Pandora—what’s in a name?

[The post was also published by Music Think Tank & hypebot]


One of the interesting aspects of the Rethink Music conference back in April was hearing MOG CEO David Hyman and (separately) Pandora CEO Joe Kennedy discuss the present and future of online music subscription services.

MOG is all about access. Outside of the usual holdouts, MOG’s catalog contains just about everything, including most of the releases on our Static Motor imprint. For fans, it makes for an intelligent (Echo Nest-driven) music discovery experience that seamlessly blends the mainstream and the independent. And for junkies, one can easily scrobble their MOG plays. For artists, getting your music onto MOG is a cinch. As long as you’re distributed via an indie aggregator (CD Baby in our case) your music will soon pop up on MOG. For fans and artists alike, MOG is an excellent platform. Easy access for all, with top-notch audio quality to boot (and no ads!).

A different business with a very different model, Pandora certainly talks a similar talk, which is why I was struck when Joe Kennedy commented (paraphrasing):

Pandora is all about connecting people to new music.

New music from who?

Back in January, one of our new releases was rejected by Pandora. After successfully getting three releases on the Pandora platform over the last few years, I received the following regarding the new album, Pyramid, by Boston solo artist Kurt von Stetten:

Thank you for your submission to Pandora’s Music Genome Project. We wish we could say otherwise, but we have decided that this submission does not fit our collection needs at this time.

Collection needs?!? It’s new, and it’s good. What else is there?

Meanwhile, around the time of the Rethink Music conference, we had another new release in the Pandora pipeline—Careers in Science by Boston post-poppers The Longwalls. I’d jumped through all the necessary hoops (the process takes months) and was waiting to learn if the Pyramid rejection was just a blip. One day I logged on to Pandora to check my submission status page…:

Thank you for your submission to Pandora’s Music Genome Project. We wish we could say otherwise, but we have decided that this submission does not fit our collection needs at this time.

Collection needs?!? It’s new, and it’s good. What else is there?

Two albums in a row. Groundhog day.

What’s with this “collection needs” stuff?

I sent Pandora a few emails to try and find out.

I asked if Pandora was in the business of “connecting people to new music”, or if it was instead more interested in curating a particular music experience. Given Joe Kennedy’s comment, the name Pandora, and the fact that server space is certainly not an issue, one can easily posit that there should be no such thing as too much new music in the Pandora catalog—no matter what the genre. This is supposed to be about discovery—a Pandora’s box of new music. Warts and all. Yes?

I received the following response from a “listener advocate”:

Hi Brandon,

We have a curated collection and what we choose from independent submissions is entirely based on what we believe the collection needs at the time.

As you may know, our policy is that we don’t discuss submissions. We cannot go into the specific reasons why we make those decisions.

We hate to ever discourage any artist, so please understand that we are only deciding what will work best in the context of Pandora radio stations. If we decided not to include your current record, we hope that you continue to follow your vision, and that you will keep us in mind as you release new material.

Again, thanks so much for your interest, and best of luck to you in all your endeavors!

I ‘d copied Joe Kennedy on the note as well. His response was very much the same:


I’m really sorry to hear that some of the music you submitted was not accepted by our curation team.

We truly do love new music and add ~10,000 new tracks a month to our collection, most of it indie….but we receive at least 3x that number as submissions.

There’s no way to put a positive spin on turning down a submission. We genuinely do want every artist to continue to develop their craft and submit new work to us.

Three things jumped out at me

Curated collection: Maybe I was being naive, but I’d never heard the word “curated” used in conjunction with Pandora’s catalog. (Again, isn’t “openness” at the heart of Pandora’s brand story? How can it not be?) Yes, you can curate your own stations—it’s the only way to add variety after all!!—but I didn’t know the collection itself was curated. The word isn’t used once on the Pandora about page nor their Music Genome Project page. There’s plenty of “curation” talk if you dig a little deeper into the site, particularly in the FAQs about the submission process. But it’s clearly not a main message. Why not? They’re sorta talking out of both sides of their mouth, no?

We don’t discuss submissions: The catalog is curated, and they won’t talk about submissions. New radio is beginning to feel a bit like old radio.

We hate to discourage any artist:
They’re a bit self-conscious of this as it came up in a couple other emails we swapped back and forth. It is discouraging. After jumping through the hoops just to get into the approval pipeline.. to then be rejected with no explanation while the CEO sits on stage at Rethink Music waxing on about Pandora connecting people to new music… in a word, discouraging. And to make matters worse, according to their submission FAQ page:

…we do not reconsider submissions once an initial decision has been made.


Why I think this is a problem

Aside from the apparent contradictions between Pandora’s talk and its walk, the real (more subtle) problem is that the Pandora curation team quickly accepted three of our artists’ earlier releases.

And now, the new releases—on another level creatively and with more interesting production values—are deemed “not appropriate” for the collection. And they’re unlikely to ever reconsider these releases.

Why does this matter? By trying to be more exclusive, Pandora is actually undermining its collection by favoring an independent artist’s early work over their later, (presumably) more creatively mature work.

To be clear, I’m not out to clog the Pandora platform with our roster of indies, I just want our roster’s best stuff on the platform! Instead, there’s now an inaccurate picture of our work on the biggest internet radio platform around. And because Pandora doesn’t reconsider submissions, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done to remedy it.

There must be a better, more open, way to manage indie submissions. Otherwise, Pandora may very well become cluttered with early releases by independent bands so anxious to be heard, while their later work is ignored. (Though it can easily, thankfully, flow freely to listeners on Last.Fm, MOG, and the like.)

It’s a blow to the artists, the Pandora catalog, and their listeners. A real lose, lose, lose for music discovery.

I wonder what effect the IPO will have.

I also wonder if we should we have waited and never submitted the early releases? But with such a closed submission process, how were we to have known?

So what’s in a name, anyway?

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