Pandora, now a year down the road from me.

About a year ago I lost my job at Pandora. I worked there for about 3 years. In the period before that, I had gone to graduate school at Mills College in Oakland, from 2001-03, and then taught at Ohlone College in Fremont (ProTools/Recording) and at the College of Marin in Kentfield (Music Theory and “Desktop Musicianship”, which is also computer music and recording. Also during this time, Camper Van Beethoven was active recording and touring (“New Roman Times” came out in 2004) and I made several albums myself (mostly rock music, some electronic/computer music) and as Chaos Butterfly (electro-acoustic improv).

In other words, I was very musically active. I also worked a couple days a week at a Red Hill Books, a used bookstore in San Francisco!

Then the repercussions of the 2008 economic crisis boiled down to the State of California level and by summer of 2009, none of my teaching contracts were renewed and I realized I probably couldn’t get by on $12/hour from a couple shifts at bookstores. So I applied to work at Pandora, an Oakland company, which would mean no commuting to SF or Marin or wherever, as we lived in Oakland. We left for Sweden for a month in the summer, we had already purchased tickets before I learned of having no job.

So, because of or despite my background, they hired me… I say ‘because of’ because I think they sort of wanted the cachet of having semi-famous musicians working for them, but despite because, regardless of my years of music education and experience, they really only wanted me to answer customers’ emails. So I became a sort of tech-support person. I obviously did have a lot of computer knowledge, having taught computer music and writing SuperCollider code for making music and such. (I actually was a certified Mac Tech also…) My title was “Listener Advocate”. Ostensibly, that meant I advocated on behalf of the listeners to the company.

A lot of what we did was spin, of course. The product (Pandora, the application or website) always was a little buggy in some way, and a bunch of that had to do with the constraints put on it to make money. When they started as Pandora a few years earlier, I had signed up immediately. Then Tim Westergren started blogging about how they needed to lobby for low royalty rates to be in business, which I thought was weird. They got the rates set in 2007, good through 2015. When I started in 2009, they started putting a 40-hour cap on free (ad-supported) listening, after which you could pay $0.99 to listen for the rest of the month. Fair enough, they also had to pay for server time and stuff. So we had to explain that stuff to listeners a bunch. And fix their issues with that.

Not very satisfying, actually. So I branched out, and did a bunch of audio editing (silences at ends of classical pieces, excessive audience noise on live tracks, fades on endless dance cd mix tracks) and joined the curation team for Independent Submission listening.

Indie subs, that was cool. I wanted to be in the curation department to begin with, I mean especially with my background. Here’s a great thing about Pandora, a thing that is maligned in the tech press: they are a curated collection. The big numbers are always bandied about, like, oh, Spotify has a zillion tracks while Pandora only has a million. But the real problem with the internet music phenomenon is that people are having trouble with music discovery, especially now that you can’t go to the record store anymore, and so many labels that were themselves curators can no longer function economically. So having a curated collection is actually a good thing, folks.

Listening to what people sent in was very interesting, from the horrific to the amazing. We tried to follow a rule of “would listeners of this kind of music accept this in the stream”, which was tough. For example, how do you judge new age piano music? If it’s interesting musically, it isn’t actually working in the context. Of course, there were some stunning things sent in as well.

This whole thing went up and down, of course, depending on whether the company would allow us to do it. Sometimes, there were big problems with the app so we had to simply concentrate on fixing peoples’ listening ability. Sometimes we just couldn’t allow more indie subs into the analysis pool, because the analysts had to catch up on their music queue. (All music that enters the collection is analyzed by human music analysts for the Music Genome Project database. It’s fairly well documented, the MGP, but it’s like each characteristic is mapped on a scale of 1 to 5, and there are 100-400 possible characteristics depending on the style of music. In theory, music that is similar should have similar scores on a  multi-dimensional graph. In reality, there is human variation in analysis, of course, and also the Genome recommendation engine might pick music similarity from a characteristic that isn’t the most obvious one, for example…)

So, beyond just telling people to “clear your Flash local storage” or “have you tried turning it off and then on again?”, a lot of people complain that they aren’t getting the right music in the stream. We answered mail with specified answers that we wrote and then we all would use. I ended up writing a bunch on station tuning, for instance. I can explain some answers here to some of the common problems, if you want. But the main problem is really that listeners don’t actually want music discovery…

inside the Oakland office.

