Imperfect Pandora: Why the Music Service Needs a New Strategy
· June 30, 2011
2011 is turning out to be a roller coaster of a year for the Pandora Radio, the popular online music recommendation service. Back in April, a thorough security analysis by Veracode revealed that Pandora’s mobile apps transmit personal information to advertisers, including birth date, gender, and GPS information. This steep tumble was met with a gracious climb only two months later. Earlier this month the music service filed for it’s initial public offering, starting out very strong with an outstanding $3 billion dollar valuation. By the numbers, you’d have to assume Pandora is and excellent service, providing music services of the finest quality. You’d be wrong.
Pandora is weak. As and internet radio service it succeeds at playing recommended tracks according to positive and negative input by its users, but it fails at nearly everything else. Pandora competitors have been popping up by the dozen, and many of them outdo Pandora with large mp3 collections and impressive features. So if there are other, better music services on the web, why is Pandora a $3 billion dollar powerhouse?
The answer requires a bit of a web history lesson. Back in 2005 when Pandora first began its service there was nothing else like it. User controlled radio was an all new concept that caught on instantly. It didn’t take long for Pandora to add advertisements into the mix to create a revenue stream. All that free music has to be paid for somehow. Things got shaky in 2008 when increased webcasting costs threw Pandora into a state of near-bankruptcy, but thanks to the smartphone revolution brought about by the iPhone, Pandora managed to pull itself up by its bootstraps, utilizing heavy advertising in its mobile applications.
So Pandora is the grandaddy of music recommendation services, and one of the most popular, so it must be the best right? Wrong again. Pandora’s steady rise caught the attention of a mob of companies looking to provide similar services. Older contenders like Last.fm and new players like Slacker place themselves directly in competition with Pandora, offering enhanced versions of the same recommendation service. They attempt to be Pandora “done right” and many of them succeed in this mission. Before you learn about what’s better than Pandora it’s important to know what makes Pandora not good enough. One glaring problem is the service’s lack of content. Though it’s been around for years, the Pandora library consists of only about 800,000 songs. That may be far more than you have in your iTunes, but it’s a small number in comparison to Pandora’s competitors. Slacker has 3 million songs. Grooveshark has nearly 9 million. More songs means less chances of hearing the same thing twice, something that happens often on niche Pandora stations. Problem number two for Pandora is far more disconcerting than their minuscule library. As mentioned before, Pandora has been a bit too friendly with advertisers, generously sharing private information about customers without their consent. News of Pandora’s questionable practices came as a shock for a lot of people, but after a few uses of Pandora’s iPhone and Android apps it’s hard to be surprised. The mobile apps are soaked in advertisements. Upon opening the app you are welcomed with an ad. After a few seconds it disappears, revealing album art of the music you’re listening to and a set of music controls, but don’t think it’ll stay that way forever. Two seconds into your favorite track another advertisement pops up. Apparently Living Social wants you to click on the big cupcake and sign up for their deals service, and they think covering three quarters of your screen with a picture of a cupcake is the best way to get you to do it. If your fingers are nimble enough to tap the miniature “x” at the top right of the ad you can close it and enjoy being able to see the album art for Lady Gaga’s Born This Way in its entirety. But don’t get your hopes up. As soon as this track is over an audio advertisement begins. The track after that will be succeeded by a 30 second spot for Old Spice. The level of advertising within the Pandora app is excessive and appalling, and though competitors advertise in their apps, most of them don’t go to such great lengths.
So if not Pandora, then what else? For starters there’s Slacker Radio. Of all the Pandora wannabes, Slacker is the most similar to the originator. Since 2007 Slacker has been offering a music recommendation service with more tweaks and more perks than Pandora’s basic thumbs-up-or-down system. Slacker’s killer feature is the ability to fine tune stations. You can set A Tribe Called Quest Radio to only play tracks from their early years. You can set Daft Punk Radio to only play fringe artists, giving you a chance to hear something you never knew you liked so much. All of this is powered by a 3 million song library spanning hundreds of genres.
Grooveshark adds flavor to the mix with it’s unique library system. Users have the ability to listen to recommended tracks or they can upload their own library. Premium users have the ability to create and share playlists using their music as well as over 9 million songs uploaded by other users.
Because of it’s age and it’s popularity, Pandora holds a very strong position in the music streaming industry, but without better features and something to clog up that user information leak, it will be difficult for the company to stay at the top.
Ben Badio is a jack-of-all-trades. A recent graduate from the University of Central Florida, Ben has a healthy obsession with technology, a grand knowledge of music, and a passion for writing. You can read more about him here and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.