Solving the "Finding New Music" Quandary with Pandora

Thereis no doubt that the iTunes Music Store is a great place to shop for tunes. Apple has done an excellent job in creating an atmosphere that makes buying music dangerously easy. The problem is that the store offers such a vast array of music and videos that I have a hard time deciding how to spend my money. Should I buy Nellie Furtadois new sultry sounds, or pick up some of those old Motown tunes that are missing from my collection? Get them all? Get none and buy videos instead? What to do, what to do?

The biggest problem with iTMS, however, is that it has no really good way to discover new music; the store only gives you 30 second peeks at music, which is just not enough to know if a tune youive never heard before is something you want to buy. iTMS does offer free music, highlighted on the siteis iFree Music Tuesdayi. iTMS also lets you publish your playlists for others to check out, or you can sample a playlist created by celebrities. These things do help with finding new sounds, but it really isnit enough. We need a better way.

Some other music services let you "rent" music through a subscription service. This works out well if you like exploring new sounds and donit want to get stuck with something you donit like. The problem is that you still donit know what artist or album among the millions is right for you since you still have to hunt for them. Also, you never own anything with a subscription service; stop paying your monthly fee and the songs youive collected over time are no longer accessible. These services will let you buy songs, however.

One of my favorite sites is Magnatune, which takes an interesting approach to helping listeners discover new music; they let you hear everything on the site for free; individual songs or entire albums or playlists are streamed to you and is played through iTunes. If you discover something you like you can purchase the album (sorry, you canit buy individual songs) for a very reasonable price. Magnatuneis music library is nowhere near as extensive as iTunes, but the independent artists found there offer sounds not found anywhere else.

You can subscribe to a satellite radio service in your quest to find new music, and scan through the different genres available, or listen to regular radio and suffer through commercials.

And, of course, you can always talk to friends and find out what they listen to.

And then thereis the music service called Pandora.

Created in 2000, the founders of Pandora wanted to find a way to help people discover new music. What they came up with was a way to analyze music using 400 different attributes. Once a tune is analyzed its characteristics can then be compared to those of other tunes, and similarities can be found. The theory is that if you like a song then youill likely be interested in other music with similar attributes.

If all of that sounds like a bunch of technical hooey I suggest you reserve your judgement until after you give Pandora a spin. The service is free if you donit mind ads, and music is streamed to you through your browser, so thereis nothing to install. If youid rather do without the ads you can pony up a paltry $36 a year or $12 every 3 months for the service. I have to say that the ads are not that annoying, but $36 bucks a year is pittance for what you get. Think of it as a subscription service that you donit really have to subscribe to.

The Pandora client is the essence of simplicity; once youive registered for an account (one of the simplest registrations Iive gone through. I didnit even have to give up a blood sample or bank statement) you are presented with a window. Enter the name of an artist or a song title and Pandora does the rest.

Pandorais client

Music starts playing almost immediately, usually itis the song or a selection from the artist youive entered. The subsequent musical selections are picked by Pandora using the process I described earlier, and you may be surprised by the songs and artists it picks. Artists that you may have never heard of, and artists that you know playing tunes that you may have never connected to the artist get playtime through Pandora. Itis fun just to see what Pandora picks next.

There really isnit a better way to find new music on the Internet.

Tim Westergren, founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Pandora said this about his hopes for the service his company offers, " I think our most fundamental impact will be to broaden and deepen the catalogue of music that listeners are exposed to, and to reach a wide audience. My hope is that we kick off the birth of a musiciansi middle class."

Browse the Pandora Web site and youill find information about the Music Genome Project, on which Pandora is based. Youill also find an area called iBackstagei, which is a music search engine, letting you find information on all sorts of artists and songs.

As Pandora goes through its generated playlist if you donit care for a particular song you can give it the thumbs down and Pandora stops playing the tune and loads up another. You can also give a selection a ithumbs upi, which leaves it in your list, or you can bring up a menu which lets you get more info about the song, album, or artist. If you really like the song you can elect to buy from or the album from iTunes or Amazon.

The end result is that Pandora will adjust itself to include tunes that are more to your liking, and youill have a playlist that contains musical selections that you like.

Pandorais menu options

Want more convenience? You can get a Squeezebox from Slim Devices and listen to Pandora selections through your home stereo.

Pandora isnit stopping there, however. "There is certainly plenty of room for improvement here - ibuy alli (songs in the playlist) for starters," Tim Westergren said of future improvements to Pandora. "Over time, it would also make sense for us to find alternative commerce partners for music not available on these (iTunes, Amazon) sites - which represents a very large percentage of our catalogue.

And what is generally is store for Pandora? "Three main focus areas: mobility, community, international," offered Mr. Westergren.

I canit wait.

Stop by Pandora and give the service a whirl. Good stuff there. Really good stuff.