he musical ecosystem is a close and co-dependent world. Its biodiversity depends on very disparate species, mechanisms and players all working together. There are a lot of ways to become part of this system; a person who interacts with music, whether on a professional or consumption basis, is part of that ecosystem. As a music journalist, I’m a professional consumer of music. I make a living and spend most of my free time enjoying, writing about, listening to and critiquing music in its many forms. But I also spend time listening to it because I love it. Those of us who listen to music avidly find it pretty easy to discover new artists—mostly, I’ve found, through word of mouth. You mention a band you like, and then someone says I know a band that sounds kind of like that—suddenly you’ve shot off into another branch of the ecosystem; you’ve found another species to enjoy. But as the consumption of music (and pop culture in general) has changed with the proliferation of streaming, downloading and YouTube—how does this musical ecosystem adapt? How does it thrive? Drew Thurlow ’01 believes one way is Pandora. Thurlow is director of artist partnerships at Pandora. We met by accident at a Frank Turner concert in Coney Island. Both mutual friends of the artist, and it didn’t take long for us to discover we had more than our friendship with Frank in common. We both went to Connecticut College. Thurlow, unlike me, has spent his whole life in the music world.
it helps musicians reach an audience that the musicians might not know exists. This reciprocity between artists and Pandora benefits not only more obscure bands, but also the bigger ones who may be unfamiliar with the benefits of streaming online. Therefore, data sharing has become a vital part of an artist’s marketing strategy. And while consumers may not want their data up for grabs, that data helps musicians plan tours. If there are enough people all streaming a certain artist in, say, New London, just maybe that artist will go there. Not only is location a key data point for musicians of all calibers, so is age range—this can help inform merchandising. Knowing which artists are on your same playlist can help inform with whom a band might tour or collaborate. Which songs are skipped and by whom can help an artist build a set list. They are all factors in the decisions that any given band might make when planning a tour or a concert. Pandora catalogues them, and gives them back—Quid pro quo. The discovery of new music is tricky in the internet age when you can just skip to the next tune. Our taste is fickle, and our attention spans are short. We’ve all had friends recommend a band we really don’t like. When it’s down to an algorithm that doesn’t even know my personal proclivity, there may be something left wanting. Pandora’s Music Genome Project seeks to minimize this risk. “Each song is listened to by a music analyst. So a song playing now, let’s say it’s 62 BPM, it’s minor tonality, a breathy female voice, heavy, twangy guitar sound—there are about 450 traits like this that make up a piece of music, and they’re put
“We’re invested in making sure the whole ecosystem is healthy. Live music, as well as people listening to it on their own.” Thurlow explains his experience by stating, “In the past four and a half years I’ve been at Pandora, which is an eternity at a tech company and at a music company, a lot has changed. When I started, CDs were still a measurable part of the American public’s buying and listening habits.” Suffice it to say that has changed drastically. “The industry now has to focus on [companies like Pandora] because it’s one of the handful of places from which they still get paychecks,” he says. In the music industry, Pandora’s role is not only to provide access to songs but also to give musicians information that can help them inform their careers. “We can go back to an artist and say hey, here are the people who are listening to you so you can reach them. This is where they are so you can go to them,” Thurlow says. At its crux, Pandora is a music discovery service—and that is a two-way street. For as much as it helps people discover music, 52
into the algorithm that then spits out a playlist. “But every song on Pandora is listened to by a human.” Pandora describes its analysts as people with four-year degrees in music theory, composition or performance, who have passed a screening process and are trained in the precise MGP methods. The analysts dissecting the music are trained and educated, and are not just plugging names or notes into an algorithm. Listening—active listening—is key. This is the main distinction between Pandora and Spotify. Pandora is a radio service that is built upon providing listeners with intricate and specific playlists, the way a radio station might curate its songs. Spotify’s playlists work on a very basic algorithm that does not have nearly the same amount of trained human input. Not to mention, the relationship with the artists is one of mutual benefits. And yet, many musicians are reticent to sign up. “A lot of big stars are reluctantly admitting that this is what they have to do. A lot of them are used to this old economic
W I N T E R 2 0 1 7 | Class Notes
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