Home Articles Follow the music

    Follow the music



    If you are at all interested in how technology and the internet are shaping media and culture, then pay a visit to aftertv.com, a website hosting a series of podcast interviews by digital media critic, Andrew Keen.

    Keen, an Englishman, is something of a curiosity in Silicon Valley. He was drawn to the US west coast first as a graduate student in history at Berkeley and later as a true believing 1990s dot-com entrepreneur (where he presided over the boom and bust of his own internet start-up, audiocafe.com). He has since developed a trenchant view of the digital utopianism currently in vogue with the ‘personalised democratic media’ crowd (whose blogs, wikis, social networking sites, podcasts, etc., are better known collectively as ‘Web 2.0’).

    Keen muses a few times a week on his blog, thegreatseduction.com (well how else do blog critics get the word out there?). He is also writing a book of the same name, which will explore how advances in internet technology (broadband, blogs, multimedia) have enabled average Joes to flood the existing media landscape with ‘the pornography of opinion’. In fact, Keen envisions a not-too-distant future where media will be reduced to little more than innumerous islands of narcissism in an ocean of noise.


    As you can imagine, he’s not the most popular person with Silicon Valley’s new wave of sanguine techies and their acolytes. But Keen is no snivelling nay-sayer. On the contrary, his mission is to trim away the fat from the rapidly evolving, technology-infused future of media.

    AfterTV.com contains a fascinating podcast of a recent Berkeley Cyber Salon panel event hosted by Keen on the theme: ‘Is the future of music now?’

    The recent history of the music industry is emblematic of the failure of comfortable old media to adapt to new media habits and attitudes. Naturally, people refused to pay $30 for a music CD when they could download all the songs (illegally) for free. The whole dynamic changed, and no amount of sabre rattling from the music labels could restore the bottleneck.

    Perhaps the most interesting panellists at the Berkeley Cyber Salon was Tom Conrad, Chief Technology Officer of Pandora.com. Pandora is one of the best and most sophisticated manifestations of the new, more lithe and user-friendly music industry. It is a free internet radio service combining intelligent user customisation with an intuitive recommendation system that is so uncanny, Conrad and his team have dubbed it the ‘Music Genome Project’.

    Pandora was founded in 2000 by a bunch of music loving technologists united by the belief that when it comes to music, well, people are lazy. Conrad informed the Berkeley Cyber Salon audience how people routinely confess to him that they haven’t fallen in love with a new band since high school or college. The Pandora team believe that the popularity of music radio illustrates how much people cherish the serendipitous discovery of new music, and they like to explore that process free of charge. (According to Conrad, the average American listens to 16 hours of music radio per week compared with just one hour of music they own.)

    Pandora is all about introducing you to new music. Enter the name of a song or band that you like and Pandora builds you a radio station based on the underlying musical principles of that song or that artist’s repertoire. The company has around 40 professional music analysts listening and classifying music according to ‘200-400 musicological dimensions’. The result is an internet radio service with a library of 400,000 songs (and counting) that streams music according to taste, irrespective of popularity or marketing budgets. Best of all, it learns what users like and, more importantly, dislike, so their unique stations become more honed to taste over time. It also links to digital music services so users can purchase newly discovered music legally. Combined with other sites, such as the more social network-minded Last.fm, Pandora is the clearest indication yet of how we will consume music in our ultra connected and customised media future.

    So how about you? Have you discovered much genuinely new music since you left school? The kind of songs and bands that once consumed you like a drug? If your new music cupboard is getting a little bare, visit Pandora.com, type in a song or band you like and let the Music Genome Project orchestrate a little musical serendipity.

    Paul Ryan is an editor and senior writer at Australian Anthill.

    Other articles in this series:

    Deafening whispers

    Digital Mache

    Cory Doctorow’s big tent

    Follow the music