Corporate goons and other greedy white people seem to ruin everything I enjoy. I remember stumbling across Pandora and the Music Genome Project sometime back around 2005. It seemed like a brilliant idea to me: a digital music service that categorized songs based on the elements of which they were made, rather than broad and subjective genres. So instead of simply labeling something as “country” or “rock”, they assigned attributes to the music such as “soft vocals” or “distorted guitar”. Their software would then look for music that had similar “DNA” to what the listener chose as their base. It worked like a charm and for a picky music snob like me it was absolutely amazing.
My biggest problem with the iPod revolution of the early 2000s was that it did nothing to help discover new music. Your iPod was never going to surprise you. It could only playback the music you already owned. Most other music services only allowed you to specify the genre of music you wanted to hear, but who gets to define what qualifies as “hard rock “or “alt-country” and more importantly, will it coincide with my definition? But with Pandora you could go “here is a song that I like, play me other things that sound like it.”
The early version of Pandora not only allowed me to find artists I was unfamiliar with, it also caused me to rethink some music I knew really well, or thought I did anyway. A song would pop up in my feed that seemed out of place with the station I had created. At first it would seem out of place, but then I would hear it: some quality to the song that matched my base; it might be the singer’s voice, a backbeat I’d never picked-up or the tone of a certain instrument, but it was there. Some times it was pointing out the almost obvious, other times it was more eye-opening than Tarantino explaining the homosexual undertones of “Top Gun”.
It was the closest thing a cynic like me gets to a religious experience. I told all my friends about Pandora. I even wrote to the company offering my services to help catalog music. (They politely declined.) For a brief time I was happy with Pandora gently guiding me through the maze of music on the internet. Then things started to change.
In the beginning, I heard a lot of lesser know artists. My music collection tends contain some obscure stuff so this made sense to me. I’d get some mainstream artists wandering into my feed but there was always a logical element. (Oh, this Lionel Richie song has a calypso beat, that’s why it’s in with all my ska music.) And usually once you gave it a thumbs down the algorithm would work it out. But after a while I was getting more and more music that just didn’t seem to fit my stations. I did notice one thing about these interlopers, they were usually new releases. Having some experience in the business of media I quickly deduced what was likely happening: record labels were paying Pandora to put certain music into “heavy rotation”. Everybody has to make money some how, you know. Eventually I drifted away from Pandora – because as I mentioned, I’m a big music snob – but I still felt they had a really good service.
Recently I returned to Pandora and I have to ask: what the hell happened?? They seem to have adopted everything that destroyed radio as a music medium. I’m getting nothing but major label artists and predominantly just their “hits”. They also seem to categorize based on proximity not tonal quality – Just because two artists released music in the same year doesn’t mean it sounds alike. I’ve been listening to a station based on The Smashing Pumpkins, purposely avoiding anything too obscure just to make it easier. Thus far the only other artists Pandora has been playing are Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. It’s like they are basing this station on a Spin Magazine cover from 1994. You’re telling me there has been no music produced in the past 20 years that has even a hint of Pumpkins influence? How about the Silversun Pickups for god sake? I’m amazed Billy Corgan hasn’t sued them over “Lazy Eye” yet. But apparently Pandora has been taken over by the same guys who buy T-shirts for Hot Topic.
Actually, my guess is that Clear Channel has a hand in this. It just reeks of their brand of homogenization. Just about any station I punch in feels the need to play the Foo Fighters for every fourth song, just like my local “Active Rock” radio station. I like Dave Grohl just as much as the next guy but I know there has got to be other bands out there that use guitars. And god forbid I use an artist who was active in the mid-80s, I get REM jammed down my throat no matter how many time I hit the thumbs down button. Here’s the dead giveaway to the corporate interference: Zac Brown Band is now at the top of my list of stations. The last time I used Pandora, Zac Brown didn’t have a band and if he did I certainly wouldn’t have asked for a station based on that crap. If Voldermort’s personal radio and concert conglomerate is not at fault here, then it is the big three record labels, probably a combination of all of them. It is also possible they all just use the same market research company, thus they all get the same shitty data telling them to play the same shitty music.
The lesson as always is there is no short-cut to greatness. That usually applies to making something great but it also holds true for finding greatness, particularly when it comes to art, or in this case rock n roll. If you’re sitting around waiting for some venture capitalists – or their fancy software – to show you something exceptional you’ll either be disappointed or you don’t know the definition of exceptional. In the days before the internet, my music snob friends and I had to go out and search for quality music. While all the lame-asses were being spoon-fed mediocrity by radio and Rolling Stone, we’d hang around record shops and dig through bins, thumb through poorly photocopied ‘zines, sit through mumbling, stoned DJs on college radio because that was the only way to learn about the good stuff. Honestly the only thing the internet has changed is that now you don’t have to leave your house. There is still two tons of garbage that you have to dig through to get to anything worthwhile, it’s just digital now. Pandora is just a tool and no longer a sharp one. If you want to save your soul, you probably need to go down to the filthy rock club or find a VFW hall that still has 5 bands for 5 bucks. You will still hear plenty of crap but you might also find something transcendent.