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Pandora Listeners Get To Know Founder, Tim Westergren, On A Whole ‘Nother Level

jim-thumbing-songs-up-and-down-on-pandora.jpgOn December 6th, Tim Westergren the founder of Pandora came to Nashville for one of his “Town Hall Meetings” where he visits (very informally) with fellow Pandora users in different communities.

Jim wanted to go Soooooo bad. (He loves Pandora, and he has turned a lot of his friends onto it.) But he was out of town, so he “made” me go. I’m glad he did, cuz I had a blast!

The event took place at Bongo Java near Belmont. I’ve been there once before (for BlogNashville), but I never realized just how small that place is inside. (Wait til you see what happened when they tried to cram too many over-enthusiastic Pandora fans in the room upstairs!)



Do I Listen To Pandora?

Well, the truth of the matter is, I’m simply not an online music listener. Never have been.

So I never really took the time to play around with Pandora much before I went to this Town Hall meeting.

But I’ve seen Jim “thumbing up” and “thumbing down” songs enough to know the gist of Pandora though.

pandoras-tim-westergren-on-cover-of-inc-magazine2.gifIn fact, I first learned about Tim via Inc. magazine a few months ago. (He was on the cover.)

Read the Inc. mag article about Tim & Pandora here.

So I can tell you that I was genuinely interested in meeting the guy behind this great business model. I was looking forward to hearing about the ups & downs of the business, how Pandora started, how it works, and what’s in store for its future. I dig that stuff.

I mostly enjoy listening to fellow (young) entrepreneurs tell their stories describing how they managed to make a living out of doing something that they truly love.

And I certainly did not leave disappointed on this night!


Standing Room Only

tim-westergren-nashville-tennessee.jpgIn the picture from Tim’s recap of his time in Nashville… the first audience shot… I’m the 2nd from the right in the 2nd row (chatting with my friend, Tonya). And while that picture shows a packed house, it really doesn’t tell the whole story — because there were people crowded into all 4 corners of the room, as well. Plus, there were tons of people sitting all around and behind Tim… on the floor.

Not to mention the “standing room only” spots in the back by the door. It was definitely packed like a can of sardines when all was said & done — but worth it. I don’t think anyone was complaining.

I’m not sure, but I’d guess that there were well over 100 (maybe even 150) people there. Tim said he was so pleasantly surprised by the number who showed up on this night because the last time he had a Town Meeting in Nashville there were only 12 who attended! (That was May, 2006.)

I also thought it was funny when he said this:

I used to be in a band, and I don’t think we ever had this many people come to see us perform.


Questions Asked By Listeners & Answered By Tim On This Night

I wish I’d been taking notes, because there is so much that I learned about Pandora that I really wanted to share it with someone… like you all here. Or Jim, who couldn’t attend the event.

Following are some things that fascinated me about Pandora…

IMPORTANT: These are NOT direct quotes! They are my attempt to paraphrase what Tim said on this one night in Nashville.


Question: Is it more meaningful to thumb UP or thumb DOWN a song?

Answer (according to Tim, paraphrased): Thumbing down a song affects your future songs more than thumbing up does. Thumbing up means, “I like that song… give me more like it.” Thumbing down means, “I’m not so crazy about that particular song, please do a better job of fine-tuning my future songs by including fewer songs like that one.”


SAID ANOTHER WAY: Thumbing up widens the pool of songs that you will hear in your rotation, while thumbing down will narrow the pool of songs. Said another way: thumbing up “muddies the waters more” by increasing your song pool tremendously with every thumb up you give. But thumbing down helps to keep your songs more in line with only those you’re truly interested in.


Question: Does thumbing up or down a song affect someone else’s likelihood of hearing that song in any way?

Answer (paraphrased): No. It only affects future songs that you will (or will not) hear.


Question: What if I don’t thumb up or down a particular song… what does Pandora do with that song?

Answer (paraphrased): Nothing. Pandora keeps that song in the rotation and doesn’t add new songs based on that one, nor does Pandora fine-tune your list in any way based on that particular song during that particular session.


Question: When I thumb down a song by a particular artist, does that affect the likelihood of my hearing other songs by that same artist?

Answer (paraphrased): No. Not at all.


BONUS TIP: If you thumb a particular song down 3 times, you’ll never hear it again. That’s the limit on any song.

Tim-Westergren-accepting-cds-for-pandora.jpgQuestion: How does the music get into Pandora? How do you “get” new music?

