Archive for Music

Pandora Radio and Predictive Analytics

The fall lecture series on disruptive innovation wrapped up at Linda Hall last night with Nolan Gasser, the chief architect and musicologist behind Pandora’s Music Genome Project.

The talk was good, as all of them have been, though maybe a bit less organized around a central theme. There was quite a bit of dabbling in advanced music theory (that left many attendees scratching their head) as well as some very accessible music playing, from Coltrane to Zeppelin to Pachelbel. Clearly, Glasser possesses a unique genius.*[1]

Amidst the offshoot thoughts spurred by the talk were some audience questions about predictive analytics. Pandora is, at root, a big pop culture analytics experiment. Each track is scored on a scale for 100s of attributes. There are millions (billions?) of tracks. Those are a lot of data.[2]

Three thoughts on these data and how they are analyzed:

1. The human element has not been automated.

Each Pandora track is coded by a human being. I found this really surprising. And sort of gratifying. I remain suspicious of (though optimistic about) highly automated analytics, especially social media monitoring and natural language processing programs. That the Pandora model, especially given its mathematical and theoretical basis, has not completely handed the data inputs over to an algorithm made me feel better about my suspicions.

2. There are critical differences between things that can’t be predicted…

Someone asked if the model could be adapted to predict future radio hits. Gasser was doubtful. It’s a great idea, and maybe it is possible, but it’s important to be realistic about the limits of your data, your algorithm, and your knowledge of the human framework that underlies all our decision-making.

3. …and those which can be predicted.

The beauty of Pandora radio, of course, is that it predicts what songs you might like and adapts its model based on your inputs. Pandora works not simply because it has a massive, static database but because that database is modified with individual inputs.

Another place where Pandora succeeds is in measuring its audience analytics. Gasser mentioned briefly at the end that Pandora has really redefined online marketing with its ability to deliver targeted advertising. I would love to hear more on this topic.

(Aside from analytics, this talk opened up a whole bunch of questions for me on aesthetics. Gasser works from the premise that we are biologically hard-wired to like music, and that there are mathematical properties that make us like some music more. Yet he is unwilling to reduce taste to an equation. I asked him a question about this, not very well, but there was one piece of his response that I particularly liked. Basically: “We’re all hard-wired to laugh, too, but each person’s laugh is different.” I thought this was an interesting take on the matter of taste. But I’d love to ask some follow-up questions on this topic as well.)


[1] Maybe all genius is unique…a topic for another day. Anyway, he played lots of music on a keyboard, along with a few clips from his laptop. But the versatility and the music were both enjoyable.

[2] Sorry, I take small pleasure in data being a plural.

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Google, Pandora, and Digital Cameras: Innovation at Linda Hall

Up until about six months ago I had never heard of the Linda Hall Library. Despite its location in the middle of the UMKC campus, it is actually one of the world’s largest privately funded and operated libraries. Founded in the 1940s with a gift from the grain Hall family (rather than the greeting card Hall family), it is expressly devoted to science, engineering and technology.

The Linda Hall Library sponsors an annual lecture series, and the theme this year is innovation. I caught a couple of the spring lecture series on the future of innovation, and I’m really looking forward to the next series, which seems incredibly timely and—given the lead time it surely took to book the speakers—prescient.

The title of the fall series is This Time It’s Personal: Innovation in Your Home. This theme fits perfectly with the Google Fiber initiative—which has established Kansas city as a test market for what ultra high-speed Internet in the home might mean.

The opening lecture, by the author of The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), will take a more guarded approach to Google, in contrast to much of the communal giddiness about the corporate giant’s affection for Kansas City.

Additional lectures are, at least nominally, about the invention of the computer, the digital camera, and Pandora Internet radio. From my experience at the spring lectures, I would expect these topics to be a starting point to explore some pretty interesting and provocative issues around the ideas of innovation and discovery.

And the speakers behind the topics are no slouches—the guy talking about the invention of the digital camera is actually the inventor of the digital camera and the Pandora talk will be given by Pandora’s “Chief Musicologist” emeritus, the guy hired in 2000 to architect the Music Genome Project. (The computer talk is given by novelist Jane Smiley, who also happens to have written a book on the topic.)

I’m not sure how these events are typically marketed. Ivy League alumni clubs were certainly involved in the spring, and that reflected in older, tweedier crowds than I typically see at innovation-based events around town. Remarkably, all these talks are free and open to the public. Tickets are required, and apparently they do sell out. Put it on the calendar, and remember Linda Hall.

And it’s worth noting that, even if you can’t make it to the lectures, the Linda Hall is worth a visit for the rare book room. They have an enormous collection of rare and first edition scientific books dating back to the 15th century. And you can actually handle them and read them! Seriously, if you’re any sort of bibliophile, this place is an absolute treasure trove.

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Curation, The Mix Tape, and Digital Immigrants

I’ve been preoccupied with curation lately, and it has struck me in a number of different contexts—like the other day listening to Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted.

My first introduction to Pavement was on a tape a college roommate made—an early ‘90s indie rock compilation. This guy was a careful master of the mix tape, sometimes by label, sometimes by artist, sometimes by mood. Everyone used to make mix tapes—a cultural trope that defined a generation.

People still make mix tapes, of course, but they’re no longer tapes. I compiled some songs for my family last Christmas—downloaded a handful mp3s I didn’t already own, click-and-dragged together a playlist, burned it onto several discs. The whole process took maybe an hour.

I don’t know how carefully kids these days organize their musical tastes, how much they tailor the compilation according to their audience or the desired results. There may be just as many quality “mix tapes” out there now as there ever were. But they float in a much larger sea of playlists, Pandora stations, and iPod shuffles that make things easy but not necessarily better.

The ability to easily access whatever we need, or to explore something new without even knowing what we want—these opportunities offer endless possibility. But they don’t necessarily reinforce the discipline of sorting, prioritizing, organizing, and composing.

These are the challenges of the information age: identifying high-quality inputs, matching them to the right needs, and presenting it all in a way that makes it relatable to your audience.

And there is no shortcut to cultivating the skills needed to meet them.

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