I’m in a relationship with Pandora radio, and it’s complicated. Not just the relationship, but the entire system. In theory, Pandora only plays music you like, and it determines your desires by keeping track of your “like” and “dislike” clicks in “stations” you create. It sounds simple, but it isn’t in any way ingenious, even when attached to something with the name “The Music Genome Project”.
Here’s how it works. When you first login, you search for an artist or song you like. Based on that search, Pandora plays a song it thinks you’ll enjoy, not necessarily the thing you actually searched for. Somehow, copyright law prohibits formal playlists. Whatever. Let’s say I search for Belle and Sebastian. I love them. So then, if I “like” the song that pops up (probably by someone else entirely), Pandora adds its identified characteristics to my “Belle and Sebastian” station. Which will, in the end, have almost no Belle and Sebastian in it, but will, instead, be populated by songs Pandora thinks are similar to things Belle and Sebastian might play. Which means that somehow all roads lead me to the blandest songs of the70’s and 80’s, because, as far as I can tell, Pandora thinks ALL the bands I enjoy engage in the same three behaviors: mellow instrumentals, intricate melodies, and vamping.
Vamping. Let’s talk about that. I don’t think this means what Pandora thinks it means. Vamping is musical improvisation. That’s oversimplifying it, but anyway, it’s something that, depending on how you consider it, pretty much all artists engage in or one that only live performances can really achieve. In either case, it’s a completely useless criterion for deciding what type of music someone enjoys. About the only thing it excludes are symphonies, and even some of those include improv (though I’m thinking the term ‘vamping’ is a bit too mod for the classical world).
The other criteria are equally lacking in worth, although it would really seem like they would be more helpful. To continue my Belle and Sebastian example, qualities like mellow rock instrumentation and intricate mean I should, at the very least, expect only soft rock on the Belle and Sebastian channel, right? RIGHT? I shouldn’t have anything by, say Aerosmith or Tom Petty creeping in there, should I?
Well I do. Why? Because Pandora dropped in some Sara McLaughlin, and I made the mistake of “liking” it. That added the qualities of her work to my list. And she led to another artist I enjoyed and so on. Simply by “liking” the music I heard, I inadvertently turned the Belle & Sebastian station into the “Sting, Police, R.E.M., Eagles” station. And the same thing happened in reverse to my Aerosmith station, as it slowly shifted from heavy rock to mild 80’s. You don’t even want to see what Pandora came up with for my Philip Glass request. Now, I like Sting, the Police, R.E.M. and the Eagles. But I do not want to hear “Witchy Woman” or “Losing My Religion” a thousand times (or waste skips on them). To regain any semblance of the station I originally wanted to create, I had to start DISliking songs.
Clicking “dislike” on a song leads to it being dropped entirely from the station with a stupid message about never playing that one again. None of the criteria associated with the song are dropped, though, and it can still crop up on other stations. So adjusting Pandora based on “dislikes” is a much slower process, and it’s an annoying one, too. This may be just a matter of semantics, but I don’t want to click “dislike” on a song I enjoy. I do realize that doing so only bumps it off of that one station, and that I can create pretty much an infinite number of stations. But, quite frankly, I want to reserve those “dislikes” for songs I hate. Because I hate a lot of songs, and Pandora only gives me a certain number of skips based on the fact that I don’t pay for their services.
If I paid, I could have more skips (but still not an infinite number), and I would not have to endure insipid health insurance commercials every third song. But I’m not likely to pay for a service that I find of limited utility. Of course, I could just take off my headphones and suffer through the hated tunes, then click dislike AFTER the fact, thus getting the song off the station while retaining my skips. But if I’m listening to the radio, it’s usually because I’m so stressed out that my own rather enormous collection hasn’t got what I need, meaning I’m unlikely to sit through annoyance music just to save a skip.
I have friends who love the service, and I can’t decide if they’re just less picky than I am, or if they have some secret “like/dislike” magic that will control the process more effectively. I find Pandora chaotic, probably appropriate for something named after the mythological woman who opened the jar that released evil into the world.
My overall conclusion is that I want Sirius. Satellite radio has a lot more options, and I’m willing to pay for a service that, from what I’ve heard, really works.