Pandora and the Revolution of Music

How One Man Managed To Change American Culture

Back in 1877, the record player fundamentally changed the way people listened to music. Shortly afterwards though, it evolved into the radio, then cassette tapes, followed by CDs, and finally mobile devices such as the iPod. But thanks to a man named Tim Westergren, over the past 15 years our society has found the Internet to be the new go-to medium through which we listen to music.

As a result, it has established the next generation of music, changing the way people listen to music in their everyday lives. All of this has been made possible through Pandora Radio. It all began as a result of Westergren’s career as a journeyman musician, his brief stint as a film composer, and his infamous Music Genome Project.

Humble Beginnings

Tim Westergren after being named CEO of Pandora in 2016

Tim Westergren was never a star musician in his own right. He had to wait a long five years after his graduation from Stanford University to scratch the surface of the music industry, and even then all he managed to do with his career was perform with different rock bands and various traveling groups over the course of seven years.

Despite his limited success however, he was able to realize something in his experiences that would eventually become a foundation for Pandora.

As Westergren stated while speaking at Hustlecon in April 2014, “I encountered a sea of undiscovered talent.”

In other words, he was constantly around a variety of artists with great sound and potentially popular music at their disposal, but with no way of getting discovered.

After moving on from his music career, Westergren became a film composer. His job was to determine the best musical fits for the films he worked on while at the same time appealing to the musical tastes of the directors as well. He had to balance between incorporating both popular songs along with lesser-known songs, while at the same time determining where they belonged in each movie.

Taking on this profession allowed Westergren to come to yet another realization that was crucial in the creation of Pandora.

According to what Westergren shared in the same Hustlecon address, “The similarities between known and unknown songs could become a kind of connective tissue in which users would serendipitously discover new music.”

Stepping Stones Towards Creating Pandora

Westergren thought that if you broke down each song to its basic components, then it would be possible to identify exact similarities between different songs. That way, there would be a scientific way to guide people to music they like, as well as for someone to discover new songs from artists that aren’t very well known from songs they already listen to.

This ultimately led to the Music Genome Project, which was a revolutionary turning point in the establishment of internet radio. Similar to the Human Genome Project, the Music Genome Project identified hundreds of different musical attributes that could be used to bring together songs across all genres.

Logo for the predecessor to Pandora Radio

That being said, the Music Genome Project took years to fully accomplish, but it was unlike any other task undertaken before it. With his idea in hand and 1.5 million dollars he raised from investors, Westergren partnered with two of his close friends to establish the Web start-up Savage Beast Technologies. Their original purpose was to sell music recommendation services to businesses like Best Buy, but they also conducted the project at the same time with the help of more than 50 employees.

Referred to as “musicologists”, their job was to sit at a computer and listen to songs one after the other, rating them element by element, and separating what sometimes came out to over a hundred points of data related to each song. This process carried on through 2005, when the company officially went online to the public and changed its name to Pandora Internet Radio after finally receiving the necessary funding and hiring the proper executive team.

The basic concept of Pandora Radio is that its internet interface accesses data from the Music Genome Project through different algorithms and presents it to the user. As of 2010, the Music Genome Project had dissected about 700,000 songs by 80,000 artists based on over 400 attributes, and both of those numbers have grown substantially every year since. As a result, Pandora Radio’s human connection has put together an extensive digital library of music.

Pandora’s Early History

After reflecting on Pandora Radio’s brief history, it is fair to say that it has taken a very different, more unconventional path to notoriety than the average multi-billion dollar company. The company started off as a small-range business based in various kiosks that was almost shut down several times over the course of six years, and it didn’t really garner much public attention straight out of the gate.

But when the website launched in 2005, it instantly sparked public interest and business exploded. After quickly changing from a subscription-based business model to one based off of advertising revenue, Pandora Radio officially hit the ground running. The website’s number of users was doubling by the month, and Tim Westergren’s email account was flooded with messages telling him how cool his company’s concept truly was.

Music lovers were finally able to personally interact with what they were listening to via the website’s “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons, and it was instantly an Internet success.

What’s Happening Today

Since then, Pandora has been introduced to new waves of competitors as the industry has dramatically progressed. Their major competitors in the internet radio sector are currently Spotify and Apple Music, with second-tier services including Slacker Radio, Last.fm, 8Tracks, and iHeart Radio posing challenges as well. But with over 80 million users currently at their disposal, Pandora still manages to dominate the market despite the increasing popularity of other music services like Spotify.

It’s name recognition alone has established its place in popular culture that will be difficult to remove, even though many other companies offer hundreds of more songs than Pandora’s music library. With its unique ad-based revenue method and ways of introducing new music, Pandora will continue to stand out among the rest.

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