The holiday season is upon us, and if you are the resident geek in your home, that probably means messing around with smart playlists in iTunes to wrangle your holiday music into likely compilations - quiet music, lively music, silly music, and so on. If you tend to have long, uninterrupted chunks of time for setting up and maintaining an iTunes metadata system where you keep all those fields in the info window properly filled out, you'll probably enjoy playing music elf. However, if the reality of your life is that you'll end up spending several hours messing around with the Genre field while your uncle mutters about "more trouble than it's worth," your teenage cousin complains that all your music is boring, and your child tromps around noisily like a reindeer, you may want to dump your plans to organize music you own and instead bring in the experts.
The experts come in the form of a new Internet service called Pandora, based on the former Music Genome Project, which has analyzed over 15,000 songs to determine the characteristics that make them similar or different. Pandora brings the guidance of an expert music librarian to the morass that music listening has become, effortlessly streaming just the right music, Internet-radio style, to your computer with a minimum of effort from you. As with a normal radio station, you listen once and can optionally flag songs with a thumbs-up so you can easily remember what you liked, but you can't keep the tunes or listen again, though commands are provided to purchase the song from the iTunes Music Store or its CD from Amazon. Pandora is free in ad-sponsored mode, or a $36-per-year subscription fee eliminates the ads; it's available only to people in the U.S. due to licensing issues.
Opening the Box -- Here's how it works: you come up with one (or a few) artists or songs that you like, such as, say, Ray Charles, and you use it to create a "station." Pandora immediately begins playing a playlist that includes songs by Ray Charles and tunes that you will probably enjoy if you like Ray Charles, such as "Rollin' Stone" by The Marigolds. The elegant Flash-based interface shows the song title, artist's name, and album art. As the song plays, besides listening to it, you can click its image to act on it in a variety of ways: You can find out why the song is playing - you might learn that it has "classic soul qualities, mild rhythmic syncopation, and acoustic rhythm piano." You can give the song a thumbs up so Pandora knows to tweak the station with more songs like that one or add it to a Favorites list for future reference. If you dislike a song, you can give a it a thumbs down; if you do this, Pandora moves on to the next song and incorporates your feedback into future selections. You can also pause the track or jump to the next one.
Although Pandora's Flash-based interface runs in Web browsers (only in Safari and Firefox in Mac OS X 10.3 or later for Mac users), you can minimize it so it's nearly indistinguishable from any other brushed-metal application. Safari wasn't able to handle Pandora on our elderly blueberry iBook, but we were able to play Pandora through our AirPort Express-connected stereo using Rogue Amoeba's Airfoil utility. Pandora also requires a broadband connection.
The folks at Pandora understand the desire to share music - you can send a custom link to your radio station to others via email (the link to my Ray Charles station is below), or you can listen to the 20 most popular stations that other Pandora users are enjoying - I've been enjoying "International Pop Overthrow Radio."
I do realize that not everyone reading TidBITS is interested in Christmas music, but if you are, you can now further tweak Pandora by starting a station with the name of a holiday song or artist. I struck out in my efforts to follow the directions in the FAQ for combining the "holiday" key word with an artist's name - Pandora didn't know that Ray Charles or Henry Mancini have released wonderful Christmas albums - but it worked like a charm when I started a station based on "Jingle Bells." I was asked which of seven artists I liked the most - The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Ella Fitzgerald, Brenda Lee, and so on, and the station kicked off with "Christmas Island," a fun number involving coconut trees, which I'd never heard. So perhaps I had opened Pandora's box, after all, and suddenly iTunes didn't seem as much fun anymore. Instead of the usual fussing around to find the music in my library, it took only about 10 seconds to be treated to exactly the sort of music I wanted to hear. And since it's Christmas music, I don't even particularly want to own most of it; I enjoy it only for a few weeks of the year.
High and Low Notes -- If your iTunes library is anything like mine, it holds about 5,000 items which would require many hours of focused effort - effort which I must coordinate with Adam - to categorize effectively so I could generate smart playlists for any likely eventuality, and every time I buy more music, we would have to spend more time on the metadata. In Pandora, I can create up to 100 stations, which feed from a growing library that currently contains over 300,000 songs from over 10,000 artists. Although I find owning and organizing music an appealing idea, it doesn't seem to be in harmony with my current stage in life, where time is at a premium.
Although I like Pandora a lot, it's not perfect. It currently lacks classical music and is working on bringing in Latin music, and I'm not enough of a musical expert to know if it is missing other important genres. I would love to see it allow users to request songs by cultures or by all sorts of possible holidays, and to request radio streams by mood or era, such as inspiring, loud, or 1980s. And, using Pandora makes me think about how limited the Gracenote Media Recognition Service (previously known as the CDDB) is for importing a common set of useful metadata into iTunes and how wonderful it would be if Apple could bring Pandora's smarts into iTunes.
For now, though, I'm happy to listen to Pandora while my enormous pile of uncategorized iTunes music sits around, waiting for a day when someone comes up with a way to categorize it automatically or I wake up with a burning desire to mess around with metadata. In the meantime, though, I know a particular six-year-old who is waiting for his mother to play reindeer with him.