Careers & Ed: Paid by Pandora

How Tim Westergren built the world's smartest jukebox
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culture@sfbg.com

Before Tim Westergren founded the Music Genome Project and Pandora, an online radio station–music recommendation site that's developed a cultlike following, he had no idea what he was going to do for a living. After all, how do you prepare for a job that doesn't exist yet?

He wasn't like the scores of people who go through school with specific goals in mind — for instance, major in computer science or business administration, get an entry-level position, start climbing the corporate ladder to become an engineer or manager, and acquire a 401(k).

No, for the venture capitalist, for the entrepreneur, life is more abstract. Westergren's career path was blazed on a hunch and an intense passion for music, which he'd loved ever since learning to play piano in the suburbs of Paris as a child.

"It's more, kind of, personal instinct," Westergren said when asked how he found his niche. "Looking around thinking, 'OK, the problem that I have and that all my friends and everyone I know has is that they love music but they have a hard time finding new stuff.' That's the problem that just about every single adult faces. I also knew, as a musician, that there was an awful lot of really great music around that nobody was hearing because it was all buried. And so I figured, 'Gosh, there's got to be an opportunity in there of connecting those two.'<0x2009>"

WHAT'S IN THE BOX?

If you don't happen to be one of the many people who have already pledged their allegiance to Pandora's wide selection of music and uncanny ability to predict what other artists you might like, let me explain.

At its simplest, Pandora is Internet radio with a brain. Signing up is free and surprisingly quick. Then you choose an artist or song as your "station," and music begins to play. Each successive song is chosen by Pandora, creating a customized streaming playlist based on the attributes of the songs you've chosen (and on whether or not you like the songs the site chooses for you). If you like Manu Chao, Pandora might play Los Cafres next. If you start a station around Weezer, Pandora might recommend a song by Jimmy Eat World. If you like Prince, you'll probably soon be jamming to the Time. And if your Nine Inch Nails station is playing too much hard, dark Marilyn Manson, you can give feedback that'll lead the station toward a more melodic NIN relative, like Tool.

It's this system — the combination of radio station and the Music Genome Project, which offers carefully crafted music recommendations based on your tastes — that sets Pandora's suggestions apart from those of other music sites.

"We've created a taxonomy of musical attributes that kind of collectively describe a song," Westergren said, sitting in the main room of Pandora's headquarters, which looks like a computer lab crossed with a record store thanks to rows of computer stations backdropped by stacks of CDs. He showed me an example, clicking on a tune by Chet Baker at one of the stations. A form popped up on the flat screen, filled with about 40 drop-down menu fields rating musical characteristics. One, for example, says "Fixed to Improvised" and lets the user rate a song from 1 to 10 on that scale. A graphic at the bottom of the screen shows that this is the first of seven pages.

"An analyst goes through and scores each one of these, one by one," Westergren said. Around him the stations were speckled with sleepy-eyed musicians clutching Monday-morning coffee cups, while downtown Oakland glistened through large windows. "So in the end, they have a collection of about 400 individual pieces of musical information about the song. Everything about melody and harmony, rhythm and instrumentation, etc. And it's this sort of musical DNA that connects songs on Pandora.