 

Most of the time when people wrote about this it was because they would get music in the stream that was simply wrong, and almost always it was because they added a “bad” seed to the station. It was sort of fun to track it down. Very, very occasionally, it was our fault, where a song had some flag wrong that made it bring in, say, Latin music into an R&B setting, but that was actually very rare. Most of the time it was people not paying attention to what they were actually adding. The best was when people wanted, say, opera arias sung by Pavarotti, and they added the Anal Cunt song “Pavorotti”. Anal Cunt made some amazing noise with songs named after slight misspellings of other music, like “Greatful Dead”. So awesome, like a reward for being stupid. People would write saying “this is horrible noise and it’s supposed to be opera!”

The playlist algorithm committee met every week, mostly the executives of the various branches of the company, and then the algorithm that did the actual song selection was changed, usually for a small percentage of listeners, then reassessed based on their listening session lengths, then rolled out to more. The idea was never to make the song selection qualitatively better, but rather, as this is a company, to make the playlists quantitatively better, that is to say: more people listening for longer periods of time in a session.

I suppose that seems well and good, but the problem is of course that people in general are ignorant. And that makes popular music idiotic, for the most part. And when people are never exposed to anything different, that is all that they want. So giving people what they want just created the lowest common denominator of entertainment. I handled a lot of the intense listeners who were concerned when, for example, Philip Glass or some film music played on their classical music stations. I had a long discussion with the playlist folks, and ultimately Joe Kennedy, the CEO, said he thought that was the genome working, if Philip Glass was chosen (by using the same chord structures as the “moonlight sonata” over and over again, played on “classical instrumentation”.) I argued that the composition itself was a major indicator of the classical period, and a contemporary minimalist was not creating anything similar. Same with film music, which sounds “classical” to people not educated in actual classical music, and conflating these things just makes the dumb dumber, and contributes to the stultification of the populace. America is already pretty philistine, unfortunately. But no, they weren’t interested in that so long as asses were in the seats listening. Many people wanted filters to limit by era or such things, but that was very low priority. In fact, most engineering time went to ad serving, bigger and better advertising, as the company made money by selling advertising (and a small amount by selling subscriptions to Pandora One, which eliminated advertising.)

(This may sound like Joe Kennedy, the CEO at the time [he just ‘stepped down’ this month, I don’t know why], was just a money guy, but that’s not true at all. Though he did lead the company through becoming a publicly traded company, he was very much a music person, and a very thoughtful person. When I talked with him about things, I believe he actually listened. I don’t have the impression that Tim, contrarily, ever really heard anyone else outside of his own set of buzz words. I wonder if Tim is a Scientologist?  By the way, If you look here at the company profile on Business Week, you’ll see that Joe’s annual salary is $730k… 20x what I was making.)

If you ever write to support at Pandora about how to create classical stations, I bet they still use the things I wrote to people. In fact, I was even on the list still for “Get Satisfaction” where people who didn’t seem to figure out how write to the support email address wondered why they lose stations or gain unwanted ones. I finally wrote again the other day to say, look, it’s human error on your own part: it’s a fucking database. Excel doesn’t add or take away data on its own, people must do that. In this case it’s almost always because unless you actually sign out of your account before you trade in an old phone, the account is still attached by the phone’s Device ID (like its MAC address), so even if all the info is wiped, that Device ID won’t change, and the next person to get the refurbished device downloads Pandora and voila! All your info is there. They start messing with it. Or, obviously, if you ever sign in on somebody else’s computer at a party and leave it. Of course, people think I’m being insane when I tell them that.

Anyway, needless to say, I was a little at odds with a lot of the corporate mentality, which is never good when you’re working for them. I wanted Pandora to actually be a good product. Some other people that worked there that felt that way too started to disappear.

