Editorial

Opening Pandora's music box

As the internet becomes more readily available, users are finding new ways to discover music. Digital music stores like iTunes or Zune Marketplace have helped provide a service to allow people to purchase individual tracks or full albums right from their computer. In 2000, the Music Genome Project set out to create “the most comprehensive analysis of music ever undertaken” . Pandora’s on-demand Internet radio service provides a unique music experience for a low cost that competes with digital music store giants Zune Marketplace and iTunes in terms of their music selection, mobile availability, and ability to find music that is specifically chosen for the user.

The Music Experience

Pandora Internet Radio offers a unique music experience personalized for the user, while other music services rely on what-other-customers-purchased data. Pandora Internet Radio has categorized music based on the ratings of the end user, and by looking at components of music like “melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics ... and more - close to 400 attributes” . Together these attributes can be combined to create over 2,000 focus traits which help to analyze the songs chosen to be played aiming to always play something the user will like.

iTunes and Zune Marketplace have the features “Genius”  and “Smart DJ” , respectively, which aim to introduce new music to users based on genres and what other customers like the user have purchased. While providing a human element, some people have quite different tastes in music creating a system that doesn’t cater specifically to the user, but ends up playing more of a guessing game.

Both Pandora and digital music stores have the goal of introducing users to new music. iTunes and Zune Marketplace do so in a passive way, as to simply suggest new songs in a side bar or when you visit the online store. Pandora makes choices based on the initial genre the user created their radio station to be like, and based on how they have rated songs on that radio station. This actively introduces users to new music in an environment where they don’t have to actually buy the song and be fearful of disliking it. Displaying new music in this way actively gets the user’s attention and helps them pursue and enjoy new forms of music they have never heard before.

Muse for the Money

Pricing of Pandora is incredibly low compared to iTunes and Zune Marketplace, while still allowing users to customize their music experience. Pandora is offered in two forms: ad-supported and paid subscription. Both versions have access to “over three-quarters of a million analyzed songs, and counting...” . The free version has a limit of “only 40 hours of music for free per month”. The price per song, based on the annual subscription fee of $36 which allows users to have unlimited streaming of music at a higher bitrate, no ads, and a desktop application, comes out to $4.2857 x 10-6, or virtually nothing assuming the user stays subscribed.

iTunes offers 30-second samples of songs from the largest paid digital music collection on the web. The service offers more than 14 million tracks, however the actual cost of these comes down to $0.99-$1.29 a song depending on quality. On the plus side, the user will get to keep these songs forever and transfer them to any device.

Zune Marketplace also offers 30-second samples, however its store contains 10 million tracks. The price per song comes out to $0.99 for an MP3 that the customer will be able to keep forever. The downside is that users must first purchase Microsoft Points as that is the currency of the store which leads to issues of unused points and having to buy more than you want to in one sitting. Zune also offers a Zune Pass option, which allows unlimited streaming or “download and play on your PC, Xbox 360, Windows Phone 7, or Zune HD” , all for $15 per month, or less if you buy an annual subscription, which does lower the price-per-song to virtually nothing like Pandora. In order to keep the music playing however, users must keep subscribing to this service.

Sync or Stream

Pandora offers their service on nearly every device which allows for a simple way to manage music without the hassle of syncing the entire collection to device after device. Pandora has mobile applications for “iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, BlackBerry, Palm” . With a smartphone, the user is always connected to the internet allowing streaming of music and reducing the need to locally store music while still catering to what the user wishes to listen to.

Applications for Windows, OS X, and Linux are also available, in addition to support for some Blu-Ray players and HDTVs. As always, the in-browser player can be used on any device that has Flash installed. 

iTunes sells DRM-free (Digital Rights Management)  songs allowing users to place tracks on any device that supports the M4a file format. The music is available offline, however if the user wishes to take it with them, they must sync the songs to a device. There is no streaming option offered by iTunes, but just about every portable media device available today supports the M4a format.

Zune Marketplace also sells DRM-free songs which can be played and synced anywhere. Those with a Zune Pass however, have DRM placed on their tracks which will restrict playing, but allow streaming on the “PC, Xbox 360, Windows Phone 7, or Zune HD” . Zune Pass owners may also play music in any browser that has the Silverlight plugin installed, allowing streaming from virtually anywhere.

Overall

Pandora provides a nice bridge between allowing users to customize their music selection by choosing genres and then rating songs from that point on to build their perfect radio station. iTunes and Zune Marketplace will guide users to the exact songs they want to play, but it will come at a high price compared to the miniscule $36 that Pandora charges for a one-year subscription. Allowing users to connect radio with personalization is a much needed feature of music services, and one that will help bring listeners and new music together.

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