Pandora and the “genes” of music genres

Hello, it’s been a while since I blogged. You may remember me as the music Ph.D. student who was last heard from pondering the uses of Google Scholar. I’m on a new mission this semester, studying for my comprehensive exams. One of the topics I am researching and preparing an essay on is about genre in popular music. The concept may seem initially so self-evident, you may wonder what there is to write about it, per se. Oh, but there’s lots. This is because the issue of genre always involves the issue of classification, which inherently provokes debate. Take, for instance, a star performer like Beck. His music often includes acoustic guitar, and he’s covered Mississippi John Hurt. So he must be a folkie. Oh wait, but he also apes Prince on some funky jams. So maybe he’s a pop star. But he also headlines a bunch of big rock festivals, and we find his music in the “Rock” section at the record store (wait, what’s a record store?). So I guess we’ll call him a rocker.

My point being, popular music can be difficult to pin down using genre tags. You’ll find this evidenced in any number of press interviews with musicians who, when pressed by a journalist, pull out that time-worn chesnut that their sound is “unclassifiable”. Genre tags, be it pop, country, rock, hip-hop, salsa, what have you are almost like identifying pornography: I’ll know it when I see it. It’s often somewhat easier to identify what a genre isn’t than what it actually is. Fans and even so-called experts often have difficulty articulating why a particular song or artist fits in a given genre. Based on my readings for this exam topic thus far, I would argue this is because the act of classifying something is essentially making a statement about its meaning: not just semantic/musical meaning, but also meaning that’s intensely cultural, and often political.

That’s why I like musicologist Robert Walser’s definition of genre in popular music. Updating similar ideas that literary critic Tzvetan Todorov has explored, Walser argues that “Genres…come to function as horizons of expectations for readers (or listeners) and as models of composition for authors (or musicians).”[1] In other words, genres labels are modes of discourse wherein musicians, fans, and music industry workers collaborate to make meaning surrounding the music they love. And perhaps surrounding is the key word, there; one can debate about styles of music with a friend all night long, or a record store employee can create increasingly hyper-specialized bin cards for various sub-genres (Psychobilly, Krautrock, etc.). We circle around the sounds we hear through discourse about them, but ultimately, on a musical-sound level, how do we know that Beck belongs in the “rock” section? As Franco Fabbri has noted, problems with genre are “frontier” problems: “We meet with these whenever we attempt to indicate something which exists at the boundary of two or three zones of meaning.”[2] When considering genre tags, there seems to exist an inescapable gap between our need to accurately label a piece of music and the slippery semantic meanings of recorded sound, which may in any given moment resemble two, three, or even more genres.

What then, friends, does this problem have to do with digital humanities? Well, as I research and read in preparation for this exam, I can’t help but frequently think of an Internet service called Pandora that’s richly illustrative of many of these genre issues. For those who may not know, Pandora, a free website based out of Oakland, California since the early ‘00s, is a relatively new and different kind of streaming online radio station. Whereas the playlist at a streaming station such as UVa’s own WTJU is determined by in-the-studio DJs, and the “radio” playlist at a website such as last.fm is determined by a process called collaborative filtering (more on this in my next blog), Pandora is notable for its novel method of selecting songs for listeners. Here’s how it works: enter an artist or song into Pandora’s search engine, and the website will issue you a streaming series of songs by artists considered similar to the one you entered. And how is this similarity determined? Through the Music Genome Project, Pandora’s massive undertaking and claim to fame.

The Music Genome Project, whose work is carried out by roughly fifty analysts at the company’s headquarters in Oakland, is an effort to deconstruct and categorize aspects of pop songs using over 400 different “musical attributes” that the company believes comprise the spectrum of recorded sound. It’s a rigorous close-listening endeavor, specifically intended to focus on aspects like timbre, tempo, harmonic movement, and instrumentation instead of aspects like album art and whether or not the artist has appeared on TRL. This scientific (or pseudo-scientific, depending upon one’s perspective) attention to sonic detail seems—to me at least—an attempt to get beyond the established languages of pop music genres by diving into the nitty-gritty which makes genres what they are. The company builds its credibility as an almost-biologic “genome” of musical characteristics through the depth and breadth of songs it has analyzed: over half a million and counting, according to Pandora’s website. Pandora says that each of these songs is listened to for 20 to 30 minutes by a trained analyst who tags the song with Pandora-authored characteristics—everything from “meandering melodic phrasing” to “chopped and screwed production”. The company claims that theirs is the most comprehensive effort to systematically categorize music—ever.

From the perspective of an academic studying pop music genres, the Music Genome Project presents several fascinating issues. Until my next blog, I’ll briefly set aside an investigation of the company’s claim it can create a taxonomy of the “genes” of popular music. Instead, what I first find most interesting is the story of Pandora and the Music Genome Project’s origins. In a January 2006 interview with podcast program “Inside the Net”, Pandora co-founder Tim Westergren told hosts Leo Laporte and Amber MacArthur that he first originated the idea of a music genome while a struggling rock musician himself. He told them his band was “facing the challenge of trying to get known,” and in so doing brainstorming about what aspects of a rock song tend to attract the most commercial attention. Additionally, Westergren shared the intriguing information that he was a film composer at the same time, working for hire to complement a director’s visuals in a given scene. He told Laporte and MacArthur that “In that capacity, one of the things that I had to do was to try and figure out the music taste of a film director.” Westergren said that this challenge was part of what got him thinking about music in terms of distinct, differentiable attributes.