Answer (paraphrased): A couple of ways… from people giving it to us (at which point half the audience reached into their bags and pulled out small stacks of CDs to hand to Tim; he graciously accepts them all)… from emails and questions we receive from Pandora listeners who tell us about the music they’d like to listen to in Pandora… and from stuff we just find on our own. We accept it all… homemade CDs, professional CDs, label, no label… it doesn’t matter.

Tim-Westergren-bongo-java-nashville.jpgQuestion: What can music producers and label people do to get their artists’ music in Pandora?

Answer paraphrased: Include Pandora in your normal list of recipients for new music. We listen to it all. Well, actually we only pick 3 songs from a CD to listen to. So if you have a preference for which tunes on a CD you think we should hear, be sure to mark them for us.

Question: Once songs have been selected for inclusion, what’s the next step?

Answer (paraphrased): Songs only get into the rotation and begin appearing on people’s computers after going through a series of screening & scoring procedures with paid employees who are specially trained to code things similarly. It’s all part of the amazing Music Genome Project. There are over 300 individual features & characteristics of a song that each song must be scored on before it will be released into the music database.


NOTE: I think he said something like 10 or 18% of all songs get reviewed a series of 3 times in order to ensure that people are still scoring songs similarly.


Question: Have you ever considered using computers to characterize all of the traits associated with a particular song, rather than having to pay all those people (about 50?) to manually code every song in the database?

Answer (paraphrased): Nope. It’s been proven many times over that computers simply cannot characterize songs as well as people can. There’s just something unique about the human ear that renders the computer’s methods useless.


Question: What if I want to give you permission to play my songs… And what about PodSafe, Creative Commons and other copyright free music… doesn’t that help Pandora avoid copyright fees?

Answer (paraphrased): No. The copyright fee is mandatory for all songs, and there’s no avoiding it. Even if you want to give us your stuff… for free & without obligation. Bummer. But we’re happy to play by the rules.


Question: Why doesn’t Pandora give you the option to replay, or even rewind a song, to hear part or all of it over again?

Answer (paraphrased): Because there’s a fine line between “on-demand” radio and “random play” radio. The minute you give the listener control over a song, that makes it non-random anymore and that means it’s “on demand” radio. That type of radio comes with a whole host of other fees and restrictions. And we simply cannot enter into that ballgame right now.


INTERESTING SIDENOTE: Tim asked: “Who would like to have the ability to rewind or replay part or all of a song?… Raise your hand.” Pretty much the entire audience did. Then he asked us to keep our hands raised… then asked this: “Now, how many of you would pay $10 a month for that?” All hands went down. He said that’s how much it would cost to offer something like that. (I think he said that’s how much Rhapsody pays for that feature.)


Question: Are you going to make Pandora available on cellphones?

Answer (paraphrased): Yes. Pandora is currently available through Sprint and on select and AT&T wireless phones. We are currently working with other cellphone providers, but I can’t say which ones. (As the crowded collectively begged for Verizon to be next.)


Question: Will Pandora ever be available wirelessly… for free?

Answer (paraphrased): Pandora is definitely in the direction of becoming the best free wireless radio available on the planet (…without user fees & restrictions, similar to satellite radio), but very few towns are completely wireless right now. Instead, most only have a good deal of “hotspots”.


Tim-Westergren-explaining-pandora-and-cellphones.jpg Tim-Westergren-explaining-pandora-and-wireless.jpg


Question: Do you add new genres of music, per se?

Answer (paraphrased): No we don’t. Yes, we just added classical music, but not because we were looking for another genre to add. Instead, it was because it was something the listeners were asking for… we simply didn’t have enough classical music in the rotation.


Question: How many people take advantage of Pandora’s subscription service?

Answer (after Tim about choked on his sip of water): No one. No, I mean really… hardly anyone. (For the record, the asker of this question said he proudly subscribes and he finds a lot of value in it.)


Question: How is the copyright ruling going?

Answer (paraphrased): Good. Real good. Pandora and all of the big online radio players are in discussions with “the powers that be” and I think we’re going to reach an agreement soon. Remember, we’re not saying we shouldn’t pay a fee. We’re just saying the fee we pay should be proportionate to fees paid by other broadcasters. Instead, the fee as it stands right now is such that it would put online radio out of business.


The answers to all of these questions (and more!) can be found in the Pandora FAQ.


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