New York Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker busted out of his “Consumed” column this week with an in-depth feature on Pandora, one of the leading players in streaming radio.
Walker’s piece is an interesting look at how far radio has evolved in 100 years. He also notes how Pandora’s particular use of technology (which determines the various playlists a listener hears) runs against the crowdsourcing grain.
Pandora’s approach more or less ignores the crowd. It is indifferent to the possibility that any given piece of music in its system might become a hit. The idea is to figure out what you like, not what a market might like. More interesting, the idea is that the taste of your cool friends, your peers, the traditional music critics, big-label talent scouts and the latest influential music blog are all equally irrelevant. That’s all cultural information, not musical information. And theoretically at least, Pandora’s approach distances music-liking from the cultural information that generally attaches to it.
Which raises interesting questions. Do you really love listening to the latest Jack White project? Do you really hate the sound of Britney Spears? Or are your music-consumption habits, in fact, not merely guided but partly shaped by the cultural information that Pandora largely screens out — like what’s considered awesome (or insufferable) by your peers, or by music tastemakers, or by anybody else? Is it really possible to separate musical taste from such social factors, online or off, and make it purely about the raw stuff of the music itself?
Let me answer that. No. Which is not to say Pandora doesn’t offer discovery and value to its audience. But since the question of taste is on the table, I’ll say that my own taste in radio is DJ-centric. I like hearing from a music personality (pro, semi-pro and/or amateur) and feeling like that in-the-know person is turning me on to great music.