Friday, November 14, 2008

Speaking of the Future




xboxrulz  just posted a blog about how we are now living in the future. I agree, and my thoughts are directed to more than just videogames. In particular I'm thinking of the recent advances of the music industry. For once I do not refer to my unyielding and probably unhealthy yearning for an iPhone - no, this time I am thinking about Pandora, the brainchild of the Music Genome Project. I believe the website represents a shift in the "radio" paradigm - and to be honest, I don't see how traditional broadcast towers are going to stand for long against it.

Pandora's specialness comes from the way it selects what music to play. The site chooses songs based off user-generated criteria. A lot of websites and applications do this, but in a limited way. Whereas iTunes and Winamp allow the user to pick only the genre of his or her music preference, Pandora searches through hundreds and hundreds of musical categories; from music signature, to whether the song features solo vocals, to whether the song features clips of other music, etc.

Here's how Pandora describes the process.

"Together we set out to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level. We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or "genes" into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song - everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It's not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records - it's about what each individual song sounds like."

The translation of all this is that the music a person ends up hearing through the software is entirely specialized to his or her particular taste. What is more, its a fairly simple process to start - the user simply names a given song or artist of preference, and the site takes it from there, producing a varied playlist of multiple artists with songs that share your selection's musical traits. The user refines the playlist by approving or disapproving of a given track. Pandora analyzes these decisions to improve its understanding of what the user is looking for. 

The process is sharp enough that after providing imput for eight songs I no longer had to approve or disapprove anything - the software was able to predict exactly what I was looking for. As time passes, the website more and more accurately predicts my taste.

Some downsides - you can't select a specific song to play because that violates copyright law. If you're looking for one particular tune you may be out of luck - Pandora even stops you from skipping through songs willy nilly in order to find a given track. But considering that listeners of normal radio have the exact same problem, I believe that we can all restrain our collective fist shake.

A plus - Pandora pays for a music license, meaning that big name bands will be available. Lesser known bands can also get access if they contact Pandora directly. If you're looking for mainstream music, the site can help you.

The thing I really want to emphasize is how wonderful this website is for seeking out new artists to listen to. I found out about the website last week and already lready I've discovered several groups whose sound really suits me and whose work I'd consider buying. When you tire of iTunes or your friends' suggestions, check out Pandora - it will expand your horizon.

Right now, the only thing traditional radio has on this website is that it is portable. Even that edge is disappearing. Those of you with an iPhone can download Pandora as an application, I believe. (Lucky bastards.) Hopefully it wont be long before internet radio becomes commonly handheld. In the meanwhile, you and I can enjoy this little glimpse of the future, and listen to some great music to boot.


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