Interesting long NY Times piece on Pandora. The premise of Pandora is that they can take apart the songs you like, figure out what you like about them, and then tell you about other music you might like. This raises the question of whether people actually like music because of how it sounds, rather than because it is cool in their social circle or reminds them of a certain point in their lives:
Pandora’s approach more or less ignores the crowd. It is indifferent to the possibility that any given piece of music in its system might become a hit. The idea is to figure out what you like, not what a market might like. More interesting, the idea is that the taste of your cool friends, your peers, the traditional music critics, big-label talent scouts and the latest influential music blog are all equally irrelevant. That’s all cultural information, not musical information. And theoretically at least, Pandora’s approach distances music-liking from the cultural information that generally attaches to it.
Which raises interesting questions. Do you really love listening to the latest Jack White project? Do you really hate the sound of Britney Spears? Or are your music-consumption habits, in fact, not merely guided but partly shaped by the cultural information that Pandora largely screens out — like what’s considered awesome (or insufferable) by your peers, or by music tastemakers, or by anybody else? Is it really possible to separate musical taste from such social factors, online or off, and make it purely about the raw stuff of the music itself?
I am skeptical. Like a lot of people I know, I listen to many different kinds of music, depending on my mood. There are certain sounds I like and dislike, but toward most genres I am ambivalent. I like some but dislike others. For example, I like several Michael Jackson songs, but don't care for most music that sounds vaguely like Michael Jackson. There are quite a few bands from which I like only a single song; the only song I like by Nickel Creek is "When in Rome," and it still bugs me that I spent $18 to buy a whole cd of their music. And what could be more like one Nickel Creek song than another Nickel Creek song? So I have my doubts about whether these algorithms can ever pick up on the subtlety of musical taste.
And, in practice, my family's experiences with Pandora have so far been uninspiring. My eldest son says that after he carefully told it a long list of songs he likes, it played him only songs he already knew and songs he didn't like.
On the other hand, it is a terrific idea, and I hope it eventually works well enough to point me toward beautiful music I don't already know.