What Do Gwen And Fischerspooner Have In Common? Open Pandora's Box To Find Out

Online radio service uses unique 'gene' system to link popular, lesser-known artists.

Does something about the quiver in Shakira's voice move you? Check out the smooth Latin sounds of Curumin. Avenged Sevenfold's finger-bleeding riffs speak to your inner shredder? Perhaps you'll dig the double-kick-drum blitz of "Desaster and Decay" by Burden of Grief. Can't get that riff from Gwen Stefani's "Luxurious" out of your head? Try cleansing your musical palette with some Fischerspooner or Kelli Ali.

Those are some of the suggestions made by the new Internet radio site Pandora.com. It can't say for sure that you'll like those other artists, but it gives you hundreds of suggestions for songs that might appeal to your personal taste.

For the past six years, Pandora founder Tim Westergren, 40, has been overseeing the ominous-sounding Music Genome Project, which has compiled a checklist of musical signposts (a.k.a. "genes") that help Pandora create a unique radio station.

Pianist and former film composer Westergren and his team of 35 Oakland, California, music geeks break down each song in their 400,000-tune database according to their genes, which currently number more than 400. "Each song is analyzed using this gene pool," Westergren said. "Like, there are 30 vocal genes, one of them is how nasal is the voice, how much vibrato, how much falsetto they use."

If, for instance, you pick Stefani as the signature artist on one of your stations (you can make up to 100 different ones), it will tell you, with some redundancy, that her music "features electronica influences, a subtle use of paired vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation, repetitive melodic phrasing and paired vocal harmony."

The site will then start playing songs by either Stefani or artists who have similar genes, like Garbage, the French Kicks or, um, Britney Spears.

OK, so it's not a perfect system, but Westergren said that's part of the beauty of Pandora.

"Yes, it kind of takes the art out of it to some extent," he said. "But we're quantifying it in an artistic way because we're trying to describe musical characteristics. We're trying to be scientific, but there are things about music appreciation that we don't capture and I'm glad of that. The kinds of things we don't capture are the things that are hard to capture about songs, which is why we don't predict hits or always get it right."

So far the company has mapped the genes for 15,000 artists in four

genres/genomes: rock/pop/country, electronic/hip-hop, jazz and world music. Inspired by his less-than-headline-worthy career as a struggling musician, Westergren has encouraged the site's "music guru," Michael Zapruder, to search far and wide for overlooked artists to fill out the more popular suggestions the site makes. The result is a mix so eclectic you're unlikely to hear it on even the most out-there Internet radio station.

Each song that's listed is accompanied by a box that allows you to say whether you'd like to hear similar songs or never hear them again, as well as a button that offers an explanation as to why that particular track is being played. There's also a link to either Amazon or iTunes to buy the music, though Westergren said being able to purchase the song is not a prerequisite for it to appear on the site.

Unlike other Internet radio services, Pandora creates your station on demand, instead of choosing from a list of top sellers or radio hits.

Pandora can be accessed for free with ads or for $36 a year without them; both services allow you to e-mail your stations to friends. Pandora keeps things mixed up by creating bundles of brief playlists that have a common thread before moving on to the next bundle of songs. Those songs are linked through the genes assigned to them by the 30-plus analysts on staff, who spend 20 to 30 minutes per song to suss out their unique attributes.

Dustin Hodge, 21, a senior at the University of Washington in Seattle, got turned on to Pandora a week ago through his roommate. "I decided to try it and I love it," he said. "I'm a computer science major, so the fact that they've gone through this music and analyzed it and can make suggestions based on what you like ... it's the only station I know of that tailors content to what you like."

Hodge said he created a pair of stations based around bands like Dredg, Disturbed and Mudvayne and has already been turned on to "tons" of bands he's never heard of but now loves, such as Minus the Bear, Seemless and Plain White T's.

"Even on iTunes you're not guaranteed that they'll play something you like and if they don't, you have no say," he said. "But Pandora really learns what you like based on the input, and I've found tons of music already that I would have never found otherwise."

Because of digital-rights management rules, there are some things Pandora can't do, like go backward or let you hear a particular song on demand. Also, you can't hear more than four songs by the same artist or three songs off the same record in three hours, and you can only skip forward a limited number of times per hour.

Westergren declined to say how many users the site has, but said more than 6 million stations have been created since Pandora launched in late October. He said fans are constantly telling him what they want via hundreds of e-mails a day.

Many of those e-mails end up with Zapruder, who buys hundreds of records for use on the site. So far he's charged up more than 15,000 albums, abiding by two main rules: Pandora has to own hard copies of everything it plays, and "the music can't suck." Zapruder buys 300 or more CDs a week, trying to split his purchases evenly among different genres and old and new material. "My one mandate is to make our library awesome," he said.

Zapruder added that he gets dozens of packages a week from unsigned indie bands and some of them make it onto the site. "It's good for the indie musician and it's good for us as long as the music is good. And if I do my job properly, your stations should always be changing."

For complete digital music coverage, check out the Digital Music Reports.