Letting Pandora Out of the Box

Guest post by Kevin (Laura’s husband)

I grew up with a strong foundation in music. I played in band throughout junior high, high school, and college. I actually have a degree in Music Education. I love listening to music. At home, in the car, in the bathroom, where ever. Sometimes it drives my wife nuts. But silence, especially for a prolonged span of time, drives me nuts – unless I’m up in the woods. (I managed to survive a week up at Scout camp without a radio or iPod, and I’ve been up in the mountains hunting deer and elk. While working at Camp for a whole summer, we could watch movies on the computers, and listen to iTunes, so I had some respite from squirrel chitters and bird song.) I’ve been trying to tell my wife for years that I think better when music is playing. She is only recently realizing that I’ve got one of those anomalies in my brain that needs music to get it jump started. I’ve been trying to tell her that for years, but her brain works best in quiet, so her assumption was understandable.

I am always on the lookout for how to pump music from somewhere. A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a reference to the Pandora web site. “Free internet radio” it said. “Great!”, I said. On Pandora, you can create “radio stations” and it will pick “similar” tracks to what you originally put in. For instance, if you tell it Mozart, it will play Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and similar other artists. If you create another radio station and start it with Glenn Miller, you will hear Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, and other Big Band leaders. Yes, it does contemporary too.

Laura and I like to play “spiritual” music during business hours. We work from home, and it keeps us in a better “frame of mind” towards each other, and the internet frustrations, if we have music playing. So I started a station using the name Janice Kapp Perry. For a while we got similar artists like April Meservey, Mindy Gledhill. But a couple of days ago, I was only half-way paying attention, and I definitely heard some Country music. I love country music, but I didn’t want it on that station. I looked, and saw that it was a semi-religious tune by Tracy Lawrence, so I marked that I liked it. Pretty soon, I kept hearing more Country artists. At first a couple of similarly “religious” tunes, but then we got a “drinking” song. I think there was some kind of mention of bar tramps, too. I marked it that I didn’t like it. Then Pandora started adding Enya and Sissel to my Religious radio station. I like the music these ladies produce, but I didn’t want it on my “spiritual” radio station. As a matter of fact, I had already created a station specifically for Sissel, Enya, Celtic Woman, and all of their other “New Age” sisters.

So I deleted my religious station, and tried to start over. I kept putting in names of the spiritual artists that I liked, but it wouldn’t start with those artists. It would immediately start playing Sissel or Enya. After several attempts I finally gave up.

What we think happened is that I had marked that I liked Sissel, Enya, Tracy Lawrence, Charlotte Church, Diamond Rio, and it wasn’t following the original parameters anymore. Pandora searches for similar “qualities” in artists, and makes it’s choices from there. You can only tell a computer so much before the limited qualities of brain-like function give up the pretense that it can handle anything that differs from the parameters that it’s been given.

On my Sissel Radio, I had marked a bunch of artists that I liked. On my Spiritual radio, I had marked artists that liked there. I had a radio station for Broadway musicals, and pretty soon Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole started showing up there, because I had marked that I liked them on certain show tunes. But I think Pandora was getting confused, because my “parameters” didn’t fit it’s parameters. I expanded my choices because of my personal likes and dislikes. I was outside of Pandora’s box, and it was getting confused.

The point being that if you stick to Pandora’s pre-defined categories, then you and they will get along just fine.

The “Tumbs Up” and “Tumbs Down” buttons work just fine, when controlling what you want to hear on your radio station as a whole. But if you decide that you don’t want to hear “Boot Scoot Boogie” just after your cat died, and you give it a “Thumbs Down” then you will never hear it again.

One other negative. You can’t just “leave it alone”. I don’t know how long it takes for this feature to kick in. I have been seeing to other tasks in the house when Pandora decides to quit. If you don’t click on something every once in a while, the music will stop and you will get this window that asks if you are listening. If you click that you are still listening, it will keep going from where it left off.

I think that Pandora is a handy way to get radio over the internet, and have some degree over customization, but it needs more options for a listener to “truly” optimize their listening experience.

It will be interesting to see if Pandora’s options improve over the next few years, or if some “hot shot” company will come from out of no-where and pull the rug out from under them.

2 Responses to Letting Pandora Out of the Box

  • Jan Verhoeff says:

    I’m voting a hot shot company will pull the wool out from under them… As it should be. It’s called Capitalism. If I can build a better box, Pandora needs to step up or get out of the way.

  • Laura says:

    Their website has a definite usability problem also. The description and price for their subscription service is buried. I had to go through the Help links to find it. Plenty of “register” and “sign up for paid subscription” access, but no way to know what you are signing up for or what it is going to cost you!

    I finally found the page – about two screen heights, with several focus points of benefits. 10 seconds after it loads, it redirects to the registration form. I tried it three times, and stopped the browser load on the last time and it still did it.

    So I wrote support and explained the problem. They said they were working on it and told me how to register and how to pay. I explained that this was not the problem – I am not going to buy a pig in a poke, I wanted a description of benefits and the price. So they replied again with the price, and one stated benefit – the rest was “same as free”. Not enough to persuade me to even put it on my list for later – the list I caught a glimpse of during the 10 seconds sounded like it might have been more persuasive.

    So… Site information stinks, and support is kind of slow on the uptake.

    To their credit, they did reply promptly to both emails.

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