Opening the box on Pandora (now with video!)

Last night at VCU’s Grace Street Theater, Pandora founder Tim Westergren hosted a Listener Meetup for Richmond’s Pandora users, cheerfully explaining the company’s history, vision, and taking questions from the audience of about 100 local fans…

For most people, discovering Pandora Radio is like discovering a third arm you never knew you needed: life-changing, addictive, and impossible to live without. It knows me! It knows what I like before I do! Peering inside your head to discern your unique musical tastes, Pandora provides a steady diet of old favorites and new flames via the streaming glory of the Interwebs.

It’s no surprise then that its users are passionate, even as they multiply exponentially thanks to the power of blogs and Twitter streams. Last night at VCU’s Grace Street Theater, Pandora founder Tim Westergren tapped into that enthusiasm when he hosted a Listener Meetup for Richmond’s Pandora users, cheerfully explaining the company’s history, vision, and taking questions from the audience of about 100 local fans.

While Pandora Radio has been around for almost 4 years, Westergren launched the engine that powers Pandora, the Music Genome Project, in 2000. This is the brain behind the beauty, a complex set of algorithms that offers terrifyingly accurate musical suggestions based on the stuff you already like. I once tried to guess how Pandora measured and rated the qualities of each song in its database in order to provide these recommendations; my theory involved Alistair Crowley’s influence on modern mathematics and a complex race of super computers destined to destroy all life as we know it. Alas, the truth as explained by Westergren is even more shocking: each song in Pandora’s database is reviewed by one of 60 trained professional musicians and scored on 400 (!!!) different musical attributes.

That’s right: before the computers and the code take over, every song gets a listen from a human being. And that human touch, more than anything else, has been the foundation for Pandora’s vision. When asked if Pandora would ever offer users lists of trending bands or top songs, Westergren answered frankly, “We have kind of an allergy to ‘Top’ lists of any kind. We think that’s part of the problem.” With broadcast radio limited to a very few artists, he sees Pandora as a way to give more bands exposure to a wider audience. “We don’t want to take popularity and perpetuate it.” (Applause, cheers, I think I heard a w00t!)

Westergren’s own history as a “working musician” includes years on the road touring with bands as well as experience composing film scores. He described his frustration at a system that made it impossible for most acts to earn a decent living. “Our goal is to create a musician’s middle class,” he says. “We’re interested in not only what we can do for listeners, but also for musicians.” When asked about offering artists information about how Pandora users were responding to their music, Westergren replied that those features were in the works. Bands would be able to see which of their songs had been “thumbed up” or “thumbed down,” and know where they were getting the most listens “so you can point your van in that direction.”

Which, hopefully, would include Richmond. Audience members were enthusiastic about any Pandora features that would let their favorite acts know they had fans in the River City, which is often overlooked on east coast tours that include nearby Charlottesville or Washington, DC. For his part, Westergren is ready to do more than help artists get radio listeners. “Would you sign up for opt-in emails about bands Pandora thinks you’d like that are playing here in Richmond?” he asked. Hands shot up around the theater. “Yesssss!!!”

That kind of enthusiasm revealed the confidence at Pandora, which now has almost 30 million users. Yet just a year and a half ago, the company was on the verge of collapse after updates to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act tripled performance royalties owed by internet radio stations and made Pandora’s business model virtually unfeasible. Westergren gratefully described the impact of the grassroots effort Pandora users (then just 4 million) launched on Congress to save the service, including 400,000 faxes and constant phone calls to representatives. “They were overwhelmed,” he said. “They couldn’t use their phones!” The result was the Internet Radio Equality Act, designed to overturn the higher fees and make it possible for internet radio to compete against broadcast and satellite radio stations. Westergren says that internet content companies, including Pandora, are concluding negotiations that will bring performance royalty fees back “to a more reasonable level.”

So for now, your favorite genie-in-a-WiFi -bottle is safe and sound and more popular than ever, adding 65,000 new users every day, most of them on mobile devices like the iPhone and the BlackBerry. And while they aren’t profitable yet, Westergren says that’s about to change too. “We can see profitability on the horizon,” he said. “We’re on a pretty good path.”

See Jolie O’Dell‘s (of ReadWriteWeb) interview with Tim below (Thanks, Jolie!)

Video Interview with Pandora Founder Tim Westergren from ReadWriteWeb on Vimeo.

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Wren Lanier

Wren Lanier likes making trouble and eating bagels, not necessarily in that order. You can follow her wildly inappropriate comments on Twitter.

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