Pandora Founder Tim Westergren started the popular personalized radio service in 2000 with the Music Genome Project. Tim is an award-winning composer and accomplished musician with 20 years of experience in the music industry – spanning production, audio engineering, film scoring and live performance. Trained as a jazz pianist, his musical background spans such genres as rock, blues, jazz and classical music.
How did you get into the music industry?
I fell in love with music early. I began playing blues piano at 8, then jazz, then started composing and eventually found my way into the recording studio. After studying theory, composition and recording technology in college, I spent years as a working musician; practicing hours every day, playing bands, clubs, hotel lounges. The whole gamut. Eventually I found my way to film composing which inspired the Music Genome Project, and my decision to found Pandora. That was 15 years ago.
What inspired the idea for Pandora? What was your vision then and how has it evolved?
As a film composer I spent years trying to figure out the music taste of film directors. I eventually developed a method of playing a series of music samples to glean their musicological preferences. By systematically mapping their reactions across a range of sounds I could derive a taxonomy of their taste. One day the idea occurred to me that maybe I could codify that taxonomy and build a system for helping people discover music based on their musical preferences. That became the Music Genome Project.
The business has gone through tremendous change. We are in many ways far, far removed from the original plan of licensing a recommendation technology. At the same time, the fundamental vision of helping people discover music and helping musicians find their audience has remained fundamentally the same.
What strategic partnerships have you implemented that attributed to Pandora's major success?
Our early move onto smartphones, beginning with the iPhone was clearly our most important strategic move. It's hard to imagine our business without the mobile platform. We found a very simple solution to a very difficult problem and that has made us an attractive partner for all media systems. We have made it easy for people to discover and enjoy music they love and now count over 1000 devices in our distribution ecosystem.
What industry trends are you noticing and how does Pandora capitalize on them? Discuss your marketing/social media/user experience strategy.
I think the biggest trend driving our strategy is personalization and simplicity. I think consumers’ expectations on both of those dimensions have grown and grown. In turn, the industry aperture is widening - moving away from a more consolidate, hit-driven business, to something more inclusive and distributed. Hit artists will always be part of the business, but personalization is creating room for everyone. Pandora is very well-positioned to serve this widening pool of artists and labels.
Pandora has spent very little on marketing. We have focused our efforts on nurturing the evangelism of our listeners, fueling word of mouth growth. Fortunately, we have created a very compelling product, and one in a space with great emotional resonance for people. We answer every email with a personal reply, and are constantly engaging in person with our audience. I have personally hosted over 500 town hall meetings for listeners and other audiences, all across the country, since launch.
Your greatest successes and mistakes as Founder/CEO and how did you learn from them?
Hiring great people and giving them the room to work has been my greatest contribution. Close to 2000 employees have passed through our doors since Pandora was founded. And everyone has brought their own unique contribution. There was a core team that restarted the business back in 2004 - that group was lightning in bottle. I feel very lucky for having found them.
Ultimately, I think great leadership is mostly about finding great people and getting them to perform at their best. I'm proud of what I've done in that regard.
Your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?
Do it. And when you do, don't do it alone.
Most people opt out of striking out on their own because they fear failure, and the regret they imagine from that. For me, the fear I carry is the regret of not trying to do something, and wishing you had. That would haunt me.
Tell us about The Music Genome Project.
The MGP is an enormous list of musical attributes - an exhaustive set of granular details covering melody, harmony, rhythm, form, instrumentation, voice, and lyrics - that collectively describe a song. A team of music analysts has spent 15 years manually measuring and detailing hundreds of thousands of songs along this template - essentially capturing the equivalent of their musical DNA. A set of very sophisticated algorithms then uses the data of these songs "fingerprints" to connect songs based on their musical similarity - creating personalized playlists. It is a system that is unique in its ability to surface new music, as it's the only method that does not rely on popularity. A level playing field for all artists.
What's the best feedback you've received on Pandora?
I grew up eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. So my favorite feedback was "Pandora is the greatest invention since PB&J."
What stations are currently on your Pandora Radio?
Too many to list. But I'm all across the board. Pop, rock, jazz, classical, Motown, bluegrass... you name it.
Be kind and humble.
Favorite travel destination?
I'm a total homebody.
Role model - business and personal?
I don't really have role models. I admire many people for different reasons. I try to always be learning.
One food and drink on earth, what would you choose?
Glass of milk and a PB&J.
What's next for Pandora and yourself personally?
Building the foundation for the musicians middle class. We are now at a scale, and have a level of knowledge about listener preferences that we are positioned to have an immediate, and material impact on an enormous number of working musicians. We are poised to create an entirely new economy for artists. As for me, I'm all in.
Tim received his B.A. from Stanford University, where he studied computer acoustics and recording technology. A musician's musician, he is dedicated to helping talented emerging artists find an audience. In addition to guiding Pandora's overall strategy and vision, Tim now spends most of his time as Pandora's chief evangelist - traveling the country to connect with some of the tens of millions of people who listen to Pandora. He also works extensively with technology partners, distribution partners, advertisers and investors to help shape the future of Pandora and personalized radio.