Finding new music today is a lot easier than it used to be. And finding recommendations for new music is much easier as well, literally thousands of blogs and `zines offering their own taste of what’s worth hearing (and we’re one of `em). But there’s one source that’s more reliable than any other when it comes to seeking out new music: your own ears. Clearly, hearing an album first is far more preferable to purchasing one deafly. With the increasing number of labels and artists freely offering mp3s on their websites, not to mention streaming on MySpace, it’s also much easier to do that. But when it comes to older music, sometimes obscure, sometimes major label distributed (oftentimes which don’t offer free sound files), or stuff you didn’t know you wanted to hear, where does one look?
Well, there are always archives of record reviews like the one you’re reading right now. And there are recommendations from your friends. But given the advancement of technology today, sometimes a computer can do it for you. Last.fm is one way to go about it, a social networking site formed around music, which charts listener activity and custom tailors a radio station for listeners who enter an artist whose music they enjoy, and it finds similar bands to add into rotation.
The most curious and fascinating of all options, however, is Pandora, part of something called the Music Genome Project. The idea was for the project’s participants to listen to music from thousands of artists to to find actual similarities within artists’ sounds rather than merely lumping them into genres based on surface ideals, logging them and connecting them into a giant web of musical connective tissue. Pandora takes into account everything ranging from arrangement to instrumentation to melody, identifying each song by its varied characteristics and creating links from song to song, and basing recommendations on those characteristics. The user simply types in the name of an artist or song that he wants to base recommendations off of, and Pandora goes from there.
Pandora has been around for a few years, and many readers by now will be familiar with the site, and certainly some will have experimented with it in the past. We at Treble have checked it out and attempted to find some interesting progressions, but often had bad luck in the process. The thing about Pandora is, even with these musical connections, it requires user input to become refined to that specific taste. It will play songs that you won’t like all that much, and it will play songs you will love, but it’s up to you to say something about it in either scenario, telling what to play and what not to play.
Having put it aside for a few months, I was inspired to try a little experiment with Pandora, to see how well and how acutely it could make recommendations, particularly to someone who listens to more music than, well, most people. So I came up with three scenarios in which to try Pandora’s accuracy. The results are as follows…
A Modest Proposal
To begin my Pandora recommendation experiment, I thought it best to choose an artist that was reasonably well-known, to gauge how well it might apply to those who might not be as well versed in music not played on commercial radio. I initially thought Radiohead, but something told me all of my recommendations would be bands like Elbow, Coldplay and Snow Patrol, and maybe Aphex Twin. So I went with Modest Mouse instead, a band that exemplifies a good, but fairly recognizable and simple indie rock sound. Curiously, instead of beginning with a song like “Paper Thin Walls” or “Float On,” Pandora goes with “All Nite Diner” from their singles and rarities compilation, Building Nothing Out of Something. Clearly satisfied, since that’s the artist I chose for the basis of this musical journey, I click the thumbs up icon, telling Pandora to play more songs like it.
Track two comes up—”Four Story Tantrum” by The Velvet Teen. It’s not a bad song, just a little boring and, well, too emo. Not really enthused or disgusted, I let the track play through without giving any feedback. By track three, The Strokes’ “Razorblade,” clearly things need to start going in a new direction. I click thumbs down, asking the digital DJ not to play it again. With a polite “We’re sorry about that,” they move on to the next track, Spike Priggen’s “When You Looked at Me.” I get a little bored, and tell Pandora not to play it for a month. So what comes next? “Always Be” by Jeffrey Gaines. Again, boring and getting way too conservative for my tastes. Thumbs down.
All of a sudden, I’ve been handed MOR singer-songwriter radio, and I’m left wondering how all of these artists were recommended based on Modest Mouse. Up next is Mike Holden’s “Help Me Sleep,” a pleasant but sleepy ballad that isn’t bad, but doesn’t necessarily excite me. I skip to the next track, in hopes that I get something more suitable to my expectations. Hayden’s “Home by Saturday” comes up, finally offering an artist I enjoy and am somewhat familiar with. Now, the point is to find new artists, I realize, and hearing an artist I already listen to isn’t accomplishing that. But at least we’re on the right track, musically speaking. I offer my thumbs up in victory.
Next up is John Hiatt’s “Love’s Not Where We Thought We Left It.” Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad song by any means, but I still fail to see the connection between it and Modest Mouse. Mid-tempo rock is not a specific enough link for any two artists to share, and I begin to lose patience in my ability to find something of a similar sound. And we end with “Max My Dog” by JJ Schultz. Modest Mouse apparently led me to singer songwriters and folk. Somehow I expected Pavement. So this one didn’t fare as well as I thought.
For experiment two, I choose an artist with a far more specialized sound, one that more serious listeners might choose, but not a more casual listener. This second round will attempt to find a satisfactory series of recommendations for someone with a broader palate and larger pool of knowledge, musically. I choose Broadcast, a band that I hold in high esteem, and whose music hasn’t spread to the mainstream level that Modest Mouse’s has. Pandora begins with a noisier instrumental, “One Hour Empire” from The Future Crayon. So far so good; thumbs up. Next in line is New Buffalo’s “While You’re Away,” a pretty, catchy tune from the sole Australian artist on the Arts & Crafts label. Works for me; thumbs up again. A pleasant surprise comes in the third track, “Crash” by Ultra Vivid Scene. It comes a surprise mainly for the reason that it’s an artist I’m not already that familiar with, and I dig it, thus making this experiment already somewhat successful at a very early stage.
