Better Ways to Open Pandora’s Box

I love records.

The problem is my young children do as well. And in an effort to allow our records to endure their childhood relatively scratch-free we’ve become a digital music household.

Currently that means we move an iPod touch from room to room plugging it into various docks and speakers as we move throughout our day.

It turns out the iPod touch doesn’t hold much music, so by default we’ve become Pandora listeners. At this point we listen to Pandora a few hours a night and a good half the time on cold weekends like this one. And we like it.

Pandora works particularly well for new music and classic rock. But it’s not perfect. After an epic battle we finally got our Arcade Fire Suburbs station to play songs from years other than the one the Suburbs came out. Literally, it took weeks of giving the thumbs up and down to get the occasional Smiths song to play.

Our current frustration, and one that is making us question continuing to use the service, is our foray into jazz. We’re not huge jazz listeners, but it has it’s time and it’s place. And this dreary three-day weekend, one that celebrates the life of Martin Luther King, is one of them.

So yesterday morning I created a new channel. John Coltrane. More specifically the search bar suggested John Coltrane A Few of My Favorite Things. Perfect.

The first song was a wonderfully melancholy vibraphone track we’d never heard. And then? Power pop. Huh? Thumbs down. Next we heard a punk song. Thumbs down. And then finally some jazz. Thumbs up. And then a song from 90’s indie band Superchunk.

For the last 24 hours the pattern has held. We get a pair of pop, punk or alternative songs for every jazz song. Without fail we give the jazz the thumbs up, the non-jazz the thumbs down, but to no avail.

As I started writing this post it started playing an atrocious song off the soundtrack of the atrocious movie Empire Records. I furiously pounded the thumbs down button but nothing happened. I tried fast forwarding. But it turns out we’ve run up against the Pandora licensing threshold.

So I turned it off. I’m now writing this in silence.

I’m not sure if Pandora is overthinking it, computing that since my other channels are rock of one kind or another that I couldn’t possibly want actual jazz, but instead crave pop songs with some kind of improvisation or rhythm that shares traits with John Coltrane.

I realize, after all, that John Coltrane is the first and sometimes only Jazz musician most hipsters will ever mention.

Or perhaps there just isn’t enough jazz in the Pandora project to fill out a whole jazz section?

A cursory web search tells me that Pandora is not genre specific. So that it doesn’t know jazz from pop punk, it only recognizes the 400 musical attributes of a given song. But given how many slow, irregular time signature jazz songs I thumped up, and how many up tempo 4-4 punk songs I thumbed down, I’m not so sure it’s working.

It also doesn’t explain how during the holidays the various Christmas music channels we created played Christmas music exclusively.

Nor, why when I start a new channel titled simply Miles Davis, which I just did, I get nothing but jazz. Did it learn that I actually want? And if so why didn’t it course correct what I now refer to as the Empire Records channel.

Or maybe this is all an effort to get me to upgrade to a paid premium subscription.

Whatever the cause, it’s a problem that could use some fixing.

But I’ve also got a new idea. One for Pandora, or one of their competitors, but one I could use right away. Maybe some other service already has it. If so, do tell.

One of my responsibilities at work is writing the ads for Travel Oregon. It’s the account I was born to work on. I love Oregon and have spent the better part of the last 15 years exploring it. Convincing people to explore Oregon, out-of-state people as well as Oregonians themselves, is an honor and a privilege. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun.

For the last year and a half, part of our biannual campaign to increase tourism has involved making a series of 15-second commercials, highlighting different aspects of what makes Oregon great. The idea is rather then do one big epic commercial about Oregon we do lots of little ones. You’re likely to see two in the same commercial break, hopefully eliciting an “I didn’t realize you can do that and that in Oregon” reaction.

For obvious reasons, we’ve only wanted to use songs from Oregon bands as soundtrack. Culture, along with our food and epic outdoors, is among our best selling points. We’re not making bands rich, it’s Oregon Travel after all, but it’s a nice chunk of change, and it’s a mission musicians have been eager to support.

The problem is I don’t get out like I used to, and music isn’t as central to my life as it once was, so it’s harder and harder for me to stay on top of what’s going as far as local music goes. (Please, send any suggestions my way).

I would love to be able to create a Pandora station that played only Oregon music. It would make my job easier. And help me discover bands that I might not otherwise discover.

And I bet other people would appreciate that kind of feature too, perhaps someone moving to Portland, or Austin, or getting ready for a trip to Japan. What better way to get in the mood than to hear the music of the region?

Why stop at geography? How about a channel for songs with epic drum solos? Or songs the feature the theremin, or the sitar.

Or a channel featuring songs Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones played on or arranged, which would include everything from the Rollings Stones to Cat Stevens to Tom Jones. What about a channel that features songs with the word “candy” in them? Or a channel of songs that are exactly 3 minutes and 33 seconds?

Pandora should already have all this information, why not use it, or more accurately let it’s users use it.  Either by expanding the search options, or curating and creating these kind of channels. Or even letting users tinker with the genome itself. Maybe some of those 400 musical attributes are more important to me than others.

I get the genius behind the music genome project. It’s smart, but it’s also cerebral. What I’m proposing would make it more useful, but also more fun.

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One Response to Better Ways to Open Pandora’s Box

  1. Carissa says:

    I like Empire Records. I know it sucks. But there’s something about its suckyness that makes it even more endearing that I was once super into it, in my teens. Other movies I loved early on, like Labyrinth or Pee Wee’s Big Adventure(s), have held up, still spawn Halloween costumes, incite sing-alongs at the Hollywood Theater. And that’s fun, but there’s something really satisfying about a movie from my middle/high school years that doesn’t make it through to the other side of 18. Or 15. Or 29, or whatever. Because it reminds me that I did move to a good city and get cool friends and learn what drugs are, and I did things like throw parties and discuss music over beers and dance with couch cushions. So, now I get to re-watch Empire Records on my mom’s Netflix over the holidays and go: check. It’s satisfying.

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