Finding your way in a sea of music
Why Pandora curates its catalog. Spoiler alert: it makes for better listening.
By Glenn Peoples, Music Insights and Analytics at Pandora
- Curation allows Pandora to surface the best of the over 50 million tracks available to streaming services. A mix of signals, data science and human analysis picks the best tracks to highlight for listeners.
- Recommending the best songs to listeners requires knowing the best versions of each track. The most desirable music should be highlighted and surfaced over duplicate tracks, poor recordings, re-recordings and sound-a-likes.
Today’s music fan has it good. Almost too good, in fact. Believe it or not, the amount of music available to consumers has grown 400-fold in fewer than 15 years. A large Tower Records store in a major city might have carried about 100,000 titles. Today’s online services boast over 50 million tracks — and steadily growing — that span genres, eras and continents. A couple decades ago, this enticing, almost wishful concept was called “a heavenly jukebox.” But at three-and-a-half minutes per song, it would take 320 years to listen to them all. Who has that much time? Sometimes just finding the right song seems like 320 years.
How does a service turn a wealth of music into a great listening experience? Pandora curates its catalog to focus on the tracks its listeners want most. Recommendations need to feel personal and intuitive. The listener should be able to ask, “How do they know me so well?”
Thursday’s launch of auto-play on Pandora Premium underscores the importance of picking the right songs. Once a song, album or playlist has finished streaming, Pandora’s AutoPlay will start spinning songs similar the just-heard music, turning a lean forward, hands-on listening experience into a lean back radio station. While curation improves the lean forward experience — better browsing, better searching — it’s also crucial to lean back listening. After all, when listener has to press the skip button, the radio listener is leaning back a little less.
The very nature of digital distribution requires curation. In its early days, Pandora would rip songs from CDs in order to ingest and analyze them. It was like a radio station buying records to play on the air. This human-driven, manual process allowed Pandora to selectively build its catalog one song at a time from one CD at a time. Today, distribution is a digital firehose of single tracks, EPs, albums, box sets (the digital version, at least) and 99-song compilations of romantic jazz for rainy days.
All music streaming services have the same access to a universe of licensable recordings: decades of stars past and present, critics’ favorites, one-hit wonders, underground bands, legends within their genre, cult favorites and unknown, up-and-coming artists (plus soundtracks, movie scores and greatest hits collections). Pretty much everything. There are tracks by Enrico Caruso, the world-famous opera singer who recorded in the first decades of the 1900s, all the way to Lil Yachty’s new album Teenage Emotions. More recordings are released every week—new music, remastered tracks and material converted to digital for the first time.
To handle the quantity of music, Pandora has an automated process for digitally ingesting music. This system constantly ingests tracks sent by distributors: new albums, singles, EPs, soundtracks and other compilations. Independent artists are always directly submitting tracks. But once the tracks are received, Pandora sifts through this sea of content with proprietary data science to find the music good enough to recommend to its listeners.
A variety of signals and resources guide Pandora’s curation efforts: labels known for releasing high-quality material curators believe listeners will enjoy; the reliability of other long-standing industry partners; plus coverage and commentary at editorial outlets. In addition, the Next Big Sound platform and data science team use signals from Wikipedia and all the major social sources as additional signals of artist’s growth and popularity to inform curation decisions. The team then analyzes the prioritized tracks using its proprietary data science, allowing Pandora to learn about their successful attributes and better assess future releases.
These efforts produce tangible results. Curation, in its many facets, has consistently helped Pandora excel in recommendations — choosing the most appropriate songs to play, in other words — searching and browsing. This is vital: market research has consistently shown consumers rank recommendations and discovery among the most important features of a music streaming service. They want to find the music that best fits them, to hear familiar favorites and, from time to time, happily stumble upon — or so it would seem — unfamiliar artists. No unwieldy inventory of music can create that experience. Only by making the catalog manageable can a Pandora consistently bring the listener the right music.
Consider Leonard Cohen’s now-famous song “Hallelujah.” This one song has an original studio recording, multiple live versions and dozens of cover versions. Which song should be surfaced for listeners? The curator needs to determine which versions are worth highlighting. More often than not it’s the original studio version most people are most familiar with. But in the case of “Hallelujah,” there are many versions available: the John Cale cover that inspired the Jeff Buckley cover that helped turn the song into a classic, plus versions by Pentatonix, Rufus Wainright, Panic! At The Disco, and k.d. lang, among others. Depending on a user’s listening behavior, Pandora will play the one they’ll appreciate the most. If that person is listening to a genre station that is programmed by a curator, Pandora will play the definitive studio recording, from his 1984 album Various Positions.