The playlist people started to realize that to really cater to the mob mentality, they could match songs by crowd sourcing what other listeners had liked as much or more than using the MGP. And the majority of listeners really only wanted the same thing as middle-of-the-dial FM radio, just the hits. Nobody is really interested in music discovery. Which I find sad. The company tagline was “the music you love”, implying that the station would only play music that you loved—whether you knew it or not. Tim Westergren had numerous anecdotes about this that he told in his public proselytizing sessions, like “the listener said his station kept playing Whitney Houston, and he claimed he didn’t like it, but when we asked what else was on the station, it fit perfectly, so he had to admit that maybe he did like her.” or whatever. The playlist tweakers gave us examples of current hits and the genome-picked songs versus the crowd sourced matches, and inevitably the crowd sourced ones sounded closer (which made me think something else must have been wrong in the analysis…? Or that the genome was choosing on too few matching points?) So the intellectual property that drives Pandora to be what it is and not be Last.FM is slowly breaking down as they strive to keep people listening to their Little Wayne or Drake or Katy Perry or whatever has 10 million listeners these days.

So this leads to a second enormous problem: how do you actually discover music if nobody knows it’s there to begin with? If the genome isn’t going to be bringing in the independent submissions or lesser-known music when the playlist is relying on the other listeners, how does it ever get played? Well, it doesn’t. You could try to game it, I guess, like have you and all your friends create stations seeded with Radiohead and Jonathan Segel and then thumb up all the Jonathan Segel songs, I guess, but you’d have to have thousands of people doing that thousands of times (or more) to have any global effect. And even then, what good would it do me, if the royalty rate is still $0.0020 per spin in performance royalties and some unknown rate from some unknown percentage of the company’s net per month from BMI. The “Buy” links usually go to iTunes or Amazon, depending on the platform, I guess that might be good. I wonder if I ever sold any music from what’s played on Pandora.

(This reminds me of something else: during the time I worked there, I had several CDs come out. One that had just come out was “Honey” with a lovely blue cover by Michael Wertz with a picture of a bee on it. They wanted to know if any of the musicians there had CD covers they could use for advertising, so I said, sure, and signed the form. Well, I’ve now seen this CD cover in TV ads for cars that have Pandora on the dash radio, for example. Nope, no royalty for that. They can also use the music…. oh well. Wonder if that sold any music? )

PandoraToyotaHoney

So the next biggest areas of complaint were obviously ads. During the 2010 and 2012 elections, we had lots of people complaining about the ads. We were taking a ton of money from Meg Whitman who was running for governor of California, for example, I thought that was pretty crass. I started a big series of discussions with Tim and Joe about the ideas controlling what we did and did not take advertisements for. I argued that anything other than products or services reaches into advertising some specific dogma or political thrust, especially given that Tim was publicly political on behalf of the company. He argued that he was fundamentally an individual and did not represent the company when he, for example, lobbied on behalf of lowering the royalty rates (I don’t know how he thought this) and that the company would continue to accept the ads that were acceptable to “mass media”. I said that that was not a specific set of guidelines, as we also claimed we didn’t advertise pornography or gambling, but Clear Channel, for example, did. The idea that the words “mass media” actually meant something was basically a cypher for any executive’s understanding of what that might mean and was not an actual thing. This made Tim mad. He thought I was pushing him, and to a certain extent I was, because what he was saying had no real meaning. Tim says things that sound like they mean something, but really they are, a lot of times, a sugar coating that covers some other agenda. See, for example, his recent getting into bed with Clear Channel over the IRFA propositions. He wrote to the listeners to try to convince them that reducing royalty payments would ultimately be better for artists somehow…. He told me that he would hash it out with me, as he was “a student of Chomsky” (?) but he never actually did. Instead, he complained about me to the head of engineering, who was at this point the head of where I worked also. So I got on the shit list starting there.

