February 4, 2011

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I want to be very clear here: I love Pandora, the free Internet radio service (as opposed to Pandora, that overpriced create-your-own jewelry line, which I do not love). Having stated my love for Pandora, I will now go on to complain about it for several paragraphs (but not this next one).

The reason I love Pandora is straightforward: It makes it easier and faster for me to hear good (as defined by me) music. I can listen to Pandora for hours in my car, with few commercial interruptions. I can put it on at home (we have Sonos, which I also love) when guests are arriving, and I don’t have to think about music again for the rest of the night; and, if things start out mellow but then get more upbeat, I can just quickly change the station. And back before we were buried under yards of snow, when I used to run/walk a few miles most mornings, I could crank the Kanye West or even Rihanna to get myself moving. All easy, all free.

But lately I’ve noticed a couple of flaws in the system. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Pandora — as far as I’m concerned, it totally delivers on its promise. The issues I’m having are bigger than Pandora, more about how the way we listen to music is changing.

For example, the experience of listening to an entire album has been, for the most part, lost. With iTunes and MP3 players and iPod shuffle, we’ve been headed the way of the single for a long time. I can’t remember the last album (do we still use that word? LP?) I listened to from start to finish (not that I would have time to do this anymore, but still). Here’s the example that just popped into my head: A Tribe Called Quest’s “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.” Even the title gives you a clue as to how the songs form a journey with a beginning, middle and end.

Obviously, the whole premise of Pandora is based on analyzing each piece of music (Music Genome Project) as it stands alone. But, the classification system sometimes does too good of a job of finding similar music. While I often appreciate that Arcade Fire leads to Iron and Wine, which leads to Andrew Bird and Belle and Sebastian and the Nationals and so on, I find myself wishing something totally unexpected would pop up.

It’s like when you’re listening to an exceptional college radio station and a skillful DJ will throw out a crazy mix of music, jumping from reggae to indie to rap to alt.folk in a way that makes perfect sense. (This can also be infuriating about college stations — just when you are really getting into the mix a new DJ comes in to play “all Frank Sinatra!” or “all a capella!”)

Musical nirvana can also be achieved with the very best of mix CDs or, in rare cases, the Quickmix option on Pandora, or the “shuffle” mode on your iPod. More frequently, though, these options lead to some bad situations, like the Violent Femmes followed by, say Laurie Berkner. Not good. (Note to self: Delete Laurie Berkner!)

I’ve also noticed that Pandora does not seem to do much cross-decade programming — to be fair, neither does traditional radio. I mean, do kids today even know that all their favorite alternative-rock-or-whatever-it’s-called bands are a derivation of 80s bands like Bauhaus, Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, The Church?

I guess what I’m saying is, I love Pandora — except when I don’t. And despite the amazing scope of the Music Genome Project, there is still something to be said for having an actual person — a friend, DJ, or even a couple of strangers talking on the train — help choose your music.

Consider this metaphor: Say there was a Pandora-like program for visual art, which categorized millions of pieces of art and then presented you with art that was based on what you said you like. If you said that you liked Kandinsky, you’d be presented with other Russian artists from the early 1900s, and other artists who use bold color and images, some abstract landscapes, and so on. But it is very unlikely that you’d be presented with a contemporary video artist or an African folk artist, and in that way, your choices have been greatly diminished.

So, I will continue to listen to and love Pandora and I hope you will, too. But keep sharing your recommendations, so we don’t fall into the trap of letting technology tell us what we like. As anyone who’s used an online dating service knows, just because you are “matched,” doesn’t mean you are a match.

I’m off to create some new stations. Suggestions? I’d love to hear what you are listening to, and how you listen to it. By the way, here’s a link to one of the most fun musical line-ups I’ve recently experienced, NPR and All Songs Considered’s Best Songs of 2010.

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