Narrowcasting- Where’s the Market?

Ars Technica reports that Pandora may end up going out of business, now that the fees required by SoundExchange for royalties for internet radio have increased three-fold.  Pandora is a great service, and has something called the Music Genome Project, where it recommends new artists to you based on music you already like.  It creates a whole radio station for you of music, based on an artist of genre, and will give you more music it finds of that same “type” and it’s simply fantastic.  I love this feature, and it’s like the music version of Amazon recommendations, except it’s all free.

So for example, I like the Bare Naked Ladies.  On my custom radio channel, I get Bare Naked Ladies, John Mayer, The Dave Matthews Band, and others.  On the Lyle Lovett channel, I get Lyle, Wayland Jennings, Joe Cocker, and Jack Johnson- who I had never heard of before.  I then went and purchased his album on iTunes, straight from the Pandora site.

You can decide by voting whether you like a song and want to hear more of that or less, and Pandora takes it all into account.  You essentially get to be your own program director at your own radio station- and it’s amazing.  By programming my “likes” into the service, I get more of what what I do like, I get exposed to new music, I get the radio station of my dreams, but commercial free, and it’s all so simple.

I’ve taken services like Pandora for granted.  As a podcaster, I listen to a tremendous amount of audio all the time- editing interviews, listening to other shows, and sometimes I forget how pleasant it is just to have Pandora playing in the background.  And of course, now that it is hanging on the edge, I am nervous about what I’ll do if it’s gone.

Pandora may also face problems that podcasters still face- people aren’t sure how to access all the great programming available out there, or the options available to them, because they simply don’t realize it exists.  Taking a random poll of my non-new media friends, few people really knew about Pandora, and how fantastic it is.  This tells me that it’s not that Pandora doesn’t have huge potential- it is awesome- but it needs to crack into the main stream more.  More people, like my mom, need to understand how fantastic Pandora is, in order to take advantage of what it offers.  And this requires companies to expand their advertising beyond the 20 somethings and consider other demographics, like Moms with kids.

As a Mom of a 13 and ten year old boy, kids on the verge of becoming teen music junkies, Pandora lets me plug in some of my favorite artists and find others that are of the same ilk- a perfect way for parents and kids to become exposed to music they can share together.  So for example, I can plug in Bare Naked Ladies and John Meyer, and then I also get Toad the Wet Sprocket, the Dave Matthews Band, and other artists that don’t make my ears bleed while working.  And it’s music I can “wean” my kids on, while gradually extinguishing the High School Musical style music, but not jumping them straight into  50 Cent.

Yet I am sure the idea of mixing demographics and hitting an older and more maternal audience might not be the first thing Pandora thinks about.  But the fact is that programming radio to our own tastes, beyond just the ipod is a huge innovation- I just think it is way under-appreciated. And I know a whole cadre of Moms who would love this option, especially in the car, when commercial radio stations don’t provide a format that could be described as “Family friendly” unless it is programming to really young children, like the Disney Channel.  There isn’t  much of a selection for real music programming that has a chance to meet with kid and Mom approval, while broadening both of their music tastes.

Because the beauty of Pandora’s service is under-appreciated,   Sound Exchange sees an opportunity to put Pandora out of business with the vast increase in fees.  Yet Pandora and other internet radio stations need to do their work as well, to make sure people realize why they should care if Pandora struggles- they have to work to extend their reach so more people care, write Congress, and get involved.  But you can’t get that grass root support without making sure people know why you are so important in the first place.  And this means realizing more people need your service than just hipsters-  in fact, I would bet the demographic that needs the service is more of that NPR crowd in the first place.

I hope Pandora doesn’t go away- this would be a tremendous sadness for me personally.  But I also think they need to make sure the word gets out farther than it has so far.  Because more people need to care, beyond the first wave adopter geeks like me.

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