I don’t really want to attack anyone specifically, especially as I’m not allowed to by the terms of my severance agreement. I will say that Tim always smelled a little too much like soap, and that alone made him untrustworthy as far as I’m concerned. But also, I simply didn’t think that the resolution of this was acceptable. I still don’t think it’s ok to advertise for dogmatic things, and yes, I  think that regardless of whether or not some TV station will advertise for politicians that doesn’t make it ok to do it too. Why be the same? Why not carve one’s own path in the media, make something that is truly good for the future. Change what the fucking mass media is, if you think you’re part of it.

So the head of engineering was a pretty mellow cat, (for a jock,) though he had no compunction about any morality involved in anything we did. Bottom line for him was making sure everybody worked well together and we got money. (And he was a UCSC grad also, though east-side colleges.) For example, people thought that ad tracking on mobile devices was an invasion of privacy, and it took a long time to get any information on what was really going on and what we could say to listeners officially, because, for him, the listeners didn’t really matter much*. He told me to calm down, sort of, that Tim had said that I had “disrespected him”. (I really do now, much more than at the time!) He told me that in life as much as in business, what you say or how you appear matters more than what actually is. I was dumbfounded. So, if his engineers told him, “yeah, that works fine”, when it didn’t, that would be ok? Whatever. Corporate mentality. I can’t abide by it.

*(what actually happens is that the ad server does track your device by its device ID/address to see which ads have been sent during that listening session. Then it deletes the info the next day, it’s useless then. So, if they need your location for location-specific ads, it asks if it can use your location. No personal info is ever being transmitted. This is all normal internet company shenanigans.)

So my immediate manager, let’s call him “Dick”, was originally a dude hired as a warm body when they started to have more listeners writing in, so he’d been there a while before me, and was made manager when our manager “moved on” (possibly too many HR complaints). I still wanted out of the Listener Advocacy area and into analysis or curation, and spent a bunch of time with curation people. But in the corporate world, you know, the managers had been warned about me! And now Dick was in control. What a terrible manager. He really let it go to his head. He would get overwhelmed with things and stop listening or understanding what was happening when there were problems, so that he didn’t catch things said to him and then later would yell at you for doing something you told him you would do…

I was doing my job in the office unless I was on tour, when I would work in the car between gigs (being car sick) and one time he called to yell at me for making a meeting with the people who made the new software we were starting to use for dealing with customers, which I told him about before I left. He was pissed because he didn’t know about the meeting or something, and he told me that he was “fucking sick of my complaining”. Which is obviously the way to treat employees. I get some sort of HR “plan” at this point that says I have to be nice and respectful or something.

(–>later insert: I just was reminded of once when, after working 8 hours a day in the van and airports while on tour one time, (which is literally sickening), I got back to the office and saw Tim W, who said “how’s it going?” I said “I just got back from tour”, he said “Livin’ the dream!” 
I just stopped dead in my tracks and stood there for a minute…)

And there were always issues with what we were and were not allowed to explain to the listeners, which I thought was pretty weird. Many things had to be buzz-worded or veiled about how they actually worked, avoiding any sort of transparency. It felt icky. Take a look at the link at the bottom of this entry.

But here’s where the next issue takes hold. We started hosting ads that were from Speak Up University. This is basically an anti-homosexual Christian hate group that advertises and hold meetings on campuses advocating reverse-discrimination sort of rhetoric against the “homosexual agenda”. Pretty sick shit. So, once again, we had to take this up with the bosses.

So, Tim, is this acceptable for mass media? We managed to convince them that it wasn’t worth it to advertise these sorts of things, as it could backfire publicity-wise. But the ad people take ads for anything, and the ads run the company. This company was expanding madly, they kept making deals with new hardware manufacturers to put Pandora on new hardware, which the people supporting the app didn’t even know, nor knew how it might work. Oh, I forgot to mention that Joe Kennedy led the company to a successful public offering, where the stock opened at $16 a share, then went meteorically up to $24 that first day, before dropping to $8 for the rest of the year. (It’s come back up to about $13 now, highest it’s been!) We little workers got our 500 or 1000 shares, while many of the dudes who’d been there for a long time cashed in a ton. I think 8 million insider shares ware sold in that initial opening when the lock out ended. Yeow! Wish I had that stuff! And in the past year, if you look, you’ll see, for example, Tim selling a million dollars of shares every month, and many others who are cashing out regardless of stock price. Every month.