It just so happens that one of my other exam topics this semester concerns film music soundtracks. Having read much of the academic literature on film music, what Westergren recounts here is fascinating—and doesn’t surprise me. The specific challenges a composer faces when working on a film—How do I balance my need to please the director with my need to express personal creativity?—is a central theme of the literature. Scholars even further back than Irwin Bazelon in 1975 have remarked that the collaboration is by nature difficult, “since the composer spends his entire life in music, working out specific musical relationships, while the director spends his time out of music, involved full-time with films—a visual medium—and only part-time with music, as it affects his film”.[3] Even if the director is a fan of music and has interesting ideas about how she wants it used, if she’s not a musician herself she may have difficulty communicating concepts to the composer which can be actualized musically.

That challenge has interesting aspects as regards musical genre. On the one hand, bridging the communication gap between composer and director can often force each out of their comfort zone, resulting in new timbres, new melodies—innovation. Many pieces composed for film are quite short, maybe less than a minute in duration, so they often don’t have space in the film to unfold into full-blown genre exercises. This process of collaboration between sound and images in many ways results in the most “hybrid” music imaginable.

From another perspective, however, film music cues are also remarkably genre-bound. Not necessarily bound by musical genres per se (classical, country, pop, rock, etc.), but bound by the generic conventions of film itself. Due to the standardized production practices of most movies, film as a medium tends to be more amenable to genre classification—and soundtracks can play a key role in that[4]. For instance, soaring strings sketching out an American traditional folk or “cowboy” song, and the audience suddenly knows we’re in a Western. A minor key piano melody and a sultry saxophone, and we know we’re watching a film noir. Given that these generic conventions of film music most certainly exist, it makes me wonder what sorts of films Westergren was scoring as part of his job. Perhaps offbeat indie-Sundance dramas which were aiming for a kind of transcendence of genre strictures?

In any case, the fact that the Music Genome Project origin story involves the world of film music tells me that musical genre was on Westergren’s mind as he brainstormed—even if he sought to rebel against the concept. Additionally, the Project’s roots in soundtrack-for-hire work demonstrate that you can never take the music business out of the music: commercial forces and the presence of an paying audience (real or imagined) inflect in some way all decisions musicians and music industry workers make. As Westergren’s rock band tailoring their sound in an attempt to “get known” reminds us, market considerations are basically always in a dialectical relationship with “creativity” as a musical genre forms—and this includes classical and avant-garde genres which claim to be above that kind of stuff.

Given the commercialized roots of the Music Genome Project, it’s a bit surprising to me that the music industry has fought Pandora as tooth-and-nail as they have. It’s common knowledge that traditional AM/FM commercial radio has been the music industry’s biggest promotional tool during the 20th century. But as traditional radio fades in influence and web radio such as Pandora ascends, the industry leaders have been notoriously less willing to jump onto the 21st-century Internet bandwagon of music promotion.

Despite the fact that Pandora streams tracks instead of allowing users to illegally download—which means, in my opinion, that record company executives should be groveling at Pandora’s feet in thanks—the major-label music industry has seemed intent upon shutting them down. Or, to be more specific, the labels’ demands (through representative organization SoundExchange) for higher royalty payments created expenses Pandora was finding impossible to sustain. Following a federal board ruling mandating increased royalty rates for web radio, in August of last year the Washington Post quoted Westergren as saying Pandora was “approaching a pull-the-plug kind of decision”. On the brink of shutting down, Westergren appealed to the company’s subscribers to contact their local representatives on behalf of web radio—and the gambit seems to have worked. The ruling was reconsidered, and currently representatives from both web radio and the music industry are negotiating newer, more manageable royalty rates. Pandora seems to be approaching a delicate truce with the market forces which, to me, seem constitutive of its role as a source for promoting and discovering popular music. (In other words, what took the industry so long to accept current reality?)

In the next installment of this blog, I’ll continue my exploration of Pandora, especially the logic behind its attempt to map “genes” of music and to approach music in a mode somehow “beyond” genre.


[1] Walser, Robert. Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993. p. 29.

[2] Fabbri, Franco and Iain Chambers. “What Kind of Music?”. Popular Music, Vol. 2, Theory and Method (1982), pp. 131-143.

[3] Bazelon, Irwin. Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1975.

[4] Holt, Fabian. Genre in Popular Music. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pp. 4-5.

Jason Kirby is a Ph.D. student in the Critical & Comparative program of the McIntire Department of Music at UVa. His research interests include genre in popular music, American "roots" music, sound and music in cinema, and the relationship of popular music to regional identity.

1 Comments

  1. Interesting post. I find the Music Genome Project very interesting and I agree with your point about how you can never take the business out of the music business.

    But one aspect today that is more and more important in shaping language, discourses and meanings is how search engines index websites.

    Deconstructing existing databases of songs is a valid enterprise, but it would also be very interesting to track musical genres through the organic results of major search engines because they mediate most online traffic. Also, with growing online music consumption and the shift of media online, better understand how information is published and accessed by consumers is crucial to understanding our society.

    An interesting cultural element for this enterprise is “fight music”. While not officially a musical genre, with the growing mixed martial arts sub-culture and growing popularity of fighting leagues like the UFC, fight music (so to speak) is growing in popularity. While fight music spans across genre, there are clear expectations by members of the MMA sub-culture as to what is actually fight music. Because of the infancy of this new musical genre and very few websites that actually discuss about it (the biggest one being fightmusic.info), and its relative absence in search engine, it would be interesting to track its progression in organic search results to see how this musical genre evolves in popular culture.

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