When you Google the words, "I hate Pandora," you get more than 100,000 web pages full of invective, snark and venom, the kind usually reserved for extremist politicians or Wall Street crooks. In a way, Pandora is a victim of its own success. The Internet radio company, which is based in Oakland, has 75 million active listeners. Almost nine percent of America's radio audience and about 70 percent of Internet radio audiences pick Pandora as their radio of choice. When you have that kind of market share (hello, Facebook), people will hate you for having that kind of market share.
Similar to Facebook, Pandora is in the business of sharing, discovering -- and passing judgment. Like a song you hear? Give it a thumbs up. Hate the song? Give it a thumbs down and share it with your followers. While the gesture can be traced back to the early days of the Roman empire, thumbing has a long tradition in the arts. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel trademarked the phrase "two thumbs up" and became role models for modern film critique. Reducing a song to a simple finger direction (depending on the finger) is -- to music purists -- a heretical act. You'll never see The New Yorker resorting to reductive symbols like thumbs or stars. Pandora's thumbs not only pinpoint a listener's tastes, they pinpoint a listener's political leanings. Pandora is now selling political ads based on listeners' music preferences and zip codes. If a listener has thumbed up, say, "Give Peace a Chance" and other John Lennon songs, and registered a zip code that indicates a neighborhood with a liberal voting record, then that listener can expect to get "Hillary for President" ads in the coming campaign.
Oh, yeah -- the ads. That's how Pandora makes much of its millions. Listening is free, but the stream of songs is interrupted by commercials that try to cajole you into buying cars, vacations, medical help -- you name it. Anti-Pandorans complain about the number of ads, kvetch about listeners' limited ability to skip songs, and whine about a playlist they consider too constrained (even though it has access to nearly 1 million potential songs). Then there's the perception that Pandora is just another Wall Street company that tries to maximize profits by crimping on the money it gives suppliers (in this case musicians). Pandora's shares are trading above $30, double their 2011 IPO price of $16. Pandora's founders are multi-millionaires. On paper, they're rolling in money. Songwriters who supply Pandora's playlist? Well, last year, David Lowery, the singer-songwriter of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven (a group he started at UC Santa Cruz), caused a stir when he displayed a royalty statement showing Pandora played his tune "Low" 1.1 million times, yet paid him a songwriting royalty of just $16.89. Lowery was protesting Pandora's campaign to reduce the money it pays artists through the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), one of the country's biggest music rights organizations. ASCAP wants Pandora to pay more than it pays now. Pandora wants to pay less. Earlier this month, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that Pandora can continue to fork over the same amount: 1.85 percent of its overall revenue. Last year, Pandora took in almost $650 million, and paid ASCAP some $11 million.
Pandora's main public face, co-founder Tim Westergren -- a Stanford graduate who was trained as a jazz musician, and worked in the music industry for 20 years doing everything from audio engineering to film scoring --
has said some artists make more than $100,000 from Pandora. And Pandora is open to music from new artists, who can submit their songs for Pandora to play. An example of someone who found a home on Pandora after sending in music: hip-hop artist Ronald Jenkees.
"He's an instrumental hip-hop producer, and if you like instrumental beat music, he's got great music," Michael Addicott, Pandora's manager of curation, tells me in a phone interview. "He's underground and relatively unknown, but you'll likely hear songs from more famous hip-hop producers on his station, such as instrumental cuts from
Addicott, the former music director for the Golden State Warriors and San Francisco Giants who has played in Bay Area clubs as DJ ADD1, is an advocate of Pandora's Music Genome Project, which spawned an algorithm that acts as a know-it-all curator. Give Pandora a single song you like, any song, and it will create a station for you with songs that are similar in melody, harmony, and other key components. So, putting in Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" will lead to Smokey Robinson's "The Tears of a Clown" and Aretha Franklin's "Day Dreaming" and a string of other like-minded tunes -- many recognizable, others completely new -- that you can either accept or reject completely. The Music Genome Project is based, Pandora says, on "the most comprehensive analysis of music ever undertaken." The Music Genome Project had music experts study thousands of songs for their musical DNA, then created an algorithm that makes it easy to link the Beatles to the Bee Gees to The Brothers Johnson.
Pandora isn't perfect. For months, I've been listening to a Pandora radio station anchored around "Mas Que Nada," a song popularized by Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66. It's a Bossa Nova staple with Portuguese lyrics that has connected me with a great mix of related songs, especially those of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Celso Fonseca, Elis Regina, Astrud Gilberto, Joao Gilberto, Nara Leao, Gal Costa, and Carmen Cuesta (all Brazilians in the Bossa Nova tradition); Dexter Gordon, John Hicks and Wes Montgomery (African-American artists who interpreted Bossa Nova in incredible ways); and Kings of Convenience, Nouvelle Vague, Smokey & Miho and Kat Edmonson (artists whose unique sounds somehow intersect, however obliquely, with Bossa Nova). Thank you, Pandora, for reminding me that
Wes Montgomery was one of this country's most innovative jazz guitarists. And thank you Pandora for turning me on to Elis Regina, whose versions of Bossa Nova standards are without parallel. On the other hand, my "Mas Que Nada" Pandora radio station will suggest some truly awful soul from the 1960s (I won't name names), and it will assume I speak Spanish, even though Bossa Nova is from Brazil, showering me with ads like the one for a new car that shouts, "El audaz, versatil y totalmente." No thank you. I don't speak Spanish. And I'm not planning to buy a new car. When those ads come on, I simply lower the sound and otherwise ignore them. So, I've learned how to pretend my radio is ad-free without having to pay Pandora's monthly charges for no interruptions. And I've learned to accept Pandora's imperfections, the same way that I've learned to accept my own and those of loved ones.
And here's the thing: People who dislike Pandora don't have to listen to it. They can choose another free Internet music service, like Spotify, or iTunes radio, which launched last year as a competitor. Or they can listen to (gasp!) a traditional radio station's online music. In fact, there are more musical options than ever before. The music is out there, waiting to be discovered anew. That's what's so exciting about Internet music radio. Any time of the day or night, you can put your ear to African music or classical or jazz or any other genre. You can take musical leaps of faith and land in geographies far and wide. You, the listener, are in charge. Pandora gets something in return. It gets your information that it can then try to sell to advertisers. Good luck with that. Seriously. I want Pandora to last. It wants to, too. It says rights fees could become prohibitively expensive for it to survive. C'est la vie. That's what I'd say if Pandora were to disappear. Then I'd listen to the song "C'est la Vie" by the Algerian singer Khaled. It's a cool, fun song that will always live on the Internet, whether it's on Pandora or another web site that offers what listeners want to hear -- or what listeners think they want to hear. On the Internet, devotion and loyalty are fickle things. The next big thing is always out there, just waiting to be discovered one fine day.