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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Why is Pandora like Jack Black? Or The Moral Tyranny of the Blind Taste Test

Something about this story in last Sunday’s New York Times annoyed me.  It tells the tale of the popular music service, Pandora, which seeks to predict your preferences in music based purely on clues about your prior opinions about songs.  (I’ve tried Pandora, but didn’t like it, finding it only so-so in predicting my tastes, probably for the reasons I’ll explain in a second).  However, rather than using the preferences of other people to predict your tastes, Pandora breaks songs down into their component parts -- things like “prevalence of harmony, chordal patterning, swung 16ths and the like” – and provides you with other songs with similar characteristics.  The goal is to screen out “social-data taste communities” and direct us to music we missed but really should like better than the pap we listen to because it’s on the radio. 

Pandora’s argument is much like the argument behind blind-taste tests (Have the Starbucks near you been pushing you to take shots of their new Via instant coffee?  If they’ve been as active as the ones near here, then you can see why this has been on my mind).  To the extent blind taste tests or Pandora are meant to expand the information available to us, it is difficult to complain about them.  But that’s not really what they are about, or at least not all they are about.  Instead, the hawker of the blind taste test is making a moral argument that what you should care about in your consumption choice is the preferences of your taste buds alone over the variety of influences that ordinarily affect your consumption decisions, like your positive associations with a brand, or how cool the other people who drink the stuff are, or how shiny and pretty the can it comes in is.  Pandora makes a similar argument.  If only you focused on the real aspects of music, you will find that you like different, currently underappreciated, music, and that music, rather than things you listen to because they are popular, represents the preferences of your best self about music. (Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora, makes this clear when he puts down collaborative filtering sites -- which leverage data on the preferences of other to predict your preferences -- as nothing more than "a popularity contest.”)

What bunk!  When choosing something as irrelevant as a pop song or a caffeinated beverage, why should we rank order our preferences for bitterness or acid notes in coffee or swung 16th in music over social data?  For instance, it’s hard to imagine Pandora picking Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes for just about anyone on the basis of its music qualities, but everyone who saw Say Anything has nothing but positive associations with it.  Pandora might not pick much A Tribe Called Quest for me these days, but I associate them – as do many others, I suspect – with making hip-hop accessible and hence songs like Can I Kick It? or the Luck of Lucien would come up in social data but not for Pandora (and make me very happy indeed).   After all, much of the fun of a good pop song comes from the fact that other people like it – singing along to it with other, reminiscing  its prominence for moments shared etc.   Pandora is the technological equivalent of the Jack Black character in High Fidelty, the rock geek bully.  And although Jack Black steals that movie, his advice -- and Pandora's -- is probably a bad way of finding music you actually like, rather than music you feel guilted into liking. 

Posted by David Schleicher on October 21, 2009 at 11:40 AM | Permalink


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I'm not quite sure I understand your argument against Pandora in this post.

You don't like them because they can help you find music based on technical (non-subjective) patterns or yo don't believe that this non-subjective approach is valid in the first place?

Posted by: Pandora | Jan 5, 2010 10:07:18 AM


Pandora does take lyrics into account to some extent. See, for example, http://techgeist.net/2009/07/pandora-smart-considers-lyrics-music-choices/


Posted by: Jeremy Modjeska | Oct 25, 2009 2:32:02 AM

I'm with Hillel and Jon: I like to use Pandora, but it's hardly a be-all and end-all. To the extent it might have made some claims that it was, I missed them and would have dismissed them as absurd puffery if I had seen them.

For me, the main drawback of Pandora is that it doesn't catch the importance of lyrics. My very favorite artists write not just music I find catchy and/or interesting, but also have lyrics I like a lot. But again, Pandora is not my only source of finding new music -- it's just one tool among many.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Oct 22, 2009 9:38:44 PM

David, I'm completely bemused by the hostility here. I didn't read the NYT article, but I listen to Pandora, and I don't understand Pandora as making any moral claims, or as asserting that I should feel guilty if I don't like the music it suggests. When I listen to Pandora, it suggests music to me with the (descriptive, not normative) claim that I'll probably like some of it. You indicate that that descriptive claim is untrue as to you, because your own music likes and dislikes aren't based on music qualities. That's fine; I'll accept that. But the descriptive claim is true as to me, since (I guess) at least some of my music likes and dislikes are based on music qualities. Can we agree that just as not all music listeners are like me, not all of them are like you either? (I can't help but wonder whether what's going on here is that, notwithstanding your post, you feel defensive about not caring about music qualities, so you're projecting onto Pandora a moral claim -- and an assertion that you should feel guilty if you don't like the music it selects -- than it's not making . . . )

Posted by: Jon | Oct 22, 2009 11:41:29 AM

Well, sure. If I am marketing a new product, I too would claim that it is much better than anything else on the market.

