How Tim Westergren built the world's smartest jukebox
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Before Tim Westergren founded the Music Genome Project and Pandora, an online radio stationmusic recommendation site that's developed a cultlike following, he had no idea what he was going to do for a living. After all, how do you prepare for a job that doesn't exist yet?
He wasn't like the scores of people who go through school with specific goals in mind for instance, major in computer science or business administration, get an entry-level position, start climbing the corporate ladder to become an engineer or manager, and acquire a 401(k).
No, for the venture capitalist, for the entrepreneur, life is more abstract. Westergren's career path was blazed on a hunch and an intense passion for music, which he'd loved ever since learning to play piano in the suburbs of Paris as a child.
"It's more, kind of, personal instinct," Westergren said when asked how he found his niche. "Looking around thinking, 'OK, the problem that I have and that all my friends and everyone I know has is that they love music but they have a hard time finding new stuff.' That's the problem that just about every single adult faces. I also knew, as a musician, that there was an awful lot of really great music around that nobody was hearing because it was all buried. And so I figured, 'Gosh, there's got to be an opportunity in there of connecting those two.'<0x2009>"
If you don't happen to be one of the many people who have already pledged their allegiance to Pandora's wide selection of music and uncanny ability to predict what other artists you might like, let me explain.
At its simplest, Pandora is Internet radio with a brain. Signing up is free and surprisingly quick. Then you choose an artist or song as your "station," and music begins to play. Each successive song is chosen by Pandora, creating a customized streaming playlist based on the attributes of the songs you've chosen (and on whether or not you like the songs the site chooses for you). If you like Manu Chao, Pandora might play Los Cafres next. If you start a station around Weezer, Pandora might recommend a song by Jimmy Eat World. If you like Prince, you'll probably soon be jamming to the Time. And if your Nine Inch Nails station is playing too much hard, dark Marilyn Manson, you can give feedback that'll lead the station toward a more melodic NIN relative, like Tool.
It's this system the combination of radio station and the Music Genome Project, which offers carefully crafted music recommendations based on your tastes that sets Pandora's suggestions apart from those of other music sites.
"We've created a taxonomy of musical attributes that kind of collectively describe a song," Westergren said, sitting in the main room of Pandora's headquarters, which looks like a computer lab crossed with a record store thanks to rows of computer stations backdropped by stacks of CDs. He showed me an example, clicking on a tune by Chet Baker at one of the stations. A form popped up on the flat screen, filled with about 40 drop-down menu fields rating musical characteristics. One, for example, says "Fixed to Improvised" and lets the user rate a song from 1 to 10 on that scale. A graphic at the bottom of the screen shows that this is the first of seven pages.
"An analyst goes through and scores each one of these, one by one," Westergren said. Around him the stations were speckled with sleepy-eyed musicians clutching Monday-morning coffee cups, while downtown Oakland glistened through large windows. "So in the end, they have a collection of about 400 individual pieces of musical information about the song. Everything about melody and harmony, rhythm and instrumentation, etc. And it's this sort of musical DNA that connects songs on Pandora. 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. "You know how Amazon has 'If you buy this book, you should also read these books?' We thought we were going to be that kind of a recommendation tool used on other sites to help people find stuff."
The company got its first push in January 2000, when a few angel investors, or wealthy individuals, loaned it enough money to start developing software. It was on its way, but there was still no clear moneymaking mechanism, and for years the company ran on faith and credit cards. After a while cofounders Glaser and Kraft decided they had to move on. Westergren stuck with the project and kept looking for investors.
"I had been pitching venture funds for a couple of years. I had pitched over 300 times to different venture firms. I didn't get a yes until 2004," Westergren said.
That was when Pandora.com was created, the Music Genome Project was plugged into personalized radio stations, ad space started selling, and revenue began to flow. It's also when Westergren's idea was paired with the shift the Internet has taken toward interactive marketing. Today Pandora has offices in Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York and sells ads connected to sounds that consumers like and therefore products to consumers. The field of interactive marketing is booming, and Westergren says anyone looking to break into Internet radio should first look into a background in advertising.
Then again, you could just follow his example: use your instincts and see what develops.
Tim Westergren is traveling the country promoting Pandora with town hall meetings. See blog.pandora.com/pandora for information.