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Pandora's Jukebox

The Martin Chronicles
The Martin Chronicles
The Martin Chronicles
4/26/2006

3:20 PM -- After I wrote about "personal music channels" last week, a few readers responded by letting me know that, of course, they already exist, most notably at Pandora, a Web-based service based on the Music Genome Project -- which claims "to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level" by assembling a vast musical DNA map based on similarities in genres, song structure, melodies, and even instrumentation so that lovers of one artist can automatically connect to other similar-sounding music they might or might not have heard of.

I've tried Pandora for only a couple of hours so I can't say definitively how much I like it. It's supremely user-friendly: I entered the name of Bill Laswell, the bassist, producer, Golden Palominos member, and pioneer of groovy, hybrid world-beat music. Pandora started by playing a Laswell solo tune ("Oceans of Borrowed Money") while in the background the algorithm sought out related songs and artists. By the end of the first song a lineup of songs stretching into infinity -- my own personal Laswell-FM -- was queued up. I didn't have to download a thing. (Naturally, there's a free, ad-supported version and a subscription version that costs $36/year. I haven't paid up to avoid the ads -- yet.)

One thing I did notice was that the selections tended to be related sonically but not always in the real listening world, as it were. The second tune was an abrasive industrial-noise venture by the Japanese noise artist Merzbow, on the great Extreme Records -- an abrasive tone poem of destruction I could recognize as somehow elementally related to Laswell's music, but that doesn't sound like it (or appeal to me) at all. Later I heard "A Clear Day," a terrific piece of trip-hop electronica by Ulrich Schnauss, of whom I'd never heard.

As far as I can tell so far, Pandora doesn't make the personal-relations connections between musicians who play with each other and cross over genres with formal or structural differences. Laswell, for instance, has played with Wayne Shorter, produced Herbie Hancock, and remixed Miles Davis, so he stands at the nexus of modern jazz, progressive rock, and international music. I'm not sure that Pandora would pick up those links… though it will be fascinating to see whether the algorithm can mutate and "learn" over time.

Anyway I'm going to hook up with Pandora founder Tim Westergren next week. I'll report more then.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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