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There’s Good In Pandora’s Box, Too

• October 10, 2009 • 8:06 PM

The founder of pioneering Internet musical-taste-diviner Pandora sees his service as unlocking hidden potentials in the moribund music biz.

Book a flight online and you’ll be offered various add-ons: a hotel room at your destination, a rental car waiting at the airport, tickets to a show, “a mani-pedi,” jokes Tim Westergren, founder of the Internet radio station Pandora.

The music industry could learn something from the travel business, he says.

“The health of your industry depends on your alliances with surrounding industries,” he says. “If you play your cards right and you structure your deals correctly you can get to a point where one and one is greater than two.”

Westergren, a musician himself, started what’s now Pandora a decade ago, as an effort to analyze music to figure out the characteristics that appeal to a listener, with the idea of identifying other songs or artists they’re likely to enjoy. That Music Genome Project powers the Pandora site, which was launched in late in 2005 and now boasts 36 million registered listeners -all without any advertising.

“The audience is looking to us to get it right because as an industry we’re dropping the ball right now,” says Westergren, the headlining speaker at Santa Barbara’s nascent New Noise festival, a West Coast version of Austin’s SXSW, which showcases new bands and offers expert panels on making it in the music business. Westergren, who spends much of his time traveling the country, spreading the word about Pandora and soliciting suggestions from its devoted fans, also addressed budding entrepreneurs at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Technology Management Program a few hours before New Noise.

Many music fans have precisely no sympathy for what they regard as the music industry’s self-inflicted woes. It was too preoccupied with payola scandals and prefabricated pop bands to figure out how to flourish in a new world of music fans who would rather web surf their way to the freshest sounds than rush to their local record store – RIP – for the latest release.

Pandora already offers tools for listeners to keep track of and purchase music they’d never heard of until it streamed out of their PC or iPhone. Westergren envisions other adds-ons. Because Pandora knows – approximately – where you live, listeners could be offered tickets to a band’s local gig, or given the chance to sign up for news about their next tour. Bands could use Pandora to figure out where their fans are, and so where to point their tour bus.

“That’s not pie in the sky,” Westergren says. “We’re just missing the audience.”

He sees eager entrepreneurs lurking like record company scouts at SXSW, poised to seize the new opportunities presented by the thousands of artists that, pre-Pandora and its ilk, wouldn’t have stood a snowball’s chance in a mosh pit of making it onto the airwaves.

“Now they have a shot at a career,” Westergren says, “and they’re going to need all these services:” promotional strategies, merchandizing, and so on.

“There are all these players that are ready to plug into it and thrive,” Westergren says. “One day, when you graduate college and tell mom and dad you’re going to be a musician, they’ll say, ‘That’s a good career.'”

Anna Davison
New Zealand-born and California-based freelance writer Anna Davison specializes in covering science and the environment.

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