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Pandora staff – not computers – analyze 10,000 songs each month

By Vignesh Ramachandran | 27 Mar 2012

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Pandora senior music analyst Michelle Alexander has been with the internet radio leader, since almost the beginning. (Courtesy: Pandora Media, Inc.)

Pandora Media, Inc. senior music analyst Michelle Alexander says the music analyst job description at the Oakland-based company was designed with professional and semi-professional musicians in mind.

Imagine: listening to music all day for the most popular Internet radio company, while still playing music and touring—a dream job for some musicians.

In a growing landscape of Internet radio competitors, Pandora  (NYSE: P) still takes the clear lead with a 69 percent Internet radio market share among the top 20 stations and networks, according to Triton Digital. The core of its service today remains The Music Genome Project, an initiative that the company touts as bringing together “musicians and music-loving technologists,” since its founding in 2000.

Alexander said she has “seen it all,” having been on board at Pandora within eight months of its founding by Tim Westergren, the company’s current chief strategy officer.

“At the time we only had the pop genome,” Alexander explained. “We didn’t have any of the other music genomes. So we just did pop.”

The premise of The Music Genome Project is “genome” categories developed around genres of music. Think of genomes like the DNA analysis of a song—mapping hundreds of specific attributes based on careful analysis of the music.

Plug in a song, artist, composer or genre into Pandora and a station is instantly created. This allows for a personalized music listening experience, as well as a process of discovery—hearing new artists that might be musically similar or compatible to your tastes.

More than a decade since its founding, Pandora has many more genomes beyond pop, including classical, world, Celtic, Indian, African, jazz and electronic/hip-hop/rap/dance.

These genomes are among what encompass Pandora’s library of more than 350 genres, 900,000 tracks and 90,000 artists.

Today, 26 music analysts go through thousands of songs, one by one, rating various music attributes. There are between 200 and 450 attributes for a song, according to Alexander, and pop is among the simplest. She said that the classical genome is fairly elaborate, while world music is the most elaborate.

“We basically just work pretty hard at making sure we’re all describing these things in a very uniform sort of way,” Alexander said.

Analysts rate music attributes on a five-point scale, and Alexander estimates each song takes between ten minutes to a half-an-hour to process.

“If I’m analyzing a new age solo piano track, there’s really a lot less to think about than if I’m analyzing a Frank Zappa tune,” she said. “Or if I’m analyzing a symphony by Mahler compared to a Mozart piano sonata. It kind of depends on sort of: how kitchen sinky is it?”

Analysts listen to and dissect more than 10,000 songs a month. As the senior analyst for classical and pop music at Pandora, Alexander checks the analysts’ work.

“It’s sort of my job to kind of coral the scoring and make sure that the herd stays together and thinks as one,” she explained.

Alexander likens her job to that of a librarian.

Each month, Pandora music analysts go through and analyze more than 10,000 songs. (Courtesy: Pandora Media, Inc.)

“It’s like we sort of have a very elaborate Dewey decimal system of sort of describing music,” she explained.

Music can be subjective, however. When looking at something like rhythmic syncopation in music, “you ask five different people, you get five different answers,” Alexander said.

This is why Alexander says the analysts stay in communication with each other and periodically analyze the same song together to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

“Everyone gets trained to analyze individual music genomes for different styles of music,” she said. “There’s a pretty rigorous training that people go through.”

To become one of Pandora’s music analysts, applicants must take a test and be able to demonstrate skills of identifying and judging music.

What each one of the company’s 49 million active users hear is a combination of both the music genomes and user feedback in an algorithm. When listening to a song on Pandora, users can give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ to a particular song. Feedback of more than 15 billion thumbs, since Pandora’s launch, is incorporated to further personalize a station for a listener.

“I think that’s what has kept me here for this long is…I think it’s really cool,” Alexander said. “And I want to see it do even greater things in the future.”

The company’s lucrative technology is going beyond music these days. In 2011, Pandora incorporated comedy stations, launching the Comedy Genome Project.

Musical roots

A musician herself, with a background in classical music and jazz, Alexander sings and plays the piano and keyboard.

“Music got me into music. You know I was crazy about it as a kid, I was just crazy about it,” she said.

Having just launched a record with her band “LikeLove,” Alexander said she created a Pandora station around her own band just to see what the technology would match to it.

She also listens to the classical stations, but admits that, musically, she’s “pretty all over the map.”

Even as a music analyst, Alexander said she listens to Pandora and sometimes wonders why a song is playing.

“I kind of run it through my head and just kind of ponder why it is,” she said. “I think that a lot of people share that experience, even if they’re not even that sort of cognizant that they’re going through it—you know, that they’re having that experience while listening. They’re kind of connecting, seeing the connections in their head.”

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