Things take an odd turn with track four, Kitty Hawk’s cover of The Thompson Twins’ “If You Were Here.” It’s not bad, really, but it’s a cover, which makes the artist a little bit harder to rate in terms of what one might be seeking. Broadcast comes up again, this time with the dreamy “Tears in the Typing Pool” from Tender Buttons. No arguments here, and I give another thumbs up. After all, it is a beautiful track. However, it does seem a little early for them to be popping up again.
Slumber Party’s “Electric Ocean” comes next, a dreamy electro-pop track from Detroit’s Kill Rock Stars-signed lo-fi divas. It’s not bad, and yet again, I’ve found something fairly new to my ears. It’s not exactly what I was looking for, but I’ll take it. Next comes Dubstar, a band that has faded into obscurity since releasing their debut Goodbye and its one hit, “Stars.” I, personally, love this band and still enjoy the album some ten years later. Thus, it receives a thumbs up, and for their effort in digging, I give them some props for pulling out a band that hasn’t received any attention for quite some time. More obscurity emerges with Mellow’s “Shinda Shima.” I’m not all that impressed, so I merely skip forward. Next comes Thievery Corporation’s “Hope,” a standard track for late night KCRW programming and W Hotel deejays. It’s nice enough, but I’m curious what comes next. I skip forward, I’m given DJ Icey’s “At Night.” Um…no. Thumbs down. Amerigo’s “No. 5” comes next, a psychedelic freakout with lots of distortion and Floyd-isms. From there I’m treated to jazz-blues guitarist Ronnie Earl, who, incidentally, had a band called The Broadcasters. Ah, understandable, but we’ve still got our wires crossed, and we must move on. And oddly enough, what comes next is The Kaiser Chiefs’ “Moon.” A little more atmospheric than their usual thing, I can understand how this came up, but I wouldn’t consider the Chiefs an artist similar to Broadcast. In any case, this experiment was far more successful than the first, suggesting that, with the proper artist as a guideline, Pandora can provide better recommendations, though not without a hiccup.
Animal, Vegetable or Mineral
For my final attempt, I wanted to use an artist whose sound would be one without many peers. As someone who listens to music all day and enjoys finding new and unusual sounds, I become excited at the prospect of finding artists in a similar vein. So for experiment three, I chose a unique artist, one who initially provided a challenge when we needed to come up with “Similar Albums” for one of their albums—Animal Collective. To start us off, Pandora plays “It’s You,” from AC’s EP collaboration with Vashti Bunyan, Prospect Hummer. By now, it should be painfully obvious that the artist you choose is one whose sound you want to hear more of, so I give a thumbs up to guide my robotic host along. The first artist of a “Similar” sound that Pandora offers is Los Halos, who have a folky, acoustic sound, but don’t really touch upon Animal Collective’s weirdness. Up next is Madeline Adams, a catchy song, but still not quite right. Track four: Nedelle’s “Blundering Blood.” Still pretty straightforward, but I like Nedelle, and we’re starting to get somewhere. What comes next could prove to be more interesting.
Much like the Broadcast playlist, Animal Collective comes up again early, their “Tell It On The Mountain” appearing as the fifth track. This one’s a little weirder, which gives me hope for more obscure selections around the corner. I offer my thumbs up and my optimism grows. However, instead of experimental folk, Pandora gives me psych-rock, namely Vietnam’s “Was It Long Ago?” I don’t particularly care for it, so I move on to Jana McCall’s “Slumber,” which is a little closer to what I’m looking for, but still a little too normal. Bain Mattox, a less than spectacular alt-rock artist comes next and I’m instantly reaching for the thumbs down button.
Pandora does a little better with their next selection, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Sunless,” so I give kudos, despite a leap toward a different style. After that, more Animal Collective again. I fear that Pandora is running out of artists in this cycle, and I give it one more chance to recommend a track of interest. Perhaps sensing my impatience, Pandora queues up Haino Keiji and Yoshida Tatsuya’s “Chinatown,” an improvisational, spastic, weird-assed track that would turn off a lot of what might be called “passive music listeners.” But I’m stoked that Pandora moved away from MOR alt-pop. Thumbs up, indeed. After that I get Wooden Wand, another success, and then Marissa Nadler, a little less weird but still pretty nice. All in all, with the right tweaks, eventually this program started to give me something I could use.
After my three experiments were up, I went back to the initial playlists, just for fun, and got some recommendations that made sense (Yo La Tengo) and some harshly WTF moments (Hannah Montana???). Pandora is not perfect, and in fact, is not meant to be psychic. Because it is a programmed, automated mechanism, it can only do what it is programmed to do. In order for it to work properly, it requires guidance, not unlike an Amazon recommendations list. Given that each station is tailored to the listener, it’s unlikely to be a flawless playlist from the get-go. It requires patience, and quite a bit of it, which some don’t have when they want new and interesting music instantly. However, given that right amount of patience, you never know how many interesting surprises Pandora might throw your way.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.