(james benedict brown) on the road

Opening a Pandora’s box

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 9 August, 2006

It is fallacy to suggest that the internet will kill the music industry. It may kill the way that we acquire, store and listen to music as we know it, but it will not kill it completely. Such a sweeping statement underestimates the capability of our culture to evolve and change. This weekend I got round to trying out two new channels that pump music into my home through the wonders of the internet. The first is Pandora, the most notable fruit of the Music Genome Project, which has been running for more than six years now. In the words of the team behind the project:

Together we set out to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level. We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or “genes” into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song – everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It’s not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records – it’s about what each individual song sounds like.

These folks have spent the last half decade listening to music, breaking it down, and trying to understand what it is about it that we like. I loaded up the site with great expectations: Pandora is the public side of the project, allowing users to suggest a particular song or artist that they like and then listen to the computer building an ever evolving stream of music that responds to their tastes. Every time a piece of music is played, you have the option to tell Pandora whether you like it or not. The system begins to build a profile of which musical characteristics you like, or more importantly what combination of musical characteristics you like. Advert free, and hard to pirate (because of the way that the music is delivered as an embedded stream), Pandora aspires to be your ideal radio station. Even better, there are no celebrity-starved DJs to pad out the songs.

Those questions often evolved into great conversations. Each friend told us their favorite artists and songs, explored the music we suggested, gave us feedback, and we in turn made new suggestions. Everybody started joking that we were now their personal DJs … We created Pandora so that we can have that same kind of conversation with you.

So right now, a computer is having a ‘conversation’ with me, suggesting music for me to try. I kicked off the search this evening with the name of an artist I like: the electronica group Fridge. Pandora begins by playing ‘Meum’ a track by Fridge that apparently exmplifies their style. There’s an intriguing ‘Why did you play this’ button, which tells me that Pandora is playing this tune because ‘it features idm influences, electronica roots, downtempo influences, rock influences and use of modal harmonies.’ Fair enough. Next up comes something different. ‘Salt’ by Faultline, selected because idm influences, electronica roots, intricate rhythms, a variety of synth sounds and trippy soundscapes.’ I still do not know what an idm influence is, but I’m prepared to hear it out. The music lacks the light spaciousness of Fridge, and is somewhat ominous and reminiscent of techno music. There are certainly some trippy soundscapes in there, but it’s too dark for me. I reach for the little button with a thumbs down logo. Next up comes another dark trippy number, this time by Ircam. It’s been chosen again for its ‘idm influences, electronica roots, downtempo influences, intricate rhythms, and trippy soundscapes’. A subtle combination of synthesised sounds that seem derived from church bells morph and play through the speakers, and while it’s certainly appropriate music for a late night session with a cup of herbal tea, it’s not really my infusion. Again, I click on the downward facing thumb.

It’s then I get a little peeved. Pandora goes into panic mode, and plays me a track by Fridge, the band I told it I liked in the first place. I would suggest that it’s a fairly safe bet to assume that if I tell you like an artist that I will like their music. Pandora is swerving back from a little brush with dark electronica and has returned to the safety zone. I click on the thumbs up button, and wait for the next track.

Pandora takes another look into the box marked ‘idm influences, electronica roots, use of modal harmonies, a variety of synth sounds’ and pulls out a track by Jose Padilla. It’s a rich, velvety but expansive piece of trippy electronica. But it becomes repitive after just a minute or so, and invasive synth keyboard sounds and misplaced vocal samples bring it all crashing down. I regret being so negative, but I have to tell Pandora that I just don’t like it. This continues for several more songs. Each one is technically from the same gene pool as the ones that preceded it, but none actually appeals to me. And the process is repeated with three other ‘stations’ that I create on Pandora over the course of a few days, using a variety of different artists to kick start the programme (Kings of Convenience, Beth Orton etc). Each time I am left listening to a strangely interesting but ultimately cold piece of music, some of very questionable quality. American artists seems to be given preference, perhaps because this US-based project was more heavily influenced by American music.

After forty minutes, I’m bored. This isn’t so much a conversation with someone who might be able to suggest some good music that I might like, but the one sided monologue of a friend who wants to intimidate me with his insanely detailed music collection.

I reach for the bookmarks, and flip the channels. I start browsing the website of CBC Radio 3, the internet and satellite radio station created by Canada’s public broadcasting system to promote new Canadian music. In a moment of remarkable generosity and trust, the CBC have opened the playlists of the station. Now listeners to the station can create, save and share their own playlists of music from the Radio 3 collection. Suddenly, thousands of music fans are able to pick and choose from the best of new Canadian music, and present their own carefully crafted soundtracks. An embedded radio player similar to that of Pandora prevents 99% of direct piracy, and allows listeners to suddenly become participants in their nation’s third radio network.

Whereas Pandora seeks to remove the human art of selection and suggestion from online music, CBC Radio 3 actually encourages it. And within twenty minutes, I’ve found a thumping indie playlist, and nodding my head in agreement.

PS… for my billingual audience, the French counterpart to CBC Radio 3 launched by Société Radio Canada is called Bandeapart, broadcasts online and on Sirius, and the website is here.

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