Pandora co-founder Tim Westergren came to Minneapolis Thursday night for a town-hall meeting, which drew a standing-room crowd of more than 300 in a banquet room at the Graves 601 Hotel.
He spoke for about 40 minutes and then entertained questions for at least that long. In essence, it was a focus group
for Pandora conducted by one of its poobahs.
Most invitees – they were subscribers and such musicians as Connie Evingson, Stacy B and Sheri Hixon who are featured on Pandora – received a lovely parting gift of a “I (heart) Pandora” T-shirt. There weren’t enough T’s to go around so Westergren asked for the empty-handed to send emails and they would be mailed T-shirts.
Here’s what you might want to know about Pandora’s chief strategist and the popular but still unprofitable (according to him) Internet radio.
Look at his name. Of course, he’s one of us. Westergren was born in Minneapolis, spent his first six years in Excelsior and then moved to France for four years and England for six. His father was in marketing for Pillsbury. But Westergren still has many relatives here. He gave shout-outs during mid-sentence to cousin Brooks, Uncle Hank and others who showed up.
Westergren, who, in the early 1990s used to play keyboards in a San Francisco indie-rock band YellowWood Junction for which Train opened, came up with the idea for Pandora when he was composing music for films. He kept analyzing different aspects of the music to try to match it to scenes of the movie.
That gave him the idea to create an Internet engine that suggests certain songs based on qualities in songs that a listener already likes.
Westergren, who got his degree from Stanford in political science and then worked as a nanny/musician, kicked the idea around with a college pal, Will Glaser, who majored in computer science, physics and math. They came up with the Music Genome Project.
Pandora analyzes music on 450 different characteristics, including 30 alone for voice (timbre, enunciation, etc.).
The Oakland-based firm has a staff of curators (some are current or former radio DJs) and techies. The input is about 50 percent musical, 50 percent technical. Listener ratings (thumbs up, thumbs down) also affect the programming.
Westergren, 46, was witty and informal (he dropped a few f-bombs in front of his relatives). He talked about a 90-something Pandora subscriber at a Des Moines town meeting who thought Pandora was merely a marching-band music station.
He told about one subscriber who complained via e-mail that his Sarah McLachlan station (it’s really a glorified playlist) introduced him to a Celine Dion song and he hates Celine Dion -- but eventually came around to liking that song.
Westergren can be a music guy and a geek at the same time. In an interview, I asked him how Pandora analyzed fun.’s hit song “We Are Young,” which starts out with alt-rock sounding verses and explodes into a top-40 chorus.
“That’s called tiling. When a song has multiple sections, you’ll analyze them all discreetly. Then you’ll also analyze the form of music so you understand compositionally, it has different components. Then you figure out what the relative prominence or importance of the pieces is. And then you decide which one is the defining component or defining tile, and it becomes the anchor of that song’s definition. I haven’t launched a station with that song on it. I’ll have to go check the thumbs ratio on it.”
Hear Tim Westergren make music with YellowWood Junction