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COLUMN ONE

That Song Sounds Familiar

An online service helps users find new music through a 'genome project' that maps tunes' traits and spits out matches.

February 03, 2006|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — In the beginning, there was music. Childhood and young adulthood floated by to a soundtrack of lyrics and rhythms and searing guitar riffs that consumed you, became you, constituted your identity, galvanized your intent, spoke your soul.

But time passes, classrooms fade to cubicles, and a vast landscape of new music turns foreign and unexplored. For Jeff Hersh, 31, the stereo came to double as Proust's madeleine, its purpose to invoke memories rather than create them.

"Finding music was easier when I was younger," says Hersh, a vice president at Smith Barney in New York. "In college I lived in a fraternity house with 70 guys all around me at all times, listening to various kinds of music. But as you get older, you work more, you get isolated."

Then in November, a friend told Hersh about Pandora.com, an inventive "Internet radio" website that generates music streams -- "stations" -- based on one's favorite artists or songs. He started his own private thread of music that was a combination of Neil Young and Pearl Jam, Hersh says, and in an hour he heard more new music he liked than he had in the last decade, much of it from obscure bands that shared musical traits with Young and Pearl Jam.

He fine-tuned the station, giving a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to certain tracks, and soon he was loving nearly every song it threw at him. He started new stations, jotted down song names -- and barely left his apartment that weekend.

Since the free version of Pandora made its debut in November (you can listen with no ads on the screen for $3 a month), 8 million stations have been created, and record label and radio executives and technologists are aflutter with interest.

Pandora is more than just a fad; its unusual methodology, which marries traditional musical authority with the wisdom of a group of experts, raises philosophical questions about the shape of Net culture.

Customizable Internet radio such as Yahoo's Launchcast.com has been around for years, but Pandora is a twist on the concept: Instead of relying solely on computer software to spit out playlists, Pandora draws on its Music Genome Project, a 6-year-old effort by a group of musicians to identify the hundreds of traits and qualities that form the building blocks of music -- and then to map out each individual song within this framework, or genome. Genre disappears, and every song is at once relatable, however closely or distantly, to every other.

"This raises the bar significantly," says Ted Cohen, senior vice president of digital development for EMI Music. "For the moment, it's the coolest thing out there. The whole idea seems to be to give people just enough interaction so that the listening experience gets better -- and it works. When I plugged in the Raspberries and Todd Rundgren, it came back with Dwight Twilley. That's it! If Eric Carmen and Todd Rundgren had a child, it would be Dwight Twilley."

The operation's hub is in a nondescript building in downtown Oakland, where on a recent afternoon a dozen or so "music analysts" sprawled in front of rows of computer monitors, wearing headphones, tapping out rhythms and humming. They get paid $15 to $17.50 an hour to listen to music, and set their own shifts to accommodate gigs and recording sessions.

"This is an ideal job for musicians," says Rick Higgs, 55, a senior analyst who found the company through a "help wanted" poster in a record store. "They pay me for skills I never thought I'd use in a commercial context."

Analysts begin their shifts by selecting a CD from nearby bins and choosing a song, then they log on to the computer system and, using about 400 scales, identify and define the aural traits that make each song unique. They isolate and analyze each vocal thread and instrument, discern melody from improvisation. How lyrical or angular is the principal melody? Does the drummer tend toward sticks or brushes?

The result is that when a Pandora user seeds a station with Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," a message pops up informing the listener that the playlist arises from "folk roots, mild rhythmic syncopation, acoustic sonority, major key tonality and melodic songwriting." Song selection will always differ from user to user, but a certain "Mr. Tambourine Man" station began with Dylan's own "Farewell Angelina," Arlo Guthrie's "I'm Going Home" and Doc Watson's "Nashville Blues."

Technical complexity aside, Higgs doesn't care much for computers and says he has tried Pandora only once or twice. But like most of his colleagues, many of whom are struggling musicians, he feels strongly that Pandora will help obscure performers find an audience. After all, a user listening to Pandora is just as likely to hear an unknown garage band as the Rolling Stones.

And any musician, whether signed to a label or not, is welcome to send in a CD to be auditioned for inclusion in the database.

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