So as a public company, it’s painfully obvious that money is the bottom line, there is no more concession to being a cool or good product. The shareholders and board control shit. It’s about money. This company and others like it are about money making more money, using music as the medium that is transferred. I wish it were about music, or rather, I really wished Pandora were about music discovery as it had initially started out to be. Now we had to organize like a real company, so we had to hire a new “Customer Service Manager” above all of us that interacted with the public. In some nod to being cool, those of us who would be under this person interviewed them. I was not impressed with the guy, also named “Dick”, though bigger, let’s call him “Big Dick”. I wrote a pretty big review stating that he didn’t have any idea what we actually did, and that in fact, the listeners were not the customers of the company, the customers were the people who spent money on advertising. Head of Engineering called me and said he was “concerned” at my response. And they hired Big Dick.

He took to managing like a high school social studies teacher, and treated us like high school students. Each weekly meeting started with going around and having everybody say a musician they were inspired by or something idiotic like that, to get to know each other. It was incredibly demeaning.

So, once again it comes up with ads, this time from “Minnesotans for Marriage”, another Christian hate group railing against that old homosexual agenda. But this time, I get to work one tuesday (a year ago) and immediately get called into a meeting with Dick and Big Dick. The subject is “you can’t keep questioning things that the company has already made decisions on”. My take is that of course I have to keep questioning! What if people hadn’t kept questioning during the civil rights protests in the 1960s? Big Dick gets super mad and rears up and says, you can’t compare these things to racial issues (he has some experience here, I am guessing?), but he’s super livid for some reason. I say, uh, yes you can, I’m talking about civil rights, this ad is for an anti-homosexual group…? He is confused. Sidesteps, he says, you have to listen to your manager. So I tell him that Dick, my immediate manager, doesn’t do a very good job, and can show emails where he got information that he claims that he didn’t, etc… (Dick is in the room here.) Well, whatever, they say, “you have a very big decision to make, here.” …*I* do?

We had hired a new HR guy recently, whom I coincidentally had an appointment with that day, as I was going to file a workman’s comp complaint as my hands were going numb from just being on computer keyboard all day. So I went and explained to him what was going on, and that I thought I had been fired. He couldn’t really help, but he realized that there was no plan at the company for career path, and in fact the people in my position were expected to work for $20/hour for a year and then quit. Being there for 3 years was confusing for them, they had no plan to move people, nor in fact to use people for their potential nor anything that they might be able to learn or do.

When I came in the next day, I was told to leave. Strangely, the Counting Crows were coming in to do some noon-time acoustic thing, so I waited around a bit to talk to David Immergluck, but eventually got uncomfortable and left without seeing him. So he played, not knowing that I had just been fired and wondered why I wasn’t there to see him!

So a lot has happened since then, as any of the readers of this web-diary know: I couldn’t pay our mortgage, we lost the house and moved to Sweden. I am still out of work, though I have been doing a little piece-work for a company in Stockholm assembling digital music compilations. And of course touring and recording with Camper Van Beethoven. In Sweden we can’t get Pandora, so I listen to it in the states sometimes when I’m on tour. I still like most of my classical and baroque stations (they actually have an amazing 20th Century Classical collection!) but classical music is such a tiny percentage of their listening audience that making it work better isn’t on the table.

As far as rock and music discovery goes, I don’t know what’s up. I started a station with a recent song of mine, “(Ever and) Always”, which is avery guitar centric glam-jammy thing, and got They Might Be Giants and an all-girl Japanese pop band in the next ten minutes….!

Apparently many others on my team quit or got fired in the following couple of months. Some people wrote to ask me if this article on buzz feed was me: http://www.buzzfeed.com/reyhan/tech-confessional-how-pandoras-ipo-changed-every

But no, not me. I think I would have written it better (for example, I would never use an adjective in place of an adverb.). Plus I don’t think I want much to do with something called Buzz Feed. But it’s all true, I can vouch for that.

