-love podcasts, blogs, and participate in online forums who spend a great deal of time, effort and money curating their own collections. In other words: the same sources I have always consulted, people who are in it for the music.

September 12 | Unregistered Commentermike s

I feel EXACTLY the same way about Pandora! I'm starting to think it's only there for all the people who used to just listen to radio and not pay real attention to what they were listening to. I thought the potential to discover new and exciting music was there, but after listening a bunch of times I found that the well of new artist ran dry pretty quickly and I never new what parameters to set to try to encourage the finding of new music suggested to me by Pandora. The system still seems to favor the majors over the minors or even truly independent D.I.Y. musicians, so I stopped listening. I was getting more suggestions by musicians on majors that I didn't like than not. I also tried to submit my music to Pandora, but found their system and criteria too hard to do so. After never hearing back from Amazon about the info I needed from them to give to Pandora for consideration on their website, I gave up. The Amazon bit seems pretty lacking to me that they limit themselves in just such a way.

I use a website called gomusic.ru where the albums are cheap and they list day to day everything they've uploaded for download. I just take an hour out of my week, once a week, to scroll through and sample any and all music that I think that I might like and I find that I'm downloading WAY more music (and good music) that I wouldn't have discovered elsewhere. Relying on friends to discover music is subject to personal taste and relying on reviews is subject to power and influence of the majors, plus personal taste.

Free album download at http://www.facebook.com/chancius

September 12 | Unregistered CommenterChancius

Given Pandora's poor privacy record (Engadget/Wall Street Journal), their lousy, dated Flash user interface, and the fact that I can use Jango without ever entering a single piece of information (though I did, because I liked what I saw), I can't think of a single reason why I would want to use Pandora.

Also, on Jango, you can block an entire artist from a station. Canadians can use it, too!

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with any of the entities mentioned here.

September 12 | Unregistered CommenterGaridin

They are a private organization. Let them act as gatekeepers if that is their philosophy. Although if low quality work is getting through, then the gatekeeping needs to be improved.

- Versus

September 12 | Unregistered CommenterVersus

Michael-
You make some strong and interesting points, particularly about Pandora's music identification and filtering system. But I am a little confused about your basic premise. A curator is, inherently, a gatekeeper of sorts. A curator doing his or her job is combing through a large assortment of items and purposefully selecting a small number of them to present. And they are doing this based on their own independent knowledge and aesthetic taste, not by polling the crowd.

One thing I think that some musicians have a hard time understanding is that most listeners are not interested in having too many choices. Even listeners who want to hear new things by and large do not want to hear everything. The independent musician's dream of giving equal access to distribution to everyone is, frankly, the listener's nightmare. If this truly happened, if everyone who recorded an album were, say, given a place in Pandora's music storehouse, the ensuing chaos would be a disaster for most listeners.

If one then says okay, not everyone, just the good stuff, well, then you're back to how the "good stuff" is different for different people. And you're back to having to rely on some methodology for selection.

You may rightfully feel constrained and annoyed by the fact that "just" one Pandora employee may be the one who says yea or nay to a submitted album. But I on the other hand hold no stock in the collective opinion that results from "letting listeners decide." Geez, I've heard enough songs that make me jump out of my skin on top 40 radio to be very wary of crowd-sourcing musical taste. Personally, I'd rather it be one person. Ideally, one person with really well-informed taste. Maybe that's where the Pandora problem actually starts....

September 12 | Registered CommenterJeremy Schlosberg

Actually, I think Pandora has figured out that most of the music that the general public likes is pretty much interchangeable. Just pick some and put it up there.

It *is* arbitrary, because it's just not that hard to satisfy the average listener who just wants a beat, a vibe, to listen to in the background while they do something.

Musicians want there to be some sort of meritocracy where the "best" music wins. But in actuality, the average listener can't tell the difference. And Pandora doesn't sweat it.

Also, 70% of it is the total musician "package": their good looks, their attitude, how well they proclaim the ideas and concerns of the masses...30% is about the music. And 20% of THAT is the beat.

That's popular music today after 20 years of Clear Channel radio programming...

September 12 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Galen

Here is my major beef with Pandora. Pandora WILL NOT program your material if you don't sell a physical product on Amazon, so if you run an internet only label,you get no play on Pandora. It seems awfully strange to me that an "internet" radio station is going to demand you have physical product for sale. Isn't that kind of going against the entire reason of having your music downloadable,to save the costs of packaging and shipping? What Pandora has done is to restrict what you hear to the major labels and only the largest indies. I see no reason to revert to twentieth century technology just to get airplay on Pandora. The people at Pandora are just as bad as the MD's and PD's at corporate radio. I quit listening to Pandora when they told me don't even bother to send music for artists on my label if I don't produce physical product. They're just another shill for the major labels.

