Pandora and Internet Radio

On August 16, 2008, the Washington Post ran the news story, “Giant of Internet Radio Nears Its ‘Last Stand’,” referring to  Pandora is a standout Internet site that allows users to create custom Internet radio stations based on their favorite songs and artists.  It’s a unique way to discover undiscovered music showcasing technology that gets about a million daily listeners.  The Post quotes Pandora’s founder Tim Westergren, “We’re approaching a pull-the-plug kind of decision.  This is like a last stand for webcasting.”

The problem is one of paying royalties.  Right now there are a number of technologies that broadcast music:  traditional radio, satellite radio, cable TV radio and Internet radio.  Oddly, they each pay different rates to play music, and it looks like the music industry wants Internet radio to pay the most.  If this happens many sites will shut down.  Pandora has yet to make money but anticipated to go into the black in 2009 if the rates were not increased.

There are many articles about the death knell of Internet radio showing up now, with the implication that if the rates these sites have to pay goes up they will close their doors.  I think other things might happen.  Why give up on a new business model so quickly?  Pandora is actually a superior way to listen to random music – it’s superior because it’s less random but still random.

There are two way to listen to music.  You think of a song you want to hear and you play it, or you turn on a broadcasting system to play music for you.  The first method usually involves owning the song, but subscription music is a variation of that.  The second method, random listening, involves finding a source that’s close to your musical mood.  In the old days, a city might have a dozen radio stations and you picked one to play, or if you were in your car, you programmed your five radio buttons and jumped between them.  Satellite music offers more variety by giving you more stations to choose from.  Internet radio ups the variety factor further.

Pandora let’s you pick a seed song and then Pandora plays songs their Music Genome Project software thinks will match your taste.  You can click thumbs up or thumbs down on their picks to help the software zero in on what you like.  It works exceedingly well, but it’s still random music, or broadcast music.

Now I want musicians and music producers to get all the money they can, but I don’t want them to unfairly charge one random music technology more than another, and that appears to be a key issue with Pandora and other Internet radio sites.  Another random site I like is Playa Cofi Jukebox, which allows you to seed your mood by picking a year and it broadcasts random songs that came out in that year.  That’s another triumph of technology in my book.  I want these sites to succeed.

Pandora is thinking of ways to improve its ad revenue and that’s good, but I think they should think of other ways to generate revenue.  I pay for cable TV and a DVR so I see less television ads.  I would be willing to pay a fee to Pandora to not hear ads.  They should run ads, but allow users who want to pay not to listen to them.  Another possibility is to merge with a subscription service like Rhapsody or Napster and be an extra selling point for those companies.  Rhapsody has random radio stations for when I don’t want to pick my songs, but it would be even better if they had the Music Genome Project technology.

I have come to see great value in random music because of shuffle play of my MP3s.  I can even add Music Genome Project like tech to my own MP3 library with MusicIP software.  But Pandora beats my collection of 17,081 songs by light years.  And I can play it on my iPod touch.  I really do not want to see Pandora and other Internet radio stations go out of business.

Another option, rather than increasing royalty rates, could require Pandora to provide links to songs that take users to sites selling the song.  Sites that would also provide a commission to Pandora.  Pandora could offer a variety of online music stores and users could check box their favorite when they register.  Increased sales should offer better revenue than broadcast royalties.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not wanting free music.  I believe free is bad.  I want the music industry to make their money and I want Pandora to make money and I’m willing to either listen to ads or pay a subscription to get what I want.  It will be a shame if the industry that collects royalties forces these new sources of random music out of business.  I don’t listen to traditional radio anymore.  I’m not interested in satellite radio.  I have cable TV radio but I don’t use it.  I’m an Internet person.  Why should random music businesses pay more per song for customers like me than the other businesses pay for their customers?


If you read the Slashdot thread listed below one reader posts the suggestion that Internet radio should just stop using songs that require royalties.  That’s an interesting idea, but I think ultimately it’s a bad idea.  Free is not good.  If this idea succeeded it would kill off a whole industry and destroy legions of jobs.  If the writer’s purpose is to promote new artists and bands, it would be better to use Pandora and help these new musicians gain an economic footing, rather than turn the music industry into all amateurs.  The Music Genome Project would work just as well with unknown artists.

The real virtue of Pandora is when it plays a song for you that you’ve never heard but you love it so much that you buy it.

