Friday, November 13, 2009

Pandora is changing my life

OK, I have a bunch of music.  Mostly it comes from CDs that I own (really!).  At one point I ripped it all to mp3 files, set up a server, and had two Squeezeboxes that I could listen to anything in my collection any time I wanted to.  I made some play lists that played over and over in my office waiting room.  When I had a party, I would (sometimes) make a big play list and play it as background music.  Other than that I hardly use it.

About a week ago, I downloaded Pandora for my Android phone.  Pandora bills itself as "internet radio," but it's radio only in the sense that it plays a stream of songs that you are not choosing one-by-one, the way you do when you make a playlist.  You create a "stiation" by starting with an artist or a song you like, and it goes from there, finding something similar.  Every time it plays something, you have the option of saying you like it, or don't like it, or skipping it without rating it, or just listening without rating it.  Based on the songs you do rate, it refines its search.  There are some variations but that's the basic idea.

So I made stations starting with Theonious Monk, Crosby Still Nash & Young's "Carry On" (don't ask me why), romantic period string quartets, oh yeah, and Louis Armstrong.  I am hooked.  I'm listening to the Monk channel right now and a lot of the rest of the time.  I don't listen to it while I'm working because I don't think my patients would like that, and I don't listen to it at dinner, but lots of the rest of the time.

So now, at least for the moment, I'm listening to great music all the time, with hopes of lots more to come.

Why does this work for me, when mp3 players, phones, music servers etc etc etc haven't?  I'm not exactly sure, but I had a few thoughts:

1. It's really really easy.  It's a lot easier to hit the "send" button on an email than to print out a letter, stick it in an envelope, address the envelope, put a stamp on it, and then remember to mail it.  When you think about it, those steps are not a lot of work, but they're enough work that we rarely bother to write letters but we send emails all the time.  Making a play list is work.  Choosing the next song to listen to out of your library is work.

2. There's surprise: you never know what the next song will be.  Of course you might hate it.  At this point on my Monk channel I like pretty much everything it plays.

3. When it plays something you don't like, you don't need to wait it out.  It did just played something by Paul Bley, I think, that I didn't like.  I hit the "thumbs down" button and it was gone, baby, gone.

4. There is novelty.  Some of the things it plays are familiar, some are new to me.  There's a lot of stuff by people I've heard of but haven't listened to much.  I'm not enough of a jazz fan to keep track of people beyond the hall-of-famers, so it comes up with choices that I enjoy but that also educate me (a little).

5. There's still some choice.  Unlike "real" radio, you get to say whether you like something or not.  That is not really work, but it gives you some input.

6. I'm a little too familiar with my own music.  And, maybe, tired of it?  Even the stuff I love seems a little worn.  But when a tune I own comes along on Pandora, it's like running into an old friend.  Which is great.  Even when I wouldn't have had the inclination, that particular day, to pick up the phone and call him/her.

There are some technical glitches, but the Android version works surprisingly well.  There is a web-based version, which I've had more trouble with, but the big problem with it is that it has ads.  Like you hear a voice advertising something.  "Pirate Radio" was big the other day.  The Android version has ads too, but they're all visual.  (I should add: I had trouble getting a station set up on the Android version, so I set it up on the web. There are also things you can do on the web that you can't do, at least on the BlackBerry version that Claudia's using, like "Add Variety").

I'm guessing the phone version will have audio ads, and the moment it does I am out of there, I promise you.  I will miss it.

Or, actually, maybe they'll have a premium version at that point.  Hmm, that might be worth paying for.  Gee, I wonder if the web version has an ad-free premium version.  Oh, yeah, I see that it does.  $36 per year.  I'm not sure I'd pay that for the web version.  But if they started ads on the Android version, would I pay that?  Well, at this moment, I'm afraid that the only honest answer would be "in a heartbeat."  Damn.  I guess that by thinking that way I contribute to making it inevitable.

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