How Pandora's Music Genome Could Fail Against the Likes of Apple

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- I've had several recent conversations with TheStreet's Rocco Pendola regarding Pandora's ( P) Music Genome Project and what that means for the Internet radio company's listeners and investors.

Rocco sees the MGP as the ultimate ace in Pandora's hand, trumping anything Apple ( AAPL), Spotify or Rdio or any other service could possibly come up with to lure in audiences and keep listeners engaged. He believes that with MGP, Pandora is approaching listeners from a musical standpoint, putting the music first. Listeners will respond. That will keep revenue rising and preserve or increase market share.

While we both admire Pandora's efforts, I have a couple problems with that argument.

The word "genome" in the Music Genome Project is actually a 21st-century-trendy metaphor for something far more fallible and imprecise. The MGP is a very detailed music database, pure and simple. The company's founders identified over 400 possible parameters that could be used to describe any piece of music -- a vast extension of the traditional stylistic categories such as "Chicago Blues," "Cool Jazz," "Electronica," "Rhythm & Blues" and "Progressive Rock."

What sets the MGP apart from most other "big data" these days is that music experts are hired by Pandora to fill in those parameters, making the MGP potentially the most sophisticated and precisely catalogued library of music the world has ever known. In addition, as Rocco pointed out in his article Friday, human interpreters of user data are every minute responding to user input, tweaking and refining the song lists in the hopes of making the listener experience a perfect fit for every individual.

User data tempered by direct and deep human involvement is the future for this industry. Pandora has that right. The problems lie mostly in the shape of that involvement.

First, music isn't primarily an individual experience. Individual musical experiences aren't worthless -- the old practice of field hollers in the American South and or of yodeling in the Swiss Alps is still satisfying if there's no one else around to hear you. It is possible to sing or play music to cheer yourself up when you're all alone.

But even in those solitary experiences we are communing with the rest of humanity, past, present and future. Music is, in part, an expression of our participation within our species, a collective unconscious, if you will.

That aspect shows itself very powerfully in the way we consume music in society. We want what other people are having.

We want to crowd Met Life Stadium to sway and scream to Bruce Springsteen along with 50,000 other humans. We want to be on the dance floor within body-heat range of a few dozen others for a Lady Gaga song, our senses almost overwhelmed as we become part of the song, part of the physicality of that human collective. We want to be packed into a warm theater for a symphony or an opera where we share the same air with the live musicians and where we keep a polite distance of sometimes mere fractions of an inch from each other's bodies.

That proximity makes the music better because music is at root, a collective experience; it unifies, turns us into a tribe. We aren't merely listening; we participate. By expecting that we want a skin-tight, individualized musical experience, Pandora is ignoring that most powerful aspect.

Last night, I experienced an example of where Pandora's individual tailoring breaks down. I was out to eat at a small, intimate upscale seafood restaurant with my family, an electric guitarist quietly playing jazz in the corner. When the musician went on break, the staff switched on Pandora over the loudspeakers. What came out was some awful Beyonce song, followed by something I didn't recognize that sounded a lot like the Beyonce song we had just heard, followed by Rihanna's anthemic drinking song Cheers (Drink to That).

It was almost enough to make me get up and walk out. Had it been traditional radio, we wouldn't have heard three such closely related (and bad) songs in a row; if you didn't like Beyonce, the next song might have been Adele or Justin Timberlake or even Stevie Wonder and you could go oh well, that's not so bad. Thankfully after about four songs, the guitarist came back and the trashy music stopped.

The problem here was a lack of variety. The music was over-personalized to the tastes of someone who liked Beyonce's vacuity. You could argue -- and I would have to agree -- that the restaurant staff severely misjudged their customers and put on the wrong channel. My concern is that with the emphasis on playlists so heavily personalized, there is no right channel for any random group of people.

That brings me to the second problem I have with the MGP: I don't think the individual listener will fully (or even remotely) appreciate all the human involvement in the choices represented by such playlists. Such a huge human effort goes into each selection and each playlist arrangement -- and what comes out is that? A handful of tracks that your average kindergartner could pick out by playing a game of which songs sound alike? (That is, if your average kindergartner were allowed to listen to Beyonce or Rihanna. As a parent, I would discourage that.)

Even if the MGP were far more effective in combining variety with listener preference, that still wouldn't prove that all that human effort was necessary. A rival, like Apple, Spotify or Rdio or any number of other parties that are starting their own streaming services, could easily come along and, with a fully automated cheap imitation of MGP, eat Pandora's marketshare for breakfast.

Listeners won't appreciate the level of human involvement in the Pandora experience unless it is shown to them. They'll listen to whatever's out there and if they can get a good-enough experience cheaply and easily somewhere else, they'll go there. If a service is smart enough to couple that kind of automated functionality with some serious branding and artist sponsorship, MGP will cease to matter.

Worse, faced with such competition, all those fine musical minds on Pandora's payroll could quickly become an unjustifiable expense.

The Alternative

I want Pandora to succeed. I want MGP to succeed. And there is a simple way to do it: bring back the role of the DJ. Put the human interface up front as a focus and get hundreds or thousands of people listening together. Use the collective aspect of music to its greatest advantage, to the advantage of Pandora and its listeners.

Musical tastes are not predictable from any algorithm. It helps that Pandora has data miners constantly tweaking the parameters that control selection, but they are still just pushing around numbers in an algorithm. You can't predict the next song I will like that way.

The results of that tweaking can be helpful, but they can never do what a DJ would do, rally the audience in support of song or an artist, introduce new, untested material, link things that would never be linked statistically, take chances, create buzz.

People identify first with other people. If you feed the listener experience through a popular DJ who can create enjoyable, varied playlists based on the MGP and Pandora's data mining, people will tune in en masse to hear those playlists. They will gladly walk away from their personally tailored listening for the time it takes to share that experience.

If you have a hundred DJs, so much the better. Pandora could probably work out an arrangement with top radio stations across the country, having their DJs sponsor channels and playlists, filtering using MGP with the help of P's data miners.

Pandora is already talking about letting users build up their own following for personalized playlists and channels. That's just another way of approaching the DJ problem. Still another would be to sponsor online shows with guest artists offering a narrative for one playlist while sponsoring 20 others for a variety of tastes.

The key is putting a human face on the selection process and allowing that person to take chances no machine or marketing group ever would.

Do any or all of the above. But do it before the industry landscape changes again and the MGP becomes a sad victim of failed marketing.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park

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