Put another way, if you're challenging Coke, of course you are going to point out that blind tasters like you better, and further that blind tasting is is a better measure than whatever it is that Coke is winning on.

I understood David to be suggesting that Pandora's service is not only not the be-all-end-all, but in fact wrong in some deep sense.

Posted by: Hillel Y. Levin | Oct 21, 2009 9:45:54 PM

Hillel, I think David's point is that Pandora's proprietors are not simply offering an alternative to the conventional consumption channels. They are implicitly claiming that Pandora's method of consuming music is "better" because it goes to musical quality rather than stuff like branding and advertising. To this extent, the claim is largely the same claim being made after a blind tasting test: that the only characteristic that should carry salience is taste of the food or drink, and not other "irrelevant" considerations.

David, we've talked about this but you are probably going to get two kinds of pushback. One, plenty of people in fact subscribe to the taste-is-king normative claim, and it is impossible to prove one way or the other. Two, a service like Pandora is not quite analogous to a blind taste test. It is not (rather, not only) offering stuff that you would enjoy but for the fact that you hate its branding. It also offers stuff that you would enjoy, but do not know of because they have insufficient advertising budgets for the branding to reach you. There is a conceptual distinction there.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 21, 2009 4:59:29 PM

I don't understand the objection. Sometimes one might want to listen to a particular piece of music because of what he/she associates with it and/or the image he/she wants to project to others. Sometimes one might want to listen to a particular piece of music because he/she likes the way it sounds. Pandora tries to help you with the latter. Given that you already have access to the former, why would you object to Pandora?

Listen to the radio, ask your friends what's on their ipods, read genre-devoted blogs to find some music that you like; and listen to Pandora to find other music that you like but wouldn't have access to without it.

Posted by: Hillel Y. Levin | Oct 21, 2009 3:53:22 PM

That's right. The point is, if you're honest with yourself and with Pandora, you'll find more music with the attributes that you like. It isn't because Pandora is telling you what you ought to like; it's analyzing what you do like and finding more of it.

If, as your post implies at the beginning, your experience has been that Pandora doesn't do a good job at that, then that's a different complaint. But I disagree that the shortfall of the service is that it listens to you rather than your friends. There are plenty of services out there, including commercial radio, that will impose other people's tastes on you. Fans of Pandora prefer to rely on the qualities of the music itself.


Posted by: Jeremy Modjeska | Oct 21, 2009 3:12:53 PM

Jeremy -- but it would assume you didn't like Britney (and, honestly, perish the thought) because you didn't like squeaky vocals or synth-pop sounds or whatever, and not because you didn't like realizing that you like the same songs as a twelve-year-old. The engine would misinterpret your socially-driven taste as a musically-driven one.

Posted by: D.Schleicher | Oct 21, 2009 2:49:49 PM

Commenter "anon" captures salient points, all of which I second. Furthermore, I think your analogy is wrong. The taste test is not at all blind. The difference that is instead of basing your choices on which music "tastes" better according to social network group-think, you get a look at the ingredients list.

Don't forget, the most important element of Pandora is the Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down. The music is calibrated to your tastes; neither the masses nor Jack Black gets any say in that. The Pandora Musicologists aren't snobs; they're people trained in analyzing how music is put together. If it was all snobbery, how could my fabulous "Axl Rose Radio" station even exist? That is to say, if your tastes suck, Pandora doesn't judge you, it just finds more sucky music for you. Conversely, if you're too ashamed to admit that you like Britney Spears because your friends will laugh at you, you can still give give her a big fat Thumbs Down.


Posted by: Jeremy Modjeska | Oct 21, 2009 2:20:43 PM

Cheap shot at In Your Eyes, sir! It's difficult to listen to a song that's been so deeply commodified with fresh ears, but before it was a standard it was a song, and a pretty good one at that, although certainly not Gabriel's best. Manu Katche's subtle drum performance alone ought to make it recommended listening for someone somewhere.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Oct 21, 2009 1:50:42 PM

I think you're discounting the importance of intrinsic qualities over social aspects for some people. Some people do not regard coffee or music as network goods - for instance, I prefer the taste of Dunkin' Donuts coffee to Starbucks, so that's what I drink. It would never occur to me to pick my coffee based on what other people drink or what they'll think about my choice. If I find an artist, song, or album that I like, I seek out other music in the same style or vein, and so forth.

(This comment reflects a profound antipathy for the concept of "relative tastes" or "envy effects" on choice or well-being.)

Posted by: Mark D. White | Oct 21, 2009 12:18:45 PM

But you already know that you like stuff that's thrown at you by social taste measures. You can buy/pirate it and stick it on your ipod. Pandora is a nice way to find stuff that you wouldn't otherwise come across for days when you're tired of what you already own and don't feel like dealing with radio commercials and irritating DJs.

Posted by: anon | Oct 21, 2009 11:51:35 AM

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