Why I like (non-commercial) radio and not Pandora

Posted on 2011-06-20 20:50

Pandora certainly aren't the only folks to offer a streaming music recommendation service on the web (I had accounts on reverbnation and last.fm for awhile myself) but services like this generate lists of music programmatically in some way, either by simply sorting on the "genre" tag on the music files themselves, through a simple popularity contest of music fans who are willing to offer up their personal likes and dislikes, or by reducing the music to its mathematical and acoustical components and attempting to string pieces together that are similar in tone, beat, or some other measurable parameters. Pandora is a sort of hybrid of these these methods. When I used them, last.fm and reverbnation were social media services based on feedback and suggestions (only?), and besides the creep factor that my every listen (and like and dislike) was being recorded by someone they were OK, but never as good as the recommendations I got from my music loving friends.

Pandora IPO'd this year and as of June 15 can be found on the NYSE as ticker "P". I know a lot of people who use Pandora (the free version) and I can see how they've managed to monetize your every action on the service from making it just annoying enough to use without paying for it (can't skip more than a certain number of songs on the free account) to having the option to buy songs and albums just a click away (like iTunes). An article on seekingalpha written shortly after the IPO compares Pandora to Sirius (ticker "SIRI") radio and states that a Pandora channel "cycles through about 30 songs" and suggests that "only big name record labels get airplay" and that "any serious music fan isn't going to discover any new music with Pandora". Pandora is like on-demand commercial radio unless you subscribe which is the only way you can really compare the two since Sirius is subscription radio, but of course - the two services are not equally priced, Pandora is much cheaper. The question then becomes about Pandora's catalog - is it as big as Sirius? Pandora claims they have "800,000 unique analyzed" songs which isn't all that impressive when you consider that Apple's iTunes Store (which has been criticized for having too little offerings in the past) has over 14 million. I couldn't find a "catalog" of titles for Sirius, but since its radio and not a music purchase service I imagine it is unlimited.

It seems unfair to compare Pandora with Sirius at all since Sirius is radio in the true sense of the word. There are humans running the programming of the various shows while Pandora doesn't have to employ humans for that job at all. I don't have a Sirius account (too expensive), but instead listen to non-commercial radio fairly often. Since I happen to be able to receive a great number of fantastic radio stations where I live over the air this works out for me pretty well - there's always something on thats good - but if I didn't, and when I can't receive a station I want to hear well I stream them over the internet. Almost every radio station is streaming over the web these days (just look for a link on their homepage) and supporting your local non-commercial radio station can be as cheap as Pandora or as expensive as Sirius since you only pay what you think its worth as a charitable donation.

Pandora's automated recommendation service is just not as good a method for discovering new music, in my opinion, as having a few very involved and dedicated individuals interested in a subject providing guidance or taking the listener on a guided acoustic journey. I mean only that what is played on the non-commercial radio stations I listen to is programmed by folks with deeper insight and knowledge than I have in any given genre so they can provide context and backstory (including usually interesting anecdotes) as they queue up and segue each tune. They can select music that is connected in some deeper, more subtle, interesting, or at least more human way than a last.fm or Pandora can hope to do. I love listening to someone who has a deep love for and knowledge about the music they are presenting describe the history and influences involved in the creation of the pieces they play. Pandora and their ilk reduce music to a commodity - an endless stream of similar sounding songs lacking in context and suspiciously of the payola variety.