Curation has allowed Pandora to have content not found elsewhere. Since its days as a radio-only service, Pandora has catalogued rare B-sides, out-of-print tracks and music not available at competing services. For legal reasons — it was just radio, not an on-demand service — Pandora could stream any song by any artist. As a result, a parade of widely unavailable music has been heard on Pandora: Taylor Swift, Adele, Metallica, AC/DC, Garth Brooks, Jay Z, Beyonce, The Eagles, Def Leppard, and Tool, to name the more popular names. Some of those artists are no longer digital holdouts. But because of a hybrid business model that layers Pandora Premium atop the original radio service, all of them have music available at Pandora
What’s more, curation improves the browsing and search experiences. Some songs, especially oldies, can be found on countless releases by the same label (multiple “greatest hits” collections, for example) and have been licensed for other compilations. Pandora listeners will usually hear the song from the best, most popular album. Take The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch).” The original studio recording is currently available on at least 20 different collections — all released by the same label group! Look up the song at Pandora and you’ll see the studio recording as well as a “second version”
Another classic song suffers from an overload of versions. The original studio recording of Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” is available on a dozen or so different collections, not to mention the dozens more live versions and remixes. A Premium user doesn’t need so many options — especially since many are the exact same recording. Pandora focuses on three versions from the 1996 collection Rapper’s Delight: The Best of Sugarhill Gang. Easy.
The 50 million tracks on the market require a filter. Not all songs are the same. Not all recordings are the same. Not all albums are the same.
Without curation, a listener is more likely to hear a re-recording of a favorite track or a recording with poor audio quality. Even small differences in quality make a difference. I think back to buying a copy of a Badfinger “greatest hits” CD only to discover the tracks — “Come and Get It,” “Baby Blue,” “No Matter What” and seven others — were actually re-recordings by original band member Joey Molland with other musicians. The classic recording of these songs can be found on albums released in the 70s by the Beatles’ label, Apple Records, and Elektra Records. The re-recordings sounded good, but I was able to tell the difference.
Without curation, a listener might encounter scores of generic albums that are playlists by another name. With stock-photo cover art and popular themes—party hits, summertime, alternative rock ’90s, holidays, feeling good, college rock, ’80s hits—many of these collections have dozens of songs and are churned out in high volumes. It’s a game of high-quantity and doubtful quality.
Without curation, a listener might hear a sound-a-like, a near-replica of a recording made by an unknown or anonymous artist. Digital distribution has allowed underground and unknown artists to reach digital services. But at the same time, digital distribution has also allowed sound-a-like recordings to flourish. Over the years intentionally fraudulent artists have recorded sound-a-like versions of popular tracks meant to confuse the listener. In addition, “music mills” have churned out have countless recordings that sound amazingly close to the original, popular recordings. A well-known example is Hit Masters’ cover of the Kid Rock song “All Summer Long.” Kid Rock had not yet made his music available at download when “All Summer Long” was a radio hit in the summer of 2008. Hit Masters’ sound-a-like version filled the void well enough that the song reached to #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart (although some buyers weren’t happy when they realized what they bought).
Then there’s the positive, financial aspect of curation. Artists and labels benefit when Pandora highlights the preferred or primary version of tracks. More often than not, the best source for a song is the original studio album or a collection—greatest hits, boxed set—released by the artist’s label. But many popular and classic songs are often licensed to third parties who then release greatest hits compilations, soundtracks, and box sets. When a licensed track is spun, the royalty passes through the third party before being paid to the label. But when the original or preferred track is spun, the royalty goes straight to the record label (through its distributor) and gets to the artist faster.
The idea of a heavenly jukebox was promising in the ’90s. As author Charles C. Mann described it in a 2000 article for The Atlantic, this holiest of music services would hold “the contents of every record store in the world, all of it instantly accessible from any desktop.” (Apple would release the iPhone seven years later.) Mann’s estimation was mere hyperbole but struck at the heart of the problem: today’s premium service can feel overwhelming with over 50 million tracks licensed by various distributors. Duplicates, sound-a-likes and miscellaneous debris scattered amidst millions of other tracks you’ll never want to hear…at that point a heavenly jukebox turns infernal. Heaven help us.