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9 comments on “Pandora, now a year down the road from me.
  1. Is the violin guy much abused (just like Camper Van Beethoven used to do)?

    Plus ca change . . .

    Interesting article.

  2. Fred Shardon says:

    It reminds of a story you told me years ago, I believe it goes something like this. Standing in a alley behind the Boston Tea party a man without a Voice Box croaked this million dollar observation “Kid ya got lot to learn bout the MUSIC Bizzeness”

  3. What bugs me about Pandora (and I have a paid subscription) is that they really don’t understand classical music. Most classical pieces are in “movements” which the record companies (ever since vinyl) have separated into individual tracks for convenience. So a symphony might be four tracks. Or, looking at it another way, one track is 1/4th of the work. But Pandora sees each movement as a “song” and won’t play more than one “song” from a single CD in the same hour. So you wind up hearing the third movement of Beethoven’s 5th cutting immediately to a Rossini overture just when you were expecting to hear the final movement. Worse yet is the way Pandora handles Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, where each section is played without any pauses but most recording have tagged each section as a track, again for convenience I guess, in case you’re listening with the score … but this makes no sense. Yesterday I heard one minor section of Le Sacre totally out of context jammed next to something else. Infuriating.

    However, I commiserate with your HR problems. When companies grow into Companies it gets ugly. Pandora started off with a great premise. And it does work most of the time. There are still areas of music it knows nothing about, resulting in a lot of repeats. I just wish they would give the listener more control, especially if you’re a paying subscriber. Something like “JS Bach but no vocal music”, or “solo piano since 1965”. That would be great. And, it’s all there in the database. Maybe there’ll be a Pandora-like startup soon with that level of control, and a better classical/concert music library. Sure. Any day now. Cheers.

    • That problem of Classical pieces having movements separated is a problem of licensing: each track is treated as if it were a separate “song” and the non-predictability that is programmed into the playlist algorithm (to keep it from being “song-on-demand”, i.e., listeners cannot hear exactly what they put in or else the royalty rate would be much higher. So, further, the algorithm cannot allow two tracks in a row by the same artist (hence no symphony movements in a row) and no more than 4 by the same artist in a 3 hour period.
      I don’t know why Rite of Spring would be the way you describe unless that particular recording was made that way, where it all runs together.
      However, I do find that specifying a piece of music, say, one part of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and then thumbing down anything with vocals, or piano, you can tune a station pretty quickly for only Baroque.

      • Le Sacre is in two parts (L’Adoration de la terre, and Le Sacrifice. Each part is subdivided and there are seven titled “scenes” in part 1 and five in part 2 that are played without pause. However most recordings traditionally assign track numbers to each scene. There is a short pause between parts 1 and 2. Unfortunately Pandora sees each scene as a “song” and the result is a mess. I pointed out to someone once at Pandora that Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is in 21 sections, and Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony is in 10 movements, and his Vingt Regards is in, naturally, 20. Which means that Pandora will NEVER play these works in their entirety EVER. This is totally unacceptable and probably a misreading of the licensing agreements, which probably were designed for pop music, where 1 track = 1 “song”. This may make sense if we were talking about, say, Schubert’s Die Winterreise, where each track is, actually, a song. But Turangalila is what it is, one piece of music. I brought this up once with the marketing guy at Pandora who’s only response was “Well, do you really want to hear the entire Mahler 8th symphony at one go?” Well, YES! Duh!

  4. Yeah, they’re truly loutish in that regard. The bottom line on all of this is that Classical listeners are a tiny percentage (though many of them are subscribers!) but not enough to change anything for them. They really want to cater to the 50% who want hiphop stars in a row.

  5. […] Several of my former workmates at Pandora seem to be drinking the Kool Aid. I’m seeing posts claiming that David Lowery and Pink Floyd are talking ‘trash’.  Yes, I worked at Pandora. You can read all about that here. […]

  6. […] the other fun thing that happened in 2012 was that I got fired from my job at Pandora (long story) and with a 9-month old daughter, the threat of no health insurance, and a wife who had been on […]

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