September 12 | Unregistered CommenterNURREDIN

Michael, I agree with you. I also wonder just how they arrive at what they think people want to hear. Sometimes I like to listen to Irish groups like the Saw Doctors (for example), and I set up a Saw Doctors channel, and every fourth song is from a similar-sounding group from the 50's or 60's, like the Clancy Brothers. Fine artists, but I want to hear things a tad more modern.

Thanks as always for your perspective.

September 12 | Unregistered CommenterMichael E

Right on the spot!
I think we can solve this non-innovative discovery by introducing to the listener both his familiar and loved music mixed with an equal number of similar tracks from new musicians.

You need to let the music fan choose - you have to expose him to more possibilities.

September 12 | Registered CommenterMike Daniels

Michael, Great Post!

I agree with you a %100 about Pandora.

I am a true believer in having people help you with discovery of new and old music, just like they were doing in record stores, bars and other music-related venues for years. That's why I LOVE social networks, and if you know how to harness the power of social networks, Twitter especially (as it is open), the serendipity it brings is amazing.

So instead of waiting for some algorithm to play my tunes, I rely on my friends and people I discover through the social networks. They, in turn, share the music they love and recommend from YouTube, Soundcloud, Bandcamp or other sources, and then all that is left to be done is curate all of this and create a playlist.

This is exactly why I started Serendip (http://serendip.me), which serves as not only a curator but also a match-maker between music lovers worldwide. Serendip creates a playlist for you based on what your friends share on the different social networks, but also introduces more people that share your musical taste for you to "listen to" (follow musically).

I think that whether you're sharing music with your followers, listening to music by people you follow, or just looking for great music to listen to - if you're active on the social networks (currently we support Twitter, in a few weeks Facebook), you will truly enjoy and appreciate Serendip.

If you (or anyone who's reading this) are interested in joining our private alpha, here's an invite code: http://bit.ly/SrndpFrnds.

Thanks again for your great insights!

September 13 | Unregistered CommenterSagee Ben-Zedeff

Totally agree, thanks for posting this! Pandora completely misses the point with the physical media requirement, and I have to agree that the very few indie artists they pick are not usually the most innovative, just the closest sounding to major label and have enough funding to print cd's for amazon. Plus to my ears pandora takes your main band and immediately picks 5-10 artists it feels are related then plays the crap out of them. I'm sorry, but the first band I enter for a rock station should not determine what every other band on that stream sounds like. It's a stupid concept and Pandora is not very enjoyable to listen to if you are true music lover.

I find Jango is better on-demand radio than Pandora for a few reasons:

The playlist generator does not stick in the same exacting subgenre but it seems to move through related but differing styles of music as you listen. You can also fine-tune your stations with about 5 controls plus adding or blocking any artists or songs you want. You can name and impart a bit of personality on your station also by tagging favorite songs as a 'heavy' rotation.

Also, every 10 songs or so Jango inserts an independent artist in every playlist, and these are everything from major indie labels to do it yourself stuff from the middle of nowhere. It's paid spins, yes, but being on-demand you aren't excluding anyone, and the prices are low (250 plays/month for $10). The tracking and feedback an artist gets from the indie spins is invaluable, and of course you have all the social networking and email gathering tools.

||ezraz@http://wfnk.com||

September 13 | Unregistered Commenterezraz

Have you tried Slacker Radio? They allow you to ban Dave Matthews Band (and Kings of Leon & Nickelback!) and adjust how "risky" you want your radio. Their radio stations have far deeper and more interesting selections. I don't care for personalized radio on Slacker, but the DJ created ones are great. I also like Pandora, but more for music I already know plus things like New Age and Classical Crossover plus extremely mainstream pop radio (hey, sometimes I am in the mood for that). They are terrible for rock music and singer/songwriter for the reasons you mentioned (either time worn songs or mediocre new artists). Slacker is superior. In addition to that, I still am influenced by mainstream magazines and some of the established music blogs. But most people aren't that into music, and Pandora will suffice for them. I still think it is a positive thing, because with all its flaws, Pandora brings far more music discovery (as random as it is) than FM radio ever will.

September 13 | Unregistered CommenterLynn S.

