June 20, 2006

Pandora Music Recommendations

Posted in Music, Personalization, Reviews at 8:15 pm by mj

For the last week or two, I’ve been listening to Pandora almost non-stop at work. (And, when working from home, I’m putting my 7-speaker computer sound system to good use.)

I was skeptical at first, but it is surprisingly easy to use, and generates good recommendations.

At the heart of Pandora’s service are “stations,” which are much like individually personalized radio stations. You create a station by entering the name of a song or band you like. Pandora will then find music similar to the song or band you entered. You refine the music played on that station by either entering more songs/bands whom you like, or giving thumbs up/thumbs down to songs as Pandora plays them.

Their revenue model seems to be a combination of (a) advertising, (b) offering a premium service, and (c) providing referrals to Amazon and iTunes. I can’t imagine many people look at their ads (I keep mine playing on my Windows machine while I work on Linux), but I can see the direct links to Amazon and iTunes generating quite a bit of traffic.

The killer is that Pandora’s free service not only allows unlimited listening, but up to 100 stations. Of course, like real radio, you can’t rewind or select a song to play. They also limit the number of songs you can skip in one session. (Consequently, after the limit is reached, when you give a thumbs down to a song, you still have to finish listening to it.)

I started my first (and, so far, only) station by entering Marillion, and soon supplemented that with Van der Graaf Generator and Nick Cave, mostly to see if I could fool their algorithm. Between those and the recommended songs that I have thumbed up, my station has probably 4 (maybe 5) strong-ish clusters.

One annoyance with Pandora is that their algorithm tends to stick to one cluster at a time, lasting maybe a dozen songs before heading into a new direction–and those durations are increasing. (Their algorithm may be designed to converge on a single cluster per station.) In fact, the best way to get them to start playing music from a different genre is to enter the name of a different kind of song that you like. Otherwise, you could be waiting quite a while.

The second annoyance–and maybe related to the first–is that they tend to wear out an album. For example, for several days, I could have sworn the only Marillion album they had was Real to Reel, since all of the Marillion songs they played were from that album. Similarly for VDGG and H to He, and Nick Cave and From Her to Eternity. But, eventually, they do expand the songs they play from an artist.

The third annoyance is that they weight songs that you’ve thumbed up heavily in selecting which song to play next. This often results in hearing the same song twice an hour, and produces a ton of “repeats.” Not so bad if you’ve thumbed up 500 songs, but as I was just starting out, I really wanted to hear a wider variety of recommendations. And, though you can ask them to not play a song for 30 days because you’re tired of it, that just seems like using a sledgehammer for a thumbtack: no nuance.

All in all, it’s a good service, and one that is still being actively developed. Yesterday, I logged on and found that they’d improved their interface a bit, and added song bookmarks. Previously–and still–I can not find a way to get a list of all the songs I’ve given a thumbs up to, so I’ve started using bookmarks in addition. You can view my profile at my Pandora profile page. I do no bookmark songs I already own, and I’ve only been bookmarking since Monday.

The feature I really want is an “I Own This” button, which would weight the song highly when computing similar songs, but prevent the song from getting played often (after all, if I own it, why would I need to listen to it on Pandora?).

In addition, there should be a way of submitting corrected title information, as I’ve discovered a number of songs with the wrong titles (usually by giving it the title of another song on the same album).

Anyhow, when I make my next Amazon purchase, I’ll be sure to do so in a way so Pandora gets the referral for the artists they’ve turned me onto.