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Pandora Killed the Radio Star (again)

by Omar on July 28, 2011

in Article, Editorials

Just a few short years ago, I moved to the western suburbs (or boonies, actually) of Atlanta.  I then started to scan the FM stations looking for who was playing the music of my choice (mostly of the ‘classic rock’ genre).  Since my job required commuting, I wanted to be listening to music that would keep me somewhat sane during the long drives.

I found three stations that were close to what I was looking for.  One station played a lot of the classic ‘pop rock’ songs that were so commonly played mostly during the 70’s.  The other had a more hard rock modern edge.  Both stations were on the fringes of what I could stand listening to – when I was in the mood for it.

The third station was the one Goldilocks may have liked (‘just right!’).  It played more of the songs from the bands I enjoyed growing up, such as Yes, Rush, Van Halen, Def Leppard, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, The Who, etc.  Since this listening experience was new to me in my new area of residence, I felt compelled to call the evening DJ and compliment them on their song selection.  He was very friendly, and we spent a few minutes talking about our similar tastes and why he liked working for that station.  He mentioned that this station was more flexible in their repertoire, not like some other stations whose song selection was more limited due to ‘management decisions’ and what not.  I concurred.

I’m not sure what it is about hearing a song you like on the radio that makes you want to listen, even though you have the CD (or mp3) and you can play it any time you like.  My theory is that when a radio station selects a song you like, you know that potentially thousands upon thousands of other listeners are sharing that song with you, sort of like saying to all those other listeners, “Yup, that’s right, they’re playing my song!”  It gives some sort of satisfaction knowing that someone else is playing your song, and everyone else has to listen to it!

Anyway, since this station catered to my musical sensibilities, I on occasion would call in a request, like many listeners do.  My favorite band is Rush, so I decided to request a song that I knew was released as a hit from their latest recording.  I believe Vapor Trails was Rush’s latest release at the time, so I requested what I knew was released as a single (per the news outlets, web sites in the know, etc.).  I requested “One Little Victory” or “Ceiling Unlimited” (I don’t remember which, but they were released to radio stations).  As I was then listening to the station for when my request would be played, I’d hear a song like “Tom Sawyer” (from Moving Pictures, 1981).  Yes, it’s a great song, but that’s not what I requested!

I didn’t think much of it at the time.  The next time I felt like calling in a request, I selected a song that I knew was a release from Rush’s latest CD again (by this time it was Snakes & Arrows [2007]), “Far Cry”.  When my Rush song came up, it was not what I requested, but “Subdivisions” from their Signals record (1982).  Ok, really, what’s going on here?

At this point I decided to try a little test.  I would hear the station as much as I could, and see what Rush songs would be played over time.  After doing this for a while, I discovered that the same songs were played over and over again, and nothing played after the aforementioned Signals record.  Not only that, but for all the bands I liked, it was the same songs over and over again.  After I confirmed this tendency, I decided to try something else.

I requested Rush songs that were not too new, but were singles released from their records.  For example, I requested “Force Ten” from Hold Your Fire (1987), “The Big Money” from Power Windows (1985), and “Distant Early Warning” from Grace Under Pressure (1984) – all songs I knew were released for radio at the time of the record’s release.  Frustratingly, every time I made such a request, the typical Rush song would be played – nothing later than 1982, and always those same songs.  At least I never heard them play anything else.

I had somewhat of an epiphany at this time.  I’m sure many knew that that’s how radio stations play their songs, but it didn’t hit me until this moment.  Radio stations don’t necessarily play what you want to hear, but they’ll play songs they know you like, so you’ll at least hear the commercials.  I don’t blame any business for trying to attract customers, but as for me, I became a non-fan of radio right then and there.  I wasn’t playing that game anymore.

But still, the allure of having someone else play music you like was still very appealing to me.  How nice of someone to play my type of music!  But as much as I love Rush, I can’t hear the same songs over and over again.  Why can’t a station play songs like “The Analog Kid”, “Double Agent”, or “Driven”?  (Admittedly, these songs may not have been ‘released’ for radio play, but even the ones that were, were not being played!  Also admittedly, I’m not privy to the criteria or regulations that radio stations need to abide by to play certain songs over the airwaves.)  You the reader (or listener) have your favorite bands as well.  I’m sure you would love to hear a song played on the radio that would make you exclaim with glee, “I’ve never heard them play that song before!”  Alas, that was not going to happen on the radio.

Enter Pandora


At this time I was now searching for a way to listen to the music I wanted to hear, when I wanted to hear it.  Of course, iPod’s abounded, but to me, that was just too much work!  Going through all my music on CD, ripping the songs from them to create mp3’s, setting up playlists, copying to the iPod (or any mp3 player, for that matter), was just too much hassle.  I had found, some time before the above-mentioned experiment, RushRadio.org, which plays all music that Rush has produced throughout their entire career, including their solo projects.  But it was just Rush music, and I wanted variety.  Eventually, however, I stumbled upon Pandora – what a revelation!

Pandora is the best of both worlds – songs you like, played for you by someone else!  For those of you not in the know, here’s the gist of how Pandora works:

Pandora allows you to set up ‘stations’ where you can have them play only the type of music you like, from the artists you like (and some artists and songs you may have never heard before!).  For example, my favorite genre of music is ‘progressive rock’.  You set up the new station by selecting either the band you like (in my case I selected Rush), or a particular song you like in that genre.  From that point forward, Pandora selects, from a vast database of music, songs that are similar to the song or band you set up initially.  So instead of playing the same songs from your favorite band over and over again, it will play many more songs from that band that are not played on the radio, plus all sorts of other songs in the same genre.  Pandora bases its choices on your choices*, instead of some executive’s choices who’s only worrying about their bottom line (again, nothing wrong with that, but that results in music you get tired of hearing).  What is the result of hearing music this way?