This is a great post! I agree with large parts of it, particularly Pandora's process for submitting/admitting music into their catalog. I've been pretty lucky with them and I think they have added everything I sent.

I do not hate Pandora, I think it is a great service. Its one I don't use, but that is because I simply don't interface with new music that way. I read an extensive list of review blogs, etc, and almost everything new I listen to comes from those sources.

I think what Pandora is doing is somewhat brilliant on one hand, but totally agree with all of your criticisms. Hopefully someone there reads this and takes it to heart.

September 13 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

Wow, you guys have a problem with a site that requires physical CDs posted on amazon, but you dont have a problem with a site like Jango who charges artists per spin?!?!?!?!?!!? I found the physical amazon requirement a little annoying too, but you can get a short run of CDs for 50 bucks, send one in to amazon (its super easy to do) and then sell the rest at your shows or give them away to family and friends. To me, pay to play is really lame, and Pandora offers artists a way to gain exposure based on their actual music and not people's opinions, the music genome is a really amazing project.....

September 13 | Unregistered CommenterWerdup

What separates Pandora from the competition (Lastfm, Jango, Spotify, etc.) is their exclusivity. If you don't like that they deny more music than they allow is fine, there are plenty of other servcies that let anyone in. Time will tell whether the public likes this higher level of scrutiny (I'm betting they will) or whether people move towards the anything goes music libraries of the competition.

September 13 | Unregistered CommenterJT

-Even traditional terrestrial radio has/had program directors and DJs that sift through submissions, usually based on tastes of the staff (before payola came into play)

-If you want a great way to discover new music that's carefully curated, try Earbits. I manage one of the channels there, and you wouldn't believe the amount of crap music that get submitted to us..it's out there in droves. If you want less selectivity, just pick a genre on Reverbnation, press play and good luck.

September 13 | Unregistered CommenterSum

I agree and adding my $0.02 ... I still listen to Pandora.. once a year. I leave it streaming in my living room at Christmas time, because its one thing during "the season" I don't have to think about. And On-demand music services are great because sometimes you just want what you want. In general though, I'm a radio person. Great music, brought to you by thoughtful DJs doing the curating for me letting me reap the rewards. I'm talking about good DJs, not overly corporate weenies, but knowledgable about the content and the rights to play what they know their audience wants to hear during a given time slot.

September 16 | Unregistered CommenterTia

I like Pandora. I am not one of those people who think that the more obscure a band is, the better they are. When I want to hear stuff I know and related stuff that I don't know; well, that's what Pandora is for and it works.

They told me to get lost too with my CD, which is very good but way out of fashion. So what. Normal people have mob tastes and I can't let that disturb me.

Alan

September 20 | Unregistered CommenterAlan

Sorry I'm late to the party, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Pandora HAS to filter, because it takes a highly trained individual about an hour to codify each submission:

http://www.pandora.com/corporate/mgp

While the Amazon requirement seems arbitrary, it's at least objective. It basically argues that a quality recording will have enough demand to justify a physical product. And it saves them countless hours of reviewing completely amateur product, and going back and forth with that large swath of hobbyists who have no idea how to even get their CD on Amazon yet think their music is better than "that crap on the radio."

Beyond that, yes, it's subjective. How could it not be? Every one of us here would probably make the same call on 80% of the music. It's that last 20% that we're complaining about - the stuff that's clearly good, but not quite good enough to the person making the call. But again, how could it be any different? Decisions have to be made, and art is subjective.

September 21 | Registered CommenterBrian Hazard

I agree mate, who are they to say what should be on there? I submitted a while ago, they refused to put it on. They don't like it, fair enough. But why refuse to put it on? The Fall are on there (who I like...) so it really can't be a production thing...
Oh well...
tonyalderman@me.com

Keep in touch mate, you sound like a kindred spirit...

Tony

It takes hours of work for a Pandora employee to dissect an album, so they have to be selective. Maybe they feel like their catalog is already overrepresented in your genre. Who knows?

It's been over a year since my comment, but it just so happens that my latest EP has been waiting in their queue for approval for months now. I'd rather at least get a thumbs up or down, than spend eternity in limbo! :)

October 14 | Registered CommenterBrian Hazard

As an artist they are not worth the trouble. You submit music to them and it takes up to 6 months to get a response. Then in most cased they will not approve your music and you get ZERO reasons why. They are gatekeepers of music because they decide what you can and can't listen to. The idea of a music curator is laughable. Jango is much better option both for listeners and for artists.

October 29 | Unregistered CommenterJamis Jones

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