She Opened the Box

An avid Net radio listener shares what she´d miss about the station that cracked her musical code

In the few months I've been listening to it, Pandora Radio has blown my mind, made me cry, and increased my job productivity. Now, if the bad guys get their way, it's also going to break my heart by disappearing.

An offshoot of the Music Genome Project, the company provides an idiot-proof way to find new music you're almost guaranteed to like. The "music experts" employed by the company categorize music, song by song, according to a DNA-like sequence of qualities. "Acoustic rock instrumentation" is one. Others include "an unintelligible vocal delivery," or the surprisingly common "extended vamping." By comparing the music you feed to other music in the Genome Project's vast database, Pandora funnels songs you really might like.

An example: I plug "Tom Waits" into the friendly opening page. Pandora then creates my station, Tom Waits Radio. It plays me the Pogues, Glenn Kaiser, the Smiths, the Velvet Underground, the Doors, Mott the Hoople, and Randy Newman. Between these selections are stellar Waits cuts. I'm happy: The only artist I've never heard, Glenn Kaiser, sounds like John Cougar Mellencamp doing the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

The Pandora system isn't always perfect. Emmylou Harris Radio plays terrible music: mainstream country diarrhea and some of the sellouts who gave "alt-country" its scare quotes. I think Pandora has a blind spot when it comes to country music. Finally, eventually, it plays Lucinda Williams. But after that it's Olivia Newton-John. No Neko Case, no Loretta Lynn, no Wanda Jackson, no Juice Newton, Crystal Gayle, or even Dolly Parton.

But that's atypical, since most users plug in a wide range of artists or songs they enjoy, thus increasing their chances of hearing songs they like. For instance, my original station plays me Belle and Sebastian, and I didn't even tell it to. The result is almost beyond words. It's me, it's mine, it's organic and ever-changing. It teaches me and learns from me. I miss DJs, of course. Pandora's not as good as real radio for that reason and others, and ultimately, it's a robot. But in addition to being work-friendly — it is not streaming media, and therefore puts little to no strain on your network — it's as close as I can get to the old radio stations of my memory (KVRE FM Sebastopol, I remember!) and at least as much as I deserve.

Without Pandora, I'll survive. I'll listen to CDs and MySpace pages at work again — these music sources are good for productivity, too. But I'm reminded of how people felt when John Peel died: The British DJ was adored for introducing people to new music, and after he passed on, a major source of inspiration was gone. Pandora's easy way with sharing and constant encouragement to try new things recalls Mr. Peel's, and will be sorely missed as well. Why, SoundExchange, why?

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