Designing Media - Tim Westergren

This is the third interview in Chapter 2 in my new book, Designing Media

Tim Westergren, February 2009

In 2000 Tim Westergren founded Pandora, the personalized Internet radio service. Based on his Music Genome Project, Pandora selects songs and artists with similar musical qualities to a sample chosen by the listener and creates a “radio station just for you.” Pandora Internet Radio doesn’t seem like radio to me. It seems like a new medium because it offers a lot more personal choice and control than traditional broadcast radio. The tortuous path that Tim went through in order to arrive at this innovation fascinates me. He started as a performance musician, then composed music for film and television, and discovered that he could define a taxonomy of musicological attributes. Next he patiently developed the Music Genome, tried offering it as a recommendation engine, and at last realized that it could be used for creating and manipulating play-lists, something that might be called radio for the Internet. What a journey, and so rewarding to arrive!

Pandora playing on iPad and iPhone

As with Wikipedia and Craigslist, the secret ingredient is combining algorithms with human judgment. Pandora employs analysts who are trained to position each incoming piece of music on a genome of four hundred attributes, covering melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, instrumentation, vocal performance, vocal harmony, and even softer values like feel. Tim has a vision of two goals for Pandora. One is to build the world’s largest radio station, with hundreds of millions of people listening to personalized radio. The other is to build a musician’s middle class, so that musicians no longer need day jobs. The digital revolution has made it possible for musicians to create music with heavy orchestration, layering, and multiple tracks. The tools to make music are there, but it is still difficult to find an audience. Collaborative filtering, as practiced so effectively by Amazon and iTunes, does nothing to solve the problem for unknown musicians since it works on the “people who like … also like …” model. The Music Genome Project solves this dilemma by analyzing the attributes of each piece, so that music can be matched to preference without previous exposure.

Aimee Mann

Tim describes the inspiration that started him down the path towards the Music Genome Project: There was a moment when the idea of the genome came to me. I was reading an article about a musician named Aimee Mann. She was a talented artist who had a reasonably sized following but not large enough to warrant investment from a big record label, so she was sort of stuck in this no-man’s-land. . . I immediately thought, “Wow, if I could take this process that I’ve developed to profile music taste, apply it to her music, and use that to make people aware of a record she was going to make, it could solve the problem that she was having.” I had also spent many years among independent artists, so I’d seen a sea of incredibly talented musicians [who] were essentially invisible because they had no access to a big audience. You name the art form— it’s feast or famine. And so I was amply aware of all this great talent that was one decent promotional tool away from a great audience of patrons. Those ideas all came together as I was reading this article, and the idea of the taxonomy for the genome popped into my head. Tim had never written down a structure for his analysis. He would play CDs to film directors to get their reaction. As they gave him their thumbs-up or thumbs-down, he would interpret their responses over the course of the interview, like the musical equivalent of a Myers-Briggs test. After his inspiration from the article about Aimee Mann, he sat down to record it in writing and it just came pouring out since the information was already in his head.