Careers & Ed: Paid by Pandora - Page 2

How Tim Westergren built the world's smartest jukebox

So when you type a song in, it's using this information to create playlists."

The criteria for these selections, much like Westergren's qualifications for steering this funky music boat across the World Wide Web, have been gathered from scratch.


Born in Minneapolis, Westergren moved to France with his family when he was six years old. He went to high school in England, where he sang in a choir and learned a smattering of instruments: clarinet, bassoon, drums, and the recorder. But school in Europe was too tracked for his tastes, and by age 16 he knew he wanted to return to the United States. In college he majored in political science but kept finding himself drawn further into music.

"I tried a bunch of things out. The last couple of years, though, I really got deep into music and recording technology," Westergren said. With his tousled hair and green sweater, the 41-year-old has the clean-cut but cool appearance you'd expect of an Internet executive. "I went to Stanford as an undergrad, and there's a place there called the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. It's a place where science and music come together. There's a lot of study of sound and sound creation and sound recording, and I [practically] lived there my senior year."

After graduating in '88 and working as a nanny for several years, he began practicing piano eight hours a day, studying with jazz pianist Mark Levine in Berkeley, and performing at the Palo Alto Holiday Inn. But he always played in rock bands, which he says aren't that different from start-up companies, and moved to San Francisco to be closer to the nightlife. He began writing jingles for radio ads; it was a short step from there to composing soundtracks for student films.

"The idea for the Music Genome Project, the whole sort of foundation for Pandora, actually was really hatched when I was a film composer. Because when you're a film composer your job is to figure out someone else's taste. So you'll sit down with a film director with a stack of CDs and play stuff for them and try and learn what they like about music," Westergren said. "Then, as a composer, you've got to go back to your recording studio and write a piece of music they'll like. So what you're doing is, you're transutf8g that feedback into musicological information."

But this was all just pointing in the right direction. There was still no road map, no clear way of making a musical-taste machine profitable. About this time, Westergren read an article about Aimee Mann, the singer-songwriter you may remember for sacrificing her toe in The Big Lebowski or for covering Harry Nilsson's "One" for Magnolia. Mann had a decent fan base from her success with the band 'Til Tuesday, but her record company had shelved her because it didn't think she could sell enough records.

"It was really that article that prompted me to think, 'Wow, if there was a way to let people who like her kind of music know that she had a new album coming out, then maybe she'd release her albums, because you could find the fan base.' That was the original idea: to help connect artists with their audience," Westergren said.

In 1999 he started developing that idea. He sought the business advice of Jon Kraft, a friend from college. Kraft tapped Will Glaser for his computer expertise, and the trio began moving forward with the Music Genome Project, forming Savage Beast Technologies, the name still emblazoned on Pandora's software today.

"We weren't originally a radio station. In the beginning we were actually a recommendation tool," Westergren said.

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