A whole new world of music opens up to you!  You are exposed to songs you’ve never heard before, great songs, making you wonder where you’ve been all your life.  🙂  In my case, I’ve always known that there was a ‘classic’ Genesis, but I never really had the desire to expand my taste in progressive rock past Rush and Yes, at least as far as an investment in time.  Of course I’d heard songs from many other bands of that genre:  King Crimson, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull, Kansas, etc., but not to the point where I would spend time and money listening to their entire catalog.  However, one day listening to my Progressive Rock station Pandora selected Genesis’ “The Fountain of Salmacis” from their record Nursery Cryme (1971), and I was blown away. This was fantastic music!  Why hadn’t I heard this before?  Because radio would never play something like that.  The music wasn’t ‘radio friendly’, so you’d never hear it.

And there’s the rub, as they say.  I think radio stations are very much afraid of straying from the ‘mainstream’ of music.  If they play something they perceive to be too ‘out there’, they will not play it, hence negatively affecting their listening audience numbers, and by extension their revenue.  That may or may not be true – I’m not savvy in that market.  But I know this for sure:  if radio stations played songs like “The Fountain of Salmacis”, I’d be listening to them right now.

Pandora has other features that make it even more of a pleasurable listening experience.  If you don’t like the song selected, you can just click the ‘thumbs down’ icon, and that song will never be played again.  However, if you really, really, really like the song selected, you can click the ‘thumbs up’ icon, and not only will it be more likely that you’ll hear that song again, but Pandora continues to tailor your station to your likes.  Be careful with the ‘thumbs down’, though.  If you thumb down the same artist twice, you’ll not hear that artist again.  However, if you just don’t want to hear the song currently selected, you can ‘skip forward’ to the next song.  The free version of Pandora allows six skips per hour and up to 25 stations (and includes commercials, but they are few and far enough between not to bother much; and they’re short).  The paid version ($36/yr) permits unlimited skips, no commercials, higher quality audio, and more.

As far as music goes, I see Pandora as a better service than, say, SiriusXMTM, because even though SiriusXM has many music stations that are genre specific and they’ll play more songs not typically played on traditional radio, their playlist is still selected by someone else.  Pandora will over time tailor the music it plays for you based on your choices.  Plus the fact that you can play your Pandora stations on a slew of home devices and on the go, well, it’s really one of the best ways to listen to your music, bar none.

Pandora opens ‘musical doors’, if you will, in another way.  If you’re an amateur musician, such as one who likes to record drum covers, Pandora can give you a whole host of ideas on musical direction that you might not have been exposed to before.  I’ve created a list of songs I’d like to cover that most likely I would never have heard if not for Pandora.  If you tend to play by ear especially, you’ll hear songs you’ll never hear on the radio, and it just may inspire you to try out music from other musicians that are just as good, or even better, than the ones you’ve been accustomed to hearing.

Now, I don’t want this article to sound like an advertisement for Pandora – it actually is not. Pandora just happens to be an extremely useful tool that I’ve found for discovering great music that otherwise would not be found via traditional streams of music.  Don’t just check out Pandora though – do a Google search on, say, ‘Pandora alternative’, and see what other services there are similar to Pandora that may be right for you.  Spotify may be one service that you might want to check out.

For those who remember, MTV’s maiden voyage video way back in August of 1981 was “Video Killed the Radio Star”, by The Buggles.  Many thought that video would indeed spell the end of songs being played on the radio, but obviously that was overreaching a bit.  Radio stuck around, and it does to this day.  But video did kill the radio star in this sense:  we no longer needed to depend on radio to play for us the music we wanted – other sources were available, and even more interesting and engaging at that!

But you can’t drive and watch video (well, you can, but you shouldn’t), so at least as far that goes, maybe video didn’t kill the radio star, just injured it.  Ah, but now we have the likes of Pandora, where you can hear the music you want to hear wherever you are:  at work, at home, and in the car, on a plethora of devices including your cell/smartphone – and that you can take with you anywhere.

Once in a while, just for kicks, I go back to FM radio, to the station mentioned in this article, to see if I hear anything different.  I kid you not, every time it’s a song I’ve heard a million times already.  I try to give it the benefit of the doubt (no really, I do!), but that tired and worn out radio set list borders on insulting to my intelligence.  Radio stations:  stop sitting on the sidelines – get up and dance!  Instead of playing Genesis’ “Land of Confusion”, play “Dance on a Volcano”!  Or instead of playing Rush’s “Closer to the Heart”, play “Nocturne”!  Those will surely get your audience’s attention.

So, ‘video killed the radio star’, and Pandora killed the radio star (again).  What’s the use of FM radio then?  I almost dismissed FM radio entirely, until the local news and talk AM radio station started transmitting their programming on FM.  So I’ll be using my FM radio for now, but not for music.  Will Pandora or similar services begin transmitting local news stations too?  If that happens, FM radio’s days indeed are numbered.

__________
*For a little more background as to how this process is set up, see The Music Genome Project, the seed of Pandora).

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jeff September 21, 2011 at 8:59 am

Hi Omar,
I’ve recently had the same ah-ha moment. When I first really got into Pandora I was unhappy with the mix thinking “I want Rush,play Rush”. But after I used it awhile I found their choices of similar artists, with my help from thumbing, very good. I now look forward to the “other” artists they play.
Jeff

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