Although it has been around for quite some time, only recently have I really gotten into the internet radio station Pandora. There are other online music services out there, like Slacker or Rhapsody, that allow users to determine which songs or musicians or genres they want to hear. Last.fm, like Pandora, makes suggestions based upon your musical taste, but it only allows 30-second samples of recommended music in many cases. Pandora, based upon my own (admittedly limited) experience and the experiences of many others, does the best job of both recommending and delivering a huge variety of musical content. An outgrowth of the Music Genome Project, it uses over 400 musical attributes and a mathematical algorithm to identify music that might appeal to the the end user based upon song or artist entered by that user. It also uses your personal history of marking songs with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to make (or limit) recommendations.
What makes it so good? The sense of discovery, and the surprise of discovery in a world where it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are a lot of people you’ve never heard of doing really good and original work. To give an example of a path my own listening has followed, I created a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy station at Pandora after this New Yorker piece on Will Oldham reignited a curiosity about his music that had been simmering for quite some time. When you create a station at Pandora, it plays a song by that artist perhaps once out of every nine or ten songs, and the rest of the time plays songs that might appeal to fans of the artist based upon those 400 musical attributes. So not only did I find that I like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy/Will Oldham, but I also found that I liked a musician known as Iron and Wine (I’d never heard of him despite his newfound fame after having a song included in the Twilight soundtrack). I then created an Iron and Wine station, which in turn lead to the discovery of the amazing but tragic folk musician Jackson C. Frank.
None of those particular artists is terribly obscure but even if they had been it wouldn’t have mattered whether or not they were signed by a major label or got any press. All that mattered was that they were good. This is an effective, objective-as-can-be way to discover new musical artists. Of course, Pandora is not putting just any old song on their servers. There is obviously some quality control system in place. There always has to be.
So why isn’t there a service like this for books, something that looks deeper than customer buying habits at Amazon or broad genre categories? Well, there is! It’s called Book Lamp and it tries to match readers who like a given book with other similar books based upon not only genre but also things like tone, tense, perspective, action, description, and dialog.
Problem is, Book Lamp now only has a few hundred titles in its database and they seem to be very skewed toward science fiction. George Orwell’s 1984 was one of the few books in their list that I was actually familiar with, and when I selected it the top match was the USA Patriot Act by the U.S. Congress. Very funny, but not terribly helpful. The rest of the suggestions seem to be mostly science fiction.
It would be great to have a Pandora-like system that included all books/ebooks and that gave you a one paragraph synopsis plus free electronic access to the book’s first chapter. If you liked what you read, there would be a conveniently located link for purchasing the title (just as Pandora has for songs and their associated albums). I’m sure something like this will come to be. As I’ve mentioned previously, an author will really need to make both the summary and the first chapter good ones if she hopes to gain new readers in a million ebook world.
A brief word on Pandora’s pricing model. Everything is free if you want it to be, but you also have a single advertisement on the screen and sometimes a 15-20 second audio advertisement perhaps every ten or twenty songs. If you don’t want to see or hear any ads, you can get an annual subscription for $36. The audio ads are a recent development and did cause some small bursts of outrage from some listeners who apparently live in a fantasy world where millions of dollars are spent developing a web site and music genome system for the greater good of mankind. Judging by the comments on this Wired story, however, most listeners understand why the ads are necessary and are willing to tolerate them as long as they’re infrequent, brief and not obnoxious.
The bad news for non-Yanks: right now, because of copyright issues, Pandora is only available in the USA (try last.fm). They’re working on it, though.