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Music Lovers Nirvana

I don’t know why all my music loving friends aren’t subscribers to Rhapsody Music.  This morning I picked up the 8/8/8 edition of Entertainment Weekly and read the five reviews of new albums in their Music Review section.  I then logged into Rhapsody and played each of those albums.  Rhapsody had five for five.  I can listen to these albums anytime I want and it’s completely legal and all I pay is $119 a year for the service.  The albums were:

  • Conor Oberst by Conor Oberst
  • Fragile Future by Hawthorne Heights
  • Lessons in Love by Lloyd
  • Harps and Angels by Randy Newman
  • Scars on Broadway by Scars on Broadway

Just to see how good Rhapsody is I grabbed the latest issue, and found six more reviews.  Rhapsody had five of the six – missing out on Ra Ra Riot’s The Rhumb Line, but they had their EP, so that one might show up soon.

If I was paying by the song like most people, I would have already racked up $40 worth of songs this morning.  And these are five albums I never would have bought if I had been flipping through CDs at a record store.  And there have been tons of albums I’ve bought that I’ve liked much less than these albums.  So far I like Hawthorne Heights and Conor Oberst best.  I’m going through these online albums looking for standout songs – songs I will want to come back and listen to again.

That’s one of Rhapsody’s weaknesses – you have access to so much music that it’s overwhelming.  I wished they had some kind of system to help me remember all these new artists.  If they had a little scale that showed up while each song was playing I could rate them:  _Forgettable _Good _Great _Fantastic, it would be easy to track them down later.

Rhapsody is better at providing new music than it is old music.  I just got Rolling Stone: Cover to Cover 1967-2007 on DVD, complete digital editions of the magazines, over a thousand issues.  I started with the first issue looking for albums that I’ve never heard of and never remembered at all.  Rhapsody is not the place to find them.  Back then albums came out on LPs, and most of them never got reprinted as CDs, much less brought forward to the digital age.  However, if an old album is re-mastered on CD and sold today there’s a good chance it will show up on Rhapsody.

I show Rhapsody to my friends, and I write about it every so often, but I know damn few people who use the service.  It’s amazing that such a great deal is ignored.  I know young people prefer to steal their music, but Rhapsody is so cheap I can’t believe more kids don’t want to be legal.

The real drawback of Rhapsody is it doesn’t play on iPods.  And for some reason Steve Jobs doesn’t want Apple to get into the subscription music business.  I don’t put music on my iPod, but I do play music on my iPod touch through the Pandora app.  Pandora is free, but random.  I imagine that if I played Pandora long enough I’d eventually hear everything I can get on Rhapsody.  I can’t believe Pandora isn’t more famous too.  It’s a marvelous invention allowing Internet listeners build their own radio stations by starting each with a seed song and rating subsequent songs selected by Pandora.

Pandora’s Music Genome Project is technology designed to analyze what you like and give you more of it.  I have a jazz station started with “Blue Rondo A Lo Turk” and a Dylanesque station seeded with “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and a 60s San Francisco sound station seeded with Quicksilver Messenger Service and a new alternative station started with Broken Social Scene.  Pandora is a FANTASTIC system for discovering new tunes to love.  Right now it’s playing David Bromberg’s live “Mr. Bojangles” on my Bryds station – now that’s a wonderful blast from the past.

And then there’s – free on demand music.  I checked, and the David Bromberg song is there to play for free.  Also, I check and three of the five albums from Entertainment Weekly mentioned above are available to play for free (Fragile Future, Scars on Broadway and Harps and Angels).

How can the music industry offer all this free music?  Why does anyone buy songs?  I don’t know.  Over at Fantasy & Science Fiction, Gordon Van Gelder is asking the same questions about free short stories on the web.  Maybe I’m out of touch because I actually pay for Rhapsody music and buy magazines with short stories.  Will I be buying next year or the year after that?

There is no reason to buy music or short stories any more, not if you don’t want to, because there’s a wealth of great free material on the web.  How is that going to change things?  My wife and I paid $39 each to sit in the cheap seats at an outdoor Crosby, Stills and Nash concert a couple weeks ago.  That’s more money than I ever spent on their LPs.  We saw Jewel at the same place and prices, but that’s the two concerts I’ll go to this year.  Susie also went to Dave Matthews and plans to see a couple more concerts.  Can the music industry survive off of such sporadic support?

This is a great age for music lovers, but what kind of age is it for music creators?