Most casual music fans have that one person in their life whom they turn to before they buy new music -- a guru who keeps up with the trends, reads the mags, goes to the shows, surfs the 'net and has taste that aligns with theirs. It could be a friend, a family member, a critic, a trusted DJ or a clerk in a record store -- hell, in recent years, a few people have made livings as "music stylists" for rich people who want to stay hip but are too lazy or busy to hunt out their own tunes.
Pandora.com could put all of those people out of business. Like so many websites, it eliminates the middleman; you, and only you, determine which new music you are exposed to. And since it relies on a close approximation to the scientific study of music as opposed to the usual commercialized approach favored by record labels and traditional radio stations, it has a chance of becoming one of the biggest and most successful sites on the Internet. Makes you wonder why you would listen to music any other way -- especially since the site is free (or $3 a month for a site without banner ads).
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And it's simple to use. A prompt asks you to create your own radio station; you then enter either an artist or a song you like, and, using the company's own highly complex Music Genome Project, Pandora will spit out song after song that displays those same musical qualities -- and will even tell you why, in mildly technical musical terms. (Pandora often tells me I'm into "acoustic sonority," "call-and-response vocals," "extensive vamping," "busy horn section(s)" and "mild syncopation," and you know what? I have to agree.)
If you don't like a song, you can chuck it out of the rotation forever (and tell them why you don't like it), or if you're just sick of something, you can retire a tune for a month. You can also create up to 100 stations if you like a bunch of genres that don't mix well, and then e-mail those stations to your friends. And unlike the recommendations generated by iTunes, Pandora is blind to a band's popularity, hipster cachet, critical reception or major-label status.
The site is also not about a band's sales, fame or connections; it's about the "genetic" structure of the music. Each of the hundreds of songs on Pandora is graded on multiple criteria by a team of dozens of musicians and trained musicologists. If a fan wants to base his station around Nick Drake's music, then the songs of Rocky Votolato or Iron & Wine are just as likely to pop up as those of Jeff Buckley or Elliott Smith, simply because they share the same "music DNA." The bands you know are your gateway drugs to the bands you don't know that happen to sound a lot like the ones you already love. Occasionally disconcertingly. I tried to base a station around the Allman Brothers' "Ramblin' Man," only to be treated to a litany of Sawyer Brown and Brooks & Dunn songs, some of which I thought were pretty good until I found out who was performing them. One company official has called this the "You've got vapid pop in my indie rock" phenomenon.
Maybe Pandora's Achilles heel lies in the fact that it can't quantify "soul," or maybe it's just that we are snobs more interested in a band's image than its music. George Michael once begged us all to Listen Without Prejudice, and that's just what Pandora does.